Malibu, California (CNN) —
Driving California's Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, in and around Los Angeles is a real challenge -- expanding and contracting lanes, speeding sports cars, blinding sunsets, occasional bumper-to-bumper traffic.
But what makes navigating this coastal thoroughfare most difficult is keeping your eyes on the road.
The ocean, the horizon, the mountains demand attention; the beauty as you travel through is impossible not to observe. Of course, it's not always perfectly pristine, but it's apparent why this roadway is one of the world's most famous.
Upon arrival in Malibu from Santa Monica, it's difficult to tell you have actually gotten here. There's no "Welcome to Malibu" sign or anything major to signal you've found the 21-mile stretch of PCH that runs through this beach community.
But once you've crossed Topanga Canyon, you've made it.
On your right is the Reel Inn, a roadside fish shack that specializes in fresh seafood served grilled or fried, with convivial, unpretentious picnic tables inside and out. Further along, on your left, you'll pass a couple of other standby restaurants, Moonshadows and Duke's, and their epic parking lots. Look to the right, and you'll see evidence of the destructive Woolsey Fire, that scorched 96,949 acres, destroyed 1,500 structures and took three lives in November 2018, nearly a year after the Thomas Fire did much of the same in Montecito up the road in Santa Barbara County.
It's difficult to reconcile the devastation and destruction with the distinct beauty of this stretch of Southern California coast, but visiting Malibu is definitely what Malibu wants you to do. And while you bask in its sunny, rarefied glow, you'll be helping good people along the road to recovery by patronizing their many wonderful restaurants, shops and hotels. And you get to be there, breathing salty air, purifying your soul and strolling the beach.
Here are our picks for the best things to do, whether you're here a few hours or a few days. And maybe download some Beach Boys or Katy Perry, because when in Rome ...
Malibu Country Mart is the epitome of "California," in terms of how some outsiders view it. You'll find Malibu Shaman, a metaphysical bookstore that stocks crystals of all kinds to balance chakras and such.
Try on beachy clothes at Ron Herman, decorate your figurative (or actual) beach house with wares from Room at the Beach, head to Oliver Peoples for high-end sunglasses or just order an iced beverage at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and chill out on the outdoor deck (it faces the parking lot, but it still has its charms).
If you're famished, have a fancy meal at Mr. Chow or create one for yourself at Malibu Kitchen. Finally, one of the most L.A. things once can do? Get your car washed. And tip your dryers!
Surfers await the next break at Surfrider beach.
Hiking in Malibu is nothing short of breathtaking, in both ways.
Sadly, the fires have rendered many of the National Park Service's Santa Monica National Recreation Area trailheads closed, but as of this publishing, Sandstone Peak Trail is open and offers the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. Be sure to check the NPS website before heading out, as parks and trail closures are continuously updated. Also, many of the California State Parks are back in business, and we recommend the Corral Canyon Park at the Sara Wan Trailhead if you're searching for a relatively relaxed hike and excellent coastline views. Another fun hike is at Point Dume Nature Preserve, where you can spy whales, dolphins and sea lions, depending on the season, as well as all kinds of wildlife, flora and fauna. Surfrider Beach is just that: the most invigorating spot to watch locals ride the waves. It's part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach that includes the biodiverse Malibu Lagoon and the picture-perfect Malibu Pier, a fantastic if crowded spot for fishing enthusiasts and foodies (more on that later). Zuma Beach is a bit further north on PCH, and it's -- forgive me -- major. It's 1.8 miles of white sandy beach, and this writer spent a very large chunk of her childhood playing in the water and learning how to avoid rip tides, which can also be pretty gnarly.
It's a great family beach, plenty of street parking (lots, too, but they charge you), bathrooms and showers and beachy food stands. Zuma gets additional points for having beach wheelchairs available to visitors who need them.
Now eat this
While on Malibu Pier, eat at either Malibu Farm outpost, where fresh and local ingredients are always on the menu.
The restaurant at the beginning of the pier is more (yet not-at-all) formal. You can reserve a table in the evenings and enjoy a full bar and waiter service. At the end of the pier, above the waves, try the more casual Malibu Farm Café. Here, you take a number and jockey for a good spot to chow down on a damn good breakfast burrito or a top-tier BLT.
If you have Instagram and you follow any Kardashian or Jenner, Liam and Miley Hemsworth or whoever, you know about Nobu Malibu.
Its magnificent perch on a low cliff above "billion dollar beach" (so-named for the price of real estate), the variety of luxury cars in the valet parking lot (Maybachs, Teslas and Range Rovers), the attention to detail in its Japanese-influenced architecture and design -- let's say it's all worth it, if only once.
The fresh cuts nigiri, sushi and sashimi, along with Nobu's famously addictive rock shrimp tempura and black cod with miso, make the jacked prices semi-worth it. What you're paying for is the location and the possibility of a major celeb sighting.
Not far from Zuma you'll find Malibu Seafood. It's in the same vein as Reel Inn, but this is a roadside fish shack with a market. And it's run by its owners, who are commercial fisherman, so this place is as real (and delicious) as it gets. Breakfast must be had at the Malibu Beach Inn. There is no better perch for downing $35 soft scrambled eggs with truffles. The view of Malibu Pier and Carbon Beach is stunning, and the waitstaff is so friendly and down-to-earth, you'll forget all the money you just spent. Probably.
Where to sleep
Nobu Ryokan overlooks Carbon Beach.
At the tippity top of tippy top places to stay in Malibu, maybe even all of California, is Nobu Ryokan.
This exclusive property -- owned by Robert DeNiro, Larry Ellison, chef Nobu Matsuhisa and film producer Meir Teper -- is an homage to Japanese design, a nearly exact replica of a specific Japanese ryokan. The guest houses, usually found in the mountains of Japan, are known for spare design, a muted palate and attention to detail. They are beloved for their intimacy and remoteness.
To recreate such a distinct architectural style, team Nobu spared no expense. Much of the furniture and art is from one of the owners' private collection. And the hotel's 16 minimalist rooms have outdoor decks with stunning ocean views, teak soaking tubs (a few are outdoors on the deck), soft luxe linens and a pretty rad minibar situation.
There is no restaurant or bar at the hotel, simply a welcome desk and a small, silent courtyard garden and a fairly bare gym. Room service from Nobu is available, as is a 24-hour concierge.
Another special and minimalist option is further north on PCH.
The Native is a refurbished, renamed mid-century motel. Formerly the Malibu Riviera, it was built in 1947, with superstar guests from Marilyn Monroe to Bob Dylan, who wrote his album "Blood on the Tracks" while staying there.
The Native is an intimate enclave, with only 13 rooms. (The Native was badly damaged by the Woolsey Fire, but they expect to reopen in spring 2019.)
There are no TVs, but there are hammocks, Wi-Fi and custom Kente-cloth robes. There's not a restaurant per se, it's more of a food concept called Coffee & Waffles, housed in an Airstream featuring a kitschy, beachy menu from chef Ludo Lefebvre.