The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
South of Zuma Beach, houses begin popping up along Hwy-1 to block the oceanfront views, and more-elaborate multimillion-dollar homes dot the canyons above as well, forming the sprawling exurbia and movie-star playground of Malibu, which stretches along Hwy-1 for the next 27 miles into Santa Monica and metropolitan Los Angeles. Unless TV helicopters are flying overhead to document the latest wildfire or other natural disaster, it’s hard to get more than a glimpse of the garage doors or wrought-iron gates of these palaces, but this is the address of choice for the movers and shakers of the entertainment world: If you can name them, they probably own property here. Most of the truly huge estates are hidden away on ranches high up in the mountains.
One of these hideaways has been evolving since 1993, when Barbra Streisand donated her 22.5-acre ranch for use as a botanical preserve. Called Ramirez Canyon Park (5750 Ramirez Canyon Rd., 310/457-9791), it’s managed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and is open by appointment only, thanks to requests from neighbors. Ramirez Canyon meets the Pacific at the aptly named Paradise Cove, a private beach and boat launch which is worth checking out for the excellent little Paradise Cove Beach Café (28128 Pacific Coast Hwy., 310/457-9791), serving what may well be the world’s best grilled cheese sandwiches. Here they come complete with carmelized onions, spectacular ocean views, and frequent activity by film and TV crews. Baywatch and The Rockford Files were both filmed on the sands and the rustic pier.
This stretch of coastline holds another great place to eat: Malibu Seafood (25653 Pacific Coast Hwy., 310/456-3430), a low-key beach shack drawing local gardeners, pool guys, and Hollywood starlets for BYOB fish-and-chips.
Continuing south along high-speed Hwy-1, the most prominent sight is the Pepperdine University campus, which was described by the late, great architect Charles Moore as “an overscaled motel set in obscenely vivid emerald lawns.” Below the bluff-top campus, the legendary Malibu Colony of celebrity homes stretches along the coast in high-security splendor. Just north of Pepperdine, a short drive up Corral Canyon Road gives access to Solstice Canyon, part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, where a well-marked, mile-long hiking trail leads through scrubby native chaparral up to a delicate spring waterfall, past numerous signs of the frequent fall wildfires (like the 4,900-acre Corral Fire of November 2007, which destroyed Malibu’s oldest home; the remains are preserved in situ).
Away from the mountains, about the only place in Malibu proper where it’s fun (and legal) to explore is the area around the landmark Malibu Pier, which juts into the ocean at the heart of Malibu’s short and rather scruffy commercial strip. North of the pier stretches Surfrider Beach, site of most of those Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello Beach Blanket Bingo-type movies made during the 1950s. The pier and the beach are part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, which also protects the historic Adamson House (23200 Pacific Coast Hwy., 310/456-8432, Wed.-Sat. 11am-3pm, $7 adults), a lovely circa-1930 Spanish Revival courtyard home, right on the beach and full of gorgeous tile work and other architectural features. Tours of the house are given throughout the day, and fascinating exhibits portray Malibu history and the Rindge family, who once owned the entire region.