Travel review: Following in celebrity waves on Huntington Beach

Huntington City Beach facing North.
Huntington City Beach facing North.
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From breezing down the red carpet to riding waves, Lisa Haynes checks out Huntington Beach, the surfers’ hangout where Hollywood celebrities head to wind down.

It’s barely dawn and I’m bleary-eyed and carrying a yoga mat towards the ocean. The 6.15am wake-up call suddenly feels less brutal, however, when minutes later, I’m breathing through a sun salutation with rolling waves as the live soundtrack.

The  Hyatt Regency, Huntington Beach Resort and Spa.

The Hyatt Regency, Huntington Beach Resort and Spa.

“Listen to the ocean and feel the sunbeams on your face,” our yoga instructor Jordan says soothingly, as we hover in tree poses.

Balancing barefoot on the sands of Huntington Beach, I quickly discover life pretty much revolves around the ocean here, and little wonder. Dubbed Surf City USA, the uninterrupted stretch of golden coastline feels a million miles away from the Hollywood hustle (more of that later).

Think technicolour surf shops on every corner, the wetsuit uniform as standard, athletic bods cycling/rollerblading/running past, giant boards tucked under their arms.

Huntington plays host to some 90 surf tournaments year-round, including the US Open. Scanning the event calendar, I’m devastated I’ll narrowly miss out on seeing four-legged wave pros in action during the annual Surf City Surf Dog contest. Winning categories include Best Wipeout and Best Crowd Pleaser.

SUP boarders at Huntington Harbour.

SUP boarders at Huntington Harbour.

Not wanting to be trumped by pooches, we balance on boards the easier way, with stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) lessons at Huntington Harbour, where the water’s tranquil and flanked by glossy waterfront houses and yachts.

It’s a family-orientated spot, where children as young as four are on the water navigating mini kayaks and surfboards. Our surf-meets-canoe activity is led by local pro-surfer Rocky McKinnon. Within seconds he has assessed the board and paddle each of us should use based on our height, build and skill level. Rocky shows us how to glide forwards, turn and stop with minimum wobble, until we feel like SUP pros after just 45 minutes on water.

At Huntington Beach, it doesn’t feel like people are working out for a red carpet appearance; it’s more outdoorsy and raw – and it’s infectious. Instead of reading by the pool (my usual favourite pastime), I hire a bike instead. I cycle along the paved boardwalk from my beachfront Hyatt Regency hotel to neighbouring Newport Beach and back, with the Pacific breeze for air-conditioning and the long line of volleyball nets as my navigation system.

At night, the beach totally transforms, with the palm trees illuminated by flickering balls of open-fires. More than 500 fire rings are scattered throughout the beach and they’re free to use, but on a first-come, first-served basis.

We treat ourselves to the more luxurious option of a VIP “fire butler” of sorts – someone who stokes the fire, sets up chairs, and keeps our drinks topped up as we warm our jet-lagged faces around the flames.

We toast “s’mores”, the US campfire delicacy of chocolate biscuits and marshmallows sandwiched together, and munch them quickly before the marshmallow melts into our laps. I feel like I’m in a scene from The O.C.

From beach life to the high life, we leave Huntington behind and drive the hour-and-a-half to buzzy West Hollywood, where there’s a marked contrast in the pace of life. I’m thankful for all the earlier ocean zen, because WeHo is anything but.

We check in at the uber-glam Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, and marshmallows around the fire soon shift to Martini cocktails around the Skybar pool, with beach views replaced by Hollywood Hills property porn.

Rooftop hotels and bars are the best place to fully absorb the bright lights and twinkling skylines on a balmy night in West Hollywood, and E.P & L.P is one of the hottest new hangouts – complete with epic views of the Hollywood Hills to Downtown LA. We arrive for our reservation at the same time as 300’s Gerard Butler, and Orange is the New Black’s Ruby Rose sits next to us as we’re served dinner downstairs.

For more impromptu celebrity spots, WeHo’s super-cool Design District is an A-list magnet by day. Designer giants are interspersed with local boutiques like Maxfield, Curve and Intermix, where the Kardashian clan do their shopping hauls.

Strolling around Maxfield on Melrose Avenue is like entering a treasure trove of designer pieces that belong in a Hollywood Hills mansion display cabinet.

I become over-excited by a pair of Elisabeth Weinstock python boxing gloves and super-sized 1,500g Diptyque candle (the average size is 190g). Whipping out my iPhone to document them on my Instagram feed, I’m swiftly interrupted...

“Um, madam, sorry, no pictures in here please,” the shop assistant politely instructs.

My local LA pal tells me it’s to protect the celebrity clientele. A few weeks later, I notice Justin Bieber is in the very same boutique, filming a Carpool Karaoke segment with James Corden.

For some mid-Melrose fashion fuel, we stop off at Alfred Coffee – takeaway cups are branded with the Instagram-able “But first, coffee” slogan – and snapping photos is most definitely allowed. The fuchsia pink Paul Smith store on Melrose also makes for a Pinterest-friendly posing spot.

Other trendy WeHo hangouts with paparazzi at the ready are Urth Caffe (setting of many an Entourage scene) and hip vegan-Mexican joint Gracias Madre, where Beyonce and Jay-Z go to grab a healthy lunch. Following their lead, we dine in the picturesque al fresco courtyard and share repollitos fritos (Brussels sprouts, coriander almond pesto and lemon) and tacos stuffed with sweet potato, guacamole and cashew nacho cheese. Divine, and without rap star prices.

We get one final rooftop-and-blue-sky fix before boarding our Air New Zealand flight home, at LAX’s very A-list-worthy Star Alliance Lounge. Catching rays on the glass open-air terrace, we top up our SPF one last time, sip on Kir Royales and toast the Hollywood Hills in the distance. Hey, there’s even a roaring fire pit, but this one comes without the toasted s’mores...

GETTING THERE

Lisa Haynes was a guest of Hyatt Regency, Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, where rooms cost from $214 per night (huntingtonbeach.regency.hyatt.com) and Mondrian LA, where rooms cost from $299 per night (mondrianhotel.com).

Air New Zealand flies daily from London to LA. Return flights start from £489pp (airnewzealand.co.uk).

For more information on Huntington and WeHo, visit surfcityusa.com and visitwesthollywood.com

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