I haven’t been successful in dragging my son to watch “The Little Mermaid” with me yet, but I did get a chance to dive into another kind of girls’ date this summer — and there were mermaids on deck.
To kickstart the season, I invited one of my oldest friends (also a writer and boy mom) to leave her landlocked college town in Georgia to visit me in Los Angeles, a city that always stirs her creative juices. This time, though, we would ditch our usual tours of L.A. beaches, restaurants, trails and galleries and head further south: Huntington Beach.
Bone-level exhausted after a long year of teaching her college students and homeschooling her son, T texted me from her layover: “We need this sista time so much. I know I do!” A flurry of swimsuit, palm tree and beach emojis flooded my screen.
I needed it, too.
While the extended summer vacations of my teaching days are a thing of the distant past (I know: teachers and moms are never really off), I was as eager for a couple of days of child-free, girls’ time as my friend was. I picked her up from LAX on the day before the summer solstice, and on our drive down to Huntington, I recalled how, during last year’s summer solstice, I traveled alone to Sedona for a spiritual, culinary and nature-filled sojourn. While I had traveled alone, during my stay I met new women, made new friends. This year’s solstice trip, though, was filled with shared memories, giggles that date back 25 years and one of our favorite pastimes: bearing witness to each other’s challenges and dreams for the future.
Sailing into “Surf City USA”
My little Mini Cooper can’t hold a candle to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” but since I was riding with a friend who loves the royal artist as much as I do, our in-sync imaginations had us believing we were flying fast down the freeway with the top down, locs and braids surfing on the wind, even though my sunroof doesn’t slide all the way open and we were inchworming our way through late-afternoon traffic.
None of this mattered. In the place known as “Surf City USA,” I would park my car for three days as we traded out “Little Red Corvette” for the rhythm of ocean waves. “With five beaches, oceanfront hotels and resorts, 78 parks, 10 miles of paved bike path and more than 500 public bonfire pits, Huntington Beach really is where you can immerse yourself into the quintessential Southern California lifestyle,” writes Kelly Miller, president and CEO of Visit Huntington Beach. In addition to being a haven for surfing aficionados (check out the Surfers’ Hall of fame, Surfing Walk of Fame and the Times Square of Surfing), the Huntington Harbor is a popular spot for birdwatching and festivals.
We checked into the Hyatt Regency’s sprawling Spanish-style Huntington Beach Beach Resort and Spa, located at 21500 Pacific Coast Hwy. The resort features 517 large guest rooms and suites and boasts the designation of being the only local hotel with direct beach access via a pedestrian sky bridge.
This year marks the resort’s 20th anniversary, and plans to expand upon its award-winning culinary concepts, Pacific Waters Spa, activities (sound baths, beach boot camp, Sunday story time, private beach s’more roasting, bike rentals, sunset cruises) include a new beachside restaurant and innovative new spa treatments.
We put our bags down in an oversized double-bed room with a balcony and pool view, then headed out to explore the grounds — which brings me back to the mermaids I mentioned earlier. While I doubt if our sons would go for it, T and I were tickled to learn that kids can transform into mermaids for a day through the resort’s “Mermaid Magic” program. The experience includes a tail rental, a mermaid meet-and-greet photo op and mermaid swim instruction. With a single fin for legs, navigating the water takes some getting used to, but the little mermaids adore it. Truth be told, I’m open to borrowing someone else’s mermaid-obsessed kid just to see them live out their dream.
Seed to table (and body)
I can only think of two close friends who love food as much as I do — who view it as a poetic journey into texture and flavor and surprise — and T is one of them. (The other one is a food writer by trade). T, in fact, may have me beat. Born on the same day in April, under the earthier side of the mythological Venus — Taurus — we point to this “birthright” as the reason a great culinary experience — whether inside a roadside fish shack or a Michelin-starred restaurant — is paramount to our happiness.
And while all of the restaurants we tried at the resort were good, the dishes the chefs create at Watertable made us very, very happy. In the evening, we met in the lobby, admiring the dark library design, then sauntered over to the “Culinary Corner” for small bites and cocktails. The interactive culinary experience is an activity guests can join Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m – 10 p.m.
Opened in 2014, Watertable has won Open Table’s Diner’s Choice Award for the Top 100 Best Restaurants in the U.S. On the menu, you’ll find locally sourced dishes and artisanal cocktails. Executive Chef Manfred “Manny” Lassahn stressed that each restaurant serves different fare. To give guests distinctly different experience at each of the resorts was “really, really important to me,” Lassahn told us. “I love this restaurant. It’s my baby.”
We savored his and his staff’s attentive crafting of bar food that included a tray of fresh oysters, shucked to order and served with a seasonal mignonette, cocktail sauce and the smokiness of charred lemon. The result: a burst of tanginess and brininess encircling a soft sweetness; what I would imagine the color orange feels like on the tongue. More seafood — charred octopus with garlic aioli, roasted tomato puree, confit potatoes and lemon herb vinaigrette and a citrus-marinated shrimp and white fish (a sort of ceviche) — deepened our taste buds’ marriage to the sea.
Zest trailing our tongues, we floated to our al fresco dinner table, where grilled baby lamb chops topping a sweet onion-chorizo-potato hash with smoked paprika (along with the wild blueberry, blackberry jam and mocha notes of Textbook Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) grounded us, steadied us. Our waiter inserted plates — a shaved fennel and grilled artichoke salad, lobster tail with a pistachio cream — in and out of our flowing conversation. “This is what I love about Southern California,” T said, her face turning toward the ocean, then back to our bountiful table. “Nights like this. Moments like this.”
The chef kept urging us to return to Watertable for breakfast. “Our breakfast,” he said, “is on par with dinner.” “Morning glories” include a Mason jar avocado bread, a variety of eggs benedict, huevos rancheros and more yumminess, but the winner for us was the bread-pudding French toast, which arrived with lemon-vanilla-peppercorn poached strawberries, cardamom cream and maple syrup.
I had to roll myself out of Watertable to make it to the massage table at Pacific Waters Spa, but I was glad I did. My therapist anointed me with the seed-to-skin massage, using a warm candle made of nourishing oils and natural extracts of vanilla, rose and oud wood. After a treatment, guests can enjoy the spa and amenities all day long. I lingered in the courtyard with champagne while T spent a couple of hours on the beach. “I don’t have easy beach access back home,” she said. We texted each other selfie photos of our individual forms of relaxation.
On the water
We reunited under one of the poolside cabanas, where you can order California and typical American fare from Mankota’s or Slyders Bar and Cafe — from tacos and burgers to salads and a kid’s menu. Cabana packages include “family fun” options: s’mores kits, neon tubes for the pool and a bucket of beers for the adults. Go fancier with “bubbly time” or “mai tai madness.”
We rounded out the afternoon with a sailing excursion through Prince Charters, boarding a boat that fits up to 15 passengers. As T and I took in the homes lining the harbor (including one with a party of pirate statues!), the peacefulness of the water and breeze, our conversations — about the kids, about work and writing, about family — slowed, eventually melting away until the only sounds that could be heard were the soft music wafting from the captain’s speakers and the boat slicing through the water, sure and soft and lulling.
Huntington Beach Resort and Spa is certainly a popular family-friendly destination, but it turned out to be just the relaxing getaway these two mamas needed.
Cassandra Lane is Editor-in-Chief of L.A. Parent.