Where to check in when you need to check out.
WORDS: CHRISTINA PÉREZ; ILLUSTRATION: LAN TRUONG
Hotel Californian, Santa Barbara, California
The Hotel Californian has been open for two months. It feels unlived-in, like a model home. The tiles in the arched entranceway echo under foot; there’s not so much as a smudge on the terracotta floors. In the lobby, the patterned throw pillows that line the tufted sofas have a stiff, just-out-of-the-box vibe. They look like they’ve never been leaned on, never felt the weight of a body crush their soft insides. Like no one has ever thrown herself into them, face-first, to cry.
The hotel’s opening is kind of a big deal. It’s been heralded by the Santa Barbara tourism board as a symbol of the revitalized waterfront; a beachfront beacon for the tourists who might otherwise stick to the bougier stretches of State Street uptown. It is gorgeous. Designed to look old, it seamlessly blends with the Spanish Colonial Revival buildings that define the town—red-tiled roof, white-washed stucco walls. The interiors are a fashionable blend of Mission-era meets Middle East. There are 121 guest rooms—many of which have their own terraces, fireplaces, and egg-shaped tubs. The rooms, like most of the hotel, are decorated in a palette of gray and white accented by jewel tones. Moorish-inspired, custom-made tiles form intricate patterns on the walls. There is a pale pink plaza with a fountain, a spa meant to evoke a hammam, a restaurant helmed by a big-deal chef. There is also a roof deck with red umbrellas and a pool, as well as views of the ocean, city, and the Santa Ynez Mountains beyond. The shell of the original Hotel Californian, built in 1925, was repurposed for the new building’s facade. Still, there are no ghosts or secrets left in the walls. It is a slate that’s been wiped clean. A party waiting to start.
I arrive at half past noon, too early for the official 3 PM check-in time. I’m tender and puffy from two flights and an early morning wake up call twelve hours before. A twenty-something with aggressively white teeth takes my bags and sends me down to the public beach to wait. It’s early November, the time of year when New York has just started to suck, and the last-gasp beauty of early fall has given way to skeleton streets and bitter skies. But here the sky is clear and bright, an unwavering 75 degrees. Mop-headed palm trees sway jauntily in the golden light. I reach the edge of the beach and sink into the sand. I’m still in my New York clothes—black boots, black jeans, a puffy black anorak.
I light a cigarette, using my coat to shield the wind. They probably don’t allow smoking at the hotel, not even on the balconies, not even for those who can’t stop. A few yards away, a middle-aged man with a classic tan plays catch with a kid in a red baseball cap; a trio of tweens in pastel shorts snap selfies on the Stearns Wharf pier. Past them: the Pacific’s undulating, shimmering mass. A whole other coast. What would have been my third wedding anniversary was just five days ago.
The concierge calls. The room is ready: “Earlier than usual—just for you, in fact.” I stand up to head back, but change course. What’s the rush? Tiny grains fill my socks. I hover at the shore, watching the water crumble as it makes contact with land. Gulls swoop overhead. They move in slow motion one second, so speedy the next. The beat of their wings charts an uneven rhythm that matches the waves and echoes my breath.
“California!” I text a picture of the beach to my dad. It’s a long-standing joke; a reference to his cousin Stevie who moved back to Jersey after graduating from UCSB, only to hightail it back to Cali two days later at the first sign of snow. Fuck this, he thought, as he watched the wipers swipe frantically across his icy windshield. I’d always wanted to pull a Stevie but never had the nerve.
I pick up a stick to write a name in the mushy part of the shore, a habit held over from a different life. But I don’t know whose name to write. Not my husband who left me two months ago for a mutual friend. Not the guy I cheated on him with near the end. Not the new one I left sleeping in my Brooklyn bed. My phone buzzes, a response from my dad: “Maybe it’s time” is all it says.
Maybe. I look at the ocean and then back down at the phone ringing in my hand. It’s the Californian calling again, but I’m not ready to check in. I press the end of my stick hard into the ground, dragging until two letters form. I push so deeply that small mounds grow around the lines, an uneven barricade built by the scrawl of an unsteady hand. The letters look silly, sad. I want to stomp them out, to walk away and let the water blur them down. But I draw a heart around them instead.
“Me.” A hopeful love letter to myself in the sand.
Ojai Valley Inn, Ojai, California
They call it the Pink Moment: that fleeting second between day and night when the sun has slipped behind the mountains, and the entire valley becomes glowy and bright. Peach, violet, fuschia, orange—it is as if someone has put a filter on the view, a sanguine hologram, deliverance in crimson hues. It is the whole reason some people come to Ojai.
I’ve come to Ojai for something like that, too, under the guise of a press trip hosted by General Motors. There are 20 of us in total, writers from Los Angeles and New York, and we’ve all been lent brand new Buick Enclaves to drive. It seems incongruent, 20 women cruising around a sacred, mystical valley in separate, tricked-out SUVs. But the idea of driving without the small talk of taxis sounds ideal, and anyway, there is an entire itinerary of “peace, wellness, and tranquility” planned. We are booked at the Ojai Valley Inn, which is supposed to be the best hotel in town—a luxurious mix of five-star hospitality and hippiedom in one.
But when I pull into the drive, I’m shocked by the hotel’s size. It is not an inn so much as a resort, with dozens of giant, hacienda-style buildings clustered around a mammoth golf course. There are no ikat kimonos, no dream catchers or sage. Middle-aged women in Vineyard Vines dresses speed by in golf carts, their Polo-shirted husbands trailing behind. It is so busy, the valet takes 20 minutes to meet my car.
My room is nice in a bland, depressing way, like a dentist’s office or an airport Marriott: beige, blue, and tan. There is a king-size bed, a gas fireplace, and a wall of windows dressed with heavy drapes. The main focal point in the Spanish-tiled bathroom is a bathtub the depth and length of a tomb. A single Adirondack chair sits on the porch. It seems kind of cruel—all the other porches have two.
We drive to a Dream Alchemy Ceremony not far from the Inn, a long procession of shiny Buicks winding Reservoir Dogs-style up the hill. I have no clue what Dream Alchemy is, but the other women in the group are enthused. They are glossy-haired and tan; I feel like a goth at cheerleading camp. I wonder if they can tell I’ve been chain-smoking American Spirits and popping edibles in my Enclave, listening to Tom Petty on repeat. He died in October, but somehow it is the only music I can stand.
We sit in a circle on the floor while Nicola, the hotel’s resident Energy Alchemist and Spiritual Sage sprays a mist of essential oils around the room. She is luminous, with eyes like an owl and cherub curls. Speaking with a slight British accent, she asks us each to introduce ourselves and our intents. Mine: to untangle the gray knot of failures swirling around in my head, to forgive myself for checking out when shit got hard, to get through this evening without anyone noticing how broken I am. What I say instead: “To be more present.”
After each woman speaks, Nicola nods, giving a short affirmation or a bit of advice. When it’s my turn, she looks piercingly into my eyes: “You are filled with kindness and light. You shouldn’t feel guilty—you’re doing it right. The release will come.” I look away, then down at my hands. There is an indent still on my left ring finger, where I used to wear a wedding band.
Later that night, in my beige hotel bed, I dream of my husband for the first time since he left. He is lying next to me, his eyes and his mouth just inches from mine. He looks like an angel, unmarred and serene, like the first day we met. I touch his cheek. “I am so sorry,” I say. He nods, his face fading to black.
When I wake up, I’m crying. I think about Nicola’s words and the heart I drew a month ago in the Santa Barbara sand. Then my nose starts to bleed, a bright and blurry red streak. My own pink moment all over the sheets.
Chablé, Yucatan, Mexico
Chablé is new, but it’s hard to tell. Built on the grounds of an ancient hacienda, the resort’s 1-year-old buildings—three restaurants, two bars, 38 casitas, and a 17,000-square-foot spa—are hidden behind grand old archways and crumbling stone walls. They rise like modernist sugar cubes from ancient tangles of vines. It is a ghost town resurrected with white quartz and glass; twinkly lights and fistfuls of crisp, Mexico City cash.
“We didn't think you’d make it,” the porter says as he unlocks the gate. It’s close to midnight, and I've been driving for five hours on the brand new tollway across the Yucatan—a clear shot from Cancún. It was empty and easy, with nowhere to look but straight ahead. “Your casita is just down this path,” the porter says, taking my bags.
The casita is dazzling: an oasis of clean lines and calm. There is a wide terrace with a rectangular swimming pool, across which a crisp white hammock has been elegantly draped. A bank of sliding doors leads to a bedroom with a massive bed shrouded in linen mosquito nets. Beyond that, a bathroom encased in floor-to-ceiling glass with an outdoor shower surrounded by ferns. A romantic soundtrack of ambient jazz plays on hidden speakers, the volume set just low enough to still hear the crickets in the garden. I dangle my feet in the pool, thumbing through a booklet listing the resort’s wellness offerings. There is a flotarium, a Mayan sweat lodge, a salt chamber, and treatment “journeys” with names like “Tree of Life” and “Heaven on Earth.” I pour myself a glass of mezcal. I'm amped from the road, like a rabbit that's been let out of the box. The mezcal goes down fast. I pour myself another glass. Fuck the wellness journeys; this would be an incredible place to have sex.
As if on cue, my phone lights up: a message from a man I slept with a few weeks ago. “Is everything sparkly and amazing in Mexico?” he asks. I look around. It is sparkly. And amazing. Almost perfect, except I'm alone. I send him a picture of my legs in the pool, the smokey warmth of mezcal still on my tongue.
“I want to see you when I’m in New York again,” he says.
“Too bad you’re married,” I reply.
“My relationship is sexless, unsustainable,” he responds.
“Been there,” I text back. Then I shoot off another picture, this time of my gauzy, curtained bed.
The next morning, I wake up hungover from an all-night thirst storm of dirty pictures and texts. The phone on my bedside table is ringing. I fumble through the curtains for the receiver. “Your guide, Fernando, is here to take you to Celestún,” the voice on the other end says. An hour passes before I finally meet Fernando at his car. He is in his late 50s, with neatly combed hair and the presence of a former professor or, maybe, a cop. He’s wearing a mint green guayabera shirt and freshly pressed khaki pants. The corners of his eyes are crinkly beneath a forehead glistening with sweat. “I got in at midnight,” I say feebly as I climb into the car.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Are we waiting for anyone else?”
“Ah, solita,” he nods.
“What is that?” I ask in Spanish, my mind still too blurry to keep up.
“Solita is solo, only sweeter."
Celestún is about an hour and a half away, a tiny fishing village on a thin peninsula that splits the Gulf from the coast. There are pillowy, white-sand beaches and a few good ceviche bars, but we aren't going for those—we are going for the flamingos. In certain seasons, they gather by the thousands to flirt in the lagoon. They do a little dance: the males dip their necks and flash their feathers; the females pretend not to watch.
“Are you married?” Fernando asks as we pull up to the dock. We’ve exhausted all other small talk.
“Ah, well. Matrimonio y mortaja del cielo baja,” he replies.
“It’s a Mexican proverb: ‘Love and death happen when fate decides.’”
“That’s pretty,” I say. At least the death part sounds right.
We take a little panga boat into the lagoon. The water is the color of bile—a willowy green that matches the pale hue of the sky. We cruise to the far end, the mangroves forming a hazy black wall in the periphery. There is not a flamingo in sight. They’re not ready to mate; the water is too high. “There is a good cenote for swimming,” Fernando offers as consolation. “Are you coming?” I ask as he pulls into a cove. He shakes his head. “You should do it solita.”
The cenote is deep and clear, a shade of turquoise so bright it doesn’t quite look real. There is no one else around. I ease out of my dress and slide in, rolling onto my back next to a school of slender fish with skin like plastic wrap. I can see every one of their bones. It should be easy to float in the briny cold, but my body feels rigid and hard. If I breathe in too deeply, I’ll sink like a stone. Last night’s texts loop in my mind, a play-by-play of all the filthy things the married guy said we'd do the next time we're alone. An electric current shoots across my chest: the familiar surge of adrenaline and guilt and something else—dopamine. Why am I doing this? The rawness of my breakup is fading, but what have I learned? Nothing. I’m alone but not free; solo but not sweet.
“I thought of another proverb you might like,” Fernando says when I return to the panga. “Para no tropezar con la misma piedra hay que elevar mas alto el pie.”
“What is that?” I ask, though I think I understand.
“Raise your feet higher next time to avoid stumbling on the same stone.”
When I get back to Chablé, I turn off my phone.
This essay was originally published in Volume Two of our print magazine.