Summer travel doesn’t have to mean getting on a plane and taking cattle-car coach if you’re looking for a dreamy destination far from your routine. Of course, it’s a cliché to say that Southern California boasts a wide variety of landscapes, from the mountains to the sea. For us aficionados of the stunning San Gabriel Mountains, a complete change of pace can be had a mere hour southwest of Pasadena, in one of the beach cities hugging the Pacific Ocean.
In Redondo Beach, the recently renovated Portofino Hotel & Marina offers four-star luxury, with 161 guest rooms overlooking the marina or the ocean beyond, where the only traffic noise comes not from cars but from California sea lions. (The hotel launched a “Save the Sea Lions” program, inviting guests to take home a plush sea-lion toy when they donate to Redondo’s SEA Lab for sick and injured sea lions, seals and otters.)
The Portofino is cloaked in “nautical-chic” décor, a crisp blue-and-white palette embellished with images of yachts, sea life and seascapes. The owner, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, prides itself on designing each of its 18 boutique properties in the U.S. and Canada around its unique identity, rather than imposing a uniform corporate style. That identity is partly foodie-driven; the hotel takes particular pride in its Baleen Kitchen restaurant, named after a kind of whale. Zagat declared Baleen one of the top 10 waterside restaurants in Los Angeles.
The chef de cuisine is Vasili Tavernakis, a graduate of Pasadena’s now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu, who has plied his trade in upscale restaurants across Southern California, most recently at Manhattan Beach Post under the aegis of chef/co-owner David LeFevre, who was executive chef of The Water Grill in downtown L.A. when it scored a Michelin star. Tavernakis points to his Greek heritage as a source of culinary inspiration, but the truth is his worldview is much broader than that; indeed, one thing he shares with LeFevre is a love of travel. “Mine is very much a travel-inspired cuisine,” he says. “I’ve traveled quite a bit.” But don’t assume you’ll know what to expect — he tweaks the dishes to pepper his locally sourced, seasonal menus with surprises. “A good example is the Thai green curry,” he adds. “Most people want yellow curry with potatoes. But in the restaurant, I want everyone to have the opportunity to be educated: This is from the region, and these are the flavors to expect.” Other standouts include the beef stroganoff with housemade pappardelle, the cioppino and the lobster mac and cheese with truffle-parmesan crumbs. And the main dining room isn’t the only place to savor them — there’s a chef’s table and comfy private outdoor seating overlooking the marina.
Perhaps less evident is Portofino’s colorful history. It was founded in 1965 by one of the country’s rare women race-car drivers, Mary Davis, who lent her pioneering spirit to the Redondo Beach waterfront, spurring development there. The Portofino was California’s first hotel located in the center of a small-craft harbor, surrounded on three sides by water, according to the Daily Breeze. Davis named it for the Italian seaside resort town known for its super-yachts, but it became a particular draw for race-car drivers including Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Peter Revson, a scion of the Revlon family, who lived in one of Portofino’s 25 condos. In the 1970s, the Portofino was the destination of the five coast-to-coast car races known as the Cannonball Run. The event went on to inspire a TV series and three movies, including 1981’s Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett, filmed partly at the Portofino. Davis sold the property to the company that became Noble House in 1986. A year later, a huge storm destroyed the property and the new owner rebuilt it from scratch.
If you go, borrow one of the hotel’s free beach cruiser bikes for a spin up the coast or settle into a fireside seat in the grand Lobby Living Room or the Baleen Bar, where you can make your own Bloody Mary from 40 ingredients or chill to the tunes of an eclectic roster of local musicians. Or do what I did in a recent visit: Pour a glass of pinot and pull up a chair on your private balcony. Then listen to the haunting calls of sea lions as the moon dips into the Pacific.
The Portofino Hotel & Marina is located at 260 Portofino Way, Redondo Beach. Summer rates range from $299 (plus tax) for standard guest rooms to $750 (plus tax) for the one-bedroom Ocean View Suites overlooking the Pacific, although the hotel also hosts a webpage with special offers and discounts for seniors and AAA or AARP members. Call (310) 379-8481 or visit hotelportofino.com.