California gold | Three hideaway hotels


Derek Guthrie on his three favourite off-the-radar hotels in California

California gold | Three hideaway hotels

Thanks to Google, “hidden” is a thing of the past when it comes to travel. Everywhere is searchable. But these are three of my favourite Californian hotels that aren’t a total cliche.

Little Tokyo’s Hotel Miyako

Like most right-thinking people I’ve discovered the joys of car-less Los Angeles. Public transport, when possible, can be OK, otherwise it’s Uber pool door to door: I have Sushi Gen, at Honda Plaza in Little Tokyo, in my where to? destination box. As mentioned previously in Civilian, this is the best sashimi platter bargain in DTLA, possibly the entire city. It’s only recently gone up to $19 (from $17) and the line starts every day before noon.

Last visit, instead of whizzing through Little Tokyo  en route, I stayed, at the Hotel Miyako, walking distance (four minutes) from SG’s front door. This is one of several outposts of the Japanese Miyako hotel group, with more than 20 properties back home. Don’t expect an ancient ryokan, it’s a modern downtown building, clean, well run by Japanese American staff with a shop that has more than its fair share of sake and sushi for in room dining (the neighbourhood also has several Japanese supermarkets).

Hotel Miyako

Next door is Nirvana Sports Bar where, on my visit, I was befriended by a group of shot drinking Japanese American hockey fans all wearing different soccer strips from England – Man City, Liverpool, Spurs. The bar snacks are edamame beans and gyoza. The bar staff Manga. On the other side of the hotel is Chinchikurin, a Okonomiyaki restaurant borne out of Hiroshima rather than the more common Osaka – the difference being less cabbage and grilled noodles in the multi layered pancakes.

It sits at the entrance to Japanese Village Plaza where morning coffee with green tea donuts and/or roti from Café Dulce is the perfect start to anybody’s day, not just mine. Shops and small, reasonable Japanese restaurants spill over into the surrounding streets. The Kura Revolving Sushi Restaurant is a cheap 400-branch Japanese/Taiwan chain which is always packed and makes Yo Sushi seem provincial. Happy hour at the slightly scruffy T.O.T. can be a beer with substantial wafu ramen and salad for less than $15. Lunchtime specials nearby are $10.

Little Tokyo itself was born out of immigration, during the second world war all the Japanese residents were shipped off to internment camps and many never  returned. Everything about this compact area is out of the ordinary – from the Challenger Space Shuttle Memorial to the brass sidewalk art. Staying in it is fascinating.


The Flamingo

The Flamingo, Santa Rosa, Sonoma County

You can’t miss The Flamingo, with its towering retro signage, topped off by a revolving pink neon, er, flamingo. This is the 50s. The real thing, not a pastiche. This is where movie stars and hookers hung out while families cavorted in the 25 metre pool. It’s small town mid-century modern, the northern country cousin of Palm Springs. The horizontal stonework and curving glass walls spell it out, the whole thing curves around that glorious pool, recalling another era and another place, that place being the Flamingo Las Vegas where the lowlife, mobsters and gamblers tended not to share their space with happy families. There are connections between the two, but here in Santa Rosa, gateway to Sonoma’s Wine Country, it’s all more relaxed. Kids play in the pool, vacationers sunbathe and the bar’s live music attracts local custom. It’s a happy place which is about to undergo a $20m refurbishment, sympathetic one hopes, to bring it back to life. In the meantime, enjoy the spacious bedrooms overlooking that water, and since you’re likely to be going wine-tasting the desk will provide you with vouchers for local wineries. Those $10/$20 tabs for swirling, sipping, and spitting soon add up.


The Berkeley City Club (aka Julia’s Little Castle)

Just across the bay from San Francisco, 15 minutes by BART, is the university town of Berkeley where students outnumber all other forms of life. Fortunately they attract in their wake cool shops, homely little cafes and Singaporean-style food malls packed with Asian fast food miscellany. It’s a buzzy place, even before you get to Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s original farm-to-table restaurant which has been serving up organic, locally sourced, sustainable foodstuffs for forty years in what is unfortunately called Gourmet Ghetto. The restaurant proper is forever difficult to book, but a more casual upstairs café (you still have to book) makes for easier, more relaxed, entry.

The pool at the Berkeley City Club. Yes, popular for weddings

In the middle of all this is Julia Morgan’s Little Castle, a building of extraordinary merit (designated a state and city landmark) which charms the overnight guest with old school manners, well ordered rooms, and decorous lobbies. She also designed the grander, way more opulent Hearst Castle down the coast in San Simeon, thus the moniker. It was built as the Berkeley City Women’s Club in 1930 (pictured top), but opened up to men 30 years later. Originally a social club with residential facilities, it now also doubles as an austere, ageing, deeply comfortable hotel.

The ornate, indoor swimming pool is gorgeous, a delightful place for early morning lengths, reached through a warren of corridors and courtyards that offer subdued Gothic/Romanesque fantasy. The founding group of women wanted one single building for all their interests and that’s still reflected today in the chess club, tango lessons, art lectures and music performance in the ballroom.

Those roots are an obvious attraction, the common rooms are more library than fun but as a respite from city buzz it works. An Uber driver told me he was “honoured” to be taking me to the city’s most attractive building one night and, on arrival, spent a further ten minutes bigging-up the various merits to be found within. That doesn’t happen outside a Hilton. C