Moonstone Beach Drive is a mile-long access road that runs parallel to the highway a couple miles north of Cambria proper. This shoreline road is home to a dozen vintage motels, motor lodges and B&Bs, none particularly luxurious but all in high demand year-round. The priciest (thus presumably the nicest) place to stay here is White Water, which debuted anew in October 2020 following a major renovation that included the annexation of a neighboring property.
Don’t let the price fool you. You might very well end up paying $539 (as I did) for a single night in a room that promises a partial ocean view. Do not let your expectations run wild. At the end of the day, White Water is still a just roadside motor lodge, a pitstop rather than a destination unto itself. What you’re paying for is the location, which is kind of funny since (compared with other, more famous spots along Highway 1) the views aren’t exactly spectacular here, even from the shore.
The original White Water Inn opened in the 1980s as a collection of 17 (give or take) fairly rustic cabins. That same era welcomed the debut of a 7-room bed & breakfast next door, the Blue Whale Inn (later becoming the 9 Iron Inn). A few years ago the separately owned properties both came up for sale, and they both got scooped up by Santa Monica-based PRG Hospitality Group, whose portfolio also includes the revamped Colony Palms in Palm Springs, Casa Laguna in Laguna Beach and the Prospect in Hollywood.
PRG works with a lot of great designers, and for this makeover they tasked LA-based Nina Freudenberger with combining and redesigning the two disparate premises into a single, unified compound — a tall order given their vastly different former personalities. They kept the White Water name but moved the front desk and lobby to the former 9 Iron structure, which now serves as the anchor. Freudenberger painted the exteriors dark gray, almost black, to create a sense of continuity, which also nicely conceals the architecture’s lack of pedigree.
Our “partial ocean view” turns out to be just the parking lot and some bushes, but I’m not mad because we arrived in the dark, having caught the sunset from Big Sur instead. The premier king room is very spacious, though, with vaulted ceilings and a gas fireplace. The room’s laid-back interior sports a soft, desaturated palette of beige, brown, gray and black. The closest thing to actual color is the olive-green tile in the bathroom. In the morning, beautiful light-rays stream through the wooden shutters on the front windows. But for the rodent-sized crack beneath the door, it’s all very pretty and soothing.
Service at White Water is minimal. In the mornings, someone delivers a thermos of coffee to the door but doesn’t knock. They just leave it outside without making a sound. The lobby includes a small bar with an extremely limited food menu: charcuterie, hot dog, grilled cheese. On the night we arrive, the front desk clerk is pulling triple duty as bartender and cook.
The first thing we want to do after checking in is to get a stiff drink (that Big Sur drive, although beautiful, can be extremely stressful), so we head straight to the bar and order a couple of Old Fashioned cocktails, plus a grilled cheese sandwich to calm our stomachs.
“I can make those drinks for you now, but it’ll be about about an hour before I can get to that sandwich,” the front desk clerk/bartender says, explaining, “I’ve already got several orders for room-service, and I’m expecting more guests to arrive any minute and I’m the only one on duty right now.”
We gulp down the cocktails and cancel the sandwich. The motel’s website references Jason Niederkorn as the chef who created the lobby’s limited food menu. I’ve admired Jason’s work since the early ’00s when he cooked in Orange County. Unfortunately it appears he parted ways with PRG six months prior to our visit.
There’s no swimming pool, no game room, no horseshoe pit or corn hole or anything of that nature that I can see at this property. Activities revolve exclusively around the beach, which is mostly rocks but the waves are supposedly great for surfing. It’s a 20 minute walk from the motel, but they provide bicycles for guests if you’re in a rush or wanting to explore beyond the parking lot.
Maybe the pandemic is to blame, but service here really needs to be better than the bare-bones hospitality provided. And yes, I get it: This is not meant to be a luxury resort. The thing is, however, I’ve stayed at several revamped vintage motels in California lately, any one of which could run circles around this place. White Water costs exponentially more yet delivers exponentially less.
Bottom line: $538 is way too to pay for one night here, especially for a room with a view of the parking lot. While that room is very comfortable, the service and amenities are in no way commensurate with the price. Maybe in the off season when rates bottom out, I could almost see myself returning.
Rates from $214 midweek (or from as much as $600 on holidays); 6736 Moonstone Beach Dr., Cambria, California, 805-927-1066, whitewatercambria.com
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