The Nature of Hospitality

Exploring some of California’s loveliest hotel gardens.

As residents of the Golden State, we’re blessed with no shortage of fantastic public gardens. From Descanso to the botanicals in San Francisco, our coast is flush with year-round verdant sanctuaries. Additionally, we have an abundance of stunning and historic estate-like hotels, which also boast their own compelling monuments to nature. Here, a look at a handful of our perennial favorites.

Hotel Bel-Air
Hotel Bel-Air

Just a half mile north of Sunset Boulevard’s commotion, this 12-acre sanctuary is nestled into one of Southern California’s toniest neighborhoods. The 1946 Spanish Colonial “pink palace” isn’t just home to 104 guest rooms and suites, a stunning oval pool, decadent spa, and restaurant from Wolfgang Puck, it’s also legendary for its swan-filled lake, which greets guests upon entering the property, daring those who cross its bridge not to whip out their phones for a snap of the iconic setting.

A series of winding brick pathways, abundant floral beds, and grassy lawns complement the expansive array of historic trees, which includes coastal redwoods (the tallest living trees on earth), 100-foot-tall palms, and the tipu tree, with its delicate yellow blossoms towering over Chalon Road. However, two of the property’s most beloved trees might be the 90-foot-tall silk floss tree, the oldest and largest of its kind in the U.S., and one of the largest gingko trees in the city.

Ask the hotel for a nature-walk map or arrange for a picnic just about anywhere on the grounds, including at the swan lake grotto, surrounded by more than 25 types of plants, most of which are native to California.

Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa

Away from the bustle—and sometimes gray skies—of coastal San Diego, Rancho Valencia, in Rancho Santa Fe, sits within 45 acres of citrus and olive groves, granting luxe, farm-like surrounds for the Spanish Mediterranean–style, TK-room resort, where each room is essentially its own casita.

The orange groves date back to TK and provide daily fresh-squeezed juice delivered to each of the guest rooms in the morning. This past year brought the revitalization of many of the on-site olive trees, which will one day begin producing olives and olive oil for the resort.

Gardens of aloe, cacti, birds of paradise, pride of Madeira, and stunning pink bougainvillea decorate the property. Even the open-air, Balinese-inspired Serenity Yoga Pavilion is as much enjoyed for its compelling architecture as for its reflective pool and tropical landscaping.

The resort’s organic culinary garden, also known as the Secret Garden, is tucked in a far corner of the property adjacent to the olive orchard and is comprised of 23 custom-built raised beds, succession planted with rotating, seasonal crops that offer varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, melon, peppers, tomatillos, ground cherries, summer squash, beans, cucumbers, and Mediterranean herbs including thyme, verbena, mint, and oregano. There is also a chicken coop (fondly named the Casita Coop) housing a variety of 15 heritage-breed, egg-laying chickens and three active beehives.

Guests interested in more than a self-guided tour can head down to the garden every Wednesday, 4:30–5:30 p.m., to meet with the director of food and beverage and head gardener for Garden to Glass, where you’ll learn more about the garden and enjoy a complimentary glass of wine.

Post Ranch Inn

This iconic resort first opened in 1992 on the site of the Post family’s 100-acre cattle ranch, located high atop the cliffs of Big Sur. The property and its neighboring land feature 13 diverse plant communities, including forests with ancient redwood and oak trees, shrubs, grasslands, and aquatic habitats. The area is also home to two endangered species: the California red-legged frog, which breeds in the aquatic habitat of Post Ranch’s central pond, and Smith’s blue butterfly, which feeds and breeds in the sea cliff buckwheat found in the California sagebrush scrub habitat on a slope below the acclaimed Sierra Mar restaurant. Not only does the property take excellent care of its guests, but it also has enacted a habitat conservation plan of 36 acres to protect these endangered species.

The Chef’s Garden was created more recently and incorporates the original fruit tree orchard, where you can spot 100-year-old apple trees. It supports the Sierra Mar restaurant, as well as the spa, while creating an interactive guest experience of fun edible flowers, herbs, fruit trees, perennial culinary edibles, and cut flowers. The property also grows its own mushrooms, making it a true pollinator paradise.

Guests can visit the garden at any time, and there is an Edible Garden Tour twice a week. Depending upon the season, you might discover unusual varieties, like marionberries, lion’s mane mushrooms, or purple snow peas. Keep an eye out next year, when the team plans to double the .75-acre garden and add a greenhouse-style hoop house.

San Ysidro Ranch

In the foothills of Montecito rests San Ysidro Ranch, named by Franciscan monks who occupied the land in the late 1700s and paid homage to Saint Isidore, the patron saint of agriculture. In 1889, a large sandstone packing house was built, later to become the Stonehouse restaurant, and back in the day, the citrus ranch harvested an average of 300,000 oranges and 100,000 lemons annually.

The lush gardens span 550 acres, resting adjacent to a babbling creek, with direct access to 17 miles of hiking trails, where day hikers can experience hot springs and cascading waterfalls. However, some of the most striking paths are right on the property: Upon entering, guests drive through a winding, French lavender–lined driveway planted with 400-year-old ancient olive trees. Once arriving at check-in, Miami pink bougainvillea create a heart-shaped entrance to the Hacienda.

Under the 135-year-old twin bunya trees grow scattered plantings of rosemary, blue geranium, hydrangeas, salvia, heliotropium, lantana, and French, Spanish, and English lavender. Don’t forget to take note of the rose garden, with its white and burgundy iceberg, double delight, Mister Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbra Streisand varieties.

The chef’s garden has about 15 plant beds and grows seasonal items to support the Stonehouse restaurant, including herbs, chili peppers, jalapeños, eggplants, squash blossoms, and rainbow chard. Guests receive a map of the property upon arrival and are encouraged to pick from the citrus groves of Meyer lemons and Valencia oranges.

Good Neighbor

The Montecito Club

The Montecito Club, a private golf and social club and sister property just down the road, is open to guests of San Ysidro Ranch. Its recent renovation includes 60 acres of the new, drought-tolerant, deep-green platinum TE paspalum grass, which complements the plantings of purple queen bougainvillea and enriches the club’s vibrant stance against the Pacific Ocean views.

The Langham Huntington
Situated on 23 acres at the base of the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, The Langham Huntington’s gardens date back to the original hotel construction, 1911–1914, after which the locale quickly became a favorite Hollywood filming location.

The stunning display of delicate pink jacaranda blossoms showcases the 15,500-square-foot Horseshoe Garden, which pays homage to California’s desert landscape, though with plants originating from many places. It is sprinkled with succulents, such as agave Americana century plants, birds of paradise, palms, yellow kangaroo paw, and other drought-tolerant selections.

The Japanese Garden was designed along what was once a natural stream and styled in the same vein as its larger cousin at the Huntington Library. It is dotted with stone lanterns and features a long shallow pond with quiet waterfalls, passable over a signature red footbridge and lined along one end with tall bamboo. The garden also boasts a pink flowering saucer magnolia, cherry blossoms, and Japanese maples (Bloodgood, Crimson Queen Purple, Sangu Kaku golden leaf, red leaf, and purple leaf varieties).

Don’t forget to ask for a historical walking map of the property.

JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa
JW Marriott

Rooted in Marriott family tradition, the JW Garden program is inspired by founder J. Willard Marriott, who took daily nature walks, as well as his wife, Alice, who grew fruits, vegetables, and herbs for her legendary Sunday night dinners.

The newly installed JW Desert Springs Garden, by landscape designer Lily Kwong of Studio Lily Kwong, incorporates organically shaped garden beds that morph into hidden seating with shade trees to mitigate the desert heat. Mojave Desert Land Trust was selected as a charitable partner for JW Desert Springs Resort & Spa, an organization whose mission is to protect the Mojave Desert ecosystem and its scenic and cultural resource values. The donation will provide fourteen growing benches for a shade house, education signage and support the growth of 1,200 plants annually.

Inspired by the diverse California desert landscape, the new gardens feature a thoughtful selection of edible herbs intermixed with drought-tolerant plants native to the desert ecology, chosen for their therapeutic properties and to create a multisensory experience in nature, while supporting the hotel’s culinary offerings.

The garden features a peaceful olive-grove walking path and a planting palette of endemic sages, desert marigold, prickly pear, milkweed, and wildflowers to provide habitat and ecosystem support to insects and other fauna.