‘Can you grab a moonstone?’
‘Yeah, mom. Oh, can I smudge the outside?’
‘You’re not lighting anything on fire, hun. But grab me a whole abalone shell, please.’
That’s the spiritual master of ceremonies this afternoon, Victoria Keen, setting the scene for my very first sound bath with a hand from her nine-year-old son. The pair arrange healing crystals, cymbals, drums, shakers and a large gong on the floor, then Victoria makes one last request for a silk eye mask that’s stashed somewhere in her car. Her son, Zephyr, obliges. It’s not your typical mother-son exchange. But then again, this isn’t your typical holiday activity and I’m not staying in your typical hotel. This is Native.
On paper, Native is a 13-room hotel in Los Angeles county’s coastal town of Malibu. Aside from a king suite and a room with bunk beds, every room is identical. There’s no Michelin-starred restaurant or sprawling spa on the property. You won’t be greeted by bellhops to ferry your luggage through winding corridors and up grand staircases. You might, however, find a dachshund named Herschel (the hotel’s unofficial mascot) quietly luxuriating in a patch of sunlight on the lobby’s aggregate concrete floor. Off to the left, the hotel’s general manager, Sam Shendow, may be working in plain view on her laptop, and there’s a good chance you’ll collect your room keys from Claude, who doubles as the in-house coffee expert. It’s seemingly a simple, you-get-what-you-see operation. But as with anything worth exploring, there’s more here than meets the eye.
For starters, there’s the location in Malibu, an area that’s historically mystifying. In the essay ‘Quiet Days in Malibu’ from her 1979 book The White Album, Joan Didion calls Malibu ‘the most idiosyncratic of beach communities’. She points out how odd it is that the town’s primary residential street is a full-blown highway, the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH for short), and that, despite all the traffic, the area is basically devoid of business. And yet, the name Malibu, she writes, ‘remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life.’
Not much has changed since the 70s, except that these days you’re more likely to see a Toyota Prius tearing across the PCH rather than a Stingray (Didion’s choice of chariot). Malibu is still largely untouched and feels totally detached from the rest of LA. Even to Angelenos, myself included, a life in Malibu sounds dreamy, but farfetched. ‘The Bu’, as locals call it, is in all respects a bubble.
Something else that remains from Didion’s days: this hotel, albeit in an updated incarnation. Native opened its doors just last year; before that the property, originally built in 1947, was known as the Malibu Riviera Motel (you can still see faint lettering from the old name on the current sign). Marilyn Monroe stayed here, as did Bob Dylan, who wrote Blood on the Tracks in room #13.
The rich history here isn’t lost on Rudy Moujaes, who owns the hotel along with David Irvin, his partner at creative agency Folklor, and Shaun Gilbert of SKG Investment. ‘Malibu has this underlying theme of escaping and getting away’, Rudy says. ‘Some 50, 60, 70 years ago, this was a haven for the rebellious, for those who wanted to break free and do their own thing and break out of the confines of what standard LA was, and we want to stick to that same idea.’
Key to maintaining such an escape, which Rudy sums up as ‘paradise lost’, is understanding the existing community and inviting locals to be a part of the project. That’s where the sound baths come in, as well as a slew of other atypical hotel activities hosted by area practitioners. Starting this month and running through summer, Native will launch their Shed Series, a program of wellness activities run out of an on-site studio – literally a renovated shed. In addition to the sound baths, there will be yoga, full/new moon circles, writing workshops, intimate acoustic sets, massages, Ayurvedic healing, eyebrow shaping, surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, and drinkollage – booze-spiked collage class (it’s creative so, yes, that qualifies as wellness).
To jump right in to the Malibu swing of things, I’ve scheduled my sound bath for day one of my stay. I’m here, I’m sleeping in the Bob Dylan roomand I’m fully embracing Native and all it has to offer, including a sampling of the Shed programming. But before I head over to meet Victoria, I panic and Google two critical questions: what is a sound bath? And what do you wear to a sound bath?
Quickly, I gather that a sound bath is a form of meditation in which tunes – created with singing bowls, gongs, chimes and more – wash over the bather, in a metaphorical sense (ie there’s no water involved). I toss my swimsuit back into my suitcase. My what do you wear? query results in advice to dress comfortably, so I throw on a t-shirt and a pair of stretchy golden culottes – metallic elastic is my spirit fabric. I spot a robe hanging in my room cut from colourful African deadstock and I throw that on, too. (I later learn that the robes, each one unique, are hanging in all the rooms and are available to buy.)
Twenty minutes later, I’m lying on my back on a faux-fur rug with the silk eye mask across my face as Victoria summons the maternal powers of her grandmother and mother and then proceeds to play a series of instruments that I can promise you are not used in any Bruno Mars songs. If you could picture being massaged by wind chimes, but the metal tubes don’t actually touch your body, that’s what a sound bath is.
Victoria later tells me that people react to sound baths in dramatically different ways, some cry and some laugh uncontrollably. I, inexplicably, feel inspired to talk about Stormy Daniels (yes, the adult-film star who, allegedly, had an affair with Trump). I also simultaneously want to ask Victoria if she found the film The Shape of Water to be overrated and if she thinks I should open a Roth IRA, but I leave it at Stormy. It’s as if in that moment I need clarity on everything and I can practically see the wisdom radiating and coiling through Victoria’s long, black curls. She laughs and says that we are living in truly bizarre times.
My other major takeaway is a buzzing feeling right at the nape of my neck. Victoria says that makes sense, as there’s a chakra in that exact spot. I’m so proud to recognise this sensation that the moment I get back to my room I text a friend in NYC and write, ‘I felt my chakra!’ She replies with a middle finger emoji. I feel misunderstood for a moment, but that’s soon squashed by residual feelings of excitement over my robe.
Later that afternoon, I meet with Jimena Garcia, the high priestess of eyebrow shaping (my words not hers; she’s much too humble to give herself that title). It might’ve been the sound bath speaking, but I ask Jimena what she can tell about me based on my brows – like a tarot reading, but with follicles rather than cards. She explains that’s not exactly what she does, but regardless, offers this: ‘You care a lot. You want things to work out and you really care.’ ‘Thank you’, I reply, smoothing my fingers across my brows and adjusting the ties on my robe, satisfied.
Jimena has tweezed, waxed and threaded some of the most high-profile hairs in beauty and entertainment, including those of Lena Dunham and Emily Weiss – the founder of cosmetics company Glossier and the site Into the Gloss. Though she’s clearly well-connected, Jimena, who has her own set of dark, enviable brows that sit behind oversized, thick-rimmed glasses, credits Native for creating a sense of community among the Shed’s specialists. She says, ‘What Native is doing is so wonderful because it’s not just a motel for the community or for visitors; they’re also contributing to practitioners… giving them a space to come in and service. So it’s like, we’re all at each other’s service.’
The next morning, I’m up early for a run along Zuma Beach, just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel. Afterward, I meet up with Jessica Copeskey, Native’s resident yoga instructor for an outdoor session. Jessica has just returned from Tulum, where she spent a year and a half teaching yoga. It’s apropos, as the feeling I’m starting to get during my stay – the overwhelming desire to stop wearing shoes and the constant magnetic pull to the hammock on my room’s private patio – is all very reminiscent of Tulum.
As Jessica leads me through a series of downward dogs and a literal dog – Herschel – watches us from a corner of the wooden deck, my thoughts turn to the PCH. The hotel sits smack dab between lush foliage and the famous roadway. I start to notice a meditative rhythm to the cars whirling past, like an automotive sound bath, and what at first seemed off-putting about the hotel now seems integral to an authentic Malibu experience.
I follow up yoga with a chat on Ayurvedic healing with Julie Bernier, a Malibu resident who has studied the ancient practice at its source, India. ‘If you think of your body as a machine’, Julie tells me, ‘Ayurveda is the missing instruction manual that teaches you how to take care of your physical body and your mind, as well as showing you how to make your soul happy’. This summer, she’ll be leading self-care workshops at Native and offering Ayurvedic lifestyle consultations and face massages.
For my final morning in Malibu, I hit the water with Bruce Klumph, Native’s surf and stand-up paddle board guide. Bruce, who was born and raised in Malibu (‘That’s 25 years, going on 26’, he says), gives me a lift in his pick-up truck to Paradise Cove, our starting spot. As we paddle around the shores of Point Dume – him leading and me following behind like a clumsy duckling – he talks about everything from sociology to Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs to oceanic wildlife. I decide that his title should be floating philosopher rather than surf instructor. It’s also worth mentioning that Bruce coaching me through standing on the paddle board was done with more care and consideration than most toddlers receive when learning to walk for the first time. ‘Easy does it… one leg… there you go… you got this… okay… don’t worry…’
Once it’s finally time to hang up my robe for good, I snuff out the incense burning in my room (a piece is hidden in each key fob) and bid adieu to the ghost of 1970s Bob Dylan (though current-day Bob Dylan lives just up the road). As I make my way along the PCH toward Mid-City LA, I think again of that Didion essay and how she wrote, ‘No one “vacations” or “holidays”, as those words are conventionally understood, at Malibu.’ I think of Native and decide that it wouldn’t be the property to make her write the addendum to her essay; there’s certainly nothing conventional about it. Plus, with the Shed and all the practitioners milling about, Native feels less like a hotel and more like a clubhouse or a meeting ground for the curious… those who wonder about everything from tuning forks to Indian spices to leopard sharks to political scandals to dachshunds to drinking while making art.
And should I wander into the lobby on a random, hot summer afternoon, barefoot and covered in sand, I imagine Herschel sauntering over, jumping into my lap and looking up, as if to say, ‘Hey, where have you been? Sound bath in five.’
Written and produced by Amelia Mularz
Videography by Kelly Noecker
Additional videography by Chyna Powers
Photography by Louis Sheridan
As far as summer travel is concerned, we’ve only dipped a toe in the proverbial swimming pool. Stay tuned for more on how to experience summer 2018. Up next: we visit a hotel with an in-house herbalist and indulge in some rural relaxation in Tuscany.