MALIBU, Calif. — Waking up in John Travolta's onetime bedroom, I stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy million-dollar views of the broad strand of Carbon Beach, the rugged Malibu hills and sunrise over a distant Los Angeles.
Make that billion-dollar views, considering a morning stroll would take me past the nearby beach houses of moguls Larry Ellison and David Geffen.
Travolta, unfortunately, wasn't there. He rented Casa Larronde, now a seasonal bed and breakfast, for three months back in 1977, just after he hit it big with "Saturday Night Fever." But pictures of him with Parker, the Larrondes' cat, still grace the walls of the funky upstairs suite where we both slept and, no doubt, enjoyed the same tranquil views.
All of Malibu was a fiercely guarded private estate until the 1930s, when the cash-strapped owners started letting Hollywood stars build bungalows on the beach in what became the gated community of Malibu Colony.
But Malibu's image as a discreet enclave for stars and tycoons has only increased since Travolta escaped hectic Los Angeles to figure out his next move. Along its 21 miles of coastline live many stars, and still more tabloid fodder lives off the winding canyon roads.
Malibu's reputation as an unwelcoming place for the general public has also grown since Travolta's time: In recent years security guards patrolled the sands to scare off anyone who came too close to celebrities' homes, while Geffen waged a long court battle against opening a public-access walkway next to his multilot megamansion.
Geffen lost that battle. Since last May, the public can enjoy daytime access to "Billionaires' Beach," as mile-long Carbon Beach is called, from the new walkway off the Pacific Coast Highway.
Of course, if you stay in Travolta's former digs at Casa Larronde - or one of two small beachfront hotels - you won't have to worry about finding parking or leaving the beach before the gates close. And you can spend more time soaking in the celebrity ambiance at other Malibu hot spots, like Malibu Country Mart.
The question might arise: What's so special about Carbon Beach? Beside the billionaire neighbors, I mean. Locals talk about the breadth and dryness of the sand driving up prices to a minimum of $15 million for a small beachfront lot.
And unlike Malibu Colony homes, the houses tend to be built right on the sand, with no seawall blocking the view of the beach from the patio. For visitors (or paparazzi), that means being able to see the lifestyles of the rich and famous without a telescope while strolling the sand. But really, Carbon Beach's relative exclusivity - in terms of price and public access - is its main selling point.
Could that be Haim Saban, the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" tycoon, chatting up another Carbon resident at the eastern outcropping known as "Dealmakers' Rock?" Is that Tate Donovan, star of "The O.C.," training for the Malibu Triathlon with a run on the beach?
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Staying at Casa Larronde gave me bona fide rights to the owner's beachfront, but as a supporter of public beach access, I felt honor-bound to check out the path by Geffen's Cape Cod-style palace, about 12 homes up the coast.
Once inside the 9-foot-wide, 25-foot-long pathway I saw a few explanatory placards. It's important to note that public rights here extend only to the mean high-tide line, generally the wet sand line. The first summer of the new walkway, Geffen's security guards reportedly "helped" a few beachgoers relocate their towels and umbrellas from his property onto public sand. But no one seemed bothered by my beachcombing on a Friday morning.
I could have continued about a mile west to the original Carbon Beach entry point, the well-marked Zonker Harris Accessway by the Malibu Pier. The California Coastal Commission says Los Angeles County has operated the sunrise-to-sunset path since 1981, but it gained its name more recently, after cartoonist Garry Trudeau lampooned Geffen's court battles in "Doonesbury." In the strip, sun-worshiping Zonker also sought to tan on Malibu's toniest beach.
Instead, I returned for a lavish breakfast in the eclectic dining room of my host, 85-year-old Charlou Larronde, whose modest house was the fifth on the beach when she and her husband built it in 1951. She doesn't seem the least bit fazed by her celebrity neighbors - and all she told us of Travolta was that he enjoyed having Parker the cat at the breakfast table.
An adventurous world traveler, Larronde rents the entire house out in summer and roams the globe. The rest of the year, she runs the bed and breakfast with a downstairs bedroom (no view, but private bathroom) and the upstairs John Travolta Suite, both of which are comfortably furnished but not likely to appear in Architectural Digest anytime soon.
No matter: Anytime we wanted to feel like we were in the lap of luxury, we could just step outside.
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: To get to Malibu, take Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) about 25 miles north and west of Los Angeles International Airport and exit off the highway.
GENERAL INFORMATION: Casa Larronde, (310) 456-9333, http://www.casalarronde.com; Malibu Beach Inn, (310) 456-6444, http://www.casalarronde.com. Malibu Chamber of Commerce, (310) 456-9025; City of Malibu, (310) 456-2489
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