An American road trip through Southern California has always been at the very top of my bucket list. It’s one of those unforgettable experiences that everyone who has done it raves about for years to come! So when it came to deciding where to spend our precious 4 week honeymoon we just knew that we were going to have to go to this incredible state (along with a short visit to Hawaii thrown into the mix) and give it the time that it deserves.
Although we had heard great things about Southern California before we had visited, we really had no idea just how spectacular and diverse this part of the country really was.
We started our trip by flying into Los Angeles, we hadn’t planned to spend much time in this city as we wanted to hit the road as soon as possible, but the two days we spent here were simply not enough! We were staying at The W Hotel which was a welcome oasis after an 11 hour flight and a 1 hour drive through LA traffic. We dumped our bags and headed down to the poolside bar for a glass of champagne in the warm evening sun. After polishing off a few more drinks we headed over to a fantastic sushi restaurant that a friend had recommended called SugarFish. SugarFish is a well-loved secret amongst LA locals and we had one of the best meals of our entire trip here enjoying their chef’s selection of delectable sashimi and makis. The following morning we decided to venture to the coast and check out the famous Venice beach. This colourful 2.5 mile strip of beautiful beach and boardwalk is a fantastic place to stroll around and people watch. Here you will see everything from street artists and musicians to bikini clad rollerbladers and hiphop dancers. It’s definitely worth the visit and is much more interesting than the more polished Santa Monica beach just down the road. Later that afternoon we took a walk round beautiful Griffith Park and up to the Griffith Observatory which is well known for being the best place from which to view the Hollywood sign. If you have enough time you can do a tour on horseback which sounded like a really great way to get your must-have photo in-front of the sign but, unfortunately, we didn’t know about this until after we had been. Just minutes away from the park is the famous Sunset-strip where you will find all the Hollywood stars embossed along the street. It’s a pretty fun street to walk along and you will see loads of crazy stuff so have your camera at the ready!
The following day we went for breakfast at the Griddle Café. This is an institution in LA and we were not disappointed but be warned, come early if you don’t want to wait in line for a table and, more importantly, come hungry!! The Griddle is well known for their supersized breakfasts with huge waffles and stacks of pancakes the size of dinner plates which would give even the hungriest person a run for their money! The menu is huge but I can heartily recommend the Nutella french toast which was a wonderful start to the day.
The rest of the day was spent touring round the spots of the rich and famous with a walk down Malibu beach and a wander around Beverley Hills and along Rodeo Drive which was a surreal experience with huge sunglasses and tiny dogs being the order of the day.
The following morning we were up bright and early and ready for our next stop, Santa Barbara. Before we hit the road we went for another amazing breakfast, this time at Swingers Diner in Santa Monica. We absolutely loved this place! It was exactly what we wanted out of an American diner, totally retro with a classic jukebox, a counter adorned with different types of pies and a waitress refilling our coffee whilst making small talk about her aspiring acting career! This is definitely worth visiting as there are very few authentic diners like this to be found in California. With full bellies and a selection of (massive) homemade cupcakes ‘for the road’ we were back in the car and on our way to Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful seaside town just an hour away from LA, making it a popular weekend getaway for people who live in the city. We really liked this town and wished we had more time to explore. The few hours that we were able to spend walking around the beach and pier and their fabulous Urban Wine trail was enough to give us a taste of what this beautiful getaway has to offer. If you find youself with some time to spend here, the pier, with its population of huge brown pelicans and selection of pretty seafood restaurants and quaint shops, is definitely worth a stroll. After a delicious seafood lunch we were back on the road and heading up the Pacific Coast Highway.
This stretch of coast must be one of the world’s most spectacular drives. Everywhere you look there are breathtaking views of blue seas, soaring cliffs and towering trees and there are plenty of places to pull over for perfect photo opportunities. One such spot overlooked a beach which was packed with hundreds of elephant seals and we got to sit and watch the big males strut around chest bumping one another whilst the females basked in the California sun. Tearing ourselves away, we finally arrived at our Big Sur destination just in time to pull over on the side of the road and watch the most gorgeous sunset!
In Big Sur, we were staying at a small motel called Glen Oaks and I couldn’t recommend this place highly enough. Glen Oaks is a collection of gorgeous, rustic and romantic cabins, cottages and lodges nestled along the Big Sur River surrounded by towering redwoods. This little piece of heaven is the ideal base for exploring this amazing part of the coast and is a short drive to all the best spots in Big Sur and only a 45 minute drive to the scenic Monterey Bay.
With just 10 rooms to choose from, this intimate hideaway was one of our favourite places from our trip. The accommodation options include a secluded cottage with a large private deck overlooking the stunning woods, a rustic cabin hidden amongst the redwoods with the sound of the river gently lapping in the background and an eco-chic lodge with private patio and cosy seating area. Whichever option you go for you will not be disappointed. After a long day of hiking and exploring the surrounding natural beauty this is the perfect retreat where you can relax under the stars with a glass of wine while you throw a log onto the crackling fire.
The staff at Glen Oaks could not have been more helpful and offered us lots of advice on all the best places to visit during our time in Big Sur before we had even left for the US. So, on the owner Jeanette’s recommendations, we spent our first day hiking the Ewoldsen trail which was the most spectacular hike starting on the tranquil redwood forest floor and circling around McWay Canyon where there were endless breath taking views out across the ocean and back across the forest. Later that day we went for a relaxing walk along Pfieffer beach which is known for it’s beautiful purple sand and spent a few hours there having a picnic and paddling in the waves before we finished the day off by hiking to Pfieffer falls. Exhausted from our day’s excursions, we decided to have dinner at the Big Sur Roadhouse, Glen Oaks’ restaurant, which turned out to be an excellent decision. The small intimate restaurant is run by a Chef from New Orleans which is reflected in the distinctive southern flair of the menu. Using locally sourced organic ingredients, each dish was prepared beautifully and tasted divine. We tried famous Southern dishes that we would never have expected to have eaten on this trip including seafood gumbo and a wonderful strip steak served with cheese grits. Every thing we ate was bursting with flavour which, paired with their lovely courtyard setting, resulted in us having the most perfect evening.
The next day we had pre-booked a whale watching trip in Monterey Bay. Whale watching can be done all year round in this part of California but certain times of the year you are more likely to have good sightings than others and certain kinds of whale, such as the blue whale, are only present during certain seasons. We were not in the best season for this but we had a great time anyway. The bay at Monterey is full of sea lions basking on the rocks, playing in the bay and barking at each other. They were great entertainment as we waited for our little boat to depart. Once we got out, it wasn’t long before we had our first sighting, from a distance, of a grey whale. After following him for some time we came across 2 more, a mother and a calf, which we were able to observe for about half an hour. On our way back we also found a small pod of dolphins on their way to investigate a commercial fishing expedition which was taking place on the other side of the bay.
After our amazing couple of days in the great outdoors it was time to swap our hiking boots for our sneakers and hit the streets of San Francisco. After another scenic 3 hour drive North, we pulled up outside the Hotel Monaco, one of the many Kimpton hotels in San Francisco. In contrast to the tranquility of where we had just been staying, the hotel Monaco is a quirky hotel in the heart of the bustling Tenderloin neighborhood where everything is on your doorstep. We couldn’t wait to dump our bags and get out and about in this fantastic city.
For our first afternoon we had pre-booked a city bike tour with Streets Of San Francisco Bike Tours as we both love cycling and this seemed like a great way to get a feel for the city and figure out all the places we wanted to go back to and investigate in more detail. The tour turned out to be even better than we had expected and we ended up in a small group with just 4 of us which made it all the more personal. Our guide, Bebe, was fantastic, she was so knowledgeable about the city and gave us all the inside information on the best places to visit and all the hot spots to eat and drink! The 3 hour “Heart of the city” tour showed us all the main parts of the city and we were very happy that we had decided to do this on day one. After a few hours of cycling in the afternoon sun we treated ourselves to some fantastic ice cream made using liquid nitrogen at Smittens which was next to the bike tour operator’s office, definitely the best chocolate ice cream I have ever had!!
We got up bright and early the next day to visit the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. This market is well known as one of the top farmer’s markets in the country and it is visited each week by over 25,000 shoppers. Here we had a lovely pulled pork sandwich for breakfast (we are on honeymoon, so no judgment please!) and purchased some yummy cheeses, fresh bread and various other naughty treats before renting some bicycles to make the famous cycle over the Golden Gate bridge. This was a really cool thing to do as the views looking back from the bridge over the bay are really fantastic. Once we crossed the bridge and into the town of Sausaltio we headed to the nearest spot of greenery, set up our picnic from the market and lounged around eating and drinking and taking in the views. Since we didn’t feel like the cycle back across the bridge we hopped on the ferry back across the bay along with many other cyclists. The ferry ride itself is quite a fun thing to do as approaching San Francisco from the bay is quite spectacular and gives you a different perspective from what would have had by simply retracing your steps back across the bridge.
The next day we were again up early to catch the boat across to Alcatraz. Now I have to admit this wasn’t initially something I was particularly interested in doing but my history buff husband really wanted to so I agreed. Well, boy was I proven wrong, I actually really enjoyed it! The island itself is very atmospheric and very little has been changed since it was America’s most infamous prison. When you arrive on the island you are given a headset which leads you on an audio tour of the prison filled with stories and interesting historical information. The fact that the tour is narrated by actual prisoners and guards who were recalling all their first hand memories made it really fascinating and it ended up being one of the highlights of our time in San Francisco.
After returning to shore, we wandered round the Little Italy district and stopped in at Tony’s Pizza Napolenta for some excellent pizza. Tony has an award winning Margarita which, although simple, is very tasty and well worth a try. That evening we went up to the “Top of the Mark” cocktail bar on the top floor of the Mark Hopkin’s hotel for a pre-dinner cocktail and to take in some of the best views of the city. Then it was back down to the waterfront for our reservation at The Slanted Door. We had been told by lots of people that this was one of the best places to eat in San Francisco and they were not wrong. The Vietnamese style food was excellent and the cocktails were to die for, we had a brilliant night here eating and drinking and debating what had been the best part of our trip so far.
After 3 days in the hustle and bustle of San Franciso we were ready for some relaxation again so we headed back across the Golden Gate bridge to Sausolito where we had booked 2 nights at the amazing Inn Above Tide. This was a really special place, one of those real hidden gems. It is a small boutique hotel with 31 rooms and every single room has sweeping views across the bay towards San Francisco. Our room was just perfect and had a huge private deck over the bay where we spent most of the next two days relaxing, drinking champagne on our sunloungers, listening to the sound of the water and taking in the view. We even spotted the occasional cheeky sea lion swimming in the water just below our deck and popping up their little heads.
The staff at the hotel were lovely and gave us all the advice we needed on where to eat and drink in Sausalito as there are lots of great options. Although they don’t have a restaurant at the hotel, they do serve complimentary wine and cheese every evening which is perfect for taking up to your room and enjoying on your deck while you watch the sun disappear and the bright lights of the city emerge in the distance. This really is one of the most amazing places I have ever stayed. When we did manage to drag ourselves away from our deck we spent time walking around the quaint town and eating and drinking in a whole host of wonderful places.
Our favorite place to eat was Fish, a fantastic little restaurant on the harbor that serves the freshest, mouthwatering local seafood. Of course we ordered way too much food as everything on the menu sounded so delicious but every single dish we had was amazing, from the zesty ceviche to the calamari to the oysters, it was the finest of seafood and we couldn’t help but go back for their famous sweet Dungeness crab served in a toasted torpedo roll with organic butter and chives, wow!!!! To top it off, there’s also a delightful view of the harbor to enjoy whilst you eat.
Another great restaurant in Sausalito was Sushi Ran which served absolutely delicious sushi and Japanese cuisine. This is definitely worth visiting if you are a sushi lover as they’ve got some great fresh fish and interesting dishes on the menu. We also had a great breakfast at Fred’s coffee shop, a cute little no-frills café that serves something amazing called millionaire’s bacon, not to mention bottomless mimosas.
So many people do not know about this amazing town on the other side of the bridge but our time in San Francisco was complemented perfectly by combining the hustle and bustle of the city with the haven of relaxation in Sausalito!
Our next destination was the wine country. Just a short drive of an hour or so from San Francsico and the landscape once again changes dramatically. Impressive buildings are replaced with acres and acres of beautiful vineyards which spread across Napa Valley and Sonoma County. This was the part of our trip that I had been most looking forward to, not only because I’m a huge wine fan but because this region is also known for being a gastronomic paradise!
Here, we were stating at a B&B, the Inn at Occidental, which is a quaint family run business in the small town of Occidental just moments away from the Russian River and a short drive from the famous Sonoma and Napa vineyards. This gorgeous B&B is the perfect place to spend a few days relaxing and exploring the Russian River and surrounding redwood forests and it is also a great base from which to take day trips to Sonoma and Napa. The inn has 16 unique bedrooms plus a two bedroom cottage, all with their own unique and quirky designs. I absolutely loved our room, it had a circus theme with lots of colourful details and touches. With it’s huge king size bed, inviting bathtub and cozy fireplace it felt so homely that the only thing that could drag me out of there was the amazing breakfasts prepared by Jerry and Tina, the wonderful couple who run the inn. Breakfast consisted of a buffet of fruits from the local farm, freshly baked muffins and their own granola followed by a hot “breakfast of the day” which could be a mouthwatering french toast, stack of pancakes, omelet or any other delight they decide to whip up. They also serve complimentary cheese and wine in the evenings, which is the perfect opportunity to chat to Tina and Jerry and get all their inside knowledge of the area.
On our first day, after filling our bellies, Tina and Jerry gave us some advice on the best wineries to visit for our day in Sonoma. We started our day with a quick stop at the sunning Iron Horse Vineyards, which specializes in vintage sparkling wines. The setting of this vineyard really is something special and we sat at the outside bar sipping our sparkling wine in the sun overlooking their beautiful vineyards. We then made a quick stop in at Moshin Vineyards, a family run winery who specialize in Pinot Noirs, where we sampled a selection of their lovely reds.
We then decided to make our way to Sonoma town to have a little wander around all the quaint little boutiques and cafes. We stumbled upon a wonderful artisanal cafe and cheesemaker’s shop called The Epicurean Connection. Here we tried one of their fabulous cheese tasting plates which was paired with a beautiful rose wine and got chatting to the owner Sheana, who was an absolute delight! She is very passionate about good food and good wine and is incredibly knowledgeable about the local producers. She told us all about the cheese that they make and showed us the gorgeous ‘cheese cakes’ they do for weddings in the area. If you are getting married in Sonoma or just love cheese this is a must-visit place, after all you will need a break from drinking all the delicious wine! The cafe itself also hosts a wide range of great events with live music nights, art shows and cheese making workshops so be sure to check the calendar before visiting.
Later that day we went on to the Buena Vista winery, which is one of four wineries in the region owned by the Boisset family. Here, we took a guided tour which was wonderful and not only taught us about wine itself but give us a fascinating insight into the winery’s family heritage and history. Buena Vista is one of the first premium wineries in California and is housed in the original stone winery dating back to 1857. In 2012 the winery was restored back to its past glory and in 2013 they reopened the champagne cellars to the public for guided tours as well as introducing their amazing White Room which can be reserved for private events such as weddings. The White Room, in particular, is a spectacular sight with its grand chandelier dripping in crystal, sumptuous white sofas, soft lighting and gentle piano music.
At Buena Vista they produce an array of different wines making it the perfect place for a tasting. They offer a wide range of different wine tastings including tastings of their private reserve and grand reserve and they are also one of the only wineries to offer barrel tasting tours which are usually reserved for VIPs at most wineries. We enjoyed a private tasting here with the most delightful sommelier who was just brimming with infectious enthusiasm for the wines and the estate.
Later that evening we ventured back to Sonoma town for their weekly farmers market, which takes place every Tuesday evening in the plaza. This was a really nice community experience where there are dozens of vendors selling the delicious food and drinks along with a live band and everyone comes together for an evening of food and music. Simply bring a picnic blanket, grab some food and drink from the stalls and find a spot on the grass to sit back in the warm evening sun and enjoy the music.
The following day we headed for Napa Valley, probably the most famous wine area in California. After such a great time at Buena Vista we decided to visit one of the other four Boisset family wineries, Raymond, and we were even more impressed! This 90 acre winery has a more modern feel than Buena Vista and is in the heart of Napa Valley surrounded by huge vineyards, mountains and their own educational biodynamic garden. We were really taken with all the amazing educational and tasting experiences that they had to offer here and we weren’t surprised to learn that they had won the 2012 American winery of the year. There were so many different tasting rooms to discover here and each had a very unique and distinctive feel. The Crystal Cellar is a cool modern tasting room with stainless steel walls, atmospheric lighting and a mirrored bar. It had a very industrial feel with large vats in the background and exposed metal gantries and unsurprisingly it was a big hit with my husband! My favourite room was the Red Room, a lavish velvet ensconced room with plush deep red sofas, Baccarat chandeliers and a black lacquered bar. It was the perfect setting for a private tasting of some of the finest reds I have ever had! After our tasting we then had the fantastic experience of blending our own wine in their laboratory. We even got to fill and cork the bottle ourselves and design our own label to go on it. This is a really nice thing to do together and has given us a keepsake that we have decided to save and open on a milestone anniversary!
After our busy morning at Raymond we headed to Yountville, home to some of the best restaurants in Napa, for a much-needed lunch. We did quite a lot of research on where to eat as there are so many amazing restaurants on offer in this area and in the end we settled on Lucy, the restaurant at Bardessono, a fairly new hotel, spa and restaurant in Yountville. Bardessono itself was great, the entire property was created with sustainability and environmental philosophies in mind and although we didn’t see the rooms, the garden and restaurant were both beautifully designed. We sat outside in the garden for lunch and the meal was absolutely fantastic so I would heartily recommend it over some of the more expensive fine dining options in the area!
After our relaxing lunch in the sun we ventured to Ma(i)sonry for more wine tasting. This gave us a completely different experience from our other winery visits. Ma(i)sonry is an art and wine gallery set within a small stone building from 1904. Inside the walls are adorned with art and outside the garden is home to some interesting sculptures all of which are available for purchase. Here you have the opportunity to taste wines from lots of other vineyards that you didn’t get the opportunity to visit. We loved this idea as with only a couple of days in the area and hundreds of fabulous vineyards it’s only possible to visit a handful.
In an area famed for it’s amazing restaurants how do you choose where to have our one dinner! Well, not being one to do things by halves, we ended up going for a 10 course tasting menu at the beautiful Madrona Manor! We had extremely high expectations for this meal and I’m pleased to say we were not disappointed. From the moment we arrived in the beautiful grounds and were taken to our table outside on the patio overlooking the gardens we knew we were in for a wonderful evening. Every course came with an accompanying wine, unfortunately my poor husband was driving, but the sommelier very kindly accommodated this by simply pouring him a couple of sips of each wine so he could enjoy the experience along with me. Luckily I got to have the full serving! I was a little bit nervous about eating 10 whole courses but every course was exactly the right size and each one was more delicious than the last. From caviar and lobster to local delicacies such as Abalone, each mouthful was a little taste of heaven, and the piece de resistance for me was of course the dessert! For dessert, a chef came to our table where he proceeded to make ice ream right before our very eyes, it was amazing and the perfect end to one of the best meals we have ever had!!
After three blissful nights at the Inn at Occidental we were ready to rough it for a bit in a tent in Yosemite National Park. Being a 5 hour drive from Sonoma this was one of the longest drives of the trip but we set off nice and early and the scenery along the way was spectacular and well worth the drive. We arrived in Yosemite just after lunch and headed straight for our tent in Curry Village. Now don’t get me wrong we would have loved to have stayed at the beautiful Ahwahnee hotel but they were fully booked as it was peak season so we decided to see it as an opportunity to save some money and have a bit of an adventure! The tents were basic but they did the job and we were lucky enough to see a bear in the camp on the first night although the rangers quickly scared it away by making some very loud noise (and in the process scared us more than the bear did!). We didn’t see another bear in the 3 days that we were in Yosemite but that didn’t matter as the scenery was so incredibly spectacular.
Yosemite is just incredible to look at. There are soaring cliffs of granite, towering trees, beautiful lakes and crashing waterfalls all of which are on an enormous scale. This is a place where you come to feel very small! Our first day was spent exploring the sights along Tioga Road which included Olmsted Point, a great little look out point over the valley, Tenaya Lake, which is an absolutely stunning tree-lined azure lake and the very peaceful Tuolumne Meadows.
That evening we decided to treat ourselves to a meal at the upmarket Ahwahnee hotel and we were pleased that we did as the other food options available inside the park were fairly basic! After a lovely meal of fillet steak and a rich chocolate tart we headed back to camp for an early night.
The next day we focused more on the Valley floor and spent some time relaxing as we bobbed along down the Merced river on a little raft that we hired. We hired some bikes and looped around the Valley floor visiting the nearby waterfalls and Mirror lake. As the evening drew near we rushed up to the top of Glacier point and arrived in time to enjoy one of the park rangers give a sunset talk as the sun dropped behind the mountains and the sky turned all shades of pink and orange. The views from Glacier Point are, of course, spectacular. From there you have a commanding view of the Valley and Half Dome (Yosemite’s huge iconic granite dome) and once again you are lost in the scale of the place. It was a perfect end to our stay in Yosemite.
Our final road trip destination before we had to return to LA for our flight to Hawaii was Death Valley. Yet again, we experienced a dramatic change in scenery after only a few hours of driving. We set off in the morning from an alpine wonderland 10,000 feet above sea level (we even saw a small patch of snow on the ground in June!) and arrived in the afternoon in a vast desert 100 feet below sea level. Death Valley is a total contrast to Yosemite and yet is still spectacular in an entirely different way. Whereas Yosemite was bustling with tourists, Death Valley was completely empty. We could drive for 30 minutes without seeing another car but this, if anything, really added to the “desert experience”. There were huge expanses of barren rock in every shade of red, brown and orange stretching off into the distance, clumps of strange little bushes and the ever present sun beating down on us from the cloudless sky. It’s actually very peaceful. We drove into the centre of the Valley to Furness Creek Ranch which would be our home for the night stopping off at Mosaic Canyon and the Mesquite sand dunes on our way in. Now, one of the great things about Death Valley is that you get spectacular sunsets and sunrises. We only had one of each so we had to choose our locations wisely. In the end we decided to head up to Dante’s View, a mountain top vantage point with views across the basin and salt flats, for our sunset. The colours at sunset were incredible and the mountains and valley floor changed along with the sky. What was even better was that we were able to enjoy the view in solitude!
The next morning we were up at 5am so that we could catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. This is a nearby lookout point which is surrounded by interestingly shaped and coloured rock formations, very organic looking. As the sun comes up these create wonderful colours and shadows which makes this a top spot for keen photographers.
After sunrise, we were heading out of Death Valley and back to LA. On our way we made some more stops to see the salt flats in Badwater Basin, Artists Drive and the Devil’s Golf Course all of which were unique and alien natural wonders.
We were very sad to be leaving California, it had been such an incredible and diverse experience, but we were leaving with great memories of a once in a lifetime honeymoon and, of course, still had Hawaii to look forwards to!
We flew from the UK to Los Angeles with Virgin Atlantic and booked our accommodation separately but it can be cheaper to book a package or part of your trip as a package. Virgin Holidays have a great selection of flight and hotel combos such as the below.
Four nights in Los Angeles with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic direct from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, room only accommodation at the 4V W Hollywood and car hire. Price is per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a ‘Fabulous’ king double room, including all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Price is based on a departure on 19 November 2014.
Four nights in Death Valley from £1,139pp
Four nights in Death Valley with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic direct from London Gatwick to Las Vegas, room only accommodation at the 3V Furnace Creek Ranch and car hire. Price is per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard double room, including all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Price is based on a departure on 24 November 2014.
Virgin Holidays also offer a number of California road trips similar to ours:
To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of their 110 stores located in Debenhams, House of Fraser, Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores nationwide.
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