Sliced bread. The electric guitar. Non-iron shirts. History is littered with examples of well established ideas that, at a stroke, were tweaked and elevated to a higher plane even when it didn’t seem necessary.
The Californian road trip is already iconic. Its promise of louche adventure and itinerant escapism on vanishing point highways and winding coastal routes has long since been immortalised in popular culture and is as quintessentially American as the Stars and Stripes.
But what if you could improve it? What if you could retain the romance and discovery but upgrade the musty motels, dodgy diners and spluttering station wagons for something a little more polished, something more in keeping with its billing as the Golden State?
Armed with a trusty SUV, an obsessively curated playlist and reservations at the classier establishments in half a dozen Californian destinations which showcase the dizzying variety of a region twice the size of Britain, I headed to the West Coast to find out.
The Bay Area’s laid-back capital is the ideal starting point for a Californian road trip. Its casual atmosphere is gentle on the jet-lagged, but the city still glimmers with an urbanity that befits the tech capital of the world. To ease yourself in, take a boat trip to Alcatraz Island for a guided tour of the notorious prison, ride one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars or mooch about the boho Mission District, taking in the thrift stores, endless varieties of craft beer, and cheap but delicious Mexican and Chinese food.
Once the body clock has adjusted, you’re ready to go upmarket with an afternoon in bijou Sausalito, via a bracing cycle across Golden Gate Bridge. Later, take advantage of the supply of fresh seafood by sampling fresh ceviche at one of the many restaurants of the Embarcadero district. Hotel Zeppelin, near the downtown Union Square, is a chic marriage of the city’s two sides. It wears its rock ‘n’ roll credentials on its sleeve tattoo, with record players in rooms and psychedelic wallpaper proclaiming the names of bands such as The Grateful Dead.
It’s a diversion from the staple California road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway but visiting Yosemite National Park rewards the five-hour drive inland. The journey offers a taste of the epic vistas that await, with vast expanses giving way to the mountains that mark the gateway to a largely untouched 750,000 acres. Once inside, the scenery gets even better. The most rewarding views are from atop the granite cliffs looming 2,000m over the valley that forms the hub of all activity. A hike up Yosemite Falls is no walk in the park – it’s a sapping six-to-seven hour round trip – but these treks are the essential Yosemite experience.
Tours of the valley floor and night-time stargazing expeditions are also available, manned by the same arrestingly cheery staff who would presumably continue wishing you a nice day even as they were dragged off in the jaws of one of the bears they keep warning you about.
Accommodation runs the gamut from camping in the valley to swanky hotels a moderate drive away. In a departure from the rest of the trip, I opted for Half Dome Village, staying in a cabin-tent hybrid short on frills but high on convenience for Yosemite’s main attractions and amenities.
Laid-back charm rather than seven-star luxury is the order of the day in the sleepy seaside haunt of Santa Cruz, a surfers’ paradise whose endearingly kitsch brand of Americana runs through it like the letters in a stick of rock. The Beach Street Inn fits that ethos to a tee, and comes complete with the obligatory pool and enviable views of the sandy beach.
Surfing was introduced to mainland USA here and a stroll along the front shows that the city remains a monument to the sport – in a literal sense, in the form of a statue of Jack O’Neill and a surfing museum housed in an old lighthouse, and in its appeal to the hordes of boarders who, despite the odd shark sighting, still flock to these shores to practise and compete. Other local attractions include the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where deer skip among the ancient trees. Reflect on it all over a drink at 515 Kitchen and Cocktails or Lupolo Craft Beer House, both in downtown Santa Cruz.
Monterey and 17-Mile Drive
There are a handful of unmissable sights on the West Coast, and 17-Mile Drive, a road that traces the outline of a windswept cape separating Monterey Bay from Carmel Bay, is among them. Its terrain stands in stark contrast to the sun-kissed uniformity of many of California’s beaches and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d teleported to the craggy coastlines of Scotland and Ireland, especially given the proliferation of golfers.
There is something unmistakably North American, however, about the experience at Pebble Beach, at the lobe of the headland, where the luxurious rooms at The Lodge overlooking the renowned course are matched only by the manicured perfection of the greens.
An air of exclusivity pervades the resort and the wine selection at The Bench is worth the trip as much as the chance to play the links, which will mark its centenary by hosting the US Open in 2019. Monterey itself makes for a diverting afternoon, with its aquarium, Cannery Row – which trades on the town’s sardine-farming heritage – and wharf, a backdrop to hit TV show Big Little Lies.
Ordinarily at this point you might opt to stick to State Route One all the way down to Los Angeles, taking in the majesty of Big Sur. Inconsiderate landslides had rendered sections of the road unpassable during this visit, however, so I headed inland to seek solace in wine.
It’s difficult to overstate how oenologically oriented the area around Paso Robles, with its 200-plus wineries, is. My lodgings, the immaculate and tranquil Summerwood Inn, has its own production operation which guests are invited to sample, while nearby Castoro Cellars, where a generous tasting session comes with a side order of colourful anecdotes about the host’s years in the music business, is one of a never-ending patchwork of vineyards stretching across the arid landscape.
The drive down from Monterey is a reminder of California’s bountiful produce – one roadside seller was touting 10 avocados for a millennial-baiting $1 – and this was in further evidence at restaurant Artisan in downtown Paso Robles, an unexpected delight where the unctuous hanger steak and wild boar tenderloin outdid just about anything else on this trip.
San Francisco may be hipper and LA more exciting, but nothing touches Santa Barbara for sheer loveliness. With its Mediterranean-style architecture, long sandy beaches and air of sophistication, it lives up to its depiction as the American Riviera and then some.
Bask in its Californian perfection by browsing shops on the leafy splendour of State Street, cycling the palm-fringed seafront to find a preferred spot on the uncrowded beaches or visiting the historic Old Mission – a somewhat understated title, given that it dates back to 1786. If Paso Robles whetted the appetite, there is no shortage of crisp whites and fruity reds on offer, particularly in the urban wine bars of the city’s amusingly named artsy quarter, the Funk Zone. To dine, stroll down to the marina for fresh seafood in ample portions.
You may decide, however, that nothing beats retreating to the Belmond El Encanto. The cosy colonial-style bungalows nestle in landscaped gardens at this five-star resort – flourishes extend to personalised stationery in some rooms – and its hillside location means there is no better way to savour Santa Barbara’s scenery than over breakfast or a pre-dinner drink on the hotel’s terrace.
Like California itself, LA is so disarmingly vast that only scratching the surface is possible on a short trip. A hike up the Hollywood Hills is worthwhile, for people watching (hello, woman with miniature dog strapped to her chest) as much as a closer view of the iconic sign, and a studio tour is highly recommended. Paramount provides a gratifying and trivia-laden dip into the industry’s evolution, plus the chance to sit on Forrest Gump’s bench and don Ron Burgundy’s blazer.
Beyond that, a crawl through Hollywood’s dive bars, such as Frolic Room and Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, was scuzzy fun, Silver Lake has cool brunch spots and boutiques, while Venice Beach seemed a slightly sad, Camden-like facsimile of its former self, notwithstanding some boogieing-while-roller-skating ‘80s throwbacks.
Beverly Hills makes for a good point to explore from, and the Viceroy L’Ermitage, with its elegant, generously proportioned rooms and rooftop pool, is as desirable a base as a weary traveller could hope for. From there, it’s a stroll to the impossibly glitzy shops of Rodeo Drive and a short ride to fine restaurants, including peerless sushi at Nobu empire precursor Matsuhisa.
A recurring pleasure of this trip is, of course, the driving itself, and never more than on the Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Barbara and LA. Cruising the glorious stretch of coastline past Malibu and on towards Santa Monica felt like motoring nirvana and, for all the indulgence, a highlight of the fortnight. Upgrading the California road trip concept is well worth it, but the roads themselves remain among the stars of this Hollywood show.