IT’S with a spirit of rebellion that three girlfriends and I sip G&Ts, descending over Las Vegas, the first leg of what we planned to be a mammoth 30th birthday blowout road trip to the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, and the Big Sur. The trip is as much about commemorating a key cornerstone in our lives as having a holiday.
Travel changes when you hit this age, you see. For better or worse – even if you are still single – your holidaying life changes forever as those who used to join on irresponsible ventures suddenly have, well, responsibilities. The far-flung backpacking jaunts in cockroach-infested hostels dwindle as a result, as do the bargain £190 weeks in Magaluf, and in their place come couples holidays and villas in the south of France. An upgrade of standards, certainly, but also rather sensible. With that in mind, we opt for “UN-sensible” and there’s no better place to do that than Las Vegas.
The Cosmopolitan, opened last year, is one of the newest hotels on the strip. It’s part of The Marriot Group’s new boutiquey Autograph division: aimed squarely at the Starwood/W Hotel demographic of young, affluent, groovy types. (Albeit with less boutiquey room numbers. This property has a staggering 2,995.)
We pull up and the mood is set by a convoy of white Hummers. Step inside and it’s all sculptural chandeliers, pulsing music and atmospheric lighting. The rooms are, as you’d expect, gigantic. The look is 1960s meets retro nautical meets Las Vegas glitz. There are two large flat-screen TVs (you know, just in case), a kitchenette, Jacuzzi bath, and a balcony. It’s all pretty sexy.
Las Vegas, we discover, is all about the daytime pool party. The Cosmopolitan has two pools, both with an array of luxurious cabanas, day beds, cooling mists and bars. One is designed as a chill-out zone, while the other features a stage for live bands, several open-air pool tables and gaming stations.
Ticketed “day clubs” – taking this to harder core territory – have also become big news at all the major hotels. (Hugely popular with visiting stag parties. Abs, bikinis, shots, hot tubs – not for the faint-hearted.)
You need to give in to Las Vegas to really enjoy it, and so we do. High points include: Cirque du Soleil, brunch at Simon and the Palms (staff wear pyjamas, its unlimited and you can upgrade this to include booze); shopping on a grand scale at Crystals Mall, a giant architectural feat in itself which also boasts North America’s largest Louis Vuitton, finishing with rooftop drinks at Mix lounge at THEHotel. Add that to gambling (the Wynn), hotel spotting (we loved the Venetian Canal) and we’re ready to ship out.
The Grand Canyon is next. With a brief detour to the Hoover Dam – which is 30 minutes from Las Vegas – we make it just in time to catch a spectacular sunset. The next day we dip in again for sunrise at five AM (worth checking the time online, it changes every day) before heading out.
The drive from Grand Canyon to Los Angeles is eight hours and not to be trifled with, but the scenery is genuinely breathtaking. The Mojave Desert is mountainous, arid, and vast – like driving on the moon. Meanwhile trucks, freight, and passing Harley Davidsons imbue the whole experience with a sense of real Americana.
It’s also the perfect endurance test before arriving at The Four Seasons Beverly Hills, which turns out to be actual Los Angeles paradise. With elegant palm trees, striped loungers, fountains and topiary, the hotel oozes quintessential Beverly Hills glamour. We step out of our giant rental SUV into its serene palm-treed drive and staff greet us – magically – by name. The rooftop pool has views of the Hills and even has an open-air gym. The rooms are plush and tasteful with all the puffy bathrobes and luxe toiletries you could wish for. The service is also second to none. We love the hotel’s complimentary Bentley car, which will take you anywhere within a two mile radius.
We opt for dinner at The Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS Hotel in West Hollywood (ultra-modern, and very “El-Ay” tapas) and feast on deconstructed Caesar salads and olive foam martinis. The next day we go to Rodeo Drive, before Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; the Hollywood sign and – determined to spot a celebrity – lunch in the Chateau Marmont Hotel (Success! Katy Perry sits next door).
There’s just enough time to take in the volleyball beach crowd and skaters at Santa Monica, then it’s off up the pacific highway.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the beauty of Highway 1, from the surfers that hug the Malibu coast at sunset to the winding traverses of the Big Sur with vast expanses of blue ocean, cliffs and gleaming sunlight.
We spread the journey over a few days to make the most of the central coast. First up is Santa Barbara, an artsy seaside town that makes a great spot for boutique shopping. Next it’s Pismo Beach – less chichi, more red-neck. We hit the local dive bar Harry’s for a night of beer, pool, and karaoke and stay in a cute boutique motel, The Cottage Inn, by the Sea.
The next day it’s Hearst Castle, the sprawling mansion built high on the hills of San Simeon by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and then we hit the road again.
Big Sur, a 90-mile stretch of road that wraps the California coastline, is what driving was invented for. Our car winds up and down, with hills to the right, and dramatic cliffs and ocean to our left. The highway was built in the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal program and some of the most spectacular parts are the picture-postcard bridges that cross the coast’s deeper indents.
We reach The Big Sur Hotel – Hyatt Carmel Highlands – at dusk. The hotel, sat high on the hills, offers brilliant views of the coastline, now brooding in the blue light with blustery winds. Inside the main lobby, the bar and restaurant feature stunning floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies overlooking the ocean. The mood, meanwhile, is alluringly cosy. Live jazz plays and billowing leather sofas are placed in front of roaring fires and candle-lit mantle pieces. (I feel like I’m in a Michael Bolton music video – but in a good way.)
The hotel has been designed as a series of spread-out modern wooden cabins integrated subtly in to the hillside. The rooms feature king size beds, gargantuan Jacuzzi baths and working fireplaces and are connected by wooden walkways with outdoor hot tubs and communal fire pits dotted in between. We hit the hotel’s Pacific view restaurant and indulge in California steaks and red wine before bed.
Carmel (a chocolate box town with art galleries and coffee shops) will be too saccharine for some but is worth a visit. We take in the nearby iconic 17 Mile Drive, a stretch of private residential land, which takes you through some of Carmel’s prettiest coastal spots. As a final stop, we visit nearby Monterey’s world-famous Aquarium, which features a series of jaw-dropping exhibits and live sea life shows. We find ourselves acting like excited children, which makes an apt conclusion to the trip. Our childhood, our twenties – and indeed those dodgy Magaluf half-board deals – may have passed, but it will always be there, even if it’s relegated to a different time entirely.
Rooms at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas start at $168, www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com. Rooms at the The Four Seasons, Beverly Hills, start around $400. www.fourseasons.com. Rooms at the The Big Sur Hotel- Hyatt Carmel Highlands, from £255, www.hyatt.com
EATING, DRINKING & SHOPPING: | LV, LA AND BIG SUR
● LAS VEGAS
-Cirque du Soleil: Acrobatics, drama and jaw dropping stunts. From £70. www.cirquedusoleil.
-Crystal’s Mall: Is it a Getty museum? No, it’s a mall – and a fairly stonking one at that. Let loose with your credit card. www.crystalsatcitycentre.
-Day Clubs: Hedonism by day. The Marquee, MGM Grand, the Encore hotels and many others stage ticketed venues. Observe the dress codes – they’re strict.
-Eat: There are lots of great restaurants in Las Vegas. We like STK at The Cosmopolitan, The CUT, Wolfgang Puck’s famed steak restaurant at The Palazzo www.wolfgangpuck.com, and El Segundo, a fabulous Mexican restaurant where they make the guacamole in front of you with pestle and mortars.
-Drink: Mix Lounge, THEHotel, Madalaybay.com
● LOS ANGELES
-Bazaar at SLS: Worth it for the foie gras lollipops alone. www.thebazaar.com
-Chateau Marmont: Celebs and moderately priced food, in a grand setting. www.chateaumarmont.com
-Shopping: Melrose Avenue, The Grove (A-listers and Abercombie-style shoppers). www.thegrovela.com
-Culina, The Four Seasons: The freshest cut fruit; organic muesli, waterfalls and palm trees make this a serene brunch spot. www.culinarestaurant.com
-The Getty Museum: Perched high on this hill, it’s worth it for the views of Los Angeles alone. Modernist architecture and world-famous gardens add to its splendour. www.getty.edu
● THE COAST, BIG SUR, AND CARMEL
-Brophy Bros, Santa Barbara: Fresh rustic seafood on the marina with views to the Santa Barbara mountains in the distance. www.brophybros.com
-Mo’s Steakhouse Barbecue, Pismo Beach: Prime ribs, authentic hickory barbecue, juicy steaks- it’s a hit with the locals for a reason. www.smokinmosbbq.com
-Hearst Castle, San Simeon: In its heyday this mansion entertained the who’s who of Hollywood. The blue-tiled Art Deco pool is a must-see. www.hearstcastle.com
-17 Mil Drive: Winding the Carmel coastline with views of the Sequoia’s and beyond. www.pebblebeach.com
-Monterey Bay Aquarium: Sharks, whales, and squid the size of your head. www.montereybayaquarium.com