Surrounded by Splendor: Discover California’s Golden Experiences
Miles and miles of gorgeous coastline, world-class cuisine and culture, legendary wineries, and so much more make the Golden State a dreamy destination. Here’s how to plan a trip suited to any traveler interest.
For repeat visitors and first timers alike, an abundance of new treasures await in California. Imagine relaxation among orange trees and sunny winter days in Southern California, the dramatic coastlines and sunsets of Big Sur, and the mid-20th-century pop of Palm Springs.
If you’re planning a three-week trip, you might be able to cover the entire state, says Katie Cadar, a travel advisor and director of leisure sales at TravelStore in Los Angeles. “California’s a big state,” she notes wryly. With more limited time, she recommends zeroing in on a single region or destination and focusing on specific interests.
Cadar’s approach is to interview clients to uncover what activities they like so she can figure out what highlights will take a California trip to the next level. Here’s a guide to designing a dreamy vacation based on popular pursuits, distinctive California experiences, and five-star hotels that ensure wonderful, long-lasting memories.
For the scenery aesthete
For fans of remarkable stays amid stunning, rugged coastal landscapes, look no further than the California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Cadar says among clients’ favorite excursions is starting a trip in San Francisco, then winding along Highway 1’s fabulous, roughly 450-mile drive to Santa Monica in Los Angeles. (Pro tip: Check for closures, especially in the winter season.)
En route, Big Sur’s 90-mile dramatic ribbon of road snakes between the Santa Lucia Mountains and steep ocean cliffs framing frothy Pacific waters. Arrange an Aston Martin Vantage, Audi R8, or Bentley Continental to hug the curves in style. Stops might include a private four-hour tour of the 165-room Hearst Castle and its two spectacular pools and 127 acres of lush gardens.
Travelers can sleep in idyllic, remote coastline suites along the way. At Alila Ventana Big Sur, guests stay in safari-style glamping spots, or a rustic suite equipped with an oversized hammock and wood-burning fireplace. A must is savoring a three-hour prix-fixe menu in the hotel’s Glass House, perched at the ocean’s edge.
“Enjoy dramatic views from the Post Ranch Inn bungalows or hike on local trails with beautiful views,” Cadar recommends, referring to the iconic Big Sur resort with rooms boasting a range of panoramas: Ocean, forest, and mountain. Watching the sun melt into the sea from the Inn’s Cliff House right from a glass-walled bedroom or sleeping in a grown-up treehouse with a skylight for stargazing are unforgettable moments. Plus, daily activities include guided nature walks and garden tours, after which guests can slip into the infinity pool.
For the gourmand
The San Francisco region’s reputation for award-winning dining and wines is well earned. No fewer than 28 starred Michelin restaurants light up San Francisco alone—the most of any California region. The stars recognize the Bay Area’s bounty of seafood and seasonal, farm-grown produce in dishes influenced by international communities. Culinary finds include steakhouses, contemporary, “Californian,” French, Italian, and Chinese options.
At the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a special experience is sleeping at the historic Frank House at Cavallo Point, a two-story residence featuring a glass-enclosed sun porch and sweeping views of the bay. Guests can use Lexus vehicles or vintage electric bikes for day trips.
The Bay Area provides an excellent springboard into wine country. Travelers can try blending their own custom bottle at “winemaker for a day” programs, or enjoy private helicopter, hot-air balloon, and electric bike tours of Napa and Sonoma. Private tours offer concierge service, whisking visitors to world-acclaimed, family-owned estates and tasting rooms to learn about the region’s terroir and wine-making history.
North of San Francisco in the serene and lesser-known wine region of Western Sonoma County, the Farmhouse Inn’s curated artisan and winery partners supply guest experiences. Guests will find a minifridge stocked with local wines in spacious guestrooms, on-property wine tastings featuring winery partners, and six-course farm-fresh menus with wine pairings. Finish the evening with homemade vanilla marshmallows and Valrhona chocolate S’mores or the signature gluten-free Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies at the turndown service. For those who prefer the healing power of water, they can take a dip in the pool that’s open 24 hours or soak in generously sized in-room tubs, complete with a selection of artisanal soaps and salts.
For the golfer
Active types will want to hit the links at Ritz-Carlton Halfmoon Bay, where championship 18-hole courses beckon. “You’re right on the cliff overlooking the Pacific,” Cadar says. The hotel’s beloved outdoor firepits are bluff-side and ideal for a nightcap at sunset (serenaded by a bagpiper, naturally) after you’ve completed the Arnold Palmer-designed Old Course or the Scottish links-style Ocean Course.
Or golf enthusiasts can book tee time at the 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch to revel in one of Carmel Valley’s 300 days of sun. The ranch features a Pete Dye-designed golf course amid ponds, vineyards, lavender fields, and old-growth oak groves. After the game, players relax in the clubhouse or suites with private outdoor decks and cozy bedroom fireplaces.
Travel deeper in Southern California
Tailored tours of Los Angeles provide pick up guests at their hotel in a vehicle that suits them, whether classic convertible or limo. Visitor interests guide the driver—from an eclectic circuit of art galleries and museums to gourmet hotspots and boutique shopping. Destinations such as Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive or sights like the Hollywood sign are frequent requests, Cadar says.
Those with tots, or simply the young at heart, will enjoy a backstage pass with priority access to Disneyland or insider tours of studio lots. Specialists like Cadar set up Southern California visitors with tours highlighting the latest and best restaurants along Abbot Kinney and unusual art-focused opportunities such as the Getty Villa’s Greek and Roman art.
In Southern California’s oceanside towns, year-round sunshine provides the perfect backdrop for viewing the palm-dotted coastline from a new perspective. Day trippers can depart by catamaran, sailboat, or classic yacht by private charter to sunbathe, spot whales, or dine on cheese and wine at sunset.
Numerous stays near L.A. provide respite from the big city. The Resort at Pelican Hill’s spacious, three- and four-bedroom Italianate villas, are tucked away within 504 acres near Newport Beach. The property also boasts oceanside views and poolside cabanas doubling as private lounges. About 60 miles south of L.A. at Dana Point, the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club’s top-floor penthouse suites perch on a 150-foot seaside bluff. The dreamy accommodations include 3,100 square feet of living space, Pacific Ocean views, and access to a private beach club with towel and chair service.
For a restorative journey
Combine California’s well-renowned approach to wellness with an oceanside retreat at the five-star Park Hyatt Aviara Golf Club and Spa in San Diego. All-inclusive health packages range from one night to four weeks, and featuring power hikes, group fitness classes, wellness workshops, and individualized nutritional and body composition consultations. Guests can also rejuvenate and rebalance with daily yoga, personal spa time, and three organic farm-to-table meals.
You can also create your own winter package with at the ski-in, ski-out Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, at Northstar California resort. Reserve alpine and cross-country skiing or full-moon snowshoe hiking. Travelers will enjoy warming up with après-ski, a 17,000-square-foot spa, and a heated outdoor lap pool before retreating to their home away from home in a handsome two-, three- or four-bedroom residential suite with gourmet kitchen.
If desert play is more what you’re after, try Coachella Valley tennis, petanque, croquet, or golf at the five-star Parker Palm Springs. Guests can also head for the hotel’s Yacht Club spa for half-day and day-long experiences that massage, polish, and moisturize. The “Shipwrecked” strands travelers with a full day of service, starting with a thimble-sized shot of cucumber-infused vodka, chased by a mimosa and breakfast. Then recipients settle in for a tailored massage, hydrating facial, and choice of scrub, wrap, pedicure, or manicure.
When to go
Timing a vacation also depends on personal preferences, but off- and shoulder-season stays offer new opportunities. Pleasant temperatures infuse spring and fall in Sonoma County’s wine country, and San Francisco shines during those seasons too. Southern California’s winter boasts warm sun, low crowds, and minus tides for solo beach walks, when vibrant Palm Springs’s fun atmosphere warms up as well.
Booking earlier is always better, Cadar says—particularly around Christmas and during awards season near L.A. And weekend reservations, especially close to urban areas, fill up even in winter. “If there’s a buzz around a hotel, everyone wants to go,” Cadar says. Put simply, with so much on offer in the Golden State, advance planning and planning well goes a long way.