Los Angeles to San Francisco
Rob Bleaney takes the first part of a road trip of a lifetime
�It may seem a bit backward to start a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by heading south, but when that detour takes you to the magical coastal city of Newport Beach, it’s a ‘no brainer’ as the Americans would say.
The US’s answer to Venice was featured in hit teen drama The OC, and is the prefect example of the famous Southern Californian ‘Good Life’.
The harbour is home to seven residential islands where homes on the water go for $5million minimum, but somehow it’s still remarkably casual.
The beaches, the sunsets and the shopping are huge draws, buts it’s the harbour that makes it so unique.
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Base yourself at the stylish Fairmont Newport Beach, with its lazy pool deck and high class Bambu restaurant, take a guided duffy boat tour past the former homes of John Wayne, Nicolas Cage and Shirley Temple with the knowledgeable Newport At Your Feet company, then ‘dock and dine’ at the lively yet sophisticated Cannery Restaurant and you will wonder why you ever set up home anywhere else.
Next up for us was Santa Monica, a laidback suburb many people say is the only good thing about LA. That may be a little harsh on LA, but Santa Monica was recently named in National Geographic’s Top Ten Beach Cities in the World, alongside Rio, Barcelona, Cape Town and Sydney.
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Not only is it completely walkable, a rarity in America, it also boasts glorious sandy beaches and a pier with the world’s only solar powered ferris wheel. Third Street promenade is famous for its shopping, movie theatres, and live street entertainers, and a 35km cycle path offers a great link to the other beachside suburbs, such as neighbouring Venice Beach, where semi-naked snake charmers and muscle-bound roller blading pensioners make for great people watching.
Santa Monica’s most famous residence is the sumptuous Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows, an exclusive playground for celebrity guests since as far back as the Roaring Twenties. Greta Garbo was one of the first of Hollywood’s fabled movie colony to make the Miramar her temporary home, and later Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Carey Grant all became familiar faces. A majestic 123-year-old fig tree dominates the beautiful grounds, and the FIG restaurant serves up some of the finest salads you could wish for, using ingredients from the wonderful local farmers’ market.
An hour and a half north is Santa Barbara, known as the American Riviera, and which recently welcomed Wills and Kate. The city was rebuilt in Mediterranean style after a huge earthquake in 1925, with white stucco buildings, red tiled roofs and palm trees, and its downtown oozes sophistication. It’s full of surprises too. We visited during the Summer Solstice Festival, when thousands of locals parade through the streets in a kind of mini Notting Hill Carnival for left leaning Californian hippies.
The best place to soak up the city is from the stunning Canary Hotel, with its exquisitely decorated rooms, magnificent dark wood bar and fantastic Coast restaurant. As you sit in the hotel’s rooftop pool with the picturesque Santa Yenez mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, its easy to understand why the locals are so smug.
Another 90 minutes driving up the coast is quaint little Avila Beach, a seaside village American style. Kids as young as five take part in lifeguard summer camps in their Baywatch red swimwear, boogie boards can be rented for $2 and live country music booms out from the beach bars.
It’s about as laid back as it gets in America, and the hotels join in the fun too. The brilliantly quirky Avila La Fonda welcomes guests with a huge stash of free sweets, cookies, and drinks, and there are free laptops to use, free wine tastings every night and even a chocolate pantry where you can help yourself. If Willy Wonka did hotels this would be it.
Real wine enthusiasts head 15 minutes inland to the picturesque college town of San Luis Obispo. Located at the base of the Santa Lucia foothills this is the gateway to the Edna valley wineries, known for their crisp chardonnays. We based ourselves at the peaceful Apple Yard Inn on the edge of this suprisingly bustling town, and the sounds of birds, frogs and running water in the creek outside the rooms, with the added bonus of hot and cold cider on tap, provided a perfect snapshop of SLO town life.
The 125 mile drive from SLO to Carmel takes in the legendary stretch of coastline that has made Highway 1 so famous. It’s insanely winding at times, but the picture postcard views of spectacular cliffs and crashing ocean waves around every corner are stunning.
There is also the maginificent Mediterannean-style mansion that is Hearst Castle to visit, a colony of roaring elephant seals to see at Piedras Blancas, and the mesmerising Big Sur. This area is a rugged combination of towering trees, craggy coastline and complete lack of commercialisation, with no banks or traffic lights.
Another half day’s driving north is the beautiful madness that is San Francisco. This most entertaining of cities may be home to some of the steepest hills known to man, but the best way to see it all is by bicycle. From touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, you can cycle along the waterfront, taking in stunning views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge as you go.
Next up is Golden Gate Park, its seven and a half miles of bike trails revealing abundant plant and wildlife. And then you hit Haight Ashbury, the hedonistic home of 1960s rebellion and free love. Today it is packed full of vintage clothes stores and tattoo parlours, but it is still home to the best sandwiches in town, quite a feat in a city with one restaurant for every 30 people.
Splash out on a couple of nights at the historic Fairmont Hotel, which was one of the only buildings to survive the devastasting earthquake of 1906 and has since hosted preformances from BB King and James Brown among others, and wander down the hill to enjoy some of the best seafood, Vietnamese, and organic eateries in North America.
Most people end their road trip at San Francisco, but to do so is to miss out on the delights of Californian wine country. Just an hour north of San Francisco, is Sonoma Valley. This is the lesser known cousin of bigger, brasher, Napa Valley, but the chardonnays and pinot noirs are just as good.
Sonoma boasts California’s largest town square, and there are 260 wineries in the county, many of which are happy to show you around, explain their history and let you sample the goods. For a place to stay you can’t beat the El Dorado Hotel right on the plaza.
For our final night, we headed back to the Bay Area and stayed at the Sofitel San Francisco. Its location close to the airport, beautiful pool and happening cocktail bar make it a fantastic last day. Our ninth floor suite had amazing panoramic views and made waving goodbye to California that little bit harder.
> Fairmont Newport Beach
> Rooms from $139 per night
> Fairmont Miramar & Bungalows, Santa Monica
> Rooms from $309
> Canary Hotel Santa Barbara
> Rooms from $275
> www.canarysantabarbara.com >
> > Avila La Fonda Hotel, Avila Beach
> > Rooms from $199
> > www.avilalafonda.com
> > Apple Farm Inn, San Luis Obispo
> > Rooms from $129
> > www.applefarm.com
> > Fairmont San Francisco
> > Rooms from $279
> > www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco
> > El Dorado Hotel, Sonoma
> > Rooms from $165
> > www.eldoradosonoma.com
> > Sofitel San Francisco Bay
> > Rooms from $170
> > www.sofitel.com/sanfrancisco