Hayley Bloomingdale, a California native, shares her top tips – where to stay, what to see, eat and do – for the ultimate Californian road trip, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, by way of Napa, Big Sur and Santa Barbara.
Since I moved to London two years ago, conversations with Brits have gone much the same way. I will say that I am originally from California and they will ask, “why on Earth would you leave there?!”; then they proceed to tell me how they are dying to do a California road trip, as soon as the new job/baby/spouse/cat settles down. But the romantic fascination with driving a convertible along the Pacific Coast Highway isn’t unique to the British; it has a spot on everyone’s travel bucket list.
I was born in Los Angeles but went to boarding school up the coast in Monterey – a lovely city for the newly-wed and nearly-dead, but not the most exciting place for a teenager. Being driven to school and back by my parents should have made me an expert on that classic coastal journey, but in truth I was only ever in one of two moods: surly and cantankerous in September before school started, and ecstatic with freedom come June. It took leaving the golden state for me to fully appreciate the magic of this unique stretch of coastline.
Years spent trudging the mean streets and meaner winters of Manhattan certainly had me missing the sunny shores of my home state, but it wasn’t until I moved to London and was asked so frequently about The California Road Trip that I decided to revisit it. My fiancé, Alexander, is British and had never seen California beyond Disneyland at age six, so he would provide the perfect companion. We rented a convertible – hackneyed, but essential for the full experience – and set off.
Below are the stops that should be on your trip; depending on how many days you have, you can add or subtract stops along the way. As this is your bucket-list guide, we’ve upped the ante on the luxury stays, but there are plenty of budget-friendly options in every city.
The city by the bay is the most convenient place to start or end your trip, depending on which way you’re driving the coast. The most metropolitan city in California, there is a lot to see and do here, so if you’ve never been before, I’d allow at least two days, especially if California
cuisine is high on your to-do list. Although most of the road trip should have you basking in glorious sunshine, San Francisco is the one place you should be prepared for a bit of fog. Mark Twain famously said that the “coldest winter I’ve ever had was a summer in San Francisco,” so keep that thought in mind when preparing for this part of your trip.
STAY: Check in to Inn at the Presidio for a quintessential B&B right in the centre of the Presidio neighbourhood, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
EAT: The Slanted Door has been a San Fran institution since 1995, but if you haven’t booked that already then Out The Door offers the same delicious Vietnamese fare to-go. Spruce was our favourite for a romantic date night; order the burger and maybe some fried chicken and a delicious California red, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Also pop over to Mission Street to La Taqueria for a burrito; eat it in foil while you stroll around the neighbourhood, taking in the uber-cool street art.
DO: Meander along Fisherman’s Wharf, take a boat out to Alcatraz, walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, ride a cable car, picnic in the Presidio, do some retail therapy on Fillmore Street; there’s a lot to do in this city!
DRIVE: About 90 minutes north to Napa Valley. Don’t forget to stop for an obligatory pic at the Golden Gate Bridge on your way up north: Instagram gold!
One could spend weeks eating and drinking in this idyllic landscape, but for a California trip I’d say you need at least 36 hours here and more if you’re into your wine. Don’t think that only connoisseurs can enjoy this region; I consider myself a “wine person” in that I am more interested in the drinking of wine than the making of it,
and I fit right in with the Napa squad.
STAY: Auberge du Soleil was our destination for this part of the trip; a splurge totally worth it for the sumptuous spa, impeccable service and views of the valley that will have you constantly reaching for your iPhone to snap a pic. For slightly more budget-friendly option, try the Carneros Resort and Spa.
EAT: Where to start? You really can’t go wrong in Napa in terms of food, but I’d say Gott’s Roadside is a definite must. A roadside diner opened by the Gott brothers in 1999, this institution consistently has lines of hungry people snaking its way into the parking lot. Trust me, the queue is worth it. By the time we had reached the front, our stomachs had taken over the ordering and we walked away with fish tacos, a hot dog, a classic Gott’s burger, two orders of french fries and four glasses of cabernet (planning ahead so we didn’t have to line up again…) If steak is your thing, dinner at Press can’t be missed; my fiancé promptly announced it was the BEST steak he had ever eaten – quite the declaration coming from an esteemed beef buff. Scoring a reservation at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry would alone be worth the trip but his more casual bistro, Ad Hoc, is just as delicious. We were lucky enough to be in Napa on one of the two Mondays per month when they do “Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Night” and let me just say that our next trip will also “conveniently” be on such a Monday…
DO: Rather obvious, but a vineyard (or
four) should make up your Napa days. There are plenty of wine tours you can sign up for that allow you to sample the best of the region – or you can just pick from the labels that you know or want to know more about. Joseph Phelps and The Napa Valley Reserve made our list and both were exceptional experiences. Be sure you have room in your trunk to take a few bottles home! (Full disclosure: our entire Napa trip consisted of eating and drinking, but there are plenty of activities for the non-grape-goers.)
DRIVE: The drive to the next stop is about three hours on a good day, so be sure to stop at Oakville Grocery in St Helena to stock up on provisions for the road – scrumptious sandwiches and salads to take in the car, as well as a host of gourmet goodies from local producers. We spent $30 on specialty honey, which seems absurd, but whenever I dribble a bit of our Sea Salted honey on cheese and crackers or squeeze some Meyer Lemon honey into my tea, I decide that it was worth every cent. Be sure to drive through the cypress trees in Carmel on your way to Big Sur and get out for a stretch and a photo-op on the iconic Bixby Bridge (which you might recognise from the Big Little Lies opening sequence).
STAY: The Post Ranch Inn is one of the coolest hotels in the state. Built into the cliffs of Big Sur, the rooms are fancy “treehouses” with unparalleled views of nothing but ocean. We woke up early and had a sunrise swim in the cliffside pools; the most beautiful start to a day that I can think of! True to Big Sur’s bohemian heritage, the hotel is a little bit “hippy dippy” but in the best way possible: be prepared to see fellow guests walking around in their bathrobes and meditating in the Spirit Nest. You’ll also walk away with your own Post Ranch Inn water bottle and packets of California wildflower seeds to keep the Cali vibes going back home. For a more budget-friendly option, try Glen Oaks Big Sur, same great views seen from a cluster of quaint cabins.
EAT: With the best view in town, there’s really no need to leave the Post Ranch Inn. We had dinner in one of the corner tables of their restaurant, facing the ocean with a glass of crisp white in hand – it was the perfect way to end the day. Be sure to stop at Nepenthe too on your way in or out of town for a burger in an idyllic hideaway.
DO: Get in a few steps before hopping back in the car with a trek around Pfeiffer State Park. DRIVE: There are roughly three or four hours (depending on traffic, bathroom and picture breaks) between Big Sur and Santa Barbara, so cue up the best Spotify mix and put the top down because this is where Highway 1 really shines.
STAY: The brand new Hotel Californian is the hottest boutique spot in Santa Barbara; right in the heart of downtown, you get ocean views with adorable shops and great nightlife all on your doorstep. Belmond El Encanto is another glorious option up on the hill, with endless views of the entire city
EAT: Santa Barbara’s most popular steakhouse, Lucky’s, in Montecito, is an institution for a reason: great food and a glorious wine list, this is the spot to really treat yourself. You can’t leave Santa Barbara without a taco from La Super-Rica Taqueria. Julia Child gave it a glowing review in the ’80s and that should be all you need to know about it. There’s always a line out the door, simply because it offers the tastiest and freshest Mexican food around, most of it for under $4.
DO: Cruise down State Street for uber-cool Santa Barbara vibes; think surfer dudes and dudettes refuelling after a morning shredding sesh. Hop on a bike and feel like a local, pedalling through palm trees down the Cabrillo bike path. Walk over to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for a bit of culture, too; don’t miss the David Alfaro Siqueiros mural at the entrance and the exceptional California-focused art collections within.
DRIVE: LA is about an hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Santa Barbara, but if you have more days to spare, you can always add in a night in Ojai at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, or spend part of the driving day exploring Malibu (home to a new Nobu and Soho House, as well as great restaurants and shops in the Malibu Country Mart).
STAY: I’m partial to the Beverly Hills Hotel, mainly for the Fountain Coffee Room, its 1950s-style diner where everyone sits at the counter and service is first come, first serve. The McCarthy salad from the Polo Lounge is something I dream about and have tried to recreate myself without success. If you’d rather be by the shore, check in at Shutters On The Beach or The Oceana both in Santa Monica and steps from the beach.
EAT: Gjelina in Venice for lunch will be on everyone’s list because it’s simply delicious. In Santa Monica, try Capo for a dinner date, Bay Cities deli for the best sandwiches in town and La Scala Presto on San Vicente for the famous chopped salad (ask any local and I promise they will concur). If sushi is on your nom list, try Nozawa, Sushi Park, Mori Sushi, Sushi Sasabune… the sushi options are endless, and equally delicious.
DO: The Getty Museum is an obvious place to start, but don’t miss the Getty Villa in Malibu. Originally a private museum adjacent to the home of J Paul Getty, it’s home to over 44,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiques – but the villa itself and its sumptuous gardens are the real reason to visit. Stroll the Santa Monica pier and wander through the shops in Venice on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. If you have time, head to the Hollywood Hills to hike in Runyon Canyon and try your hand at nabbing the perfect selfie in front of that famous sign. DRIVE: If this is the end of your trip and LAX is next on the agenda, be sure to build in extra time pre-flight for a stop at In-N-Out Burger for California’s most iconic burger. Order a side of fries and ask for them “animal style”. Just trust me. If you’ve got more Cali days left on your itinerary, head on to further explorations in San Diego, Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park. Depending on how good your Español is, you might even want to keep it going and end up in Mexico!
By Hayley Bloomingdale on 13 June 2018