Luxury Escapes Guide to California

California’s famous coastlines and star-studded cities are just the beginning of the Golden State’s boundless wonders.

Coast-hugging highways and treasured national parks are the sets on which this scene is set; with delicious food and wine, emerging cultural attractions and a thriving entertainment industry each taking their turn on centre stage.

California and sunshine seem to go hand in hand, but beyond the dazzling rays, beach days and balmy nights, but there’s so much more to explore.

Award-winning vineyards thrive in the north, spanning from the mountainous valleys of Napa Valley to heritage-rich wineries in Sonoma. Lake Tahoe’s ski slopes glisten under winter sun, having previously hosted Olympic championships. Roadtrippers saunter across the gilded coast from San Francisco to Big Sur and wildlife forage among towering trees in Yosemite, existing in harmony with the red-tailed hawks soaring above.

With more Michelin stars than any other state in the country, its star-studded reputation extends to more than just Hollywood. The internationally inspired dining culture has melted into the signature Californian Cuisine, driven by a farm-to-table ethos that’s guided by sustainable and seasonal ingredients. Whether you prefer a gourmet oeufs brouilles seated at a fine dining table, or an all-American diner scramble, California’s sliding scale of delicious local eateries promise to be served sunny side up.

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California Escapes

Things to see and do

Discover Yosemite's ancient terrain

Conservation efforts for Yosemite started in 1864, making this national park a landmark reminder of the striking persistence of nature’s course over time, with over 400 species of wildlife and 1,200 square miles of ancient terrain. Visitors can spend days in the lush expanse, discovering gushing waterfalls, steep valleys, snowy blankets over mountain peaks and illustrious wildlife prepping for hibernation. Endeavor to explore it all on either a summer open-air tram tour, or under the shelter of a cosy bus during the snowy months.

Connect with your inner child on Santa Monica Pier

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, you know where you are when you see the iconic Pacific Park Ferris Wheel and Santa Monica Pier jutting into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Santa Monica Pier has grown into a beachside entertainment hotspot for locals and tourists alike. Travel back to carnivals-past with a ride on the vintage carousel, gaze over the Pacific Ocean from the top of the world’s only solar-powered Ferris Wheel or slurp on a milkshake while watching the street performers jam out on this bustling foreshore.

Take a moment for you on Big Sur

From fanciful spa retreats to rustic campgrounds, gourmet restaurants to laidback eats, there’s something for all appetites along the 90-mile coast of Big Sur. Take a drive up to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see the mesmerising McWay Falls, meander along the winding Pacific Coast Highway and hop from beach to mountain, scenic lookout to picturesque vista. With an excess of stunning views across the area, dining with a view couldn’t be easier – find a table on the terrace of Nepenthe and order an Ambrosia Burger while lapping up Big Sur’s idyllic scenery.

Meet the ocean's friendly giants

From mid-June to September, an influx of krill hits the coast of San Diego, luring the world’s largest pod of blue whales to the city’s waters. As blue whales tend to reside further away, boat trips are available across the city to venture closer to these gentle giants. From mid-December to April, over 20,000 gray whales make the 10,000-mile trek from Alaska to California, nearing close enough to shore that lucky visitors can spot their waterspouts from land. With San Diego shores covering 70 miles of the gray whales’ migratory path, there are few better places in the world to watch these powerful mammals.

Embrace the American west in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park and its surrounds offer days of exploration, from weaving trails through ancient boulder formations to towns frozen in time. Embrace the American west with a stay at the Pioneertown Motel and spend long days exploring the stunning desert expanse. Saunter across the road from the motel and listen to honky-tonk tunes on the intimate stage of Poppy & Harriet’s, come-face-to-face with prickly plants at the Cholla Cactus Garden and marvel at the sunset over Coachella Valley in Key’s View while on your cowboy-esque adventure through the Californian desert.

Hit the green

California is the home ground of 18 major-league sports teams, playing in some of the best stadiums in the country. It also happens to be the proud birthplace of more baseball players than any other state, making sports a cornerstone of California’s culture. The flourishing competitive scene even goes beyond mainstream sports, with an action-packed line-up that spans surfing – the state’s official sport – to beach volleyball, skiing and snowboarding and more. With California’s year-round sunshine, there’s always a perfect spot to view the game from the bleachers, but for those looking to escape the heat, a courtside seat at an LA Lakers or Golden State Warriors game never goes amiss.

Visit the home of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly

A mile off the banks of San Francisco, accessible by a short ferry ride, is a small island that was once a maximum-security prison once home to the likes of Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ Barnes. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was built on a century-old fort island, utilised for its seemingly escape-proof conditions surrounded by ruthless waters (not that it stopped three cunning criminals!). Nowadays, visitors can tour the storied walls and learn about its many years as the world’s toughest prison, its enigmatic inhabitants and its origins as a civil war fort and military prison.

Make a stop at the happiest place on Earth

No trip to California would be complete without a visit to the happiest place on Earth. Celebrating its centenary in 2023, Disney has spread magic across generations – from fairytale princesses to a universe of superheroes, there is an attraction for Disney-lovers of all ages. Spectacles come in spades: from the unmistakable Sleeping Beauty Castle rising above Main Street, to the interactive Guardians of the Galaxy adventures and the new Micky & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Over 90 themed eateries and hundreds of food carts serve delicacies such as Mickey-shaped pretzels, space-inspired fare, fried chicken, turkey legs, bao buns, as well as sweet treats only Disney could conjure. With over 50 attractions, you may need to block out multiple days in your trip to see it all or stay at any of the three Disney hotels to experience extra-special perks and make the most of the magical land.

Embark on water-filled adventures

Best suited to animal lovers and keen scuba divers, La Jolla Cove is a safe sanctuary for its prized marine life, including the majestic sea lions that lounge across the stunning La Jolla shoreline. As the gateway to the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, a 6000-acre protected marine reserve, it’s the perfect spot to swim, kayak, paddleboard, snorkel and scuba dive passing kelp forests, schools of vivid fish, turtles, squid and native Californian sea life. A leave-no-trace ethos is the backbone here, with so many diverse creatures to protect and observe from afar, so it is best to leave those shells on the sand.

Step into Lake Tahoe's winter wonderland

The best slopes in Lake Tahoe are under the exclusive territory of six renowned ski resorts, each with a time-honored reputation for lingering powder snow, long, steep trails and infamous experts-only chutes. Step into a winter wonderland at the European-inspired village of Palisades Tahoe – home to the 1960 Winter Olympics – or make the decision to ski across state lines at Heavenly Mountain, with 4,800 skiable acres across California and Nevada. If you are visiting as a beginner, sign up for a ski school or practice on Kirkwood’s learning terrain before hitting the slopes with the locals.

Top places to eat and drink

Mel’s Drive-in

An essential stop on an all-American road trip is the iconic Mel’s Drive-in diner, a 1950s burger and milkshake spot as American as apple pie. Whirling with the nostalgic ambiance of neon signage and jukeboxes, Mel’s was reopened with all its original charm by her son in 1985 and was such a success that the roadside restauranteur opened more locations across San Francisco and Los Angeles. Tuck into quintessential American favourites, such as short stack pancakes and patty melt burgers, sweet delights and homemade pies, while embracing Mel’s retro atmosphere.

Chateau Marmont

West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont has become a firm favourite of Tinseltown’s rich and famous since its 1927 opening, with Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Mick Jagger, Kate Moss, Beyonce and David Bowie all calling it home, if only for a night. If you are so lucky to score a reservation, the outside courtyard is an idyllic host for an evening of martinis and truffle fries, but the equally awe-inspiring interior makes for a dramatic dinner or lunch, with wrought-iron chandeliers and dramatic Gothic windows. As you rub shoulders with the who’s who of Hollywood, expect impeccable service and curated cocktails, made by expert mixologists.

Take a walking food tour through San Francisco

Explore the mouthwatering palette of San Franciscan cuisine with the guidance of a true local. Journey through intricately designed temples in North America’s oldest Chinatown, savouring moon cakes from time-honoured bakeries, seal your fate at a fortune cookie factory or wave to shop owners as your guide introduces you to the city’s hidden culinary gems. If a wood-fired pizza is more your style, choose an in-depth tour of Little Italy in North Beach and discover family-owned deli’s and true Italian espresso as you learn about the area’s illustrious Beatnik history. Or, venture off on your own and dine through the Mission Districts fiery Latin cuisine or take a self-guided vegetarian jaunt around Union Square.

In-N-Out burger

A Californian staple, this decidedly regional fast-food chain has carved out a reputation for consistently delicious burgers and fries, made using recipes that remain as delicious as the day they were concocted. Each location is fronted by two lush palm trees and is reminiscent of a retro diner, an ode to its establishment in 1948 as the country’s first drive-thru hamburger stand. For your first visit, order some of their secret menu items, including a juicy 3x3 Burger, well-done fries and a root beer float for a heart-stopping introduction to American fare.

Catch LA

Catch LA is the electric offshoot of the Catch Group’s signature restaurants, dishing up succulent seafood and steak from its open-air perch above the design district of West Hollywood. This high-energy restaurant is known for thumping music and astonishingly friendly service, with an open kitchen giving you a front-row seat to all the culinary action. We recommend ordering the signature ceviche or lobster mac and cheese alongside a Meatpacking Manhattan or Salt-N-Pepa cocktail.

Chez Panisse

Berkeley’s Chez Panisse is a 50-year-old institution known for pioneering farm-to-table dining in the late 70s, forming the foundation of the now-coveted Californian Cuisine. Restauranteur and food activist Alice Waters opened the now-iconic restaurant in 1971, recognising a need to use fresh and in-season ingredients, grown locally, sustainably and organically. This ethos continues today, with a nightly-changing set menu that champions eclectic seasonal ingredients in hearty French dishes. A café upstairs offers a variety of Mediterranean-inspired dishes across an a la carte menu.

Oga’s Cantina, Disneyland

Oga’s Cantina is the first bar to serve alcohol at Disneyland since its opening back in 1955, making it a worthwhile stop for a Star Wars-themed pick-me-up while exploring Disneyland Park. Guests are encouraged to book in advance to secure a seat, but once in, expect a jovial menu of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, ranging from the fruity Jedi Mind Trick to a sampling board of otherworldly beers. It wouldn’t be a Disneyworld venue without something for the kids – little ones will love a Jabba Juice or Hyperdrive mocktail.

Big Sur bakery

Once only stumbled upon by hungry road trippers or locals looking for a delicious brew, the Big Sur Bakery has carved out its spot on all Big Sur itineraries. Parked along Highway 1 in an intimate 1930s ranch-style house, the bakery and restaurant offer brunch favourites, like nine-grain pancakes and barista-made coffee, most mornings, along with freshly baked pastries from the bakery. Come evening, find dishes inspired by the local harvest, served with a compact selection of wines.

Rosenthal Wine Bar & Patio

Taste the very best of Californian wines at Rosenthal Wine Bar & Patio, the only tasting room on the Pacific Coast Highway. Sip on a selection of Rosenthal and Surfrider wines as you gaze over the Pacific Ocean from the beachfront garden patio, snacking on a BYO picnic or something from the onsite food truck. With live music on the weekends, you’ll find something new to eat, drink and enjoy every time you visit.

Lux moments

Experience the ultimate shopping destination

Union Square is San Francisco’s buzzing commercial centre, with a wealth of high-end shopping and upscale eateries to fuel a full day of retail therapy. Embrace a European-inspired luxury shopping experience while walking down the narrow alley of Maiden Lane, stopping to browse at Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, or shop until you drop at Westfield San Francisco Centre. Plan a Sunday visit to start your day of indulgence with a champagne brunch at the stunningly lavish Garden Court Restaurant, a 130-year-old landmark.

Slow down at the spa

Take a slower approach to Californian living with a wellness retreat that will have you forgetting the concept of time. Housed within a five-star resort hidden within the enclaves of Rancho Santa Fe, The Spa at Rancho Valencia boasts a subdued opulence with Moroccan-inspired interiors and lush garden setting. Stretch your muscles amongst lush olive groves, or celebrate the healing properties of natural herbs, oils and minerals with signature facial and body treatments. The spa also offers enriching wellness therapies to rejuvenate the mind and body, including reflexology and aromatherapy.

Drive the coast in style

Drive back in time to a bygone era of pastel-painted drop-top cars whizzing along the California coast with nothing but Coca-Cola and a beach towel with a classic car rental. Hire a 1957 Ford Thunderbird or Chevrolet Belair from One Stop Classics California and hug the Golden State shoreline up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles. If you don’t plan to drive during your stay, there are plenty of classic car shows, meetups and festivities to get your classic-car fix.

Savour a Michelin-star dining experience

The first three-star Michelin restaurant in San Diego, Chef William Bradley’s restaurant, Addison, celebrates all things Californian, from the first sumptuous bite of their immaculate degustation menu down to a thoughtfully curated wine pairing selected from their own boutique collection. At Addison, the southern Californian-influenced seasonal menu champions regional ingredients over nine tantilising courses, served against the romantic backdrop of the Fairmont Grand Del Mar hotel. Dine under elegant archways and take in the characteristic Sunshine State warmth from their al fresco dining area during this bucket-list gastronomic experience.