You’re not only on vacation but the slow approach, along the coast-hugging Pacific Highway 1, is one of the planet’s most superb scenic drives, culminating in the dramatic cliffs and rocky shores of the Big Sur.
There’s so much to do! Highlights include taking the ferry to Sausalito across the Bay and returning to the city by open topped bus across the Golden Gate Bridge, the prison island of Alcatraz where Al Capone was in residence, riding the cable car up to Nob Hill, exploring the arty, foodie, boutiquey Hayes Valley neighbourhood and visiting the California Academy of Sciences.
You should also plan on eating out in two distinctly different neighbourhoods, Chinatown (the biggest outside Asia) and the distinctly Italian North Beach (where you should also browse in the City Lights bookstore, cultural crucible of the Beat poets).
Stay: 3 nights at the Palace Hotel
Most famously the location for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Monterey also boasts one of the best aquariums in the world. We’d also recommend a detour to neighbouring Carmel, a remarkably pretty coastal town with a stock of antique shops and galleries, a historic Mission and a delightful white sand beach, before following the 17 mile scenic drive between Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. Whale watching and sea kayaking trips are also available.
Stay: 2 nights at Monterey Plaza Hotel
Soon after leaving Monterey you’ll be driving the super-scenic Big Sur coast, 75 snaking miles that weave, duck and dive between the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest and the ocean swells and surf, spectacular coves, beaches and promontories. You should allow time for a guided tour of Hearst Castle, the sumptuous hilltop retreat of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. This Disney-esque palace, which is filled with his personal collection of priceless treasures, manages to reduce the average UK stately pile to the grandeur of a suburban semi.
Known as the ‘American Riviera’, this delightful, elegant, curiously south-facing seaside town has the feel of the Mediterranean, complete with lots of white stucco and terracotta roof tiles, with excellent shops, restaurants, a vast sweep of beach backed by a palm lined prom. Visit the old Mission church, and walk along the wooden pier where you can lunch on lobster rolls and locally brewed beers. Michael Douglas has a house here, as does Oprah Winfrey. ‘If everyone knew what we had out here’, a local waiter told me, ‘we’d be stampeded’.
Stay: 2 nights at Santa Barbara Bacara Resort
The seaside ‘west wing’ of Los Angeles feels more like a stand-alone resort than part of the general urban sprawl. It’s got a historic pier, great shops along the 3rd Street Promenade, a beach and a prom where you can walk, bike or roller skate the mile or so to the funky, much more ‘alternative’ Venice, home to the bionic bodied weight lifters on Muscle Beach.
If you do get tired of being on the coast it’s easy to venture into other LA neighbourhoods.
Stay: 3 nights at Le Meridian Delfina Santa Monica
10 – Fly home