Bixby Bridge on highway 1
Before setting off for California, I downloaded a holiday soundtrack, including Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, only for us to touch down 11 hours later and drive past the actual dock in San Francisco that he sings about. Everything I knew about California from music, films and even my guidebook was that it was cool – California Cool. With its dramatic coastlines, mountain trails and famous winding roads, it is also the perfect location for a road trip full of outdoor adventures.
The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset
Our first stop was Cavallo Point Lodge, a former US army post. Our spacious suite had sleek wood interiors and an impressive view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the twinkling lights of San Francisco in the background. After a fresh sunrise walk across the iconic bridge and many photo stops later, we met Wez, our enthusiastic food tour guide from Wild SF Walking Tours. We enjoyed brioche paninis, vegan tacos, stone-baked pizza and salted caramel ice cream while walking around the city, looking at famous street art murals and feeling like locals. Afterwards, we got back on the road for our next adventure.
Kayaying around Tomales Bay, California
When we arrived at the atmospheric Nick’s Cove, just an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, our private cottage was waiting. It had a wonderful romantic charm with old-school rustic décor, a wood burner and the most serene views of the bay. Keen to explore, we set off to see Tomales Bay by kayak. After getting slightly distracted by the sight of a dog in a life jacket, we paddled out on the still waters. When a few of the local seals bobbed up beside our kayaks, our instructor told us we were crossing the San Andreas Fault. After spotting elk, starfish, and a whole host of noisy local birds, such as surf scoters, as they skimmed the waters, we had a spot of lunch at the Hog Island Oyster Co. As you can imagine, oysters were the main event with several different types that could be enjoyed barbecued, raw, or with delicious sauces. Apparently, celebrity chef Rick Stein is a big fan of the place, too.
We stopped off in the beautiful unspoilt Marin County, where we tasted delicious sparkling mead at the Heidrun Meadery, and then we ventured on to Stinson Beach, the most incredible stretch of sand, without a soul in sight. We strolled along the water’s edge watching the surfers ride the waves and the horse riders disappear into the sunset.
View from our room at Carmel Valley Ranch
A drive south took us to the next point on our itinerary – Carmel-by-the-Sea, in the county of Monterey. Our home for the night was Carmel Valley Ranch set in a river valley of 500 acres next to the Santa Lucia Range. We headed straight to the hotel’s infinity pool for a relaxing soak before a fantastic dinner in the ranch’s restaurant. Our tasting menu was delicious; dishes were made from produce gown on the ranch and paired with the finest wines. We had a peaceful night’s sleep in our luxurious room and awoke to panoramic views of the vineyards and valley. Then we fuelled up on more incredible food, including cinnamon honey French toast, buttermilk pancakes, and spinach and goat’s cheese frittatas. The ranch is also home to 700,000 bees and once we were suited up, we saw where the honey we had for breakfast was made! Other fun activities included wine tasting in the on-site vineyards, and archery.
Carmel-by-the-sea has a lovely, charming feel with fairy-tale-style cottages and, just off the main street, lots of independent bars, restaurants and boutiques. You can walk to the beach for more surf spotting and we were lucky enough to see dolphins also enjoying the waves.
Our glamping spot amongst the redwoods at Venana Big Sur
We started with an awesome drive south along the coast on California State Route 1 as we headed to our final destination: Big Sur. This place is truly magical. The sky, the mountains and the sea all create a breathtaking landscape.
Home for the night was Ventana Big Sur, An Alila Resort – but not in the main hotel. It has the most amazing glamping spot nestled among hundreds of towering redwood trees. With the sweet smell of the pines and relaxing sounds of the stream trickling down the valley, it doesn’t get any more idyllic. The safari-style tents have huge beds with heated blankets, a gas fire and even plug sockets. There is also a luxurious bathhouse a short walk away.
The surrounding redwood forest is the perfect place to hike. Guided by resident naturalist Jamie, we made our way up the steep ascent, through the canyon of redwoods as natural springs flowed down the hillside. We spotted acorn woodpeckers, butterflies and eagles in the skies above. The different smells were incredible too; particularly the Jeffrey pine that smelled like butterscotch!
After a delicious lunch at Nepenthe and a visit to the beautifully colourful Hawthorne Gallery, full of glasswork, paintings and sculptures from local artists, we enjoyed winding round the highway roads. Back at camp, we ended the day toasting our s’mores over the fire snuggled in blankets; and when the fire died down, the stars were the only lights in the valley.
Our ultra modern room at Ventana, An Alila Resort
For our final night, we checked into Ventana Big Sur’s main hotel. The Pacific House Room was vast and instantly calming, with textures of wood and stone throughout the open space, and modern-style décor, such as driftwood lights and Aztec cushions. Outside was a private terrace and hot tub where you can completely relax with the local wildlife as your only neighbours.
Luxurious bathing is taken to another level at Ventana Big Sur, with an amazing infinity hot tub that overlooks the towering redwood forest, as well as two swimming pools with coastal views. For an even more relaxing and immersive dip, there’s the hotel’s Japanese bath house – the perfect spot for a romantic evening under the stars.
On our last evening, with a glass of wine in hand and a tray of desserts, we took in the view; towering mountains behind us and the serene coastline below, we felt as though we had found the most beautiful secret place on earth. Just as the sun was about to disappear, we saw a glimpse of two grey whales as they swam off into the distance. Does it get any more magical than this?
Our trip was organised by Visit California, visitcalifornia.co.uk. Flights from £405pp, virginatlantic.com. Book in advance for entry into an airport lounge from £32, no1lounges.com. Accommodation at Nick’s Cove from $299 (approx. £232) per night, nickscove.com. Stay at Cavallo Point Lodge from $574 (approx. £446) in a Historic Room or $608 (approx. £472) for a Contemporary King Suite, cavallopoint.com. Rooms at Carmel Valley Ranch from $350 (approx. £272), carmelvalleyranch.com. Stay at Ventana Big Sur, An Alila Resort from $675 (approx. £524) for a Big Sur Suite and $325 (approx. £252) for glamping, plus a $100 (approx. £78) resort fee, ventanabigsur.com.