A tale of two-and-a-half cities: from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Santa Barbara
Since the early 1900s, the great US road trip has been central to the American national psyche. The spread of wide interlinked highways and the increasing affordability of the motor car throughout the century brought the metropolises of the United States within touching distance, enshrining motor holidays as an integral aspect of contemporary Americana.
By the late 1960s, a newly liberated generation hit the roads, setting a course, largely, for the epicentre of free love and social revolution: San Francisco. The city drew in beatniks, hippies, pilgrims and hopefuls, who came in search of a new way of life and determined that if they didn’t find it, they would start one of their own.
Today, despite the fact that there are myriad other ways to get from Point A to Point B, the great Californian road trip endures, but as the state has changed, so has the nature of the road trip around it.
Alongside the traditional roadside motels, a higher-end experience has arisen. To see how the great US road trip looks in 2019, The Week Portfolio hired a car and set off on a journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles with a stop-off along the way in Santa Barbara.
Our journey begins in San Francisco, a city that has, over the decades, lost a touch of its bohemian edge as the dotcom millionaires moved in. But what it has lost in dive bars and counterculture, it has made up for in clubs, top-notch dining and fine art.
Many of the artists and musicians that populated San Francisco from the 1960s onwards have gradually fled their foggy Bay Area sanctuaries for new climes, but the city they left behind is still infused with their creative flair.
We begin our journey by checking in at the St Regis San Francisco, which sits on the doorstep of the SFMOMA, the city’s brilliant modern art museum, stuffed to the gills with contemporary gems, from Frida Kahlo to Jasper Johns and everything in between.
The hotel prides itself on its own artistic credentials and displays an impressive collection of its own, 30% of which is original work by Bay Area artists. A tour of the hotel’s art is available on request.
Rooms are elegantly decorated, and many have a view out across the skyline while still being well insulated from the city sounds below.
The Remede Spa is also an excellent way to see off your jet lag. We take a morning visiting the whirlpools, steam rooms and saunas before we head out for an afternoon of sightseeing.
An eight-minute stroll takes you to Union Square – all high-end boutiques, Swiss watches, gleaming Apple doodads, and gilded handbags. A wallet-lightening circumnavigation of the square later, we are off to the water’s edge to meet the yacht waiting to give us a tour of San Francisco’s famed bay.
Adventure Cat tours offer a day or sunset cruises, which can be taken inexpensively for a modest $45 to $60 (£35 to £46), and takes a jaunt around Alcatraz, before ducking under the Golden Gate Bridge. The company also offers private catamaran charters, for those looking for a more intimate experience.
Dining in San Francisco offers a plethora of high-end options. In fact, Northern California has long been the fine dining capital of the US, in the eyes of the Michelin guide at least, and San Francisco is the jewel in the crown.
Despite taking a hit in the most recent guide, with several of the city’s most famous restaurants dropping a star, no other area of the whole of the US has a greater concentration of three-star restaurants than the Bay Area.
If you will settle for nothing but the best, then take your pick between Atelier Crenn, Benu, the Restaurant at Meadowood, The French Laundry, Single Thread, Quince, and Manresa – all of which have retained their stars.
We take the advice of US food blog Eater and head for Spruce, which offers refined dining in its main room, but also has a less formal experience on offer in its comfortable bar, where the order the burger is said to be a favourite among those in the know. My wife adds taleggio to hers, while I add foie gras to mine. Two luxuriant twists to an American classic, which nicely encapsulate the approach we intend to take when we head out on the highway first thing the next morning.
What to drive
In the past I have succumbed to the lure of the brawny slice of American motoring history that is the classic red convertible Ford Mustang. But the last time I hired one, as I rolled out of the car hire grinning ear to ear, I was immediately stopped by a passing guy in a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt. “Great car,” he said before adding: “Of course, they haven’t made a proper one since the 1960s”.
Perhaps he was right too, technology has moved on, and the world needs to move with it. For your next trip then, why not go for a machine that expresses the automotive future of the United States: a Tesla Model X. Luxurious, high-tech, electric, and very Californian.
We hit the road and set a course for our first stop:
The most direct route is via the 101 but for a more scenic experience, the Pacific Coast Highway is definitely the way to go. Weaving from San Fran to Santa Barbara and beyond, the route will take you past plunging cliffs, oak-covered hills and plenty of tempting pit stops.
First up comes Big Sur, with its distracting ocean views and turquoise waters at every turn. Bixby Creek Bridge follows, one of the most photographed parts of the highway – there isn’t much parking on the north side of the bridge, but you can pull over for a quick photo.
Just before you hit San Simeon, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery makes for a wonderful first stop – a great opportunity to stretch your legs and meet a few elephant seals who lounge here in the sun.
Onward to Morro Bay, where lunch consists of fish and chips and an ice-cream on the pier, where trawlers drop off their catch first thing in the morning.
But the best place to settle for a few nights is Santa Barbara itself, a coastal city with a striking mountain backdrop. Add a touch of luxury, as we do, by checking in to The Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore.
It may not be walking distance to the centre of town, but this is a road trip, after all, and The Biltmore is the perfect place to lay your head in Santa Barbara. A mixture of Spanish Colonial Revival and Moorish architecture, the resort prides itself on being grand in a European way, rather than too quintessentially American. Even so, many details here are decidedly of their place: the swaying palms around the pool, the beachfront casino, the on-site croquet and tennis courts.
Rooms themselves are vast and luxurious, with high-end finishing, and soft welcoming beds. There are also fireplaces in many of the rooms – perfect for chilly winter evenings, though a tad discordant in summer, when sun streams in the windows and the beach beyond beckons.
Lured by the lapping waves, we head out for a walk along the sand, before heading into town to engage in one of the experiences that makes Santa Barbara so very memorable: a tour through its inner-city wine bars
This elevated equivalent of a pub crawl sees visitors making their way bar to bar sampling the best of the local region, which has some truly world-class wineries. We begin our tour at The Valley Project, where you can get a good sense of the depth and breadth of the wine produced here. Across the road, a working winery, founded by Pierre Lafond just after Prohibition in 1962, has a barrel room where you can taste wine and buy bottles.
Casa de la Guerra nearby, was once the home of a Spanish commander but these days is a pastoral tasting room for small-lot Rhones.
Finish the day at Bouchon, whose collection is focused on the best of Santa Barbara.
A short cab ride brings us back to our hotel in time for dinner at the Bella Vista.
True to its name, the indoor-outdoor restaurant looks out to the Pacific Ocean – a glorious view interrupted only by the oil rigs in the distance, which have been contentious since a massive oil spill in 1969, the third largest in US history.
These days, little evidence remains however, after decades of concerted clean-up efforts. Certainly, the restaurant itself is pristine – the perfect place to dine al fresco and take advantage of Santa Barbara’s gloriously mild climate. With more than 300 days of sun per year, on average, you are practically guaranteed the opportunity to sit out and enjoy the sunset.
The food is equally bright, with plenty of seafood and fresh local produce on show. But the Italian-inspired menu somehow fits, despite sitting in this Spanish-inspired resort.
The restaurant reopens early in the morning, with delicious brunch, at a US scale (our avocado toast was so enormous, we couldn’t finish it). A hearty setup for the drive ahead – the remaining coastline from Santa Barbara to:
Los Angeles is a road trip in its own right. Even if you haven’t arrived in LA by car, chances are you will end up spending time on the road just by coming here. The city is a tangle of highways, which link together the many distinct neighbourhoods on offer.
From celeb spotting in Bel Air, to the bohemian cafes of Venice or the small-scale village atmosphere of West Hollywood, the city has plenty of different experiences to explore. But nothing sums up this city of movie glamour and commercial excess quite like Beverly Hills.
As we pull up in the heart of the neighbourhood, we check in to Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel. Perhaps still best known as the setting of 1990s comedy Pretty Woman, the Beverly Wilshire is a cinegenic edifice at the heart of a cinematic city.
If you have ever been to LA, chances are you might have paid a visit to Beverly Hills, but just strolling the streets here can be a dissociative experience. This is the playground of the one per cent, where every other car is a Lamborghini, every other store a designer jewellery boutique, and every mansion competing to be the biggest and the best.
But staying at the Beverley Wilshire allows you a moment of make-believe. Gazing out from the hotel’s balcony over the city below, sunglasses on, wrapped in one of the hotel’s fluffy white robes and slippers, it is easy to slip into the role of Hollywood royalty – a snapshot of what everyday life must be like for your George Clooneys and Nicole Kidmen.
The rooms are also vast and bright, with huge beds and all-marble bathrooms complete with Salvatore Ferregamo products to keep you looking and smelling your best.
Snapping out of our celebrity fantasy, dinner beckons. But where to go when all of Beverly Hills is an option? There are newcomers available such as the Kyoto import Tempura Endo, or modern Vietnamese at Crustacean. But it is hard not to be lured in by the neighbourhood’s storied classics – and we opt for one of the most classic of them all: dinner at Mr Chow.
It might have been on the scene since the 1990s, but the food here is still excellent. Once excluisively the haunt of celebrities and the glitterati, the restaurant is now a little more open to egular people. But everyone still makes an effort, with no shortage of besuited business types, first daters, graduation parties and special occasions around the room.
The menu is always changing, but it is hard to go past the hits: chicken satay, Mr Chow noodles and green prawns – plus the best Beijing duck in town.
If you are feeling extraordinarily lazy, though, and the short walk from the Beverley Wilshire to Mr Chow two blocks away seems too much, you actually have one of the city’s very best restaurants in your very hotel: CUT Beverly Hills.
One of LA’s most famous chefs, Wolfgang Puck, has hit on near perfection with his modern steakhouse. The meat is top notch and the innovations such as the bone marrow flan starter are impeccably pitched. Servings, as ever, are gargantuan, but if you can exercise a little restraint it is worth saving some room for a chocolate souffle for dessert.
As we jump in our car for a final time after ten days on the road through three cities and countless smaller coastal towns, we set a course for the beach. The sun sets over the sea and we return for one last night laying our heads on the Beverly Wilshire’s soft sheets. California dreamin’ indeed.
Rooms at the St Regis in San Francisco from £248 per night. To book, visit marriott.com
Rooms at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara begin at £456 per night in low season and £686 in peak season. To book, visit fourseasons.com/santabarbara
Rooms at the Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel begin at £320 per night. To book, visit fourseasons.com/beverlywilshire
To plan your own Californian road trip, go to visitcalifornia.com