It’s the US’s third-largest state. A competitor for some of the States’ best beaches. Home to historic vineyards and one of the world’s biggest wine producers. California has plenty of strings to its bow, which can also make it hard to unravel. So, we asked our experts to share their highlights, chosen from their own travels and themed around some of the best aspects of touring the Golden State.
Los Angeles for California’s best beaches
The City of Angels is as much a city of beaches as one propelled by the movie industry and all its trappings. LA’s beaches are in its soul, calling people for centuries to its Pacific shoreline.
Although places like Santa Monica are as stylish as you might expect, these aren’t solely glamorous haunts. Rather, you’ll often arrive in down-to-earth beaches backed by towns with family-run cafés, Mexican restaurants and hip boutiques, and effusing an ever-present surf culture.
The name Santa Monica rings with familiarity. This storied beach retains one of the few surviving wooden piers in California, a modern marriage of two adjacent structures built in the early 1900s. It’s now decked with arcades and fair rides and dominated by its Ferris wheel and roller coaster.
You can join the action in the curling waves by taking a 90-minute lesson with a surf instructor. By the time your class ends, you’ll at least know the basics of the sport — such as how to master standing on your board and which are the best waves to ride.
Huntington Beach, aka Surf City, underpins the Californian surf scene and hosts many of the region’s big-name surfing competitions, including the week-long US Open of Surfing each July and August. Loosened from LA’s apron strings, it’s a laid-back and less-pricey alternative to Santa Monica, blessed with an undeniably appealing swathe of honeyed sand where the boarding happens.
Napa Valley for California’s best wines
For a wine region with such a global reach, Napa Valley is only a few miles wide and you could cross it by car in one hour. But, to get the most out of the valley, we’d encourage you to adopt a slower pace to take in its wineries, historic small towns, and celebrated restaurant scene. That’s as well as allowing time to appreciate the setting itself — the vineyard-clad hills cosseted by mountains that lie north of San Francisco.
Napa sees its fair share of visitors, who flock in particular to the big wine producers in their busloads. You can sidestep this on a private tour of the smaller vineyards. Setting off with your guide, mid-morning, you’ll travel between the wine estates for tastings with resident oenophiles, pausing for a picnic lunch.
An even more leisurely option is to tour the wineries by bicycle. On a guided bike tour, you can join a guide and a small group of fellow cyclists to visit two wineries a three-and-a-half-mile gentle pedal apart.
Then there’s the Wine Train — a piece of living history in a line of fully restored Pullman coaches that first traversed the rails in the early 20th century. The train carries you through Napa Valley, wining and dining you en route with a carefully curated pick of local wines, and stopping at wine estates for tours and tastings.
Yosemite for California’s best wildlife
Of California’s nine national parks, each could vie for the title of best in state. At a push, though, we’d pick out Yosemite as the winner for wildlife.
Black bears are the biggest species of its formidable cast of fauna, which roam within an arena of sheer granite faces, colossal waterfalls and monumental trees.
We suggest touring the park with your own local guide, who can direct you to the best wildlife-spotting opportunities and track the animals you most want to see. They also know how the different trails compare in distance and difficulty levels, and can advise you which routes to follow accordingly.
Besides the hundreds of resident black bears, you stand the chance of encountering herds of bighorn sheep. You might suspect the bears to be the more aggressive, but in fact it’s the bighorns — the bears are usually passive unless they’re protecting their cubs, or their lunch.
With a little more providence, you could also spot one of the park’s taciturn bobcats or mountain lions. And, among the hundreds of species of resident and migrant birds here are red-breasted nuthatches and the American dipper, which appears to fly underwater in pursuit of fish.
Pacific Coast Highway for California’s best scenic drive
At the point the American continent finally gives way to the ocean, the gently twisting Pacific Coast Highway will treat you to one of the US’s greatest outdoor spectacles as you drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles between earth, sea and sky.
A good starting point is Carmel-by-the-Sea, a bohemian-feeling beach town of galleries, boutiques and farmers' markets. From here, travel southbound along Highway 1 (its official name) to ensure you’re driving in the lane running against the coast. This gives you the best panoramas with the fringe benefit of being able to pull over easily into the many viewing points that mark the route.
The leg of the route from Carmel to Big Sur introduces you to the Pacific Coast Highway at its best. The mainstay of the highway passes through the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, not one of the US’s bigger national parks but a southerly habitat for that classic Californian natural emblem, the redwood.
Big Sur refers to a stretch of Californian coast where the road twists and angles its way along the mountainous coastline. Waves pound the rocks below you, and the drama builds as you cross the Bixby Creek Bridge (a canyon-spanning crossing that has proved an advertiser’s dream).
As you drive farther south, you’ll leave the mountains behind and pass by sandy beaches in their place. We like to stop at Hearst Castle, which sits just above the town of San Simeon. The pleasure palace of ‘Citizen Kane’ himself, William Randolph Hearst commissioned his coastal retreat with Gilded Age aplomb in the early 20th century. The art collection alone is worth the entrance ticket — a journey through art treasures from antiquity to Art Deco.
San Francisco for Californian culture
Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge — San Francisco has plenty of big-name attractions. Added to this is its kudos as the tinderbox for the 1960s counterculture revolution, and its position at the tip of a peninsula hanging above the ocean. Grand and historic yet often unconventional, the city deserves more than just a cursory glance.
San Francisco is easy to get around on foot or by cable car. It’s a coming-together of several distinct districts, and a Dragon Gate marks the start of Chinatown, one of our favorites. Strings of paper lanterns hang above the roads, conversations take place in Mandarin and Cantonese, and red and yellow are the dominant shades.
The district is home to the oldest Chinese community outside Asia, and the smell of dim sum and wok-fried noodles permeates the air. In its quieter areas, you might see residents in the midst of t'ai chi practice or playing mahjong.
A walking tour of Chinatown with a local guide explores its food as well as its history. You dip into a selection of restaurants and bakeries, recommended by your guide, and stop off to see how fortune cookies are made, still by hand, at a local factory.
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