The Ultimate California Road Trip

Writer Jason Heidemann takes us along on his California road trip, uncovering the best views, food, architecture and art that San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto and San Francisco have to offer.

There is a life-size cottage dangling precariously over the edge of the rooftop of Jacobs Hall at the University of California San Diego, and it’s driving me crazy that I can’t get a closer look. It’s my own fault. The viewing hours for South Korean installation artist Do Ho Suh’s Fallen Star are on Tuesday and Thursday, and because I am in San Diego on a weekend, I have to settle for an exterior view of this unusual piece of public art.

Do Ho Suh's Fallen Star in San Diego

Do Ho Suh’s Fallen Star (2012) is part of the Stuart Collection at the University of California at San Diego. It challenges viewers to reflect on the idea of cultural displacement and their surroundings.

San Diego is my first stop on a sun-drenched California road trip, one that has been made all the better with the keys to a silver Ford Mustang, which over the next few days will take me all the way from right here in California’s southernmost city to San Francisco.

San Diego

This city is on the move. While residents remain fixated on a Southern California lifestyle unruffled by smog and congestion, San Diego’s downtown brims with cutting-edge food and nightlife. Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres, has transformed the once sleepy East Village into a jumble of residential high-rises, and the charming neighbourhoods surrounding Balboa Park are abuzz with activity.

In Mission Hills, for example, I discover The Patio on Goldfinch, an elegant, open-air gem where friends and I toast one another with Goldfinch Mules, made with house-infused pineapple-and-vanilla-bean tequila, while sharing sashimi-grade ahi poke tacos and scallop crudo decorated with sliced kumquat. Afterwards, we duck into nearby Cinema Under the Stars, where the weatherproof retractable dome ensures the comfort of film lovers year round as they swoon over classic films like Casablanca and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Salt roasted beet bruschetta at The Patio on Goldfinch

The Patio on Goldfinch serves dishes—such as Salt Roasted Beet Bruschetta, with cambozla blue cheese and rocket arugula—that create memorable dining experiences.

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach Pier in California.

Known as a west coast surf mecca, Huntington Beach draws in visitors with the ideal waves and picturesque views along its famous pier.

As I inch suburb to suburb through Orange County, I’m listening to Lana Del Rey’s “West Coast” on repeat. Along the way, I stop at the spindly and picturesque Huntington Beach Pier, where cocksure surfers suit up and millennials play volleyball. Amid double strollers and amateur shutterbugs, I stop mid-pier to inhale the salty air.

Los Angeles

The City of Angels beckons to me with its tangle of strip malls, clogged freeways and a populace constantly in search of reinvention. However, none of this is on display in exquisite Rancho Palos Verdes, where twisty, scenic byways offer moments of tranquillity en route to LA. It’s here that I discover Wayfarer’s Chapel, a glass church that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright. It is an architectural jaw-dropper of unusual angles and geometric shapes. Alas, if I tiptoe any closer I’ll officially be crashing the wedding that is in process.

Lloyd Wright's Wayfarer’s Chapel

Tucked in a grove of redwood trees, Wayfarer’s Chapel was designed by Lloyd Wright and is a favourite for local weddings.

A mile west of downtown LA, I find another kind of respite at Wi Spa, a traditional Korean-style bathhouse where the lead guitarist of a certain legendary rock band and I are both taking a steam. In addition to its nirvana-inducing saunas, showers, nap rooms, and hot and cold tubs, family-friendly Wi also offers co-ed minerals saunas, an on-site deli, a fitness centre, and full-service massage, skin care and nail treatment.

Dinner brings me and a friend to Night Market + Song, a nondescript storefront in Silverlake that dishes out stellar Northern Thai street food dishes like fatty pig neck and Isaan-style catfish larb. Most dishes tingle with intense flavour and heat.

Santa Barbara

As Los Angeles fades away in my rear-view mirror the next morning, I decide my drive to San Francisco will bypass the spine-tingling twists and turns of Pacific Coast Highway in favour of the faster, but no less scenic, Highway 101. The first stop is languid Santa Barbara, where the bahn mi sandwich I order at the Lilliputian eatery Blue Owl provides the requisite fuel for the journey ahead.

The small Santa Ynez Valley city of Solvang proves an amusing diversion. Known as “Little Denmark,” the town is close to the edge of taking itself too seriously with its reliance on windmills, thatched roofs and gingerbread architecture, but it’s a worthwhile place to spend a few hours. Solvang is only a stone’s throw from kooky OstrichLand USA, a working farm that allows visitors to feed the big birds, whose necks look like palm trees swaying in the breeze and who happily snatch every bit of seed from your hands.

OstrichLand USA in Santa Barbara

Experience life on a working farm at OstrichLand USA by taking a guided tour of the property and feeding the ostriches and emus that call it home.

Palo Alto

Home to Stanford University, leafy Palo Alto has a studious vibe. My favourite attraction in the area is about 10 miles (16 kilometres) up the highway from campus. FiLoLi Gardens is an early 20th-century country estate with gardens stretching over 654 acres (265 hectares). The home itself is filled with English antiquities, but there really is no finer way to pass a few hours than to stroll the perfectly landscaped grounds.

Tulips in FiLoLi gardens

Stroll through beautiful blooms on FiLoLi’s 654 acre historic estate in Palo Alto. The property’s house and formal gardens were constructed in the early 20th century.

San Francisco

By sunset, the City by the Bay is within my grasp. I’m booked for a reunion with friends at Soma Streat Food Park, where I find the city’s nascent tech crowd swaddled in hoodies and noshing from delicious food trucks as the wind kicks up. There is stand-up comedy happening tonight, which is a nice touch. Another San Francisco treat new to me is Urban Putt, an indoor mini-golf course in the Mission where each hole offers players a dizzying Rube Goldberg machine for the ball. (Goldberg was born in San Francisco.) It’s a blast.

Indoor mini-golf at Urban Putt in San Francisco.

Stop in for fun at San Francisco’s Urban Putt—an indoor mini-golf course that will bring out the kid in everyone.

My journey comes to its conclusion literally at land’s end. During my last night in town, I find myself at Marla Bakery in the Outer Richmond, a gusty oceanfront neighbourhood that touches the mighty Pacific.

Marla Bakery in San Francisco

At Marla Bakery, snag a coveted seat at Sunday Supper and taste dishes passed down through generations of family cooks.

Every Sunday night, the restaurant is open only to the few who have secured a reservation in advance. They are seated at a single, communal table and treated to a five-course farm-to-table dinner that tonight is inspired by a rabbit’s last meal. Tonight over dinner, I share with friends my many adventures that have taken me from the Golden State’s southernmost city to its most famous peninsula—a trip that has perfectly captured the romance of the road.

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