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.
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.
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.
Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara, North San DiegoBook Now
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.
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.
Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly HillsBook Now
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.
Beverly Wilshire, Beverly Hills (A Four Seasons Hotel)Book Now
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.
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa BarbaraBook Now
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.
Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley at East Palo AltoBook Now
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.
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.
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.