'I suddenly realized I was in California. Warm, palmy air - air you can kiss - and palms.' Although Jack Kerouac's On the Road didn't impress me, he did a pretty good job at describing what it feels like to arrive in Southern California.
More than just a trip to LA
Often overlooked altogether or thought to be covered with a fleeting visit to Los Angeles, SoCal can be explored as a standalone trip. The region stretches along the coast from San Luis Obispo County to the United States and Mexico border just south of San Diego. One of the reasons people flock to California is to drive along the world famous California State Route 1. This beauty queen of highways runs along one of the most dramatic coastlines in the US, terminating in Orange County. Up until recently I thought that the OC's biggest claim to fame was a handful of TV shows about spoilt teenagers - but turns out it's actually an affluent area that's perfect for family holidays. Base yourself at The Resort at Pelican Hill, an Italian Renaissance inspired hotel with a golf course and the biggest, roundest pool I have ever seen. The resort is not small, but it's America, where almost nothing is. From here it's easy to do day trips; Disneyland Park in Anaheim is a 30 minute drive away, Crystal Cove State Park (made famous by Bette Midler in the tearjerker Beaches) is just across the road, and the entire area provides many opportunities for sailing and general messing around on boats.
About 1.5 hours' drive north is Santa Monica - a beachfront city in Western LA, sandwiched between Malibu and Venice Beach. It has the relaxed vibe of a holiday town, with an oceanfront cycling path and a pier and Ferris wheel that lights up like Christmas every evening and hosts outdoor music concerts in the summer. The pier is also home to Lobster, a buzzy lunchtime spot serving buttery lobster rolls and Soda Jerks famed for its ice creams and shakes in every imaginable flavour. Among its more unusual highlights is the original Muscle Beach, and for the see and be seen crowd there is Bungalow - LA's hottest cocktail bar. Shutters on the Beach is our favorite place to stay. It's one of only 2 beachfront hotels in Santa Monica, and their house car is a slick S-Class Tesla, which in our eyes makes it pretty perfect. You get the best of both worlds here - relaxed beach living, and proximity to Los Angeles should you wish to venture in, although quite frankly, Santa Monica has anything you could ever want all within walking distance.
Another 1.5 hour drive up Pacific Highway 1 is sunny Santa Barbara - the French Riviera of California with distinctive architecture and sophisticated style. Follow the lead of the locals and go for a morning stroll along the beach - it is not unusual to see whales and dolphins from the shore, which makes for a rather spectacular start to any day. This part of SoCal is also a locally well known wine region, and makes for a nice alternative to Napa Valley. As drink and driving is not encouraged we can arrange for a driver, or even a helicopter take you to wineries in Santa Ynez Valley. If you like to walk between your wineries then take advantage of the Urban Wine Trail - carefully selected tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara specializing in local wines.
When it comes to choosing where to stay it has to be El Encanto which is nestled between lush green mountains and the dazzling blue sea. Originally opened in 1918 and recently taken over and renovated by Belmond this hotel has a relaxed yet classy atmosphere and fantastic service. While having breakfast here one morning a member of staff brought over a small leather stool to our table. Turns out it was for my handbag. How can you not love a hotel that does that?
So yes, SoCal with its warm air, palms and a touch of glamour. It's definitely worth your time.