ELLE’S Genevra Leek hits the highways to discover the other side of the Golden State, where the landscape is breathtaking, the wine is award-winning and the weather is just right
There’s more to the Golden State than just LA. We take a road trip to discover its hidden gems.
Every year for about the past decade, my childhood best friend and I have sworn it’s the year for an all-american road trip. The kitsch diners, the dodgy motels, the wide, open spaces and the cheap-as-chips fashion outlets. We map it all out in our heads over a vodka martini or three, then do absolutely zero to make it happen. Until this year, that is, when winter was once again looming and the Cali sunshine finally proved too tempting to resist. Los Angeles, we agreed, was not on the agenda – we’d both had good times there, but this was about the “other California”. So with a sketchy plan we touched down in LA, hired an SUV and right-hand drove our way into the trip of a lifetime (ditching the dodgy motel idea – that was never going to happen).
Vegas is technically across the border in Nevada, but the best way to kick off a West Coast road trip is with a visit to Sin City. After a misguided detour to the Mcdonald’s museum just east of LA (one of us, aka not me, watched
The Founder on the plane), we were well into the fourhour drive on Interstate 15 and already tasting the frozen margaritas. Until we were tasting the dust of the breakdown shoulder. Lesson one: fork out for the satellite phone. A 90-minute delay and a highway patrol chaperone later, we pulled into Vegas in the front seat of a tow truck exchanging back slaps with our driver/saviour Eugene.
J.LO hadn’t topped Eugene’s impromptu hot-list recommendations (she lost out to Rollin Smoke Barbeque), but we had booked tickets to her residency, Jennifer Lopez: All
I Have, and we weren’t about to miss it. We made it in time to check into the 2,995-room Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and clink glasses under its multi-storey chandelier (said to be strung with two million crystals), before heading to Planet Hollywood’s Axis Theater for some full-throttle twerking and a midnight feast at PF Chang’s.
The next day, we discovered an effective new H₂o-based jet-lag cure: lying half-submerged on sun chairs in one of the three hotel pools sipping on cocktails served in coconuts. Also effective, backing it up with a trip to the hedonistic Marquee night/day club followed by a slice at Secret Pizza (be warned: the unmarked entrance is hard enough to find sober).
On the last night, we pretended to be civilised and dined at the first Vegas outpost of David Chang’s world-famous Momofuku restaurants. It was delicious – and nice to stay within rolling distance of our in-room spa bath (ask for a room with a fountain view if you’ll appreciate a panorama of The Strip). But let’s face it, Vegas is one neon-flashing, dice-rolling, heavy-drinking, daggy-dancing, glitter-coated all-night party, so if you’re in your room, you’re not doing it right.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
With a new ride and big drive planned to reach Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains by nightfall, we set out early from Vegas, taking a detour through Death Valley. After several lookout stops where the heat threatened to melt our iphones, we chose to take in the impressive Panamint Range, Badwater Basin and aptly named Furnace Creek from the comfort of our air-conditioned car (at this point, I was grateful I was outvoted in the sensible sedan versus Thelma & Louise convertible debate) before pushing on to Yosemite Valley.
If you’re not equipped for camping (we weren’t), then The Majestic Yosemite Hotel offers a more luxurious alternative at a safe distance from the black bears the signposts warn us about. The park’s only AAA four-diamond hotel, it’s a National Historic Landmark, built in the ’20s and central to tourist hotspots Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, the Yosemite Museum and the Ansel Adams Gallery, where you can pick up prints of the photographer’s renowned black-and-white landscapes of the area. You could spend a week exploring Yosemite’s hiking trails, but Cheryl Strayed we’re not, so we stick to the beginner routes and lament our lack of bear sightings. Until we sight a bear. Although we’re assured they’re largely herbivores, they notoriously seek out human food so we’re glad we ditched our breakfast banana in the bin back at the car park.
SONOMA WINE COUNTRY
High on fresh air, we head out early towards the Farmhouse Inn. Situated in Forestville in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country, away from the crowds of Napa Valley, the fifthgeneration family-owned inn is a charming escape amid the grapevine-strung hills of the Russian River Valley. It’s quaint in appearance, with painted weatherboards and rambling gardens, but don’t be fooled: word is Elon Musk rented out the whole shebang for an event and Emma Stone and Claire Danes have both stopped by to sample the luxe rooms done in natural finishes and complete with an indoor/outdoor fireplace (and the best bedtime choc-chip cookie).
The Michelin-star restaurant serves local fare matched with the region’s finest wines, but it’s the farm-to-table spa menu that has us drooling. We try the seasonal Scrub, Rub and Shrub exfoliation and massage using edible ingredients from the garden. Beyond the grounds, there’s wine-tasting, cycling, shopping and exploring to be done, but lazing in robes on the swing seat in the courtyard is our priority. Followed by a dip in the pool.
After two days of relaxation, we keep the artisanal adventure alive with a trip to nearby Healdsburg for a spot of window shopping and a kale mezzaluna (trust us) from Oakville Grocery, the longest-operating grocery store in California. We stock up on snacks for the one-and-a-halfhour drive to San Francisco and, by the time we’ve finished the chocolate-covered pretzels, the Golden Gate Bridge looms ahead. Word of advice: if your companion is iphone-challenged, make sure you’re in the passenger seat for this leg. (“It’s the white square with the squiggle that says Boom-er-ang!”)
Sydney’s sister city is like the older, cooler, more tech-savvy sibling where the scent of marijuana is almost as rampant as the Uber rides and the strains of 1967’s Summer Of Love still colour the streets now walked by hipsters working in Silicon Valley. The Hotel Zeppelin is our home away from home, offering a chic bohemian vibe thanks to the vintage album covers lining the hallways and the Austin Powers-esque wallpaper in the rooms. Located close to Union Square, the hotel is ideally situated for cable-car rides and trips to Alcatraz (where the audio tour is a must, as is booking ahead). We visit the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market, pose in front of the Painted Ladies (the pastel-coloured houses that rose to fame in the credits of ’80s sitcom Full House) and explore the hippie counterculture of Haight-ashbury, famous for the Grateful Dead and tie-dye tees (which we rashly decree is the missing link in our wardrobes).
With the wind (air-con) in our hair and our cameras at the ready, Big Sur was to be the summit of our summer road trip. The rugged stretch of California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon is one of the most picturesque in the world, and one of the most visited. But our grand plan of winding our way down Highway 1, encountering psychedelic surf types and alternative artists, wasn’t to be after storms and landslides took out the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge earlier this year, closing off large stretches of the road to traffic and all but turning the tourist drawcard back in time.
Instead we head south from San Francisco to Monterey (made popular in Reese Witherspoon’s recent adaptation of Big Little
Lies and worth a stop-off for clam chowder alone), heading inland on the 101 before cutting through Los Padres National Forest to Treebones Resort. Treebones is a true ecoresort with a series of yurts and one Harry Gesner-designed, 100 per cent sustainable Autonomous Tent perched on the hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Our deathdefying mountain road journey (made more-so by the multiple photo-opp stops) was well-rewarded. With the highway closed to the north and south of the glamping site, the sun setting over a deserted landscape, our feet dangling in the hot spa and stockpiles of rosé at hand, it felt like a detour sent from the Big Sur deities.
With a hankering for an artistic awakening, we set out for California’s enclave for freespirited creatives and LA castaways. Joshua Tree, a desert national park dotted with its namesake trees and lunar-like boulders, has long lured creative types seeking a rustic alternative to city living. With visiting artists like Solange Knowles bringing a new energy, the place is buzzing (literally, thanks to a bee alert in the park).
Airbnb is thriving here, but we stayed at Mojave Sands, a hip motel from the ’50s fitted with record players and chic retro furniture. The locals’ guide left jutting out of the in-room typewriter describes Crossroads Cafe as the best diner in the high desert and the best place for wi-fi given there’s none on-site. Pappy & Harriet’s in nearby Pioneertown is a must-visit honky-tonk bar where mesquite barbecue is served up with just the right level of millennial-friendly mood lighting. The art fix: Noah Purifoy’s outdoor art museum.
It’s hot and it’s inspiring and it may well have been the whiff of vapour in the air talking, but spiritually moving as well. We leave promising we’ll come back. The In-nout burger stops are worth it alone.