Romantic breaks in California

By Julia Buckley, Travel writer

Photography by Getty

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January 2018

Whether you’re on your first trip as a couple, a no-expense-spared honeymoon or ditching the kids for some alone time, California has you covered says travel writer and California enthusiast Julia Buckley.

Best for a first getaway: Hollywood

The lowdown: It’s been a long time coming but Hollywood is finally cool again and it’s undergoing one of the most exciting transformations in Tinseltown – perfect for blossoming relationships.

The “new” Hollywood is centred around Selma Avenue, where the Dream Hollywood hotel single-handedly reinvented an entire district when it opened in June 2017. Its rooftop bar and restaurant, the Highlight Room, is swiftly becoming the hottest place in town (and great for intimate dinner and drinks), and together with the hotel’s two other in-house restaurants, Tao and Beauty & Essex, it’s revitalising an entire block of a once dowdy neighbourhood.

One block over, the Sunday morning farmers’ market is the place for everything from street food to sage smudge-sticks, while a short drive away are shops like Made Solid, which handcrafts exquisite leather goods. Come nightfall, Hollywood comes into its own with bars including Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, which pitches you straight back into the 1970s.

Fly to: Los Angeles

Stay at: Dream Hollywood

Its rooftop bar and restaurant, the Highlight Room, is swiftly becoming the hottest place in town (and great for intimate dinner and drinks)

Best for popping the question: Death Valley

The lowdown: Death Valley is a place of superlatives: one of the hottest places in the world, and home to both the lowest point in the USA (82 metres below sea level) and also the highest point in the contiguous United States. The extreme environment makes for a memorable proposal.

For something symbolic, pop the question at Badwater Basin, the lowest point (things can only go up from here), where salt flats crystallise into perfect hexagons. If you’re looking for spectacular, lead them up to Dante’s View, a mile above the basin floor, with breathtaking views of the entire park.

Fly to: Los Angeles or Las Vegas

Stay at: Ranch at Death Valley

  • Soak up the rays in pretty-as-a-picture Palm Springs © Getty

    Keep palm and carry on 

    Head to Palm Springs during Modernism Week, where the dreamy vibes of the city’s famed motel-chic architecture enjoys its moment in the sun. Book flights from London to Los Angeles from:£316 return

    Fly to LA
  • Stop to admire the quirky murals of San Fran’s colourful Mission District © Alamy

    Artsy alleys

    For the most concentrated amount of murals in the city, head to Balmy Alley, where you can take a street tour exploring the district’s famed politically charged art. 

    Explore San Fran
  • Uncover the beauty of California’s coast with a journey down Highway One © Getty

    Secret sights 

    From the Big Sur, head south through the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to find the elusive McWay Falls, an enchanting cove and waterfall that pours onto the beach below. Book flights from London to Los Angeles, plus car hire for seven days from:£409 pp

    Book flights and cars

Best for a cultural escape: San Francisco

The lowdown: Whether it’s highbrow or counter-culture, San Francisco has it in spades. There’s the intellectual stuff for starters – The California Academy of Sciences (less dry than it sounds – especially on adults-only Thursday nights, when it stays open until 22.00, fuelled by wine), and the rather lovely Botanical Garden nearby in Golden Gate Park – ideal for romantic walks.

But San Francisco is best viewed live. The Haight-Ashbury district was the heart of hippie culture back in the 1960s, and even today you’ll find throwbacks to the era including vintage stores such as Held Over. In the Mission District, the streets themselves are works of art (famous for their murals), and tours giving an overview of the historically immigrant neighbourhood as well as the artworks. Meanwhile, North Beach is where the Beat generation used to hang out. Today you’ll find the small but excellent Beat Museum, and City Lights bookstore – founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Fly to: San Francisco or Oakland 

Stay at: Fairmont San Francisco

Best for a child-free break: Palm Springs

The lowdown: Since its 1930s heyday, desert-bound Palm Springs has been an adults-only retreat from LA. Hollywood stars used to come here, in the Coachella Valley, to their high-hedged bungalows to frolic away from the paparazzi. The A-listers have largely gone, but their houses remain, and today, Palm Springs is the world capital of mid-century Modern architecture, and tours like PS Mod Squad whisk you round the highlights. A lazier way to enjoy the architecture is to spend the afternoon at one of the famous hotel pools and channel your inner Debbie Reynolds or Frank Sinatra – both one-time residents of Palm Springs.

There are spas galore in town, and thermal springs in nearby Desert Hot Springs, but for a different take on the desert, head up for a day in Joshua Tree. This small, hippy-filled town on the edge of the eponymous national park, has a fabulous yoga studio and the Integratron, supposedly a communication point with aliens, and now famous for its sound baths.

Fly to: Los Angeles or San Diego

Stay at: Ace Hotel Palm Springs

  • Brave the stark and stunning landscapes of California’s Death Valley © Getty

    White heat

    Perfect for those who can handle the heat, Death Valley holds the world record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded, a balmy 56.7°C. Book flights from London to Las Vegas, plus car hire for seven days from:£402 pp

    Book flights and cars

Best for a beach break: San Diego

The lowdown: Even in a state famous for its beaches, San Diego takes some beating, with surf, miles of soft sand, dramatic cliffs, piers and palm trees. Around the city itself, grungy Ocean Beach is hugely popular with surfers, while Pacific Beach is a posher, more self-conscious area (think Santa Monica rather than Venice Beach in LA). For the calmest sea and softest sand, you need Coronado, a 20-square-kilometre sand strip dangling off the mainland.

True beach fanatics should venture north, where seaside towns like Carlsbad and Encinitas perch on the pristine beachfront, sealions and seals wallow in the waters around La Jolla, and the waves roll in at the wild, cliff-backed Torrey Pines State Park, great for sunset selfies.

Fly to: San Diego

Stay at: Hotel del Coronado

Best for a luxury honeymoon: Highway 1

The lowdown: Highway 1 is made for the ultimate honeymoon – and if you fly into one airport and out of another, you can really take your time over it. Fly into San Francisco – driving south, you’ll be ocean-side – and after a few gluttonous days soaking up the city’s world-class food scene, head south, through the spectacular landscape of Big Sur. Venture inland at San Luis Obispo for a detour into central Cali wine country, and bed down overnight in classy Santa Barbara.

From here, it’s a leisurely drive to LA, which deserves a few days going between beaches, bars and galleries (a daytrip to Catalina Island is a must). Finish off by following the road – and the ever more glorious beaches – to San Diego, your final stop. The one rule? Don’t rush it, take your time and really make the most of those five-star digs and your first adventure as a married couple.

Fly in to: San Francisco or Oakland 

Fly out from: San Diego

Stay at: Check into Cavallo Point in San Francisco, and Belmond El Canto in Santa Barbara. Try Mr C Beverly Hills in LA, and Tower 23 in San Diego.

Best for second time around: Ojai and San Luis Obispo

The lowdown: A tiny, boho town two hours north of LA, Ojai is a favourite for weekending Angelenos. Its Spanish Revival-style main street is full of smart boutiques, and you’ll find wineries, an olive oil farm and meditation centre in the rolling hills around town.

Further north is San Luis Obispo, a lovely, laidback town that’s often overlooked by visitors. While chic, it still has that elusive retro California vibe, with a drive-in cinema, the uber-kitsch, pink-hued Gold Rush Steakhouse (dinner and dancing here is a must), and Pismo Beach, which seems stuck in a chilled out Beach Boys-era timewarp.

Fly to: Los Angeles or San Jose and hire a car

Stay at: Try Casa Ojai Inn in Ojai, and check into SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel in San Luis Obispo