The California bucket list

By Ella Buchan, Travel writer and California resident

Photography by Getty

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Sunrise balloon rides, whale-watching expeditions, super-scenic drives, even a trip down a rabbit hole: we’ve taken a gold pan to the golden state and we’ve sieved to the surface our top ten Californian adventures. Put these activities on your bucket list.

Taste wine in Napa

Rows of vines gilded by sunshine, picnics on sun-dappled patios, the satisfying glug-glug of wine filling your glass, Napa Valley, around an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, is a place people dream of visiting and a place that keeps them coming back. Famous for robust Cabernets served in grand châteaux and labyrinthine caves lined with barrels, the valley is rich with experiences, and a sunrise balloon ride over the vine-striped landscape is high on the list. Winter – known as ‘Cabernet Season’ – is a particularly lovely time to visit. The weather is still mild and there’s no fighting for elbow room in the wineries.

Book a wine country escape from San Francisco

Where to stay: The River Terrace Inn might not sit on a vineyard, but you can definitely make the most of its wine cellar. Combine that with charming dining areas – including a lovely terrace – and you won’t want to stay anywhere else in the Napa Valley.

The route curls up from sunny San Diego through thrilling LA, passing honey-hued beaches to Big Sur, where dense forests open onto sandy coves and cliffs in shades of purple and apricot plunge to the sea

Spot grey whales in San Diego

San Diego’s rugged, golden coastline is perfectly placed for witnessing the longest annual migration of any living mammal. From mid-December to April, grey whales undertake the 20,000-kilometre round trip from Alaska to the warm lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, where they can safely give birth before heading back north with their calves. Around 20,000 of these magnificent mammals will pass along this stretch and the best way to spot them is on a cruise with the Maritime Museum or San Diego Whale Watch.

Where to stay: The Paradise Point Resort And Spa – its beach shack-inspired rooms are fun and stylish.

  • For vino and views, head to California’s famed wine mecca, Napa Valley © Getty

    Wine not?  

    Rich with tradition, 95 per cent of wineries in the Napa Valley region are family owned, and contribute $50 billion dollars to the American economy.

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  • Drive California’s best-loved highway between San Francisco and San Diego © Getty.

    Coastal cruise

    A five-minute drive from California’s famous Highway One, swing by the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where historic rollercoasters and boxes of delicious salt water taffy await. Book flights from London to San Francisco, plus seven days car hire from:

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  • Discover the marine magic at San Diego’s Maritime Museum © Getty

    Beyond the breach  

    After a cruise alongside San Diego’s grey whales, head to the Maritime Museum’s ‘Rum: Sailors, Pirates and Prohibition’ exhibit to uncover the origins of this famous pirate tipple. Book flights from London to San Diego, plus a seven night hotel stay from:£764 pp

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Drive the Pacific Coast Highway

Few road trips are so iconic as the drive along California’s Highway One, which hugs the Pacific Coast. The route curls up from sunny San Diego through thrilling LA, passing honey-hued beaches to Big Sur, where dense forests open onto sandy coves and cliffs in shades of purple and apricot plunge to the sea. Most travellers end their journey in San Francisco, yet the road soars beyond to some of California’s most spectacular and less explored scenery. Continue on to ruggedly beautiful Mendocino and be rewarded with a drive interspersed with scenic overlooks, redwood forests and driftwood beaches.

Where to stay: In Monterey, the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel And Spa has a sports bar serving free popcorn and fire pits on the grounds for chilled-out evenings. At the other end of the Highway, at Santa Barbara, Harbor View Inn is a quaint little hideaway that’s perfect for families.

  • Join in the fantasy at Disneyland, California © Disney

    Happiest place on earth 

    For the biggest thrills, get in line for Disneyland’s original ride, California Screamin’, which at 88 kilometres per hour, ranks as the resort’s fastest. Book flights from London to Los Angeles, plus a seven night hotel stay from:£751 pp

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Seek thrills in Disneyland

The original Disneyland Resort in Anaheim is the only one built under the direct watch of Walt Disney. Encompassing Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, this enchanting world has thrills for all ages. Unleash your inner kid on stomach-flipping rides like California Screamin’, Space Mountain and Star Tours – The Adventure Continues. One ride for the memory bank is Alice in Wonderland, which takes guests down the rabbit hole via a giant caterpillar. Launched in 1958 and later updated with 3D characters and special effects, this journey into Lewis Carroll’s whimsical world can’t be found anywhere else.

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Where to stay: The Hilton Anaheim is an enormous hotel near Disneyland. It’s full of facilities that will facilitate a happy family holiday, including a playground and water play area.

Hike in Yosemite

Feel like a tiny dot on the landscape – in the best possible way – among endless meadows strewn with wildflowers and waterfalls cascading from granite cliff faces at Yosemite National Park. There are nearly 1,300 kilometres of hiking trails looping past mirrored lakes and winding up rock formations. Many people assume this vast park shuts its gates for the winter, which makes it a wonderfully tranquil time to visit. The ground is blanketed in snow and the waterfalls freeze mid-flow. All is quiet and still, yet far from boring – snowshoeing, Nordic skiing (staying overnight in heated huts along the way) and guided hikes keep visitors active. The Glacier Point/ Badger Pass Road is open and ploughed through the winter months, when cars fitted with tyre chains can enter the park.

Book a Yosemite experience from San Francisco

Where to stay: Just two miles from the park entrance, Tenaya Lodge offers climbing, sledding and guided hikes. Sound exhausting? There’s also a large on-site spa.

Ski at Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, a high-altitude lake that gleams from the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains, straddles two states: California and Nevada. It’s roughly a three and a half hour drive up from San Francisco – and it’s the perfect place to spend a few days skiing in winter. On the south end of the lake you can ski from a village called ‘Heavenly’: a fitting name indeed. Here you’ll find clouds of pillow-soft powder, whilst the bluebird-blue lake will be visible on the tips of your skis every time you line up at the top of a run. At night, the area is party central, and is known for its casinos and clubs. Look out for a mobile DJ – who roams the slopes on a snow cat that’s been outfitted with very large speakers.

Where to stay: Harveys Lake Tahoe makes a great base camp for a skiing adventure. It’s half a mile from Heavenly Village.

California road trips through Lake Tahoe

Spot celebs in Hollywood

For some, it’s an essential stop; for others, it’s merely a passing curiosity – but there’s no denying that LA’s Hollywood neighbourhood attracts tourists in their thousands. This area of the city is a whirlwind of dining and clubbing – and straining to spot the odd celebrity (perhaps at The Ivy, the clubs on the Sunset Strip, or at least a handprint or two at the Chinese Theatre) is a competitive sport. There’s one star who’s always in town: you can’t miss the shiny white ‘Hollywood’ sign up in the hills. Many people take a hike through the leafy valley below the sign – which can make a nice break from all the car-choked streets. Elsewhere, Universal Studios Hollywood has a famous tour of the historic studio lot, where you can see iconic film sets – including props used for Jaws and Psycho.

Where to stay: Leafy West Hollywood is celebrity heaven – don’t believe us? Stay at Andaz West Hollywood and hear about how Keith Richards once chucked a television out the window, or how Led Zeppelin used to ride motorbikes down the hallways.

See the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco

Every one of California’s cities has its own distinctive character, but none is quite so charismatic as San Francisco, a hilly, mist-marinated playground with wharf-side attractions, colourful trams and a stunning setting. Outside of the town centre, Golden Gate Bridge and the island of Alcatraz are worth exploring. You can get great views of the iron giant that is San Fran’s famous red bridge from Golden Gate Overlook. Afterwards, wander in Golden Gate Park. Here, in a space that’s even bigger than New York’s Central Park, palm trees, a pretty Victorian conservatory, and a Japanese tea garden provide plenty of beautiful distractions when the bridge itself is hidden in the fog.

Where to stay: Hotel Argonaut is a boutique four-star hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf. Want to stay near Union Square? Sir Francis Drake is a hotel under the famously luxurious Kimpton brand, with original trappings from the twenties and a remarkable lobby.

  • A perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, San Francisco. © haveseen.

    Towering bridge

    Could this be one of the world’s most beautiful suspension bridges? The Golden Gate has art deco streetlights and two graceful towers. But it’s not gold – it’s not even red – the famous bridge is actually ‘international orange’: so that it stands out for passing ships.

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  • The weird and wonderful shape of a jumping cholla cactus in Joshua Tree National Park. © Nickolay Stanev.

    A little skittish

    A cactus can’t actually jump… can it? The jumping cholla cactus got its name because of how easily its spiny stems detach from the main plant – watch your clothes, or you could become a walking pin cushion. Visit Joshua Tree National Park from San Diego.

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  • Step around famous footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Hollywood. © Paul Quayle / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Shower of hands

    Would you plunge your hands into wet cement in front of a cheering crowd? Well, right outside the front of TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, everyone who’s anyone – from Sinatra to Spielberg and Streep – already has.

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Surf at Huntington Beach

There’s a beach break at Huntington with consistently perfect surfing conditions, even when other places on the coast are as flat as a pancake. In fact, surfing at Huntington Beach is so perfect that they hold the U.S. Open of Surfing here at the end of July every year… but amateurs won’t find themselves out of their depth. Get lessons from your rental shop, or swing by the cute International Surfing Museum on Olive Street for some inspiration. After time on the water, walk the length of Huntington Beach Pier and keep your eyes peeled for pelicans and dolphins: one might try and steal your sandwich, the other might well steal your heart.

Where to stay: The Hyatt Regency has plenty of pool space and fun water slides for the kids, whilst the Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel feels like a millionaire’s surf pad.

See Joshua Trees from Palm Springs

California has canyons, coves and colossal forests – but it also has desert. You can’t leave without a dip into the arid southern section of the state. Palm Springs is an oasis-like city right in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It has long been a wellness resort – and whilst it’s popular with the happily-retired, Coachella Festival, which occurs over two weeks in April, has led to an influx of younger travellers, too. During the rest of the year, design aficionados will appreciate the cool mid-century buildings which make every street an architectural spectacle. It’s 45 minutes’ drive from here to Joshua Tree National Park, a park popular with hikers, star-gazers, and those who just want to gawp at the odd silhouettes of these wonderfully weird desert-dwelling yuccas.

Where to stay: Play golf in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort And Spa which is seven miles from the city. If you’d rather stay in the centre of town, the rainbow-coloured rooms of the Saguaro Palm Springs are matched by the hotel’s upbeat vibe, penchant for taco nights and fleet of desert-cruiser bicycles.