If you’re looking to splurge, you’ve come to the right place. California is the land of gold, and not just in the northern prospector territory. There are high-end itineraries to be found everywhere — where are you gonna go first?
1. City of Angels
Every hotel in Los Angeles has some kind of storied history of celebrity heartbreak and redemption, making them automatic high-end destinations. Chateau Marmont, for example, is extremely famous for its no-picture policy, its bungalows with private pools, and the hordes of paparazzi waiting to see who comes outside. But the hotel itself is more historic than lavish. Sunset Tower Hotel, on the other hand, has earned its place as the perennial host of Vanity Fair’s Oscar after party. Its restaurants, Tower Bar and The Terrace, are fantastic — for those into the ‘20s Oscar glam, the Terrace is one of the few places in LA where you can still smoke.
The city’s wealth of rooftop bars — the Standard, Mondrian, Perch, etc. — have awesome views and drink prices to match. During the day, the Getty Villa stands as a miniature Hearst Castle (don’t worry, you’ll see the real thing soon) filled with high-end art. Los Angeles is also one of the best destinations for food in the world, but if you’re really going all out, head to Totoraku. It’s hard to find — there’s no sign to mark the restaurant, and you need to be personally invited just to eat there. But exclusivity is a seasoning everybody craves, and every cut of beef placed in front of you is world-class.
Disneyland is obviously a popular destination for anybody visiting Southern California. If you’re traveling with kids, drop them off at the hotel and seek out Club 33. It’s a members-only club with a two-year wait and five-digit initiation fees, but like Totoraku, if you can find somebody to get you in, it’s worth a visit. It’s also the only place in Disneyland that serves alcohol (don’t forget, you can always just head over to California Adventure across the street).
2. Central Coast
The Central Coast is a land of transition, the long link between the fast-paced debauchery of Southern California and the retreats of the foggy North. But more than that, the Pacific Coast Highway that forges this path is an itinerary in itself, one of the world’s premier road trips. Start in Santa Barbara and take a nice long look at your last view of Southern California. The Biltmore comes with access to Coral Casino, while The Bacara Resort and Spa is a good way to spend your final days in the sun. It’s one of the few five-diamond hotels around, with beaches, reserves, and golf courses. If it’s good enough for Oprah’s birthday party, it’s good enough for you.
The PCH winds up the coast through Big Sur, also known as one of the most beautiful coastlines in America (maybe the world). Take note when crossing the Bixby Canyon Bridge — you’ve probably seen it in movies and photos a hundred times, but it’s easy for the beautiful scenery to distract you enough that you’ll miss it. If you want to stop for the night, do so at the Post Ranch Inn, right in the heart of Big Sur. But if you really want to see what it means to live luxuriously, don’t miss the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The Neptune Pool alone makes Mount Olympus look like Mount Whitney.
End your road trip in the Monterey town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, famous for its strange footwear laws and being formerly governed by Clint Eastwood. For your accommodation, stay at L’Auberge Carmel, an old hotel with so much elegance even Hearst Castle struggles to keep up. The town is all about that early-20th-century class — if you’ve timed your trip right, you’ll be in Carmel just in time to see the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance, where every great car from the Bentley to the only extant Phantom Corsair is paraded through town. If your trip dates miss the show, you’ll have all the more time to spend on the Pebble Beach Golf Links, objectively one of the most gorgeous courses in the world.
The PCH passes through San Francisco, but for your next trip, you’ll be heading a bit farther north.
3. Wine Country
While San Francisco is always worth a visit, the wine fields of Napa Valley are the calm retreat from the hustle of city life — the Ricky to San Fran’s Lucy, if you will. It’s a chance to focus less on the sights and sounds around you and more on the smells and tastes.
To that end, the best accommodation is at Auberge du Soleil. Once simply a world-class restaurant, it’s now expanded into a world-class resort and one of Napa’s best culinary destinations. There’s also Bardessono, the only hotel in California that’s LEED Platinum certified due to its commitment to sustainability. And don’t overlook Solage Calistoga. It’s more modern than the other options, but when you’re sporting a Michelin-starred restaurant and your spa is ranked #1 in the Americas and the Caribbean, maybe it’s okay to try something new.
Napa Valley itself is a land of rolling rainbow hills, dotted by wineries and small towns, each and every one of them offering something new. It’s easy enough to tour — there are only a few roads that cut through the area (the 29, the 12, the 101), so visiting is just a matter of choosing a route and driving until you find a viewpoint or pull-off worth stepping on the brakes for.
Special mention needs to be given to The French Laundry, a small restaurant operating out of the town of Yountville. Unassuming from the outside, The French Laundry requires reservations months in advance, and for good reason — it’s a constant contender for the best restaurant in the entire world. Thomas Keller, the mind behind the French-American cuisine, is the only American chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants simultaneously. If you can score a table, it’s worth a trip all on its own.
4. High Sierra
The California coast normally gets all the love. Hell, look back at what you’ve read so far. But once you venture far enough inland that there’s no more salt on the wind, California transforms from a land of sand into the kind of landscape even Ansel Adams had trouble conveying.
Yosemite National Park is arguably the High Sierra’s biggest gun — you may remember it as the place Jeff Daniels called the only good thing about America in The Newsroom. It’s celebrating its 150th birthday this year, so Half Dome is worth a visit. You should consider backpacking and camping through the park regardless of the budget you’re traveling on, but for a lux spot to come back to after an epic 10-hour hike, you can’t beat the Ahwahnee Hotel.
Next, get yourself north to Lake Tahoe. The mountain lake is cold, but when you’re being towed on a wakeboard and watching evergreens reflected in the glassy water, you probably won’t mind. The wetsuit you’re wearing will help too. And while there are camping opportunities and independent cabins aplenty in the area, you’ll probably want to check out the Resort at Squaw Creek or the Ritz at Northstar and book a massage to help work away the soreness from a day on the water.
If winter sports are more your scene, or if you watched Johnny Tsunami one too many times and liked the idea of snowboarding a day after you went surfing, head to Mammoth Lakes. Home to Mammoth Mountain, it’s one of those places tourists are surprised to find out actually does have snow, plus pretty awesome ways to ride it. Though renting a cabin is the best way to experience the beauty of nature in the area, simply walking down the street through town will yield legions of high-end hotel options with penthouse views of the mountains.
If you follow your current trajectory, you’re gonna bump through Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks — take your time — before finding yourself back in the desert cities of Southern California. Just in time to end your trip with a bang.
5. Coachella / Palm Springs VIP
People, myself included, have long proclaimed that camping is the only true way to experience the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. How do you take that sentiment and turn it high-end? The answer is the Safari Tent. For $7,000, you’ll be given a personal clothe palace by a manmade lake five minutes from the festival entrance that includes two queen beds and personal hot shower. You’ll wake up every morning feeling like a prince. So will the actual prince sleeping two tents over.
The festival itself includes VIP areas (accessible with a $799 wristband) with premium access to the stages and fully stocked high-quality bars, and this is where you may just bump elbows with some of the same people you’ve been cheering onstage. One of these areas features a Rose Garden where a $225 “Outstanding in the Field” four-course dinner is put on by Michelin-starred chefs in the afternoon.
When the festival is over, you’ll be in prime real estate to hit up Palm Springs, a longstanding desert oasis for the rich and famous. The choice hotels are Parker Palm Springs, a retro Wonderland, and The Ace, where you can relax after a long weekend of dancing — or keep it going. Add in a few more days of recovery time at Palm Springs’ numerous day spas, golf courses, and tennis stadiums, and you’ll head home with an afterglow that lasts for months.