Holidays in California
Few places summon quite as many daydreams as California. The Golden State is a land of big adventures and big fantasies, with no end of soul-satisfying possibilities for travellers. Its diversity is understated but its large size lends itself perfectly for variety. The Hollywood glamour of Los Angeles needs no introduction as the home of the Californian dream and neither does San Francisco’s rust-red icon, the Golden Gate Bridge. Elsewhere along the coast, San Diego expertly practises la dolce vita and the pounding surf has left Big Sur wonderfully raw and rugged.
Inland, there’s no limit to California’s box of treasures. Chief among them are the gargantuan granite faces and towering sequoias of Yosemite National Park, a rich wilderness you simply have to wander. Nearby lie the vast Mammoth Lakes, dramatic Lake Tahoe and the desolate desert of Death Valley. Big landscapes aside, there’s silver screen charm in Palm Springs and the superb wine regions of Napa and Sonoma.
California is a place where you can be skiing on the peaks in the morning and sipping a sundowner on the beach come the late afternoon. Its huge size means it’s worth considering a road trip to fit as many of its big-ticket sights in one go. Now, that would be one epic luxury holiday in California!
Through Turquoise eyes
With its green rolling hills carpeted in sun-soaked rows of vines, California’s wine country is exactly how you might have dreamed it. It’s the USA’s premier region for viticulture, where over 800 wineries spread across both Napa and Sonoma valleys produce some of the country’s finest vintages like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot. But while you could spend a week tasting your way through the mountainsides (which isn’t a bad idea), Napa and Sonoma offer more than just wonderful wine to enjoy on your holiday in California. A lovely collection of boutique retreats lie hidden in the majestic countryside, gifting you the chance to wake up to fine vine views and the distant redwood forests beyond. Hiking trails weave through the hills, while artsy towns and excellent restaurants (The French Laundry is one of our favourites) nestled in the valleys prove it’s a place you need to raise a glass to.
For a road trip to remember, look no further than Big Sur. It’s a wild coastline packed with natural drama, where a cliff-hugging road twists and turns past craggy headlands battered by the Pacific Ocean, sandy beaches tucked in between the rocky cliffs and, on the other side of the road, giant forests of redwood and oak trees tower over you. Walking routes web the wilderness, while luxury lodges perch over the cliffs for epic ocean views, most notably the incredible and award-winning Post Ranch Inn. The Big Sur region has fired the imaginations of many celebrated artists and writers over the years and we’re sure it will get your travel juices flowing, too!
The jewel in the USA’s national parks crown, Yosemite evokes a sense of awe in anyone who visits. Jaw-dropping is a word that is often overused but it couldn’t be more appropriate for Yosemite, where you’ll be wandering this immense wilderness with your mouth agape. Whether it’s the hulking granite presence of El Capitan or Half Dome, the cloud-baiting sequoias of Mariposa Grove or waterfall-striped rocky escarpments flanked by swathes of green, wherever you turn you’re drenched in scenic splendour. Add depth to your visit with a private guide, while the lakes and mountains of the nearby Sierra Nevada are the perfect canvas for a photography course and its pitch-black skies illuminated by a glittering blanket of stars.
National Park Entry Fees
Many parks charge an entrance fee (ranging from $5 to $35) - Yosemite's entry fee is $35 per vehicle - so, if you are planning to visit a few National Parks on your US road trip, it's worth considering purchasing an 'America the Beautiful Pass' for $80. This pass covers entrance for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free.
Free Entry in 2020 on selected dates!
On five special days in 2020, all National Parks with an entrance fee will offer free admission to everyone:
- January 20: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 18: First day of National Park Week.
- August 25: National Park Service Birthday.
- September 26: National Public Lands Day.
- November 11: Veterans Day.
Mammoth Lakes has made its name as one of the best places for skiing in California, but in fact it’s an outdoor wonderland across the whole year. Breathe in the fresh, mountain air and take to the multitude of walking and biking trails that weave through wildflower meadows and pine forests, while impressive alpine peaks loom overhead. The crystalline lakes that give this spectacular region its name are made for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding or for just sitting by the water’s edge, soaking up the eye-widening views. Aside from the plethora of brilliant skiing available come winter, you can hunt for the area’s hidden hot springs to warm up in. If you think this is just a playground for adrenaline junkies then don’t worry – the best thing about Mammoth Lakes is it’s accessible to all, its activities suitable for all ages and abilities.
In recent years, something special has been brewing in California. It’s become a hotbed for craft beer and is now the largest producing state in the USA. In this respect, San Diego is its capital, where around 100 craft breweries have been turning out innovative beers. This hasn’t gone unnoticed around the world, where international recognition and a host of awards have followed. A brewery tour pulls back the curtain to show you where the magic happens, while many eateries in the city offer a healthy range of local beers – a must-do on your holiday to California.
Where to stay in California
Best time to visit California
California is a year-round destination, with a climate similar to the Mediterranean. However, the best time to visit California depends on where you are in the state, as the weather patterns can be very different.
The northern city of San Francisco experiences dry and mild weather throughout the year, with April to October the best time to visit. Temperatures reach highs of the low 20s (degrees Celsius) in the summer and dip to around 14°C in the winter. During the height of winter, in January, showers can be fairly frequent but often disappear quickly – they’re uncommon during the rest of the year. The famous fog that San Francisco is known for comes in July and August, blanketing much of the city. Head north of San Francisco and you’ll feel warmer temperatures in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, where temperatures can nudge 30°C in the height of summer. Visit the area at the beginning and end of the summer season and you’ll witness the vineyards in full bloom (April) or the grape harvest (August to October). April to October is also the best time to visit the rugged Big Sur coastline, although it’s great at any time of year.
Southern California is hotter than the north, with temperatures in cities like Los Angeles reaching 30°C during the summer (April to October), while the winter (November to March) is mild in coastal cities like Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego, with the mercury registering 20°C or lower. While the winter is southern California at its ‘wettest’, rain is very uncommon and never an issue. During peak summer, low-lying clouds can descend over the area’s southern cities, especially the likes of San Diego and Los Angeles, where a blanket of fog wraps itself around the city. It’s since led to the names like ‘Grey May’ and ‘June Gloom’. Inland, the lack of a coastal breeze means summer in the desert is sizzling. Temperatures there can shoot beyond 40°C, before dropping to the low 20s during the winter – the best time to visit.
The inland wilderness of Yosemite National Park has more defined seasons than the rest of the state, with a clear spring, summer, autumn and winter. May to September is the best time to visit with little chance of rainfall and temperatures which can exceed 25°C during the day but also plunge to below 10°C at night (make sure you pack a jumper!). Spring offers the best chance to go hiking in these beautiful wilds, with the breeze and milder temperatures leaving you to explore feeling comfortable but without any intense heat. Each season in Yosemite offers something a little different – summer has the weather, in spring the snowmelt means waterfalls are at their fullest pouring from the mountains and in the winter the park is a snowy winter wonderland. In winter, the ski resorts near Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes are in full flow and the season in the latter can last right up until Independence Day on July 4!
California travel essentials
No vaccinations are currently recommended for California. For any current travel health advice, you should seek guidance from your GP at least four to six weeks prior to travel.
The time difference is GMT -8 hours.
There are plenty of direct flights from London to Californian cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, taking around 11 hours. Easy and affordable domestic flights also cut out the need for long drives between places across the state.
The currency is the US dollar.
British passport holders need to complete an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) application before travelling to the USA.
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