I spent my first full day on board the Napa Valley Wine Train, which meanders along 25 miles of track through beautiful scenery interspersed with such exclusive wineries as Robert Mondavi. You can disembark from the train if you wish and sample some of the produce, but a stunningly good three course lunch did for me.
Back at the hotel, I rounded things off with an Indian Springs traditional mud bath made from volcanic ash found on the property and mineral water from the on site geysers. Driving back for San Francisco, I stopped off in the Sonoma Valley to be a winemaker for the day at Buena Vista, California’s oldest winery. Dressed up as a countess and taken into the caves, I could choose from Merlot, Grenache, Syrah and Zinfandel to blend a unique bottle of wine to take home with me. Sonoma itself is a lovely Californian country town with weekly farmers markets, where everyone comes together to enjoy the warm summer evenings.
Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t disappoint, with clear skies and none of the usual fog obscuring the views, but just one day in San Francisco was not nearly enough to do this fabulous city justice. I did however manage to cram in Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square, ride on one of the city’s historic cable car trams and climb Lombard Street, dubbed the world’s crookedest, in full and glorious floral bloom.
Heading out of San Francisco along the bay, I joined Highway 101 for the drive south to the Monterey Peninsula and the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s well worth spending a couple of nights here to make the most of Carmel’s wonderful boutique shops and restaurants, before tackling the twisting, winding turns of Big Sur. This remote and rugged 85-mile stretch of coastal tarmac between Carmel and San Simeon has been described as the ‘greatest meeting point of land and water in the world’; certainly the scenery is breath taking and there plenty of stopping points en route to drink it all in.
Inland from San Simeon, Hearst Castle (much loved by the Hollywood set in its notorious 1930’s heyday) makes for an interesting detour. There are a number of different Castle tours to choose from, but I took ‘The Grand Rooms’ option which included the assembly room, theatre, gardens and spectacular pools. And look out for zebras grazing the hills on the way up to the castle in what was once the world’s largest private zoo. It is entirely feasible to drive the whole way from Carmel to Santa Barbara in one go and still have plenty of time to enjoy the views and to visit Hearst Castle.
Santa Barbara, with its white washed buildings and red tiled roofs, is known as the American Riviera, and the two days I spent here in the luxurious seclusion of Belmond El Encanto was arguably the highlight of my entire trip. The perfect spot for couples and families alike, this beautiful hotel is set high above the town with magnificent sunset views over the Pacific Ocean.
The best way to see the town is to ride the Santa Barbara Trolley, which took me to the Zoo, Museum of Natural History, Butterfly Beach and the Old Santa Barbara Mission, but the hotel can also arrange whale watching excursions and visits to local vineyards for yet more wine tasting. And so to Santa Monica, where my Californian road trip ended with a night and one last perfect sunset at this famous Pacific resort’s finest beachfront hotel, Shutters on the Beach.''
Gemma Williams, USA, November 2016