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Highlights include taking the ferry to Sausalito across the Bay and returning to the city by open topped bus across the Golden Gate Bridge, the prison island of Alcatraz where Al Capone was in residence for a number of years, riding the cable car up to Nob Hill, exploring the arty, foodie, boutiquey Hayes Valley neighbourhood and visiting the California Academy of Sciences.
You should also plan on eating out in two distinctly different neighbourhoods, Chinatown (the biggest outside Asia) and the distinctly Italian North Beach (where you should also browse in the City Lights bookstore, cultural crucible of the Beat poets).
Stay: 3 nights at Palace Hotel
Yosemite National Park with its amazing waterfalls like bridal veils, wildflower meadows carpeting the valley floor, granite monoliths and 3000 foot cliffs and El Capitan, the park’s tallest peak.
Take a guided open-top tram tour, rent a bike, hop on the free shuttle bus and hike one of the well signposted trails.
Stay: 2 nights at Teneya Lodge
Two national parks, standing side by side, are collectively referred to as the ‘Land of Giants’ on account of being home to the largest trees in the world. Don’t miss the mighty General Sherman, king of the Giant Forest,
Stay: 2 nights at Wuksachi Lodge
Palm Springs, a desert oasis encased by the bare, biscuit-coloured San Jacinto mountains, has long been a favourite playground for Hollywood stars. It enjoys brilliant sunshine and winter air as warm and dry as old bones (it gets the same amount of rain in the whole year as London gets in its driest month) but you might want to avoid the peak summer months when the air reaches meltdown.
Top attractions include the aerial tramway, which carries eight people at a time up to 8516 feet from desert to alpine climate in just 14 minutes, and the Joshua Tree, a half million acre wilderness named as the distinctive yuccas whose hairy arms and bristling green fists were featured on the eponymous U2 album.
Stay: 2 nights at Avalon Palm Springs
It’s everything you’ve seen in the movies, but then magnified, stretched and glitzified many times over. Everyone has their own tick list of essential LA viewings. Take your pick from Hollywood, funky Venice beach, then walk along the promenade to neighbouring, much more refined Santa Monica, famous for its historic pier and excellent shopping.
Then there’s the exclusive boutiques along Rodeo Drive, the homes of the movie stars in Beverly Hills, the one of a kind stores in Melrose, Universal Studios with its famous ‘back lot’ tour, Disneyland, the ‘ Walk of Fame’ celebrity’ hand prints, the famous Hollywood sign in the hills, J Paul Getty collections of art and the nightlife on Sunset Strip.
Stay: 2 nights at Andaz
Known as the ‘American Riviera’, this delightful, elegant, curiously south-facing seaside town has the feel of the Mediterranean, complete with lots of white stucco and terracotta roof tiles, with excellent shops, restaurants, a vast sweep of beach backed by a palm lined prom, the old Mission church and a wooden pier where you can lunch on lobster rolls and locally brewed beers.
Michael Douglas has a house here, as does Oprah Winfrey. ‘If everyone knew what we had out here’, a local waiter told me, ‘we’d be stampeded’.
Stay: 2 nights at Bacara Santa Barbara
On your way north, take in a guided tour of Hearst Castle, the sumptuous hilltop retreat of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. This Disney-esque palace, which is filled with his personal collection of priceless treasures, manages to reduce the average UK stately pile to the grandeur of a suburban semi. From here you’ll soon be driving the super-scenic Big Sur coast, 75 snaking miles that weave, duck and dive between the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest and the ocean swells and surf, spectacular coves, beaches and promontories.
Most famously the location for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Monterey also boasts one of the best aquariums in the world. We’d also recommend a detour to neighbouring Carmel, a remarkably pretty coastal town with a stock of antique shops and galleries, a historic Mission and a delightful white sand beach, before following the 17 mile scenic drive between Pebble Beach and Pacific .
Stay: 2 nights at Ventana Inn Big Sur
19 – Fly home
Once again the service we got from Ultimate was impeccable- NR, Burma