This post is brought to you in partnership with Visit California
If you read my blog regularly, you will know that I go to California every single Summer – and have been for almost 15 years. In fact, we indulge in our own version of a California road trip each time and we love to mix and match.
One place remains constant – we always always always go to the Greater Palm Springs area and then what we do is change up the beginning and the end of the trip.
Last Summer, we spent over 3 weeks in California (I know, I know, I am very lucky) – so in fact we did two different trips, so I am splitting the whole itinerary in 2 blog posts to make them more digestible.
After doing this for so long, I have one bit of advice to offer: stay longer in each place and go to less places and get to know them a little bit. Going to California isn’t a ‘trip of a lifetime’ – save a bit for the following year or season. For a bit of perspective, California is the same size of France. It can be the gift that keeps on giving. It surely is, for us.
California Road trip Stop 1 – Greater Palm Springs
Greater Palm Springs, or the Desert Cities is a cluster of more than a handful of small cities, of which Palm Springs is the best known. I have based myself in Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert in previous trips – it all depends on the accommodation you choose.
Where to stay in Greater Palm Springs
Whatever my decision, it does not stop me from going to dinner or shopping at A or B. Personally, I am a big fan of all three, but interestingly in recent years, we are staying more in Palm Springs. Why? Because it has been changing quite a bit – and in a very good way. It appeals to a variety of crowds – and the real estate aspect plays a part. The downtown area is being revitalised as we speak – they literally added some new brand new street blocks, some interesting hotels are emerging (from the classic Parker or The Colony Palms, to The Rowan (a Kimpton hotel) which offers the best views of the area or the Andaz (which hasn’t opened yet).
In Rancho Mirage, you have the Ritz Carlton and the Westin Mission Hills – and there really are a lot of options.
But I must confess, since we first rented a villa a few Summers back, we have never looked back. Greater Palm Springs has a fantastic collection of what Americans call ‘vacation rentals’ – it is highly regulated in Palm Springs, which is great. This year, we had this fabulous mid-century modern house for 6 nights – it had 4 bedrooms but we only used the master – and we did not have to share a pool with anyone. Our host Rick was incredible and actually helped me peel off yet another layer of Palm Springs.
I have been 11 or 12 times… and I felt I barely scratched the surface.
The specs on this house were excellent – and I honestly cannot fault a thing. The master was incredible too…
A house like this costs around $595-$795 a night depending on the time of the year. It sleeps 8, but it was perfect just having it to ourselves.
My favourite room was the very European bathroom (Duravit, Hansgrohe, the lot) – and even the towels were better than in many luxury hotels.
And the pool and outdoor area were just perfect – very comfortable and with plenty of options. I actually spent most of my time sitting inside the pool and reading or swimming.
Where to eat and drink in Palm Springs
We tried a bunch of new (to us) places – and went back to old favourites during our 6-night stay (I can’t do less than 6 nights – I still feel I missed out on a lot of places).
We had breakfast and lunch at the house as we were on a health kick (which included daily reformer Pilates classes for us, believe you me). We had green juice (how very California) and eggs for breakfast and then had some fruit and crudités we bought at Jensen’s (the best ‘grocery store’ in Palm Springs) and Whole Foods (in Palm Desert). I am very proud to announce that I returned home after 18 days in California with exactly the same weight that I left and this week I think was absolutely key to it). The other reason was because Cheeky’s, our favourite place for breakfast was closed for their Summer holiday.
We ventured out twice (as I really wanted a grilled cheese sandwich) for lunch – one of which was to Sherman’s, a Palm Springs institution and we had never been. Very old fashioned – things have not changed there at all, and it made for an experience.
We had an excellent evening at Sandfish with fantastic sushi and tostadas (could have been paired with whisky but we went for wine). We really liked it (and amazing value at $100 for 2). The Ice Cream & Shop(pe) across the street was very good.
We had an excellent (as normally) dinner at Ruth Chris steak house in Palm Desert ($150 for 2 as we finally realised we could share one of those gigantic steaks). This place is one of our desert traditions and usually always our first meal. We also tried LG’s Prime Steakhouse for the first time in Palm Springs. It is located in the downtown area full of bars and restaurants we don’t usually visit – and whereas the place really is in need of an update, the dining part of the experience was excellent. I think I had the best Caesar salad ever (table made) and steak was also exceptional. Dinner was around the same.
Always on our list is Workshop which never disappoints, but we also got to try Melvin’s at the Ingleside Inn – another classic which we had never even heard of. It was like stepping back into time, but in a rather glamorous way. We loved our evening (but the food was not the best of the trip). The other standout was Farm (again, there for ages but completely new to us – thank you to Rick, our super host) – everything about it was fantastic and I cannot recommend it enough.
For drinks, we went to The Rowan’s rooftop bar in Palm Springs – at something like 5 floors, it is the tallest building in Palm Springs and comes with views too.
Where to shop in Palm Springs and Palm Desert
I tend to do 90% of my shopping (including my pre-trip shopping which is something I love more and more) in the area when I visit California. Why? Because they have everything.
Palm Springs is going through something – and as you can see above, they literally just rebuilt some blocks and added some pretty decent retail to it (and a fabulous West Elm).
Palm Desert offers El Paseo, which is affectionately known as the “Rodeo Drive of the desert”. The improvements here are also very visible. From Saks (on and Off Fifth), to Williams Sonoma, an Apple store (we took their architectural walk photo tour which was really interesting – and free), Bottega Venetta and Louis Vuitton. We may have visited more than once.
Also, on a recommendation from a reader, we had a very nice lunch at Wilma & Frieda which we had no idea was there right next to Saks.
And 30 minutes away from Palm Springs, you will find the Desert Hills Premium Outlets (which we really like).
Where to exercise in Greater Palm Springs
This is not a heading you see on my normal trip reviews – but we really got into reformer Pilates and we wanted to continue to work out while we were away. My teacher Carine (from Nubodi Pilates in Henley on Thames) recommended Sean Bergara from Ecore fitness – and boy were we in for a treat.
Sean’s studio was less than 5 minutes from our house and we visited every day. It was very easy to book as the studio uses Mindbody (like ours does at home) and it is a great way to find local fitness classes, if this is your cup of tea.
Also, if you are travelling with children, my friend Nancy has some great suggestions on what to do with kids in Palm Springs.
From the desert, we headed back to the city and one of our favourite places: Beverly Hills. We left first thing in the morning and it took us just under 90 minutes, which was perfect.
California Road trip Stop 2 – Beverly Hills & West Hollywood
We almost always choose Beverly Hills as our base in Los Angeles. ‘LA’ isn’t an easy city to crack – it took us a good 5 visits to understand the distances (the traffic patterns) and Beverly Hills works for us like nowhere else.
On this trip, we only stayed for 2 nights (we usually stay for 3 or 4, which is a ‘good number’), so we had to compromise a bit – but it is a good problem to have.
Where to stay in Beverly Hills
As you may have seen from the video above, we stayed at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, which is where we normally stay. We didn’t stay a few Summers before as we chose to be based in Santa Monica, but it was great to return.
There is more than a handful of fabulous hotels in Beverly Hills – so it is just a matter of picking one you like. This is ours – we know our way around the hotel, think that the service is excellent and love how casually elegant it is. Plus it hosts quite a few film junkets so you may be in for a surprise or three.
On this trip, we got to try the new California Wellness Suites – which were very unique. I have a 3-D video walkthrough on Facebook of the suite across the hall from ours – but you can see from the photos it is exactly like ours except that it had a Peloton bike. Our suite had 8 suitcases (not the hotel’s fault) so I thought I would treat you to a clutter-free tour.
Where to eat in Beverly Hills
Well… not many people eat in Beverly Hills… I am joking (but am I?). In all seriousness, there are plenty plenty of choices.
We were tight on time as stated, so we actually had a pool lunch at the Four Seasons one day (they do really good lobster tacos there) and went to The Belvedere at the Peninsula for a quick lunch (in between shopping) the other day. Both meals were quite simple – which is something that seems to be the common thread in Beverly Hills and we quite like. Lunch for two at either place will work out at around $100 (++) with a glass of wine or cocktail each.
For dinner, we went to AOC in Beverly Hills (we have been quite a few times now and really like it – courtesy of my friend Molly who always points us in the right direction in this part of the world. On the second night, we went to Gracias Madre in West Hollywood (just a few minutes from Beverly Hills) and enjoyed its Mexican vegetarian delights (it really was good).
Where to shop in Beverly Hills
This is quite a straight forward question as we are talking about Beverly Hills – but I would say.. explore the side streets of Rodeo Drive. There is more than meets the eye.
North Beverly Drive is just behind and home to Crate and Barrel (one of the nicest ones in California) and a must visit (just add this reference point and you are good to go).
I also ventured out to West Hollywood and have 3 experiences to share with you. If you are in the area, do go to Melrose Place (it does exist) and lose yourself at Violet Grey (which offers the most amazing and welcoming beauty experience I have ever seen), pre-book a session at Amanu and have a beautiful pair of sandals hand made for you there and then (takes about 30 minutes and it is around $250). I would also recommend a visit to the first flagship of The Real Real on Melrose Avenue (which is the American version of Vestiaire Collective) – I didn’t buy anything, but I loved the space. You can take your clothes there for resale and they will also photograph them for you etc.
Where to work out in Beverly Hills (and live your best life)
We continued our ‘California wellness plan’ and with the help of the Mindbody app we found Natural Pilates (across the street from The Peninsula) – the classes were ‘very different’ than the previous ones. If you can survive a workout class in Beverly Hills, you deserve a big breakfast after that. It was very clear that people work very hard to have those wonderful bodies – but I was very glad I tried. Simon was called ‘Sir’ for a whole class, which we will never quite forget, but really enjoyed working out with all the ladies.
I went to the Drybar in Beverly Hills and with the help of my friend Molly, we discovered Bellacures which was a lovely nail salon (and also bookable on Mindbody). Simon O’Reilly definitely was living his best LA life.
And as you can see, there wasn’t time for a lot more. But good things awaited: our first proper visit to Newport Beach, which took us under an hour (without traffic) to get to.
California Road trip Stop 3 – Newport Beach
Newport Beach is home to some of the world’s most ‘interesting’ real estate – and that is saying something when you are coming from Beverly Hills.
On the water, it has its own Real Housewives franchise and a very specific set of social rules to follow. It is a place we actually got to enjoy very much so as outsiders – but with a perk. My wonderful friend Kim-Marie Evans of Luxury Travel Mom moved from Greenwich, Connecticut to Corona del Mar in Newport Beach, so we will come back very often.
Where to stay in Newport Beach
We chose to stay at the Balboa Bay Resort, which is the only luxury waterfront hotel. It has been recently renovated (and has a commendable Forbes four-star rating) and is home to some good dining (and great cocktails) and an unbeatable location.
Plus it was recommended by Luxury Travel Mom – and you can read her review of the Balboa Bay Resort here.
We thought service was very friendly and I loved that it came with its own Drybar (for reference, the Drybar is one of California’s greatest gifts to the world). My only comment is that the pool is not waterfront (but the next door members club’s pool is, so it makes you a little jealous).
The Duffy boats in Newport Beach
Duffy boats are part of Newport Beach life – and as long as you have a drivers licence, you are good to rent one. They are about $200 for 2 hours (and better deals even for longer stays) and a great way to explore the waterways.
I had two Duffy boat experiences in 3 days – that goes to show it how much we enjoyed. First, we had a Dock & Dine experience (more on that later), and on our last day, we hired one from the hotel and Simon tool the duties of our captain. I was joined by Kim-Marie and her two youngest sons – Keaton and Wilson who really are enjoying the California way of life.
It is definitely one of the best ways of truly enjoying Newport Beach from the water – it is a beautiful part of Southern California and it really isn’t difficult to get around in a Duffy boat.
The hotel organised some cheese and wine (very nice) and we decided to organise a Flytographer shoot to go alongside with it – not so much on the boat, but we were able to park it.
I am sure you can tell we had a pretty decent time – the golden hour was in full swing and let’s put it this way, Newport Beach can be very pleasing to the eye. Very.
Where to eat in Newport Beach
I mentioned earlier the Dock & Dine experience – and having ‘been on one for lunch’, I think it is really a fun way to explore. You basically get your boat from a set location and there is a number of restaurants that make it very easy for you to arrive in your Duffy boat, dock it, enjoy lunch and return to the water.
We did so and had lunch at Lido Bottle Works (which we returned to on our winter trip) and actually thought it was one of the best meals we had in Southern California (and that is saying something). Outside the boat, we also enjoyed a meal at Waterline, the more formal restaurant at Balboa Bay Resort, a dinner at Fig & Olive (where we were actually served a whole fish on the bone). Other places to note are the Farmhouse at Rogers Gardens and The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove Beach. This last one involves a little walk (a 5-10 minutes) to the beach and it is quite basic place but everyone queues up for breakfast for quite a bit. Arrive by 9am to get a table.
Meals fell within the $50-150 per person range, depending on the drinks, of course.
We left Newport Beach and ended our trip with 4 blissful days at The Golden Door, which was voted the best destination spa in the world (2019) by Conde Nast Traveller, and believe me, there was plenty of exercise there. It is an hour and a bit away and absolutely worth a visit.
How to get to California
British Airways flies to over 6 destinations in California and you are free to mix and match airports – just picking the one closest to your California road trip itinerary.
LAX would be the most direct airport if you wished to take a single flight from London.
The desert cities are located 120 miles from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) – so 2 hours drive would be a good rule of thumb, assuming there is no traffic. You can actually fly to Palm Springs with a connection from the UK (say, with British Airways and then with an onwards American Airlines connection) or fly to Phoenix and drive 4 hours (which is what we did as it saved us, on our dates, £5000 each in business class with British Airways. We flew back direct from LAX). Ontario airport (with a connection from Dallas) is also a new option for us to explore – and perfect as it is only an hour from Palm Springs.
Newport Beach is only 45 miles from LAX – and the drive can take anything from 45 minutes to 2 hours. John Wayne is the local airport with good connections within the USA.
How to leave California
You can leave California in a normal way, or you can leave California in quite a spectacular way: via The Private Suite at LAX. You bypass the whole airport experience – and are taken to your own private lounge with a private loo where you can enjoy a drink and/or a nibble.
If you are a member of this service, you can also pre-book beauty treatments (from massages to haircuts) free of charge and when the time comes, you are driven to your plane.
Whereas this really was a fantastic way to end the trip, I will make two comments: for the $4000 one would pay for this service (not exactly low cost), I would have expected the alcohol to be of a slightly better standard, as well as the bathroom toiletries. The champagne wasn’t cold (ice cubes on the Pommery), there was no tonic (we were told to make our gin with sparkling water, but in fairness, someone went out to buy it and we had it just in time for our flight). When we were taken to the plane, you are dropped below but go up the stairs on the jetty. I thought our timing could have been slightly tweaked so as we wouldn’t have to queue the whole way (I wouldn’t normally as I am Group 1 with BA and flying business).
That said, the whole service ran like clockwork and was very pleasant – but these 2 details could be improved, in my opinion (and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t let my readers know). Security was a breeze (just us and the TSA agents were not stressed at all), the lounge itself was very comfortable and there was also an outside area where you could get the last rays of California sunshine.
If you are driving to the airport, Avis are now offering a service I have used twice, called terminal drop-off, which is absolutely worth the $25 they charge. Basically you go to Avis, drop off the car and get it scanned and checked… and then someone drives you (and your stuff) to the terminal. In our case, we were driven straight to the Private Suite and it was a breeze.
Until the next time, California
People ask me why I keep returning to California – it is one of my favourite parts of the world. Things work there, we have made great friends there, it is very pleasant to the eye and we love the food. And the shopping. And everything else – and I promise you will too.
See you very soon on yet another road trip.
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Disclaimer and Fact box: this trip was funded and sponsored by Visit California and it was an absolute pleasure (and honour) to work with them on this trip. I know California very well and they have asked me to share this in whichever way I saw fit. I would invite you to begin your California trip planning at their website, which actually is quite useful.
Beverly Hills: a great base to explore Los Angeles and Love Beverly Hills is the official website of this fabulous town. We stayed at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, which is where we normally stay. Room rates start at $450 (depending on the time of the year), and suites at $1200 per night. Valet Parking is $46/day with unlimited entries.
Newport Beach: a great discovery for us, and a new obligatory stop on our trips to Southern California. Start planning your trip here. We stayed at Balboa Bay Resort, which I highly recommend. Room rates start at $295 (depending on the time of the year). Valet parking is $32/night with unlimited entries.
British Airways was our partner on this trip, and you can fly to California from London Heathrow from £1800 in business class, but average fares are around £2500-3000. British Airways flies to Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose. Las Vegas and Phoenix are also good options if the flights are really full. Google Flights is your friend here.
We hired a car with Avis (if you are a fellow BAEC Gold, use N744400 as your AWD) and I have a tip for you: split your booking in two. We did so in Palm Springs (and casually returned our car and picked up a new one before dinner one night) – we got the exact same SUV in a different colour and saved $500 total. Not bad for 15 minutes work.
The Private Suite at LAX was a very special way to end our trip to California. A ‘non-member’ international one way service costs $4000 for up to 3 people. Corporate Memberships are available.