Luxury, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder—or the vacationer. Indulgence for you might mean reservations at one of L.A.’s swankiest restaurants, or perhaps a chance to give the credit card a workout on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But for adventurous vacationers, a night under colourful blankets in a plush Mongolian yurt overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or swimming laps in a turquoise pool at a Palm Springs resort might be the height of luxury.
Fortunately, California lets you spoil yourself all these ways, and plenty more. Here are some of our favourite indulgences.
Though he isn’t a star on a food show, Chef Keller’s fame is almost unsurpassed in the food world, simply based on the brilliance of his food and the quality of his dining experience, both epitomized at this Yountville institution. With three Michelin stars, The French Laundry is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be on any fine-diner’s bucket list. The tasting menu is sublime, with changing seasonal dishes as well as Chef Keller’s signature “oysters and pearls” (oysters and caviar in sabayon).
If you can’t snag a reservation (tables fill up months in advance), visit Chef Keller’s neighbouring Bouchon Bistro for impressive French-influenced food in more casual surroundings. The menu highlights classic bistro fare, such as steak frites, soupe à l’oignon, escargots à la bourguignonne, and confît de canard.
Just driving through town on the way to wine tasting? Stop by Chef Keller’s Bouchon Bakery for a perfect macaroon or buttery slice of quiche.
Insider’s tip: One way to spot Chef Keller is at top food and wine festivals, such as the star-chef-studded Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
Here’s the best of the best, a country road trimmed with shady oaks and world-class wines, with so many wineries you could travel it for a week straight and still not visit them all. The first permanent road linking the town of Napa to Calistoga, roughly 30 miles/48 kilometres south, the Silverado Trail is the country-road counterpart to busier Highway 29, which roughly parallels the route. Drive—or better yet rent a bike and pedal—along this tranquil, scenic route, snugged up against the valley’s eastern hills.
"Here’s the best of the best, a country road trimmed with shady oaks and world-class wines."
The biggest challenge is figuring out where to stop first. Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines, and Miner Family Winery, just three of the dozens of wonderful places to sample Napa Valley’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. Sparkling wine fans will want to stop at Mumm Napa, where you can sip bubbly on an elegant patio, in a tasting salon, or reserve a seat on the intimate Oak Terrace. Other turns take you to how-can-they-be-so-perfect wine-country inns and resorts, such as Auberge du Soleil and Solage Calistoga. To see one of the prettiest places in the whole region, take the long, leafy drive onto the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an al fresco lunch at The Grill, or, if you’re feeling extra splurge-y, dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, known for impeccable service and farm-to-table offerings served with—of course—exquisite wines.
Wiggle into a wetsuit and step into the Wild Arctic exhibit to touch and interact with snowy white beluga whales (FYI, they feel a bit like cold, wet hot dogs). Also get backstage peeks of polar bears and walruses, and see how trainers work with these incredible (and big) cold-weather creatures.
The Beluga Interaction is one of several special experiences you can have with SeaWorld’s animals and trainers. Other special interactions include a chance to hang out with the park’s resident bottlenose dolphins, and learn simple hand signals from their human trainers. Penguins get star treatment during a special encounter with these unusual birds. Tour the penguin’s state-of-the-art facility, learn about their special adaptions for living the frigid Antarctic lifestyle, and meet a penguin face to face—or make that face-to-beak.
Often ranked as one of the most magical glamping experiences in the state, this tree-shaded compound tucked into the coastal hills a half-hour northwest of Santa Barbara is one of those pinch-me destinations everyone should experience at least once (but we bet you’ll book a return before you leave). The setting is so private that it’s hard to believe that more than 100 cabins and safari tents occupy the hillside landscape of El Capitan Canyon, surrounded on three sides by the oceanfront and backcountry of El Capitan State Beach. Choose from basic canvas tents built on wood platforms, or fancier cedar cabins with bathrooms and kitchenettes. All accommodations are situated along a wooded drive that leads into the hilly portion of El Capitan State Beach, where wildlife abounds. But the real draw here is the proximity to the coastline itself, where you can walk, bike, or drive under Highway 101 to access the sandy beach and tide pools. Complimentary cruiser bikes are available for guests; friendly staff can also arrange surf lessons, whale watching, kayaking, or wine tasting. There’s also a summer concert series on site, May through September.
Insider’s tip: Cook your own meals—there’s a store on site for groceries—or consider the market’s selection of gourmet-style prepared meals.
Pampering just comes with the territory in the California desert. Maybe in the old days, desert visitors had to pack in supplies and sleep on the hard ground, but the swaying palms, cool tile walkways, and spring-fed pool at Death Valley’s Inn at Furnace Creek don’t exactly scream “rough it.” More like, “Find your sunlounger and relax.” So it goes at California’s desert resorts, dotting the dramatic landscape from northern parklands in the Palm Springs region to manicured landscapes in the Coachella Valley.
“Find your sunlounger and relax.”
You’ll find resorts in all styles--from lavish opulence to sleek modernism--with many lodgings reflecting the era they were built. The Parker Palm Springs, the former ranch of singing cowboy Gene Autry, has the sleek, low-slung coolness of Mid-century Modern design. The flower-filled courtyards and red-tiled adobe casitas at the expansive La Quinta Resort & Club, opened in 1926, hint at romance under a desert moon. At The Willows historic Palm Springs inn, once a millionaire's private retreat, terraced gardens beckon. And everything old is new again at the styled-to-the-roughing-it-nines at Sparrows Lodge, where vaulted wood ceilings, stone details, and restored horse troughs for bathtubs give a relaxed ranch feel--though no luxury is spared.
There’s all-out luxury too. At Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage, settle into a suite with contemporary furnishings and mountain views, then play a round of golf before enjoying a body treatment featuring desert herbs and minerals.
You’ll definitely want to leave room in your suitcase for L.A. shopping.
If you’re ready to whip out the platinum card, head to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, home to Chanel, Giorgio Armani, and other mega-designer boutiques. Nearby Robertson Boulevard also has chic boutiques. Just east of Beverly Hills, upscale The Grove, across the street from the popular Original Farmers Market, has a village atmosphere, with a fountain-filled park and leafy outdoor cafes.
For celeb-spotting while you shop, aim for Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Also in town is the popular, pedestrian friendly Third Street Promenade, with big-name chains and a lively feel.
At the south end of the promenade, open-air Santa Monica Place features trendy boutiques and a rooftop dining deck with ocean views. Just south is Venice Beach’s fun and funky Abbot Kinney Boulevard, home to hip clothiers, galleries, and oh-so-cool restaurants and cafes.