Is there a better way to kick-start a trip through southern California than with a jaunt to a vineyard for breakfast? Of course not. After all, it’s educational.


We start out in Orange County where there are, of course, a number of wineries to choose from. But the private and secluded Newport Beach Vineyards and Winery, set above the Upper Newport Bay is where we decide to visit, taking a wonderful morning trip through the botanical gardens, past the koi ponds and vegetable patches on the property before settling down in the wine cave to taste some of the local produce.

The cave itself is lined with stacks of full barrels that will sit in place for two years while the wine ages, and we sit in front of and learn about the vineyard’s different blends. After the (highly enjoyable) taste test we come out feeling like connoisseurs, or at least with a few tips about Californian wine to impress the uninitiated. There’s also an extra-friendly dog belonging to the owner who decides to join in with the general tour and, out of complete luck, the owner leaves his garage door open, giving a rare opportunity for us to ogle his impressive collection of classic sports cars on our way out.

I’m travelling with a few people and we stay together at the Island Hotel, which towers above the palm trees below to give excellent views of the harbour and the coastline through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a stone’s throw from the boutiques and designer shops of Fashion Island, where it’s surprisingly easy to lose a day or so in if you’re not being careful, and to top it off this area is brimming with notable restaurants. Fig & Olive is worth a trip for its inventive menu: the restaurant has replaced all instances of butter with different kinds of olive oils. Oil is served with bread, it is used as an ingredient in place of dairy – it’s even in the desserts.

We decide to test the best way to lap up Newport Beach and its wonderfully calm bay. Would it be by water or by air? For the purposes of comparison we try both, and they are each unmissable.

For instance; there is nothing quite as satisfying as sitting on the deck of a Hornblower cruise-liner as it speeds past the seven islands in the harbour with a glass of Californian sparkling wine in hand. But then again, there is nothing quite as exciting as leaping into an OC Helicopter and being flown straight out over the bay in a small, extremely noisy machine that makes the ground below look like toy town. I definitely felt my stomach flip as looked past my feet to the water underneath us as we hovered over the bay, while a wide grin spread across my face at the same time.

I mean, I still can’t choose which was better.

Next we drive a couple of miles down the coast to San Diego. There are two films irrevocably associated with this city: Top Gun and Anchorman, and when we walk along the waterfront downtown it is impossible to forget that this place has the biggest naval base on the West Coast of the United States. The USS Midway, a former aircraft carrier and now museum, looms out of the water like a humongous ship and is bedecked with military aircraft – you can practically see Maverick landing on it.

As for the Anchorman references – the temptation to utter Ron Burgundy’s motto never quite disappears, though I get a distinct feeling the words would be met with eye-rolling and heavy sighing rather than laughter, so I give it a miss. But there is far more to this Golden State city than just film references, and it is hidden just a little way uptown.

La Jolla, the more upmarket and, dare I say it, classy part of town is less than a half hour’s drive from downtown San Diego, but it feels a world apart. Our stay is at the five diamond resort The Lodge at Torrey Pines, which offers views of the La Jolla coastline and Pacific Ocean with nothing but the hotel’s expansive golf course in between.

The hotel has been designed in the elegant turn-of-the-century Craftsman style. Its rooms are decked with rich Jatoba wood beams and decorated with William Morris-style patterned furniture and carpets. Most surfaces are dotted with Tiffany-style lamps. Like I said: classy.

Elegant is certainly the way to describe this part of San Diego, which is home to the truly stunning Salk Institute, a biological research centre founded by the creator of the polio vaccine and designed by architect Louis Kahn. When I stand in the very centre of the courtyard in front of a stream of water that runs the length of the floor, it appears almost as if the water spills straight past the vanishing point and out into the horizon. I realise how this may sound but, it genuinely feels like being inside a painting and like looking at infinity at the same time – no wonder architects from all over the world travel here just to stand in this spot.

We discover an especially elegant dining experience at the Marine Room, where the best seats in the house are practically on the beach but comfortably inside. The restaurant’s menu is overseen by the charismatic French Chef Bernard Guillas who takes us through his creations. He is keen on showcasing seasonal, local produce, but I’m sold the minute he starts talking about the delicately seared togarashi sesame crusted Ahi tuna which, in my humble opinion, tastes incredible.

But no trip to San Diego would be complete without at least one outdoorsy activity. Instead of choosing one of the more accessible activities of surfing, cycling or running, we decide to chase another adrenaline high and go paragliding. Up at the Torrey Pines Gliderport we get rigged up and attached to an instructor before literally running off the edge of a cliff and taking flight. The quietness and calm of riding the air along the length of the coastline is a fantastic, if mildly terrifying, experience.

We hit the road again and finally make it to Palm Springs, the home of 1950s American pool party glamour, mid-century modernist architecture, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

That’s right, the Wolf of Wall Street bought into the Palm Springs dream with the purchase of his 7,022 square ft, $5.2m home (which he rents out for $4,500 a night) last February, marking a return to the days of Hollywood partying that this desert city was known for. It seems like everyone has lived here, from Liberace to Elvis Presley and Katherine Hepburn to Frank Sinatra. Legend has it that ol’ blue eyes would even fly a flag emblazoned with a Jack Daniels bottle to let people know when he was in town.

But while people have often travelled through this beautiful corner of southern California simply to get to Coachella – past the distinctive bungalows topped with the butterfly roofs rarely found outside of Palm Springs – DiCaprio’s investment here is just one of the signs that this hot desert city, complete with its classic 1950s-style signs outside hip new restaurants and bars, is now the go-to place for glamorous fun. Louis Vuitton holding a fashion show here in April is another.

And what better way to experience this return to form than with a stay at the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage? The five-star resort, which re-opened last year, is set in the hillside overlooking the desert valley floor. The design of the hotel’s lobby, bars and restaurants is classic and chic, with limestone, walnut flooring and California stacked stone used to emulate the colours of the desert. It even sits on Frank Sinatra Drive.

There are three pools to choose from, all of which are served by the Air Pool Bar, but we chose the adult pool to spend an afternoon lounging next to and sipping cocktails in the sun – the view of the mountains from here is wonderful. The meat lovers in our party rejoiced in the newly opened steakhouse, The Edge, whose chefs take great pride in their prime dry-aged bone-in steaks. I would also recommend asking to have a Negroni rustled up for anyone who is in need of a gin fix.

But when it comes to desert relaxation it is the spa, housed in its own separate complex, which beats all of the fire pits (23 in total) to gaze into, poolside cocktails to sample, or luxuriating bubble baths to be had (though it should be mentioned that the bath in my room is, quite simply, huge). Yes, the spa with its range of facials, massages, and body treatments, where attentive staff make sure any possible need is met, is the place to discover there is nothing better than spending all day in a dressing-gown and slippers, blissed out and smiling – probably with a cocktail in hand. It’s all part of the experience, after all.

Words: Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith flew between London Heathrow and Los Angeles with Air NewZealand in their new Space Seats, located in premium economy. The seats are designed so that the person sat in front of you can recline their seat backwards without pushing into your space. In addition, the seats are designed so passengers can sit and relax with a partner or choose a seat with more privacy for when travelling alone.