Yosemite National Park celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, and spring is the best season for its major jaw-droppers: waterfalls. Snow melt feeds the torrents, which reach their peak in May at the falls that top 2,000 feet—Yosemite Falls and Sentinel—as well as numerous smaller falls. Yosemite Crossroads Tours will create a custom park tour, with SUV transportation to the best vantage points.
STAY | At Château du Sureau, a Relais & Châteaux property in Oakhurst, staff have an uncanny ability to predict exactly when guests will return from hikes—and have warm footbaths waiting.
EAT | The Ahwahnee is Yosemite’s grand in-park hotel, and a National Historic Landmark. Step back in time in the dining room, where formal meals are served beneath the 34-foot ceiling.
DON’T MISS | Wapama Falls is adjacent to the other big Yosemite draw in spring: fields of wildflowers, which are just beginning to bloom. Head out on a guided hike to take in the tufted poppies, western azalea and evening primrose, and return to Château du Sureau for a private flower arranging class, suggests Olivia Paszkowski, North American destination expert at Kensington Tours.
CONTACT | Yosemite Crossroads Tours, 415.251.7327, xroadstours.com; Château du Sureau, 559.683.6860, chateausureau.com; the Ahwahnee, 801.559.4884, yosemitepark.com/the-ahwahnee.aspx; Kensington Tours, 888.903.2001, kensingtontours.com
SONOMA AND NAPA
Sonoma and Napa are the two best-known wine regions in California, but don’t dismiss them as been-there, done-that. While the crowds do flock to Napa’s more than 400 wineries, and to Sonoma’s 300, there are still untapped experiences, says Scott Wiseman, president of Cox & Kings. Instead of elbowing people out of the way at a slick tasting room, his company organizes chauffeured tours of smaller wineries typically closed to the public, starting with a private, on-site tasting with the sommelier at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. (The Michelin-rated three-star Restaurant maintains a wine cellar of 1,200 bottles.) Break up a wine-soaked Sonoma day with a bike ride among trees that stretch more than 300 feet overhead at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville, says Kathy Stewart, bespoke trip planner at Butterfield & Robinson.
STAY | Calistoga Ranch, in Calistoga, offers 50 freestanding lodges, each with plenty of private outdoor space, set on 157 acres. European luxury meets Sonoma wine country at Hotel Les Mars, one block from the picturesque square in Healdsburg.
EAT | Chalkboard combines serious gastronomy with a casual California style. (Lunch on weekends, dinner nightly)
DON’T MISS | Round Pond Estate, in Rutherford, is a small-lot winemaker that also produces meticulously crafted olive oil and vinegar available for private tastings.
CONTACT | Cox & Kings, 323.498.1409, coxandkingsusa.com; Butterfield & Robinson,email@example.com, 866.551.9090, butterfield.com; Calistoga Ranch, 855.942.4220,calistogaranch.aubergeresorts.com; Hotel Les Mars, firstname.lastname@example.org, 707.433.4211,hotellesmars.com; Chalkboard, email@example.com, 707.473.8030,chalkboardhealdsburg.com; the Restaurant at Meadowood, firstname.lastname@example.org, 707.967.1205,therestaurantatmeadowood.com; Round Pond Estate, email@example.com, 888.302.2575,roundpond.com
Lynda Turley Garrett, luxury travel advisor at Alpine Travel of Saratoga, recommends Santa Barbara as one of California’s most walkable and sophisticated small cities. The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail is home to about two dozen wineries, which showcase wine produced in the surrounding areas. Wine-travel firm Coastal Concierge will arrange a private walking tour ending with a sunset sail on a 50-foot catamaran.
STAY | At the gorgeous Belmond El Encanto book the Camellia Suite for its privacy and ocean view. For historical pedigree, try the San Ysidro Ranch, which retains the elegance that drew John and Jackie Kennedy for their honeymoon.
EAT | Cozy Seagrass offers sustainable, perfectly prepared seafood. Extraordinary red sea urchin sometimes appears in the risotto of the day—it is hand-harvested from Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands, where variable water temperatures produce an uni whose flavor is among the world’s best.
DON’T MISS | An excursion to Los Olivos, a half-hour drive from Santa Barbara. Downtown is filled with boutiques, galleries and (of course) wine-tasting opportunities. Saarloos & Sons’ tasting room offers a weekly menu of wine-infused cupcake “flights”—chocolate blackberry syrah is the signature flavor.
CONTACT | Alpine Travel of Saratoga, Lynda Turley Garrett, firstname.lastname@example.org, 408.379.3853, alpine-travel.com; Coastal Concierge, email@example.com, 805.265.6065, sbcoastalconcierge.com; Belmond El Encanto, firstname.lastname@example.org, 800.393.5315, belmond.com/el-encanto-santa-barbara; San Ysidro Ranch,email@example.com, 805.565.1700, sanysidroranch.com; Seagrass,firstname.lastname@example.org, 805.963.1012, seagrassrestaurant.com; Saarloos & Sons, 805.688.1200, saarloosandsons.com
The cliffs of Big Sur encourage contemplation of the Pacific Ocean, while seaside Carmel offers the increasingly rare opportunity for distinctively local shopping, says David Fink, west delegate for the USA for Relais & Châteaux, the global group of individually owned luxury hotels and restaurants. For instance, an ideal place to start or enhance a photography collection is the Weston Gallery, founded by the family of photographer Edward Weston, which features the work of Weston pal Ansel Adams as well as contemporary photographers. Also, stop by Bittner, which offers a comprehensive selection of fine pens and handmade stationery.
STAY | L’Auberge Carmel will arrange breakfast on the beach, warmed in a hand-dug fire pit. And up in Big Sur, the dramatic view is the main attraction at the Post Ranch Inn, which has rooms cantilevered from the cliffs overlooking the ocean—although you’ll happily close your eyes at the guests-only spa for its signature two-hour treatment plus facial.
EAT | Justin Cogley, chef at Aubergine, is known to forage for edible seaweed and local herbs. Food-minded guests can arrange to accompany him on these outings.
DON’T MISS | The Monterey Bay Aquarium, known for innovative displays of rarely seen deep-sea marine life, sets the standard for aquariums around the world. A private tour provides behind-the-scenes access to staff-only areas.
CONTACT | The Weston Gallery, 831.624.4453, westongallery.com; Bittner, email@example.com, 831.626.8828, bittner.com; L’Auberge Carmel, firstname.lastname@example.org, 831.624.8578,laubergecarmel.com; Post Ranch Inn, 831.667.2200, postranchinn.com; Aubergine: 831.624.8578, auberginecarmel.com; the Monterey Bay Aquarium: 831.647.6886,montereybayaquarium.org
While tourists flock to Northern California wineries, wine travelers looking for something different are heading to central California. “Paso Robles will be the new Napa,” predicts Olivia Paszkowski of Kensington Tours, which arranges bespoke chauffeured wine tours of the region. How the residents of laid-back Paso, as it’s known, will feel about that is uncertain, but its wine scene is indeed developing fast, and amenities for travelers are following suit. More than 200 wineries are gaining in reputation—especially for Rhône varietals—as are small lot producers known as “garagistes.”
STAY | Right in the vineyards of Justin Winery is Just Inn Suites; book the Vintner’s Villa, a two-story townhome with a kitchen and dining room. The SummerWood Winery & Inn also offers nine guest rooms with fireplaces, patios or balconies.
EAT | La Cosecha is a new Latin restaurant from the chef-owner of Il Cortile, Paso’s celebrated Italian restaurant. The cocktail menu includes locally distilled spirits from Re:Find, which uses saignée, or the juice drained prior to wine fermentation, to produce vodka and gin.
DON’T MISS | A private tour of William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon. The newspaper magnate’s home is not properly experienced on a group tour, which includes a bus and narration by Alex Trebek. Instead, take a tour tailored to your interests, giving you more time to appreciate the opulent Roman Pool and the Prohibition-era wine cellar.
CONTACT | Kensington Tours, 888.903.2001, kensingtontours.com; Just Inn Suites, 805.238.6932,justinwine.com; SummerWood Winery & Inn, 805.238.6932, summerwoodwine.com; La Cosecha, 805.227.1111, lacosechabr.com; Hearst Castle, John Fixler, email@example.com, 805.927.2070,hearstcastle.org
San Diego is the most relaxed of California’s major cities, but it’s always possible to unwind a little more, says Robyn Mark of Absolute Travel, who recommends the Golden Door in Escondido, which accommodates a maximum of 40 guests per week (and requires at least a weeklong stay). You can work in a shorter spa experience at Rancho Bernardo Inn, where freshly made body treatments include organic seasonal ingredients such as lavender, lemon, rose and honey.
STAY | Find absolute comfort in one of the US Grant’s 47 suites, in San Diego’s spirited Gaslamp District. Also, the Grand Del Mar offers an extensive surfing program, including private lessons and private transport for you and your equipment to the beach best suited for you.
EAT | Enjoy ambitious alfresco dining at Nine-Ten, in La Jolla, where the menu is packed with fresh seafood and local produce—try the five-course “Mercy of the Chef” prix fixe with wine pairings.
DON’T MISS | Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe has for years been the favorite farmstead of celebrity chefs throughout the state, starting with Alice Waters, and is a must-visit for any gourmand. “They grow produce here that you can’t find anywhere else,” says David Fink of Relais & Château. “On my last visit, I bought small French strawberries and downed them right there. They never made it to my car.”
CONTACT | The Golden Door, firstname.lastname@example.org, 866.420.6414, goldendoor.com; Rancho Bernardo Inn, 888.976.4417, ranchobernardoinn.com; the US Grant, 619.232.3121, usgrant.net; the Grand Del Mar, 855.314.2030, thegranddelmar.com; Nine-Ten, executive chef Jason Knibb,email@example.com, 858.964.5400, nine-ten.com; Chino Farm, 858.756.3184