The Cultured Traveller, December 2019-February 2020 Issue 28 – Traveller Lowdown


A vast land of contrasts punctuated by ancient forests, acres of desert, fertile vineyards, sandy beaches and snow-capped mountains, Sophia Amos, Harriet Ball and Rachel Santa Cruz take us on their ultimate winter road trip of NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

After landing at San Francisco International, we immediately head east for 50 kilometres, towards a triangle-shaped region of the eastern San Francisco Bay Area known as Tri-Valley.


Often overlooked in favour of Napa, Tri-Valley is one of California’s hidden viticulture and outdoor gems and boasts award-winning wineries, delightfully diverse restaurants, charming downtowns and unspoiled hiking trails.

Blend your own vino at the oldest family-run winery in the States (, yoga between the vines at Concannon ( or simply hop on the Livermore Wine Trolley and leisurely trundle through miles of lush, rolling hills.

In the evening, head to Sabio on Main. The décor may be Spanish inspired but co-owner/chef Francis X. Hogan’s menu is deliciously global, fashioned from the best local produce and bursting with flavours. From the octopus terrine starter to the black cod entree served with black rice, oyster mushrooms, baby bok choy and a miso broth, Sabio is one of finest places to eat in the Bay Area.

Rest your head overnight at The Rose, located in the heart of Pleasanton’s historic downtown. A boutique hotel that deftly marries the charms of a B&B with first class hospitality, The Rose offers easy access to the region’s plethora of restaurants, shops, wineries and golf courses.


We jump in the car and head south for an hour to Santa Cruz – the quintessential beach town. ( Offering visitors an abundance of activities and laid-back Californian culture, Santa Cruz is home to an iconic boardwalk, sandy beaches, an eclectic culinary scene, year-round wildlife and more than a dozen state parks. The oldest – Big Basin Redwoods State Park – is a veritable emerald gem, where visitors can marvel at the majestic trees and embark upon the Berry Creek Loop: a 5-6-hour hike through redwood-lined canyons and dramatic ridges, culminating in the Berry Creek Falls which are at their thundering best in winter.

Not only is surfing the official sport of California and now recognised as an official Olympic sport, Santa Cruz is the birthplace of mainland surfing in the States. Since Hawaiian royalty rode the waves on surfboards crafted from redwood trees in 1885, many surfers have been drawn to the area for its challenging sets and breaks along the rugged coastline. Jack O’Neill – surfer, ocean conservationist and founder of the eponymous surf brand – helped bring the sport to the world stage by developing the modern-day wetsuit. His son, Pat, introduced the earliest form of surfboard leash. Rent a board for USD 50 per day or have a beginners’ lesson at local surf school Club Ed for 100 bucks.

Log-cabin inspired and enveloped by nature, we descend through a bucolic jungle-like garden on a hillside tram to reach Shadowbrook. Along the way, we pass a herb garden where the restaurant’s chefs pluck seasonal greens. We plump for sustainably raised and organically fed Pacific Rim salmon, served with sea greens, julienne vegetables, ginger-wasabi and a Miso vinaigrette. The fish is divine. Then we can’t resist the “Jack Daniel’s Mud Pie”, served with a moreish whiskey-chocolate sauce.

Perfect for a beach break, stay in a cozy studio at Seascape Beach Resort. Located on more than 20 kilometres of secluded beachfront in Aptos, this all-suite property features three swimming pools, hot tubs, a spa, two on-site restaurants and an extensive tequila list!


Next, we head east to explore some of America’s most incredible inland sights. Nestled in the heart of California, Yosemite Mariposa County is a resplendent natural wonderland. Home to soaring granite icons including Half Dome and El Capitan, this holy grail of outdoor adventure has been inspiring authors, poets and artists for decades. Soar above the park by plane, hike through a valley of waterfalls or take a classic car for a spin. Everything is possible in Yosemite.

Led by rangers and naturalists, experience the park’s highlights and learn about its history, flora and fauna on a 2-hour Yosemite Valley Floor Tour, which can be enjoyed from the comfort of a heated coach during the winter months.

Brunch amid granite pillars and cathedral-like windows under a soaring cross-beam ceiling at chandelier-lit Ahwahnee Dining Room, which is as spectacular as it is inviting.

Built a century ago and sporting a striking granite façade, reserve a parlor at Yosemite’s only AAA four-diamond hotel, The Ahwahnee, and combine it with a room to create a deluxe suite.


After visiting Yosemite, swing northwards to Tuolumne County. A rich destination for California history buffs, Tuolumne’s roots lie in the mid 19th century Gold Rush era. ( But when the snow is falling, winter wonders await and Dodge Ridge beckons. Spend a day on the slopes and follow in the footsteps of generations of skiers and snowboarders who have been enjoying Dodge Ridge since the 1950s. Alternatively, for some full-on fun, head to Leland High Sierra Snow Play park, where 15 acres of tubing terrain to suit every age make for a laughter-filled day.

Located in the heart of the Californian motherland, Columbia State Historic Park is a living gold rush town comprising the largest single collection of original gold rush-era structures in the state. Akin to travelling 150 years back in time – complete with the sights, smells and sounds of a 19th century mining town – visiting Columbia is a fun and family-friendly way to spend an afternoon.

Positioned on a corner in Main Street, St. Charles Saloon looks exactly as it did back in gold mining days. Served inside are some of the best pizzas in the state, offered (in true American style) in five different sizes. Eat in the main dining room, surrounded by taxidermy, and feel like you’re on a movie set.

Spend the night surrounded by towering peaks, alpine meadows, lakes, wildlife and more at secluded McCaffrey House B&B, hosted by friendly owners Steph and Mike.


We take Highway 120 south east to reach a year-round Californian adventureland in the Eastern Sierra. Mighty in scale and awesome in beauty, Mammoth Lakes is the state’s best kept secret, its name referencing the vast number of crystal-clear alpine lakes. Mammoth Lakes is also home to LA’s closest ski resort, making it a longstanding favoured getaway of Hollywood’s elite, so here you can indulge in everything from high-altitude mountain biking to unadulterated outdoorsy hedonism.

Whether you plan to ski Mammoth Mountain or its family-friendly sister resort June Mountain, the terrain is epic, the scenery is stunning and the season is exceptionally long. With over 300 days of sunshine per year, Mammoth Mountain offers visitors a truly Californian experience in the snow.

Named after the Viking goddess of hunting and skiing, upscale Skadi offers fine alpine cuisine with a fresh, Californian twist. The brainchild of chef Ian Algerøen, his exquisitely executed fare reflects both his Norwegian heritage and his work in the Swiss Alps and is paired with a carefully curated wine list. We dine, at one of just ten tables, on house smoked trout with a horseradish cream, followed by Canadian duck breast with arctic lingonberries and feel like queens!

Mere steps away from the Village Gondola offering quick access to the ski slopes, we drop anchor overnight at the pet-friendly Westin Monache for the in-room fireplace and some full-service hospitality in the heart of Mammoth.


Upon leaving Mammoth, we drive due north into the heart of the stunning Sierra Nevada mountain range, towards South Lake Tahoe. The hottest spot for cold weather adventures in these parts, nestled on the border of California and Nevada and boasting breathtaking lake and desert views, South Lake Tahoe offers countless ways to spend a day on the slopes.

If you have a need for speed, book half-an-hour on a snowmobile and feel the wind in your hair as you whizz round a professionally prepared circuit.

For adrenalin junkies, enjoy incredible views as you glide through the sky on a one-kilometre-long zip line, launching from a starting elevation of 3,000 metres and hitting a top speed of 80 kmph.

Both a retreat and an alpine getaway, the Coachman Hotel is a simple yet stylish Californian property with modern and highly functional guest rooms kitted-out with high-quality beds and linens. Book a king suite for more space and a big sofa to laze on. Soak your slope-weary joints in a hot tub before bed and kick start the next day with a mug of good coffee before heading off to Sonoma County.


Despite cooler temperatures and the occasional mist, rain or fog, the weather remains largely mild in California’s wine country throughout the winter. During low season, many Sonoma wineries offer behind-the-scenes tours and tastings, while visitors can take advantage of more than 80 kilometres of dramatic Pacific coastline largely devoid of tourists.

Sonoma’s coastline provides plenty of opportunities to observe gray whales as they breach, spout water through their blowholes and play during their annual north-south winter migration along the county’s coastal peaks. One of the best places to see these gentle giants of the sea is Bodega Head – a small, rocky peninsula that shelters Bodega Bay.

For a meal that is fresh, healthy and bursting with flavours, head to The Girl & The Fig which serves “country food with a French passion” in an unpretentious environment matched with some excellent wines.

Just off the North Coast Highway and dramatically perched above the Pacific Ocean in the charming Californian coastal town of Jenner, Timber Cove Resort is a contemporary, one-of-a-kind hotel that pays homage to its 1960s architecture. Fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves and dream of the gentle whales you saw during the day.


To experience Californian city life before heading home, make your final stop in San Francisco to explore its unique neighbourhoods, iconic landmarks and world-class food scene.

Avoid the traditional tourist haunts and head to some of San Fran’s lesser-known neighbourhoods. SoMa (South of Market) is home to SFMOMA which holds more than 30,000 works spanning painting, sculpture, photography, architecture and design. ( To pause and reflect, visit Yerba Buena Gardens, where the sound of water, the scent of flowers and the warmth of the Californian sunshine creates a serene oasis in the middle of the city’s downtown bustle.

Get up close and personal with the Golden Gate Bridge on a Blazing Saddles guided bike tour (, wander around hip Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood and browse its vintage boutiques, and visit the Ferry Building’s artisan market to sample some of the state’s freshest produce.

Now open for two decades, satisfy your appetite with hearty fare and entertain your mind with a movie at Foreign Cinema, an innovative restaurant which weaves food, wine, film and art into one harmonious locale.

At China Live – situated in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown – enjoy an interactive culinary experience in one of three restaurants, while being educated about the rich history of the ingredients in the food you’re eating. 

We end our Californian road trip with some unadulterated five-star luxury at the St. Regis San Francisco, which combines magnificent architecture with refined lodgings set within the 20th century landmark Williams Building in the heart of the SoMa district. ( A veritable haven in the middle of the city, the St. Regis’ Remède Spa is the perfect place to unwind at the end of a memorable vacation and toast California with a glass of bubbles!

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