Travel Review: California


California Dreaming

With its striking coastline, vibrant cities and varied culture, California makes for a compelling break

Words by Becky Pomfret

A compelling destination offering diverse experiences, with a stunning coastline and iconic beaches, as well as vibrant cities steeped in culture and entertainment, this sunny State is holiday heaven for the whole family

Coastal Adventures and VEA pool Newport Beach Top: Soak up the sun poolside at VEA Newport Beach. Bottom: Enjoy dolphin spotting on a trip with Newport Coastal Adventure

My son, currently at film school in London, has long been telling anyone who will listen that he is going to make it big as a film director, so when a chance meeting with a work contact results in an invitation to a Californian film festival, we can’t believe our luck. The Newport Beach Film Festival is held in October every year, in a beautiful coastal town in Orange County, just an hour away from Los Angeles. Like most, I’d heard of Orange County from the TV show, The OC, but not Newport Beach, and I couldn’t wait to find out more.

We are staying in the VEA Newport Beach, where we share a huge room with twin queen-sized beds and fantastic views of the harbour. The hotel’s beautiful outdoor pool and terraces are the perfect spot to soak up some of that famous Californian sunshine. And it’s just a short walk from Fashion Island, a high-end shopping destination that is packed full of cool independent boutiques, as well as classic US stores like Bloomingdale’s. After a spot of retail therapy, we stop for a bite to eat at R&D Kitchen – this upmarket diner features al fresco seating and a huge horseshoe bar area. We feast on excellent burgers while I treat myself to a delicious cocktail. My poor son, despite being 18 and finally able to indulge at home, has another three years to wait before he can legally drink here.

One morning we head out whale-watching with Newport Coastal Adventure and enjoy an exhilarating ride, spotting dolphins and some magnificent humpback whales. We feel very blessed, the icing on the cake being the sight of a pile of sea lions sunbathing atop a buoy. Lunch afterwards is at The Coliseum Grill at The Resort at Pelican Hill. The food and service are impeccable, but it’s worth the trip for the view alone – our table looks out over the most spectacular swimming pool, handset with 1.1 million hand-cut glass mosaic tiles, it is a thing of shimmering beauty, and the ocean sparkles beyond.

Coliseum Pool at Pelican Hill (top) and VEA Newport Beach (bottom) Top: Coliseum Pool at Pelican Hill, Bottom: VEA Newport Beach Exterior

Of course, much of our time is taken up with the film festival, attending screenings, and, excitingly, some after-parties, too, but there is so much more to do here. Taking a walk around Balboa Island (situated right in the centre of the harbour and a two-minute ferry ride across the waters), we spot some incredible houses, many extravagantly dressed up for Halloween. There’s a Fun Zone here, with rides and games for kids, and some excellent shops, too.

On our last morning, we get up early and jump in an Uber to take a trip to Crystal Cove. Cute cottages pepper this pretty stretch of coastline, situated between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean. The area boasts a spectacular beach, tide pools and stunning views over to Santa Catalina Island. We head to The Beachcomber, a popular restaurant right on the beach, for breakfast. When we arrive at 8.30am it is already packed with locals, and as we tuck into huge plates of pancakes, we can see why it is so well-loved – the food and service are top-notch. At the local museum we chat to the friendly curator and learn that many a movie has been filmed locally, including the classic, Beaches. As our time in Newport Beach comes to an end, I know we’re going to find it hard to tear ourselves away. This pretty coastal town might just be California’s best kept secret: family-friendly, with lots to do for all ages and beautiful scenery to boot. It has been a brilliant spot to recover from the jetlag; I’d recommend a trip here to anybody who is visiting LA.

Conrad Hotel California Tara Bernerd & Partners are responsible for the striking interiors at Conrad Los Angeles

We are cheered by the fact that our Californian adventure is not over yet, not by a long shot. From here, we make our way back up to LA for two nights in the downtown area – famously the city’s arts and culture centre. We are staying at Conrad Los Angeles, Hilton’s first West Coast Conrad hotel, which opened in 2022. The striking building is the vision of legendary architect Frank Gehry, with interiors that have been flawlessly designed by Tara Bernerd & Partners, and it’s as stylishly curved and cleverly lit as you would expect. Our chic room overlooks the architectural masterpiece that is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, AND the Hollywood sign. Looking out for the first time is quite a pinch-me moment; we spend hours just gazing on the comings and goings of the city below. With digital controls for the blinds, lighting, and shower, we also spend far too long playing with the remote control.

The hotel has a very cool rooftop pool and lovely terraced restaurant, Agua Vita, which offers spectacular views. On our first evening here, with a backdrop of City Hall lit up at night, we tuck into dinner brought to us from the kitchen of Chef José Andrés, one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”. On the menu is an unassuming sounding, but utterly delicious carrot houmous that I am destined to spend the rest of my life trying to recreate. The exquisite beef skewers also deserve a mention. So much sightseeing takes a toll on a girl, and the next day I book myself in for a restorative rose-quartz facial in the hotel spa. With a zen-like spa lounge to relax in before the treatment, it’s an absolute oasis of calm here; I enjoy a blissful hour-long facial and float back to my room. Fortified for more exploring, we head to The Last Bookstore, a magical place full of new and rare antique books, records, and art. We also make a stop at Grand Central Market, where we indulge in delicious street-food, buy vintage clothes in Beatology, and ride ‘The World’s Shortest Railway’, a funicular ride called Angels Flight that’s only 298 feet long. Our time in downtown has been fascinating, and we bid the area a fond farewell before heading to our next stop. We are spending a few days in the heart of LA, at Thompson Hollywood, a very cool, brilliantly located 11-storey hotel.

Thompson Hotel California Thompson Hotel

Another newbie, this has only been open since 2021 and features 190 mid-century inspired guest rooms with a kitsch rooftop pool and terrace restaurant. A programme of popular live music and DJ nights runs on the rooftop, though if that’s not your bag, fear not, the soundproofing is unreal, and we don’t hear a thing from our room when we do hit the hay.

On our first evening, we eat at Ka’teen, just around the corner from the hotel. Revered native Angeleno chef Wes Avila serves a fresh take on the ancient cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula in this incredible 5,000 sq ft tropical oasis that is inspired by the Mayan city of Tulum. The ceviche and tacos are out of this world, and we spend the duration of our meal pinching ourselves that we are eating out IN HOLLYWOOD!  As it’s our first time in LA, it’s obligatory to tick a few tourist boxes… We have so much fun at Universal Studios, enjoying the studio tour and getting to see the sets of so many famous films. The Jurassic Park and Jaws immersive experiences are particularly thrilling. And the Harry Potter exhibition is jaw-dropping; despite the 30C heat, the snow-topped stores in Hogsmeade bring some serious magic to the day. We also spend quality time at the Academy Museum and my son has the chance to be filmed ‘accepting’ an Oscar. No prop, this is a real trophy and we are both surprised by the weight of it. Another fun afternoon is spent on the Warner Bros Studio Tour. Because we visit during the SAG-AFTRA strike, the sets are eerily quiet, which is a shame, but it is a fascinating insight, nonetheless.

Beverly Hills Hotel



On our last night in Hollywood I’ve lined up a treat for both of us; we head to the iconic Beverley Hills Hotel for dinner at the Polo Lounge. The gardens are lit by candles and fairy lights, and as we are led to our seats, we walk deliberately slowly, hoping to spot a celeb at one of the tables. No such luck, but our friendly waiter is happy to share some stories and points out where huge film-deals and magical post-Oscars moments have occurred. The food is incredible, steak tartare prepared at the table being a highlight. And I have to indulge in a glass of Champagne to toast my dining companion, a Hollywood film director in the making (well, a mum can dream…).

San Francisco 1 Hotel 1 Hotel with amazing views of the Bay

Next up, a short flight to San Francisco where we are staying in the 1 Hotel. Situated on the Embarcadero, it boasts amazing views of the Bay. Sustainability is at the core of the 1 Hotels brand, and this hotel brings the green theme into the bedrooms with beautiful glassware (rather than plastic bottles there are glasses and a jug to collect water from a tap on each floor), and natural fibres throughout, including wicker storage baskets and the softest woollen throws. We are just across the road from the Ferry Building, which hosts regular farmers’ markets. These are celebrated for the quality and diversity of the fresh farm products on offer, from some of California’s most cutting-edge sustainable growers and food makers. And inside there are a great selection of delis and restaurants which are perfect for breakfast. We nibble on bagels and delicious cinnamon buns from The Epicurean Trader before walking up to the Museum of Modern Art, one of the largest contemporary museums in the USA.

Exhibitions here represent the best modern artists from around the world; there is a collection of works by Yayoi Kusama, as well as recognisable pieces on display from artists such as Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse and Frida Kahlo. It would be easy to spend an entire day here, indeed, I could spend a weekend in the gift shop alone, but we have the small matter of a prison visit to consider. Possibly the most famous prison in the world, Alcatraz is a must-see for visitors to San Francisco, reached by a short, ten-minute ferry ride across the Bay. Audio tours around the island and the prison buildings are very well organised and fascinating to boot; the afternoon we spend here is probably the most engaging history lesson I’ve ever had. It really is a legendary place – eerie and awe-inspiring in equal measure.

This is not our only time out on the waters of the Bay – inspired by our adventures in Newport Beach, we try our luck on another whale-watching trip. The excursion is run by the enthusiastic SF Whale Tours, whose passion is clear to see, and the trip is worth it as much for the incredible views as we pass under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, as for the nature spotting. Come the last night of our trip, we are still squeezing in the sightseeing: we hike up Lombard Street where the insane hairpin turns have famously featured on the silver screen in numerous car chase scenes; and take a trip on one of the historic cable cars; before heading for dinner at La Mar Cocina Peruana. Celeb chef Gast.n Acurio serves Peruvian seafood in a large, partially outdoor space on Pier 1 1/2 .Clearly very popular with the locals, the restaurant is buzzing when we arrive. I sip on a house speciality, a Pisco Sour – my new favourite cocktail – admiring the sleek, modern décor that seamlessly blends with the old building. And in testament to the highly acclaimed sea-to-table cooking, even my oh-so fussy son eats every last morsel. Sadly, our American adventure must come to an end, but it’s safe to say that we will never forget our first time visiting this sunny State. Splitting our time between four such different locations has given us such a good feel for the diversity of California and has left us wanting to experience so much more. For now, though, we’ll have to settle for watching a few movies filmed here to see us through until we return.

California travel