The ultimate California road trip: from San Francisco to Santa Monica

post ranch inn big sur california
The ultimate California road tripPost Ranch Inn/Kodiak Greenwood

Of all the scenic drives in the world, the Pacific Coast Highway is undoubtedly top of many a road-trip bucket-list. A romantic, winding route taking you along the California coastline, you'll take in everything from dizzying, dense redwood forests to spectacular clifftop vistas and bohemian seaside resorts. It's no exaggeration to say that it often feels like being on a film set – and this is quite literally the case at many of the destinations, whether you pass over the Bixby Bridge made famous in Big Little Lies, or end up at the beaches in Santa Monica and Malibu, which were used for the filming of Baywatch.

The drive

If you're considering a PCH trip, one thing to note is the direction: travelling north to south is preferable, as it offers views uninterrupted by oncoming traffic. An entirely obvious statement but also an important one to consider: it's long (the second-longest highway in the US, in fact, taking approximately 10 hours of uninterrupted driving to complete) and there is a lot to see. In fact, there are so many recommended stops along the way that it's almost impossible to decide what to prioritise. We recommend the portion of the drive from San Francisco to Santa Monica, which includes what is widely agreed to be one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world: the rugged, mountainous section of coastline known as Big Sur. Buckle up...


Where to stay: 1 Hotel San Francisco

1 hotel san francisco
1 Hotel San Francisco

Sustainability is at the heart of your stay at 1 Hotel San Francisco, which puts responsible practices front and centre. The sleek, restrained decor is not only inspired by California's landscape, it actually incorporates it, with many of the furnishings crafted from local and reclaimed materials – including redwood lumber from the former San Francisco Bridge – and plenty of native greenery throughout. The smart design incorporates a variety of eco-friendly systems (from increased insulation to energy-efficient LED lighting and food-waste management), while everything from the bedding to the mini-bar snacks is produced organically. It's the attention to the smallest of details that's impressive: each floor has its own filtered water tap, there's an hourglass timer in the shower to help you keep track of your water usage, and a note by the bed informs you about the hotel's charity clothing-donation programme. The unique artworks seen around the building were all created using natural materials, from the driftwood sculptures found in each bathroom to the handwoven baskets sitting in every bedroom.

1 hotel san francisco
1 Hotel San Francisco

But, eco excellence aside, the rooms are comfortable, the service highly commendable and the atmosphere calming; you can see why it describes itself as a "sustainable sanctuary". Even if you aren't actively looking for a hotel that ranks best in class on the responsibility scale (although let's face, it, we all should be), then there is much to love – not least the soothing Bamford Wellness Spa, which offers a variety of holistic treatments designed to nurture the mind, body and spirit.

The hotel's location is also hard to beat: situated on the Embarcadero, it's ideally stationed adjacent to the city's famous Ferry Building, which features a bustling selection of shops, restaurants and a farmer's market offering all manner of fare (don't miss the Hog Island Oyster Co for delicious, fresh seafood). Many of the rooms also offer views over the bay, so it's worth requesting this when you book. It's true that you're spoilt for choice with hotels in the Golden City, but 1 Hotel San Francisco is a stylish, sustainable option with thoughtful design, welcoming staff, and a fantastic location.


Where to eat: Terrene

1 hotel san francisco restaurant terrene

Like the hotel in which it's situated, Terrene also takes influence from its surroundings and is respectful to the planet, with a menu featuring local, organic and sustainably sourced produce. The hotel's rooftop garden provides many of the ingredients used in both cooking and cocktails, while on-site beehives allow for the property's own honey production. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant operates under the watchful eye of executive chef Scott Koranda, who conceived a tempting menu inspired by both the San Francisco landscape and his own upbringing in the agricultural hotspot of Iowa. On it you'll find a selection of healthy bowls and salads alongside woodfire oven flatbreads, skewers and sliders. With a buzzy atmosphere and friendly staff, you'll want to grab a table outside on the terrace on a balmy North Californian evening.


Where to stay: Post Ranch Inn

post ranch inn big sur
Post Ranch Inn/Kodiak Greenwood

There are special hotels, and then there's the Post Ranch Inn. This beloved Big Sur retreat tops many 'best hotel' lists, so renowned is it for its spectacular cliff-edge location and exclusive, hideaway feel. The 100-acre site is surrounded by towering redwoods, majestic mountains and wild meadows, and every single room – whether a rustic coastal cabin or a cosy treehouse suite perched on stilts – comes compete with incomparable views. It's little wonder that it's attracted the Hollywood set; Taylor Swift, Natalie Portman and George Clooney have all reportedly checked in in recent years.

Our Pacific-facing ocean house included a fireplace, spa-tub and curving wooden deck with loungers, on which we sipped wine while gazing, mesmerised, out to the horizon. The ranch also has a series of heated pools and hot tubs (ideal for those cooler California evenings), all of which have similarly awe-inspiring vistas.

While the amenities are generally faultless, there are two things you won't find in your room: a television or an alarm clock. Post Ranch is dedicated to helping guests switch off from the real world, and this means unwinding away from screens and sleeping in until you wake naturally (to a memorable sunrise over the ocean, ideally). The adults-only hotel promotes relaxation and reconnection – describing itself as "a sanctuary for the soul" – and is therefore unsurprisingly popular with couples looking for a romantic escape.

post ranch inn
Post Ranch Inn/Kodiak Greenwood

While you may well want to spend your entire time lounging in comfort, there's also plenty on offer in the way of activities, many of which have a wellness slant, including morning yoga, forest bathing and guided nature walks. There's even falconry, where you can get up-close with birds of prey and learn about local conservation efforts. Also, don't miss the Post Gallery, which showcases a selection of photography, sculptures and fine jewellery created by talented members of the local community, with regularly changing exhibits.

Given that the property's location is so integral to its success, it makes sense that Post Ranch operates at the forefront of environmental responsibility; their mantra is that "what is good for the planet is also good for your guests", and it's a sentiment that holds true. Aesthetically, the resort was designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape – with the aim of allowing guests to feel part of nature, rather than observers of it – with buildings constructed using natural materials and designed to fit around the trees, rather than having to remove them, as much as possible. But appearance aside, the sustainability efforts run deep, and environmental impact has been considered with every element: guestroom walls were created from reclaimed wine casks; the stilted tree houses were designed to protect the fragile roots of nearby redwoods and oaks; all water used is sourced and treated via seven wells located on site; a vast solar-panel installation helps to power the resort and reduce carbon emissions; 90 per cent of the ranch's 100 acres is maintained as a protected area – the list goes on...


Where to eat: Sierra Mar

sierra mar post ranch inn
Post Ranch Inn/Kodiak Greenwood

Dining at Sierra Mar is an experience like no other. Before you even get to the menu, you're dazzled by the location – a glass box perched on the edge of the cliff, suspended over the Pacific ocean, the mist rolling in around you.

In keeping with the Post Ranch ethos, the restaurant operates a farm-driven dining experience, with dishes celebrating the "coastal bounty" of the region and designed with balance and sustainability in mind. If you're staying on site, then do take the opportunity to explore the chef's garden, which produces much of the fruit, vegetables and herbs used at Sierra Mar and throughout the ranch (plus a variety of medicinal plants, which are incorporated into spa treatments). Other produce is sourced from local businesses, allowing for menus that are a true reflection of the Big Sur surroundings.

Perhaps because diners are hypnotised by the view, the atmosphere at Sierra Mar is positively serene (it's arguably here that Post Ranch's adults-only rule is most noticeable), and each table has its own air purifier, to create an invigorating 'bubble' of fresh, filtered air for each party. The menus are seasonal, designed for sharing, and change daily. We feasted on yellowfin tuna tartare with puffed rice; a warming coconut and curry soup; pan-seared salmon; roasted king trumpet mushrooms; and duck breast with glazed apricots; finished with a mocha, mascarpone and cardamom Opéra Gâteau. The restaurant also has an award-winning wine selection, with more than 3,200 labels on offer. If you need help whittling it down, the Sommelier Selection list features a curated edit of house favourites.


Where to stay: The Rosewood Miramar Beach

rosewood miramar beach montecito
Rosewood Miramar Beach

As soon as I set foot in Montecito I could understand exactly why Prince Harry and Meghan chose to make it their home; this charming slice of the 'American Riviera' has a quiet, small-town appeal with understated glamour that attracts big Hollywood names. Hidden among the homes of the rich and famous is the Rosewood Miramar Beach, an elegant, estate-like property with immaculate lawns, luxurious lodgings and access to its own private stretch of beach.

We stayed in one of the Garden Bungalows, a light and airy single-storey suite that overlooked lush greenery, vibrant pink gardenia and red maple trees. The spacious guestroom featured a comfortable lounge with a roaring fire, a separate dressing area, a marble-tiled bathroom and an elegant bedroom with double doors opening up onto a patio and outdoor seating area. It was hard to decide whether I preferred sitting curled up here with a book, reclining by the pool with a cocktail, or soaking up the atmosphere at the beach club (in the end I opted to divide my time between all three).

rosewood miramar beach
Rosewood Miramar Beach

While relaxation is encouraged, there’s much to entertain, with six bars and restaurants, two pools and a variety of upscale boutiques – including one dedicated to Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, Goop (this is California, after all). The bar staff were knowledgable and friendly, and the cocktail list varied and interesting – particularly in The Manor Bar, where all the drinks are inspired by literature; an enjoyably lethal combination as I discovered one night. Here, the wooden-panelled walls are lined with shelves stacked with novels, and the intimate space is peppered with cosy vintage-style seating; little wonder that it's popular with guests and locals alike (truly, you never know who you might bump into...).

If you got a little overexcited in the bar one evening, then the rejuvenating Sense spa offers indulgent treatments and head-clearing activities such as sunrise yoga and guided sunset walks along the water’s edge. They've truly thought of everything: the resort even has its own ice-cream parlour to help you cool off in the Santa Barbara sunshine.


Where to eat: AMA Sushi

rosewood miramar beach
Rosewood Miramar Beach

While yes, the Rosewood Miramar Beach has multiple dining options, its Japanese restaurant, AMA Sushi, is arguably its most special. And don't just take my word for it: it was recommended in the Michelin guide in both 2022 and 2023.

The restaurant focuses on Japan's Edomae tradition, which celebrates sushi in its purest form, and is inspired by the legacy of Japanese free divers. Showcasing always-fresh ingredients, two dining options are available. The first is an omakase tasting menu (omakase translates literally as "I leave it up to you"), encouraging an open-minded, spontaneous experience between the chef and diner, taking place at an intimate 13-seater sushi bar with a front-row seat to watch the masters at work. The second is the prix fixe menu, which offers a self-guided journey through traditional Japanese flavours. An advantage of the latter is that you're able to enjoy it in the restaurant's charming garden, alongside the coy pond, surrounded by floating lanterns. But whichever you opt for, you won't be disappointed. Expect to find classic sashimi, nigiri and cut rolls – featuring bluefin tuna, amberjack, dungeness crab and more – alongside black cod, braised pork belly, and wagyu striploin. Naturally, this is complemented by an extensive selection of wine, sake, and cocktails.

The restaurant's sustainability credentials are also commendable: AMA Sushi is endorsed by both SmartCatch and Ocean Wise – two bodies that are dedicated to protecting our oceans and supporting responsible practices.


Where to stay: The Georgian

the georgian santa monica
The Georgian

In 2023, one of Los Angeles' oldest hotels, The Georgian, reopened with a chic and stylish new look – one inspired by the resplendent Art Deco interiors of the original that first opened its doors in 1933. The property has been painstakingly restored in all its Wes Anderson-esque glory, complete with eye-catching turquoise façade, original arched ceilings, and bell boys dressed in retro baby-blue uniforms. This is all about storytelling; as soon as I set foot inside it was as if being transported back in time to the golden age of Hollywood. Indeed, the attention to detail is second to none, from the gold tasselled room keys hanging behind reception, to the old-timey record players in each guestroom with a curated selection of vinyls. Lift the receiver of the vintage rotary phone in the lobby and you'll hear a selection of voice messages from 'guests' who stayed in the hotel's 1930s' heyday. Press the golden 'champagne' button in your room, and a drinks trolley appears outside.

the georgian santa monica
The Georgian

When The Georgian first opened its doors, it became known as the First Lady of Santa Monica, attracting guests such as Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, and acting as a discreet respite from the glare of the LA spotlight. Today, the property stands out among its Ocean Avenue neighbours; the jewel in the crown of the beachfront line-up. Of course, when it comes to the location, it's hard to beat; the property is situated along the beach boardwalk, a stone's throw from the Santa Monica Pier. There's nothing quite like having breakfast while gazing out to sea, and we were lucky enough to witness one of the legendary technicolour LA sunsets from our ocean-view suite one evening.

To say that the hotel is aesthetically pleasing would be an understatement. The rooms are spacious, with chic, carefully curated, candy-coloured interiors, plenty of luxurious finishing touches, and Slim Aarons-style photography adorning the walls. For a boutique hotel (with 28 suites and 56 rooms) the amenities are impressive; there's a library and games room with an honesty bar, a small gym, a co-working space, and even an art gallery, which previously hosted an exhibition of work by the actress Sharon Stone. An outdoor pool and sundeck is coming soon.


Where to eat: Sunset Bar, Terrace and Dining Room at The Georgian

the georgian santa monica
The Georgian

The Georgian's restaurant is spread across three spaces: the Dining Room, the Sunset Bar and the Sunset Terrace, which offers simple, elegant beachfront dining. Here you'll find a mixture of hotel guests, locals and international visitors – with a limited number of daily walk-ups available – gathering for either brunch, dinner or spuntini ('snacks' in Italian).

The menu was crafted by chef David Almany and inspired by the "vibrant cuisine of coastal Italy", interspersed with global favourites. Don't miss the grilled jumbo prawns, the Georgian chopped salad, the garganelli oxtail ragu, or the free-range Chicken Milanese. There's also a caviar service if you're looking for that extra special something. New for 2024 are 'Spaghetti Sundays', with a heartwarming menu influenced by family-style Italian dinners (think home-made garlic bread, spaghetti with 'red sauce', and Italian meatballs). And, in keeping with the hotel's aesthetic, the cocktail menu features 1930s classics alongside more modern iterations.

Also, don't miss The Georgian Room, the hotel's speak-easy-style basement space – one of Santa Monica's most exclusive drinking and dining establishments, where privacy is protected and photography strictly banned. The menu is inspired by the hotel's history in the '30s and '50s, and the intimate space attracts a regular rotation of surprise musical guests. Legend has it that early patrons of The Georgian Room described frequent sightings of a mythical creature on the Santa Monica shoreline, holding a martini glass up high. Whether or not the fable is true, or simply an indication of how good the cocktails really are, remains to be seen...

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