Luxury, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder—or the vacationer. Indulgence for you might mean reservations at one of L.A.’s swankiest restaurants, or perhaps a chance to give the credit card a workout on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But for adventurous vacationers, a night under colorful blankets in a plush Mongolian yurt overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or swimming laps in a turquoise pool at a Palm Springs resort might be the height of luxury.
Fortunately, California lets you spoil yourself all these ways, and plenty more. Here are some of our favorite indulgences.
Though he isn’t a star on a food show, Chef Keller’s fame is almost unsurpassed in the food world, simply based on the brilliance of his food and the quality of his dining experience, both epitomized at this Yountville institution. With three Michelin stars, The French Laundry is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be on any fine-diner’s bucket list. The tasting menu is sublime, with changing seasonal dishes as well as Chef Keller’s signature “oysters and pearls” (oysters and caviar in sabayon).
If you can’t snag a reservation (tables fill up months in advance), visit Chef Keller’s neighboring Bouchon Bistro for impressive French-influenced food in more casual surroundings. The menu highlights classic bistro fare, such as steak frites, soupe à l’oignon, escargots à la bourguignonne, and confît de canard.
Just driving through town on the way to wine tasting? Stop by Chef Keller’s Bouchon Bakery for a perfect macaroon or buttery slice of quiche.
Insider’s tip: One way to spot Chef Keller is at top food and wine festivals, such as the star-chef-studded Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
This two-lane country road, trimmed with shady oaks and world-class vineyards, is quintessential Napa Valley. Its surrounding land is dotted with so many wineries that you could travel it for a week straight and still not visit all of them. Constructed in 1852 as the first permanent road linking the 30 or so miles between the towns of Napa and Calistoga, the Silverado Trail is the bucolic, parallel counterpart to busier State Highway 29. Enjoy the drive along this scenic route (or rent a bike and pedal the whole way), snuggled up against the valley’s eastern hills.
Prestigious wineries with Silverado Trail addresses include Joseph Phelps, ZD Wines, and Signorello Winery—plus the famous Stags Leap District collection of wineries, making up Napa Valley’s famous mecca of Cabernet Sauvignon and other big-bodied reds. There’s sparkling wine here too, notably at Mumm Napa, where you can sip the fine bubbly on an elegant patio, in a grand tasting salon, or while wandering the elaborate art gallery.
Other turns take you to lavish wine-country resorts, such as Relais & Châteaux’s Auberge du Soleil or the gracious Solage Calistoga. To see one of the most stunning retreats in the entire region, take the long, leafy drive onto the manicured grounds of Meadowood Napa Valley for an alfresco lunch at its garden-sourced The Grill.
And if you’re feeling extra splurge-y, dinner at the three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood delivers impeccable service, meticulous farm-to-table menus, and—of course—exquisite Napa Valley wines. You might even stay the night and take advantage of the resort’s excellent spa and golf course.
Wiggle into a wetsuit and step into the Wild Arctic exhibit to touch and interact with snowy white beluga whales (FYI, they feel a bit like cold, wet hot dogs). Also get backstage peeks of polar bears and walruses, and see how trainers work with these incredible (and big) cold-weather creatures.
The Beluga Interaction is one of several special experiences you can have with SeaWorld’s animals and trainers. Other special interactions include a chance to hang out with the park’s resident bottlenose dolphins, and learn simple hand signals from their human trainers. Penguins get star treatment during a special encounter with these unusual birds. Tour the penguin’s state-of-the-art facility, learn about their special adaptions for living the frigid Antarctic lifestyle, and meet a penguin face to face—or make that face-to-beak.
Often ranked as one of the most magical glamping experiences in the state, this tree-shaded compound tucked into the coastal hills a half-hour northwest of Santa Barbara is one of those pinch-me destinations everyone should experience at least once (but we bet you’ll book a return before you leave). The setting is so private that it’s hard to believe that more than 100 cabins and safari tents occupy the hillside landscape of El Capitan Canyon, surrounded on three sides by the oceanfront and backcountry of El Capitan State Beach. (Note: Flash floods in January 2017 affected part of the campground—check El Capitan Canyon for the most up-to-date information.)
Choose from basic canvas tents built on wood platforms, or fancier cedar cabins with bathrooms and kitchenettes. All accommodations are situated along a wooded drive that leads into the hilly portion of El Capitan State Beach, where wildlife abounds. But the real draw here is the proximity to the coastline itself, where you can walk, bike, or drive under Highway 101 to access the sandy beach and tide pools. Complimentary cruiser bikes are available for guests; friendly staff can also arrange surf lessons, whale watching, kayaking, or wine tasting. There’s also a summer concert series on site, May through September.
Insider’s tip: Cook your own meals—there’s a store on site for groceries—or consider the market’s selection of gourmet-style prepared meals.
Pampering just comes with the territory in the California desert. Maybe in the old days, desert visitors had to pack in supplies and sleep on the hard ground, but the swaying palms, cool tile walkways, and spring-fed pool at Death Valley’s Inn at Furnace Creek don’t exactly scream “rough it.” More like, “Find your sunlounger and relax.” So it goes at California’s desert resorts, dotting the dramatic landscape from northern parklands in the Palm Springs region to manicured landscapes in the Coachella Valley.
“Find your sunlounger and relax.”
You’ll find resorts in all styles--from lavish opulence to sleek modernism—with many lodgings reflecting the era they were built. The Parker Palm Springs, the former ranch of singing cowboy Gene Autry, has the sleek, low-slung coolness of Mid-century Modern design. The flower-filled courtyards and red-tiled adobe casitas at the expansive La Quinta Resort & Club, opened in 1926, hint at romance under a desert moon. At The Willows Historic Palm Springs inn, once a millionaire's private retreat, terraced gardens beckon. And everything old is new again at the styled-to-the-roughing-it-nines at Sparrows Lodge, where vaulted wood ceilings, stone details, and restored horse troughs for bathtubs give a relaxed ranch feel--though no luxury is spared.
There’s all-out luxury too. At Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage, settle into a suite with contemporary furnishings and mountain views, then play a round of golf before enjoying a body treatment featuring desert herbs and minerals.
You’ll definitely want to leave room in your suitcase for L.A. shopping.
If you’re ready to whip out the platinum card, head to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, home to Chanel, Giorgio Armani, and other mega-designer boutiques. Nearby Robertson Boulevard also has chic boutiques. Just east of Beverly Hills, upscale The Grove, across the street from the popular Original Farmers Market, has a village atmosphere, with a fountain-filled park and leafy outdoor cafes.
For celeb-spotting while you shop, aim for Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Also in town is the popular, pedestrian friendly Third Street Promenade, with big-name chains and a lively feel.
At the south end of the promenade, open-air Santa Monica Place features trendy boutiques and a rooftop dining deck with ocean views. Just south is Venice Beach’s fun and funky Abbot Kinney Boulevard, home to hip clothiers, galleries, and oh-so-cool restaurants and cafes.