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Hey, Weekend: Five California Destinations Worthy of Your Next Road Trip

Orange County Oasis

Nothing beats an easy, scenic coastal drive down  Pacific Coast Highway than if you’re headed to Monarch Beach in southern Orange County. Nearby Dana Point Harbor was designated the first Whale Heritage Site in North America for its unrivaled migration views. 

Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club

Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club beautifully melds casual California beach vibes with five-star service and amenities you’d expect from this upscale brand. Book an ocean-view room with a fireside terrace and unwind with wine, charcuterie and a dazzling sunset.

Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club

The property hosts several dining spots, including popular Bourbon Steak from Chef Michael Mina and AVEO Table + Bar, which features a Latin American-infused menu. For a true beachside experience, head down to the Monarch Bay Beach Club and enjoy laid-back coastal cuisine steps away from the water.

Daytime pleasures include Monarch Beach Golf, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in the traditional Scottish-links style, pool time at one of the resort’s private cabanas and sea-inspired pampering at the Waldorf Astoria Spa

If you manage to pull yourself away from all the resort bliss, Dana Point Harbor offers its own joys, including shopping, local artisan finds and plenty of casual dining. The Ocean Institute brings the marine world to vivid life with programs designed for the entire family. If you want a close-up look, take advantage of whale watching season from December through April and book a chartered cruise to view whales, dolphins and other sea creatures.

Surrounding Santa Barbara

If you’re looking for an alternative to Santa Barbara proper, consider venturing up a bit farther up the coast to discover splendor without the crowds.

The Steward

First stop is Goleta and the recently opened hotel The Steward. The property, once owned by horticulturalist Joseph Sexton, hosted one of the area’s first nurseries. The original Sexton House is the spot where visitors are greeted as they arrive, and the hotel honors its botanical past with many trees and plants throughout. On-site restaurant Terraincorporates locally sourced ingredients showcasing Central Coast farms and producers. A prepacked picnic can be ordered to enjoy on the grounds or off campus, via one of their rentable bikes.

The Ritz-Carlton Bacara

Whether by two or four wheels, head northwest of Isla Vista, home to UC Santa Barbara, to see a few nature preserves including Snowy Plover Critical Habitat and Dune Swale Pond. Monarch butterflies migrate each October through February at the Ellwood Mesa monarch grove, easily accessible by short trails. For a peaceful beach walk, head up to Santa Barbara Shores Park for sunset.

A bit farther up the coast, The Ritz-Carlton Bacara still charms with Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings topped with red-tiled roofs, first-class amenities and a vibe of elegance. Angel Oak brings the steak house experience to the sea with a seasonal menu and coastal views. Fans of Japanese cuisine will enjoy the menu of traditional sushi, sashimi and nigiri at San Setto, all served with Central California flair. 

Ellwood Beach Sunset. Goleta, CA.

Schedule your tee time at the historic Sandpiper Golf Club and experience panoramic views of the Gaviota Coast. The resort also features a world-class tennis program managed by Cliff Drysdale Tennis, founded by the legendary ESPN analyst and International Tennis Hall of Fame member. For a little pampering, hit The Ritz-Carlton Spa Bacara.

Winding Through Wonderland in Big Sur

One of the most picturesque destinations in the state indisputably is Big Sur—located approximately 150 miles south of San Francisco—which lures nature enthusiasts, adventure seekers and seasoned travelers for scenic, rugged ocean views and world-class hotels.

With more than 50 hikes in the area, there are views of coves, redwood trees, coastal mountains and waterfalls at nearly every turn. (Be sure to check local conditions for up-to-date park information and Highway 1 closures.) Popular options include Andrew Molera State ParkMcWay FallsGarrapata State ParkPfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Guests can also reserve a guided tour of Point Sur Lightstation on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Perched 361 feet above the ocean, the lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historical Places, was opened in 1889.

Post Ranch Inn. Photographed by Kodiak Greenwood.

For breakfast, don’t miss Big Sur Bakery. Housed in a 1930s ranch-style abode, the bakery serves freshly baked grab-and-go selections, including chocolate croissants, huckleberry scones and blueberry strudel, and offers lunch options as well. For a weekend dinner, don’t miss the Mt. Lassen trout with sunchokes, chicory and dashi, and potato dumplings with cauliflower and dill. Next door, pop into Mother Botanical & Shop, a trove filled with interesting gifts and items for the home and garden.

Originally built in 1949 and once owned by Hollywood luminaries Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Nepenthe features a café, restaurant and on-site shop. Perched on a cliffside with jaw-dropping views, the iconic family-run spot serves classics including The Famous Ambrosiaburger, a ground steak sandwich paired with a French roll and house-made ambrosia sauce.

Post Ranch Inn. Photographed by Kodiak Greenwood.

For the ultimate getaway, book a stay at Alila Ventana Big Sur, featuring 54 rooms set on 160 woodsy acres replete with two swimming pools, Japanese baths, self-guided garden tours, and a spa with an extensive menu of body and facial treatments. Opened in 1992 by the Post family (founders of the cereal company), Post Ranch Inn is known for its organic, wood-clad architecture by prominent architect Mickey Muennig. Poised at 1,200 feet above the sea, the remote, woodsy property enchants guests with winding walking paths, heated outdoor infinity jacuzzis, an art gallery and mercantile, and acclaimed restaurant Sierra Mar.

Post Ranch Inn. Photographed by Kodiak Greenwood.

Reveling in Russian River

Situated 5 miles inland from the Sonoma coast, the idyllic region of the Russian River Valley is home to teeny towns framed by majestic redwood trees with family-run coffee shops, notable restaurants and boutique hotels.

In Guerneville, a former logging town, cruise Main Street for a slew of antique shops, art galleries and eateries. Throwback dime store Guerneville 5 & 10, established in 1949, is lined with kitschy note cards, yarn and knitting supplies, inflatable inner tubes and an extensive selection of old-fashioned taffy and caramels. At Boon Eat + Drink, choose from menu items conceived by chef and owner Crista Luedtke (she’s appeared on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games) such as flash-fried brussels sprouts with chili flakes, lemon and garlic oil, and mac and cheese with Mycopia mushrooms and truffle breadcrumbs. Another specialty, the seared duck breast, is beautifully paired with cheesy risotto, trumpet mushrooms, asparagus, apricot marmalade and pomegranate glaze.

Russian River Duncans Mills. Photo by Glenn Lee Robinson.

Peruse artworks at The Russian River Art Gallery, a creative co-op with pieces including watercolor paintings by Penny Knapp and handmade turquoise and silver necklaces by Aaron Poovey. For an afternoon day trip, head 2.5 miles north to the 360-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve for a look at Colonel Armstrong, the park’s oldest tree at more than 1,400 years old, and self-guided tours on 9.2 miles of hiking trails. In Duncan Mills, established in 1877, stop by Antiquarian & Florabunda for vintage jewelry, books, stationery, and locally grown flowers. Or grab a matcha latte and freshly baked apple galette at Gold Coast Coffee & Bakery

Originally serving as quarters for area miners, Boon Hotel + Spa, also owned by Luedtke, features 14 rooms with Crosley record players, Coyuchi organic linens and reclaimed-redwood furnishings, plus a trio of glamping tents, a vintage camper and a saltwater pool. Nearby, The Stavrand Russian River Valley offers 21 guest rooms, an outdoor swimming pool and hot tub, and complimentary gourmet breakfast. The woodsy 6-acre hideaway includes special guest touches like in-room lanterns for nighttime walks on the property, and bikes and kayaking equipment.

The Stavrand Hotel. Photo by Emma K Morris.

History Meets Wine in Amador County

About 100 miles east of Napa in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Amador County boasts more than 50 wineries with nominal tasting fees and a laid-back, unpretentious vibe. The area—deeply rooted in gold rush history and often overlooked by tourists—is bustling with charming small towns with brick facades, boutiques, and tasting rooms pouring varietals such as zinfandel and sangiovese. 

Imperial Hotel and Restaurant. Photographed by Justin Allen.

Named after prospector José Amador, who mined in the area in the 1800s, Amador City—deemed one of the state’s smallest cities with a total area of just 0.3 square miles—is a prime home base for wine tasting and shopping. Drop your bags at Imperial Hotel & Restaurant, a historic six-room inn with three off-site cottage suites. Initially opened in 1879 and painstakingly overhauled, the two-story hotel features a restaurant and bar serving dinner Thursday through Sunday and brunch on weekends.

Take a stroll along adjacent Main Street, formerly Historic Highway 29, for specialty shops and home decor troves such as Alley+Main and Dreamy Whites. At the Amador Whitney Museum, delve into the region’s history with artifacts and relics including a replica of a one-room schoolhouse, old school desks, maps, black-and-white photographs and even a covered wagon.

In Jackson, the National Hotel Jackson—anchoring 150-year-old Main Street with antique shops, bookstores and tasting rooms—is teeming with old-world charm. Built in 1852, the revamped Victorian-style hotel features 34 guest rooms, stone fireplaces, a grand piano in the lobby and an on-site restaurant. For a glimpse at the town’s beginnings and gold rush days, take a weekend tour at Kennedy Gold Mine, the state’s deepest gold mine at 5,912 feet.  

Helwig Winery. Photographed by Mariea Rummel and Life’s Little Blessings.

Nearby Plymouth warrants a pit stop at Amador Flower Farm and its 14 acres of demonstration gardens and 1,200 varieties of daylilies. Unpack lunch at a picnic table framed by a 300-year-old oak tree. For wine tasting, venture to Shenandoah Vineyards and sip pinot noir, cabernet and barbera. Or spend the day at Helwig Vineyards & Winery for a selection of reds, whites and rosés served alongside grilled paninis and charcuterie boxes (the kitchen is open Thursday through Monday). Other notable wineries in the area include Amador Cellars, Rombauer Vineyards, Sierra Foothills and Story Winery.

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