I had always wished to pick up a car and drive care-free along the picturesque Golden Coast. I twisted and turned into the iconic boltholes of Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, San Diego and Laguna Beach to discover spectacular vistas, glittering beaches and delectable Californian cuisine. I had the most unforgettable experiences – here are my highlights from this cherished trip.
Urban food and wine aficionados flock to Santa Barbara's sun-kissed shores to experience an explosion of tastes from locally-sourced, artisanal cuisine, paired cautiously with the perfect grape - I can confirm it's a gastronomical haven! I joined the 'Eat this, shoot that' walking wine tour and wandered through the historic wine collection of El Paseo and Presidio neighbourhood whilst indulging in delicious, small Californian bites and sips of assorted wines - grown in the local Santa Ynez valley. We were encouraged to take our cameras along with us and expert photographers shared top tips on how to capture the best shots.
The perfect beach town - with 3.5 miles of unspoiled, golden sands and a cool laid-back atmosphere - Santa Monica truly is a metropolitan bliss. We spent an hour relaxing at the iconic coastline before heading to the pier to take a ride on the renowned Pacific Wheel - a must do when in Santa Monica. I was met with a spectacular cosmopolitan panorama from a different perspective.
Cycling seemed the ideal way to get around and it wasn't long until I hopped on a bike and SM Bike Center guided me through Santa Monica's premiere shopping district and landmark neighbourhoods to the city's most delightful secrets on the 'Sweet Spots' cycling tour. Burning calories whilst treating myself to an array of delightful desserts made a delicious, guilt-free afternoon.
One hundred acres of astonishing wildlife set in the natural surroundings of Balboa Park - San Diego Zoo is not one to be missed. I jumped on an open-top bus which drove through to the Tiger River, leading onto the Panda Canyon (my favourite part of the tour!) and then down to the Elephant Odyssey. The ambience on the drive was electrifying, both children and adults were thrilled to see the wealth of animals roaming around the
zoo. This would make an unforgettable family trip. If you're a thrill-seeker like me, you must board the USA 11 - the authentic 1992 American Cup Racing Yacht, one of the fastest and most famous sailboats in the world. I helped to raise and trim the sails and even took a turn at the helm before I relaxed to watch the sun set whilst we glided around San Diego Bay - a wonderful end to any day.
Laguna was the perfect final pit-stop of my fly-drive - it's a town with palm-lined main streets, extensive, sparkling beaches and restaurants where you can sit back and gaze at the sailboats as they breeze past. The Newport Coast offers remarkable ocean experiences - between the months of December and April whale watching trips set sail from the nearby Dana Point. I recommend an early morning stroll down to the beach to see the sun grow from beyond the ocean and to catch a glimpse of the dolphins that also like to make an appearance at this time of the day, swimming against the swaying waves.
TOP TIP: LA and the surrounding cities get very busy during the peak summer months of July and August. If dates aren't a problem for you, I suggest you consider travelling in spring or autumn - the weather is still glorious - although can be quite cool in the evenings - and you may get a better rate.