Travel review: California - much to discover beyond the urban sprawl

The Golden Gate Bridge. PIC: PA
The Golden Gate Bridge. PIC: PA
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Venturing beyond the urban honeypots of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Richard Jones discovers fine wines and great hiking trails in California.

Everyone loves a bit of sightseeing, and there’s nothing like that first moment you clap eyes on a landmark that you have previously seen only on TV or in print. “To your right, you’ll see the Blue Angels flying over Golden Gate Bridge,” the captain of our flight announces. And sure enough, there it is, San Francisco’s most famous landmark, cradling the Bay, bathed in the mid-afternoon sun, alongside Alcatraz island.

The fact that the US Navy’s flight demonstration squadron are making colourful smoke patterns in the air adds to the magic. Whereas most visitors to California stick to the big cities of San Fran and Los Angeles for the sights, I’m choosing to travel a bit further afield.

My first stop is the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, an hour’s drive up the coast from San Fran. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, alongside two golf courses, it has a country club vibe, albeit with a nod to its coastal surroundings.

This ocean influence is evident at its signature restaurant, Navio, with chef Jason Pringle’s menu referencing the best seafood dining from around the world. During our night in Navio, we sample Half Moon Bay’s pumpkin beer, as well as some of California’s finest wines – a warm-up for the next day’s tour at Thomas Fogarty Winery.

Tommy, whose father established the business in 1981, shows us around his property before dashing off to attend a dinner in which his acclaimed Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays have been nominated for yet more awards.

Of course, California is not only known for its amazing coastline and wine, it is also ranch and cowboy land. Originally belonging to the Folger family (of coffee fame), the recently renovated Folger Stable Carriage Room Museum at Woodside is an enchanting throwback to the “great estates” era in the early 1900s.

I’m assigned a lovely chestnut horse named June, for a gentle trek around the redwood-lined hills of Wunderlich Park. It’s a flashback to days gone by, but our next destination is much more modern.

Stanford University is one of the world’s leading research and teaching institutions, while Silicon Valley is home to some of the globe’s biggest tech companies, including Apple and Google. If you’re a fan of Facebook, you can go to the social networking site’s HQ and “check in at Facebook”.

I head to Stanford Shopping Centre, home to all the retail big-hitters, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, along with the innovative Tesla shop. For a spot of lunch, the recently opened True Food Kitchen serves dishes all cooked from scratch in the open-plan kitchen with a wide selection of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.

The next day, we embark on a four-hour drive into the Sierra Nevada mountains, passing through Sacramento. Despite having equivalent levels of luxury, the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe is very different form its Half Moon Bay sister. Primarily a winter sports hotel located next to the Northstar resort, the luxurious mountain retreat features breathtaking views from its rooms, each of which has its own fire.

The hotel’s signature restaurant is Manzanita, where I’m offered a place at the Chef’s Table for a taster menu of local organic produce.

The nutritious food comes in handy the next morning when I embark on a hike along a stretch of the Tahoe Rim Trail, through the sugar and white pines for spectacular views of the lake, which is so clean you can apparently drink straight from it.

An afternoon of relaxation at the Ritz-Carlton is my reward for all the physical exertion, namely a full body massage and a few hours in the hotel’s luxurious spa and pools.

That evening, I learn about Marshmology – a popular concept in the States at the moment.

You take a stick and some marshmallows, toast them on the flames and then put them between two crackers with some chocolate and end up with an amazing, warm, sticky and sweet treat.

After leaving Lake Tahoe, I spend one last day in San Francisco. One of the city’s newest attractions is the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and with seven floors and hundreds of exhibits, it’s well worth checking out, even if, like me, you’re not a big modern art lover.

In the British Sculptors area, I stumble across a piece by Henry Moore, the most famous man to come out of my home town of Castleford.

So far, I’ve managed to steer clear of tourist honey traps, but on my last morning, I cave in and make a bee-line for the city’s two most famous landmarks – the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz island.

There are no fighter jets or special effects smoke above the majestic suspension bridge that day, but it is still a spectacular sight.

GETTING THERE

Richard Jones was a guest of Norwegian ( 0330 828 0854, norwegian.com/uk) which flies direct three times a week between London Gatwick and Oakland International Airport – 35 minutes from downtown San Francisco. Fares start from £159 one way in economy, and from £499 in Premium.

Rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe (ritzcarlton.com) start from $430 (about £332); rooms at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, start from $425 (approx £328); rooms at the 
Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, start 
from $685 (about £529). Breakfast is extra.

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