The American Dream: How to turn your California road trip into the adventure of a lifetime

When I was 11 years old, Britney Spears released her debut movie ‘Crossroads’ and I vowed to go on a road trip across the United States of America someday… There were just two problems; money, and my crippling fear of flying.

Fast-forward 14 years and thankfully I earned more than a few pounds a week pocket money, further still, my desire to travel across the whole of the US had kind of reduced to exploring California, which was fortunately a lot more do-able.


L-R: Yosemite, Hollywood, Twin Lakes and San Francisco

Unfortunately, I still had my fear of flying but after a visit to the doctors who gave me anti-anxiety medication for the flight I started doing some research into the best airlines to fly long-haul with and came across Air New Zealand and their rather snazzy sounding ‘Space Seat’ in Premium Economy, and I quickly realised that they were the ones that I needed to start my adventure with.

The Space Seat turned out to be just as cool as it sounded with copious leg room, a seat that reclined into your own leg room rather than encroaching on the personal space of the poor soul sat behind you, and a huge, comfortable seat that I could easily curl up in – in fact, for the first time ever I managed to comfortably fall asleep during a plane journey – and that’s usually no mean feat.


Air New Zealand’s Space Seat made for a dreamy journey

I was also treated to a brilliant selection of films on my personal television alongside two delicious three-course meals and unlimited drinks and snacks that I could have delivered to my seat by ordering through my screen; the future is officially here, ladies and gentlemen.

The other cool and futuristic feature of the high-tech screen was the ability to instant message other passengers on the plane, which would probably be a little bit stalker-like if it wasn’t for the fact that my friend and travel buddy had opted to sit in economy for the flight and this feature gave us the option to chat away for the almost-12 hour journey. It was simply brilliant.


Using Air New Zealand’s IM system to discuss all the important things…

Feeling more refreshed after my Air New Zealand flight then I have after most 20 minute train journeys with Southern Rail, we finally landed on Californian soil and were able to get a shuttle directly from LAX airport to our car rental place, where we had opted to spare no cost in a bid to look as cool as possible and hire a gorgeous white, convertible Mustang.

After all, if I was going to pretend that I was Britney Spears circa 2002 for three weeks I was certainly going to do it in style.


Road trippin’ in style!

The route that we had planned for our adventure saw us go from Los Angeles to Big Sur via Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco, driving six hours along the Route 66 coastline on our second-to-last day to catch our flight home from LAX, and here are some road trip tips that I learned along the way:

Have A Base For Your First Week:

I had visited Los Angeles once before and had heavily researched the best places to stay that were in a safe and convenient location but not extortionately pricey and found an adorable hotel called The Dixie Hollywood.

When the time came to book up our accommodation for this trip, I knew that the first, jet-lagged and overwhelming week was probably going to be the hardest and the last thing that we wanted after our 12 hour flight was to arrive in a horrible motel, which is why I insisted that we booked the same hotel that I had already been to to make sure that our trip got off to a good start.


Watching the sunset over the Hollywood sign at Griffith Observatory

This is also the hotel that we stayed in for the longest amount of time, and if you are doing a road trip across California then I’d totally recommend spending the longest time in Los Angeles as it is driving distance to so many other incredible places.

Over the six nights that we stayed in Hollywood we obviously visited Griffith Observatory for the Hollywood Hills hike, The Grove, the Walk of Fame and Beverly Hills as well as spending days in Santa Barbara, Long Beach and Malibu.

There is so much to do so close by and I couldn’t tell you how nice it was to have the same hotel bed and the same hotel bathroom while we got over the horrific jetlag that we were enduring.

Treat Yourself To Some Luxury:

Let me get one thing straight, I’m by no means a secret millionaire. However, this was a once in a lifetime trip and neither me or my travel buddy wanted to spend it worrying about money, in complete discomfort, or denying ourselves anything. This was the one and only time that we’d be seeing every corner of California and that meant that if we wanted to do something we’d do it without worrying about the cost (within reason).


As an avid Kardashian fan, I couldn’t resist splashing out in ‘DASH’

This also extended to our hotels, although we had our fair share of ‘Just-One-Nights’ (more on that later), we also booked ourselves a guaranteed gorgeous place to stay for a couple of nights each week.

Lake Tahoe, for instance, was slap bang in the middle of our trip and straight after our stint in Yosemite, where we were travelling a lot and staying in various dodgy places, which is why we wanted something to look forward to when we reached the absolutely humongous lake.


Cedar Glen Lodge

Cedar Glen Lodge caught my attention as it had 788 5-star reviews on Tripadvisor despite ‘officially’ being a two star hotel. Yes, that’s right, 788 5-STAR REVIEWS. Have you seen some of the things that people complain about on Tripadvisor? There are literally people that will moan if the lampshade in their room is the wrong colour, how on earth did this place get through 788 reviews without a single negative comment?

Well, once we arrived we realised. The hotel was honestly so perfect that within five minutes of us being inside our hotel room I commented to my friend that it was as though infamous perfectionist Monica Geller from ‘Friends’ had designed the rooms. Everything was immaculately clean, the bedsheets were the crispest, whitest, freshest bedsheets that I have ever slept in, the decor was quaint and adorable and the staff couldn’t have been more friendly.


Cedar Glen Lodge

To top it all off, the free onsite amenities were brilliant – centred by the rows of cabins was a swimming pool and jacuzzi, mini golf course, table tennis and a badminton court, with a sandy-white beach on Lake Tahoe just a couple of minutes walk away.

However, my personal highlight of Cedar Glen Lodge was the fact that the staff left out everything that you needed to make S’mores by the lit fire pit each night. In case you don’t know, a S’more is an American campfire treat comprised of a toasted marshmallow put between two graham crackers alongside chocolate and it was just as delicious as it looked in all of the US TV shows that I’d watched growing up.


Toasting marshmallows to make s’mores at Cedar Glen Lodge

The fire pit was also a great place to meet people and each night I’d find myself chatting to individuals and families of all ages that I otherwise would never have spoken to and we had some of the most pleasant and interesting conversations. Before we had even left I was planning my next visit to Cedar Glen Lodge – even imagining visits in the future with my kids that don’t even exist yet; it was such a beautiful place to stay for friends, couples and families alike and it has definitely added another five star review to its collection.

On the other hand, San Francisco was one of the last places that we visited before heading back for the airport and we were booked into the incredible Scarlet Huntington Hotel. The brilliant location put us right in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39, where we were able to get a ferry over to Alcatraz and Angel Island as well as marvel at the sea lions.


The Scarlet Huntington

Firstly, The Scarlet Huntington was absolutely beautiful, we arrived after a frankly terrifying stay in a dodgy part of Sacramento and were greeted by friendly and efficient staff who lead us up to our perfect room that I very easily could have lived in forever.

It was the only room of our entire trip to have a slightly separate TV/ living area and that extra space made me feel like I was actually in my very own, tiny apartment instead of yet another hotel room. The bathroom was also incredible beyond belief, like I said, I’m no secret millionaire but when I stepped into the sparkling clean, humongous bathroom I kind of had an idea of what it’d be like to be one.


The Scarlet Huntington


The hotel also had a spa, relaxation pool and hot tub, which I decided to utilise on our first night as I was exhausted from a ridiculously early start. The hot tub was the cosiest and most relaxing thing and I ended up staying there for a good couple of hours before having a shower, ordering delicious room service from the hotel’s onsite restaurant ‘Big 4′, and climbing into my big, comfortable, fresh bed that felt as though I was laying in a giant marshmallow. I honestly don’t think that I have ever been so relaxed and it was exactly what I needed to get through the upcoming final few nights of our journey where we were staying in multiple ‘Just-One-Nights’…


The view from our hotel room at The Scarlet Huntington

If you are ever visiting San Francisco I couldn’t recommend a stay in The Scarlet Huntington enough.

On the subject of luxury, we also made full, photo-op use of the Pulp-inspired disco wall at Hotel Shangri-La during our stay in Santa Monica, with the hotel donning an impressive rooftop bar for us to watch the sun set.


Hotel Shangri-La

The hotel was perfectly placed a short walk away from the famous promenade and pier, giving us a well-deserved break from the car as we used our legs to explore the local area before getting our beauty sleep in comfort, and with an incredible view to wake up to.


If you’re wondering what on Earth I’ve been bleating on about, it’s time to explain. ‘Just-One-Nights’ is the affectionate term that we gave to the absolute dives we booked because it was just for one night. Y’know, we’re only passing through this town en route to somewhere better so of course we can survive one night in a $30 room…

…The only problem is, we didn’t consider the fact that on our way back to LA we had booked quite a few ‘Just-One-Nights’ in a row, so what was supposed to only be one night in an, ahem, less than amazing hotel room, actually turned into four nights in less than amazing hotel rooms… They just happened to be different ones.


At least the sights of Big Sur made up for our accommodation… 

We had the one where the grimy, dirty shower would alternate between scalding hot and freezing cold without you doing anything to affect it, the one that had hired actual security to patrol the premises because it was in such a bad neighbourhood, and the one where we were too scared to get into the beds because we were convinced a place so scummy must have bed bugs… One thing was for sure, we definitely weren’t in The Scarlet Huntington anymore.

Obviously the odd night here and there in an absolute hellhole is nothing in the grand scheme of things and arguably a necessary part of being a bonafide traveller, however, just be wary about packing too many of these hotels into your itinerary in a row.

In short, our entire journey from San Francisco onwards was far from our creature comforts and I was honestly relieved by the time that we got to LAX airport and I had my Air New Zealand Space Seat to look forward to – which somehow ended up giving me the best few hours sleep that I’d had in the last few days.


The pleasant journey home made leaving California a little less difficult

Premium Economy also allowed me to check in two pieces of luggage, which was pretty handy considering I needed the space for all of the souvenirs I had bought, and by souvenirs I obviously mean the piles of American candy and all of the fun-flavoured Oreos that I could find.

Needless to say, the long journey back to London was the most comfortable I had been in a good few days and made the end of our adventure slightly less difficult to swallow.

Eat, Eat, EAT:

There is a reason that Americans are known for their food and let me tell you, you don’t want to be crossing across any part of the country without taking the time to enjoy the incredible cuisine that is on offer.

From the delightfully quaint diners that serve every kind of breakfast you could ask for to the big chains such as iHop, who make the fluffiest pancakes you’ll ever taste, there is definitely something for everybody; we spent some days gorging on the West Coast’s infamous fast-food restaurant In-N-Out and also had days where we made a pilgrimage to the Kardashians’ favourite salad joint, Health Nut, and made use of the copious juice bars that were at our feet.


Pretending to be Kim Kardashian at Health Nut

California is also a great state to enjoy food because it is so close to Mexico, meaning that the Mexican food is out of this world, and it is also along the coast, which makes access to fresh seafood as easy as can be.

One place that bridged these two things perfectly was a gorgeous restaurant in Malibu called the Carbon Beach Club, located inside Malibu Beach Inn, although we weren’t staying at the hotel we did enjoy an incredible three-course meal there after our day of watching surfers and soaking in the sun on the sandy shores of the beach.

The restaurant is situated right on the coast of Malibu and from our table on the terrace we were able to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the beach whilst savouring the decadent and flavourful Mexican-inspired seafood.


Dinner with a view at Malibu Beach Inn’s Carbon Beach Club

I started with BBQ Mexican shrimp followed by Linguine Vongole with littleneck clams and salted caramel ice cream for dessert, it was truly the best meal that we had throughout our entire three week trip and  the care that the Chef de Cuisine, Victor Morales, takes in his dishes was apparent.

The friendly staff explained to us that the restaurant only uses the freshest and locally sourced ingredients to create the menu, which changes with the seasons, leaving me convinced that this is the place to visit for a bite to eat all year round.


Eating delicious food whilst the sun set – bliss!

The good food alone made the drive from Hollywood to Malibu well worth taking but it was also a great experience for us to see such a different part of the Californian coast when compared to the tourist-heavy hustle and bustle of the other busy seaside towns such as Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.

Talk To People:

Americans truly are one of the friendliest nations in the world and one of my favourite parts of our road trip was having the opportunity to talk to so many different people. I mean, it couldn’t have been any more different to London, where you feel a bit weirded out if a stranger so much as makes eye contact with you; conversation is welcomed and as we progressed in our trip we had been given so many useful tips from locals about where is worth visiting, when the best time to travel is, and even what parts of certain towns are best avoided.

As well as the chats we enjoyed around the fire pit at Cedar Glen Lodge, I’ll never forget when a man and his two young children called us over to the lake we were passing one evening, pointing out a real-life brown bear fishing just a few feet away from us on the other side. Together, we all stood and watched this majestic creature in its natural habitat and each one of us was equally awe-struck.


A slightly grainy picture of the bear – would you want to get any closer??

I also struck up a friendship with three guys from Missouri who were also enjoying a road trip through California and Nevada whilst staying in The Scarlet Huntington in San Francisco, with us all exchanging the best road-trip tips as well as educating one-another on our own home towns.

Heck, even our occasional Uber drivers revelled in telling us their own stories and we were always grateful to hear them – in short, don’t be afraid of new people, they are always more than willing to help and almost always happy to just have a chat.

Take A Moment:

Finally, take the time to actually live in the moment. Although you obviously want a million pictures to remember every detail of your epic trip, don’t forget to put your phone down every so often and just breathe.

Don’t spend so much time taking photos of Lake Tahoe that you don’t actually have the memory of swimming in it and the fresh feeling of the crisp water on your skin. Don’t be too preoccupied with getting the perfect Instagram shot of the Yosemite mountains that you don’t sit for a while and simply take in the magnificent view. Don’t be so concerned with getting the most perfect, clearest, shot of a wild animal mere feet away from you that you don’t actually realise what it looks like when you aren’t looking through a screen.


Taking in the beautiful sights of Yosemite National Park

This is a trip that you will probably only make once and being an active participant in your adventure will leave you with much more lasting memories than simply looking at it all.

But obviously take a whole load of photos as well… This is something that you will definitely want framed on your mantelpiece.




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