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7 travel upgrades for an unforgettable California vacation

July 09, 2020
8 min read
Los Angeles hot sunset view with palm tree and downtown in background. California, USA
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From the glamor of Hollywood and Palm Springs to the culture and history of San Francisco, from Yosemite’s spectacular vistas to the majesty of Lake Tahoe, California lures vacationers seeking every type of getaway.

Choose one of the state’s best beaches for a sun-splashed hang, head to Napa for a foodie extravaganza and a flight of the region's best wines or seek sanctuary in California’s pristine redwood forests. Regardless of what your dream trip to California looks like, there are ways to enhance the experience with perks and personalization that will send you home with memories far more vivid than the average holiday. Just think of it as having elite status for your California vacation.

Here, the best insider tips and tricks for upgrading your California vacation.

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Take a specialized food tour

The term "food scene" gets more and more daunting with every city you visit. How do you tap into pop-up experiences, discover locals' secret hole-in-the-wall bistros or learn about up-and-coming chefs without the introduction of someone in the know?

The answer is to take a food tour, and thankfully there's one for every taste imaginable, including some so specialized they visit only taco trucks, breakfast places or brewpubs.

Six Taste of Los Angeles will introduce you to that multicultural city's wealth of dining experiences, including the tonkatsu and okonomiyaki of Japantown or the distilleries and wine bars of the arts district. You can can create your own personalized food tour for four people or more.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Edible Excursions offers a North Berkeley brunch tour and a tour of the Ferry Building and its farmer's market that provides a perfect introduction to the top local artisanal producers.

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Choose a hotel with a concierge in the know

The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake. (Photo courtesy of IHG)
The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake. (Photo courtesy of IHG)

Like the best friend from college who has your favorite cocktail ready before you even walk through the door, a good concierge can provide the insider knowledge that takes your vacation to the next level — and higher.

At Sonoma’s boutique Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, the complimentary concierge service can arrange anything from a guided vineyard hike or bike ride to a reservation at a coveted restaurant.

The Kimpton Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco introduces their concierge dream team by name on the website with instructions for booking wine country tours, visits to Alcatraz and more.

And the concierge team at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills offers lists of recommendations curated by type of visitor, with specialized recommendations for families, shoppers and travelers seeking the ultimate in California nightlife.

More secrets to the perfect California vacation include how to spot celebrities and where to find the cutest small towns other visitors haven't discovered yet.

Related: California trips for every type of traveler

Book a private lesson

Winery tasting rooms can get crowded, trying to keep up with a fleet of kayaks can be stressful and learning to surf in a big group can cut down on your instruction time. Make all these experiences and many others more special by paying a little more for a private tour, visit or lesson.

La Vida Laguna surf school in Orange County’s Laguna Beach limits lessons to three students per instructor, ensuring plenty of personal attention; Club Ed in Santa Cruz; Ventura Surf School north of Los Angeles; and Surfari in the San Diego-area are among the many surf schools that offer private as well as group lessons.

When it comes to river rafting, smaller is definitely better, and outfitters like OARS can be counted on to put together a custom small group or family trip to your specifications, with a choice of more than 75 adventure itineraries.

Exclusive small group adventures are another way to create peak moments. You can kayak the sea caves of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve with Everyday California; do a full moon paddle on Tomales Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore with Blue Waters Kayaking, or pursue a passion of your own such as mountain biking or parasailing.

Leave room for spa time

The Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa. (Photo courtesy of Marriott)
The Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa. (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

After a day of sun and sand, hiking and climbing, or savoring the latest wines, there’s no better way to deepen the relaxation than to indulge in a spa experience.

At the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa, hot tubs, steam rooms and an outdoor pool enhance a long menu of luxurious treatments including body wraps, facials and massages.

The JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert features a Turkish-style hammam, Ayurvedic ritual treatments and more.

Before you book a stay, consider perusing the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) program if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express or a Centurion-branded card in your wallet. Many upscale California resorts with top-notch spas are featured here (think: Auberge du Soleil and the Montage Laguna Beach) and your stay may even include an up to $100 spa services credit during your stay, along with other elite-like perks.

Related: 15 Los Angeles hotels you can book with points

Dine alfresco

Resorts and hotels around California are really thinking out-of-the-box this summer, setting up their award-winning chefs with new ways to present their creative cuisines.

At Meritage Resort and Spa and Vista Collina Resort in Napa, executive chef Vincent Lesage will be serving his Dr. Pepper-brined barbecue ribs, Thai-inspired sticky wings and Tandoori chicken with coconut-lime yogurt from a food truck, with outdoor dining on the spacious lawn adjacent to Vista Collina Resort.

At L’Auberge Del Mar, located at the ocean’s edge just north of San Diego, the resort’s Coastline Restaurant is serving sustainably sourced seafood on a breezy terrace accompanied by the music of crashing surf.

At the town of Sonoma’s MacArthur Place, a new open-air marketplace, The Porch, features delicacies from local purveyors in addition to an alfresco menu of signature dishes such as gazpacho and lobster rolls from Layla, the resort’s farm kitchen restaurant.

At Tolosa Vineyards in the Edna Valley outside of San Luis Obispo, a selection of locavore gourmet food trucks will be serving meals in a spacious outside dining area, served with accompanying wines.

Sign up for a personalized winery experience

Photo courtesy of Iron Horse Vineyards / Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Iron Horse Vineyards / Facebook.

The smaller, family-run wineries of Sonoma, Napa, Paso Robles and other California wine regions are the perfect place to meet with winemakers, wander through the vineyards and come away with a deeper knowledge of what goes into making some of the world's most prized wines.

Whether it's a sit-down discussion in the west Sonoma mountaintop tasting shed of Iron Horse Vineyards, purveyors of internationally recognized sparkling wines, or an exclusive tour of the hand-dug cellar of Pope Valley Winery outside Napa, an appointment-only visit to one of California's small wineries is a must for any serious wine devotee.

Related: Your points and miles guide to San Francisco

Hit the road in a fun car

There’s no better way to channel California’s outlaw spirit as you drive down the Pacific Coast Highway than in a convertible with the wind in your hair.

Or, if some off-grid adventure is in your plans, a jeep or other rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle can take you down that unpaved road that just might have the perfect hot spring, ghost town or camping spot at the end.

Just trust us on this: You can take your Golden State road trip to the next level with the right set of wheels.

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.