Of all the iconic highways in America, Highway 1 is the most aptly named. Not just because it was the first to be built along the Californian coast. Or because it links hotels and restaurants regularly cited as the best in the west. Or because it’s here that you get the clearest snapshot of 21st-century America, from the farming communities of Monterey and tech moguls of Palo Alto to the right-wing blondes of Orange County. But because it’s so darned pretty.
The geography is as varied as its people, as you drive south from the vineyards of Sonoma and Napa Valley – the best direction in which to travel if you want to drive alongside the precipitous cliffs and crashing waves of the Pacific.
After winding through vineyards, cloaked in fog and lined with oaks, the land opens out on to the flat farmland of Monterey, where the air smells of artichokes and earth, and tractors trundle through sleepy suburban towns.
Then come the forests of Big Sur, where 300ft redwoods loom like ancient sentinels in the sun-drenched skies and waterfalls ricochet off mountains. Finally, after the winding ribbon of a road clinging to the hillside turns into the fat, truck-filled highways of Los Angeles that epitomise America, you reach the beaches of Orange County, where car-sized elephant seals come to mate, and toned, tanned, cool-dude surfers flock to ride the long breaks before a breakfast of cholesterol-free eggs, a shot of ginger and a side of kale juice.
For the past 18 months California has been dogged by natural disasters, including forest fires and a landslide that closed Highway 1 for more than a year. Thankfully, since the highway reopened in July, tourists are returning – many to leading hotels that had taken the opportunity to revamp, some even to rebuild, during the break.
Here’s our pick of the freshest places to stay, best visited in an open-top Ford Mustang with the cool Californian sounds of Sirius XMU radio blaring, the sun on your shoulders and the wind whipping through your hair.
The Francis House
Calistoga, Napa Valley
It may sell itself as a B&B, but the Francis House (above) is an immaculately restored French château-style villa, set in the leafy outskirts of the mineral-spa town of Calistoga. Built in 1886 by a wealthy merchant and left derelict for more than half a century, it was rescued by a San Francisco couple, Richard and Dina Dwyer, who spent three years rebuilding and furnishing it with Le Corbusier pieces, contemporary furniture and Dina’s own art.
Staying there (particularly if you’re the only guests) feels like you’re king of a little castle, one with a heated pool, a garden in which breakfast is served by a friendly housekeeping couple (whose fruit-and-flower platters wouldn’t look out of place in a Michelin-starred restaurant) and, in a few months, a tennis court. The five bedrooms are white and fresh but cosy, with antique Italian chandeliers and French desks, as well as bedside USB sockets and high-tech Japanese Toto lavatories. From the Francis House you can hail Calistoga’s free shuttle service (ridethevine.com) to visit nearby bars, vineyards and restaurants – the town’s smart solution to reduce drink driving. Doubles from $495, thefrancishouse.com
EAT AT Solbar in the smart, white clapboard Solage hotel, where the food is fresh, delicious and inventive (and a reasonable $85 for a four-course set meal). Or go for lunch at the Michelin-starred Auberge du Soleil, with views from the hillside verandah over miles of rolling vineyards below – try its heritage tomato and burrata salad. aubergeresorts.com
DON’T MISS Tasting exceptional wines at the classic Chateau Montelena Winery, a Bordeaux-style building owned by a third-generation winemaker. montelena.com