Combining the iconic drive from LA to San Francisco with detours inland to California's wine country and Yosemite National Park makes for a thrilling road trip adventure, says JULIE CARPENTER
"WHAT do you say, folks, shall I pronounce them husband and wife?"
It was rather a strange question, given that the more obvious one would have been "do you want fries with that?" Click here now for amazing offers to Los Angeles!
It was just two hours since my partner and I had landed at Los Angeles airport to begin our much-anticipated California road trip and, having picked up our American muscle car (a Dodge Charger), we had stopped off at a rather unprepossessing shack called Malibu Seafood.
As we sat on an outside bench munching tuna burgers, it seemed the dressed-down couple behind us were quietly being married by a man in jeans and T-shirt. Yes, in America, the land of the free, if you want to get hitched in a fish and chip shop, you darn well can.
This provided the first of many little reminders that we were no longer in Blighty. One colossal giveaway was the landscape.
We had decided to first drive from LA to San Francisco along a section of one of America's most famed routes, the Pacific Coast Highway. Here, the road hugs the coast for 450 miles and offers breathtaking scenery with 3,000ft mountains on one side and dramatic sheer cliffs with spectacular sea views on the other.
It is what taking to the open road is all about, especially if you've got a dedicated channel of Eighties music blaring from the radio, as we did.
By the time we'd reached Malibu we had already whisked past Venice Beach and Santa Barbara (spiritual home of the posing LA rollerblader). Want incredible deals to San Francisco? Click here now...
Since the drive from LA to San Francisco takes around 10 hours, though, we'd decided we would break it over three days.
The destination for our first night was the quintessential sleepy town of Pismo, which is home to California's only "driveable" beach.
We decided to stay at the SeaCrest Hotel, with its retro modern Fifties vibe. It is just an hour's drive from Hearst Castle, the eye-poppingly opulent former home of William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul and model for Citizen Kane.
Nestled into the hills at San Simeon, this is where Hearst entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Winston Churchill and it is well worth a visit if only to gawp at the ostentation.
Back on the road again there are highlights aplenty on the journey to San Francisco but perhaps none more startling than the stretch of coast known as Big Sur and its 100 miles of stunning seascapes.
Once described by Robert Louis Stevenson as "the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world", it boasts both beachy coves and lush forests along with the precipitous cliffs and ocean views.
You can even stop off to do a bit of elephant seal-watching (the males are strange beasts with long, trunk-like snouts and they laze on the beaches flipping sand over their backs).
It's also worth a stop in the upmarket chocolate-box town of Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor.
Possibly due to its hippy roots, San Francisco itself exudes a general feeling of acceptance, with eclectic neighbourhoods, a diverse population and enough to occupy you for at least a week - if you're not on a road trip deadline. One West Coast landmark you shouldn't miss, though, is the city's famous Golden Gate Bridge, which was atmospherically enshrouded in chilly summer fog when we drove across.
Our next destination was Sonoma County's Wine Country, which is about an hour's drive, to imbibe the best of Californian vino. Near the small town of Sebastopol, the Lynmar Estate has just opened its tranquil retreat, Bliss House, for rentals. The three-bedroom property has floor-to-ceiling windows and a huge terrace with views over its vineyards.
We had intended to try out several wineries in the area.
However once we had experienced Lynmar's gourmet "picnic pairing" (where Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are matched to foods), we simply didn't want to do anything but laze on the terrace drinking in the view.
The final leg of our road trip was Yosemite National Park and I confess to wondering whether it was worth the hefty six-hour drive - until we arrived, that is.
There are not enough superlatives to describe the dramatic, elemental scenery which just engulfs you.
Take a hike up sun-baked Sentinel Dome, which gives you incredible panoramic views, or visit the giant sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove (we hiked to the Grizzly Giant which is 1,800 years old and 33ft in diameter).
At Glacier Point you can lap up the awe-inspiring surroundings, including the great granite monolith crest known as Half Dome.
Our hotel here was the four-star Tenaya Lodge, which offers cabin-style comfort with antlers adorning the walls.
We even squeezed in a ride on the Sugar Pine Railroad.
Our transport was an old steam train, formerly used for logging but which now gives tourists a ride into the forest after dinner.
Ice-cream for dessert was off the menu because a bear had broken into the shop and eaten the entire stock. Yes, really.
The problem with the trip, of course, is that it does make you realise why some Americans just never go abroad. THE KNOWLEDGE: Bon Voyage (0800 316 0191/ www.bon-voyage.co.uk/california) offers a 10-night California fly-drive package from £1,530pp (two sharing), room only. Price includes two nights in each of the following: SeaCrest Resort Hotel; Hotel Nikko; Big Sur River Inn (B&B); The Lodge at Sonoma Resort and Spa; and Tenaya Lodge. Flights from Heathrow to Los Angeles and return from San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic and 10 -days car hire also included. Bliss House at Lynmar Estate Winery (www.lynmarwinery.com/blisshouse) is available from £565 per night (sleeps six), self-catering. California Tourism: 0207 257 6180/www.visitcalifornia.co.uk