America's West Coast is the place to find everything from natural wonders to out-of-this-world shopping. Simon Creasey takes you on a tour.
For the youth of America, undertaking a road trip is a rite of passage that marks the transition from teenager to young adult. While it may not hold the same cultural significance for tourists, it's by far the best way to drink in all that this vast nation has to offer. One of the most popular road trip routes for visitors and locals alike is the West Coast's 'Golden Triangle' of Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These locations are well-served by regular short haul flights making it easy to skip between the cities by air. However, the best way to flit between these three diverse destinations is by road, because once you get outside these sprawling metropolises, the West Coast highways are sparsely populated and snake through some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world.
The route from Las Vegas to LA perfectly illustrates this point. The circa four hour journey skirts around the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve, with its dizzying array of deep canyons, volcanic cinder cones and Joshua tree forests. Alternatively, drive north-west of Vegas to explore the mudflats and green lakes of Death Valley, which has the lowest, driest and hottest locations in North America.
No less impressive is the route from LA to San Francisco. Although you can easily drive between the two cities in six to seven hours on highway 101, if you have time to spare then turn off the 101 just north of San Luis Obispo and take highway one, which is otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
The road takes you north through Big Sur and en route you can detour via some of California's famous vineyards or pop into one of the region's tourist jewels like Hearst Castle, which overlooks the town of San Simeon – when you see zebras running wild in the roadside fields you know that you've reached your destination.
Built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the castle was a playground for the great and the good of American industry and show business in the 1920s and 30s, with regular visitors that even included Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. Today, the castle is open to visitors who come to marvel at the opulence of the décor and hear about the wild antics of Hearst's guests from the entertaining and well-informed tour guides.
Just north of Hearst Castle is Piedras Blancas beach, another popular stop-off point thanks to the 7,500-strong elephant seal colony that resides here. You can stretch your legs while watching the seals frolic in the sea, before jumping back into your car to marvel at the sheer majesty of Big Sur's mountainous terrain, which becomes ever more precipitous the further north you get.
Thankfully, you can't weave around Big Sur's hairpin bends at speeds of much more than 20- 30mph, which gives the driver time to drink in the ocean views and let the hire cars' automatic gears bear the strain.
Eventually, the road north flattens out as you leave the wilds behind and head back towards civilisation. On the relatively short hop from Big Sur to San Francisco it's worth finding time in your itinerary to visit the sleepy seaside towns of Carmel, which counts Clint Eastwood as a former mayor, and Santa Cruz. There you can recharge your batteries and get ready for your exhilarating stay in the 'city by the bay'.
From the quaint creaking cable cars to the fog that regularly envelops the Golden Gate Bridge, there's so much to see and do in San Francisco that you need to establish a strict itinerary before your visit so that you depart having ticked all of the boxes. The key attractions that are at the top of everyone's itinerary include a visit to the shops, museums and restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf; a cable car ride up one of the city's sheer hills and a trip to the island prison Alcatraz, which looms ominously in the centre of the bay. Boat trips to 'The Rock' leave regularly from Pier 33 throughout the day, but the best – and spookiest – time to visit is at night on one of the many island night tours, which also provide great sunset views of the city (booking in advance is advisable). Make sure you take one of the excellent audio guides that give you an insight into what prison life was like for inmates.
Back on the mainland there are numerous optional extras that are worth exploring if you can find the time. The Ferry Building is a gastronome's delight and is packed to the rafters with cafes, restaurants and food stalls. Alternatively, you can spend an afternoon exploring the hip shops and restaurants of the Mission District, which is one of the city's oldest and most vibrant neighbourhoods. Other options worth considering include the short ferry ride to the picturesque waterfront community of Sausalito or a visit to Muir Woods, which is a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. The woods boast some of the area's largest redwoods and also provided the setting for the Endor scenes in the sci-fi blockbuster Return of the Jedi.
Three to see
1. Book a spooky night trip to Alcatraz prison
2. Spend an afternoon exploring the nature trails at Muir Woods
3. Eat clam chowder with a hunk of sourdough bread at Fisherman's Wharf
When it comes to sprawling metropolises, few nations can compete with America. And the one US city that stands head and shoulders above the rest is the 'city of angels' whose sheer vastness has to be seen to be believed.
As you would expect of a city of its size, there's plenty to see and do in LA with much of the emphasis placed on the area's cinematic heritage. Besides the iconic Hollywood sign, which looms large over the city, there's the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with its glittering array of stars celebrating past and present celebrities of movie and music fame.
There are also numerous studio tours and the slightly tackier guided bus excursions that take in the homes of some of Hollywood's biggest names. But don't fall into the trap of thinking that LA is just about the silver screen. The city has a cultural trump card in the form of the Getty museum, which sits on a hill on the outskirts of town. This architectural gem boasts a fine collection of art in addition to an ever-changing programme of exhibitions.
Another pit-stop worth making during your visit to LA is the Farmers Market, which offers culinary delights from all four corners of the world, and the adjacent 'The Grove', with its high street American fashion chain names.
Whatever time of year you visit, ensure you find the time to drive to nearby Santa Monica to watch the sun set over the famous pier and pristine golden beach. And if you're feeling a bit peckish after a hard day's sightseeing then head to Father's Office on Montana Avenue – one of the area's legendary food haunts – for the finest burger you'll ever sample.
Three to see
1. Visit the Getty for the impressive art and the views of the city below
2. Walk the Hall of Fame and pick out your favourite stars
3. Watch a Santa Monica sunset from the famous pier
'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas' is a phrase often used to describe the air of hedonism that pervades this desert city, but Vegas is also rich with culture and some of the best restaurants that the West Coast has to offer (Gordon Ramsay, Nobu and Wolfgang Puck are just some of the celeb chefs you'll find have restaurants here).
In addition to fine dining, some of the world's finest entertainment acts can be found at venues such as Caesars Palace and the Bellagio, with Britney Spears and Celine Dion being just some of the stars who have enjoyed extended residencies in Vegas resorts.
That said, most visitors don't come to Vegas for its cultural attractions – they come to explore the bright lights of the city's numerous casinos on the famous 'Strip' or take advantage of the veritable smorgasbords on offer at the numerous all-you-can-eat buffets that represent ridiculously good value for money.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the Strip a popular place to wind down is Lake Las Vegas - a picturesque resort that's just an hours' drive away, and is blessed with chic boutiques, restaurants and bars.
Alternatively, take advantage of Vegas' location and explore some of the national forests or state parks that encircle the city. The natural wonder of the Grand Canyon and the awe-inspiring construction achievement at the Hoover Dam are both within easy reach of Vegas, as is Monument Valley, which provided the backdrop for some of the most famous Wild West films to come out of Hollywood.
You may or may not leave this gambling mecca financially better off but you'll certainly leave with memories to treasure a lifetime.
Three to see
1. Plan a day trip to the 277 mile-long Grand Canyon
2. Play the slot machines or the gaming tables at least once
3. Queue up with your plate (and an empty stomach) at an all-you-can-eat buffet