Easy Escapes: Southern California

Siân Parry enjoys the sun, sea and shopping in San Diego and Palm Springs

Siân Parry enjoys the sun, sea and shopping in San Diego and Palm Springs

Why go? If you thought Los Angeles was permanently sunny, wait until you see San Diego. Close to the Mexican border, it’s much more laid-back with perfect beaches and high-end hotels. Pair some days on the coast with a few inland at Palm Springs, a mid-century dream in the desert where the Hollywood elite go to relax. And as you’re never far from an outlet mall in southern California, this is one trip where you won’t have to choose between shopping and sunbathing.

California girl: Siân gets happy on the beach at the Hotel Del Coronado
in San Diego

When? Any time, the climate is pretty perfect all year round in San Diego. High summer is seriously hot in Palm Springs’ desert climate, but it’s a dry heat – and there are more outdoor pools here than practically anywhere else on the planet. Think of David Hockney’s famous painting ‘A Bigger Splash’ and you’re thinking of Palm Springs.

You really must: San Diego is California’s second largest city and has a huge amount to offer. Take a trolley tour (trolleytours.com) to the Old Town – with Mexico just 20 miles south this is a good place to enjoy authentic Mexican food and some pretty impressive margaritas. The trolley will also stop at the famous Balboa Park (balboapark.org) which is celebrating its centenary this year. It’s a beautiful 1,200 acre oasis with formal gardens and 17 museums, all accessible with a day pass (£29).

Palm Springs is the playground of southern California. It grew up in the golden age of Hollywood as a secret haven for the biggest stars: far enough from LA to afford some privacy, close enough to be on set within hours. Take a Celebrity Tour (palmspringsalive.com) to see houses that once belonged to Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, as well as Elvis’s honeymoon home. There’s stunning mid-century architecture, and, of course, the desert. Put on your sensible shoes and head out on a sunset jeep tour with Desert Adventures (red-jeep.com). Close to the city but a world away, you’ll see the San Andreas Fault and learn about Native American ways of life. Just watch out for rattlesnakes.

Warm nights: the fire-pits at the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel

Stay at: The famous Hotel Del Coronado (doubles from £245, hoteldel.com), This wooden, red-roofed beauty has been a San Diego icon since it was built in 1888. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum did much of his writing here and designed the regal chandeliers in the Crown Room. The 1959 classic Some Like it Hot was filmed here and we dare you not try your own Marilyn moment on the beach. Having undergone a glamorous refurb for its 125th anniversary in 2013, it’s got everything you’d expect from a five-star resort with 680 rooms set in 28 acres of prime seafront.

In Palm Springs, a great base is the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel (from £97, marriott.co.uk). It boasts the largest pool in town and that’s saying something. If you get up early you’ll have it all to yourself, a great chance to look out over the mountains in that crisp, bright, almost HD desert sunlight. Most of the 410 rooms have balconies and pool or mountain views, and the pre-dinner cocktails by the fire-pits feel pretty starry.

When in San Diego… eat and drink Mexican

Dine at: There’s such variety in Californian cuisine, and it’s not all green juice and egg-white omelettes. When in San Diego you have to go Mexican – the trend now is for less traditional restaurants with a more street food vibe, like Puesto (eatpuesto.com). When out shopping in the fabulous Fashion Valley mall, do lunch at True Food Kitchen (truefoodkitchen.com) for healthy but tasty food that’ll replenish you after all that bargain-hunting.

In Palm Springs it’s more about see and be seen. Lulu’s Bistro (lulupalmsprings.com) is a buzzy and fun place to go, sit at a pavement table and people-watch. For a cheap and healthy eat, visit Native Foods Café (nativefoods.com). Founded in Palm Springs, this is an excellent vegan restaurant, now with more locations around the USA.

Bargains in the sun: Desert Hills Premium Outlets near Palm Springs

Bring home: Fashion bargains. There are some of the biggest and best shopping malls here in southern California. A 15 minute drive from Hotel Del Coronado lies Fashion Valley (simon.com), a stylish outdoor mall with 200 stores to tempt you. If you fancy being an A-lister for the day you can get a personal shopper to guide you, which is complimentary for the first two hours. Check out US brands like Halston Heritage, Free People and Tory Burch. There’s also the largest Tiffany’s store in a mall here…

If you’re hungry for real bargains save some suitcase space for Desert Hills Premium Outlets (premiumoutlets.com). Around half-an-hour’s drive west of Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley, this is a fashion heaven with 180 stores and everything up to 65% off the retail price. You’ll find great US designers like Kate Spade and DVF, but there’s also Dolce & Gabbana, YSL and the world’s only Alexander McQueen outlet. The best buys for us Brits are the US brands as European designers don’t work out so well on the exchange rate with the dollar. And believe me, you really can pick up a J Crew necklace for around £30.

It’s best to do some planning ahead in these places. Check for deals online at specific malls and stores, and it’s well worth signing up to the Simon Premium Outlets VIP Lounge which offers additional discounts to the outlet prices. And if you still want more, you can pick up further bargains at the massive Ontario Mills (simon.com), 38 miles east of downtown LA, which has over 200 stores.

Seaside grandeur: the historic Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego

Book now: British Airways (ba.com) flies direct to San Diego from London Heathrow, from £679 return. You’ll need a visa-style authorization (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/). Hire a car from Alamo (alamo.co.uk) – don’t forget the GPS, it will become your best friend – or your hotel can help arrange transfers.

Info: Get in the mood by watching Some Like it Hot, and always carry photo ID as some stores will ask to see it if you’re paying by credit card. Also, if you’re lucky enough to look anywhere under 30, you’ll need it to buy that margarita. Los Angeles, San Diego & Southern California (£14.99; Lonely Planet) covers the region. Useful websites include sandiego.org, visitpalmsprings.com, visitgreaterpalmsprings.com and visitcalifornia.com.

Lead image: © Rex Features

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