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Best of luxury travel

Southern California's top luxury experiences

Home to a galaxy of movie stars, many of the USA’s most famously wealthy zip codes and over 300 days of sunshine every year, Southern California is the perfect place to satisfy your craving for a little – or maybe a lot of – luxury. Whether you aim to hit the beaches or unwind at a sybaritic spa, we’ve got you covered. Here are our top picks for indulgent trips all around SoCal.

1. Spa time in Palm Springs

Colony Palms Hotel, Palm Springs. Image by Soraya S. / CC BY 2.0Colony Palms Hotel, Palm Springs. Image by Soraya S. / CC BY 2.0

In Hollywood’s early days, the desert town of Palm Springs was as far from LA as movie stars were legally allowed to travel by their studio contracts. A resort playground soon sprang up in the middle of the Mojave, eventually attracting a who’s-who list of everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis. Now hip again, ‘PS’ has made a comeback by catering to city-weary souls looking for a fabulous weekend of pampering. Check into the 1960s-chic Viceroy Palm Springs, then lounge in a poolside cabana with cocktails after a deep tissue massage, oxygen facial or salt scrub at the resort’s stylish Estrella Spa. Or get manicured alongside celebs and society ladies at the ritzy, glitzy Palm Springs Yacht Club at the posh Parker Palm Springs.

2. Star spotting in Los Angeles

You could rub shoulders with celebrities almost anywhere in LA, even standing in line at a coffee shop. Of course, your odds of spotting a real-life movie star are much better if you imitate the lifestyles of the rich and famous. On the Sunset Strip, book a garden cottage at the vaunted Chateau Marmont, where celebs pad barefooted around the lobby and sip martinis at the bar. Strut like a supermodel into Fred Segal, an ivy-covered boutique on Melrose Ave that’s an A-list must-have. Hollywood’s velvet-roped nightclubs and bars offer some wild nights out, but star sightings are a lot cheaper – not to mention more up close and personal – at deluxe ArcLight Cinemas inside the landmark 1960s-era geodesic Cinerama Dome.

3. Cruise in a convertible to Malibu

Make this one California dream come true: rent a Tesla or Ferrari California and enjoy a sun-kissed road trip along coastal Hwy 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Hwy. From Santa Monica, a classy beach town at the western edge of LA, it’s only a 20-mile drive to Malibu, a wealthy celebrity enclave, where impossibly beautiful beaches are strung like polished pearls along the roadside. Gawk at the pro board riders at Surfrider Beach by Malibu’s pier, then slip into your bikini and spread out your beach towel at Zuma Beach, an irresistible blonde mane of sand farther west.

4. Hot air balloons & horse racing in Del Mar

Hot air balloons over Del Mar. Image by Lee Sie Photography / Moment Open / Getty ImagesHot air balloons over Del Mar. Image by Lee Sie Photography / Moment Open / Getty Images

There’s no posher place on San Diego’s North County Coast than Del Mar. Spend a summer day at the races at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (www.dmtc.com), once a favourite of Hollywood glitterati and where Seabiscuit ran in 1938. It’s worth getting tickets for opening day just to see the outrageous, over-the-top hats. Del Mar also happens to be the best spot on the SoCal coast for a memorable hot-air balloon ride, complete with a champagne toast; catch a sunset over the Pacific from 1500ft up in the air with California Dreamin’ (www.californiadreamin.com).

5. Go sailing at Newport Beach

Nowhere else do cinematic images of SoCal beaches come to life more vividly than in Orange County, especially at chi-chi Newport Beach (as seen on TV’s The OC and Arrested Development). On the picturesque Balboa Peninsula, you can rent the ultimate status symbol: your own boat. Don’t worry, you won’t need any nautical experience to be your own captain with Duffy Electric Boat Rentals (www.duffyofnewportbeach.com). All you need is a bunch of friends and some music for a fun evening floating around Newport Harbor. When you get hungry, tie up at a waterfront restaurant and have dinner delivered on board.

6. Beach resort life in Coronado

Vista Walk at the Hotel del Coronado. Image by hoteldelcoronado / CC BY 2.0Vista Walk at the Hotel del Coronado. Image by hoteldelcoronado / CC BY 2.0

Across the bay from downtown San Diego, peninsular Coronado is a trip back in time. Pretend you’ve joined the ranks of yesteryear’s social elites at the historic Hotel Del Coronado, featured in the movie Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe. Dating from the late Victorian era, the red-turreted ‘Hotel Del’ is a genteel seaside resort so all-encompassing that you’ll rarely be tempted to leave the premises. Set out a chair on the beach, cocoon yourself inside the tip-top spa, clink cocktail glasses at the Babcock & Story Bar and feast on fresh seafood at 1500 Ocean restaurant. All that aside, one good reason to venture outside the resort is to cycle down Coronado’s famous Silver Strand, a collection of idyllic white-sand public beaches.

7. Escape to Catalina Island

Avalon harbour, Catalina Island. Image by Justin Ennis / CC BY 2.0Avalon harbour, Catalina Island. Image by Justin Ennis / CC BY 2.0

Only an hour’s sail from LA or Orange County, Catalina Island is the most civilized of SoCal’s jewel-like Channel Islands. Once owned by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr, this Mediterranean-esque island is now largely a nature preserve, which you can explore via the ‘Safari Bus.’ Ferries dock in the small harbour town of Avalon, where couples dine on fresh-caught seafood at romantic bistros and tryst inside breezy boutique hotels. During the day, tour Catalina’s 1920s art-deco casino, prettily adorned with murals, or the botanical gardens where rare plants grow.