I’m unpacking in my room at the hotel. Outside, a bagpiper stands at the edge of rugged cliffs, waves spurting up from the rocks behind him. With his rendition of “Loch Lomond” he acts as a kind of betartaned cheerleader to a golfer in plus-fours who gamely drives his ball along in the all-enveloping fog.
No, this isn’t a Trumpesque resort on the Scottish Coast; I’m staying at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, California.
I turn on the local weather forecast and discover that we’re in a land of microclimates
I turn on the local weather forecast and discover that we’re in a land of microclimates, where the weather switches when you crest a hill or round a headland – gallingly, over the hills in Silicon Valley the tech giants in their air-conned offices are bathed in sunshine. After the weather report, I happen to catch a story about a Halloween campaign encouraging viewers to put out teal pumpkins this year, to reassure little wizards and witches that their treats are allergen free.
So, I haven’t even left my room and I’ve already learned two valuable things: first, there are lots of different Californias, beyond the sun-drenched, palm-avenued stereotype. Second, around here they are obsessed with pumpkins, in a tasteful, solicitous, locally sourced, hypoallergenic sort of a way (where does one even get hold of a teal pumpkin?).
This emphasis on local sourcing is very much in evidence in the food prepared by Jason Pringle at the hotel’s Navio restaurant, which makes wonderful, imaginative use of the abundant seafood and produce available from the slopes and coast south of San Francisco. I choose the yellowtail sashimi starter with apple and celery, followed by delicate fillet of John Dory with a dab of pumpkin sauce. As I sit in the enveloping comfort of the spacious dining room, I find myself trying to figure out just how many dabs of pumpkin sauce you could make out of this year’s Half Moon Bay World Champion Pumpkin, weighing in at near a US ton.
If you don’t favour the spittoon, a tasting day at Fogarty’s could leave you with the appropriate swaggering sway to look like a real cowboy
When it comes to the wines of the area, the focus is local, too. The Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains is half an hour’s drive from the hotel. The vineyard, established in 1981 by the inventor of the Embolectomy Catheter, has panoramic views across the bay and is an understandably popular venue for weddings. Our group tasted only wines that could be purchased direct from the property, so small were the volumes produced. Along with the more familiar Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, we sampled an orange wine – “Satsum” – which tasted salty-citrusy, and divided us sharply into lovers and haters.
If you don’t favour the spittoon, a tasting day at Fogarty’s could leave you with the appropriate swaggering sway to look like a real cowboy. In that situation, I recommend you grab the opportunity to go on one of the guided horse-rides on offer under the shade of the redwood trees at Wunderlich County Park, just down the hill from the winery.
With saddle sore, what I need at the end of the day is comfort and attention, and this is what Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay does best, its staff daily committing to memory scores of names belonging to those (mainly Californians) who flock there for second weddings, baptisms, blue-sky-thinking conferences. The handsome rooms, all coastal blue-and-silver tones give a feeling of light, refreshing retreat, along with baths deep enough to drown in. They also make the kind of breakfast that could keep you in your seat all day – across the room, I spy an omelette the size of a handbag.
But I don’t want to get too comfortable. It’s time to move up to the mountains – to the place where Californians go for summer hikes and winter sports. Four hours north-east across the central valley and I’m into the Sierra Nevada, winding up the hill to Ritz-Carlton’s Lake Tahoe property (pictured top). When I told my partner I was off to this spot, he recalled it as the place where Fredo from The Godfather was bumped off. Soon after, a friend reminded me that a group of Idaho pioneers – the Donner Party – who’d met their snowbound deaths there, had provided inspiration for a zombie-cannibal movie I’d recently watched from between my fingers.
This is the kind of landscape that restores the soul. Briefly, the tawdry business of the Presidential election seems irrelevant to notions of America at its core
The reality is much more welcoming: I arrive in autumn, quiet season, and the aspens are on the turn, their leaves providing hot flashes of yellow in amongst the cool green pines. The hotel is a warm-toned, monumental lodge, hunkered around a gigantic stone chimney, which you can gather next to, to drink winter warmers or cooling cocktails, depending on the season. The cosy rooms, each with its own fire, have ceiling to floor views out to the mountains.
I take a hike to the Tahoe Rim Trail through groves of sugar pines and white pines, and then peel off to a granite outcrop that provides such a perfect vista it could have been placed there by the Tahoe tourist board rather than tectonics and erosion. The huge blue lake stretches out before us, cradled by the ancient mountains, at the edges sparkling with movement, at its centre, hazy and still. Apparently there is substantial development over on the Nevada side of the lake, but from here it looks pristine. This is the kind of landscape that restores the soul. Briefly, the tawdry business of the Presidential election seems irrelevant to notions of America at its core.
Happily, unlike the fated Donner Party, my Tahoe journey ends up with a transforming spa massage at the hotel – more precisely, a hot-stone, sage oil aromatherapy therapeutic massage … followed by dip in the hot-tub … followed by a dawdle by the pool in the mountain sun. Many Ritz-Carltons will have wonderful spas, but it is here, after skiing or mountain-biking or simply walking around, that it feels most necessary. (As, of course, does cooking marshmallows at the hotel’s fire-pit – all the cosy bonding of the campfire without the damp firelighter rage.)
After a spell of peace, though, don’t you just itch for the bustle, style, diversity of the city? My last Ritz-Carlton and the last of my (luxury) California, is in San Francisco. The hotel on Nob Hill is as close to the action as you can get whilst being snootily enough above it. Its marble interior is even more marbled,its chandeliers even more dangly, its rooms sharper and shinier than its country cousins’. You’re also just that bit more likely to spot a celebrity in the lift. With rooms recently refurbished (no longer in the Regency-garb described in Civilian’s review three years back), the theme is traditional men’s tailoring, all textured wallpapers in silver-greys, providing a second home for the discriminating traveller.
That traveller would be sure to eat at Parallel 37, the hotel’s restaurant, about which I have wonderful feelings but no specifics to give you. You see, on the way across the lobby, I am waylaid by an extremely enthusiastic lady from the Boisset wine nook who fills my glass full of blanc de blancs and my head full of French Resistance history. I’m then delivered into the hands of the talented mixologists at the bar of the restaurant, who slip me the perfect Old Fashioned. I chase this with a glass of Lanson in the kitchen, where Chef Michael Rotondo introduces his team as equals not underlings, and where, along with the warm fuzzy feeling this induces, I begin to worry I might misdirect my amuse bouches at my chin rather than into my mouth. The five-course tasting menu is delicious and blurry, but I do remember a perfectly tender pink beef with chanterelles, and I come back into focus at the end with my clarifying cucumber-mint sorbet.
Mostly, we have to decide what kind of a traveller we are in order to choose a place to get away to. Am I more a city gal or a country soul? Do I need to see the sea to really be away? With this North Californian triangle, I’ve been saved the deliberation. As soon as the pound musters any strength against the dollar, I’d advise against you deliberating either. C
Rebecca Fortey flew from London Gatwick to Oakland, San Francisco with Norwegian Airways which currently operates one of the lowest priced premium products across the Atlantic. Norwegian’s Premium cabin features seats with 46-inch legroom, and pre-flight lounge access for passengers. norwegian.com
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, 13031 Ritz Carlton Highlands Ct, Truckee, CA 96161
530-562 3000; ritzcarlton.com
The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, 1 Miramontes Point Road, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019
650-712 7000; ritzcarlton.com
The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, 600 Stockton Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
415-296 7465; ritzcarlton.com