Following the Southern California flower trail
Luxury Travel By Brian Norton | March 31, 2018
Only California would have a hotline devoted to wildflowers, and only California could get a seasoned actor whose typical material is much more…how do we put this… well, murder-y, to lovingly read weekly reports on poppy and fiddleneck sightings around the state.
Yes, it’s true – the Golden State’s Wild Flower Hotline has been around for 35 years (decades longer than Drake has been rapping about toll-free phone numbers) and actor Joe Spano – of NCIS fame – voices the regular rundown of where to go to see floral spectacles around Southern California.
Flowers are a big deal here, and never has that been more obvious than when last year’s ‘super bloom’ drew thousands of visitors hoping to get a peek at flower fields saturated in colour after a particularly rainy winter.
But the petals here aren’t just for peeping. Montecito baker Lori Stern has become something of an Instagram sensation with her floral cookies and cakes. Then there’s LA-based celebrity chef Kathleen Schaffer, (she’s cooked for Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow), who regularly whips blooms into her high-profile recipes. One of her go-to’s is nasturtium, which she works into a carrot tartare.
If you’d like to get in on the perennial action, we’ve devised a multi-city getaway that zig-zags from Santa Barbara down to San Diego County. Within this road trip there are flowers to peep, eat, drink and even some blooms that make for a pretty spectacular massage.
Bud out: Within Santa Barbara County, head to Lompoc (aka the ‘Valley of Flowers’) to spot larkspur, delphinium, alyssum, marigolds and sweet peas. The city’s chamber of commerce has put together a handy driving map for optimal bloom spotting. Peak times to visit are May and June, and there’s a flower festival 20 June to 24 June this year.
Chill out: Pick your petals: will it be peonies, strawberry blossoms or calendula flowers that you’d like gingerly worked into your skin? The Spa at El Encanto offers treatments that feature essential oils and scrubs from all of these. Look for the ‘Life is Good’, ‘Sky’s the Limit’, and ‘Singing Flora Salt Scrub’ body treatments. Also, be sure to drink plenty of Santa Barbara wine – a product of another local crop. Stop by Stolpman Vineyards’ tasting room in Lompoc after your bud scouting (they also have a tasting room in Los Olivos), or swing by Babock Winery, which has an outpost right in downtown Santa Barbara. You may even pick up some floral notes in the region’s award-winning Syrahs and Pinot Noirs.
Pass out: In California you often have to pick between sand and foliage, but that’s not the case at Belmond El Encanto, which sits on a lush hillside surrounded by gardens as well as views of the ocean. Sleep beneath a headboard covered in cherry blossoms in one of the hotel’s Spanish colonial-style bungalows. When you want to check out the other gardens in the neighbourhood, hitch a complimentary ride in the Belmond’s Mercedes-Benz Sprinter or borrow a bike from the hotel’s fleet.
Bud out: Yes, you can even see blooms in Los Angeles – it’s not all freeway concrete and poolside patios. There are two major botanical spots you won’t want to miss: Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge and The Huntington Library in San Marino. Go on guided bloom walks and the occasional outdoor craft workshop at Descanso, where you’re sure to see cherry blossoms, roses, camellias and California wildflowers. The Huntington Library has 16 themed gardens, including one devoted to Shakespeare and his works. But the highlight might be the Desert Garden, which is one of the largest outdoor collections of cacti and succulents in the world.
Chill out: Relax over dinner at Botanica in Silver Lake. It’s part eatery, part magazine (yep – the owners are two former food writers) and part general store that’s stocked with artisanal teas from California company Leaves and Flowers. The menu is all about fresh, vegetable and fruit-driven dishes, such as roasted kabocha squash and burrata, citrus salad, and grilled lamb with kumquats.
Pass out: A hotel by any other name… The Rose in Venice is an obvious choice for flower fanatics. Stay here and you’ll be within walking distance of the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Main Street each Sunday. If you go with The NoMad Los Angeles, you’ll be just a stroll from the city’s Flower District, where you can visit the markets to see warehouses filled with flowers and grab a few bouquets at wholesale prices. Back at the NoMad, sidle up to the bar for a round of Bogs & Barley cocktails – elderflower liqueur mixed with pickled cranberries, lemon, cucumber, jalapeño-infused agave and ‘Nomader Weisse’ beer.
Bud out: If you’ve never seen a cactus burst with red, orange, yellow and pink blossoms, slather on some SPF, pack plenty of water and get yourself to Joshua Tree. The national park is less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs and well worth the trip, with its mind-boggling rock formations and spectacle of succulents that seem straight from the prehistoric age. Head to the Cholla Cactus Garden, which is toward the middle of the park (don’t worry, you can drive most of the way). You’ll have no problem spotting the teddy bear cholla, which is the star of the garden and flowers between March and May. Other blossoms to see in the area include desert lavender (flowers January-May), hedgehog cactus (May-June) and cheesebush (February-June).
Chill out: While you’re in Joshua Tree, swing by Shop on the Mesa for some truly California-centric goods, like smudge bundles filled with botanicals and rose petals that bring clarity when burned (or at least a fresh fragrance). For additional souvenirs, the Joshua Tree Visitor Center on Twentynine Palms Highway sells wildflower guidebooks, prickly pear jam, and cactus candy – finally something that you can eat.
Pass out: Once you’ve worked yourself into a cactus craze, retreat to Avalon Palm Springs and take refuge from the desert sun by the pool. There are three swimming holes to choose from, as well as two Jacuzzis and a number of cabanas. The moment you start to feel flower withdrawal just take a deep breath – the hotel is set on four acres of manicured gardens so you’ll be able to catch a floral whiff in the air. Ahhh.
Bud out: For 50 acres of candy-coloured ranunculus, visit The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. Just a 45-minute drive from San Diego, Carlsbad is known for its golf courses, wellness retreats and yes, that technicolour field that opens to the public each spring – this year they’re open through 13 May. In honour of the blooms, the city has created a flower-focused festival, called Petal to Plate, that runs 5-15 April this year. Over the course of 10 days, local restaurants, spas and hotels will feature dishes, drinks and treatments that incorporate local blooms.
Chill out: Stick around Carlsbad and head to oceanfront restaurant Chandler’s, where mixologist Garrett Gwin has concocted a floral and fizzy cocktail for the Petal to Plate festivities. The Fleur de Fizz is a mix of pisco, lemon juice, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit bitters, sparkling wine and lemon zest. If you have a sweet tooth, in addition to your love of perennials, the restaurant will also be serving a hibiscus sorbet with candied pansy, and a lavender and wildflower honey cheesecake.
Pass out: Call it a day at Rancho Valencia hotel, which is in Rancho Santa Fe – just a 20-minute drive from Carlsbad. The moment you hit your king-size bed, visions of cacti and camellias will surely dance in your head. In the morning, take a Pilates class, hit the tennis courts or just relax by the outdoor pool.
Featured image by Rob Bertholf via Flickr/CC