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, murdery, to read weekly reports on poppy and fiddleneck sightings. It’s true, the Wild Flower Hotline has been around for 35 years and actor Joe Spano (of NCIS fame) voices the regular rundown of where to go to see floral spectacles in the Golden State.
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 you’ll find petals to peep, as well as floral-focused hotels, foods, drinks and even spa treatments.
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 an annual flower festival at the end of June.
Blooms 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.
Rooms 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.
It’s not all freeway concrete and poolside patios you know, you can even see blooms in Los Angeles. 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.
Blooms 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.
Rooms Bedding down at Proper Santa Monica is a particularly soothing experience for the florally inclined. Palm leaves feature prominently among Kelly Wearstler’s signature styling and fresh stems sprout from all manner of curvaceous vases. Stay here and you’ll be within walking distance of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, too – it’s on Main Street each Sunday. If you go with NoMad Los Angeles (although do note it’s currently closed), 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.
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). Early summer blossoms to watch out for area include hedgehog cactus, cheesebush and maybe even some lingering desert lavender.
Blooms 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.
Rooms 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.
Admittedly Carslbad – just a 45-minute drive from San Diego – shines brightest in spring. Its 50 acres of candy-coloured ranunculus, aka the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, opens to show off its technicolour fields from March til May. But its outdoor allure remains all year round, particularly in the twin charms of lagoons Buena Vista and Batiquitos. The former, fresh of water and rich in marshland flora like the California bullrush, is even home to a flock of flamingoes; the latter is one of the few tidal wetlands on this stretch of coast and is a haven for insects and birdlife. Both have trail routes, too, so you can practise your plant-spotting as you hike – find some red-fruited lemonade berry and you might even spy a hummingbird stopping by to refuel.
Blooms Stick around Carlsbad and head to oceanfront restaurant Chandler’s, where mixologist Garrett Gwin has concocted a floral and fizzy cocktail in honour of the annual 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.
Rooms 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.
Want to get even closer to nature? Explore our collection of the world’s best open-air hotel rooms