How a Road Trip Down the California Coast with Hilton Got Me Back Into Travel
Thomas J. Story
With help from Hilton hotels, we planned a 3-day road trip down the California Coast. Follow along as we stop in San Francisco, Marina del Rey, and Carlsbad.
The last year (and some change) has meant more time spent in the house than ever before, and in all of my twenty-four years I don’t think I’ve ever gone so long without enjoying the sweet sweet comfort of a hotel bed—it’s all about the pillows and tightly tucked sheets for me. With the help of Hilton conveniently spread out across California, I was fully vaxxed and ready to get back to the joys of traveling. Through their extensive Hilton CleanStay program the hotels have amped up their standards to help ensure guests getting back out there for the first time (like me!) are comfortable.
By establishing partnerships with leading brands in disinfectant products like Lysol, Hilton hotels actively sanitizes high-touch spaces like elevators and other public spaces at least once every hour. They even offer the opportunity to tailor your housekeeping experience so your room can be sanitized more often for increased comfort or less often if you don’t want other people coming into your room. So, I figured what better way to ease back into out-of-town adventures than with a road trip up and down the California coast with a few Hilton hotels to call home. Since we’ve all at one point or another designated who would coexist within our “bubbles” I thought why not bring mine along for the ride.
My two girlfriends were in and I decided the road trip would be four days—if you saw my camping trip in the last issue you may know I am not a fan of roughing it—so three Hiltons across the Cali coast were booked. Two nights in San Francisco at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, landing on this location so we could easily move around the city on foot. One night in Marina del Rey with an ocean view room at the Jamaica Bay Inn Marina Del Rey, Tapestry Collection by Hilton—known for its delicious brunch overlooking the beach, and true vacation vibes. Then, I would drop the girls off back in L.A. and take a final personal day at the Cape Rey Carlsbad, a Hilton Resort and Spa where I would tap into new forms of self-care in the city by the sea (aka surfing).
Stop 1: A Surprisingly Sunny Day in San Francisco
The tank in my car was full, snacks were dispersed amongst the front and back seats, and we were headed to S.F. Growing up in Oakland, taking the train or riding across the Bay Bridge to the city was always a special occasion. I would admire Treasure Island, hold my breath going through the tunnel, and stare up at the red wire ropes hanging off of the Golden Gate when we would take trips to Marin. Though after all of that time spent across the Bay Area, I had never taken it upon myself to play tourist in my own city.
We arrived at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square just before three p.m. check-in and took in the grand lobby with dropped jaws. The space was immaculate, the floors shimmered as they reflected the light from the high ceilings, and a Moet vending machine directly to the left of the check-in counter grabbed our attention as we were handed the sanitized key card to our 32nd-floor Bay view suite—we each redeemed a bottle of bubbly, clinked in the lobby, and made our way to the elevator.
The Hilton’s presence in Union Square pays homage to the city’s hills and the beautiful architecture the city is known for. Within walking distance of Chinatown, the Ferry Building, the famous trolley cars, public transit, and so much more, the multiple towers that conjoin the hotel and the 1,921 guest rooms make for a perfect home away from home.
I had never known San Francisco to be as beautiful as it was from the balcony of our high-rise room; the view showed two bridges, both stadiums, and a perspective of the city I had never been able to take in from the sidewalk. We lounged on the couch in our suite, and admired the view until the sun began to lower toward the water. As an added bonus to the hotel’s amazing list of amenities, everyone can have a room with a view at the hotel’s Cityscape Lounge on the 46th floor. With 360-degree panoramic views of the city below, it’s an unbeatable spot for a cocktail at sunset. Contact the hotel for hours of operation.
Friends, the Ferry Building, and Fresh Oysters
After one more clink of a personal champagne bottle, we made our way to the Ferry Building. The convenient location of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square made it easy to walk to and from point A to point B, and to hop on public transit whenever needed. A ten-minute stroll up Market and we were at the entrance to the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building reminded me of half-days in high school where I would meet my dad for bougie grilled cheese sandwiches at Cowgirl Creamery. My girlfriends and I took pictures in front of every view of the water, bridge, or vendor with an Insta-worthy display (because it didn’t happen if you don’t have pictures) like tourists visiting another country.
We slurped oysters at Hog Island, sniffed sweet candles at Maison Verbena that lingered in our noses through the day, and ate pastries in a vintage van parked in the back lot that now serves as an intimate and wildly unique coursed dining experience. This quick turnaround trip to my hometown’s neighboring city reminded me of the quirkiness and creativity I grew up surrounded by, and how the culture that is tended to by locals runs through the city so deep, you can feel it in every sidewalk crack.
Upon arriving back at the Hilton Union Square we fell asleep fast with full stomachs and ear to ear grins on our faces from a full day of fun. Leaving San Francisco with a newfound appreciation for all that the city has to offer—including scenic views provided by Hilton—I was ready to get back to sunny SoCal and stick my toes into some sand.
Stop 2: Home away from Home (20 Minutes Away to Be Exact)
To get back down the coast, we decided to take the scenic route on Highway 101. Listening to the best Spotify road trip playlist ever (it has all of the sing-along hits needed to push through six hours on the road) we made our way along the water to Marina del Rey.
The Jamaica Bay Inn Marina Del Rey, Tapestry Collection by Hilton is a gem set on the beach in the marina. With a pool that overlooks the wading tides, and a bustling restaurant on the ground floor that serves a delicious breakfast, I was most looking forward to the mimosa flight. The flight consists of a full-size bottle of bubbles and is served with four juice options to help ensure you finish every sip—I could already feel the strong vacay vibes coming on. We checked in and made our way to the restaurant for lunch—and of course mimosas.
Somehow the Jamaica Bay Inn transported us to a beach town that felt far far away from home (when in actuality we were only about thirty minutes sans traffic). The ocean air, paired with a guava mimosa, and a view of sailboats making their way into the sunset felt like a movie montage moment of all of California’s finest offerings.
The Sunday Scaries started to kick in shortly after our late lunch as I dared to check my email (and Slack because I am attached at the hip to Slack), but were quickly shooed away with a ride on the hotel’s beach cruisers with my girl gang up the beachside bike trail leading to the Santa Monica Pier. While none of us are avid bikers in our day-to-day lives, the orange cruisers parked outside of the hotel compelled us to ride them with their light brown leather seats and cute accent baskets. The concierge gave us bike locks and some tips to keep in mind before hitting the streets towards Santa Monica and just like that we were off. After about forty-five minutes of pedaling, laughing, eating ice cream, and stopping to admire the shore directly to our left, we made our way back towards the Marina.
Sweaty, sleepy, and ready to settle into our cozy hotel bed sheets, birria tacos from Teddy’s were dipped, and dessert was enjoyed as we watched the tide rise as the moon lit up the sky overlooking Mother’s Beach. We dozed off around ten, knowing that in only twelve hours, we would embark on our most ambitious group activity yet.
Yoga on a Paddle Board, Because Land Yoga Just Isn’t Hard Enough
When I checked us into the hotel, we were asked if we were interested in partaking in any water activities since the beach is so close. I signed us all up for a beginner’s yoga class—that would take place on a paddleboard in the ocean. So now, the time was ten a.m. and the task was cutely called Yogaqua; this would mean we would be doing a full yoga class while balancing on a paddleboard in the middle of the ocean—okay not middle, totally a safe distance from shore, but you get the gist of the drama. In an effort to push my friends and I out of our solid ground comfort zones, I chose this activity, though one of the perks of the hotel being right on the beach means they can arrange all sorts of family-friendly activities; from Yogaqua to paddle boarding to dinner cruises; the opportunities to get out and on the water in the Marina are endless. If I know one thing about my girlfriends, it’s that they’re always down to try something new, seeing as none of us had ever paddle boarded before, yoga seemed like a zen way to find comfort while wading in the water at Mother’s Beach (conveniently located directly behind the hotel steps away from the restaurant).
While we all lost our balance a bit during happy baby and tree pose, nobody fell into the water (we were also surprised), and I have never had a more peaceful savasana than laid out on a paddle board as the current rocked me ever so slightly.
Our bodies were a little sore but relaxed, our bags were all packed, and our group staycation was coming to a close. Check-out was easy and our cars were brought around front by the valets; we hugged, Airdropped photos, and parted ways. As I got into my car solo, I headed down the coast one more time to Carlsbad.
Stop 3: Flying Solo in Carlsbad
Even though you take the I-5 to get to San Diego, it’s not the same 5 that takes you to Oakland and is riddled with cow smells and beating sun.
This side of Highway 5 follows the coast so you can see waves crashing onto shores and reefs out of your peripheral vision while driving. After checking in and out of two hotels already, I felt like a seasoned vet walking up to the counter at the Cape Rey Carlsbad Beach, a Hilton Resort and Spa. A digital key was issued, and an ocean-view room was requested and fulfilled. Making my way to the elevator I stopped to take in the ocean breeze on the hotel restaurant’s terrace, and exchanged my gaze between the shimmering pool to my left and the crashing ocean waves to my right.
My room had a balcony for two that was perfectly positioned at the sunset and shore. In my ideal world, I go to bed every night at 7pm (because I am always tired) and tonight’s act of self-care would be just that.
A quick dip in the pool—which is heated saltwater—a long shower, and a takeout order with the hotel’s restaurant to be eaten in bed was placed. I was in bed watching Dreamgirls with dessert in one hand and a canned rose in the other. The sound of the waves drifting in through the cracked balcony door lulled me to sleep by 8:30pm. Move over rain sounds, ocean sounds are far more elite (and there is a Spotify playlist for that too).
Surfing as (Extreme) Self Care
While checking in the day prior, I saw the surfboards lining the guest shop and an offer for private surf lessons in the lobby. Upon inquiring, the staff at Cape Rey set me up with a private lesson bright and early before checkout . Around 9:30 I received a call from the front desk that my instructor from Surfin’ Fire was here to pick me up. We hopped into his truck and moved through the roundabout outside of the lobby. Driving up the coast a few miles towards Oceanside I took in the scene that made up the quiet yet bustling small town on the water. Upon arriving at the dock, I was handed a wetsuit and a pink board and told it was time to get rocking.
While the good news is that I face planted in the ocean and belly flopped onto a surfboard about thirty times before finally standing and riding one wave, the bad news is there is no video evidence that I actually did manage to do more than wipe out. I know I live by the previously mentioned motto that if it’s not on camera it didn’t happen, but similarly, some of the best times are when phones are nowhere in sight. But trust me, I am more than ready to get back out there and try hanging ten with a GoPro securely attached to my head in order to collect future evidence.
Spending two hours in the ocean, tapping in with the waves, a board, and a surf instructor who was full of positive reinforcement helped me find my center (kind of like savasana in Yogaqua). The peace of being in the water combined with the challenge of trying to stand up on a board on a wave in the ocean reminded me how grateful I was to be there. Something about a break from the city and a dip in the ocean always reminds me just how minor some of my stressors are. After a crazy year of working from home and staying in my own bed all day and night, I managed to make it through everything, back onto the road, into a super cozy hotel bed, and to the beach, all with my friends by my side.
Diving under waves or over them on my board felt like washing away my worries, and putting one foot forward and the other towards the back of the board to prepare to ride the wave felt like leaving them all behind me. Returning to my hotel just before noon, I logged into my email, checked in with my coworkers, and felt a sense of ease for the first time in a long time while looking at my email inbox. From night one in San Francisco waking up and stepping onto the balcony overlooking the water at the Union Square Hilton, to wading in the pool after hours of ocean wipeouts in Carlsbad at the Cape Rey Resort and Spa, I was more refreshed, relaxed, and ready to get back to reality than I had been in months.
As I loaded my car up and pulled out onto the 5 headed back towards Los Angeles, I realized that sometimes, all you need is a long drive up (and back down) the coast, three hotel rooms, and a couple of girlfriends to help ease you back into enjoying the outdoors again. For more information and ideas to get you started planning your own road trip, check out Hilton’s Hub for all things California—from hotels to city guides, they’ve got everything and more you need for a fantastic few days on the road inspired by my coastal explorations.