You've probably got a mental picture of California. Maybe it's rows of palm trees against a perfect, azure sky. Maybe it's the Hollywood sign, Mullholland Drive twisting into the night above a million twinkling lights, the mansions of Beverly Hills. Maybe it's the Golden Gate Bridge, the precipitous streets of San Francisco, the vast, glittering Pacific Ocean. These things are all California icons, and you should definitely go and see them, but there's a lot more in between that you miss while cruising at 35,000 feet. California is huge and varied: dramatic mountains, sun-baked vineyards, blissful beaches. To really get to know the Golden State, you need to be in a car. Forget internal flights with their dull check-ins and romance-free shuttle buses, and get behind the wheel. Here are three great road trips that we suggest.
Road trip No 1 - California Coast (9 days)
California is long. Like, really long. You don't really appreciate this from the air, but you sure do on the road. The Pacific Coast Highway, which runs 650 miles from Mendocino County in the north to Orange County in the south, takes in the full scope of California's dramatically varied landscape, and is a fascinating way of experiencing the USA's western seaboard.
Drive out of San Francisco and head down the coast to the beautiful Pismo Beach (with plenty of stops en route). Wander among the dunes and splash about in the sea. Nearly, San Luis Obispo is full of culture spots and cool shops, and Paso Robles has wineries galore.
If you can tear yourself away, get back in the car and drive on to Santa Barbara. It boasts a Mediterranean vibe, great food, stunning sea views and the kind of fresh air that fosters a good night's sleep. Suitably refreshed, carry on down the coast to Los Angeles. Congratulations! You've just earned bragging rights to one of the world's most iconic road trips.
Road trip No 2 - Northern California in Depth (12 days)
The definitive Beat novel, 'On the Road' is a paean to the great American road trip: self-expression though driving. Jack Kerouac and the Beats were indelibly associated with the San Francisco of the 1950s, so where better to start an exploration of northern California by car? Before you blast off into the sunset though, park the wheels and take a trip by boat across San Francisco Bay for an insiders' tour of the prison island of Alcatraz. The grim penitentiary is a fascinating counterpoint to the sunlit Pacific, and you'll doubly appreciate the freedom of the open road afterwards.
Then get behind the wheel, cross the inimitable Golden Gate Bridge and venture into the spectacular scenery of the north of the state. Beautiful Bodega Bay beckons: you'll recognise it from Hitchcock's classic movie 'The Birds'. If you prefer a more restful kind of avian encounter, head to dramatic Mendocino County with its deep forests and canyons. The 40-milr Skunk Train trail offers endless wildlife spotting and scenic beauty. After all that nature, why not enjoy its fruits? Napa Valley is one of the world's most famous wine-producing regions. Taste your way around its vineyards, and sample its superb food. This is California, the leisurely way.
Road trip No 3 - California in Depth (17 days)
You can have a great time exploring California by car for a week or ten days. You can have a truly sensational, trip-of-a-lifetime experience doing it for 17 days. After exploring San Francisco (and maybe taking a cable car or two), check out a very different kind of hilly terrain at Mammoth Lakes, a striking part of the Sierra Nevada mountains that offers winter sports and summers full of camping, hiking and swimming.
Then it's on to spectacular Yosemite National Park, world-renowned for its dramatic mountainous landscape, ancient sequoia trees and abundant wildlife. It inspired photographer Ansel Adams to create some of his famous images; imagine what it'll do for your Instagram feed! Check out the beaches of Santa Cruz en route for seafood (and the famous local cheese) in Monterey. Saving Los Angles for later, join the boasting fraternity of Newport Beach, then hit up San Diego with its mixture of urban edge and blissed-out Californian cool.
Finally - finally- it's time for LA: take a tour of the homes of Hollywood royalty and explore the infinite pan-cultural extravagance and global food and drink of this megalopolis. Phew! Seventeen days of extraordinary experiences.