Destination of the week: Santa Barbara

Of all the "mission towns" along El Camino Real (The King's Highway) north of San Diego, Santa Barbara is the most enticing. The city, which is about 80 miles north-west of Los Angeles, has a spectacular setting between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific.

It boasts superb 20th-century Spanish Revival architecture and, on its southern outskirts, it has the Four Seasons Biltmore hotel – one of the candidates for the honour of being the subject of the Eagles' single "Hotel California".

For the next two months, though, the big attraction is whale watching, as the mammals migrate north through the Santa Barbara Channel. Condor Cruises (001 805 882 0088, or within the US 1 888 77 WHALE; runs three whale-watching voyages daily (also featuring dolphins) from the harbour at Santa Barbara until 29 April. They last 150 minutes and cost $42 (£28).

Warning of the week: Wildfires

In the first six weeks of the year, California experienced more than twice as many wildfires (325) than the average (158). California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection blames a "lack of precipitation". The Foreign Office adds: "Areas of highest risk are the canyons and hills where dry vegetation and high winds can cause wildfires to move very quickly and threaten property... Visitors are urged to follow the advice of local police especially in respect of orders to evacuate an area under threat." Canada's Travel Report says: "Travellers with respiratory ailments should take into account that air quality in areas near active fires may deteriorate."

Bargain of the week: Jubilee San Francisco

While peak-season holiday prices to California are high, there are some remarkable deals available for short breaks to San Francisco over the diamond jubilee holiday at the start of June. Flying from Heath-row on Virgin Atlantic on 1 June, returning overnight on 5 June, gives you exactly four days from touchdown to take-off. The air fare is about £550 return, but for only £642 per person (based on two sharing), you get four nights at the Renoir Hotel – a distinctive, triangular-shaped property that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is almost adjacent to the Civic Center BART (train) station.

The deal is available from – search for flight plus hotel.

Tip of the week: Flight times

If you are keen to maximise your time in California, note that not all planes from Heathrow to Los Angeles take the same time. British Airways' 747s are scheduled for 11 hours exactly, while Virgin Atlantic's A340s and Air New Zealand's 777s take 40 minutes longer. Inbound, BA's Jumbo jets outrun the rival aircraft by about half an hour.