Big Sur

Driving the Pacific Highway

Day 1 – San Francisco to Monterey

Leave San Francisco with heavy clouds gathering overhead. It won’t be long before they break, chucking their contents down on us.

Our hire car is a Mazda 2. It’s not the sort of car you fantasise about in any context, let alone for one of the world’s top “drives to do before you die” or similar hyperbolic nonsense. It’s actually pretty good although there’s no sat nav. Which will be interesting.

The rain starts before we even reach the sea. At San Gregorio beach people have built driftwood bonfires in anticipation of the weekend’s Halloween festivities. “Poor fuckers,” sympathises Rob. The wood is drenched now and useless.

Santa Cruz beach

Stop at Half Moon Bay where we stand on rocks shiny with water and try to have fun. Take pictures of an interesting house with wood tiling and elaborate gables. A stone angel is built into the roof. “Are you sure that’s an angel? Looks a bit… pagan.”

There’s a sign out front: California Sun Centre for Wellbeing. We beat a swift retreat.

California sun centre for wellbeing

At Santa Cruz we park in a near-flooded lot and dash to the nearest cafe. Clothes beyond sodden. On the plus side, the sandwiches at The Picnic Basket are excellent.

Wander round the damp, deserted boardwalk taking photos of brash signs for cotton candy and tater tots, the latter of which is an entirely new concept to Franki. Brightly coloured fairground rides are backed by endless, billowing grey.

Santa Cruz boardwalk

“It reminds me of a zombie movie,” volunteers Rob. “You know, after they’ve cleared the place out.”

Directly to our left a door slams. Two sets of skins are nearly vacated. It’s just a janitor.

Carrying on towards Monterey it’s Franki’s turn to drive. Six months as a licensed driver but why not? One has to take the bull by the horns.

The rain really gets into its stride now, hammering down on the windscreen, roads slick and treacherous. The grey and green of California’s most famous highway flashes passed, lit occasionally by the oncoming lights of a passing car. Gripping the steering wheel she recites stopping speeds in her head.

Highway 1 California

Arrive in Monterey around 5. Too cold, soggy, and miserable to do much. The town is in a state of costumed revelry. We go for dinner on Cannery Row. The food is plentiful but unremarkable. Somewhere some very poor live music is being inflicted on people. The bars have too much neon in their windows. Suspect this is not the future Steinbeck envisioned.

Cannery Row is like Disneyland for sardine fishing. It is still cold and drizzling.

At a bar in town we are served by Cruella de Vil. A non-specific superhero and an American football player with a bloody bandage round his head elbow their way past us and order two shots of Jagermeister and two Stellas. We go back to the hotel.

Day 2 – Monterey to Morro Bay

It’s still raining. We head out of town towards 17-Mile Drive.

Breakfast at the Monterey Hotel was minimal. Eat bananas on the beach instead. To make a California road trip look like a wet weekend at the British seaside is no mean feat.

17 mile drive

On the saturated sand we snap pictures desolately. The ocean beneath the battleship sky ranges from palest turquoise to dark, brooding, petrol. The sea birds hold out their wings to dry. In vain, it seems.

Around mid-morning blue sky emerges; bright, hopeful patches between the still-dripping branches of the cypress trees. We drive on to Carmel-by-the-sea.

Pristine and perfectly formed, the town calls to mind a high-end ski resort. Everything is elegant and tasteful, everything you need is here. For a price. Also, there are evergreens.

We buy sandwiches in Bruno’s deli which will later be consumed high on the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the now glistening ocean.

Bixby bridge

By the time we reach the “historic” Bixby Bridge (built in 1932) the sun is out and the wild lavender that clings to the cliffs either side is fragrant and blooming. Sunglasses are on. Janis Joplin makes her way from Rob’s iPod to the car stereo.

Driving the Pacific Highway

Big Sur is everything they told us. Sweeping curves, precipitous drops, towering redwoods and shimmering cobalt water become our backdrop. Rob’s eyes are on the road but out of the corners he sees green and blue, green and blue. Sunlight flickers through the trees.

At Pfeiffer State Park we walk the path to the waterfall. Once it cut through the rock and dropped straight into the ocean but landslides caused sand to build up. Now it drops onto the beach. Like a natural shower. Like a fairytale grotto on a beach that cannot be accessed.

Pfeiffer State Park waterfall

The elephant seals are just north of Morro Bay. We aren’t expecting them but suddenly there they are, dozens upon dozens, covering the beaches. The name does not mislead: they are huge. Against the sunset a pair play. Or fight.

Morro Bay is delightful. The Sandpiper Inn has bright green paintwork. This is not a criticism. We eat “naked” fish at the The Galley. It’s fantastic. It tastes of fish, a novelty, we’ve found. This country likes its salsas, its marinades, its spice rubs.

Fish eaten, wine drunk. We walk back to the motel, tired and happy.

Day 3 – Morro Bay to Santa Barbara

Time to explore the wine lands. But first: coffee.

Stop at Pismo Beach. Out on the wooden pier we watch the surfers. Fishing rods lean against the wooden rail, their owners reclined in chairs. On the deck a pelican looks on hopefully as a man cleans and de-scales his catch. He is rewarded shortly. The man cuts off the fish head and flicks it in the air. The great sagging beak opens and closes on its prize.

Pismo Beach pier

Inland the picture looks like this, from front to back: road, vineyards, mountains. At Roblar Vineyard in Santa Ynez we eat sourdough pizza and work our way through six different wines. Not Rob, though. He’s driving.

Michael Jackson lived nearby. “Shall we go to Neverland?” Bit creepy. But why not?

The walls outside the front gates – you can’t see the house, it is literally miles away – are covered in the loving graffiti of heart-broken fans. “I miss you, Michael,” “I’ll never forget you,” “Your music was my life.” And this one, succinct but poignant: “I’m bad!” The security guard tells us, “Take as long as you need.” We get back in the car.

Neverland

Solvang is an odd place. A Danish village in Southern California. Quaint chalets – or modern American notions of chalets – house supermarkets and pharmacies. We pass patisseries and delicatessens. There’s a ‘Hamlet Inn’.

Sundown comes at El Capitan State Beach. We clatter along the cobbles trying to capture the light, the colours, on our cameras. Give up and use our eyes instead. Fire blends into water. Sunset over the Pacific. We are as far west as we have ever been.

El Capitan State Beach

Drive into Santa Barbara in the dark. The white streets are almost unreal. It is a concept, surely, this place. An idea someone once had of the perfect beach town. Then they built it all in one go.

We have seafood again. It’s average. We drink overpriced wine in an awful bar with a fire pit. We return to the Agave Inn which has crisp white sheets and colourful Latin American-style blankets.

Day 4 – Santa Barbara to LA

Breakfast is easily the best thing we do today and it’s over by 10.30.

Franki wanted a ‘proper American breakfast’. Jeannines does just that. We won’t need to eat til dinner time.

The highway runs through Malibu. The highway more or less IS Malibu. Houses stack up the hill on one side, beaches on the other. Drive into a canyon and up to a lake. Very beautiful and exclusive with absolutely nothing to do.

Malibu canyon

Rob likes the sound of a ‘lagoon’ so we go to Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Not the kind of lagoon he imagined. It’s a service station for migrating birds. In no way a bad thing. Pelicans, gulls, kingfishers, coots, sandpipers, cormorants, egrets (snowy and otherwise), those ones that drill their whole beaks into the sand.

Malibu Lagoon State Beach

Camarillo is charmless. Go if you like outlet stores and freeways. There is a ‘delighful Old Town’ but it’s next to a freeway and not very old. Maybe it’s old if you’re not from Europe. Maybe it’s delightful if it’s open. It’s not open.

Planned to go to the Getty Villa but we can’t find it. Says it’s in Malibu. We’re almost back in Santa Monica before we spot it. It’s now 5pm. The call of cold beer and a relaxed dinner in Venice is too strong. We drive past. Next time…

Pacific Highway

San Francisco houses

San Francisco: The Debrief

What we did and what we reckon you should do too…

Eat: Oysters.

Regularly named as one of the world’s top oyster towns, you can’t come to San Francisco without sampling this iconic dish. If you’re anything like me, you tried an oyster aged about 13, decided it tasted of sea water and snot and have refused to touch the things ever since. Trust me: it’s time to have another go.

There are dozens of bars and restaurants vying for the coveted top spot and if you’re interested in trying out more than one, there are some good round-ups HERE and HERE. I’d have loved to do the research for you but I was already on a mission to review every coffee shop in SF so the oysters had to take a back seat. We went to the Hog Island Oyster Co. housed in the old ferry terminal on the Embarcadero where a dozen mixed oysters for $36 (£23) slipped down a treat.

Hog Island Oyster Co

Drink: Coffee.

Were you really expecting us to say anything else? For Franki’s full guide to San Francisco coffee houses, see HERE. A special mention also goes to breakfast cocktails, as detailed in Rob’s recent Booze of the World post. From Bucks Fizz to more potent combinations, we found that no weekend brunch was complete without a cheeky tipple.

Try: Cycling up a hill.

The locals make it look easy but don’t be fooled. We rented bikes for $25 (£16) each a day in order to see the city parks and to cross the Golden Gate Bridge – a thoroughly awe-inspiring experience which we sincerely recommend – but even our supposed ‘flat route’ was chest-clutchingly difficult in parts. I’ll be honest, we got off and pushed more than once.

Cycling San Francisco

It was well worth the effort, though. We picked up our bikes from San Francisco Bike Rentals in the morning and headed straight to the bridge before making our way back, via the Beach Chalet brewery and restaurant at the Pacific end of Golden Gate park where we stopped for lunch. The afternoon was then a leisurely meander back through the park to Haight-Ashbury and the bike shop.

Cycling San Francisco

Buy: Shoes. A MUNI pass.

SF is undoubtedly a good place to buy shoes but on reflection we felt the transport tip was of more use to the general travelling public. A boring one, admittedly but getting a week’s travel card on the MUNI public transport system really opened up San Francisco for us. Seven days costs $29 (£18) and covers all buses, trams (Franki’s personal favourite – see HERE for details) and cable cars. The network is excellent and you really can get to pretty much any part of town – and that’s coming from a Londoner!

And if you do happen to find yourself in a footwear emergency, Haight Street is the place to go.

Do: Familiarise yourself with the local sports team.

We were lucky enough to be in town to see the San Francisco Giants win the World Series. As someone who’s never had more than a passing awareness of baseball, it turned out to be a truly fantastic experience and a privilege to witness. For Rob. who’ll watch pretty much any sport as long as it isn’t American, learning the rules and getting into the strategy of it proved engrossing. Plus, asking about the rules helped endear us to people in bars.

The impromptu street party in Lower Haight:

San Francisco Giants World Series

And in the Mission District:

San Francisco Giants World Series 2014

Don’t: Say no when people offer to pay for your drinks.

I’m not saying this will definitely happen, but on two occasions – TWO – the people we were talking to insisted on buying our drinks. And you know when I say insisted I mean it because we’re British and “oh no, please, you really mustn’t, honestly no, please, don’t be silly, that’s quite unnecessary… [ad infinitum]” is something we don’t tire of easily.

Overall San Francisco was a place where we really witnessed the renowned American friendliness. We met people from New York, Boston, somewhere in Philly (in town for a Pearl Jam gig), a couple who’d just moved to SF from Cambridge, Mass, (envy!) an elderly couple who’d lived in the city all their lives, and countless groovy bartenders, waiting staff and baristas. And most of these seemed genuinely happy to help us out, give us tips, share their own stories and occasionally get the drinks in. As the first stop on a round-the-world tour it was a fantastic lesson in shaking off the characteristic reserve and getting stuck in chatting to people.

Plus it meant we had conversations with people other than each other which can only be a good thing for our sanity.

And not forgetting…

…when a man got on the bus with a live snake in his bag. It started out innocently enough. An odd-looking chap in dirty clothes, a slightly vacant air, and apparently talking to himself under his breath, sat down opposite us on the Number 5. So far, so San Francisco. But then he proceeded to fiddle with the zip of his holdall from which we suddenly realised was protruding a rather long, pale yellow, and distinctly reptilian tail. Next to me Rob, whose one major phobia is snakes, tangibly froze in horror.

Mumbling words to the effect of “better put him back in” the man then proceeded to ineptly stuff the curling lengths into the holdall while fellow passengers looked on, half in fascination, half in mounting terror. Finally he got the thing contained and zipped up but it’s safe to say we couldn’t get off that bus fast enough.

Til next time, friends!

Cycle Golden Gate Bridge

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

California beaming: How one day in sunny Los Angeles drove away the London blues

As a natural born cynic, I sometimes struggle to see the sunnier side of life. My former boss at the Daily Mail once claimed I have ‘the darkest moods of anyone I’ve ever known in journalism’. This is a man who has worked for more than a decade with famously combustible Fleet Street legend Paul Dacre, the inventor of the rhetorical tactic known as ‘double-c*nting’.

So it is with huge surprise that I found LA slapping me about the face with a dose of pure optimism. It came as a shock. I thought the only way to derive happiness from this famously poseur-laden city would be reliving moments from Grand Theft Auto V. “Oh look, that’s where I parachuted out of a helicopter before opening fire on innocent pedestrians with a minigun. Happy days.”

Instead I find myself filled with an unfamiliar feeling of goodwill to all humankind. Perhaps it’s the sunshine, the plethora of independent bars and shops, or simply the sense of freedom afforded by going freelance after eight years behind a desk. Whatever the cause, within hours of being here, I find my natural scepticism eroding bit by bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I know LA has its dark side. This is after all the city of Raymond Chandler’s seedy villains and the broken dreams of aging waiters still clinging on to the faint hope that their screenplay will be picked up by one of the studios. It has been the unfortunate scene of more than its share of brutal gang violence, as well as the 1992 riots triggered by the brutal beating of Rodney King. And one can’t help but notice that in the glitzy bars and restaurants, it is the Caucasian staff who work front of house, while the economically disadvantaged Latinos toil away in the kitchen.

And yet, on a morning walk from Venice down to the beach, I saw the best side of this fabled town. It started with Abbot Kinney, dubbed ‘coolest block in America’ by GQ. Sprinkled with independent shops and cafes, this strip has the quirky idiosyncracy of London’s Shoreditch but takes itself much less seriously. Each building has an individual architectural style, yet somehow this kaleidoscopic mish-mash of colours and shapes assembles itself into a coherent stylistic genre.

Just a few streets away is Venice, where wealthy Californians enjoy the good life in stunning homes bordering a network of canals. Sure, Shakespeare never wrote a play about this place, it has never had a doge as far as i know and I doubt the baccala mantecato is anything to write home about.

What it does have is this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

And this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

Debating how the average home here would cost (prices start at a couple of million bucks we were later told), Franki and I wandered towards the beach. Rounding a corner, a cyclist nearly ran us down. In London, both parties would have mumbled ‘Sorry’ while mentally cursing each other in the harshest possible terms. When I apologised for no real reason, California bike guy just grinned and said: ‘Hey no problem buddy, that’s why I got brakes!’

Down at Venice Beach, the sense of easy-going optimism is no different, the locals taking their behavioural cue from the Pacific Ocean.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

A dude whizzes by on a skateboard, carrying a surfboard under his arm. Later, seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we pop into the Venice Ale House and happen upon a range of craft beers that would take you ten pubs to collect in London.

Even the mad tramps have a superior patter here. ‘Jesus and Gandhi were the same guy,’ one tells me. ‘Moses too.’

Something about all of this puts a smile on my face. People in Los Angeles act as if they’re in a film shot entirely for your benefit. They bristle with infinite possibility and it is incredibly contagious.

I can’t escape the premonition that we’ll be robbed and beaten up now that I’ve written this – after all, my inner cynic can’t stay suppressed for long. Still, i bet the inevitable mugging will be conducted with bohemian nonchalance. We’ll probably become friends with our assailant on Facebook – maybe even launch a Neighbourhood Watch smartphone app together. That’s just LA, man.

Update – I think Franki and I just had the most LA experience possible. We were driven to Hollywood by a Scientologist Uber cabbie who used to be in films, including Rat Race starring Rowan Atkinson. He fell on hard times and had to sell his house ‘to buy holistic herbs’ when his wife became ill. Despite facing economic ruin due to her poor health, he doesn’t believe in socialised healthcare. ‘In this world, there are makers and takers.’

Update 2 – After years of searching, I even found a Panama hat to fit my outsize noggin. Thanks Hollywood Hatters!

Panama hat