This past October (2010) we took a 18 day road trip around California and having got the rough idea of the trip from a blog I had always planned on writing up what I thought of the trip mainly before I forgot it and you never know it may help others plan a similar trip.
The route we ended up taking (after a number of revisions) was roughly:
- San Francisco – 5 nights
- Yosemite National Park – 2 nights
- Monterey - 1 night
- Morro Bay – 1 night
- Santa Barbara – 2 nights
- Ventura – 1 night
- Huntington Beach – 1 night
- San Diego – 5 nights
We absolutely loved San Francisco and ideally would have liked at least another day or so there because our first day or two was hindered slightly by some jet-lag. We stayed at the Harbor Court hotel which was fantastic in every way, great room, lovely views of the San Francisco waterfront and some lovely touches like complimentary milk and cookies each evening in the hotel reception and tea and coffee each morning. Anytime we stay in the USA we try and stay with Kimpton Hotels, they always look after us.
Some of the highlights while we were in SF were watching the (soon to be) baseball world champion Giants at the stunning AT&T Park, what a place to watch baseball that is. A nice evening was spent in Rogues bar sampling a selection of their own beers and we had a fantastic bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito where we grabbed some lunch, a quick beer at Smitty’s Bar and got the boat back into the city. The bike ride itself was fairly easy and very bike friendly. We started at Fisherman’s Wharf after picking up some bikes from Blazing Saddles for not very much money and then headed along the bay and over the pretty spectacular Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito. Ideally we would have cycled back but we had tickets to goto Alcatraz later that afternoon so had to head back to Fisherman’s Wharf by boat.
While I was glad we visited Alcatraz & it’s nice to say I’ve been there it was jammed with tourists. We kind of felt like herded cattle around the place. The audio tour was really interesting but because of the volume of people in there we felt we didn’t really get that much time to take things in.
The drive over to Yosemite National Park from San Francisco took around 5 hours or so to drive, the first 4 were fairly straight forward although the last few miles are a little tedious because of speed restrictions and road quality. All in all though a pretty easy drive.
The park itself is beautiful although at ground level it’s fairly busy because of the number of tourists who drive from photogenic spot to photogenic spot. Once you get off the beaten track and do one of the treks (Half Dome, Yosemite Falls etc) it becomes allot less busy and much more enjoyable. The views are spectacular and if you are a snapper you’ll find yourself taking pictures left right and centre.
We stayed within the park at Housekeeping Camp in a half canvas/half brick contraption. It was what can only be described as “basic” but did what it said on the tin. The fire pit outside was handy to cook on and get warm at in the evenings. While it was really warm during the day (even in early October) once the sunset it got cool pretty quickly. There was a little shop on site which you could get the basics like bread, milk and beer but irritatingly it shuts at 6pm which means we had to find another shop elsewhere. A decent sized box of firewood can be bought on site for about $10 and that was enough to keep us toasty for the two evenings we were there.
I’d definitely recommend staying within one of the official park accamadations which are more expensive but the ones outside the park while listed as only a few miles away, the nearest non official one is probably at least a 45 minutes drive away. If you are do a big hike like we did I was thankful I didn’t have the best part of 2 hours total driving added to the day.
Really enjoyed our time Yosemite but I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were very excited to get back over to the coast. The prospect of a real bed and hot shower was something to behold.
It probably took a good 5 hours to get over to Monterey although that included stopping off for a fantastic breakfast on route at Sugar Pine Cafe and getting a little lost along the way. If I was embarking on a trip like this again a GPS would really help things, various printouts from Google Maps really isn’t the way to go about it.
We stayed at Mariposa Inn & Suites which was really nice, well priced, recently renovated rooms and about a 15 minute walk into the town centre and Marina.
Our time in Monterey was probably mainly spent at the harbour checking out the many seals found there (we’d see hundreds more during the rest of the trip but this was the first bunch so were shamefully excited), eating, drinking and watching the Giants first playoff game in the local sports bar. We had a great Chinese meal at Full Moon, the food was ace, the staff were great and it was full of locals which is always a good sign.
There was definitely more to do in Monterey (boat trips, a HUGE aquarium etc) than what we managed but after two nights in the wilderness it was perfect for us to simply eat and drink.
Route One through the Big Sur
The drive from Monterey to Morro Bay took us along the Big Sur which was absolutely spectacular. I think it is only around 30 miles long but with a lunch stop it took us around 4-5 hours to complete. You just feel need to jump out of the car every 400 hundred metres and start taking pictures, the scenery is endless and beautiful (the image at the top of the page was snapped on one stop.)
It does get fairly busy, as you would expect, but we found ‘most’ of the drivers to be fairly courteous and there are plenty of places to pull over if somebody decides to drive up your backside.
Some stops you have to take along the drive include:
- Point Lobos State Reserve – We spent hours here wondering about just taking in the views
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – Be sure to check out the waterfall here at the beautiful secluded beach
- Treat yourself to a spot of lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant which is about halfway along the Big Sur. probably more than you’d usually pay for a sandwich but the portions are big and the location more than makes up for it.
Our main reason to stay in Morro Bay was simply to breakup the journey from Monterey to Santa Barbara so we weren’t in a huge rush to get there because we were enjoying the Big Sur drive so much. It was probably about 6pm by the time we got to our motel which was the Fireside Inn and it wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it. The room we got was big but looked like it had been cleaned just enough to pass as habitable. To be fair it only cost around £40 for the night so it was cheap and handy enough to walk down to the harbor and get some food & beer, it was only a place to get some sleep.
Morro Bay itself was a cute little town (population of about 10,000 people), we spent a little time taking some sunset photographs of Morro Rock. There isn’t loads going on there but more than enough places to stop for some food and drinks to fill an evening.
I would highly recommend Top Dog coffee bar, we grabbed a breakfast bagel and coffee from there the day we left and the coffee was superb.
After a few days on the road we decided we’d have a two night stop in Santa Barbara although to be fair the drive was far from taxing but it was nice to have 48 hours without being in the car.
We found that to stay anywhere that was reasonably nice would cost a fair bit more than a few of the other towns we’d stayed at and we ended up going for the Agave Inn. It was reasonably priced (can’t remember what we paid), really nice rooms but the trade off what it was a was good 40 minute walk into the centre of town. Not a huge issue for us because we like walking and thankfully while we were there the weather was fantastic although walking back late at night had to be done in nearly total darkness because it would seem Santa Barbara has no street lighting what so ever.
While we were there lucky for us it was the annual Santa Barbara Seafood Festival which was tons of fun. Live music, loads of fantastic fresh seafood (crab, lobster, huge mussels etc) cooked up in front of you, great atmosphere and of course beer a plenty. Great way to spend and afternoon in the sun.
After the festival spent some time pottering around a few of the independent galleries you find in Santa Barbara and then spent the evening watching some College Football and some more baseball at O’Malleys bar which was decent enough.
The Sunday was fairly low and lazy although we did go wine tasting at the Oreana Winery tasting room which was good fun and then enjoyed a few glasses outside while listening to the live music the had put on. Nice way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon although the wine may have caused me a slightly earlier night than I had planned.
The main reason for our nights stay in Ventura was to catchup with some family of mine there so we didn’t do lots to be fair other than catchup with family and grabbed a meal. What I would say it was a really cute town with what looked to be fantastic surfing. One thing that we did really enjoy there was a good 40 minutes exploring the fantastic ‘We Olive.‘ The shop was really cool and describes itself as “We Olive is more than just a store with olive oil it is an ‘Olive Oil Experience’” and it really is. We found ourselves drinking olive oil like wine and came away with a fine selection of marinades, balsamic vinegars etc that made great gifts for the gang back home. I think it is a franchise and there are a fair few of them dotted around California but it’s a great little concept.
Oh and I wouldn’t go out of my way to reccamend the Best Western Inn of Ventura:
This was place I defiantly wouldn’t overly recommend to stay but again it was more of a place to stop to get some sleep after a day exploring LA. Not really sure I could spend more than a day in LA mind you driving around it was a nightmare although it was kind of cool seeing the Hollywood sign but all in all LA is a place I won’t be rushing back to visit.
After a fair few days on the road which was good fun exploring places we’d probably not get to visit without the use of a car we were looking forward to hitting San Diego to kick back and relax for 5 nights before flying back to the UK from LAX.
After spending the nights since San Francisco in generally 3 star level accommodation we decided we’d have a little bit of luxury to end of the holiday and booked a suite in the beautiful Hotel Solamar in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. The Solamar is once again a Kimpton Hoteland I’d highly recommend it. There is a great rooftop pool, private cabanas and a bar. Great place to spend an afternoon in the sun. As with all Kimpton hotels we’ve been to the staff were fantastic, the rooms were lovely and as always there were the complimentary wine hour each evening from 5pm to 6pm to keep us entertained.
We were hoping the Padres were going to sneak into the MLB playoffs so we could catch a game but it wasn’t to be. Seeing as PETCO Park was around the corner we took a walk over to check it out and were very impressed that when a game isn’t on the stadium becomes part of a community park, the bleachers are open and the local kids can essentially hang about kind of in the stadium. Very cool concept and if I was a kid growing up around there I’d find it very inspiring.
If you are staying in and around the Gaslamp Quarter I’d definitely recommend grabbing breakfast in The Mission SoMa it was about a ten minutes walk from the Solamar and the food and coffee was great. It gets very busy at the weekend though with up to 20/30 people waiting in the street outside to get a table so if you are hitting it at the weekend get there early.
Generally we found San Diego a really fun city to spend a few days in. The restaurants and bars we ate a and drank in were in were all pretty cool although I can’t really remember any of them to fair. One place we did have a fun night in was Whiskey Girl great offers and a fun atmosphere.
That’ll do for my California ramblings I think, if it’s a trip you are considering do it if you can, it was a great holiday.
Pictures of the whole trip can be found over in the Flickr set - http://www.flickr.com/photos/chatmandu/sets/72157625098607056/