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my big fat Californian Road Trip

Author: stuart & Julie Weir
Date of Trip: August 2008

My Big Fat Californian Trip (August 22nd- September 5th 2008)By Julie Weir, Chatham, Kent, England.

In December this year we will have been married for 25yrs, quite an achievement considering all our friends are divorced, and something to be celebrated in some way. We could have a massive house party, which would take loads of planning and would involve me catering for England, getting horribly drunk, my husband Stuart forcing everyone to sing tuneless karaoke, annoying the neighbors, not really relaxing because the hostess never does and then guiltily clearing up the beer carnage at 4am when everyone else has collapsed in a heap. Or we could hire a hall, book a disco and a local band to play and get caterers / bar staff. But hall parties always feel a bit sterile, you worry if people don't fill the dance floor and they always finish way too early. So when Stuart said to me "let me take you away on a special weekend trip New York to celebrate our anniversary" you would think, dear reader, that I would be all over that as the Americans say. Sure, it seemed exciting as we have never ventured across the pond before and it would be romantic, but I turned him down. 'How have you managed to keep him for so long, you ungrateful so & so?' I hear you say, but before you condemn me as a heartless woman, let's look at the evidence for my negative response.

Mid December in The Big Apple is brrrrrrr degrees C, not very lovely if you have to join a long queue for the attractions, plus the shows on Broadway are not so very different to those you could get 30miles up the road in old London town. It is also busy with Christmas shoppers, which I enjoy, but I have recent memories of Stuart (who is an A-B shopper) complaining (in apparent surprise) about all the packed pubs and crowds in Oxford and Regent Street during a visit to London to see 'The sound of Music' in mid December '07! Lastly, a weekend flits by before you know it and before you can recover from the outward flight, you are thinking about packing up and coming home. So rather than jeopardizing our sweet 25yr relationship, I told him what a romantic gesture it was for him to make and in a very tactful way, I pointed out the pros and cons of such a trip. Again, he hadn't really considered the freezing temperatures or the festive crowds and so we decided to have a rethink. Thailand was mentioned, India or the Maldives was a possibility perhaps, but not wishing to dismiss America out of hand, slowly the idea of a big American Road Trip started to form, tempted by the lure of the $2 to the £1 exchange rate and before long it was a case of 'California, here we come'....but in the summer time, not December ....oh yeah and for 2weeks not a long weekend!

Day 1- Chatham to Downtown Los Angeles courtesy of Air France. After a relatively stress free though somewhat cramped 11hr flight we landed in LA at about 21:00, clutching our visa waiver/entry cards. I had heard scary things about immigration control in the US , but entry processing was relatively smooth, although there was a slight delay due to the computer system that deals with photo recognition and finger-printing deciding to crash. Also, I did notice that Asian entrants seemed to get more grilling than White Europeans-whatever their country of residence .

Anyway, we soon made our way out front to pick up the shuttle bus to take us to Fox car rentals. We hired a very roomy automatic Chrysler 300, with only 3miles on the clock, electric everything, and powerful air-con for about $350 + insurance and a full tank for the 2weeks.

Then out onto the busy LA freeway system and a 16mile drive to our first billet. We chose two nights in a very cosy and traditional hi-spec B&B in the Downtown area of LA, called 'The inn at 657'. This 'home from home' setting in a quiet residential street was ideal for us as we were not really interested in doing the whole Hollywood thing, but rather just wanted to re-charge our batteries and recover from jet-lag before setting out into the big wide yonder. The owner, Patsy, was very welcoming and all the positive reviews on Trip Advisor about her B&B and home cooking were pretty accurate. We had a lovely en-suite with a big four poster bed, antique furniture and the essential air-con. We didn't do much that first night....just collapsed in bed and caught up on some zzzzeds.

Day 2- LA and around. Los Angeles is no real friend to the pedestrian, you do really need a car if you want to explore it properly. It is spread out over a wide area into several neighborhoods and bisected by the perennially busy network of freeways. This wasn't too much of a problem for us and we chose instead to ride the 'Dash' bus downtown and at 25cents per single journey it can take you to the bustling Hispanic Downtown, including Chinatown, Bunker Hill, Pershing Square, Financial district, Fashion District, the sights and smells of grand Central Market. After pounding the streets of Downtown and me dissuading Stuart from buying a Mexican trumpet (he doesn't even play the trumpet) we were hoping to dine at the famous 'Original Pantry' (877 S. Figueroa St) www.pantrycafe.com where you get heaps of great American nosh at cheap prices, but they were queuing round the block to get in, so we found solace from the searing LA heat in the Irish bar, Roirdens, next door. The food there was a bit pricey and wasn't all that, but they served quite a good pint of Guinness. After recovering for a while back at 657, we decided to drive to Santa Monica and dip our toes into the Pacific Ocean. You could try Venice beach or Redonda if you prefer, they are all quite easy to get to by car. Santa Monica has a laid back feeling to it and it was nice to stroll on the pier and relax on the beach. It was a bit breezy on the coast and although Stuart braved the choppy waters, I was a bit of a woos and just paddled! If you're into seafood you might want to try 'Bubba Gumps' shrimp house (derived from the film Forest Gump ).

Back at 657 we were a bit cranky from the flight, the heat and the LA traffic and after a nap we did intend to go and seek out some beer action, but in the end couldn't be arsed. If you're looking for pubs and nightlife you will probably struggle to find anything in this part of town. We did think about driving out to find some of the LA hotspots but then you've got the hassle of deciding who will be the nominated driver. I would normally win this privilege, but I was a bit nervy about driving in LA so I am ashamed to admit that instead we got (massive and cheap) takeout pizzas and ate them in bed washed down with Diet Coke.... god we're getting old!

Day 3- LA to Morro Bay (215 miles). After another of Patsy's leisurely home-cooked weekend breakfasts, where we met some friendly fellow travellers from Texas, we set off up the scenic coast highway on route 101, heading for a one night stopover in Morro Bay. The distance is only 215 miles, but the journey time can vary wildly in summer. We were lucky and it only took us about 3hours. We hadn't made reservations in Morro Bay as our travel guide book had indicated that there it was well served with hotels, motels and B&Bs. When we arrived we had a scout around and settled on the Breakers Motel www.morrobaybreakers.com , simply because it was near the sea with a good view of the coastline and it had a pool, Jacuzzi and free Wi-fi connection- which is handy if like us you have a lap-top and want to make forward reservations or book tickets to attractions, check emails, listen to BBc radio stations etc. The town itself is clustered around Main Street up the hill from the harbor, where there are more motels, diners and a few bars. The locals are friendly and they serve decent draught Guinness at $4 a pint (£2) (try Legends or Happy Jack's Saloon), which pleased Stuart no end! I can firmly recommend Kitty's Kitchen on Main St (where we ate before heading off to Carmel) for a huge selection of set-you-up-for-the-whole day breakfasts with the typically American bewildering choice of menu including how you want your eggs fried (over medium was perfect for us) what sort of toast..white, wholewheat, sourdough etc etc. ,but it was all scrummy! The waiter asked us why we Brits were thrown by such choice and seemed genuinely surprised when we told him that back home in Blighty you don't get choices, you just get fried, boiled or scrambled egg with white sliced, like it or lump it! The room had everything we needed- air con, hairdryer, fridge, tea and coffee facilities etc, all for $70 (£35). Top tip though, if you are a tea drinker you might struggle to stomach the gnats pee that the Americans like to call tea and the hotels don't provide kettles (you have to use to coffee percolator as a kettle), teaspoons, milk sachets ( powdered Coffee Mate) or proper cups. So if like me you can't get going in the morning without a nice cup of PG tips, then take some teabags, a cup and nick some of those little cartons of milk from the airport before your flight!

Anyway, I digress, as is my want. Morro bay is a typical little seaside town and activity is centered around the harbor, which is lined with touristy shops, a selection of casual dining licensed restaurants and seafood bars and all manner of salty type fellas offering boat trips, kayaking, whale watching and sea fishing. There is also a meagre aquarium, but you can see sealions, seals and sea (don't try to say that if you've just got a new top set!!) otters up close and personal for free as they loll around the harbor. Stuart nearly had a fright when we went to Morro rock (which you can drive out to or take the trolley bus tour for just 25cents) as he thought the place was swarming with rats (he has a bit of a rat phobia, poor dear).....which turned out to be friendly ground squirrels that live in amongst the rocks beside the water.

We didn't get to go swimming whilst we were there as it was a bit breezy and foggy. This is common along this stretch of the central coast as the heat coming from inland mixes with the cold of the ocean. That evening we had a fairly good meal in a restaurant called The Galley www.galleymorrobay.com but they don't seem to go in lateys there, so we were tucked up in bed before midnight.

Day 4- Morro Bay to Carmel by the Sea (120 miles) . I had read very good reviews about the pretty seaside town of Carmel, famous for its quirky town rules such as no street numbers allowed, permits required to wear high heels etc. and also as the home of Clint Eastwood. It is only 120 miles from Morro Bay (although it takes about 2.5.hrs if you take the scenic route) and 122 miles from San-Francisco, which made it a natural stop on our trip. The views and sights along this stretch of the CA-1 N Scenic Highway are dramatic and spectacular and it takes you on a very twisty turny route as it hugs craggy mountain road through the National park of Big Sur and close to Hearst Castle (see pics), which we visited.

There are a choice of different length tour experiences, but I recommend that you book your tickets in advance, we did so online, as the tour slots get taken very quickly and you can't just wander up there on your own (as it is way up in the hills), you have to use the free shuttle bus. Once there, a well informed tour guide shepherds you around. When we visited there was a party of weird, Christian-culty type teenage schoolgirls in our group who kept asking really dopey questions-makes you glad that you don't have God on your side if that's what it does to you. Anyway the house is interesting but not a patch on our stately homes or castles and it is a pastiche of Andalucian palaces such as the Alhambra and Real Alcázar, but well worth a detour.

We arrived in Carmel late afternoon and stayed at the Best Western Carmel's Town House Lodge. We had made reservations here before leaving the UK as we had heard the rooms in central Carmel can be very pricey and hard to come by in the summer. We chose this as it was the best price ($139 per night) we could manage to find through our extensive www search. It was very nicely finished, had (essential) free parking, swimming pool, internet access, HBO etc and it was slap bang in the middle of town.

With regards to things to do in Carmel, it is jam-packed with art galleries (which is totally my thing), restaurants, diners and quaint coffee shops and all sorts of gift shops and shops selling exclusive apparel (as the Americans would say). There are a few good bars- we liked the late and casual approach of Jack London's and Brophey's Irish bar, where we put the world to rights with the locals and I got horribly drunk and talked to the big white telephone all night long - but again we got the impression that Carmel wasn't the sort of place for late, late nights. The restaurateurs must be paying a fortune for their business properties but most (apart from Brophey's) were firmly closed up for the night by about 10:30. This is a contrast to our usual holiday dining experience and I imagine it must be quite a culture shock for Mediterranean visitors who are used to eating very late and leisurely dinners.

The main beach in Carmel is very pretty (see pics) but it is not really safe for swimming there as the waves are a bit fierce and the water was quite chilly. A better bet for gentle sea-bathing is one of the beaches further along....we went to Monterey, which is lovely and a bit more lively than Carmel. Another top tip is to dress in layers as the temperature can fluctuate quite a lot throughout the day, we had temperatures of 62-80 deg F in one day.

Day 6- Carmel to San-Francisco (122miles). After another bumper breakfast at Friar Tucks friartucksrestaurant.com? (there goes the last of my waistline) and a stroll around the lovely little boutique mall (photos taken at The Cheese Shop) we set off for San-Francisco, having made a two night reservation the night before at the Bay Bridge Motel baybridgeinn.com? (Harrison St, off 5th St) . If you want a central, swanky pad in San Francisco it doesn't come cheap and the Bay Bridge is neither of these things. We found this place in one of the free 'Room Saver ' magazines that you can pick up at shops and news-stands, and we chose it simply on price @ $150 for two nights and it was easy to get to from the 180 Freeway. The little Indian fella at the front desk was very helpful with top tips, where to go, what to see etc and it had free wi-fi and air-con. As it turned out it wasn't too far from the hub-hub of things, probably about a 15min walk to Market St where you can buy a three day travel pass at the City visitor information center. Priced at $18, this is very good value for money as it allows you to hop on and off all the trolley buses, streetcars, and trains (excluding the BART). The center is also jam-packed with info and booking opportunities for shows, exhibitions, excursions to Alcatraz etc. (which you need to book ahead the day before as the tickets sell fast) The good thing about San-Francisco is that although it is a big city, it feels quite compact, unlike LA, and by using your travel pass you can easily explore and get to all the top spots day or night. We used it to get a general tour around the city sights in order to get our bearings, which is easy as the driver shouts out all the places of interest along the way, and the we just hopped of when we saw something that interested us.

Everybody sooner or later will head to Fishermans Wharf, which is one of the terminus points for the streetcar, and once there you can dine, drink, browse, go on boat trips or get your trip to Alcatraz (pier 39). We didn't realize this and so didn't get it sorted in time, so instead we took a boat tour around the bay (Chucky's Pride) @$15 each. The guide took us out to the Golden Gate Bridge explaining all the sights along the way and gave us a good potted history of the City. Then we sailed right around Alcatraz Island and he told us all about that too, so although I would have like to have visited the island, this kind of made up for it a bit.

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