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my big fat Californian Road Trip

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

I have to say that San Francisco was one of my favorite ports of call during this trip, I found it quite easy to function there. The food was good and reasonably priced- Mel's Diner is well worth a visit and we found the food in the Indian restaurants to be very authentic fare and when we weren't stuffing our faces I loved the vibrancy of the place, with its lively nightlife/ pub and music scene-just like home! While were there we went to .....bar where they have live music every night and we also explored Grant St area, up near China Town where you can see Jazz, Salsa, Reggae, Rock Punk and Blues. We also tried to visit the famous 'Jazz at Pearls' club on ......St but unfortunately it has now shut down.

We would have like to stay for another night but we cocked up a bit with our planning as we thought 'Labor Day' was due to fall on the same day as our UK August Bank Holiday but in fact it was coming up on the weekend we had planned to go to Yosemite. This meant that rooms were hard to come by in San-Francisco and it seemed that the world and his American wife were planning a long weekend break in Yosemite National park, so everything was booked up within the park and hotels and motels within a 20mile radius were either fully booked or charging silly money. We did some exhaustive www searching and phoning and finally found somewhere, but only for one night when ideally we wanted two nights, so we adjusted our plans and prepared to leave our hearts in San-Francisco!

Day 8- San Francisco to El Portal at Yosemite (189miles) Do you know the way to San Jose?.....We do now that we travelled through it (temp of 110deg F in San Jose) on our 3 ½ hour journey to El Portal! We made an early start and got out of the city without too much traffic and stopped a couple of times along the way for breaks. The tourist information center in Mariposa is excellent and the lady there gave us loads of free maps and information about things to do and see in Yosemite in a one day visit and places to visit and stay on the other side of the park, including Death Valley (which was one of our planned destinations). The views and scenery on the route up to Mariposa and on to the very posh and expensive ( $264 per night) 'Yosemite View Lodge' in the one- horse town of El Portal were wild and stunning....lots of Kodak moments, and the temperature at 5pm in El Portal was 106deg F......I had packed hoodies and cardies for this leg of the trip.....which definitely stayed packed in the boot of the car. El Portal is the closest town outside of the park and it is about 12 miles to Yosemite from there. The hotel has four swimming pools and Jacuzzis, a shop and several restaurants and bars, which is good because there is really not a lot else in El Portal except nature! Our room was luxurious compared to the standard we had had so far on the trip. It had a very comfy King sized bed, giant Spa bath, double shower, kitchen, massive flat screen TV and a fireplace (not used on this occasion). Also it had its own balcony terrace which faced out onto the lovely Merced river and mountain view with a gushing stream full of fish. We had a lovely meal in the restaurant that night before strolling back to our room under a sparkling starry sky and after figuring out how the spa bath worked, had a wonderful sleep, disturbed only by the distant animal sounds of the night and the sound of the gushing stream below us. I rose early the next morning and as I sat on the balcony writing my latest instalment of this journal, a tiny humming-bird hovered right in front of me, fish jumped up in the stream and iridescent dragonflies darted to and fro- idyllic indeed.

Day 9 (Saturday)- Yosemite and then on to Bishop (133miles) As we could not find any accommodation for another nights stay anywhere in the Yosemite area we decided to have a full day in Yosemite Park before billeting in Bishop, much further on, via the Tioga Pass. On arrival at Yosemite, we paid our $20 entry pass fee (which lasts for 7days) and set about exploring. Yosemite was a complete awe inspiring Kodak moment. It seemed that most of America had decided to visit on that day, but because of its vast size it never felt crowded and the rangers have it so well organized that even if you only have time for a short visit and are not equipped with the exploring skills of Sir Edmund Hilary, the scenic highlights are made very accessible with free eco shuttle-buses between various trek starting points and places of interest. You are given free maps with suggested walking trails ranging from easy to extreme and if that's not your thing then you can hire bicycles or go pony trekking, whatever floats your boat......oh yeah they even have kayaks. We had Lunch and a good look round and then chose to go on a moderate difficulty trail of 4miles up to ......Equipped with plenty of water, a trail map and comfortable walking shoes we set off with high hopes of reaching our destination and completing the trail, but we under-estimated the difficulty of negotiating the inclines in 100deg F. temps. and over-estimated our own levels of fitness! We admitted defeat after I started overheating and getting dizzy spells and Stuart said he didn't fancy the embarrassment and the effort of having to carry me all the way back to the ranger station. It was embarrassing to be overtaken by mums with pushchairs and elderly folk with walking sticks!!! Nonetheless it was a brilliant place and I would say it is a must see destination of California.

After paddling in the icy cold crystal clear pools in the forest to cool down, we reluctantly set off to find our next place to sleep for the night. We planned a route that would take us out through the Eastern entrance to the park, via the very scenic and mountainous Tioga Pass. This road is only open during the summer months as from about September onwards can become blocked with thick snow and thus too treacherous for motorists. On a recent tour, a friend of mine set off on a fine, crisp, mid-September autumnal day down in Yosemite valley, only to be turned backed by rangers at Tioga pass, and on enquiring when the road will be re-opened (thinking perhaps later that day or tomorrow) she was told that it would probably be the following March or possibly April before the road was likely to be passable! The road climbs about 8000ft through hairpin bends right up through the mountains and then down a similarly winding narrow route cut into the mountain-side, affording stunning views and after about 60miles you pass nearby to the huge Mono Lake and gradually the scenery starts to change from heavily wooded to craggy and sparse as you pass through the Mammoth Lakes region on the way to the small western rootin-tootin town of Bishop, Inyo. W e had been given a list of motels and contact numbers by the kind lady in Mariposa tourist information center and headed for 'America's best value inn' just off Main St in Bishop, lured by the low rates, swimming pool and launder-mat (as our clothes were a bit whiffy by this time). Considering its size, Bishop is very well served by motels and places to eat. I think this is partly due to its relative proximity to Yosemite but mostly due to the fine fishing and other outdoor related activities to be had in the nearby Mammoth lakes area- many of the motels even offer fish cleaning services. On the day we arrived the town was hosting its very popular tri county fair and rodeo and I think that the entire town turned out that evening to take part, we felt odd man out because we didn't wear Stetsons and cowboy boots! We stood out even further as complete tourists as we took in the local atmosphere in Rusty's Saloon, where men are men and burly blokes who looked at least 27 were asked to prove their ID by an even burlier tattooed, mustachioed muscle-bound barman before getting served, Stuart was most disappointed that he wasn't asked to prove his age! They had all kinds of music on the juke-box....country and western and chaps were happy to dosey-do their pardners! I don't know why they are so hot on under-age drinking there because I tasted the local beers and I have to say I have tasted stronger Shandy-Bass before. I think that the famous Monty Python assessment is possibly true and that American beer is like making love in a boat...close to water! We stayed two nights in laid-back Bishop, just recharging our batteries, shopping for bargains at K-mart and getting our washing done, before heading for our next destination.....Death Valley.

Day 11 (Monday)- Bishop to Beatty Nevada, via Lone Pine & Death Valley (176 miles). People had warned us about Death Valley, about the searing temperatures, its inhospitable desert environment, about the number of dead tourists etc so we just had to include it in our tour. We travelled the straight and lonely highway 190 through Paiute reservations and one horse towns of the Eastern Sierra such as Independence, Lone Pine and Big Pine. We stopped for Brunch in the quirky little town of Lone Pine. It doesn't look much when you are driving through, but if you take time to stop you will be pleasantly surprised about what it has to offer. It is situated in the shadow of Mount Whitmore and its biggest claim to fame is its Hollywood film industry links. Now, you may think (as we did) 'Lone Pine? ...Never heard of it', but it is likely that you have seen those famous John Wayne westerns or as a child you went to Saturday morning pictures and saw the Lone Ranger. Or perhaps you remember the Kevin Bacon film, Tremors or Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Well, all of these films were shot wholly or in part in the area around Lone Pine and if you are interested in films, the Lone Pine film museum is well worth a visit.

After our short sojourn in Lone Pine we travelled 104 miles along the scenic and empty highway 190 to reach the center of Death Valley national park. It is strange to go from the green lushness of Yosemite to the absolute barren desert landscape of Death Valley, but it is stunning in its own way.

We went from West to East, stopping for drinks at Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells, before heading to Furnace Creek and Zabrinski's point for some great photo opportunities. I really wanted to take the trail off to Artists Drive /Artists Palette and also to see the strange shifting rocks of 'The Racetrack', up the top end of the valley, but Stuart was a bit worried whether the car could cope with this type of terrain, so reluctantly we didn't risk it. Also, if I had more time I would have liked to take the trip up to Scotty's Castle, (about 45miles from Stovepipe Wells) but by this time Stuart was dreaming of the luxuries awaiting us in Las Vegas, so we followed the 190 and turned off Death Valley Junction, then travelled on highway 120 to the one mule town of Beatty. Taking this route so we could visit Zabrinski's point added another 90 miles on to our journey, but it was well worth it.

We drove into Beatty where huge roadside signs promised the best fresh jerky for miles around and checked in for a one night stopover at the Exchange Motel ($47). The rooms were basic and clean and much better than I expected, and best of all it was situated just across the street from the Sourdough Saloon, (pics) which reminds me of something out Tarantino's Dusk 'til Dawn! We had an OK meal up the road in the Exchange Casino Hotel and then moseyed on over to the Sourdough, where we got in to a Pool match with some Japanese engineers and shared our tales of adventures with some young lads from Ipswich. Quite a good night was had and we didn't get eaten by vampires, but the locals must have felt a bit bemused and outnumbered as at one point there were five Brits, two Germans, two Japanese and one Korean sat up at the bar, trying to get some satisfaction from their $5 pitcher jugs of Coors.

Day 12 .Beatty to Las Vegas (about 115miles) We set off late morning heading for Las Vegas on Highway 95, where we had reservations for three nights at the MGM Grand, courtesy of a great on-line deal from Travel-Zoo ($69/ night). There is a whole lot of nothing between Beatty & Las Vegas, but as you get closer to Las Vegas, the landscape changes gradually and you start seeing road-signs offering various tawdry delights to be had on the strip. They say that it is quite a spectacle to enter Las Vegas from the desert at night as you can see the bright lights from afar, but we did the typical English thing of arriving at the hottest part of the day. The traffic there is a non-stop and a bit manic so we were grateful for our sat-nav (though even he got a bit confused at one point).

We self-parked (parking is all free in the casino hotels) and made our way to check-in via covered canopies that spray slightly perfumed fine mist down on to you to keep you cool in the searing heat. The MGM Grand hotel is mahoosive, rising like a giant green, shimmering glass crucifix-shaped Lego block - 5000 rooms, five swimming pools, spas, super-casino, shops, a dazzling array of restaurants, bars and nightclubs and it even has its own lion's den with a whole pride of lions! It took 15minutes to walk from the hotel entrance to our hotel room on the 25th floor (even with a super fast lift), it is considered to be quite an achievement to find your way out! The room was very high spec with a giant king sized bed that enveloped us completely and made us reluctant to leave its snugly comforting cocoon, but we knew that eventually we must......and so Vegas here we come.

The casino ploy is to offer cheap room rates and top facilities with perfect ambience, that cater to your every whim, (it is rumored that they pump oxygen through the ventilation system to keep you feeling fresh and awake) so that you get in the mood to loosen your purse-strings. We're not into gambling and were not drawn to the slot machines, black-jack tables or roulette wheels, but it is fascinating to witness the sheer scale of Vegas and to experience the total fakeness of the place. There is gambling at every corner, with little old ladies main-lining the slots with their prepaid cards permanently plugged into the machine or playing keno and young fellas on stag dos throwing their money away on the turn of a card, a roll of a dice or on the chance that the roulette wheel will spin in their favor. Whatever time of the day or night you step onto the casino floor you will find someone gambling and then there are the private high roller suites where fortunes are won and lost.

If you are a true culture vulture you will be hard pressed to find any in this town, but if you don't mind imitations then you will be bowled over by their attempts to re-create pastiches of Paris, Venice and New-York. We mostly used the mono-rail that runs directly from the hotel and has stops along the Strip at each of the main casino-hotels and got off at different points to explore the delights of each. We loved the live music in the Nine Good Irishmen bar at New York, New York and were serenaded by an Italian American Gondolier on a gondola ride at the Venetian, where the fake indoor sky is always blue and the architecture and ceiling frescos of Renaissance Italy has been lovingly re-created. When we were there the Cirque du Soliel was the big thing but we didn't fancy that so we each chose a show that we wanted to see- there are so many on the go at any one time - Stuart chose the Platters, the Coasters and the Marvelettes at the Sahara and I chose the interactive Sopranos Last Supper at the Riviera. Both were good fun and it seems that you are expected to search out discount ticket deals which are available in the hotels or in the discount ticket booths, which you have to buy on the day of the show. One downside was that the most of the shows seemed to start quite early and they wanted you there by ½ 6 for a 7:30 show. I suppose it is to their advantage to get you wined, dined and entertained by about 10pm so you have still got time for a spot of gambling before bed-time bears.

We did toy with the idea of taking a helicopter or plane ride to the Grand Canyon, but by this time funds were disappearing and $300 a pop was just a bit too much for us. We could have driven there but we were a bit travel weary and apparently it is best to experience it by air. If I had the chance again to go there I would probably book ahead on-line. I thought you would probably get better deals once you were in Vegas, but I actually found little difference in price and also by booking on-line you can choose exactly when you want to go, as the tickets available in the ticket booths sell out pretty fast and you have to book two days in advance anyway.

Day 14- Las Vegas to Los Angeles  After a bit of Vegas souvenir tat shopping, we checked out and set out on the final 250 mile leg of our epic journal back to Los Angeles. We took a leisurely plod through the barren landscapes of Nevada and kept on driving until we saw a sign for 'Peggy Sue's 50's Diner' at Yermo in the middle of nowhere, peggysuesdiner.com and stopped off for a last taste of American home cooking- yum, yum indeed!

Our flight was at 20:30 and we had to check in three hours before take-off, so we timed it so as not to get stuck in LA rush hour traffic and we had to get the car back to the car-hire firm and get the shuttle bus to the airport. LA airport is a bit dull with not many eating or shopping diversions for the weary waiting traveller. Anyway, that marked the end of our big trip and all that was left to look forward to was the 11hr flight back to London. I tried to avoid jet-lag by just snoozing briefly during the flight and we landed at 1440. Once home, I stayed up until about midnight and slept quite peacefully with no signs of the dreaded jet-lag, whereas Stuart who had slept soundly during much of the flight was all over the place with his sleep patterns for about a week after.

So that was our big fat American road trip, I loved it and would do it again given half a chance, although I would probably want to go for 3weeks and spend more time in each place, especially Carmel, San-Francisco and Yosemite and if I went to LA again I would probably stay on the coast, nearer to some nightlife. So there are some regrets about the places we didn't go to and things we didn't get to see, but you can't do everything and it's not worth trying to cram it all in at the expense of your overall enjoyment of the experience. Now we're back home and it all seems like a bit of a distant memory and I probably will still end up having a party for our 25th anniversary in December......vol-au-vent anyone?.......

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