It's mid winter and I'm starting to crave some sunshine. The media dictates that I lose weight, get fit, sort out a Valentine's gift for Mr Smith, and if I haven't already, book a holiday. Welcome to January. The Smiths saved long and hard for this trip, a holiday to California with our teenage boys. We were travelling for two weeks from late July, avoiding theme parks, hitting the road and combining the contrasts of coastal cities and famous inland national parks. California was somewhere Mr Smith had been meaning to go for ages, he spent much of his youth growing up in New York state in the east and he'd always wanted to go west.
We flew into San Francisco and immediately fell in love with the city. Just having two full days there we booked a hop-on, hop-off open top bus tour which is a great way to orientate yourself quickly. The first place we hopped off was Golden Gate Bridge, it was a clear day and we were able to walk across the breezy bridge and back, then hop on the bus for a few more stops, jumping off and walking through China Town and North Beach for a slice of freshly made pizza and a coke. After a bit of light shopping in Macy’s menswear department (who were offering visitors a further 10% off their sale goods), we had supper in a stylish Thai restaurant.
Our bus tour tickets lasted two days and included a trip to Alcatraz, so on day two, once we’d got our bearings, we used the tickets to get us around and spent the morning at the Academy of Sciences where an Earthquake themed exhibition was taking place. We stepped into a house, held onto a rail and were rocked by a simulated earthquake, followed by watching a film about the world’s earthquakes in the newly built Planetarium, just to remind us of San Francisco’s past. My sixteen year old was completely gripped by the audio tour of Alcatraz with commentary by ex-inmates and prison guards, it took us through the cells and is one of San Francisco’s must-dos.
|Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park|
Next stop was Yosemite National Park, a good four hour drive inland. The countryside was sun-baked, California has a serious drought. We stopped off at a farm shop for lunch surrounded by row upon row of fruit trees and delicious produce in the shop itself. The temperature in San Francisco had been in the low 70’s, it was now in the high 80’s and as we approached Yosemite, it continued to rise. Our base was a lodge on the edge of the park, it was easy to enter the park and being peak tourist season we rose early to avoid the crowds and heat of the day, and on the first morning hiked up to Nevada Falls. Yosemite was stunning and it once on the trails it was not too difficult to find some space. Most tourists stay on the floor of the Yosemite Valley. I read a statistic that during July and August a quarter of the inhabitants of California spend a week camping at one of their National Parks.
The boys coped well in the heat, by the afternoon the temperature was in the high 90’s, but by that time we were on our way down hill, taking the scenic John Muir trail down (the steep Mist Trail up). In the evening we drove to watch the sunset up at Glacier Point and could see exactly where we’d walked that day and the outline of Half Dome, which would have to wait for another time. The following day we hiked up to Yosemite Falls, it was seriously hot and a steep pull again, but we were rewarded by a dip in the cold creek at the top. The water level was the lowest it’s been for years, usually it would be far too fast flowing and dangerous to swim. The forest felt tinder dry and the signs warned us that the fire risk was very high.
I wasn’t sure how Sequoia National Park would live up to the breathtaking splendour of Yosemite, but it was different. Sequoia was about the trees and meadows. Sequoia trees are huge and ancient, they can grow up to 311 feet, be up to 3,200 years old, the bases can be up to 40 feet in diameter. A walk in the Giant Forest is magical and once out of the car and onto the trails, it wasn’t difficult to lose the crowds and be alone. Walking along the trails gave us an opportunity to see the wildlife, we got very close to a pair of woodpeckers hammering away at an old tree and the following day on a hike to the Tokopah waterfall we came across a mother bear and cub.
Our base for Sequoia was Exeter, a small town about an hour’s drive from the park. We were staying in a Best Western motel, which I will remember for the big-boned cross-dressing man with a skew-whiff wig wandering around looking for the ice machine one evening. I really thought that Harry Dean Stanton would show up at any minute. The motel was an insight into America on the road, a base for travelling business folk, construction workers who left their dusty boots outside their rooms at night and tourists, mainly Germans. This was the only motel that threw breakfast into the price, including waffles you made yourself on a waffle maker. For US$8 we were able to wash our clothes in their laundry room, which dried instantly in the 100 degree heat. We ate Mexican at one of the town’s three Mexican restaurants, the portions were huge and we could easily have split one portion of fajitas between two.
Mr Smith didn’t want to go to Los Angeles, as from his point of view he spends most of the week working in a large, polluted, densely populated city, so he was keen to avoid it. However, we would have to drive through LA to get to San Diego, our next stop. We knew this would be a long hot day in the car and it was. Driving through thick four lane traffic in LA was no fun, but after a solid six and a half hours in the car we were in downtown San Diego. I don’t think that the boys could have taken much more hiking in the heat, so the beautiful, breezy coastal climate of San Diego was appreciated after the long day in the car. We took in a film while we were there, the boys were desperate to see The Dark Knight Rises, although it was a bit raw for me after the very recent shooting in Aurora. We watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics in our hotel room, which made us proud to be British, and a few hours of listening to the American commentary of the games had us yearning for Auntie Beeb back home. A San Diego highlight was a visit to the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier and now a museum.
We spent another long day in the car, averaging 30mph and taking over six hours, we arrived at Santa Barbara. We could have spent at least another day here on the beach, but we were running out of time. We managed a few hours lying on the sand and swimming in the Pacific, but no time to visit the wine country made famous by the film Sideways (the book by Rex Pickett is better, although I love the film).
After just one day and two nights in Santa Barbara, we headed up US1 along the truly stunning coastline with great views to Big Sur. We saw seals at San Simeon, didn't have time to visit Hearst Castle and fitted in a quick walk on the beach in Carmel before heading on to Monterey. Disappointingly we didn't see Clint Eastwood jogging along the Carmel sand and the weather in Monterey was decidedly overcast and chilly after the sunshine and warmth of Santa Barbara, preparing us for the cooler climate back home. After a night in Monterey we headed to San Francisco for our flight to London, but not before driving the 17 mile drive through Pebble Beach golf course.
How did we get there?
We used a local Tunbridge Wells based American fly-drive specialist AmeriCan and Worldwide Travel, who were great when it came to the booking, tweaking our trip to avoid staying in LA and spending more time in the national parks and booking our bus and Alcatraz tickets in San Francisco. My only criticism would be that the directions to the hotels weren't as accurate as they could be. After long days in the car with teenagers in the back we wanted to arrive at our hotel the most direct route possible. We didn't opt for the Sat Nav when we picked up our hire car, trusting the directions we'd been given in our personalised itinerary in a ringbinder (with room for notes on the opposite page - I kept this as a diary) by the travel agent. I can so relate to this post from The Women's Room: The Sat Nav that saved my marriage and in hindsight a Sat Nav could have been useful.
We were really impressed by the standard and service in Best Western motels, ideal for families on the road. Eating out was expensive, breakfast was only included in one motel, so this is an additional cost to look out for. However, an American breakfast should keep most human beings going until supper. The traffic in July/August was heavy, so inevitably it took longer to get around.
P.S. I want to go back and hike the High Sierra Trail to Mount Whitney.