We’ve started the final leg of our USA road trip, with 12 nights in the state of California.
We arrived in California via the High Desert Highway 62, this is the deadliest road in the state. It was the loneliest stretch of road we’ve been on so far, with no buildings or facilities for at least 50 miles. It was dark by the time we reached Palm Springs, at the end of an 11 hour journey from Sedona covering 497 miles.
Our first stop in California was Palm Springs, where we had lovely 2 nights at the Avanti boutique hotel. This 1950’s low rise hotel with a handful of suites provided the perfect retreat we needed after a series of 1 night stops on Route 66. We were staying in suite 88, as the number 4 is unlucky in Asian culture, and 8´s are lucky. I liked all the thoughtful touches and personal recommendations provided by Jim (owner / manager), there’s free snacks on arrival, free drinks each day during happy hour and bikes for guests to use. This hotel is adults only, and pet friendly.
Luckily we’d planned 2 nights in this location, to get a full day for exploring and some chill time. We all enjoyed a curry at Pepper’s Thai restaurant, before hitting the sack. There was a party vibe in the evening on Palm Canyon Drive, we liked the people watching from our table on the terrace. We saw large numbers of female groups, some hen parties and others on spring break.
A continental breakfast by the pool is included at the Avanti boutique hotel from 8am, after which we walked the length of Palm Canyon to explore the uptown and downtown areas. The streets and shops were quiet apart from a few notable places called Cheeky’s and Lulu which were packed serving Sunday Brunch. We bought California fruit & veg smoothies at Tutti Frutti, who also had an amazing frozen yoghurt section.
We needed to do some laundry, so I got Mike to drop me off at the local laundromat, whilst he went to wash the car.
We spent the afternoon chilling at our hotel, there’s a happy hour between 16:00-18:00 Jim offered to make us a cocktail and we went with his suggestion of a lemonade, vodka and strawberry soda mix, which was really refreshing.
We had decided to have Mexican gastronomy for our evening meal, and asked Jim for a recommendation, he didn’t hesitate and told us to walk to El Mirasol at the Los Arboles restaurant, to eat alfresco in their courtyard. We were lucky to find the last available table, we ordered the house margaritas, I had their Shrimp Doña Diabla which was a generous portion of prawns served in a hot and smoky sauce. Mike ordered the Pollo en Mole Poblano, which was chicken served in a thick chocolate & spicy sauce, made from chillies, cocoa and pumpkin seeds. Both dishes came with rice, beans and corn or flour tortillas. It was a great meal in a lovely setting, highly recommended for an authentic Mexican meal in Palm Springs.
We really liked Palm Springs, these attractions are top of our list for our next visit:
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (the world’s largest rotating tram car) travels over two-and-one-half miles along the breathtaking cliffs of Chino Canyon, transporting riders to the pristine wilderness of the Mt. San Jacinto State Park.
The Joshua Tree National Park in the Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert with views over the Coachella Valley.
you can find our Palm Spring photos here: Palm Springs Album
Palm Springs to San Diego – 210 miles – 5 hours
The Salton Sea is an inland saline lake in the Sonoran Desert of extreme southeastern California. It is bordered on the south by the rich agricultural areas of the Imperial Valley and on the west, by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.This is the largest lake in California and created by accident in 1905 when massive flooding caused the Colorado River (70 miles away) to break through an irrigation canal headwork and flow freely into the Salton Basin for 18 months. This shallow saline rift lake is only 43 feet deep. The land here is situated 236 feet below sea level! The white sand on the beach, is sharp under foot, it consists of salt, shells, barnacles and fish bones.
Julian was a lovely town with lots of historic references and award winning apple pies! We stopped for a malted milkshake there and to stretch our legs with a quick browse around the shops.
Continuing our journey towards San Diego, we were a bit puzzled when our sat nav showed a large expanse of water called Lake Cuyamaca, but there was no water to be seen other than the reservoir further along the road, this was the first indication of the drought problem we would find in California.
We were also a little perturbed by the amount of dead trees situated in this area. Our research found that there was no regrowth after a cedar fire that swept through the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in 2003. Rangers have planted 170,000 seedlings since the fire but only 20-40% have been successful.
The I-8 W had a 6% descent for 10 miles as we dropped into San Diego from the mountains.
We were staying at the Wyndham Bayside in San Diego, our room (1441) was on the top floor and offered a fantastic view of the bay. It was a beautiful afternoon so we walked the along seafront from our hotel to the Seaport Village area, where we stopped for a quick bite to eat. There’s around 50 shops and 20 restaurants at the Seaport Village, in a picturesque design with shaded seating.
The USS Midway is one of the main attractions for visitors to the city. USS Midway (CVB/CVA/CV-41) was an aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, the lead ship of her class. Commissioned a week after the end of World War II, Midway was the largest ship in the world until 1955, as well as the first U.S. aircraft carrier too big to transit the Panama Canal. She operated for 47 years, during which time she saw action in the Vietnam War and served as the Persian Gulf flagship in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. You can also find A National Salute to Bob Hope & the Military and the Embracing Peace statue can be found in next to the aircraft carrier.
We had a fantastic meal in the evening at the Crab Hut on Broadway / 5th Street.
You can see our San Diego photos here: San Diego Photo Album
San Diego to Santa Monica – 147 miles – 4.5 hours
Our next stop was Santa Monica in Los Angeles, we didn’t have a good experience when we stayed overnight in the Hollywood area on our last visit, so we’re looking forward to 2 nights on the coast this time at the Shangri-La hotel.
We drove out of San Diego following the coast through La Jolla and Torrey Pines on the historic 101, but the progress was slow with lots of traffic lights covering 22 miles in an hour. We joined the I-5 North San Diego Freeway until Dana Point where we exited for a coffee and driver change. We joined the Coast Highway up to Huntingdon Beach, then let the sat nav guide us to skirt around Los Angeles on the I-5 and I-10 to Santa Monica
Last time we visited LA we stayed in Hollywood, this time we’re on the coast in Santa Monica. We’re staying at the boutique hotel Shangri-La which is hidden away high on the Santa Monica bluff, overlooking the ocean and Santa Monica Pier. Our room 410 faces out to the ocean. Designed by Marc Smith (who famously conjured The Edison Lounge Downtown), the Onyx minimalist rooftop bar at our art deco hotel is a very popular place for a drink at sunset. Happy hour is 4-6.
After checking in, we walked down to Santa Monica Pier to find the end point of Route 66.
Later we went up to Onyx to watch the sunset on our first night, we met a local guy and a couple from Australia at our table and enjoyed the conversation as well as a cocktail. We finished the day with dinner at the Tumbi Craft Indian Restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. We liked the modern twist on the usual gastronomy offered, and had great service.
In the morning we browsed the local food market which was set up in the streets surrounding our hotel, there was some lovely organic options for fruit, vegetables, flowers and food products available from local farms and producers.
Next we rented bikes and cycled 30km including the Santa Monica 8.5 mile / 13.7km section of the Marvin Braude Bike Trail which starts at Will Rogers State Beach (Temescal Canyon) and ends at Venice (Washington Boulevard). The full path is 22 miles / 35 km long ending at Torrance County Beach, below a parking lot at the base of the Palos Verdes Peninsula hills. We stopped for lunch at Back On The Beach Cafe, we shared a Marion Davies salad (organic greens, cranberries, candied pecans, blue cheese, lemon vinaigrette) and fried shrimp tacos which were delicious served with a spicy pineapple salsa.
After a chilled afternoon back at the hotel, we stepped out for Happy Hour, this tends to be from 5-7pm although some start at 4pm and others end at 8pm. Lots of the bars and restaurants have special offers, we decided to try it tapas style with a drink and dish at each location. The first stop was at the Japanese pub called the Robata Bar, where they had a choice of 3 skewers cooked over their Bincho-Tan grill for $6 and a generous glass of Pinot Grigio for $5.
We walked up Santa Monica Boulevard to look for 2 other places recommended but couldn’t find Mercado and Wokando was closed. During our exploration of the area, we were on 3rd street which is a pedestrianised shopping area, when we noticed a guy drop his iPhone, we chased after him, but he denied it was his? Then we noticed the alarm on the phone, he’d nicked it from the Apple shop a few doors along! We returned it to a grateful security guard in the shop who had missed him ripping the iPhone X off the table closest to the exit.
Our second stop was Sake House by Hikari, happy hour was almost over so we ordered Beef Gyoza (potstickers), popcorn shrimp, a rice roll with filling of shrimp, cucumber and peanut butter, and a crab and avocado roll. Together with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc each, the bill was great value at $33.
In the morning we decided to have a relaxed morning and check out at 11am before driving along the coast to Santa Barbara. I was so glad we did, as we discovered Little Ruby and had a great breakfast. Their Avo Toast is amazing (it’s toast and a generous serving of avocado, served with radish, cherry tomatoes, chives, chili flakes, hemp seeds, lemon and olive oil) my favourite breakfast of our road trip, although my red, white and blue french toast in New York is a close second.
We really liked the downtown and waterfront area of Santa Monica, it’s got a great vibe and you can still access the attractions in Los Angeles from this location.
You can see our Santa Monica photos here: Santa Monica Album
Santa Monica to Santa Barbara – 87 miles – 3 hours
From Santa Monica we drove along Highway 1, stopping in Malibu to see some impressive beachfront properties. It was only a short drive of 87 miles to Santa Barbara (separate album), joining the US-101 N after Oxnard.
Santa Barbara is the American Riviera, centrally situated on the California coast, with a golden sand beach, Santa Ynez mountain backdrop and Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage.
It’s a haven for foodies with many excellent restaurants offering local produce as well as an urban wine trail with 20+ establishments offering tastings within walking distance of your hotel. We arrived early afternoon, and walked along State Street which is littered with beautiful buildings.
We found a cluster of 7 premier wineries in the Pesidio area (Spanish fortresses) along with high end restaurants.
Then we visited the Public Market with a small selection of indoor dining options and a wine & beer tasting shop. I was interested to see the Funk Zone which is an area of 10 blocks by the waterfront where converted warehouses are now an eclectic mix of wineries (15 of them), breweries, restaurants & shops. We dined at The Fishouse which was very busy and we were lucky to find a table free on their terrace overlooking the sea front. We ordered a selection of seafood including oysters, clam chowder, crab cakes, shrimp & scallops.
Finally as the sun was setting we walked out on the Stearns Wharf (pier) to watch the pelicans and sea lions feeding in the ocean below before nightfall.
It was a gorgeous sunrise, so I had a morning run out to the pier, along the beach to the harbour area, before breakfast.
Love, love, love Santa Barbara!! It’s got it all, beaches, mountains, wildlife, foodie heaven and shopping.
You can see our Santa Barbara photos here: Santa Barbara Album
Santa Barbara to Cambria – 191 miles – 4 hours
Our next drive was from Santa Barbara to visit Hearst Castle before an overnight stop in Cambria.
We left Santa Barbara via Las Palmas Drive through luxury cliff top properties, before joining the US-101 N for 99 miles.
We kept spotting bells at the side of the road, we discovered that they were part of El Camino Real, a historic road of 700 miles, that joined twenty one Franciscan Missions, Pueblos and Presidios in the early days of California. The route took us through vibrant green hills, vineyards and strawberry fields.
We didn’t spot any zebras grazing with the cows on the way up to visit Hearst Castle, we enjoyed our guided tour of this famous property, which was owned by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Architect Julia Morgan was hired to build a house at his ranch in San Simeon. This property named as La Cuesta Encantada took from 1919 to 1947 to build and remains an unfinished project now owned by the state.
We turned away from Cambia to drive 4 miles in the opposite direction when we left Hearst Castle, to see the Elephant Seals at the Piedras Blancas Rookery. There were plenty of female and juveniles to see, laid out on the beach below the viewing point. Ragged Point wasn’t too far away, so we drove up to where the 5 mile warning was given to the Highway 1 road closure due to the massive landslide by Gorda in May 2017. We stopped at a view point on the way back and spotted 3 whales feeding in the bay below us!
We stayed in a fabulous place called the Dolphin Inn, situated on Moonstone Beach in Cambria. After a paddle in the Pacific and a walk along the beach and boardwalk we dined at one of two restaurants within easy walking distance of our accommodation. We slept well to the sound of the Pacific waves breaking on the shore.
We’ve loaded the photos from this day into our general album for California. You can see the photos here: California Photo Album
Cambria to Exeter – 146 miles – 3.5 hours
We were leaving the coast behind us, partly as we had to skirt around the broken section of Highway 1 at the Big Sur to continue our route to San Francisco, and also because we had a date with the General Sherman found in the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park.
It was 146 miles to our overnight stop in Exeter, our route took us along Highway 46 E which had an abundance of vineyards lining both sides of the road. Whilst on the CA-198 and passing through fruit & cattle farms the drought conditions suffered since 2012 were apparent with billboards with messages such as “pray for rain” & “Is growing food a waste of water?” and we’d already noticed the dry river beds.
We passed Exeter and headed straight into the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, situated in the southern Sierra Nevada, east of the San Joaquin Valley. The entrance fee was $30 per vehicle for a 7 day pass. There were black bear warning notices, highlighting any active areas and advising visitors to store food and dispose of waste carefully so not to endanger the bears.
Luckily although the top of the mountains were still snow capped, the roads we wanted were open. Our destination was the Giant Forest as we climbed up the Generals Highway, twisting and turning our way to reach 6409 feet above sea level.
We walked around the tall trees trail around the meadow, which allowed us to appreciate the height and size of these giant Sequoia trees. We drove higher up the mountain to witness the largest living tree in the world, known as the General Sherman.
It took us 53 minutes to drive 15 miles back down through the park, you can’t rush this drive!
We drove back to check in at our hotel in Exeter, where we had a 2 night stay. The town was quite quaint with huge wall murals and a small selection of shops and restaurants. Unfortunately we timed our restaurant choices wrong in this location, thinking we could enjoy a Sunday brunch at Cafe Lafayette, we opted for Chinese food on the Saturday night. Sadly Cafe Lafayette was closed the following day, so we drove into Three Rivers for a walk by the water and a Mexican lunch on the Sunday.
The orange tree blossom fragrance is simply amazing throughout Lemoncove and Exeter, from the massive fruit farms situated in these areas.
We’ve loaded the photos from this day into our general album for California. You can see the photos here: California Photo Album
Exeter to Monterey – 248 miles – 5 hours
We were heading back to the coast via the CA-198 to pick up Highway 1 and an overnight in Monterey. Our good luck with the weather had broken, it was a cool 49°F and raining as we set off back up into the hills, although it didn’t last for too long, we seemed to dodge most of the showers.
We drove back along the coast as far as Bixby Bridge, we weren’t sure how much further the road was open along the Big Sur. We discovered that the ground squirrels at the viewing spots on Highway 1 were tempted to take pieces of our coconut macaroons out of our hands.
We stopped in Carmel by the Sea for lunch and drove the 17 mile drive in the afternoon. Some of the viewpoints were closed off as it’s the birthing season for seals in April, we did manage to spot some sea otters as well as a variety of birdlife around the route.
Our boutique hotel called the Monterey Bay Inn was a real treat, a spacious & luxurious room on the water front with sea view balcony.
We had a great fresh sea food evening meal at the Fish Hopper restaurant, our table was inside, but over the water and we enjoyed watching the sea lions, otters and birds activity before the sunset.
Monterey to San Francisco – 140 miles – 5.5 hours
Our last drive (other than to the airport) was from Monterey to San Francisco, and apart from a slight diversion to visit the Mystery Spot, we were following Highway 1 to the finish at the Golden Gate Bridge.
We had a laugh at the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, we all just looked so funny standing at odd angles and different heights. We came away thinking what a great optical illusion they had created to attract visitors, rather than anything more curious at play.
I enjoyed the drive along Highway 1, it’s a great coast road and with more time we’d have enjoyed stopping at some of the beaches at Davenport, Pescadero, Half Moon Bay & Pacifica however our sights were set on reaching the Golden Gate Bridge.
We hit traffic on the outskirts of San Francisco and nudged our way bumper to bumper closer to the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally we passed an accident which had caused the delay and before we knew it we were crossing the iconic art deco bridge. We parked at the Vista Point and joined the other tourists taking selfies with the bridge and San Francisco skyline behind us. To get a different perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge, we also drove up to Battery Spencer, where you can capture an image with the full span of the bridge and the cityscape behind.
After checking in to our hotel near Union Square and parking the car up for 2 nights, we took the bus down to have a walk around Fishermen’s Wharf and Pier 39 where the Californian sea lions are the main attraction. That evening we dined at the Cheesecake Factory on the 7th floor of Macy’s in Union Square.
On our full day exploring we bought a day pass for the local MUNI transport which included the cable cars, street cars, buses and metro and cost $22 each. We started with a cable car ride on the scenic route from Union Square to Fishermen’s Wharf. Then we picked up a Historic Streetcar to the Ferry Building & Marketplace. There was a good choice of foodie places in this location, and we enjoyed lunch at the Hog Island Oyster Bar, with a selection of oysters and fish sliders. In the afternoon we decided to take a Muni bus out to the rainbow coloured Castro District which is popular with the LGBT visitors and residents. We took the Metro back, even the escalator is rainbow illuminated for the Castro station. We were planning to dine out in Chinatown for our last evening but struggled to find a menu suitable for our veggie friends, so we went with plan B, and enjoyed Indian cuisine at Urban Curry on Broadway.
In the morning we had time for a last wander around Union Square before we checked out of our hotel and collected our car. We had a drive around Silicon Valley to see the Facebook & Google locations before calling into the Apple Visitor Centre.
You can see our San Francisco photos here: San Francisco Photo Album
That’s it, our time was up, the last stop was calling, we were due to drop off our Chevrolet Suburban with 6697 more miles on the clock than when we had picked it up in New York.
It’s been an epic trip!
California is just so cool. It’s also huge and really varies. We spent most of our time on the coast, and the difference between Sand Diego, Monterey and Los Angeles is amazing – they could be in totally different countries.
Santa Barbara and Santa Monica are really upmarket places and feel like “old money.” Monterey was stunning and the time of the great canneries there, talked about by Steinbeck, was really brought to life for me by the wealth of information around the town.
Los Angeles is so vast and hectic. This was my third visit, and I’ve always wanted to love LA, but somehow I can’t. It just feels like a massive urban sprawl, and I’ve never been able to connect with local people there.
San Francisco is much friendlier, smaller and easier to get around, but there are too many crazy people there. I’ve never known a place with so many apparently homeless folk, shouting at the sky and world in general. I didn’t ever feel unsafe, but it was very weird.
Silicon Valley was a disappointment. In my naivety, I kind of expected to be wowed by my heroes at Google, Tesla, Facebook etc, but of course, they’re busy doing what they do, and driving past nondescript office buildings, even when the road is called “Hacker Drive” isn’t very interesting. Even Apple wasn’t they exciting – you can’t really see the famous “spaceship” building because of the trees, and the on-site visitor centre isn’t that different from any Apple store around the world.
Finally, on California, let’s talk about food. Oh my goodness, it was amazing! We love sea food, and we consistently had world class sea food all over the state. I’d go back tomorrow, just to eat!
So that was the end of our trip to America for 2018. We’re already planning the next one!