When a shop’s street sign blows over in downtown L.A., it’s only natural to mistake it for a gun shot. Fortunately for us, Californians quite like the Welsh. However, in planning our road trip along Highway One, being liked by our transatlantic cousins wasn’t, strangely enough, one of my primary concerns. Like many Brits brought up on over-the-top American movies, guns were…well, those and carjackings.
Fortunately, unlike the innocent bystanders in one of my favourite 90’s Hollywood Blockbusters, Point Break, my wife and I didn’t get caught up in any cross-town shootouts during our road trip across America’s Golden State. What we did get to do, however, was to see some fantastic natural beauty, meet interesting and comical local characters, and go ‘Big’ before going home.
Starting the Journey Through Monterey
American’s a fascinating country, though doesn’t always live up to the glossy (sometimes gritty) hype. Take Monterey for example. Touted as a ‘must see’ – it’s beautiful, has the world’s best aquarium and possesses the famous canneries of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Yet sadly, we were disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the coast was stunning: seals lolloped on the rocks and the sea stretched out and shimmered like a joyous tear in God’s glorious eye. The town centre and Cannery Row itself, however, left us cold. Sauntering along, it was as if they’d imported a sample of Blackpool’s seaside tackiness, and even now I can remember the tourist trinket stores metaphorically reaching into my pockets with their corporate, money-wheedling fingers. As for Monterey’s town centre, again, nothing to write home about. Instead, the shops were few and unimaginative, whilst tackiness seemed to be a running theme.
Luckily, the nearby neighbourhood of Pacific Grove mitigated such disappointment. A quaint and hilly town, it felt far more authentic and real. With wide streets and wooden houses of different colours, shapes and sizes, it reminded me of the 1950’s America I had seen on T.V. as a kid. Walking round looking for the house of the man (Don) who’d kindly lent us his free-entry pass to the aquarium, we also got to meet a pub owner from Caerphilly. Unsurprisingly, he recognised a Welsh man when he heard one!
To San Fran with Love
Not known for its history, America lacks what Europe possesses in abundance. San Francisco, however, is one of its exceptions. First of all it’s big, very big, especially to someone from the modestly-boundaried city of Cardiff. Staying in an Air BNB just outside in Oakland for the sake of expense, my wife and I travelled into ‘the city’ each day via the Bart (a rapid transit public transportation system) despite the long trudge back at the end of an evening.
The Bay Area, of course, was the obvious attraction, and visiting Alcatraz was a must. Approximately 1.25 miles from the mainland, the notorious ex-penitentiary is one of the few attractions that can be considered an essential component of American history. Once the reluctant home of Al Capone, the place is rather intriguing…and dare I say, beautiful. Now a sanctuary for seabirds, volunteers help keep the island in top condition as its flower gardens clearly testify. The metal bars, criminal mugshots and papier-mâché heads in the prison beds, however, also help keep both the prison and the eerie mystery of the infamous escape plan and its disputed success, alive. Still, Clint Eastwood really didn’t have anything to do with it!
Without the need of a rock hammer or a huge poster of Rita Hayworth, we soon put Alcatraz behind us and made a trip across The Golden Gate Bridge. Dedicating a full day to it, my wife and I competed with forceful winds and followed the jumble of Lycra-clad tourists as we cycled our way over the iconic structure and down to Sausalito where we later returned by ferry. Being atop the bridge was particularly magical, and my wife, moved by the fantastic views and the thrill of it all, shed a few tears to mark the occasion. As for myself, it was the wind in my eye. Honest.
Letting those pivotal experiences permeate both mind and spirit, we dedicated the rest of our time to some of the city’s more eclectic and less touristy neighbourhoods such as North Beach’s Italian Quarter, Haight Street and the famous China Town. As is often the case, the best parts of a city are indeed those too far out for the camera-frenzied day-trippers and visiting Instagram enthusiasts. With old-school record stores, hipster cafes, ale houses and authentic immigrant restaurants, we soaked up what perhaps could be considered the true spirit of San Francisco before picking up our hire car a few days later to make our way down the coast. Taking a wrong turn down a one way street, we gave ourselves a talking to and then set off, stopping at Santa Cruz along the way.
Santa Cruz Sensations
Now, if you remember the 1980’s movie, Lost Boys, you’ll discover it was filmed in Santa Cruz. In fact, the fun fair scenes are set along its famous Boardwalk. Again, armed with a nostalgia for places I’d only seen in movies, I’m sorry to say I was again disappointed. The boardwalk was no more glamourous than the funfairs of South Wales’ Barry Island or Porthcawl. And true to form, parts of it was garish and tacky just like Monterey’s Cannery Row. Where then, we wondered, could we find a beach and seaside town to live up to our expectations.
Ah, that’s right, Santa Monica! The bee’s eclectic knees. King of cool. The heir of Laissez-Faire. Santa Monica. Home of Baywatch, at last my childhood nostalgia was finally rewarded.
Gritty, dirty and weird – we loved it! Hanging about watching skateboarders, have-a-go roller-skate disco heroes and street entertainers, the place oozed the radical kind of freedom we were seeking. Free to be oneself, if everyone is weird, no one really is. The place was refreshing, life-affirmingly so. A band made up of young family members rocked out on the pier, and I remember having my picture taken next to one of the lifeguard stations on the beach in memory of David Hasselhoff’s character, Mitch Buchannon. I’d arrived. This was the America I’d been looking for!
Los Angeles Downtown
With regards to Downtown L.A., it was too big – as we expected. Therefore, a careful process of deduction was needed. Furthermore, we just didn’t have the time. In fact, our L.A. stop was our shortest, factored in primarily for exploring Santa Monica. That being said, we couldn’t forgo some investigation.
Having discovered a recipe for ‘The Fairfax’ egg and cheese sandwich on Youtube, the American chain, Eggslut, was brought crudely to our attention. And since the sandwich is so frickin’ mind-blowing, we had to pay it a visit in The Central Food Market. An American version of many city’s indoor markets, the majority of food stalls gave a neon-sign holla in a bid to attract the epicurean’s attention. And fair to say, it worked. Sampling a few delights, we then visited The Last Bookstore (a cool, earthy bookstore selling books) before going on to explore Melrose and Echo Park.
Big Sur’s Big Draw
Now, as I said earlier, I wanted to go ‘Big’. And what could be bigger than Big Sur? One of the U.S.’s most iconic landmarks, Big Sur is where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise sharply out of the Pacific Ocean. A stunning stretch of coastline, it’s what road trippin’ is all about! With incredible views, I couldn’t help but equate myself to Ant-Man riding bare-back on the enormous shark-like creature that is The Meg. Such was my position upon the coast’s rocky shoulder, the ocean’s vastness reducing me to a crumb of dust in comparison. Cruising over another iconic landmark that is Bixby Bridge, we then wound our way down to the reputed Nepenthe for a burger amongst the trees before checking out the secluded Pfeiffer Beach. Having to pay to enter, and too windy to really enjoy, the latter also felt a little over-rated. Still, the drive was worth it.
A Relaxed Vibe in San Diego
Finally, we arrived to spend our last days in San Diego. For us, San Diego felt like the most ordered city. Not too big, it had everything – shops, restaurants, bars, a baseball stadium and a waterfront. Furthermore, it felt clean, safe and relaxed. One of our highlights was visiting The Shout House, featuring duelling pianists. Laying down a song request atop one of the pianos, along with a few dollars, the musicians picked them out at random. Like a human jukebox, the two guys seemed to know every song ever written, and injecting their own personality, played them with gusto, trying to outdo one another with a few laughs and some audience participation along the way.
In another reminiscence connected to a piano, we visited the famous piano scene from Top Gun, filmed at the Kansas City Barbeque. Sitting at the bar drinking our beers, I could almost swear I heard Goose and Maverick howling the classic song in the corner whilst we scanned the place looking for every possible reference to the movie, which were aplenty. A little rough and ready, it was good to see that whilst capitalising on the movie’s success, they hadn’t dressed the barman up in a pilot’s uniform and demanded that he shout, ‘I feel the need, the need for speed!’ at everyone who entered its doors. After all, Iceman would never have approved.
In conclusion, after 500 plus miles, several hours of driving and many towns, villages and cities visited, American was fun. And don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed. Maybe it was the pressure of fitting everything in within my two weeks off work that took the chocolatey milk taste out of my Coca Pops. Whilst California is definitely worth a visit, I strongly suggest you do your research, take your time out there, and don’t fall for every ‘must-see’ attraction touted on Youtube and other promotional mediums. The real gems of travelling are often discovered where you least expect them!
Have you ever taken an American-style road trip? Have you visited California?