Santa Monica, CA / Las Vegas, NV – Tuesday 22 October
Pacific Coast Highway, Day 4 – Santa Barbara to LA
And so my PCH drive finished up on the beach in Santa Monica. The final stretch of the PCH didn’t measure up to Carmel->SLO, but it was mostly costal and mostly very pretty. Malibu is now a place to me, not just a name on a drinks bottle, and I’ve visited the Santa Monica Pier (and a pizza joint just behind it).
Since I’m dropping the rental car off at LAX anyway, I decided to fly over to Las Vegas for 48 hours before returning to spend time in LA. The 45 minutes it took for me to drive eight miles from the beach to the airport rather cemented in my mind the decision I’ve made to do without a car during my time in LA. Yes, the car is king here, but they have the bones of a light rail system – plus, factoring in the cost of parking, car rental and gas, I can afford a few Ubers and not have to worry about drinking beer with my lunch.
Incidentally, based on a sample of three, all bartenders in the USA think I’m under 21*, and only two thirds of them are willing to accept a UK driving licence as proof of age. If in doubt, carry your passport around (or take a break from the sauce).
I flew Southwest Airlines over to Vegas, and today finished up in my hotel (the Golden Nugget Casino) just after 10pm.
*The author was 31 years old in 2019, but will admit he looks quite boyish when clean-shaven.
Pacific Coast Highway, Day 3 – SLO to Santa Barbara
I’m definitely in southern California now – the weather is noticeably hotter and the sun brighter, so it’s sun cream and shades all the way.
Today’s chunk of the PCH was a little less on the costal or picturesque side, so I drove it a bit faster and with fewer stops, and spent more time in Santa Barbara. There’s a pier with ice cream, and it also sold me a few post cards.
Today’s drive was the most stunning section of the PCH for me – the road was right next to the water most of the way down, and this section includes Big Sur (which is a river, not a mountain as I’d always vaguely assumed).
Being a Sunday, the journey was not without traffic (at one vista point, it seemed like every other car in California besides mine was a convertible Mustang) – but still good fun.
My hotel in SLO was somewhat out of town, and the combination of heat and long drive meant I was content to have a burrito next door and collapse into it rather than going exploring.
Once again, I left SF early to beat the traffic. The only downside to this was that it takes a surprising amount of the morning for the fog to burn off and the sun to hit the Pacific. Once it does, though, you start to see why people rave about the scenery on the PCH.
I’m driving rental car 2.0, a Chevrolet Impala – this is a bit bigger than the Nissan and has a beefier engine, which makes it take off much better from a standing start, and cruise more smoothly.
Today’s 123 mile drive ended in Carmel, which is a classy seaside town with lots of nice restaurants. I lingered sufficiently long in mine that I ended up driving in the USA in the dark for the first time, but I made it two miles back to my hotel without any problems. And Rusty the dog was waiting to say hello.
Angel Island is, funnly enough, an island – in the middle of San Francisco Bay. You get there on a ferry, which gives you some nice views, and then you can walk round the perimiter (about five miles) and have lunch at the cafe.
Well, that’s what I did today, and it was good fun. There was a suggestion that the local wildlife had its eye on my lunch, but he didn’t act on his thoughts, and I made it back in time for an early dinner. Tomorrow sees the start of my drive down the PCH, which I plan to get an early start on so I can get out of SF before the traffic builds up.
And so back to San Francisco. With Fleet Week over, hotel rooms are somewhat less overpriced (and fighter jets are no longer making a lot of noise overhead), and I’ve found a nice spot in downtown (the Hotel Fusion). They even have Magners in the bar, which is nice, as “hard cider” is relatively rare over here. I’ve been on beer for the past week (although not much of it, since I’ve been driving most days).
I spent today at the California Academy of Sciences, which is a fairly substantial natural history museum and includes an aquarium, some penguins, and a “living roof”.
As it turns out, the cost of parking in downtown SF is sufficiently tedious that I’ve returned my rental car early, and found a deal with Budget which means I (a) come out ahead on the money and (b) have something with a bigger engine lined up for my Pacific Coast Highway trip, starting Saturday. The lack of grunt in the Nissan was really starting to annoy me, and it will be fun to drive something actually made in the USA.
The back of my metaphorical napkin for the PCH trip reads as follows:
Leg 1 = SF to Carmel-by-the-Sea, 123 miles
Leg 2 = Carmel-by-the-Sea to SLO, 132 miles
Leg 3 = SLO to Santa Barbara, 115 miles
Leg 4 = Santa Barbara to LAX, 94 miles (stop in Malibu, Santa Monica)
Drove down from Auburn to Sonoma today. According to the Lonely Planet guide to California, if you only have time to visit one of the two “wine country” valleys in this area (Napa and Sonoma), this is the one.
I attended a wine tasting and was sufficiently impressed to be talked into buying a couple of rather expensive bottles. Here’s hoping I get them back to the UK intact – they’ll need to wait for a special occasion, but I can see why this area is famed for producing some of the best wine in the world (and I certainly drove past enough vineyards this week).
I’m staying at the charmingly retro El Pueblo Inn, which is a motel, but very classy with a pool and some nice gardens in the middle. The packet loss on the WiFi (50%) is bad enough that you won’t see this post until a day later, but other than that it’s very decent (good breakfast, too).
Taking today as somewhat of a rest day, as my cold peaks – I’m glad I sprung the extra for the Holiday Inn rather than Motel 6; it’s done up to a very nice standard. In the afternoon, I walked downtown to visit the museum and learn about the gold rush. Apparently, the contents of the display case pictured above are worth a cool $400,000 – given the armed guards on the entrance, I decided to leave them where they were.
My original plan was to head up to the Lassen Volcanic National Park, but I’ve decided that a round trip of ~400 miles on the freeway is a bit too far and too boring to drive on my own. So instead, I’m heading back to SF via wine country tomorrow.
Update: Max’s, the restaurant attached to this place, is rather nice. We are, after all, just outside Scaramento, “America’s farm-to-fork capital”. I doubt California was 100% responsible for the pasta I had tonight, but yesterday’s burger I can believe was 100% local. It was certainly delicious.
Awoke in my tent cabin this morning with all the symptoms of a cold in the nose. Bother. This isn’t a huge surprise – I’ve sensed for the past week that my immune system is reacting to my month off work in a similar – but more drawn-out – manner to how it usually fights off a cold until the weekend and then has me better again by Monday morning.
I’m heading north to Auburn (chosen from the guidebook as a convenient and alphabetically-first spot to spend the next couple of days en route to other parts of the state). Along the way, I stopped off in a layby (which, unlike Yosemite itself, has good 4G coverage), and enjoyed the view while booking the next couple of nights’ accommodation.
Went for a walk around the perimiter of Yosemite Valley today, including seeing the falls (largely dormant at this time of the year), and some more spectacular granite mountain scenery. It’s the end of the season here, but still pleasantly warm once the sun comes up.
As you might expect, Internet is somewhat hard to come by up here (you’ll see this post when I’ve moved on somewhere else) – it’s just about possible to get an e-mail in or out, but the WiFi isn’t up to anything else – given the large number of people here and the distinctly satelite-looking uplink, not a huge surprise. It makes me nostalgic for the visits to my grandparents a decade ago, at which point they had no internet access and I didn’t have a smartphone. Being cut off can sometimes be for the best!
A tip to any fellow Monzo users – their cards rely on “online authorization”, so don’t be too surprised if they fail to work in a setting like this, where the card machines may not have a reliable link to “the other end”. Most other cards will work (and in fairness, I only experienced the problem once: they clearly reserve a slice of the available bandwidth for card machines).
A tip for anyone driving in the USA: unlike in the UK, where you fill up with petrol and then pay for what you used, over here, you have to buy a specific amount of petrol (in dollars, not gallons) before filling the car up. And hope/ask for a refund if you guess wrong. Fortunately, once you know this is the case, it’s not hard to Google for the capacity of your car’s tank and do some dead reckoning.