California, 29 July to 7th August 2012.

We flew into Los Angeles from Chicago and, quite efficiently, made it from the airport to the Avis office to collect the car, only to have to queue forever; sigh. Then the ‘Medium – Premium’ car turned out to be the reason the US car industry almost died: a Ford Crown Victoria, a relic from the 1960s, partially upgraded into the 1980s and then allowed to lumber on like some dinosaur. After a while I nicknamed it the BOAT due it’s oil tanker like steering and size. Still, all part of the great American experience, eh?  We stopped off in La Brea to buy a window mount for my phone so we could use the rather good SYGIC satnav system, or as Ann puts it, the totally crap SYGIC satnav system, take your pick.

We didn’t want to get too bogged down in LA but we had to see Hollywood, and boy is it a freaking dive? The guidebooks say it is in a process of redevelopment and renewal, I can only assume it used to have dead junkies and hookers lying in sewerage on the streets before they started. We saw the sign and left as quickly as the BOAT would let us, north to Santa Barbara. This is a lovely town, carefully controlled by building and planning codes to be a low rise, Spanish Mission style town of bohemian seasideness with a touch of pier, pelicans and some young folk skateboarding and enjoying the summer. Loved it and the delightful Holiday Inn Express, ate at Joe’s café and had the best blueberry pie EVAH, before we had to steer ourselves up the US 101 and onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

Santa Barbara CA USA

Let Ann take up the tale: “Late afternoon went to Hearst Castle, the former home of William Randolph Hearst. If we thought Boldt Castle was worth seeing, this was in a totally different league. It's a 6-mile coach trip up the drive to the place that sits atop a mountain. UNbeLIEVEable. Three times the breath was knocked out of me as I entered a room. The 50-seat cinema was probably the most awesome of all. The whole place is stuffed full of priceless antiques and was frequented by Hollywood stars; Charlie Chaplin; Winston Churchill; to drop but a few names. It, like Boldt, remains unfinished, but only because he and his architect would never have tired of continuing to build it. You'd give your eyeteeth just for one of the guesthouses in the grounds. The cost estimate, at today's value, is something like $400,000,000.

Hearst Castle CA USA


We spent last night at the Inn at Morro Bay in the deep fog that bedevils the Central Coast region of California in the summer. Our room was literally on the edge of the ocean but we couldn’t see a thing. After a wonderful dinner, we woke this morning to dozens of seals frolicking just in front of our window. We had a great day, driving the PCH. Totally unbelievable scenery, quite breathtaking. Early on we were thwarted by the sea fog, but as it burned off it was "wow", in spades.


We stopped off and saw a beach full of elephant seals. The whole thing was just spectacular and we had many great stops including one at the wonderfully typical Pfeiffer Beach. Then we stayed in (another) great Holiday Inn Express at Monterey. Tom had a sauna, I did the laundry and ironing…”

We then made a long, smooth drive across the Central Valley, passing endless farms and places like 'Castroville, artichoke Capital of the world‘ (really!) and Gilroy, Garlic Capital of the World’ (stinky as hell!) and bought and ate loads of huge, delicious cherries and strawberries before reaching the foothills of the High Sierras at Ahwahnee, and the Natures’ Inn B&B, a very sturdy log cabin in the woods. A nice hot tub and sleep later we set off into Yosemite. Back to Ann: Bloody great day in Yosemite. Redwoods fascinating at Mariposa Grove although oddly not quite as big as we’d expected (go figure). Glacier point awesome but terrifying for Tom and his vertigo. Yosemite Valley and Touolumne Meadows fascinating and beautiful – at elevations far greater than little old Mount Washington! After a particularly scary run down a steep sided valley, we eventually got into June Lake on the other side, with Tom soon in bed with full-blown migraine from the stress! I had done most of driving, while he just panicked about going over the edge. Then he drove the last bit, downhill, on the widest roads of the day and totally freaked out! Big girl's blouse!”

Yosemite CA USA
The motel at June Lake was a total shit-tip and if it hadn't been for a) the migraine and b) the fact we'd pre-paid, we would almost certainly have bailed. Next day, we visited Mono Lake, a truly silent and fascinating alkaline saline lake with a very simple chemistry and ecosystem that supports hundreds of thousands of California and international birds. The lake has been systematically allowed to evaporate away since 1941, due to the demands of Los Angeles for water diverting the streams that supply it This had been gradually destroying the ecosystem and putting at risk vast numbers of wildlife. An agreement was reached in the 90s to restore the levels to a mid way point, and the lake is slowly recovering. It’s an eerie, silent and strange place with calcium carbonate tufas that rise out of the lake; brine shrimp and swarms of alkali flies that number millions. Ann and I were quite touched by the silence and strangeness.

Mono Lake, CA, USA


We then stayed at the Silver Maple Inn, in Bridgeport, a place where almost everyone was a fisherman and no-one was from there, even the staff. It’s some 7000 feet high, and it clearly has fierce winters. The Inn was a very well turned out motel, sadly with crap Wi-Fi. Our tour of US pie cuisine continued, but none matched the blueberry at Santa Barbara.

Then, next day, a hard drive north to Lake Tahoe, avoiding the 11,500 feet pass we’d originally planned (for Tom’s nerves), and stopped for lunch at Lake Tahoe with all the holidaymakers, right on the Nevada/ California border. It was a continuous downhill drive, riding the brakes for ever, as we went from about 8000 feet back to sea level.  By evening we were in a nice corner suite,  looking up at Nob Hill, in the City by the Bay.

San Francisco CA USA

Ann says: “Cable car museum was good. Went to Fisherman's wharf, hanging off a cable car, then afterwards took a streetcar to Castro – the 'gaybourhood'. Men walking around stark bollock naked! Was desperate to take a photo, but too scared to ask! Other than Castro, which I thought was great, I can't say I have taken to SF very much. Alcatraz tomorrow though.”

“Enjoyed 'The Rock' today. Quite thought-provoking/ emotional, but a great day out. We were very lucky travellers again with the weather – no fog at all today. Needed the jacket though – bloody windy on there! “

“Am now thoroughly sick of 'The City' though; would not want to come back here. It's too difficult to get about for a start. Walking anywhere is a nightmare ‘cos of all the hills; there's plenty of public transport, which we have used extensively – cable cars, streetcars and buses – but it's all so SLOW, not to mention crowded as hell. The people are either very abrupt, or down right rude, depending on your point of view. Fisherman's wharf is OK for a bit, but it's so crowded all the time. It reminds me of Blackpool but without the fun bits.“

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