Tag Archives: California

Pacific Coast Highway

PCHThe Pacific Coast Highway (PCH in short) is one of the world’s most scenic roads, if not the most scenic one. As the name suggest it hugs the Pacific Coast, often perched on top of the very steep ledges.

It runs from the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico all the way to the top of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, but the most scenic, and famous, part stretches between Morro Bay in the south and Carmel in the north (both in California).

My first encounter with this fabulous road was in 2004 when with a few of my mates we toured the west coast after spending summer working in California. It was great trip and we were absolutely gobsmacked by the PCH. Back then we drove all the stretch from Los Angeles to the Olympic Peninsula but our time was quite limited and we wanted to see a lot of places so we were really rushing along. The other big downside of that trip was the fact that I couldn’t yet drive myself. So, even back then, I made a strong commitment to head back that way and drive the road myself.Wild Californian Coast

Over the years of my travels to the USA I did manage to drive some sections of the PCH in Oregon (which are almost equally stunning) but it wasn’t until my latest trip that I got opportunity to drive the most scenic bit of it, along the central Californian coast.

MalibuHere the PCH is officially designated as California State Route 1. We joined it on a sunny Saturday afternoon, right next to the pier in Santa Monica, and headed north. Initially the road is far from perfect. It is a busy urban thoroughfare joining Santa Monica with Malibu and communities further along the coast. By the way, I don’t really get the whole fascination with Malibu. I found it a rather weird collection of oversized ramshackle bungalows of, mostly, no architectural quality whatsoever, squeezed between the beach and noisy highway chock full of traffic. Honestly I don’t get why you would live there if you were a millionaire and could afford a house almost anywhere. Well, I guess no one said that the rich and famous must be particularly clever.

After Malibu, in Oxnard, the California Route 1 joins the US Hwy 101 and for a while becomes a busy urban freeway connecting LA with Santa Barbara. Only further north it gets less busy and more scenic again. We wanted to spend a night somewhere in the vicinity of Santa Barbara but all the motels we checked were full so we had no choice but to push along. We finally managed to find a room in a small city of Buellton located 45 miles from Santa Barbara. And even there we only found a dated room in a seedy motel, one of those establishments where the majority of customers are weird locals living there long term. Well, I guess beggars can’t be choosers, so we took the room.

The next day we continued along the PCH. California State Route 1 diverges from the US Hwy 101 in San Luis Obispo and gets seriously scenic after Morro Bay. From now on, for about 120 miles, the road becomes a driver’s nirvana. I just can’t describe how much fun it is to drive it. Every curve and every bend opens a new panorama. Add spectacular bridges built in 1920s and 30s (for example the Bixby Bridge), add remote tiny communities (Cambia, Gorda), ocean breeze and mist, glorious sunset and you might, just might, get the image how fantastic this stretch of highway is. It was definitely worth revisiting this part of California.Bixby Bridge

For the whole day we drove, and drove, stopping often and taking plenty of photos. It is one of those places where it is hard to stop taking photos, especially for me as I’m mildly obsessed with taking pictures. Still, it is a challenging highway, with plenty of bends and even more excited and distracted tourists driving along it. I really recommend concentrating on the driving. Don’t drive and take pictures at the same time (as I tend to do from time to time).

As I already mentioned, the PCH is full of tourists driving it, many of them in rented pony cars like Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger or, like us, Chevrolet Camaro. These are perfect machines for this road and (more importantly for some I guess) they look damn good in photos. You can see many people taking selfies with their cars. Silly? Maybe, but come on, it is a damn fun. You must be a really sad or snobbish individual to blame them for that.Big Sur Coast

After watching spectacular sunset somewhere near Bixby Bridge we spend a night on the outskirts of Monterey. It was our last night in the US as we were flying back to London the following day. Luckily our flight was in the evening so we could continue along the Route 1 rather than take the fast way to the airport via freeways. Things got busy and populated for a while but after passing Santa Cruz the PCH becomes wild again. In fact it is not much less scenic here than along the Big Sur coast. You would never guess than the famous Silicon Valley, with all the technology giants’ headquarters, is just beyond the hills and that you can rich San Francisco in a bit over a half an hour. It simply feels miles away from civilization yet it is easier to reach than, let say, Morden in London. In places like that it is easy to understand people’s fascination with California.

I would gladly continue further north but London was calling, so we turned inland. On the way to the airport we briefly stopped on top of the 281m high Twin Peaks which offer an amazing panorama of whole San Francisco. That was a perfect farewell to the Golden State.

But, as one of its famous residents says, I’ll be back.

LA and SoCal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALos Angeles, together with New York, is one of the most famous American cities. However, they are so different that sometimes it is hard to believe that they are located in the same country.

Now, everyone loves NYC, but feelings towards LA are much more complicated. Plenty of people totally dismiss it as an attractive place. They only see ageing freeways chock-full of traffic, a sea of suburbs without anything interesting to see or do, smog, gangs and silicon people. All this is, at least partially, true but there is so much more to this huge and complex metropolis. In fact, I would argue that it is difficult to understand modern America without a visit to LA. It is here where many trends were, and still are, created and where American culture is constantly transformed. It is definitely a place worth visiting.

Having said that, I have to admit that all my visits there were on a way to, or from, somewhere else as it is simply one of the best places to start a tour of the west coast. Flights to LA are cheaper than to anywhere else on the west coast and car rental is often dirt cheap. But I never regretted stopping by in LA.

My first visit there was a brief but eye-opening one. I was on my way to a summer camp in Sierra Nevada where I was about to spend the whole summer. I flew to LAX (probably the only airport in the world known more by its IATA code rather than name) and then had to catch the Greyhound bus to Fresno. But I didn’t know that the coach station in LA is located in a not-so-nice neighbourhood. Additionally, because of some mess-up, I had to wait until the following morning before getting my bus. I quickly realized that staying at the station wasn’t the best option. It was full of homeless and really dodgy characters and outside the station the situation was even worse (burning bins and crashed shopping trolleys anyone?). On the notice board inside the station I found the number to a nearby hotel where I finally ended up. It was probably the strangest place I have ever slept in. I was served by a Sikh receptionist hiding behind bulletproof glass and who asked me for a fingerprint along with my passport. The whole place was full of pimps, prostitutes and god knows who else, definitely not the sort of people with whom you strike up casual conversation by asking what their profession is. Anyway, my room was OK and the view was actually quite nice as the hotel was located just outside the downtown LA.

My next visit a few months later couldn’t have been more different. With my friends we strolled along Hollywood Boulevard looking at stars of the Walk of Fame, drove past the mansions of Beverly Hills and generally enjoyed the better side of Los Angeles.

But it was during yet another visit when I ended up in probably the best part of this metropolis, its coastal communities. I stayed in a small independent hostel in Venice, located just a few minutes from the ocean. It is here where you can experience the archetypical southern California lifestyle. There isn’t really any single attraction to recommend, it is more about soaking up the atmosphere, preferably while strolling the Venice Beach boardwalk along the famous Muscle Beach (where Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train) all the way to Santa Monica and its historic pier. People-watching is the prime activity here, and it is fascinating. Attractive lifeguards, old people playing chess, skateboarding teenagers, surfers, hippies, you name it, they are all there.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

LA is so huge that it is difficult to realize where it really ends. The city itself is home to about 3.7 million people but the whole metropolitan area approaches 18 million people living in more than two dozen independent communities covering vast areas of deserts and mountains. Again, the most attractive communities are, like in the city of Los Angeles itself, located on the coast. Among them is the energetic Huntington Beach (a real surfer’s paradise) and pleasant Newport Beach. Inland LA is dominated by sprawling residential suburbs and towns.Huntington Beach

Here I have to mention that renting a car is absolutely essential in LA. Yes, technically there is public transport but, let’s be honest, it is rather skeletal and not really useful. A car will give you independence but you’d better be an assertive sort of driver as Angelenos become absolutely crazy once behind a wheel. They ignore most of the rules, especially the speed limits, and they seem to think that indicators are there purely for decoration. The LA freeways are legendary. The first thing you notice is how vast they are, often 12-16 lanes wide with 5-level junctions here and there. The second thing you notice is that there are only two ways of driving on them; stuck in a slow moving (or not moving at all) traffic jam for hours or dodging fast driving cars, most of them trying to take you out. The first option is safe; the second will take you from A to B quickly.

Outside LA Southern California is a land of contrasts. South along the coast, all the way to San Diego, there is string of small and large beach communities. The best way of enjoying them is a lazy drive (preferably in a convertible) along the coastal highway, stopping here and there whenever you feel like. The weather is usually perfect but beware that traffic can often be maniac.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the other hand just a few miles north of Los Angeles are located San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. Reaching 3000 and 3500 metres respectively, these are wild and rugged areas offering great hiking or skiing. Because they are heavily forested they look more like Oregon than stereotypical California. In the mountains are located small resort towns where LA folks escape the heat of the summer or go to enjoy the winter sports. One of them is tiny Twin Peaks where we drove once with my friends because one of them was a huge fan of the famous TV series. Unfortunately, after asking locals, we learnt that the show wasn’t located or shot there (apparently we weren’t the only ones asking). However, driving up there was fun as the road from San Bernardino was very scenic, rising a crazy 1700 metres in about 15 miles.

But my favourite parts of SoCal are its deserts. One of the best places to experience the desert environment is Joshua Tree National Park. Located just 2,5 hours east of downtown LA it is easy to reach, yet far enough to escape the crowds. My visit there was actually quite accidental. In 2009 I did a big tour of the western US. Towards the end of it I was planning to stay for a few days in San Francisco but after just a few hours I got tired of crowds. So, I opened my old trusted atlas and looked for something interesting and wild, but not far from LA, where I had to catch my return flight.

And that’s how I ended up in Joshua Tree NP, an amazing and very varied park the name of which comes from the alien-looking plant, Yucca brevifolia.Joshua Tree NP

During my visit, in early June, the park was virtually empty. It is one of a few places in the US where the high season actually comes in winter as summers are simply too hot. I pitched my tent at one of the best landscaped campgrounds I have ever seen. Tent sites were nicely spread between the rocks and boulders to avoid any feeling of being crowded, but it wasn’t an issue as I was one of only two or three people there. The landscape of the park is simply breathtaking. In addition to Joshua tree forests, the western part of the park includes some of the most interesting geological displays found in California’s deserts. The dominant geological features of this landscape are hills of bare rock, usually broken up into loose boulders. The flatland between the hills is sparsely forested with Joshua trees. Together with the boulder piles and Skull Rock, the trees make the landscape otherworldly. The only palm native to California, the California Fan Palm, occurs naturally in five oases in the park, which are perfect destination for a hike. But due to the oppressive heat it was possible to hike only late in the afternoon and around sunset. During the mid day I was hiding in the air-conditioned malls of Palm Springs which is located just outside the park. One more thing I simply have to mention is an absolutely amazing night sky, so full of stars that it is impossible to describe.

Joshua TreeI really had a great if unexpected time in Joshua Tree.

In general the word “unexpected” is one of the best to describe SoCal. Yes, you will find there such icons as Hollywood, Disneyland, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica but also plenty of hidden and unknown gems, a multi-ethnic population and great cuisine (of course there is still plenty of junk food available). Most importantly, there are many ways of having fun out there. Surfing, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, beach-going, cruising along the coast in a convertible, shopping, those are only a few ways of experiencing the legendary SoCal lifestyle.

Also, a visit to southern California always gives me a sense of deja-vu. Everything seems familiar as the region is the setting for countless movies and dramas. For me this is a big attraction: the possibility of finding all those places I have already seen on screen. For example a simple drive across the Vincent Thomas Bridge (yes I now, I’m writing about yet another bridge) in LA harbour brings back memories of Nicolas Cage in “Gone in 60 seconds”. I love this feeling.

I might prefer some of the other parts of the US myself but it doesn’t change the fact that SoCal is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. And absolutely deservedly so.

24 Hours in San Francisco

I visited San Francisco in 2001, during my first visit into the US, when it was the final stop during our cross-country drive all the way from Florida. It was a bit of a crazy trip, on a ludicrously low budget, and the route was the result of a compromise among all five of us. Someone wanted to visit New Orleans, another person wanted to see the Grand Canyon and someone else Las Vegas. For my part, I wanted to visit San Francisco. So we went.

And that’s how, after 10 days and well over 5000km of driving, we finally approached the famous city. Luckily (and totally unplanned), we approached it via the impressive Bay Bridge which offers one of the best vistas of the downtown SF. The Bay Bridge, connecting SF with Oakland, is a real marvel of engineering and an attraction in itself, especially for anyone interested in engineering and impressive construction. The bridge consists of two major crossings connecting each shore with a natural outcrop located mid-bay that is part of the city of San Francisco. The Western crossing lies between Yerba Buena and the rest of San Francisco and it is composed of two complete suspension spans connected at a center anchorage. It is also a double-decked bridge and, driving into SF, you travel on the top deck which guarantees some really splendid views.

We were driving in the late afternoon, just a short time before sunset, so the view was as good as you can get. Especially amazing was the fog from the Pacific rolling over the hills and approaching the city. It looked like a massive wave trying to engulf it.

Entering San Francisco via Bay Bridge you drive right into the center, literally on the rooftops of the buildings. It feels crazy. Our plan was to spend the night camping north of the Golden Gate so we had to leave the freeway and cross the city on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was evening rush hour and driving and navigating was a nightmare. As a geographer and map enthusiast, I was responsible for the navigation. I was trying to follow our progress and plan the route on a tiny inset map of downtown SF in our USA road atlas, but it wasn’t easy and I still feel sorry for my driver friend who had to follow my messy and usually late instructions. Fortunately we reached the world famous bridge without a scratch or getting seriously lost.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the icons of San Francisco, California and probably even the whole USA. For me, crossing it was probably the climax of our journey, which in itself wasn’t short of landmarks by any means. However, it was getting dark and we had to find some campground, so there was no time for admiring the views. Using the same battered road atlas, we were trying to locate campsites in the Muir Woods National Monument when we got lost. The seriously hilly Marin County lies just north of San Francisco, right across the Golden Gate Bridge, and is covered by a really chaotic web of narrow and curvy roads leading to many of the most expensive houses in America. I still don’t know how we finally managed to find the campsite in total darkness.

When we got up the following morning we had the chance to experience the famous dense fog which so often appears in the Bay Area. I have to say that our forest campsite looked really magical in such circumstances, with rays of light beaming between the massive trees and illuminating fog in some really crazy ways.

Soon we were crossing the Golden Gate again on the way back into San Francisco. Opened in 1937 it is in my opinion still one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. Actually, I think it is probably one of the most beautiful man-made structures ever built. I know it sounds a bit exaggerated but I really love this bridge and so will you once you see it yourself, especially on a beautiful sunny day.

A short time later, after leaving the car in some ugly parking structure, we finally started our exploration of the city. And what a fantastic city it is. You simply can’t beat its location. Surrounded by water on three sides, it contains around 50 hills within the city limits. It is also second-most densely populated large city in the United States after New York City. And for all that we had only one day.

With such a short time available the best option was simply to walk around without much plan, to immerse ourselves in this eclectic and diverse city. It turned out to be a great idea and I had a really good day.

I started my tour in Chinatown, which is the densest part of this already dense city. It is also the oldest Chinese district in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. You can easily become immersed in a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. It is an absolutely tantalizing experience and time passes quickly when you are in Chinatown. It is also a great place to get some cheap but delicious food. I spent a big part of the day exploring this crazy and colourful place.

But San Francisco has so much more to offer. Right next to Chinatown, in a neighbourhood called Financial District, is located one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the US, the Transamerica Pyramid. Built in 1972, this 260-meter building is also the tallest in San Francisco. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it due to its four-sided pyramid shape, which is in fact so unique that it was only recently that the Shard building in London adopted a similar design.

Heading north, I entered another interesting neighbourhood, the North Beach, which has historically been home to a large Italian population. Nowadays, due to white flight, and gentrification, the neighbourhood has seen its native Italian American population rapidly shrink but it still retains an Italian character with many Italian restaurants, cafes, and bakeries that line Columbus Avenue and Washington Square. Here I also visited a lovely small bookshop, full of maps and travel books, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember its name or location. I was trying to find it on the internet, but to no avail. Maybe it closed like many other small independent bookshops? That would be sad.

We kept walking around the city for hours. Other points on our route included some of the San Francisco piers, right next to the spectacular Ferry Building, located at the Embarcadero, which offers great views of The Bay Bridge, and a steep climb to Russian Hill. And I really mean steep. It is so steep that one-block section of Lombard Street consists of eight tight hairpin turns. They are necessary to reduce the hill’s natural 27% gradient to somehow more of a manageable angle. In general, walking in San Francisco involves a lot of climbing due to all these hills. Many streets are so steep that they even have steps rather than simply walkways.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted. All this climbing really got into our legs and it was time for us to leave. We left the spectacular city of San Francisco less than 24 hours after initially crossing the Bay Bridge and started our 5000 km long drive back to Florida.

And if you ask if it was worth driving around 10000km in total to see it, I can definitely and loudly say yes.