Thursday, May 16, 2013

Day 318: Muir Woods

First on the agenda of our stay with Lev and Julie was Muir Woods. North of San Francisco, the journey to the redwood forest took us over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Famous for being big, red, and having Christopher Walken chucked off it in A View to a Kill, it lived up to all expectations.



Muir Woods was only an hour away and, similar to Big Sur, was full of stonking great trees that we could walk amongst and even sit, stand and even jump in. Julie was our guide for the day, as Lev wasn't back until the evening. The weather was warm and California was living up to its reputation as the go-to destination for sunshine on the west coast.








We'd taken along a picnic, including some amazing beef jerky. I have no idea what was in this stuff, but it was amazing. Who'd have thought that dried, cured packaged chewy meat could taste so good?

After a great day wandering along the Ben Johnson trail, we left the woods behind in late afternoon and went to pick up Lev from the centre of The City.


San Francisco has a reputation for being something of an anomaly with its weather patterns. It could be blazing hot 30 minutes away, but 10 degrees colder in the centre thanks to a crazy micro-climate that manages to cram in fog, cloud, and grey. "Grey" is definitely a weather condition in 'Cisco. We caught a break for a few hours that day and managed to see some blue sky, but for the most part we much preferred the weather in Mountain View. San Francisco reminded us a bit too much of England's climate, but with slightly less rain.


Downtown has its share of crazies, with one stand-out gentleman dressed as some sort of Scottish warlock wandering about in the middle of a busy road, screaming at passers-by.


Fortunately Lev arrived on the scene not long after, and we left the nutcase casting spells at cars whilst we drove to Haight and Ashbury.



The intersecting roads are the epicentre of the area where the Summer of Love was born in the late 60s, a haven of hippies and hash which retains its unique feel today with a staggering diversity of independent shops, boutiques, and counter-culture paraphernalia. There's one place dedicated to selling an array of hats, which Lev was shopping for ahead of the wedding he was due to attend. We tried some on but couldn't really find any that fit too well.


We were all pretty hungry, and Lev was keen to take us to a noodle bar he was a big fan of. Keen to recapture some of our Laos memories, we happily obliged. The Citrus Club turned out to be excellent, and a cracking end to a busy day.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Day 317: Monterey to Mountain View

Jeremy took us down to Fisherman's Wharf the following morning. It's basically a classier version of Weston pier, with old-time food stands and plenty of opportunities for whale watching tours and other activities. If we hadn't already done that in New Zealand, we'd have hopped on a boat then and there - it's a hell of a lot cheaper in Monterey too.


Instead, we went seal-spotting by...well, walking around the pier. One of them was a lot more successful at balancing on a boulder than I had been back in NZ.




In another area, a guy was hiring out various parrots for photo opportunities. They weren't tethered so I'm not sure why they didn't fly off. Maybe they really liked him.


We also had to drag Gilly away from an ice cream parlour. This is not as rare an occurrence as you may expect. Also, given an hour and the ability to turn polycarbonate into actual food, she probably would have finished this off.


Sadly, it was soon time to depart. We said farewell to Jeremy and set off back up the coast.


Moneterey is a lovely place to visit on the west coast and the aquarium (which we didn't have the chance to visit) is supposed to be stunning. I think after spending so much time diving with fish in their natural environment, seeing them in tanks just makes me feel a little sad.

We drove past Castroville on the way, a tiny little town which is famous for dictators and artichoke festivals, depending on who you ask.


Possibly more famous in the state is In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain that sources high-quality ingredients, pays its staff well above minimum wage, and has a reputation for great customer service. Being created by a Christian family, the chain also has a habit of subtly inserting religious messages onto its cups and food wrappers, but then no-one's perfect. Being a burger junkie, I'd been planning a flying visit to In-N-Out ever since we decided we were coming to California.


It didn't disappoint. Not quite Kangaroo Cafe levels of brilliance, but definitely on a par with Fergburger.

And then we were in Mountain View. It had been nine whole months since we'd parted ways with Lev and Julie in Laos, and now we were at their place ready to relax for a few days. And what better way to do that than to jump into the community pool and jacuzzi that's just outside their house?


It was fantastic to see Julie again (Lev was away on a stag do, but would be returning the next day). With San Francisco less than an hour away and Lev and Julie planning a camping trip away on Labor Day for the four of us, we had plenty of things to cram in over the next few days.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Day 316: McWay Falls, Big Sur and Monterey

Driving along the I-1 makes you realise how beautiful California is. State Park follows State Park, and each one has its own unique set of features and attractions. It's understandable why Americans are so proud of their open spaces, and why the fines for damaging them are stringently enforced. The UK should be taking note.

We had a lot to pack into the day, almost all of it outdoor. There was no way we could hit all of the trails on offer so we picked a few, and hoped for the best. First though, there was a stop at a car park area en route so we could look at some squirrels and fat elephant seals. One of the seals was too lazy to come and say "hi", but he did give us a wave:





As the mist drew in, I thought we were in for a dreary drive, but after an ominous start the California weather realised where it was and soon brightened up.


We were heading to McWay Falls to begin with, an 80 foot waterfall located in the heart of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Fun fact, Falls fans: this particular specimen is one of only a handful of waterfalls that empties into the ocean. Looking at it in isolation, it isn't particularly impressive. It's more like a bit of a leaky cliff, where someone hasn't bothered to turn off the stopcock. However, the cove and remote beach that enclose it are lovely.



The falls were a brief stop on the way to the main event: Big Sur. Recommended by Lev and Julie, Big Sur is twenty minutes north of McWay and is famous for its redwood trees. Oh, and did I mention the lions? There are mountain lions in the area, ready to eat you.


Despite my best attempts at a Kim Bauer impression no lions were forthcoming, so I was left to act unconvincingly on my own, before giving up and joining Gilly for a spot of lunch at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. This was not a good place to eat. I ordered a ham sandwich, and regretted it as soon as it arrived. It seems that the word "restraint" is alien to the locals here, as I was presented with two slabs of bread holding together what looked to be three pounds of sliced ham between them. To date, I have never seen so much meat in a sandwich. They must have slaughtered two whole pigs to make my lunch. No salad or cheese, just meat and bread. Ten years ago, I might have been happy with that, but these days I prefer a bit of variety. And despite us being sat in a bakery, even the bread wasn't up to standard. I managed about a fifth of the thing and had to stop. We had walking to do and I was getting meat sweats.

Big Sur isn't a tourist attraction in and of itself; it's a state park that contains various hiking trails, waterfalls and lookout points. After a bit of research, it seemed like the Pfeiffer Falls/Valley View round-trip hike at about 2.5 miles seemed a reasonable walk and would give us a good overview of the park and its flora (and fauna, if the lions ever turned up).

Coast redwoods are everywhere on the hike. You can't miss them, they're pretty big - some of them have reached over 360 feet in height.




One particular specimen had been dated at over 700 years old, and the markers outlined various historically significant points in its life (Black Death, Columbus landing, the American Revolution...). This tree had seen a lot.


Pfeiffer Falls itself wasn't much cop, even compared to McWay but - lion attacks aside - it's impossible to be surrounded by so much nature and not feel relaxed. There's a reason it's called the Great Outdoors, and Big Sur is very much a champion of that sentiment. I highly suspect the Californian sunshine may also have had its part to play in our enjoyment of the park, since we rarely get any sort of consistent summer in the UK.





All too soon the sunlight was fading, and we had to drive on. Thanks to a very generous gent by the name of Jeremy, we were able to spend the night in Monterey. He'd moved there to study (some form of naval engineering I can't even begin to fathom) and, as it turned out, was a mean poker player to boot.


His recommendation for dinner was the Persian Grill which I can heartily agree with; a huge improvement over lunch. We introduced him to Not Going Out, one of the finest UK sitcoms created in the last decade, and much guffawing was heard, mostly from me. Really, it's fantastic. Jeremy gave us all a lesson in poker which I unfortunately can't blame on the wine - I'm just not very good - and we hit the hay.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Day 315: Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of America's most iconic drives. Also knows as Interstate 1 (I-1) it stretches along the California coast for over 650 miles and covers a vast stretch of the western edge, providing an altogether nicer drive than the shorter, functional, but ultimately boring I-5. 

Ideally, it is taken slowly on a sunny day and in a sporty convertible, allowing you to appreciate the natural beauty and bathe in the warm rays whilst simultaneously being cooled by the wind. We had none of that. It was grey and humid, we were in a Toyota Corolla, and the air-con was on full blast. That's the beauty of backpacking, folks!

We took a drive up to Malibu Beach, which - in the murky weather - looked like pretty much every beach does in such conditions: drab and miserable. We made the most of it, and not far past it found a massive sand dune that just begged to be climbed. It took a good five minutes to scale it - as you can see from the size of me in front of our car at the base, it was a fair old distance.



We were heading to Santa Barbara, where our friends Wayne and Martine got married. By all accounts, it was a perfect slice of Americana and we were looking forward to experiencing it. It took just under 2 hours to get to the city, and by then the sun was shining and the whole place felt a bit more like California.

Santa Barbara is an interesting place. It effortlessly bridges the gap between "tourist haven" and "upmarket cultural centre" by offering ample instances of both. Art galleries line the streets alongside ice cream parlours. Beachwear shops take their place next to pizza restaurants housed in lighthouses. The city brings in a billion dollars a year in tourist revenue, and it's not difficult to see why. Wouldn't you love this view?



A walk along the pier threw up umpteen choices for food, but I'd already got my heart set on freshly caught shellfish. So without further ado, we planted ourselves on a table outside the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company and I got stuck in to some lobster spaghetti.


It was lovely, but the high winds took some getting used to - we soon understood why there was a huge queue for the inside tables!

Dessert? Well, we were on a pier, so naturally it had to be ice cream. Once again, we made the mistake of ordering a double scoop. In England, a double scoop is two scoops. In America, a double scoop is two portions of whatever a scoop is, which turns out to be about two English scoops. So we ended up with a literal mountain of ice cream perched precariously in a cone.


Sadly, it didn't live up to its impressive appearance and the cone tasted like cardboard, but at least we didn't feel as huge as we would have if we'd finished the whole thing. Still, a digestive walk around town was in order.


We stopped into a hotel/art gallery for a mooch around, but there was no chance of us staying the night in Santa Barbara as even the cheapest digs were more than our entire daily budget. It'd be a nice place to visit for a holiday, but the city makes no pretension of being backpacker-friendly.

We picked up the wheels and drove on. Lake Cachuma was a recommended stop-off point from Wayne, and it was lovely.



We were slightly ahead of schedule as we'd originally planned to stay in Santa Barbara, so we decided to find a hotel in San Luis Obispo instead, a university city an hour and a half north. Paul had spent many a drunken night here when he lived in California and highly recommended it. We found a Ramada at a reasonable price and set out to the centre to see what was around. It was early evening, and we were in luck: we'd arrived on a Thursday, and the weekly Farmers' Market was in full flow.



Umpteen food stalls lined the streets, along with buskers and arts and crafts stands. There was also an animal welfare booth which was offering to pay a dollar to anyone willing to sit and watch a four minute video they'd put together. We were on a budget but not that desperate; I glimpsed some pretty horrific scenes at one of the TVs of animals being slaughtered. I'm under no illusions as to how my meat gets to my plate, but I prefer to leave the act of preparation to those with stronger stomachs. For the man on the street, I think buying ethically is the best way of making a stand against dubious practices. Shock tactics have their place, but in many respects they do more harm to their cause than good.

It made me feel peckish anyway, so following the tried and tested method of picking the stall with the biggest queue, we stopped off at The Rib Line to get some eats.



Were they delicious? Oh my, yes.

Like many "cities" on the west coast, SLO (as it's locally known) had more of a small-town feel and I can imagine it being a fun place to spend a couple of nights with a group of friends. We were focused on getting up north though, not least because we wanted to spend a decent amount of time with Lev and Julie, the couple we'd made friends with in Laos and who were based in Mountain View. With that in mind, and with a CouchSurfing offer on the table from a kind chap in Monterey, we set off early the next morning back onto the I-1.