Postcards From California: Reflections On a Road Trip

Occasionally, at school, conscientious parents will make contact to notify us that they need to travel and must bring their child with them and sincerely regret that he or she will miss out on learning as a result. I often find this ironic. Is there any more powerful kind of learning than travel?

Sitting on the return flight – from San Francisco to Amsterdam – following a three-week road trip around California, I find myself reflecting on how we planned this family trip. We learned mostly from the experiences and recommendations shared by others online, so I thought it might be worthwhile to add to that bank of information. California is a vast, amazing place. We completed a circuit of 1,800 miles by car, starting and ending in San Francisco. I will admit that my interest in literature and music largely informed my view of our destinations. Based in Belgium, close to the vineyards of the Loire, Bordeaux and Tuscany, we decided to give Napa a miss as there was so much to see elsewhere. In terms of the authenticity of the experience, we were determined to avoid hotel chains and stay in local neighbourhoods outside of the tourist zones in big cities or in classic motels in the smaller locales. This is something I highly recommend. It makes for a very different perspective. To provide for as much information as possible, I’ve provided hyperlinks to most places referenced and pictures I took along the way. To provide a minimum of distraction, I would suggest checking the links later, if they are of interest. We learned so much. Here goes.

SAN FRANCISCO
“San Francisco is the only city I can think of that can survive all the things you people are doing to it and still look beautiful.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

The recreation yard at Alcatraz
The recreation yard at Alcatraz

Of all the places we had on our itinerary, San Francisco was the one that websites and friends raved most about. It is undoubtedly a most beautiful city and there were many aspects we thoroughly enjoyed, but I found San Francisco to be a disappointment in some ways and the place I enjoyed least on the trip. The best things about the city involve leaving it, ironically. The night trip to Alcatraz and biking across the Golden Gate Bridge were among the highlights of the entire trip and make the city an essential destination. Haight-Ashbury and the Beat neighbourhood of North Beach (City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio Cafe and The Saloon) are magnificent, but there is something not quite right about San Francisco and the evident substance abuse problems to be found on too many street corners speak of an issue that people seem to gloss over when enthusing about its undoubted wonders.

North Beach and the beat goes on
North Beach and the beat goes on

We rented a house in The Mission District that was a comfortable family home with lots of space. I would not recommend parts of the neighbourhood, particularly towards Mission Street. San Francisco is hardly unique in having a problem with homelessness, but I would suggest its problems go deeper than that and Frank Lloyd Wright may have had a point. We encountered routine, mean-spirited aggression while we were in the city, in The Mission itself, on the overly touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and in Haight Ashbury, a spectacular neighbourhood where Flower Power lives on. One suspects a genuine frustration on the part of decent people confronted by an insane housing market that makes it impossible to live comfortably while the streets teem with visitors who unwittingly compound the problem. We stayed in San Francisco for four nights. For the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz alone, it’s an amazing, wondrous place.

Worth the trip just for this
Golden Gate Bridge: Worth the trip just for this

Food Experiences

  • Had a very poor experience in Chinatown with cold, tasteless, poorly-served, expensive food at the Great Eastern Restaurant. Obama reportedly enjoyed it; worst Chinese we’ve ever had. Steer clear.
  • With teenage boys, we sought out “the best wings in town”. I tend to avoid any establishment with a shamrock on it when I am travelling (being Irish, I am not looking for an Irish experience). Got it wrong here. The Kezar. Indifferent service, food and drinks; very poor. Avoid.
  • Best culinary experience: have breakfast or brunch at Boogaloos, a funky, stylish diner with great food and service. Well worth the trip for fresh food and a great atmosphere – the real San Francisco (along with the food trucks on the streets).
On the Road
On the Road

Top 3 Recommendations

  • Alcatraz. Pre-book a night visit with Alcatraz Cruises – a stunning experience. Book well in advance. I blogged about the visit experience here.
  • Golden Gate Bridge. Rent a bike from Blazing Saddles and bike across the bridge for the most amazing views and experience. Continue on to Sausalito for lunch in this beautiful coastal city. It is difficult to imagine a more wonderful way to experience this spectacle.
  • North Beach. The home of the beat poets, immortalised by Kerouac in On The Road and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, with a great bohemian vibe and good restaurants, especially the Mexican establishments where the food is simply perfect.

Overall Rating: 6.5/10

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA
“The Carmel is a lovely little river. It … tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, … crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live … In the winter, it becomes a torrent, … and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in.” – John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Sunset on Carmel Beach
Sunset on Carmel Beach

120 miles south of San Francisco, Carmel is an intriguing, picture-postcard town. We were looking for a base to explore the Monterey region and Carmel is perfectly placed next to Monterey and Big Sur. One of my favourite novels – Cold Heaven by Brian Moore – featuring a supernatural, ghostly apparition by a vengeful Our Lady of Monterey on the Point Lobos cliffs – and movies – Play Misty For Me, directed and starring local legend, former Carmel mayor, Clint Eastwood, are set in Carmel. It’s a place with a long and proud literary and artistic history. Described by the local authorities as, “a village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach”, Carmel exudes wealth and is quirky in an endearing, original manner. We stayed in Casa del Carmel as Monte Verde Inn was fully booked. The inns are adjacent and run as one business. We were really pleased with our accommodation and the morning delivery of a breakfast basket to the door with the jug of complimentary sherry in each room. We spent three nights here, probably just one too many, but a place definitely worth visiting.

At Los Lobos Cliffs
At Los Lobos Cliffs

Food Experiences

  • The quality of restaurants in Carmel is very high. You will find no bars or honky tonk fast food outlets here. We had a wonderful lunch at Hog’s Breath Inn. Featuring a Dirty Harry burger on the menu, this establishment was opened by Clint Eastwood in 1971.
  • Our teenage boys appreciated A.W. Shucks Cocktail & Oyster Bar, a quality, seafood diner with good food and friendly service. Go for the seafood and trust the local wine recommendations. Napa produces some high-quality wines.
  • We had an exceptional dinner in Demetra Cafe, a Greek restaurant, ranked as #1 in Carmel on TripAdvisor. The food was outstanding and reasonable, the Greek dancing and singing lending a wonderful atmosphere.
The Lone Cypress
The Lone Cypress

Top 3 Recommendations

  • Carmel is a great base for touring the region. The Carmel Mission is definitely worth a visit and provides an insightful perspective on the history and development of California. The booklet provided on the self-guided tour provides the following, tactless gem that whitewashes history in just a few, jarring words: “The mission lands were absorbed … and the Indians were dispersed.” The nearby, Clint Eastwood-owned Mission Ranch is also worth a visit.
  • As an admirer of the works of John Steinbeck, a trip to Cannery Row in Monterey was essential. It’s an interesting place to see, but with shades of the tackiness of Fisherman’s Wharf. Monterey lacks the grace and charm of Carmel, but Cannery Row and the Steinbeck monument were worth seeing.
  • The main highlight of Carmel – in addition to the stunning evening sunsets from the beach – is 17-Mile Drive, a private ($10 fee per car) trek through the most exclusive properties along the coast around Pebble Beach. This is a majestic trip that affords stunning views and brought me to the precise setting of the Moore novel. We enjoyed a great lunch overlooking the practice greens at Pebble Beach Golf Club.
Steinbeck sits atop the Monterey Monument
Steinbeck sits atop the Monterey Monument

Overall Rating: 8/10

MORRO BAY
“And if California slides into the ocean /  Like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.” – Warren Zevon

Elephant Seals relaxing in splendid isolation
Elephant Seals relaxing in splendid isolation

We spent one night here, really just a stopover before hitting LA. It’s a great place to stop in San Luis Obispo County. Stopping here meant that we could really enjoy the coastal delights along Highway 1. The highlights include the essential Bixby Bridge and the spectacular cliffside views along Big Sur with elephant seals relaxing along the sands and dolphins frolicking in the azure waters. Our boys wanted a real motel experience (like Dean and Sam in the tv show, Supernatural) and Breakers Motel fit that bill perfectly. Morro Bay is a scenic fishing town with an idyllic harbour, the centre point of which is the 800-foot tall, volcanic Morro Rock. We enjoyed excellent seafood at The Galley Bar & Grill while watching the most spectacular sunset imaginable. Breaker’s Cafe was the ideal spot for a classic, small-town diner experience for breakfast the next day.

The sunsets are legendary in Morro Bay
The sunsets are legendary in Morro Bay

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

LOS ANGELES
“If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway / Without getting killed or caught / Down the road in a cloud of smoke / To some land that, baby, we ain’t bought.” Guy Clark

The history of the music I love at every turn
The history of the music I love at every turn

I had heard more negative things about LA than good when planning the trip, I admit, but it turned out to be a city we all really enjoyed. Los Angeles seems to be an authentic city that simply gets on with being a sprawling, urban monster without trying to be something it is not. I am a fan of the noir LA cultural heritage made famous by Raymond Chandler and brought to rock music by the late Warren Zevon. Zevon was very much the Bard of LA and crossing the city is a namecheck of his repertoire. Carmelita’s Ensenada, Echo Park, and Alvarado Street are very much alive here, as is the world of his mentor, Jackson Browne. It was apt then that we stayed in a great house in Silver Lake. I would highly recommend the airbnb house we stayed in here. It was perfect and most of the Silver Lake properties we looked at seemed to be of high quality.

LA Freeway
LA Freeway

The legendary LA Freeway is not at all as terrifying as some would have you believe. As it transpired, we got lucky with events happening in LA that family members had special interest in. On our first night we went to watch the Major League Soccer game between LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes. A big local rivalry and the home debut of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard were also capped when we got to see Republic of Ireland captain, Robbie Keane, score 3 to lead the local side to a 5-2 win. While this day was filled with reports of a major bush fire not far from us, we awoke to a major thunderstorm the next day. The record-breaking drought enjoyed some temporary relief, as did we. That evening we went to the Greek Theatre to see Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson in concert. At 82, the country renegade has still got it. Cruising down Ventura Highway, strolling along Sunset Boulevard, taking in the madness of Hollywood, was all utterly enjoyable. Los Angeles is a great city, as long as you don’t approach it as a hotel tourist.

All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles ...
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles …

Food Experiences

  • Getting back late from the LA Galaxy game meant we needed a takeout solution and Garage Pizza was an outstanding option with quick delivery and delicious pizza.
  • Coming from the Greek Theatre quite late, we stumbled upon Fred 62, a local, popular Silver Lake diner. Traditional diner fare with a great, late-night atmosphere, decent food and friendly service. I would recommend it.
  • We enjoyed an Italian meal in Silver Lake at Il Capriccio. Vibrant neighbourhood, a diverse menu, and good service. We were not all happy with our dishes: a bit hit and miss, quality-wise. Would not return; just okay.
A rainy day in the hills
A rainy day in the hills

Top 3 Recommendations

  • Venice Beach is a lot of fun and just ever so slightly insane. We walked from Venice to Santa Monica Boardwalk and back. It’s a good walk with plenty of places to stop for food and refreshments along the way. Take the time to check out the Venetian canals and Hank Moody’s house.
  • Like it or not, the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a must-see. Much more than the stars on the ground, it’s the wannabe stars standing around, performing, handing out CDs, working hard to be eccentric and noteworthy who make the atmosphere of Hollywood Boulevard worth experiencing.
  • The studio tours looked crowded and harried and it poured with heavy rain all day on the open-top buses, I am glad we didn’t go on one. Our LA Galaxy and Greek Theatre experiences were really positive and a lot of fun.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

SAN DIEGO
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”  ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Mission Beach Boardwalk
Mission Beach Boardwalk

Everything we heard about San Diego turned out to be true. This is simply a stunning city with happy, friendly people and an amazing quality of life. Again, we used airbnb and were really delighted with our Ocean Beach property which we highly recommend. The views over the cliffs at Ocean Beach were simply stunning and the evening sunsets from our balcony were remarkable. There is so much to do and see here. Unfortunately, I had to concede to impacted wisdom tooth pain here and get some emergency dental treatment. The margarita treatment (lots of ice and then salt on the gum) failed even after my attempts to mimic Zevon and drink up all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles. Here, even the dentist was cheerful, positive, generous and upbeat. Everyone in this beautiful city seems to be.

View from our apartment
View from our apartment

Food Experiences

  • We stopped in Oceanside, a delightful coastal harbour, on our way to San Diego. Rockin’ Baja Lobster served the most wonderful seafood and Mexican dishes. Worth stopping for. Try the salsa bar.
  • The Joint at Ocean Beach was not a positive culinary experience. With service confusion and kitchen disorder, we ended up eating our meals at different times to each other while waiting for the evening to end. Not great, but a great surfer ambience around these streets.
  • Don Chido in The Gaslamp served amazing Mexican food. The service was also top-quality and friendly. California offers the most spectacular Mexican food. Essential.
  • Ranchos is a restaurant that prides itself on natural, vegetarian and fine Mexican food. It’s friendly, unassuming, atmospheric … and the food is incredibly tasty. I had the healthiest, tastiest burger of my life here. Excellent.
Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach

Top 3 Recommendations

  • The Gaslamp District genuinely merits the use of the awesome word. The atmosphere is phenomenal and the number of exceptional restaurants to eat in is staggering. Chill town bliss.
  • Mission Beach is paradise. It’s worth walking along the beach promenade and taking a stroll on the amazing boardwalk. It makes the Santa Monica Boardwalk seem sad and loutish.
  • Get out to Sunset Cliffs near Ocean Beach in the evening to watch the sunset on the bay. Stunning.
Stunning
Stunning

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

LAS VEGAS
“And I don’t want to hear a sad story /  Full of heartbreak and desire / The last time I felt like this / It was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire / And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn / I watched it burn, I watched it burn.” – Emmylou Harris

The madness of the Strip
The madness of the Strip

On our way way to the place described as the last resort by Don Henley, we stopped at Joshua Tree, the location where country rock legend, Gram Parsons, died. The story of his body being stolen from LA airport and burned in the desert is the stuff of rock lore. The Joshua Tree Inn, scene of his death  seemed indifferent when we arrived, and the heat was a shock. We crawled up the street to enjoy a great lunch. 30 degrees celsius in Belgium (rare enough) feels intolerable, but there is something about the dry heat of 40+ degrees in the desert that I really enjoyed. But what about Vegas? Many people considered it a place I would abhor and I anticipated as much, to be honest. As Henley put it, “they called it paradise  … I don’t know why”.

The Last Resort
The Last Resort

Vegas is simply mind-boggling – a wonderful place to see, its decadence defined by a sense of manic fun and self-mockery that makes it enjoyable: a madman’s vision realised in the heart of the desert. The capital of kitsch, I loved the fact that it does not try to take itself seriously. You can stroll by the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids with a volcanic margarita in your hand, then stop to watch gondolas cruising through Venetian canals and Greek history unfold in grandiose shopping malls. Like the tech fool that I am, I was drawn into an Apple Store where I bought an Apple Watch before I realised it. I had no idea they were available to buy in-store. My Genius salesman said, matter-of-factly, “this is Vegas, man … everything is for sale.” We stayed at The Bellagio and it was a truly excellent experience. Vegas is basically one extensive casino, all connected: Caesar’s Palace, The Flamingo, Bally’s, etc. We are not gamblers, but we won enough to lose it again without pain while having fun. I took careful note of Parson’s take on the place: “Well, the first time I lose I drink whiskey / Second time I lose I drink gin / Third time I lose I drink anything / ‘Cause I think I’m gonna win.” We did not go to a show in Vegas (I wanted to see Sinatra, alive, not some Fat Elvis tribute show) … because Vegas is a show in itself and an utterly absorbing, enjoyable one at that. We stayed for two nights and that felt like just enough. Vegas is mesmerising.

Crossroads Cafe, Joshua Tree
Crossroads Cafe, Joshua Tree

Food Experiences

  • The Crossroads Cafe in Joshua Tree was a charming, friendly, traditional diner in which I had the most enjoyable chilli dish. The placed oozed authentic atmosphere and a genuine welcome. California is also the home to the most amazing craft beers and the ice-cold beverages here were most-appreciated.
  • I am a fan of Jimmy Buffett so his Margaritaville Restaurant on the strip was an obvious choice. I enjoyed the wings here, but was really after a Five ‘O’Clock Somewhere concoction while searching for my lost shaker of salt. A fun venue with footage of Jimmy playing in concert on the large screens.
  • We were determined to go to one of the famous buffet establishments in town, but when we saw there was a two-hour wait (in long, unearthly lines), we headed to Gordon Ramsay’s Pub & Grill in Caesar’s Palace. Our younger son swore he could hear swearing from the kitchen, but the food was excellent, if a bit pricey.
The desert fascinates
The desert fascinates

Top 3 Recommendations

  • Absorb the sheer, joyful madness of a nighttime walk along the strip. Be sure to watch the Bellagio Fountain shows while there.
  • The casinos are a must, even if you are not a gambler. Set a modest budget and – if you play your cards right (love that pun) – your drinks will be provided free and the evening pays for itself.
  • The famous Vegas shows are dominated by “stars” like Mariah Carey, Donny & Marie Osmond and a host of Sinatra and Elvis impersonators. Avoid the tacky, expensive shows. Vegas itself is the best show in town.

Overall Rating: 9/10

LONE PINE
“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair / Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air / Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night.” – Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Don Felder – Hotel California

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley

The journey into the desert was the greatest travel experience of my life. A six-hour drive felt like no time at all. It is simply stunning in every aspect. Death Valley is aptly named and warnings about rattlesnakes, scorpions, and Black Widow spiders contribute a stark reality to the experience. The temperature hit 116.5 Fahrenheit (47 Celsius) as we entered the unworldly beauty of Death Valley. The journey from the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, (282 feet below sea level) to the highest elevation (at 14,505 feet), Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range, is only 84 miles and a spectacular journey through ghost towns, arid landscape, and breathtaking scenery. This was the pinnacle of the entire trip for me. Car air conditioning needs to be turned off during the ascent to avoid engine overheating ….

I knew little about the significance of Lone Pine as we approached it, until a sign for Crowley Vista came into view and we turned off to learn the story of my namesake. Crowley Point is named after Irishman, Fr. John Crowley, the Padre of the Desert and a hero of the region to this day. Crowley gave his life to a barren desert valley that had been stripped of life by the Los Angeles irrigation system (documented in the movie, Chinatown) and, in convincing people to remain in the arid landscape, developed desert tourism and the Hollywood Western genre in Lone Pine before dying in an auto accident. Some of Hollywood’s classic movies, from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, were shot in Lone Pine because of this Irish immigrant. We stayed here for just one night. I would have enjoyed some more time to explore the movie history of the area and the splendid Sierra Nevada mountains.

Death Valley victim
Death Valley victim

Food Experiences

  • By the time we stopped at Furnace Creek Resort for lunch we were feeling the effects of the intense heat. We had good, simple food here and great service followed by an outdoor shower of iced water for weary travellers.
  • The Totem Cafe is a traditional diner on Main Street in Lone Pine. The food was wholesome, the service friendly, and it felt like we were mingling with locals only. A good spot.

Top 3 Recommendations
This is easy. Described above, but must be experienced.
Death Valley National Park
Badwater Basin
Lone Pine
You just have to explore these special, unique places. They speak for themselves.

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods…and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.” – President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905.

Manzanar internment camp
Manzanar internment camp

Just outside of Lone Pine is the historic site of Manzanar where 10,000 Japanese citizens were detained during the Second World War as a direct response to Pearl Harbor. It’s a fascinating, respectfully and honestly preserved historical site. Everything else en-route is overshadowed by the sheer splendour of Yosemite. It is a place of such beauty that every photograph you take here feels like a disappointment compared to the reality that surrounds you. Even at the height of the tourist season, the park is so vast that it does not feel crowded. A car is essential here and the journey is a phenomenon, rising to an elevation of 14,000 feet, oftentimes on hair-raising bends around cliff sides without barriers. The word majestic came to mind here frequently. So did terror.

We stayed at Yosemite View Lodge, just outside the park and were awestruck by the views. We had booked for just one night, but would happily have stayed much longer and would consider a trip back to California if only to spend more time here.

The words breathtaking and awesome are real here
The words breathtaking and awesome are real here

Food Experiences

  • Furnace Creek Ranch offered decent food and cold drinks when we needed it in an authentic setting.
  • Yosemite View Lodge had a restaurant onsite that we had to wait two hours to secure a table in and the food was, at best, mediocre.
  • We had lunch the next day in historic Mariposa in a genuine local diner full of locals. Quaint town.

Top 3 Recommendations
The simplest of recommendations here is to spend enough time exploring the park, stopping at the vista points, walking along the river banks and lakes and simply taking in the awesome force of nature that is Yosemite.

Overall Rating: 10/10

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California is five times larger than my native Ireland. It requires time to explore it properly. There is much to see and a lot to learn in advance of travel and even more when you are there. I hope this record is helpful to those of you planning a trip or simply interested in the story. The place stays with you long after you have departed. I guess it’s really true: “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

Notes: (following several questions). (1) Camera – Canon EOS 70D, 18-135mm lens, pretty basic; (2) While the flights were expensive, but paid 6 months ago, the trip itself turned out to be actually less expensive than a summer in Ireland. It’s a bucket list trip. Do it.


Here’s the ground we covered:

The Trip Map