Week 2 – Highway 1

Again the inexcusable lack of WiFi internet access in the back of the Californian beyond is my excuse for the delay in publishing this post. I feel sure that once we are settled into a routine in New Zealand and have nothing of interest to report, I will be able to report it with tedious regularity. We are flying this evening from San Francisco, being cruelly denied a Tuesday by our crossing of the international date line, and arriving in New Zealand around midday on Wednesday.

The second week of our stopover in California saw us hire a car and drive it down the coast to San Diego, right by the Mexican border. On the way we walked a little, took a lot of pictures of seals, and complained about the weather, the traffic, parking, and the difficulty of getting a good cup of tea, because we are true global citizens.

We hired our car on Monday – not the red convertible Mustang we were hoping for, but a Nissan estate which is sensible and grey in every respect, and perfect for all our requirements bar posing. After we had finished kicking the tyres and rubbing our fingers over scratches in a thoughtful way, and been for a tentative test drive around the car park to get to grips with the automatic gears thing, we headed to the coast to join one of California’s most iconic roads. Highway 1 runs along most of California’s Pacific coast, in large parts a tourist trail but also serving as a major commuter route in parts of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

We soon saw how well-earned is the Highway’s place in most ‘top things to do in California’ lists. No amount of British emotional repression in a sensible Nissan can deny the beauty and romance of the drive, and even in the fog for which the Bay area is famous the scenery is dangerously distracting.

We picked up Highway 1 just south of San Francisco at 1 o’clock, and drove the 160-odd miles to our first campsite in around seven hours, with plenty of photo stops along the way, and of course a visit to a Target superstore to augment our camping equipment. We spent Monday and Tuesday nights in Plaskett Creek Campsite, just off the Highway and about 100 yards from the Pacific, at the southern end of Big Sur, a stunning stretch of coastline where the Santa Lucia mountains rise straight out of the ocean. On Tuesday we retraced our tyre-tracks a little to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where we climbed up into the hills and the fog we had been so fortunate to avoid in San Francisco the week before.

We set off from the campsite early on Wednesday morning, keen to cover as much distance as possible before being pulled off the road to allow the Tour of California bicycle race to pass. Our progress was slowed slightly at San Simeon by several hundred elephant seals in all their ugly, pungent glory. Lying either on the beach or on each other they demanded the attention of passing motorists with their barks and their entertainingly futile attempts to lug their enormous carcasses over the sand. In the end the cycle race did not delay us as much as we had been promised it would, and even if we knew any of the famous names we were told were taking part we would not have been able to pick them out of the blur that whipped past us in seconds few. We arrived in Santa Barbara mid-afternoon, went for a quick swim in the sea and enjoyed a drink in one of the many bars that seem to make up most of the town’s attraction. As evening approached we drove 20 miles up into the hills to the our campsite, a beautiful if slightly eerie spot which we shared with one or two other campers and a lot of nature.

We were back on the road on Thursday heading south, and spent a sizeable chunk of the day sat in traffic in the vicinity of Malibu beach, just north of Los Angeles. We had been warned to avoid rush hour in LA at all costs, but if there is a good time to drive into the city, we missed it. We eventually turned off Highway 1 (known down there as the Pacific Coast Highway) onto Sunset Boulevard, which winds its way past Bel Air, home of long driveways with big gates, through Beverly Hills, where lives many famous black Suburbans with tinted windows, to Hollywood, which, it turns out, is a bit of a dive. We checked into the Banana Bungalow Hostel on Hollywood Boulevard, then began our afternoon in Hollywood staring at the ground along the Walk of Fame, me showing off my impressive knowledge of the very small percentage of stars I had actually heard of, Gillian focusing hard on making appreciative noises in the right places. Realising that we had forgotten to look at anything above pavement level, we then walked back and realised how little we had missed. We went into the Hollywood and Highland Mall for the view of the Hollywood sign, but were more entertained watching a security guard trying to get a naked homeless man out of a fountain without getting wet. In the evening we drove up Mount Hollywood, past the Greek Theatre, to the Griffith Observatory, a magnificent building affording views across the city which, we thought at the time, would definitely be worth the drive as long as we could get a free parking spot at the hostel again on our return. We then spent an hour driving all over Hollywood trying to find affordable overnight parking.

The next morning we headed down to Venice Beach, which we could tell would be a fun place to be on a Saturday afternoon, but this was Friday morning. The bodybuilders on Muscle Beach were outnumbered by posing female tourists and the skaters, for all their gangsta rap and ‘sweet trick bro’s, were mostly skating round in fairly sedate circles. Feeling somewhat underwhelmed by Los Angeles, but unable to find anyone to give us a firm recommendation to change that, we joined the traffic jam heading south and five hours and 120 miles later were driving all over San Diego trying to find affordable overnight parking.

We finally checked into the Hostel on 3rd, in the fashionable Gaslamp district, feeling tired, stressed, and ready to dump the car in the ocean, but a good night’s sleep and some Californian sun on Saturday morning sorted us out.

San Diego, without having any specific draws for us, we found to be a very pleasat city just to be in. On Saturday I went for a quick but fascinating tour of the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that was in service from 1945 to 1992, while Gillian sat on the pier taking photographs for countless Chinese tour groups. We then drove to Coronado, a seaside resort to the south of San Diego where we soon realised we had forgotten sun cream and beat a hasty retreat to a cafe for lunch. In the afternoon we went up to Balboa Park in the north of the city, home to 14 pricey museums and the world famous zoo, which we did not go into, and some very pleasant gardens, colonnades and walkways, which we did. In the evening we went out for a drink, were bemused by the San Diego Padres vs Los Angeles Dodgers baseball match playing on every bar television (apparently you can win a match by not hitting the ball), and had our swimwear stolen from the laundrette.

On Sunday we drove a little up the coast to La Jolla – pronounced Hoy-ya. We walked past beaches where seals sunbath next to humans to a less smelly stretch of sand, and spent most of the day reading our books and sunning ourselves, before returning to the hostel to plan our trip to Sequoia and Yosemite national parks while we had internet access.

That concludes the first part of our California road-trip. The profound and insightful last paragraph will have to wait as we are about to leave for the airport. Have a good Tuesday – do not take it for granted.

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