Driving around the American West Coast is the ultimate road trip, a perfect mix of rugged outdoors, picture-postcard coastline and terrific nightlife.
Everything is bigger in America. The cars, the beaches, the pizza slices, even the sky feels bigger. Americans like to live large, they like to indulge, they like to push the limits of possibility. For e.g. you might like M&Ms, Oreos, Nutella, Reese’s pieces, and chocolate milkshakes in their individual capacities. But you wouldn’t really think it was possible to get all of these mixed together with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkles on top. It sounds too decadent, too good to be true, a little wrong to be honest. But I found a place that whipped up just such a confection and served it up with a bright smile and a “have a great day”. And to be honest when I walked out into the sunshine with my turbo charged milk shake I felt firmly convinced that it was, in fact, going to be a great day. How could it not? And thats what America can do to you sometimes. Although, in the interest of full disclosure about a third of the way into said dessert I realised it would be impossible to finish. Turns out there is such a thing as too much sugar. Before I begin my West Coast Travel Diary I’d like to acknowledge and thank Trek America whose “Westerner 2 BLT” trip I went on – perfect if you want an authentic road trip experience without actually driving yourself!
West Coast Travel Diary Part 1: San Diego
The first day in San Diego we rented bikes and cycled our way from Mission Beach to La Jolla cove. It’s a long ride that starts out on a flat boardwalk by the beach. This was my first time at a typical Southern California beach and I was amazed at how big it was. It just seemed to stretch on and on unto infinity – wide creamy sands, and the vast baby blue expanse of sea rhythemically curling into giant waves and lazily crashing onto the shore. I don’t think I’d ever been on a beach where I literally couldn’t see where it ended. Further on towards La Jolla the ride got a lot tougher as we navigated rolling hilly beachfront neighbourhoods with their steep rises and falls.
The San Diego Zoo is a must-see. If nothing else to see the giant polar bears. There is a viewing gallery at a level that is half submerged under water and has a magnified glass wall that makes these giant creatures seem much closer than they actually are. Its an incredible sight to see them rough and tumble with each other, lumbering around underwater or calmly munching a carrot on shore. The pandas are another highlight as are the adorable sloths curled up into balls and clutching at a branch with their eyes squeezed shut.
The nightlife in San Diego is another highlight. Alcohol is very cheap and free flowing in this part of the world and pretty young hostesses wave you in as you walk by promising endless shots. Our guide took us to one of the oldest bars in town. And it fulfilled so many cliched fantasies I couldn’t help but love it. Jukebox check. Pool table check. Framed photos of family members, loyal clientele, toothless football players, baseball legends and the occasional police mugshot on the wall check.
As we drove from San Diego to the Grand Canyon we stopped to pay our respects at Salvation Mountain. Its fantastic. It’s like the collective spirit of 60’s America shot up some acid, stepped off the Yellow Submarine, strapped on sparkling red shoes, discovered Jesus and Willy Wonka, and decided to capture the moment by building a monument with paint, straw and mud in the middle of the Colorado desert.
West Coast Travel Diary Part 2: Grand Canyon
We drove down the historic Route 66 stopping to take a picture by the iconic green and white road sign. We made an unscheduled stop at Oatman, Arizona, a former mining town nestled amongst the Black Mountains where by a freak coincidence, on that day, was being held some sort of grand reunion of hundreds of Harley Davidson bikers. Because of course there was! Rows and rows of shiny Harleys lined the street some of them real classics with low seats, tall upright handlebars, monstrously big tyres. There was a makeshift stage in one clearing with someone cranking up an electric guitar, a smoking barbecue pit and knots of cheerful old men with flowing white beards and arms covered with ink standing around eating and drinking.
A chain of bikers driving down the highways was a common sight in those parts – some in a perfect line, some in a A-shaped formation, like mythical heroes, smoothly navigating the twists and turns of the undulating mountainous terrain before hitting the flat endless ribbon of tar stretching out into the horizon across endless desert. We passed by a gas station that looked like it hadn’t changed in 60 years or more. It had a tangerine Corvette parked out front and license plates from across the country covering the ceiling of the store.
Our guide, like any true blue American, loved a grand gesture. He carefully orchestrated our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, blindfolding us and leading us out single file to a view point on the edge. Just so he could have the pleasure of hearing the collective gasp as we first laid our eyes on what is undoubtably one of the most iconic sights in the West. It feels so unreal like a painted scene you feel like you can reach out and yank out of its place. Even as you hike down it stopping at various places like the aptly named “Ooh Aah” point it still feels surreal. Like walking on Mars.
Our guide made us get up at an unholy hour the next morning so we could see the sunrise over the Canyon. Initially we cursed him. A lot. Because it was freezing cold and extremely windy. But we fell silent once the first rays of the sun burst out above the horizon and slowly spread a rosy burnished glow over the canyon’s craggy peaks with the rest still in deep shadow.
West Coast Travel Diary Part 3: Las Vegas
Ah Vegas. Disneyland for adults. A place so completely over the top and utterly devoid of irony you will either love it or hate it, there are no half measures here. At some point the property magnates developing Vegas decided they would create oases in the desert that would serve as homages to the great cities of the world. So you have Roman Triumphal Arches, the Trevi Fountain, the Venetian Grand Canal, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge not to mention entire streets and plazas and squares recreated inside air-conditioned shopping malls and hotels. So you feel, you know, mildly civilised and cultured even as you sip giant fluorescent coloured margaritas and gleefully buy tickets to the Chippendale show.
One of the best indoor hotel displays is at the Bellagio where American artist Dale Chihuly’s massive multi-coloured blown glass sculpture of flowers covers the ceiling. The nearby conservatory is very Tim Burton-esque with exotic displays of real flowers interspersed with blown glass varieties and giant glass butterflies and bluebells floating suspended in the air above.
The only part of Vegas I find depressing is the casinos that sprawl across the ground floors of every hotel. I swear they are designed in such a way that you instantly get lost and feel like you’re never going to find the exit or see sunlight again. Momentarily this causes a panic as you pass infinite rows of flashing slot machines and blackjack tables trying desperately to see any familiar signs – elevator, reception, street exit?! That combined with the constant reddish glow everywhere, the generic music, the rarified air (I heard they pump oxygen to keep gamblers awake all night) made me mildly nauseous. The casinos are always crowded though no matter the time of day or night mostly with slightly grumpy looking old people in floral dresses and pastel sweaters. To be fair they probably feel the same way about clubbing as I do about casinos.
Clubbing in Vegas is pretty special. Its the Mecca if you will where party-pilgrims from all over the world come to pay their respects. The clubs are massive and always have a great setting whether its a huge balcony on a high floor with amazing views of the Strip, or an outdoors area overlooking the iconic musical fountain displays. Our first night in Vegas we rented a giant sparkling red limo because of course we did! It came complete with surround sound, psychedelic lights, a glitter ball, stripper’s pole, and retractable roof so we could stick our heads out, watch the blurring lights of Vegas go by and wave and shriek at amused passers by.
When I was in college we used to often play 60s rock in our rooms and switch on the Windows Media Player graphics feature that filled the computer screen with geometric patterns and splashes of colour that moved to the beat of the music. Imagine my delight when we stopped by a mall which had a projection screen covering the roof that was playing kaleidoscopic images to a Doors soundtrack!
If you move away from the Strip there are some common themes that are ubiquitous as you drive around – All-You-Can-Eat breakfast buffets, strip clubs, wedding chapels, gun ranges and monster trucks! And I mean monster. I could literally walk under the wheels if I wanted to. What is hilarious about these four-by-fours is you will see them being driven around by the most unlikely people – teenage girls, soccer moms. This is actually an accepted means of transportation i.e. drive something closely resembling an army tank to say get a manicure, or pick up your kids from school.
West Coast Travel Diary Part 4: Yosemite
After Vegas to recover from the feeling of complete debauchery and excess we headed to Yosemite National Park. It was the perfect antidote. We hiked through wooded paths in dappled sunlight under the watchful eye of El Capitan – a giant granite monolith and the most identifiable amongst various such rock formations that line Yosemite Valley. This was when I first realised how seriously people take rock climbing. Climbers scale the sheer smooth face of El Capitan every year which I imagine is difficult in itself. But even more incredibly, they often spend the night by literally hitching a hammock on the side of the rock and suspending themselves mid-air a couple of thousand feet above the ravine.
We hiked to the summit of the Falls and it was amazing to be able to peer over the edge and watch the clear transparent water as it rushed over smooth granite rocks. The Falls went roaring down in a torrent of white foam to the valley below, forming a narrow river which eventually disappeared in the far distance amidst a forest of tall firs.
West Coast Travel Diary Part 5: San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the most picturesque cities I have visited in the U.S a close second I would say to Savannah, Georgia. Nestled on a hilly bay one of the most curious features is the way the city landscape rolls up and down with very steep inclines. Imagine huffing and puffing and climbing a mini-hill just to get to the next block over! Another strange feature is the way banks of rolling fogs descend over the city – these are best captured by crossing the Golden Gate bridge and stopping atop a view point at the other end.
A third odd feature I noticed about San Francisco was the sheer number of homeless people on the streets. What is different about them though is that they often seem to be muttering and mumbling to themselves, or having arguments with an unseen companion. Unlike in London where they sit silently near the entrance to tube stations with cups or hats near them for pennies. One such person sat next to me on the bus and unnerved me because he was constantly chattering to himself, mostly gibberish, and gesturing wildly. The other passengers on the bus barely noticed him and neither did the bus driver so he must have been a frequent commuter. I asked my guide why they seem so unstable and he said its because a lot of them are addicted to drugs. Apparently San Fran won the dubious reputation of being the homeless capital of the States because the city used to have generous welfare programmes including cash payouts (though I think this has been pared back now). And drugs are cheap and relatively easy to obtain on the streets.
I skipped the tours to the Alcatraz prison and instead spent a day rambling around the city. I started by taking a bus to the Painted Ladies – a row of bright, colourful Victorian-style houses. Most neighbourhoods in San Francisco have houses rather than apartment blocks with recurrent designs – protruding bay windows and triangular gabled roofs. They also like to paint their houses unusual colours – chocolate brown, mint green, powder blue, egg shell yellow, baby pink.
When you hop a rattling tram to the top of those rolling hills I mentioned you get lovely shots of these colourful neighbourhoods in all directions interspersed with church steeples, green squares and in the background the glittering blue ocean. From the Painted Ladies I headed to the de Young museum set inside Golden Gate park. I highly recommend this place if you have the time as it has some beautiful works of art and a high observation deck that offers great views across the city and bay area.
From here I took a bus back to City Hall, walked through China Town festooned with bright red lanterns and took a tram up to Lombard Street- a really strange winding road with eight hair pin turns going down the side of a steep hill.
Along the way I randomly came across a church – Grace Cathedral which I have to give a special mention here. For some reason the transept had hundreds of multicoloured silken threads of pinks and purples suspended from the ceiling which made for quite a pretty effect under the lights reflected by the brilliantly coloured stained glass windows. The window designs had a modern geometric spin – I especially liked one of St Jerome with a wizard-like pointy hat on his head and a lion at his feet.
From San Fran we embarked on the last leg of our great American road trip driving along the iconic PCH – Pacific Coast Highway – probably one of the most scenic drives in the world, via Santa Barbara and back to Los Angeles.
What I loved most about this trip was the sheer variety of experiences. It made me realise how huge the United States is. You can drive for days through endless desert with no signs of habitation as far as the eye can see and then bam! You’re in Vegas. Or you can marvel at the giant sequoias and hike through Yosemite one day and the next night go bar-hopping in the Gaslight Quarter of San Diego.
And every cliche you have heard about Californians is true. There were times I would pass joggers with bronzed skin and taut abs, holding a wheatgrass smoothie in one hand and a leash for their equally photogenic dog in the other and it was impossible not to smile as they waved cheerily and ran past. And on the boardwalks by the beaches I would pass groups of dreadlocked teenagers strumming guitars, huts selling medical marijuana, groups of well oiled and muscled body builders working out and people rollerblading with their kids. Everyone seemed so relaxed – just happy to be there and enjoying the sunshine. Its more than just a state ..its a state of mind.