The coastal drive from LA to San Francisco is one of the greatest in the world and so, having come all this way, it would have been rude not to try it. On the way out of LA we slipped through Malibu, where the real estate is even more expensive than Beverley Hills, and your neighbours are likely to be headline movie stars.
We followed the coast and came to the beautiful little town of Santa Barbara. It had just been in the news for all the wrong reasons, but we found a lovely coastal community with a tidy, quaint downtown, and lovely beach. The road cuts slightly inland after Santa Barbara, and we travelled over gentle hills through some of California’s best farmland before hooking up back to the coast.
We stayed the night in a popular tourist town called San Luis Obispo, which wouldn’t have been remarkable except that we took the opportunity to go to the local drive-in movie theatre. We were probably the only people who watched the double feature actually in bed!
The next section of the famous drive goes through the Big Sur, where Highway 1 hugs the coast like a kid and his mum on the first day at kinder. The scenery is quite spectacular as each bend and switch-back brings another killer view of Pacific surf pounding into the cliffs below. The speed limit is low, and the drive just seems to go and go forever. We took our time and stopped at many viewing outlooks and points of interest along the way, including a smelly seal colony. With a lot of planning and a bit of luck we managed to snaffle one of the few campsites along the Big Sur, and went to sleep with the sound of crashing waves in the distance.
The road eventually calms down as it hits the historic port of Monterey, then winds round Monterey Bay to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is best known for its Boardwalk and old-fashioned fun-fair that stretches along the waterfront – think Blackpool or Luna Park. Still very popular, with carousels and penny arcades, it harks back to a simpler time. And even the modern-day kids seemed to be having fun.
And that brought us to our favourite city so far on this trip – San Francisco. I think it is fair to say that we both instantly fell for San Francisco, and by the third day our biggest concern was how to tell Kirralee’s mum that we were moving there! (We aren’t, by the way – we still have to check out the rest of the country first!) It certainly helped that we stayed in a beautiful apartment in a really cool area, with wonderful air bnb hosts.
So where to start? San Francisco (the locals don’t say ‘San Fran’ or ‘Frisco’) is a good size for a city – not too big, not too small. It has a pleasant downtown area and some other really fantastic neighbourhoods, whether the funky Mission district, the colourful Castro neighbourhood, vibrant Chinatown, or cool Little Italy. It sits surrounded by water, so there are lots of great harbour views. Mix in an interesting history, the prison island of Alcatraz, and those cute trolley busses that trundle up and down those huge hills, and you get a really varied offering. What’s more, you can even get a decent coffee there – something we have found few and far between in the States!
As well as wandering around the various parts of the city (including checking out Balmy Alley, an alleyway noted for it’s political graffiti art murals created over the last 30 years), we also hired some bikes from the grandly revitalised Ferry Passenger Terminal. The Terminal was once the entry for thousands of immigrants to the west, but became derelict and unbelievably had a freeway built in front of it. Now the freeway is gone and the place is restored to its former glory, and is full of funky cafes and stores selling yummy produce.
We rode our bikes around the harbour, through some wonderful sweeping bay views, and all the way across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. We finished some 17kms later at a sleepy seaside town called Sausalito. Then we caught a ferry back to the city, via Alcatraz.
We also explored the Maritime quarter with its collection of historic ships, and climbed the mural decorated Coit Tower, from which you get good views of the bay and city skyline.
One Friday night we popped along to our first Major League Baseball game to watch the San Francisco Giants in action against the Colorado Rockies at AT&T stadium, a relatively new venue built on the waterfront. After the game the crowd was treated to a magnificent fireworks show. (Unfortunately, since Kirralee became a fan on account of purchasing a cap, the Gaints – World’s Series winners in two of the last three years and boasting the best record of any team in the country up to when we visited – have lost pretty much every game, including snatching defeat from the jaws of victory the night we went to see them. She will NOT be coming with me to watch Everton play, ever…)
The only negatives? The San Francisco weather is mixed to say the least. Apparently Mark Twain humerously noted that the coldest winter he had experienced was July in San Francisco. A little cruel, but the city certainly gets its share of sea fog and high winds, and it’s not always the balmy blue-sky California days we might imagine. Parking is an absolute battle – so much so that when streets have to be cleared for street cleaning (once or twice a week), people just sit in their cars and pull them fully onto the kerb, engine running, as the street sweeper passes, to make sure they do not lose their spot.
One final disappointment – at no time was there a police car chase up and down the infamous hills while some workmen carried a large plate glass window across the road next to a fruit and vegetable stall… I guess life isn’t like the movies after all…
On our last day we drove out across the Oakland Bay Bridge with mixed feelings – sad to be leaving, but excited that our next stop was one of America’s favourite outdoor playgrounds: Yosemite National Park.