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I spent about six months researching and planning our "holiday of a lifetime" to california, figuring out routes, driving times, "must sees", good places to eat, and value hotels. Thought i'd share the full works for posterity and hopefully it'll help someone else who's panicking at midnight about that ambitious driving distance!
if Carling made airlines.....
Our dream trip began with the private MaxJet departure lounge at Stansted. Goodbye scabby Ryanair, hello quiet, tranquil environment with staff who treat you with respect. Maxjet is a business-class only airline, and our ten hour flightswas as pleasant as an afternoon on your own sofa, only with better entertainment and somebody arriving with a menu any time you start to get hungry.
Sadly, Maxjet announced yesterday (december 2007) that they have filed for bankruptcy, which is a sad loss - our trip wouldn't have been the same without it!
Picked up our convertible Mustang from the rental terminal (shuttle bus from the airport took 5 minutes, and only had us on it, couldn't have been simpler!), plugged in the sat nav we'd brought from the UK pre-loaded with West Coast maps, and headed over to the HI Express. Hotel was chosen for a low-maintenance, informal intro to Vegas: two minutes from parking lot to bedroom, UNLIKE checking in anywhere on the strip. Comfortable king bed, excellent shower, and very quiet - just what we wanted at this point, as we were returning to Vegas at the end of the trip and planned to do the Strip properly then. Quick shower and then the 2-minute drive to the strip, followed by cruising the strip in the sunshine, roof down, huuuuuge grins on our faces. Parked at TI, just because it was central and we could see the entrance easily without getting too lost in the traffic! Supper at:
Saw this recommended on one of the forums, and thought the menu looked great. It was. The best luxury salad of my life, and great staff who were understanding when the jet lag started to cut in and brought our food super-fast.
Day 2. A bit more driving around the strip, parked up at the Stratosphere and had a look around. We got an oxygen treatment and back & shoulder massage at Breathe (an oxygen bar in the shopping complex) which was fantastic, left us full of energy and raring to go. Which we celebrated by stuffing ourselves at Top of the World - having figured out we could pay $10 to go up the tower, or $20 for lunch with the view for free! The food was very good and we felt totally pampered again as we looked out at the views over Vegas.
Spent the afternoon on some more wandering the Strip, and a couple of hours by the pool and hot tub at the Holiday Inn - which we had completely to ourselves, try achieving that at the Flamingo!
Day 3. Vegas to LA. Driving should have taken about 4.5 hours, but we tried to detour via part of the Mojave preserve, got it wrong, and ended up in Needles, Nevada (yes, slightly in the wrong direction for LA). If we'd had an extra day, i'd have gone Vegas to Joshua Tree NP with a stopover in twentynine palms or somewhere, then on to LA via Palm Springs. Sadly, we didnt, so we just got Barstow for a very late lunch (not especially recommended but there aren't too many other options!) and arriving at the Sunset Tower rather later than planned. Driving across LA was a little tense by USA standards, but nothing on London or Paris!
Sunset Tower was a lovely hotel, we decided LA was the place to splurge on a luxury room and we certainly got it. Front desk staff were lovely but those organising the pool / restaurant needed a good slap - officially the pool didn't close until 6pm, but that didn't stop the staff making us very unwelcome at 5pm and eventually chucking our belongings off of our sunbeds at 5.30 so they could rearrange the furniture for the evening shift.
Evening meal here - sitting outside on Sunset Boulevard, patio heaters provided! Great food, great cocktails, reasonable price (under $90 for two inc drinks), fabulous people (and car-)watching.
Day 4: Hollywood to Venice Beach.
Spent the morning doing the tourist thing around Hollywood & Highland. Had to be done but didn't really love it - same as LA in general in fact!. Afternoon at the Beverley Centre as we were told this was a huge mall, but i think UK shopping has come a long way since this was built - if you've been to the new Bullring, or Bluewater, you won't be much impressed by this place.
Out to Venice Beach late afternoon. After the previous night we were economising a bit, and if i did the trip again i'd find the extra £100 and stay in Santa Monica. The Beach Suites were OK, room and miniscule bathroom clean but basic and the staff very friendly and helpful with finding us free onstreet parking a few blocks away. But, we arrived at the end of one of the first hot weekends of the year, and things in the area were more than a bit lairy. "eccentrics" and hard drug users very much in evidence, backed up by high volume reggae etc blaring from every shop along the sea front - right underneath the hotel. Having said that, If you're looking for batik, cheap joss sticks, or craft items made from the purveyor's own body hair, then Venice Beach boardwalk is the place for you.
We weren't, so we cut and run in favour of supper in Santa Monica (beautiful place), peace was restored by the time we returned late-ish, and we really enjoyed the hotel's beautiful location and a quiet morning walk along the beach the next day. Walk towards Santa Monica for about 10 minutes and you'll come to Figtrees Cafe - gorgeous pancake stack with fresh fruit for a perfect breakfast.
Day 5: Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo. Driving time about 4hrs total.
Lovely drive up the coast through Malibu, stopped off for lunch in Santa Barbara - you could do worse than clam chowder followed by shrimp & lobster tacos at Moby Dick's on the pier, for lunch!
Overnight in San Luis Obispo, couldn't recommend the Best Western too highly. Very nice room (two double beds), comfy beds, nice linen, and a nice pool for about £70; breakfast was a great selection too, and there's a small retail park opposite with a supermarket to stock up on bits for the car. San Luis itself seemed like a great little town too, check out the fantastic neon on the art deco cinema after dark.
Had supper here - just the bar snacks and cocktails as we were pretty stuffed from lunch, but bar snacks were scallops, tuna tartare, foie gras etc. Absolutely wonderful food and staff, and a great evening.
Day 6: Morro Bay, Cambria, Hearst Castle, Southern Big Sur. Driving time about 4hrs total, but we had to keep moving to get everything in today!
Drove up to Morro Bay, very beautiful so we were there a while taking photos. Then on to Robin's for lunch - another planned stop based on TA recommendations! Absolutely worth it - we ate on the vine-covered verandah area, and the food was great again. Tip though - share a starter AND a main unless you're extremely hungry. We especially loved the ahi sashimi and the salads. If we could have, we'd have returned to sample the dinner menu!
A quick pull off from the main road from Cambria to Hearst Castle, spend as long as you can spare marvelling at the huge seal colony. They're either fighting or sleeping - it's a bit like Essex on a beach.
I wasn't sure about doing this, as it took out a good chunk of the day, but my partner wanted to and i was REALLY glad we did. I enjoyed the gardens and pools outside, and the views down over the coastline, as much as the Castle itself, but it was all beautiful and unique, and definitely a must see.
Driving on into Big Sur proper, the really fabulous views began and Hwy 1 got much more bendy (just as we were starting to say "what's all the fuss about, haven't these people been to Cornwall?!) - you need to be down at 30mph-ish for many of the bends, so total driving time from Hearst to the Glen Oaks was about 2 1/2 hrs, including a few photo stops.
The Glen Oaks was another massive hit - see my separate review of the motel. Great supper of home smoked salmon salad at the Ripplewood resort, about 5 mins driving time south of Glen Oaks.
Day 7: Big Sur to Monterey.
Slightly back south in the morning to take the Julia Pfeiffer turning off Hwy 1, park straight up, and walk around the marked cliff trail for 5 minutes to one of the most stunning views you'll ever see. Then keep going around the headland until you run out of path - there's more view on the other side!
About 1/2hr north of Julia Pfeiffer, we'd booked this from the UK, as we ride at home. It was one of the highlights of the trip to see such wonderful scenery from horseback; rides are suitable for total beginners as they're supposed to be walking and the occasional trot only (though of course the horses didn't necessarily agree, and we got a little canter due to new season excitement!).
Continuing north on Hwy1, stopped off in Carmel for a late lunch - make sure you get time for a quick gawp at the unbelievably manicured town, and the stunning white-sand town beach which is definitely in "died and gone to heaven" territory.
Arrived in Monterey in the early evening for a wash up before dinner. This hotel got my BEST BED award of the trip, up against some pretty tough competition - huge king bed with massive sprung mattress, feather mattress topper, really soft bedlinen and fluffy duvet and pillows. I had to have breakfast in bed the following morning because i just couldn't bear to get out of it.
Supper in Monterey - another recommendation, i'd pretty much chosen tonight's supper 3 months before we arrived while drooling over the internet menu. I still have cravings now for the seared ahi wonton starter, and the wasabi fish special, was.
Day 8: up to San Francisco. Driving time about 3hrs, staying on the coast road as far as Santa Cruz.
Spent the morning at the aquarium, the sea otters were brilliant but i was expecting a lot more from the otter exhibit they were advertising. Tickets aren't cheap, so unless you want to keep kids occupied for half a day i'd take the ten minute walk down to the pier from the Monterey Bay Inn and watch the seals there instead, and save your money. You're within a couple of feet of the seals and I found them much more cute, funny and fascinating than the aquarium (and also less stuffed with screeching kids!).
Quick stopoff for some retro-boardwalk action (getting very competitive with that weird upwards bowling game by now). Looked like a fun place in general, but the weather was cool and we couldn't find anywhere to park, so didn't see much else!
Top choice for 3 nights in San Francisco. Got a good deal with parking included, room was spacious, bed high on the Good Bed Award list, excellent breakfast, 5 mins walk from Union Square and with a cable car stop right outside. Check your bill before you leave as they had a few maths issues on ours.
We especially loved:
Fisherman's wharf - yes it's cheesy, but still fun. Go get a boudin's clam chowder in sourdough bowl.
The Castro - wonderful friendly feel to the neighborhood, and we got lucky and picked up last minute tickets to see Robin Williams and Armistead Maupin at the Castro theatre, so worth checking what's on.
The 49 mile drive. If you have a car, you must do this - obviously driving over the Bridge and all, but the rest of it just keeps chucking more stunning views at you.
North Beach and City Lights bookstore - got me all misty eyed due to a murky past as American Lit student.
Sunday Lunch on the terrace at the Cheesecake Factory, Macy's, Union Square. Key Lime cheescake was our fave, and fewer cocktails than we'd have had if we weren't driving later in the day.
Our Great American Steakhouse Experience. Incredible steak, creamed spinach, shoestring potatoes, bottle of red wine, and an ambulance for two. Thankyou.
Day 11: late night driveathon to get most of the way from SF to Death Valley. I-5 has lots of little clusters of cheapy fast food outlets and motels along it, this was at one of them, we had supper at a Taco Bell with two cold Coronas from the car, and stayed in a spacious, comfortable room after a cool swim, total cost about £35. Enjoyed the feeling of smug economy - try this in the UK and you'll have a skin disease by the morning.
Day 12: middle of nowhere to Death Valley. Total driving time: can't remember as too busy being blown away by the scenery - but DO remember that it took a hell of a long time to reach Furnace Creek from Stovepipe Wells, which in my head was "almost there".
Death Valley was the most incredible place i've ever been. Yes, the accomodation and food are overpriced, but do anything you can to get here, and you won't care.
Lunch was on the shady terrace at the Panamint Springs resort, watching the palm trees and drinking their homemade lemonade.
Drive on towards Furnace Creek, stopping off at the Stovepipe wells dunes - rubber soled shoes best avoided as ours started to melt after 5 mins on the dunes at 100 degrees + ! Check into the Ranch, and lounge in the wonderful warm spring water swimming pool. Then time your drive out to the Artists Palette and Badwater over twilight, arriving at Badwater at dusk. You'll likely be the only people there, walking out over the stunning salt flats in the deepest silence you ever heard.
We needed more time here. Even in May, sightseeing and (especially) photography time is limited to a couple of hours after dawn and before dusk, and distances are big, so we didn't get time to see the Rhyolite area and had to rush around the other sights.
Day 13: Death Valley to Vegas for our last two nights.
Up early so that we could visit Zabriskie Point and Dante's view on the way back to Vegas. All fabulous.
Back to Vegas, about 3hrs all in. Lunch at Chilli's, tasty and cheap!
Major faff parking in and checking into the Flamingo - can't believe people routinely put up with a 25 minute queue just to check in. Room was great though - we had a GO room pretty much on the top floor, with brilliant floor to ceiling views of the Strip.
Supper - $15 prime rib special at the Victorian Room, Bill's - bargain! All night $5 blackjack session at O'Shea's, ended up a few dollars up after an entertaining evening and free cocktails all night!
Took a helicopter trip with Papillon - from memory about £150 each for limo pickup to McCarran, helicopter over hoover dam and lake mead, landing on a ledge in the canyon for champagne and snacks, and helicopter flight back.
Very well organised, great staff, incredible value for money and the trip was unforgettable. A great way to spend our last day in the States.