CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP ’19

culture. wine. nature.

19/09-03/10

California had held a special place in my heart since I first visited its northern part, back in 2011, where a mix of good friends and great times meant I left a piece of myself in that stunning part of the world. I knew back then as soon as I left that it would only be a question of time until I’d come back.

So, eight years after our first encounter, did the Sunny State live up to my old expectations?

the itinerary

how we got there / around:

  • Virgin Atlantic flight LHR to SFO (£360) + Lyft from SFO Airport to Union Square ($36.82).
  • Car hire for 11 days £375 from 21/09 to 01/10.
  • Bikes in Sonoma (included in our rental)
  • Lyft (& loads of walking whenever we could) in SF

19/09-21/09 SAN FRANCISCO

where we stayed:

HI San Francisco Union Square, £225 for 2 nights in a private double bedroom with private bathroom (breakfast included).

what we did:

DAY ONE

  • Walked along the piers (Ferry Building -> Pier 39) and wondered in awe at Bay Bridge whilst avoiding a hundred scooters
  • Watched incoming boats like an old couple, then giggled like kids observing the sea lions at Pier 39
  • Had sourdough chowders, surrounded by hundreds of annoying tourists (Pier 39, love it or hate it)
  • Walked up the hill back to our hostel like total champs, despite the jet lag

DAY TWO

  • Wandered around the city (China Town, Yerba Buena Gardens)
  • Got super emotional following the Climate Strike march
  • Spent some down time at a Japanese Onsen (where I tasted some smoked soy sauce – OHMYGOODNESS)
  • Walked to Fort Mason, where we shared some beers & food with locals at Off The Grid
Pier 39 San Francisco
Sunset at Pier 39

what we would do differently:

In all honesty, we were too jet lagged to be able to process anything, and whilst we did walk a HELL OF A LOT that evening, I think it helped us stay awake!

In terms of accommodation, whilst the place we stayed at was a total bargain compared to what you pay in central SF, it’s important to note that area is NOISY AS FUCK. So if you’re a light sleeper, I would recommend paying a little extra for a hotel with double-glazing, or something in a quieter area. Your call.

Top Tips:

  • Do try to get your accommodation sorted as soon as you book your flights, as the best ones (price, location, quality) do get snapped up in a heartbeat! I use Booking.com for most of our trips, as they have a flexible cancellation policy, meaning you can often secure a place and cancel it if you find a better one within a certain timeframe.
  • Map out the sites you wish to visit, and choose the location of your accommodation accordingly.
  • Download the Lyft app to get you around the city when you’re too tired to walk – it’s cheaper than Über & used by many drivers around cities.

Highlights:

Walking at night through a busy road tunnel to the sound of an opera singer practising her vocals at the other end of it. Surreal.


21/09-23/09 TO SONOMA (+ Sausalito)

what we did:

DAY ONE

  • Drove through the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Stopped on our drive North, to enjoy a few hours of Sausalito’s great vibe & unbeatable views of the bay – a MUST!
  • Ate some crackin’ Mexican grub at Copita (still Sausalito)
  • Wandered around Sonoma Plaza

DAY TWO

  • Rode our bikes to Cline, Gundlach Bundschu, and Bartholomew Estate for some wine tasting fun (21 wines in 21.2 miles / 34.11km)
  • Passed out as soon as we got back.
Sausalito Harbour

where we stayed:

At this total gem of a place – loved the decor, the garden, and the bargain of a price for the area! Add to that the use of bikes and boom, you’ve got it all.

what we would do differently:

Cycling to Cline was probably a bit ambitious, in hindsight. This got us to ride on fairly busy roads (I almost got knocked over by a massive truck) and took quite a chunk of our time, which meant we only managed to squeeze in 3 vineyards. The grounds and wine are worth it though, so just get an Über there!

top tips:

  • There are soooo many wineries and tasting rooms dotted around Sonoma, so make sure you plan ahead which ones you’d like to visit, mapping your journey according to your top preferences – both your legs and tastebuds (and wallet) will tire quicker than you think.
  • Sonoma’s also about great food, but the best places tend to book up super quickly – definitely reserve ahead!

highlight:

Geeking out on winemaking choices with the hostess at Gundlach, and being treated to a taste of some special batches.



23/09-25/09 YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

what we did:

  • Drove for ages
  • Tried our best to take in the scale & magnificence of the landscape – simply incredible!
  • Got up at dawn to undertake the Half Dome Hike (without climbing permit)
  • Smashed it in 9 hours (minus the steep climb), so threw in the Mist Trail on our way down – dreaming about a nice cold beer all along
  • Had the beer – tasted like heaven. Upgraded to pizza.
  • Totally passed out

where we stayed:

Crane Flat campsite, $22 a night. The closest site to the Valley that you can prebook (30mn drive). No showers, but spacious pitches and not overcrowded like Camp 4 – you definitely need to book well in advance though.

what we would do differently:

  • Apply in advance for the Half Dome climb permit.
  • Plan at least an extra day in the Valley.
  • Remember to buy t-shirts & magnets
  • Stay at Housekeeping Camp (where I stayed last time) for those unbeatable starry night sky views (hellooooo Milky Way!)

top tips:

  • Plan, plan, plan – Yosemite is HUGE, and there will never be enough time to explore all its glory. Decide ahead the trails you wish to hike, as some of them do require you wake up before the sun to make it back on time before sunset.
  • Avoid school holiday seasons & weekends
  • Apply for permits well in advance (you’d be lucky to get one on the spot without having to wait for a few hours)
  • Just like SF, rooms and campsites here get booked up super quickly, so get yours organised as soon as possible, especially if you’re on a budget.

highlights:

  • Managing to complete one of the park’s toughest hikes (minus the final Half Dome climb), and in a decent time too
  • Spotting a bobcat in the wilderness!
  • Meeting fellow hikers on the trail & bumping into them again in the Valley, beer in hand – that look of mutual respect that speaks more than a thousand words
  • Oh, and drinking aforementioned beer, obviously (mine was a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, now forever associated with the memory of that incredible day)


25/09-26/09 ROAD TO DEATH VALLEY

DISCLAIMER: Yosemite to Death Valley was honestly the most scenic drive I have ever experienced in my life!

what we did:

  • Drove through the Sierra Nevada to the sound of some epic tunes
  • Stopped in Lone Pine for the night – think Western movie town with a hidden and unexpected modern vibe, plus Mt Whitney as a backdrop.
  • Chatted & drank with locals over a delicious meal at Seasons
  • Came across some truly incredible vista points on the way
  • Hiked the Death Valley Red Cathedral trail in a 45*C heat, because we’re idiots
  • Stood 85.5 meters / 282 feet below sea levels at Badwater Basin
The scale of this place is insane!

where we stayed:

Mt Whitney Motel in Lone Pine – cheap & friendly motel perfect for a stopover, and a short walk away from shops, bars and restaurants.

what we would do differently:

  • Skip the Red Cathedral hike.

top tips:

  • Keep your H2O levels topped up – there’s a water refill station at the visitor centre
  • Keep your fuel levels topped up – the park is massive, so don’t go in with just half a tank.
  • Do the tourist bit: stop at the vista points, they are the main attraction!

highlights:

  • The breathtaking canyon view at the Inyokern vista point
  • The most incredible drive from Yosemite to Death Valley
  • The heart-warming encounters in Lone Pine
  • That first shower + bed feeling after 2 days’ worth of camping and hiking. Hell Yes.


27/09-29/09 SANTA BARBARA

what we did:

  • Admired the 360* views from the beach – Pacific ocean on one side, town and mountain backdrop on the other.
  • Made some friends whilst tasting incredible wines at Au Bon Climat and Frequency Wines
  • Marvelled like kids at the Sea Center’s various aquatic exhibits
  • Told each other we could totally see ourselves moving here
  • Had seriously the BEST. DONUT. EVER. at Hook & Press
  • Tasted a cracking flight of local brews at Night Lizard Brewery and sipped great cocktails whilst soaking up the atmosphere at Sama Sama.

where we stayed:

Orange Tree Inn, £260 for 2 nights in a large double room. Clean & comfortable, with friendly welcoming staff, an outdoor pool, a 7/11 next door, and just a 20mn walk from SB’s main attractions – would definitely go back!

what we would do differently:

We felt so at home we would have happily stayed for another couple of days!

top tips:

  • Don’t miss out on those wine rooms! (especially ABC & Frequency!)
  • Don’t go for a meal: go for many bites instead, and wash it all down with a tasty brew or exotic cocktail.
  • Take a nap on the beach before working your way back through the bars.

highlights:

  • The friendly people, incredible wines & delicious food!
  • The Spanish Colonial-style architecture against a stunning natural backdrop of mountain, ocean and sunshine.


29/09-30/09 MONTEREY

Monterey had been a big question mark in our itinerary from the start. Whatever I had heard about it in the past had left an impression of a charming middle-class town with an air of nostalgia that was worth visiting, yet nothing about it was truly grabbing me prior to the trip.

So when Dan’s parents treated us to a night in one of the town’s fanciest hotels, I decided to binge-watch the first series of Big Little Lies to better connect with the town. Whilst that did the trick indeed, the town itself felt more like a Sunny State version of Blackpool than the quaint Le Touquet vibe I’d expected. The great thing about that? No guilt whatsoever in staying indoors in our fancy-ass suite at the Hotel Pacific – thanks L&R! 🙂

what we would do differently:

Spend more time in Santa Barbara!

top tip:

  • One day is more than enough in the town itself

highlight:

Binging on peanut butter M&M’s and Forensic Files in our super luxurious suite.



30/09-01/10 SANTA CRUZ

The memory I’d kept of Santa Cruz had been one of carefree fun in the sun with the quirky backdrop of a vintage-looking funfair, and the relaxed atmosphere of a surfing town crowd.

By the time we got there, however, school had already started, meaning the daily attractions had shut until the weekend, giving the boardwalk more of a creepy ghost town atmosphere than the cool kids vibe I had sold to Dan.

what we did:

  • Walked along the pier to watch the sea lions (seriously entertaining)
  • Stopped at the fun concept that is Pour Taproom to taste as many brews as we could (whilst munching on their moreish Gnawchos)

where we stayed:

Santa Cruz Budget Inn, a pretty basic motel with friendly staff. £61 per night. There are more upmarket options available close to the boardwalk.

what we would do differently:

Definitely go there when the boardwalk is actually open for business – the atmosphere is the polar opposite.

top tips:

  • Visit SC during school holidays
  • Skip altogether if boardwalk fun isn’t your thing

highlights:

  • Satisfying our teenage ambition of owning some kickass original Santa Cruz skateboarding apparel
  • Observing & giggling at the sea lions


01/10-03/10 BACK TO SAN FRAN

what we did:

  • Took in the city views & Painted Ladies at Alamos Square
  • Got our ribs & beer game on at 21st Amendment Brewery
  • Confused my non-scientific brain more than once at the Exploratorium
  • Wandering around the huge and beautiful Golden Gate Park – absolute MUST!
  • Made our last breakfast an epic one at It’s Tops (think bacon waffle with banana and maple syrup, in super retro, mini-jukebox-on-the-table kind of settings)

where we stayed:

Hotel 964, £252 for 2 nights. Pretty good location, and super friendly staff. Rooms are on the small size and the building is quite old, so can be quite noisy.

what we would do differently:

Nope. Can’t think of anything!

top tips:

  • The last couple of days of a trip are a great time to take it all in and reflect – make that time to go to that bar or restaurant that’s still on your list!

highlights:

Taking a couple of hours to simply “be”, at the Golden Gate Park’s stunning Japanese Tea Garden, and realising that Japan’s next on the list!


so, would I go back?

Absolutely, YES! And whilst it’s not a priority, we already talked about what our trip would look like next time: less time in the city, for more time in Yosemite & Santa Barbara, plus Sequoia National Park and Russian River Valley. Although Oregon & Washington are definitely calling the wine geek in me!

Until next time.