Once Upon A Time in California: A 12-day Road Trip Around the Golden State (2004)
DAY ONE: PANCAKES AND CHAMPAGNE
Blurry-eyed from our early morning Manchester to Heathrow flight, we find ourselves waiting for our luggage in the arrivals hall alongside the then GB Olympic swimming team. Among them James Hickman and Graeme Smith.
Onward to check-in for our flight to LA!
The princely sum of 30,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles allowed us to upgrade to Upper Class and the privilege to use the lounge, where I made short work of my American pancake breakfast and champagne.
I was handed the in-flight lunch menu and planned out my onboard activities…massage, lunch with a nice glass of sauvignon, then…sleep!
Just over 11 hours later and we're leaving LAX airport along Highway 405 onto Highway 1, the sea the only constant along the way, azure blue reflecting the cloudless California sky.
We pass through the towns of Laguna Beach – pretty and expensive-looking; Carlsbad – much the same - and stop at San Clemente. Which isn't as well-heeled, but where we laid our heads for the night at the imaginatively named Budget Motel where $90/night plus tax got us a mini suite.
The accommodation was definitely 'budget', but clean and comfortable. The cheerful Mexican restaurant across the road provided us with a very palatable meal before bedtime.
DAY TWO: THE JEWEL
An hour and a half after leaving San Clemente we've reached our destination, La Jolla (pronounced ‘La Hoy-a’), 'The Jewel'.
It's a northern suburb of San Diego and lives up to its name.
As a cosmopolitan town providing plenty of people-watching opportunities from its plentiful bars and eateries, and before checking into our accommodation, Moondoggies is our balcony of choice where a nice sandwich and beer passed an hour or so.
Before heading to our hotel, we make a detour to the glider port and watch bright parachutes taking advantage of the breeze off the cliff.
The busy 4-star Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines is hosting three weddings and a conference, as we arrive. The hotel can keep most guests occupied with a spa, golf course, mini gym, large outdoor pool, and hot tub.
A cold beer or cocktail from the poolside bar looks rather inviting…
DAY THREE: BISCUIT ANYONE?
Rounding the corner on Jimmy Durante Boulevard, the deep apricot-coloured opulence of the Del Mar Race Track comes into view.
Opened by Bing Crosby in 1937 and located 20 miles north of San Diego, the track welcomes young and old alike.
It advertises itself as "Where the turf meets the surf" and played host to the legendary dual between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti in 1938. It continues to draw the crowds throughout the California summer.
Our reserved table at the Stretch Run Grill is our base, providing great views of the finish line, and our very friendly server sees to our drinking and eating needs while we come and go throughout the day. A trip to the paddock gave us the chance to see who we fancied in each race. A flutter here and there and we break even. So didn’t feel too guilty.
Tip: Wear comfy shoes!
DAY FOUR: SAN DIEGO
San Diego markets itself as "America's City". It reminds me of San Francisco, but less touristy. The Gaslamp Quarter - a thriving mix of good music and food - offers a choice of every culture from Mexican, Italian, English and American. A few cafes and restaurants offer live music throughout the week and on the Sunday we were there, we found ourselves in the 5th Quarter. A lively cafe style restaurant/bar on Fifth and Market offering American food with live music from The Aubrey Faye Band bringing jazz, soul and R'n'B renditions to this popular venue.
We only have one night in San Diego, but it is very comfortably spent in one of the spacious 5th Avenue Loft rooms at the Hilton Gaslamp Quarter. The hotel is an ideal base for exploring San Diego on foot and provides a welcome retreat after a hard day, offering its full-size outdoor swimming pool and fitness room.
We leave for Palm Springs the following morning suitably refreshed and laid back...
DAY FIVE: DESERT OASIS
On the I-10 through the San Gorgonio Pass of Palm Desert, the ever-changing colours of the rocks and sand introduce us to the oasis that is Palm Springs. We gawp at the lushness of the lawns hidden behind the high gates of the seemingly endless estates along the road. The coolness of the car disguises the 100°F (40°C) heat that awaits us. At 3.30 pm, the lack of people outdoors gives a clue to the unforgiving temperature.
At the end of Ramon Drive, sits the entrance to our destination, the Ingleside Inn. The Inn doesn't boast a garish, obvious hotel entrance, but a driveway that could lead to a friend's home. The Spanish-style building looks like a haven of inviting coolness and tranquillity.
© Ingleside Inn
The cool verandah leads into the small, welcoming reception area and a friendly face greets us. That face is most likely to be that of Armida, the hotel manager, who -after 20 years with the hotel - takes enormous pride in the Ingleside and making sure that her guests - sometimes stars of stage and screen - are looked after as if they are her own family.
The same can be said for the rest of the team here.
David, the bartender, has been at the Inn for over 30 years. He says no one else will have him. He does serve the most lethal vodka martinis! He’s happy to advise you on what to do and see in Palm Springs - although he is quick to point out that there isn't much to do here, except lounge about, have some lunch, go shopping, maybe do some more lounging about.
Every room here is individually decorated from the Royal Suite and The Library Room to a standard deluxe room, and most are situated around the quiet serenity of the inn's courtyard. It's a place of quiet to do as much or as little as you want and being only two blocks away from Palm Springs village centre, you can park your car (in any available shady spot preferably) and explore.
Melvyn's Restaurant at the Inn offers sumptuous cuisine at affordable prices.
Unusually, we felt quite energetic on our second day in Palm Springs and - on David's suggestion - venture to the city limits and take the Aerial Tramway to the summit of Mount San Jacinto. The rotating tramcar (apparently they boast they have the world's largest - but I think the ones on Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa are bigger), takes you on a scenic journey to the 10,834-foot summit.
The State Park is a complete contrast to what lies at the foot of the mountain. This cool, green, lush wilderness with its vegetation and small animals and birds provides 54 miles of hiking trails through the 14,000-acre park.
At $21pp, it is pricey but the views are spectacular and well worth it. We visited in August, so the mountain is a welcome retreat, with the temperature approximately 30° cooler than the desert below.
Afterwards, the pool at the Ingleside Inn provides the perfect opportunity to relax with complimentary soft drinks.
Steeped in history and understated style and elegance, the Inn hasn't succumbed to the commercial pressure of contemporary minimalist style. The Ingleside Inn boats what many hotels lack...personal individuality, pride in its tradition and style and although you arrive as a guest for the first time, you leave as a friend.
DAY SIX: THE BEAR NECESSITIES
Leaving Palm Springs for Yosemite Vally and seven hours later, with the ever-changing scenic beauty of hills and vast desolate stretches of roads with only gas stations providing a break, we found ourselves in the little town of Bishop, offering us the usual array of branded motels, lodges and diners.
The Vagabond Inn was to be our choice and at $70/night plus tax for a room with one bed, it was clean and located on the edge of the town centre.
Bishop only really offered one place in the way of a bar and that was Whiskey Creek, a combination of a saloon, restaurant and gift shop. The lively atmosphere kept us there for a while and the bartender, Sarah's pitchers of margarita saw us falling out of the door back to the motel.
Leafing through the motel's leaflets we discover that the area of Bishop offers a route that explores the road less travelled (but an SUV was recommended) and took in the old scenic film locations used in westerns, etc. We also heard on the radio the following day about a hiker who left his rucksack high up on a tree because he thought the bears wouldn't get it. He was wrong...and it fought him for it too in the process ripping his shoulder apart!
DAY SEVEN: YOSEMITE
Morning pushed us along and back onto the road on our way to Yosemite. For a while, the 395 offers up its scenes of a cloudless sky, hilltops and occasionally a lake thrown in. The long, desert flanked roads only broken by the occasional gas station at a crossroads.
We stopped briefly at Mammoth Lakes to catch a glimpse of more spectacular scenery that California has to offer before carrying on to our destination.
Entering Yosemite National Park at the Tioga Pass gate (US120 Highway), the cool temperature welcomed us.
Americans should be very grateful. They have hundreds of national parks preserved for them by their ancestors. People who cared enough to make sure that they will have places like Yosemite to play in and appreciate nature; to see and experience animals in their natural habitat.
We stop as we entered the park to put the top of the car down. Immediately the smell of trees and the cool clean mountain air fills our lungs. The density of the forest surrounding us on either side gave just a hint of what lay within.
Was the famed black bear lurking in its midst? What did it think of all these humans that invaded its home every summer, disturbing its life?
Winding our way into the Park, unmissable views grab our attention from every angle. Landmarks like May Lake, Elephant Rock, Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls all make sure that our drive is awe-inspiring.
As we leave the 120 and turn onto Big Oak Flat Road that would lead us into the valley, we soon met the Merced River. People enjoying swimming, paddling, kayaking and sunbathing on the banks of the river that plays a vital role in the valley.
In the shadow of Half Dome, our home for the next two nights came into view - Curry Village - the largest of the available lodging facilities in Yosemite Valley. A choice from basic tent cabins to wooden cabins with facilities. We opted for the tent cabin - a raised platform with an 'A'-frame canvas tent attached to it. Two camp-style beds (comfortable but squeaky) is where we would lay our heads. I hadn't roughed it like this since I'd been at school on camping trips!
After checking in, the "Be Bear Aware" policy drummed into us - we even had to sign a disclaimer - we set off to explore our facilities. With all our scented items packed away in our designated bear locker, we went to find what Curry Village had to offer. As the night is closing in and our exploring done, we settle in at the Cocktail Patio where we are kept happy with wine, beer and pizza.
The following morning I trek to the toilet block behind our tent. As I passed a large tree, a sight struck me - bear crap! Later, while walking, we step off the main path for a few minutes, but are soon back on it when again, we spot a fresh pile of bear crap, this time steaming! We didn't stray off that path again!
Further along, we are confronted by signs advising us on how to defend ourselves against mountain lions! We wander up to Mirror Lake which was very dry. Apparently, most of the water has evaporated by the summertime, but I'm reliably told that it is beautiful in the springtime. There is so much to see and do in this beautiful place (although sometimes scary) I would suggest that if you are interested in visiting that you visit the park's web site: Yosemite National Park.
It's 10.30 pm and I need to pee...Other Half chivalrously offers to walk with me to the toilet block. Torches in hand, we brave the 100-foot trek. A movement catches the corner of my eye and I shine the torch towards it. Shiny black eyes look up at me. "Oh my god....oh my god....a bear!" I shriek quietly. We rush into the toilet block, where I stand shivering, pointing idiotically at the door squeaking "Bear! Bear!" while the bemused lady brushing her teeth wanders what this crazy pair are doing.
We peek out the door and see the bear waddling behind the toilet block, he gives a glancing look at the human with the light and continues on his way back into the wilderness that is, by rights, his home.
What seems like forever but could be no more than 5 minutes, knees still shaking and heart still racing with excitement - or fear - we bravely strut back to our tent and don't fall asleep until the adrenalin subsides.
The next morning, all packed up and ready to roll we head towards Glacier Point - a renowned panoramic view with a 3,000-foot drop to the valley floor - showcasing Half Dome and the Valley. it would be peaceful were it not for the 100 or so tourists. Yosemite is beautiful when you look up. It's when you look down at ground level that you wonder just how long her beauty will survive the never-ending stream of thousands and thousands of daily summer visitors. At least she has some respite in winter.
We bid farewell to beautiful Yosemite and head for Lake Tahoe.
DAY EIGHT: THE LAKE OF THE SKY
In winter the beauty that is Lake Tahoe with, her hills and summits blanketed white, sheds that coat in summer.
The 72-mile circumference of 'The Lake of the Sky' hosts skiers, boarders and gamblers during the cold season, but from May to November a new breed of visitor invades her shores.
Divided almost half between California and Nevada from north to south with the North Shore being predominantly in Nevada (and in my opinion the more scenic of the two), whether you need your car or not is dependent on what your activities are.
If gambling in the summer combined with some experience of the lake is what you prefer then staying close to the Stateline would be your best bet.
This time The Embassy Suites Hotel on Highway 50 on the South Shore, neighbouring the famous Harrah's and Caesar's Hotel Casinos will be our base for a couple of days. The hotel provides more than ample sized rooms and suites to suit and with a complimentary cocktail evening and breakfast thrown in, you can't go wrong for comfort and convenience at 4-star quality.
Driving around the lake, watching the water reflect the different hues of the changing sky throughout the day, we visit our favourite places around the lake including the mesmerising Emerald Bay - apparently Lake Tahoe's most photographed natural wonder and the Ponderosa Ranch - home to Pa, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe of television classic 'Bonanza' (sadly the ranch has now closed and the land has been sold to a property developer).
The shores of the lake host many summer visitors and state parks and beaches, with pine trees providing shade, allow everyone to enjoy this beauty. In some places, the lake has created sandy alcoves hidden from normal view...places you have to go and find if you know where to look or are lucky enough to stumble upon if you don't.
If you want to see the lake from its surface where it is reputed that water is so clear you can see a dinner plate from 75 feet below the water, then try one of the many boat trips that go to various places across the lake including a sneak at the Vikingsholm Mansion at Emerald Bay, a popular attraction built as a private house by Lora Knight a millionaire heiress, and was bought by the state of California a few years after Mrs Knight's death. You can only get to the house by foot. To find out more click here: Vikingsholm Mansion
We only spent a couple of nights at Lake Tahoe before we left towards Coloma...
DAY TEN: EVER BEEN SURFING ON A RIVER?
It had taken over 3 years for me to be convinced to this point, as I was being fitted for my lifejacket (or PFD - personal flotation device).
We all pile into the bus waiting to take us to our starting point on the South Fork American River to begin our 2-day river rafting trip. As the old girl wheezed her way up the climbs (you could almost hear her say: "I think I can, I think I can..."), I wondered what my fate was to be.
We pile off the bus at our stop and all hover anxiously in the shade of the tree that had seen many more nervous souls before us. Matt, our tour leader, gives the safety talk, allocates guides to people and with PFD's securely fastened and paddle in hand, my first whitewater voyage has begun!
© Whitewater Voyages 2020
We pass over our first set of ripples, "That's not so bad", I think. Then a bigger set of ripples and still not bad. Then Matt asks how adventurous we were. Everyone cheers...except me.
"Do you want to surf this next rapid?" Surf it?! Is he joking? Apparently not.
He explains that it's basically staying on the wave of a hole in the water as long as you can. Didn't sound too bad, as long as I didn't fall out. Matt gives everyone the chance to get out of the raft if they didn't want to do it.
There was a rock on the side you could step onto and wait. I stay on the raft.
So, as we line up along with the other rafts, we watch as the first one attempts it. And we have our first swimmer and she took the guide with her! Mmmmm....I think. Is this such a good idea after all?
Ok...here we go then...
Matt shouts his instructions and we paddle accordingly. Hitting the centre of the hole, being rocked vigorously from side to side with water coming in from everywhere, I fall out and was promptly spat out by the waves. Get to the side is my only thought but the current out of the wave wasn't very obliging in helping me. I am hauled in by Toby and her group and watch while the rest of my group scream and shriek, hanging on for dear life. Surfing time over, I am duly collected by my group and we go looking for our next rush. Apparently, we were suckers for punishment...
Several tamer rapids later and it's soon lunchtime, where the guides lay on a healthy, varied array of sandwiches and fruit and there was even time and enough for seconds. Forty-five minutes or so later and with sunscreen topped up, we are soon back in the boats.
It turns out the morning run was just a warm-up as we were soon to encounter 'Troublemaker' where we have to listen to all our paddling instructions and smile for the cameras positioned along the rocks. So screaming and smiling through gritted teeth, we follow instructions back paddling and forward paddling with all our might...and get through it.
Tired, relieved and 8 river miles later, we reach the end of our first day, rafts stacked on the shore ready for our second day of more teeth-gritting 'fun'. Refuelled by happy hour and dinner laid on by the guides at the company's own campsite, where you can use the facilities free of charge as part of your package. Exhausted by our day's events, we are soon back inside our tent and sleeping bags to recharge.
As the next day dawns, and we clamber back into our boat, everything was relatively calm. We have an opportunity to take in the beauty of the river and surrounding banks until after lunch when the biggest rapid - 'Hospital Bar' awaited.
This time I make it through without coming off the boat, although by now after two days I had come out at least twice. At 5 foot nothing, I am one of the smallest on board, so had a higher chance of being ejected by the unforgiving rapids.
We continue on, listening to the various dirty jokes and banter between the groups and so ends our second day and my whitewater experience.
On our last night at camp, we have the pleasure of meeting Bill McGinnis, the founder and owner of Whitewater Voyages.
After more than 30 years, he is still very passionate about his company and the people who work for him. He now runs more guide training than he does guiding, but his philosophy is still the same as it was in the beginning - "The Fear, The Confidence, The Enjoyment" - the three stages that can be applied to anyone experiencing his trips. The Fear - of experiencing the unknown; The Confidence - of having experienced and completed what was the unknown; The Enjoyment - of overcoming the fear.
As the biggest company offering more river runs than any other in Northern California Bill and his team, even after so many years, still ensure the personal and extremely well-organised experience that you need whether a first time or seasoned rafter at any level.
My philosophy after this experience? Maybe again. After a long rest!
And so on to the Sonoma Valley Wine Region...
DAY TWELVE: SERVE CHILLED...
The final leg of our trip brings us to California's wine country for a couple of nights, where our base is the Glenelly Inn, Glen Ellen.
The understated calmness invites you in as you enter the grounds where you're greeted by its proprietor, Kristi. Each individually styled room, suite and cottage has been created with personal attention to detail and those extra little touches of luxury make all the difference. We are lucky enough to be able to stay in one of the two garden cottages.
The cool serenity and vibrant colours of the manicured gardens summon birds to play, to the delight of the household cat, while you relax in or around the inn's outdoor hot tub.
Breakfast is served in the Common Room where the long dining table invites you to exchange your travel tales with fellow guests. Breakfast is a sumptuous affair with Kristi's own delectable creations making sure you start the day well before exploring the little village of Glen Ellen or the further reaches of the Sonoma Valley beyond. There are wineries aplenty so I won't bore you with a list of names, but you can see some of them here: http://www.sonomavalley.com/.
Glen Ellen was the home of Jack London, the acclaimed author of such tales as 'Call of the Wild' and 'White Fang' and offers the opportunity to visit his beloved Beauty Ranch and other haunts, including Jack London State Park.
Although small, the village's range of restaurants could rival any top of the range eatery in any of the big cities with among them, Saffron, serving an eclectic fusion of Californian cuisine.
Glen Ellen is just one of the many little towns and villages you can use as a base to explore the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more calming oasis, where the Glenelly Inn and its owners make sure you feel like you have just visited a friend.
AND SO TO HOME...
Our flight back home is from San Francisco and although we explored much of this beautiful part of the USA, I will never tire of it and can always find an excuse to come back at any time. There is so much more to enjoy and hopefully, someday I will get that chance.
(We did this trip in 2004, so some of the information may have changed since then)
Flights to the USA from London Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic.
Hilton Hotel La Jolla Torrey Pines - www.hilton.com
Hilton San Diego - www.hilton.com
Ingleside Inn, Palm Springs - www.inglesideinn.com
Curry Village, Yosemite - www.yosemitepark.com
Embassy Suites Lake Tahoe - www.hilton.com
River Park Adventure Camp, Coloma - www.whitewatervoyages.com
Glenelly Inn, Glen Ellen - https://www.oleahotel.com/
(The Glenelly Inn closed in 2010 and is now The Olea Hotel)