07.11.2015 - 15.11.2015
So it's time for part 2 of our west coast leg. I'm actually running a bit behind on this one as it's been a bit of a hectic 2 weeks. What we've learnt about California is that it's a state of contrasts. You have everything here from long sunny beaches to mammoth snowy mountains. Vibrant cities to unique wildlife reserves. A bit of a sensory overload, and a hell of a lot to fit into one blog post, but I'll try my best to do it justice.
We left San Francisco pretty darn excited about our new campervan. What we quickly learnt though was that if you drive around California in a campervan, particularly one with a custom paint job, you unwittingly became part of a certain social group, namely a pot smoking one. Within our first 48 hours we had been offered pot, asked for pot, asked if we'd like a job trimming pot and warned about hiding pot from the police. No one seemed particularly convinced when we said we didn't have any. Whilst a part of this group, we also discovered that 'right on', 'rad' and 'far out' are phrases people genuinely still use. In this case, it seems the Californian surfer stereotype is perhaps not so far from the truth!
The first stop on our tour was the famous wine making Napa valley, just north of San Francisco. I say Napa Valley, but in reality Napa's $50-$100 a bottle price tags were a bit beyond us so we went to the neighbouring Sonoma and Alexander valleys, which might not have the famous name but are home to more than 400 wineries (yes, 400!), many of them world class. Now I wouldn't say the wine in those valleys was exactly cheap either, you couldn't get a bottle for less than $20, but it was at least conceivable for us to consider scraping together the pennies of our travelling budget to buy a bottle. Which, we of course did, and yes it was absolutely delicious! We also took part in numerous tastings, trying reserve wines of a quality we may never be able to try again, which was pretty fantastic. The main thing we came away realising was that the Californian wine that UK supermarkets import has nothing on the stuff they actually sell in California. Never again will I assume I don't like a Chardonnay!
From Napa we headed to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of the USA's most visited national parks and so we had high expectations. The drive there was incredible. For many a mile you are following perfectly flat, straight roads, seeing nothing but flat featureless fields, and then gradually along the horizon you see the Sierra Nevada mountains rising out of nowhere marking the start of Yosemite. The contrast of enormous snow capped mountains coming out of completely flat planes is pretty breathtaking and an amazing thing to see.
On getting to the park though, we were, dare I say it, disappointed. The thing is about Yosemite is that it's busy, really really busy, which is at complete contrast with why most people visit national parks. Not only are the walks overflowing with people, but the central valley of the park has been opened up to so much camping that you feel like you're walking around a holiday village complete with shop, cafe and swimming pool. Then there's the traffic...it took half an hour of sitting in nose to nose traffic before we could leave the park. Not exactly what we had in mind when we decided to visit. So yes Yosemite is beautiful, but it has sadly been somewhat ruined by its popularity. As we were approaching the borders of the park on our way home that night though, we did come across a sight which will place Yosemite firmly in our memories for a long time to come. Big bands of light dancing across the sky high above us, which after a moment of confusion we realised were the northern lights. The Sierra Nevada is famous for its incredible skylines, and we defiantly got one of those! Completely unexpected but all the more special for it.
Our plan after Yosemite had been to head to the neighbouring Sequoia National Park, famous for its giant trees. Even in California you can't guarantee nice weather though, as we soon realised when we discovered that an enormous snow storm would be heading into the area the next day causing temperatures to drop as low as -12C. Much as we loved our camper van, it was not designed for snow storms and so we decided to flee the bad weather and head back to the coast, joining it half way down between San Francisco and L.A. What a wonderful decision that was, for what we found there was something that in the world of wildlife is extremely unique, a colony of elephant seals. If you're into your David Attenborough you'll know exactly what I'm talking about and will understand why Mark was so very excited to see them. If you're not... Well they're giant seals, growing as large as 18 ft, with trunk like noses and they were until very recently nearly extinct. But on this Californian beach, we came across literally hundreds of them, just lying there, having a snooze, a groan and an occasional dip in the sea. They're perhaps not the most beautiful animals in the world, but they are very unusual to look it and there's something very cool about being able to just observe animals in their natural habitat for as long as you could possibly want to. The seals make the funniest noises, going back and forth between farts and burps, and their behaviour is funny too, scratching their noses just like humans do and belly flopping themselves across the beach and even across the other seals in order to wedge themselves in between. We could have watched them for hours.
Much as we'd enjoyed the mountains we were glad to be back by the coast and the warm weather, which got better and better the further south we went. The only thing which didn't get better was the camping, which proved a surprisingly tricky task the further south we went. When we first decided to rent the campervan we had rosy eyed dreams of pulling up next to the nearest beach and waking up to beautiful scenery. We did accomplish this once (and wonderful it was!), but what we discovered was that once you go south of San Francisco, coastal camping has been made near impossible for anyone on a budget through extortionate camp site fees and the illegalising of overnight camping in most coastal towns. We didn't actually realise the latter was the case until we got a knock on the window and bright headlines shone in our face late one night, which was indeed the police moving us on.
The Californian coast is as beautiful as you'd expect it to be though, and it was wonderful to have such a choice of picture perfect beaches to stroll along, with no more than a sprinkling of other people to share it with. Not only this but even in November, temperatures in this area are reaching the mid-twenties. Teamed alongside the laid back vibe of most towns, and you get a pretty perfect winter holiday destination...if you can afford it.
Our last stop on the coast was L.A. We had considered leaving out L.A. as on the whole we'd rather spend our time in the country than the city. We are so glad we didn't though as L.A. really did impress. Because it's such a ridiculously large city (over 10 million people live LA county) we were slightly expecting a city too busy to enjoy and too big to get your head around. But what we found were districts with distinct characters and that these characters were really a lot of fun. Furthermore, because L.A. Is so big you don't even need to go into downtown to enjoy some of its best bits. We started where any new tourist does, Hollywood, which much as it is fake and a tad ridiculous, is really a lot of fun to see. Yes you get stopped every 5 minutes by Spider-Man or a giant minion asking for money to have a picture with you, but that's part of the whole silly journey so it's best just to jump on the ride and go along with it. To make our time (or at least mine) even better, we also discovered that Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter was receiving his Hollywood star that day. Now here's the thing, I may have been a bit of a Harry Potter obsessive when I was younger (the type who got up at 6am to get the latest book the moment the bookstore opened and watched the first movie on a weekly basis) and whilst I thought I'd grown out of my Potter obsession I realised that day that I definately hadn't. Mark, who is most definitely not part of the Potter fan club, showed himself to be the perfect husband that morning by waiting with me in crowds of frantic teenage girls and confused tourists whilst we got a few glimpses of the man himself. We did definitely feel we'd got the hollywood experience though.
The other part of L.A. we chose to see was Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Venice Beach is best known for Muscle Beach where Arnold Schwartzneger found fame and you continue to see oily men pumped with steroids and with arm muscles bigger than my head working out. We did get to see a bit of that, including one bronzed guy wearing nothing more than a tiny pair of briefs, but what we also discovered is that venice beach is actually a pretty cool and alternative place, very much at odds with the LA you see in the media or on TV shows. It's artsy, unique, full of hippy types and makeshift stalls selling beautiful artwork. Admittedly, many of the people who hung out there, were more hobo than hippy and it did seem a bit of a magnet for young people who hadn't showered in months and seemed to want nothing more in life than to get high. But it was a cool place to hang out for a day, made all the more surreal and unique for the background of perfect palm tree lined beaches and oiled up muscle men.
Did we see the real L.A? It's hard to say, but we did see two police busts in the one day we were there, which was perhaps more in line with the LA we thought we'd see. It's certainly a lot more varied a place than we expected it to be and in contrast with the glamorous movie star facade, it seems to be a bit of a home for misfits. One thing's for sure, it's definitely a city of many different faces.
Our last stop in California before heading to Vegas to drop off the van was Death Valley National Park. I hardly even know where to start with Death Valley, because it is a place of such beauty and such contrast that words simply cannot describe it in its entirety. What I will say though is that the name does not do it justice. It is not simply a flat dessert where nothing survives, it is an expansive park which stretches from 270 ft below sea level in one part to over 7,000ft high just 20 miles away. The flats are the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and are covered in salt in such a way that it looks snow covered, whilst the mountains are made up of layer upon layer of different rock formations causing them to range in colour from yellow, to red to purple and everything in between. Add to this sand dunes, marble canyons, and mile wide volcanic craters and you have some truly unique and spectacular scenery. And that's just the day-time. We've seen some amazing night skies on this trip, but in Death Valley we perhaps saw the best. What made it special was how interrupted it was. No trees, no houses, no lights, just one clear horizon and then sky. It was so clear we could see the Milky Way and pick out the star formations gradually moving across the sky. That night rather than pulling the van curtains tight shut for privacy as we had every other night, we left them open staring out into the stars. I know it sounds ridiculously corny, but it really was one of those amazing life experiences.
So that rounds up California! We now head inland for the last part of our US trip, taking in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Time to wrap up warm again.