A seasoned British traveler tours California for the first time and discovers the bargain and wonder of an August road trip through the best of the Golden State, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas.
By Rachel Ifans
I had the hump (that’s British for a sulk, a grump, a cob on, being a bit mardy – is this helping?) There we were, sitting on the sofa – hot on the heels of selling our motorhome (sob!) that we’d travelled all round Europe in for seven halcyon summers – searching for flights to Greece (or France, or Italy, or Spain – anywhere) in August. The wine was going down as quickly as our hopes; it was all very pricey and we were clearly out of touch.
In a fit of humpy rebellion, I had a thought. If it was going to cost nearly £400 per return flight from the UK to the south of France, would it be worth checking for longer-haul options instead? I took a huge gulp of wine and indulged in a late-night hook-up with Skyscanner, while my husband – meet Adam – ventured further into the dark arts of European flight options: charter vs scheduled; air miles or not; connecting flights and layovers; crisscrossing train journeys and overnight sleeper cars. All to get to France! From Bath!
It was a mere half an hour later that we realized going on a US road trip would be comparable in price to an August road trip in the Mediterranean: We got a good deal on our flights and saw that rooms, fuel, car hire and food were a lot cheaper in the US. Only 60 squillion hours after we’d booked direct flights to San Francisco, we planned our 17-day “Californian Crowdpleaser.” Let’s do this!
Oh, but hang on. I have to insert a caveat before we plunge into this trip of a lifetime. I’m a Europhile through and through and before this summer was one of those rare museum pieces: (*whispers*) I’d never been to the United States. So, I’m loathe to teach Grandma to suck eggs in this piece, but I’m also a bit hopeful that people with more experience of California than me (practically everyone in the western world) will still enjoy my wide-eyed, church-mouse-in-the-big-city ramblings.
The ROAM Report: California, Grand Canyon & Las Vegas Road Trip
- Travelers: Rachel & Adam, plus daughter (14) and son (12)
- Date: August 2019
- Itinerary: 16 days: three days in San Francisco, seven days travelling down the coast to LA, then a road trip inland for six days taking in Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Sequoia
- Budget: Flights from London to San Fran: $450 per person; Alamo car hire for 14 days: $400; Fuel $4 per gallon; Accommodation: average $200 per night for a family room
The Good Stuff
In 16 days, we saw big cliffs, huge waves, a 16km-wide canyon, huge open flatlands, deserts and martian landscapes like we’d never seen before. We saw the rolling, honey-colored scrub hills of inland California that looked like someone had spread peanut butter all over the world. We saw the largest living thing on earth, for goodness sake.
I’m talking about General Sherman. We only had a day in Sequoia National Park – but we were in the market for giant trees and we certainly got that – in spades. Sequoia trees are so big because they live so long; for about 3,000 years compared to the 300-year lifespan of a normal tree. The national park is really hilly (we climbed its bendy roads for 17km to an altitude of around 2,000m) and although we pitched up on Labor Day weekend, we managed to squeak in uncharacteristically early and long before the miles-long queues of picknicking locals arrived.
Grand Canyon was another geographical highlight, of course. We stayed at Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and I’m so glad we did. Although we loved our mind-bending initial sighting of the canyon from Mather Point during the day, it was at sunset at Hopi Point when the theatre of it came alive. As we walked along the rim trail towards Hopi, the warm colors on the rocks gave the canyon a depth and perspective that the flat hot light of noon had failed to give. And at Hopi, the richness of the views grew to an emotional finale as the sun dipped to the horizon. When dusk fell, we traipsed back to the shuttle bus to return to Yavapai, and I knew I’d seen the best thing I’d ever seen in my life.
(Oh, by the way, about the free shuttle buses… They must ship the comedians-cum-drivers in from somewhere special – their jokes and deadpan delivery made our post-euphoric journey home an event in itself.) We saw off our unforgettable day in the canyon by lying on our backs on the black tarmac of a deserted road, mesmerized by the Milky Way, shooting stars and other constellations.
Right from the start of our trip, we saw wildlife that made us smile, coo, giggle and swoon.
Our first full day in San Fran, we rocked up to Pier 39. Yes, people had said not to bother with it; no, we hadn’t listened; and yes, they were right. But we were happy because we’d just pitstopped at Freddie’s on Francisco and bought the biggest sandwiches the kids had ever seen. So, we sat on the wharf and watched the sea lions. All the school yard was out to play that day: the clowns, the shy ones, the bullies and more and we were charmed by them all.
Then, on an overnighter in Half Moon Bay on our way south, we came up close with sea life when we paired up in hired kayaks from Half Moon Bay Kayak Company. Barely out in the crescent bay, we were surrounded by pelicans, some on the harbor walls, some diving for fish. A regular fog horn sounded in the distance (“Is there a tsunami coming, Mummy” my son asked) as clouds gathered and fog fell. A seal popped up just by our boat and we stared at each other before it ducked down and swam off.
And then there were the elephant seals at Point Piedras Blancas. Just as Highway 1 spat us back onto the coast after the Big Sur, we come across a colony of stumpy-trunked adult males basking in the sun! Long assumed extinct, a small colony was discovered here in the 1990s and now the population numbers 15,000. We watched them for ages, transfixed by their cumbersome, lazy, wobbly bodies lying still, sometimes shifting in the sand, doing the worm and flicking sand onto their own bodies. I’m pretty sure they didn’t know how comedic they were!
And the Monterey Aquarium. The aquarium was another huge wildlife-y highlight. There was no way we were leaving before we were chucked out of that place and we were indeed pushed politely out of the door at closing time. Our highlights were: the glorious jellies; the huge open sea tank which housed hammerhead sharks, huge shoals of fish and giant sea turtles; the sea otter feeding time; the mocking moray eel; the huge kelp forest; the touchy tanks; and the bay itself.
The thirsty elks in the Grand Canyon, especially the one outside our lodge who recognized the noise of people using the ice machine and lurked around the back to slurp up the excess water, made us hoot with laughter. As did the one who’d cleverly learned to push the tap with its nose and drink from the water fountain at Mather Point visitor center.
I recall the picnic area in Sequoia and warning signs of bears that tantalized and terrorized my son in equal measure. “Active bear area. Guard your food at all times” He could barely sit still to eat his picnic. All this and he also had to be on lookout for mountain lions, wolverines, and rattlesnakes too. And yes, of course, we all remember the zebras. Never once did we think we’d see zebras on this trip – but we did!
That’s Hearst Castle for you!
The Iconic Sights
Aside from the animals, what about the America that is so familiar to us Brits, even the ones, like me, who’d never visited? The language is the same and the popular culture is in our DNA from the movies, the TV, the books, the songs we’ve had in our lives since we were born and, in some way, think belong to us (I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought someone I admire is British only to find out they’re American. Warhol is a case in point – see below). When you see stuff that is at once familiar and also utterly new, what strikes a chord and what doesn’t?
For me, the Hollywood sign was a big tick, as was dining in a 1950s burger bar like Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank (unfortunately not at the booth where the Beatles dined). I also loved Calico, an erstwhile silver mine, now albeit touristy ghost town on route from LA to Grand Canyon. It delivered in brain-melting heat, saloon doors (beware that back swing!) and gunslingers a-go-go. In fact, that road trip day served up classic view after classic view. We had lunch in the amazingly cheap and tasty In-N-Out Burger, before driving on to our motel for the night – the iconic Route 66 Motel – and having dinner in its neighboring Roadkill Café.
And Vegas: Going to Vegas from Grand Canyon is like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. We loved wandering the hotels on the strip, travelling from Egypt to New York, to Rome, to Paris, to Venice and even to Vesuvius – in just a few hundred meters! We gorged on erupting volcanoes, fountains that shoot to the moon, tat piled high and delighted in spotting scenes from the big and small screen. We were surprised by room-service cannabis (we didn’t get it, before you ask), Starbucks stores every way you turn, feather-clad ladies offering photo ops (where are the men?), and by the silence of the huge fruit machine malls. We couldn’t believe that digital payments have stolen the clattering soundtrack of coins hitting the tray when a win comes in.
And San Francisco was awash with visual cues. We loved the tour of iconic Alcatraz, especially our daughter who enjoys a bit of the macabre, the gory side of life. Armed with audio guides and bags of morbid curiosity, we learned loads about the inmates, the guards and day-to-day life there, as well as the time in the late 60s when, decommissioned as a prison, Alcatraz was occupied by native Americans in what was the longest protest on federal land ever.
We loved the painted ladies of Alamo Square. To be honest, I’m a bit of an architecture bore who drags the family round the world looking at bricks and mortar, but the promise of an Uber to Lombard Street after the hike to the top of Alamo Square park restored good humor.
Known as the crookedest street in America, Lombard’s residents decided to introduce hairpins to the street in the 1920s as it was too steep to navigate. A rather beautiful herbaceous residential street is now overrun by wide-eyed pedestrians and a steady stream of tourists in cars who want to snake down the bends themselves. I’m not excluding myself from the tourist trippery, by the way, nor am excusing myself from the obvious bike hire to cycle out to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was very busy but it had to be done.
We lucked out on more icons at SFMOMA which was free to enter using our CityPASS (And visitors age 18 and under are always free.) We paid extra for the Warhol exhibition “A to B and Back Again” and it was well worth it. We saw some of his most famous work and learned about the man himself (yes, he’s American – I know that now). I loved how he saw equality in commodities like Coke: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money will get you a better one”.
Santa Barbara was Just So Cool. It’s photogenic AF, as the kids would say; you pick up your camera, take a snap without even trying and it’s instantly, well, cool.
We stayed in the Wayfarer, a poshtel (posh hostel) which is nicely decked out, with outdoor pool and big kitchen for buffet breakfasts and self-catering. The feel was friendly and fun – fellow hostellers ranged from students to young families to solo travellers.
It’s in an area called the Funkzone but don’t worry, even though it sounds like a kids’ playground, it actually is funky. Bars, restaurants and wineries/breweries rub shoulders in converted marine buildings a couple of roads back from the beach. Us cynical Brits would never ever call anything the Funkzone – cringe! – but somehow here it works. We left the kids one evening and did the Urban Wine Trail where you pay a set price in selected wineries for a mini wine flight. Our fave was Municipal Wineries, which had a friendly welcome, nice bar and easy-drinking wines.
Unsurprisingly, the feeling of space in California is an eye-popping wonder to us tiny-islanders. Notably the straight, empty roads, the huge skies, the trailer homes plonked in the middle of nowhere, announcing their existence with a US flag flying high and with no neighbor to be seen for miles and miles. We’ve done a lot of travelling in Europe but even France’s big rural views shrink in comparison to the space we saw this summer.
When we picked up our hire car in downtown San Francisco, we hit Interstate 280 for a short time before sliding right onto Pacific 1 Highway. Before we could even blink, we were right on the coast, looking down on sandy beaches, waves and surfers. Only 30 minutes out of the city, there’s a feeling of space and wilderness, with big beaches that reminded us of North Cornwall. Where’s the next piece of land that way, the kids asked us, looking out to sea? Was it Hawaii or was it Japan, we pondered, mouths hanging open at the thought of the distance!
I was shocked by how rural it was just “over the hill” with crops and farm shops lining the coast road. Half Moon Bay is a classic “ag” town, whose main crops are strawberries, artichokes and brussels sprouts, and the space of the Beach House Hotel where we stayed was so welcome after our high-rise hotel in San Fran. After kayaking and lunch, we indulged in an afternoon of doing very little. Lord and Lady Muck (the kids) stole the two bathrobes and lorded it up on their devices, in the beach-view hot tub and swimming pool all afternoon, and we did much the same – without the robes.
The abundance of space and big and beautiful sea views continued right down to Santa Barbara: I’ll never forget the terrifyingly windy vista points on the Big Sur (my son still claims to have seen a whale and a UFO while we sat in roadworks on the Bixby Creek Bridge – one of only about five traffic jams we sat in during the whole trip).
We gorged on the hugeness of Hearst Castle on route. Built in the 1920s in 25,000 acres of hills in San Simeon, you have to take a bus up the windy road through the hilly acreage to the top – to what is a fantastical mix of European-style architecture, ancient artefacts from all over the world alongside fakery beyond belief, indoor and outdoor pools and non-indigenous animals.
And, fresh from the immensity of one man’s bonkers construction in the middle of nowhere, we drove a few miles further to another stylish pitstop between San Fran and LA. Yes, I’m talking about Madonna Inn, legendary kitsch – this time in a mere 1,000 acres of desert, just outside San Luis Obispo. Our room, the Travelers’ Suite, was large, two huge four-poster beds facing each other in the distance at one end, with two golden armchairs marking the lounge area and a mammoth piece of rock forming a walk-in (don’t walk in!) fireplace, and high-backed and sided sofa that dwarfed us all.
I don’t know – the space on that coast road just made us feel very happy and relaxed. We took deep breaths, we luxuriated in the knowledge that the sky would likely be blue, the road likely be clear, that we’d be able to park the car where we wanted when we got there, that in all likelihood we wouldn’t encounter a brain-melting one-way system round a cramped, ancient town. All refreshing to Brits who live in a World Heritage Site, squashed into the bowl of seven hills which struggles to contain residents and visitors.
The sense of space got bigger, if anything, as we turned inland. And in the searing heat of the desert, the relaxation was replaced periodically with a feeling of unease. As we did our long-haul drives through California, Arizona and Nevada desert during those six days, the car was a bit of a sanctuary from the 46-degree-Celsius (114F) heat and I wondered a few times how we’d survive if the car broke down in a shade-less spot, or if the life-blood air-con clapped out and left us for dead. We had a couple of occasions when we misjudged a lunch stop and ended up driving until 4pm before we saw another place to grab food.
On that point, the last 30 miles to the Grand Canyon is a drive we’ll never forget – the straightest, longest road surrounded by the flattest landscape on all sides. With cruise control flicked on and microscopic tweaks of the steering wheel every now and again, the urge to drift off was dangerously likely.
Much talk goes on in the UK about American food. We serve up hyperbole and dollop on a good amount of hearsay. However, as a large part of our usual European trip is gastronomically-charged, it’s something I’d thought about a lot before the trip. Would we find memorable food and drink on our American road trip or would we be searching for some semblance of green veg among the piled-high burgers?
In fact, we ate well in the States. Yes, portions are huge – even in California – but we found tasty, healthy food and were astounded at the value – the sight of a roadside stall selling six avocados for a dollar is an anecdote that is currently going viral in the UK thanks to me!
A few of our stand-out foodie memories are:
The Lodge at Presidio. Not only did we get an awesome welcome and a jaw-dropper of a room here, we were also invited to a complementary early evening wine-and-cheese nibbles-type shebang in the lounge. We didn’t expect the generosity or the quality that we got – abundant cheese, cured hams, red grapes, freshly baked cookies, milk (for the kids) and Californian wine (for us). It sounds nostalgic but after an 11-hour flight, we’ll never forget it.
And Twilight Presidio – a weekly foodie party on the lawn outside the hotel where fire pits are lit, space-age dome tents and foodie trucks trundle up. We were half-crazed with tiredness so ended up wandering through the happy people like aliens who’d just arrived on earth rather than wide-eyed jet-setters.
Sam’s Chowder House at Half Moon Bay. We went for Sunday lunch (book ahead!) and it was full to the brim of locals. We’d earned our lunch kayaking in the wind and fog but as we sat down at our table with a sea view, the blue skies came back and the sun started glittering on the sea (do they flick a Truman-Show-style switch once bums are on seats, we wonder?) Whether you sit outside or inside, there are sounds of live music and bonhomie a plenty: Managers Natalie and Terri are so welcoming, and there are no hot tempers despite the crush at the door and a slight wait.
We gorged on a big bowlful of fresh calamari to start with and then we shared sea bass and pan patty squash; a buttery lobster roll; and fish and chips (for the kids). All swilled down with a Californian white wine from Napa. We highly recommend it.
Burger Village in San Luis Obispo. Not a classic US diner experience (hello In-N-Out Burger, we love you, can we take you home?), but we loved this place. All sorts of high-quality meat grazed on the menu board – three of us went beef, and one elk – and the chips had a slight skin-on feel that we all loved.
Beachin’ Biscuits in Pismo Beach. Well, this was a new one for all of us. We enjoyed the scone-like base and creamy savory filling (sausage, with scrambled egg on top – no way, hold the cheese, that’s a step too far!) and it was the perfect thing to eat before three hours of riding the waves on our body boards.
Sequoia Brewing Company in Visalia. This place to us was authentic American; a buzzing atmosphere, big screens, a huge menu and thousands of beers on tap. The food was great – traditional, reasonable chili in a bowl juxtaposed with strangely pricey potato skins. Two meals – as ever – served the four of us and we loved the feel of a bargain.
Pizza My Heart in Santa Cruz. We walked the tacky boardwalk, we drank in The Lost Boys vibe, and then we beat a hasty path to Pizza My Heart. Excellent slices and you get a free t-shirt in the bargain.
The Brown Butter Cookie Company in Cayucos. Everything’s better with butter, the slogan read – ain’t that the truth? These melty biscuits were unlike other American cookies in size, shape and taste. We loved the original ones and the Bourbon variety. Word to the wise: samples are plentiful, prices are high.
Porto’s Bakery and Café. Amazing bakery on the way to Universal: cinnamon rolls, apple puffs and potato balls washed down with two buckets of coffee.
Good to Know
Tips for a Smooth California Roadtrip with Kids
Stay in the Presidio. Who knew San Fran, with its peace-loving, liberal rep had such a long military history? The Presidio was a military reservation from the late 1770s until 1994 when it became a national park. Our hotel, Lodge at the Presidio had interesting architecture reminiscent of a barracks and was a no-stress haven away from the hustle-bustle but only 30 minutes from downtown in a free shuttle bus. And there’s the most wonderful view of the bridge at sunset – what a sight for sore eyes!
Stay right in Grand Canyon. We totally recommend the Yavapai Lodge (although learn from our mistake and pay extra for a room with aircon). Staying inside the park means you can catch the sunsets, the sunrises and the stars and the free shuttles make getting around the South Rim a cinch.
Stay in Visalia, gateway town to Sequoia National Park. It’s only a 45-minute drive to the entrance to the park so a great base. Our hotel – the Wyndham Visalia – was a well-equipped, business-feel hotel with two pools and a nice suite. We made great use of the nearby adventure and splash park; a batting cage, air hockey, water slides, and bumper boats, for a very reasonable rate. Nice after a day at the national park to blow off steam.
Stay in Burbank rather than one of the Universal hotels. We stayed in the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Burbank which is so close to the Universal Studios without paying the extra of being on-site. The room was big and the pool was empty. Can’t tell you how much the kids loved swimming at night – in Europe, hotel pools shut disappointingly early.
Try and condense driving hours into a few long trips rather than lots of middle-sized ones. We did a lot of miles on the trip but it felt do-able because we only had three big days of driving – one from LA to Seligman, one from Grand Canyon to Vegas, and one from Vegas to Sequoia.
Stay in SLO-Cal for longer. We loved this beachy area and would have liked to spend more time in San Luis Obispo and the surrounding area, especially in Pismo Beach catching a wave and exploring a traditional Californian seaside town like Cayucos. Also, we didn’t have time to explore the wineries, hiking and other outdoor pursuits.
Go early to Universal and plan your day. And – yes, yes, simmer down kids – one day is quite enough. We’ve a massive Harry Potter fan in our family. And it’s my daughter. So there was no way we were ever not going to Universal Studios Hollywood.
Going early was definitely a good idea, and investing in the no-queue tickets is also a boon. Here’s what we did: 8.30am straight to the Harry Potter Forbidden Forest (at this time in the morning the queues are short so you can go again and again – and we did!). Then, ignoring the rest of Hogsmeade (Say what? Asked my daughter), we went straight down to the Lower Lot to do the incredible new Jurassic World ride. The queues were already big for this (150 mins!) so it was time to flash the no-queue pass. We did the Transformers and the Mummy rides and then hiked back up to the Upper Lot for the things that aren’t so queue heavy: the Studio Tour, the Simpsons and Minions rides, and finally toured Hogsmeade at our leisure.
The five-room tour at Hearst is plenty (with kids). The outside of the main house is like a hilltop church in Italy while the inside is all medieval hall and stately home. Everywhere is a mish-mash of seriously valuable original pieces and soulless copies. In many places it’s hard to tell the difference, in others it’s quite obvious! The five-room tours shows the main downstairs rooms and the gardens and was a good length for us.
Bodyboard, don’t surf, and do your research on beaches and weather. Pismo Beach is very chilled, with some cafés and restaurants, hotels and shops, but not fancy-fancy. One of our most memorable days was hiring some bodyboards and wetsuits (we went to the Esteem Surf shop) and benefiting from the perfect waves. Hit after hit on the huge long beach, we kept going until we dropped and still wished we’d stayed longer. We thought we’d do more in Santa Barbara but the sea was flat as a pancake when we were at Leadbetter Beach.
Be prepared for a huge range of temperatures. We went from 20 degrees centigrade to 46 over the two-week trip. Although we had sun and blue skies in San Francisco, the wind whistled through the streets so we needed warm layers in the evening.
Ensure a smooth trip. The flights and jet lag were pretty gruelling. We made it as easy as possible for ourselves by using Holiday Extras. We used them for Meet and Greet parking in the UK but they do much more – a bit of an international one-stop-shop sorting airport hotels, lounge access, transfers, car hire, insurance, fast track, and more.
Rachel Ifans – November 2019
Rachel Ifans is a British journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects. Having sold their RV this summer, Rachel and family are enjoying spreading their wings and travelling outside Europe, but she’ll always return to her first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents (!), Rachel has spent her life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as she can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging her children round all six sides of l’Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to her husband about moving there.
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