California Road Trip

My friend and I didn’t quite set out on the classic big American Road Trip. We only covered Southern California in fact. Starting in and ultimately flying out of Los Angeles, our plan was to get to San Diego relatively quickly and then cruise slowly North along the coast. We had a week to see everything we wanted to and there was plenty on the list.

San Diego

We picked up our car from the airport in the glorious LA sunshine and headed for Highway 5. On our way we passed a drive-thru Krispy Kreme, the novelty value of which meant we had to stop. Do doughnuts seriously need their own drive-thru? We were in hysterics. We encountered no further such distractions and drove South. After about 2 hours we arrived in San Diego where it was cold and grey. How did that happen? Fortunately having heard of California’s ‘June Gloom’ phenomenon (cool and less than wonderful weather) we had suitable clothes, what a disappointment though. Having heard good things about La Jolla, just North of the city, we stayed there. One thing we were reminded that the USA does very well is spacious hotel rooms. We had a large double bed each. Wonderful!

We headed into downtown San Diego the following morning and checked out the Gaslamp quarter, imaginatively-named due to the number of gaslamps in the area. It is a large area, covering about 16 blocks and full of historic buildings, mostly built in an art deco fashion. In many ways it is the cultural heart of San Diego, hosting Mardi Gras, music festivals and other events. We saw none of that, but did take in all the architecture and enjoyed some quirky shops.

In the afternoon we hit the road again, this time on the smaller coastal roads. Our plan was to avoid the inland highway wherever possible on our trip North. What do you ever really see on a highway afterall? So, we made our way through lots of little surfer settlements and stopped at Carlsbad for lunch. Carlsbad is a coastal town with the honour of having had the world’s first skatepark. True to popular belief, everyone seemed to be at the beach.

We drove on a bit longer and came to Laguna Beach, a cute little settlement nestled between the sea and the hills. There is a lot of forest area up the hills in fact and we were warned that when there was a forest fire the town had to be evacuated. Crumbs. From our hotel we went for a walk along the beach. All the beachfront houses here open directly onto the beach and there are lots of houses. It is quite cramped and the beach is not very wide, so the sea is never far away and we could hear the waves lapping the shore as we went to sleep.

Laguna Beach, California, USA

Laguna Beach to Long Beach

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is at Laguna Beach, not actually on the beach, but inland slightly. We hit the road and found ourselves heading out of town and were very quickly on a highway in the middle of a hot, dusty setting. No wonder the forest fire comment then, there wasn’t a hint of such arid territory being so nearby down by the water. Eventually we found our way and went to meet the seals and sea lions. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center uses visitor donations to fund their program of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing the animals. There’s nothing like feeling you have given something back to the place you are visiting.

Sea lions lazing in the Laguna Beach sanctuary, California, USA

After I was dragged away from the seals and sealions, we continued our drive North. We stopped at Huntington Beach, apparently the place that the concept of surfing was born. Huntington beach is in fact a big town behind the beach. We only spent a quick visit on the glorious beach though. Here the beach is a long and very wide strip of powder sand. The whole beach is very flat so there is a lot of wind and surf, making it popular with surfers and kitesurfers.

Huntington Beach, California, USA

We continued in the car passing the largest naval base I’ve ever seen at Seal Beach, just ahead of arriving at Long beach, one of the world’s largest ports and also appropriately home to the RMS Queen Mary. The cruiser was the fastest in the world in the 1940’s and is designed in an art deco style (All this art deco stuff was making me feel like we’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in Miami beach.) Interestingly, the Queen Mary was used to transport troops during World War II. We explored the ship, which is part hotel and part museum now. It is still possible to see large parts of the ship as they were originally though. The Aquarium of the Pacific hosts a vast exhibition and all sorts of opportunities to interact with the animals, such as a shark-petting lagoon. However my friend’s sealife interest threshold had been met in the morning and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that one marine park visit was enough!

RMS Queen Mary, Long Beach, California, USA

Long beach to Santa Monica

On the way to Santa Monica we drove along many beach-side roads which were fantastic and we drove through celeb-spotting heaven Venice beach, where even the everyday types were dressed flamboyantly. Santa Monica was a friendly place; it seemed much smaller than enormous Long Beach certainly. The main feature is the Santa Monica pier which has stretched out into the sea from the beach for 100 years. It hosts restaurants, an amusement park with a ferris wheel and an aquarium. A walk to the end of the pier finds you amongst local anglers, taking advantage of the good fishing. The pier has featured in several movies, including Forest Gump. We ate at the Bubba Gump shrimp restaurant on the pier, to take advantage of the amazing sunset view over the beach.

Santa Monica sunset, California, USA

Santa Monica to Santa Barbara

We realised how close Santa Monica was to downtown LA when we tried to get out of town in the morning. It is clearly in the commuter-belt as every road was jammed. It was not an ideal start, but at least we weren’t trying to get to work. Eventually we made it out and were back on the open road. We made our way along the Pacific Coast Highway past lots of park areas and Malibu and arrived at Santa Barbara as the sun was going down. Turns out it was a bit further than we had thought.

Santa Barbara, California, USA

Santa Barbara to LA

Santa Barbara is a laidback town with a distinctly Spanish feel, between the Pacific and the enormous Los Padres National Forest. Santa Barbara has suffered earthquakes and wildfires but was so liked by servicemen posted here during World War II that there was a population boom, once the war ended. We took in some of the town’s characteristic Spanish architecture at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, as well as a great view over the town from its open-air tower.

 We also explored El Paseo Shopping Mall, California’s first shopping mall apparently. Can you imagine California without any malls? No? Neither can I. On our way out of town we also checked out the towns giant Moreton Bay fig tree, which at 24m high, is impressively large.

We left the Pacific coast that we had grown fond of and headed East on Highway 101 into downtown Los Angeles. We went straight to the Hollywood hills and admired the letters high on the hillside before looking for some dinner and finding a place to sleep for the night.

Los Angeles

We had afternoon flights, so in the morning headed to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We walked past the Chinese Theatre and noticed how small the hand and footprints of the Hollywood stars of days gone by were. We then visited Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium, an exhibit of lots of props used in movies, with a T-rex bursting out of the roof. There are lots of museums dedicated to the performing arts, which are after all, the backbone of Los Angeles’ cultural identity, but this one was just off the Walk of Fame, so it was easy to slot into our itinerary. After marveling at exhibitions of costumes and one showcasing Marilyn Monroe, we had some lunch and headed to the airport.

California’s Pacific coastline is splendid. The settlements vary from feeling cosy to feeling enormous and each has a unique character. The beaches are glorious and the sunsets amazing. The roads are simple to drive, some with spectacular scenery. Our little road trip only covered a small portion of California, but gave us a great insight into Southern California.

Have you been to California? What would you want to see on your roadtrip?


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