The Holiday of a Lifetime

As Laura and I soaked up our final night in San Francisco, I asked her to pick out her highlight of the trip. She couldn’t, there have been so many and I have to agree with her.

We loved Vegas and would definitely go back. San Diego is another place we would love to see more of, especially the Old Town. We could probably take or leave LA, although we enjoyed Venice Beach and Santa Monica. The coast was just beautiful, Big Sur, Santa Barbara and Monterey and of course not forgetting the Blackpool in the sun that was Santa Cruz. The four days we spent there gave us a much needed rest from all of the sightseeing we had done.

Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Two very different places but both quite magnificent. And finally, San Francisco. Everything we wanted it to be and so much more. I think that pretty much sums up the entire trip.

Castro, Haight and Ashbury and the Tendorloin

The Castro

Laura and I ventured into the Castro one morning via Laura’s favourite form of SF transport, the F Line tram.

The Castro is one of the more ‘hip’ areas to live; and it’s also the gay quarter. I would say, just by walking through it, it’s almost become too gay. Rainbow flags everywhere, bars and shops all promoting the same thing, it’s almost a bit too commercial. A bit like Canal Street post Queer As Folk. I am not saying it wasn’t nice, because it was. All very pretty buildings and nicely done.

One shop we went into was called quite simply, ‘Equality’. In there I read brief biography about a man called Harvey Milk. I can’t really believe that I had never heard of him or seen the film they made about his life staring Sean Penn. In short, he was the man who really fought for gay rights or equal rights at least and eventually won a seat in local government, only to be assassinated the same year. He had a phenomenal amount of support and the Castro became the gay quarter as a result of it.

Fascinating. Only bizarre thing is that San Francisco is considered to have the largest gay community in the world. It’s very accepted and people all over the city are very open about it but they over ruled the civil partnerships agreement and so the campaign for equality goes on. Another surprising fact from a city where you think nothing could surprise you.

Haight and Ashbury

We walked from the Castro to Haight and Ashbury. It was a tough walk, up some very steep streets but was worth it from the view we managed to get of the city in Corona Park at the very top. We saw some really nice houses on the way too, little rooftop patios and gardens that must have spectacular views.

My Dad told me that Haight and Ashbury was part of the Summer of Love, although George Harrison said that it was just a load of people sitting around and they weren’t proper hippies at all. It certainly projects a hippy kind of atmosphere. It’s very relaxed, lots of funky shops, bars, record stores (which is nice to see) as well as a variety of places to eat. More homeless people to, especially at night, which Laura and I discovered as we got the bus home.

People were very pleasant though and as went into various shops etc. they were keen to ask about where we were from, why we weren’t at home with the rest of the Olympic squad and so on. Haight and Ashbury is very similar to Camden. One guy we spoke briefly to on a bus had been to Camden and this is what he compared it to.

Haight and Ashbury was possibly one of our favourite parts of San Fran. We went there the most times anyway. Stumbled on a fabulous Thai noodle bar that did the most delicious food. I had proper Pad Thai noodles which should be the wide, flat noodles. I learnt this when I did the cookery course in Chiang Mai but very few places serve them with anything other than small, thin noodles, so I was impressed. Laura had another bowl of her favourite noodle soup. Mind you the portions were so big we couldn’t finish them off.

The Tendorloin

On one night, possibly after Alcatraz, we headed to a recommended Japanese restaurant. Typically Lonely Planet. From the outside it looked like somewhere you would never dream of entering, not without a bottle of bleach anyway, but from the inside it was perfectly acceptable in price and appearance. It was called Katanya – Ya, or something like that. Very small, very busy, brilliant, lively atmosphere. We sat and ate at the bar and it was delicious ramen, which is Japanese noodle soup.

We attempted to return on our final night in SF but there were was a queue that was going up the street to get in, so we avoided it. The Japanese restaurant was in a place called the Tenderloin. I know very little about why it’s called the Tenderloin, I will admit I have not researched this one but it was clearly the gathering ground for the homeless. Laura and I walked down one street where they were sleeping on both sides of the pavement. Must have been fifty or more people and you know from their appearance and they way they behave, the talking to themselves, that they are genuinely homeless and have been for some time.

A miracle

Not all people are quite so genuine though. We did some shopping on our final day and as we waited to cross the road, I saw a blind man desperately trying to make his way through the busy shoppers. My heart was in my mouth as he stopped very close to the road. I had a vision of him stepping out in front of an unsuspecting vehicle. Well, even if they were suspecting I am not sure they would stop.

But no, to my horror, he put away his stick and pressed the button and crossed the road perfectly fine. I couldn’t believe it. A miracle or a fake. More than likely the latter.

Francy has a makeover

As we attempted to make our way through the back to school sales, there was an area of the Westfield shopping centre that had these small stands, predominately selling make up. I got cornered by a George Michael in his Wham! day wannabe and spent the next 20 minutes with him plastering make up all over my face. I looked like I originated from the Caribbean once he had finished. I had more eyeshadow, powder and God knows what else, all over me. Every time I closed my eyes for him to try another product out, I opened them to his Cheshire cat grin and he kept calling me ‘a beautiful princess’. Laura was in hysterics and I had got the giggles. It was funny but he couldn’t persuade me to buy anything.

The Golden Gate Bridge Experience

Park Ride

For all of you that know me, you will know I am not known for my excellent stability when it comes to doing any form of balancing. So the decision to ride a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge may come as a bit of a surprise.

In reality, it’s probably the most popular and best way to see the best of the suspension bridge. Some people drive across it, but you don’t get the opportunity to stop and take pictures. Others walk it, but again it’s quite a blustery experience. So Laura and I opted for the bikes. It had been recommended that we bike there and get the ferry back but in the end we decided to bike it there and bike it back again. It’s just under two miles in length so it was a good stretch.

As you approach the bridge the shear size of it really hits you. Unfortunately, it is covered in typical San Francisco fog much of the time and on the morning we decided to do it, we couldn’t even see the base of it. Fortunately for us it started to clear as we got closer to it and when we were actually on it we could see the top of the suspension columns.

Such an exhilarating, exciting and terrifying experience. I was aware of how high up we were, how enormous the bridge was and how small I felt in comparison. Reading all of the signs as we went past that were directed at the people who go there to commit suicide, emergency helpline numbers. Laura read that people go there on a daily basis with the intention of jumping off. Very few people survive. A stuntman tried it in the 1980s, thinking he could survive, he didn’t. A girl of 18 tried to take her own life and survived, only to be successful from the same spot two months later. Very sad.

When I was riding across it, I was just praying that the earthquake wouldn’t strike! We drove into San Francisco via the massive Bay Bridge that fell victim to the 1989 earthquake where one tier collapsed into the one below it.

Apart from dealing with the gusts of wind that come at you when you ride, you also have to deal with several other issues. One, the tourists who just stop in the middle of the bike path to have a chat or catch up with one another. Two, the people that ride on the wrong side of the designated path, it clearly states to stay right depending on which direction you were travelling. Three, the people who ride across it like they are training for the Tour de France. I swear Bradley Wiggins passed me on a couple of occasions. They weave in and out at about 100mph, Laura was screaming at them.

One of the highlights of our trip most definitely.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz: the Rock

We took advice and decided to pre book our Alcatraz adventure some weeks before we left. This was good advice as when we turned up for our tour, the next available date they were offering was near the end of August, which would have been no good for us.

Laura and I had selected the night tour option, clearly wanting it to be as spooky as possible. It really wasn’t. The only thing I found daunting was the sound of all the birds circling the island as we waited to leave, that was a bit eerie.
If the night tour was good for one thing though, it was to see the magnificent views of San Francisco at sunset. Very beautiful, and we managed to get a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge in all of her glory too, even better.

Alcatraz is very interesting. From the hundreds of famous prisoners it housed to the many infamous escapes they tried. What I didn’t know was that the prison wardens also lived on the island along with their families, so many children grew up on Alcatraz. Imagine waking up next to Al Capone, not literally of course and especially not in his later years as he went mad with siphilus.

The prison cells were tiny, not much more than 5ft in width. It’s understandable why so many people wanted to escape. The small confinement would drive you mad alone. We had an audio tour which I don’t normally go for but it was really informative. It gave you little bits of history about certain parts of the prison, so for example, it showed you the cells where the famous three broke out of. It showed you the air vent that they knocked out and then you could see through to the pipe area where they climbed up onto the roof. The general belief is that they drowned in the strong currents of the pacific ocean and that their bodies were washed out to sea, but there are many people that believe they made it and escaped on to South America. Either way, they are still at large and the FBI are still looking for them!

In the end Alcatraz, like many things, became too expensive to run. The buildings were suffering from wear and tear (they still are too, many parts of the island you are not allowed to go to) and there had been many problems. Attempted escapes, shoot outs between prisoners and guards and the shear cost of looking after so many high profile criminals. It closed in 1963 (I think) the same year of the three escapees.

The F Line, a streetcar named Success

After our night tour, Laura and I decided to get this historic tram back into downtown. It was called the F line and looked like a retro tram. These electric trams became popular after the second world war and were seen as a cost effective way of transporting people around the city. Eventually they became unpopular or should I say out dated, but not to San Francisco. They kept them on and so there are all different trams operating the F line (which goes from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro) that originate from all over America.

San Francisco

IN N OUT

On the way to San Francisco, we had struggled to find anywhere to have breakfast. As we drove out of Yosemite, there had been a lot of farms/fields and very little in terms of shops or restaurants. Laura did suggest one just as we left Yosemite, it was called the ‘Miners Arms’ and looked awful. I felt there would be better places to eat further afield. But after we had driven for miles and miles, looking out into desolate land, it was looking bleak. Laura kept making jokes that we could eat at one of these many places she could envisage in the distance, I didn’t find this very funny.

Eventually we came to an outlet mall that had, what looked like, a rip off version of McDonalds. It was called IN N OUT and had the same red and yellow colours attached to its sign. Laura and I were starving at this point so we decided to stop and eat.

It took a while for them to construct our burger. In fact, at one point I thought they had forgotten about us, but they hadn’t and just as well, because it was delicious. The staff were really friendly too. I read afterwards in the guidebook that recently in the US, gourmet burger places have become really popular, with different restaurants all trying to out do one another. The book said that IN N OUT have actually being doing fresh, gourmet burgers since the 1960s and that the chain should be congratulated on the excellent pay and conditions it provides it’s staff as well as the burgers it makes. Not quite a McDonalds rip off after all then.

San Francisco Traffic

I am so glad that Laura drove into San Fran and not me because the traffic was insane. Possibly similar to driving in New York, although in New York you don’t get very far very fast. In San Fran, pedestrians appear to rule the streets and not the cars! People just walk out all over the place and then you have the trams and electric bus cables to contend with.

We literally dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and by this I mean we pulled up outside and emptied everything onto the poor Bell Captain who was patiently waiting to assist us, before we set off to take the car back to the airport, where we assumed we had to drop it off. Lucky that Laura read the information and reminded me about the phone call I had made to Trailfinders the week before we left and had changed our drop off point to a city centre one, that was literally two minutes around the corner! The thought of attempting to make our way back from San Francisco Airport was as daunting as boarding a plane itself. For me anyway.

Chancellor Hotel

This hotel was one that we had booked through our tour operator, Trailfinders. It was clearly one they recommended and used a lot as there were many other Trailfinder travellers staying there too. We have encountered quite a few people, many English, who are doing a similar kind of trip to us. In the lift we met a couple who had started off in San Francisco and were heading to LA before finishing off in New York.

The Chancellor was in a brilliant location. Right in the heart of Union Square. Thank goodness it wasn’t any further up what they call Nob Hill, because some of the streets in SF are so steep! Mind you, we needed to burn off some of the thousand of calories consumed in American food. They are not stingy with their portions, they manage to make a salad fattening in the States!

The Chancellor had a special feature that Laura was really interested in: a pillow menu! They boasted how they had over twelve different variety of pillows. Laura had the classic ‘all feather down’ and I had one called ‘buckwheat’ which claimed to relieve you of any stresses. I must say it was really good! I found I only needed one pillow and it just seemed to mould into the shape of my head perfectly. It was quite an unusual experience because it wasn’t particularly soft, but I found it very comfortable. I’ve already checked them out on Amazon, £32.99 and I will be ordering one when I get back.

Sack Obama, Save NASA

Homelessness and poverty is a subject that has continued to upset me during my time in the USA. I can’t believe a country with so much wealth and power has so many people sleeping on the streets. Yes, they may be victims of alcohol and drug abuse, but there are many of them that are quite old, disabled and mentally ill. They are just desperate, and it’s very hard to walk past them. If you were to give a dollar to every homeless person you saw, you would run out of money within the hour, that’s how many people there are.

It was ironic walking up past Union Square that there was a group of people campaigning for Americans to ‘Sack Obama, Save NASA’. I know the Americans are immensely proud of their space project but the fact that they would rather plough millions if not billions of dollars into space as opposed to making sure everyone has a bed at night just shows how many of them organise their priorities. The same people had also altered Obama’s face on the posters they had of him and had given him a Hitler style moustache. A bit unnecessary we felt.

Chinatown

Back to our first night in San Francisco then, and we headed off to Chinatown which was just around the corner from where we were staying. We called in at a watering hole called Irish Bank on the way, recommended by the Lonely Planet and one of Laura’s work colleagues. There was an Irish barmaid too, who had heard of Stoke on Trent! The first one! She recommended that we biked across the Golden Gate Bridge and got the ferry back.

We ate in a Vietnamese restaurant called the Golden Star (or similar to that), again another Lonely Planet recommendation. It was nice and clearly popular. They kept force feeding me their version of tea though, which I wasn’t that happy about. I kept passing it onto Laura, who, poor girl, was in desperate need of the toilet every ten minutes. She had to drink an entire pot to herself!

Chinese whiskey

After our trip to the Golden Star we headed to Li Po, which was a Chinese bar. Laura didn’t like the look on the outside but I persuaded her to venture in. We have noticed that many Americans tend to order a pint with a whiskey chaser on the side. The barmaid told us that the locals drink Chinese whiskey, so we decided to give it a go. What a mistake! Never again! Blew my head off – and I am not even that fond of whiskey. We did have lots of fun though.

Santa Cruz

Blackpool in the sunshine

Is a bit how I looked upon Santa Cruz as we drove into the city. It wasn’t what I had imagined and it was certainly a lot different than Monterey and Carmel. There was little sign of irrigation along the ‘sidewalks’ and I couldn’t see any art galleries or shops in downtown.

I had read a little about it’s counterculture, so I decided to try and see past the rough exterior. We decided to park at our hotel and walk down onto the front as it was too early to check in. I was desperate for the toilet at this point and so we asked at our reception if we could use the restroom. The guy informed us they didn’t have a public one but we could use one of the rooms. Well, my heart sank when I saw the state of it. Grim was not the word. Laura tried to convince me it was a disabled room. This made me feel worse. Why, just because you are disabled should you have to have a room like that?

My despair continued as we walked around the beach area. It really wasn’t what I expected and it did remind me of Blackpool the more we walked. Laura tried to reassure me, said it was a hip university town but I couldn’t shake off the thought of spending four nights in that room.

We decided to go and check in. Laura promised me she would ask to see the room before we paid and would demand a better one if it didn’t meet my standards. I must admit she was very patient. However, I am fussy when it comes to staying places. Not overly bothered about much so long as things are clean.

Laura and I famously (nearly) stayed in the world’s most horrific bed and breakfast with our friends, Fran and Iain. Laura and I had scoured the Internet for accommodation to celebrate her friend’s 30th birthday. We had booked this B&B based on a picture of an outside table and chair, Lord only knows why. It was awful when we got there, absolute filth. From the outside it looked like a house I would never want to enter let alone a bed and breakfast I would want to sleep in. We didn’t stay long, we literally ran off! We have learnt from this error since and now we always, always read reviews from Tripadvisor.

Thankfully the room at the hotel in Santa Cruz was one of many that had been renovated. It was very modern, wooden flooring, huge flat screen TV and fridge/microwave and I agreed to stay!

A compromise

Laura loves the beach. I love the pool. We decided to compromise on a 50/50 split for our days n Santa Cruz. As it was the weekend then the beach was buzzing with activity. Lots of beach volleyball going on, families on days out, surfing and huge sandcastle building. Some people were taking shovels to the beach in order to construct their castles, clearly it’s a serious business.

In the afternoons we transferred to the pool back at our hotel. On the way we called into a small Mexican eatery. On our first day in Santa Cruz I vowed to Laura I would not eat there (I will put this down to my poor frame of mind at the start of the trip) because it was really, really good. Very cheap and you can get just quick food like some nachos with Mexican beans on top.

The pool at the hotel is not big and this brings on the debate about children abroad. I have no problem with kids having fun when they are on holiday and being playful in the water, but I fear it comes a little out of hand when there is literally waves of water engulfing the sides of the sunbathing area. When they got out water pistols I had to give them one of my ‘looks’. Their mothers were there but didn’t share our concern. The only thing they were concerned about was drinking their Corona Extra. Laura felt I was overreacting, I am not so sure.

Engfer Pizza

This was a Lonely Planet recommendation (shock!) but one that took us to the other end of town, past the fun fair that is permanantely on the beach. Laura asked if I wanted to go on the Big Dipper. My answer, in short, no. They promote it on the fact it is the oldest wooden roller coaster in the world or something, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. Especially considering it was so close to the ocean!

Now, in Hearst Castle, they wouldn’t let you touch any of the marble sculptures or fountains that were outside the house, in Santa Cruz they allow you to walk on a train track! It was like a scene from that film, Stand By Me. There was a walk way alongside the track which I decided to walk on, some people were taking their kids down the centre of the track in the middle of the bridge! Unbelievable. I kept saying loudly, ‘they wouldn’t allow this in England, health and safety, health and safety!’

The woman on the reception at our hotel didn’t recommend walking to the Engfer Pizza place. She said we would definitely need to drive as it was so far away. It took us 40 minutes on foot! Laura was fuming, ‘Americans! Don’t walk anywhere. This was less than two miles!’

Engfer Pizza was in an old warehouse that was originally called Engfer Works. It was on a street called Seabright and clearly housed a lot of the university students. It looked young and there were a couple of bars around as well as some Internet cafes.

All the pizzas were cooked from fresh and they had a massive selection of drinks. I’ve discovered that even in coffee houses, the majority serve alcohol. Laura and I had the speciality ‘No Name’ pizza which is, in effect, a huge amount of salad cooked on garlic bread. It was by far the best pizza we had ever eaten. The woman behind the counter said that they got a lot of people on the back of the Lonely Planet and that ‘she was beginning to love that book’. She also said that more often than not, people returned the following day. We thought about it, but Laura wanted a Thai, so we didn’t and bizarrely it was closed on Mondays!

Olympics and karaoke

The Olympics have been tricky to follow at times. I know all about Team USA but have had to rely on Facebook and emails from my Dad to find out what Team GB had won. You can get the BBC website over here but it has lots of adverts on it. We called into a bar one night that was showing the Olympics and more specifically, the diving.

Well, what an emotional night it turned out to be. Firstly, there was a down syndrome girl singing Lady Gaga on the karaoke and then there was the roller coaster of Tom Daley on the 10m platform. In between all of this they showed us Mo Farrah win his second gold medal, I was a mess upon our departure!

Blue Moon

Is the name of the wheat beer we drink in one of our favourite haunts back home, the Glebe in Stoke. As its an American beer then it is widely available over here. They serve it the proper way as well, with a slice of orange in it. Delicious.

The Mexicans

So, previously I had mentioned the children playing in the pool and their mothers drinking Corona Extra with not a care in the world.

Fast forward a day and Laura and I were drinking the Corona Extra with them, eating fresh watermelon and in the pool with the kids getting splashed. I really shouldn’t judge people based on first meeting. They were really nice and amazed at our travels around California.

It took about 20 minutes before they asked us about Kate Middleton, which I thought for Americans, was quite a long time! I say Americans, they originally came from Mexico. They loved our English accents, especially when we said the word ‘mum’. They thought it was fab that I worked in an all boys school that looked like Hogwarts. Yosemite was a favourite place of theirs and they, along with many others, have said we will love it. What did surprise me with the Mexicans was that they live about half an hour away from San Francisco and up until recently, one of them had only just driven across the Golden Gate Bridge. Her sisters were amazed, ‘what? Are you kidding me?!’ they asked her, but she swore it was true.

You sound so sexy!

In England they have Challenge 25, where if you look under that age then you have to produce ID. It’s the same in the States but it’s like Challenge 30, so we have to produce our driving licences all the time. Which makes us feel quite young.

We were in a liquor store (we honestly haven’t spent the entire holiday drinking) and we bought a drink. We had been to the beach and we didn’t have our ID with us when they asked. The lady asked Laura our ages and Laura replied ‘I am 31 and she’s 30’, well she made her repeat it three times claiming that she loved her accent and that ‘you sound so sexy’. It made us laugh!

Seals and dolphins

Again on the beach in Santa Cruz we saw lots of seals, swimming really close to the shore. The highlight was the pair of dolphins that were swimming in the bay just a few metres away from where some of the children were playing. The kids were screaming with delight, so were their parents for that matter.

Sunglasses

I woke up one morning, when it was still quite dark and decided to check the iPad for emails and news. I put on my glasses, or so I thought. After about ten minutes I noticed Laura looking at me a little oddly.
“Oh, I see what you’ve done now.” she said. I wondered if Laura thought I had slept in my glasses. Then she burst out laughing because clearly I had no idea what she was on about. I touched my glasses and thought to myself that they did feel a little bigger than usual. For the past ten minutes I had been wearing my sunglasses, in the dark with no idea! Laura thought this was hilarious and so did I, I didn’t even notice any difference in terms of visibility!

Arcades

There is a huge amusement arcade along the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Americans love this. Lots of games to play like pinball, air hockey and racing games. Very similar to our amusement arcades only of course in America, they are much better value for money. Four tokens costs you $1 and when one of the machines swallowed our tokens I turned around and there was an assistant ready to open up the machine and sort out the situation. You definitely wouldn’t get that service in England. If it swallows your money then you probably have to leave your name and address and wait until someone from the machine company comes around and empties it, which could be weeks or months.

All in all, I ended up loving Santa Cruz. A little like Blackpool in many cases, but it makes you think how good Blackpool could be if it did have the year round weather.

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Silly Susan the Sat Nav

First mistake

When we were driving from LA towards Newport Beach, Susan the Sat Nav (or GPS as they call it here) decided to divert us due to ‘severe traffic’ on the freeway. The alternative route she took us was through an area called Compton and Watts, which Laura assures me is not a nice part of town. In fact it possibly makes Cobridge look like Chelsea. Even when we told the Mexicans that we had driven through Compton and Watts they replied with (and excuse my French) ‘Holy shit!’ I think even Tupac Shakur raps about Compton and I am sure he didn’t come from the right side of town because he use to drive around in cars and shoot people, allegedly.

So we have been a bit wary of our Susan ever since. We are still convinced she makes some bizarre decisions, taking us along all sorts of unusual roads.

Adopted highways

In Stoke they have lots of sponsored roundabouts. The big one at the top of Victoria Road and at the bottom of Lichfield Street in Hanley is sponsored by the Sixth Form College, which I always find a bit bemusing. With money often being tight in education I am always surprised that they manage to find the spare cash to spend on decorating a roundabout, especially as Stoke on Trent one as I am sure the council don’t sell the deals cheap.

In California they have adopted highways. One in Malibu, was adopted by like, Cindy’s Nail Salon. The one we have just driven down on our way to Yosemite was definitely not adopted by anyone. Another one of Susan’s wise travel tips, off roading in God knows where with an outside temperature of 105 degrees Farenheight.

Jesus has been spotted!

The main item on the news the other night was that someone had claimed to have seen an image of Jesus on a bingo television screen. This was reported first over the man who was holding people at gunpoint in Salinas. Salinas, incidentally, I think features in Of Mice and Men, certainly Weed and Soledad do, other places we have been near to at some point. Salinas, I have no desire to visit. There is always something happening there, whether it be a hostage situation or someone being mugged on their way home. Think I would rather go to the bingo place and try and win some money with Jesus.

Radio stations

As we drive to Yosemite, we have to keep changing our radio station. Currently we are listening to Ryan Seacrest. That man is everywhere. He was in London on Sunday covering the Olympics closing ceremony, today he is playing the nation’s best new music.

Flicking and searching through various radio stations made me reconsider my previous thoughts on American radio. I liked that non stop playlist we listened to on our way from A Thousand Oaks to Monterey because it had no DJ and just a good variety of music. But there isn’t much variety in American radio not like Radio 2 or Radio 4 or Five Live and Radio 1. All you get is current music stations, God channels, country or something in Spanish (or Mexican, if you are Laura).

Yosemite

Walmart!

On the drive from Santa Cruz to Yosemite, we passed a Walmart! I say this because we have been looking for one ever since we got here and this was the first one we have spotted. As its part of the Asda family, or that Asda is part of the Walmart family, one or the other, we felt compelled to go inside and take a look.

They hand you sanitizer wipes upon arrival in Walmart. I think you need sanitizer wipes at the Asda in Wolstanton! Anyway, my very first visit to a supermarket in America was when I went to Florida when I was younger. Of course, I was amazed by them because they sold absolutely everything. Times have changed and our supermarkets are very Americanised these days, in fact this Walmart was a bit small compared to Tesco Longton! However, the Walmart had a McDonald’s inside it as opposed to outside.

Movies!

American TV shows lots of decent films. We have watched Inception, The Pelican Brief and Super 8 so far and we haven’t spent much time in the rooms!

Extreme heat

Laura had warned me that Yosemite was going to be really hot. She wasn’t wrong. However, Laura once told me she use to work for the Met Office and I believed her! But it was extremely warm. Much hotter than Santa Cruz and much, much warmer than San Francisco will be.

We checked in and headed straight for the hotel’s private beach! It’s actually a little bit of sand near the river. When we got there, which was mid afternoon there were people swimming in the river. I had never done this before and so we decided to join them. It was very shallow in parts and a bit deeper further out, but it was crystal clear and you could see everything around you. I was a little concerned about meeting a crocodile or an alligator as you often hear these stories but Laura told me I needed to be more worried about the bears and the lions that live in and around the national park. Wonderful.

After the refreshing dip in the river we headed to the hotel outdoor pool. There was also an indoor one but it was so warm we most definitely wanted to enjoy the weather. The only problem was the wasps. Literally everywhere, even flying into me in the pool which I found most off putting. I employed Laura as my personal fly squatter, she did a very good job.

We were staying in a place called El Portal which has a population of 635. It tells you this on the signs as you enter the town. I wonder what happens to the sign if someone has a baby or someone else dies? Do they change it? We have seen signs all over California though so they are a common feature.

There isn’t much in El Portal apart from out hotel, another hotel and a village store. It’s very small. Although I am sure there must be houses for the 635 people that live there, and the bears. It does mean that the hotel has you in a very tricky situation when it comes to food and drinks. You either risk driving to the next nearest town or you just decide to eat there, which is what we did. It was ok and the price wasn’t that bad but there wasn’t much selection unfortunately. It was either a sandwich or a burger.

They also have you on the Internet as well. This was only available in the lobby and it cost $9 for 24 hours, which considering we have paid $2 at the most so far, this was quite expensive. Especially as it was so rubbish! Wouldn’t let me upload the blog (how dare it) and took ages sending an email. I gave up on Facebook. I found it frustrating to say the least, even more so when the man standing behind the reception desk was the same man on the log in page that took forever to log in.

Don’t feed the coyotes!

After we got to El Portal on the Tuesday, we went into Yosemite National Park on the Wednesday. We had got up early especially, to make the most of the day. It costs $20 to get in and this covers you for a week which I think is quite good value for money. The military get in free. They get in free for lots of things over here which I think is how it should be.

We drove through the bottom valley and stopped off to take various breathtaking pictures. I mean, it’s the kind of place that you really have to see it to believe it. I found it more beautiful and awesome than the Grand Canyon, and I thought that was spectacular. Some parts of Yosemite almost look like they have been painted on, they are so huge and vast that they don’t appear real.

We then headed up to somewhere called Glacier Point which was fabulous. Stunning views where every time you went to a different viewing point it looked so much different than the one before it. We were lucky that there was water falling from Yosemite Falls, which often stops during the summer months because of the heat. However, two waterfalls were in action on the day we were there.It was a real windy drive up to the Point with some huge drops along the road side. We passed signs on the way such as

Speeding kills bears

Don’t feed the coyotes

These made me chuckle. I would have thought the bears would have wrecked my car not the other way around and who would stop to feed a coyote? And what would you feed it? I only had some Hubba Bubba bubblegum on me.

Another unbelievable day on this unbelievable trip. Lots of English people in the hotel. As we waited for the internet to load in the lobby we spoke to a man who was with his family as well as two others. They had come from Lake Tahoe and were heading to Vegas in a mobile home or an RV as they call them here. They were driving all over the place and he told us that San Francisco is an amazing city so we are looking forward to it!

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Big Sur to Monterey

The drive of a lifetime

We had already experienced some of the Pacific Coast Highway when we drove down to San Diego and passed through Laguna Beach. It was fairly spectacular and we were expecting great things when we headed on the same road but going north, to Carmel and Monterey.

It’s safe to say that the much talked about highway exceeded all expectations. Possibly the best drive that Laura and I have ever been on. Not sure if it will ever be topped! Although I know that Laura has seen parts of Australia that she said were very beautiful. There were some parts on the highway in Big Sur where we couldn’t tell where the ocean ended and the sky started, it was all so blue. There were lots of stop off points along the way, including one before the Bixby Bridge, which is the largest bridge of its kind on the highway. My mum doesn’t like going over the Thelwall Viaduct on the M6, she definitely wouldn’t like Bixby!

Monterey

We opted to stay in Monterey, basically because what we spent on three nights there, would have cost us the same as one night in the nearby Carmel-by-the-sea. Plus Monterey wasn’t a million miles away from Carmel, just a few minutes drive in the car, so we knew we could experience both at the same time.

Our luck has been in our favour in terms of being in the right place at the right time on this holiday. In Santa Barbara we were there the same time as the Viva La Fiesta, in Vegas we were there the same time as Scentsy, a conference for people (mainly women) selling flame less candles – we didn’t attend, and in Monterey we turned up on the day of their weekly market. This may not sound that exciting but it had lots of food so it excited Laura and me! We had some calamari that was very fresh and very delicious.

I know that we have said we have liked every place that we have visited so far on this trip, but that’s genuinely the case. Each town/city has been different and unique along the way. I have noticed the general change as we have got further up north, they have become more quirky and quaint the further up we have travelled.

Monterey downtown was very small but nicely done. Makes me think that to have an effective city or town ‘centre’ you really don’t have to do much. Keep it clean and well maintained and perhaps keep an eye on the size of it, perhaps not try to do too much with it. Thinking of the awful City Sentral place in Hanley that is currently under construction, it’s a pointless exercise. The main high street can’t cope as it is, without the competition of a new development half a mile away. There is only a couple of main streets in Monterey and that’s enough, that’s all it needs – plus parking is cheaper!

Fresh crab

There is a place called Fisherman’s Wharf on the pier at Monterey. Lots of seafood places along the way, Laura tested some fresh crab and I continued with my fixation on clam chowder which they serve in huge bowls of sour dough bread. Delicious. We managed to get a sea view table over the harbour and watched seals play in the waters whilst we ate.

After we went in search of a bar. The only one we could find was The Britannia Arms, an English bar in downtown. It was ok apart from when the karaoke started. The first performance was of a song I had never heard of, with a woman doing some seductive dancing to go with it. Embarrassing wasn’t the word, Laura couldn’t watch. It didn’t get any better, a young guy went on to murder Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York New York’ but his friends kept cheering “yeah! Go buddy!” which provided the singer with false belief that he was any good. Then came on a rapper, who selected a song with lyrics that were only explicit and then who danced during the musical interlude (I’ve never seen Snoop Dogg do that, although Laura tells me he now goes by the name of Snoop Lion after being ‘spiritualised’ in Jamaica). The final performance we saw was the best, a guy singing a country song, but unfortunately we don’t like country music, so we left the not so English bar.

17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach and a golf buggy experience

17 Mile Drive is the name of a road that sits in an area. I assume it’s called 17 Mile Drive because it lasts for 17 miles, it certainly felt that way when Susan the Sat Nav kept getting me lost as we tried to find the exit!

You have to pay an entrance fee to this exclusive area of about $10 per car. It’s free if you go in on bike. Lots of wealth in this area (plenty of irrigation) and a golf course that is world famous and has hosted the US Open. Again, it has spectacular views of the bay and lots of stop off places that you can pause to soak up the moment and take lots of pictures.

The temperature in Monterey is much cooler. You can get away with shorts and t-shirts but you need a jumper at times as the breeze is quite strong. For us however, it still feels hot! It’s England on a good day.

The woman with the golf buggy

Laura had informed me we were going to Pebble Beach to sunbathe and instructed me to wear the appropriate clothing, which I did. It was still windy though and as we were surrounded by a golf course I made it clear to Laura I had no intention of taking so much as one layer of clothing off in front of a Tiger Woods wannabe.

We carefully followed the signs to the beach, on foot. Followed them all the way through a golf course (I had a vision of being cracked with a golf ball) until we reached the coast and there was still no beach. We decided to retrace our steps and make our way back towards the car. We walked up this little footpath – or so we thought. As we walked up, a not so very delightful lady was driving down in her golf buggy. She shouts at us that a golf tournament is starting and we need to get off this golf buggy path and instead we should use the road. So Laura and I promptly cross over to the road and make our way up that. Near the end of this road I hear the familiar sound of a golf buggy behind us, trying to get past. Laura refuses to move out of the middle of the road “she told me to walk up this road, so that’s where I am walking, I am not moving. Is it her? Is it the same woman?” I like in all situations like these, get the giggles. Next thing the lady (same one) from the buggy shouts out “hey girls, you looking for the beach, hop on, I will give you a ride!”

And before you know it we are sat on this woman’s golf buggy being chauffeured around the resort. I am still laughing, Laura’s warning me to contain myself. She said after maybe the lady felt guilty for shouting at us for being on her path. Not so sure, either way she took us to a deserted beach that was completely sheltered. The ocean was calm, if not cold, and we enjoyed some exclusive sunbathing!

Cannery Row

We had read about this place called Cannery Row which is a waterfront street where traditionally they use to sell fish (I think). We couldn’t find it on the first night but managed to get there on the second evening of our stay. As we walked down in the early evening, Laura was disgusted to overhear two oldish men talking. “Oh my God, did you hear what they were talking about?” she said to me, “they were talking about spandex, dirty men” I explained to Laura that I, too, had heard parts of their conversation and they were actually talking about John Steinbeck, who is heavily associated with that area. There are quotes from him plastered all over the place. He is very much their claim to fame.

We decided to have a drink at the Cannery Row Brewing Company, which is based in what was probably an old warehouse. It was massive inside, had just about every sport you could imagine playing on the TV screens, and outside on the terrace there were all of these fire pits which appear to be very popular in Monterey. I can see why, they enable you to stay outside for longer without getting cold and of course they look great at night with the sound of the ocean behind you.

Laura decided that we should take part in the trivia evening they were doing. Thank goodness you had to be inside to play, I am not confident about English general knowledge let alone American, and like all things American, it would never be what you expected.

Sam and Michelle

The fire pits had four sides to them, they were set out in a square shape. Opposite us was an American couple called Sam and Michelle. They were in Monterey on ‘vacation’ and lived halfway between San Diego and LA. We got chatting to them and they, like many others we have spoken to, told us how we should have gone to Old Vegas when we were in Las Vegas. We really regret not going but time was limited when we were there so we will just have to go back!

Sam and Michelle bought us a shot called Chocolate Cake. It came with a slice of lemon at the side. You had to drink it and then suck on the lemon, a bit like when you have a tequila (which we don’t) but only this drink tastes really nice! It is yellow in appearance and I am not sure where the chocolate element comes from but it certainly smelt like a cake.

Americans, particularly the ones we have come into contact with, have been remarkably friendly. We only spent a couple of hours with Sam and Michelle and they were giving us email addresses and practically inviting us to stay. I had witnessed a similar incident the day before of two families who met over breakfast at Denny’s. They hadn’t even tucked into their bacon and they were exchanging gifts of temporary tattoos, which I thought was a bit odd but each to their own!

Monterey Aquarium

The aquarium in Monterey is one of the best in the world. What Americans do, they do very well. Huge tanks of different species of fish, jellyfish, sea horses, sharks, birds and seals. Massive selection, all with lots of different activities for children to do. It was well worth the visit and had it have not been so busy then we would have stayed longer.

Dametra Cafe

Laura’s friends, Fran and Iain, did a very similar trip to us when they were on honeymoon three years ago. They recommended to us a Greek restaurant in Carmel and so we made a point of going. We went early afternoon so we could get a table. I had read up on Trip Advisor and knew it had outstanding reviews.

The owner was over the moon when he heard we had come on a recommendation. He thanked us several times. He was very humble considering the walls of the restaurant were covered in awards and write ups about the place. It wasn’t anything flash either, small, cosy and intimate, but very, very popular. We were there late afternoon and we got the last table.

Food was better than what you get in Greece, and I love Greek food! The chef came out halfway through the meal and serenaded the restaurant with his father (they do this quite often in America, we have discovered). It was very nice, everybody was clapping along with them. I wondered if we would start throwing plates and dancing around to Zorba the Greek, but we didn’t. So glad we took the trip to Carmel to go. It’s not expensive and the food was outstanding.

Carmel-by-the-sea

Laura’s theory is that you can tell if an area if wealthy if they have irrigation systems installed, my theory is that if there are art shops and galleries, it is definitely wealthy. There are no art shops in Fenton, even though they charge you 90p an hour to park (cannot get over this parking malarkey) but there were plenty of art shops and galleries in Carmel. It was very picturesque and lots of the little cottages had names such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’s House’ or ‘Lighthouse Lamp Inn’ just really enjoyable to look at.

Clint Eastwood lives there apparently, but like the lack of Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox in Malibu, we didn’t see him.

Santa Cruz for a few nights as of tomorrow. It’s a few degrees warmer there!

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