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USA...California Dreamin' - week 3 by ColinG
Submitted By: karenc Date: March 5, 2010, 2:54 AM Views: 1078

California Dreamin' - week 3

by ColinG

In the first two parts we initially spent time in and around San Francisco, had four astounding days in Yosemite and travelled down Highway 1 and the Big Sur to San Simeon enjoying the marine wildlife, dramatic coastal scenery and places of historical interest.

We were up early again with time for a bracing walk along the beach before breakfast as the sun's ray were gaining strength for another beautiful day. We hit the Highway 1 road again heading south to Pismo Beach and had an early fuel stop and walkabout in Cambria. The road diverts slightly from the coast for a while but soon we see the bulk of the volcanic plug of Morro Rock in the far distance. It was a fine morning so we stopped a while on Morro Bay State Beach watching the pelicans diving for fish and the waders strutting along the shoreline.

Morro Bay itself is a medium sized resort with an active fishing fleet. We stopped for a Fish & Chip lunch on Fisherman's Wharf and afterward watched a sea otter in the kelp alongside the quay crunching through the shell of his fresh crab lunch!
On the road again we climbed inland towards San Luis Obispo in the afternoon heat and joined the busy US Highway 101 to meet the coast again at Pismo Beach. Our hotel was again overlooking the ocean on the top of a 50ft limestone sea cliff enclosing sheltered coves which provided good fishing for the large colony of pelicans. We walked in the lush gardens watching the birds, including a brilliant coloured hummingbird, and relaxed around the pool and hot tub for a couple of hours then headed off for dinner at Pelican Point as the sun set.

After a rather poor self service breakfast we headed to the resort centre and after another grapple with the US banking system took a walk around the beach and fishing pier. It was foggy again this morning so too cold to hang around for long, the alternative of a warm freshly baked Old West style Cinnamon Roll and coffee were much more appealing. The sun was burning off the mist as we headed to Grover Beach which is a sprawling conurbation of RV parks and motels where folks come from far and wide to have some off road/all terrain fun in the sand dunes along the vast expanse of the Oceano Dunes - State Vehicular Recreation Area!

This 15 mile stretch of beach is the only Californian beach which you are allowed to take vehicles on. Some of these vehicles are true off road monsters with huge tractor style tyres and 3-4 foot road clearance, others are not just mobile homes but trailer mansions towed like articulated trailers behind enormous 4WD Pickups. I walked along the sea front for about two miles watching the boys with their toys………yeeeeeHa!
After lunch in suburban Arroya Grande we headed to Port San Luis, another fishing pier and busy beach resort. When the wind became too strong and the flies too noisome to sit on the sand we headed back to the pool……………. and hot tub: I could really enjoy one of these in my back garden if we could just organise some reliable sunshine, warm weather and a nice sea view!

Pismo Beach was as far south on Highway 1 as we were heading, we were still about 190 miles from Los Angeles and nearly 250 miles from San Francisco, the enormous size and vast space available in this State, the third largest in US, was beginning to become apparent in comparison to the comparative cramped conditions we tolerate in the UK (our average population density is over 2.5 times that of California!). After breakfast we headed north again on Highway 101, after passing San Luis Obispo the road climbs up over the coastal sierra and into the central Californian Valley which is a vast agricultural area with perfect growing conditions. Mile after mile we passed through vast acres of cultivated land and vineyards and I was surprised by the level of manual labour which was being employed in the fields. We also occasionally passed rather incongruous industrial areas, fenced off military training camps and several of the old Missions which give meaning to this routes other names of 'El Camino Real' or the Californian Mission Trail.

After several hours steady cruise control we enter more developed surroundings at Salinas. I decide to opt out of more Highway monotony and cut across to the coast again near to Moss Landing after passing through Castroville which proudly presents itself as the 'Artichoke Capitol of the World'. Back in the coastal fog again we continue through Santa Cruz and northwards along the already familiar Highway 1 road. We stopped briefly at Pigeon Point Lighthouse to savour the dramatic location of this former whaling station but time was flying by so we had to press on. We stopped for a late lunch at Half Moon Bay before taking the Interstate 280 route which follows the San Andreas fault line into central San Francisco and with the help of SatNav directly to our hotel on Fisherman's Wharf. All in with a few short stops we had been on the road from Pismo Beach for around 7 hours, that's longer than it would take to drive from Edinburgh to London on a reasonable day!
After checking in, a quick coffee and a brief fact finding mission to the main drag we headed off again to meet up with Mat & Kat for dinner in the busy and cosmopolitan university town of Palo Alto.

We made an early start from Matt's house in Menlo Park heading for Point Reyes but our first stop was at the 1960/70's hippy area of Haight-Ashbury which is very much in a time warp and now rather tired and tatty; perhaps it always was in reality but everything is different when on an LSD trip and reality didn't matter to the beautiful people with flowers in their hair in psychedelia?

Across Golden Gate and on into Marin County on the Redwood Highway then onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through the wooded hills; we stopped at the very wild west style General Store in Inverness (honestly!) to pick up custom made doorstep sandwiches for a picnic lunch. Point Reyes National Seashore is a peninsula which is geologically separated from the' mainland' by the San Andreas Fault and the landscape and nature on the peninsula is quite different from the neighbouring areas. The rocks here are over 300 miles displaced from other similar rocks by virtue of the movements of about two inches a year between different tectonic plates across the fault line. Although this is fertile land there are fewer trees and the many cattle ranches on the low level rolling hills give a general feel reminiscent of some parts of Scotland. However apparently Francis Drake named this place Nova Albion, (New England), when he called by in 1579 on his round the world cruise with the Golden Hind; SF was not on the map in those days!

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a squat building located at the foot of a steep flight of 300steps at the headland. It was a sunless day but not foggy, however in the strong wind it felt more like an December than mid August. From the Sealion Overlook we saw and heard a large number of sealions on the rocky shore and islands around the Point and also saw a lone Albatross skimming low over the waves. Along the road to Tomales Point we saw some of the indigenous Elk herds as we headed to the wonderfully wild and remote McClures Beach.

For our return to Golden Gate and San Francisco we took Highway 1 for the last time stopping briefly again at Stinson Beach to allow M&K some kite flying, this also turned out to be their last time at this their favourite beach.
No major hold ups on the bridge this time and a convenient parking place allowed us to sample pizza and pasta in North Beach, the Italian Quarter.

Today's itinerary had been planned and pre-booked long before we left UK. The first open top bus on the city loop was due to leave the Wharf at 0915 so initially we walked out towards Ghiradelli Square and shivered watching the dozen or so hardy swimmers without wet suits at the Aquatic Park beach. Walking back towards the bus stop we noticed one about to depart so hopped on and took a seat up stairs only to find that this was the Golden Gate Bridge bus which I had intended to take later in the day for the possibility of a clearer view: Faux Pas! We stayed on and grabbed a couple of blankets to ward off the cold. It was here that I first heard the saying attributed to Mark Twain about San Francisco's Climate "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco", so true! The route took us via the Palace of Fine Arts through the old military barracks, parade ground and cemetery of the Presidio and across the bridge to Vista Point. Returning to the Wharf we grabbed a quick coffee and hopped on a city loop bus to take us round to the Ferry Building then wandered back through the skyscrapers and city squares towards Pier33 for our 1345 boat to Alcatraz Island.

The history of Alcatraz Island starts in the late 19th Century with the building of the first lighthouse, but it is the 29 year period from 1934 to 1963 that we all associate with this rocky island when it was the highest security State Penitentiary in the US prison system, the place reserved for the hardest, most persistent criminals of the time. Now, forty years after the prison closed, a visit to "The Rock" is a fascinating experience drawing continuous streams of visitors. The Audio Tour of the Cell Block gives many details of the operation of the prison, the life of the inmates and the escape attempts. It was sunny but still with a stiff cold wind when we were there, it is difficult to imagine what conditions were really like on foggy winter days confined in one of the 350 cells on Broadway measuring only about 7ft wide, 8 ft high and 8 ft deep.
Officially none of the 14 escape attempts from Alcatraz were successful but the real escape in 1962 of three inmates which has been dramatised in the Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz is thought to have taken them to freedom after a swim of around an hour in the perilous currents and freezing cold waters of the Bay.

The day we were on The Rock was an Alumni Day, there were quite a few former residents (inmates, wardens, wardens children etc.) recounting their memories of their times there. But Alcatraz Island is more that just a former prison; it is nowadays managed as a National Park to preserve the heritage and wildlife for future generations.

Back at the Wharf we picked up the Loop Bus route again and completed the circuit via, the Town Hall. Union Square and Chinatown.

This is our last full day; the finale of our three week holiday was about to begin. We had arranged to meet Matt at the Ferry Building at 1000 so we hopped on a Cable Car at the Hyde Street turnaround.

This is a real, unique, working transport museum feature still in every day use by locals as well as tourists and it's only three dollars for a single ticket, unbeatable value for such an iconic attraction. The bone rattling, white knuckle trip up and down the steep hills of San Francisco's streets is worthy of any modern amusement park. We jumped off as we crossed California Street and walked down, passing China Town and the major banking buildings in the Financial District.

When Matt turned up we jumped on a former Milan tram (there is at least one from Blackpool as well) to take us along to Fisherman's Wharf again. We visited the Hyde Street Pier maritime museum and were thrilled by the fully restored square rigged Balclutha built in Glasgow in 1886 which made 17 voyages round Cape Horn carrying coal and other cargo from Europe. Several other exhibits were also fascinating windows on the seafaring age gone by.

We lunched at one of the many establishments along the Wharf then headed for Pier 39. We had a little time to kill so went to view the sealions along with hordes of other tourists. Now it was time for the greatest of San Francisco's attractions as we embarked on the Golden Gate and Alcatraz cruise. We could not have hoped for a sunnier afternoon for clear views of the bridge as we sailed out across the bay and under the main span, turned and returned with two loops round The Rock for good measure. When we disembarked we walked along the Embarcadero to the Pier 27 restaurant where we had lunched on our first day and had another beer in the sunshine before Matt left us; Ruth & I were both a bit choked and emotional.

In the evening we walked along the Wharf, booked a table at Scomas and waited watching the long lines of pelicans flying in across the Bay to roost as the sun went down behind the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands for the final time. Scomas is one of the most celebrated of the fish restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf and I spoiled myself again with the Cioppino alla Pescatore, with half a Dungeness Crab in the shell, which is a house speciality, very messy to eat but absolutely out of this world (if you like seafood)! If I remember rightly I followed up with my favourite, Tiramisu.

Time to go home! But one last quest before we headed to the airport. We packed the car and headed for the Marina Green and Crissy Field park for a walk along the beach and then up to the Bridge Car Park to walk to the middle of Golden Gate and back in the cold morning fog. We've seen this International Orange icon from every angle now (except perhaps the top of the towers).
Back in the car I set the SatNav to take it back to base. It was just around midday when we checked in, we arrived home about 4pm the following day!
Matt returned together with Kat ten days later at the end of his twelve month internship with USGS.

Three weeks Fly Drive which encompassed every type of holiday activity from City Break, Beaches, Walking, Wildlife Watching, Touring, Historical, Geographical and Cultural Interest, Good Food & Wine, Boat Trips, and of course the Camera came too! Thankfully we mainly missed out on the Retail Therapy experiences! We covered over 2000 miles in the car but I can honestly say there was no stress involved, quite unlike driving in UK!

Time to wake up from the California Dreams and start planning next years travels!

More information on most of the locations mentioned in these articles can easily be found online via Google and Wikipedia.

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