There’s more than the Mediterranean climate that links southern California and the Iberian Peninsula, with a strong Hispanic influence evident in the names of the four main cities; Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento. The comparison doesn’t end there, with the stunning scenery of Andalucía mirroring the high sierras and picturesque coast of Southern California and an abundance of Moorish referenced architecture.
This was a bucket list adventure, a two week road trip and an opportunity to experience some of the most scenic coastlines and iconic landmarks in California, taking in most of Route 1 and part of the Big Sur.
First stop was LA and a typical American sized breakfast at Mel’s Diner, a fun 1950s themed diner with a mini juke box at each table, situated on West Hollywood’s famous Sunset Boulevard. Where we are from eggs are just eggs, plain and simple and we were confused by ‘over easy’ and the other many options offered to us by the waitress which resulted in the Manager bringing us over a selection of fried eggs on the house. Great service with a smile, but disconcerting when the bill (or should I say ‘check’) is brought so swiftly that you feel under pressure to pay and go.
From there we made our way to the Hollywood & Highland Centre outdoor mall complex next door to the Kodak Theatre, Hard Rock Café and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. We strolled along the Hollywood Walk of Fame in my quest to look for the coral-pink terrazzo five-pointed star rimmed with brass belonging to MM – my screen idol. We found Mickey Mouse easily but my search hadn’t been completed until we eventually come across Marilyn Monroe, outside McDonalds, block 6700 of Hollywood Boulevard. Not the best location for one of the world’s most famous women in the history of cinema.
What else do you do when in Hollywood but venture to the signature pink stucco walled Beverly Hills Hotel? We ambled down the palm leaf wallpapered corridors for cocktails around the pool. No photos allowed, but no celebs spotted! We drove ourselves around the tree lined avenues at the back of the hotel where magnificent mansions abound, many belonging to stars of stage and screen, past and current.
La Brea Tar Pits and Museum –situated in the middle of Hancock Park is this petroleum reservoir on the southern edge of the Salt Lake Oil Field. The natural history museum is dedicated to the Ice Age and entrance includes a guided tour around the compound where you can see the tar bubbling up and watch people working on current digs
A visit to the Getty Center was a must and exceeded any expectations that we had. From the outside the white, concrete contemporary architecturally designed building commands a hilltop that can only be accessed via a bus or tram after parking in the car park at the entrance. An amazing experience for art enthusiasts with stunning paintings by Van Gogh (my favourite being Irises 1889), Monet, Renoir, Canaletto and Rembrandt to name but a few. We took a one hour guided tour, included in the entry price, to ensure we saw some of the most important pieces and although we spent at least four hours there altogether, we could easily have gone back another day to see those artworks that we missed. What I particularly liked was that I had thought the galleries would be stark white walls but in fact each room is arranged according to the theme or period. A murmur went round the lift as we got in to go back that the actress Jennifer Garner had been spotted.
Having watched ‘La La Land’ on the flight over, I was keen to go to the landmark Griffith Observatory on the slopes of Mount Hollywood, a much used location for several films set in LA. Parking can be difficult, but we were directed down to an area where we could park and pick up a shuttle bus that was much easier than walking. The Observatory is worth a visit not just for the amazing views of LA and the beautiful building, the murals in the entrance main hall are stunning, but for the fascinating exhibits and planetarium as well.
The route from Los Angeles to San Diego down the Pacific Coastal Highway is Southern California at its beautiful best, passing through sleepy beachside towns like Newport Beach. Our first encounter with wildlife was at La Jolla Cove, a small beach surrounded by sandstone cliffs, where we saw the resident seals and sea lions at the Children’s Pool area – you can walk down on to the sand, but a rope barrier protects the seals from humans during pupping season.
Due to the proximity of the Mexican border, there’s a rich Hispanic heritage, particularly in the Old Town and it was in the State Historic Park that we learnt about the birthplace of California and the colourful history surrounding the area. The San Diego Presidio, which was built to protect the original colonists from American Indian attack, is the first of 21 missions built as part of the conquest of Alta California. El Camino Real (The Royal Road) is a historic road linking the 21 Spanish missions of California, stretching over 600 miles to Sonoma in the north.
San Diego is home to several Gibraltarian ex-pats and because of its strategic location and large naval base it was once promoted as ‘the Gibraltar of the Pacific’. The flight school and flight scenes in the Top Gun movie were filmed at the Miramar Naval Air Station and Naval Training Center,
Downtown San Diego is a buzzing, vibrant area with trendy bars and restaurants setting the tone in the Gaslamp Quarter, where the streets are lined with electric versions of Victorian lamps, although we noticed a large number of homeless people, more than any of the other places we visited in California.
An unplanned day trip to Tijuana seemed like a good idea and, in fact, proved to be a relatively easy excursion even though the San Ysidro Port of Entry has the reputation of being the busiest land border crossing in the world and although we saw evidence of cars queuing, it didn’t seem so very different to the border crossing nearer to home. We drove to San Ysidro Border Station Parking lot very close to the Mexican border and caught the Tiketon bus which took us to immigration, where we had to get out and fill in immigration forms, before picking the bus up again the other side. We were dropped off in Avenida Revolucion, full of tourist shops, pharmacies (where Americans come for their cut price medications and drugs), and zebra striped donkeys on every corner waiting for tourist photo opportunities.
Highlight of our day trip was Caesar’s Restaurant for lunch – the Caesar Salad having been invented by Caesar Cardini at the Tijuana restaurant in 1924. The restaurant was refurbished in 2010 and boasts a beautiful interior harking back to a magical era. The dark wood bar winds over the checked tiled floor and formally dressed waiters in collared shirts and black vests with a folded linen draped over their arms attended to our every need. An ensaladero prepared the original Caesar Salad recipe at our table, explaining exactly what he is doing as he creates the dish for us. Tijuana may not be a typical representation of Mexico but it was definitely worth a visit.
Leaving the sparkling waters of the Pacific behind us we pointed our wheels in a north easterly direction and drove inland to Palm Springs, once the playground for Hollywood stars in the 1920s but still attracting celebrities because of the privacy offered by the walled compounds where they can relax in their homes and play on one of the many golf courses. Several of the main streets are named after stars, such as Frank Sinatra Drive and Bob Hope Drive and Downtown Palm Springs is full of quirky shops, many designer stores selling high-end items but with the occasional unique boutique selling vintage or more affordable things. Where else would you see a pink Cadillac with the number plate CABARET being driven by a perma-tanned, blonde haired gentleman with flashing white teeth?
Although we should be used to the thrill of a cable car, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tram car rising 8,515 feet from the floor of the Coachella Valley to relatively near the top of San Jacinto Peak, is not for the faint-hearted but the awe inspiring views certainly make up for any fears.
We headed back to the coast and the next stop was the resort of Santa Barbara, rebuilt after the earthquake in 1925 in a Spanish-Moorish colonial style architecture that characterises the whole city and dubbed the American Riviera due to its Mediterranean climate. We visited the city’s spectacular architectural landmarks with an easy self-guided walking tour following the red tiles in the pavement starting at the County Courthouse, one of the city’s most striking buildings with an 80 foot clock tower, gigantic murals, hand-painted ceilings and unique art collection.
In the hills directly above Santa Barbara we found Gibraltar Rock, a sedimentary sandstone rock formation that is a must for serious climbers, and further down the Gibraltar Dam and Reservoir are located on the Santa Ynez River.
A short detour into the Wild West and the town of Santa Maria, full of gun shops and Stetson wearing men, then back towards the coast to Hearst Castle, the lavish home built by infamous newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. We booked the guided tour of the Grand Rooms (there are several different tours and this one gives access to all the ground floor rooms and then an opportunity to roam the outside spaces without restriction), marvelled at the opulent indoor Roman Pool and could only try and imagine the decadent parties held there. Hearst’s 115-room mansion is surrounded by three guesthouses, has two swimming pools, a movie theatre, tennis courts, and a 360 degree view of his land.
Back to reality and a visit to San Simeon village for delicious clam chowder before continuing our drive along the Big Sur, alongside the rugged seaside cliffs and breath-taking valleys filled with Redwood trees, stopping off to watch the Elephant Seals basking in the sandy coves. A word of warning here though, after driving 26 miles to Ragged Point, we had to turn back and retrace our steps due to road closures caused by rock and mud slides.
Finally reaching Carmel, nestled on a hillside forest overlooking Carmel Bay, we walked the hilly streets and cobblestone pathways, window shopped in the cottage boutiques where everything seemed ridiculously expensive. Pebble Beach was next on the list of ‘must-see’ places, especially with a golfer in tow, so we took the 17 Mile Drive and ended up having dinner round a fire pit overlooking the 18th green at Pebble Beach golf course.
The final stop on our expedition was San Francisco, a city with many different facets, every part having a distinct individual character. We headed out on a ferry in in San Francisco Bay to take a fascinating tour of the notorious island prison Alcatraz, then lunch in Chinatown and a ride on a tram (which they confusingly call a cable car) up and down the many hills the city is built on. We just had to walk the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, 2 miles each way, and then drive over it the next day on our way to Napa Valley. We had booked a tasting on the terrace at the Domaine Carneros hillside winery at the beautiful chateau built in 1988 by Taittinger modelled on his French family home. For our tasting we choose a sparkling (they are not allowed to call it Champagne) wine sampler and a red sampler, consisting of 4 wines each, with a cheese plate and then we grimaced at the cost. Oh well, we decided, we’ll only be here once so why not! That really was the attitude of the whole trip. California is the Golden State in more ways than one.
What did we love? The glorious scenery, however we have that here in abundance. The climate, we can match that. The superb leisure facilities offer no more than we can access locally.
What didn’t we like? The expensive wines when we are used to buying great quality affordable wine from all over the world. Why, when California has hundreds of vineyards does buying a bottle of wine with a meal become prohibitive and it is cheaper to buy cocktails.
Although you can drive for miles across California on freeways and highways, the traffic is a nightmare. Parking in cities and towns is difficult and costly (maybe that is something we are used to though)!
There there’s the ‘gratuity’ line on the credit card slip, giving options up to 22%, and tax is extra! Restaurants close so early, something that we are definitely not used to. We turned up at 8 pm one night and were told that the kitchen was closing in ten minutes.
(An abridge version of this article was published in InSight Gibraltar Magazine (pages 36, 37 and 39)