State Twenty Three: California

A huge statue of Paul Bunyan and his sidekick bull.
Paul Bunyan – a great roadside attraction

Although California signified us coming to the end of our 23 day American Odyssey honeymoon, we weren’t all that sad because we knew we had the Golden State still to sample. And what a lot to sample. The biggest State by a distance, 11% of all Americans live there, it’s got 12 million people on its next nearest rival to that title, Texas. Never mind the number of people there, California is also home to some of America’s most spectacular natural wonders.

Coming from the north to the south as we were, first we needed to find a place to stay in the far north of the state. We wanted to be close to the Redwood National Park so we landed upon Klamath which is about an hour south of the border with Oregon. There aren’t a huge number of places to stay there so we ended up in the Historic Requa Inn. I won’t dwell here, but suffice it to say, don’t bother. The owner was rude and the dinner we were served was over priced and complete rubbish. It did have two resident cats, and you could hear seals playing in the river outside, but that’s about it.

A giant drive-thru tree.
We drove through a tree!

We did get to see some big old Redwoods though, and they are awesome. Smaller at the base than the Sequoia, they are generally taller (the tallest in the world in fact), its worth a departure from the interstate to drive along some smaller windy roads just to take in these giants. We also made a stop at the Drive Through Tree in Legget – which is actually a Sequoia, but great fun to try and squeeze your car through and makes for some great snaps!

We carried on down Route 101 to our next Californian stop, Mendocino in wine country and right on the coast. We chose to stay just outside of town at the Blackberry Inn. Beware, it is a short walk to restaurants and bars which wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem but the short walk does take in Route 101, so may not be for everyone! It is however very reasonably priced, and you can stay in one of 16 rooms all decked out to look like old timey banks, or sweet shops, or in our case the livery. The room was really big and had a real wood burning stove in the corner. In this part of the country a room for $150 a night isn’t all that common so we were really pleased to lay our heads here for the night.

The sea besides highway 1
Drivin’ down Highway 1

Mendocino itself is tiny, made up of only a handful of streets and reminiscent of some New England towns. We popped into Dick’s Place (about as close to a dive bar as Mendocino gets) on Main Street for a pint or two, before heading to the Mendocino Cafe for dinner. There are a lot of pricey places here, since you’re a long way from anywhere, but the Cafe wasn’t too bad and we had a tasty burrito there. We rushed out of there in order to take in the sunset over the Pacific from the Mendocino Headlands State Park – it was well worth it. There aren’t too many coastal parks along the Californian coast so its good to take advantage of them when you find one.

Yummy dinner at the Fremont Diner
Nashville Chicken at the Fremont Diner

After a few nights in small town America we made tracks for one of Cali’s biggest cities and one we’d been looking forward to visiting for a long, long time; San Francisco. We have to mention the place we stopped for lunch en route first though, the Fremont Diner in Sonoma. A friend had recommended it to us and here we are recommending to you, we had Nashville chicken and beef brisket (not together), but the menu is packed full of delicious treats. From there we only had an hour to drive to San Fran.

Rounding the corner to see the Golden Gate Bridge is one of those memorable moments we’ll treasure forever. Such an iconic site, its like seeing the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower for the first time. We made our way up the headland, with seemingly thousands of others, to grab the traditional pictures of the Bridge with San Francisco in the background on a day where the famous fog had taken a break.

The Golden Gate Bridge from below
The great Golden Gate Bridge!

Like the rest of California it can be tough to find cheap accomodation in San Francisco but we found the Golden Gate Hotel, a small B&B just a few blocks from Union Square. After checking in we had an important appointment to keep – at Alcatraz. We walked the half an hour or so it took to get to Fisherman’s Wharf, checked out the smelly sea lions on Pier 39 and the incredibly touristy shops and restaurants next door. The boat to Alcatraz goes from nearby and we were booked on a spooky night time tour. Another of San Francisco’s iconic sights, Alcatraz is great for spending a few hours day or night but don’t forget to book well in advance!

Our second day in San Francisco was packed with less walking but a lot of cycling. We hired bikes from the Wharf and cycled along the water to Fort Point where you can get some more great snaps of the Golden Gate Bridge. We braced ourselves for a tough ride up to the bridge, and across it which is more or less uphill all the way. When you get to the other side there’s a fun bit of free wheeling, for about five minutes, before some more hills to get to Sausalito. We had lunch at the Napa Valley Burger Company which like everywhere in Sausalito is packed and expensive, but it was good eating. We then waited in a mighty queue with all the other cyclists to get the ferry back to San Francisco before dropping the bikes off. That night we had another important appointment – with Willie Nelson in San Rafael just a short drive outside of SF. If you ever get the chance to see Willie live, do it, at 80 years old he’s still one of the finest performers around.

A rusty old ghost town
A ghost town – Bodie

Our last day in San Francisco was spent largely in the less touristy areas. We hopped on a bus all the way down to the end of the Golden Gate park, where the fog had descended and we suddenly felt under dressed. The park is massive, we saw the Dutch windmill, the bison, the MH de Young Museum and the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, modelled on London’s Kew Gardens. From there we hopped on another bus to the Mission where we had lunch at Taqueria la Cumbre followed by some awesome ice cream from the Bi-Rite Creamery.

Our last night in San Francisco was a concerted effort to booze it up. We walked from the Mission past the City Hall to Smuggler’s Cove, a tiki bar behind a non-descript black door on Gough Street. They have a bewildering selection of rum cocktails. We went in in bright sunshine, by the time we were done it was plenty dark. We weren’t done there though, we walked to Toronado on Haight Street which has an equally bewildering selection of beers. Naturally we had to sample a few. Our final stop on bar crawl was Bourbon and Branch. It’s in a slightly sketchy part of town, but we were drunk enough not to notice, and you have to book (you’re given a secret password!). Much like places such as Milk and Honey or Nightjar in London, Bourbon and Branch is a dark and atmospheric speakeasy type joint…the cocktails are superb.

Tree hugging
Hannah gets to tree-huggin’

A little hungover, we weren’t finished in California just yet. We had to be back in San Francisco to fly home but before that we had a couple of nights to spare. Yosemite National Park was the obvious choice. We headed inland the long way round to Yosemite, through South Lake Tahoe and round to Bodie, a former gold mining boom-town which is now a ghost town. It was a long way off the beaten track, we were grateful to have a 4×4, but it did make for some really cool pictures.

We then went towards Yosemite, in through the back door if you will, through the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows and all the while coasting past some epic mountains and lakes. By the time we made it to the main Yosemite tourist point it was dark, and after gawping at the tiny flickers of light which we realised were climbers making their way up the Half Dome we stopped at the Ahwahnee Hotel bar for a drink and a pulled pork sandwich. We couldn’t afford to stay in the famous old hotel so stopping off for a bite to eat was the next best thing. Our stretched budget meant we had to make do with lodgings just outside the park in the Tenaya Lodge hotel.

Trees and mountains in Yosemite
Beautiful Yosemite valley

Our day in Yosemite began with a short drive to Mariposa Grove which is where you can see some of the biggest trees (by volume, rather than height!) in the world. Some of the Sequoias here dwarf even the enormous groups of Japanese tourists. From there we drove to Glacier Point where you can get some great snaps of the famous Half Dome. Really though, pretty much anywhere you stop in Yosemite you’ll get a great snap of something. Ultimately we probably preferred Yellowstone to Yosemite, mainly because of how busy the latter is, but Yosemite is still utterly fantastic and a once-in-a-lifetime stop.

And that was it, the honeymoon period was quite literally over. California made for a perfect place to bring the curtain down on this epic trip. This ginormous state could be the destination for a hundred holidays, never mind five or six days, but we saw enough of it to know that we’ll go back there before too long.

Rate the State:

Good for: What’s it not good for? Beaches, mountains, towns, cities, food, booze…we could go on!

Bad for: Penny pinchers, its hard to do California on a tight budget.

Overall: 10/10

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