Like Nevada, our first visit to California came on our mammoth honeymoon roadtrip in 2012. Five years on it was well past time to go back to one of the biggest and most populous states in the Union. We did Northern California last time so this time we decided to check out the other end of the state.
We headed south west out of Las Vegas, bound for the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park. Mojave is one of those places you just kind of hear about in the movies, literally the wild west. It is probably the most empty place we’ve been to, on a par with North Dakota. We drove top to bottom through the entire desert and we probably passed one car in that time. Its not completely empty though – we were there in October and got to witness first hand the migration of MASSIVE tarantulas on the look out for mates. They just wander across the road in front of you. Needless to say we didn’t get out of the car to check them out at close quarters.
Joshua Tree is a different experience altogether. Much busier (though not on the scale of Yosemite) and more user-friendly with ranger stations and occasional maps. You can drive through the whole park very easily and it is very beautiful. We made a couple of stops, one of which at Keys View from where you can see all the way to where we were headed next – Palm Springs.
We’ve long had a hankering for a stop at Mid-Century-Modern-haven Palm Springs and this was the year we decided to do it. Its a small-ish low rise city on the floor of the Sonoran Desert. Consequently it gets hot. Very hot. Temperatures in the summer can hit 50 degrees centigrade. Fortunately for us while we were there it was a balmy 33 degrees, not bad at all with the desert dryness. We had one stop to make before the city itself, at the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a cool roadside stop featuring two enormous, steel-and-concrete dinosaurs named Dinny the Dinosaur and Mr. Rex. They are most famous for their appearance in PeeWee’s Big Adventure but we went just because we love dinosaurs and roadside Americana – the perfect combination!
Our hotel in Palm Springs was the painfully cool Orbit In, located just a 5 minute walk from Palm Canyon drive where most of the shops and restaurants are. Our host, Bill could not have been more helpful and welcoming, with the added bonus of Orbitini cocktail hour from 5pm. The rooms are large with generous bathrooms and a well stocked kitchen and patio. The furnishing is all ridiculously pretty with 1950s chairs and tables abound. The pool area is also really nice with views up the San Jacinto mountains. We couldn’t have hoped for a better stop.
Once we’d dumped our bags we headed out for some drinks at the Fame Cigars and Wine bar on the main strip. Its a cool bar but obviously be aware it is a smoking joint, so if you don’t like that you can sit out front and watch the world go by. We headed for dinner at Kaikou Ramen sushi bar which was tasty and reasonably priced, before we headed back to the room to put on some Elvis and Sinatra tunes on the in-room record player while drinking some great Californian beers.
The next morning we wanted to beat the crowds to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and we boarded the first trip of the day with a few other hardy souls. We weren’t quite prepared for how wobbly and high the tramway was, it really does sway a looooong way when you pass the pylons. Its worth it once you get to the top though, a little chilly but on a clear day it is beautiful. The only problem is you know you’ve got to get back in the wobbly cable car to go back down!
After we were back on terra firma we made a beeline for the Moorten Botanical Garden which is a small but perfectly formed collection of desert plant life. The array of cacti on display was really cool and if we lived nearby we’d be there all the time picking up a new cactus! We had lunch booked with some wonderful friends at Native Foods where you can get some delicious vegan nosh. Afterwards we went to gawp at our chums’ incredible mid-century modern Palm Springs pad, which just happened to be round the corner from Elvis Presley’s honeymoon hideaway!
Although there’s a lot to do in Palm Springs itself there was somewhere we wanted to go that was a bit of a drive away. Salvation Mountain is way out in the middle of nowhere, about 90 minutes drive from Palm Springs, but well worth the trip. Salvation Mountain was created by local resident Leonard Knight. It encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses which sounds weird, and it is weird, but also fascinating and quite beautiful.
We headed back to Palm Springs for more Orbitinis before dinner at Bill’s Pizza, a cracking pizza joint offering vegan and omni pies. The selection was great and the service was quick and friendly. Its not on the main drag either so its slightly less frenetic, though it was plenty busy when we were there! Bill’s was our last stop in Palm Springs as we had a 4am wake up call in order to negotiate LA traffic for our flight to Hawaii, but we were due back in California after our trip to the Aloha State.
We flew back from Hawaii not into LA but to San Diego. We’d heard many a good thing about the southern-most of California’s big cities, and not just about the endless sunshine and high quality beer on tap! Because we only had a couple of nights in what is quite a large and sprawling city we based ourselves centrally at the Kimpton Solamar. In general you can’t go wrong with a Kimpton but in this case we did, a bit. Our room was one of those that had a (locked) adjoining door so you could hear our neighbours very clearly, and to make matters worse our room looked out over the pool and rooftop bar area. Even though the bar closes at 10pm, be warned that some people hang around out there well beyond that!
We headed straight out for dinner at La Puerta, just a few minutes walk from our hotel. Now, their website says “If you’re looking for the best Mexican food in San Diego, you’ve found it!”. That is quite the claim, in a city this size, and this close to Mexico. But…we find it hard to believe there’s better Mexican food around! The burrito that Josh had was the best he’s tasted, and he’s tasted A LOT of burritos. Hannah’s veggie version was also epic, and the beers and cocktails on offer were really awesome. Highly recommend!
We had a day of sightseeing and boozing planned for our one full day in SD – what more could you want?! We headed out to the waterfront to see the Unconditional Surrender/Embracing Peace statue. The statue is based on a wartime photograph taken by Victor Jorgensen of an American sailor returning from the war and embracing a nurse. The statue provoked some debate given that it depicts a sailor kissing a woman unknown to him, and the original name “Unconditional Surrender” has in most cases been changed to “Embracing Peace”. Its an interesting statue to go and visit in any case, and its right next to the giant USS Midway aircraft carrier and museum, if that’s your kinda thing.
We were in San Diego during something of an October heatwave so as the day warmed up to a toasty 35 degrees (95 in Fahrenheit), we began to regret plotting a walking tour that took in large parts of the city. But we soldiered on. We walked through Balboa Park which is more hilly than it looks on a map, before stopping for lunch at Evolution, a veggie/vegan drive thru fast food joint about three blocks from the park.
After lunch it was time to get our beer on. San Diego is up there with America’s finest beer cities and one of its finest breweries, Modern Times, was our first stop. Their tasting room in North Park has 10+ taps pouring a selection of their finest. We managed to make our way through six of them, but conscious of the rest of the bar crawl ahead of us we had to draw a line there. We headed back out into the searing heat and walked the six or so blocks to Bottlecraft, a great bottle shop and bar, and then Toronado, an awesome dive bar with what seemed like hundreds of taps pouring some of the best Californian beers available. Josh was in heaven!
Tired from the miles of walking, we jumped in an Uber to our next stop, the Blind Lady Alehouse in the Normal Heights neighbourhood, home to another million taps of incredible beers and by this point we were getting pretty drunk. After sinking a couple of pints there it was time for our dinner stop back in Little Italy at Civico 1845. We picked this place because a) we both love Italian food and b) it offered a great selection of vegan dishes alongside a great omni menu. Everything was delicious, Hannah’s House-made Fettuccine with slow-cooked Seitan Ragout and Strawberry Custard Cake was beautiful.
We had one more booze stop, at False Idol, a super cool tiki bar tucked away at the back of Craft & Commerce. The cocktails are super pricey but also super tasty, and with some of them you can take away the mug – you can’t beat a cheesy tiki mug on your holidays!
San Diego lived up to our expectations and then some. The beer and the sunshine was incredible (we ended up with a little bit too much of both if we’re honest), the people were friendly and the city itself is attractive and felt really livable. We were sad to be leaving, but we had a flight to catch and some more LA traffic to negotiate. Oh, we couldn’t resist a stop at Donut Bar on the way though.
LA has a pretty rubbish reputation among most of the people we’ve spoken too. The traffic is horrendous and the people are all trying too hard to be famous. While the traffic is genuinely off-the-scale awful, there is nothing quite like it, we actually found it to be a really nice and relaxed experience once you’re in the city itself. We only had a few hours but Hannah managed to cram in some more delicious vegan fast food at Doomie’s and Josh sampled his first plant-based “Impossible Burger” at Umami Burger in Hollywood. We also went into the LA hills to gawp at the big houses and of course that most iconic of American sights, the famous Hollywood sign. Frankly, we might go back to LA one day!
Our second visit to California won’t be our last. It is a vast state and although we’ve now more or less driven the length of it, taking in San Francisco, LA, San Diego and Yosemite, we’ve barely scratched the surface. It is an extraordinary place, whatever you’re looking for, you can find it in California if you look hard enough. We loved it, again.
Rate the State: 10/10
Good for: Sun, sea, surf, beer, food, sightseeing, nature…everything!
Bad for: Don’t go to LA if traffic jams annoy you.