I was really holding out for an Indian summer, but it’s become pretty evident that’s not going to happen! So, as the days become shorter and a freshness now lingers in the air, I thought it would be nice to brighten up the mood and look back over my summer travels.
I have written and re-written this post a million times over and what I have discovered is, it’s really bloody hard to condense the road trip of a lifetime into a couple of thousand words, so here’s what I’m going to do… I will share with you the highlights of one of the most incredible holidays Si and I have ever been on.
For our summer vacay, we decided to do the all American, Californian road trip. With only two weeks to explore, our itinerary included Vegas, LA, Santa Monica, Monterey, Napa and San Francisco. As a little treat, we flew first class from London to Vegas and made our way to The Cosmopolitan. Located opposite the Bellagio, The Cosmo is one of the hottest hotels on the Strip, attracting a sophisticated young crowd. We had a fabulous suite with a balcony overlooking the Bellagio Fountain. Having been before, Si was pretty nonchalant about it all, whilst I was literally squealing like a little piggy!
I think you are in two camps with Vegas; you either think it is tacky and hate it, or you think it is so OTT and fun that you can’t get enough. Fortunately, Si and I are both in the latter camp. There is so much to do in Vegas. Check out the sights walking from one end of the Strip to the other taking in New York New York (it’s like looking at an NYC snow globe in the desert), MGM Grand, Paris Las Vegas, the Bellagio, Creasers Palace and The Venetian (you can even grab yourself a romantic serenaded gondola ride for two around the artificial sunken streets of Venice).
We went a bit off-piste; Si let me go to the Little White Wedding Chapel under two conditions, being 1) I would not post any pictures out front of it with a Haribo ring on my finger. Apparently, that wasn’t funny. And 2), we could go to Counts Kustom Cars afterwards. I’m pleased to report the mega-tacky chapel was just as much fun as I thought it would be. The highlights being the drive through Tunnel of Love, and retracing the steps of Frank Sinatra, Bruce Willis and Britney obvs! As for the cars, it has to be said for a non-car enthusiast, Danny ‘Count’ Koker’s supped up car collection was pretty cool. I was particularly impressed by the creativity of the “coffin couch”.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Jennifer Lopez’s, All I Have show, was the highlight of Vegas for me. To describe it as “sexy” is a complete understatement. Looking around the room, it was filled with a good percentage of OPA’s, in amongst the youngins, who I assume came to check out what they anticipated to be a conservative glittery showgirl act, which was in actual fact an explosive show inclusive of flamboyant dance routines, holograms, more than 335,000 Swarovski crystals, and a sexually provocative striptease. Best concert ever! Check it out here: Jennifer Lopez, All I Have
The next morning, we flew into LAX. We stayed at the Mondrian in West Hollywood. I’m afraid to say there was way too much wank-factor at this hotel for me. It was filled with nobody wannabes. The actual hotel itself was run down and the staff were frankly below-par. Except for Tara at the concierge. She was fabulous and helped us with reservations before we got there and during our stay. There is no place in LA that Tara can’t get you into.
Having been to LA and ticked off the traditional tourist stuff before, I wanted to do things a little bit differently this time and do some off the beaten path exploring. Si and I decided to go on a hike up the Tree of Life Trail to see the Wisdom Tree. Our Uber driver was really confused when we gave him the postcode and he left us standing at the end of a cul-de-sac with a concealed path beyond. Si and I have a bit of a habit for underprepared outdoor exploration. On a blistering hot summers day, we set off up the steep incline with only a small bottle of water to share between us. We took baby sips like we had been marooned on a castaway island, making it last the several hours we were out and about.
From the top of Cahuenga Peak were the lonesome pine tree and all of its infinite wisdom beneath. An open suitcase littered with journals, letters and drawings from those who had passed before us and contemplated the meaning of life here on this very spot, with its breathtaking views out over the City of Angels.
After a quick stop, we took the east ridge to Mount Lee, hiking over the rugged terrain along the back of the Hollywood sign. From there we traversed around the fire roads, down to the front of the Hollywood sign. It was amazing to see it so close up from every angle. However, be warned it is literally in the middle of nowhere. We discovered we were deep in a canyon without a car, and no phone signal to call an Uber. Starting the now very silent and tense decent downwards with me marching ahead, we wondered how long it would take us to hit the main road or miraculously pick up a signal again to call a ride. By sheer chance, the universe delivered us a happy-go-lucky out-of-towner hippy, who was only too happy to give us a lift the main road. Apparently, she herself had done the same thing, when she first arrived in LA. Or so she told us to make us feel a little less stooped.
Keen to get out of the somewhat superficial hold of LA, we headed down to Venice Beach for a few days. Again, I have to admit, I wasn’t hugely impressed. It’s a lot like Leicester Square on the beach. Whilst it is fun to stop in and take a gander, I wouldn’t recommend it for an extended stay. It’s overcrowded, dirty, there are loads of touts and it didn’t feel particularly safe. For nicer Venice vibes, check out Abbot Kinney Road for chic bars, cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
The best bit of staying at Venice Beach for me was the day we hired bikes and rode down to Manhattan Beach for the day. It’s about a 20-mile return ride along the waterfront, via LAX airport. You take in some stunning scenery, and the beaches are much less crowded as you go south of Venice. We stopped in for lunch at Simmzy’s and had the most incredible burgers ever. Highly recommend you check it out.
It was time to hit the open road. The most important factor in any road trip is your ride. We opted for an all-American muscle car; the Ford Mustang, with a drop top. After a slow start sat in Father’s Day traffic, we were out on the open road cruising north up the A1, with glorious sea views the whole way. What no one ever told us about visiting California in the summer, was that they have this thing the locals call “June Gloom”. As the air starts to warm up, the waters of the Pacific Ocean are still cold. This causes condensation, which creates a marine layer (a thin layer of low-lying clouds over the ocean). This cloud basically descends on you at a rapid pace. I have read it is only supposed to creep in overnight and be there in the early morning, but I can assure you that it was there frequently in the morning, afternoon and early evening! That said, for the most part, we were fortunate enough to beat it and see the golden stretches of beaches before the clouds covered them, blanketing them completely from sight.
I think we both regret not allowing for an overnight stop in Big Sur. We still got to see her and all her impressive splendour, it just would have been nice to take it at a more leisurely pace. Be sure to stop off at the Elephant Seal Rookery in Piedras Blancas, San Simeon. These creatures were so impressive. There were literally hundreds of them nestled together, side by side on the sand beneath the walkway that stretched out over them. You stand about 6 metres above them and are privy to watching these wild creatures interact in their natural habitat. It was truly a memorable experience that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
Arriving in Monterey late in the evening after a very full on day of driving, we stayed at the InterContinental The Clement Monterey. They took such good care of us. On arrival, our room had been upgraded to a Sea View room with a fireplace and there was a cheeseboard with a bottle of local wine awaiting us. Other than being famous for being the town Big Little Lies is set in, Monterey is home to Cannery Row, which was the epicentre of the sardine-packing industry from the 1920’ – 1950’s. Today the pretty streets are lined with restaurants, bars and boutiques, all overlooking a bountiful bay, with frequent seal and whale sightings.
Whilst in Monterey, make sure you take the 17-Mile Drive and check out the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links. I’m no golfer, but the drive has some incredible places to stop along the way, and the golf course and clubhouse are also pretty cool. From there, we backtracked on ourselves and headed back down to where Big Sur meets the A1. Reason being, part of the A1 had been closed due to recent fires and a landslide which took out one of the brides and we weren’t able to directly access it on the way up. I’m so pleased we did because we got to go on another incredible Californian hike in the forestry and saw the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
Next stop for us was Napa. Si and I are really into our food and wine, so I had been looking forward to this part of the trip. And let me tell you, it didn’t disappoint! It became apparent pretty quickly that Si and I were the only people that hadn’t see Bottle Shock before travelling to Napa. The film seemed to be the topic of discussion at every tasting we went to. Make sure you watch it before travelling to Napa!
We stayed Tom and Judy’s cute Airbnb farmhouse, on Main Street. It was a great little find. Each morning Judy delivered freshly laid farm eggs to our room for us to cook for breakfast. The location was great for restaurants and bars in Napa town but was a bit further away from the wineries than the nearby picturesque nearby town of St. Helena. That said, we found Uber made everywhere very accessible.
We did this fantastic lunch with wine pairings with Modus Operandi, which I cannot recommend highly enough. We met Mario Moreno, Director of Sales, at Brasswood in St. Helena. We had a booth in the restaurant which was the perfect setting allowing us to still be part of the atmospheric buzz, yet still private enough for our intimate one-to-one wine tutorial. Mario was a smashing bloke with lots of knowledge to share. Starting from the top, he talked us through the different sorts of wine glasses and we experienced how important they are in influencing taste. With each course of lunch, we worked our way through the entire Modus Operandi collection. These wines are absolutely outstanding. We loved the Vicarious Red 2013 and Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 so much so, that we actually phoned Mario later that evening from dinner and asked him if he could bring us some extra bottles to have with our meal!
After Napa, we hit the final stretch of our road trip. It’s easy to see why Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco! What an entrance driving into the city of rolling hills overlooking the bay, via the Golden Gate Bridge! The bridge is actually celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. We took the spectacular walk from the city side across and back. Be warned, it gets very cold and windy up there! And when the fog comes, it’s incredible how quickly it blankets everything in its wake.
We thought the food was ace in San Fran. The Slanted Door was one of our faves. Charles Phan’s modern Vietnamese eatery offers contemporary dishes with a wicked view of the Bay Bridge. Advanced bookings are essential! The food is delish and the cocktails are killer. We left three tyres deep at least!!
We really enjoyed checking out Alcatraz. The island is a short ferry ride across San Francisco Bay. You’ll see a sign cautioning you that you might get wet if you sit at the front of the boat. Heed this warning, or you’ll end up like me with a big wave crashing over you! I spent the next three hours in a sticky salt spray mess wandering around the island. The audio tour included in the basic ticket price is the best one I have been on. There’s no need to pay up for a guided tour. Pop your headset on, and take in the history and tales of the iconic landmark. If you are planning to check out Alcatraz during your stay, make sure you book before you get there. It is not possible to book tickets on the day and they sell out weeks in advance during peak season.
As our trip was coming to an end, we decided to catch a game. We headed over to AT&T Stadium to see the Giants take on the Mets. Si and I didn’t know a thing about baseball before arriving; in fact, I’m not sure we know much more now! But it was such a fun day out. No need to pay up for the expensive tickets. The bleachers are where the fun is at. Grab your hotdog and beer, and get your hands on a giant foam finger and have a laugh.
We crammed so much into our two-week trip. If we were to do it again, I think I would skip LA and Venice, and check out Huntington Beach and Santa Monica. I’d also factor in more time for Big Sur. We absolutely loved this holiday. The food was the awesome (so much more gourmet than I had anticipated) and the wine was divine. The people were friendly and hospitable and it was easy to find our way around. From the misty forests to the golden stretches of beaches, Cali knows how to put on a good show. We were sad to leave, but know we will return again someday for sure.
Until next time, safe travels.
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