Los Angeles to San Francisco, California
The Pacific Coast Highway: This is one of those road-trip routes that has become legendary. Whether driving along the pacific coast on a day-trip or driving from Mexico to Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is a really fun drive. Starting from Los Angeles, it took a while to get out of the massive city, and much of the initial PCH runs along Highway 101 which, while offering nice views of the beach, cliffs and ocean, it is a real freeway and so turnoffs are few and the scenery tends to speed by rather quickly. But once we got clear of the 101 near Las Cruces, things really opened up. The whole drive to Lompoc and through Vandenberg Air Force Base was beautiful. When the highway gets to Big Sur, it’s winding along cliff edges and through old growth redwood forest.
The Visitor Center at the Santa Barbara Marina: Even if you’re just passing through, grab a coffee (the Santa Barbara Roasting Company is good) and go to the Santa Barbara Visitor Center (located above the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum). After a short elevator ride, say “Hi” to the visitor center staff person behind their desk, and then head out onto the Visitor Center’s balcony, grab a seat on one of the comfortable couches, and enjoy gorgeous views of the harbor.
The Elephant Seals and Sea Lions: There are various points along the coast you can stop to view sea mammals of various species. We took in the views of some Elephant Seals lounging on the beach just north of San Simeon, California and caught a bunch of Sea Lions floating en masse off the Santa Cruz pier.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium: We were a little hesitant about visiting just because tickets were expensive and we had been previously disappointed at the Kennedy Space Center. But, enough people had recommended the Aquarium so we decided to go for it. Within 15 minutes the experience was worth it. Everything was impressive, but there were two installations that stole the show. The first was the jellyfish exhibit where we were surrounded by crystal blue tanks filled with dozens of different kinds of jellyfish floating and swimming in hypnotizing patterns. The second was the open sea exhibit where a 1.2 million gallon tank contains a variety of creatures found in the open sea including hammerhead sharks, 350kg tuna, and sea turtles. The tank is visible through a 90-foot pane of glass (one of the largest single panes of glass in the world) and we probably spent an hour just watching the fish and turtles swim. Oh, also there there were exhibits for puffins, penguins, and sea otters, all of which are super-cute.
Bonus: Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove (we only saw a couple, but come at the right time and apparently this grove is crammed full of Monarchs), the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes (we only drove past, but this was the filming location of the 1923 production of The Ten Commandments and most of the set is still buried here), perched on the cliffs overlooking the ocean is an amazing campground just north of Kirk Creek in Los Padres National Forest, Pheiffer Big Sur State Park (we spent a night here and hiked through the forest to a nice waterfall), El Cantaro (a delicious vegan Mexican restaurant in Monterey Bay).
San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, California
The food: There is so much amazing food in San Francisco it’s hard to know where to start. On our first day, we had a fantastic veggie burger at VeganBurg, and then, after exploring, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya. It was packed when we got there, but only got busier as the night went on. After, we headed to Zeitgeist, a busy local bar with reasonably priced drinks and a large patio. As expected, brunch is serious business here, so we grabbed some delectable sandwiches at Ike’s Place and headed to Dolores Park to watch people and eat. Oh, the sandwiches come with free lollipops. Hellz ya. That afternoon we stopped for vegan nachos and beer at Gracias Madre to celebrate our friends Mallory and Lindsay’s wedding from afar. Later picked up some yummy Thai food from Lers Ros to eat with Dora as she celebrated being (basically) finished packing. We had quite an experience at Lers Ros which you can read more about here. In Chinatown, we had a fantastic vegan meal at Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant. In Berkeley we discovered more deliciousness. Dora’s new corner store had an amazing craft beer selection, an instant noodles prep station, and home made samosas baked by the owners. Further on was the Monterey Market, one of the most amazing green grocers we’d ever seen. It was just isles and isles of vegetables and fruit. For dinner we had pizza from Sliver, one of which had garlic as the only topping (other than sauce and cheese of course). Garlic-only pizza is a revelation. It was pretty good as a cold breakfast too.
The wonderful places to walk: Although it was super-windy, we came up the PCH and stopped at Golden Gate Park to see the beach and the old dutch windmills. This park is huge, and there is so much to do, you could easily spend the day. Afterwards, we spent some time walking around the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, an old hippy-haven where every second store seems to be a smokeshop. The Mission District is full of great places to explore. It’s become a lot more gentrified (along with all of San Francisco), but every street has it’s own character and there are interesting shops everywhere. Wandering around downtown San Francisco, we stopped at the Contemporary Jewish Museum which was designed by Ben’s uncle. They had a real cool exhibit on local Rock & Roll legend Bill Graham. Then we walked up to North Beach to the top of Telegraph Hill, and took the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower for amazing views of the city, the old Alcatraz jail, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Descending back to the harbor, we walk down the Filbert Steps – a walk that passes through many gorgeous gardens, and beneath trees frequented by the local parrots of telegraph hill. We could see and hear them squawking about. So exciting. Once we had moved our operations to Berkeley, we were blown away by the plant life there as well. Peoples’ gardens are spectacular with so many giant flowers and succulents. Fennel grows wild and the air smells amazing. On our last day, we stopped at The Interval (a coffee shop and bar located in the headquarters of the Long Now Foundation – an organization dedicated to considering the future on a much longer scale), and then walked along the bay to the Wave Organ, an art installation that creates different sounds based on the waves and tides.
More friends: Ben’s friend Dora and her partner Ryan were moving the weekend we were in San Francisco, so we volunteered to help. We tried not to distract her too much, but got to spend a bunch of time hanging out. She was super generous and let us crash in her old place (right by the awesome Mission district), and then out in front of her beautiful new place in the much quieter Berkeley. The other bonus about having friends in places is that often they have kitchens and cooking in a real kitchen after being on the road for weeks is soooo nice.
The bookstores: There were so many great bookstores in San Francisco. Some of our favourites were the Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore, Borderlands Books (a science fiction and fantasy bookstore and café), City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore (in Oakland), and Moe’s Books (a giant bookstore in Berkeley in which Amalia wanted to live in the store forever).
A Verb for Keeping Warm: Amalia has been knitting her first sweater while we’ve been on the road, but needed some space to wash it and block it out. Luckily, the lovely folks at this small Oakland knitting shop were super-kind and let her work there as well as leaving her knitting to dry for a few days.
Note: Camping on the southern California coast is expensive ($45 USD a night). So are day-use areas ($10 USD per day). Be prepared. The good news is that, visiting any one park gets you access to any other state parks during that same day (including the day you’re checking out of your campsite).