A Travellerspoint blog

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Our first US road trip

California day one

View California 1991 on ToonSarah's travel map.


Introduction: planning the trip

Back in 1991 we decided that the time had come to be a little more adventurous, and extravagant, in our choice of holiday destinations. Until then we had focused mainly on Europe, although there had been a marvellous trip to New York back in 1982, a year after we married, and a week in Egypt the previous year. Now we wanted to see more of the US and after briefly considering a packaged ‘Fly Drive’ holiday we realised it would be cheaper and more fun to plan our own route.

These were the pre-internet days, so our research was done in guidebooks borrowed from the library where I worked at the time, and using brochures which we ordered from the National Park Service. We pre-booked accommodation using old-fashioned snail mail, sending International Money Orders to pay deposits. Quite a few of our reservations were for Motel 6s, as their central reservation centre made the process simpler and their prices suited our limited budget.

There were visas to apply for, maps to be bought, US driving regulations to be studied and memorised … It was all very exciting and just a little bit daunting, especially for Chris who, as I had not yet passed my driving test, would be our sole driver.

Because this was such a special trip for us at the time, I kept a more detailed diary than I had previously done (or indeed have done since, until the point where I started to share my experiences firstly on Virtual Tourist and more recently here). Having unearthed that and the scrapbook I compiled on our return, and scanned the best of our slides, I have been inspired by my friends Sally (Beausoleil), who has blogged about her first ever visit to France, and Katherin (Katherin_E), who recently wrote here about some early trips to Australia, to share our experiences here by transcribing that old diary.

These were also, of course, the pre-digital photography days, so although we were both already keen photographers the number of photos we took was very limited, curtailed by the high cost of film and the need not to waste it. So, while this blog will of course be illustrated, there will be fewer pictures than I would have liked, and those there are were taken some by me, some by Chris (I of course have his permission to use them here). The quality of the scans isn’t great either (I promise you that the original slides look better than this!) but they do reflect our experiences well and give a good sense of what most excited and/or impressed us on this trip. I've supplemented the photos with some scans of the scrapbook I compiled after the trip, including a few postcards which are so old now that I hope no one will mind me using them!

So, let’s hit the road!

Flying to Los Angeles

From my scrapbook

We checked in early at Gatwick to find that we had been upgraded to Business Class for our flight on Air New Zealand – a real treat! We went upstairs in the jumbo jet to our seats, with acres of leg-room, Bucks Fizz and canapés. A four course dinner (English time – lunch US time) followed, with unlimited wine then and throughout the flight. As Chris remarked, ‘I could quite happily live out the rest of my life on this aircraft.’

The flight took us over Iceland and Greenland, with views of icebergs below. We reached America above the northern coast of Canada, flew over Hudson Bay and the frozen north almost to the Pacific coast, before turning south.

We didn’t attempt to sleep on the flight – the films and radio channels kept us amused and besides, we wanted to adjust as soon as possible to US time. Before landing a ‘light’ meal was served, which we were too full to really appreciate.

The plane landed in LA late evening, local time. We saw the lights below through the smog, including those of the Quality Hotel where we would be staying for the first night of our trip.

Hotel brochure

We were naturally tired on arrival, but LAX proved a relatively easy airport to cope with, and we soon found the stop for the courtesy buses to the hotels. A short wait for the bus, an even shorter drive, and we had arrived!

We checked in behind a crowd of US soldiers. Our room was pleasant enough, overlooking busy West Century Boulevard, so we were grateful for the double glazing. We crawled, exhausted, to sleep, without bothering to unpack. Tomorrow would be a big day ...

Our room at the Quality Hotel

Posted by ToonSarah 08:11 Tagged planes road_trip hotel california Comments (12)

We set off on the adventure

California day two

View California 1991 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Leaving LA

We were up early today as neither of us had slept too well (a combination of excitement, apprehension about the driving and the time difference). We had been planning to have breakfast at the airport but decided to call room service instead. It proved a good decision – a huge plate of fresh fruit (melon, grapefruit etc.) with a bagel and cream cheese, juice and coffee.

2017 comment: we had clearly yet to get accustomed to US portion sizes!

Our hire car

After breakfast we checked out and took the courtesy bus back to the airport, where we changed for the Alamo bus. The formalities at the Alamo office were over quickly and we headed for the parking lot to find our car – a smart white Chevrolet Cavalier. We loaded the luggage, Chris checked over the controls and we were ready for the great adventure.

The weather was warm but rather dull as we left LA – or rather, as we attempted to leave. Owing to not having a very detailed map of the area, and the one provided by Alamo showing their office in the wrong place (!), we headed west to a freeway that was in fact to the east of us. However, by by driving in what appeared to be, and was, a northerly direction, we soon hit the Santa Monica Freeway, and were on our way. At the end of the freeway we turned along Highway 1, following the Pacific coast, and breathed a sigh of relief – the very worst was over.

We drove north along the coast through Malibu (which was less exclusive-looking than I had expected, this close to the highway), Oxnard and Ventura, to Santa Barbara, our first planned stop.

Santa Barbara

From my scrapbook

Arriving here we turned off the main road to park near the beach. We visited the tourist office to pick up leaflets, then went on the beach near an old pier, Stearns Wharf.

We then took the free shuttle bus from the sea front to the town centre (downtown) where we walked around the old ‘Red Tile’ district – Spanish-style architecture (rebuilt after an earthquake), fairly quiet and up-market feeling. We bought a few postcards and had an excellent lunch in Ruby’s Diner. We walked around a little more, then went back on the shuttle to the car-park.

Before leaving Santa Barbara we made a phone call to the Lamplighter Inn in San Luis Obispo – they hadn’t received our reservation and were full, so we would need to hunt for a room for the night.

Leaving Santa Barbara we headed inland on Route 154. As we crossed the Santa Ynez Mountains the clouds cleared dramatically and we arrived at our next stop, Lake Cachuma, in bright sunshine. After a quick look at the lake (pretty, but not a lot to see) we drove on to Solvang.


This was a quaint, rather touristy town with craft shops and windmills, apparently Danish in origin. We found a parking space, with some difficulty, and strolled around part of the town, but didn’t stay long as we still had some distance to go and no accommodation arranged for the night.

In Solvang

La Purissima

Our next stop was La Purissima Mission, set in a quiet part of the countryside in the flower-growing area around Lompoc. The atmosphere was very peaceful and relaxing. We saw the old mission church and several other buildings (soldiers’ quarters, kitchens etc.) We were fascinated by a gopher who stuck his head out of a burrow in a quiet courtyard.

La Purissima

Avila Beach

Time was getting on, so we returned to our car (already it felt like ‘ours’) and to the main road. We had planned to spend the night in San Luis Obispo but when we had called the Lamplighter Inn there we had been told that the town was busy as it was Graduation Weekend. So when, just south of the town, we were attracted by views of the coast off to our left, we decided to explore options there. Hence we found ourselves in Avila Beach.

Surfside Motel, Avila Beach

This was a lovely, sleepy seaside resort, small and untouristy. The Surfside Motel on the seafront had a room available, so we negotiated a maze of stairs and walkways and settled in.

Surfside Motel, Avila Beach (hotel postcard)

On checking our suitcase we discovered that many items were wet (presumably from a downpour as we were boarding the plane at Gatwick – we had been too tired to unpack much the previous evening). We left them to dry in the late afternoon sun and wandered out to the beach, where we took some photos of the coastline as the sun started to go down. We explored Front Street with its bars, beach-wear shops and small supermarket, then returned to our room to rest, watch some TV and freshen up.

In Avila Beach

Avila Beach at sunset

In the evening we went to the Old Custom House on the front for a huge dinner (too huge), washed down with several beers. Despite the hot afternoon the evening was cool so we ate inside – it was rather cramped, but interesting to watch the comings and goings at the bar.

2017 comment: the Old Custom House appears to be still going strong while the Surfside Motel has gone upmarket and is now the Avila Beach Inn.

After our meal we returned to our room for some more TV and an early night. It had been a long and very busy first day.

Total miles for day: 203

Posted by ToonSarah 08:33 Tagged beaches architecture road_trip history church california Comments (6)

The road to Monterey

California day three

View California 1991 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Driving the Big Sur

Big Sur view

We were awake early again today. After packing our bags we walked back down to the Old Custom House for breakfast, where we sat at the bar to enjoy the atmosphere. The breakfasts were good and cheap (French toast for me, eggs and bacon for Chris), and there was plenty of (rather weak) coffee.

2017 comment: on this and many subsequent road trips I was to realise that standard US coffee is always far too weak for my taste (I have often referred to it as being more like dishwater) but thankfully the rise of ‘proper’ coffee shops in recent years has meant that on the West Coast at least I can get a cup that actually tastes of coffee, as we found on our recent Washington State trip. I also see that Avila Beach now has at least one such establishment.

We went to the small supermarket on the front to stock up on drinks, crisps etc. for lunch-time (yesterday’s meal in Ruby’s Diner had proved to be a mistake – much too filling), then set off. We rejoined the highway as far as San Luis Obispo where we filled up with petrol (‘gas’) for the first time, and then took Highway 1 for the Big Sur coast. The weather was hazy again, but the rounded hills looked good, looming out of the mist, and so did the coast up ahead.

In the small, pretty village of Cambria we hunted for, and eventually found, Leffingwell’s Landing. We didn’t see any of the promised otters there, but there were plenty of gulls and very friendly ground squirrels.

At Leffingwell's Landing

Hearst Castle

Approaching Hearst Castle at San Simeon we decided to stop and investigate the possibility of a tour. The next main tour was fully booked, as we had feared, but we were able to get places on an alternative one, which was recommended by our guidebook as being good for photographers as it took in a lot of the grounds.

In the grounds of Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

As we climbed the hill to the house in an old yellow school bus, views of the surrounding countryside opened up, and the sun broke through the haze. At the top we were welcomed by a typically friendly American guide, who took us on an excellent tour.

The first stop was the dramatic blue Pool of Neptune in a beautiful setting.

Pool of Neptune

From my scrapbook

Then we walked through the gardens, with both genuine and fake ancient statues, to one of the guest ‘cottages’, Casa del Monte. We saw the bedrooms with their strange assortment of furnishings from every conceivable period (but all equally lavish) and were intrigued by the early examples of showers.

In a wing of the main house we saw more examples of Hearst’s exotic taste in interior design and watched a film of some of his guests during the castle’s heyday. The tour finished at the Roman Pool, an indoor pool with alabaster lamps and richly coloured blue and gold tiles.

The Roman Pool

2017 comment: checking the Hearst Castle website I see that though they still offer a variety of tours, the particular route we followed no longer seems to be one of them.

Back at the foot of the hill we discovered that the sun had now reached the coast, so we changed into shorts in the ‘rest rooms’ of the Visitor Centre.

2017 comment: in those days I was clearly still fascinated by the differences between UK and US English, as shown by my frequent use in the diary of inverted commas – ‘gas’, ‘rest rooms’, etc.

The Big Sur

We then returned to the highway and began our drive along the Big Sur. The road was very winding, with a notice at each bend very helpfully giving a recommended speed limit. The views were really spectacular but progress was naturally slow and it was later than expected when we pulled into our next stop, a viewpoint called Willow Creek Vista. There we had our picnic lunch, admired the scenery and photographed the gulls and dramatic coastline.

At Willow Creek Vista

As we drove north during the afternoon we stopped off at two of the many state parks in the area. The first was the Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP, where we saw squirrels and blue jays, and took a short footpath that tunnelled under the main road to arrive at a picturesque little cove into which poured a pretty waterfall.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP

By the time we reached the second, the Pfeiffer Big Sur SP, it was getting late, so we cut short our planned walk to the Pfeiffer Falls and contented ourselves with a quick look at some of the tall Redwood trees.

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Redwood tree, and a page from my scrapbook


Back on Highway 1 we bypassed Carmel (which we had decided to leave till the next day) and also passed Monterey to reach a rather dull suburb to the north, Marina, where we had a reservation at the first of our Motel 6s.

Massaging bed

2017 comment: we were to learn that the trade-off for the competitive price of these budget chain motels is a less than ideal location – these days, with a bit more cash to spare for travelling, we often pay a bit more to stay within walking distance of a proper downtown.

The motel was easy to find, following directions in the handbook, and we checked into our good-sized room. Like most of the rooms we were to stay in, there were two double beds, and we were intrigued to find one of them wired up to a ‘vibrating bed’ gadget, as seen on Rosanne!

Resolving to try this later we first freshened up and went for dinner to the Denny’s next door to the motel. Part of a chain, this proved to be a good choice, with a wide range of burgers and other dishes.

Later in the evening we phoned the RC church in Monterey (to enquire about mass times), watched TV and of course tried the vibrating bed!

Total miles for day: 158

Posted by ToonSarah 02:57 Tagged landscapes waterfalls castles architecture road_trip views california seas Comments (7)

In the footsteps of John Steinbeck

California day four

View California 1991 on ToonSarah's travel map.

San Carlos Cathedral

San Carlos Cathedral

Advertising on the
church newsletter

We woke to a lovely sunny day with a fresh breeze off the sea. After breakfast at Denny's we set off back to Monterey to go to mass at San Carlos Cathedral. It was lucky that we had allowed plenty of time as we got decidedly lost (thanks in part to over-helpful locals who would tell us anything rather admit they didn’t know!)

However, we found the church eventually, in a pretty, peaceful part of the old town. We took a few photos then went inside, where we were amused to find advertisements for shops, restaurants etc. on the back of the newsletter – it seemed to us to be very American!

Cannery Row


After mass we drove to Cannery Row. We had a short stroll which took us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium just in time to watch the sea otters being fed. They were lovely, and great fun to watch.

Feeding time for the otters
Otter postcard bought at the aquarium

Also at the aquarium we were able to stroke rays, handle crabs and see the various habitats that make up Monterey Bay, such as the tide pools so beloved by John Steinbeck. From the outside decks we saw seals on the rocks, cormorants and a pelican. Steinbeck might be horrified at what Cannery Row has become, but I think both he and Doc Ricketts would be pleased with the aquarium.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium

Outside decks at the aquarium

Yes, Steinbeck might be horrified, but we enjoyed Cannery Row. It is touristy, but with a very pleasant atmosphere and we found plenty to interest us. We saw Kalisa’s (‘La Ida Café’ in the novel) and went in the Old General Store, aka ‘Lee Chong’s’.

We ate lunch in a lovely café (fried squid for me, a Reubens sandwich for Chris), took lots of photos (2017 comment: not by today’s standards, I bet!), and visited the Information Centre in an old railway carriage near the site of Doc’s lab.

What would Steinbeck make of all this?

Monterey Peninsula

Leaving Cannery Row, we followed the coast towards Pacific Grove. The sea was a brilliant blue and the rocky shoreline carpeted with bright pink flowers. As it was Sunday there were lots of families picnicking by the sea and further out on the rocks we saw seals sunning themselves.

We arrived at the start of the famous Seventeen Mile Drive, paid our $5 (for which we received a helpful, glossy brochure) and made our way around the peninsula, stopping at several recommended viewpoints en route. The weather was perfect for the drive. We saw the much-photographed ‘Lone Cypress’ and hundreds of others nearby, also a group of ‘ghost’ trees. There were also spectacular views south towards the Big Sur.

On Seventeen Mile Drive


Eventually we left the drive at Carmel and drove into the town. The beach there looked good but there was nowhere to park so we decided to explore the town centre instead. At first though we couldn’t find the centre (driving up and down the typically American grid of suburban streets) and when we did it was disappointing – rather uninteresting if expensive shops and not a sign of Clint!

2017 comment: for younger readers, the film star Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel from 1986-89 and still lived there at the time of our visit.

So we left Carmel and the coast behind, heading inland to more Steinbeck country.

Salinas Valley

We drove south down the valley on a back-country road, with no other tourists, and very few other cars, in sight. The weather was much hotter than on the coast, though still windy, and the views across the valley, of large open fields and distant hazy hills, were wonderful. There were regrettably few places where we could stop, however, until we came to a dusty verge by a huge cabbage field, with a white barn, a shady willow tree and an empty rocking chair. We were definitely ‘East of Eden’.

The Salinas Valley

Cutting across the valley we rejoined the main road near Gonzales, a sleepy very Mexican-influenced one street town, obviously catering to the local farmers.


In Gonzales


We turned back north on busy Highway 101, which took us to Salinas, birthplace of John Steinbeck. We found the Allstar Inn, where we had a reservation, without any trouble, and were very impressed with our large attractive room; less so with the location.

Allstar Inn, Salinas
2017 comment: OMG that perm!

I was keen to see Steinbeck’s house, so we decided to combine this with our search for an evening meal. We got rather vague directions from the desk clerk and drove the short distance into downtown Salinas. What a disappointment! The town was run-down and seedy, with an oppressive, almost threatening atmosphere. A few Mexicans sat around on street corners, but otherwise the place was dead, even for a Sunday. Eventually we found the house, took a couple of photos, and got out of town – fast.

Postcard of Steinbeck's House

2017 comment: Salinas now has a proper museum, the National Steinbeck Center, devoted to its most famous son, while the house is now an attractive-looking restaurant (open lunchtime only); plus, we are a lot more streetwise (I hope!) these days. I think we would have an altogether better experience if we were to return to the town, and I would certainly like to visit that museum.

We ended up eating at the Peppertree Restaurant in the motel across the road from ours – very un-American poor service, and limp salad. A rather dismal end to an otherwise wonderful day.

Total miles for day: 97

Posted by ToonSarah 06:20 Tagged animals road_trip culture history california seaside aquarium literature Comments (4)

If you’re going …

California day five

View California 1991 on ToonSarah's travel map.

... to San Francisco

Santa Cruz

We both agreed that there was no reason to stay in Salinas any longer than we had to, even for breakfast, so after filling up with gas we left the town behind us. A quick detour to Moss Landing revealed little worth stopping for, and certainly no likely-looking breakfast spot, so we carried on north up Highway 1.

Santa Cruz

Eventually, and rather hungrily, we turned off at Santa Cruz, which proved to be a lovely, laid-back seaside resort, still half asleep at this time of day. Near the car park we found the excellent Beach Street Café. It was small and friendly, and the home-cooked breakfast, complete with orange muffin, was just what we needed.

Fully recovered, and with Salinas just a distant memory, we went for a short walk on the beach and saw the famous Boardwalk, which like the rest of the town had not yet woken up.


In Santa Cruz

A little to the north of Santa Cruz the highway began to follow the coast more closely, and the views were beautiful, if not quite as dramatic as those of the Big Sur area. Many parts of the coastline here are preserved as state parks, and we stopped at one of these.

Año Nuevo State Reserve

Visitor permit

This reserve is famous for the elephant seals that use the beaches, and although the mating season was over we hoped we would be able to see some.

The warden explained that some had returned to the beach to moult and that we would be able to see them by walking through the dunes to the north. It proved to be a long walk and at times quite difficult in the soft sand, but when we finally emerged on to the beach the sight that greeted us was well worth all the effort.

The walk through the dunes


It was like walking into a scene in a David Attenborough documentary, with numerous seals just at the foot of the dunes. One pup had even strayed on to the path and we had to make a detour around him. Their eyes, especially the babies’, were huge, and where they had already moulted their skin gleamed like pewter.

Several helpful wardens here guided us to good viewing points and told us a little bit about what we were seeing – when they could be heard above the deafening barking of the seals!



The beach at Año Nuevo State Reserve

Eventually we had to leave this wonderful sight behind us and make our way back to the car, rather tired and very sandy.



Our next stop was at this little village about a mile inland. It was a sleepy place, little more than a crossroads, with a white wooden church that looked like it had been transplanted from New England, some pretty houses, a thrift store (charity shop) and a couple of general stores where we were able to buy excellent sandwiches. These we took back to the coast and stopped to eat at one of the beaches, Half Moon Bay.

Postcard of coastal scenery

After lunch we continued to follow the coast north on Highway 1, with more beautiful views of the sea. As we approached San Francisco we thought we were prepared for the road to get a little busier, especially when it met Interstate 280. However the shock when it changed from a small two-lane dual carriageway to one with six lanes each side (and us in one of the middle lanes) was considerable. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of other cars, all going faster than us, overtaking on both sides (as is allowed in the US) and all apparently knowing exactly where they were going – unlike us! Luckily a slightly larger scale map of the San Francisco area gave us some clues as to what the road might do and which lane we should be in, and we were swept into the city on the right route, passing some prettily painted suburban terraces.

Golden Gate Bridge

The road took us through the greenery of Golden Gate Park and out on to the famous bridge which was dramatic but, thanks to the traffic, somewhat hair-raising. On the far side of the bridge we turned off into the vista point parking area.

The views of the bridge were wonderful and we could also pick out various landmarks in the city (such as the Coit Tower) and in the bay below us (Alcatraz and Angel Island). The sun was shining and the temperature pleasantly warm, so we lingered for a while taking lots of photos.

Golden Gate Bridge

Hazy city view


Later we took the road that wound down to Sausalito, a pretty little town right on the bay with a relaxed seaside atmosphere. We strolled around the town, had a drink in an Italian café, and admired a slightly different view of the city across the bay.

In Sausalito

San Francisco

Eventually however it was time to tackle again the traffic on the bridge. This time we paid our $2 toll (payable southbound only) and crossed with the view in front of us. Safely across, we found Lombard Street and our room for the next two nights at the Marina Motel. Compared to the chain motels of the previous few nights it was very basic, but the location was convenient and the price, for a city centre, very low.

The Marina Motel, with our hire car parked beneath our room

Motel leaflet

Marina Motel at night

2017 comment: the Marina is still going strong and seems to be a little smarter these days. It still offers the convenience of onsite parking, which was the main reason we had chosen it.

In the evening we took the bus to the Italian quarter of North Beach. The sun was still bright at first, although it had turned quite cool, and we were able to take a few photos of the area. We saw the City Lights Bookshop, frequented by the Beat Generation poets such as Ginsberg, and we had a meal in an excellent Italian restaurant (with an Irish waitress) – wonderful fish, a good red wine, and superb cheesecake. Then we went for a drink in an atmospheric bar before catching the bus back to the Marina … and to bed.

Total miles for day: 134

Posted by ToonSarah 05:49 Tagged beaches bridges animals traffic road_trip views hotel california city seaside seals Comments (5)

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