WEST COAST ODYSSEY
© Debbie Kruger 1995
The day before embarking on our two-week driving trip of the U.S. west coast, my friend Jan remarked enthusiastically, This trip is going to be a blast!
We were on the beach at Malibu, myself jetlagged from the flight I had just arrived on, Jan delighted to be by the ocean after a long Colorado summer.
24 hours later, as we negotiated the bends of Californias most renowned and treacherous highway at Big Sur, her tune had changed.
You know, I really dont like driving trips.
Warning number one: When planning a long motoring holiday, particularly if thousands of miles are mapped out, be sure to take a totally willing companion. Jan has lived in the U.S. for eight years and driven most of the West, so she seemed the ideal cohort for my American Odyssey. In fact, it was her idea to stick to the coast and aim for Seattle, and before my arrival she had happily organised reservations at key points along the route.
But the reality of being enclosed in a car (no convertible for this female duo) for two weeks no matter how spectacular the scenery, comfortable the accommodation or good the music on the car stereo created unforseen tensions. My parents had related horror stories of motoring with another couple on a similar route 10 years earlier (the two couples have been estranged ever since), but Jan and I had been friends for 21 years and I had no such concerns. Nor, I suspect, did Jan until she was on the road realising our ridiculously ambitious itinerary.
Which brings me to warning numbers two and three: Beware Fatigue and Frustration. Our route looked exciting and impressive on the map, but covering such huge distances inevitably meant waking early, driving long hours, and having little energy at night to do much beyond eating and reading.
Further, reaching our appointed destination each day, particularly if pre-paid reservations were made, meant curtailing time spent in some places, while completely by-passing others that deserved exploration.
Most people devote at least a week to cover the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Jan and I allowed ourselves two-and-a-half days.
Big breakfasts made for late starts, lunch was taken at odd hours, and being on the west coast often involved driving with the sun in our eyes late in the day. Nevertheless, we did have a blast, albeit a sometimes tense one.
Day one, and after a quick meander around Santa Barbara (definitely worth a whole day; fortunately Id been there before), we endured three monotonous hours of inland Highway 101 before reaching Morro Bay, lunching on cheap and hearty clam chowder at four oclock, and rejoining Highway 1.
From there it was (literally) an uphill battle to reach Big Sur village by dark. Although, as all the brochures will tell you, Big Sur is not a town, but an 80-mile stretch of coast from Carmel south to San Simeon. Driving through San Simeon after five oclock we could only look up with longing and remorse at Hearst Castle, high atop the hills, warranting a full day and not getting a minute.
So there I was, frustrated and jetlagged, steering a large (by my standards) left-hand drive vehicle around hairpin bends with the sun setting against the windscreen, often missing the most magnificent views because of my concentration on the narrow road and the obstructive vehicles ahead.
Warning number four: You cannot win against the scourge of American motoring the mobile home. As Jan remarked, on any two-lane mountain pass or coastal route you will encounter a mobile home or four. Some have the occupants names lovingly handpainted on the tail, as if to compensate with friendliness for their certain hindrance of those behind. We encountered Terry and Tony regularly one day in Oregon, but never really grew to like them.
But back to Big Sur and yet another warning: Share the driving equally. Its tempting once behind the wheel to continue for hours at a stretch, but exhaustion is insidious, and you really will miss some great scenery if youre forever focusing on Terry and Tony. I finally handed over to Jan, but 20 minutes later we were at Deetjens Big Sur Inn.
Quaint and rustic, the inn was built in the early 1930s by Norwegian immigrant Helmuth Deetjun and was, until Highway 1 was completed in 1937, a traditional stop-over for travellers on the coastal wagon road. Constructed from locally milled or scavenged redwood, the Big Sur Inns cabins and rooms have old hand-hewn doors without locks or keys and are named rather than numbered.
Our room was Fireplace. Ivy trailed the inside walls and on a table by the open fireplace were visitors books used more as confessionals, containing long drawn-out revelations about life and love from the rooms previous occupants.
Wow. Have spent two nights here with my friend/lover/soulmate Marie, and as we sip coffee in bed in the morning sunlight, I try to find words to describe the experience, wrote Rob from San Francisco, who filled three pages with words.
I give thanks to this beautiful place as it has helped me to stop and remember how awesome and inspiring the simple pleasures of life can be, began Marie who came over from New York to be with Rob.
Romance was lacking from my night in Fireplace with Jan, so I related more to the entry that began: The Fireplace Room seems a bit too romantic for a pair of Jewish guys who grew up in Skokie, Illinois. Once high school buddies and now established professionals in Chicago, weve made this room the stopping point on the 7th night of our first annual F***-it-All West Coast tour.
We took a morning hike to a nearby cove and visited the Phoenix, a shop, café and restaurant set spectacularly on a cliffs edge, before resuming our drive. The fog drifted in and out of our course, sometimes quite dramatically. One moment we would be pumping up the air conditioning to counter the suns heat, the next we would be searching for our jackets as we alighted at Bixby Bridge in thick mist and heavy wind.
The sun shone over the bustling tourist town of Carmel, too busy these days to be charming, but its beach is a haven of white sand and shimmering azure water. Monterey has an impressive harbour but is also overrun with tourists, especially around Cannery Row. We spent the night with Jans sister at Santa Cruz, a relaxed town as yet untainted by tourism, and the next morning explored some fine and majestic examples of the venerable California Redwood in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Next stop San Francisco, and Jans penchant for the artistic and funky brought us to the Hotel Triton, decorated by celebrity designers, madly whimsical and unashamedly camp in its style and presentation.
Situated at the main gate to Chinatown on Grant and Bush, and only two blocks from Union Square, the Triton is a perfectly located boutique hotel from which we could explore the thriving, cosmopolitan city on foot or by car.
Driving the streets of San Francisco is an experience in itself, and I couldnt resist cruising down Filbert, claimed to be the worlds steepest street. Did I say cruising? I should say shrieking. Im not sure whether it was worse driving downhill or coming back up and having to brake at the crest for a stop sign.
With only two days and no urge to sightsee, our priorities were eating and shopping. Avoiding Fishermans Wharf and the downtown bustle entirely, we hit on some of San Franciscos best seafood at the Hayes Street Grill and feasted on breakfast at Doidges Kitchen in Union Street, took drives to the Presidio and Seacliff, where actor Robin Williams has a seriously huge pink mansion, and walked along Baker Beach, looking for the Golden Gate Bridge in thickening fog.
It was over 10 years since I last visited San Francisco, and my impression this time was of a stylish, compact, accessible and constantly fascinating array of neighbourhoods. Best shopping was on Fillmore Street at Pacific Heights for homewares and art, and Lombard Street in the Marina area for fashion and food.
The fog lifted on the morning we left, so we did get to eyeball that one great tourist sight, the Golden Gate Bridge, in all its splendour. Both originally Sydneysiders, neither Jan nor I could deny that San Franciscos sweeping orange-painted single-span suspension bridge is the most breathtaking we had ever seen.
We crossed it to continue our journey up Highway 1, and soon discovered that Big Sur was but a preface to what lay ahead. The winding steep cliffs, jutting rocks and gorgeous villages on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts were all the more special for the fact that the area is free of development, and accommodation is all Bed & Breakfast in quaint Victorian houses.
Passing through picturesque fishing villages and lamenting that we could not stop, we observed the scenery alter by the moment. Rivers suddenly turned into ocean, rugged rock formations transformed into crop fields and then forest, before changing again to barren cliffs. The names flashed by Elk, Jenner, Little River. We were intensely frustrated, but had a destination in mind.
Linda Ronstadt sang Talk to me of Mendocino. After our too-short stay there, I couldnt get the song out of my head. Mendocino is everything my home town of Byron Bay should be and could have been. Unspoilt, undeveloped, true to its origins, epitomising the stark beauty of the region.
With only one main street and a rear lane of shops and eateries, the town is almost inconspicuous in its subtle allure, but the uncluttered views of the coastline are mesmerising and the sincere warmth of its inhabitants unfailingly engaging. We arrived on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend without a booking, but struck it lucky at the historical MacCallum House Inn, where the rooms again had names. The Donald MacCallum room was supposedly haunted by a friendly ghost, but he was so friendly he left us completely alone.
We fell in love with Mendocino and were loath to tear ourselves away but we still had a full days driving to reach the state border. Back on Highway 101 we veered inland on the Redwood Highway, an easy afternoons drive with a pretty diversion along the Avenue of the Giants. Roadside stalls offered redwood carvings of Native Americans and bears which struck us as rather at odds with the environmental message the landscape naturally expressed.
Back on the coast the towns became less attractive; charm was at a premium. At Crescent City we searched for an inviting restaurant, and settled on the House of Rowland, where our waitress main concern was to warn us off the mashed potatoes. Not quite Mendocino, but variety was definitely the spice of U.S. motoring life.
And those mashed potatoes we never had became the ideal in-joke as the drives got longer and the fatigue hit harder.
We covered the Oregon coastline in one day. The scenery varied from exquisitely beautiful to surprisingly tedious. Redwoods mingled with myrtlewoods, coastal towns reflected the main industries of lumbering and fishing. We liked Florence with its rustic bridge and scrumptious clam chowder, but mid-coastal ports like Coos Bay were industrial and dowdy.
Passing through lush dairy country in Tillamook County, we headed for the north coast, but there wasnt a room to be had in towns like Bay City or Garibaldi, popular with weekenders from Portland. We lusted for Manzanita, a precious beach village so secluded even AAA didnt list it. But by nightfall we were grateful for a filthy room in a Cannon Beach flea-pit at an exorbitant rate, reasoning that after such a run of good fortune, it was probably our due.
The following day Washington state offered fir trees and the biggest onslaught yet of mobile homes. By the time we reached Seattle we were both exhausted. Jan was threatening to fly back to Colorado from there rather than get back in the car, but dinner at the trendy Café Campagne in the Market areas Post Alley calmed her and resuscitated us both.
We were too debilitated, however, to hang out late at the jazz and blues bars for which Seattle is famed. Instead we spent our brief stay thoroughly immersed in the atmosphere of Farmers Market, relishing the juiciest tomatoes we had ever tasted, and perusing the antique and craft shops at Pioneer Square. Unusually clear and mild weather rendered Seattles favourite pastime drinking coffee in cosy cafés superfluous.
Instead we dined at the elegant Place Pigalle, back at the Market, as the sun dipped into the harbour behind us, before returning to our hotel room to watch an in-house movie. No, not Sleepless in Seattle.
Our biggest frustration was that the San Juan Islands and Vancouver were so near and yet so far. After two nights we left Seattle for the return trip south, this time inland down the notoriously zombifying Interstate 5. Other than a rainy afternoon and night in Portland, we travelled straight through to the Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco, and allowed ourselves two nights in Californias famed wine country to eat (more), drink (Jan only) and swelter in the Indian Summer heat.
We stayed at the Wine Country Inn in St Helena, one of several hospitable establishments that aim to showcase the regions industry and natural beauty, we visited wineries and, naturally, we shopped.
From there it was a short hop back to San Francisco, where Jan finally boarded her longed-for plane. I carried on down the I-5 to Los Angeles to continue my American Odyssey.
One final warning: the west coast is notable for its lack of tourist information centres, so visit a AAA office when you first arrive in the U.S., show your RACQ or NRMA card, and take as many books and maps as you can carry.
United Airlines return flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles and Hertz car rental were pre-paid in Australia through Ansett International Travel and Creative Tours. Economy excursion air fare and 35 day car rental, including taxes, was $2,464.
AAA Los Angeles: 2601 S. Figueroa Street. (213) 741 3111.
AAA San Francisco: 150 Van Ness Avenue. (415) 565 2012
Deetjens Big Sur Inn, Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920. (408) 667 2377
Hotel Triton, 342 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108. (415) 394 0500.
MacCallum House Inn, 45020 Albion Street, Mendocino, CA 95460. (707)937 0289.
The Wine Country Inn, 1152 Lodi Lane, St Helena, CA 94574. (707) 963 7077.