Last week away, then we’re back to business SoCo. I didn’t post last week because I was away – not sure if you’ll want to hear about that particular week of clean living. Nothing fun happens when you’re deprived of coffee, tea and wine. Mostly because you’re in bed snoring by 8pm. Yup, thought you’d be bored.
I was in two minds about leaving Aspen – I loved it, but there is always an overwhelming sense of gratitude I feel when a ski holiday comes to an end and none of my family do. Come to an end, I mean.
To intensify this, on our last night, Hugh and Emma showed me a photo of where they had been that day. They handed me a phone to look at the photo. After screwing up my whole face, like I was in the teeth of a blizzard, to try to see the damn thing – and failing to distinguish the photo from my own hand, I had to capitulate and go and find my glasses. Intuitively, I knew that whatever these two madcaps were wanting to share with me, it was going to be big.
And it was.
As the thrill of their day crossed from the phone to my eyes to my consciousness, the bags started packing themselves.
This is the photo. “back country risks include death’. I figured that if Hugh and Emma had found their way to the back country to dice with death and I hadn’t known that that’s where they were – then it was time to leave before I killed them.
So off we flew to San Francisco, farewelling our lovely travel buddies from Perth. A few sobs at the airport – then we got over it, reminding ourselves that we do in fact, travel together reasonably regularly.
I saved my tears for our arrival in San Francisco.
It was a long commute – the four and half hour minibus trip down from Aspen to Denver, the four hour flight to San Fran, the two hours messing around with luggage and catching a train to the hire car depot…. and a whole lot more messing around in between, landed us a tad frazzled at said depot, where we were – need I say – to collect our car.
This car was giGANtic. As Geoff said, it made my large four wheel drive back home look like a shopping trolley. To me, it did not seem drivable – ‘how does something that long get around corners?’ , I unthinkingly enquired. Then I remembered buses and turned into a beetroot.
As you might expect, I was not the driver.
We pulled in to 7.30pm traffic – on the WRONG side of the road, on the OTHER side of the globe, and I was sitting on the WRONG side of car! I kept doing this weird thing with my arm and leg – I built for myself an imaginary gear stick or horn or something that needed arm control, and of course, an imaginary brake. These instruments of the air were precautionary and highly sensitive, if not well articulated, and my erratic movements provided entertainment for all until I was able to adjust.
Conversely, my husband was the very picture of ‘oh hey, I can drive on the wrong side of the road in a car the size of a small island nation’, but secretly I think there must have moments when he truly did regret his two undies choice. That’s disloyal, I take it back. (it’s just that I love to look for the cracks in his packing economy.)
Enough. We named the car Hank Foster after a truly fabulous basketball coach we knew who was about 9 feet tall and almost as wide.
There we were, cruising along in Hank Foster, the vehicular equivalent to the QE2, with the dulcet tones of the satnav we named KittyKat soothing our weary minds as she duly guided us to our first ever foray into the world of a particular online hotel chain…. you know the one I mean?
We had discovered this property some months earlier, when looking for accommodation in San Francisco that was more along the lines of cosy cute boutique, rather than cheesy Hilton sleek. And I couldn’t find anything – not, I hasten to add, because they didn’t exist, but because the internet and I are fractious bedfellows with very little capacity for patience.
I thought I’d take a peek at Airbnb as the whole world seemed to be enamoured with what is now, apparently, the largest hotel chain in the world. Imagine that.
I was pretty thrilled with the place that I found because it was the right size and in a pretty central location. But the word ‘central’ is one that can be often overworked. And if ‘central’ and ‘close to all amenities’ form any part of the descriptor for a place you’re considering to rest your head – think again. When they say ‘central’, they mean either at the bus stop on a main road, or if not, actually on the bus. You see the word central – consider yourself warned…under the bus.
So as I’m never good at heeding my own advice, we found ourselves on a three lane, one way arterial with no parking for Hank Foster. Flustered, we turned into the nearest side street and parked over about 4 driveways, so that Hugh and I could run back and investigate the lie of the land and whether indeed, there was anywhere to berth the juggernaut.
Before jumping out, I quickly rifled through our travel wallet to locate the email from our ‘host’ containing the security code to access the apartment.
Have you guessed already? I’d printed the wrong email. No access code. No entry. No soft bed. No end to this day.
With no internet access, retrieving the correct email from said host was not going to be easy, so we thought we’d just call her. However, the number we had did not connect, and nor was it possible to send a text. Oh dear.
‘Never mind’, said I, ‘I’ll call the Airbnb help desk!’
The conversation that followed was so absurd, it was comic. The problem for them was a ‘system outage’ of indeterminate duration. The help desk couldn’t help, and nor could they tell us when, approximately, they could help. They were help-less and the situation was hope-less. The person to whom I was speaking kept repeating, ‘we’re the HELP desk’ and I kept insisting that if they had a system outage, they weren’t much help.
She got quite agitated. I said, ‘how can we contact the host if her phone won’t connect and your computers are down?’, to which she replied, ‘we’re just the help desk’ at which point I unceremoniously terminated the call. I felt totally addled. If a help desk keeps insisting they’re the help desk, why don’t they help??? Monty Python move over.
While the kids were enjoying listening in to all this, Geoff decided he needed to go and investigate the entrance porch, to see if he could figure out some miracle, like guessing the code, or like walking through brick walls, or like beaming us up to some sleek, chic…Hilton.
When he came back to the car, his humour was draining. ‘There is a broken toilet right out the front’ he huffed. ‘How do you know it’s broken?’ someone enquired (not me – I’d had my blonde moment at the car depot), to which he replied, ‘because it’s lying in pieces on the footpath’.
No ‘stunning Victorian home’ for us. Just a broken toilet.
Not to be defeated on this our first night in San Francisco but, as it turned out, not our first night in an Airbnb establishment, we pulled the plug and drove on into town to find an afore-avoided hotel chain with three rooms available and an airport hanger for the car and you know what? We found one.
Despite our inauspicious start, our adventures in San Francisco were probably all too brief. We did the obligatory Alcatraz, Golden Gate, Sausilito and Fisherman’s Wharf – we even did Lombard street, which was quite a feat for obvious reasons – if you’ve been there you will know that this street is like a narrow, beautifully manicured zigzag that descends reasonably acutely. So imagine Hank. Honk.
The lesson we learnt from our San Francisco trip was not limited to an expensive Airbnb fiasco – that was just the symptom of a bigger problem: lack of planning. We had focussed our attentions solely on NYC, Washington and Aspen and as the California sojourn formed the first leg of the journey home, we’d neglected to treat it with the same enthusiasm. We relied on the well-worn tourist trail and it was a shame to miss out on discovering the heart and soul of that city.
Our Airbnb host was the major beneficiary of our lacuna, pocketing the full freight without so much as having to change the linen. If it was me, I would have at least refunded part of the tariff, but it wasn’t me and in the absence of any sympathy for our plight, both Airbnb and our ‘host’ no doubt laughed all the way to the bank.
On the bright side, however, our decision to cut our stay in San Francisco short by a night allowed us to discover the coolest place to stay in the middle of the Carmel countryside – Clint Eastwood’s neighbourhood.
We love a driving holiday – kids and husband strapped to their seats to CHAT. AT. for hours on end – I love it. So the much lauded coast road from San Fran to LA was a natural fit for us and reallocating to that an extra day was a brainwave. We left San Francisco in the early afternoon and meandered our way south, taking in the somewhat tired sights of Monterey on the way down to Carmel.
I discovered Quail Lodge and Golf Club in an internet search and as it is situated in Carmel Valley, in the Santa Lucia mountain range on the Monterey Peninsula, it was an ideal place for our first night. Owned now by the guy who owns the Peninsula hotel chain, the recent renovations to this classic 60s style resort are impeccable and the only negative that I was aware of, was the website! I know this because when we arrived, we were blown away by how funky and fabulous it was.
Quail Lodge is in the vicinity of the famously rated numero uno American golf club – Pebble Beach. Personally, I’d rather poke pencils in my eyes that play golf, but I do appreciate that not all are like me and that whilst I don’t tee off, I do get off on beautiful scenery like that on offer in Carmel.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, a name which verges on twee, is the small township that is probably now what Monterey used to be. At least that’s how it struck us. Whilst it’s glamorous, stylish, expensive – with loads of great restaurants and boutiques of different kinds, it still manages to feel intimate and slow. Your typical upmarket town in an upmarket wine growing area within coo-ee of a major city – you get the picture.
A night at the Carmel resort was just what we all needed to recalibrate after the hype of the two and a half weeks we’d been on the road. We spent the evening warmed by the outdoor fire pit overlooking the golf course, and playing the card game, Bullshit. Nice family game.
It was a cool, clear night that spread itself deftly across the gentle undulations of the green, and as the sun slid lower and then out of sight, we asked our waiter if he had a pack of cards we could borrow. He informed us stiffly, that in the state of California, playing cards in public was against the law. I looked at him, and then at my four children, one of whom is only 15.
I had no words. Illegal? Oh well, I sighed, that’s California.
The waiter walked back inside, his shoulders visibly bearing the weight of such a ludicrous, yet binding denial. Not his fault.
Moments later though, he reappeared and jubilantly proffered forth a deck, saying, ‘bugger them, if ‘they’re’ out prowling the Quail Lodge Golf Club for families playing illicit card games in public, then good luck to ‘them’!”
Well done that man.
There were no other people sitting outside by the fire having pre-dinner drinks, no other people screaming at their children for beating them at cards, no other people laughing until they thought they’d split. There were, I might add, no other Australians. Just us. Winning.
The night air, the solitude, the beautiful food at Edgar’s restaurant and the hospitality generally, were fabulous. I did keep half an eye out for a lone ranger horseman himself, The Pale Rider, but perhaps that would have been more likely closer to The Bridges of Madison County, or in the High Plains… or even In the Line of Fire…This Million Dollar Baby remained unconvinced.
(We did actually meet up with Clint the following evening when we were in Saint Luis Obispo, the half way point between San Fran and LA. I capitulated to the incessant whinging of my family and forsook a couple of extra hours taking in the sights, to go to the cinema and see American Sniper. I loved it, no wonder it’s made Clint a Fistful of Dollars.)
In San Luis Obispo, I had yet again outdone myself by booking another fabulous hotel – The Granada. It’s a gem and if you’re ever in that ‘hood, hangin’ with Clint (or even hunting for him), make sure you either stay there or at least eat at their bistro. Sublime.
Again, I don’t think the website does the place justice – a really interesting, slightly industrial-style restoration of this old hotel (that had at one time in its inauspicious past been a brothel,) has been carried out with a degree of sensitivity, creativity and innovation that really sets it apart from the pack. The rooms are so quaint and romantic – and comfortable. And the bistro has a lovely front garden on the street that is candle lit and perfect for outdoor dining, warmed by a fire pit.
Bloody fabulous. But I am aware that this post is getting a bit lengthy. It’s ok because who needs another (non) description of LA? I’ll spend the last moments of your attention telling you about the sea lions.
We left San Luis Obispo and hugged the coast road between the glittering Pacific Ocean and Big Sur National Park on this, the last day of our drive.
The scenery was breathtaking – the blue sky and green forests, the craggy rock faces and plunging cliffs, and the endless empty beaches. You might have thought we were home already!
But as we neared one stretch of beach, I gazed out at the sand – and did a double take. I blinked. I squinted. I SPOTTED THEM!
A beach full of sea lion families!
We stopped the car, climbed over the fence stile and headed down to get a closer look. There they were in all their armless, gormless glory – hefting about getting sand all over themselves and wallowing in the joys of parenthood.
The big daddies honked and hefted, the mothers rolled their eyes like they’d heard it all before, and the little babies lay soaking up the rays, oblivious.
There were dozens of them and they were JUST THERE! When I was a kid, we would do the walk to Red Rocks which is a wild strip of the western side of the mouth of Wellington Harbour. At certain times of the year, fur seals land there for the same purpose – baby business. I clearly remember the big signs warning the curious to stay away from the seals as they could move at speed and were very protective of their young. They could be very dangerous!
Have a look at these guys… move at speed? Aggressive?? They didn’t even really notice us and we were just a few metres from them. I did note, however, that my children were a little closer than I….
It was such an unexpected joy – to be in California just a few hours drive north of LA and there was this National Geographic moment lying right there in front of us. Hefting. Honking.
Strange idea Mother Nature had though, you have to admit. I mean, I know these creatures are great swimmers and can travel huge distances in extremely cold water – so we give them that. But for any creature who is required to come onto a beach to bring forth into the world its young, wouldn’t a couple of arms have made things easier? A couple of awkward flippers half way down your body aren’t good for much when you want to swat a fly or get the sand out of your eyes …. or prop your head up as you lie there sunbathing. And the noises they make? It’s enough to make you blush!
Who am I to criticise Mother Nature – I’m just saying…
The Pacific Coast road was an experience that bookended our amazing trip and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s beautiful, rugged, and empty of the traffic and hype that soon awaits as your near LA.
When you do hit the dizzy heights of that particular city, it’s nice to have fresh in your mind’s eye images of natural beauty and sweeping open space – because LA is none of that.
We stayed at Venice Beach in wait for it – another GEM of a hotel recently reopened, called The Rose. One building back from the beach and within easy walking distance to everything we were after, i.e., the beach (no kidding), Abbott Kinney Street (great shopping) and groovy cafes and restaurants, The Rose was a perfect place to farewell the USA.
So that concludes the travel diary of our trip USA15. I hope you’ve had a chuckle and that at least some of you have made it all the way down here to the 3000th word. If you have, and you want to give me some feedback, please do. I’d love to hear from you.
Next week we’re back on the NSW south coast to our beloved Berry. I’ll be updating you on progress at the house, as well as reviewing some of our favourite small businesses in the area. Stay tuned folks. Adios!