Adventures in the Big Sur
We were so excited to begin this journey, knowing that this coastal drive was one of the most famous in the world. We had seen our share of stunning sky, mountain and sea on a recent trip to New Zealand, so the drive certainly had a lot to live up to.
As well as its sweeping coastal stretches, the area is known for its stunning array of marine life, and we were able to spot a veritable king of the beach very early on. I’ve seen lots of fur seals in my time, but these seem domestic in size compared to the gargantuan elephant seals. These animals wait like sentinels on their own beaches, guarding their females by keeping one weary eye out to the world. The size of small family cars, they are not the most graceful creatures on land, but one can imagine their ferocity and speed in the ocean. The males wear their battle scars as proof of their many victories, scaring lesser, younger suitors away with a spluttering roar before returning to their snooze in the morning sun.
We continued along our route, aiming for Monterey Bay. Along the drive were some stunning beauty spots. If you drive the Big Sur route, give yourself time to explore some of the national parks along the road. It’s so tempting to spend all your time looking out to sea, but you miss much of the wonderful flora that tells the story of California’s Prehistoric past. A beauty spot you will hear a lot about is the stunning McWay Waterfall, a freshwater waterfall flowing down onto the beach of a quiet and untouched cove. The scene is so picturesque, it looks like it’s been plucked straight from the pages of Peter Pan, this cove being his Neverland.
Another tip is to always allow more time than you think for the journey – there are so many beauty spots, you will find yourself pulling over to take your photos and then just standing and staring, trying to comprehend the majestic scale of the view. A truly memorable moment was spotting a pod of three whales swimming in the same direction as us along the shoreline. We stood alone in their company, watching their progress as the shimmering golden sun made its descent to the horizon. If I live a life with only a handful of moments of magic and wonder like this, I’ll be a happy person indeed.
We aimed to leave the coast before darkness really fell as there is no lighting along the roads. We made it out in the fleeting moments of the light and descended into dense forest, signalling the end of the Big Sur. It wasn’t long before civilisation came creeping back into view, as the town of Monterey glittered in front of us. We checked into the Stage Coach Lodge (www.montereystagecoachlodge.com) – a classic motel but with a hint of luxury, before bedding down for the night.
We had seen just a glimpse of California’s aquatic life, and short of squeezing into a wetsuit, I knew there was much more I wanted to see. Thankfully I could retire my mask and snorkel and go instead to the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is a world-leading centre, whose passion for conservation spills over from every presentation. We tried to time our day with the various feedings, so we could see the creatures behave in the most natural way. First it was the turn of the sea otters to charm us and show off their dexterity as they prized shrimp from blocks of ice. Much larger than our native species, the three otters in captivity here were all rescued but were unable to be reintroduced because of injuries. They have become excellent surrogate parents for baby otters who become adrift from their own mothers in storms.
As well as the mammals, the centre has great displays of jellyfish, coral dwellers and fish that inhabit the kelp forests. Each habitat is adopted to be as close to the natural equivalent and the results are truly remarkable. All the exhibits were wonderful, but the star of the show had to be the Deep Sea, an exhibit featuring 500lb blue fin tuna, hammerhead sharks, dolphin fish, turtles and a school of sardines. At feeding time the big boys get the first takings, with the dolphin fish turning from silver to gold in the excitement of the feeding frenzy. Then it was the turn of the sardines, who danced their way to the top of the tank in a mystifying display, weary still of the hunting tuna. We left the centre truly in awe of the beauty of the natural world.
Adventures in…the Redwood Forest
The draw of driving in California is not just the coastal routes. Famed for its abundance of sequoia forests, the drive north from Monterey is utterly spectacular. The Big Basin National Park is a worthwhile detour, with sky-high redwoods lining hilly forest roads. The redwoods in the park are hundreds of years old, with the tallest tree reaching up to a staggering 328 feet into the clouds. A walk amongst the old giants is certainly humbling and it is remarkable to think of the years these sentinels of the forest have witnessed. Cabins are available for rental in the park, and if you can afford the time it is so worth the visit.
As you continue the drive you will find yourself on the Skyline Boulevard which runs along ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Because of its high elevation and location, it is one of the few places on the southern portion of the San Francisco Peninsula from which the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean are both visible at the same time. We were lucky enough to see it as the sun was beginning to set and a sheet of cloud began to envelope the valley of trees below.
Adventures in… San Francisco
After a few days experiencing the rugged beauty of California’s coasts and forests, the gentle embrace of city life was lovely. We arrived at our fabulous base for the next few nights, the amazing Galleria Park Hotel (www.jdvhotels.com). As sumptuous as it is stylish, it’s central location and plush interior make it an ideal base for city exploration.
We started the next day with some shopping around Union Square, which included a visit to the iconic Macy’s. Then we headed to Dotty’s Cafe for a hearty brunch. San Francisco is an amazing city for foodies – with pop up restaurants, quirky cafés and avant garde dining galore. Do your research and you are guaranteed one of the best meals of your life.
A trip to San Francisco is not complete without a tour of the world’s most famous penitentiary – the lonely rock of Alcatraz. You can book tickets for the boat ride and audio tour online and collect them before readying yourself to board the ferry for the surprisingly short hop across the water. Before beginning the audio tour, you get to meet the park ranger (and for fans of Yogi Bear this is quite a big deal) before starting the audio tour.
The inmates of the island are long gone, but the whole area still maintains a melancholy, almost spooky feeling. We were lucky enough to visit during the @Large art installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. A political prisoner in his own country for his social and political activism, Ai’s sculptures instilled a sense of hope and the irrepressible human desire for freedom, rather than captivity. It was in beautiful juxtaposition with its surroundings and presented the ongoing life of Alcatraz, beyond its notorious past.
After returning from the rock, it’s nice to take time to explore the Piers that make San Francisco so famous. We strolled toward Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 to catch a glimpse of the famous Sea Lions that bathe languorously on the floating decks, before hopping on a trolley back into the city.
As cities go, San Francisco is a little bit magic. It still holds on to it’s old-world charm but looks positively and firmly at the future. Personally, I think it is the most lovely city in California.
Whenever and wherever you decide to go in California, just make sure you try and sample a little bit of everything it has to offer.