America and more specifically the West Coast, has been the desired holiday destination of my Teens for some time now, so with both a 50th and an 18th milestone birthday on the horizon, we decided to make this year the one to remember with a California Road Trip.
Planning started back in January of this year. We decided against a summer trip because of the heat and plumped instead for October, taking advantage of the two week half term holiday, which would give us a total of 16 days with a route along the Pacific Coast Highway which would take in San Francisco, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and finish in Vegas, Nevada.
DAYS 1-3, SAN FRANCISCO & SAUSALITO
- GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
Direct flights from the UK land early evening which gave us just the right amount of time to hail a cab, check in to our hotel, eat and jump into bed. Thanks to the jet lag there was no hanging around the next morning, so we were up with the larks and off to hire bikes to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. We stayed in historic Fisherman's Wharf and from there you can take a cycle route alongside the bay to the foot of the bridge which is approximately an hour's cycle. Although heavily populated, unlike London the cycle paths are wide and on the pavement, away from traffic so it feels safe. There are a lot of hills on the route so it is physically challenging but the result is well worth the effort.
The first sighting of the Golden Gate Bridge is awe-inspiring. It looms out of the mist connecting San Francisco to Marin County. Nothing, however, can prepare you for the experience of cycling across it. You have to go up a steep and winding hill from the shoreline to the cyclepath on the bridge. One side is for cyclists and one for pedestrians. Once at the top the first thing that hits you is the noise of the cars. Highway 101 crosses the bridge which is a busy route, but the cars also make a strange clackety-clack sound as they go over the bridge's expansion joints which is deafening. The second is the height - at 220 ft above sea level, the views are stupendous, on one side there is the bay with Alcatraz Island, on the other the open Pacific Ocean with waves crashing on the rocks below. At this height and in such an explosed spot it is also very windy up there. The third is the speed of the bikes going across. It is single file, two way traffic and without doubt whilst it is breath-taking it is also terrifying in equal measure.
The bridge is 2.7km long and the outside railing is at chest height for adults. There is nowhere to stop easily until you are half way across and for those that do try to stop before that point, there is the risk of a pile up or abuse from your fellow cyclists. There are cycling speedometers at intervals on the bridge and there were many who impatient by the slow line of tourists and their kids would overtake at speed which when you are focusing all your efforts on maintaining calm and supporting your 13 yr old novice cyclist daughter to just keep going and not look down is nerve jangling to say the least. Having said all that it is totally exhilerating and something as a tourist you will probably only do once in your life.
When we arrived on the other side we joined the multitude of tourist cyclists that gather to exclaim relief that they made it. Then just when you think the thrill is all over, you have to make the descent from the foot of the bridge down a hill with a steep gradient that seems to wind on forever. My lasting memory is of me screaming at the Teens to remember to just hold the left brake. Mr MoT on the other hand is all about risk and turned the whole thing into a competition of who could get down in the quickest time! Jesus. Those are the times when our differences come to the fore. I am doing "safety" and he is off encouraging the Teens to go for it whatever the consequences because "this is fun!"
On the Northern side of the bridge in Marin County is the charming little town of Sausalito with houses clinging to the steep hillside along the coastline with views to die for. Sausalito is full of lovely shops and restaurants and from here you can take the ferry back with your bike to downtown San Francisco. We did actually move over from San Francisco to Sausalito for a couple of nights to explore that area which is full of beautiful walks and were lucky enough to enjoy spectacular views of the Golden Gate bridge from our hotelroom. It was great to see it from a different perspective and it is certainly a view you could never tire of. The only word of warning to anyone thinking of going is to make sure you pack some earplugs as the foghorns do go off quite frequently in the night so if you are not a deep sleeper they are a must.
Perhaps befittingly on the day of our Alcatraz visit, San Francisco was hit by a freak weather system which saw the Golden Gate Bridge closed due to high winds and torrential rain engulfed the city. Renowned as the holding pen for Civil War deserters as well as legendary gangsters including Al Capone, it is a must see on a visit to San Fran. You do need to book tickets in advance for this trip as it is seriously popular as you can imagine so you can't just turn up. The website takes bookings 3 months in advance and a night tour is an option. The ferry for Alcatraz island leaves from Pier 33 and takes approximately 20-30 minutes. It is all very organised and boats leave promptly.
When you alight at the Alcatraz dock you are greeted by a National Park guard with a loud hailer giving instructions on where to go and warning people of walking hazards on the route. The cellhouse sits at the top of the island and is as you would expect foreboding and walking to it in the lashing rain and wind added to this atmosphere. Much of the island is steep and hilly and the distance from the dock to the cellhouse at the top of the island is about 0.5km.
You first enter the cellhouse as the prisoners would have done themselves, into the communal shower area and here you can pick up the audio tour which is included in the admission price. It is fantastic but eerie and really brings to life the terrible conditions of being imprisoned on the "rock" , through the voices of real life inmates and correctional officers. As you would expect, everything as you go around is dark, dank and gloomy which is further accentuated by the lack of windows. The cells themselves are horrific yet the solitary confinement units are soul-destroying.
Despite its size, Alcatraz was never filled to capacity with the maximum number of inmates during its 29 years as a federal penitentiary, only 260. During this time 36 prisoners tried to escape and all but five were recaptured and to this day no-one knows what happened to those five prisoners.
The island is now a national parkland with historic gardens, tidepools and bird colonies. No food service is available on the island but there is a large picnic area and as well as the cellhouse you can visit various points around the island itself, however, due to the weather on the day we went this was not advised. All in all the tour takes around two hours. When we came back we popped along to Pier 39 which is a bustling pier of shops and fab eateries with scenic views across the bay, combined with generous sightings of sea lions.
San Francisco is relatively compact with many of the major attractions quite close to each other, so there is a lot of walking involved - comfortable shoes are a must! From Fisherman's Wharf we whiled away an afternoon exploring the nearby shopping on Union Street and then onto Chinatown, which is the largest outside of South East Asia and is an absolute sensory feast.
There are some cities that you visit in the world that you just fall in love with and for me San Francisco was one of them. It is the perfect mix of cosmopolitan and bohemian and I would say is one of the most beautiful that I have visited. In the limited time that we had for each of our stops on our road trip route, we definitely only scratched the surface of San Francisco and having now been I would definitely go back again for longer and explore further. Next stop Carmel for some whale watching.
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