Thursday, April 01, 2010

Long and lesisurely West Coast road trip

Dear Jamie,

Firstly may I thank you for your book which has formed the basis for our California Trip.And now may I give you a little background information.

I'm Richard (a young 60) and my girlfriend is Sue(56) and together we are planning a five week tour of California:in fact we bought two return tickets to San Francisco yesterday.Sorry I should have explained we're English.We will be in California during the months of April and May and we would like to travel the Pacific Highway,the east side of the state and any interesting places in between.We love music,photography and are interested in meeting people and discovering the "real America".

Given San Francisco as our starting/ending point we have considered a loop,a figure of eight but to be honest we don't know which way to go.Maybe it doesn't matter but I would be very interested to hear your views.
A few other questions if I may:
* Is five weeks long enough for a leisurely road trip?
* Should the time of year affect our chosen route?
* Any thoughts on a good choice of hire car?
* Should we cross over into Oregon and Mexico (if so where?)
* My girlfriend would like to visit Las Vegas - good idea/bad idea?
*Any suggestions for smaller towns to stay for a day or two?
* I love westerns should we make the effort to see Monument Valley?
* Can I live on seafood,salad and fruit in California?

Some dumb questions maybe but any advice you can offer would be most appreciated.Congratulations on the excellent service you provide for people planning road trips. Believe me we are excited.

Best wishes and thank you,



Dear Richard --

Many thanks for your message -- and it sounds like you've got a great trip ahead of you. April and May are great times to travel in California, and 5 weeks is plenty of time to do the things you describe, without feeling pressured or stressed.

And you will have no trouble keeping on a diet of seafood, salad and fruit -- these are all things which California produces and enjoys in abundance.

San Francisco makes a great starting / finish point, or base camp for your trip. You won't need a car in SF -- it is one of the few places in the western US where you can rely on public transport to get around (and in fact it is compact enough that walking is the best way to explore). And once you do decide to hit the road, I have found the best deals are with the biggest companies (Hertz, Avis, etc), picking up and dropping off the hire car at the airport. It is worth searching around for deals -- the collapse of the US car industry seems to have caused some unexpected complications in the car rental business, and rates vary tremendously (the same car can cost anything from $200 to $2000 a week for the same car, depending on details.) In my experience a "compact" car in America is luxury by English standards -- you'll get 4-doors, air-conditioning (and usually automatic transmissions, whether you want it or not).

I think that's covered some of your questions -- now onto the rest:

About Oregon, I'd say yes -- go! (if the weather looks promising), but Oregon is a 500-mile drive north from San Francisco. With some lovely stops on the way (such as Mendocino, and the giant redwood forests near Eureka), the Oregon coast is very pretty, and Portland is a nice city -- one good thing about taking a road trip is that you have more flexibility, and can go where and when you want. And April / May is not yet "peak travel" time, because families have their kids in school, so you should be able to find rooms wherever you go.

Mentioning accommodations makes me think of something -- in contrast to some I've seen in the UK, "bed-and-breakfast" in California is very nice indeed, allowing you to stay in comfortable landmark houses and meet locals and fellow visitors; B&B in California makes a very nice alternative to the generally anodyne hotel/motel experience, and is often quite luxurious.

(I should have said -- I am married to a Yorkshire lass, and have spent 10 years off and on living in England -- the first book I ever wrote was the Rough Guide to California, which I think is a useful companion to my Road Trip USA guide... All of which is to say I have had a lot of experience introducing "Brits" to my native land... )

Here is a directory of nice Calif B&Bs, to give you an idea:

Back to your questions -- Mexico is a wonderful country, but the best parts of Mexico are nowhere near California. Quite the opposite, unfortunately -- Tijuana, the main border town, is scary, disturbing and violent... not really my idea of "fun".... The same (and worse!) is true most of the border areas.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, can be a blast - it is overwhelming, crass, commercial, crazy, sexy, seedy and all that, but is also truly one-of-a-kind (fortunately, some might say...). You could hop a plane from SF and be in Las Vegas in an hour -- or make it part of a grand circle drive, maybe even adding on a drive thru the amazing "Canyonlands" of Utah and Arizona (inc Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, both of which are spectacular and well worth visiting. ).

Maybe you could do Vegas / Monument Valley etc midway thru your trip -- flying in then getting a car for a week-log tour?

If you do Vegas by road, you ought to get there via Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and of course Death Valley -- these are all on the way.

And you also mention the eastern sections of California: the area along Hwy-395, thru what is known as the Owens Valley, is un-hyped but gorgeous. Towns like Independence and Lone Pine are still small and quaint, sitting at the foot of 14,000-foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada (memorably photographed by Ansel Adams.)

Another photography mecca is the town of Carmel, south of San Francisco, at the start of what is known as Big Sur -- the amazing coastline of central California. Edward Weston worked here for decades, and you can see the same places he saw and photographed - there are also many great galleries in Carmel (and many awful ones, too)

Besides photography, you also mentioned having an interest in smaller towns -- some of my favorites are Sonoma in the "Wine Country", an hour or so from SF, then Mendocino and Arcata further north (mentioned above); and Monterey, Carmel and San Luis Obispo (near Hearst Castle) in the "middle" of the state, and Santa Barbara in the south.

Los Angeles is HUGE and crazy ( I am from there, and it still makes me nuts...), but as you mention a fondness for Westerns I strongly suggest you brave LA just to explore the amazing collections of the Gene Autry Museum (URL is )

And if you want a tropical escape, consider Catalina Island, 25 miles offshore -- you may be able to stay overnight in Zane Grey's old house. (I haven't been to Catalina for a _long_ time, but it is magical, for sure.

San Diego is also very pretty (esp the area around La Jolla, on the coast north of downtown), and has a great zoo and a fun "Sea World" -- but to my mind it's best for kids, really.

I feel like I could go on forever with this -- compared to most people, you have all the time in the world to do this trip, and I am sure you will find all sorts of wonderful places to appreciate and enjoy. Hope this note, and my book, helps point you toward some memorable experiences.

Happy Trails,

Jamie Jensen
Road Trip USA



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