We were looking forward to visiting California for the first time and it was only a short flight from Portland from where we’d just had a fabulous time to get to our first stop, San Francisco.
We spent time experiencing a few interesting things here including the Italian American cinema exhibition, the annual Italian Heritage parade in Little Italy, Ashbury Haights, Gott’s restaurant in the Ferry Building, Fleet Week with a flying display from the Blue Angels (the US equivalent of the English Red Arrows), the pretty Painted Ladies line of houses and the famous gay rights centre of the USA that is the Castro district (where I also found a plaque dedicated to Francisco Federico Lorca, the world-renowned gay Spanish playwright from Granada who was killed in the Spanish Civil War). We also got one of those lovely old trolley buses a couple of times, but regardless of how pretty your mode of transport, rush hour is the same not so pleasant experience in every country.
In addition to walking a lot around town, we did the double-decker sightseeing bus tour which included a glorious sunset from the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the highlights of our visit here. Another for me was the fascinating walking tour of the Tenderloin district, 398 Eddy St. / Leavenworth (Tue-Sun 10am-5pm) where I had a personal tour of the area which is now quite rundown in places and yet, has an incredible musical and social history giving an interesting insight into the city.
The AirBnB where we were staying was just around the corner from Mission Street where we had amazing (and cheap) tacos and burritos (no rice, so not as heavy) at the unassuming and always incredibly busy La Taquería.
And after that, a couple of blocks away, we came across a Mexican bar (whose name escapes me) where we had a few margaritas while watching a World Cup qualifying football match between Mexico and the USA. Fab night out! Although I love doing research for trips, some of the best nights happen when you don’t plan anything or can’t even find what you were looking for!
On a more serious note, although we had seen homeless people on the streets of other American cities we had been to, the problem seemed far greater in San Francisco, but like all cities, San Francisco is doing its best to help them off the streets by working together with the local communities.
Although San Francisco is very much a city, one of the benefits of its location is Californian wine and a trip to the Napa Valley had to be done, especially as I’m a huge fan of the film ‘Sideways’, however we chose to simply drive through the countryside to appreciate the stunning views en route.
We’d heard good things about Muir Beach just outside the city, so we drove there and it really was something else. Just a beach, sea and not many people. Although, perhaps again, it was a nice antidote to the city experience of the previous few days.
Walking around this city was an odd experience as even after a few days, although it had lots of interesting places to visit, unlike some other places we had visited on the trip such as Portland, Chicago, Seattle and Provincetown, neither I nor Mrs Cortado found we had really connected with the city. After only a month on the road, it couldn’t yet be travel fatigue, so what was it?
Like many places we had planned to visit on this trip, San Francisco was yet another place we had always wanted to see, however it was the first to disappoint, although we couldn’t quite put our finger on why. So, we may just have to go back another time to see what we missed…
Mrs Cortado and I had included Las Vegas on our trip out of curiosity and also as it was perfectly located to visit the Grand Canyon, which ended up being one of the highlights of the entire trip. To add to the kitsch Vegas element too, we also decided to stay at the Trump Tower hotel for a night. Note that this trip was made Sept-Dec 2015 before the joy we all currently share that is the Trump presidency. In fact, when we were in Vegas, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were still fighting it out in a TV debate for the Democratic nomination.
So, what’s Vegas like? It’s everything you could imagine. Busy, loud, kitsch, commercial and not somewhere I’d visit again, but for a couple of nights, it was a wonderful experience. Highlights in Las Vegas for us included cocktails with an ‘in-the-know’ food blogger friend, the ultra kitsch environment and the cheesy and spectacular sound/light show of the Hotel Bellagio and the madness of Fremont Street.
Although expensive, it’s also absolutely worth taking the 1-hour helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon as the sheer scale was like nothing we’d previously seen. In addition to this, other favourites here were the incredible Neon Museum and the staggering feat of engineering that is the Hoover Dam. Las Vegas is inevitably a bit mad and it’s heaven, hell or maybe both depending on your persuasion, but it’s definitely worth a visit to make your own mind up and especially for the astonishing astonishing natural beauty that is not that far away.
Our next stage of the trip was the perfect antidote to the superficial and artificial excess of Las Vegas. We would be driving through a variety of types of nature en route to our next stop in Mammoth Lakes on the west side of Yosemite National Park.
And soon, we were driving down Badwater Road in Death Valley towards the Badwater Basin where we saw a family of 4 coyotes hanging around (as you do in Death Valley). I’d never heard of the Valley Of Fire before but as you travel through, the colours of the surrounding rocks are so beautifully unusual that it almost feels like the set of a film set on another planet.
We then had to take a detour through Yosemite as the main road was closed and happily came across Mono Lake, a beautiful saltwater marsh/lake with stalagmites which again were reminiscent of some alternative planetary dimension. It was all such a welcome relief to the chaos of Vegas. And then after much looking around, we arrived in Mammoth Lakes.
The morning after we had breakfast of waffles and coffee (one of many but we never got bored of it) in The Stove local diner in Mammoth Lakes village followed by a lovely drive through the north of Yosemite towards Mariposa, which is a delightful one-street village with a very small town America feel. Our next plan was to visit Sequoia National Park to go to Grant Grove to see the biggest tree in the world – General Sherman, which as you’d imagine, was enormous.
Although I’m a townie, I enjoyed the nature elements of this trip and was surprised at how beautifully stark and impressive some of these places could be. But now it was time to move on to the delights of the west coast including Big Sur, which was another one of those places I’d always wanted to see.