The West Coast
I’d always wanted to visit California. Los Angeles, Big Sur and Venice Beach for example, were all places I’d seen or heard in films, TV and music and they always seemed so exotic.
From the natural marvels of Yosemite and Sequoia, our trip was now taking us to ones of a different kind on the West Coast. We first headed to Monterey where we walked along Cannery Row, the old fishing area which has been prettified, but seemed a tad soulless and then drove to the lovely Pacific Grove where we just strolled along the ruggedly beautiful coastline.
Later that evening, we popped into the delightful Carmel, which for somewhere so small, seemed to have an inordinate number of pricey shops. After dinner in a cute, little Italian restaurant we found, we thought we’d have dessert elsewhere and came across a local bakery which was closing, but we managed to persuade the assistant working there to sell us a few cakes which hit the spot.
And then, the day after, appropriately armed with a Beach Boys playlist (and a little bit of Johnny Cash too as I had really got into his music in Nashville), we set off on a gloriously sunny day down the coast along Big Sur, which really was as incredible as we thought it would be.
We were heading towards our next stop at Pismo Beach, which was an excellent point to visit the nearby and magnificently strange Hearst Castle where we saw an eclectic mix of things including an absurdly opulent blue indoor pool with real gold tiles, as well as a few zebras in the grounds. We even managed to see a few elephant seals on the beach nearby.
The next day was our 9th wedding anniversary and we were going to be celebrating it with some American friends who we had first met in Granada, Spain where we were living at the time and lived in San Luis Obispo further down the coast. Oddly enough, we ended up going to a restaurant appropriately called Granada. We had had a lovely meal and then, on our way back after the meal, we got our first American ticket for parking the car facing the wrong direction, which we didn’t even know was a thing! Another experience for the list…
The next day, we headed to Solvang, a slightly strange and sweet, seemingly Danish village in the middle of American wine country which even has its own windmill!
On the way down the coast to Los Angeles, we stopped off at Santa Barbara, one of the many places referenced in American TV shows and films and although Mrs Cortado really liked the feel of the place, other than the low-rise architecture which is very common on this part of the country, it just seemed full of shops and little else to me.
We rented an apartment in Marina Del Rey for a few days as our base for visiting LA. One of the first things we did was to get a sightseeing bus to take us around the city so we could get our bearings, as LA is even bigger than we had imagined.
I was surprised at how low-rise the city was. American cities we had seen thus far had been full of skyscrapers of offices and apartments, but one of the charming elements of LA is that this hasn’t happened. However, the city is an enormous sprawl where getting stuck in heavy traffic is the norm, even if you have 6-lane highways.
One sad reality we encountered was one morning while popping out for coffee, seeing the exit to our apartment building had been blocked due to a fatal shooting in the car park overnight. Like all big cities across the world, crime is a reality in certain areas, however this was our first experience of gun crime in the US.
On a lighter note, Mrs Cortado has always been a fan of Disney and her mother has always wanted to see the Disney parade, so Mrs Cortado’s parents came out for a few days to visit and my mother-in-law had the time of her life at the parade, while my father-in-law and I strolled around the pretty back streets of Little Venice stopping off at different coffee shops on the way. I really enjoyed hanging out in Little Venice. It has an unusual bohemian feel, but also a spectacular kind of light, especially as the sun sets. I recently watched ‘Californication’ and ‘Flaked’ where the neighbourhood is the backdrop for the TV shows, so I could see the area again and it was nice to see that same light and atmosphere coming across in the programmes.
Another day, we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu and were quite surprised to see how ’normal’ and un-film-starry this area was. Though I think the really big houses were safely ensconced elsewhere far away from the main road and coast. After a lovely lunch at a restaurant on the beach, we then headed into the beautiful Santa Monica mountain reserve.
Music & Film
We had now been on the road for several weeks and had had an incredible time, but we had also done quite a lot and so it was wonderful, to find a spot on Venice Beach one morning to sit down and just take it all in. Everything we had seen and experienced so far, including the fact that we were in LA (man) and especially, Venice Beach which I had always heard so much about through music and film and was also where Jim Morrison lived when The Doors first got together. I’m a big Doors fan. I also really enjoyed bumping into some of the street art in Little Venice.
Ever since watching ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ with James Dean when I was a teenager, Griffith Observatory has also always been on my list of places to visit – for those who don’t know, there are a few key scenes in the film located there. Having lived in Greenwich before, I had already been lucky enough to see a magnificent observatory, however the views of the city from here, including the Hollywood sign, were spectacular.
As a big music fan, I had really wanted to see a gig while in LA as there were so many well-known venues which had hosted legendary bands over the years and one of these was the Troubadour. A small venue which had hosted a wide variety of artists over the years including Elton John, Buffalo Springfield, James Taylor, Guns & Roses, Tom Waits and Radiohead. We had got tickets to see John Grant who happened to be in town when we were. Although it ended up being quite expensive in that although the gig tickets were only around $60 in total, the taxi fare there and back was around $100! Fortunately, we are big John Grant fans and it was a fabulous gig in a legendary venue, so another wonderful experience on our trip.
One of the last stops we made was in Laurel Canyon which was renowned for being the neighbourhood where Joni Mitchell, the Byrds and countless other singer-songwriters and bands from the late 60s made music and lived in (apparent) peace, love and harmony in the summer of love in 1967. As with Ashbury Haights in San Francisco, my expectations were impossibly high and it obviously wouldn’t be the same these days, but part of me was still hoping to somehow absorb this late-60s vibe through some kind of hippie-flower-power-like osmosis just by driving through the neighbourhood. I don’t think Mrs Cortado was as interested or as hopeful.
Spending time in LA was sometimes like being in New York in that you were already familiar with places through TV, film and music. We loved visiting LA, but other than individual moments such as the Troubadour gig, hanging out in Little Venice and Disney, we didn’t really connect with the city as a whole as much as we had with previous cities such as New York, Chicago and Seattle.
So, after a few days here, we were off again. We dropped off the in-laws at LAX airport so they could go back to England and then, we headed off to our next stop – Santa Fe – where we would be beginning the southern leg of the trip. Yet another one which we had been really looking forward to…