On the West Side

Kicking off an epic road-trip across California

Last month I was fortunate to cross the pond on a fortnight log road-trip across California, with my younger brother Nishay.

Our trip would begin from one of the USA’s most iconic cities, San Francisco, where we would then head eastwards towards the wilderness of Yosemite National Park. A long desert drive would send us into the fiery warmth of Death Valley, followed by a long drive south towards San Diego near the Mexican border. The second half of the trip would see us head northbound to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur, before catching our flight back home.

It was an epic, intense itinerary which took considerable planning but would lead us on an adventure unlike any other.


San Francisco 

The trip commenced with a 10-hour day flight with Virgin Atlantic.  I was recovering from a stomach bug and was feeling quite weak over the weekend of the flight, so was a bit grumpy as we arrived at Heathrow. On a positive note, the fight exceeded all expectations for an economy-class seat. I’m constantly impressed by the feat of engineering that is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Flying has become so much more pleasant and comfortable in the past two decades, no matter how much leg room the airlines try and pinch from us!

All aboard!

The flight arrived an hour early into San Francisco. After an Uber ride into town, we arrived at our hotel just off Union Square and were fast asleep by 9PM. We were greeted with cool, cloudless weather in the city (in substantial contrast to weather at home!)

Arriving at the bustling Union Square

It was an early morning start the next day as we hopped across town via SF’s renowned cable car system. There are only two lines operating using the original underground pulley system but between them, they cover the key sights in downtown. There’s also an excellent Cable Car Museum we visited which is actually the terminus and power house for the system.

It’s a little pricey for a one-way ticket ($7) which is why I imagine it’s used mainly by tourists, but it’s authentic with no electricity in sight; a grip-man starts and stops the car by mustering all his strength to force a grip onto the moving cable. Meanwhile the conductor rings the bell that echoes across nearby streets and collects payments for passengers who often hang out of the car (not just for thrills though, space is rather limited on-board).

The pulleys in action at the Cable Car museum

Nishay admiring the cable car operation

Stepping off at Lombard Street

Only a 10-minute ride and we stepped off at the top of Lombard Street, famously referred to as the ‘crookedest street in the world’ and for seemingly no reason other than to slow cars to a crawl, greenify the local area and draw in foreign tourists.

Good luck getting through there buddy.

We walked through one of SF’s many upmarket residential estates down to Fisherman’s Wharf, a popular waterfront neighbourhood featuring plenty of bars and cafes. The highlight here was standing at the sea-lion infested Pier 39, which was quite a comical experience. Many of the sea lions were basking peacefully in the sun on the deck, while the minority were kicking up a fuss trying to eke out their own personal space – often trying to resolve the situation with pushing, shoving and grunting!

Fisherman’s Wharf

Oh, what I’d do to be a sea lion..

After a quick brunch (the first of many avocado-on-toast meals), we popped across to another nearby pier to take a 90-minute ferry along the bay to the famous Golden Gate bridge. The other attraction in the bay is Alcatraz island, a famous historic prison island a couple of miles out to sea – but it was sold out for a fortnight, so instead we viewed it from afar on the boat. The weather was perfect as we sailed along the bay, and while perched on the deck I managed to strike up conversation with some folks in a tour group from Manchester.

On-board the ferry

Next, we headed over to the Golden Gate park, a huge expanse of nature nestled in a city suburb. The park itself is rectangular and in fact larger than New York’s Central park, featuring a number of museums, botanical garden, sports facilities and pristine woodland. Traversing the giant park by foot was a time-consuming effort, so we hired bikes for the remainder of the afternoon to help us get around. Realistically the park deserved much longer to appreciate than the few hours we were there, as there’s plenty to see and do.

The Japanese Tea Garden at the Golden Gate Park

Daylight was fading as we jumped in the back of another Uber taxi to Baker Beach. The beach is a great viewing point for the Golden Gate bridge, and happily it wasn’t crowded either. In attempt to get a better shot of the bridge, we attempted a short but steep hike across a cliff at the north end of the beach, which definitely wasn’t worth the obscured view at the end. In hindsight, we spent far too much time being typical tourists and photographing the bridge, which although beautiful is still – well – only a bridge! Bizarrely as we posed for pictures beside the shore, we were accompanied by a rather strange pair of men running and exercising completely naked along the beach. Anything goes in California!

Baker’s Beach

It had been a long and tiring day. Just after a beautifully clear sunset on the beach our stomachs were demanding attention (especially Nishay’s). My trusty Happy Cow app didn’t show any veggie restaurants in the vicinity, but eventually we made it to a vegan burger fast food restaurant which merely satisfied our stomachs, but nothing more.

Into the Valley 

A productive first day on our trip meant we could afford to venture further afield on the second. We didn’t have an exhaustive plan but decided on visiting Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley and ‘swanning around’ from there, as Nishay put it.

First, we headed to a Verizon store to pick up some local SIM cards for our phones, which ended up being rather expensive ($75 for 2 SIMs with 4GB data, unlimited calls/texts). The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) was just a short walk for the store and would whisk us to Millbrae, a city near the airport further south, where we would connect for another regional train to Palo Alto. Both the BART and regional trains look a bit dated inside and out (this is the USA, the land of the car after all) but regardless they were speedy and on-time which is all we cared about.

An afternoon walk around Stanford University felt reminiscent of a stroll around a sleepy European village. The impeccably kept lawns and glistening red bricked buildings made the whole place feel more like a museum than a world-class educational facility. The campus was mostly deserted – probably because it was the Easter holidays – but we still managed to sneak into the Computer Science and Engineering departments. Although there wasn’t anything too exciting to see inside, I spotted a few wacky scientists undoubtedly conjuring up the next ‘big thing’!

Stanford University. Maybe in my next lifetime I’ll have the brains to study here

We left the university and headed back towards the Google campus headquarters in Mountain View. Along the way we admired the huge, well-kept mansions in Palo Alto undoubtedly owned by wealthy Silicon Valley executives (once upon a time, Steve Jobs was once a resident here too).

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I dragged Nishay along to the Google headquarters, assuming we could poke around the offices or pamper ourselves with the famous corporate facilities. The reality was the complete opposite. Instead of a warm welcome at the visitor’s centre (which wasn’t for random people off the street, as I had previously thought), there was merely a gift shop and a playground to amuse the disappointed tourists who could otherwise only roam around the most unremarkable offices in the area. I bought myself a mug from the gift shop, which was apt given the lack of planning on my part.

Literally the only thing to see at the Google Campus in Mountain View

The train and BART services don’t connect all cities in the Bay Area, so despite the chaotic evening rush hour we took an Uber back into town, towards the majestic San Francisco City Hall. We grabbed dinner at Golden Era, an Asian vegan cafe, were we ate a delicious vegetable noodle dish with a large side of rice-wrapped avocado spring rolls. The portion sizes here are typical American (i.e. large) but more than happy to recommend for the price point.

City Hall

We ended the night with a quick drink at Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio, a nearby jazz bar. The music was great, although that night it was just an amateur group of friends playing so we didn’t stay too long. I’m sure on a weekend night some of the more famous groups come here to entertain the crowd.

Enjoying some relaxing jazz at Mr Tipple’s Recording Studio

Greeting the stallion 

There were two surprising observations in San Francisco. Firstly, the diversity in the city is remarkable. Just sitting in a restaurant and watching the people walk past, most people appeared to be from east Asian, Mexican and Hawaian descent. The Chinatown in SF seems the most authentic I’ve come across – noisy, smelly and excitable atmosphere with plenty of short elderly ladies excitably scurrying around between the supermarkets and restaurants. I had plenty of flashbacks to my time in Beijing.

Let’s be honest, it’s not Chinatown without a Live Fish truck.

The second observation was how many homeless people I came across in the city. For a region that’s brought fortune to countless millionaires and billionaires, it’s depressing to see first-hand the inequality. Army veterans, disabled and the mentally ill deserve much better than sleeping on the streets and eating out of bins.

SF’s unique, hilly geography means that it isn’t overly pedestrian friendly. Walking can be a sweaty exercise even in the city’s pleasant and cool climate. The cable car system, and all public transport for that matter, is quite a necessity in SF, although it’s often far more convenient to get around with a car. But without our own car (yet), getting around with Uber Pool was the best compromise between cost and time.

We headed back to San Francisco airport to pick up our Ford Mustang convertible that would accompany us on the remainder of our trip. If I’m honest neither myself or Nishay were hopeful that we would receive the car we had booked given the fantastic deal we had secured, but we were in luck (save for an hour long feisty standoff with the agent who refused to permit Nishay to drive as an underage driver, which we eventually resolved amicably). There was no mistaking the grins on our faces as we collected the keys to an iconic American car and saw the beast sitting idle in the parking lot.

The stallion awaits

With the push of the start/stop button, and a tug of the roof retraction lever, our road trip had commenced.


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