A Driving Tour Through California

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A visit to the Golden Gate Bridge is a must for any trip to San Francisco.

Having been born and raised in California I am naturally prejudiced regarding the many sights and experiences found in the state. It extends some 900 miles up the Pacific Coast from the border of Mexico and the topography is varied. From the warm southland to the mild central coast on up to the Oregon border. The state claims three large cities, vast colorful mountainous areas and a coastline that is famous for its rugged beauty, great beaches and interesting towns.

California wines continue to take prizes all over the world and the grape growing areas become more interesting by the day. There are famous resorts throughout the state and a vacation here can be as varied as you wish. It caters to all tastes. Camping, fishing, a resort stay – they are all yours from which to choose.

What I will outline is a suggestion of some of the more interesting sights to be found in California.

If you want to save a long drive, fly to San Francisco, rent a car and move south from the Bay area. You’ll end up in San Diego and then you can drop off your car and fly home from there. The drive through the desert in summer is not pleasant.

Begin in San Francisco

So, however you arrive, San Francisco is a good place to begin. I suggest staying in a downtown hotel here to be in the heart of your sightseeing. You will want to include Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. The old Ferry Building is interesting for shopping and also for some good food.

Travel over the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and head north to the picturesque Sonoma Valley, home to some of the world’s finest vineyards. Take a winery tour, including a wine tasting, and you may wish to book passage on the famous Wine Train through the vineyards of Napa Valley. The 36-mile excursion through the lush valleys ends in the quaint village of St. Helena and dining in a restored 1917 Pullman Dining Car is memorable. The train trip takes about three hours and you’ll enjoy every minute.

See Gold Country and Yosemite

Then, travel on to Gold Country en route to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park. If you can plan in advance, make reservations to stay two nights in The Ahwahnee Lodge in the heart of the park. Some times you have to book a year in advance, but there are always cancellations, which you may be lucky enough to grab. Take time here to explore the magnificent waterfalls to spectacular glacier-hewn gorges and granite walls. The park contains five of the seven life zones found in North America. You will want to take walks from the lodge to simply enjoy nature. Yosemite is everything you want in a National Park.

From here, drive through the farmland of the San Joaquin Valley known to many as the “Salad Bowl of America”. Stop at Merced for lunch, then move on to fashionable Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here is a good place to stay for the night to enjoy the quaintness of the town and its riches. Movie stars live here and you will want to also.

Monterey is a must

The next day move on to nearby Monterey on the coast. Two nights here is recommended so as to enjoy the area and its points of interest, which include the well known aquarium. The exhibits here include sea life from California shores and more. You’ll want to drive the Monterey Bay Peninsula, an enclave of impressive homes and lovely beaches. Then take the famous “17-mile drive” through Del Monte Forest to Cypress Point and the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course. While in Monterey plan to have dinner at the acclaimed Fresh Cream Restaurant overlooking Monterey Harbor, voted by Condé Nast Traveler as one of America’s 100 best restaurants.

Head south

One of the most beautiful drives in the nation is scenic Pacific Coast Highway 1 – it passes the ruggedly beautiful coastline of Big Sur and weaves its way southward.

Be sure to plan a stop at famed Hearst Castle at San Simeon. The publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s grandiose estate is well worth the time it takes to do at least two tours walking through the many rooms, gardens and viewing the beautiful swimming pools. This should be considered a do not miss!

Mr. Hearst referred to this residence as “The Ranch” and contains 165 rooms in the Spanish-Moorish mansion. I lived in California many years before finally visiting the castle and regretted having not visited earlier in life after the first visit. I have since seen the castle several times enjoying each visit. There is so much to see.

Next travel on to Santa Barbara, a real jewel on the Pacific Coast. I recently re-visited the city and with each stay I discover new and fascinating locations. It is backed by the high Santa Ynez Mountains and reminds me of a Mediterranean city with its architecture. I suggest walking State Street downtown to get a real feel of this special town with its high-end stores and fascinating boutiques. Stay at a hotel on the waterfront to really enjoy the area and take in the pier with its two fine restaurants. I recommend Moby Dicks for seafood and perfect views of the ocean and harbor while you dine. You might even wish to take the water taxi from the pier to get a feel of the harbor for a rather inexpensive price.

Los Angeles as you like it

The Los Angeles area is only 90-miles south of Santa Barbara and in this mega city there is something for every taste. People often ask me where to stay while there and I tell them it depends on what you want see and do.

If this is your first visit, then perhaps a hotel stay in Santa Monica would suit you. It is located on the ocean, and cooler in the summer. The town is interesting in itself and provides some fine dining choices. Freeways can take you to all the locations you wish to visit from here. Hollywood is interesting with its famed movie and TV studios and theatres. Be sure to visit Beverly Hills for shopping on Rodeo Drive and to see the homes of movie stars nearby. You can get a map of the stars homes while you are in Hollywood.

Another must see is the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, which features an extensive collection of pre 20th century European art and sculpture, Greek and Roman antiquities, decorative arts and photographs by many of the world’s famous artists.

Before leaving home you can research your interests available in the Los Angeles online and get directions to those locations you wish to visit.

Amazing San Diego is 100 miles south of here. Driving south from Los Angeles you may choose to stop at Disneyland for a few hours before journeying down the Pacific Coast through Del Mar, Encinitas and Cardiff By-the-Sea to San Diego.

Again, I suggest staying in or near the downtown section of San Diego. There are many fine hotels and motels in which to spend the nights with a selection of rates. Here is a place to shoot the moon with your budget and select a hotel with an ocean and harbor view. You won’t regret it.

San Diego offers great dining opportunities along with the world’s largest zoo at Balboa Park. Also at the park are several museums of interest, along with a model train exhibit. Be sure to visit “old downtown” arriving early in the evening for a walk through the several streets of interest and select a restaurant that interests you. There is also a fine outdoor mall nearby and a good selection of theatres.

Just north along the coast is La Jolla. It’s a short drive here to visit this famous village and have lunch or dinner. I lived here for five years in the 1990s and enjoyed every minute of this special place.

Along the waterfront of San Diego you will find a paddle wheel maritime museum and several harbor sightseeing boat companies with which you may sail the vast protected bay with a narrated description of the Navy installations. If you are into beach action, this is the place. Mission or Pacific beaches are recommended. And be sure to drive over to Coronado Island. This is an interesting place with beautiful homes and several fine hotels. The beaches are also very good here.

Caution, stay away from the border area – it’s not safe anymore.

After three days in San Diego you can fly or drive home. You will have had a wonderful, enjoyable vacation in California.

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