The Best of the West Coast: Things to do in California

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The Glories of Deserts, Cities, Wineries, Trees, the Ocean, and Mountains

In the first installment, we spoke about being extemporaneous—balancing planned stops with spur-of-the-moment diversions.  We ended up in San Francisco but we’ll continue with a quick discussion of the trip by car getting to San Francisco.

The Ocean

Driving south means that you are right on the ocean.  There are many state parks that you can stop at to watch the seals and other sea creatures.  Tide pools left over from high tide are full of activity.  State parks along the coast have short, easy hikes that stretch your legs.  You could take a day to travel from Washington State to San Francisco but we recommend staying overnight near Redwoods National Park about six hours from San Francisco.

The big difference between redwood trees and sequoia trees is that redwoods are taller and slimmer.  This difference is insignificant to travelers; both trees are tall and massive.  By stopping in Redwood National park, you avoid the need to go to the state park south of San Francisco or to Sequoia National Park which is really too far out of the way.

Editor’s Note: I took a great Muir Woods day trip in 2016 that was amazing.

San Francisco

This city is a jewel on the ocean.  It’s very easy to get carried away and assume that you need several days here.  Unlike New York which really does require a lengthy stay, two days is plenty for you to get a deep appreciation of San Francisco.

One big mistake travelers make is to spend time in Napa Valley, north of San Francisco.  There are plenty of wineries all over California so if you’re headed south toward San Fran, you should pass up on Napa Valley.

Editor’s Note: I went wine tasting in San Diego and San Luis Obispo and had a great time without the crowds.

You can’t do everything, which is why we also recommend skipping Los Angeles!  This goes back to our advice from the previous article regarding casinos.  We said that you shouldn’t waste precious time at a land-based US casino; online casinos for Aussies are just fine if you want a bit of a diversion late at night.

Here is the short list of highlights everyone should see or do in San Francisco:

  • Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge: The bridge is about three kilometers long.  From the bridge you get a great view to the east and of Alcatraz.  If you go on a foggy day, you’ll have a great experience starting out in dense fog and then watching the fog slowly lift.
  • Alcatraz:  This was the prison that no one could escape from and it’s located right there in San Francisco Bay, practically a neighbor to the city.
  • Fisherman’s Wharf:  This attraction has gone over almost entirely to tourism but there are still many less commercial gems here such as the seals and the sidewalk entertainers.  Fresh sourdough bread can be a meal in itself.
  • Explore North Beach: The old Italian neighborhood and Chinatown.   Many websites extoll the top restaurants in San Francisco.  We find them a bit too pretentious for our taste and we feel that Aussies are too down-to-Earth to get all excited about overpriced “great restaurants”.  Local restaurants in these two neighborhoods will likely have great food and colorful, local ambiance.

Here are a few things that everyone “is supposed “ to do that we say are a waste of time:

  • Cable Cars:  They are fun to watch for a few minutes but then we would want to be on our way.
  • Baseball:  Minor league baseball is much more interesting so don’t waste your time or money on big league baseball, which is very expensive.
  • Lombard Street.: Never ever take your car on this winding street.  We didn’t bother walking down the street either but if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s okay to take a few minutes to walk down and then be on your way.

Editor’s Note: Looking for some San Francisco inspiration? I have a great San Francisco bucket list to get you daydreaming.

Beyond San Francisco

Now you have to decide if you’re going to continue south or leave the coast and head east into the massive Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Going south will take you to Monterrey, Gilroy, and the Hearst Castle.

Gilroy is known as the Garlic Capital of the World.   They are proud of their garlic and have a festival in July every year.  At the right time of the year, you can step out of your car and take in the undeniable fragrance of garlic in the air!

Monterrey has a great aquarium, and the Hearst Castle, four hours south of San Francisco, offers tours of the pompous and luxurious home of an American newspaper tycoon of days long gone.

Editor’s Note: I visited Monterrey in 2012 and found it to be absolutely charming.

Going east takes you into the delta region, the Jelly Belly factory, Yosemite National Park, and Crater Lake.

Editor’s Note: Just watch out for bears in Yosemite National Park. You can read all about the time I ran into a bear in Yosemite.

We chose to go south but many people choose to go east.  In any case, you’ll end up in Las Vegas eventually.

After your tour of the Hearst Castle, you’ll want to head east from San Luis Obispo.  On this route to the mountains are many wineries all of which are run by knowledgeable vintners who produce excellent wine.

Los Angeles

At this point, we have to explain why we so emphatically advise against heading south toward Los Angeles.  Simply stated, Los Angeles is too far away with too little to offer.  They have famous beaches but you’ve already seen and walked along many not famous beaches.  They have very expensive homes; we think Aussies can easily bypass a walk around a heavily-guarded neighborhood of expensive homes.  They have Disneyland which is a great place to visit.  We simply say that the national parks to the east are more interesting and a lot less expensive.

Editor’s Note: If you must visit Los Angeles, try to pack as much into as small an amount of time as possible. I’d suggest doing an LA day tour to get it out of your system.

Las Vegas

After visiting a couple of wineries head towards Las Vegas.  Find cheap accommodations; they are just as good as the over-priced rooms in many Vegas hotels.

We suggest never sitting down to gamble in Vegas.  There are so many interesting attractions both in the city and in the environs that we suggest using Vegas as an inexpensive stepping off place.

Next time, we’ll leave Vegas for three great national parks!

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Have you ever traveled through California?

What were your highlights and lowlights?

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