California Dreamin’…

There are times in life when you simply have to let yourself go to pure hedonism however clichéd a form it takes. And it doesn’t get more clichéd than a Mustang convertible.  So, having landed in LA we picked up ‘the beast’ for the drive north to San Francisco on the first stage of our California road trip.

Beauty and the Beast

We’ve been to the east coast many times but this was our first visit to the west. They say New York feels familiar to people on their first visit because of all the movies they’ve seen it in. Same goes for Los Angeles, as we drove out on Highway 101 we passed Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverley Hills, Mullholland Drive, Ventura Highway, Mussel Shoals, etc. All notable for lovers of music and movies.

It is possible to drive from LA to San Francisco in a single day. But what is the fun in that? We allocated four days so we could explore some of the towns along the way.

First stop was Santa Barbara. Low rise, high income and very beautiful. The city is right on the waterfront with superb palm strewn beaches either side of the aged Steamer’s Wharf. Returning to our hotel in the early evening we noticed a grungy small local bar. Just the place to meet some locals so in we went.  First thing that struck us was the incredible juke box…Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, was followed by Led Zeppellin’s Ramble On, then Scott Walker’s brilliant version of Jackie, then Bowie tracks from Black Star. Eclectic but perfect for us.

Steamer’s Wharf, Santa Barbara

After our traditional game of pool – John prevailing this time – we got chatting to a local couple. What a great juke box we noted, only to be told the lady we were talking to was playing the music from the songs on her mobile phone. Illegally they told us but the bar owner didn’t object. So started a lengthy session discussing music that gradually expanded to include the waitress and bar owner.

Feeling a little the worse for wear the next morning, we headed for the beautiful historic town of Cambria. En-route we passed through some small working towns where workers servicing the huge fruit and vegetable industry live (California supplies 50% of all US food).

We had to stop at one for lunch and that was Guadalupe. This was our first taste of authentic Mexican food – it was only a burrito though. Freshly made by two Mexican women who spoke very little English. Delicious except for the frighteningly hot pickled jalapeno that came with it. Let’s just say it should have had a health warning!

Cambria is the type of tourist trap town that you find in many places. A once prosperous place whose original reason for existing has long since vanished leaving the town to reorient itself around heritage tourism. In California, this often means old gold mining towns.

Cambria was pretty as expected and had a really great choice of restaurants reflecting it’s positioning as a destination for the middle aged well off traveller. Our accommodation was a very swanky mid 19th century residence known as the Rigdon House. Full of original features and artworks it was a welcome relief from the chain hotels we’d been staying in so far.

We’d opted to stay in Cambria because of its proximity to one of the oddest tourist attractions we’ve ever visited. The Hearst Castle is the former west coast home of the legendary newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst. Built between 1919-41 as a collaboration between Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan the ‘castle’ is a mash-up of Italian and Southern Spanish influences adorned with timber ceilings and furnishings from various European countries and periods in antiquity.

Hearst Castle front facade
Hearst Castle indoor pool

For example, the façade of the main building is based on the Santa Maria la Mayor church in Ronda in Andalucia. Hearst continued to add to and amend the structure for over 20 years as his whim took him. Taste and budget presenting no constraints to his ambitions.

Hearst was a legendary socialite and hosted movies stars (Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Harpo Marx, Greta Garbo, etc. etc.), politicians (Winston Churchill among them), and endless writers, musicians and political figures from whatever US administration was in power. By all accounts Hearst was conservative leading David Niven to observe in his autobiography that “Hearst’s wine flowed like glue”.

Bungalow where Winston Churchill stayed at Hearst Castle

Hearst’s estate was transferred to the state of California in 1954 and is now a National Park. It comprises a huge area of land with a long stretch of San Simeon coastline where large numbers of Elephant seals reside. Huge and quite dangerous, these largest of seals spend the long hot summer days trying very hard to bury themselves in the sand of the beach. The males seem to find it hard to resist testing themselves in regular jousting contests. Perhaps preparing themselves for the day they might take on the mighty bull who rules the colony.

San Simeon, California

The next obvious place to see after Hearst Castle is the wonderful Big Sur coastline. Having driven 25 miles along this famous stretch we found the road cut off by a landslide with road crews out clearing up the mess. Another major detour followed.

For lovers of landscape photography two American names stand like giants above all others. They are Edward Weston and his good friend Ansel Adams. Both lived and worked – in the latter parts of their lives – at the coastal town of Carmel. Of course, it is also famous as the home of Clint Eastwood who did a spell as the town’s mayor and is known to use his influence and money to stop the place being spoiled by developers. This was the first destination we put on our itinerary for California and we couldn’t wait to get there.

Carmel beach
Stunning sculptural tree on Carmel beach

Carmel is the kind of place where house prices start in the millions and head rapidly upwards. Every house is individually designed and the range of influences is extensive from Italian and Spanish villas, Mexican adobe, Modernist glass and steel, to seemingly Tolkien inspired quaint cottages.  Galleries, high end clothes shops and every conceivable type of eatery cater to the locals and tourists.

Our own little adventure here centred around the galleries and one very famous eatery owned by a certain tall movie star with a penchant for jazz.

Carmel is home two legendary photographic institutions.

One is the Weston Gallery founded by Maggie Weston (wife of Edward Weston’s son Cole) in 1975. It represents a roster of living and deceased photographer’s that reads like a who’s who of photography, e.g. Yousuf Karsh, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Irving Penn, Bill Brandt, Michael Kenna, etc. etc. Everyone they represent is A-list plus!


Noticing John’s slack jawed appearance before a wall of large scale Karsh portraits of world famous people like Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill, the gallery director Richard Gadd came out of his office and spent some time chatting about the quality of the prints and one image in particular that John wanted to know more about. This was a 1941 print of Moonrise Hernandez by Ansel Adams. They were selling it on behalf of the family of the collector the gallery sold it to in 1976. A cool $65,000 and it’s yours. If only!

The other great photographic institution is the Centre for Photographic Art (formerly known as Group f64 and The Friends of Photography). Group f64 was founded in late 1932 at the instigation of Willard Van Dyke (an apprentice of Edward Weston) and Ansel Adams to further a particular sharply focused aesthetic to counter the soft-focus painterly ‘pictorialist’ style then common. In 1967 it changed its name to Friends of Photography. We had a great guided tour of their current exhibition, Orlandia by Ted Orland (a former assistant to Ansel Adams), by volunteer David Clarkson (an accomplished street photographer himself). Needless to say, he and John were quickly engaged in conversation about street photography and sharing images.

That evening we had a reservation at what we’d been told was the best place in town for dinner. We’d even been told which was the best table by a regular we met on the road. Dinner at Clint Eastwood’s hotel and restaurant The Mission Ranch is as popular with the well healed locals as it is with visitors. We got the suggested table, had a wonderful dinner before walking home through a moonlit Carmel as contented as could be. No doubt the wine and brandy added a certain glow to the night.

Finally, we arrived in San Francisco only to find ourselves driving up Taylor Street to get to Fisherman’s Wharf to drop the hire car. Let’s just say those car chases in ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ don’t adequately convey the gradient of streets like Taylor. We literally could see only sky as we seemed to de driving almost vertically upwards. Where the road levelled off it took an act of faith to convince ourselves the front of the car would indeed stay on the tarmac and not launch us.

We had four days to explore SF and a pretty clear itinerary too.

First stop was SFMOMA to check out the Edward Munch exhibition and photo exhibits by well-known photographers Mike Mandell and his frequent collaborator Larry Sultan. All three shows were excellent with great supporting material providing insights into the creation of the works on show.

Of course, for anyone born in the 1960s a trip to Haight Ashbury – spiritual home of 1967’s Summer of Love – is a must. There were two big street music events in town that weekend close to Haight so excitement was high on the streets. Haight is as wacky and eccentric as expected. But almost everyone we met was in good spirits and John got a lot of photographs that day. Haight is gearing up for the 50th anniversary celebration in August 2017 so many places were already freshly painted for the event.

Busker in Haight Ashbury
San Francisco’s famous six ‘painted ladies’ perfectly preserved.

We spent a large part of the day at the annual Fillmore Jazz Festival. This 10-block celebration of jazz was essentially a wonderful sample of different styles of jazz and street food by local vendors. As you might expect, it was very chilled with much laughter and dancing in the streets.

Fillmore Jazz festival, San Francisco 2017
Fillmore Jazz Festival, San Francisco 2017.

A bonus while in San Francisco was the presence of some good friends from back home in Liverpool. Howard and Christine are pretty familiar with SF and offered to takes us on a tour of some of the outlying scenic spots such as Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes (where Karon and Howard spotted a whale basking). We owe those guys for a great day out.


As well as it’s famous cities SF and LA, California is famed for its national parks of course. No trip to California would be complete without visiting at least one of them. If it’s to be just one, then it has to be Yosemite National Park. Being pretty familiar with the classic landmarks of the park from our love of Ansel Adam’s photographs, the reality totally blew us away.

Yosemite Falls

It is impossible to put into words the sensation of standing before El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Valley Falls, Cathedral Rocks, Sentinel Rock, the Three Brothers (which we renamed the Three Relics – a private joke), and the awe inspiring elevated view from Glacier Point. All were immortalised by Adams in the 1930s-40s. Lunch in the legendary Awahnee hotel was just the icing on the cake (albeit a tad disappointing on the quality front).

A brooding Half Dome from Glacier Point.

California made a huge impression on us as we expected it would. We knew of its cultural heritage in music and cinema as well as its beauty through photography. We were ready to be impressed and hoped our expectations wouldn’t exceed reality. We needn’t have worried, California delivered big time.

Well after 13 countries in 192 consecutive days, 70 hotels, 31 flights, 16 buses, 14 trains, 13 boats, 6 car rentals and 42977 miles (69,161 km) we have circumnavigated the blue marble. Unfortunately, after six months on the road a few minor health issues have prompted us to hit the pause button so we can recharge before the next leg of our adventure.

We will be back on the road in 2018 as we visit the one continent to so far elude us – South America.

Thanks for reading Older Nomads so far… to be continued in 2018.

Bye for now,



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