I have been wanting to re-visit the USA after a brief visit to Los Angeles about 9 years ago. It was time to see what California had to offer especially after hearing how diverse the scenery was.
An easy stroll through Auckland International Airport customs and security (using the Smart Gate) made for a good start. I could not believe my luck in finding possibly the best muffin I have ever tasted, airside Auckland Airport – unfortunately not a very convenient location for future reference.
I was looking forward to flying on one of Air New Zealand's 777-200’s to San Francisco. I have not flown with them for a number of years and was keen to see if they had made any changes and improvements. They had certainly made improvements on their seat back entertainment system offering a wide selection of options. Being able to order snacks and drinks from your screen is a great idea.
On arrival into San Francisco I was pleasantly surprised with the ease of entering the USA. I was loaded with USD1.00 notes ready to tip. I knew with my Scottish heritage, I was going to struggle with this!
After easily finding my transfer, a 20 minute drive from the airport took me to the San Francisco Marriott Marquis Hotel where I will join the Globus tour of California. It is a nice, very large, modern hotel only two blocks away from Union Square, a very good location. The rooms, like most in the USA, are quite spacious and comfortable and the hotel has all of the facilities you would expect a good 4 star property to have. I strongly suggest pre-booking your transfers before you depart. After a long haul flight finding your own way to your accommodations in unfamiliar surroundings is not much fun and even worse when you are tired.
First rule of thumb on arrival is not to go to sleep. To be fair I was feeling pretty second hand but after a quick hose down I set off to explore San Francisco. Being so close to the shopping of Union Square you can easily take in the vibe and sights of the city centre by foot. There is a variety of shopping options to cater for most budgets and a comfortable 10 minute walk from Union Square will take you to China Town (editor's note ... Paul does run ultra marathons!).
I was due to meet the tour director and travel companions at 6pm back at the hotel. However, in the search for something new I found myself stuck in traffic near Fisherman’s Wharf on top of the hop-on-off bus. From what I heard I didn’t miss anything and I made the right choice! The Hop-on-off bus is a fantastic way to get your bearings and learn a little about the area. These are run in most cities and San Francisco offer four different options from USD25-45. I suggest booking in advance, in conjunction with a ticket to Alcatraz, one of the unique sights that makes San Francisco one of the worlds most visited cities.
Day 2 began with Globus taking us on a pretty comprehensive tour of San Francisco which included Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito. The fog that roles into San Francisco can really affect sightseeing, in particular the Golden Gate Bridge. Fog will more likely occur during August, October is the best time to avoid the fog.
Sausalito is a great little spot on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge which has a really good holiday vibe offering a variety of shops, cafes and restaurants. A really popular activity is to bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, have some lunch and make your way back to Fisherman’s Wharf by ferry - easy, cheap, fun and a great way to see the sights at your pace. From Sausalito we had the choice of staying with the tour guide or exploring and making our own way back to the next meeting place for dinner, perfect opportunity to see and do my own thing.
After having a good look around Sausalito I made my way back to Fisherman’s Wharf for a scout around. It was unusually hot for this time of year and there were crowds of people drawn in by the ‘Blue Angels’ Air Show and public holiday weekend. It did not take long before I needed to get away from the mayhem and was a shame because this area would had been a great spot to spend some time wondering around the many shops and soaking up the carnival atmosphere. This would also be a great place to stay. Shops, entertainment, cafes and restaurants are stretched from Pier 33 to the Aquatic Park. You have easy access to shopping at Union Square using the cablecar or iconic trams.
The next day we began our first ‘travel’ day on the Globus coach departing San Francisco on a beautiful sunny morning heading towards, what I expected to be the highlight of the trip for me, South Lake Tahoe. As a young boy I would read ski magazines on this region and always dreamed of visiting Lake Tahoe in winter, a childhood dream was becoming reality even though it was autumn.
After two hours on the road we called into the capital of California, Sacramento for a break. They have bragging rights to the best and largest railway museum in the USA. It is housed in the most interesting part of the city ‘Old Town Sacramento’. Sacramento is quite tired and needs a makeover, not really worth staying unless you have a reason. If you do I suggest checking out 'Old Town Sacramento' which has a number of blocks reliving the gold rush years, quite interesting for a couple of hours including the railway museum.
Leaving Sacramento we climbed to over 6000 feet reaching South Lake Tahoe 2.5 hours later.
This is a beautiful place, an amazing adventure playground with 12 ski resorts surrounding the crystal clear lake and a variety of adrenaline fuelled activities that me would even keep me occupied. South Lake Tahoe is a lot smaller and quieter than Lake Tahoe City. It compares to Wanaka although the scenery in Wanaka is more dramatic, Lake Tahoe is in the mountains so the peaks do not appear as high or rugged.
After checking into the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel I was off exploring this outdoor mecca. Globus again selected very well. This was a nice property, in a great location and able to walk everywhere. With South Lake Tahoe being on the California/Nevada boarder you will find two Casinos on the Nevada side of town. South Lake Tahoe is also home to the very popular Heavenly Ski Resort (the main Gondola starts from the middle of town). The resort caters well for all skiing abilities. There is of course a wide range of accommodation options to choose from and it has everything you would expect a world class resort to have. I would definitely recommend South Lake Tahoe for a winter or summer holiday destination.
The next day we travelled through a mountain pass with stunning scenery before dropping down to 4000 feet. Here the scenery changed to resemble central Otago and Lewis Pass until we reached Lee Vining where we turned towards the Yosemite National Park. We started climbing again and enjoyed the drive through the park on highway 120. My eyes were glued to the stunning scenery – initially all I could think about was how amazing it would be to walk, run or bike through it and really get immersed in it.
We made our way to the most popular part of the park ‘the valley floor’ where you will find Yosemite Village, catering for those wanting to stay and explore for a few days. If you would like to stay in a quieter location than the village I suggest the Yosemite Lodge but accommodation inside the park is very expensive because it is limited. They will not be adding more properties limiting development to protect the park. The standard of accommodation is also pretty average so do not expect too much, the stunning environment will soon make you forget.
From the village you have easy access to explore the main sites of the park and marvel at the massive granite cliffs of ‘Half Dome’ and ‘El Capitan’.At El Capitan it is very likely you will witness climbers tackling vertical cliff faces, some spending the night on the cliff face suspended in a hammock. If you are into climbing then this is where you need to be!
Depending on how active you are I would suggest spending at least two nights in the village area to allow a chance to immerse yourself in the environment and explore. Yosemite was definitely the highlight of the trip.
We ended up staying on the edge of the Yosemite National Park because of the cost of accommodation in the village and also because we need an early and easy exit back to the coast.
Leaving the stunning scenery of the National Park we dropped in altitude and the scenery changes to pretty flat country that was not very exciting until we got to Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf on the coast. Great little spot which is worth a look for lunch, great atmosphere, shops and eateries. If you love marine life then a visit to the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must.
We set off to Pebbles Beach which is an exclusive community for the rich and famous, for a tour and the chance to visit the enviable Pebbles Beach Golf links where they charge $500.00 for a round of golf. We had a brief visit to Carmel and thankfully it was brief, not much here but a large selection of upmarket shops.
What really draws people to this region is the famous and stunning ‘17 Mile Drive’ which follows the coastline from Monterey to San Simeon. This would be a fantastic self-drive option and suggest at least two nights working your way down the coast so that you can explore this beautiful coastline at a leisurely pace. Try to avoid this region during July and August because this is when fog is more prevalent, the best time to visit is October. If you get the chance be sure to call into the Big Sur State Park and Hearst Castle, the opulent mansion of wealthy newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, housing antiques, art treasures and exotic possessions purchased at an estimated $50 million. There are also a number of tracks that run off the road side heading toward the beach and inland that are begging to be explored.
As we get closer to Los Angeles we had a chance for a glance at Solvang, where a likeness of Denmark has been created with picturesque buildings and windmills. We drove through beautiful Santa Barbara, Spanish influence apparent in quaint whitewashed buildings, heading to an impressive 200 year old Mission for a tour.
We eventually arrived in Los Angeles after combing the incredible 20 mile coastline of Malibu and I was a little apprehensive. The last time I visited LA was nine years ago and I was eager to see if it was going to draw me in…well, it did somewhat. This was not a theme park overload but more of an ‘overview’ of Los Angeles which always includes The Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where you will find movie stars names on the foot paths and a large number of tacky shops – you will only do it once but might as well tick it off the list.
If you love art then I suggest you spend at least two hours visiting Getty Museum housing a collection of western art from the middle ages to present. This is an incredible complex surrounded by beautiful gardens to stroll through and cafes for a Tim Tam.
For something a little different and not well known is the Farmers Market at the Grove where locals shop amongst a large variety of stalls, shops and a wonderful atmosphere.
L.A is quite unique in terms of its layout, the CBD is not where you want to stay unless you had a reason and different experiences can be found in different parts of the city.
It is really important to know that Globus do a fantastic job of looking after their guests and the tours represents excellent value for money and the best way to maximise your time, money and in many cases experiences. Their knowledgeable tour guides will help enrich your holiday experience by ensuring that you are well informed with everything you need to know from where is the closest ATM machine is to the complexities of how granite cliffs ‘Half Dome’ and ‘El Capitan’ came to be. Everything they say they will do in their brochures they do. I would certainly recommend them and I look forward to travelling with them in the future.