I've always wanted to do a driving holiday in the US; hiring a convertible, cruising along Route 66, staying in the motels and hotels that line highway one, the whole nine yards as the Americans would say. So, having spent the first two weeks in May realising that dream it's only right that I blog about our adventure. It's a long read so if you want to jump straight to the photos I won't be offended (hell, I won't even know!), they're all on Flickr.
Armed with a Lonely Planet Guide to California, a laminated (for durability it said) road map, a strict timetable and a range of reservations at various hotels and motels we jumped on the Piccadilly line heading to Heathrow Terminal 3 and our passage to the US courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.
Starting in San Francisco we arrived at the Petit Auberge hotel on Bush Street tired and hungry but having gained eight hours it was now mid afternoon so I grabbed the camera and went out to explore and fight off the sleepiness while Kate succumbed to exhaustion and had a cat nap.
The streets of San Francisco are as steep and straight as the pictures I'd seen, great exercise and great for taking photos of. I was surprised by the number of vagrants enquiring about how much change I could spare but once I'd got my London tunnel vision mode on I was fine, there's only so much generosity to go around!
After wandering around, getting lost before finding my way back to the hotel it was time for complimentary hors d'oeuvres and wine before heading out in search of food. The hotel recommended a local French restaurant and seeing as we were both desperate for sleep by this point and it was only three blocks away we set off and dined on steak and pomme frites before calling it a night.
Still adjusting to the time difference we were up early the next day and decided to go for a walk as the sun came up. San Francisco is beautiful in the morning; no-one around, very little traffic and with the fog rolling in from the bay and bright sunshine making it quite a sight.
After breakfast we explored the Hayes and Haight districts, the highlights being the cavernous Amoeba Music warehouse and vintage clothes stores, the Buena Vista park for the panoramic views and the biggest Burrito I've ever seen that was tamed over lunch.
The following day we made our way to Pier 26 to board the ferry taking us to Alcatraz. The short cruise provided great views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the island itself. We broke with tradition and picked up the portable audio tour that took us around the prison explaining the rooms and corridors from a variety of ex-prison officers and inmates.
With our stay in San Francisco at an end it was time to collect the hire car and start our journey south. After queuing for about an hour we finally got the keys and I nervously got us out of the car park and into rush hour traffic. As we hadn't made it to the Golden Gate Bridge on foot we decided to drive over it. The views were incredible, I'm told. I was still getting used to American roads so there's wasn't much time for gawping.
Santa Cruz was our next stop, home of Mr. O'Neill the surfer and Santa Cruz skateboards. Staying in a Super 8 motel we were both surprised at how nice it was. No drug dealers next-door or dead bodies being taken into car boots. After unpacking we headed to the beach for a wander along the front and a well deserved drink near the pier. Forgetting the strict alcohol laws we both got asked for ID and stupidly hadn't brought any out with us but the staff still served us, I must be looking my age now as well as feeling it.
That evening we dined on pizza and pasta in central Santa Cruz after exploring the downtown area. By now we were eating about ten times our daily intake of food, American portion sizes are huge, so I was disciplined and had a vegetarian pizza. It was still huge but have you ever seen an obese vegan? Me neither.
The next morning we set off towards Monterey. With the coastal roads now quiet and picturesque it was time to get the top down and feel the wind in our hair. I was so glad we'd upgraded from an economy run-around to the convertible. The whole trip wouldn't have been the same crammed into a motorised bean can. Windswept but happy we stopped at a seafood restaurant for lunch were I enjoyed America's fifth best sandwich as rated by NBC. It was lobster if you're interested and I'd need to eat all the other sandwiches before deciding my own rating.
Back on the road we did a quick stop in Carmel. Essentially a mock-tudor old people's home by the sea. Quirky, clean and tidy but I reckon everyone's in bed by six and the last big scandal was when a racoon stole an apple from the grocery store.
Arriving in Monterey we struggled to find our motel seeing as we were looking for a tenth street and there were two on the map. We drove the full length of the first tenth street we found but no motel in sight. It was eventful only for a local rear-ending us whilst we were sat at a red light. Fortunately there was no damage done and being the Brit I am I even thanked the guy that crashed into us after we shook hands over it all. After asking for directions from another motel of the same chain we found our home for the night and settled in.
Up bright and early we continued south onto Big Sur, a beautiful coastal road, and took in all seventeen miles of the imaginatively titled seventeen mile drive. Unfortunately there'd been a landslide on Highway One so there was only so far we could go before heading back and driving around. At least it didn't happen whilst we were driving towards it.
San Luis Obispo
Reaching San Luis Obispo we stayed in the Madonna Inn. Famous for its themed rooms, each with its own name and unique decor. We stayed in the Chester Foal room that had an equine theme with a light fitting crafted from a carousel horse that I became obsessed with photographing.
That evening we ventured into town to a kind of street market/festival/fair that was bigger than some of the festivals I've been to in London and happens every week. There was live music, food stalls selling barbequed everything and the most amazing toffee apples I've ever had.
Santa Barbara was next up. Wine country. Famous for it's vineyards, micro-climates and being the setting for the film Sideways. Having pre-booked ourselves onto a wine tour we were collected from our motel that morning, introduced to our fellow wine tasters - politely dealing with questions of whether we'd attended the Royal wedding - and taken to the first of four wineries. I'd hoped to come away a wine expert but I still only know there a two types, red and white, and if you mix them you get Rose (right?) so don't ask us to recommend a bottle of anything Californian.
Having finished our journey south it was time to start heading East into Arizona and towards Grand Canyon territory. On the way we stopped off in Barstow and Needles famous for not being very famous although we did go to an impressive diner that served 'Monster Burgers' and I bought a 40oz beer from the petrol station that had to be wrapped in a brown paper bag because it's the law or so the cashier told me after I told him not to bother.
On our way to the Canyon we drove along Route 66 admiring the desert and endless road that seemed to disappear into the horizon stopping off for Slim Jim's and Cokes - in the classic glass bottles - at Roy's Motel.
Approaching the Grand Canyon the weather started to turn and it looked like it was going to rain until we got to the main entrance to be greeted by snow. Having seen nothing but blazing sunshine up until this point it was weird to now be sat in a convertible - top up fortunately - in shorts in the middle of a snow storm. We spent two nights in our little cabin on the south rim and managed to explore as much of the Canyon as we could get to on foot. The views were spectacular. It's like nothing I've seen before and my photos just don't do it justice, you have to see it with your own eyes to get a true feeling of scale.
With the Canyon disappearing behind us as we headed back down Highway Sixty-four it was full steam ahead to our final location, Vegas baby! We didn't stop for the Hoover Dam but we did drive over it which was much like driving on any road except there are tall concrete walls on each side so you can't see anything. Driving down Las Vegas Boulevard was nerve wracking with sixteen lanes of traffic to contend with as we looked for the turn for our last hotel, the MGM Grand.
After checking in we marveled at the mini TV that was built into our bathroom mirror before heading down to the pool for some R&R. The walk to the pool was a good fifteen minutes. Nothing in Vegas is small! After a drink and dip in the pool it was time for the gambling to start. We couldn't work out the laws of the craps tables and the minimum bets on black jack and roulette were too high for us low-rollers so we stuck to good old fruit machines. We probably won as much as we gambled but over the two nights we lost it all but I guess that's what Vegas is all about.
Wandering along the strip we visited Luxor, New York, New York, Excalibur, Serendipity 3, Paris Las Vegas and a grubby Irish casino doing $1 beers. At night it came alive as well as alight and the water fountain show at the Bellagio was pretty impressive even if it is more for the Mums than the lads and ladettes.
On our last day we searched out some more vintage clothes shops to kill time before dropping the car off at the airport and boarding our plane home. A trip of a lifetime, a dream come true and so many great memories and photos I'll never forget it.