California dreaming

So a year ago today, i returned from the land of the endless summer, a gleaming mirage of legendary beaches, tanned skin, white smiles and the horizon never far away.  Somewhere that I can’t recommend enough that any keen traveller or sun-hungry beachgoer, should visit at least once just to experience complete tranquility. This place is more commonly referred to as California, one of the most beautiful states of America I have been lucky enough to visit in my little life so far. So what happens when you put a small town girl from the occasionally sunny Weymouth roughly 5000 miles across the globe in a big city, with the only common denominator between the two being the beach?

California became the chosen destination for the infamous ‘gap yah’ travels, a decision that lived up to and exceeded my expectations. During the two months that my funds – and not my visa it turned out, allowed, I travelled from the flaming heart of the Arizonian Desert to the dizzy heights of the San Francisco hills, passing through eight different cities in eight weeks. Phoenix to California via no frills attached Greyhound bus, and Long Beach to San Fran detouring through Big Sur, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, San Jose and Santa Cruz. Who said Santa didn’t exist? These months were life changing, which is what travelling is meant to do, so I guess I did it right, and without setting out in search of it, I think I sampled my slice of the ‘American Dream’ as much as a 19 year old who didn’t know herself let alone the world could have hoped for. This is my beginners guide to the West Coast of America, consisting of some of the fondest memories and lessons that I learnt along the way.

I am going to retrace my story backwards, as whilst staring out of the window over a sun drenched London Town, or more accurately Harrow Halls of Residence this afternoon, I found myself thinking what I was doing this time last year? And coincidently through the magic of Facebook Timeline, I discovered that it was in fact my final day of travelling. So I will start from there, a day I fondly remember was spent led on East Beach in San Francisco, which runs directly underneath the Golden Gate Bridge on the east side, just behind from where I am standing in the photo. A backdrop so incredible that if was like a postcard had been placed right in front of our field of vision. After walking the obligatory length of the big red – over three miles there and back – I was foolish enough to justify a sleep on the beach in the blistering midday sunshine without reapplying sun-cream; I repeat, foolish, which left me with a luminous pink and painful sunburn whilst making the arduous return journey to the UK. The tell tale sign of the rookie mistake, is the burnt skin of a sloppy Brit who has overindulged in the sun!

San Francisco is the English Rose of America, la crème de la crème of California. Towards the top of the West Coast, it was definitely worth saving until last, as it was a perfect place to culminate the whole experience. If I would recommend one place from my list, it would probably be San Francisco. It offers so many things: multicultural communities, the buzz of the city but with the quaint Fisherman’s Wharf and fishing piers, suburban areas, secluded beaches and the bohemian shopping district in Upper Haight. Not forgetting the array of breathtaking sights and landmarks to see such as the famous eight-hairpin turn on Lombard Street, part of the San Francisco hills in District 8, which are a challenge at a practically vertical 27% grade, so don’t try and run up them, trust me! All in all, San Fran is true to itself, being both a run in to the past and the future, with its a nostalgic ambiance from the iconic manually operated Cable Car system, to the modern lifestyles and luxuries that a city offers.

My favourite place from my travels was the city of Santa Barbara, or “The American Riviera” due to its likeliness to Spain with its Spanish colonial architecture, and popular tourist and resort destination. Think red bricked roofs and white washed walls, streets lined palm trees as is custom in California, the Pacific Ocean to one side of you, and the magnificent backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains reaching high into the clear skies on the other. I think the reason I enjoyed Santa Barbara the most was because we stayed at a five star hotel for 70% off, a work of the gods, and so backpacking, cheap motels and fast food was replaced with what seemed like heaven for the week: maid services, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, mini bars, Wi-Fi and continental breakfast.

A beautifully beautiful city that feels like a beach town, with its world famous pier, neverending beach, with volleyball pitches, swings, beachhuts, bicycle hire, rollerblade hire, the way of life here is literally based around the beach, and the people reflect this calm. I was sat outside a Starbucks one afternoon, and a woman came and sat next to me and we had a conversation for about an hour as she genuinely wanted to talk to me, it was heart warming and faith restoring in humanity. Something that would never happen in the UK. It was here in Santa Monica that I had my first introduction to ‘thrifting’ i.e charity shopping but on a much larger scale, for a pittense, and not enough bag space/strength to carry it, so I found. The problem with travelling is that you have to travel light, and often you find yourselves throwing things out to make space for new things, so only take the bare neccessities, and “forget about your worries and your strife.”

The most populous city in California, the city of Angels didn’t actually make much of an impression on me. In the words on Jack Kerouac: “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities”, and after staying for three nights the longing for  the beach returned, so a one day stopover was made in Venich Beach in West Los Angeles on our way to Santa Monica. Venice is an ‘alternative’ small beach town, that gave me a real taste of backpacking culture at its best. Famous for inspiring and nurturing the Beat Generation of the 50’s, it is still an artistic enclave to this day, retaining an artistic, laid back small town feel. We stayed in the landmark Venice Beach Cotel hostel, and were warmly welcomed by fellow travellers who we stayed with long into the night, after gathering on the beach at sunset with the mass community to thank the sun for shining for the day as it dips beneath the horizon, a surreal experience to say the least.

I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in cheap motel rooms and even cheaper food, but waking up every morning and seeing the soft blue skies was so perfect and the adventure was so great that I regard it today like a remarkable dream I was lucky enough to live. Backpacking changes you, making you learn more about yourself and the world, and the small part that we play in it. I wouldn’t change the experience I had, only hope that one day I can return to the Golden State ☼


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