Driving north from San Luis Obispo on California State Route 1 will bring you to the Big Sur stretch of coastal road. An exhilarating driving experience that takes you along 90 miles of winding, cliff-hugging stretches of narrow road, where redwood groves stretch skywards and waves are beaten to froth on ragged rocks. It’s a place of elemental power that can make human affairs seem inconsequential.
Driving the entire stretch of Big Sur at a leisurely pace will take the best part of a day. Waiting for you at the end of Big Sur is Monterey Bay with the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium, located in a former sardine cannery that helped to define the character of Monterey from the time it was built in 1916, to the day when it was the last cannery on the row to close in 1973, after sardine fishing collapsed. Exhibits include the Kelp Forest, one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world at 28 feet. Sardine schools swim as one amongst leopard sharks, wolf-eels and a host of other fish, weaving through swaying fronds of kelp, just like they do in the wild. The Jellies Experience brings you up close and personal with dozens of different jellyfish species, illuminated to show off the tranquil grace and beauty of this fascinating species. Other species on display include giant yellow fin tuna, a variety of shark species, giant octopus, sea otters and numerous other native marine species. Monterey Bay Aquarium focuses much of its energy on their Seafood Watch program, proving information on the importance of sustainable fishing, and helping consumers make choices for healthy oceans by giving education on which seafood items are best choices, which are good alternatives and which ones should be avoided.
Further north from Monterey Bay is the seaside community of Santa Cruz, known for its moderate climate, the natural beauty of its coastline, redwood forests, alternative community lifestyles, and socially liberal attitude. It’s also home to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an oceanfront amusement park operating continuously since 1907. Any visit to the Beach Boardwalk wouldn’t be complete without a ride on The Giant Dipper, built in 1924 and the firth oldest roller coaster in the country. The trademark red and white wood coaster was recognised as a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and will prove an exhilarating ride for any diehard thrill seekers. Just be sure to ride prior to indulging in corn dogs, cotton candy and old-fashioned fountain soda!
Before heading further north we took a detour inland to the 761,268 acres of park land set aside by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, specifically for preservation and public use by action of the U.S. federal government, Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is the most visually stunning location I have ever been in the world and this is detriment to its magnificent beauty and untouched, untarnished natural landscape. Yosemite is home to spectacular granite cliffs, huge cascading waterfalls, crystal clear streams and rivers fed by glacier water, and ancient sequoia trees. Highlights included a day hike to the summit (2,800 feet) of Yosemite Falls that gave breath-taking views and vistas throughout. As well as clambering past giant, downed boulders to the beautifully clean water pool at the foot of the falls to swim and bathe under the crashing waters.
An afternoon at the Giant Sequoia Grove was rewarded with walks through towering ancient trees, reaching highs of 300 feet and diameters of 150 feet. These gentle giants have stood the test of time, many scarred black from wild fires, yet still reaching ages of 2,500 years and will no doubt happily live on for generations to come. The sheer volume of park to explore is overwhelming and on our four day visit we were only able to sample a small amount. I hope I’ll be able to return at some point in the near future to explore more of Yosemite’s park land.
Our final stop in the Central Coast region was the liberal city of San Francisco. Famous for Alcatraz Prison, the Golden Gate Bridge and it’s hippy, summer of love, movement during the 1960s in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. Not only is San Francisco a great city to leisurely ramble around but it is also home to fantastic food and restaurants, namely due to the amount of quality, fresh produce available in this area of the country.
San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, where you can fill up on peaking duck, soft steamed buns filled with barbecue charsui pork, hundreds of dim sum choices, and sweet Chinese bakery offerings like mooncake (pastry filled with sweet lotus seed paste) and wifecake (flaky pastry with winter melon paste centre), and all washed down with milky pearl tea.
San Francisco is also home to a large Vietnamese community. We made a trip to the unassuming Saigon Sandwich for a tasty lunch on the move. We tried both the roast pork and pork pate banh mi. Both were loaded into freshly baked, crusty rolls and dressed with mayonnaise, hot sauce, pickled carrots, cucumber and fresh coriander leaf. For three bucks a piece it’s hard to say a bad word about these generously sized sandwiches.
Another popular food orientated night that is celebrated around the city is “Taco Tuesdays”, and you will find numerous restaurants offering affordable taco deals, each and every Tuesday. Nick’s Crispy Tacos was not only on the same block as out hotel but it had huge amounts of praise from online bloggers. Tuesday’s see tacos drop to $2 (normally in the $4 region) and all proved to be delicious. Carne Asada (marinated and grilled steak), and Carnitas (braised shredded pork) were both served on house-made, yellow corn tortillas with zesty pico de gallo and creamy pinto beans. While Pescado (Baja style battered and deep-fried halibut) was served on flour tortillas with shredded cabbage and onions, tomato salsa, lime mayonnaise and fresh coriander. For an additional buck any taco can be served “Nick’s Way” with the addition of shredded jack cheese and a liberal smothering of guacamole, as well as one hard tortilla wrapped by one soft. Genius textures going on with these delightful tacos. Deals aren’t solely on food, pitchers of local brewed beer, Anchor Steam as well as tequila heavy margaritas are a steal!
Another destination for hungry explorers is the Ferry Building Marketplace located along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, just north of the historical Fisherman’s Wharf district. Ferry Building Marketplace has shops large and small celebrating local producers and product. Not only this but three times a week the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry Building is taken over by the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market selling a range of fresh farm products, and artisan foods. On our visit we headed to Cowgirl Creamery, a European style cheese shop offering Cowgirl Creamery’s own cheeses and artisan farmstead cheese from some of the most distinguished cheese makers in America and Europe, including London’s very own Neal’s Yard.
Now I’ll be frank, most American cheese found in supermarkets is utter bollocks; plastic, tasteless blocks of processed, neon orange wax. Disgusting. Other than melting atop a juicy burger this form of “cheese” has little use in the kitchen. So for two British cheese lovers the discovery of an artisan cheese monger was exciting. After sampling many local cheeses, we were not only convinced America could produce cheese, but that the cheese being produced is excellent. We decided to purchase generous lump of Oma, produced by Von Trapp Farmstead in Vermont (which balances slightly pungent and sweet flavours, and the semi-soft buttery cheese is surrounded by an earthy rind that is thin and mild) and Siltcoos, produced by Rivers Edge Chevre in Oregon (an ash-coated round-topped with a swirl of fern frond. The interior has the consistency of cream, and is full flavoured, but with no ammonia aroma). We paired our cheese selections with fresh baked sour dough baguettes from next door Acme Bread Company.
When not filling our faces with cheese we enjoyed strolling the Embarcadero, past the various piers filled with shops and restaurants, while enjoying excellent views of Alcatraz. At the foot of Pier 45 you will also find the unique Musée Mécanique, home to one of the world’s largest collection of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines, in their original working condition. Better yet you can play them all, with most of the machines costing a quarter or less. Musée Mécanique will take you on a journey from turn of the century hand cranked music boxes, peep shows and fortune tellers to modern video arcade games. An enjoyable experience for all ages.