Loads of people, no petrol stations, no motel vacancies and a cloud called Fred - exploring the Pacific Coast on Labour Day
02.09.2011 - 03.09.2011 22 °C
One of the drawbacks of leaving the Hearst Castle was the return to the coastal highway. Not a drawback in itself, considering the natural beauty of the area we were about to grace with our presence. However, descending to a lower altitude by the sea meant we got engulfed by the, now familiar, gray cloud. For the purpose of this blog (and to save on word count) lets call him ‘Fred’. Having said that, still giddy from discovering the delicious Hearst beef sandwich, we didn’t actually mind that much. Our destination was Monterey and we could tell by the look into our written annals there were a few distractions to tempt us along the way.
Soon we came to a halt when we spotted a sign pointing towards an Elephant Seal colony. Always happy to observe the local wildlife, we pulled off the main road and immediately got hit by a stench coming from the sea of mammals lounging nearby. Walking in the direction of the smell, after a couple of hundred meters we reached a view point overlooking a white sand beach full of these giants. Even though courtesy of Fred, the beach actually looked gray. An information board enlightened us that whilst we missed the mating, the calving and even the migration season, we were just in time to witness the molting season. Lucky us! Still, it was great seeing them up-close and with a little help from my tele-lens, we could make out the huge noses and scarred macho chests so characteristic for elephant seals. A couple of the stronger males took care of entertainment when they started fighting, although given their size and clumsiness out of the water, it looked like they were trying to support each other from falling down. Still, good effort boys.
Spending close to half an hour on a windy coast, our warm fuzzy feeling originating from the sunny hills’ of San Simeon slowly subsided and got replaced by cold hands and open hostility towards Fred. The rant was back on. Safely back in the car, we pressed on towards the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park and waterfall. Interestingly enough, when watching the ‘Hearst Castle – Building the Dream’, a view from the plane delivering newspapers to Mr. Hearst showed an elegant waterfall on an enclosed beach, which turned out to be the very same waterfall we were about to see. Helen Hooper Brown and her husband bought the local farm in 1924 and lived here in a quaint house set on a cliff with fantastic views, one of which was the waterfall. Admittedly choosing quite an awkward spot for building a house, their guests were transported in and out via a customized railway using mining carts as carriages. They befriended Julia Pfeiffer-Burns, a real pioneer women who lived in the area all her life, and dedicated the property to her memory in 1961, donating it to the State of California. The house was torn down as the Browns requested in their will, however, the whole area was named after Julia. We really enjoyed the great views, as well as finding out about Julia’s efforts to preserve the coastline.
Back at the car park, we did a customary check of our petrol tank to find out it was slowly but surely running dry. The problem was there had been not a single reasonably priced petrol station for the last hundred kilometers or so. Determined to press on until we came across one, we eventually found ourselves peeking through the clouds and driving through the greenery covered Big Sur. And Bingo. There it was – a small petrol station with extortionately priced fuel. Not exactly in a position to be picky, we bit the bullet and filled up $20 worth of fuel, hoping for a more affordable juice somewhere down the road. A friendly fellow at the station gave us detailed information leaflet about the Sur, explaining that being slightly higher and sheltered by a mountain, Big Sur is a favorite summer holiday destination thanks to the absence of Fred. That was obvious from the crowds roaming around the area. Although tempted, we couldn’t afford to linger and set off towards Monterey. Note to self – visit Big Sur when back in California.
It was already dark when we finally reached Monterey. You know when you sometimes find yourselves in a new place and it just feels right? Something is telling you this place is good for you? Well, that’s how we felt about Monterey. It helped that Monterey turned out to be a Fred-free zone. Or at least for that weekend.
We didn’t really know where to start looking for somewhere to stay, but given our experience from SF, we gave the harbor area a shot. Driving past a spectacularly lit-up bay, we headed to the famous Cannery Row. Now bear in mind, at that point we didn’t actually know it was famous. When we arrived it was buzzing and all hotels looked like they were likely to be overpriced. But time was of an essence so we parked and made our way through all the hotels, one by one. Some we skipped, put off by the number of stars on the logo or the hotel’s grandiose names. After several unsuccessful attempts our enthusiasm was starting to wane, so when we hit the Spindrift Inn roughly half way down the street and got presented with an option to pay close to two hundred dollars for a room not even facing the sea, we took it. I know what you think. Two hundred dollars?! For 1 night?! You suckers! But rest assured, it was worth it. Knowing our time in California was almost up, we wanted to make the most of it and with the benefit of hindsight, we chose well.
Our room was decorated in a cosy but luxurious style with a comfy king size four poster bed and most importantly, a real wood fireplace with two decadent arm chairs and a foot stall strategically positioned in front of it. That was the inside. Once outside, we discovered a big private terrace overlooking the Cannery Row. The only things that could possibly get us out of that room was hunger. It had been a while since we licked our beef stew stained fingers clean at the Hearst Castle and our stomachs were demanding a top-up. I, of a non-existent willpower when it comes to food, succumbed to the call of nature and with The Duke in tow, embarked to hassle our receptionist for a restaurant tip. Equipped with a voucher for free starter, we took to the streets of Monterey (one street to be precise) and after a couple of minutes walk arrived at the Fish Hopper. What happened next is not for the faint hearted. Seated by a window with superb views of the Monterey Bay, we each devoured a three course dinner like there was no tomorrow. Lobster shells flying around, waiters dunking out of their way, plates with killer chocolate mousse being snatched from the server as soon as they left the kitchen - you get the idea. To our defense, it was some of the most delicious food we had during our holiday.
When we got up around 11pm, leaving a trail of lobster debris behind, we were too full to even contemplate going straight to bed. Plus it was Friday night and there was fun to be had. But the longer we snailed around Cannery Row, walking off the tons of food we just scoffed, the lazier and more tired we became, until we saw no other option but to retire to our private quarters. Once in, we wasted no time, lit up the fire, jumped into PJs and opened our last bottle of Napa sparkly, reading each other stories from the Californian history. Domestic bliss. Now this might not be the kind of Friday night you would have imagined but we had a blast. In between stories, we even managed to plan the next day, as far as going to the Monterey Aquarium went. Satisfyingly tired, we eventually surrendered to a good night sleep, listening to the last remains of fire soothingly crackling in the background.
In the morning, feeling refreshed and slightly spoiled after a night in our super comfy bed and a fantastic breakfast in bed, we agreed to leave our car at the hotel car park, whilst exploring the Cannery Row on foot. One of the major attractions of wanting to go to San Diego was visiting the Sea Life Centre. In the absence of San Diego, we headed for the Monterey Aquarium instead. You probably think – ‘Grow up. What’s so interesting about an Aquarium’? Everything! Remember I come from a landlocked country so with the exception of carps or frogs, my exposure to water flora and fauna has been rather limited. Plus The Duke was equally excited. So, there!
Unfortunately it soon transpired we picked the wrong time to visit. Weekends in an aquarium are characterized by screaming kids and parents fiercely navigating through using pushchairs as weapons. The aquarium itself was great, mixing sea life displays of many habitats from deep see to wave swept shoreline with environmental messages and insights into the various fishing techniques that can unintentionally harm other fauna. Although we are still keen to visit San Diego during our next CA adventure to see some of the bigger mammals, it was a worthwhile stop. After almost three hours of avoiding fractured toes and dented shins, we decided enough is enough and left.
Exhausted from several hours pushing through the crowds, we were both starving. One of Cannery Row’s supposed attractions is its oldest restaurant - the Sly Mc Fly’s, and since it looked quite good from the outside, we gave it a go. Ahemp ahemp – don’t bother. The food was terrible and our waitress put a considerable effort into avoiding our table whenever we wanted to order more drinks or later on, pay. Our target for the day was to get to Santa Cruz, so after this lunch fiasco, we picked up our car and headed to the Pacific Grove, before continuing on our way.
Pacific Grove is just a short drive from Monterey downtown but has a completely different feel to it. Beaches and cliffs mark the coast, sea otters are easy to spot and tourists as well as locals lounge around the many benches and lawns, having picnics and enjoying the sun. We stopped at the Lovers Point and took a stroll around the area, watching sea otters playing in the water and a wedding party posing for their pics. The latter display in particular bought out our dark side when we simultaneously cheered on a stray wave raffling the bridesmaids’ dresses who were just posing on the beach. Wuaaaah (this is our evil laugh).
As we found out in the aquarium, Monterey Bay has much more to offer in terms of wildlife than just sea otters, so we ventured to rent a canoe with the view of checking out the masses of kelp floating around and hopefully spotting a seahorse or a shark. This didn’t quite go according to plan. Kanoe’s can only be rented for an entire day, subject to $30 per person. Admittedly a bargain for a day rental but not quite for an hour, which was the sum total of time we had to spend there. Having agreed we are too tight to pay, we hang our heads low to demonstrate our disappointment and slowly walked off to the car.
Next we headed to the Pinos Point Lighthouse, which is the oldest working lighthouse in the US. On the way, we stopped a couple of times to admire the coast and fishermen balancing their fishing rods on the precarious rocks. Pinos Point Lighthouse is not only known for its age but also for its former keeper – Emily Fish, a society woman who took on this position after her husband died. Unlike ------ (fill the blank) male keepers, Emily did not have an assistant but only a handyman, not once failing to light the fire in the tower. Girl power! The lighthouse lives of donations and many rooms are preserved as they were during the time of Emily Fish, offering a good insight into the life of a female lighthouse keeper, as well as information about the evolution of light houses throughout the US.
Having got our fix of Pacific Grove, we headed back to Monterey, this time to have a quick peek at the harbor. We really liked the colourful wooden houses on stilts above the water, and spent a few minutes at the end of the pier watching the marina and yet another sea otter nibbling on her latest catch.The harbor had a cosy feel to it, although it was Saturday and the masses of tourists made it quite difficult to just walk around and enjoy the surroundings. The whole area was buzzing and this was also due to the Greek festival, which was taking place in front of the Custom House – the oldest government building in California. Food stalls and stands with Greek goodies were scattered all around the little square, life music was playing on a DIY stage and one of the more courageous ladies from the audience entertained the crowds with her own interpretation of Greek dancing.
We were tempted to stay and take part, but time was running out and conscious the next day we had to pick up Duke’s jacket from Napa Valley we decided to press on. Driving out of Monterey, we took a route through the middle of the town, visiting some of the historical sites along the way such as the Colton Hall and the Royal Presidio Chapel. Once again, the time was flying too fast and by the time we left Monterey, it was already 5 o’clock.
When we reached the suburbs of Santa Cruz, initially we contemplated checking in one of the many motels along the way. Having not been to Santa Cruz before and having just stayed in the centre of Monterey, we were spoiled and eventually decided to try our luck at finding a motel little bit closer to the pier. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought thanks to the Labour Day. Unsuccessfully asking our way through the different motels, after a while we arrived at the Pier. The closer to the town centre we were, the shabbier the area seemed. Modern houses and hotels at the suburb of Santa Cruz were slowly replaced by centrally located constructions in need of repair. Our concerns also extended to the crowds. Not looking like part of a gang, we were decisively in the minority and positively sticking out. Weighing our options of either purchasing a couple of bandanas and an extensive dragon tattoo or skipping Santa Cruz, we chickened out and chose the latter.
Driving past the impressive wooden roller coaster by the sea, we briefly wondered if we were going to regret our decision, but being stuck in a painfully slow traffic and watching the Labour Day crowds pouring towards the amusement park, we persisted. This put us in a tricky position though. We had to find another place to stay overnight. Being not too far from San Francisco, we hoped to find somewhere before we hit the big town. Our first choice was the village of Pescadero, although after the Duke missed the turn (once again), we continued up north. Quick peek in the travel guide suggested a lighthouse / hostel – the Pigeon Point – would be an excellent stop for the night. Determined to try it, we located the picture perfect lighthouse, only to be almost laughed at by the keeper for our naivety, thinking we could get a place here without booking. Unfortunately, this was the only time during our Californian trip we had any problems getting a room and that was thanks to the Labour Day. Back in the car, we pressed on towards SF.
Quite a few unsuccessful attempts at getting a room along the highway #1 later, despite our intentions we arrived in San Francisco. The strange thing was, the more often we asked for a room and were turned down, the more excited we were about spending the night in our car. We had wine, we had nuts and we even had dried fruit, so happy to rough it for a night, we settled on driving towards Napa Valley and finding a good spot there. But before this could be done, we thought we give it one last push.The Duke almost found us a room when one of two receptionists informed him they do actually have a last room left, only to be beaten to it by a couple who spoke to the ‘right’ receptionist at the same time. Back in San Francisco and unable to read the map in the dark, we randomly drove around hoping to bump into a hotel with the vacancy sight, conquering some serious hills and low hanging clouds in the process. 9 o’clock at night and satisfied we did our best, we finally turned towards the Bay Bridge, determined to realize our car sleepover plan.
Despite the late hour, the Labour Day was also apparent from the traffic clogging the Bay Bridge. At peace with not finding anywhere, we happily chatted about our experiences of that day and discussed the impressive bridge construction we were just driving through. Having eventually crossed the bridge and the clock showing half past ten, we were passing through Oakland when we saw another hotel. After a brief exchange of ‘shall we?’ looks, we pulled up at the hotel car park, happy to get refused one more time before settling in for a cosy night in our car. The Fortuna had another plan for us though, and so it came to pass we were greeted by a friendly receptionist with a couple of spare rooms, not having to spend a night in the car after all.