California, We Still Love You

The Presidio and the Palace of Fine Arts are as beautiful as ever. Rich Grant photos.
The Presidio and the Palace of Fine Arts are as beautiful as ever. Rich Grant photos.

California 2023:   It’s Still Wild, Wacky, and Most of All, Wonderful

By Rich Grant
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

City Lights Bookstore is one of the most famous bookshops in the world.
City Lights Bookstore is one of the most famous bookshops in the world.

Except for Bud Light, nobody has been getting bad press like California.

The news about forest fires, drought, flooding, landslides, homeless issues, stores closing due to shoplifting, and people moving away is neverending.

And all that doesn’t sound like the California I fell in love with decades ago. It has only been 30 years since I drove along the coast with the windows down and the radio blaring. Could California really be falling apart as much as the stories suggest?

Well, only one way to find out. With Joni Mitchell’s “California” playing on the stereo, my brother and I set out on a 10-day road trip to see what was left of this once-great state.

The results were astounding.

We walked across hillsides shimmering with flowers, watched sea otters play, ate fresh calamari, visited a castle, and drank wine at wineries.

We also cruised along a coastline of unchanged rugged cliffs and crashing waves, watched surfers, admired lighthouses, and gazed at orange sunsets from piers.

Despite being warned everywhere about leaving valuables in cars, we never had a problem with crime or saw anyone else in trouble. We only saw five homeless tents during our two-day stay in San Francisco!

The California we found is still a wild and wonderful place. At a time when everyone is going to crowded Europe, we had California to ourselves. Every scenic pull-off we passed had empty parking spots. We hardly ever ate inside because there was always an outdoor view table available. And gas? We did see gas for $5.69 a gallon but ended up paying only 50 cents more than Colorado prices.

“My heart cried out for you, California
Oh, California, I’m coming home” Joni Mitchell

So where did we have all these fantastic experiences? Here are some suggestions:

One great thing about San Francisco's poor reputation at the moment is that there are not many tourists and you can walk right up and hop on a cable car instead of having a long wait.
One great thing about San Francisco’s poor reputation at the moment is that there are not many tourists and you can walk right up and hop on a cable car instead of having a long wait.

If You’re Going To San Francisco, Be Sure to….Forget Everything You Read About It!

The unfortunate thing today is there are political groups and media that want to see San Francisco fail.

Why? Perhaps because it is the most liberal city in America. Every possible negative story is given major press. Here’s the deal.

We stayed in Cow Hollow (where parking is included with many motels), walked every inch of the Presidio, and across the windy Golden Gate Bridge. We also enjoyed scallops and clam pizza in North Beach, visited museums in Golden Gate Park, rode the cable car, and stood on the deck of tall ships.

In addition to all this, I heard the sea lions at Pier 39, walked the length of China Town, listened to wonderful live music in San Francisco’s oldest saloon, and browsed one of the most famous bookstores in the world at City Lights.

Uber rides to most of the places you want to go are $10 or less. The most remarkable San Francisco thing we saw were driverless cabs! Apparently, there is a fleet of these odd-looking vehicles being tested here. They look like average, normal cars except for a circular Space Age contraption on the roof. And no driver!

But San Francisco’s dramatic location is as gorgeous as ever and while there are empty storefronts in Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and other popular spots, overall, if you avoid Market Street and the Tenderloin (neighborhoods that have always had little unique tourist appeal) you will find San Francisco as lovely as ever.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse near Half Moon Bay
Pigeon Point Lighthouse near Half Moon Bay

First Stop, Half Moon Bay

Only 20 miles from San Francisco’s airport, this is as much California as anyone could ever desire. It’s just a small blip on the map along the Pacific Coast Highway south of the big city.

But once you arrive? Wow! The main street is a magical row of architecture, murals, flower gardens, wine stores, and those crazy one-of-a-kind shops you only find on the Pacific Coast.

While not on the ocean, the town is close enough to feel the sea breezes and hippie vibes that have hovered over it since the 1960s.

You can’t stay here – there’s too much to see down the road ahead! But it’s worth a lingering stop, a meal, and a walkabout.

The Roller Coaster that is Santa Cruz

No one has ever written more than a sentence about Santa Cruz without mentioning its roller coaster, Boardwalk, and Wharf. The “old school” amusement park attractions all survived the winter storms and are as California wacky as ever.

It’s the California beach town that Disney tried to re-create as the Disney California Adventure Park with thrill rides, games of skill, and popcorn. But there is one big major difference. Walt Disney thought it was insane to build an amusement park on the ocean because half its potential real estate and parking would be covered with water.

However, in Santa Cruz, that’s the whole point. The fresh air, the seagulls, the roar of the waves, the beach, the 2,000-foot-long wood pier packed with cars (cars parked a quarter mile out to sea above the ocean on a wood pier? Why?).

The sea lions of Pier 39 in California.
The sea lions of Pier 39 in California.

Well, who cares? Cotton candy, screams from the rides, the smell of fresh fish, and decaying 1920s buildings all combine (with crying children in the background) to create an atmosphere that is one part nightmarish – a scene from a strange and dreadful world — and another part wonderful with mind-blowing fun. For a few minutes.

But right next door in Santa Cruz, a five-minute walk beyond the screams, is perhaps the nicest cliff walk on the California coast with a lighthouse, giant rocks with caves cut through them, and mile after mile of wildflowers.

Now Capitola, the colorful Mediterranean village just a few miles from Santa Cruz, was devastated by winter storms and partially washed away. They are rebuilding the town quickly. It’s a quirky place famous for a long row of stucco cottages painted a rainbow of pastel colors.

From 100 yards away, the cottages still look colorful. From 10 yards away, they look like they should be seen from 100 yards. There’s a whole lot of work necessary, and the town’s going through a rough patch, but it’s still worth a walkabout.

Carmel looks like a fairytale village.
Carmel looks like a fairytale village.

The Charm of Carmel and Monterey

You would expect a village with a name like Carmel-By-the Sea to be lovely. And it is. It was in 1924 that architect Hugh Comstock designed a whimsical storybook-styled, 400 sq. ft. cottage to house his wife’s handmade Otsy-Totsy doll collection.

Ever since, people have been searching for adjectives to describe this village, which still preserves 21 other Comstock-inspired homes.

The architecture is a Snow White, fairytale style with rolled eaves, rounded doors, and asymmetrical stone chimneys.

Today the buildings house pretzel bakeries, smoke shops, restaurants, and lots of rich people. It’s a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life, though it was here long before Kinkade Christmas calendars.

And you would have to be a terrible cynic not to enjoy it. The whimsical village (yes, there are plenty of modern buildings here too) is built along a steep hill that flows down to a sand beach lined with cypress trees. Everywhere you look, there are flower gardens, cafes, upscale shops, and too-cute hotels. It is in a word, “charming.” And in 2023, booming with visitors and no empty storefronts.

Former residents include writers Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Upton Sinclair, photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and actresses Doris Day and Joan Fontaine. But it is the last person on earth you would pick who made this cozy village famous: Dirty Harry. Resident Clint Eastwood ran for and was mayor of the town from 1986 to 1988.

Of course, Carmel can be crowded, even packed to bursting on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but you can escape the crowds by walking down Ocean Avenue to the beach and then on to the appropriately named “Scenic Road.”

Sea Lions on the St. Cruz wharf
Sea Lions on the St. Cruz Wharf

Clint’s Fashionable Resort

The curving street is lined with multi-million-dollar homes and a cornucopia of colorful front yard gardens and follows the shore for a couple of miles to Santa Lucia Steet, at which point Google Maps will help you walk down the last few blocks to the Mission Ranch resort.

Have a beer on the pleasant wood deck of this fashionable resort, owned, of course, by Clint Eastwood.

After a drink, it’s a short walk back to town on San Carlos Street to the Hog’s Breath Inn, a fine, quaint, English-style pub, which is also owned by Dirty Harry.

The pub is filled with pictures from his movies so you can pose for a selfie with Clint and his .44 magnum.

The whimsical architecture of Carmel by the Sea
The whimsical architecture of Carmel by the Sea

Next door neighbor to Carmel, four miles away, is Monterey, a very different animal. It was once a terrible factory town for the sardine canning industry, made infamous by area resident John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row.

Now, it’s a gentrified place of tourism, the factories turned into restaurants, and every board of the town’s old wooden wharf filled to the brim with fresh seafood places offering chowder, crab, and fish and chips. It’s all family fun and wonderful with noisy sea lions as a backdrop.

But if you want to escape, another of those great seaside walks of California begins here. Growing up in Westchester, NY, my family often went to the Connecticut shore looking for seaside access, only to discover it was all private property owned by towns that prohibited access by non-residents. Nothing like that exists in California!

You can walk for miles and miles along protected seacoast trails from Monterey to equally pretty Pacific Grove, onto a lighthouse, and around the cape on a paved coastal path that is simply impossible to imagine in the East. Is California going to hell? Ha! Not here. It’s as beautiful as ever could be.

The backdrop of the Nepenthe/Phoenix Café in Big Sur looks like it was painted, but it's really there. The landslide that closed the highway is out there somewhere in the photo, but the road is open to the famous restaurant.
The backdrop of the Nepenthe/Phoenix Café in Big Sur looks like it was painted, but it’s really there. The landslide that closed the highway is out there somewhere in the photo, but the road is open to the famous restaurant.

Big Sur is Not a Place – It is a State of Mind

Thirty miles of the Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel are closed, at least for a few more months, due to a landslide. But the road south is still open to all the big Big Sur highlights including scenic Bixby Bridge and the Nepenthe/Phoenix Café, which sits atop a cliff with outdoor tables overlooking the Pacific.

Santa Cruz cliff walk.
Santa Cruz cliff walk.

To anyone who has never been there, Big Sur must come as a shock since there is no there there. Big Sur is a couple of gas stations, two state parks, and a few restaurants. And mile after mile of one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world.

Big Sur is the anthesis of a cruise ship stop. It’s wild, rugged, inaccessible and there’s nothing to do there but enjoy its beauty. If anything, the closed portion of the highway is a positive, except of course for the residents who lived along the closed road and had to evacuate their belongings out by wheelbarrow.

But for tourists, rather than reducing the California experience, the closure of the highway has cut down on traffic, and we were able to find empty parking spots at all the pull-offs to stop and enjoy the scenery.

Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst worked with his architect Julia Morgan creating the Spanish-looking castle from 1919 to 1947.
Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst worked with his architect Julia Morgan creating the Spanish-looking castle from 1919 to 1947.

Citizen Hearst

Before the landslide, Carmel was just 90 miles from Hearst Castle via the pretty coastal highway.

Now it takes an inland three-hour detour of 153 miles, but you’re back on the Pacific soon enough, and since the road is closed going north, traffic is at a minimum in San Luis Obispo County’s stretch of Hwy. 1.

Irish playwright Bernard Shaw best described Hearst Castle, writing it was “what God would have built if he had had the money.”

Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst worked with his architect Julia Morgan to create the Spanish-looking castle from 1919 to 1947, and though it contained 115 rooms, eight acres of cultivated gardens, pools, and guesthouses, it was never finished.

Today, of all things, it is a California State Park. At $30, the Grand Rooms Tour is just right.

You park at an entrance area and board a bus that takes you away from the 21st century and up 1,600 feet in elevation over rolling green hills to La Cuesta Encantada, the “Enchanted Hill,” as Hearst called it. Once you arrive at the castle, you are transported back to the 1930s.

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle

The tour begins at the outdoor swimming pool, and never lets up, as each stop takes you to one bewildering room after another. You expect to see the guests who partied here: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Jean Harlow, and of course, the hostess, the former Ziegfield Follies dancer who was at one time the most popular actress in Hollywood, Marion Davies. Who was also Hearst’s mistress.

Hearst is presented as more of an eccentric media mogul, one who served his guests paper napkins and had a Heinz Ketchup bottle on his lavish dining room table, rather than as a conservative political figure who possibly started the Spanish American War, met, and admired Adolph Hitler and was FDR’s worst enemy.

More people today are familiar with Orson Welles’ film “Citizen Kane” than with the figure it was based on, and while there are many differences between the fictional Kane and the real Hearst…there are also plenty of similarities too.

After the tour, head down to the Hearst Ranch Winery for their oceanside $28 tasting flight (waived with a two-bottle purchase). It’s one of the few outdoor wine-tasting patios on the water, and with pelicans flying above and dogs laying at nearly every table, it’s a sure place to discover that California is alive and well, and doing just fine, thank you.

Mural in Half Moon Bay of surfers in California.
Mural in Half Moon Bay of surfers in California.

California Off the Beaten Path

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