The American interstate is a series of highways that has brought the country closer. Yet for all that it has helped develop in terms of economy, efficiency and national security, it has also taken away much of the charm of rural America. The interstates drone on for miles and miles, lifeless and soulless, these 75,000 kilometre fingers of blacktop crisscross the United States skipping all the major points of interest. If you were on a road trip like I was, the interstate can be a blessing or it can be a total buzz kill. What would I recommend, without a doubt the back roads! These arterial roads are where life in the United States spawned and even today they hold some of the most colourful stories of this great nation.
Our vehicle of choice through the State of California's west coast was the Jeep
Touring United States of America on a road trip isn't an easy task considering this land is spread over 9.83 million square kilometres. Geographically it's an incredibly diverse country, the best example to relate it to, is India. You get everything within its borders from lofty snow covered peaks to deserts, sandy beaches and rolling grassy plains. And for the first in what I hope is a series of road trips across America, I am driving through the west coast of the state of California, one of the most popular states in global culture.
Cavallo Point Lodge offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge
California in popular culture is where the sun shines down on some of the most beautiful people that walked the planet. Californians are generally considered to be laid back, in the more chilled out sense of the word, not to be confused with idle, dull or lethargic. The state is home to Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Napa and to thousands of worshippers of the sun, most of who you can find on the beaches lining the Pacific coast. From geeks to greek gods, the state of California continues to be the quintessential gold rush for those full of life.
San Francisco's celebrated Pier 39 is a smorgasboard of attractions
My road trip would cover San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, significant parts of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) or State Route 1 extending between Monterey all the way down to Santa Barbara before closing down on Santa Monica and Los Angeles. Total distance we'd cover over six days was just around 1,400km, not an immense number of miles to put on an odometer. Nonetheless it would allow us to see much of the state of California barring Death Valley in the east and the extreme north.
The Red and White fleet cruises around the bay area, seen in the background is the famous Rock, Alcatraz
To add to the stereotypes of the land, I got myself a Jeep Grand Cherokee, an SUV that will be launched in India shortly. It's a handsome vehicle, draws a lot of eyeballs, is brilliantly equipped and quite comfortable for five passengers. It's striking in urbanity but superbly practical on the highways. But it is also a stark contrast to environmentally conscious California which prides itself on being one of the largest consumers of electric and hybrid technology in the world. Nonetheless intercity travel needs something a little more practical and the Jeep Grand Cherokee copes brilliantly.
Leaving the San Francisco bay area behind isn't simple, urbanisation has crawled far and wide from the city centre and this means traffic is a major impediment. San Francisco wakes up early too and planning an early departure will leave you crawling alongside office goers. The myriad road works, narrow streets and the constant changes in elevation reduce average speeds still further. Interstate 80 is the quickest route out of the city. It's a boring drive without much visual delight to keep your eyes alive and you keep following the interstate up to Sacramento after which you get onto State Highway 50.
Sensational seafood at the Fog Harbor restaurant on Pier 39
As you get closer to Lake Tahoe, the road begins to climb and while it appears flat you sense the gradient by the engine straining and the speed dropping. The Jeep Grand Cherokee wasn't fazed by this. Its V6 petrol has enough grunt but the uphill trudge also means you consume a lot of fuel. On average expect to pay around 4 dollars for a gallon of unleaded, fuel prices fluctuate depending on the proximity to large towns or metros as well. So the deeper into the interior you go the more expensive fuel gets.
Lake Tahoe Resort on the border with Nevada is an ideal base, be it summer or winter
The roads begin to get twisty as you inch closer to Lake Tahoe but you have to maintain the speed limit and that sort of dampens the spirit. It would be nice to get a sports car to these parts, Hertz has some interesting sports cars to choose from, and that should make the latter part of the drive to Tahoe a lot more interesting.
The Tahoe Queen is a lovely Mississippi paddlewheeler on Lake Tahoe recreating the early 1900s charms
This is a breathtaking stretch of road that meanders alongside Lake Tahoe for almost 50 of the 60 kilometre long route to the Olympic Village in Squaw Valley. There are incredibly gorgeous views of the lake available at various points on this drive. Stop for a view overlooking Emerald Bay and the Fannette Island, a small rocky outcropping in the middle of the bay that has a little tea house built on top by Mrs Knight who also built Vikingsholm, a small residence on a bank of Emerald Bay. The road ends at the Olympic Village and the surrounding peaks make this a not to be missed destination.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee takes a break
This is a marathon run, an endurance leg of your road trip that takes you on I-80 and I-680 before putting you on to highway 101. This highway slips past the Napa valley, the celebrated wine growing region of California. It allows you to take a detour and head into a vineyard to indulge in some wine tasting. A word of advice, it would be wise to break your journey here rather than carry on since the wine tasting can be a heady experience requiring a siesta to dispel the vapours.
If you stay on the road however, you will definitely marvel at the feats of engineering it must have taken to build this interstate as it drops down from Lake Tahoe to the plains of Sacramento. Massive aqueducts, long straights that disappear into the horizon, steep downhill gradients with escape routes for runaway trucks, there are quite a few bits to keep you interested all the way to Sacramento if engineering is your thing.
The Village at Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics
Alternatively if you want a slightly quicker journey that avoids traffic that bunches up around San Jose and San Francisco take the I-5 which follows a steeper southerly route.
Here is the irony of this road. California highway 1 also popularly known as the PCH or Pacific Coast Highway is the shortest route between Monterey and Santa Barbara but also takes the longest time, in fact far longer than what seems sensible. This is because this road is probably one of the most scenic in all of the United States as it hugs and twists its way high above the pacific coast. Highway 1 which extends between Leggett in the north and Orange Country in the south crawls past the Big Sur or the big south, a long 90-odd kilometre coastline that is one of the most visited locations in the world. The Big Sur is a forceful work of art painstakingly sculpted by the meeting of two powerful forces, the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains.
Easily one of the most spectacular driving routes in the world, the sections of the Pacific Coast Highway that hug the Big Sur is an epic driving route!
Because of the way this road twists and turns with nothing but an aluminum Armco barrier keeping you safe from the steep drop into the ocean, the speeds on this road are quite low. In reality using this road will take you even longer to get to your destination because you will be forced to stop every few hundred metres to take in the views. The views attract hordes of travellers, most of them in their own cars or on motorcycles (this is an excellent riding route as well) and because everyone cranes their necks out of their windows to see the magic of the Big Sur, traffic slows down to a crawl.
A skate park at the Santa Barbara pier provides kids space to let off some steam
A smart route plan would be to come into Monterey the previous evening and leave the whole of the following day to explore the Big Sur. Monterey has several options for accommodation catering to various budgets but within the Sur, there are only a few options mostly camping grounds which are quite expensive with few facilities.
A cell phone is powerful enough to lure me away from some lovely ladies and bottles of wine
Once you cross Point Sur the road gets curlier than a pigs tail, and sticking to the 15mph limit can make driving through these parts, especially after sundown extremely frustrating. You wind up in a slow crawl as one nervous driver will try his utmost to stick to the 30kmph limit forcing a long queue of cars to crawl equally slowly behind him. I nonetheless managed to latch on to one wily driver who managed to get me and a slew of others out of the slow convoy by knowing just where to overtake, must have been a local! After getting clear we continued to fly down towards Cambria and this is where the Grand Cherokee came into her own. At near 90kmph she lowers herself automatically to achieve better aerodynamic efficiency. This also stiffens up the suspension so that lateral body movement is more controlled and confidence levels begin to rise. The latter part of that drive was a lot more entertaining but a word of caution, we drove though after sundown, so the roads were quite clear of traffic and there were no police around so we got lucky, you might not.
Santa Barbara is known for its wines and two of its principal wine brewers are the Santa Barbara and Grazzini wineries
Another alternative to exploring this region is to base yourself out of San Simeon a resort town which is south of the Big Sur. There are umpteen motels and inns here though prices here too can be pretty steep but forgivable for the incredible views of the Pacific.
Monkeying around at the Universal Studio's theme park
Continuing to drive onto Santa Barbara, further ahead you can choose to stick to the coastal roads but it keeps going inland before breaking out onto the ocean. It would then save time to stop hugging the coast and take the 101 which gets you into Santa Barbara in no time.
Gigantic Maine lobsters are a pricey but delicious catch at the aptly named Lobster Restaurant in Santa Monica.
Traveling on what is one of the oldest and longest roads in California, the 101 is dreary. As you leave Santa Barbara and get onto the 101 heading to Santa Monica you run into what looks like literally millions of cars driving into Los Angeles or further ahead to San Diego. You can often find yourself crawling on this specifically 4-laned stretch between LA and Santa Barbara. The volume of traffic flowing through some of these parts looks like it could match that of the water flowing over the Niagra falls. We left Santa Barbara late in the evening so by the time we inched closer to Santa Monica all I could see was a sea of red tail lamps on my side of the freeway.
The lovely Pacifica Suites is located mere minutes away from all the major attractions in Santa Barbara.
The delightful Shangri-La Hotel right next to the Santa Monica beach has a buzzing rooftop bar and lovely accomodation
At Oxnard I cut a right away from the 101 to get onto the PCH and while I drove past after sundown again, soon after you leave Oxnard behind you come up to Mugu Point. In the day light hours you see how this highway has been cut through the mountain and even more stunning views of the Pacific coast reveal themselves. Up ahead you drive past Malibu, yes the same as the rum and also home to Two and a Half Men. It's the home to several film stars and celebrities and you should keep your eyes wide open to see the profusion of lovely beach front homes and swanky cars that can't find parking inside the houses and have to be parked out on the street.
We did not miss the toned and tanned beauties either!
Leaving the Pacific Coast highway we rolled into Santa Monica to be met by a vibrant buzz in the air. The city skirting the northern edge of Los Angeles is full of life. Our road trip had come to an end in what few people also know is the end of the famed Route 66. It gives me an idea for my next road trip which I am hoping is on a motorcycle, but for now I'm content to just park myself on the beach or in one of the many bars that can be found in this hip town and grab myself a cool beer or two. There is a lot to do and see in the following days, main street, the pier and neighboring Beverley Hills, Universal Studios, Hollywood and so much more. For now, after a lovely road trip, I can't think of anything better than to watch the sun go down, spreading a tinge of gold across the skies, what a rush!