x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

California calling: a journey full of coastal delights

Before embarking along the Californian coast, I took a quick detour through the winding green mountain roads and towering pine trees to reach Palo Alto.


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Before embarking along the Californian coast, I took a quick detour through the winding green mountain roads and towering pine trees to reach Palo Alto (incidentally, "palo alto" means tall tree in Spanish). I wasn't quite sure what to expect from my visit to Silicon Valley. The headquarters of Google and Apple weren't particularly modern or striking in design. Nonetheless, I experienced a certain buzz knowing that the people inside these buildings had changed the culture of our online generation and that some were perhaps in the process of inventing the next big iSomething.

An hour or two south of San Francisco, I reached Santa Cruz. This coastal town's streets were littered with young surfers and skaters. Their energy was contagious so I decided to go for a jog along the beach towards the pier - a healthy and cost-free way to enjoy Santa Cruz's coastal views and observe the locals in action. I came across an advert looking for an extra on a Santa Cruz film set (further evidence of the town's beauty) but sadly wasn't around for long enough. The beach is lined with a row of inns and hostels and I found a bit of room-rate hunting worth the effort. A backpacker-friendly place to stay for travellers on a budget is the Sea and Sand Inn, where the rates range between $50 and $70 (Dh184-257) per head, including breakfast and free Wi-Fi.

My final stop along the central coast, and by far the most magnificently scenic, was Big Sur with its high winds, crashing waves and deep orange rock shores. The roads on this leg of the Pacific Coast highway know just how stunning they are. There are vista points every 400 metres providing views of beaches, rocks and the bridges connecting them. In the planning stages of this road trip, I considered driving up north from San Diego to San Francisco, and I'm so glad I decided on the opposite route. Not only did the weather warm up by a few degrees every day, but driving in the lane closest to the coast made for great photo opportunities around every corner.

Just when I thought I had seen the most beautiful beaches California had to offer, I took an early morning trip to Pfieffer Beach, an enclosed beach in the Big Sur. The weather is always too windy and the waves are too high to make it swimmable, but this was big part of why I found it so dramatically beautiful - humans could not mess with it. Complete with a blowhole arch cave, crashing waves and the occasional washed-up sea lion (which I have found are endearing from a distance but smelly and violent mammals in close proximity), I took a walk along the beach with a watercolour painting group and photographers who had come from all around the world to witness this secret wonder of the world.

Hearst Castle, the home of the media mogul William Hearst in the first half of the 1900s, was another stop recommended by fellow travellers. Though the Castle was aesthetically impressive and worth the visit, every element of the design was over-the-top ostentatious and an illustration of one man's obsession with consuming for the sake of consuming. There were Italian imports on the floor, Egyptian imports on the ceiling, imported zebras for the vast mansion grounds and imported temples to decorate the pool. The walking tour, complete with period props from clothing to ketchup bottles, takes you through grand party and dining rooms once frequented by Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. The basic tour including bus journey and post-tour film cost $24; Dh88.

San Luis Obispo's proximity to Hearst Castle and the fact that it is a former Spanish mission town made it a great place to pay a quick visit and stay a night. Many of the inns and hostels drop their rates on weekdays, which made it easy to find a decent room for between $40-60 (Dh147-220), with breakfast and Wi-Fi. San Luis is also home to the world's first motel, which may sound like a novel place to stay for a night but the exterior left me opting for a more concrete roof over my head. The town was heavily populated by students from a nearby college campus, injecting the town centre with plenty of activities and decent cheap eats.

The laid-back attitude of the central coast made it easy to lose track of time. Shop and cafe opening times seemed to be determined by the mood of the waves and sunshine. The locals were fascinated with how far I had come and my journey ahead. I found a quick chat with a shop vendor or lifeguard would point me in the direction of hidden gems about town or great places to eat. This region of California is often stereotyped for its year-round beach bums, surfers, skaters and quaint little seaside towns with shops and fairgrounds on the pier - but it's all true.

Next week: Ismat heads inland to the Grand Canyon on the next stage of her round-the-world adventure.