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Large and small Californian cities 

We started in the south, close to the Mexican border, and drove to San Francisco, while allowing for a short excursion in Vegas… we were so close, after all!

From San Diego to Los Angeles, along the famous and magnificent Big Sur Coast, we stopped in some of the most beautiful small cities built along the edge of the ocean up to San Francisco.

San Diego

Less famous than Los Angeles and San Francisco, this is a lovely cosmopolitan city located 25 km from the Mexican border. This proximity is reflected in its population, 30% of which is of Hispanic origin, as well as on the architecture of its residential neighborhoods with their white walls where bougainvilleas and geraniums grow, whose colors match the roofs. The State University constitutes a perfect example of such architecture.

For a more convincing illustration, one can visit La Casa De Estudillo, an adobe house built between 1827 and 1829 by one of the first San Diego settlers. At the time, the house was considered one of the nicest in this part of California. It is now part of the Old Town Historic Park.

Located in its namesake bay, San Diego enjoys a well-developed seaside with a 12-acre Waterfront Park, quite close to the downtown core, where an impressive and very modern convention centre shares space with skyscrapers, fruits of contemporary architecture, as well as a spectacular stadium, where numerous festivals are held among fountains and exotic gardens.

In addition, its 100 km of fine sand beaches on the Pacific welcome surf and swimming enthusiasts, as well as some seals that intend to benefit from the sun.

Not far away, its historic districts, Old Town and Gas Lamp, with their Victorian and art deco buildings and gas lampposts that are still in use, are home to a bubbling life in their boutiques, cafes, terraces, restaurants and offices.

Close by, the Marina Del Ray, known as the largest in the world, can accommodate 5,000 boats. In fact, this is a string of 19 marinas positioned side by side.

A military past and present

After the war with Mexico, the American navy settled down in San Diego and during both world wars, the bay of San Diego became the headquarters of the Pacific fleet. Its harbor still houses one of the largest military installations of the U.S. Navy, with 50 vessels and submarines ready to depart at any time. It is possible to visit some vessels like the USS Midway aircraft carrier.

After the Second World War, military and aerospace industries flourished in San Diego. Military personnel and scientists, who intended to enjoy the 300 days of sun the city gets on a yearly basis, with an average temperature between 14 and 20 degrees Celsius, invaded an island that was originally developed as a seaside resort because of its climate and beaches, which are known as the nicest in the world: Coronado Island. Linked to the city by a 3-km long bridge, the island population is 27,000 today, the majority who work in the military and aerospace industries. Judging by their houses, these are two very lucrative sectors!

The famous Coronado Hotel was built at that time close to the beach. An elegant and imposing white Victorian building, in a superb garden of giant eucalyptus, its lobby is quite remarkable. The movie “Some like it Hot” with Marilyn Monroe was filmed here.

The hotel is still considered a luxury establishment, but it would be wise to carefully check the room prior to making a reservation – we were told that some of them are due for a renovation.

Balboa Park

The famous Balboa Park, which spreads over 1,200 acres of lushly planted gardens: cacti, an English garden, rose garden and desert garden with its 1,300 plants adapted to deserts worldwide, is certainly worth the visit.

Rococo buildings, inherited from two world exhibitions (1915-16, commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal and the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition, held to boost the local economy during the depression) house fifteen major museums and art venues.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCAST), the most impressive one, is located in a beautiful building inspired by a Spanish church built for the 1915 exhibition. Even though it has all the attributes of a church outside, with its heavily sculpted façade and tile-colored roofs, it was never meant to be one. Its museum vocation has always been preserved. It is possible to climb the California Tower that plays the role of a bell tower for the church-like building to enjoy a view of the park and the city.

A little further away, the 37 artists, who work in as many studios, in the Spanish Village Art Centre will happily welcome you. The San Diego Zoo, known as one of the richest in the world with its 4,000 animals, including pandas and koalas, is also housed in the park.

One can easily spend a few days in this immense park. Day and week passes are offered and a free shuttle circulates between the attractions and museums.

Taco Land

It is impossible to leave San Diego without having experienced its inventive tacos. Fish, avocado, coriander, zucchini, cactus, shrimp, salsa, pimento, steak, mango and other ingredients are often mixed to offer surprising flavors, even hotter than anticipated sometimes!

Going back

San Diego is a city that we didn’t know well, but we will certainly go back for its atmosphere, beauty and … beaches.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach, crossed by the Pacific Coast Highway 1, is halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Its long beach and hot waters attract swimmers as well as surfers. Numerous art galleries testify to a vibrant artistic community that is attracted by the spectacular scenery of the surrounding area.

Santa Monica

Caught between the Pacific and Los Angeles, the small town of Santa Monica is worth a stop that allows for a well-oxygenated pedestrian break before approaching the city of concrete and highways: Los Angeles.

Indeed, Santa Monica welcomes pedestrians. The town is small and environmentally friendly with its Third Street walk, where cinemas, restaurants and artists have settled; its historic pier with a 9-story Ferris wheel, which moves with solar energy, where mythical Route 66 ends and its long and inviting 5-km sandy beach. The Tide Shuttle, an electrical bus, runs along the beach allowing passengers to enjoy breathtaking panoramas, among which is a magnificent orange sunset.

With its trendy boutiques and restaurants, Santa Monica attracts celebrities as well surfers and “cool” enthusiasts in an atmosphere that is all together bubbly and relaxing.

Los Angeles

After New York, this is the second largest city in the country. But contrary to the Big Apple, L.A. does not have a real downtown. L.A., as it is commonly called, has a number of neighborhoods linked by a gigantic and always growing network of highways where traffic jams multiply day and night.

This is a city with high ethnic diversity. Suffice to remember that Los Angeles was Mexican until 1848.

The town grew thanks to a boom in the citrus fruit and oil industries, joined at the end of the 19th century by the film industry, which was attracted by the quality of natural light, the climate and the stunning natural locations around.
Today, almost all of the city’s life revolves around the film industry and the star system it generates.

Some proof: the Walk of Fame, the thousands of brass stars bearing the names of musicians, directors, producers, actors and singers… is embedded in the sidewalks on Hollywood Boulevard, the first street in the city, named Prospect Avenue at the time.

In the same neighborhood, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Dolby Theater (formerly Kodak), where the Academy Awards ceremony is held. It is even possible to immortalize yourself with a snapshot on the red carpet.

Universal Studio, which spreads along 2 square kilometers on a hill over the valley of San Fernando, is a must. In the indoor studios, one can relive Jurassic Park, the world of the Simpsons, or meet Shrek, Spongebob, Dora the explorer and many others.

But the real star of the studios is the Fast & Furious Tour. Aboard a small train, you first visit the outdoor sets and the string of little streets that served as sets for Spiderman, Jaws, King Kong, Psycho and Desperate Housewives, among others. All of a sudden, the train becomes a real 3-D ride and you are carried on board a plane in distress and in a metro shaken by an earthquake. You are still trying to catch your breath when you find yourself in the middle of a fight where gunshots and explosions surge from everywhere… the special effects are very effective and the whole ride is quite exciting. You have to hold on tight!

A few other interesting spots in the city:

Sunset Strip, the portion of Sunset Boulevard, known for its rock clubs.

Rodeo Drive’s luxury boutiques that stretch over a few blocks in Beverly Hills (a chic neighborhood). Not quite accessible to all, but one can always dream!

The West Hollywood Design District home to the largest concentration of design businesses on the West Coast: a must for design enthusiasts. (westhollywooddesigndistrict.com)

Venice, a district in the western part of the city, is known for its canals. Its wide and long beautiful beach is very popular with the local population. With all those while sails filled with the breeze in view, its fine blond sand, the warm water and its long wood boardwalk, it is an irresistible invitation to a few hours of leisure.

Las Vegas

Leaving the Los Angeles region, we aimed towards the arid Mojave Desert where Vegas has grown. A stop was in order!

Actually, it all started at the beginning of the 20th century, on what is today called Fremont Street, with the construction of a warehouse for goods carried by train and the auctioning of 1,200 plots of land in a sole day. Vegas was born!

The construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado, in the 30s, offered low-priced power and water in abundance, which sped its growth. It was also fed by the fact that the state of Nevada allows gambling and games of chance, which are forbidden in most surrounding states.

Fremont Street then became the heart of the gaming and entertainment industry before seeing this role taken over in the 1960s by the Strip, which crosses the city over 6 km, with many themed casinos that each outdo the last in ingenuity and size to attract the public. Today, Fremont Street offers an interesting laser light show at night amidst urban fauna that is quite wacky (we would not recommend taking kids there).

Thus, on the Strip, enormous casino-hotels with their characteristic architecture, which is usually developed around a theme, offer 200,000 rooms. Here are a few, which in our opinion, are worth a visit, especially for those who, without being gamblers, are not afraid of a bit of excess:

The Bellagio with its fountains
The Venetian for an indoor gondola tour
The Wynn for its refined architecture
Circus Circus if you have kids.

Back in California

After such a riot of buildings, and a mix of beauty and kitsch, it was with real happiness that we came back to nature on the coast, heading towards our final destination: San Francisco.

We were back on Big Sur, on the Pacific Coast Highway 1, crossing Santa Barbara, the “American Riviera,” driving through redwood forests to reach the Point Lobos State Reserve, where the last Monterey cypress can be found. A trail, the North Shore Trail, borders the coast through pine and cypress forests and promises walks where the sea air mixes with that of the pine and cypress.

Carmel

Carmel is a small town with a population under 5,000, probably the loveliest city on the coast. Founded by artists and writers, its aesthetics reflect their good taste. Its remarkable architecture and an urban plan that is rather restrictive does not even allow lampposts or parking meters on the streets.

And, until Clint Eastwood – yes, the actor and filmmaker – then mayor of the city, revised the law in the 80s, it was even forbidden to eat ice cream out in the streets.

Carmel makes an interesting stop for window-shopping or even shopping in luxury boutiques and art galleries, to enjoy good food in one of its fine establishments or simply for tasting one or more glasses of wine in its numerous wine-tasting rooms, before going down to the beach for an unforgettable sunset on the bay.

On the road to Monterey, we made an interesting stop at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo, an historical monument founded in 1770 by the Franciscans. Built near the river Carmel by the natives who lived in the neighborhoods, today it is Monterey’s Cathedral.

Before reaching Monterey per se, we stopped for a few photos – after all, it was all we could afford – at the Pebble Beach Golf Club, one of the world most famous golf clubs and probably one of the most expensive, even though we are told that it is open to the public. Surrounded by luxurious residences with a view of the sea, everything here speaks to luxury.

Monterey

We are in strawberry and Zorro’s country. And the Constitution of the United States was signed here.

The ancient Spanish capital can be found in the architecture of the houses where the green turf is replaced by the local, natural vegetation (an intelligent solution to water scarcity).

In the 20s, the Bay of Monterrey was famous for its shoals of sardines and it was quite natural for Monterey to become the “Sardine Capital”. The Colton Hall Historical Museum tells the story. And many installations also testify to that era on Cannery Row, a neighborhood where boutiques and restaurants now occupy old fishermen’s houses after they were renovated. A few boutique hotels operate next to the imposing InterContinental Hotel, all offering stunning views of the ocean.

The Old Fisherman’s Wharf, which once sheltered schooners that had crossed Cape Horn, as well as fishermen’s boats bringing sardines and whales to be processed in Cannery Row, now welcomes recreational crafts. A promenade, the Coastal Recreation Trail, has been designed along the sea and the marine sanctuary with bird watching stations.

To feel even more of a sense of the times, we recommend reading the bestseller “Cannery Row” by John Steinbeck (Gallimard). It is full of humor and tenderness!

San Francisco

What could we say about San Francisco that has not already been said other than saying that it is our favorite city out West? It is lovely, lively and vibrant. It allows itself to be discovered through leisurely walks, cycling, buses, mini trolleys or on the historic Cable Car. The sea is never far from the eyes or a few strides away.

A few musts:

Alamo Square and the Seven Painted Ladies, a row of small colored Victorian houses that are so often represented with their skyline backdrop: an image that served as a signature for San Francisco and is known worldwide.

Lombard Street, famous for its steep hairpin turns. We took the cable car up to Nob Hill and walked our way down to the street, slowly, watching the ability that drivers must demonstrate. Curiously, we haven’t seen any speed limit signs!

Union Square, with its trendy boutiques that could be considered the city centre.

The ethnic districts, among which is the immense Chinatown, where it is imperative to go on a Saturday or Sunday when the whole Chinese community is shopping, and enjoy tasty dim sum or more elaborate dishes in the numerous restaurants. We were there as the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival was in full bloom and it was quite a puzzle to navigate the maze of kiosks of food, herbs, fruits and vegetables and the dense crowd trying to find its way on Grant Avenue, where everything is offered from porcelain, fabric, lanterns and furniture, all “made in China,” of course!

The Bay area, with its Oakland art deco buildings, is home to trendy boutiques and art galleries and street trucks offering a large variety of dishes to be enjoyed on site or to take away. Fashion and trends are made here.

In Golden Gate Park, why not take a magical walk through the Chinese Garden, its colored fishponds and pagodas with a quiet stop at the inviting teahouse followed by a visit to the famous and centennial De Young Museum.

The Golden Gate bridge, itself often wrapped in fog, can be crossed on foot (almost 3 km). However, a bike is really the best choice. It is easy to bike one way and come back to San Francisco on a ferry that sails close to Alcatraz Island.

Fisherman’s Wharf, with its Pier 39 and the Cannery commercial centre where restaurants offer seafood and a stunning view of the city, run next to boutiques and small museums, Ghirardelli Square with its historical chocolate, which over the years has turned into restaurants and boutiques offering culinary specialties.

From there, ferries depart for Alcatraz Island and Sausalito and bikes can be rented.

Sausalito

Of course, we couldn’t resist the temptation to cross the spectacular Golden Gate! On the other side, we found ourselves in Sausalito, a small town where more than 7,000 inhabitants have to share a 5.7 square kilometer area… which explains the necessity of stretching their land into … water.

In fact, the Sausalito floating community was born after the Second World War, when the son of a local entrepreneur decided to invest in boats, ferries and houseboats that he anchored near his father’s property. This original installation attracted artists and bohemians in the 50s, then hippies 10 years later.

Today, part of the population lives in more than 500 houseboats anchored year round. Some of those floating houses are sometimes true architectural work of arts and treasure of ingenuity with their small, flower-covered terraces, verandas over the water and roof terraces.

Imagination and a love for the water is in the DNA of residents of Sausalito, which explains its large artistic and nautical community.

À lovely escapade!

Definitely going back!

Our jaunt through the West ended here. It allowed us to see some of the most extraordinary natural parks in the United States (see our other article), while making stops in some of the most interesting and lovely cities, big and small, but always fascinating and enchanting.

It was not our first incursion into these cities, but it was a real pleasure to visit them once more and we will go back without an ounce of hesitation. There is always more to discover and to revisit!

 

Christiane Théberge

This trip was done with a  Voyages Traditours ' group in a tour of the American West.


 

San Diego State University

The Casa de Estudillo

 San Diego waterfront

 Coronado Hotel

Giant eucalyptus, Coronado Hotel

Museum of Contemporary Art, Balboa Park

California Tower, Balboa Park

Laguna Beach

Sunset over Santa Monica

Santa Monica

One of the stars on the Walk of Fame

Grauman's Chinese Theater

Apple headquarters, Los Angeles

Venice and its canals

Venice beach

View on the Strip, Las Vegas 

At the Venitian, Las Vegas

The Wynn, Las Vegas

 Monterey's cypress

San Carlos Borromeo Cathedral

Fields in Monterey

Intercontinental Hotel on Old Fisherman's Wharf

San Francisco

Lombard Street

At the Japanese Garden

 Sausalito

 

 

  

 

  

 

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