Southern California Part 1 - So Cal So Good

Rooooooad Triiiiiiip


Is it cos I'm cool?

In the days before we had a car we decided to take a Thanksgiving road trip to explore southern california. As with all road trips the two most important questions are… Sensible car hire or ridiculous car hire? What music are we going to play?

We went for the ridiculous car, a Camero convertible. And we started with the old reliables… The Beatles.

San Luis Obispo (SLO)

We packed up the convertible, pointed it towards highway 101, and about 3 and a half hours later we screeched to a halt outside the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Kitsch doesn’t even begin to describe this calamity of a hotel. Don’t get me wrong it runs like clockwork, everyone’s friendly and it’s spic and span, but the garish decor and the themed bedrooms are an assault on the eyes. However, I think that has become it’s selling point. People come from far and wide (and pay a tidy sum) to instagram themselves amongst the hideosity. If every hotel was beige and sleek what a boring world we’d live in. It’s an essential stop through California’s americana. 

"We are living in a material world"
A huge pink ‘Madonna’ neon sign greets you from the road and you know you’re about to see things that you can never un-see. We took the last room they had left, the ‘Love Nest’. The room was wall to ceiling pink, pink, pink and pink. In between the pink there was flowery wall paper, chairs upholstered with flowers, photos of flowers and a thick shag carpet, the colour, of course, pink! There was a spiral staircase in the middle of the room with carpeted, you guessed it, pink steps, going all the way up to nowhere. It looked like Laura Ashley had vomited everywhere. 

Stairway to pink heaven
Feeling like Austin Powers was about to barge into our groovy room at any minute, we took a short drive into downtown SLO and stopped at the Firestone Grill for some sloppy BBQ food the town is famous for. It’s a college town (Cal Poly) so it felt like there were lots of young people out enjoying themselves and watching sport (the yanks love their sports bars).

Higuera is the main street and worth a stroll down. There are lots of nice shops, quaint stores, pubs, restaurants, and some dinky places like ‘the soda pop and candy store’ which makes you think of 1950s Back to the Future. SLO is about half way between San Francisco and LA, and, according to some, marks the point between North California and South California. It’s got the So Cal weather with the Nor Cal attitude (I just made that up, I have no idea, I just know I like it).

The next day was Thanksgiving, obviously that’s a big non religious holiday that all Americans can celebrate, and they all do, all of them, there was no one on the streets and nowhere open. We had assumed we’d have our choice of places doing turkey dinners, whoops. After some frantic googling we found a bar that opened up long enough to make us some turkey sandwiches. I’m not American but I do like traditions, I wasn’t going to let ‘turkey day’ go by without a taste. Thanks was given, it was time to walk it off. 

Vegetarian turkey
The creek path is a famous walk to do in SLO and its gentle meandering is perfect for a lazy day. It also brings you to one of California’s famous ‘mission’ churches. The SLO mission church was the fifth in a chain of 21 Spanish mission churches that spread from San Diego in the south to Sonoma county (beyond SF in the north). They were set up by the Spanish in the 18th century acting as military and religious outposts to spread the faith and colonise the coast. They are a pivotal part of California history and still feature in cali life today (for example: 4th graders have to build Missions as an arts and crafts project, there is a neighbourhood in SF called the Mission named after the SF church, and there is Mission ranch in Carmel owned by Clint Eastwood).

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, to give it it’s full name, is surprising plain inside for a catholic church, I don’t recall seeing any statues, paintings, marble fonts and gold chalices, instead there is a beautiful simple flower mural that lines the walls of the church. The rafters are simple wooden beams painted with stars. If it wasn’t totally age inappropriate I would paint stars on my ceiling at home. I suppose the adult answer is to install a skylight. Not ideal to put a window in your ceiling when you live in an apartment block. Not sure I want to gaze at my heavy set Russian neighbour while she prepares for bed!

Back in the church, not a sinner in sight but somebody somewhere is singing Gregorian chants (maybe my Russian neighbour!). The sounds flutter through the stillness of the church. As I moved silently past the pews I came upon an open door, it led to a quiet tranquil leafy garden with orange trees, apple trees and a gentle trickling fountain. It was an ethereal moment, too delicate for this world, when in my ear I heard “Are we done yet, I’m staaaarvin”. Charming!

I took a real shine to SLO, it’s got enough going on to keep you busy but it’s ways are slow enough to feel small and cosy. For only 50 cents you can ride a trolley bus all around the town (in SF it’s 2 bucks 50 to get shouted at on the muni). San Luis Obispo is also surprisingly upmarket. I don’t know why I say ‘surprisingly’, I guess I just expect the California coast to be all laid back hippy beach towns…. That would be our next stop, Pismo Beach. It was time to stick the Beach Boys on.

Pismo Beach

Feel free to feed this bird
It was nice to walk along the pier, take in the sea and sand for a bit, have an ice cream, look at photos of the Madonna Inn on my phone, laugh, walk some more. Annnnnd we’re done! I didn’t try the seafood there but I remember some English friends, Paul and Jimmy, telling us they stayed there one time, ordered seafood, it arrived in a bucket and was dumped square on the table for all to enjoy. Sorry lads, I’m more of a food served on plates kinda girl (what a princess!).

As you go further south on the highway more and more palm trees pop up. We trucked through a town that was the home of split pea soup. They boast about it on the sign. If you’ve got it, work it baby. I nearly got whip lash when we passed a sign for a exit called Santa Claus Lane. Only in America. On stretches of road it says 'speed monitored by aircraft', I asked dom how did that work he replied “It doesn’t” and booted it up to 160 mph (kidding).

The highway brings you through parts of LA county. I found a hip hop station on the radio and busted out rhymes as I took in the signs (I didn’t really bust out rhymes, that would have been horrific for all involved). You know you’re in LA when there are road signs for things like the College of Hypnotherapy and billboards with Kardashians on them. The freeway lanes multiply before your eyes, motorbike cops whizz by a la Chips. Like everywhere in California people rarely indicate when they change lanes, however they also rarely honk their horns which is a change from angst ridden London drivers.

Finally, having skirted LA, we hit our next destination, Palm Springs. Time for some Elvis.

Palm Springs

P.S. hearts bikes
It’s a very gay ole town. We stayed in a hotel that was modern but with a nod to 1950s movie stars with old music playing and cabanas. I noticed it seemed to mostly have a male clientele, on the way to our cabana we passed a couple of older men sitting by the pool who raised their martini glasses and winked at...well... one of us!
Some like it hot!
The Movie Colony was the name of the neighbourhood we stayed in, it was so named because of all the old movie stars that lived there back in the day including Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe. 

Palm Springs is a hot hot desert town built in the 1930s. If I’m really honest, it’s not for me. The city seems popular with retirees and has lot of golf clubs to keep people busy. There seems to be one main strip called Palm Canyon Drive that has restaurants and shops. It’s also home to the oldest building in town, built in 1914 by a desert pioneer who installed a telephone and a post office, good for him. At the end of the street there is a 26 foot statue of Marilyn Monroe. What the …?, I’m not kidding.

Americans love breakfast/brunch (sure, tis the most important meal of the day) so if you want to go out for brekker you need to be prepared to queue. A few people had recommended a place called Cheekys for breakfast, we got there at 7.30am thinking we would be ridiculously early. The line was down the street. Thankfully I was pregnant at the time so le bump got us bumped to the top of the list. It was classic California fare, lots of vegan options, everything was gluten free, omelettes were egg white only, etc. Which is great and all but sometimes you just want a Full Irish with extra black pudding (for the Americans readers ‘black pudding’ is a type of blood sausage, looks revolting, tastes divine!).

"down at the end of lonely street"
For me the highlight of Palm Springs was a drive to check out the house where Elvis has honeymooned in 1967. You can’t actually go in, cos it happens to be somebody’s gaf, but you get close enough to feel a little thrill, being close to where the King of Rock and Roll possibly sang in the shower :)

We went in search of the San Andreas Fault line, turns out I can’t navigate in a desert (I can’t navigate in a city either, but who’s counting!). I’d like to also largely blame Hertz Neverlost (the car hire version of sat nav), it is constantly wrong. It uses maps of America that Christopher Columbus left behind! Sadly we couldn’t find the line, which was a shame cos I was dying to stand beside it and say “Whose fault is this anyway?” Another time.

It was time to put U2 on and head to Joshua Tree National Park (where I would relive scenes from The Princess Bride) and Death Valley (the strangest place I have ever stayed)...

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  1. Always an entertaining read! One note. . . Next time head for Avila Beach instead of Pismo. Ah, so lovely! And be sure to stop in and see us! Miss you.


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