Ella Buchan, travel journalist, grabbed a car (from us here at Auto Europe), two mates and a load of luggage – and hit the road for a Californian adventure . . .
On the congested, beep-beep roads of London or any big city, taking a wrong turn in your car can leave you with a clenched jaw and your head pressed against the steering wheel in resignation. You probably aren’t particularly looking forward to your destination (work? Tesco?) but you have to get there, and fast. Getting lost on holiday, however, can be the start of an adventure, and the chance to see something you’d never have found if you’d followed the map correctly.
This happened to Helen, Clare and I – off on a two-week girlie road trip from LA to San Francisco. Winding our way through the latter’s baffling one-way system, a road closure and queue of angry local traffic forced us onto a bridge and back across the river. Taking the first left-hand turn (signposted ‘Treasure Island’), we were brought to an abrupt halt – by the twinkliest, most awe-inspiring view of San Francisco across the river.
For a moment, we believed no one else knew about this place… Until two coaches and three tourist limos turned up and the night lit up with flashbulbs and neon T-shirts. Apparently, Treasure Island isn’t a theme park. It’s an ex-military base now populated by students – and the site of the best nighttime view of San Francisco’s skyline. We couldn’t have had a better introduction to this fabulous, fun-seeped, hippy-dippy city.
This was my first time on a bona fide, freewheeling road trip – and I loved every minute. How can you be spontaneous when you’re travelling via a series of internal flights? In our Toyota Rav4, we braved the LA freeway, lunched at Jennifer Aniston’s favourite restaurant (well, she’s been there, anyway) in Malibu and papped Paris Hilton in Hollywood.
We gasped and braked our way along the legendary Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco, stopping along the way in Santa Barbara (like LA with a deeper personality), the adorably homely Deetjen’s Inn at Big Sur and the eerily quiet funfair at Santa Cruz. After leaving San Francisco, with a heavy heart, we hit the road again – this time for a bit of glamour and gambling in Las Vegas.
We spent one night in a Bates-esque motel in the town of Ridgecrest, Nevada – a must for the true road trip experience. Then Death Valley, that day the hottest place in America at nearly 100F, gave us the chance to pose in T-shirts and caps like 11-year-olds, trek across sand dunes and attempt to top up our tans.
By the time we hit Vegas it was nearing the end of our two-week adventure, and we already had the pre-post-holiday blues. Nothing a breakfast buffet at the Bellagio Hotel and a few hands of Blackjack couldn’t cure, however. We gave up one of our four nights in the giant theme park that is Vegas to see one of the world’s most spectacular natural sights – the Grand Canyon.
No matter how prepared you are to be stunned by the sheer size and majesty of this strange pit of rock formations, your first glimpse of red rock through the trees can’t fail to take your breath away. We even managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 4.30am and, cold and decidedly pasty-faced, to watch the sunrise – breaking through the shroud of mist and bathing the Canyon in red and gold light.
On the way back to Vegas we took another wrong turn, this time into the town of Kingman, Arizona. Suddenly a sign loomed before us: ‘Welcome to Kingman, heart of the historic Route 66.’ Another trip, perhaps?