ROAD TRIP!!! It’s the ultimate call to action that remains one of the best ways to explore a country when travelling. For some reason, the thought of piling into a beat up rental car armed with a sat nav and a bag full of snacks has yet to lose its universal appeal.
One of the most popular road trips is the historic drive up California’s Route 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway. Google it and you’ll instantly be presented with a barrage of stunning images of America’s most popular coastline. The twisting and cliff-hugging route 655 miles long and could be driven in one or two days, but where’s the fun in that? You could easily stretch it out to five days if you wanted to. With countless places to stop for both beautiful vistas and idyllic little US towns, you may as well make the most of your airfare and take your time.
Starting from the bottom and working your way up tends to be the preferred way to travel, possibly because starting in San Diego gives you the opportunity to relax after what will inevitably be a long and arduous flight from London.
San Diego is known to have the best weather in the country, and some say even the whole world. San Diego gets over 300 days of sunshine every year, meaning you don’t need to wait until the more costly summer months to get a perfect weather. The average summer temperature is apparently a comfortable 22℃ according to their local tourist board, but I was always baking. Don’t even bother taking jeans, you won’t wear them. Even in the middle of winter, the temperatures won’t drop far below 16℃, so avoid the peak prices and crowds by booking outside of the summer months. You’ll still tan.
There are 33 beaches in San Diego, all of which offer water sports (in the traditional sense) and allow a chance to top up that tan before starting your trip up the coast. Only a few of these beautiful beaches are located within walking distance of the city centre; for the really idyllic ones, you’ll need to rent a car or fork out for an Uber.
The infamous Black’s Beach is San Diego’s premier ‘clothing-optional’ beach, located about three miles north of the popular La Jolla Shores beach. It is one of the largest nude beaches in the US and is frequented by nudists and naturalists from all over Southern California. The beach is situated at the bottom of a steep climb, so prying eyes from the ocean drive won’t be checking out your dick whilst sitting in traffic.
The city itself is a great place to explore for tourists. Balboa Park is home to the famed San Diego zoo, Old Town features plenty of tacky tourists sights of when San Diego was first settled, and the city has a couple of gay/gay-friendly areas. Ok, the whole city is pretty gay-friendly, but the main concentration of LGBT establishments are in the uptown neighbourhood of Hillcrest. Just a few miles north of the city centre it offers a plethora of bars, restaurants, coffee houses, boutiques and unique thrift stores.
The so-called City of Angels is massive and can be overwhelming if you don’t have a local guide.
The first item on most tourists’ agenda will be a tour of the Hollywood hills and a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. A word of warning to those who’ve not been to LA before, Hollywood is not as glamourous as you would expect. The hills (both Beverly and Hollywood) are of course gorgeous but don’t expect glam in Hollywood itself. Follow the Walk of Fame long enough and you’ll cross paths with plenty of hookers and homeless drunks. So be prepared. Go on your tour, take the obligatory photos and then get the hell out of there.
West Hollywood (WeHo)
The LA equivalent to our Soho, WeHo is a stretch of the city that reminds you why life’s so much better when you’re gay. The borough of West Hollywood is a cool, quaint and kitschy stretch of neighbourhood that is lined with great cafés, bars, restaurants, shops and clubs.
The Abbey is WeHo’s most (in)famous club which is the perfect place to go day drinking, with hot, topless wannabe actors and models bringing you low-calorie beer. Be warned though, despite their best efforts, the Abbey has become increasingly mainstream. Which means that come nightfall, floods of straight guys in hockey jerseys appear, perving over the crowds of single girls in skimpy dresses. Time to move on to other, more genuinely gay gay clubs.
OK, it may seem like a weird topic to include. But going for a Saturday morning hike is something of an LA tradition, and a great way to get exercise and take in some truly amazing views of the city. There are plenty of trails to choose from, I did a relatively easy route in Franklin Canyon Ranch that doesn’t let you see the Hollywood sign, but still gives a pretty good view.
Pacific Coast Highway
The highlight of the road trip is when you finally hit the road and get onto Route 1. That cool ocean breeze is a welcome treat as you bid LA a fond farewell and begin your drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. On your way up to San Francisco, you’ll pass by a few perfect places to stop and either spend the night or simply a few hours taking in the view.
In my humble opinion, having made the trip a couple of times now, you’re far better spending your time and travel budget on this part of the trip, rather than adding extra days to your stay in the bigger cities. Not only are smaller towns WAY more affordable, but they allow you to explore a much more unique element of the States than just another big city. But that’s just me.
Ventura and Malibu
Just a short jaunt from LA are these two perfect pit stops on the coast. Ventura is an ideal spot to do some surfing, or stroll through historic Downtown Ventura and explore the vintage boutiques and second-hand stores, and Malibu is just several miles of gorgeous sandy beaches, piers, luxuriously extravagant weekend homes and super healthy restaurants that remind you just how close Hollywood and LA is.
Santa Barbara is a personal favourite of mine, providing a welcome respite from big cities and long car rides. With the Santa Ynez Mountains providing a dramatic backdrop, this beach town is populated by Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs that reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. For nature lovers, there’s the Santa Barbara Zoo, Botanical Gardens and Lotusland, and for culture lovers, there’s the Lobero Theatre, the Arlington Theatre and Santa Barbara Historical Museum. For booze and bargain lovers, the city’s main street, State Street, is lined with upscale boutiques and restaurants offering local wines and seasonal fare. So why not park the car for the night and partake in some world-renowned Californian wine?
Nearby Pismo Beach is another slice of Americana that accidentally turned out to be one of the best nights out of my life (it involved beer served in buckets, George Michael karaoke and an overly-friendly group of bikers… don’t ask). Known to some as the ‘Clam Capital of the World’ I’d only heard of Pismo Beach as Bugs Bunny’s ideal summer destination.
If you want to get the real road trip experience then Pismo Beach is a must. With plenty of restaurants, ATV rentals, wine tasting, fishing, surfing, skydiving, bowling and mineral springs all waiting for you, it’s a great contrast to the sophistication of Santa Barbara.
The most beautiful stretch of the highway is also the most challenging. With views like these, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road (which we thoroughly recommend as there’s a significant drop if you don’t). There are plenty of spots to stop along the way such as Ragged Point, Point Sur State Historic Park, McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach.
If you have the time, I’d really recommend taking a few days to relax and enjoy this route, but even if you don’t, the drive itself is beautiful. At one point we found ourselves actually driving through, and then on top of the clouds. It was bizarrely beautiful and one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen.
Monterey is well known for its Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. But while the town itself isn’t overly exciting, it provides a great pit stop for exploring the scenic ‘17 Mile Drive’ that offers you the opportunity to go whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, and just have a leisurely mooch around cutesie seaside villages, shops and cafes.
About an hour and a half drive away from San Francisco lies the slice of Americana that is Santa Cruz. The old-school 60s vibe is especially strong along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, with plenty of vintage goodies to be found and a charming/tacky feel that is an essential part of any great American road trip. The Wharf is a great place to start for restaurants and shops and if you have the time you can go on a whale watching boat or fishing expedition.
So here we are, at last, the gay capital of America, and some say the world, San Francisco. Despite what I said earlier about not spending too much time in the big cities, San Francisco is one place where I’d break my own rules. The city is an eclectic mix of tourist sights and hipster spots, with a healthy sprinkling of gays throughout.
So if San Francisco is gay heaven, then the Castro is the gay … Vatican I guess? The centre of LGBT society and culture is here, and the beautiful California weather (mixed with some beautiful California men) make it the perfect place to start you gay excursions in the city. By day you could spend hours perusing antique shops and frequenting trendy cafés, and by night there are so many gay bars and gay clubs that you won’t know where to start. Badlands, 440 Castro and the coyly named Moby Dick are just a few places to whet your whistle and make the most of your English accent to score free drinks (however in my experience the Americans still prefer a Scottish or an Irish accent, so if you can fake either of those that could work out better for you).
I won’t go into too much detail about the infamous city by the bay, as that would take up another 10 pages. The touristy spots could pretty much be seen in a day if you were really efficient and had an active Uber account, but like most cities, it’s far more enjoyable to take your time and really soak up the city. The Golden Gate bridge is a sight that you’ll need to see up close, mainly because most of it will be enshrouded in fog.
Fisherman’s Wharf is great for seafood and pointless touristy crap you might want to buy, and Alcatraz Island is an interesting day trip out if you’re wondering how prisoners were incarcerated between 1933 and 1963. Union Square is brilliant for people watching and Lombard street is essential for an “I’ve been to San Francisco” selfie.
There are loads of things to do in San Francisco, so just take your time, get lost and enjoy yourself after your long drive.