I recently got married – and for our honeymoon we decided to travel the jaw-dropping West Coast of the USA, with visits to Yosemite, Las Vegas and New York. This was a long-awaited dream finally come true; three blissful weeks of new discoveries was soon upon us following the best day of our lives… and little did we know, it was about to get even better.
It’s such a vast place with so much to see and do that I decided I would write about it so that I might process the experience more fully – and share some of the beautiful magic we captured there. It's an account of my personal experience more than it is a typical travel blog.
Along with my collected post-travel thoughts and photos, I am using my entries from my travel journal – I jotted these down on the road in-between stops; in the blistering heat, blinding fog, too-late rain and snow-topped mountains. The whole time looking, listening and feeling, with my husband at my side.
This is a bit of a love story folks – but I figured that’s OK.
San Francisco – Lake Tahoe – Yosemite – Half Moon Bay – Monterey – Pismo Beach – Los Angeles – San Diego – Las Vegas – New York.
It’s mixed and I’ll post some of it as I go, but Taylor Swift ‘1989’ has become really relevant, especially since we got back. You’ll find it peppering these posts – I urge you to listen. Music is a huge part of our life (it was the theme of our wedding – we both play guitar) and it was a massive part of this trip. Hours on end on the road gave us the time to build a soundtrack. This is the stuff that really takes me back.
If you like this post I would love to hear from you! I'll be writing about each place and hope to post every couple of weeks – it takes time to process each place and 3500 photos.
The Adventure Begins
We are wrecked with tiredness and emotion as we settle ourselves in for the long-haul.
The wedding was better than we could have possibly hoped for: the sun shone just in time for our ceremony, which took place down a hidden tree-lined pathway, in a small clearing at the bottom. It rained before, it rained after, but those two hours in between were warm and golden. Happy faces and delighted hearts filled the day and our minds, which were warped trying to take it all in. The day after was filled with unloading the car of all the wedding paraphernalia, hugging family and friends goodbye, thanking all those who need to be thanked. We managed a cup of tea and ten minutes to look through the photo album he made me for my wedding gift. We shed some tears and laughed, a lot. Then it was down to business. We hadn’t packed. Too much time was taken up by work and deadlines and plans. We did get it done – we finally made it that evening to the beautiful hotel we’d been booked in the whole day for. But we made it.
They say there is no place like home. I say there is nothing like leaving everything behind you. You are a phoenix, on that first take-off into the unknown, and you are rising from the ashes. The old life and all its problems – they’re just fragments of dust – blowing from the tips of your wings as you soar up, and up and up.
We fell down a rabbit hole
‘I left my heart’ sang Tony Bennett – and I know why. This city is some magic smash-up of all the things I love about lots of other cities. The architecture demands your attention on every corner, the hipster cafes and boutique shops offer warm welcomes and the history is palpable. And yet it is so entirely its own place. Brand new and utterly captivating. The blue sky here seems deeper, wider and reaches farther than at home.
Our first morning sees us taking in the local neighbourhood and we stop for breakfast at some tiny hipster café. It offers up gluten-free granola so I’m delighted. God, even the food tastes better here.
My heart feels light and we can’t wait to get moving. It’s warm on this first day as we take in the sights, walking by mosaic-covered walls and quirky buildings. We reach the famous Painted Ladies of San Francisco after an hour. A little bit less striking than I expected but still beautiful. Our legs carry us farther out to Golden Gate Park where we discover the Californian Academy of Sciences.
This place is so cool. We spend an hour wandering up the stairs that wrap around the edge of a huge cylindrical atrium housing hundreds of brightly-coloured butterflies, wing-tips flashing past us as they go. We meander down to the planetarium for a vomit-inducing spin through the solar system. After the show we wait until everyone has left before I approach the young guy in the control booth - ‘So if you’re in the pilot seat… can you show us the stars? Like, just the night sky?’ I prod. ‘It’s just we’re here on honeymoon and we’re from Scotland – our planetariums are tiny…’ He smiles at us, takes us in, ‘Oh sure, sure. What do you want to see?’
Later that night we’re buzzing. It’s started to sink in that we’re really here. We decide to head over to the baseball stadium early to check it out before the game – it’s the San Francisco Giants against the San Diego Padres. The stadium is bathed in the gold light of sunset when we arrive – it’s pretty huge. Inside we stroll our way past every kind of food and drink stall, lining every floor. Stephen picks up a baseball cap which will be his favourite memento from this trip. The scent of hot dogs fills the air and I can’t believe it when I see they do gluten-free and beer too. We stock up and follow the noise through to the pitch.
I’ve been in stadiums before but not like this. There are thousands of people here and behind them the blue of the bay stretches way out into the distance, lights twinkling on a distant shore as the sun goes down. The sound from the movies fills the air and the crowd start chanting. We laugh in each other’s faces as we look for our seats. I’m so absorbed in it as Stephen explains the rules and before I know it I’m yelling and screaming along with the locals.
The Giants win and the crowd goes wild.
Our second day starts with a misty trip on the famous old trams out to the piers. We were planning to cycle the bridge, but I suggest holding off until the afternoon in the hope the mist clears. We hit up the world's best pancake stack before we take a look around: breathing in stinking sea-lions and checking out too-quaint little shops.
Then it’s a happy stroll back to the hotel for a swim in the rooftop pool. We laze about on the double pool lounger and inevitably fall asleep. I wake to the feeling of my legs burning in the sun – the glorious burning sun that’s chased away the grey. We run up to our room to get changed and ready to hit the bridge. Within an hour we’ve made it to Pier 39, hired our bikes, and are stuttering our way through the crowds to the quiet of the cycle path. As we hit the blue of the sky and water I can’t see where one begins and the other ends.
The wind is against us the whole way – the whole damn eight miles. I fell halfway, in rather much style and I'm sure to Stephen's utter amusement, had I not hurt myself. The bruises bloomed quickly and three days on they hurt and look alien. But it didn't stop us and we pushed right on over the hills and past sandy beaches. The bridge looms and changes with every push on the pedals. Pelicans soar to our right on the breeze and crayon-coloured sails dot the vast blue.
The height of it hits us full-force as we turn onto it. Deep breaths and on we go – in with the fully-trained athlete cyclists. The wind - the wind! It whips and lashes us and we can barely stay on. As we get to the first tower we have to go around it and the wind pushes me and my bike into the road barrier. I pick it up and push around. The bay is dazzling and fills my senses entirely, but for Stephen's incredulous face.
We push on. Completely over the water with the city over our right shoulders and the green cove below smashing against the cliffs ahead, I look up - the red cables stretch on and up into infinity. The slow curve of the horizontal tension cable comes to a couple of feet above my head and between it and the top of the railing I can see the green tinged horizon. As we approach the second tower I keep my arms steady, and look up – I look the whole way under. My breath is all but gone; I look ahead and the cove moves so far beneath me as we approach the other side.
We pull in and look back at the mountain we have scaled and the city we left behind. We laugh and hug get ready to head off again. We need to keep going to catch the Sausalito ferry back to Pier 39. We curve smoothly under the bridge and soar down a winding road which carries us all the way back to the shore on wings. The gold light of the sun is soft as it filters through the green of the trees and the red struts of bridge support. We float and whoop our joy as the incredible landscape unfolds.
The memory is burned into my brain now. The light, smell, sounds and the way it’s just us. This whole way to Sausalito we barely pass another soul. We share our awe and delight that the best day of our lives has already been rivaled and we can’t believe it. This bubble in which we’ve landed refracts the light and intensifies our surroundings like a constant adrenaline hit. On the boat back we gaze out to a sun-kissed Alcatraz, distant sister to the spot on the horizon that was shrouded in cold grey mist earlier this morning.
As we head for home on the tram we’re so aware of everything that’s whizzing by us. The tapestry of this particular journey is made all the richer for the history and feeling that was shared by the humbling tram driver.
As we board the cable car the booming voice of the African-American conductor resonates through the 100-odd year old carriage as he tells us that ‘You can't ride on this car and not know why!’ Because San Francisco has proudly preserved this iconic part of their culture which was the fashionable mode of transport at its birth. The bell chimes its signal to surrounding traffic and the click-clack of the cable connection rattles beneath our feet. Look left, then right, see straight as ruler roads stretching miles and miles, straight up, straight down the undulating hills. The voice which carries the weight of history tells us how the cable runs all the way beneath the city with the cars clutching on and off at their stops. He works the back brake – solid pine wood blocks which press on to the cable – 'You smell that? That's the pine burning with the friction'. Our noses won't smell woody incense again without shooting our brains back to these painted San Francisco hills. Twilight lays down over the city in a chilly blanket and we hop off on O‘Farrell just after the noise of Union Square abates. Quick as a flash we change in the hotel and we're out again to catch the muni to Mission for a hipster, candle-lit local dinner where we are so tired we can barely chew our perfectly cooked steaks. Wine makes it worse and we grab a cab back to our dark room and blissful sleep between crisp sheets.
Our last day is short – we need to head off early as we want to stop off at the John Muir Woods on our way out to Lake Tahoe – it’s a 6 hour drive with our planned stop at an outlet for shopping and food. I throw my mind back over the eclectic buildings, people, sights, the bridge, the cycle, the awe of America. My first taste is addictive and I’m hungry for more. We go to pick up our rental and enjoy a lovely coffee next door to garage as we wait for our car – the garage assistant has popped through for her morning java. ‘This coffee is so good!’ I say. Her pearly teeth smile that all-American smile at me – ‘I know - it is, right? SO GOOD!’ And I have a flutter in my tummy remind me that we are So. Far. From. Home.
I smile and take another sip.
So we went on our way