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Catching California

Hollywood: downtown is a dump

Hollywood: downtown is a dump

If not for the fact that you know it’s Hollywood, you wouldn’t feel safe on the streets. Hollywood is really run down, dark and drab. Nevertheless, we spent the morning sight-seeing – Walk of Fame, Mann’s and an endless pursuit of the Hollywood Sign. This at least allowed us a wonderful tour of the Hollywood Hills, well known as a sanctuary for many celebrities. An affluent neighbourhood to say the least, it is bounded by Laurel Canyon and Griffith Park and offers spectacular sweeping views of Los Angeles below.

Venice Beach or Muscle Beach as it is known by some locals, is a two and a half mile stretch in this well known district on the west side of Los Angeles. Flanked by beach shops and populated with street performers this ocean front walk which they call the boardwalk, despite the fact that there is not a board in it, it is outrageously entertaining and is as close to a circus as you can get without elephants. We are here in the off season so a lot of the ambiance is lacking but we were treated to an armed arrest on the beach as the police handcuffed a local on the beach.

Established in 1890 Sequoia National Park encompasses over 400,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada portion of California. Preserving a landscape that still resembles a time before the Euro-American settlers, the park is famous for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman, the largest tree (by wood volume) on earth. It’s hard to resist the blatantly tourist activities as you pass through Tunnel Log. The tree measuring 275 feet tall and 21 feet in diameter fell across the park road in 1937. The following year an 8 foot high and 17 foot wide tunnel was cut through the trunk, making the road passable again.

The Narrow Gauge Inn, named in honour of the adjacent Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, was our choice of accommodation for our visit to Yosemite National Park. Located at the southern gateway to the park in the village of Fish Camp, it was a fitting locale to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary. The beautiful, peaceful grounds allow you to relax with the sound of a nearby waterfall and soak in the mountain atmosphere.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite can be awesome. The park covers an area of over 750,000 acres and reaches across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in east central California. It was very hazy as we arrived. Controlled reforestation burns put a lot of smoke into the air. Sun refracts badly in this atmosphere and it never became very clear. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is readily recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, giant sequoia groves and biological diversity.

The southern route through Yosemite Valley is the most visited area in the park even though it represents only one percent of the park area. Mariposa Grove is full of huge sequoias. Even though we spent time yesterday in the sequoia forests, it was still awe inspiring. Through the valley is the most impressive part of Yosemite. Reminiscent of Zion Canyon in Utah, it boasts huge mountains and towering rock formations. The area is heavily forested and quite dry this time of year.

El Capitan is a 3,000 foot vertical granite rock formation located on the north side of Yosemite Valley. This great monolith has claimed more than one life as it continuously attracts rock climbers, both professional and amateur. Possibly Yosemite’s most familiar rock formation, however, is Half Dome in the Mariposa eastern end of Yosemite Valley. Its imposing granite crest rises nearly 4,800 feet above the valley floor.

San Francisco will take your breath away – especially if you make the ill-fated decision to rent bicycles to tour this amazing city. Known for its immense hills, you don’t think about that when you are looking forward to a day of cycling in one of the prettiest cities in the United States. We did a circuit of about 15 miles – I believe we walked uphill about half of it. We started near Fisherman’s Wharf then proceeded along the bay beach to the Golden Gate Bridge with a great view of Alcatraz along the way. From there we headed through the Presidio to the coast. The Presidio is a park on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Originally a Spanish military center, in 1994 it was transferred to the National Park Service, ending 219 years of military use and beginning its next phase of mixed commercial and public use. The park is characterized by hills, wooded areas and scenic outlooks to the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean beaches.

To catch our breath we took a driving tour through Alamo Park offering a great city view fronted by Victorian houses. Alamo Square houses a beautiful park consisting of four city blocks on top of a high hill that overlooks much of the city of San Francisco. The park is recognized by its Victorian architecture that was left largely intact after the urban renewal projects of years gone by. A row of Victorian houses facing the park on Steiner Street, known as “Painted Ladies” for their bright coloured exteriors, is often shown in the foreground of city landscapes. Alamo Square has been home to a number of movies, television shows and commercials. As much as I hate to admit it, I was aware of this lovely area from the opening sequence of the American sitcom Full House. It features the family playing in the park with the famous row of Victorians in the background.

Our final destination was the famous, or perhaps even infamous, Haight-Ashbury. Commemorating two early San Francisco leaders, Henry Haight and Munroe Ashbury, the street names are significant. The Haight-Ashbury district is most well known for its role in the 1960’s hippie movement culminating in 1967 with the Summer of Love. The wayward youth of the time could not find space to live in San Francisco’s north side but were able to do so in this relatively inexpensive, under populated district. This sixties era American counterculture has been synonymous with San Francisco ever since.

With all this came a rise of a drug culture and Rock and Roll lifestyle that the Summer of Love epitomized. This scene was immortalized in song by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, creating psychedelic rock. The Haight-Ashbury district could not accommodate this rapid influx of people and the neighbourhood quickly deteriorated. By October 1967 those remaining staged a mock funeral mourning “The Death of the Hippie”. It is difficult not to have all this come flooding back as you stand at the intersection and envision the past.

Local store owners and merchants have turned the intersection into a tourist attraction, which it remains today. Stores are now retro clothing and records – yes records, not CD’s, allowing the area to maintain its bohemian ambiance.

It was rainin’ hard in Frisco…so we decided a trip to nearby Napa Valley would allow us to enjoy California and not waste time sitting around the hotel. Napa County is located north of the San Francisco Bay area. Once the producer of a variety of crops, today the region is known for producing wine on a par with France, Italy and Spain.

Wine tours? Tastings? No chance. A drive through the mountain vineyards, a flat tire and a search for a tire repair shop pretty much took care of the day. If I had only thought about it I would have realized “this is a rental!” and not wasted time looking for a tire repair shop.

In very short order, a nice Mexican threesome of men stopped to change the tire. They could have been up to no good but standing in the pouring rain and generally being a very lazy sod, I decided to take the chance. I gave them 20 bucks and a hearty thank you.

Our last day of holidays always fills me with mixed emotions. Sad to be going home but oh so grateful for the wonderful time we always have. That aside, we are going to enjoy this last day to the fullest. And oh what a beautiful sunny day it is. We traced much of the same route we took a couple of days ago but this time in a GO CAR, a 3 wheel, 2 seat, golf cart-like electric motor vehicle. It was equipped with a GPS tour guide giving us a great history lesson on San Francisco as we toured. If you stray off course, no worries, the GPS picks up when you return to the route. These Go Cars can handle the hills admirably. Not fast but what a blast. A fabulous finish to a great holiday – our first without the kids!

More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.

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