There’s a lot of ground to cover in California. Of course there are the big cities, but also wide open spaces, and plenty of highway in between. And, as always, we took the time to explore places off the beaten path. This state has a lot to offer, and we took advantage of that the best we could. Arriving to meet Jeff at the hotel room door (we do travel together, but he had to arrive early for a conference), I was exhausted but ready to start exploring.

I began my day by embarking on a self-guided walking tour. I had only one day to explore the city, so I put on my walking shoes, and set off soon after arriving. The whirlwind tour began by walking through Union Square – which was named for a series of pro-union mass demonstrations staged here on the eve of the civil war. It’s the hub of the city’s shopping district where many high-end boutiques, including Macy’s, Tiffany’s, and Barney’s are located. There was no time for shopping however, as just three blocks down, at Powell and Market streets, is the cable car turnaround where I took a ride on the nation’s only moving historical landmark.

I wasn’t intimidated by the line of people at the cable car turnaround, and enjoyed the $5 ride that climbs up steep Nob Hill, and then passes through Chinatown and Russian Hill before plunging down Hyde Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. The ride was well worth the wait, and was an experience I’ll never forget. After completing my first ever cable car ride, it’s a San Francisco tradition to celebrate with an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe, across from the other end of the cable car turnaround. The first Irish coffee’s served in America were mixed here in 1952, and they’re still the best in the bay area.

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Next up was a tour of “The Rock” (or Alcatraz), the bay area’s famous abandoned prison on it’s own island. After a brief ferry ride over, a fantastic audio tour guides you through cellblocks and offers an insider look at the prison’s historic past, as well as its most infamous inmates.

Afterwards, with time running out, I quickly checked out Chinatown, North Beach, Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, and finally had dinner at Capp’s Corner. I was absolutely spent, and trudged back to the hotel, fulfilled from my wonderful day with all the new and exciting sites. The rain and the booze and the greasy Chinatown streets and the megaurbanity. Not unlike Kerouac (Jack), we have to blow South in a rental, with explosive force, down the coastal highway, to Big Sur.

About 13 miles from Carmel, we crossed the Bixby Bridge – the Point Sur lighthouse off in the distance. The Bixby Bridge is one of the world’s highest single-span concrete bridges, towering nearly 270 feet above Bixby Creek Canyon. With canyon and ocean views from observation alcoves at intervals along the bridge, we stopped no less than every mile!

Big Sur spans the entire 90-mile stretch of coastline between the towns of Carmel and San Simeon. Just about everything there is to see and explore in Big Sur is right off hwy 1, which runs its entire length, hugging the coastline the whole way. Eventually the road skirts the Ventana Wilderness, crossing the Big Creek Bridge, where we ended up at Kirk Creek Campground – our home for the next two nights, our camp by the enchanting ocean. Anytime you are ever offered a camping area coupled with beautiful ocean views, your breath literally escapes you. Like most people, I’ve always dreamt of sleeping right by the ocean, so I was really stoked about this abode! All was running smoothly until the onslaught of torrential rains. We thought in no way could our tent withstand this  – but we managed to sleep soundly, and were still dry in the morning time.

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Elaborate is an understatement when it comes to describing Hearst Castle. You’ve got to assume that anything with the word “castle” in it is going to be pretty rad, and not for the faint of heart (or penny pinchers). Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst decided that he wanted to build this 165-room estate high above the village of San Simeon atop a hill he called la cuesta encantada (the enchanted hill). It is one of the last great estates set apart from corporate America, an over-the-top testament to wealth – and to the power that money brings.

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On our way from the ocean to the desert, we decided to stop here. I was intent on visiting this historical landmark because of one, sole, architectural oddity – the Neptune Pool.  My boyfriend and travel partner, on the other hand, was not so keen on the idea, especially since we were taking part in one of the things visitors (not real travellers) often do – a guided tour. As time progressed though, we both realized that it wasn’t necessarily about the story of William or any of the facts that were bombarded our way, but the amazing, mediterranean revival style and architecture. We were both blown away at how fabulous it all really was. Then it came time for the pool – exactly what I had been waiting for, the reason I dragged us on this side trip (as time was definitely precious to us). It was hands down the most luxurious pool I have ever seen. It’s a breathtaking Greco-Roman pool, flanked by marble colonnades that frame the distant sea. You can imagine that it lives up to standard when, regardless of an entire mansion, the pool is the most memorable – and photographed feature.

So far, this has been a magnificent road trip. Nothing less than our upcoming travels to Southeast Asia. Somewhere between the ocean and the desert, we decided to camp for a night in death valley. Death. Valley. It sounds more morbid than it actually is. Americans looking for gold in California’s mountains in 1849 were forced to cross the burning sands to avoid severe snowstorms in the nearby sierra nevada. Some perished en route, and the land subsequently became known as death valley. Unlike the historical forty-niners, today’s visitor to death valley drives in air-conditioned comfort, stays at well-maintained campgrounds (albeit with no trees to silence your ever so close neighbors very annoying snoring), orders meals, and even indulges in a beer at the local saloon. Our home base was Sunset Campground, in Furnace Creek. For those of you without a restop portable toilet (check out Magellans), there are toilets and running water.  After we set up camp, we ventured South of Furnace Creek to Artist Drive – an easy-must see 9-mile loop. From the highway, you can’t see the splendid palette of colours splashed on the rocks behind the foothills; once inside, though, we stopped and climbed a hill that offers an overhead view.

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Since we were only able to enjoy this amazing desert landscape for one full day, we did three different hikes back to back! – one of which included Mosaic Canyon (my pick of the three). It’s a moderate hike, near Stovepipe Wells, where water has polished the marble rock into mosaics. It’s an easy 2.5 mile scramble through long, narrow walls that provide shade at every turn.

Lastly, we took in Zabriskie Point, a magnificent panoramic view of golden canyon’s pale mudstone hills and the great valley beyond. It’s best to see in the early morning, which we did before heading out of death valley, on to further experiences of our road trip!

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After being tipped off by a friend who frequents secluded, well-hidden (as we were about to find out) hot springs, we were determined to find one ourselves. Equipped with a guidebook of these natural spas, we set off on our first search after leaving the mojave desert. The book our friend lent us did have directions, however they consisted of very vague instructions – turn left after the third cattle gate and continue down this dirt road. Turn right after 25 more miles, and you should arrive at your destination. Well, after an hour or so of attempting to locate this first spring, we gave up and continued on our way. After a couple of days in Death Valley, we were on the road again, this time heading for Fresno. It was on this 5 and a half hour drive that we decided to try our luck at the hot springs once more. After failing (again) to find our first choice, we were actually, finally able to pinpoint something – “Remington Hot Springs”!!! After unsuccessfully locating the first hot spring at Hobo Campground on the Old Kern Canyon Road, we had to first find the trail that led to Remington Hot Springs. About 2 miles West, hidden along Old Canyon Road, we found the way – a 1/4 mile hiking trail descending 300 feet to the hot spring along the kern river. Hobo encampments sprinkled our path  – and then, ahhhh, what we’ve been looking for! The mineral waters, flowing at 115 degrees, along a shaded stretch of the river. After all of our efforts to find this relaxing spot, we were not alone – bikers, drifters, naturalists, a Korean family eating kfc. They invite us in…

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The gorgeous county of Napa Valley provided us with some rest & relaxation near the tail end of our trip. Naturally, the destination of Napa creates images of wineries, vineyards, and tastings. However, because of the time and length of our stay, we had to choose an alternative. Fortunately, we arrived in time to purchase the “taste napa downtown” wine card. This enabled us to cheaply sip our way through downtown Napa without getting behind the wheel. For only $20, we had 10 cent tasting privileges at 10 wine-centric watering holes and tasting rooms within walking distance of one another. Included was also 10 percent discounts at tasting rooms. available at the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau. Before embarking on our own wine tour, we checked into our home, or shall I say motel, for the night – the Chablis Inn. The word motel carries with it a certain negative connotation, but with average rooms in this town costing more than $200/night, we opted for sleeping cheaply. We had to look on the bright side – our room was an inexpensive, clean place to rest our heads after a long day of travel, eating, and drinking.

We kicked off the night with tapas at “Zuzu”, where we shared affordable mediterranean small plates. Included were the recommended and “addictive” prawns with pimento dipping sauce for bread and “light and delicate” sea scallop seviche salad. After a delicious meal and a comfortable atmosphere, we were off to for some wine tasting downtown.

After a restful night’s sleep, we ended our time in Napa Valley by relaxing in…mud. People in Calistoga have been taking mud baths for the past 150 years. Local volcanic ash, imported peat, and naturally boiling mineral hot springs are mulled together to produce a thick, natural mud that simmers at a temperature of about 140 F (40 C). We followed our soak with a warm mineral-water shower, a whirlpool bath, a visit to the steam room, and a relaxing blanket-wrap. We were sad to be leaving such a beautiful place, but were at least left “rejuvenated, revitalized, and squeaky-clean”.

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Travelling to California, U.S.A., was really quite similar to travelling anywhere else is the world – having fun, learning a lot, eating a lot, and experiencing life. One gathers pictures and snippets of their adventures to keep with them forever. Because soaking in another country, city, or culture, I have learned, is always a moment in your life that does nothing but makes you richer.