California beyond first impressions

AMELIA ROMANOS
Last updated 14:00 11/07/2012

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Many travellers' first experience of California is Los Angeles airport.

My advice? Keep the faith, things get a whole lot better. They certainly couldn't get worse.

Rather than welcoming views, signs, cafes, help desks and shops, your entryway into the United States at LAX features unmarked hallways with dull lighting, eventually leading out on to the concrete gauntlet lined with shuttles, buses and taxis, and the sky obscured by ugly concrete buildings.

During my recent visit, another tourist commented to me that the facilities at Guatemala Airport were superior in every way.

For a state that offers wonders such as Yosemite National Park, a golden coastline stretching from just north of LA to Santa Clara County, just south of San Francisco, not to mention Hollywood and Disneyland, the airport simply doesn't do it justice.

But as I say, keep the faith.

California is one of the world's hot spots for tourism and rightfully so. For me and my travel buddy, LA's theme parks seemed like the place to start our visit and we weren't disappointed.

Far from wearing us down, visits to Disneyland, California Adventure and Universal Studios over three consecutive days spurred us on and we were ready to see the city outside the amusement park gates.

A word to the wise - transport in this city is by car. People don't walk, so planning your trip well is essential if you're on a budget.

Public transport is difficult to work out, and taxis can be pricey, so if you're not going to hire a car, it pays to do some internet surfing in advance to see what is available to get you across town and how far ahead you need to book to get a good rate.

A trip from the Menage Hotel in Anaheim to Hollywood set us back $US50 each when we booked a shuttle at the last minute - turned out we could have saved about $US40 if we'd got ourselves sorted a day earlier.

If you're going to hire a car, there are some good deals around. For those wanting to head up the California coast, most companies won't charge you a one-way fee and it's a good opportunity to drop in on some of the country's best beaches.

We took the drive over two days and, once we got used to the right side of the road, enjoyed the wide roads, the lack of traffic and the amazing views from the Pacific Coast Highway.

Among the stops we made on the way was Santa Monica, of Bay Watch fame, and Santa Barbara - both exciting, although packed because we were traveling at the weekend.

The real success, however, was an overnight stop at Pismo Beach, a small coastal township of about 8000 people.

We spent the night at the Cottage Inn, a hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean with cliff-face stairs leading down to the beach.

While the location doesn't have the celebrity of other stops along the highway, a two-minute walk down to the beach showed us that fame isn't everything - with clean, soft sand, and only a few others to share the sunset, the stop ensured that any future visit we made would be more than overnight.

Picking up the more obvious tourist track the next day, we headed to Santa Cruz to get a look at the boardwalk lined with rides, arcades and stalls.

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The ferris wheel, the roller coaster, and a group of unruly seals on the pier were great experiences, but our highlight was more unusual - a very cheap Falafel Hut, where we stopped off for lunch.

Inside we found a wall of beer bottles, including a very faded New Zealand Steinlager. Always good to see a piece of home.

The driving became more challenging as we crossed into San Francisco, and were faced with heavy traffic and unfamiliar one-way systems, while trying to navigate without a GPS. It was with some relief that we dropped the car back to Hertz - particularly since the vehicle was still in one piece.

We quickly learnt that pre-planning in San Francisco was as necessary as in LA, although for different reasons. In contrast to the theme park capital, public transport in San Francisco is incredible. With cable cars, buses and an underground train running frequently, getting around cheaply is not a problem.

Where we ran into issues was booking attractions. Wanting to make a trip out to tour Alcatraz required signing up at least a day in advance of the trip, while getting in early for cruises on the Blue and Gold harbour-circling ferries also meant getting up early to secure a place in the line.

As far as tourism costs goes, prices here stack up, and once again it's sensible to look for deals.

The Aquarium has linked up with a number of the other tourism operators to offer packages so it's a good place to go to save a bit of money.

While many international visitors head to hotels on Fisherman's Wharf, we stayed at the Renoir Hotel in Union Square - hoping for cheaper pricing in the area than the central tourism hub.

The location proved successful, with a cable car station right outside the door, and Civic Centre and good shopping within a couple of blocks.

With limited time in the state, we turned to the experts for a visit to Yosemite - a good four hours from San Francisco - and booked an overnight tour with Incredible Adventures.

Along with amazing scenery such as Yosemite Falls, the giant Sequoia trees, and the El Capitan and Half Dome rock formations, the park is home to millions of animals, including bears, coyotes, deer, bobcats, and mountain lions. Spotting a black bear with her two cubs was the most exciting moment for me.

Back in San Francisco and with just one day left in the state, we jumped on a tour bus to get close-up looks at the Golden Gate Bridge, the line of Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies, and the crooked Lombard Street - basically the opening credits to my childhood's appointment TV viewing,  Full House.

In a way the tour was a mistake. It was supposed to fill in the gaps, but instead we were left knowing how much more there was to see and do with no time to do it!

Waiting for our departure the next morning at San Francisco Airport - a facility several standards above its LA counterpart - we felt that the state of California would be well worth a return visit.

Follow Amelia's travels at her blog All These Places.

 

- Stuff

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