The perfect trip: California
Mesmerising views on the drive along the Sonoma-Mendocino coastal route. (Mark Read)
Take a couple of weeks, hit the road and explore the best of America’s west, from nature’s biggest, tallest and most powerful features to beautiful wineries, before finishing by heading back to San Francisco or north to Seattle.
San Francisco: Best for unusual views
Fly into San Francisco and spend a couple of days soaking it up before hiring a car and setting off.
The San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen once wrote, ‘Take anything from us – our cable cars, our bridges, even our bay – but leave us our hills.’ If one feature defines this city, it’s the 50-plus hills ranging from 30m to 283m. They delineate neighbourhoods, create microclimates and provide drop-dead vistas.
San Francisco is just seven square miles at the tip of a peninsula surrounded by the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, which meet at the Golden Gate. To see the city means viewing it from a height. Rising 281m near the city’s geographic centre, Twin Peaks is the loftiest point: the 360-degree panoramic view is the city’s best, which is why many tour buses converge here. Local performing artist Monique Jenkinson chooses a different spot. ‘On a clear day, you can see the entire Mission District and the bay from Bernal Hill – a view tourists rarely get.’
The city has a long history of being at the leading edge of performance art and courts the unusual: Isadora Duncan danced in the courtyard outside the Legion of Honor Museum and Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Angels in America, debuted not in New York, but here.
Gender impressionism is one of the city’s contemporary forms; Monique is known on the street as Fauxnique, her female-to-male-to-female drag persona, which falls under the rubric of ‘faux queen’ in current San Francisco parlance.
Underground artists like Monique step into daylight at Dolores Park, colonising the grassy slopes near 20th and Church Streets, spreading out blankets and nursing hangovers on any sunny weekend. The park presents a mini cross section of San Francisco’s population, from club kids and gay sunbathers to Mexican grandmothers and teen footballers. The downtown skyline provides the backdrop. For a glimpse of the local scene, no place else provides an easier foray. ‘On a warm evening,’ says Monique, ‘I love to grab a bottle of wine and a friend, then head to Dolores Park around sunset – and maybe sneak in a ride on the swing set in the children’s playground.’
Just across the Golden Gate, it’s hard to conceive this is America’s sixth-largest metropolitan area when you’re standing atop the cliffs of the Marin Headlands, a grassland preserve that rises 213m, with hawks and eagles soaring overhead and waves crashing against rocks below. But there, right at eye level, stand the tops of the 80-storey bridge towers, with skyscrapers reflecting sunlight in the distance.
Where to eat
Boulevard: Waiters in long, white aprons deliver ‘New American’ cuisine (read: French technique, with American ingredients, such as fried green tomatoes and soft-shell crabs) beneath vaulted brick ceilings and blown-glass light fixtures. Put yourself in the hands of the professional staff, who will expertly pair diners’ tastes with the frequently changing menu. Reservations are essential (mains from £20).
Where to stay
The 1950s-style Hotel Bohème has sheets of poetry and jazz music découpaged on hallway lampshades. Rooms have big armoires and mossie-nets-cumcrown- canopies above beds. Set in the heart of North Beach, the city’s little Italy, rooms on Columbus Ave overlook the action, so light sleepers should book in the back (from £121).
Yosemite National Park: Best for the outdoors
Out on a spur from your coastal journey, Yosemite is 190 miles east of San Francisco, four hours by car.
Understanding California requires an appreciation for the vastness of its landscapes: Yosemite is your crash course. Two-mile-high peaks surround Yosemite Valley, a river meadow sprawling between granite walls rising 900m – over twice the height of the Empire State Building.