Finding myself living in Las Vegas (long story), I decided to make a trek up the California coast and back down again, beginning in Costa Mesa, home of a dear childhood friend who graciously put out the welcome mat for me four months ago when I first landed in the Pacific time zone. From Costa Mesa, I meandered north, stopping in Hermosa Beach to have lunch with a fellow education reporter from my writing days for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Next up was a nearly 400-mile stretch to the Bay Area in and around San Francisco to visit with fellow reporters from way back, from the 1980s when I was working for United Press International in Guatemala. The best part of my California journey was seeing old friends and colleagues, but the scenery wasn’t bad either. Here are a few highlights from the trip north.
In Costa Mesa, a coffee shop called the Blackmarket Bakery very quickly became my office. It’s located in a wonderful cluster of restaurants, shops, and cafes called The CAMP, where the parking spaces say it all. Instead of numbers to be punched into a parking meter, each one has a zen-like message. Two of my favorites were “Follow New Trails” and “See the Forest.” And the pastries at the Blackmarket Bakery, especially a bread pudding made from chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and molasses toffee cookies, are delicious.
Also worth checking out in and around Costa Mesa are the meandering marshland trails of the Newport Back Bay, and Crystal Cove State Park, 2,400 acres of seaside wilderness that that includes 3.2 miles of coastline, a remodeled seaside colony from the early 1900s, and 15 miles of hiking trails, not to mention the vast selection of top-rated milkshakes at Ruby’s Shake Shack.
My next stop was Hermosa Beach, which packs a lot into its 1.5 square-mile expanse — most notably biking, bars, sunbathing, surfing, and, above all, volleyball. I’m guessing there are good eats in Hermosa at every turn. If you’re looking for a low-key sandwich shop with sidewalk seating, Gum Tree Shop & Café is a good place to go, and its turkey, tomato, and avocado sandwich with sweet chili aioli on sourdough proved to be a good choice for lunch.
Leaving, Hermosa Beach, I headed north with no agenda other than to skip some of the main attractions — e.g., Hollywood Boulevard, Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle — and to keep an eye out for off-the-beaten-path destinations, which led me to the following gems….
U.S. ROUTE 101, OR THEREABOUTS
Tucked away on a back road from Santa Barbara to Los Olivos is the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, which has few, if any, rivals when it comes to serenity. I don’t know if it was all the greenness of the trees, the slight breeze, the sparkling sheen of a setting sun, or a combination of all three, but there was something about standing on the banks of Cachuma Lake that exuded an uncanny sense of peace and calm, one that for my brief stay, forced me to shed all concerns, stress, anxiety, etc., or at least check them at the gate.
I could have stayed there all day, but it was close to nightfall, so I pressed on, driving quickly through the town of Los Olivos, a small, 2.5-square-mile expanse jam-packed with shops, restaurants, and at least 24 wine tasting rooms, before stopping for the night up the road in San Luis Obispo, or SLO, home of California Polytechnic State University and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. For my purposes, its two most important features were the Sands Inn & Suites, a relatively inexpensive and pleasant place to stay close to Route 101, and its proximity to Pismo Beach.
I love Pismo Beach. I could have stayed there for several days exploring the many contours of its 17-mile stretch of coastland, which includes, among many other things — mountainous sand dunes, cliffside beaches, and a grove of eucalyptus trees that serve as a migratory way station for monarch butterflies. This is a not a pretentious beach town. It exudes low-key and funky, and much like, Cachuma Lake, requires one to leave the BS behind, put on the flip flops and ragtag t-shirts, let the hair down, and chill.
From Pismo Beach it was pretty much a straight drive up U.S. Route 101 to the Bay Area, one that took me through vast expanses of agricultural land as well as Salinas, the hometown of John Steinbeck and the inspiration for his books The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row. I was impressed to see the John Steinbeck Highway. I don’t know for sure, but in my many travels, I haven’t seen many roadways, much less major ones, names after famous writers. Kudos to you, Salinas, for doing so.
Coming soon southbound from the Bay Area to Las Vegas