California – The Weird and The Wonderful

California

In her smash-hit ‘California Gurls’, Katy Perry says that nothing comes close to the golden coast. But there’s far more to California than the beach – in fact, don’t lose any sleep over missing it all together.

Coming home

San Francisco

Entering downtown San Francisco, it feels like I’m home.

This picturesque section of the Californian west coast’s resemblance to Cape Town is uncanny: scrubby bushes and sun-thirsty aloes dot the khaki mountainside; gnarled trees grow through the sidewalks and colourful houses stand tall on hills, with city on one side and ocean on the other. It’s all at once comforting and achingly nostalgic.

San Fran’s individuality and irreverent sense of style lets it get away with ‘big city problems’ many others can’t. While finding relative quiet at the top of a steep road and overlooking the sweeping cityscape, or stopping to admire the succulents in an urban garden, it’s easy to forget we’re in America’s second-most densely populated city.

Nobody lives here by accident – especially in sections of downtown where properties fetch some of the highest prices anywhere. So what else makes having an address here so appealing, you might ask?

It’s also one of America’s most politically progressive cities, and for the most part San Franciscans are Libertarians to the nth degree.

Make that Libertarian Lite with a side of yoga – and a neatly-rolled joint. After all, California is one of a handful of states where marijuana is legal.

From the outlandish outfits people wear on any given Tuesday afternoon, to quirky sidewalk art and the Instagrammable treasures which adorn street-facing windowsills, creative and cultural expression is the secret sauce which makes San Francisco, California such a remarkable destination.

As a matter of course, the city offers some of the most rewarding people watching anyone can indulge in: Dress-suit-and-tie rushes to his next appointment, dragging his briefcase behind.

On the adjacent sidewalk, Athleisure is bobbing to his headphones while walking his tiny dog. At the traffic light there’s an intense conversation happening between a man and what appears to be his pigeon.

Even from the sidelines though, we were roped into more than a few left-of-field conversations. One brief encounter I won’t forget was with a man at a bus-stop downtown.

Uncertain which bus to take, I asked him if he was headed in our direction, to which he excitedly replied, “Prince Harry got married on my birthday!” and hopped onto the approaching bus.

These goings-on aren’t uncommon but so strange they’ll have you scratching your head wondering whether they happened at all.

All the eats

San Francisco

Although there are a few signature San Fran dishes like bay shrimp and clam chowder (the city is surrounded by water on three sides), it’s the multi-culture of flavours and culinary influences that’s the real winner for me.

Our first sit-down meal comes at Jackson Fillmore – a fuss-free, honest-to-goodness Italian eatery just a short walk from our hotel. A waiter squeezes us in at a makeshift table, restricting any sudden hand movements in case we should send any passing plates on a floorward course.

But the evening is also memorable for the food: delightfully rich tortellini baked in Fontina cheese. And when the bill arrives – or ‘check’ as they say here – it’s a total steal by San Fran’s pricey standards.

On our amble home, we count enough ice-cream parlours in one street to convince ourselves they couldn’t possibly all stay in business. We’re wrong.

And while it seems absurd to queue all things considered we make an exception for Salt and Straw, with a snaking line of superfans breaching the store’s front door. It ends up being worth every minute.

Another standout meal is at Souvla, a Greek fast-fine restaurant where I can’t say enough about their rotisserie lamb and baby potatoes cooked in the drippings.

With so much choice around, breakfast in San Fran can be positively daunting, but you can’t go wrong with La Boulangerie de San Francisco – with shops across the city. After a pastry and a cereal bowl of coffee at this reliable franchise, consider yourself the undisputed breakfast champion.

Bar-hopping

San Francisco

Between many unforgettable meals and sightseeing, we often find ourselves at bars looking for a drink – and a charge for our phones. Some drinking spots are loud and overt, and others more comparable to the living room of a dear friend who serves well-mixed drinks.

One especially cozy watering hole is the Black Horse – six bar stools and the standing room of an elevator – where a claw-foot bathtub is the icebox with a surprising selection of craft beers. Anyone for a game of darts?

Then there’s Cafe Vesuvio in Chinatown, an old haunt of beatnik legends like Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Just across Jack Kerouac Alley outside its entrance – a colourful pedestrian-only walkway – is City Lights Bookstore.

This fiercely independent bookseller stocks some rare titles hard to find anywhere else. Bar-hopping leaves us in need of a bite before heading home, and we happily discover Rosamunde Sausage Grill in Haight-Ashbury, which serve delicious handmade sausages of every kind.

The gregarious German chef clearly knows the order of every diehard who stumbles in from the Tornado pub next door.

Sites and sounds

San Francisco

We spend one gloriously still morning exploring the inner-city sanctuary of Golden Gate Park with its green lawns, lakes and flowerbeds. At the Music Concourse, a group of seniors are practicing Tai Chi between the plane trees.

In the adjacent Japanese Tea Garden we enjoy strolling the tidy pathways between an impressive collection of native plants, and also discover an arched drum bridge, stone lanterns and a beautiful pagoda.

Being Spring, our visit coincides with the exquisite cherry blossoms in bloom. But whatever time of year it is, aim to arrive by 9am with the first tour group and get a free pass.

Also in the park is the De Young Museum which houses a comprehensive collection of contemporary art, photography and textiles. From the observation tower on the rust-coloured building’s ninth floor there are jaw-dropping city and ocean views.

For natural science lovers, the California Academy of Sciences is undoubtedly Golden Gate’s best attraction. Under its massive domed living roof is a rainforest teeming with birds and butterflies; beneath which an aquarium leads through a glass tunnel to other interactive exhibits.

Don’t leave without visiting the all-digital planetarium for a fascinating look at our solar system to make you feel suitably small and insignificant.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a buzzing network of streets and alleys where bubble teashops, souvenirs and karaoke bars all vie for our attention with flashing LED lights.

In every direction we look there’s something new to see, but perhaps the best reason to visit Chinatown is the legitimately cheap and delicious food at every turn.

Discover dim-sum joints, noodle bars, and other hole-in-the-wall eateries you might only otherwise hear about while eavesdropping on locals.

One stop that hasn’t escaped tourists but is well worth it, is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where we watch the traditional sweets being delicately made by hand on a cast-iron griddle wheel the same way they always have since 1962.

But sights, restaurants and bars aside, our hands-down highlight of San Francisco is hiking the cliff-top Lands End Trail.

This 5km walk loops around the rockiest corner of the city’s coastline and features many different looks at the world’s most photographed bridge – you guessed it, the Golden Gate. The Instagram gods have our back and we’re all but guaranteed the perfect selfie by the time we’re done.

Add to that old shipwrecks, the Sutro Baths, and stunning views – fog dependent – across the Pacific to former prison Alcatraz Island – yet another nod from San Francisco to Cape Town and Robben Island prison.

If Lands End Trail is a fair introduction to the natural beauty of California, we’re in for a real treat in Yosemite National Park the next morning.

Some among them are killers

California San Francisco

Yosemite owes its name to the southern Miwok tribes, who lived here in the mid-19th century and came to be known by their adversaries as Yo-chema-te, meaning ‘some among them are killers’.

But despite its history rooted in bloody battle, you’d be hard-pressed to find any outdoor lovers who don’t have this iconic state park in California right near the top of their bucket list.

And the experience meets my lofty expectations – from the silky mist of Yosemite Falls on my face, to the dank smell of the forest where the giant sequoias grow, to the imposing granite landmarks of El Capitan and Half Dome and never-ending vistas over Yosemite Valley.

The surrounding hills at the park’s south entrance are carpeted in a kaleidoscope of spring blossoms. As we drive further into Yosemite Valley, the famous redwoods appear in numbers, filtering the mid-morning light with their branches.

Although the sun’s beaming down, some main routes through the park are closed after recent bad weather, which also damaged our accommodation in Half Dome Village.

But with the mercury hovering around freezing – cold for this late in spring – we swap a non-heated tent for a room just outside the park with some degree of relief. Yes, climate change is real.

A wilderness less travelled

California San Francisco

With limited trails and attractions to visit, we set off on the three-hour drive from our lodge to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, uncertain quite what to expect there.

In the mist of the morning, visibility is poor on the narrow road which follows the sharp contours of the Sierra Nevada mountains. But there’s no ice on the road, so thankfully tyre chains are not required.

On the drive, we take short turns behind the wheel so that each of us has the chance to admire the vast terrain below as the condensation lifts from the valley floor. It’s incredible to imagine these massive undulations being gradually carved out of rock by weather over thousands of years.

Patches of wilderness scarred by the seasonal Californian wildfires are evident across the landscape, still recovering from the devastating fires of 2017 which burnt 6000 km² of land.

Watching the Wapama and Tueeulala waterfalls plunge from the clifftop into the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, there’s a lot to be impressed about this enormous water system, which supplies large tracts of California with water for irrigation and municipal use.

Under once-again ominous skies, Hetch Hetchy is reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Rings, and the volcano of Mount Doom would not at all look out of place.

For seasoned Yosemite visitors looking to dodge the crowds, this northwestern area of the park with 462km of hiking trails and an abundance of wildlife, is a relatively quiet refuge year-round.

Re-entering San Francisco on a bus crossing the Bay Bridge, not for the first time I’m struck by the realisation that California, like South Africa, is a place of extreme contrasts – bustling metropoles and vast wilderness, city smog and big blue skies, absurd wealth and persistent poverty.

Departing San Francisco, California for my American residence in North Carolina, I have the overwhelming sense that I’m leaving home for a second time. But a much closer home that I’ll be back to visit again soon. After all, the vineyards of Napa Valley are calling.

story by Simon Capstick-Dale

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