Alternative California

Done LA and San Fran? Hit the road for a new perspective on the Golden State

Alternative California Cycling through Joshua Tree National Park
Edited by David Clack

For California, the trouble with being home to two of the most exciting cities in the USA is that relatively few visitors take the time to investigate the state’s less showy, rural delights. Doable either as excursions from LA and San Francisco or full-blown trips in their own right, the following five options offer a glimpse into a California without skyscrapers, traffic lights and chain stores.

Santa Cruz

Established as a mission at the end of the 18th century, Santa Cruz is now a beach town well known for being easygoing and politically progressive. The University of California at Santa Cruz takes the lead; its students can often be found down at robustly independent Bookshop Santa Cruz (1520 Pacific Avenue, 1-831 423 0900).

All that remains of Misión la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz is the Neary-Rodriguez Adobe in Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park; commonly known as Mission Adobe (1-831 425 5849, closed Mon-Wed in winter, $1-$2), it once housed the mission’s Native American population. Down the street is Mission Plaza (1-831 426 5686, closed Mon), a complete 1930s replica. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History (1305 East Cliff Drive, 1-831 420 6115, closed Mon, $1.50-$2.50) contains information about the Ohlone people who once populated the area. The culturally inclined can visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (see p273), while pop culture fans will be unable to resist the Mystery Spot (465 Mystery Spot Road, 1-831 423 8897, $5), a few miles north of the city in the woods off Highway 17. It’s a patch of earth 150 feet (46 meters) in diameter, which appears to confound the laws of physics and gravity. Kitsch nonsense, but fun.

Directly on the beach, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach Street, 1-831 423 5590, open daily mid May-early Sept, weekends Sept-May, unlimited rides $29.95) is an amusement park that contains, among other things, a vintage carousel and a classic seaside wooden rollercoaster.

The Boardwalk’s Cocoanut Grove Ballroom (1-831 423 2053) is another remnant, with live music on weekends and holidays bringing it back to life. Continuing the beach theme, the lighthouse contains the engaging, free Surfing Museum (West Cliff Drive, 1-831 420 6289, open 10am-5pm Wed-Sun, hours vary in winter), while right outside the lighthouse is Steamer Lane, one of the best surfing spots in the state.

Fans of towering redwoods should head north into the Santa Cruz Mountains to Big Basin Redwoods State Park (21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, 1-831 338 8860) or Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (101 North Big Trees Park Road, Felton, 1-831 335 4598), which has a tree you can drive through. Also to the north, a mile past Western Drive on Highway 1, are the 4,500 acres (1,820 hectares) of former dairy farm Wilder Ranch State Park (1-831 423 9703). Centered on a quaint compound of historic Victorian houses and gardens, the park also has 34 miles of trails. Some 50 wineries are scattered across the area, most open to the public but free of the crowds that put some off the Wine Country. Two of the best are Bonny Doon (10 Pine Flat Road, 1-831 425 3625) and the award-winning Storrs (303 Potrero Street, 1-831 458 5030).

Eat, drink and stay

High above Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, the Crow’s Nest (2218 East Cliff Drive, 1-831 476 4560, mains $14-$24) offers magnificent views and great seafood. Downtown has a whole world of options, among them the hip Mobo Sushi (105 S River Street, 1-831 425 1700, sushi $3-$6) and premier Mexican El Palomar (1336 Pacific Avenue, 1-831 425 7575, mains $8-$20). On the Eastside, there’s fabulous wood-fired pizza to be had at Engfer Pizza Works (537 Seabright Avenue, 1-831 429 1856, closed Mon, pizzas $8- $15), as well as a ping pong table and an exotic array of old-time sodas. And you’re spoiled for cheap choices. One of the best is the Saturn Café (145 Laurel Street, 1-831 429 8505, mains $6-$8), a vegetarian diner that even meat-eaters are impressed with.

Santa Cruz has many dreary motels, but there are some charming spots too. The Babbling Brook Inn (1025 Laurel Street, 1-831 427 2437, $142-$317 double) is surrounded by leafy gardens with tall redwood trees. Overlooking the sea, the Pleasure Point Inn (2-3665 East Cliff Drive, 1-831 469 6161, $225-$295 double) is modern, upscale and well appointed. The Gothic Victorian Compassion Flower Inn (216 Laurel Street, 1-831 466 0420, $115-$175 double) is a handsome old B&B also notable for being one of the first medical-marijuana-friendly hotels in the US.

Santa Barbara

A well-heeled, conservation-minded coterie works hard to keep Santa Barbara handsome, almost immaculate. You don’t come here for urban thrills, but for history, culture, top-end eating and an old-world aesthetic.

Sheltered between towering green mountains and deep blue ocean, this has long been sought-after land. The local Chumash Indians lived here for 5,000 years, before the Spanish arrived in 1786 and set about building the Santa Barbara Mission (2201 Laguna Street, 1-805 682 4713, $5), one of the loveliest in the state. The current building dates from 1870 and is still an active Catholic church, although parts of it are run as a museum.

For a different historical perspective on the region, try the Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta del Sol Road, 1-805 682 4711, $6-$10), or go Downtown to the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum (100 E De la Guerra Street, 1-805 966 1601). Just down De la Guerra Street from here is historic De la Guerra Plaza, flanked by City Hall and the site of the raucous Old Spanish Days Fiesta (first weekend in August). Nearby is what’s left of the Presidio (123 E Canon Perdido, 1-805 965 0095): now a state park, it’s currently being restored, though it remains open to the public.

Perhaps the finest example of the town’s Spanish-Moorish colonial architectural heritage is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (11 Anacapa Street), complete with lofty towers, an interior covered with murals and sprawling grounds. It’s worth taking the elevator up to the top to breathe in the billion-dollar views, from the 4,000-foot tips of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the beach: not for nothing has Santa Barbara been nicknamed the American Riviera.

Two blocks away is the main drag of State Street, a strip of uppity boutiques, decent restaurants and upscale bars. Near the top of the Downtown core is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1130 State Street, 1-805 963 4364), a worthwhile display of ancient creativity and modern-day pretenders. In the other direction, State Street ends at Pacific- side Stearns Wharf. Up the coast, soft waves make Leadbetter Beach the perfect littoral playground; down the coast is the sweet, sandy East Beach. Alternatively, head back inland and take in the altogether mellower Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (1212 Mission Canyon Road, 1-805 682 4726).

Eat and drink

There’s plenty of variety here, and plenty of quality. Bouchon (9 W Victoria Street, 1-805 730 1160, mains $28) and Downey’s (1305 State Street, 1-805 966 5006, mains $32) both serve upscale menus of Californian cuisine with local wines; Ca’Dario (37 E Victoria Street, 1-805 884 9419, mains $23) offers traditional Italian cooking. At the harbor, long-time fave Brophy Bros (119 Harbor Way, 1-805 966 4418, mains $12) turns out fresh fish and justly celebrated bowls of clam chowder. More affordable fare can be found at the Sojourner (134 E Canon Perdido Street, 1-805 965 7922, mains $10), the organic old-timers’ favorite, and renowned low-budget Mexican spot La Super-Rica (No.622, 1-805 963 4940, mains $6). The city’s bar scene is busy but not especially interesting.

Santa Catalina Island

The most Mediterranean island in North America, Santa Catalina Island juts more than 2,000 feet (600 meters) above the Pacific Ocean at its highest point, 22 miles off Long Beach. Privately owned for two centuries and now 86 per cent owned and run by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy (125 Claressa Avenue, 1-310 510 2595), it’s protected from overdevelopment.

The first street you walk will be Crescent Avenue, in the tiny town of Avalon. Lined with shops and restaurants, the street curves along a postcard-perfect harbor towards the art deco Casino building, home to a theater and the Catalina Island Museum (1 Casino Way, Avalon, 1-310 510 2414, $2-$5, closed Thur Jan-Mar). Busy, wave-free Crescent Beach is a big draw, though the Descanso Beach Club (closed Oct-Apr), a ten-minute walk along Via Casino from Avalon, is a quieter alternative and is open to the public for a small fee. From the north end of Crescent Avenue, it’s a half- hour stroll on Avalon Canyon to the Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Gardens (1400 Avalon Canyon Road, $5). The 1934 memorial recognizes gum magnate William Wrigley Jr, who bought the island in 1915. The harbor views are beautiful. Perched along the harbor, the theater at the breathtaking Catalina Casino (1 Casino Way) shows first-run movies. The art deco landmark, which was recently treated to a facelift, is also host to October’s annual JazzTrax Festival.

You’ll need a permit from the Conservancy to either hike (free) or bike ($35/year pass) outside Avalon or Two Harbors, the rustic settlement at the island’s northern isthmus. There’s good scuba diving; try Catalina Divers Supply (1-800 353 0330) or, for something a bit different, consider the Catalina Zipline Eco Tour (1-800 626 1496, $89). It starts at Hog’s Back gate and, two hours later, exits at Descanso Beach, after making several stops along the way. The less adventurous can enjoy one of a variety of boat trips; call Discovery Tours (1-310 510 8687).

Eat and stay

Most eateries are in Avalon. For fairly priced fish, try Armstong’s Seafood (306 Crescent Avenue, 1-310 510 0113, mains $25) on the harbor. Want to know where everyone is scoring those saliva- inducing, ice-cream-packed waffle cones? Big Olaf’s (220 Crescent Avenue, 1-310 510 0798).

It’s no wonder most visitors are day-trippers: lodging is scarce and dear. You’ll pay to be in the thick of things, but the casual elegance of Hotel Vista del Mar (1-800 601 3836, double $145-$495), steps from the beach, and the plainer but still handsome Metropole (1-800 541 8528, double $159-$399) are worth it. Hermit Gulch is one of five campsites near Avalon (reservations required; 1-310 510 8368, $16); for others, such as the stunning seaside hike-in at Little Harbor, see www.visitcatalinaisland.com.

Stinson Beach and Bolinas Beach

The drive from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach along Panoramic Highway is long and filled with dangerous hairpin bends and sheer drops. Deer are apt to make appearances frighteningly close to the road. Nonetheless, the route is gorgeous, with spectacular views of the ocean, redwoods casting shadows on to the road and ferns dotting the ground along the way.

Stinson was only connected to Sausalito by a dirt road in 1870; prior to that, sole access was by boat, and there’s still a delicious sense of isolation. A good reason to visit is the beach itself, prettier and much warmer than San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Lifeguards are on duty May through October, and there’s a 50-acre park with more than 100 picnic tables. All-nude Red Rock Beach is a bare half mile south of downtown. Just north of Stinson Beach is the pristine Martin Griffin Preserve, previously known as Bolinas Lagoon Preserve (4900 Highway 1, 868 9244). The Alice Kent Trail leads to an observation point, from which you can see egrets and great blue herons.

Between the lagoon and the Pacific is Bolinas, a beachside hamlet far enough off the beaten track for locals to find it worthwhile binning road signs to dissuade outsiders. But if you can, navigate your way into town and to the beach, which has small enough waves to be a great spot for novice surfers: try Bolinas Surf Lessons (2 Mile Surf Shop, 22 Brighton Avenue, 868 0264). There’s also kayaking and fishing; camping, campfires and dogs are allowed on the beach. The town is a haven for writers and artists, as the Bolinas Museum (48 Wharf Road, 868 0330, closed Mon-Thur) makes clear. At the Palomarin field station of nearby Point Reyes Bird Observatory (900 Mesa Road, 868 0655), you can watch biologists catch and release birds, using special ‘mist’ nets, every day except Monday from May to late November, and on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings in winter.

Eat, drink and stay

The thing to eat in Stinson is, of course, seafood: try the Sand Dollar Restaurant (3458 Shoreline Highway, 868 0434, mains $21). A pleasant, casual, rather pricey beachside restaurant.

Bolinas has only a few choice spots: on Wharf Road, try the Coast Café (no.46, 868 2298, closed Mon, mains $18). For a pint, the Saloon at Smiley’s (41 Wharf Road, 868 1311) has been in the business for more than 150 years, and claims to be the second oldest bar in California.

Accommodation-wise, Stinson’s cute and simple Sandpiper (1 Marine Way, 1-877 557 4737, 868 1632, $140-$210 double) has rooms and cabins within walking distance of the waves.

Joshua Tree National Park

North of Palm Springs, the desert valley gives way to massive granite monoliths and strange, jagged trees with spiky blooms. These are Joshua trees, a form of cactus named by early Mormon settlers after the prophet Joshua, which they believed pointed the way to the Promised Land. The trees lend their name to the 794,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, a mecca for modern-day explorers that’s home to 17 different types of cactus, palm-studded oases, ancient petroglyphs, spectacular rock formations and all manner of wildlife. The park straddles two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado. The remote eastern half is dominated by cholla cactus, small creosote bushes and some adrenaline-pumping 4WD routes. The cooler and wetter western section is what the Joshua Tree tourists come to see.

Entering via the West Entrance at the town of Joshua Tree (the $15/car fee is valid for seven days), you’ll soon come to Hidden Valley, a collection of climbs, hikes and picnic spots stretching as far as the eye can see. There’s walking, too, with more than a dozen trails revisiting remnants of the gold mining era. The Hidden Valley mile-long loop winds around a dramatic, rock-enclosed valley, while the nearby Barker Dam Trail leads to a lake built by early ranchers; at dusk, it’s possible to spot bighorn sheep taking a sip. Try to take at least one of the trails during your visit.

Keys View, due south of Hidden Valley, is worth a side trip; on a clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico. You can also pick up 18-mile Geology Tour Road (high clearance vehicles are a must) showing off some of Joshua Tree’s most dramatic landscapes. Off-road adventures continue on Berdoo Canyon Road, which intersects Geology Tour Road and passes the ruins of a camp constructed in the ’30s by builders of the California Aqueduct.

Eat and stay

Once a cantina set for numerous Westerns, Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (53688 Pioneertown Road, Yucca Valley, 1-760 365 5956) is now a popular local hangout serving heaped portions of mesquite BBQ and all manner of live music. In Joshua Tree, locals swear by the home cooking at the Crossroads Café (61715 Twentynine Palms Highway, 1-760 366 5414), a hippie-ish eaterie that serves sandwiches, salads and the like; nearby Royal Siam (61599 Twentynine Palms Highway, 1-760 366 2923) serves decent Thai fare. The best of a so-so bunch of restaurants in Twentynine Palms is the Twentynine Palms Inn (see below), which serves steaks, chops and veggies from its own garden (yes, in the desert).

Lodgings are cheap and characterful. Yucca Valley’s Pioneertown Motel (5040 Curtis Road, 1-760 365 7001, double $50-$100) hosted actors, such as Barbara Stanwyck, when they filmed in the area. In Joshua Tree, try the hacienda-style Joshua Tree Inn (61259 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, 1-760 366 1188, double $85-$105). Built in the 1950s as a getaway for movie stars, it then drew rock star guests such as the Rolling Stones and the Eagles during the 1960s; Gram Parsons spent his final hours in room 8. Over in Twentynine Palms, skip the vanilla motels on Highway 62 in favor of funky, old-school Twentynine Palms Inn (73950 Inn Avenue, 1-760 367 3505, double $85-$155) or the 1950s-style Harmony Motel (711661 Twentynine Palms Highway, 1-760 367 3351, double $66-$77), where U2 stayed while recording The Joshua Tree. In the park, there are nine campsites (see www.nps.gov/jotr), but only two have water. Remember to drink two litres a day.

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By @JoeM_in_Ldn - Jun 14 2012

I like Sacramento, particularly as a stop off on a drive to Tahoe.
Also, if you are going for a good time (perhaps heading up to wine country) then my favourite of all is Chico. A small college town - previously voted Playboy's top US "party college". The town is full of bars and I've never encountered another tourist.
It has great scenery, rivers and lakes nearby in Bidwell Park (Make sure you check out Bear Hole - Google images). And in term-time the parties are incredible! It's also home to the Sierra Nevada brewery - you might have tried their Pale Ale in the UK but the brewery is amazing and pretty much every decent bar there serves about 10-15 of their brews. Make sure you check out Madison Bear Gardens. :)

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