Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip

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There are some road trips you have to do in California and that includes the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. I made a round trip, but outward journey to San Francisco was along the Pacific Coast Highway, and the return trip was along the less interesting Interstate 5.

Places I visited on my road trip:

  • Hearst Castle
  • Monterey
  • San Francisco

Other locations I had on my initial list but didn’t get a chance to see:

  • Yosemite National Park (Had to cancel because of dense smoke in Yosemite Valley)
  • Santa Barbara
  • Solvang
  • Winchester Mystery House at San Jose

Length of round trip:

6 days (I would recommend a full week to 10 days so you can really take your time). I felt rushed about at times.

Day 1

I started my trip from Santa Monica on a Sunday afternoon. Traffic was fairly light on the PCH in the early stages towards Malibu, but as soon as I reached Ventura, it was heavy traffic all the way until Santa Barbara. A delay of 1 hour and 30 mins on this section of my trip meant I didn’t have time to stop off at Santa Barbara. I finally made it to San Simeon where I stayed for one night.

Day 2

Hearst Castle was only 5 miles drive from where I was staying.

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Unlike other historic monuments I’ve been to, Hearst Castle is situated 5 miles up the hill away from the visitor center, and you can’t really see it or get there by car. You have to book a tour to see it. There are 4 tours of the castle, each in a different area and each costs $27. Once you purchase a tour at the visitor center, you can then board a bus that will take you to the Castle to meet with your tour guide.

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All tours are around 30 to 45 minutes, and they all end up at the castle exterior. I’m not a fan of forced tours, simply because I prefer to walk around at my own pace and taking my time with photos. I just went on 2 tours, the Grand Rooms and Upstairs Suites. I just felt rushed a bit and I ended up taking fewer photos because I wanted to hear what the tour guide was saying out of respect.

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It was around 1pm before I set off to Monterey, but only after taking a peek at the elephant seals nearby at San Simoen.

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The views around the PCH a little further north of San Simeon was mind blowing and it just got better and better as I got closer to Monterey. You travel on windy roads with the mountain with the ocean view on the other side. The trip between Hearst Castle and Monterey should have took me around 2 hours and 40 minutes, but instead took me around 5 hours simply because I stopped and took plenty of scenic photos along the way.

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I made it to Monterey just before sunset and checked into my hotel close to Fisherman’s Wharf. Didn’t do much that evening other than chilled out with well earned beer and a meal.

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Day 3

I had a choice to see the aquarium where they filmed Star Trek: Generations, or go on the 17-mile drive. I had been to a few aquariums recently, so 17-mile drive it was.

There are toll gates that you can get on the 17-mile drive and it costs $9.75 per car. Once you’re paid up, you’ll get a map which lists many scenic points that you can stop off. The drive is one large loop and the road is marked yellow / red and signposted along the way in case you take a wrong turn. The drive should take a few hours if you intend to stop off and take plenty of photos.

After the 17-mile drive, I set off to San Francisco. Unfortunately I had caught a cold upon arriving, so I had no choice other than rest up for the night.

Day 4

I felt much better in the morning, so it was time to check out San Francisco, even though I’ve been here so many times, but never get bored of checking out the same places. Staying in downtown Union Square area made it easier to get around by public transport so I took that option for the first day here.

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The Golden Gate Bridge was the first place I went to like other times, but this time I had a working Google Maps on my phone so getting bus routes was easier.

After a trip there, I went straight to Fisherman’s Wharf, then off to the twisty Lombard Street and finally took the cable car back towards my hotel via Chinatown.

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Day 5

I was more adventurous on my final day here and decided to get around by car only I get really nervous with city traffic because of plenty of cars, one way streets, trams, pedestrians etc. You would think I would be used to it having spent most of my life in London.

I did more or less the same with the car, and even drove down Lombard Street for the first time. I wonder what the residents on that twisty road think of all the tourists.

One of the best spots to get a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge is at Battery Spencer lookout point on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge as you can see below.

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To get to Battery Spencer, head north over the bridge, and just past the Vista point on the right, take the exit onto Alexander Avenue, then take a left so you go back towards the south of the bridge, and then a right onto Conzelman Road just before you go across the bridge. Follow the road and you should see a parking lot to your left. Park up if you can, and if it’s really busy, you might want to consider parking up further along the road at the next parking lot.

There’s a short walk on a footpath towards the lookout from the first parking lot. If you plan on spending some time here after dark, take a flashlight with you as the footpath isn’t lit.

Don’t forget there is a bridge toll of $6 only on the way into San Francisco. The bridge toll caught me out as they got rid of the manual tolls early this year to keep traffic moving so you have to call a number to pay in advance, or just wait until they send you an invoice.

Information on the Golden Gate Bridge toll can be found at the following link.

http://goldengate.org/tolls/

Day 6

Nothing exciting on this day, just took the Interstate 5 all the way back to LA.

Catalina Island

Great place to get away from city life. I only spent a day there, but there are hotels if you want to stay overnight.

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I didn’t get to experience the huge variety of activities they offer on the island, such as snorkelling, para-sailing, zip-lining and more, since I was only there for a day, but I did do a lot of walking and even rented a golf cart for a couple of hours.

I decided to use the Metro Blue line towards Long Beach, so it was an early 6am start for me, since I had to set off from West LA. Not an easy route because you have to go via Downtown LA, then take the Metro Blue line all the way to Long Beach, then its a short walk to the ferry terminal.

I do recommend booking your Catalina express tickets in advance online during summer. The ferry left at 10am and it was an hour journey.

Make sure you pack something warm if you plan to sit on the open upper deck. It can get breezy when the ferry picks up speed, but should be fine on a hot day.

Once I arrived at at the island, I took a short walk around the town, and had lunch. It’s such a funky town with lots of small stores and plenty of bars and restaurants.

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I did more walking uphill afterwards and gave up because it was just too hot, so I went all the way back down and rented a golf cart.

It’s worth doing if you want to get to some locations with good views, or it would take you a lot longer on foot.

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There’s a scenic route with is marked that you can take which is about 1 hour drive, or 2 hours if you intend to stop and take your time. There are a few rental cart locations near the ferry terminal. Usually rent for $40 / hour. 2 hours is plenty of time, and they give you the 3rd hour free.

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Just keep an eye out for “No rental carts” signs along the road, so you don’t end up taking a wrong turn, but there are plenty of places to turn around.

Grand Canyon road trip

A road trip is always nice, just I had never been on one before and was undecided what to see on my trip. I wanted to see the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park ever since I moved here, and couldn’t decided which one I wanted to see first. In the end, I choose the Grand Canyon just because there were a few things I wanted to see along the I-40 on the way back.

So, the road trip would start from West LA on the I-10, then merge onto the I-15 and finally on the I-40 to the Grand Canyon South rim. On the return trip I planned to see the Meteor Crater site near Flagstaff, Lake Havasu City, and finally, Las Vegas, then back to West LA.

I stayed a few nights in Williams, Arizona, only an hour drive from the Grand Canyon, then a few nights in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had to make do with Williams since you really had to book months in advance during summer to stay in the lodgings within the Grand Canyon National Park. As this was a last minute planning, there were no vacancies within the National Park.

It took me just one Sunday afternoon to plan all this, and my journey started on Monday morning at 5am.

Day 1

I set off at 5am on Monday to make the first hour of the drive stress free. I didn’t want to get caught up in the morning rush hour in brute force of LA traffic. I made it to the I-15 in about one hour and the drive was indeed stress free.

It took around 7 hours and 30 mins to get to Williams with plenty of breaks. It was pouring down with rain when I got to the Mountain Ranch Hotel, and I didn’t have too much hope for the weather at the Grand Canyon too as it looked like thunderstorms were present. I checked in and dropped my bags off in my room and started my final drive to the Grand Canyon. There is an admission fee for the Grand Canyon which you can get either at the visitor center in Williams or at the Grand Canyon entrance. I decided to purchase mine at Williams. The entry pass will last 7 days too which was good.

What’s amazing about the Grand Canyon is you never know what to expect as you cannot see it on the way there, not even on route 64 towards the south entrance. The first glimpse of the Grand Canyon you’ll see is only when you get there. The closest lookout point is Mather Point which is just behind the Visitor Center near the entrance.

These are some of the views that greeted me when I arrived. It was mainly overcast that day, but luckily, didn’t rain. I took these photos at various lookout points along the South rim.

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Shuttles are free and it will take you to plenty of lookout points along the south rim. You can even walk along the designated paths between the lookout points too. There are restaurants and plenty of restrooms and drinking fountains too.

Day 2

The weather was kind and hot the following day and I set off around 8am from the hotel. I spent a few hours in the west route starting at Yaki point, then work my way towards the east route towards to Hopi point for sunset. It was so hot that I had to alternate between walking and getting the shuttle between some lookout points just so I could cool down.

I packed 4 bottles of water in my backpack and my camera, and when I ran out of water, I would just refill the bottles at the nearest drinking fountain.

As you can see from the following photos, much better weather.

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Admittedly, the sunset photo below could have been much much better if I had made it at Hopi point earlier. I also accidentally left my tripod on the bus on the way there, so I was tripodless for a while until I claimed it back at lost and found.

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Day 3

I definitely would have stayed another night here, just to trek to the bottom of the canyon, but I couldn’t extend my stay because no vacancies were available at my hotel, and I wasn’t prepared to sleep in the car. Onwards to Las Vegas via the meteor crater site and Lake Havasu City. I set off by 8am.

The meteor crater site is located east of Flagstaff, just over an hour drive from Williams. There was an admission fee. I had breakfast there before setting off back on the I-40.

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Temperatures reached 110 degrees when I arrived at Lake Havasu City. I spent a few hours here walking along the beach and took shelter from the sun at one point just to have lunch before setting off again.

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I arrived in Las Vegas around 7pm. I was so tired from all the driving and walking I had done in the last few days, that I actually just had dinner and went straight to bed, honest.

Day 4, and 5

I drove to Hoover Dam early in the morning and had breakfast there and watched a short video.

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Vegas… need I say more.

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I had to pack my tripod away at the Bellagio, since it was over crowded and I had my tripod kicked a few timed accidentally by people gathering round.

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Day 6

The return home. I set off early around 6am on my final trip back to LA on Saturday and made it in time to return the rental car.

Conclusion

Definitely worth the drive to the Grand Canyon and the best road trip I’ve been on as of yet. Some people might tell you that you can just do a tour in a plane over the Canyon, but I tell you it’s not the same. You really have to feel it, breathe it and actually be there to realise the sheer scale of it, and how spectacular it really is.

I’d go see it again another day, and I would definitely recommend staying up to 3 nights, because your first day will be spent driving there.

Huntington Library and Gardens

This is a place you can really chill out. It reminds me of Kew Gardens, Richmond, UK. Huntington Library and Gardens is located in San Marino, California. There is an admission fee of $20 during weekdays for one adult, and $23 over the weekends. There are tours too onsite.

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I definitely recommend spending a day here. There really is a lot to see and you won’t be disappointed. I drove last time, and this time I used public transport this time and regretted it since you have to walk around 30 to 40 mins between the Metro station and the Gardens, and it was a fine hot day as usual.

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Huntington Gardens was recommended to me by a ex-colleague, and I have to say, it’s one of the few tourist attractions that you can really lose track of time just from walking around. It’s huge! There’s no need to rush around though, since you can sit by the benches in the garden and read a book and take a break every so often.

There are many ways to walk around, and I choose to start at the Chinese garden because it was the nearest one to get to from the entrance. It’s so authentic that you could actually be somewhere in China.

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The Japanese garden as to be my favourite.

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There are many more gardens to explorer, including the Desert, and Australian garden too.

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Make sure you have plenty of water before you walk around. It’ll get hot, but there are plenty of shaded areas around the gardens.

Natural History Museum

It’s conveniently located next to the Science Center at Exposition Park, LA. You can hit two birds with one stone by visiting the two museums here. If you need a break, you can head outside to the Rose garden.

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I recommended seeing the dinosaur exhibit and the gems and minerals. They have some Mayan, Inca, and Aztec artefacts too.

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Space Shuttle Endeavour

Just one of those things I had to tick off my list now that I’m in tourist mode. To see a real space shuttle in a museum is highly recommended.

Endeavour

The Endeavour’s current resting place is in the California Science Center located in Exposition Park, LA. You can get there via Metro light blue line (light rail), and it stops outside the Science Center. There is no admission fee to see the shuttle, but there is a booking fee of $2. The booking fee is waived if you purchase an IMAX ticket to see a movie at the venue. I would suggest booking in advance via their website since the visiting the shuttle is organised by timed visits.

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I never got a chance to see it being towed in on the streets towards the museum, and didn’t capture good close up photos of it when it was piggybacking a jumbo jet on a fly.

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Make sure you bring a wide angle lens, perfect opportunity! I had to make do with my 18-55mm kit lens only.

Enjoy!

Hong Kong 2012

Apologies, had to break my own rule by posting this in my US blog. Figured it was easier than setting up a completely new blog, and it’s a larger blog than I would normally post, but I just had lots to write about.

A trip to Hong Kong was a welcome break, even if it was only for 9 days. After the stressful hours and weekends I was put through at work recently, I finally had something to look forward to, time out with my relatives.

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Hong Kong is definitely my most visited destination, and almost 3 years since my last visit, so a trip was due. I’m not really keen on hot weather, especially where humidity levels are high, so I prefer to travel to Hong Kong between November and April where the climate is cooler. Temperatures was around 23 degrees Celsius on average so that was bearable. Most days were overcast, warm, and humid. It even drizzled a few times but not enough to stop you from going out.

My flight was over 15 hours long, but it was smooth. By far, the longest flight I’ve ever been on and first from LA to Hong Kong. Fortunately, I slept on the flight, which is extremely rare, so I felt rested when I strolled in at Chek Lap Kok airport.

Tip:
If you are travelling to Hong Kong from LA and can easily get to sleep, I recommend selecting a midnight flight. When you land, it’ll be around 8am HK time, meaning you still have a full day to enjoy.

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I stayed at my uncle’s place in Kowloon Tong, but my journey there didn’t go to plan to begin with. I had intended to use the MTR (subway) for a change, but some misfortune with a broken retractable handle on my baggage meant I had to catch a taxi. My phone failed to find any local carriers, so I couldn’t use it. Had to get a new prepaid SIM later in the day.

Tip:
Before you leave, check with your phone carrier to see if your phone is compatible for use in Hong Kong. I would recommend you purchase a local SIM from a phone store when you land. I got mine from a 3 Store, for $98HK. Includes data and call time which you can top up regularly.

My aim was to hang out with my relatives, relax and get stuck in with Hong Kong lifestyle and indulge in the food I miss so much. That’s exactly what I did. I visited the tea lounges / restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day. I visited local attractions with my relatives. I checked out the busy shopping districts in Mong Kok to buy things that I didn’t really need and visited parks and tourist spots like Tsim Sha Tsui like any tourist would.

From what I can tell, not a lot has changed, Hong Kong still remains largely independent from China, in terms of political system, ecosystem, and currency. My relatives mentioned that Hong Kong would one day be fully integrated with China’s system, possibly within the next two decades.

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Places to visit

Each time I visit, I try to do something I didn’t do on my last visit, but there’s only so much you can do each time. Here’s a number of places I recommend visiting.

Victoria Peak
The views are stunning from here, unfortunately I didn’t go this year because the weather wasn’t clear enough to get a good view.

Tsim Sha Tsui / Victoria Harbour
I’d definitely recommend coming here at night. It’s ok during the day, but the skyline is stunning at night.

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Star Ferry
Catch the Star Ferry to go from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central across the harbour and enjoy the view. They launch at regular intervals and accept Octopus cards. In the old days, the water was the only way to get across the harbour, back before the MTR connected both sides.

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Check out a beaches
If you have time, and you have your swimming gear, check out of the the beaches, such as Repulse Bay. My uncle used to swim from here to one of the distant islands and back as a kid. 🙂

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Lantau Island
Check out the big buddha on Lantau Island. I didn’t go this year, but have been on previous visits.

Disneyland
Don’t forget this place, if you have kids, they’ll love it.

Smaller Island tours
I’ve only been to Peng Chau, one of the outlying islands, since one of my relatives used to live there. There are some walking trails here.

Temples
Check out Wong Tai Sin Temple. This places can get crowded.

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Gardens
There are numerous gardens opening up all over the place. Some are just plain green areas, and others are a bit more traditional. I recommend going to Nan Lian Garden at Diamond Hill. It’s close to Diamond Hill MTR station.

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There are many places I could recommend, but I would definitely do some research and plan out some of your days before you leave.

Eating out
Hong Kong’s full of tea lounges / restaurants, and when you visit them, you’ll frequently see large tables occupied with families, with up to 3 or 4 generations at the table. This is typical and traditional for whole families to eat out and socialise together. The elders at the table can be seen slowly eating and sipping tea, mid generation chatting away with one another, and the kids happily playing with their Nintendo DS or their mobile phones. Eating out is also cheaper than cooking too, which is why tea lounges / restaurants are ever so busy. Finding a spare seat in a food court anywhere is easy when you’re on your own, but much harder in a group of two or more, because of the high population here.

If chinese food doesn’t tickle your fancy, there are plenty of options, steak houses, British, American, French, Indian and many more. There’s a bit of everything. I had a Korean BBQ in Wan Chai with my uncle and aunt.

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It seems Hong Kong has plenty of 7/11 stores, small traditional and modern noodle bars, and McDonalds. I’ve never been a huge fan of McDonalds, but my relatives love eating there so I thought I’d join them for breakfast during my stay. How many McDonalds have you been to that serve rice, or soup based pasta with chopped ham for breakfast? 🙂

MTR
The MTR (subway) is widely used to get around, and it’s low cost, if you compare it to London transport. The MTR trains are clean, fully air conditioned too and all are fitted with receivers, so you can use mobile phones even underground. I personally wouldn’t try to rent a car here. Driving here reminds me of driving in LA just on the other side, and drivers are impatient. It would stress you out. 🙂

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Tip:
The Octopus card is a must if you intend to travel on the MTR, and you can purchase them at MTR stations. What I love about the Octopus card is that you can also use it to pay for goods at 7/11, parking meters, cafe’s and many more places as well as travel. It’s basically a cash card that you can top up, so you don’t have to carry any loose change. You can top them up at electronic machines located in MTR stations, $50HK minimum.

Shopping
Modern day Hong Kong is full of shopping malls, and one of my favourite is Festival Walk located in Kowloon Tong. It’s modern, huge, over 5 floors, and has a variety of stores, including local, and international brands, such as Marks and Spencers, Timberland, and North Face. There are food courts, a cinema, and even an ice rink.

If you’re like me and into electronics and computer hardware, I’d pay a visit to the computer shopping arcades in Sham Shui Po. Be warned, these places are extremely crowded. If you’re just looking for latest fashion, then Tsim Sha Tsui is your place.

Mong Kok has a lot of variety too, but that place is packed at weekends, so I’d go during the week instead. Apparently, articles on the internet suggests that Mong Kok has the highest population density on earth. I’ve not found anything to support this claim, but I’ve been there on a weekend.

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Tip:
Avoid shopping at weekends in heavily congested areas.

People in Hong Kong can appear to be impatient, it just comes with the territory, so you’ll encounter rudeness from time to time, but in general, when they are providing a service they usually are friendly. For example, when you’re shopping for groceries or even clothes, those places love customers and they’ll greet you with a smile and ask you if you need help finding anything, which is what I’ve been accustomed to in LA.

Visitors always say that Hong Kong comes to life at night. Well, I’d have to agree. Here’s a few night shots in the Tsim Sha Tsui area.

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Overall, the trip was relaxing, and quality time spent with my relatives. If there’s something I did regret a little, was that I didn’t have a wide angle lens, and didn’t catch any night shots of the busy streets around Mong Kok, and 9 days was too short for me, considering the 16 hour difference between LA and Hong Kong.