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Sunshine State or the Smog State? : A Road Trip around the Real California

There is more to California than its supposed cinematic Hollywood disposition

There seems to be a large number of stereotypes surrounding the Sunshine State, from palm tree- lined streets to white beaches, conceptions of California are numbered and set in concrete. Movie stars, fame and fortune surround California, and particularly LA, in a trap that diminishes what the state is truly like. My experience were very different.

Although the first thing I did was exclaim at the amount of palm trees and picturesque streets, I soon found a very different story. Litter tumbled across the streets and the homeless problem, with 47,000 homeless in 2016, became quickly evident, after being asked for change three times down the same road. Add to this the metallic smell of smog and disappointing food, the eateries being mainly fast food chains scattered along the freeways, LA became a less desirable concept. A suggestion to avoid this would be to head to Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach, where you will find an artier, graffiti-proliferated scene. Here, it is easy to find the image of California that dominates the movies, where you can spend the day skating or splashing in the waves.

“Santa Barbara was as photogenic as LA was noisy, with a visit to the Old Mission reinforcing the common notion that America has no history.”

Heading out of LA, we drove up the coast to Santa Barbara, full of 15th century Spanish architecture and amazing ice cream. Here, the sun, sea and surf of the American dream really comes to its head. From surf shops and designer outlets to Spanish mosaics, the relaxed pace here was enticing after the chaos of LA even though it is just a mere hour and a half from central Los Angeles. With mountains looming in the background, Santa Barbara was as photogenic as LA was noisy, with a visit to the Old Mission reinforcing the common notion that America has no history.

After Santa Barbara, we finally left the South and drove further north, where stops at Pismo Beach and Santa Cruz showed a very different side of California, one which is better seen in the tacky shops and run-down arcades of English sea-side resorts. In these pockets of milder weather and windy sea air, pizza diners and sand-trodden souvenir shops were dominant. The only difference between these and England were a few strange looking birds at the harbour. Saying this, Santa Cruz was excellent for one reason: the whales. If you ever get a chance to see these huge animals, take it. Although most of a blue whale’s flank can only be seen by its shadow, the experience of encountering a baby great white shark, and seeing pods of dolphins and humpback whales do a synchronised swim is unbeatable. It was so beautiful that we went back a second time.

Our road trip then led us across central California, which is a four-hour drive across a brush desert. The most interesting thing here was opening the window to be met by a blast of air that felt more like it was coming from a hairdryer than mother nature.

“The giant sequoias here can reach around 286 feet, with the largest of these being the General Sherman tree, with a diameter of 79 feet.”

To our rampant relief, we finally made it to Sequoia National Park. Sequoia National Park is in the East of California, bordering the Sierra Nevada on its right flank. The most famous feature of this park are its huge trees. After vapid exclamations of “It’s a big tree!”, you begin to get the idea.The giant sequoias here can reach around 286 feet, with the largest of these being the General Sherman tree, with a diameter of 79 feet. My advice on this National Park is take your car. The scale of the National park is mind-blowing and we ended up taking the car everywhere, including the unexpected half hour drive into the park. In fact, because of this, we only covered a small portion of the park.

The next day, we drove North to Yosemite National Park, Sequoia’s more famous sister. Yosemite National Park is California’s real gem. With Yosemite Valley at the bottom and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada at the top, a picture from Glacier falls can encompass a whole ecosystem. Although the large booklet of warnings they give you on arriving may put you off leaving your bagel breakfast in the car in case it gets eaten by bears, the sheer size of Yosemite is well worth it.  If you beat the 43 degree heat and altitude sickness, you’ll even see snow. Although it is tiring to go around the park in your car, and they warn you that you may get caught in a traffic jam, we experienced no such trouble and got some great, unique pictures because of it. If you’re scared of heights though, don’t look down.

“However, don’t expect to get any good photos on those boat trips for every day will be obscured by a fog that blocks out everything, such as the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Onto our last stop, San Francisco, the mother of difficult photo opportunities and surprisingly cold weather. From the hippie district of Haight Street to the sea-lions at Pier 39, San Francisco is the perfect mixture of colour, extravagance and quaintness. However, don’t expect to get any good photos on those boat trips for every day will be obscured by a fog that blocks out everything, such as the Golden Gate Bridge. After five failed attempts to get a good vantage point, you will inevitably give up and go and look at the cute, slouching sea lions instead.

Whether it was the open topped bus that was really doing it in for us or not, one thing that isn’t reliant on good weather is Golden Gate Park. From bison paddocks, to a Japanese Tea Garden, to some of the best museums around – the California Institute of Science has an aquarium, rainforest, rooftop garden and earthquake simulator – Golden Gate park has everything you could ever want to get out of San Francisco, although coming in at 4.1 km squared, making it larger than Central Park, you might have tired feet by the end of the day.

California is a more diverse and nuanced state than the movies tell you. Rest assured that wherever you go, there will be attention-grabbing things to make you see the Sunshine State in a different way.

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