San Francisco to Carmel on the Pacific Coast Highway
Driving a convertible along the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s all I cared about for the second half- the California half (see earlier post for the Alaska portion)- of the trip I took with my Mother who others call Cindy. Regular readers know how much I love to drive, and I was not even discouraged when I found out that leasing a stick shift was not an option. (Unless you go with a vintage car- old Mustangs, Triumphs, Alpha Romeos and such- starting at $5K for 3 days.)
I found an relatively inexpensive VW Beetle Convertible through Hertz (~$300 for 4 days) and was elated- until a friend in San Francisco sent me news that the Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel had fallen into the ocean after all the rain they’d had. So. With an abbreviated coast to see and already being a frequent traveler to San Francisco myself for work, I decided to let Mom call all the shots for this part of the trip.
Here was her wish list:
1. Watch the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf.
2. Eat fried oysters.
3. Visit Alcatraz.
4. Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge.
And here is how it went:
1. As we approached the sea lions, the scent of their natural evacuation process was so strong that we decided to just get a photo in front of the statue and watch from afar.
2. I didn’t really get the oyster wish. Is the west coast known for fried oysters? Fried anything? But it was my Mother’s desire- so of course I did what I could. I asked a friend and lifelong local where were to find the best fried oysters. He told us to go to the Swan Oyster Depot. Turns out they only have raw oysters. But we ended up having such a great time that my Mom didn’t mind at all.
3. The ferry ride to Alcatraz should be its own destination. They serve alcohol on the boat- not that we had any. No – truly – we did not. But I keep track of these things. Alcatraz is on a steep rock, as you probably know. If you have trouble getting around, as my Mother does, you get to take a painfully slow (walkers were passing us) but adorable golf-cart-train all the way to the top. This is the way to go. Once there, they provide an excellent tour with good stories, including about the inmates in the cells facing the city who could hear party revelry across the bay on weekends from their tiny cages. Ouch!
4. The Golden Gate Bridge. We drove over- twice! Let’s face it- bridges are thrilling to cross. We did it once on the top of a tourist bus, and then again in our Beetle convertible. On the way to… you guessed it. Russian River Brewery.
You know I had to get in that beery destination in. And the 3.2% Endurance is a driver’s dream.
After that we visited some wineries in Sonoma, which is much more our speed than Napa. More rustic, less attitude, less corporate feeling. On Mom’s list was a winery I went to years ago and had brought back one of her and my Dad’s favorite wines that we drank together on his 70th birthday trip in Camden, Maine. She has been looking for it ever since, but could not get it. Well- it was there! We helped ourselves to some at Ledson Winery, and arranged for some to be sent home.
By then we were hungry, and I was delighted to discover that our hotel was up the road from an In-N-Out Burger.
I don’t care much for burgers or fast food- but my Mom is from Ohio, where part of the DNA is craving cow in all forms. I told her how lucky we were! People rave about this burger and travel from all corners of the world to get it! Let’s go! I texted a friend to find out what to order: the Double-Double, Animal Style. That’s just fun to say. We were excited and ready to love it! Here is her reaction:
Unlike Peter Luger, a meat place that somehow manages to surpass its hype, it was disappointing. Sorry In-N-Out fans- she hated it. I confess I would not go back either. The burgers were greasy, the fries nearly raw, and the taste nothing special- especially after a Craigie burger. My many friends who are fans of this place are so devoted- in such denial that not everyone loves it- that they believe she is overjoyed in these pictures. What? No. No- this is my Mom’s “ick” face. She’s such a sweet person that maybe you cannot see displeasure in her- but trust me. We went out to dinner elsewhere after this.
Summer of Love Anniversary
Did you know it’s the 50th anniversary of this special year? I also turned 50 this year. My parents claim to have missed the wilder part of the 60s. But I was adopted. Do the math- SOMEONE was having a good time that year! I like to believe I am the product of this uninhibited, rowdy, deliriously affectionate time. And then raised by rational, drug-avoiding people. The best of both worlds!
We were meeting some friends for dinner, so what did we do on the way? We got a snack, of course. At Zuni Cafe. It is so much more fun to travel with an eater and drinker than – um – other kinds of people.
My Mom still talks about this as her favorite place to eat in San Francisco. Well, this and the impromptu evening where we were too exhausted to leave the hotel and ate in the lobby of the Marriott. Where they knew how to make her favorite cocktail- a chocolate martini- AND they had a lovely local IPA. This is California, after all.
Monterey and Carmel
Things kind of changed at this point. We had spent over a week together and were not just still speaking, but experiencing that gravitational pull that happens when you realize you travel really well with someone. (see Mongolia with Vera post.)
When the chocolate croissants arrived warm in the basket and the Bloody Mary was made with beer we knew we would be returning the next day to this little Carmel restaurant La Bicyclette. We only wished we had found it sooner.
Pacific Coast Highway
I thought my Mom would be disappointed that we couldn’t take the PCH all the way to Big Sur. As I read the guidebook entry to her of alternate views, I mentioned the 17 Mile Drive around Pebble Beach golf course. I explained why I thought the toll was worth it. Silence. I looked up to see her eyes welling- crap! But it wasn’t for something so silly as not being able to drive further south. Instead, she was remembering that she and my Dad, avid golfers since they met in college in the early 60s, had always wanted to play this course- or at least see it. They never did. Oh yes indeed – we were going to drive all over it!
Every stretch of the PHC has gorgeous views. But frankly, unless you have a helicopter following you taking pictures, the purpose of the open top of a convertible is rather lost. The best views (and scents and sounds) of this wild coastline are visible along the plentiful pull-over parks and stretches.
The secret thrill of the convertible was not along the ocean at all- but instead within the Red Wood forests. And thank goodness we drove among these green giants on a weekday during shoulder season, because looking up while driving (as I often did) meant a lot of swerving and breaking along the dizzying switchbacks. We gasped a lot- but at the views straight up, not my driving. Do this!
Salinas and John Steinbeck Museum
John Steinbeck and my inner old man are good friends. The Wayward Bus. The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden. When I mentioned the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas (via another redwood forest drive) Mom was game!
We loved the exhibit- it has a lot of maps and clever word-play, which John would have approved. At the end was a bookstore, of course. This clever place has an area where they sell vintage books- and here is where one can buy his works in hardback. Secretly my Mom selected Travels with Charley (our favorite part of the exhibit- plus we shared a dog called Eliot for 15 years, each of us for half his lifetime- and we were feeling it). She presented it as we left.
She downloaded it so we could read it at the same time. My Mom prefers to read on her handheld device. Okay? It’s lighter than a paper book, has text size she can control, and is backlit- so she can see it. I get this.
Are you surprised that the next day- and the last of our two weeks together- was Mother’s Day? I know what my mother likes to eat, and I had researched where to take her in Monterey.
She adores Prime Rib. “Mooing” is her doneness request to servers. She never gets it rare enough. My Dad loved steak too- and as we ate our (for once!) perfectly cooked slabs we were remembering our visit to Peter Luger’s in New York for his 60th birthday.
Which led to other memories- and with the wine expanding the joy of our time together and also the impending sadness of separating the next day- we finished the evening, and the trip, with a thought we expressed many times over the years: a shared wonder of the three of us finding each other.