Thursday, July 17, 2008

MIddle Coast and Northern California

Installment Three: Big Sur to San Francisco

When the top goes down on the sports car, a few "ultimate drives" come to mind. Places like Old Whitebird Hill in Idaho, pristine stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Mid-Atlantic, but perhaps the best drive in America is the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) or California 1.  

Anyone that drives the PCH to "get somewhere" is missing life. This is the drive you make when there is simply no rush to get from point A to point B. 

At every bend there are mists, driftwood, soaring cliffs, and beautiful WPA vintage concrete arch bridges. This is California's delicate strand. It is frequently closed for rockslides, fires, and all kinds of natural disasters. It just reminds us the price to be paid to see places like breathtaking Big Sur. Admittedly, you do have to pass by "Too Cute" Carmel (see earlier discussion about La Jolla in San Diego), but you can't ignore the life size "bonsai" (the coastal cypress) trees of Monterey. This stretch of California's coast evokes something different to everyone who experiences it. To a golfer it is Pebble Beach. To my daughter it is the aquarium in Monterey. To a foodie it is six kinds of Artichokes from Castroville. For me it is the best parts of my childhood spent at the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.   

This is the place where for a few weeks of the year trees are covered in Monarch butterflies and the University of California (UCSC) just mellows out.  

When you leave Santa Cruz crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains (where old VW buses go to die) to the Bay Area, you pass through the land that Hitchcock called home (which explains why so many of his last films were set in Northern California). These are the hills where Paul Masson planted mountain vinyards. As you motor out of those hills you come to Silicon Valley's version of the Promised Land (Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga). These are the "Too Cute" little towns where the geeks that "made it" go to buy a little beater of a cottage for 2-3 million dollars. This was also the area that bore some of the biggest damage during the Loma Prieta earthquake.  

Silicon Valley was once the "Valley of Hearts Delight" and there are still a few cherry and prune orchards in the Valley to prove it. But for the most part (aside from Cosentino's food markets) the valley has now been pretty much wrecked by the computer industry.  While San Jose has worked hard to spend the computer largess to create some sort of a downtown, it for the most part, still offers no real destinations. The Childrens and Tech Museum's are fun, and Sarah Winchester's mental illness expressed as architecture, is still there for touring. But after that, the pickens are thin.  Its time to go up the Coast to San Francisco.

Along the way up the peninsula is Stanford University and some of the priciest real estate on planet earth.

Once you get to "The City" the sightseeing options are simply too many to count. A few places I think are pretty cool are a bit off the beaten path. Try some amazing Greek food at Kokkari or fabulous dim sum at Yank Sing (reservations mandatory at both). Do not miss the Tadich Grill which has continuously served some of the best seafood in San Francisco since the Gold Rush. The menu changes daily, the waiters are right out of Daschell Hammet, and they do not take reservations, so go get in line. I also suggest that you find an original "Its It" San Francisco's official ice cream treat. Probably my most touristy stop is still the Buena Vista (where the Irish Coffee was invented and perfected). I also love the De Young Museum and a bike ride through Golden Gate Park. No trip for me is complete without a walk down Maiden Lane (with a stop at the Circle Gallery - which has got to be the test run Frank Lloyd Wright used for his eventual Guggenheim Museum in New York).  At Christmas this then leads to a stop at the Padesta Baldochi Florist.  This florist had already been operating in San Francisco for 35 years when the great quake of 1906 hit.

Sadly many of my favs are now gone. Playland-at-the-beach is now crappy condos, the City of Paris at Union Square (who had the best Christmas tree in the Bay Area) is now Phillip Johnson's bizarre Nieman Marcus store (which now puts up some kind of goofy designer tree of crap under the old stained glass ceiling), and San Francisco lost a big piece of its heart and soul with the passing of the flagship I. Magnin store.

All that said Coit Tower still reigns, the Ferry building has been refreshed and reborn, and nature finally did what no man could do, removing the ultimate waterfront blight: the Embarcadero freeway.

Now this is where I must stop and put in a pitch for the much maligned neighbor to the east and my hometown - Oakland. Oakland will always have better weather than San Francisco. It has its beautiful felt covered hills, the Bay Area's ultimate deco masterpiece the Paramount Theater, Jack London Square, and its beautiful Lake Merritt. Oakland has treasures like Mill's College (with some of the best surviving examples of Julia Morgan's architecture - yes, she was the architect for Hearst's Castle!), the Chabot Observatory, and the best views of the San Francisco bay.  While you are there drive through Berkeley. Have lunch at Chez Panise and spend a night at the grand old Claremont Hotel.  

Now you are ready for the Wine Country and then back to the Coast up to Charles Moore's Sea Ranch and on to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock tortured its residents with a bunch of mechanical birds).

Installment Four will follow.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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