We had a solid breakfast in Lori’s Diner next door – more lethal coffee, and oatmeal you could hang wallpaper with, served up with strawberries and raisins. Packed up our suitcases, which had been carefully checked for size against a friend’s MX5 to make sure they’d all fit into the boot, and strode confidently to the rental car agency, only to find a long queue stretching out of the door and down the street in a chilly wind. Waited for 45 minutes to reach the counter, only to be told that they didn’t have our car ready and would have to take us across town to pick it up, rendering our route plans obsolete in a stroke. Ed’s frown deepened and my stress levels went up accordingly. This wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. Once we were taken to the car, Ed checked it grimly and loaded the cases into the boot. With some difficulty. The boot itself was the same size as the one we’d rehearsed with, but the opening to get stuff into it was much smaller. However with careful juggling and the cost of a broken watch-strap, he got it all in.
We set off with the rental guy’s instructions scrawled across the freeway map and threw ourselves into the maelstrom of traffic on the I-80 freeway.
“Where’s our exit?”
“Um, junction with I-280.”
“What? Speak louder, I can’t hear you!” snapped the driver.
“’K,” squeaked the navigator, clutching the grab handle for dear life as truck and trailer units hurtled past.
We have a code word for avoiding domestics while driving. If Ed’s speed or lane-changing makes me feel a little uncomfortable, I just flail my arms wildly and yell “Slow down you fool, you’ll kill us all!” But even that tactic failed us on the San Francisco freeway. With full concentration given to map-reading with my right eye (close-focus contact lens) and sign-reading with my left eye (long-distance contact lens), plus neck-swivelling to check for gaps in the traffic, I was too busy to remember to breathe, let alone scream.
Fortunately it wasn’t more than twenty minutes until the major freeways thundered off to the south and we were fired out like a cork from a bottle onto the exit for the coastal highway. Ed kept driving with grim intensity as pretty little towns flashed past with glimpses of pastel weatherboards and inviting cafes and rolling surf, but wouldn’t stop until there was a wide gravel area beside the highway where he could pull off with no distractions.
“Spectacular scenery,” I gasped, prising my numb fingers from the grab handle. We caught our respective breaths, took a few photos, and moved on in a slightly more relaxed state.
In another gravel area we pulled off for a photo-stop.
“Don’t Park. Don’t Hike. Don’t Climb,” said the signs. “Bollocks!” said the travellers, and plenty of other tourists were ignoring them too.
At Half Moon Bay the level of civilisation jumped a bit – they had a Starbucks in the shopping centre. We sipped our beverages outside so we could keep an eye on the car, and a creepy-looking local kept an eye on us. Jest the one eye, mind, all he had.
Further on down the road a sign warned “Speed enforced by Aircraft.” Ed looked worried. He’d been reading about the Battle of Britain and feared imminent strafing.
We pulled into the outskirts of Monterey about 4pm, a little later than planned since the messing about at the rental agency had delayed our start till midday. The helpful lady at the information centre said it was lucky we hadn’t come last week as all the hotels had been very busy and expensive, but now there were vacancies and the rates were lower. Found a nice little motel up Munras Avenue where they’re pretty thick on the ground, and settled into a spacious room with two king-sized beds and a gas fireplace!
We should probably have visited the famous aquarium. Or at least an art gallery or two. But we didn’t. We sought comfort at the nearest mall, with the excuse that we needed to get Ed’s watch-strap fixed. Found a jewellery store straight away and were served by Murray, a delightful dark-eyed guy in a snappy suit who was very happy to chat to us.
“God it was SO hot here last week – bugs came in and everything, it was HORRIBLE!” He waved his arms in remembered panic. “You’re driving down the coast tomorrow? Oh I hope it’s great weather for you. Oh God if it’s foggy that road’s terrifying. You can’t go early, it’ll be foggy around 6, 7, 8 o’clock.”
We assured him that we don’t do 6am starts, more like 10am. He clasped his breast in joy. “Oh you’ll be fine! It’s such a fabulous drive – I go down to LA for my meetings and by the time I get there, wearing my sunglasses, I just feel SO cool!”
Such a lovely chap, he even waved away any offer of payment for fixing the watch-strap.
Buoyed by such enthusiasm we ventured down to Cannery Row to find some dinner, despite the warnings in various guidebooks that the place is a real tourist trap and terribly busy and overpriced. Well chaps, the reason places are touristy is usually because they’re special, and the seafront restaurant we found on Cannery Row was definitely worth the gamble. Some so-called ‘water-front’ eateries just have a vague view towards a bit of ocean, but at The Fish Hopper, the waves were crashing onto rocks right below our table, practically splashing up at our feet. There was a clear acrylic screen from the railing to the floor to keep the breeze off, and a gas heater kept us cosy in the cooling evening air. The service was friendly, the food was good, and right on cue a huge golden moon slipped into the sky from behind a smoky range of hills across the bay. I was entranced. I hauled out the camera and attached the long lens, taking shot after shot as the lighting changed and sparkled across the silky water.
“That tasted really awful,” he complained. “It was like vinegar.”
I looked harder at the table settings.
“Darling, you just drank from the candle holder.” Honestly, I can’t take him anywhere. Later, the waiter wondered why we laughed when he came along to light the damn thing.
Out in the bay a group of seals frolicked among the kelp, sinuously diving and rolling in the dusky pink water. A flock of small birds fluttered in to roost noisily in a palm tree nearby, chattering about their day.
To round off the evening we found some dessert in the nearby Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, where a vast array of goodies was displayed to tempt the sweet-toothed. We were lured in by the apples in the window. Not crisp green Granny Smiths – at least, not outwardly. These were chocolate-dipped, then dipped again, crusted with chopped nuts then drizzled with streams of dazzling white or golden caramel. Inside the store we found trays of chocolate-dipped pretzels, oreos, marshmallows, and graham crackers. There were skewers of chocolate-covered cherries, and fat golden caramel-coated pineapple rings. We managed to restrict ourselves to buying just a few choc-chip cookies, and escaped without adding too much to our body weights.
Next morning we tracked down the dining room where a ‘free Continental breakfast’ was provided, and found a dazzling variety of morning nibbles. There were several families there eagerly tucking into cereals, fruit, juice, pastries, muffins, bagels, toast and waffles. It was self-service, though two women stood by behind the serving counter to assist patrons with any difficulties. It was an odd dynamic, as although the room was plainly a public space, people were making breakfast as if in their own kitchen at home – so there were no accepted rules of behaviour as in a normal restaurant. One harassed mother was talking to her husband on a cell phone, apparently being given instructions about what to bring him for breakfast. She apprised him of the options available and noted his choices, all the while dishing up food for herself and her little girl who was tagging along beside her. We all listened with varying degrees of disbelief as the demanding husband laid down his requirements, until the poor woman said “No, honey, I don’t think I can carry all that.” One of the serving ladies silently handed her a tray, to the relief of everyone in the room who had been imagining forming a human chain up to the woman’s motel room to pass along the supplies.
We made our 10am start, and found that the fog was indeed lifting in some areas, although we continued to plough through it at intervals along the highway. In between, we enjoyed the swooping curves of the road and glimpses of rugged coastline below us.
“Narrow bridge” warned a sign. “Narrow? That’s not narrow!” we scoffed.
Another sign flashed past. “Vista point.” I lifted the camera ready, and threw myself round in my seat to catch the view as Ed showed no sign of slowing down.
“Oh, did you want to stop?” he asked, a little too late.
“It did say ‘Vista point’, that could have been a clue,” I said mildly.
“Well I guess it’s ‘Hasta la Vista, baby’.”
Luckily hunger forced him to stop at Big Sur and we pulled eagerly into the car park of the River Inn – the first establishment we saw. This was another excellent find. There was a very attractive indoor dining room decorated with swathes of colourful material overhead, but beyond it was an even nicer area of sunlit outdoor dining. Several levels of decking were filled with tables and brightly-coloured sun umbrellas, overlooking a tree-lined river.
We enjoyed a healthy salad each, and wondered how far the group of grey-haired Swedish bikers from ‘Old No 7’ club had ridden to get here. Down in the shallow river, groups of wooden chairs were set out in mid-stream offering refreshing relaxation amid the sparkling clear water while blue jays chattered in the branches overhead.
My whining and moaning was silenced at last by a great cup of coffee at Ragged Point Espresso Bar, though I tried not to do the currency conversion to figure out it was costing me NZ $6.55. (Ha, we’ve paid more for less before! $12 for a tiny cup of cappuccino in Paris was probably the record.)
Below, Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park
We passed through Cambria in the late afternoon. “Does this mean we’ve been pre-Cambrian up till now?” asked the navigator. The driver rolled his eyes.
The strip of coastal land widened out a little further on, and we stopped to look at a seal colony and some pelicans. Then the road took us inland and became a brief freeway again as we neared the city of San Luis Obispo set among dry hills and open valleys.
San Luis Obispo was lovely in the late golden sun, though it didn’t quite match my expectations from descriptions in Sue Grafton’s books. We passed by, found the freeway exit for Avila Beach, and wound our way through gentle rolling hills dotted with trees until we reached the coast again, this time in a beautiful bay laced with long elegant piers. I had decided to visit Avila Beach solely because Avila is the middle name of most of the women in my family and I figured a t-shirt might be nice.
From out on the main pier we could see the Inn at Avila Beach – the hotel I’d checked out online after reading rave reviews in the guide books. We headed straight there, liking the look of the smoky-pink three-storey building perched on a low cliff above the beach. Despite just walking in off the street we were able to get an ocean-front room for US$150, and the extra $50 over the cost of a standard room was worth the splurge for that view. Our eyes popped at the four-poster bed, the balcony with comfy sun-lounger, and the stunning expanse of rolling surf just a stone’s throw away across the road. Stacked on the bedside table were diaries of the room, with comments from everyone who had used it for the past few years. All the entries were glowing with satisfaction.
Next morning the TV news revealed that there had been a serious shark attack on a swimmer the previous night at Monterey Bay, just up the coast where we’d stayed the night before. Now we understood the news crew’s presence – they’d probably been shooting footage of the site of the last fatal shark attack in the US, right here on this very beach. Gulp.