Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys

It's better when you're not alone
16th December 2010


Back to the index >


We were up and awake early this morning with a mixture of excitement and anxiousness. Ahead of us today was over two hundred miles of driving on the wrong side of the road up to Cambria, a seaside town almost exactly half way between LA and San Francisco.

After coffee and croissants in our room we left the Mondrian and were picked up for our pre-arranged a transfer back to the airport. After being dropped off at the departures terminal (he wouldn't take us to the car rental depot; it wasn't on his delivery schedule) we caught a free shuttle bus to Alamo Car Hire office.

Once we paid $12 for a Garman NuiVi Satellite Navigation GPS system, $58 for a tank full of cheap petrol and an extra $68 for an extra day's hire (they only had us down for 24 hours) we were told to walk out to the parking lot and help ourselves. All the cars were left open with the keys in the ignition!

As we had paid for a convertible Chrysler Seebring the only decision we had to make was which colour. We flagged down a member of staff, not to help us choose between silver or gold but to show us how to operate the retractable roof. It was actually really straightforward but he did alert us to the fact that with the roof stowed away neatly in the trunk there wasn't a cat's chance in hell of us getting our luggage in there.

So with our suitcases safely strapped in the back seats I turned the key, started the engine then looked down to my left to try find the gear stick only to grasp the door handle. It didn't give Julie much confidence in my driving abilities. Thankfully the car was an automatic so I didn't have to shift gear that often, only to change from reverse to fast forward. At least the brake and the accelerator were operated by the right leg just the same as home.

The little box on our dashboard, carefully programmed with the coordinates of our hotel in Cambria, guided us out of the car park and onto the streets of Los Angeles.

After a few right turns and a set of traffic lights we were suddenly thrown into the thick of it. We found ourselves in the middle of the busy and fast flowing Highway 101.

I had hoped to have turned off for Santa Monica and follow Highway 1 along the coast through Malibu but to be honest with you I was too busy shitting myself in the narrow middle lane trying not to drift too near the white line or hit the car in front and cause a multiple car pile up.

It was taking every ounce of effort to focus on the drive that I found it incredibly draining. It was physically demanding. I was holding on so hard to the steering wheel that my arms and shoulders were aching.

Julie would have been climbing the roof if we had one.

There were moments where she was literally scared stiff and she would hold herself rigid and shout "Watch out!" fearing a collision. I was sensibly keeping a safe distance between us and the car in front but it kept on being filled.

Not once did I attempt to overtake. I just stayed in lane and went with the flow. We noticed the outside lane was reserved for Carpool. There's no such concept in the UK so we were unsure if we were permitted to use it or not.

Turns out that the Carpool lane was designed to encourage commuters to share the ride.


It was obviously not working because the lane was completely empty. All the cars on the road were driven by the solitary person. We should have taken advantage of there being two of us but the warning signs threatening $1000 fines put us right off. That and we were too traumatised to move out of our lane.

The intensity didn't last forever.  It wasn't long before the traffic began to thin out.

With the worst of it over I started to relax and enjoy the drive, especially when we met the coastline. The roof was down, the sun was shinning, we had Country & Western playing on the radio and the Pacific Ocean was lapping gently against the shore. This was the drive I had dreamt about, although perhaps not to the Dolly Parton soundtrack!

Even Julie had settled down enough to take a few photographs.


Highway 1 soon became 101 as we followed the SatNav dilligently. When we were nearing the city of Santa Barbara, two hours after leaving LA the Sat Nav came to life again. It had gone mute since we had got onto the 101.

The authoritative voice told us to turn right. We immediately did as we were told and turned off the highway..... at the wrong junction!

I hadn't looked at the screen which would have clearly showed the junction was a few hundred yards further down the road. Nevermind, it wasn't a reason to get worried.

We and just needed to allow the sat nav some time to recalibrate and show us the way back onto our route. Cruising slowly through a residential area waiting to be told which way to turn next Julie spotted a cafe.

"Fancy lunch?" she asked.

As it happened it was 12pm the official start of lunch time so we pulled up. It was called The Natural Cafe and Juice Bar which sounded very healthy.

When we stepped inside a fat golden Chinese dancing Buddha welcomed us. Julie and I then looked at each other in disbelief. It was as if we were meant to be here. It wasn't a mistake that we turned off at the wrong junction, as if we were fulfilling our destiny.

We had just stumbled across a vegetarian cafe!

Well, it wasn't a totally meat-free menu, they did have a few non-veggie dishes but for once I was spoilt for choice.

Julie and I both went for the tofu hot dogs.

Hers was called a Dalai Dog which was pretty much a standard hot dog. I went for the Zog Dog which was a pimped up "open" dog covered with chilli beans & cheese. Delicious.

A portion of beetroot tortilla chips with salsa and hummus finished off a very tasty lunch.

"That was just perfect" I purred.

Although Julie didn't admit it but I got this feeling that she slightly regretted her choice and would have preferred the Gobbler turkey burger!

Back in the car and back on the (right) road we headed North.

It wasn't long before we were being told to turn off again. This time we made sure we took the right junction. The Sat Nav was taking us away from Highway 101 and onto the 154 towards the hills of the Santa Ynez mountains and a shortcut through San Marcos Pass.

Apparently much of the film Sideways about a road trip through California's wine country was filmed in the Santa Ynez Valley.

It was certainly a much more scenic drive than most of the 101.

Lake Cachuma, Santa Ynez Valley

We drove past Lake Cachuma a reservoir and recreational area, although there wasn't much water sports going on. In some areas the water level looked very low. It looked more mid-summer drought than mid-winter swell.

Tired of songs about people loving their horses we moved away from the Country & Western and flicked through the various stations on our Sirius satellite digital radio when to our surprise we found the UK's very own Radio 1. It was really strange listening to Scott Mills whilst driving through California.

It was obviously on a time delay as he usually does 4pm to 7pm timeslot at home. We worked out that it was set to rebroadcast between 4pm to 7pm Eastern Standard Time so that the if you were in New York the times would be in sync.

But over here on Pacific Standard Time or PST where we were three hours behind EST, listening to the 5pm (that's GMT) news from the BBC which actually happened five hours ago as it was now 10pm back in the UK but it was 2pm over here. It all got a bit too confusing that we had to stop thinking about all the time differences for fear of bringing on a seizure.

Anyway, the news was warning of severe weather in the UK. Heavy snow and freezing conditions were threatening airport closures.

"Oh no! Here we go again" said Julie. It was the same story in January when we were in Cuba and the UK descended into a deep freeze. At least we got an extra day in an all inclusive!

After the news we switched channels because the music on Radio 1 was absolute drivel. Back to back inferior nauseating dance music. The next we found wasn't much better. It was Howard Stern's radio station which was absolute rubbish. I don't know if it was Howard Stern himself or a cheap clone but the topic of conversation was just so inane and peppered with profanity that it became tedious to listen to. We flicked on and settled on a rock radio. That was more like it.

We soon rejoined Highway 101 continuing on our journey North for another fifty miles until we reached the town of San Luis Obispo. This is where we turned off and drove for first time on the Pacific Coast Highway proper.

We reached the coast at Morro Bay and some twenty minutes later we had reached our final destination Cambria. Being half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco made it a perfect stop over but the name also drew us here.

It's what the Romans would have called Wales because it's the Latinised version of Cymru (that's Wales in the Welsh language). It was a little disappointing to learn that other than the name it didn't really have much connection to Wales.

It's not like I was hoping to find a little Patagonia on the California coast but it would have been nice to have some bond with the town.

I read that in the 19th century it attracted miners to excavate mercury from the surrounding area but whilst a large proportion of Welshmen were miners it didn't make most miners Welsh!

A local historian explained that it was originally known as Slab Town until 1869 when the community renamed it Cambria and it was apparently down to a local surveyor originally from a county called Cambria in Pennsylvania, which of course has a more direct link to Welsh migrants.

With some difficulty and confusion we pulled off Highway 1. It was the first left turn that I had to make since leaving LA and the whole driving on the wrong side of the road thing flummoxed me.

After briefly driving towards oncoming traffic I recalibrated myself and we drove slowly and safely down towards the bay and Moonstone Beach.

Our hotel, The Blue Dolphin Inn, was located down here on the bay. The Sat Nav did show us where it should have been but we actually drove past it. We turned around and tried again. "Aha, it must be that blue one over there" I said.

It wasn't, it was the beige one next door. The Beige Walrus Inn didn't have the same ring to it.

It felt good to finally park up. Time to unwind and relax.

The main entrance was at the back which is why it didn't look like a hotel from the front. A charming bubbly receptionist checked us in and showed us to our room.

I specifically booked a room called Anaho Bay, it was at the front with views over Moonstone Beach and the Pacific Ocean, ideal for watching the sunset.

The room was nicely decorated with few Polynesian touches and a large four poster bed adding to its attraction.

I had also ordered a bottle of champagne in the room for our arrival which was the perfect touch. It was waiting for us chilling on ice next to the bamboo chairs in the window.

We dumped our luggage by the door and headed straight for the fizz and popped the cork.

"Cheers!" we said in unison and raised our beautifully designed glasses to a "Happy Thursday".

Clink. Glug. Glug. Mmmm.

The sparkling wine tasted superb. I was expecting a Californian wine but we had a real French import, Brut Chardonnay Crémant de Bourgogne les Acacias, still technically not a champagne but as good as.

The bamboo chairs were surprisingly comfortable and we both felt the most relaxed we'd been all trip.

The weather wasn't promising a stunning sunset so after finishing our torpedo shaped glasses of beautiful bubbly we decided to head out for a walk along the bay.

We walked arm in arm down the wooden boardwalk along the length of the pretty Moonstone Beach.

"It's just like Rhosneigr" said Julie and she had a point. It looked very similar to the rugged coastline of Anglesey. "Only without the whales" I added.

The annual grey whale migration takes place around now as they leave the Bering Sea off Alaska heading down to the warm and fertile waters off Baja California in Mexico. There weren't any to be seen from where we stood. Not that we were expecting to see any from shore.

Elephant Seals, Cambria, California

Local wildlife however wasn't far away. On the rocks a little bit out into the bay was a colony of seals lounging around.

Cambria is known for its Elephant Seals but I couldn't tell you if these were that variety. They may all have been females because it's the distinctive large trunk-like snout of the male that gives them there name.

There was a viewing point that took us a bit closer where we stood watching them for quite some time.

It wasn't that they were doing anything particularly entertaining, like balancing a ball or jumping through hoops but there was just something quite calming and peaceful in watching them chill out.

They looked incredibly awkward creatures with such a large body and only tiny flippers which were of no use on land. In the water they seem to glide effortlessly and elegantly but out of it they struggle to haul themselves up and then struggle to get comfortable.

At the viewpoint there was a sign that reminded us not to disturb the seals and also "Do Not Pick Up Seals".

We pictured one of us trying to lift one of those fat lumps of blubber crashed out on the rocks below. Well, we fell over laughing!

Moving on we continued along the boardwalk reaching a lovers bench made from two halves of a tree trunk. Over the years many had sat here and roughly carved out hearts with their initials like M&M 4 EVER

Someone with a little more artistic talent and better tools had eloquently carved a sweet eulogy in memory of a love lost.

It said "I Shall Always Love a Purple Iris"

We sat there briefly listening to the waves crashing against the rocks. I didn't have a pen knife with me or else CAO 4 JCO would have been added.

We weren't the only people walking along the bay, there were a few others, all couples. There was something quite romantic about the place.

"It's a shame were only staying the one night" said Julie.

It was a shame. This was a perfect place to unwind.

There was even one of California's most popular attractions nearby. Hearst Castle, a millionaire's folly in the San Simeon hills. Built by newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst his architectural fantasy sounded a little similar to Portmeirion in Wales, only bigger and better.

But there simply wasn't enough time for us to visit it today nor tomorrow as we needed to leave reasonably early to reach San Francisco before 5pm. (That's when the car hire depot closed) At least it'll be something to do if we ever return to these parts.

We continued our walk arm in arm towards the end of the Moonstone Beach (or Mong Stone as Julie kept on calling it) before turning back and retracing our steps.

The sun had now dropped beneath the horizon without a light show but there was still a glow in the air that brought out the rich colour of the rocks.

By the time we reached our hotel the day was almost night.

Back in the room we browsed over the hotel's recommendations for where to eat. The Blue Dolphin Inn didn't have its own restaurant so they could offer a reasonably unbiased advice. They were pushing a restaurant called Madeline complete with a voucher that offered a free half bottle of wine with every starter and main course.

So we put on our tidiest clothes and at 7:30pm on the dot we were picked up by Ray, the only taxi driver in town and driven to the "best restaurant in town".

Most of Cambria town wasn't anywhere near Moonstone Beach, it was the other side of Highway One, more inland.

As far as we could tell in the dark it looked a very quaint town made even prettier by the fairy lights draped from many of the houses.

"Hi, we have a reservation, the name's Owen" I said as we walked in. The guy who welcomed looked at me as if I had just spoken Swahili.

"We phoned earlier, we have a table booked?" I said worrying that we'd been dropped off at the wrong restaurant.

"Ah, sure, no problem" he said in a seriously laid back manner which instantly explained his confusion. He showed us to our table and brought over the menu.

With the free half bottle of wine in mind we looked at the starters but Julie couldn't bring herself to have one. Not wanting to miss out on a bargain I went for the soup d'jour.

I've forgotten what William the Waiter said it was but it was warm, green and very buttery.

For our main course or entree Julie went for the Fillet Mignon "pan seared with pan jus, garlic mashed potato and vegetables". It was the potatoes that swung it for her but she really enjoyed the very tender cut of meat.

I chose the Pesto Pasta despite knowing it wasn't going to be the usual bowlful of loveliness that I know and love. It was described as "angel hair tossed with toasted walnut pesto , black olives and tomatoes" and it tasted acceptable.

Everything tasted better washed down with a Chardonnay from Moonstone Cellars, the store literally across the road. Although it wasn't nice enough for us to plan an early shopping trip tomorrow.

We were both shattered and the chewing motion was sending Julie to sleep before my very eyes.

With a 20% tip Williams was more than happy to call a taxi for us. In fact he probably would have carried us both back to the hotel he was so pleased.

Ray picked us up. We got talking about our plans. He gave us a piece of advice about driving up the Big Sur "There's always a few rockslides this time of year," he said "just don't go driving over the rocks. I've picked up so many broken down vehicles along that road." Turns out the Ray was also the only roadside recovery driver in the area.

Back in our hotel room by 9pm we couldn't last much later and decided to catch up with some sleep.


Next Day >>

ęCopyright 2000 - 2020