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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 23-25: california coast, san francisco

santa cruz

Amy: Our first impression of the coastal California landscape: it’s hot Newfoundland. The shoulder of the highway gave way to creeping green succulents and wildflowers spilling over the steep cliffside to the beach below.

We stopped in Santa Cruz - a stereotypical California town, complete with an amusement park on the pier and lots of shaggy-haired blonde surfers with shaggy-haired blonde children in tow. It was a cute town, but we were hesitant to overstay our welcome, so we headed out the following day.

bill: we landed back in san francisco but after a few weeks at home in ottawa and toronto i am ready to see some nature again, so we headed down the pch towards big sur. first stop: santa cruz. a small seaside town famous for its surfing culture. the swell isn’t quite right today to hit cowells, the bay in town so we walked around and checked out the beaches. pacific california is beautiful. it is very reminiscent of newfoundland, with jagged cliffs covered in flowers, dramatic crashing waves, tiny sand filled coves. the main difference between here and newfoundland being that it is like this 12 months a year, not 2, that and housing here is extortionately expensive and there are people everywhere.

there is also a hostility here that we were not expecting. the people that live here are mostly all from the 1% of society and want this area all to themselves, so you are not met with open arms when you come to visit. basically all of costal california has criminalized homelessness, and therefore it is illegal to sleep in your vehicle anywhere in city limits or even outside city limits down the pch with fines of $1000usd, and this is actually heavily enforced, so we have been treading very lightly, trying to find the most discreet places possible to park for the night, always worried we are going to get “the knock”.


bill: a west swell is coming in and so we headed down to moss landing between monterey and santa cruz to do some surfing. it has been cloudy, grey, and 14 degrees here everyday and so we were a little trepidatious to get in the freezing cold water, but with a full wetsuit it’s not too bad once you get moving. nice little beach break, very nice to get out on the waves again!

Amy: After exploring the nearby Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, we headed south. Bill was itching to get on some waves, so we found a mellow beach where the surf was decent. It was overcast and too little chilly for my liking, so I read my book while Bill surfed. Afterwards, we explored the famous Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. Extremely touristy, but a good view of the harbour.

big sur

bill: today we ticked off a bucket list item i have had for a long time: riding a motorcycle down the pch through big sur. big sur is insane, basically exactly like the east coast trail in newfoundland, but with crazy california blooms everywhere. the whole place is filled with the intense fragrance of a million wildflowers. the road is twisty and windy and a ton of fun on a motorcycle, with lots of turn-offs to park and hike down to endless picturesque coves. there was a massive landslide that destroyed the highway halfway through big sur so we were only able to access north of lucia on this leg, but we will head down south to go around and see the rest in a little bit.

Amy: We spent the day zipping up and down the Pacific Coast Highway on Bill’s motorcycle. One thing about riding the bike vs driving the van: you can smell everything! The salty sea air, the sweet wildflowers, the evergreen forest. A bit of rain in the morning almost put a damper on our plans, but it petered out as we pulled up to a cove that looked exactly like coastal Newfoundland. We could’ve been standing on the bluffs outside of St. John’s!

Stop #2 was even more stunning - rolling hills of vibrant red succulents and yellow wildflowers lined a trail that led to a long sandy beach. We spent an hour or two wandering down the beach and admiring the palette of the cliffs above us.

Stop #3 was the famous Bixby Bridge - a delicately constructed concrete bridge spanning a dramatic section of coastline.

Stop #4: a short hike to McWay Falls, a picturesque waterfall that spills directly into the ocean. At this point, we were over an hour from Monterey (where we left the van) so we headed back.

We made one last stop at Painter’s Point to hike a short trail through fields of vibrant yellow flowers. Somewhere between here and Monterey, my water bottle popped out of my bag. RIP.


bill: amy lost her water bottle somewhere along the way off the back of the bike and so the next day we drove back down the same route in the van to look for it, unfortunately fruitlessly. we stopped at point lobos and i worked a little bit from my windowed office on the california coast, which was nice.

that's a lot of bird poop

san luis obispo

bill: if you google “best place to live in america for surfing and rock climbing” all the results give you a little college town called san luis obispo or “slo”. if you google “america’s happiest city”, you also get slo. coincidence? i think not. slo is 15 minutes from an excellent beach break at pismo beach, right along the pch, and has a volcanic plug mountain with a few climbing crags right in the city limits.

being that it is not directly on the coast, it is spared a lot of the coastal fogs and gets a whopping 315 days of sun per year. the weather is basically always perfect: summer highs of 25, winter highs of 18. it is about halfway from la and san francisco, about 3 hours to each. it is a town of about 50,000 people but has a pretty thriving downtown full of restaurants and bars, a modern arts museum, cool used bookstores, and a river walk. at many points in my life i have considered moving here, but have never actually been, so we wanted to come and check it out.

we went surfing at pismo beach which is probably my favourite break so far; long rolling thigh-high waves, perfect longboard waves you can ride forever. we walked around town the next day, the downtown is really bustling for such a small town. the town is almost oddly clean, everything here feels new and perfect to a kind of weird extent. there are flowers blooming everywhere and the whole town smells intensely of blossoms. i was worried that the nightlife might be pretty quiet and sleepy for such a small town but it turns out there is the opposite problem; slo is home to cal poly university, and so on the weekend all of the bars, even the old man bars, turn into sean paul blasting, lineup, sardine-packed college bars. we did find a nice place for a cocktail though.

the next day we hiked to the top of bishop peak and checked out the crags along the route. there is a 9 pitch 5.9 route here called the “two hour two tecate challenge” that sounds like exactly my kind of climb, i will have to come back for that one, in the meantime i will train by drinking more tecate. overall, we loved slo and who knows, maybe we will be back?

Amy: We arrived in San Luis Obispo (SLO) on a Saturday - the best day to visit a city! The streets were bustling and alive, there was a Juneteenth celebration in the park, and a farmers market was in full swing. We picked up some fresh California produce at the market, then headed downtown to explore. Although the downtown core is only a few streets long, we spent a few hours wandering around. We hit the local used bookstore, a modern art gallery, and a very small history museum, then got the best ice cream of the trip so far (sea salt cream and cookies!). This small city reminds me a lot of Guelph, my hometown. It’s small but vibrant, there are rainbows and BLM signs in every window, and the local university has a massive agricultural department with an amazing arboretum (unlike Guelph, the gardens feature some very cool tropical/Mediterranean plants). There’s also a decent amount of green space and trails, which we explored a bit one afternoon with a hike up Bishop's Peak.

The main square downtown SLO

SLO coffee shop, arboretum, bookstore

We spent the next few days driving between SLO and Pismo beach, where we had some great surf sessions and spectacular sunsets. The water was still pretty frigid, but with our wetsuits, we had a lot of fun frolicking in the waves with some other beginner surfers. This was the best beach we’ve hit since Mexico!

big sur (south)

Amy: Due to road closures, we couldn’t drive the full length of the Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey. Now that we are farther south, we had access to the southern portion of Big Sur. We hit the famous Morro Beach, with a very distinct giant rocky peninsula. Sea otters live in the protected harbour behind the peninsula, and this time of year, they’re weaning their babies! We spent ages watching the otters float around with little otter toddlers on their bellies. Adorable! We ate lunch on the pier at Tognazzini’s Dockside restaurant - fresh oysters, and some amazing scallop, shrimp, and fish tacos.

morro beach

bill: we have had so many interactions with people in california that just don't make any sense; we were watching these sea otters and their babies and a lady walked by and said to us "those babies need to be kicked to the curb!", like what are you talking about?


We made a few other stops along the way: a beach with a shipwreck, a beach covered in elephant seals, a short trail at sand dollar beach and a lookout at Ragged Point. We pulled over to watch the sunset on our way back.

bill: we wanted to drive up the southern portion of the pch to big sur on the bike, but the chain has been getting caught when pulling out from a stop, on closer inspection, the back sprocket is completely toast - shark finned and missing teeth. oh well. we drove the rest of the pch in the van, which was fun but not nearly as fun as it would be on the bike.

we stopped and watched the elephant seals lay on the beach, they come here every year to molt and they basically just sleep until their summer coat comes in. it was super windy and my favourite hat got blown off my head right onto the closed-off beach with 100 elephant seals on it. oh well.

we wanted to surf one more time before we headed north, so we stayed in san simeon. what we are learning about surfing is that you can’t just surf any place there is ocean and waves, you are dependent on a very specific set of circumstances for good, surfable waves; the right combination of tide, direction of wind, direction of swell, frequency of waves, and location. essentially all of these have to be perfect and so you basically have to become an amateur meteorologist to get it right. san simeon looked great on the forecast so we woke up super early to catch the smooth offshore wind session, but when we got there the tide was wrong and it was 6 foot waves breaking onto 3 inches of water. not surfable. lame. so we headed north to san francisco.

san francisco

Amy: We arrived in San Francisco's low-slung Sunset District, a residential area dotted with cafes and a few bars right by the beach. On our first night, we decided to take a stroll past Golden Gate Park, up to Point Lobos to watch the sunset. It ended up being a viciously cold and windy walk, and we were pelted by every grain of sand on the beach. The sunset almost made the hour-long trek (each way) worth it. The temperatures here are moderated by the ocean, so even in June when we visited it was only averaging 15 degrees. Sweater weather during the day, and down jackets at night. Brr.

bill: we started our time in san francisco with one of our favourite ways to get to know a city; a free guided walking tour. we walked through union square, chinatown, little italy, and the financial district and learned a lot about the city’s history. i highly recommend looking these tours up any time you go to a new place, the tour operators are always amazing and work for tips, usually around 20 bucks pp, which is well worth the hours of entertainment and the depth of appreciation for a city you just couldn’t get any other way.

bill: we went for lunch at a szechuan michelin spot in chinatown which was extremely good. sf has the world's oldest chinatown, and it is extensive and amazing. it is also the most densely populated part of north america, with most people living in 50 sqft apartments and spending most of their day out and about, in the park, shopping, restaurants etc. very cool.

Amy: We ate some particularly fantastic Asian food in SF. An excellent Szechuan meal from Z&Y as Bill described above (Obama even ate at this restaurant). A soft shell crab sandwich and green kaya toast from Breadbelly. Five-spice chicken and garlic noodles (an SF classic). And a delicious splurge dinner at Good Good Culture Club with bao, bok choy and stuffed chicken wings. We also treated ourselves at a few local wine bars.

bill: on suggestion from jamie, we wanted to check out the natural wine scene in the bay area, and it just happened that one of the natural wine world's hot tickets right now was having a tasting at a small bar in the mission district, so we headed down there. a lot of the downtown of san francisco reminds me of west toronto; a large metropolis but extremely residential, buildings are not allowed to be higher than 2-3 stories here, a lot of combination shops/apartment buildings. the mission district reminds me of montreal a little more; a little more eccentric, more young cool people. the bar the wine tasting was at was somewhere between nightclub and natural wine bar filled with people with mullets and thrifted clothes, a very montreal experience.


Amy: We spent a lot of time exploring all SFs boroughs. Chinatown was bustling and ornate, with market-lined streets and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Little Italy was the artists' hub, home to City Lights Books, a gathering place for writers of all stripes. Russian Hill/Nob Hill was full of EXTREMELY steep hills, and very rich picture-perfect homes. We walked up Lombard Street, known for its eight hairpin turns, making it "the most crooked street in the world". Haight-Ashbury/Divisadero felt trendy and eclectic, with plenty of bars and restaurants. Here, we stopped to see The Painted Ladies, a famous row of colourful Victorian homes. The Mission District was a little rough around the edges, but home to many delicious Mexican restaurants, vibrant street art, a delightful park, and the oldest building in San Francisco for which the city is named: Mission San Francisco de Asís.

Lombard Street

spot the joyce

bill: we went to city lights books, a very important part of the beat movement, the place that published ginsberg’s “howl”. very good bookstore but we have no room for physical books in the van. we went across the street (jack kerouac street) to get beers at vesuvio, another beat landmark and a very cool eccentric bar, it even had a portrait of james joyce on the wall, which by default makes it a good bar in my opinion.

we went to check out the mission district, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. multiple people had warned us that san francisco “was really sketchy” and “has turned into a shithole”, a little old lady that worked at a trader joes told us “i always carry my piece with me if i have to ride the bus”, but in our experience sf was no different than any other big city, no worse than walking around in the market or bank st. it would seem the real issue in this city is the tech bros. tech salaries have dramatically inflated the cost of living in sf, renting a one-bedroom apartment will cost an average of $4600cad per month, and the cost of everything else has risen along with the cost of real estate. of course there is a large population of people that can’t afford housing, but that seems more like facebook’s fault.

Amy: My favourite stop was the Golden Gate Bridge. We walked all through the park to the overlook, across a section of the bridge, then around the other side to the Palace of Fine Arts: a peaceful park that was constructed for the World's Fair in 1915.

bill: we have had a good time here but we have done a lot of eating and drinking and it is very expensive so it is time to head north across the golden gate bridge!

Painted Ladies

here is this week's video:




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