Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our "Honeymoon" Travelling Around California In A Cheapa Campa Motorhome

I am one of those unfortunate Australians who was born in the middle of winter. Believe me, this is a sad thing. While my siblings had pool parties that stretched into never-ending dusk on their birthdays, I got inside party games and nice knitted jumpers for presents. I've always felt a bit ripped off by the date of my birthday. It's cold, there's too few daylight hours and the options for fun seem a little limited.

I decided 2012 would be different. I was going to turn 39 in the sunshine, baby, and that meant going on a dream holiday to the USA, where July means summer, swimming, long days and good times. And I decided the best way to do it was in a motorhome with my husband Luke, tooling our way around California, known for its reliable sunny weather.

A motorhome meant we didn't have to plan our trip too closely and would have the freedom to stop wherever and whenever we liked without having to pack and unpack constantly. And by combining car hire and accommodation we saved money. It was an exciting idea.

The plane trip over was a little harrowing. It was in a barely-held-together Qantas 747 that lost all power on the runway at Los Angeles and was apparently decommissioned immediately afterwards. Nothing like starting a holiday with the glad knowledge that yes, you are still alive. Thankfully it was all good from there.

We picked up our shiny, new 10 cylinder Ford motorhome from the Cheapa Campa/Apollo office in LA and felt a little overwhelmed by how huge it was. They make them wide in the US, which means lots of lovely room in the back. Thankfully the roads and parking spaces in the US are also wider. It didn't take Luke very long to get used to driving on the right side and we thus braved the endless LA freeways, heading west. First stop, Las Vegas. We had an appointment to keep.

We didn't go to Vegas for the gambling. I suspect that's the least interesting part about it. And we didn't go so we could quote Hunter S. Thompson and giggle about bat country, although a fair bit of that did go on. Nope, we went to laugh at the pure American excess that Vegas offers in abundance. There are machine gun shooting ranges, roller coasters on top of 30 storey buildings, helicopter rides, giant wave pools, topless clubs and non-stop buffets. The place is like a never-ending circus and really has to be seen to be believed.

Ultimately we figured the best way to do Vegas was to get married by Elvis while dressed as pirates.

Didn't matter that we were already married or that it wasn't our anniversary. You can't go to Las Vegas and not get married. Hence, we forked out an obscene amount of cash to hire some impressive pirate outfits and organise the ceremony. At 4.15pm on June 13 we were whisked into the tiny confines of the Graceland Chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard for an intimate vow renewal service with a delightful Elvis impersonator. Luke promised to be a hunka hunka burning love and I promised to stay off of his blue suede shoes and amid it all, we got a little emotional. Because, in the end, we were getting married again and it suddenly felt very special.

Fifteen minutes later we were out on the street clutching a fake wedding certificate and a DVD of the event, to cherish forever. It was moving, it really was.

We spent our wedding evening wandering the streets of downtown Vegas in our pirate outfits. People kept wanting to have their photos taken with us and we were constantly being invited for drinks upstairs with the "industry people".

We stayed at the Golden Nugget hotel for our honeymoon night and spent the next day sliding down their clear plastic waterslide that goes through a giant aquarium full of sharks. Like you do.

After that we drove the motorhome into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon for a couple of days. Waking up at dawn, we rode our extra cheap just-purchased Las Vegas Walmart bikes along the rim as the sun rose. It's difficult to describe the astonishing sensation of sheer size that the Grand Canyon gives you. It really is... grand. Looking down at rocks that are over 4 billion years old is a humbling experience. 

We hiked down to "Ooh Ah Point" where I developed a sudden fear of heights and said "ooh ah" far too much. We went back up and by 10.30am had retired to the comfort of the motorhome for a well deserved nap. Drinks at sunset looking over the canyon was equally fabulous.

We travelled back east along Route 66 for a while, admiring the old diners and service stations at some of the lesser-frequented old towns on the road before getting back to the busy interstate. We had a long way to go and a short time to get there and we started wishing for some kind of banjo getaway music to help create the right atmosphere.

Our next destination was Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. The winding trip up the hill to 6000ft was a little nerve wracking but the motorhome handled it fine. Happily ensconced in the campground, we unpacked all of our weird American food into one of the special lockers designed to prevent bears from breaking in. Part of us wanted to leave a bit out for them in the hope of spotting one. Alas, it wasn't to be and we didn't see a single bear on our entire trip.

The sequoia trees are breathtaking, living behemoths that grow so fat they are the largest living tree by volume. They're also pretty tall, growing up to 85 metres, although they're topped by the Giant Redwoods of Northern California. We visited the General Grant tree, the second largest tree in the world and spent about an hour just sitting on a park bench admiring it, watching the squirrels and chipmunks playing around the trunk. We also did a bit of surreptitious tree hugging in the surrounding grove.

The area is considered a National Monument because the trees are so large and so old; the General Grant is around 1650 years old. The hills surrounding the grove were logged in the 1890s and the General Grant itself was scheduled to be logged before the government announced its protected status.

Back at the campground we built a large campfire, drank a few beers and cooked up some pasta in the motorhome before bed, relaxed and happy in the surrounds of the beautiful forest.

We stayed at San Francisco for a couple of days and suffered a bit of a shock when the fog rolled in of an evening. Suffice to say, the bayside souvenir sellers make a killing from fleecy tops and scarves. On the Saturday we attended the Pride festival and were treated to the sight of thousands of partying revellers at Dolores Park before watching the Dykes on Bikes kick off the lesbian parade. Good fun.

We headed north and checked out some of the wineries in the Sonoma region. Naturally I was keen to visit Kaz winery and buy a bottle of my namesake wine. There we discussed the vexing issue of why American wines still use corks - a source of distress to us Aussies who are now used to the ease of screwcaps. Seems they still think it's better for aging purposes, despite the fact that the majority of wines are sold as "drink now" items. We enjoyed our visit to the wineries but had to restrain ourselves and not buy too many bottles lest we be unable to drink them all before we got on our next plane.

Travelling north the next day we entered into the land of the redwoods, winding our way into the Avenue of the Giants, site of the tallest trees in the world. The area is a gorgeous lush rainforest split by a crystal clear river and it's dotted with picnic areas and campgrounds. 

We opted for a flash new RV park which made a nice base for exploring this natural wonderland. We did our fair share of tree hugging in the redwood forest as well, not to mention Return of the Jedi re-enactments. 

Perhaps the best part of our day was travelling out to the Giant Tree, the tallest in the world, and eating a hastily-grabbed picnic of cheese, crackers, sausage and wine in the carpark by the creek, surrounded by huge trees. It was very peaceful. Lots of people said they were jealous of our motorhome and the freedom it gave us.

We got as far north as Eureka, where we rode our bikes along the long beach and felt vaguely threatened by the signs that told us we were in a tsunami zone. Then we turned the motorhome west again, heading across the mountains with the intention of slowly heading back to LA.

Halfway along the incredibly mountainous and windy Route 299 we encountered a
tiny village called Big Bar with a sign that said "Try White Water Rafting!" The weather had turned warm and we were suddenly hit by the urge to take this sign up on its offer. Neither Luke or I had ever white water rafted before and we're not known as the most adventurous people but it suddenly seemed like the best thing ever. And why not? It's not like we had to be anywhere that night.

Thus we found ourselves sporting life jackets, wetsuits, helmets and paddles as our happy-go-lucky guide Peter ushered us into the raft, accompanied by his "wifey". The river winds its way through heavily wooded steep mountainsides and features delightful calm sections of water between a variety of rapids. Our course was a 3 - not too scary but a little bit challenging. We were a little bit disconcerted to discover that we were supposed to help paddle our way through the rapids, not just hang on and swear.

This was pretty scary to begin with but before long we were paddling like pros and yelling our defiance at the freezing white water like crazed vikings. I'm pleased to say we even survived the "Hellhole" rapids without being thrown into the water, something which is apparently quite common. I was shivering by that point and was doubly pleased to make it through with only half of me wet. After half an hour we stopped on the bank in the sun and ate corn chips with home made salsa. As we chatted, a mink popped up on the river bank and abruptly disappeared when it saw us. We spotted another one further downstream - a rarity according to Peter - as well as a bald eagle.

Having made it back to Big Bar, I made a beeline for the motorhome where I was able to stop shivering and put on some warm clothes. Summer... yay! After that we settled into the RV park across the road, parking our motorhome right beside the river and enjoying a few well-earned wines by the rapids while deer frolicked on the far bank.

Once more we descended to the floor of the San Joaquin Valley before heading up the Sierras again, into Mount Lassen National Park. This is the site of the second most-recent volcanic eruption after Mount St Helens. Lassen Peak blew its top in 1915 and continued to erupt for several years after. It was one of the first volcanos to be photographed during an eruption. After a walk through a lava tube we set up at the Lake Manzanita campground and hiked around the picture perfect body of water at dusk, taking endless photos of the snow-capped mountain reflected in the water. We also came face-to-face with a not-so-shy deer, who opted to just walk around us rather than run away.

The next day we drove our way through the park, stopping to do short hikes and admire the astonishing beauty of the area. The road took us steadily higher until we passed 8000ft and were driving through large patches of snow. So much for summer!

We figured we were mentally and physically unprepared to climb Mount Lassen (a 4km return climb) so instead we hiked into Bumpass Hell, a collection of hot sulphur pools and steam vents about 3km from the main road. It turns out we were unprepared for this hike as well since half the trail was covered in snow and some of it traversed rather terrifying heights. Wearing jeans and sneakers seemed like a good idea when we left but we were fairly damp around the edges when we returned. It was worth it though; the pools were impressive, if horribly smelly.

We finished our day with a change of clothes and a calming drink inside the motorhome, looking out the window across the impressive panorama that stretched from the down into the valley below. Bliss.

The afternoon of the next day we were back in San Francisco. Luke wanted to ride his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Never mind that it was foggy, freezing and blowing a gale. We parked on the northern side and put on every piece of warm clothing we owned and then set off, making our way along the specially reserved cycleway on the right hand side. It was quite an experience to stand on the bridge with the foghorn vibrating the massive steel girders beneath our feet. Tankers and freighters travelled below, one accompanied by a tugboat called the Millenium Falcon. We rode across and then along the bay foreshore to Chrissy Park. Thankfully the fog blew away for a while, allowing us to enjoy the sunset on our return journey.

After camping for free in a Walmart on the outskirts of San Francisco, we made a snap decision to head for the coast and look at Santa Cruz. I had no idea what we'd find there but the lady at the local information office said that they were feeding sea lions down at the wharf. Finding a good park a few blocks away, we rode down to the beach and into one of the best days of our tour. In the bright sunshine we wandered onto the large wharf stretching out into Monterey Bay, the sparkling blue ocean stretching into the distance. The sea lions lay about on floating pontoons and were very amusing, as were the giant seagulls and pelicans.

We settled in for a seafood lunch and Luke tasted his first clam chowder. After a couple of drinks we lazily made our way over to the Boardwalk on the beach. This is a huge fun park full of rides including a 100 year old carousel and the roller coaster that featured in the film The Lost Boys. By luck they were having a promotion where all rides only cost $1 after 5pm on a Monday. So I dragged Luke onto the roller coaster and we did a fair bit of screaming. After that I was left to go on the rides by myself, which I did eagerly, grinning like a fool and feeling like a kid all over again.

We set off south the next day and spent a couple of days at Monterey, riding our bikes and admiring the seals and sea otters. On the Fourth of July holiday we booked a berth on a whale watching boat. Despite seeing four blue whales, a dozen humpbacks and an albatross, the trip wasn't a huge success, mainly due to Luke losing his lunch over the side in the unstable conditions.

I did get to have another childhood wish fulfilled that evening thanks to the availability of fireworks in the US on the Fourth of July. I bought myself a couple of "Purple Rain" crackers at one of the roadside stands and was stupidly excited at the idea of being able to light them without being arrested.  At dusk we found ourselves in a carpark just over the county border (where it was legal) with dozens of other people, all letting off bags full of fireworks. By the time it was dark there were explosions all around us and large numbers of excited kids were happily wielding vials of gunpowder like little demons. I'm pleased to report there were no injuries. It was fantastic and I truly wish we could still do it in Australia.

After another couple of days travelling down the coast we finally handed our motorhome back to the Cheapa Campa rental place. It was a very simple process and the staff were helpful and friendly. We then rode our Walmart bikes 20km to the beach at Marina Del Rey where our hotel was booked.

The next day was my birthday and we spent it riding our bikes to Santa Monica and back. I'm sad to say that I didn't get the summery birthday I'd planned. The rest of the continental US was having heatwaves but California stubbornly stayed cold, with temperatures hanging around 20 degrees celsius. It would have been warmer at home in Queensland. So I didn't swim, despite my best intentions. Indeed, our trip taught me that summer in California may be sunny but that doesn't mean it's warm. And there's no place like home.

Still, I did have the experience of a lifetime and saw so many amazing and beautiful things over there. America is abundant in natural wonders and our four week trip only allowed us to scratch the surface. There's still so many things I can't wait to see and I'm keen to hire a motorhome and do it again one day.

And if you're thinking of doing it, I can only say: go. Take the plunge. You'll love every minute and you'll have memories to last a lifetime.

And if you go, try Cheapa Campa. They were great.