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Road-Tripping the California Coast

by Marion Van Driel

This fall my husband, Don, and I thought to extend summer by taking a late September road trip down the northern coast of California, so with Beach Boys tunes loaded up, we headed out…

Our ’95 Corvette roadster has no trunk – just a compact space behind the seats for a small suitcase and overnight bag. Everything has an exact spot; we are committed to military precision in packing.

We bypass the coastal route until we reach southern Oregon. Northern California is home to coastal lighthouses, giant sequoia redwoods, the diverse San Francisco Bay area, quaint beach towns and Napa Valley, boasting more than 450 wineries.

We discover a GPS doesn’t always plot our most desired route, so I am relegated to map reading, even as ‘Vicky’ (our British voice-over) instructs us, sometimes contrary to my opinion. We also discover that California secondary roads are not well marked – a complication that results in extra hours en route. But we’ve been married for 41 years…we can handle a bit of ambiguity (even as we engage in a bit of lively conversation along the way).


A few hours into our coastal route, we enter the 33-mile long Avenue of Giants from the north, where the root of a recumbent redwood dwarfs Don’s six-foot frame as I snap a photo. Hiking atop this ancient relic – a seedling before Christ walked the earth – I feel small and vulnerable. The silence is almost eerie, yet incredibly peaceful as we wander among these majestic giants. My mathematically gifted husband confirms my notion that our entire family (12 in all) would be hard-pressed to hug the largest of these trunks entirely.

After a delicious dinner of fresh seafood on the wharf in Fort Bragg, we seek out Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park, where all manner of metal and glass garbage dumped over the headlands for 60 years (until 1967) has been naturally transformed into a sea of smooth kaleidoscopic pebbles. It’s a stark reminder of the incredible nature of redemption and renewal. Highway 1 from the coast to San Francisco (SF) is scenic but winds in curves and hairpins – a route not advisable for those easily affected by travel sickness. We stay at a B&B in Berkley, using the transit system rather than driving and parking in SF. On our way to Fisherman’s Wharf, we come across a technological exhibit, Autodesk at One Market, near the ferry building. We are utterly fascinated by the innovation on display here, which celebrates the creative process of design and engineering for improved technology in such areas as medicine, environment and transportation, with many prototypes beneficial for the developing world.

A visit to Fisherman’s Wharf means a stop for chowder and sourdough. Then on to Girardelli’s Chocolate Factory to choose our favorite ice cream flavour, a ride on the cable car to Russian Hill, a ride on a streetcar, and a visit to Coit Tower with its time period fresco murals in Diego Rivera style, an expansive view, and a lovely descent through private gardens complete with roses and bougainvillea.

The highlight of our time in SF is a chilly cycle on rented bicycles across fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge into sunny, warm Sausalito with its unique galleries, cafes and shops. Bright homes line the hills behind the main street. A short ferry ride brings us back to the SF pier with our bikes.

In Monterey, we check into our motel, and instantly decide to double our planned two-night stay. Our motel is Mediterranean Old World spacious, even if a 20-minute walk from the ocean. Here, too, a Fisherman’s Wharf to explore, and an old (working) wharf. A stroll along eclectic Cannery Row (accompanied by distant barking sea lions) brings us to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium where we spend the better part of the day learning about all forms of aquatic life, marveling at God’s creative genius, enjoying underwater gardens comprised of diverse form and brilliance – some beautiful, some scary, some absurd. We also learn that the associated Monterey Bay Research Institute works tirelessly to restore ocean species at risk, and that after being on our feet all day, we are not as tireless as the Institute.

One town over, Carmel-by-the-Sea invites us to explore her treasures. While I love all things connected to art, Don’s eyes glaze over by the second gallery, and he’s looking for the nearest ‘husband bench’ outside. So we decide, over a sunny breakfast, to part ways for three hours. He’s off to Laguna Seca, one of Motorsports’ famous tracks, to see if he can run a few laps. I will peruse the galleries and meet him on the beach later. My experience is delightful; artists and gallery owners alike are more than happy to chat about different art mediums, how they’re applied, and I learn about digital painting. (One gallery owner, who takes my interest much too seriously, hands me a quote for a triptych at $14,000 and explains the care taken in shipping. Accepting her card, I thank her, smile, and move on to the next gallery). Meanwhile, at the track, Don learns his plan won’t materialize unless he can somehow magically convert his ride to a Mazda. He settles for watching a line of Miatas parade around the track, and enjoys a tour through the pit lane.

Just outside of Carmel, we stop by San Carlos Mission, established in the 1700s to convert Esselen and Rumsen tribes to Catholicism. Today the mission serves as a local parish; the bells are ringing as we enter the parking lot. A wedding is taking place. A sacred feeling accompanies us as we tour the buildings, past the library and simple monastic cell, steeped in history. After touring the grounds, we enter the now almost empty church, where another couple is choosing their own wedding music from excerpts being played on the organ and sung by a soloist. The notes reverberating off the ancient walls sounds heavenly.

Promising ourselves to get back to Carmel one day, we head up to Napa Valley, touring a few wineries near the town of Calistoga. We stop by Robert Mondavi, and purchase tastings and tours at Sterling – complete with gondola ride – and Castello di Amorosa (Castle of Love). Most impressed by the grandeur of the latter, this medieval castle was built over a period of 15 years from stone and period furnishings, all imported from Italy. We’re incredulous and amused to hear powerful baritone arias resonating from the washrooms. As we tour the great hall and survey the courtyard from above, we feel transported across continents and centuries.

At the end of our two weeks on the road it’s time to head home; there is so much we’ve not yet discovered in this state, so rich in scenery, culture and agriculture. We agree this was our best road trip to date. We’ll be back.

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