First week of February, we did a road trip on the Californian coast (in the wake of a SPIE conference in San Francisco). We drove along back and forth the mythic Highway 1 going down to Big Sur in the south and up to Mendocino in the north. It was a great experience with innumerable stops all along the way, exploring mainly the cliffs and beaches, but also surrounding mountains, forests and villages. In this page we record the most striking landmarks of this short expedition.
<googlemap lat="37.278424" lon="-121.865845" type="terrain" zoom="8" width="730"> 37.826544, -122.422740, Alcatraz, 27 January (2012) 37.614198, -122.498006, Mori Point, 28 January (2012) 37.561050, -122.509623, McNee Ranch, 28 January (2012) 37.537402, -122.519496, point Montara light, 28 January (2012) 37.181487, -122.394413, Pigeon point lighthouse, 28 January (2012) 37.011437, -122.195225, Davenport, 28 January (2012) 36.992179, -122.170017, Panther beach, 28 January (2012) 36.959519, -122.038199, Santa Cruz, 28 January (2012) 36.587036,-121.90029, Padre Oaks motel in Monterey, 28 January (2012) </googlemap>
Our first stop on the way, so a moving first contact with the Californian coast. Whitish reeds scattered on greenly hilly grounds accompanied our walk to a prominent point dominating a typical Pacifica beach on the left and the protruding Mori Point on the right. We walked along the imposing cliffs, marvelling at the natural beauty but regretting the ugly cheap constructions miserably cluttered in these wild and gigantic surroundings.
We stopped at the feet of a hill which dominated the coast from a short distance. We climbed it up and got a view of the typical hilly scenery of North California. Sadly mountains were in the way to San Francisco, otherwise providing the sort of view Gaspar de Portolá might have had when first sighting the bay.
The point Montara light was another impromptu stop but of such stupendous beauty that we made it one of the major stay of our first day's itinerary. Cliffs were entirely covered with a colourful vegetation, making them a romantic background for prettier villas than the ugly buildings we had spotted previously. Rocks shattered by the ocean complemented the picture with wild, fresh and tumultuous smells and sounds. This scenic little spot looked a perfect location for a romantic or mystery movie.
The Pigeon point lighthouse was the only stop for this day which we had scheduled from our guidebook and, ironically, the one that came last in order of favourites. In part, this was due to the affluence of tourists, absent from other spots. The lighthouse was a pretty one but only slightly more so than at point Montara, which had a superior scenery and atmosphere. A small museum was showing passers-by how the village was more beautiful before.
We wanted to stop for lunch in a typical village on the road, which turned out to be Davenport. We could hardly have made it more picturesque: the saloon with bikers, american families devouring huge hamburgers, coca-cola refills... The village itself was also full of this typical american atmosphere, but of the kind you're not prone to admire. The sort of sight which you feel the first of them might already have been one too many... in stark contrast with the coast, to which we thereafter consecrated most of our time, to the point of skipping lunch and making the shortest possible stops in inhabited areas. In fact, we realized we took no picture from Davenport itself (?!), although it was definitely one milestone on this first day and a cherished memory (but of the type which only makes mental pictures).
The Panther beach was the highlight of the day, as it combined one of the so-called "pocket beaches" of the Coast Dairies  and our first sunset on the pacific ocean. The beaches are enclosed within steep cliffs and interconnected by holes in the rocks. The sinking sun shining on that gave sharp orange tones dying into the pinkish as the ocean was smothering the light. An inexpressible experience.
<googlemap lat="36.59844" lon="-121.90876" type="terrain" zoom="12" width="730"> 36.618781, -121.901761, Monterey bay aquarium, 29 January (2012) 36.637073, -121.935831, Ocean view & Sunset drive, 29 January (2012) 36.620944, -121.917552, Pacific Grove, 29 January (2012) 36.616116, -121.943752, Asilomar beach, 29 January (2012) 36.558297, -121.921408, Carmel Wayfarer Inn, 29 January (2012) </googlemap>
Worldwide famous, the aquarium of Monterey has a vast collection of oceanic fauna and flora, and one of its tank is supposedly the largest in the world. It is big enough so that a diver can hand-feed the sharks in there. Pinguins and puffins are of special interest, in particular the latter as you can contemplate how they swim: they literally fly underwater. The lobster tank has gigantic types. As they are extremely territorial, they restlessly chase each other in their small tank. The jellyfishes are another breathtaking attraction: you can admire their dance of light and motion, suspended in time and water. The one which literally glow light by phosphorescence provide one of the most fantastic natural show one can imagine. Among countless curiosities, we were particularly marked by jumping fishes (leaping blennies), spaceship-looking stationary molluscs aspiring hermit crabs, the formations of small-fishes producing macroscopic patterns in the big tank or the endless swim of sardines tricked in a circular motion, probably thinking they're crossing an ocean when they're just circling round a room of the old cannery. The scales of the collection is also mind boggling: you get in touch with various specimens from magnified microscopic plankton to giant tuna fishes and sea turtles (with their faithful escort post by their belly). The plethora of different breeds of seahorses gives a hint of the number of variations there can be in the animal kingdom... It was difficult to make pictures as the light was dim and most fishes are moving. Below we show shots which came out relatively neat, although they don't include some of the most striking sightings, including turtles, big sharks with their nasty looking expressions or the gigantic lobsters fighting each other.
This one for instance was literally a cuboid.
A famous walk of Monterey is along the beach, separating the fancy expensive villas from the ocean which meets the land alternatively in rocks, in fine sand and in this greeny-reddish—now familiar—vegetation, mixing them in all the possible combinations. We did this by bike as the walk was too long on our schedule, but we definitely could get a taste of what it should be to leave there and go for this relaxing and mind-opening walk every evening. On our way back we biked through the city, in particular Pacific Grove was a nice ride with an air of authenticity breathing through its woody houses and picturesquely attired villagers.
We stopped on this beach which we had previously visited with the bikes to see the sunset, and were stunningly surprised by the show of colours that was so different than the one of the previous day. We felt as if we never had seen a sunset before. Although the beach was rather innocent looking by day—with a nice cover of white sand fading into wild vegetation, but lacking cliffs or imposing rock formations—it literally transformed as the sun dived into the sea. The sandy ground became a perfect mirror and the skyline a furnace that burnt into the night through violent tones of dark reds and blues. We made hundreds of pictures of us jumping and running through these surreal lights. It was only the second sunset of our trip and it impressed us even more than the one of just a day before, which already counted among the most beautiful one we had ever seen.
<googlemap lat="36.402494" lon="-121.758728" type="terrain" zoom="10" width="730"> 36.542669, -121.919743, Carmel mission, 30 January (2012) 36.522077, -121.952390, Point Lobos, 30 January (2012) 36.371556, -121.902072, Bixby bridge, 30 January (2012) 36.401128, -121.911492, Rocky point, 30 January (2012) 36.356881, -121.906650, Hurricane point, 30 January (2012) 36.309676, -121.886101, view of Point Sur, 30 January (2012) 36.270396, -121.808146, Southest point of our hwy1 trip 30 January (2012) 36.324773, -121.859238, Old coast road, 30 January (2012) </googlemap>
The Carmel mission was a point on our itinerary on which we planned to stop because of its historical significance but that we foresaw would be a short stay as we are familiar with historical buildings of all sorts, from our European upbringing. The mission, indeed familiar if it had been on the old contient, had nevertheless a real grip on us, maybe because as and old stone building it departed neatly from the Victorian wood buildings, giving back to California a touch of dignified and distinguished cultural heritage. We thus ended up spending most of the morning, happily strolling slowly through the refreshingly familiar patios and corridors of the majestuous building, vibrant with its distinctively Spanish touch.
Point Lobos was one of the highlights of our entire trip. It is one of the most beautiful places of the word that we have ever visited. Strangely, or maybe expectedly, it is also the one to which our pictures make the biggest outrage: we do not find in our shots the particularity, the magic, the beauty of the place. Possibly this is because of the particular condition, cloudy and misty, with light diffusing a lot on every particle it found on its way. Greatly responsible for the unique feel of the place, we think, was foremost the lichen—the lace lichen type in particular—which hanged from the trees like cobwebs. Their colour between the dark yellowish, the glowing grey and the blueish green painted an already outstanding décor with the fantasy of a fictitious scenery. To describe the place concisely, we would say this is the magical woods of the fairy tales, some place where you expect the trees to jump alive on your way and embrace you with their twigs. The meeting of the ocean with the rocks found there a consecration with the magical forest grown on them. Other areas of Point Lobos are, on the contrary, naked rocks shaped over the millennia to resemble the waves of the sea, capturing other tiny rocks in the process. A sort of tempest in stop motion, with the real turmoil of the ocean in background.
We then continued south and stopped in many locations, the most important one being the Bixby bridge, the Rocky point, the Hurricane point and at the entry of Point Sur, which was already closed when we passed by. The latter is an original sighting as it puts like a point in the ocean a steep bumpy hill crowned with a village and its lighthouse, separated from the rest of the land by a wide and gently flat corridor of sand. With cows scattered on a bright green grass in the first plane, it gave the whole a nice touch of the wide wild west.
On our way back, we dared to take the old coast road, a dust-road detour through the mountains which was the historical route before the Bixby bridge, to which it provides, by the way, the best views. Our car wasn't really the most suitable to attack the steep and sometimes narrow (some other times, ridiculously wide) road, which we had to share on a couple of times with huge 4x4. The 12 miles road at peak speed of 10mph however gave us some of the most unique views of the coast, and the drive—in a cloud of brown dust—was fun, partly because it was a bit questionable as to whether we shall be able to make it.
<googlemap lat="38.942321" lon="-123.409424" zoom="8" width="730" type="terrain"> 38.416754, -122.714359, Country Inn in Santa Rosa, 30 January (2012) 38.392090, -122.878570, Bill's farm basket, 31 January (2012) 38.346105, -122.971917, Bodega, 31 January (2012) 38.356142, -123.067877, Coleman beach, 31 January (2012) 38.371708, -123.075532, Viewpoints on an arched rock, 31 January (2012) 38.914444, -123.710958, Arena Cove, 31 January (2012) 38.954383, -123.740268, Arena lighthouse, 31 January (2012) 39.297496, -123.791698, van Damme forest, 31 January (2012) 39.306316, -123.798518, Mendocino, 31 January (2012) 39.226661, -123.768761, Albion river bridge, 31 January (2012) 38.767724, -123.530614, Surf motel, Gualala, 31 January (2012) </googlemap>
We stopped in this little village because a house and its neighbour church caught our attention. We made a couple of pictures and headed to the centre of the village, which was less interesting but still had a nice touch of a little place which kept much of its character from a time long gone. One of the house was featuring Hitchcock a lot but we didn't pay much attention to that, yet. In the postmail office—also notable for its authentic cachet—where we went to buy stamps for our postcards, we asked to the talkative postmaster (who didn't have stamps) confirmation of the name of the place for our records, to which he confirmed this was Bodega indeed, the place where Hitchcock filmed "The Birds", he added. The house in front was in fact partly of a museum/souvenir shop of items related to this movie. We learned that the house where we parked was in fact the one famously featured as the one which the children are running from during a savage attack, of embarrassing poor special effects by the standards of today.
Our next stop was on a beach covered with birds. We found this funny given our previous session of remembering the eponymous movie from the little shop of Bodega, and headed there to experience the most uncanny feeling of being a bird-magnet—from the opposite pole—repelling a sluggish magma that was forming a circular depletion of birds around you as you walked slowly in. Increasing the speed would break the fragile equilibrium and have them fly away.
We had more stops on this day of the trip than any other, in part because we drove the longest distance. We tried to stop in villages and other inhabited areas, sometimes as small as a caravan where to buy coffee. It was a bit creepy, not that we felt at any moment in danger, but on this foggy days, desolated places with only the occasional pickup trucks passing by at very low speed, it was giving this sort of atmosphere they put at the beginning of American horror movies. We felt we got the gist of the idea pretty quickly and decided to dedicate our time to the natural scenery, which, in sharp contrast, was inexhaustible. Most notable stops were Arena cove and many points towards the Arena lighthouse, offering a romantic view—on this foggy day—of the last point of help and rescue on a treachery coast littered with sharp rocks emerging from the furious ocean.
It didn't rain but the fog was so thick that any moment felt like rain had just stopped. We went to visit a red trees forest which benefited much from this atmosphere. Whereas the coast was sad and nostalgic in the gray mist, the woods felt shiny and new. Beside, this was the most desolate point we found in California. No one was to be found nor heard from our two hours walk on a trail along the river. We got no hint either of people having recently visited the surroundings. The trees were true to their name and displayed a nice contrast with the green of the leaves glowing with wet light. Lace lichens also appeared, painting in gold these red trees. A panel warned of mountain lions (cougars) possibly attacking passers-by, providing for a welcomed excitement in the silent and lonely forest.
Our northernmost point was the village of Mendocino, famed for its scenic look of an old Californian village perched on the ocean and enclosed by red tree woods. It gives as much as that, even on a foggy day as the one on which we reached it on a late evening of winter. The Ford house, now the visitor centre, stands out for its intrinsic beauty and character. It is the house closest to the ocean and the prettiest of all.
On our way to the motel, as the day was finishing, we crossed again a nice looking bridge, which already got our attention on the way up. We stopped to have a better view of it, and found it indeed to display either something unique, either something typical of its genre, we couldn't decide quite what. We later read on the Wikipedia it was the last remaining wood bridge on the hwy 1, soon to be dismantled as it no longer satisfies security standards. We are thus happy we took the time to admire this vestige soon to be disposed off, as it was proudly filling with all its legs the emptiness beneath. The pictures definitely do not reflect the grip it exerts on you, perched between a village and a forest, a rigid caterpillar of wood leaning over a river. We would not have even slowed down the car if it only looked like that.
<googlemap lat="38.25975" lon="-122.947998" zoom="9" width="730" type="terrain"> 38.516878, -123.257679, Coast near fort Ross, 1 February (2012) 38.453883, -123.054074, Duncans Mills, 1 February (2012) 38.328208, -123.058269, Bodega Bay, 1 February (2012) 37.996430, -123.020977, Point Reyes lighthouse, 1 February (2012) 37.997412, -122.982207, elephant seal overlook, 1 February (2012) 38.046587, -122.989982, Point Reyes beach, 1 February (2012) 38.057446, -122.532229, Econo Lodge Novato, 1 February (2012) 38.107567, -122.570242, Novato, 1 February (2012) </googlemap>
We made a small detour inland to widen our perspective from that of the coast only (the hwy 1 on the north of San Francisco literally border the coast for pretty much all of the time). We took a road which brought us to beautiful sceneries. Fearing we'd go too far, captured by this stream of awesomeness, we decided to stop at the next village and turn back. This happened to be Duncans Mills, not so dull as Davenport (see above) and much smaller than Mendecino but offering a bit of both (authenticity and some cultural heritage).
Point Reyes was on our agenda since the beginning, but found its place on the last full day of the trip. It is a pity as the place is so outstanding, we would have explored it more thoroughly with more time. The lagoons area seemed particularly breathtaking. On the way to the lighthouse, there is a view of the impressive Point Reyes beach, on which one could track trains of waves forming and clashing on the shore in slow and inexorable successions. We would go to this beach for one of the most amazing sunset of the trip a bit later. In the meantime, we paid a short visit to the elephant seal overlook. It was a different one of its kind—by then we had seen dozains of elephant seal colonies—for the peculiar concert of sounds we heard only at this place. Not only were there the seals trumpeting, with a force and frequency never found before, but also were intertwined strange honking and clicking and quacking of all genrse, from the same or other animals, we couldn't tell.
This was the last sunset, and one of the most remarkable, since with the blazing colours of the sky, clashing with the blue palette of ashes as of a furnace blown out by the sea, we found there the most violent sea erecting walls of water which let themselves fall freely and explode in tonitruous collisions back on the ground, projecting clouds of ocean in your face tens of meters away, and sending the sea licking your feet and make you run with bigger waves that would splash you till the torso if not escaping them. Despite all this animation, each picture seemed like a painting.
<googlemap lat="37.847206" lon="-122.475586" zoom="11" width="730" type="terrain"> 37.899551, -122.577026, Muir woods, 2 February (2012) 37.821135, -122.529662, Point Bonita, 2 February (2012) 37.82715, -122.49912, a viewpoint on the Golden gate, 2 February (2012) 37.827612, -122.48197, a viewpoint on the Golden gate, 2 February (2012) 37.794205, -122.483286, Baker beach, 2 February (2012) 37.802205, -122.418707, Lombard street, 2 February (2012) </googlemap>
On our last day, with the airport to reach by 17:30, we had planned to finish with the best of San Francisco, which is the Golden Gate bridge. We made a short stop at the nearby Muir woods, a preserved sample of what was previously covering all the Californian coast: the gigantic red trees. We already knew them from our trip to Mendecino, but the Muir woods had more impressive specimens gathered together in a higher density. However, the presence of many tourists and a rigid trail to which you are confined made the experience much less genuine and inspiring.
The best views of the bridge are from the park opposing it, putting San Francisco and Alcatraz in background. We stopped at half a dozain locations, each providing its particular angle and distance on this modern wonder. The best location is the closest one, though, where the bridge is so immense, it appears to be at an handful distance. You feel like jumping on it!
The bridge's colour is known as international orange, something that resembles very much vermilion.
Another complementary view of the Golden Gate bridge, from the beach which keeps San Francisco apart from the ocean. With the views from the Presidio, which we had on our first day in San Francisco with conference colleagues, and those from Alcatraz, where the bridge appears straight, this complete our collection of viewpoints of the most famous bridge in the World and possibly the most beautiful one.
Before the airport, we had time to visit a very nice seafood restaurant (El Sotto del Mare), where we could taste for the last time the delicious oysters from Point Reyes and have a last drive in the city, which is fun with an automatic car on roads that are very steep, alternatively up and down. We even drove through the zig-zag of Lombard street. Our last stop ever was at the mission of San Francisco, in memory of that in Carmel which had impressed and pleased us so much.