From Cali to Canada : Four weeks travelling the Pacific Coast

Photos by Joe Thorp & Summer Brooks

I spent four magical weeks travelling along the West Coast, stopping at Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.

Spending a month exploring and discovering places I’d only dreamed about visiting, pretending we had no responsibilities (except checking into our Airbnb on time) and living as though it would never end; these were the best four weeks of my life so far.

The adventure started at Gatwick on a bleak Monday morning, just the kind of weather we wanted to leave behind. And so, we boarded the plane to LAX with a suitcase of summer clothes and an empty memory card, ready to be loaded with visual memories of what we had been saving for, for so long. Eleven magical (and sleepless) hours later and we touched down in a sunny LA, keen to get to our Airbnb and chill out so we didn’t waste any time getting over jetlag. Too tired to leave the apartment once we were in it, in customary post-graduate style we ordered a takeaway (or take-out, as I now can’t stop calling it) and not long after we were both in a deep slumber.

Los Angeles

Waking up in LA was always something that sounded more idyllic and intangible than I could imagine, but there we were, wide awake at 6am, the sun barely in the sky and the kids from the kindergarten next door nowhere to be heard. I think part of travelling and being away from home is a constant battle of your mind going wild with all the things you want to do, and your body giving up way sooner than you wanted it to. I have never done as much walking in my life, as I did on this holiday. And whilst I say that with some distain, I have found a whole new respect for hikes (see Canada, a few paragraphs down).

LA is expensive. And perhaps we should’ve been less frugal with our funds – but LA is big, beautiful and exciting. It feels like an opportunity; one you might miss if you don’t grasp it with both hands. We worked so long to save enough money for what really was a pretty short trip, but a gentle reminder to enjoy the ride kept our minds off our wallets and on the moment. Public transport in LA exists, but it’s not great for getting around easily so we spent a fair amount on getting Ubers around the city.

One of the best places we went to in LA was the Getty Center; one of the world’s biggest art organisations as a result of the passion of businessman J. Paul Getty, who believed in the arts’ importance in society. There isn’t anywhere quite like the Getty, and I don’t think I’ll ever visit a modern museum more beautiful than this one. We spent a whole day taking in the views and the stunning art that meant so much to its owner that he wanted to share it with the world, for free, forever.

After five days enjoying the warm weather, our gorgeous apartment, delicious Pho from Koreatown and the weird and wonderfulness that is Venice Beach – it was time to bid the City of Angels farewell. Off we went to pick up our hire car – we had paid for a Toyota Corolla, or similar and settled on a Chrysler – the interior covered in stains and a big dent on the back to boot. We mentioned the faults to the lovely woman at the exit point, with which she replied, “Are y’all sure you want this car? You can go back and pick a different one if you like, – there are Dodges over there!” After some convincing and assurance that the replacement car wouldn’t cost more than what we had paid for, we went back and excitedly picked out a shiny black Dodge Charger. Again we arrived at the exit, the lovely woman looks at us and says: “Now that’s more like it!”

We couldn’t believe our luck. There we were, about to hit the highway to Monterey in a car we definitely didn’t anticipate having. All ours – for three whole days! There is no feeling like being out on the open road, especially when you’re travelling up the West Coast. Once we were out of the hustle and bustle of LA – it was open highways and incredible views the whole way.

Monterey & Big Sur

We found a little motel in Seaside, not too far from the Big Sur coastal drive we were there for. Monterey itself is beautiful – a quaint place with the sleepy town vibes we were craving after a long week in the city.

They say Big Sur is more of a state of mind than a place – and now I can see why. We took the long winding road that hugs the coastline down as far as we could go. Winter storms have left parts inaccessible to visitors due to landslides causing the collapse of Pfeffier Canyon Bridge. We could only drive as far the village where we stopped for a pint of Big Sur Golden under the redwoods. On our way back we drove a little slower, taking it all in. We saw our first bald eagle, swooping and gliding across the mountainous terrain. Bixby Creek Bridge was breathtaking, despite it being swamped with tourists all hoping to get the perfect selfie with the iconic bridge.

Just hours later after we had left, another huge landslide occurred at Mud Creek, setting work back two years and leaving Highway 1 closed in southern Big Sur for the foreseeable future. It’s truly one of the most magical places I’ve been to, and somewhere I would come back to again and again to experience the epic views and feeling of total freedom.

San Francisco

Next stop: San Francisco. We arrived at the airport to reluctantly return the hire car that had brought us so much exuberance. Our Airbnb place was located in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, and despite the name, it was often more cloudy than sunny during our trip. On the advice of our Airbnb host we decided to spend the first day exploring Golden Gate Park – which was much bigger than we had anticipated; we walked for about two hours from end to end, stopping off along the way to look at bisons, the rose garden, waterfalls and people enjoying parties in the park. We reached Hippie Hill, where people go to hang out, smoke weed and relax like they did during the famous Summer of Love, albeit with slightly less colourful clothing. We walked for what felt like a lifetime, but when the Golden Gate Bridge finally came into sight through the fog, we couldn’t believe we had finally encountered an image so habitually portrayed in film, in real life. As beautiful as it is, San Francisco is becoming increasingly expensive to live in, even for those who are earning $100,000 a year, with many people resorting to renting out spare rooms on Airbnb to afford the mortgage. There are few places that can rival the architecture you’ll find in San Francisco. It’s almost as if each street hired the same architect, as they all work together so well as a collective. The houses are beautiful, colourful and timeless. I’ve watched Mrs Doubtfire so many times that it was surreal to see the hilly avenues in real life and watch the streetcars run up and down them.

The Mission District is a melting pot of cultures with big, striking murals splashing the walls on every block, and one of the few places in SF that manages to avoid the fog. The Mission’s Latin influence has been present here since the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the late 18th Century, making it one of the best places in town for sampling Mexican cuisine. We devoured tacos at a local taqueria and couldn’t resist in the inviting front of Garden Creamery; a local organic ice cream place with exotic flavours like black sesame and matcha toasted rice. We wasted a warm afternoon in Mission Dolores Park with the spectacular Mission High School in the background.

The area certainly exhibits signs of gentrification; hip cafes and trendy supermarkets are popping up all over the place to accommodate the influx of well-paid young professionals, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ here and the lifestyles are as multifarious as the characters who reside here.

God bless Apple Maps. I don’t think we would have survived this trip without the guidance of this trusty app to the places we wanted to visit. Our parents would be ashamed at how inept our generation is at navigating our way around without a WiFi connection. But by the end of the trip, I wanted to switch it off and get lost and discover places on my own terms. We found public transport in SF, Portland and Vancouver so easy – mostly because the streets are named logically – and you pay a flat fare to travel for 90 minutes to make things simple (First Kernow I’m looking at you).

Upon the recommendation of various travel websites we pre-ordered our tickets for the infamous Alcatraz Island; this one we were really excited to tick off the bucket list. What surprised me most about it was the amount of flowers that shroud the island, making it seem less sinister than I had imagined. Not all who were imprisoned here were murderers; those incarcerated here were serving time for a range of crimes but were sent to the island because they had broken prison rules. There was an ex-prisoner named Bill Baker signing copies of his book that documented his time on the Rock. The audio tour of the cell house was like travelling back in time – we walked through what a typical day was like in the prison and relived the infamous attempted escapes that for years were covered up. I can imagine that the night tours they offer here are much more eerie than what we experienced in daylight, but at twice the price of a standard ticket we had decided against it.

Portland

The time had come to leave California and start the first leg of our gruelling 18-hour journey to Portland, Oregon. I’ll spare the grim details of the coach ride and just let you know that we could not have been more relieved to arrive in pretty Portlandia; although upon exiting the bus station we were greeted with a few drunk homeless people looking for a couple spare dollars, which we had no patience for after such a long journey.

Our Airbnb host was lovely, with a sweet house to match. The neighbourhood’s to the east of Portland’s city centre are so idyllic, full of young families, trendy shops and friendly people. You can see why it’s such a diverse place and why it got its reputation for being weird, it’s because everyone is accepted here; it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you like to do, the people of Portland just seem to co-exist together so seamlessly.

After dropping off our bags (and politely asking our Airbnb host to take our suitcases inside the house rather than leaving them on the porch – even with her reassurance of the safe neighbourhood) we realised how hungry we were so we went to check out Hawthorne Boulevard, a trendy high street bordering the Mt Tabor neighbourhood. We had brunch at a local bakery/cafe and thoroughly enjoyed a proper flat white after two weeks of tasteless coffee in California. We weren’t really prepared for the heat in Portland; we were told it’s never normally this warm but on our first day we went and sat in a park a short walk from our apartment and soaked up the sun. There seems to be a totally different attitude to parks and public spaces in America and Canada that we just don’t seem to have here in the UK.

I had read about Powell’s Books beforehand and the bookworm in me was too excited to visit the largest independent book store in the world. It’s so big, you need a map to navigate it; there’s even a rare book room reminiscent of Potter-world territory with dark wood shelving, antique furniture and some of the most valuable and beautiful books in the store. I could’ve spent hours walking around, but with an increasingly hungry boyfriend in tow, we decided to find somewhere for lunch.

After exploring the Pearl District and taking advantage of the tax-free shopping, we headed back to Laurelhurst Park where there was a huge crowd of people dancing and revelling in what appeared to be a silent disco. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the park was filled with party people and young families, anyone who spends time in a park in the UK is usually either underage drinking or just someone trying to get their dog to poop before they can go home. People meet up with their relatives, have BBQs and celebrate events at the park in the US – something you don’t often see happening here at home. Portland was definitely the front-runner as our most-loved place up until this point and I really want to go back and explore some other parts of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle

On the morning of our departure from Portland, I received an email from our Airbnb host in Seattle to say that she had been served her eviction notice and had three days to move out of her apartment, and so she had to cancel our reservation. I couldn’t believe we’d got this far with no major setbacks, and so I hastily scrolled through available listings trying to find somewhere else for us to stay, as we were due to arrive in Seattle at 4pm that day. Fortunately, Airbnb were quick to grant me with a voucher for the original amount I had paid plus a little extra for the inconvenience, and we booked another place which actually ended up being in a much better location for our fleeting visit.

I had secretly hoped for rain when we arrived in Seattle, yet it was mild and sunny when we stepped off the bus in the Emerald City. We spent the evening exploring Capitol Hill – a mostly residential area that is a hipster haven; restaurants, coffee shops and upscale boutiques aplenty (there was an Aesop shop at the end of our road, just to put it into perspective). With only 24 hours to explore the city, we strolled through Pike Place Market, taking in all the sights and smells of one of the oldest public farmers’ markets in the US. A quick trip to the Seattle Art Museum suited our budget impeccably, as entry is free on the first Thursday of every month. And of course, we couldn’t leave Seattle without getting a shot of the iconic Space Needle, although we agreed to swerve the $30 admission for a view from the deck. Instead, we walked to Kerry Park which provided the perfect outpost for a panoramic of the city.

We were a stone’s throw from the Starbucks Reserve Roastery which is totally unlike any Starbucks you’ve ever been to and just a few blocks from where the company started with their original store in Pike Place Market. Every component is adorned with rose gold detailing, from the coffee machines themselves to pipework and gleaming containers of fresh coffee beans roasted on site. We took a seat at the bar and scoured the menu for a brew we liked the sound of. We settled on the Gravitas Blend No. III and asked our barista which was the best method of brewing, to which he advised the Clover brewing method. Admittedly, asking for a large black coffee at 8am was a little ambitious, but it was delicious. Death Cab for Cutie started playing over the speakers at one point and I really felt like I had reached the pinnacle of Seattle’s hipster stereotype.

It’s a bit like watching a science experiment – various pieces of equipment line the bar, giving you a front row seat to the intriguing methods you don’t see in a high street coffee shop. Our barista started making a coffee in front of us using a siphon – whilst it looked innovative with elegant glass chambers, it’s actually one of the oldest methods of brewing coffee that uses a vacuum to pull the coffee through the filter. We sampled his creation at the end and it was interesting to find out how the brewing method affects the taste. This was a must-do experience for any coffee enthusiast.

And so we had reached the last leg of our journey, crossing the border to Canada and on to Vancouver.

Vancouver

I had debated giving Vancouver its own blog post as I have so much to write about – we spent ten glorious days exploring this vibrant and diverse city. The first thing you’ll notice is the mountains; it’s like living in a real-life desktop background. We stayed with family in Kitsilano – a sweet, laid-back neighbourhood with a plethora of independent shops and cafes and just minutes away from the beach. Vancouver brought together all the best elements of the places we had visited previously – the city is bustling with creatives (the arts and film industry thrive here) there are mountains, beaches, parks, rivers and expansive lakes to explore – it was somewhere we could unequivocally see ourselves as residents.

Our first port of call – Granville Island. The wonderful thing about British Columbia is that you’re never far from the open water – something that always draws me in that I think stems from growing up by the sea. The perfect place to sample the best in local produce, the ever-bustling indoor market at Granville Island was the ultimate place for us to start our Vancouver venture. It was then onto the ferry to Gastown; the oldest neighbourhood in Downtown Vancouver with a cosmopolitan vibe, and aptly named after John “Gassy” Deighton, a seaman from the UK who opened the first tavern here and was famed for his chattiness. We visited a park in Mount Pleasant called Dude Chilling Park, which started off as a bit of a prank by a local artist who installed the sign as a replica of the original. Whilst the official name is still Guelph Park, the sign now has public art status and pretty much sums up the attitude of locals who love the nickname. To pay homage to the artist (and to enjoy the warm weather) we spent an afternoon, chilling in the park.

Our second day granted us beautiful weather, and so we travelled to North Vancouver, away from the furore of the city to Deep Cove; a little bayside community with a lot to do. It’s palpable why the founders of Herschel live here, I’m certain the sheer beauty of the environment keeps them inspired. I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the hike up to Quarry Rock, but with the promise of unmissable views we pursued eagerly along the Baden-Powell trail; famed for its construction by the Boy Scouts’ Organisation in the 1960s and named after the group’s founder. After about forty five minutes of walking up and down stairs and over huge tree roots, we finally reached the top and looked out over sweeping views of the Indian Arm. It is a hugely popular hike, and it’s easy to see why once you’re up there. But the sheer amount of people on one tiny rock did take away from the peaceful and reflective moment I’d hoped to have when I reached the top – instead there were lots of people trying to take risky selfies. Once we’d cooled down, we made the journey back and enjoyed probably the best sorbet I’ve ever had from an ice-creamery in the town.

If you ever get the chance to visit somewhere that offers sea views and flat planes for a bike ride – do it. Hiring a bike on holiday has become one of my most-loved activities whilst travelling; mostly because I never ride a bike when I’m at home due to the hilly nature of the UK (and my lack of stamina) and the fact that you can explore so much more on two wheels than on two feet. Where better to take in boundless views of English Bay and Vancouver Harbour, than by cycling the seawall that surrounds the 1000 acres of Stanley Park? Blessed with another beautiful day, we took the leisurely walk along the waterfront from Downtown stopping at Canada Place where we watched sea-planes land and take off. We hired some bikes and made our way down to the park. Unlike any park I’ve visited, Stanley Park houses three beaches, a lighthouse, an outdoor swimming pool, an aquarium and unrivalled views of Lions Gate Bridge – it’s easy to see why it attracts a million visitors a year. We spent two hours cycling and stopping off at various points along the seawall, but we barely scratched the surface of this stunning urban park.

Vancouver is an exemplary balance between city life and getting out and about in the natural world. North Vancouver is a whole place of its own, with extensive unspoiled views of the best of what Canada has to offer. We took a bus to Lynn Canyon and walked until we came to the bottom of a waterfall, perfect for swimming (although the water was actually freezing, I could barely keep my toes in). We ate our lunch, watched birds fly up and down the river and after sunning ourselves we carried on the walk. By the time we had finished exploring Lynn Canyon, it was swelteringly hot. Luckily for us, there is a general store conveniently located at the end of the trail – an ice cold drink was more than welcome.

We had avoided the rain for as long as we could, and when it came we decided to check out Bloedel Conservatory; a domed tropical paradise at the top of Queen Elizabeth Park with more than 120 species of free-flying exotic birds and 500 exotic plants. I had seen a few of the colourful birds at zoos before, but not like this. Despite the fact the conservatory is relatively small, we spent a good hour walking around, spotting birds on the path in front of us and watching as they swooped past our heads. We were really lucky to catch them at lunchtime and we had a lot of fun watching them interact up close. All of the following beautiful photos were taken by Joe as my camera was far too slow to catch them!

Cleveland Dam provided us with some incredible photo opportunities. We arrived in Canyon Heights which felt pretty desolate with very few people around. We soon realised after a quick coffee stop at Capilano Grind that everyone was at the dam, admiring the mountains and a truly unreal view at the head of Capilano Lake. We followed the trail all the way down until we reached the salmon hatchery where we watched the fish jump and wiggle their way along the rushing river.

I certainly didn’t expect to spend our last day on a mountain still covered in snow in early June. It was a fitting outro to our Canadian adventure (although I’m still slightly disappointed we didn’t see any bears!) I probably wouldn’t have worn my brand-new, white trainers if I had known that I would be trenching through two feet of hard snow, but I always think fondly of that day now whenever I wear them. We traipsed through the woods, stopping to take photographs of the cabins along the trail. Many of these cabins were built during the late 1920s by intrepid friends with a passion for skiing. In its hay-day, Hollyburn was frequented by thousands of visitors every year. After a fire destroyed part of the the lodge, the resort started to see a decline in visitors during the 1950s, when places like Grouse Mountain were growing in popularity for snow sports. Now there are over 100 cabins and the area as a whole is now known as Cypress Mountain; Hollyburn Lodge is the only surviving commercial lodge built on Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains before the 1960s.

Hollyburn Mountain was the perfect conclusion to an incredible trip, where we had relished in cities, escaped to the coast and breathed fresh mountain air. To be honest, it was a little deflating coming home. I’ve been to some places where I’ve felt like a resident, with the excitement of being a visitor for the first time – and hopefully it won’t be the last. Now I just want to spend my days roaming national parks and my evenings at the beach, watching the sun set behind the mountains. I guess, for the meantime, Cornwall’s coast will have to do.

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