On the Road: Driving through Dreams in California

This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia Issue

Before any traveller lands in California, we've already visited the state a hundred times in our imagination. Most of us first travel here via the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, or daydream it up listening to music by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beach Boys and Stevie Nicks.

We might stitch together the photographs of Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Catherine Opie to create a visual tapestry all our own, or perhaps conjure up the Golden State by borrowing the words of John Steinbeck, Joan Didion and Jack Kerouac. This makes a road trip here the most whimsical of quests, (re)visiting places that occupy space in our minds to make real the California of our imaginations.

As a hopelessly romantic Irish teenager obsessed with Golden Age cinema, 1950s Beat literature, 1960s counterculture movements and 1970s rock (okay, and 1980s blockbusters), I've adored California from afar my whole life. For the past three years I've had the freedom to travel and work here every winter, throwing myself gratefully into her warm arms when the weather starts to viciously sabotage my moods back in London. However, I know it's possible to misunderstand this evocative state - to miss its magic - which is why I've returned to retrace my own fantasy made real, a California of ramshackle roadhouses, characterful motels, quirky small towns and people who dare to dream big.


It's a thrill to land in San Francisco, meet the photographer Kate (another California fangirl who has relocated to the state) and immediately check in to the Phoenix Hotel, a suitably dreamy, pop culture-rich locale in the Tenderloin district. This joyously rebooted 1956 motel, which counts Debbie Harry, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young and David Bowie as former guests, possesses the sort of louche rock'n'roll spirit I've adored since my teens. I'm utterly star-struck by its retro neons, original pool and 1970s-style lounge bar. A night in San Francisco makes for a soft landing in California, eating cheap Mexican food in the Mission District, drinking potent cocktails at Pagan Idol, a retro tiki bar, and finally raiding the legendary Rainbow Grocery co-op for organic car snacks before crashing, grateful and jet-lagged, into bed.

After a brief pilgrimage to the City Lights bookstore and Vesuvio Café, beloved by Beat Generation big hitters including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we drive north towards Point Reyes, a huge expanse of protected coastline in northern California's Marin County. San Francisco might be one of the most financially high-powered and culturally heavyweight cities on the planet, but hop on a bike and you'll be powering along pristine shores in 20 minutes.

An hour along the road and we're surrounded by gently undulating farmland that reminds me of Cornwall or my native Northern Ireland. Nick's Cove is our heavenly base for the night, a 1930s roadhouse and cluster of cottages perched on the edge of Tomales Bay. One of my travel rules is this: where I find water, I jump into it, unhesitatingly and ideally accompanied by a cocktail. The night before I had sipped a beer during a dip in the Phoenix's 1950s pool, but today I jump o the pier into the freezing sea before thawing out in front of a coal-burning stove in the boathouse. We sip bloody marys and knock back our welcome oysters, the warmest way to be greeted I've ever come across.

The next morning we drive to Point Reyes Station, the tiny and charming main hub of Tomales Bay. We piece together a picnic at Cowgirl Creamery farm shop, one of the region's best-loved artisan cheesemakers which has a cult following in San Francisco, before setting off on a brisk and breezy walk along Chimney Rock Trail through Point Reyes National Seashore Park. Populated only by grazing sheep in the fields and lolloping elephant seals on the sand below, we feel a lifetime away from the 21st century.

This region of California resembles a souped-up, colour-saturated vision of the Scottish Highlands in the 1950s, an observation echoed in local place names such as Inverness and McDonald. It hits me that California has always reminded people of other places, even from the times of the very first settlers. Long before the lm industry pushed it into the world's collective imagination, visitors would gaze at California's landscapes and be assailed by memories of the homelands they'd left behind. Nostalgia, of course, is rose-tinted revisionism, and perhaps the reason California has been its subject for generations is because she offers a perfected, petite-proportioned smorgasbord of other landscapes that can be found in disparate corners of the globe.

From Point Reyes we drive north to the tiny, fiercely independent town of Bolinas, which to Kate's eye looks like a Wes Anderson set - an observation bolstered by the rumour that locals routinely tear down road signs directing tourists into town.

To me Marin County is eerily idyllic, like the opening scenes of a horror movie right before everything gets gory. Such cinematic comparisons are commonplace because we really do share California with the movies. So much of its scenery winds up as a theatrical backdrop on the silver screen that the entire state has a familiar face, the original A-list actor.


In the towns of Monterey and Carmel I'm reminded just how much we share California with writers, too. As a lover of Steinbeck, I'm doomed to wander around Cannery Row with goosebumps, seeing his characters lurking in the shadows among the tacky saltwater ta y vendors and plastic tat shops. However it's Big Sur, an extravagantly beautiful stretch of coastline a few miles south, that really captures my heart.

After a rainy hike among the redwoods we duck into Big Sur Bakery for soup and superlative coffee. We also do a few last-minute Googles and emails because we're about to go under to the wifi and phone signal-free zone of Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. A 1930s roadhouse turned not-for-pro t hotel, today Deetjen's is one of the most charming and idiosyncratic inns on the planet, a ramshackle collection of cottages and bedrooms plus a rustic restaurant that serves top-notch seafood by night and the best breakfasts in Big Sur by morning. The rain is pounding so we gratefully curl up in front of the fire and luxuriously sink into our 24-hour digital detox, allowing Deetjen's to work its magic on our road-weary souls.

If some places in California remind me of the past, Big Sur does something different: it reminds me of the future I want to have. The place reshuffles my priorities and reminds me of the sheer joy I get from awe-inspiring trees, dramatic waves, a friendly community, quirky accommodation and a killer huevos rancheros. Today Big Sur has a reputation as a moneyed refuge for retired artists, architects, writers and musicians, where Hollywood A-listers honeymoon in $700-a-night lodges like the Post Ranch Inn and Ventana, but the barefoot bohemian vibe and community spirit still prevail. I write this with confidence because we put the Big Sur community to the test when we manage to get our car stuck in a creek. After asking some of the local residents for help we eventually get towed out by a founding member of - no word of a lie - The Beach Boys.


It's heartbreaking to leave my future home so soon, but the Madonna Inn in the cheery city of San Luis Obispo is always worth hitting the road for. This pink palace of a 1950s motor lodge is the hotel I've stayed at the most in the world. It's my fourth time here, an outrageous fact for a London-based travel journalist who should really be staying at new hotels as often as possible.

However, I can't help it - I love this place. My first night in California was spent here and sinking into the hot tub immediately immerses me in the Californian spirit as well as bubbling water. I've never seen another hotel so perfectly primed for pleasure. What sort of zombie could resist the 110 kitsch and individually decorated rooms, the steakhouse with its pink banquettes and swing-dance club on Monday nights, the jalapeño margaritas from the poolside bar, the Barbie-pink tennis courts, or the cupcake bakery? People have always dared to dream big in California - that was the whole point of emigrating here. Driving from place to place we're journeying through the dreams of thousands of Californians, both dead and alive. And the Madonna Inn is one of the state's most skilfully rendered daydreams.

We drive off in the pursuit of pleasure, sipping wine at hip wineries Rabble and Chronic in Paso Robles before spending the night at the recently revamped Skyview motel in the quirky town of Los Alamos. With cult bakeries like Bob's Well Bread Bakery and historic drinking dens like the 1880 Union Saloon, this is prime minibreak material for in-the-know food and wine-loving Los Angelenos.

An hour beyond Los Alamos lies the surprisingly seductive town of Ojai, nestled in a fertile valley striped with orange orchards and avocado groves. Ojai is now as famous for its hippy vibe and artsy community as it is for its farmland and fresh produce, an idyllic haven where good living comes easy to those who reside there. We check into the stylish Ojai Rancho Inn and then explore the town on Rancho-issued bikes, dipping into the swish interiors of vintage stores like In The Field, Summer Camp and Sam Roberts. In the last I make my lone purchase of the trip, an embroidered 1940s buckskin jacket that the owner, John Dennis, tells me was stitched on an early sewing machine by Native Americans. We spend an hour talking to John about how he shapes his handmade hats in the creek and sun-dries them, as well as his love of museum-grade vintage pieces, my new jacket being one of them. We tear ourselves away just in time to catch Ojai's famous "pink moment", when the setting sun taints the surrounding mountains fuchsia, before tucking into vegan Mexican food at Farmer and the Cook.

The next morning we hike Shelf Road in the sunshine, joining the freelance brigade at the sleek new joint Beacon Coffee Company and rummaging through rare photography books at Barts Books before finally forcing ourselves back on the road for our three-hour drive into the snow-capped mountains and town of Idyllwild. On the recommendation of Bo and Kevin Carney, the owners of the hip Silver Lake boutique Mohawk General Store who have a holiday home here, we head to the adorably old-school Restaurant Gastrognome for steak before checking out a couple of local breweries and then hitting the hay in our cute 1970s-style Airbnb A-frame.

This quirky, crafty mountain town has always been a camping destination in the summer months, but in recent times it's become a year-round haven for LA's creative community too - we find ourselves queueing for hot cacao at El Buen Cacao alongside film directors and fashion designers. During a coffee tasting with Chris at the local roastery Black Mountain Coffee he tells us about his favourite hikes and breweries in the area, sparking a pilgrimage to Mountain Mike where leather expert Mike "reads" my new jacket, admiring the craftsmanship. "I'd say this is Appalachian, and look, you can see exactly where the bullet entered the hide," he says as if he's reading a book. A leather craftsman for over 40 years, Mike can look at a hide and ascertain how fast the deer was running, whether it was going uphill or downhill, and where the hunter was firing from. Stories are found everywhere, even in vintage clothes, if we can find the right people to read them for us.


A friend of mine who lives in Palm Springs has pointed us towards a retro roadhouse called The Sugarloaf situated between Idyllwild and Palm Springs, where the owner Gabbi greets us with the words, "Of course you're having lunch with us. Seriously, we've got a five-star-chef in a two-star-location!" They serve up the best barbecued brisket and burgers we've ever tasted. Gabbi and chef Wesley are long-time friends who've made it big in the restaurant and hotel scene in LA and NYC, and now feel they've earned a little fun - this year they're hosting Coachella parties and having gigs out the back. Kate and I have driven into a big, thrilling dream by pulling up here.

From the snow-capped peaks and sub-zero temperatures we drive into the sun-baked desert to our penultimate stop, Joshua Tree. We're staying at the Pioneertown Motel, a simple and friendly motel (literally) out of a Wild West film set. The entire 1880s-style Mane Street (see what they did there?) of Pioneertown was built by Hollywood investors in 1946 to provide a permanent set for more than 50 Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s. Pioneertown also has the bonus of being mere staggering distance from Pappy & Harriet's, one of my favourite bars and gig venues on the planet. Everyone from Robert Plant to Paul McCartney and Queens of the Stone Age have played impromptu sets right here.

Eating barbecued ribs and dancing to the Sunday Band is the best way to round off a day spent hiking in the national park, sifting through 1970s copies of High Times in vintage stores, lusting over just about everything in boutiques like Shop on the Mesa and feasting on blackened chicken at chic new arrival La Copine. Joshua Tree has a special place in my heart. This other-worldly, sparse desert landscape has been the backdrop to so many people's visions and I can understand how musicians, writers and artists find inspiration on this spectacular oversized blank canvas, where you can build a ranch and realise your fantasies.


Another one of my travel rules: always wrap up a road trip in style. With this in mind we ease ourselves gently into Los Angeles city life at the lush Los Feliz hotel the Covell, sinking gratefully into our plush beds and vast baths after days of slightly more spartan living in the mountains and the desert. Our final supper is just a few steps down the road at Kismet, where we devour Middle Eastern small dishes yet still manage to think about which HomeState breakfast tacos to order from room service in the morning. It's a treat to be back in a city I love, but I'm already feeling nostalgic for Deetjen's, for the Madonna Inn, for the faces of John Dennis from Ojai and Mountain Mike in Idyllwild. As Kerouac observed back in the 1950s, a road trip is a story happening in real time. And I've never found a better setting and cast of characters for my story than California.

The Lowdown

For more information on planning your own Californian road trip go to: visitcalifornia.com/road-trips

This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia Issue

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