California has been exciting travellers since it was first sighted by Spanish explorers in the 16thC. The subsequent discovery of gold and the glory years of Hollywood did nothing to diminish the cherished notion of California as the land at the end of the rainbow: a place where fortunes could be made and where lives – be they astronomically wealthy, immeasurably decadent, or madly unconventional – could be lived to the full, with some of America’s most beautiful scenery as a backdrop
Described by author Tom Wolfe as America’s “social laboratory,” California gave birth to beatniks in the 1950s, hippies and mass political protest in the 1960s, gay and lesbian liberation in the 1970s, and the New Age during the 1980s. Through films, genre fiction and music, California has consistently set the agenda for modern American culture.
Yet there is far more history here than most people realize: the rock paintings and complex basketry of Native Americans; Spanish missions; the ghost towns of the gold rush; and even the remains of a 19thC Russian settlement among the remnants of earlier eras that take their place alongside the state’s more modern images: the Golden Gate Bridge, Beverly Hills and Disneyland. What’s more, in an area more than eight hundred miles long and over two hundred miles wide, California embraces beaches, forests, mountains, deserts, the most modern of modern cities and the most rural of rural towns – diverse and extreme landscapes which few other places can match.
Do any traveling at all in California and you will find the variations to be truly staggering. The state’s two major urban areas alone could hardly be more different. In the south, Los Angeles sprawls over hills, through valleys, and alongside the ocean, making mincemeat of the usual definition of a city. Nonetheless, LA’s affluent sections are, for many, what California is all about: million-dollar homes, swimming-pools fringed by palm trees, and beaches frequented by the bronzed and beautiful. Four hundred miles north, San Francisco is the total opposite: a compact, cultured and easily walked city that has a liberal and bohemian air, and rewards its residents with fabulous views every time they walk down the street.
Bear in mind that American cities can be dangerous places. Particularly in Los Angeles, you should take care to avoid the run-down areas where even the local police fear to tread. Always heed local advice and note the warnings given in this book.
Away from the state’s big cities, the population thins remarkably. Journey along the coast and you’ll pass from surfer-filled beaches to wave lashed granite cliffs and secluded coves where seals are a more common sight than people. Head inland, passing immense swathes of farmland and groves of giant sequoia trees, and you will reach the Sierra Nevada mountains. Historically, the mountains were the great obstacle to migration into California from the east. They still form a formidable – but magnificent – natural barrier. From the mountains, Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S., looks down over the lowest – and often the hottest – place in the country: Death Valley, one of the strange and severe desert regions which stretch to the Nevada border.
Even if Californians have become oblivious to their state’s extraordinary scenery, they still love to eat – and eating in California means never ordering the same meal twice. The state not only produces with finesse American staples such as ribs, steaks and burgers, but harbours the hallowed citadels of California cuisine, where the best of the state’s home-grown produce is combined with the imaginations of some the world’s most inventive chefs. In addition, every town has a plethora of quality Japanese, Chinese and Mexican restaurants, and spreading rapidly are the Salvadorean bakeries and Vietnamese fast-food stands that reflect just two of California’s newer ethnic communities.
Food is invariably served in large amounts and at reasonable prices. To aid digestion, the state has native wines of a quality often matching those of France and dozens of micro-breweries producing beers of merit. Remarkably for such a unique and popular region, California does not burn a hole in the foreign visitor’s pocket. Car rental is cheap, and whether you pass the night in a roadside motel or in a Victorian bed-and-breakfast inn overlooking the ocean, prices everywhere compare favourably – and standards are sky high.