This is a blog post written by our Digital Marketing Specialist Tom Mortimer following his three week motorhome holiday road tripping around California & Nevada in April 2017.
I’d been looking forward to the trip for so long. Me and a few of my mates (all 24 and 25) had been wanting to go on a road trip around America for years, but for a number of reasons, including financial and personal we’d always put it off. So when we got everything booked up last Autumn there was an untold excitement buzzing throughout the group continuously for months.
The months, and the waiting, seemed like a lifetime, and predictably, the holiday sauntered by in no time at all. There was part of me that wanted to come back; the home comforts, a proper night sleep, my own bed, ironed clothes, but as soon as I was back at Heathrow airport I was already missing it.
There’s a certain enchantment that gets a hold of my soul every time I visit the USA. It’s somewhere I would love to live one day. Be it the food, the people, the big cars, the beautiful scenery, or the unmistakably American architecture, it all just feels magical to me. It’s charm has a special place in my heart, and it seems to send my dopamine levels through the roof.
This road trip would be my eighth trip to America, my second to California, but my first with friends. So it was certainly going to be different. And to be honest, it was almost certainly going to be better.
We began by flying into San Francisco with Virgin Atlantic whose staff deserve a special mention as they dealt with a tiny hiccup we had on the flight with incredible patience and attentiveness. Anyone who’s also flown on the 787 Dreamliner knows how beautiful and contemporary that airplane is, and for return flights from San Francisco for less than £500, you really can’t go wrong. If this was Trip Advisor I’d give Virgin an easy 5 marks out of 5.
Our first night in San Francisco was spent at the Holiday Inn Express Fishermans Wharf, which was an ideal location for us as first time visitors to The City. Locals to San Francisco would probably try to avoid Fisherman’s Wharf like the plague, but for tourists it’s an ideal place to start. It reminded me of the type of seaside resort you’d find it England, but with its own authentic American twist. It’s full of souvenir shops, candy shops, museums, amusements, fair ground rides, but it’s not tacky; it’s clean, smart and tasteful.
The next day we were went to Alcatraz, and it really did live up to the hype. It was magnificent, and for the price of $37, is very much worth the visit. From the pier you take a 10/15 minute boat journey to the island and then you are left to your own devices where you can take in the historic prison at your own pace, and explore as much, or as little as you want. It’s quite surreal taking in the island and going in and out of the cells, and the audio description (included in the price) is so good that you almost find yourself lost in the antiquity of it all. We spent a good 3 hours on the island, but you could easily take longer. Plus the views of San Francisco from the island aren’t half bad either.
After Alcatraz we headed to pick up our 30ft motorhome from the Cruise America depot in Newark, which is about half way between San Francisco and San Jose, an hour drive from the centre of San Francisco, 30-40 minutes from the airport. 30 ft sounds big, and it’s quite daunting when you first see it and when you first sit at the wheel, but it really isn’t as hard to drive as it sounds. In America, the roads are wide, and the vehicle feels so light when you’re steering, meaning you can turn corners with little difficulty. Adjusting to the width of it is probably the most difficult, but you really do become accustomed to the feel of the vehicle within half an hour or so.
Our first RV park was just outside San Francisco by Candlestick Park, the former home of the NFL team the San Francisco 49ers and the MLB side the San Francisco Giants. In terms of location, it’s 10 minutes from Mission District, which has a decent amount of bars and a thriving nightlife, and 5 or so minutes further to true downtown San Francisco. Candlestick RV Park itself is quite basic, there is a laundry and a shower block and not a lot else, but you pay for the location, and it would be the most expensive RV park we would stay at on the trip at $90.
Before leaving San Francisco we drove across Golden Gate Bridge, stopped for some photos, and on to Sausalito – a lovely, small city which boasts a magnificent view of the Bay, and is a great place to stop for a spot of lunch.
Following San Francisco we headed down the coast to Santa Cruz on the northern edge of Monterey Bay. Santa Cruz is known around the world for its waves, and is one of the best places on the planet for surfers. The beaches as you would expect are magnificent, and it is probably better suited for the younger demographic compared to its sister city on the opposite edge of the Bay, Monterey.
We spent two nights at the Santa Cruz Ranch RV Resort ($60 per night) which couldn’t have been more different to the RV park we stayed at in San Francisco. This RV park was what we expected all the RV parks to be like in America; big, grassy, a swimming pool, hot tub, games room, shop etc. It was about 15 minutes drive from the centre of Santa Cruz, but located in a lovely suburb called Scotts Valley which had a beautiful, typically American, breakfast diner called Auntie Mame’s – which was glorious – as well as a host of other amenities close by.
Santa Cruz is often overlooked on the California coast, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking to see the true California away from the tourist traps, but are still looking to experience the vibrancy you expect of the Golden State. It has a strip full of bars and restaurants, a beachfront boardwalk (California’s oldest surviving amusement park) full of amusements and shops, and an 800m pier (the longest pier on the West Coast of the United States) known for its dining, nightlife and sea lion viewing.
Pismo Beach & Santa Barbara
Our next two stops were further south on the Pacific Coast – Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara. Our stop at Pismo was mostly just somewhere to break up the drive, but there was also an excellent RV park situated right on the beach, and within walking distance from the town centre, called the Pismo Coast Village RV Resort ($60 with pool, restaurant, bar, shop, outdoor games etc). The town centre is quaint, but the alluring beach is the main attraction with its handsome boardwalk and golden sands.
It took two and a half hours to Pismo from Santa Cruz, and a further two hours from Pismo to get to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara, just like seemingly everywhere on the west coast, is beautiful too. It almost feels like a mini version of Los Angeles; a beachfront bestrewn with palm trees, rollerbladers, beach bars, basketball courts and the like. The town has a nice relaxed vibe, with plenty of bars and restaurants, and a thriving arts culture, though to us it didn’t feel too lively – maybe we just appeared on the wrong day – but it felt like a good place to kick back and switch off from the world.
Malibu & Los Angeles
Malibu is an hour and a half down the coast from Santa Barbara, half an hour from Santa Monica, and about an hour from downtown Los Angeles. We had visions of it being quite a luxurious place but it gave off more of an old-fashioned, charming vibe rather than one of affluence; with its sprinkling of shack-type homes and bars dotted across the beachfront, and rickety looking pier stretching out into the sea.
The RV park we stayed at, Malibu Beach RV Park, was magnificent. It didn’t have a pool, but it was beautifully located on a cliff overlooking the beach, and had a games room and shop thrown in for good measure. It was also just over $50 which felt like an absolute steal. We would stay two nights there, and we could’ve stayed longer were it not for our want to locate closer to Los Angeles.
On our second day at Malibu we went to Santa Monica, and it was absolutely stunning. Before I went to Los Angeles I’d heard that it was a bit pretentious, a bit dirty, that it was too spread out, that there were better places in California, but I think it was the place I enjoyed the most. Maybe it’s more catered for my age group, but there’s so much to it. There’s Santa Monica, there’s Venice, Long Beach, Downtown, Hollywood, Anaheim, Beverley Hills and so much more.
In Santa Monica you have a beautiful centre with stylish outdoor cafes, restaurants and bars; dozens of shops, fountains and contemporary statues. Then you have the beautiful, wide beach and the happening pier which is vibrant any time of the day with street shows, musicians and the like. At night we visited a place called Bungalow, which was exactly like a real life bungalow, giving a real house party feel to the place. It was really, really cool.
After spending two nights out in Malibu we moved RV parks to East Shore RV Park which was on the west side of Los Angeles, past El Monte and probably about half an hour drive to Downtown LA. It was $70 for the night, and it was almost like a mini town; it had two pools, a big lake, a shop, you could rent golf buddy’s to drive around. It was pretty out the way but it was a great place to relax with some scenery – the park had an awesome mountainous backdrop to it too.
Over the next couple of days we did a few touristy things; we went to Hollywood, which as you’d expect glitzy and buzzing; we went to downtown; we went to Venice beach; we went to an LA Lakers game, which was great fun (even if the Lakers are terrible). If you’re going to LA, as I’m sure you’ve been told before, you have to have some kind of a vehicle because the public transport in the city is severely lacking, but if you do have one there’s just boundless things you can do.
We drove through the night from Los Angeles to Las Vegas stopping to sleep in Calico – a former mining town and now ghost town, which is worth a stop if you’re doing the drive from LA to Vegas (which is over 5 hours). We paid $50 for the RV park which had a pool and a shop too.
The next morning bright and early we headed to Vegas. We didn’t really know what to expect, to be completely honest – we were all Vegas virgins. We expected it to be big, to be lively, of course, but just how massive and how crazy we just couldn’t even try to envisage. Either our imaginations weren’t good enough or the legend of Vegas had preceded it.
The drive from LA to Vegas is a long one, and to be frank, a boring one. There’s very little on either side of the road apart from endless sand so when you rock up at Vegas it kind of takes your breath away. You can see the skyline from miles away, the Stratosphere is one of the hotels that sticks out immediately because of its spaceship look, and because it towers above everything around it. As you descend closer and closer the sheer enormity of the place takes a hold. From so far away it’s hard to gauge how big the place is because of how little there is around it, but once you’re there it feels enormous – you’re constantly looking up, constantly looking around because there’s so much to see.
We stayed at the Hyatt Place hotel for the first night which was about a mile off the strip – solely because they would allow us to keep the motorhome in their car park for the duration of our stay – and then for the other three nights we stayed at the MGM Grande. As you’re probably aware if you’re going to Vegas you need to be on the Strip, you need to be in amongst it all to get the best out of it, and it’s really not at all costly. Vegas hotels are undoubtedly the cheapest in the US, especially when you consider what you get for the price too – we stayed at the MGM for approximately $80 per room per night (including taxes and resort fees) which has four pools and a lazy river, countless bars, restaurants, fast food joints, a mammoth casino, a theatre, an amusements, a whole wall full of TV’s showing sport, an insane golfing range and loads more.
You hear the phrase, “Las Vegas is like a theme park for adults” and there’s genuinely no better way to describe it. The whole place feels mystical, just from the fact that there’s escalators outside on the road makes it seem all a bit theme parkish. Then you turn up at New York New York with its replica Statue of Liberty outside and it’s huge rollercoaster sprawling the hotel or to Paris with its replica Eiffel Tower. There’s so much going on everywhere. Everything’s so big. It even has that theme park smell to it. This isn’t a joke either, major theme parks actually take their scents very seriously, and this is what Vegas does too, because it entices you to come back, as smell is the strongest sense tied to memory, and it affects your mood and willingness to spend money, apparently.
I’ve not even spoken about the lights yet. They’re dazzling, luminescent, effulgent, scintillating; they make you feel awake when you should be tired. The whole place does. As soon as you’re out of your room you instantly feel alive. There’s just something about Vegas that fills you with energy (the rumour that the casinos pump their rooms with oxygen is of course a myth).
It’s truly a place like no other, but what’s great about it is that it’s not too busy, it’s not too intense. If you want to relax for the day, sit by the pool, take in some lunch, do some shopping, go for a walk, watch the world go by then you can. If you want to drink all day, dance all day, gamble all day, be crazy all day, then you can. There’s so much choice. So much world class choice. So much budget choice. There’s something for anyone and everyone that’s what makes it so fantastic. If you’ve never been it’s somewhere you really have to tick off, even just to see the madness of it all first hand. You may not like it, there are many who surely don’t, but it’s a fascinating place to take in and experience.
As said above we were there for four nights, and perhaps it was a little too long. Or maybe just right. We were happy to leave certainly. Vegas had sapped a lot of our soul. It was an incredible four nights, but there was little sleep had and a lot of energy expended. Nature was calling and chilling out was calling.
Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes & Lake Tahoe
To cool and calm down after the freneticism of Las Vegas what more could you ask for than California’s natural side? We left Vegas in the afternoon and decided to go up and through Death Valley. I think it’s probably my only regret of the holiday that we didn’t see Death Valley in all its glory, as we arrived upon it too late, and the majority of our drive through the park was in darkness.
It was a long drive that day, our plan was to get as near to South Lake Tahoe as we could in 6 or 7 hours. It’s definitely a drive worth doing in the day, though – first you’d get to see the beauty of Death Valley, then when you leave you descend upon the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains which are incessantly on your left hand side as you keep heading north, and while you’re driving alongside the mountains you’ll pass through a number of distinctly American towns such as Bishop, Big Pine, Lone Pine and Wilkerson. Unfortunately the timing of our holiday coincided with Tioga Pass still being shut at Yosemite so we couldn’t get into the park from the east side and would therefore have to miss it out altogether.
By the time we were ready to park up there was snow everywhere. We were in Mammoth Lakes and the contrast between 6 hours earlier in 25C + heat in Las Vegas and minus degrees in Mammoth blew our minds. It was freezing – actually, colder – and we were still dressed for Vegas. We didn’t do anything that night apart from park up and sleep.
The next morning we awoke and headed two and a half hours up to Lake Tahoe on the California and Nevada border. Tahoe is often overlooked on Californian holidays, partly because it’s out the way with it being so north, but it really is worth the visit if you can – it’s stunningly beautiful and has an especially vibrant centre. Plus it’s a skier’s paradise in winter, reminiscent of a European skiing village, if you like that kind of thing.
We spent two nights in Lake Tahoe at the Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe which was only $60 a room a night and they allowed us to park our RV in their car park – I think after having four hotel nights in Las Vegas, we craved a bed again. The hotel was a 5 minute drive from the casinos on the Nevada side and the base of the gondola where there was a host of bars and restaurants with big fire pits.
Tahoe does have some stunning beaches too including the extraordinary Emerald Bay which is one of the most photographed sites in the United States. In summer temperatures average in the 20’s so it’s a fantastic place to relax at one with nature any time of year.
We loved Tahoe, it was personally the second favourite place I stayed in while I was on the holiday. I loved the vibrancy and camaraderie of the casinos and the bars at night, and the serenity and tranquility of the town, flora and fauna in the day. It was truly a great place to wind down the holiday.
Sacramento & Home…
After Lake Tahoe we did very little. We stopped off at Sacramento, the capital of California, before heading back for our flight in San Francisco, but we didn’t at all explore the city. It was the worst day we had weather wise on our whole trip, it wasn’t the coldest day, but it was grey – probably the only grey day we had during the whole three weeks. So instead of heading outside we headed to an outlet mall. We also again stayed in a hotel, and using one of our group’s Hilton points, we paid very little for the Hilton Sacramento Arden West, which was a lovely hotel equipped with pool, hot tub, steam room and sauna.
The next day we headed an hour and a half down the road back to where it all started in San Francisco for our flight. It had been a phenomenal trip, even better than my high expectations, and even now writing about the trip I still feel that twinge of sadness that it’s all over.
America is a place that has a big part of my heart, I love how much they care about the food – everywhere you go it tastes so fresh and so rich in flavour; I love how sociable the people are; I love how big everything is, how clean everything is; I love their culture; I love their architecture. It’s just so different to the UK, but also so similar too. It’ll be a long time before I have a trip as fun as that again, if ever.
Ah, Cali. I loved you.