Monthly Archives: April 2014

If you’re going to San Francisco

Bee Says: Fresh from our dreamy road trip and life on the open tarmac, we crawled into San Francisco at a snail pace. It turned out we had accidentally timed our arrival with that of the delegates to the huge annual Game Developers Conference (GDC); so San Fran! We inched our way into the city through the gorgeous toy-town pastel painted houses of the south side. We had also timed our arrival with that great American holiday… St Patricks Day! So Nick’s first impressions of San Fran (luckily I’ve been before) were of girls dressed in barely-there green hot pants, mardi-gras beads and low cut tops, puking into doorways at 3pm! A lovelier twist of timing fate had meant that my sister Jess’s partner Paul was in San Francisco at the exact same time as us! So with no time to lose, and being so incredibly excited to see some family after so long on the road, he appeared at Anish’s door and there was a lot of squealing and epic hugs and “you’re really really here!”. We swung by a sweet little Italian joint for some stomach lining pasta, having now got a case of the St Paddy day fear, then on to an amazing cider-specialist bar called UpCider. Despite the streets and bars heaving with people wearing green and yelling, Anish had amazingly found us a nice peaceful haven where we could hear each other talk and therefore do lots of chatting. The menu had us chuckling though because amongst an epic list of US produced craft cider (and beer) there was a couple of UK/Irish imports: Magners and Strongbow. The descriptions of these ciders talked of honey blossom tinges and smooth finishes. I feel sorry for anyone who opted for one of these atrocities over the really good stuff. Imagine there being a place in the world where Strongbow is considered a classy option!

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Our first full day in San Francisco was set to be action packed, as Anish is a man who takes his tour guide duty very seriously. He had put so much effort into thinking about where we could go and when and why, and it was such a relief after 6 months of permanently planning our next move to just sit back and be told which bus to catch and where to get off! He also, very thoughtfully, had chosen to live opposite our favourite store Trader Joe’s which gave us an excuse to stock up on even more cookie butter spread and chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels. We kicked off the day with our first breakfast (which turned into a daily tradition) at a gorgeous cafe, just around the corner, called Flour & Co. Not only was the coffee brewed to perfection, but the treat-offerings and items they class as legitimate breakfast foods were heavenly. My personal pick was a cluster of syrup soaked cinnamon dough balls covered in cream cheese frosting.

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It was then time to separate. Nick and the gang were off to Alcatraz! I had already been on my previous visit with Craig and it had been so perfect that I thought it would be silly to pay to go again, which I had such a blast the first time. So they departed with strict instructions from me to DO THE AUDIO TOUR, which I would advise anyone else. It’s the best tour of any tourist trap that I have ever experienced. He will fill you in on that, and in the meantime I had a very important date with… my second breakfast of the day (living the American dream!) and my good friends Jean and Saul. Jean is Che’s, of our Vegas extravaganza fame, sister and Saul is her adorable husband. We met up at Toast for some eggs and nattering, then I was lucky enough to get a peek at their gorgeous apartment. It’s always so fascinating to chat to people from other countries about the main differences or the pros/cons and I think we just about covered every topic from health care to politics, to cars, to quality of life, to diets and popular culture. Looking back, someone should probably have recorded us for some sort of international debate! I then got to do a really nice local lazy weekend morning activity, which was take Jean and Saul’s pooch for a walk to the park. The park had a panoramic view out over all of the city, the bay and even Alcatraz so I could give Nick a little wave from dry land…

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Nick Says: Welcome to the Rock. Alcatraz is just one of those places isn’t it? You’ve heard all about it, the stories, legends, and myths. And you know what? It lives up to it. After a walk down from Nob Hill (Anish does NOT live in Nob Town as I kept referring to it) through Fisherman’s Wharf via some of the more lovely parts of San Fran (there are a lot of hills in this town), we arrived eager and excited at the pier. The line was full of hubbub and excitability for the trip ahead. Anish had pre-booked our ferry tickets (which also give you entrance to Alcatraz itself) days before online, so we didn’t have to sort that out when we were there. Once on, we set sail for the short hop across the bay, on which you can glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory (except when it’s fog shrouded of course), and there, gradually looming larger, the rock itself.

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Home to Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and hundreds more of the most dangerous men who ever lived, Alcatraz is the most famous prison there has ever been. A federal prison between 1933-63, it saw more than its fair share of incidents, including housing the most feared gangster of all time, a siege, and several escape attempts. The island itself has also played host to a Civil War fort, and was the scene of an Indian occupation, which has left its graffiti daubed slogans over most of the facilities to this day. But it was the 30 years of hard time which we were interested in, and if you want to get the best out of your day on Alcatraz, then 100% go and do the audio tour. It is absolutely incredible. Narrated by both ex-guards and ex-prisoners of the Rock, you receive a tour of the facilities, much of which remains exactly as it was during its prison days. The cells are tiny, the wind howls through the place, and you can glimpse the freedom of San Francisco just over a mile away. It’s heartbreaking to hear the prisoners recount how they could hear New Year’s Eve celebrations every 31st December, and then chilling to hear what it was like to serve time with hardened killers – men who scared even the other jailbirds. The sound design of the audio tour is superb, and you really believe you could be there over 50 years ago experiencing life behind bars. The tour takes you to pock marks in the ground where marines dropped grenades during the siege, and to the service tunnels which were used in a successful escape attempt. As living history goes, it is one of the most immersive tours I have ever been on.

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After emerging blinking back into the light, it was time take a tour of San Fran’s other big tourist draw – the Golden Gate. We picked up Bee and drove up to the Presido near the entrance to the bridge. After spending about 4 days looking for a space (Anish just had to get the perfect one), we finally leapt out, trotted up to the entrance and got to see the bridge in all it’s glory. Now, while I am unashamed to say I prefer L.A. to San Fran (which was somewhat of a surprise to me, I must admit), there is no denying that San Fran is one of the best looking cities in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge really is the cherry on top. Belonging to that same era of post-recession public works as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge is magnificent to behold. But even better to walk across. One side is for cycling, the other for pedestrians. While next time I’d love to cycle across, walking allowed us time to stop and take photos, marvel at the sheer spectacle of what we were seeing, and peer over the bridge to look at the sailing boats underneath, the surfers barrelling along, or the the kite-surfers jumping in the wake of powerboats. All in all, it was pretty idyllic.

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But why do I prefer L.A. to San Fran I hear you cry? Well don’t get me wrong, San Fran is incredible. Anish really showed us a side of the city you couldn’t experience without living here, but maybe it’s due to the fact I’m not part of the tech scene which dominates the place almost absolutely. In L.A. I got the industry everyone was talking about, and yeah it was sometimes as shallow as you imagine it is, but it’s also a really collaborative place where you can get involved in a hundred different projects. San Francisco has been accused of being a city which feels rich, and getting richer (despite the vast majority of tech workers earning a lot less than you’d think). Demographics always change in cities, but in San Fran it feels like it’s on the edge of tipping over (much like London in some respects). Which is a shame, because it felt like an amazing place to live, and quite rightly a place where Anish would want to make his home.

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Bee Says: Anish put an awful lot of work into showing us the various areas of the city that on a quick holiday flit you may well miss. We had an epic day which started off with the BEST sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. Paying close attention to our engagement antics, he knew that a certain Mr Ike, and Ike’s Place, had been really important parts of journey. So, he took us to another Ike’s Place! This time serving up the most magical amazingness inside a sandwich sub, head here to just drool over the menu.

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I opted for the Forty!?? which involved something called chicken fried steak. I got into “chicken fried” everything whilst in the states, and am pining for that dirty delicious flavour that is so missing from British culture. I swear, I would chicken fry everything in my life if I knew how. I added every sauce possible to my order, which the rest of my road trip pals thought would equal a saucy soupy disaster… but luckily Ike knew what he was doing and it was JUST the right amount of sloppy. Nick was furiously jealous of my choice, which led to him asking innocently if he could have just one more bite, and devouring the lot in his gob! Never get between a middle child and their food. Luckily you get a free bag of homemade crisps with every sandwich (which is something else I’d like to import to the UK please) so I didn’t go hungry.

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We took our feast up to Buena Vista park, which despite it being the middle of a week was absolutely heaving with all sorts of folk; a very diverse patch of grass that one. We sat next to someone playing bongos, which was unfortunate but provided a lot of comedy value as she bizarrely started to take her clothes off whilst still merrily tapping away! It was gorgeous sunshine so we sat for hours just taking in the view and pondering if it would be obscene to immediately go and order another Ike’s Place sandwich…

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Instead we took our pennies to the Haight district of San Francisco, which has a reputation for being a bit boho/hippyish. We absolutely loved it, a really eclectic collection of pretty houses, brunch places and independent shops. The first stop to satisfy a pack of music geeks was Amoeba Records. It was hard not to buy everything we saw, but we settled on the new Beck album which is marvellous. By chance we also stumbled into a gorgeous little bookstore called The Booksmith which I would highly recommend for a visit. The pound to dollar exchange was in our favour, so we couldn’t resist picking up a signed (!) copy of Wildwood by Colin Meloy, the lead singer from The Decemberists and his artist wife Carson Ellis.

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Next we had a huge hike around Golden Gate Park, which is stunning. Don’t be expecting something on the scale of an English park however, this one is so vast that it has actual roads going through it. We stuck mostly around the Academy of Science/Conservatory of Flowers end, and looking at the Google Maps I realise we missed seeing a bison paddock, which sounds like the kind of dangerous animal encounter fitting of the rest of the trip. You could spend day walking this park and still not see everything though!

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Quite enough walking had been done, so it was time to do something a little crazy and that had been lacking from our lives in a major way. BOWLING! Lucky Strike was slightly mind blowing in terms of mod cons. Here Nick and I were, fresh from a trip where most places didn’t have electricity or flushing toilets. Suddenly we were in a bowling alley where you could change the music playing with an app, and settle your bill from your phone. No human interaction required! It was a definite shock to our systems. The bowling itself was a lot of fun, as we were all quite evenly matched at going from throwing a strike to getting nothing for the next two turns. No one needed the kiddy bars though… so we may become pin kings yet.

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We spent our last night of the road trip as any cool kids would. Drinking Trader Joe’s craft beer (12 bottles for $10!) and playing… Uno!

We’d had a really jam-packed wonderful few days in San Francisco and were pretty sad to be getting on the Megabus back to Los Angeles. I think the best part for me was seeing our friends; sharing the end of our trip with Paul, Jean, Saul, Anish, Amii and David made the whole experience extra special. However, I would agree with Nick that whilst I have enjoyed both my visits to San Fran I struggle to get behind the hype of the place. It’s a wonderful holiday destination and I’m sure the people there have a nice quality of life, but I feel like it takes itself a little seriously on the cool/tech front. Those steep hills also get me in a sweaty, breathy mess every time! I have to say, in the California stakes, LA steals my heart.

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Take a long drive with me on California 1

Nick Says: After returning to our LA home-from-home following our big weekend in Vegas, it was time to get ready for another grand adventure; a road-trip on the California 1 all the way up to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to do this classic road-trip, and it was floated from the start as a possible end point to the whole trip. Luckily for us, we managed to convince some others it was a good idea too. My friend David and his girlfriend Amii would be joining us from the UK for the drive, and another friend, Anish, lived in San Fran and was flying down to drive us up. After our LA experience of convertibles and beaches, I had dreams of us cruising the highway in a sporty soft-top, the wind blowing in our hair, and everyone envious of how cool we all were. This fantasy was quickly shattered as Anish pulled up in a mini-van, which would be the envy of any family wanting to know how to comfortably move their children and pets around. Still, it meant we had plenty of room (three rows of seats), cavernous head space and automatic electric doors. Looks and style be damned! It also allowed us the dubious honour of waving to any other Chrysler touring vans we saw en-route, although I think we were the only ones playing this game.

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If you were to take the boring interstate 5 which cuts through California, you could do the LA – San Fran trip in about 7 hours. If like us though, you have a few days to spare then I highly recommend the 1. Built as a Depression-era labour project, it winds its way up through the State hugging the Pacific coast. This leads to some absolutely incredible views and driving opportunities, although a bit more on that later. It also means you can pass through some really unique and charming towns along the way, and if you don’t quite fancy hours upon hours driving, then any one of them would provide a good stop off. After our consistently epic bus journeys in Latin America, our mind-set was now firmly stuck in the opinion that anything under 10 hours is a “short journey”. Therefore we had to chuckle when planning the trip via email, that the rest of our companions suggested that we’d need to stop twice for night stop-overs on the way, so as to avoid driving for over 4 hours at a time! On reflection though this was a fine idea, as it made the journey into more of an event and game us chance to explore bits of California we’d have never seen otherwise. With this in mind… we had selected the ocean-side town of Santa Barbara for stop number one, only 2 hours driving time from LA. Known predominantly as a university town, Santa Barbs (as we lovingly referred to it) was a gorgeous first stop. After an ill-advised 12 mile hike through LA the previous day, I think David and Amii were a little shell-shocked, so the ocean breeze, jangling of boats at the marina, and walking down the picturesque pier in the sunshine was probably just what they needed. They’d also somehow managed to book us into a swanky Hilton hotel (incredibly it worked out cheaper than the hostels in town), so we were able to stay in luxury during our night there. Free delicious cookies were provided (my favourite part of our stay in Panama) and while Anish had to slumber on a child’s camp bed, the rest of us had a damn comfortable stay. Considering some of the shacks we’d stayed in previously, this felt like we’d won the lottery.

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Santa Barbara is really easy to walk or cycle around, and as I mentioned, has an amazing pier dominating the beachside, so you can always find your bearings if you get turned around. Opposite the pier at the town end is what seems to be the main street, and it was here that we headed in search of a drink. One of the things we’d been struggling to get used to again in the States was the prevalence of technology. Considering some of the places we’d been had no electricity and the barest access to the outside world, we felt at times like we’d been frozen and woken up in a bright, shiny future. And here in Santa Barbara Anish would demonstrate just how different things were up here. We’d been discussing going to craft breweries on the road-trip (California being home to some of the finest in the world), and he’d obviously done some research. But now thanks to the power of Google Now, his phone could read his mind and pre-emptively suggest a micro-brewery here in Santa Barbara before we could even think of searching for one ourselves. It suggested an absolute corker too, taking us to the Santa Barbara Micro Brewery bar on State Street. For anyone in this part of the world, this is a must visit. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, great happy hour deal, and most importantly a huge range of tasty beer you can see being made in kegs metres from your seat. Although one of the guest beers is Stella Artois, which always amuses me. For those readers not from the UK, Stella has a terrible reputation as being the lager louts beer of choice over here. It is NOT a classy drink. Do not be fooled.

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Many, many drinks later, plus a tasty Thai meal a handy few doors down (Google Now did not anticipate inebriation and a desire for a curry, so failed to send us there. Damn you technology, you’ve betrayed me!), we then walked back through town to the hotel. Taking advantage of our fancy-pants hotel’s facilities we went to jump in the hot-tub, only to find a couple of yoofs in there. While me and David swam about in the pool pretending to be mermaids and secretly too intimidated to get in the tub with a couple of loud teenagers, Bee and Amii strolled over, got in and deployed the fact they were women in bikinis to first render the boys silent, and then quickly had them move on (for a cold shower I think). Yeah!

Bee Says: After a peaceful night (no snorers in our road trip gang) we were ready to get back on the road, this time our destination was Carmel, just north of the majestic Big Sur. I have actually done this road trip before, although it was in reverse, heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I blogged about it here and my one regret was that we hadn’t stopped to explore Big Sur. I’m an absolute sucker for pine trees, wooded hideouts and stomping around forests, which Big Sur can provide in spade-loads. After pitching in the prospect to everyone a few months earlier, we set about finding a log cabin for the night. Unfortunately it wasn’t a simple task, as due to the demand on Big Sur accommodation, most locations had a 2-night minimum and a steep price tag attached. In the end, we couldn’t justify the cost and Anish booked us into what he referred to as a “crack motel” in Monterey and thus the Big Sur dream was squished. Or so we thought. Whilst we have had a fair few scrapes and spots of bother on our 6 months of travels; we have also had plenty of unbelievable bits of good fortune. One of these was the fact that when we visited Katie’s family for the Oscar party and chatted to her parents about our trip up route 1, they announced they have a cabin out in Carmel which miraculously was free the day we planned to pass through! Despite never having met our three fellow road trippers, they were incredibly generous and offered us to spend the night there.

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Zooming out from Santa Barbs, we hooked up Amii’s ipod and were treated to her impeccable selection of Cali-themed tunes. It was definitely a cheesy/amazing moment to be driving along past the twinkling ocean and crooning loudly to “Califoooorniaaaa here we cooooooome” by Phantom Planet. Once our bellies started grumbling over the sound of our off-key singing, we pulled over at the very next town we saw, which happened to be Morro Bay. A quick drive around revealed a bleak looking location, mainly consisting of a sketchy gas station and a sole restaurant called “Taco Temple” which made Nick and I recoil in horror, as we had munched our way through enough bad Mexican for a lifetime on this trip. Luckily David consulted his trusty USA Lonely Planet which recommended Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market and Galley. As we drove around the block to 1001 Front Street, it was like being in a completely different part of California. A harbour sat glistening in the sun, with ships bobbing up and down, and seals hooting from the rocks. Joining the queue for Giovanni’s, we ordered a fishy feast; clam chowder that was spooned out of a giant steaming cauldron, their house special garlic fries and deep fried bits of various sea dwellers. It was one of my favourite meals of the trip and found completely by chance.

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On my last drive down route 1, one of the highlights had been the zebras that graze on the roadside outside Hearst Castle in San Simeon, as part of Hearst’s exotic animal collection. After banging on about zebras and getting everyone to spend the best part of two hours craning their necks looking for them… They weren’t there! Does anyone reading know why they have gone? My fictional hypothesis is that driving along at a reasonably high speed on a busy freeway is perilous at the best of times; made only more so by an unexpected herd of unexpected near-mythical creatures suddenly popping up in your periphery! So perhaps that is why they are absent. Or maybe it was just to make me look totally delusional; which it did.

The biggest wow-moment of this section of the drive is the beach at Piedras Blancas, which for most months of the year has some sort of elephant seal activity occurring. We leapt out and joined the crowds cooing at the huge assortment of seals busily snoozing on the beach; with the odd swimmer, honker and waver thrown in. I had never seen an adult male elephant seal and holy moly, are they beasts! Think an actual elephant crossed with the thing out of 1990 classic “Tremors”.

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For the next few hours we sat back and enjoyed the seemingly endless long stretches of windy roads where you can see the 1 zig zagging over the hills way out in front of you. At certain points of the drive, clouds lurked in and hugged the road tightly, meaning we were always driving in and out of Silent Hill territory. Anish was cool as a cucumber in these conditions, which as a driver I would have found slightly un-nerving. The beauty of the 1 is that there are regular vista points, so you can regularly park up and stretch the pegs and take photographs of the stunning surrounding. At one of these stops I made friends with a pair of kissing chipmunks.

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We were all growing slightly weary, looking forward to exploring our cabin and magic hour light was beckoning the end of the day. As we drove into Big Sur, we passed one of those yellow warning signs featuring a Disney-esque prancing deer. I remember thinking to myself how nice it be to see an actual deer and not just sign after sign. Well, be careful what you wish for! As the next think I knew, we rounded a corner and directly in front of us was a ginormous deer… in the exact ‘prancing’ motion from the sign. We were extremely fortunate to just miss hitting it, if we had arrived there a split second earlier, I think it could have caused quite a nasty car accident. Ah well, the pesky deer just adds to the list of scorpions, snakes, giant lizards and spiders that have tried (and thankfully failed!) to do away with us on this trip.

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As twilight twinkled, we arrived at Carmel and followed some amazing instructions that included the word weiner, to find our new home. The “cabin” was less cabin, more luxury log mansion. It was so beautifully maintained and kitted out; feeling entirely rustic and authentic, but also very fancy indeed with every home comfort you could wish for. From the wooded cabin deck we drank beers and gazed out over the lapping waves and picturesque caverns on the beach below.

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Considering we had stuffed our faces with fish earlier, we opted for a dinner we could snaffle from bits at the tiny general store; nachos and the hugest tub of ice-cream I have ever seen. After our feast we sat around in the lounge chatting when suddenly we saw what looked like a torch beam flitting across the room. Hmm… weren’t we meant to be in the middle of nowhere? Nerves slightly rattled, we carried on nattering, only to then be interrupted by the scrabbling and scratching of something on the wooden walls! I think we were all slightly worried this was turning into a Cabin in the Woods scenario, but luckily the creepy lights and noises stopped in time for us to go to bed and have a peaceful nights slumbering.

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Nick Says: After one of the best night sleeps I’ve had on the trip (despite the mysterious lights and the scrabbling…) we woke up refreshed and ready to see Carmel in the morning light. After grabbing some coffees and pastries from the store just across the California 1, we went to explore some more of the cabin’s surrounds. We’d been off-handedly told about a beach they shared with the neighbours, but we didn’t quite realise it was going to be our own private beach complete with cove. It was incredible, and we felt very lucky indeed as we strolled down the path and supped our coffee while the waves rolled in.

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But then in the distance we noticed a park ranger approaching looking very serious. When he finally reached us, he stood on a rock and proceeded to tell us off for being on the beach, and that he would have to cite us for going down a path (from the other side I think) which had been shut. We then told him we were guests of the people who owned the property, which somewhat deflated the poor guy. I think he quite liked rushing into action, and seeing young(ish) looking people apparently trespassing must have made his day. Sorry officer for having a legitimate reason to enjoy the stunning beach while no-one else could. Haha.

The cabin and Carmel was absolutely the highlight of the road-trip for me, and I could have happily spent a very long time there indeed. I can understand totally why this is such a sought after part of the world. But for those who don’t meet people who own their own cabin in this neck of the woods, one of the more intriguing accommodation options we passed had to be Pigeon Point Hostel, where you can stay in a cabin attached to an old 19th century lighthouse! So cool.

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There was an amazing sense of peace in the cabin, and the closeness of the pine forest to the breathtaking coastline gave you a sense of wilderness and remoteness which would seem at odds with its central Californian location. Coupled with this is the whale spotting opportunities from the cabins deck, and I think Katie’s parents may have found they had a squatter if we hadn’t been heading somewhere equally as enticing – San Francisco! Anish had made his home there several years ago, and I couldn’t wait to get the local’s tour of the place. It’s one of the most hyped cities in the world, and would be a pretty epic coda for what had been an life-changing trip already. So with a sad wave of goodbye, we left Carmel and carried on down the California 1.