Tag Archives: Double Tree Hilton

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.

Panama, Panama, Panama

Bee Says: We arrived into Panama City on a tidal wave of adrenaline. Fresh from our 8-seater aeroplane landing, and filled with relief that we had finally MADE it, that we had (just) survived the most uncertain and adventurous section of our trip and successfully made it from Colombia to Panama. Checking in to our hostel, Mamallena – the sister hostel of the one we spent Christmas at Cartagena in, we noticed helicopters regularly swooping out over the Panama City canal, costing a few hundred dollars a pop, and basked in the thought we had just got the exact same view for a fraction of the price. We had a much deserved beer and fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and couldn’t stop physically shaking… I have never experienced anything like it before. I had a gnawing anxious feeling and could barely brush my teeth because my hands were quivering so much. Nick was shaky too, he looked completely wan and pale, and his back was still so sore he could only comfortably lay on the floor. It didn’t take me long to Google diagnose that we were actually both suffering from some sort of shock reaction to our ordeal. The whole time we’d been on the border crossing journey, we had to stay focused and tough it out… now we were safely ensconced in Panama everything had hit us like a wall. I think I felt particularly floored by it, as I’d had to be strong for both of us, carry our backpacks etc, and at the same time felt entirely responsible for Nick and his health and worried sick about whether he would get better. It was time to call in the big guns and so first I rang my parents who instantly ordered me to go out and buy ice creams, hot chocolate and any manner of treats to cheer us up and induce a sugar high! I then skyped my sister Jess. She sat through about an hour of my recounting the story, snivelling, ugly crying and bawling about the situation, and wailing “even my backpack has become infested with giant aaaaannnts” before she announced that was it. She was booking us into a hotel for a few nights. It was time to get somewhere comfortable for Nick, where he didn’t have to walk 5 minutes to a communal (cold) shower and somewhere we could be looked after, rather than having to make a million decisions a day.

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I think by that stage we just needed someone wonderful with an outside perspective to point out how much we needed just a little luxury! We tend to get so fixated on our shoestring budget that we hadn’t even considered something as decadent as a HOTEL especially over the busy New Years Ever period. By that night, my sister had found an incredible deal (only about $20 a night more than our hostel!) at the Double Tree Hilton. On the morning of New Years Eve we woke up in our hostel room, which to put things in perspective, was about a third of the size of our bathroom at the Hilton!, and I made us DIY pancake breakfast. Mamallena is a great hostel and any time usually it would have suited us ideally, but another reason we were glad to escape is that before we could even manage a mouthful of syrupy goodness, we were being interrogated on our thoughts on Scottish Independence. We had attracted the attentions of a well-meaning but incredibly intense Venezuelan guy who loved nothing more than to chat world-politics at high octane pace and volume. The day before, as we physically couldn’t leave the hostel with Nick still broken, he’d cornered us for hours. And this is the type of person who even if you have headphones on and your nose wedged in a book, will still natter away! He was sweet but as we were already pretty frayed at the edges, we were very relieved to be hopping in a taxi away from all that. He helpfully  told Nick he may never get full-mobility back and may lose use of his legs (!) as we checked out!

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Ahhh our Hilton hotel self-inflicted prison, it was DREAMY. Panama City is hot hot hot, peaking at 40 degrees, and it was glorious to enter our air conditioned piece of paradise. We had huge baths, we snuggled up in our fluffy toweling robes and chomped on the homemade cookies that are presented to you upon your arrival. We had great fun creating our own mini-bar of exported America snacks from a supermarket over the road. We certainly weren’t backpacking anymore!

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Nick Says: Reeling from the damage to my back, Jess’s kind gesture was the perfect thing we needed. We had done over 3 months constantly on the road, with little to no home comforts. On my last big trip, which was 9 months, it was broken up every few months by living in an apartment for an extended period of time. We’d had nothing like that, and in addition to hitting the traditional 3 month wall (after 3 months of fast paced travel we were feeling the burn) we were obviously in physical and emotional shock. So being given a free delicious cookie every day and taking three baths (it was for my back, honest) was the perfect antidote. Now, I hear Panama City is one of the destinations to go this year. It may be amazing, but what we saw of it over our time there was basically just a big modern city with no real notable differences from hundreds of other cities. It was novel for us as we’d not been in a big Western style city for a looong time, but as a place to go I wouldn’t be hurrying back. If you know different though, please let us know!

However, it was our choice of destination for NYE, and we wanted to make the most of it. When originally planning on where’d we be, we had imagined Latin American street fiestas, dancing in the streets, fire works over the canal, and all night parties. Realising we had to adapt to our current situation, we decided to downgrade a bit. We’d read there was a rooftop bar on our hotel, so we fixed to go up there and watch the fireworks with a cocktail in hand. Except for the fact there was no rooftop bar, it was the perfect plan. So instead we went up to the roof with beers and chatted to a nice French-Canadian guy called Seb. But then I got pretty tired from all the painkillers I was on, so went down to the room to find that the Indiana Jones trilogy (let’s all just ignore the 4th one) was on cable. So next thing I knew I was in bed watching it, then I was asleep. At about 10pm apparently. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Our next few days in Panama City followed the same basic pattern, relaxing, bathing, taking small walks to get me mobile again, and going to this incredible Greek restaurant called Athens we’d had recommended to us. We’ve become pizza connoisseurs of a sort on this trip, and this bad boy was one of the very best. Coupled with the laid-back atmosphere, and friendly staff, and this place was a gem. However, all good things must come to an end, and so it was we decided to move on and see some more of Panama. Our chosen destination was Boquete, a highland town in the north. Declared one of the best places to live by Time magazine several years ago, it’s now THE destination for Americans to retire to. You cannot move there for the silver haired crowd. It’s a stunningly beautiful destination though, so you can see why.

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Hiking, rafting, zip-lining, and horse-riding are the order of the day in Boquete. So that meant I couldn’t really do much. My back had got worse after the 8 hours of travel, and I was getting pretty down to be honest. Maybe the crazy Venezuelan guy was right?! Luckily though, Bee had booked us into one of the best guest-houses we’ve been too – Valle Primavera. Run by the frankly saintly Nevys, it really felt like we were back at home being looked after. Sadly crutch bound after damaging her ankle, once she learnt about my back she wasted no time in recommending me an American chiropractor who lived nearby. With the average age of the residents, he must be doing a roaring trade.

Dr Dru kindly fitted us in for the next day, which was a Sunday (I got the feeling it was a massive favour to Nevys). While Bee went for a much needed massage with Dr Dru’s wife, I went into the good doctors operating room. He was not what I expected at all. Young and super friendly, he chatted away about his and his wife Jasmine’s last few years of backpacking through Central America, including running a hostel on the Corn Islands, where we hope to be in a few weeks. He was full of great advice, and also seemed to get straight to the root of my back problem. Using Soviet lasers to help heal the muscles (he did explain this properly to me, but all I took away from it is that the commies developed it in the 80s for their athletes) I started to think positive thoughts again. it was also surprisingly pain free, which was not what I expected. But how mistaken I could be. As he lulled me with travel talk, he was manipulating my back (which he later confided to me was in a horrific way) and then suddenly pushed down on my vertebrae, hard. I screamed and almost fainted.

Bee Says: I was having a great time with Jasmine, who reassured me that despite the gruelling effect travel has on your back (heavy bag, cramped buses, hours of hammock lazing) mine was in reasonable shape, probably because I have kept up my yoga. I was just starting to nod off when a huge roar from downstairs had me startled into a sitting position! The only only time I had heard that noise from Nick was when he originally hurt his back on the boat. Luckily, five minutes later I could hear him laughing, so knew that I didn’t have to go and beat Dr Dru up and carry Nick out over my shoulder. Our appointments ended and back at Valle Primavera I could already see a marked improvement in Nick’s posture and a decidedly less amount of wincing as he moved around. Thanksfully, this has only improved and little by little, he is resembling his usual fit self and less the crinkly American retiree residents of Boquete.

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Even without being able to hike into the mountains, we could still appreciate the beautiful cool air, the lush green trees and the clouds that clung to the town like cotton wool. We did plenty of walks… but they mainly were to and from two places. The first was sugar and spice, home of the most incredible baked muffins and good wifi, so we could download the latest episode of Sherlock. Joy! The second was Mikes International Grill, which was always showing American sports, one night we got to watch the Super Bowl qualifier amongst rowdy fans. This was obviously the local spot for most Americans, and served up fantastic BBQ and cheap beers. One night as I sat munching Buffalo wings and Nick chowed down on The Hog (pulled pork), two gentlemen sat down next to us. Almost immediately we overheard one of them say the conversation was too confidential to have at the bar (…so you chose to come and have it next to two nosy blog-writing Brits?!) and they then proceeded to have the shadiest chat we have ever heard. There were code words, there were meaningful nods and eyerolls, there were squeezes of the shoulder. We have since become convinced they were organising a hit man, but perhaps they were just attempting to swap retired-person rose-gardening tips without losing their macho cool?

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We arrived in Boquete a little bit broken. We had definitely lost our travel mojo and a giant question mark still hung over the rest of our trip, as Nick needed to be a) reasonably active and b) able to carry his backpack before we proceeded too far with our itinerary. It really was Neyvs and her mum (mamalita la bonita!) who got us back on our feet and ready for action once more! They were the Michael Caine Alfred to our Christian Bale Batman. Serving us breakfast on their little porch, helping me create regular ice packs for Nick, helping us plan our route to Costa Rica, nothing was too much trouble for them. One day as we sat chatting an English-Spanish mixture on the porch, mamalita asked if she could sing to us! About 30 cm from our faces she burst out in perfect Spanish opera and sang about four numbers before taking a little bow. It was surreal, but so special! Then she announced to Nick “You are very nice”. (he is, you know).

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We were sad to leave Boquete, but really felt like Panama had been our recovery room, and we desperately needed to get back into the travelling properly and start making the most of every day again. What better place to zing us back to life that Costa Rica… with its Disney-movie wildlife, cloud forests and paradise beaches. With a 5am start, a near-miss with waiting at the wrong bus stop, we were finally zooming away from Boquete in an old yellow American school bus. Next stop… San Jose!