BORN IN THE USA
I wasn't actually born in the USA - the suburbs of North Manchester actually -but it sounds far more glamourous!
Last summer I was sat with my other half - from here on in known as Grumpy Irritable Traveller - or GIT for short. A bit like BAE but not as poetic. We are both creaking on in years, and whilst not quite ready for an eco friendly cardboard coffin just yet, I decided we should undertake a big road trip across America whilst we could still get reasonably priced travel insurance, and who said romance was dead!
GIT was reluctant at first, but came around to the idea, so I began busily searching out the best hotels - not since the one star hotel we stayed in Nice 15 years ago have I allowed him to book the accomodation. A bed shored up on house bricks and a plastic garden chair were all that adorned the room!
The planning stage of a trip is one of my favourite parts, it is almost as good as the holiday itself. I start with the travel, the logistical aspect of moving GIT, myself and 400 Kilos of toiletries across continents is always a bit daunting until I am armed with a very large gin and A4 pad. Whether we are travelling by car, train or plane the frantic scouring of every internet travel site always follows the same pattern. I will shout out random destinations and flight paths,etc and GIT will acknowledge by means of a grunt whilst watching his favourite antiques programme. Eventually I will arrive at the cheapest option and book accordingly - with absoloutely no help from GIT what so ever.
Notrwegian Airlines offer a hard to beat service from London Gatwick to Los Angeles on a new 787 Dreamliner - one way from only 140 pounds- and the chance to bid for an upgrade to their premium class seats. If your travel dates are flexible choose your destination then click on their Low Fare Calendar
We flew in October last year and it was a great experience, the seats are comfortable and you can swipe your card and order snacks and drinks from your seat using the in-flight entertainment system located in the headrest in front of you. You can also watch films, play games and view the 3D map tracking the flights progress.
Book as far ahead as you can, for not only the best price but also to reserve seats - GIT needed extra legroom and there aren't many of those on the long haul flights
Bring your own headphones/blanket - Norwegian charge for both.
Forgot the in-flight hot meal you can pre-order for 25 pounds each. It didn't look good, we stocked up at the airport and bought veggie salads and sandwiches that wouldn't deteriorate too much in the cabin.
Join the reward programme for the airline you choose, Norwegian rewards gave us 34 points for our return trip to LA.
Motel or Hotel?
Now GIT likes to stay in budget places, and is not adverse to slumming it a little. I, on the other hand, like a bit of luxury - there is no point travelling a long way to stay in a flea pit or find that the souvenir you take home at the end of your holiday is scabies - yes that really did happen to me and a girlfriend in Tenerife one time - we smothered ourselves in baking powder to relieve the itching and ended up tramping through the airport looking like two drug mules!
I didn't find accomodation cheap in the states we visited in America, but from what we saw of the motels it is worth spending a little more and having the home comforts of a hotel. It really does seem to be a case of you only get what you pay for there.
The success of any trip lies in the planning - research the best location in the area you are planning to stay, and then look for the hotels in your price bracket. I use a lot of different comparison websites to check the prices, and am a member of free to join sites offering big discounts on luxury travel. My best bargains have always come from a travel website called Travelrepublic.
I always check the prices on their site before I book anything, but then I check the prices on a lot of other websites too - I couldn't sleep at night it I didn't make sure it wasn't available cheaper elsewhere!
In addition to this I join all the hotel groups loyalty programmes - IHG being one of my favourite. They run their Accelerate programme at least twice a year - you can soon build up a lot of points that way and swap them for hotel stays/restaurant vouchers/department store gift cards/electrical gifts,etc - In my opinion they offer the very best reward scheme out there.
Upon arrival into LAX we jumped into a cab, as I had booked us into a gorgeous hotel - the Loews at Santa Monica Beach. I booked direct with the hotel, and we were upgraded from a standard room to one with an ocean view. Possibly the most luxurious rom I have ever stayed in, with views of the Santa Monica Pier - it was just magical - the perfect start to our road trip.
You will need a credit card, preferably several, when you travel to America. Every hotel and hire car company holds a refundable deposit on your card. This can add up if you stay at different hotels every night on a road trip - we had over 1000 dollars on hold during our trip.
IHG offer a credit card in addition to their IHG Rewards programme - Receive 20,000 points when you spend £200 or more in the first 3 months of opening your account.
If you don't want a credit card - you can go with the pre-loaded travel cards on offer. But beware that they hold any refundable deposits you give hotels for up to 30 days, where as your credit card company will refund it back on to your card within 3/4 days.Shop around for the best deal on the money comparison sites, such as this one
Having carefully planned - until just nudging OCD territory - our trip, I was keen to thumb through my carefully crafted itinerary over dinner on our first night in the US. Having successfully peeled myself off possibly the worlds most comfy couch in our hotel room at the Loews, I set off at an optmistic trot alongside GIT around Santa Monica. Being a control freak - I mean organised traveller - I had booked a table months before at a healthy Californian place called True Food Kitchen. GIT having had a quick glance at the map, strode out of the hotel safe in the knowledge that his inbuilt Man Compass would guide us straight there. An hour later and we were stumbling around a dimly lit alley which eventually brought us out between a pet grooming parlour and the local bowling alley. Undeterred GIT readjusted his natural onboard navigation system, muttering that perhaps it would have been wise to turn left out of the hotel as I had first suggested. Eventually we arrived at the restaurant, it was a rather rushed meal as by this stage they were getting ready to close - but the food was really good, grass fed beef in a spicy Penang curry sauce and teriyaki quinoa, washed down with a skinny citrus margarita.
After a few hours sleep the inevitable jet lag kicked in and we found ourselves impatiently waiting for the pool to open at 6am the following morning. What a view, the outdoor pool overlooks the Ocean and Santa Monica Pier, and I began to realise why people who eat quinoa and exercise regularly look so smug.
Basking in my newfound exercise-induced endorphin high, I stuffed everything back in the suitcases and we set off to find the car hire place. Having spotted it across the road from the restaurant the night before it seemed a straight forward journey on foot. What we didn't expect was to find the door locked, the Sixt Car hire desk is located in the carpark of the Shore Hotel, and whilst I stood guard over the wheely cases GIT wandered up the road to ask one of the hotel staff how we could get in. During that time a crazy bag lady started weaving across the road towards me- screeching "Hey, hey there laydeeee do they have cawfeee in your hotel?"
Omg my first day in California and I was about to be stabbed by a deranged person wearing one tennis shoe and searching for a caffeine fix. Luckily I was rescued by the hotel security guard who had come to open up the rear entrance of the hotel for us. Apparently anyone with any sense uses the front entrance of the hotel, with the big revolving doors, rather than the back door where the bins get emptied! GIT seemed oblivious to the chaos we had caused, as we were escorted through the back of the hotel and deposited at the lift for the car park. or elevator as it's known in the states - as I have to warn you within a few hours of landing I had gone native, and would from that moment onwards refer to petrol as gas, lifts as elevators, want the check rather than the bill in restaurants. Tell everyone I was good when they asked after my health, whilst reaching out to hotel staff rather than contacting them. My Bad!
Now this is where it all starts to go tits up, as us Brits say - when asked if we wanted a sat nav for our hire car - me and GIT exchanged conspiratorial glances - before declining, and explaining we had Google Maps on our phone - or Cell as I now called it - and wouldn't need to pay an extra 150 bucks for a GPS. The poor girl at Sixt really struggled to grasp the stupidity of this declaration - and to give her credit she did try and talk us into having one - citing cases of people stuck in forest fires with no signal on their phones,etc. Completely unswayed by her look of consternation we loaded up the Chrysler and set off on our epic 3500 mile journey. Armed only with the phone and my trusty itinerary - what could possibly go wrong?
First stop was Hearst Castle, the former home of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate that Orson Welles reportedly based his character Charles Foster Kane on. The journey was great fun, riding along the Pacific Highway was incredible with the sun shining, and even as we approached the castle and the weather turned more foggy along the San Simeon coastline it didn't dampen our spirits. I had pre-booked us onto the Kitchen/Guest Villas tour, so all we had to do was collect our tickets upon arrival. I asked the ticket man if we could walk up to the castle - to which he snorted with laughter and said only if we wanted to spend the next three hours hiking up a mountainside - that will teach me to believe all I read on Tripadvisor forums!
GIT diplomatically kept quiet, and after buying two very overpriced coffees at the gift shop, we set off on the bus to the castle. At which point GIT lost all the brownie points he had previously garnered by keeping quiet at the ticket office, as he proceeded to take the proverbial out of my constant camera clicking. Yes I can now admit that twenty pics of the interior of the bus didn't make for fascinating viewing when we got home, but at the time they really seemed to capture the ambience of the place. It has a very somber, almost eeie vibe from the minute you clamber on the bus until you arrive at the castle. The road switches back on itself as you climb higher and you can still see the remnants of what was once the worlds largest private zoo. The estate currently has around 80 zebras wandering around, along with a few Barbary sheep, tahr goats and sambar still grazing on the ranch’s 82,000 acres.
Hearst Castle is fascinating to tour around - the lavish gardens are a treasure trove of roman artifacts and statues, and the famous Neptune Pool although currently under renovation, still exudes the glamour of Hollywoods golden age. The whole place is like an opulent film set, it's over the top and grandiose, but at the same time seems tinged with sadness and regret. Well worth a stop in my opinion, GIT declared it to be vulgar and creepy in equal measures but still worth a visit.
We drove to our hotel in just over an hour, The Paso Robles Inn, and arrived in time to have dinner in their fabulous steakhouse restaurant. After our strict carb free diet the bread basket accompanied by freshly whipped butter was too good to resist. The slow roasted prime rib was possibly the best beef I have ever eaten, and in keeping with my new virtuous healthy eating halo, I chose steamed vegetables and asparagus to accompany the dish.
Research car hire deals - it is often way cheaper to collect a car away from the airport, we saved over 300 dollars by picking our car up in Santa Monica rather than LAX.
Try and stay on local time when you arrive after a long haul flight - the advice of cabin crew is to not wear a watch during the flight, it helps with jetlag to go straight on to local time when you do reach your destination.
Book a restaurant for your first night of a trip - that way you are committed to staying awake, the tempatation to crawl into bed and order room service is too great otherwise!
If you do happen to find yourself in Santa Monica you have to check out the True Food Kitchen. https://www.truefoodkitchen.com/
Book ahead for Hearst Castle tours, particularly in high season.
The Paso Robles Inn is a great stop for a night, I got 10% off the room price by joining their newsletter prior to booking.