Having driven 35,000km around Europe in a motorhome, I thought I’d have no problems at all with the motorhome we’d booked for a cheeky week away from San Francisco. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as the initial drive from the collection point, through the city to collect friends, to my apartment, and later to the airport to collect our final passenger was basically pure terror. The van was as wide as Gunter, however, this rental was an enormous 10m long (and 8,500kg). It was for all intents and purposes a bus, and every time I drove past a cyclist, or a car parked on the side of the road, I basically sucked a lung full of air in anticipation of impact. By the time I’d drive the few kilometres to collect my friends, who happened to be at the top of one of the many steep streets in town, I was questioning if I was going to be able to drive this thing for another 5 days – to save the suspense, I was able to, though I never truly felt comfortable.

The original plan had been to spend a week around the Yosemite area, hiking and taking in the mountainous views. We had to put this plan on hold, as the national park was closed to visitors due to a massive fire that was burning, filling the skies with smoke. The last minute plan was to instead head south towards Santa Barbara, see the Channel Islands, some of the wineries in the region, and cruise along the Pacific through Big Sur National Park instead – which isn’t a bad compromise at all! We’d toyed with the idea of travelling further, to Death Valley, but it was too far, and too hot.

After we’d picked up our final passenger from the International Terminal of the San Francisco airport, and I was back on the motorway, I started to relax a little. The roads were wide and straight, and I was able to put my feet up (only literally for a photo) and let the cruise control do its thing. We weren’t too sure about the economy of the 8L V10 gasoline motor pulling the 8,0000kg bus, so while it was possible to race along at 70mph, we kept it to more leisurely 50mph. I’m not quite sure of the economy (as I was too scared to check), but it was rather terrible.

We made the decision to blast our way south, and then cruise our way back north of the next few days. The highway miles started to blur, but as the sun began to set behind the hills, it was too beautiful not to stop and take a closer look. It felt like the longest time since I’d enjoyed a sunset like this, and started to get the positive road trip vibes buzzing through my system.

Driving at 50mph might have been good for our economy (and to a lesser extent the environment), but it did make for slower progress. We still had more than an hour left to drive to Pismo Beach (or chosen destination) by the time we gave up and had McDonalds for dinner – which was surprisingly satisfying. More so than the food shopping in Walmart next door.

It was nearly 11PM by the time we’d made it to the giant dirt car park by Pismo Beach. We saw the other motorhomes parked up, so found a nice quiet spot along side them, prepped the bus for sleeping, and within 15 minutes of turning the lights out, we were woken by police asking (telling) us (and the other motorhomes) to move along, as this car park was a day use only area. They suggested another nearby Walmart, and at that point in the evening, we didn’t care how unglamorous our camp site was. It did make it easy to do grocery shopping the next morning (other than fresh produce, which doesn’t seem to exist for sale there).

Pismo Beach

We woke inside a sea of fog. After shopping we made our way back down to the beach. We didn’t expect the layer of fog that covers the coastline in San Francisco to stretch this far south. But it did. Spirits weren’t dampened too much. We got the football out for a bit of a kick and a punt. The other boys were in swimwear, so went for a cheeky dip in the Pacific. I regretted missing out, but they were back out before I would have had time to walk back to the van to change anyway.

It was a giant beach, and part of it was open to vehicles. It was suggested that I took the bus down onto the beach, but thankfully I was the one making the driving decisions (and ignoring the suggestions from the peanut gallery). Like most beaches, it was probably much prettier in the sunshine.

We were making up the itinerary as we went, and the Channel Islands took my fancy. With a little research we discovered that we could visit one of the islands tomorrow morning from the town of Oxnard, just a little further south past Santa Barbara, so that’s where we headed. We were now following the Pacific, and occasionally we’d get great ocean views. We (I) needed occasional rest stops, so it was a good excuse to stretch the legs and take in the coastal views (in the now fully fledged sunshine).

Oxnard

We’d had a decision to have fish-and-chips for dinner, and watch the sunset from the beach. The options were a little slim, and after nearly losing sight of our plans and settling in for a meal in a dark and dingy Irish pub, we loaded up on takeaway, and soaked up the remaining light/heat of the day.

We hadn’t seen any signs forbidding parking of motorhomes where we’d parked by the water, so we decided to just leave it and wait to be told to move. Again. Thankfully, we were undisturbed. The van was starting to feel like home, and after 8 months on the road in a van half this size, the space and fixtures was starting to feel offensive. It was odd seeing the blinking lights of the oil platforms just a little off the coast.

Anacapa Island

There were several islands we could choose from, but Lonely Planet suggested that Anacapa was the best option for a day trip, due to the moderate size. Thankfully, it was also one of the easiest to get to, and we’d managed to book tickets for the ferry ride yesterday. We boarded, and later learnt that the majority of the other passengers were just sightseeing tourists, and not actually departing with us to explore the island.

Along the way to the island, we came across schools of dolphins, but no humpback whales. The oil platforms looked even more incongruous in the daylight.

While I’d read that Anacapa was a great island to visit for a day trip, I hadn’t realised that the island was essentially a rocky platform that jutted out of the sea. We thought that we were going to be able to relax on the beach after a quick walk around the island. It wasn’t until we got up closer we realised just how big those cliffs actually were. But, it did make for some stunning scenery, with rocky spires, and eroded bridges littering the landscape.

Our boat docked in a small cove, which was also a giant kelp forest. We joined the few others that were departing here, and hiked the several stories up to the top of the island. There was a ranger stationed here (who happened to have been displaced from Yosemite) that ran a guided tour of the island. I initially wasn’t that interested, but glad we went along, as I probably wouldn’t have gotten much from the visit other than some (admittedly amazing) vistas.

The sun was baking down, and the island stank of the fish scented bird shit, which covered the island thanks to it being a protected sanctuary. I later read reviews that talked about the numbers of bird carcasses, which apparently is more of a thing earlier in the year.

Anyway, the vistas! Sunshine, vivid blue/green water, and a coastline as rugged as you could want it. Inspiration Point looked across the small straight at the other half of Anacapa Island, and was probably the most stunning view on the island. The knife-like spine of a ridgeline looked like it had a walking trail along the length of it, and I can’t deny that the though of climbing out across the barrier to follow the ridge to the end entered my mind. This view of the island chain stretching off into the distance was stunning, and worth the efforts to get here.

After nearly 6 months in San Francisco, I’d nearly forgotten what it feels like to sweat and crave a swim in the ocean. The sun was roasting on this bare island, and even though the only place to swim was the small cove where the boat docked. It was also a giant kelp forest, which put me off somewhat, as I can’t cope with anything touching me while I’m in the water – even if it’s just some plants. It wasn’t quite as daunting as I had made it out in my head. It was however every bit as cold as I’d anticipated, but that was just what we all needed on a hot and sunny day like today.

We still had time to kill before the ferry returned to take us back to the mainland, so after a relaxing time in the small amount of shade that we could find (by the dock), we climbed the steps back to the top of this rock, and went to go investigate the lighthouse. It didn’t amount to much visually, but we were hoping for some more epic vistas, like we’d had on the North side of the island. But, there was a frequent periodic blast from an air horn that seemed to increase in volume exponentially the closer we got to the lighthouse. There were signs warning about the dangerous sound levels, but we initially laughed them off. We didn’t quite make it to the lighthouse before we made a hasty retreat from the skull piercing blasts from the lighthouse. The way the sound penetrated, I don’t think even earplugs would have provided much solace.

Right on time, our ferry pulled into the tiny dock/port. As some rich buttermilk icing on top, before the ferry returned back to Oxnard, it took a quick detour to the western side of the island, passing by all the interesting rock formations. It was great to see the island from this view, but I’m glad that we also got to disembark and see the islands from land, too.

It wasn’t much longer before we were setting course back to Oxnard that we were re-joined by a pod of dolphins, swimming along and playing in the waves that we were creating. There were dozens of them, including some minors. They were pretty magical to see this way, up close and in the wild. However, they were taking us away from our destination, so after a while of pandering to our desires, the captain corrected course, and headed back towards port.

Solvang

We were fortunate enough to have some ex-Meraki colleagues that have left the Bay Area, and now live (and work) in and around the wineries inland of Santa Barbara. We hadn’t seen them for quite some time, but were welcomed to join them for a BBQ dinner near the historic town of Solvang.

The drive from Santa Barbara to that region was beautiful, climbing up some of the foothills of the Sierras, and using untold amounts of fuel in doing so. Still, there was no way Gunter could have made the climb in half the time that this beast of a motorhome did! The sun was low, and the shadows were long in the valleys that spread out before us. The golden glow of the late afternoon sun made the hills look even dryer than they might have been.

The next morning we made the short drive into the Danish town of Solvang. The transition felt truly odd, going from rural Californian town, to bright timber buildings in the centre of town. We were in Denmark around the same time the previous year, though I couldn’t really tell you what Danish architecture was specifically. The town looked Northern European, except for the surrounding hills, blue skies, baking sunshine, and giant American cars driving along equally giant American streets.

There was a recreation of the Little Mermaid statue, which I finally saw, since I was too lazy to hike out to see in Copenhagen.

Unsurprisingly, there were several bakeries selling… wait for it… Danishes. We snacked on a few, and snacked on a few more of the treats that were on sale, such as the Aebleskiver, which I ended up having to eat on my own.

Wineries

The whole area is surrounded by wineries, but we were only interested in visiting two – Rusack, the one our friend worked in; and Foxen, the one our friend’s parents own and run.

The drive to Rusack was beautiful, along rural country roads, with rolling golden hills and intense sunshine. The only hints of green came from the lush grape vines. We had a quick tasting session with our friend, loving just about everything that we sampled – and loving sitting in the shade of the trees on the outside deck.

A little further inland, and a little more rural, we made it to Foxen Vineyards. Due to the insider connections, we not only got to have another tasting (I was having a single sip and passing the rest along, since the behemoth RV was hard enough to drive sober), but we also got to see all the inner workings of the winery. We actually learnt quite a lot about the whole winemaking process, which was both fascinating and enlightening.

It was a truly stunning setting, with the golden hills that stretched on for days in all directions. It made me want to pack up life in SF, and move out here for a quiet life, cycling around the hills, and relaxing under the shade of the trees and staring out at the blue skies.

Continued in Part II