This was the trip I've been looking forward to for years, just me and my old Manchester mate Ken, in a convertible, on the road trip of all road trips, San Francisco to Los Angeles, then across the Mojave desert to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Everyone's been to California - the music, the films, Raymond Chandler, Jack Nicholson, you know what I mean. And despite all this, it isn't what you think it is. Go and find out for yourself. It's worth it.
San Francisco is the veggie heaven of the States, but we weren't planning that long a stay there, as my fellow Veggie Placer, Lynda, has covered it pretty well already in her San Francisco and South Bay trip reports. Still, I couldn't miss the opportunity to visit Millenium. Two reasons, it's supposedly one of the world's best vegan restaurants, and secondly it's in the Hotel California, one of my favourite Eagles tracks!
I know Lynda didn't have too good an experience there, (see her San Francisco report), but I found it outstanding. Maybe the b-team were on when she went! The food was glorious and the service was spot-on. You simply have to visit this place if you are ever within 200 miles of SF.
Cure for mid-life crisis! We'd left the car at the motel where we were staying (next to the Dog Bakery, cakes for dogs, I joke not. Los Angeles, not to be outdone, featured a Doggie Disco), as I fancied a beer or two, so we took a taxi back. Well, I've seen plenty of car chases in San Fran, (Dirty Harry etc) but I'd never been in one until our taxi driver, a Russian gentleman, took umbrage at a passing motorist who cut him up. Previously my only flying experience has been in large winged machines operated by very sensible and usually deep voiced reassuring pilots. To these mundane, yet safe experiences I can now add flying in a Ford Crown Victoria, with high pitched Russian screaming of oaths, as we literally took off on one of San Fran's famous steep hills. Fortunately the SF police spotted us and took our driver to task and then chased after the other guy! Welcome to San Francisco!
San Francisco on a Saturday night was crowded and pleasantly drunk. There were people out to drink and have a good time. Groups of them fell out of bars, laughing and smiling. What a contrast to the UK. The views from Fishermen's' wharf are great and you can buy yourself an Al Capone Alcatraz prison outfit from one of the many, tacky shops that line the waterfront.
Although not too good for me on vegetarian food, Ken loved the American Diners - not really for their food, but their feel. The two we tried were classics; Hopper would have felt at home in them. If only for a coffee and an English muffin, try one.
Spectacular California Highway One California Highway One is probably the world's best drive, with twists and turns and spectacular views of the Pacific. The sea rolled in past jagged geological monoliths. On the other side you looked directly up at the Santa Lucia Mountains. It was nothing like the Beach Boys California and so much more impressive and geological. The road includes a series of wonderful bridges which cross the deep ravines of the coastline, monuments to engineering in a surrounding of awesome natural power. We breakfasted at Carmel, Clint Eastwood's old home. He wasn't around, at least not in the mediocre yet expensive little cafe we found. I managed to get a round of toast, that being the only veggie breakfast option given that the eggs were battery. The road eventually twisted and turned into the car-park of the Whale Bar. This afforded views of hundreds of basking seals, there being no whales, and served cold beer in even colder glasses. In the petrol-station the man apologised to us fro the petrol costing $4.80 a gallon!
It's a long way from SF to LA along the Highway One, about 400 miles, so we decided to stop off about half way, at a gorgeous little town, San Luis Obispo. It was so idyllic in the embalming heat of a Californian afternoon, so obviously comfortable and rich, that you can forget about poverty and diseases which can be cured for the price of one cold beer.
Natural Cafe Lots of students live around here as it is the home to the Cal Poly, so I figured there'd be a good chance of a veggie, or at least veggie friendly noshery. I wasn't disappointed. The Natural Cafe is part of a chain and makes a real effort for veggies and vegans. Also handily placed next to a bar which seemed to stock every beer known to man. I swear there were 100 draught beers, half of which were English and I hadn't seen since the 70's, Draught Bass, Watney's etc... I may have drunk a little too much but I'm pretty sure Ken was drinking Double Diamond, which used to work wonders, but certainly didn't help him walk back to our motel. But Ken would like to recommend it as one way of overcoming jetlag.
Monday morning, 5am. As the west coast is 8 hours behind the UK it takes ages to get used to the difference. In fact I was there a week and despite some late nights (ah! the sacrifices I make for you dear reader!), the latest I woke up was 6am. Today was going to be the 200 mile leg to LA. After a boring breakfast (more toast, are you seeing a pattern developing here?) we were on the road.
LA - Car capital of the world We had been warned to time our entry into LA to be after 10am as the traffic is so bad it can take 6 hours to cross it. Well, maybe we were lucky (but we were an oddity as our car carried two people and so we were able to take advantage of the lanes reserved for cars with more than one person) as we got there at 9'ish but we fairly zoomed along the myriad of freeways that criss-cross LA and picked the first place to stay that looked like it wasn't run by Anthony Perkins. As soon as you get near Los Angeles you realise you have crossed an invisible line. It's not just the traffic, the 12 lane freeways, the energy and the truly wonderful architecture of some of the houses - in truth it's the sheer power of money, somehow made more blatant than in any other city I've visited.
Arnold Swarzenegger is renowned as a big tough guy, so obviously I must be too, as my hands are the same size as his, as attested outside Graumans Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I have to say, the glory days of Hollywood are behind it, with seedy sex shops, cash-a-checks and run-down bars. Sunset Boulevard is aptly named. The old atmosphere of the place can be sampled in some places, like the Pig & Whistle pub where the great and the good (and the bad and the ugly presumably) used to sink a few pints after a days filming. I cannot understand why the movie industry has let this place go.
Truly Vegan With the billions they make surely they could plough a bit back in to preserve their history. Anyway, I digress. About a mile down Hollywood Boulevard you will come across a little gem, Truly Vegan. If you like mock meats then you will really like this place. I had the "peppered steak", and Ken, not a mock meat fan, went for the tofu salad. Both served very nicely and portions UK sized, which is to say, just enough.
Having had an alcohol-free lunch (which Ken kindly made up for me in the drinking stakes). I decided to take a drive through Beverly Hills to try and spot Posh and Becks. This place is swanky with a capital S. Rodeo drive, the Beverly Wilshire and the immaculately manicured boulevards simply scream money. I'm glad we took the drive, as we spotted the Real Food Daily and marked it down as our next lunch destination. Another excellent vegan place. I had the TV dinner, a tempeh loaf with mash and gravy, absolutely delicious. Ken had the houmous and salad. The salad was tomatoes and cucumbers cut into overlarge wedges and without dressing. Ken asked for dressing and a bottle of olive oil was plonked on the table, after 5 minutes. This tends to support Ian Fleming's belief that the USA is "long on talk, short on service". Ken had a vegan beer, which came in a pint bottle and was probably the best beer of the tour he decided.
We'd been warned not to go to Venice Beach at night, but Ken, after several drinks, and I, after my Arnold Swarzenneger handprint experience, were sufficiently buoyed up to take on the worst LA could throw at us.
Me at Venice Beach All I'm saying is that we stayed 30 minutes and decided to visit again in the daylight! And worth going back it was, with guitar playing roller-bladers, skateboarders pulled by huskies and a weird collection of shops this is California at its nuttiest best. We had already been surprised by the Dog Bakery in San Francisco, but near Venice Beach we spotted a nightclub for dogs. Absolutely wonderful idea, why shouldn't dogs have fun?, and sure to catch on in the UK in the next few years. The Pilates session looked fun - although there were no plans to open membership to dogs. Ken's breakfast experience was enhanced by the addition of two screwdrivers.
Now I know you won't believe me, but my sole reason for going to Las Vegas was as a stopping off point for the Grand Canyon visit I'd always wanted to make.
Ken at the Grand Canyon Vegas is so bad, so tacky, so wacky, that it is brilliant, for about a day. I mean, where else is everyone you meet a Vegan? Boom boom! The odd thing is, is how quickly you come to accept the size of it all. We got lost in a kind of normal sized estate on our way back from the Grand Canyon, and it looked strange and small and you wondered why the houses didn't have portable gambling machines outside.
I would have liked to have stayed at one of the monster hotels but there was a convention of Dentists in town, apparently 50,000 of them, so were forced to stay at a crummy little Howard Johnson motel, where the staff didn't give a monkeys and the restaurant was godawful. I ordered a veggie pizza and was rather surprised by the waiters insistence that "you don't really want that", and "it will take too long". Given that it was the only veggie choice I told him he could take as long as he wanted because I was stuck with it. Imagine my surprise when about 30 minutes later I spotted a Pizza Hut van delivering my dinner to the restaurant!
Hoover Dam The drive from Vegas to the west rim of the Grand Canyon takes about three hours and the road passes over the Hoover Dam, which holds enough concrete to build a ten foot wall around France, (and who hasn't wanted to do that - the French tried in the 1930s without massive success), and passes through the Joshua Tree Park. The U2 Joshua tree is now sadly no longer there but its spot is marked with stones. The desert scenery is not like anything you've seen before - weird and unsettling. We cranked up the Enrico Morricone music and Ken cracked open another Sam Adams. There are many worse ways of passing a Thursday morning!
After 80 miles fast freeway and 20 dusty miles offroad you arrive at the Grand Canyon. There are no superlatives good enough, no description adequate or no pictures or photos that can do justice to this incredible place. I've seen the pyramids, Mount Everest, the Stockport Viaduct and I've spoken with Elvis, but this tops them all. No more descriptions, just go there, and if you do, then go on the Skywalk, where you walk on a glass floored platform a mile up. You feel like you are stood in mid-air. I have never seen so many frightened people as those on that platform, especially when I decided to jump up and down to test the efficacy of the glass.
So, our last night in the US, so where better to spend it than Paris, or Venice, or New York? For in Las Vegas you can go to them all. With a life size Bridge of Sighs to a half size Eiffel tower or Statue of Liberty you never need to leave the comfort of the slot machines to see the world.
No, not Venice, Las Vegas! The Venetian has singing gondoliers on a canal upstairs, yes upstairs, next to a mock up of St Marks Square lit by a false blue sky. I'll swear I saw pigeons flying round. Despite the billions these places cost, can they provide decent veggie grub? Absolutely not. We dined at the buffet in the Bellagio, supposedly the best in Vegas. There were mountains of every food imaginable, lobster, crab, steak. Over 100 choices at least, and what did I get for my 30 dollars? Cold tofu. They couldn't even warm it up. Very disappointing. I was so disappointed I kept my 10 dollars gambling budget in my pocket. That'll teach 'em!
If cold tofu doesn't float your boat (or Gondola) in Vegas then try either of the Go Raw Cafes a few miles from the center. On the east side is the Go Raw Cafe at Windmill Lane and on the west side you can get wholesome veggie grub at the Go Raw Cafe on East Lake Drive
We had a fantastic week, Ken proved that all Americans are sissy drinkers compared to Manchester lads, and I had the time, and the drive of my life.
Note: Veggie Places always reviews anonymously, posing as an ordinary customer. If we do divulge who we are, it is always after we have paid in full for food or accommodation.