Theresa Wilson is Bon Voyage’s resident Yankee Doodle Dandy. Here she shares her perspective on the Fourth of July holiday……..
Happy Birthday, America!
I’ve now lived in England for 25 years and have fully embraced my adopted country. But if there is one time I really do long to be home it’s the first part of July and all of the Fourth celebrations.
On the whole, Americans are a patriotic bunch – we fly flags from our front porches; we thank our military for their service; we wear eagle and flag embossed clothing year-round, but give us a holiday where the entire point is patriotism and stand back. Parades, fireworks, family gatherings, BBQs, picnics, baseball – God Bless America!
It’s a tough one for those of us split between two countries. On one hand, we’re celebrating the birth of a nation – on the other, we’re celebrating freedom from British rule. I have a British husband, so you can imagine the jokes that fly around our family! But I believe that both countries have huge amounts of respect and interest in each other. Back in 1776, it was time to end the American Revolution and let the original colonies be independent. Although the war went on for another seven years, on July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence from Great Britain’s rule. The Declaration of Independence was ratified on the fourth. There is some historical debate on whether that is true, but no alternate theories here – the 4th of July is America’s Independence Day!
As a child, it represented the first big weekend of summer. Schools typically break up in the USA between the end of May and mid-June, so summer activities were in full flow, but everything stopped for the 4th of July. Depending on when it fell, either the weekend before or after would be packed with family fun. We were always involved with the local parade which included the whole community. If you weren’t in the parade you lined the street waving flags, hoping to grab a treat that might be thrown from a marcher! Then it was on to a good old family style BBQ. Burgers, hotdogs and corn on the cob straight off the grill. I honestly dream about that corn – fresh from Midwest fields, dripping in butter. It’s as much a part of my Fourth of July as waving flags and sparklers!
This brings me to evening events. We’d all gather at the appointed family members’ home for an evening of backyard games, more food and ultimately fireworks. Invariably, we’d fire a few rounds of our own that an uncle brought from a local stand while all the kids always ran around the garden with lighted sticks actively spewing sparks. Of course, one of us would either be afraid and drop the ignited stick on the ground or get burned while the adults continued lighting roman candles and keeping fingers crossed that nothing flew over the neighbour’s fence! It was the 1970s, so don’t judge! Then it was time for proper pyrotechnics! Some years we’d watch local displays from the comfort of our own lounge chairs in the yard. Other years, we braved traffic and crowds for an amazing vantage point along Lake Michigan.
In my adult years, our family would undertake a huge reunion every other Fourth of July and religiously those of us who no longer resided in Wisconsin would flock home. Ultimately, the Fourth of July is as much about celebrating family and friends and summer as it is about celebrating America’s birthday. Don’t get me wrong – there is always a red, white and blue cake, but it’s more than just being American – it’s about the people we love, what we appreciate about living in a democracy and what we are thankful for. That’s Thanksgiving too, but one holiday at a time! The funny thing is – every American I know loves all things British. The Queen, Buckingham Palace, the accents, the pomp and circumstance…the list goes on. The more I think about it, the more I realise – the Fourth of July today has very little to do with celebrating our break from Britain and more to do with bringing a nation together to honour where we came from and think about where we’re going. Like any country, we’ve got our issues, but hopefully we’ll reflect, regroup and re-emerge stronger than ever.
I know I will be with my family in spirit and chances are I will wear stars and stripes to the office on the 4th. You can take the girl out of America…..
Bon Voyage credo number one: A perfectly crafted fly/drive holiday should be one of contrasts. Busy cities balanced with gorgeous scenery; days when you’re on the move and time to relax and contemplate; waterfront views and the open road. You get the idea.
When Senior Travel Consultant, Lara Hearn, was offered this road trip of contrasts she couldn’t wait to head for Nevada. Nevada is the driest state in the US, with some spots receiving just 4 inches of rain a year. Essentially, we’re talking about a desert state but this one includes wet and wild Las Vegas and parts of Lake Tahoe, which at 200 square miles is quite the oasis!
Lara takes up the story:-
They say you have to see Las Vegas to believe it. That you either love it or hate it. My take is that everyone should go once and form their own opinion. Many return again and again; they love the over-the-top, in-your-face on tap entertainment, the 24-hours a day, 365 days a year non-stop party-go-round; the all-star cast of world renowned artists, the biggest sports events, the highest stakes gambling; the drive through weddings; the high end resorts; the low life bars. In short, the whole nine yards. Others take one look and can’t wait to move on. I love it and after the 20-minute transfer from the airport following the ten-hour flight from London and check-in to a fountain-view room at the Bellagio, was ready to hit the town. I was pleased I’d had a nap on the flight because we were almost straight into the wonderful Cirque du Soleil, Beatles-inspired ‘Love’ show. If the idea of beautifully choreographed movement and circus-based athleticism blended with the best of the fab four appeals then you will adore this production. It’s been running since 2006 and plays to packed audiences every show at a specially built theatre within the Mirage resort.
SpeedVegas boasts the longest and fastest race track around, gets you behind the wheel of an exotic super car including Ferrari’s, Porsche’s and Lamborghini’s and basically lets you have at it. It’s quite the adrenaline-ride and it’s what we did on our second morning. Speed junkies will love it and others could not think of anything worse.
Vegas can serve as your base to explore the wonders of Valley of Fire State Park with its areas of petrified wood and 3,000 years-old Indian petroglyphs. Or you can make a helicopter day trip to the Grand Canyon which is a wonderful experience. We managed both over the next day and a half and then finally headed out to Cathedral Gorge State Park where erosion has carved dramatic and unique patterns in the bentonite clay. It’s a photographer’s and hikers dream but we were soon off to Ely and early dinner at the famous All Aboard Café. It’s a popular spot with an all-American menu – great salads and the lobster roll was a treat. It is really handy for the Nevada Northern Railway, the best-preserved example of a standard-gauge short-line left in North America and they were running a 90-minute Haunted Ghost Train on our evening in town. After an overnight in Ely we made an early start for Great Basin National Park and an hour-long tour of Lehman Caves. Slowly sculpted over the ages by water, the caves can be traced back 600 million years when Nevada and Western Utah were covered by a warm, shallow inland sea.
Finally, at 10.30am we’re ready to hit Highway 50. There’s a lot more to Highway 50 than Nevada. In fact, it runs from Ocean City, Maryland on the east coast to Sacramento, California. But the desert stretches are renowned for their solitude particularly as the interstate system long since became the fastest way to drive coast to coast.
Apart from the hum of
the engine the silence is deafening. Not
only isn’t there another vehicle in sight, we haven’t seen one for half an hour. Out here we see Nevada mustangs, indigenous
wild horses, roaming free. We make what
our American friends call comfort stops in Eureka and Austin and apart from
that it’s just us and the highway.
Finally, at 7pm we arrive at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe and dinner at
Cutthroats Saloon with hearty portions and beers served in mason jars which are
like jam jars from days of yore. After
the solitude of Highway 50 it’s quite a contrast (that word again) to find our
resort is complete with seven bars and restaurants, a casino, 24-hour gym, hot
tub, spa – you name it. There’s also a
beach and with the lake being so vast you are to all intents and purposes at
Just as Vegas can be your base for some of the attractions of southern Nevada
so Lake Tahoe can serve the same purpose for the west of the state. The lake straddles Nevada and California with
the border point at the aptly named Stateline.
The lake is big and
beautiful and we took a wonderful sunset dinner cruise which was actually, for
me, one of the highlights of the whole trip.
You board a paddle-wheel steamer at nearby Zephyr Cove and there is a
great atmosphere with live music playing and champagne flowing. There is a full three course dinner with table
service but the real magic comes from the pinks and purples of the sky as the
sun goes down over the lake.
There was time on our
last morning for a trip out to Virginia City, a faithfully preserved Western
town of the gold rush years of the mid-19th century. A narrated walking tour leads you along the
streets that were once literally paved with silver ore. You can visit the abandoned mines and even
the school that was built to accommodate the influx of speculators and their
Then it was on the 20-odd miles up to Reno for the short flight back to Las Vegas for the onward Virgin Atlantic service to London. It’s a great fly/drive holiday and much of it has been adapted into our ‘Nevada and the Loneliest Road’ itinerary which you can find on the website at www.bon-voyage.co.uk/nevada.
A little about me:- I’m 49, adore the Iron Man movies, think Dolly Parton rocks (this is me with the Smoky Mountain Song Bird, I was thinking at the time OMG, we’re touching breasts! ), disapprove of parents who pierce babies’ ears and smother mayonnaise all over my chips. Oh and I love, and I do mean LOVE, exploring the USA…..
As luck (or years of conniving opportunism) would have it that’s pretty much what my job involves. I’ve worked at Bon Voyage for 23 years, firstly as part of the sales team then as the manager of the department and now as Product Manager, deciding what it is we sell, who we work with and the terms of our sales agreements. I have crossed the Atlantic over 150 times and basically it’s a pretty cool job as I get to check out and seek new and original USA and Canada product for our travel consultants to entice you lovely people to venture across the Pond.
I’m often asked which is my favourite state? Or where I could live? Difficult questions; my heart belongs to Hawaii, but I couldn’t live there. Those islands sure are beautiful but it’s too remote for me, and there’s no IKEA. Whereas, California ticks all my boxes – beaches, scenery, mountains, lakes, wineries and those famous cities. It’s hugely diverse and that’s what draws me back to it time and again. You can be skiing in the morning (I don’t ski, am too lazy, but you could) and in the afternoon laze by a beach watching the rollerbladers swoosh by and the surfer dudes riding the waves.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to tour the Golden State on countless occasions and I thought I’d share with you some of my personal favourite must-sees-and-must-do’s.
With over 1,200 miles of beaches along the California coastline, this is a tough one. Let’s take two contrasting examples and you can decide which sounds your sort of place. The first is Manhattan Beach in south west Los Angeles County. Here we have a beautiful wide beach within the LA commuter belt. This is upscale California with attitude; where leggy blondes (male and female!) play energetic beach volleyball before heading for a sports or dive bar with names like Sharkeez and Simmzy’s . You really will love this place but hopefully not too much since with this beach and this location homes can easily change hands for $25million and if we’re talking waterfront then the sky’s the limit. Since Hollywood is just 40 minutes up Interstate 110 you might also indulge in a little celebrity-spotting although there are probably more sports than movie stars in the area. People- watching is naturally an important activity here and the aforementioned Simmzy’s fits the bill perfectly. It’s a great burger joint with that beach shack feel, famed for its selection of beers and right on the boulevard two blocks from the pier.
But if Manhattan Beach sounds a little contrived and you yearn to get back to beach basics then let’s travel 150 miles north to an unpretentious area a little to the south of San Luis Obispo: Avila Beach.
A glance at the map will show you that it’s nestled within San Luis Bay, south facing and only half a mile in length. Sheltered from the prevailing north westerly winds, Avila is usually warmer than the other beaches of California’s Central Coast and boasts three piers. Avila Beach Pier is the star turn being some 600 yards long and perfect for tourist strolling and recreational fishing. With a total population of about 1,700, none of whom paid $25million for their homes, the main occupations are in commercial fishing, apple orchards and tourism. If your idea of the perfect beach day is fine moist sand just right for sandcastles, calm waters for swimming, a small and cute setting where you can grab an ice cream or a beer and just hang out then…. ’Viva Avila’ as the locals would never, ever say.
Other notable days out include pulling up a sun lounger by the skate/bike path at Venice Beach (Greater LA, south of Santa Monica). You’ll see the Good, the Bad and the Ugly whizz past you. Great for families is endless Mission Beach, San Diego or Huntington Beach(Orange County, 30 minutes from Disneyland). The latter is known as Surf City; it’s a cool place to hang out with a lively main street and has a really wholesome vibe to it. Fancy a little beach romance? Enjoy a glass of wine and toasted marshmallows around a cosy fire pit at sunset on Aptos Beach (near Santa Cruz an hour and a half south of San Francisco). Here, you can hire beefy Beach Butlers who will cater to your every whim.
If you’re a fan of old films and the tear-jerking, shoulder-sobbing movie, Beaches, head to Crystal Cove (a few miles south of Huntingdon Beach) where countless big screen blockbusters were shot. Oh and I mustn’t forget another big favourite of mine, Carmel Beach in pretty Carmel by the Sea. We’re on the hopelessly idyllic Monterey Peninsula; hardly ever crowded, gorgeous white sand and crashing waves. Robert Louis Stevenson visited Point Lobos State Park close to the beach and was so inspired by the landscape he used it as the setting for his novel Treasure Island.
Best Hidden Gems
Capitola-By-The-Sea is where San Franciscans escape to at the weekends; it’s fun to watch the hunky surfers, dine in the seafood restaurants that line the beach and stroll around the eclectic boutiques. En route to Santa Barbara head inland to charming Los Olivos, a cutesy village with great wine tasting opportunities and the setting for the movie, Sideways.
Ojai is nestled in the valley of Los Padres National Forest just outside Los Angeles. It’s the secret rustic weekend retreat for many a Hollywood celeb. Here you can experience the legendary ‘Pink Moment’ at sunset and it’s one of only two places in the US that has a vortex (places of spiritual energy, apparently!) You’ll also adore charming Julian in the mountains above San Diego; set in acres of orchards and in this quintessential California small town you’ll find THE best apple pie ever at the Julian Pie Company on Main Street. The Old West mining town of Calico, now a Ghost Town is an interesting place to pass time en route to Death Valley. Pop into the Lucy Lane Museum here to view photographs of the town in its prime, the 1880s.
Fancy a trip down memory lane? Then you’ll love Barstow. Route 66 runs right through Main Street here. The downtown is a mecca for Route 66 enthusiasts. Pop into Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner and eat-to-the-beat with great music and wholesome food. Talking of which…………
Best Place to Eat
Kono’s Café in San Diego by the beach on trendy Pacific Beach; The Waterbar in ‘Frisco, has great views across the Bay. Ditto Gary Danko’s. Feel the sand between your toes in the Paradise Cove Beach Café in Malibu (20 miles north of Santa Monica); check out the movies that have been filmed here too. Mel’s Drive In at Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles – featured in the George Lucas film American Graffiti is a cool place to chill out with a burger and a shake. Any Cheesecake Factory anywhere in the USA is a must; BIG portions, an endless menu and great value for money. The queue is worth the wait.
Nepenthe Restaurant is perched 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, the views along the rugged coast are incredible, and there’s usually live jazz to accompany your meal – great for brunch.. And lastly, just to show I do have a fine-dining side The French Laundry in Yountville (Napa Valley). Good luck getting a reservation, they’re as scarce as hens’ teeth but the trick is to call precisely two months in advance and…..be patient.
There are countless scenic drives but for me you just can’t beat Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles – the Pacific Coast Highway. Take your time and if you’re travelling as a couple ask us for a classic Ford Mustang convertible. Go for the red one if they have it – it really shows off your tan! The views out to the Pacific are jaw-dropping as the road hugs the dramatic coastline. Since you’ll be driving on the right hand side of the road it’s important to travel from north to south. I don’t just throw this stuff together, you know! Another must-do is the scenic loop around Lake Tahoe.
Known as The Big Blue, Lake Tahoe has the clearest water I’ve ever seen. The alpine trees and snow-capped mountains provide a stunning backdrop for this 60-mile drive. Stay at the Hyatt at Lake Tahoe; it has its own beach and in the evening you can sip wine around the fire pits as you gaze at the stars and dab Calamine Lotion on your sunburn.
Best Viewing Points
Enjoy the San Diego skyline from the rooftop bar at the swanky Andaz Hotel; or the shimmering Pacific Ocean at sunset from gloriously over-the-top Hearst Castle at San Simeon. A peaceful place for an interesting overview of Hollywood is from the fascinating Getty Museum. In 2010, a $12.5 million fundraising goal was met and the area around the Hollywood Sign was saved from developers. The 138-acre parcel became a part of Griffith Park, preventing any construction that would affect the world famous view. So it’s only fitting that from here, you can see the sign a short distance from the parking lot of the historic Griffith Observatory. Just walk along the railing on the right side of the lot for a great view. You might recognise the Observatory from James Dean’s iconic movie, Rebel without a Cause.
Going north again, check out the panoramic vista from the Twin Peaks in San Francisco; it’s in the geographic centre of the city and you can get there from downtown by way of the F-Streetcar to Castro then the MUNI Corbett-37 bus route to Twin Peaks. Now tell me, where else are you getting this sort of detail?! For our next lovely lookout we’re heading for the desert city of Palm Springs.
Here, the Aerial Tramway takes you on a breathtaking journey up the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon. You begin the 10-minute ride at the Valley Station – elevation 2,643 feet and end at the Mountain Station – elevation 8,516 feet. If you time it right you can enjoy dinner at Peak’s restaurant at sunset. It’s quite a view.
The view from the Heavenly Gondola which cruises high above Lake Tahoe is a must-do anytime of the year, but extra magical in winter.
My personal favourite though has to be from the restaurant at Skates on the Bay on Berkeley Marina, San Francisco Bay. I’ll happily sip my Cosmopolitan and watch the sun melt into the horizon behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Priceless!
Best Places to Keep The Kids Happy.
Did you know that California has more theme parks than Florida? These are my current favourites for family fun:- Universal Studios HOLLYWOOD; we can obtain ‘front of line’ tickets which will save you loads of queuing time. Next comes good old Disneyland, the granddaddy of American theme parks dating right back to 1955 now incorporating a relatively recent second park, Disney California Adventure Park which is themed on the Golden state with a Pacific wharf, Hollywood Land and the relatively new Pixar Cars Land. Knott’s Berry Farm actually pre-dates Disneyland and is great for thrill rides and therefore less suitable for under 10s. Big attractions in the San Diego area are SeaWorld, ‘wet ‘n’ wonderful’ and world-renowned San Diego Zoo. The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is a special place; it’s one of the largest eco-friendly natural history museums anywhere. You and your family could easily spend a day here; the Planetarium is out of this world.
Many cities in California offer bike tours which are great for families; my favourites are Bike The Golden Gate Bridge and the super-scenic bike route from Monterey to Pebble Beach. Huntington Beach offers great Segway tours and biking trails along its seven mile expanse and the famous Corky Carroll’s Surf School will take youngsters from four years old.
Best Local Delicacies to Try
With its wide variety of soils, elevations and seasonal climates, California can grow or rear just about anything you might wish to eat. Offshore, the state’s Pacific waters are blessed with an amazing variety of fish and shellfish from Spiny Lobster to Yellowfin Tuna. Add to this a desire amongst many native Californians to follow a healthy and sustainable way of life and you have all the ingredients (pun intended) for culinary delight.
The fruit and vegetables are legendary and you should visit one of the Farmers’ markets that appear in most towns at the weekend. Rich, succulent California strawberries, super-sized avocados and albacore tuna provided the perfect roadside picnic on my last trip. When in San Francisco, head into Chinatown (the biggest outside Asia) for a culinary walking tour with www.allaboutchinatown.com. The history and culture are fascinating and as a bonus you finish the two hour ramble with an authentic dim sum lunch. Equally authentic are the Mexican restaurants of Old Town and southern San Diego – hardly surprising, I guess, since you’re less than half an hour from the border. You might want to wash it down with a frozen margarita with plenty of lime juice and easy on the salt. But, beware they do slip down rather too easily before the tequila kicks in!
You can’t talk about food and America without mentioning burgers and I mean REAL burgers. If you’ve not already met, let me introduce you to In-N-Out-Burger founded 65 years ago in the Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park. There are 213 outlets in California and I would definitely plan to find out for yourself why their company slogan is ‘quality is everything.’ It really is quite difficult to salivate and type at the same time, isn’t it?!
Best Bucket List Stuff In California
This is a biggy, there are so many. I’ve attempted to make these affordable and do-able rather than those lists where you hire a private jet, trek to the top of Mount Kill-Me-With-the-Effort with a one-legged guide and eat beluga caviar off the back of a unicorn, type thing.
Firstly, and my MD, Alan, would never forgive me if I didn’t include it (he’s a golf nut): a 2-night stay at Spanish Bay on the heavenly Monterey Peninsula and two rounds of golf including 18 holes on the (apparently) legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links. He road-tested it for you last year (so selfless) and we can book the whole thing including tee times and state-of-the-art club hire.
As you cruise along that most scenic drive, the Pacific Coast Highway, on a sunny day with the roof flipped back in your Mustang convertible (see ‘Best Drives’) aim to stay overnight in the terribly exclusive Post Ranch Inn perched on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Be prepared to rub shoulders with the great and the good. No Primark here, all Gucci, sweetie.
A day hiking with an ecologist in breathtaking Yosemite National Park and overnight in the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in the El Dorado Diggins Suite which offers unparalleled views over Yosemite Valley. It has the only Jacuzzi bath in the whole of Yosemite too, perfect for soothing your aching limbs after your hike with California’s answer to Bill Oddie.
Shark cage diving in the Farallon Islands 26 miles off the coast of San Francisco. When I say shark cage diving I have every intention myself of taking part in this but from the safety of the deck. My current husband can do the cage bit.
How about this little distraction in California’s stunning wine country? A hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley; a private stretch limo wine tasting tour of the valley, a picnic lunch amongst the vines and finally overnight accommodation at 5-diamond Meadowood Resort. Oh and we should include spa treatments and dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant on site.
Hire a luxury houseboat (preferably with a group of friends or family) on Lake Shasta in beautiful northern California. When you’re not sunning yourself on the deck of your deluxe craft, spend time exploring the lake’s rugged shoreline wilderness where you might spot California’s very own Big Foot!
Well that’s got me in the mood for my next visit to the Golden State. I hope it had the same effect on you.
For holidays to California contact the amazing team of USA Tailor-Made Experts at Bon Voyage.
Thoughts, experiences and opinions on travel to North America from the UK's leading USA tailor-made holiday experts.