USA 2016

I woke up in a cliff side cottage high above the Pacific ocean, along Highway 1 on the American west coast. The sun was shining as I showered with the bathroom balcony door open and a mist rolling in beneath me. The view was spectacular, and this very magical moment was one of many highlights of what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Post Ranch Inn, as the 5 star cottage collection was called, was one of multiple 5 star stops along our LA to San Francisco road trip. We arrived at the hotel the evening before, checked in via the tree house style reception and was driven to our cottage on the cliff while the staff parked our rental car.

I want to point out early on that I did not ask for any of this. When I travel, I stay in cheap hostels and eat at McDonalds, and I’ve made it clear to my travel companion many times that I would be equally happy to travel with him that way. The luxury is his choice.

That said, I’ve enjoyed the pampering immensely. I’m not accustomed to 9 course dinners with accompanying wine pairing that on its own costs more than I would pay for an entire meal, drinks and all. My companion, Robert, travels in style. And we did have a system: he paid the bill, I tipped. With 15-20% the tipping alone would end up above my usual budget, but considering the amazing return I got for my money, I wouldn’t dream of saying no to that deal.

Still, it was a bonus, not a requirement. He knows that, and I hope everyone who knows me understands that too.

01-salt-lake-city

Indians and Mormons in Salt Lake City

Let’s backtrack a bit. My US holiday began about a week prior to our tree house retreat as I took off from Heathrow airport. The first destination: Salt Lake City, Utah.

My first few days would be spent alone. Robert, who’s from Sydney, would meet up with me in Las Vegas. Knowing very well what luxury lay ahead, I decided to spoil myself from the get-go. Rather than booking the usual hostel dorm I went with an Airbnb alternative. I found a marvelous, hippie-style house in central SLC. Despite the cool house the area was poor. So poor in fact that I completely understood why so many voted for Trump – more on the election later on as I happened to be in America when the chock results slowly unraveled. The house had quirky decor, an awesome living room, a large bedroom and a cute old style kitchen that I never used.

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Plus, it was within walking distance to the famous Mormon temples and the head offices of LDS. This district would be my first destination, and my first American experience since 2007.

The temple area is incredibly pretty, and wealthy. You can tell that this religion has some serious money. As I walked among the conference buildings and offices, I couldn’t help but feel that something is wrong. Who benefits the most from this money? I doubt it’s the common Christian. Should money and religion really go hand in hand like this?

The young Mormon girls who worked at the visitors centers (yes, plural) seemed thrilled though. Their eyes lit up as they talked about their beliefs. Part of me was genuinely interested. I had no interest in joining their religion, but really enjoyed the chat.

On a side note, one of the massive Mormon buildings were used for the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

I finished my first day with some shopping, slept off the jetlag, and forced myself to get up the next day to hike in the opposite direction: to ”the living room”, a hilltop platform with a stunning view of the city. The sun was shining and though the city was covered in either fog or smog – I couldn’t tell which – I met some wonderful people on the way up who I joined forces with as we pushed each other to continue all the way. We were rewarded with the view and great company.

I even passed an indian village replica.

On another side note, on the way to the hills I passed a high school that looked oddly familiar. I stopped to take pictures of the American football field. A typical US high school, I thought, that must be why I recognize it. It was only a day later that I found out that I had walked right into the school in which they filmed High School Musical. What are the odds, considering how many high schools there must be in America and the fact that the movie is set in Albuquerque, not SLC?

02-las-vegas

Big Win in Las Vegas

I Uber’ed my way to the airport and flew off to Vegas, the city of sins. My pre-set gambling limit: $100.

I reached the lobby of Bellagio early evening. The darkness had fallen and my very first view of the Strip was from the back seat of a car. It was exactly as I’d imagined it, with neon lights and crowds packing the sidewalks.

Bellagio itself is a luxury resort and casino, opened in 1998. Waiting for my travel companion I spent the evening roaming the casino floor and the many luxury shops. I saw the famous fountain display out front for the first time of many to come in the next few days, and I particularly enjoyed the fake indoor garden, halloween themed at this time of the year.

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I was sitting in the lobby as my friend from Australia arrived. A loving reunion as we hadn’t seen each other in months. And though we both knew it would probably be even longer until next time once this trip was over, that wasn’t something we cared about now.

A quick check-in later and we watched the fountain show again, this time from our window on the 25th floor. To the right: a copy of the Eiffel tower. Next to that: a massive billboard with Celine Dion on it.

We had wanted to do a proper show: Celine Dion, Brittney Spears or Jennifer Lopez. None of them performed on a Sunday night. Instead, we ended up watching the second highest rated show in all of Vegas: Carrot Top, a comedy show that I had to practically drag my friend to (this time, I paid). He loved it, we laughed so hard. For reference, Carrot Top had a solid 4.9 rating for years in a row. Celine had a 4.7, and Brittney was down at 3.-something. Only one other show was higher rated than Carrot Tops comedy act, and that was a strip show.

Gambling

I never came near my spending limit. I always say slot machines are for suckers, but there was one machine in particular I was looking for: Ellen Degeneres’.

We finally stumbled upon it just before our Carrot Top show was about to start. ”Quick, just one spin!” And boy am I glad I took the time! That very first bet, very first spin at the lowest level (a few cents) I won $240. I immediately cashed out and rushed to the show. For my friend this may have been small money, but for me the win was huge.

On our last day in Vegas, I went on to win $100 on Black Jack. Though despite these winnings, I probably lost most of it as a whole as the slot machines turned out to be incredibly fun when you play them with friends and not alone 🙂

Thank you Ellen 🙂

03-los-angeles

Los Angeles

We long debated whether to drive or fly to LA. We ended up flying to save time and as we had a three day road trip ahead of us anyway. Over a famous, fattening Vegas buffet we also made the last minute decision of skipping Grand Canyon. It may be unique and pretty, but it’s also just ”yet another natural phenomenon”. Robert had been there before and I was sick of natural wonders. Still am. I’d rather spend the hours it would take to drive there exploring actual Vegas, something that to me is even more fascinating.

20161107_222046-768x1024LA had multiple appeals to me: first, I was expecting a huge city a’la New York or Shanghai. Second, most of the many Youtube celebrities I follow online have been there at one point or another. Some even live there. I don’t care about the people listed on the Walk of Fame nearly as much as I do about my Youtubers.

Needless to say, I didn’t meet any Youtubers. I did, however, stumble upon the only star I really wanted to see: Ellens. It turned out to be literally right outside our hotel lobby. It was the very first star I even glanced at. What are the odds?

We stayed at a place called W Hollywood. Never heard of it, but we could see the Hollywood sign from our room (which was more like an apartment, with a cool rounded sofa in the living room) and with Ellens star just outside it was naturally centrally located. After we woke up the next morning we spent a few hours by the rooftop pool. Sweet!

Venice Beach & Santa Monica

My favorite part about LA – which by the way didn’t live up at all to the ”large city feel” I was expecting – was by far Venice Beach! I knew it from movies, of course, and I loved the fact that it felt like a hippie paradise.

We took an Uber from the hotel to the beach and walked from the Venice canals to the Santa Monica pier. Randomly, we saw this 8 year old girl who was an amazing skateboarder. After I returned from America I saw her again: in a 60 second documentary that one friend posted to another friend on Facebook. How random is that?

After this shocking experience to Robert (the hippie walk, not the girl… although now I’m teasing him needlessly), he indulged in some shopping as the sun set over the city, and we finished the day with dinner in a real American style Christmas-decorated outdoor shopping area. Pretty neat!

Day 7. It was time to collect our car. I was expecting to rent it as this is our usual deal; he does accommodation, I do cars. But Robert had already booked one in order to go with something fancier: a sports car! The lady at the rental company brought us the sad news: they no longer had it available. Instead, she made a big deal out of how she would upgrade us to a more expensive (and much nicer for long distance driving) category. What did we end up with? A freakin’ Volvo XC60! That (or something similar) is what I always drive in Sweden. No fancy sports car for us, but at least it was comfortable 🙂

Before leaving LA in the evening we had a few more things to do in the city, now that we had our own car: First, we drove to the Griffith observatory. From here you have a great view of both the city and the Hollywood sign.

Then, we drove to the other end of town to see Roberts uncle. On his moms side of the family, he’s from LA. We even went to see his grandparents graves, which I had no idea were in LA.

Next, on our way back to the city, we took a detour north to Burbank and Universal Studios. Again, I had one goal only: to circle Ellen Degeneres. No idea if she was working at that hour, and we never did a tour or anything like that, but at least now I can say I’ve been outside 🙂

Finally, we drove west and got to see Sunset Boulevard literally in the sunset, plus the magnificent houses of Beverly Hills just before it got dark.

04-santa-barbara

Luxury Beach Clubs & Spanish History in Santa Barbara

Our final destination for the day: Santa Barbara.

And this is where the trip got truly luxurious. Santa Barbara turned out to be a very Spanish-looking town that I had never heard of. Apparently it’s dubbed the French Riviera of America. It’s a bit further from LA than Malibu, a place I probably only know of because I’ve watched too much Two and a Half Men.

In Santa Barbara we walked along the beach, visited the Old Mission, and spent some time in the complimentary beach club of the resort we stayed at. This is the kind of place rich people go on honeymoons to. In fact, a lovely old lady I chatted with in a shop was surprised we stayed there as part of a road trip. ”You certainly travel in style,” she said. ”Always,” I replied without thinking.

Our room was a bungalow. The resort was a jungle. There was a putting field and little paths here and there. And the beach club with pool and jacuzzi was amazing.

05-north

The Drive North & Post Ranch Inn

As the coastal and scenic Highway 1 made a slight right turn past the mountains we were on our way North-West, toward San Francisco. We made a few stops, including the pretty harbor in Morro Bay, and shortly after was where we encountered a problem: we were out of gas. The car told us we had 70 miles left in the tank, plenty to get to the next gas station, but in reality that number dropped by 10 miles per actual mile. Perhaps it was the steep and curvy mountain roads. Perhaps it was my driving. Regardless, we had to make a decision: keep going and hope we make it, or turn back for a few miles extra along the windy roads?

We ultimately decided on the latter, which was a life saver! We may have lost half an hour, but at least we never had to call for roadside assistance.

The evening got a lot better as we arrived to Post Ranch Inn, the incredible place I described at the very start of this post. We got slightly drunk during the nine course dinner and spent the rest of the night in one of the two private, heated (almost too heated) outdoor infinity pools. Nearly full moon (this was just a few days before the hyped but disappointing super moon) and nice Pacific coastal weather.

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Finding Dory & The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay Resort

Robert, who has been to most of all of these places before, had one request: The Monterey Bay Aquarium, featured in Finding Dory. I love that movie, so I was instantly up for that idea!

It was just a short drive from Post Ranch Inn and as we left the mountains behind I loved the little city of Monterey. The street outside the aquarium was touristy but cool. The aquarium itself, on the other hand… next to the lack of sports car, the only disappointment on this otherwise fantastic journey.

It’s not as big as in the movie. Sigourney Weaver does not voice anything. And it was PACKED with children. The otters were incredibly cute though!

We continued north after lunch time to the final stop before San Francisco: The Ritz-Carlton resort in Half Moon Bay. A large Scottish-themed golf ranch! Pretty cool, especially as it was enveloped in mist pretty much the whole time we were there, except luckily when the sun set to the tunes of a bag pipe, a daily tradition apparently.

Speaking of mist. By this time, the US election was already over. Other than the presidency each state voted on some more local laws as well. One of the more hyped ones in California was the legalization of marijuana. It passed. The mist followed. The jokes wrote themselves.

President-elect Trump

I have to talk about Donald Trump before we reach the final chapter of this rather long post! 😀 I have understood his appeal the same way I have understood the appeal of ”Sverigedemokraterna”, a racist but big part in Sweden. I GET why people vote for him. I would never do it myself because it goes against so many fundamental points, but if you are in a situation where you despise the current state of the government, you have a natural tendency to overlook such fundamental flaws in hopes of change. It’s why people voted for Obama, and it’s why people voted for Trump this time around.

I was surprised to see how many Americans really hate Obama. In Europe, we are brainwashed by the media to believe that he is the hero of America. He did a lot of good and he is very articulate and down to earth. This is the side we Europeans are exposed to. But digging deeper, it turns out he failed on a lot of national matters and election promises. I was shocked by the state of American roads. Of course I don’t know the entire country but from what I saw in Utah and California (in Nevada, I never left the strip), the roads suck. And the poverty, especially in Salt Lake City… Crazy!

On top of that, the hatred for Hillary and her past missteps is bigger than I could have imagined. Pretty much everyone I spoke with – and there were quite a few as I’m quite interested in these things – had the point of view that while Trump says a lot of incredibly dumb shit he hasn’t acted on (most of) it. Hillary on the other hand has a very rocky history, at least in the eyes of the American people. One Mexican woman even told me she could never stand behind a woman who lets her husband cheat on her like that. That particular woman cast her vote on a third option, because her heart told her she couldn’t stand behind either of the two main candidates.

Another Mexican woman surprisingly voted for Trump. She firmly wanted to believe that Trump is all words in terms of his racism, and that when it boils down to it, he will deliver on his promises to make America great again for all citizens. That’s how bad the Hillary-hate is.

07-san-francisco

The Final Days in San Francisco

Alright, let’s bring this trip home. After the misty-sunset-bagpipe-golf-ranch we only had a short drive through San Francisco suburbs before we hit the city. And what a city! We drove straight up on those steep hills and for once I was happy I wasn’t driving stick.

Just like LA though, SF is not tall. There’s a small economic center but no beautiful skyline. We did take a ferry though, from where we could properly see the city, to a town north of the bay. From there, we biked across the Golden Gate bridge. Another bucket list experience that I’ve dreamed of ever since the music video for Love Generation by Bob Sinclair came out.

After our afternoon bike ride, the sad moment had arrived: it was time to part ways. We did this in the lobby area of the hotel we were staying at. It was surprisingly quick and a bit sudden as we had two Ubers arriving: one that would take Robert to the airport, and one that would take me to an Airbnb, my final stay of this trip. I had one more day left before flying to LA and back home to London via Minneapolis.

Those last days are a bit blurry. I walked around the west beach of the city and the Golden Gate park. Exhausted after two weeks of non-stop new experiences and emotions.

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I honestly don’t know how to finish this post. Instead of writing something clever, I will encourage you to scroll back up and carefully go through all the photos once again. They say a lot more than words can ever express.

At the same time, they say nothing. Nothing about the emotional roller coaster a trip like this is. Nothing about what it feels like to stand on a terrace in the mountain watching the mist roll in over the Pacific ocean far beneath you.

This has been a trip I will never forget.

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