California

California

Rattled by earthquakes, populated by film stars, surfers, techies and hippies, home to Silicon Valley and that American Dream factory, Hollywood, California is America’s Promised Land, a place where you can be whatever you want, however and whenever you choose.

From America’s wealthiest exclusive suburb of Beverley Hills, to hippie ethics and Earth quake hell of San Francisco, and stunning beaches like scenic Big Sur to the celeb hangout of Santa Monica, from historic Spanish towns like Santa Barbara, to movie star’s palaces, from Gold Rush ghost towns, to the traffic rush of Los Angeles, taking in vast deserts inbetween – The Golden State is the most diverse and extreme of all American states. With a little imagination in this land of superlatives visitors will not be at a loss for things to see and do.

Anchored to the west coast of the USA and containing some of the West’s most stunning scenery, the state is home to 34 million people, many of whom are more inclined to call themselves ‘Californians’ rather than ‘Americans.’ It’s an individualist attitude that defines life here, particularly in the big cities where large immigrant populations are found side by side with alternative communities.

The City of Angels, Los Angeles, is home to the wealthiest American suburb, Beverly Hills where you can shop with the rich in the most exclusive boutiques or simply stargaze for movie actors in the city’s trendy restaurants. Ride out an earthquake in Universal Studios or if you’re lucky, experience the real thing when the San Andreas fault releases a ‘shaker.’

Head into Orange County and you’ll find the the original Disneyland (not nearly as large as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, but definitely worth a visit). From there, you can visit the famous southern California beaches, particularly Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and Venice Beach, which are known for consistently good weather and eclectic people.

Drive up Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, past historic Spanish towns like San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, taking in the luxurious architectural history of Hearst Castle near San Simeon. Further up the coast is Big Sur, famous for its writers and scenery, where you shouldn’t miss a walk on one of it’s deserted beaches and a meal at Nepenthes, a local restaurant serving up hearty food that is matched with a breathtaking view of the California coast.

Hike Yosemite‘s trails or spend some time in a ghost town that was the epicenter of the Gold Rush, the feverish period that defined California history in the mid 1800’s, that was later mirrored in the ‘Dot Com Rush’ of the late 1990’s in Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco.

As the most populous, richest and most diverse state both geographically and ethnically in the USA, the Golden State has always done things differently and with a little imagination in this land of superlatives visitors will not be at a loss for things to see and do.

Cash

More expensive than most places in the USA, travelling costs depend very much on where you are in California. Aside from the air ticket accomodation and transportation will make up a large part of your budget.

San Francisco is by far the most expensive city for accomodation and eating out in sprawling LA means that you have a wider choice of budget places to stay and eat (though be aware of the often large distances from the sights). Smaller towns are cheaper still and are a wise choice for those with a car willing to commute to the sights in the big cities. Motels in towns and cities range from $50 to $80 per night, while budget hotels range from $90 and $120. All the way up at the top are the sky’s the limit suites in Hollywood and Beverly Hills that go for $500 to $1000 per night.

Camping is a cheap and economical way to go though during the heavy summer travel season campsites will be booked out 6 months in advance. Sites go for as little as $6 per night and reservations can be made online. For the camping challenged, hostels operate in all tourist areas renting dorm beds for as little as $15 per night.

A huge range of eating options exist in California and for less than $10 per person you can feast on Japanese sushi or Vietnamese spring rolls and some of the best Mexican cuisine north of the border. Self catering is a viable option as supermarkets are everywhere as California is the US capital of fresh produce. Overall, budget travellers will spend about $50 per day sticking with the absolute cheapest options (camping and hostels) while those staying in motels will spend about $80-100 per day. These budgets do not factor in the cost of flight tickets to and from California or the cost of car rentals that can cost anywhere from $175 to $300 per week excluding petrol.

The National currency is the US Dollar ($).

Check with your local currency exchange bureau or XE.com for up to date conversion rates.

Travel

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are well served by flights from Asia, Australia and Europe. Buying an openjaw ticket (flying into LA and out of San Francisco for example) is sometimes no more expensive than a straight up return ticket and allows you to make your way up or down the coast at your own pace.
One of the busiest air corridors in the world operates between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and several discount carriers offer bargain fares. Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines are the cheapest, both flying from nearby Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area into various LA airports including Burbank and Long Beach in southern LA. Booking through the internet is the cheapest option when flying either Jet Blue or Southwest. United and American Airlines are more expensive but offer more flexible tickets and serve out of the way places like Ukiah and Palm Springs. Bookings can be made through the internet or by calling their 800 numbers, a free call available anywhere in the USA.

As the third largest state in the USA, California is best seen by car. Renting one in LA and dropping it off in San Francisco is a more expensive option, but is the most cosnvenient way to see the sights. Like all Americans, Californians drive on the right, and unlike New Yorkers, tend to be a laid back bunch when behind the wheel; however traffic jams are very much a part of life in the Golden State and current traffic situations are given top priority by local radio stations. Those unused to driving on the right should take care in the tangled freeway junctions of LA and the hilly, winding streets of San Francisco.

Food

Virtually every kind of food is available, from fresh ‘California Fusion’ foods combining American and Asian ingredients to vegetarian and organic dishes to typical Ameican pizzas and burgers. Tipping is expected in the US at around 15% in sitdown restaurants and is not applicable to takeaway food. In touristy areas always check if the bill already includes a 15% ‘service charge.’

For those not interested in yet another greasy fast food meal, perhaps the best places to go are the large ethnic communities in most cities where immigrants from Vietnam, Mexico, China and Japan have transformed entire neighbourhoods into smaller versions of home. Delicious, cheap and fresh ethnic food is available well into the night and to find out where the best restaurants are ask a local.

Language

English is the official language of the USA. Understanding the Californian accent doesn’t present such difficulties as other regional dialects in America as it is widely accepted as one of the clearest forms of American English. There are however certain slang terms that Californians add using the word ‘like’ far too much (“You go, like, left, at the next traffic light”) and tend to use the word ‘goes’ to mean ‘said’ when speaking of someone else (and she goes, “I am like so totally tired!”)
These quirks aside, quite a bit of surf lingo seeps into speech throughout the coastal towns like Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara but tends to center around the current surf conditions rather than everyday life; verbs like ‘stoked’ (to be happy or pleased) are commonly heard.
With the influx of many Mexican and Central American immigrants, whole communities speak Spanish as the first language, and knowing a bit of Spanish doesn’t hurt as these areas (such as the Mission District in San Francisco or parts of Los Angeles and Orange County in southern California) have diverse sights and excellent eating options. Asian communities from Vietnam and China also retain their native language.

Climate

With the highest point in the lower 48 states and the lowest point in North America, California’s climate is extremely varied. The Pacific Ocean makes up the western boundary of the state and moderates the extremes of hot and cold all year long; Dry deserts form much of the interior and stretch east of LA. Summer temperatures here can soar to 115F, in the shade. The Sierra Nevada’s form the state’s eastern boundary and offer excellent skiing in the winter and spring months.

The State’s weather pattern is ruled by the winter rains that begin in November and end in March and April. Between May and October not a drop of rain falls here due to a stubborn high pressure system that sits offshore and deflects the rain northwards. Earthquakes aren’t the only worry in California as El Nino years bring fierce storms that cause flooding and landslides. Compounded with frequent drought years the water situation in California is always in flux and thus is a constant topic of conversation.

The best time of the year to visit California is April and May, after the winter rains, and in September and October, when dry, warm days linger after the intense summer heat.
That being said, there really is no bad time to visit the Golden State as even during the winter months the Pacific Ocean keeps temperatures along the coast to a minimum of 60F, though powerful Pacific storms can roar though cutting road links. July and August are extremely hot months but the state’s desert climate means it’s a dry heat and that means cool mornings and evenings.

Dress

Dressing down is a California pastime and shorts and a t-shirt are all you need to wear to fit in. Upper class restaurants in San Francisco and LA may require a shirt and trousers, so packing some dress clothes is a good idea. San Francisco as a whole is more dressy that other parts of California but its more due to the fog that blankets the city in the summer, bring at least one set of warm weather clothes when visiting the city to avoid the damp cold.
During the summer bring plenty of sunblock for the summer rays and if you’re heading to the mountains to do some hiking or camping, bring some warm weather gear. During the winter months bring an umbrella and raincoat but during the summer leave it at home; the weather is so stable that rain virtually never falls after May and before October.

Health

California is one of the most health conscious places on earth and people take their physical well being very seriously. Going to the gym, taking meditation and yoga classes and shopping in organic grocery stores are a way of life for many Californians and the image of dozens of people running on their lunchbreak and on weekends will probably be a common sight. The water is safe to drink everywhere although bringing bottled water in the mountains is essential as streams can be contaminated. Health care is extremely expensive and carrying health insurance that is accepted in the USA is a must; quality is very high but comes with a price.

Visas

Most western nationalities and some Asian nationalities don’t require visas granted they are travelling as tourists and have a return ticket to their home country. These visas are given on arrival at the airport andare valid for 90 days. After September 11th these regulations are very much in flux so its very important to check with the nearest US embassy or consulate for the latest information.

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