Publicized and idealized all over the world, California has a formidable reputation as a terrestrial paradise of sun, sand and surf, also boasting fast-paced, glitzy cities, primeval old-growth forests and vast stretches of deserts.
While it’s been the source of some of the country’s most progressive movements, from the protests of the Sixties to modern environmentalist, civil rights and various reform activities, its economy has only just started to recover from the 2008–12 state budget crisis, bankruptcy narrowly avoided.
Nonetheless, California’s GDP remains bigger than that of most European countries, and regardless of its economic ups and downs, the “Golden State” retains an unbreakable grip on the world’s imagination, thanks in large part to Hollywood.
California is far too large to be fully explored in a single trip – much will depend on what you’re looking for.
Los Angeles is easily the biggest and most stimulating city: a maddening collection of diverse neighbourhoods, from the Mexican and Japanese enclaves downtown and family fun of Disneyland to the glitz of Beverly Hills and craziness of Venice Beach, knitted together by miles of traffic-clogged freeways.
To the south, the more conservative metropolis of San Diego has broad, welcoming beaches, great food and a renowned zoo, while further inland, the deserts, most notably Death Valley, make up a barren and inhospitable landscape of volcanic craters and saltpans that in summer becomes the hottest place on earth. Heading north, the central coast is a gorgeous run that takes in lively small towns such as Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
California’s second city, San Francisco, is a European-styled jewel whose wooden Victorian houses and steep hills make it one of the world’s most distinctive and appealing cities.
To the east, mesmerizing national parks include Yosemite, where waterfalls cascade into a sheer glacial valley, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon with its gigantic trees, as well as the ghost towns of the Gold Country. North of San Francisco the countryside becomes wilder, wetter and greener, peppered with volcanic tablelands and verdant mountains.
As you might expect, a car is necessary for exploring much of California. A city such as Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the automobile, and in any case driving down the coastal freeways in a sleek convertible is too much fun to resist.
And if you plan to do any long-distance cycling, travelling from north to south can make all the difference – the wind blows this way in the summer, and the ocean side of the road offers the best views.