Road trip, day one: Del Mar to Laguna Beach

You cannot, of course, see all of California in three days. In fact, with San Francisco a good nine hours away from San Diego, you could lose the best part of a day just driving up the state and back again. With that in mind, and while sitting in a shopping mall in Del Mar, waiting to pick up my rental car, I formulated a plan. I decided to drive a big triangle through the south of the state: on Thursday I’d head up to the coastal towns of Orange County, on Friday drive across into the desert and the Coachella Valley, then on Saturday drive down through the mountains and forests inland on my way back to San Diego in time to fly out early on Sunday morning.

Plan complete, I was pleasantly surprised at Avis. When booking a rental car online I’d picked a “convertible” – no other details were available, but the picture showed what looked like a Toyota of some kind with a soft top. The car turned out to be a Ford Mustang, complete with a huge four litre engine and ludicrous turbocharged acceleration that makes a comedy “wheeeeee” noise when you put your foot down. With the roof down (and after working out how to put the roof down) I headed to the coast, then north on the freeway.

Ford Mustang

The Lonely Planet guide makes much of the traffic on the freeways around Los Angeles, and says that you’ll need “nerves of steel” to navigate them. In fact, anyone who has ever driven the M25 in traffic will feel right at home – it’s just that the road surfaces are terrible, with huge great cracks in them, and most people don’t go above 85 miles per hour. After an hour or so heading north, slowly crisping in the sun – spray on sunblock isn’t so useful in a convertible, as it only coats the rear seats – I turned onto Highway 1. This winds its way slowly up through the beaches of Orange County, past Legoland, and into Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach, CA

Ever seen a movie or TV show set in a Californian beach town? Those fictional beach towns – Neptune, for example – are, more or less, Laguna Beach. It’s stunningly beautiful and staggeringly, visibly rich. The beaches are clean and curve for miles, there are palm trees everywhere and the town itself is so neat and tidy that it appears somewhat unreal. I bought a road map of California in a beautiful little bookshop (I had a GPS, but that’s not much good if you want to find the best route rather than the quickest), and had a coffee in a beautiful little coffee shop. In fact, just about everything in the town could be described as “beautiful” and “little” – except, perhaps, the property prices.

The main thing I noticed in Laguna Beach, though, was the birds. The entire town is covered in utterly fearless seagulls that perch on every roadsign and are quite prepared to stand and stare you out until you get within a foot or two – and even then they look like they’re considering whether it’s easier to peck your eyes out rather than move. There are also equally fearless but amazingly cute little birds that bob around chupping and twittering while attempting to steal your food, and wading birds down on the shore that, again, don’t seem to care how close you get to them. Beats London and our pigeons.

Chup chup bird

I Stayed in a motel called the Tides Hotel, which was cheapish ($99), friendly and comfortable, with a neat old fashioned telephone that may have been chosen to look twee, or may have simply never been replaced.

Motel phone

Things advertised on local TV in Orange County:

  • Coal (“America’s Power”)
  • Gastric Band Surgery. Stereotypes, ahoy.
  • “Semi-Annual Pie Sale”
  • How not eating fast food for breakfast one day a week can save $900 per year
  • Hair dye that leaves your hair “a touch of grey”

Also noted: the Starbucks shops here are open seemingly forever, and are packed with people, sitting doing nothing, at 11pm. Why don’t they go home?