Covering 1,672 miles from the burnt-orange landscape of the Grand Canyon to iconic Santa Monica Boulevard, Flight Centre’s Alexandra Gregg put her pedal to the metal on one of our tailor-made USA Journeys. We dare you not to sing along…
We stared at the tarmac ahead as it glistened beneath the mid-morning haze. While my partner mentally prepared for driving on the opposite side of the road, I readied our playlist and road snacks: an American-centric mix of Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Foo Fighters complemented by Reese’s Pieces and Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Creme. Starting in Arizona, the first leg of our all-American road trip was set to take us north from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, a drive that takes around four hours and passes through incredible terrain. As Livin’ on a Prayer began to fill the airways, we were on our way…
The grandest canyon of all
I’ve seen a million or more pictures of it, but nothing can prepare you for seeing the majesty of the Grand Canyon for real. In the gateway town of Tusayan we joined a Pink Jeep Tour to catch our first glimpse just before sunset. The burnt-orange outline of the rocks peered out from behind the trees, teasing us as we were driven past. A few moments later, the landscape opened out and we saw the vast chasm in all its glory. “You’re seeing about a third of the canyon from this point,” explained our guide, Cory.
At a staggering 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, it’s no surprise that there was nothing but canyon as far as the eye could see. We stopped at the South Rim as the sun set and illuminated the crags, creating a spectacular orange glow. The next day we went back for more, this time viewing the canyon from above in a Maverick helicopter. We spent our final night in darkness for the annual Grand Canyon Star Party. “We’re trying to get International Dark Sky status,” our guide told us. With no light pollution, the Milky Way, Jupiter and Mars shone brighter than I’d ever seen them. The constellations were near-impossible to pick out amid stars rarely glimpsed back home.
The next day we pressed on towards the neon lights of Las Vegas. Just four hours away, it felt like another world. Driving along the Strip was a thrill, and although we only spent two nights here, it was long enough to get a sense of this famously fun-loving city. We watched the Bellagio fountains dance, gazed up at the half-size Eiffel Tower and rode the Big Apple Coaster – quite possibly the most thrilling ride I’ve ever been on.
So far the driving had been fun. But I was itching to get out and really stretch my legs beyond a Las Vegas stroll. Perfect timing, as our next stop was one of the USA’s first National Parks: Yosemite. After an epic seven-hour drive we descended through a windy tree-lined road to reach the valley floor – less than an hour from our accommodation, the luxurious Tenaya Lodge.
Deep in a glacier-carved basin surrounded by ancient granite rock formations, it’s cooler here and perfect for exploring. Yosemite’s famous rock formations, El Capitan and Half Dome, rose around us like giants as we hiked to Mirror Lake for reflective views of both peaks. Although the going can get tough, the Mist Trail to the Vernal and Nevada Falls was worth getting soggy for, and the waterfalls are as beautiful as the better-known Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls. Undoubtedly the best panoramas were from Tunnel View, just before the Visitor’s Centre, and Glacier Point, towering high above the valley.
The Golden City
San Francisco was our next port of call, and after arriving at the Handlery Union Square Hotel – on the edge of the Union Square shopping and dining district – we retired our car for a few days. Our CityPASS gave us unlimited rides on the historic cable cars and we took full advantage, hitting up the main tourist spots over three days: Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz (book the earliest boat possible for fewer crowds), and a bike ride over the 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge. As we were car-free, I was particularly excited to explore the surrounding vineyards of Sonoma and Napa Valleys on Extranomical’s Redwoods and Wine Country Escape – a day tour we added to the itinerary. We visited three local wineries, sipped several varietals and learnt about grape-growing in northern California. Did you know the Zinfandel grape is related to Italy’s Primitivo, but differences in cultivation and winemaking make it distinctly American?
This is also where we discovered the towering redwood trees of the Muir Woods National Monument. They are some of the tallest in the world and standing among them, dwarfed as they creaked and groaned in the early morning breeze, was truly humbling.
West is best
Swapping our car for a convertible, it was time to cruise the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) towards Los Angeles. On the first leg of our eight-hour drive we paused to take a few snaps of Bixby Creek Bridge – the famous concrete overpass is one of the highest of its kind in the world, and was one of the trickiest to build thanks to its precarious location. Lunch was a delicious tasting menu at clifftop Sierra Mar restaurant, at the famous Post Ranch Inn. We spent a night in San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle, a US National Historic Landmark. Here the beaches attract thousands of elephant seals – moulting, battling and, in true California style, basking in the sun.
Fame and fantasy
In Los Angeles we visited Hollywood Boulevard, where we were wowed by the sheer size of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the majesty of the TCL Chinese Theatre with its celebrity hand- and footprints. But topping my to-do list was Universal Studios. As a big kid at heart, not to mention a huge film buff, it only seemed right that we take the famous Studio Tour, get flung about on the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster and embrace the magic of the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Most importantly, we got to ride the Jurassic Park river flume twice – undoubtedly my favourite part.
We spent our last day in Santa Monica, strolling along the beach and boardwalk. We reached the end of the pier and gazed out at the fishermen, watching as they cast their lines and waited patiently for a bite. Since Phoenix we’d driven 1,672 miles, from the deepest of canyons to the biggest cities. And while I may need to take a break from listening to classic rock and eating Hershey’s chocolate, I can’t wait to hit the road again and take another Journey.
Alexandra travelled on a tailor-made California & Canyons Journey. Our Journeys to the USA include flights; hand-picked accommodation; transfers and transport; experiences; and our exclusive Travel Butler service.