“Cruising” California By Land

What appeared to be a brief pause in cruising at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown has turned into a wanderlust nightmare. For three months we’ve had our bags packed with fingers crossed, desperately scanning the news for a sign from the travel gods blessing us with an end to the grueling absence of cruise adventure. With encouraging developments hard to come by, the mandatory face masks have done little to hide the disappointment of the extended shutdown.

I consider the freedom to travel an essential right so while the world waits for a return to high seas navigation, I decided that enough is enough and emerged from the quarantine cocoon with a domestic road trip in California.  Unlike pioneers who made the westward-ho journey by covered wagon, a convenient transcontinental flight from Miami, delivered us to the port of Monterey, CA.

With beaches, fishing, whale watching and all the attributes of a coastal city, this cradle of Californian history offers everything you want minus everything you don’t. Well known for the annual Monterey Jazz Festival and the renowned Pebble Beach Golf Course hugging the coastline, the heralded Monterey Bay Aquarium located on historic Cannery Row, flanked by Fisherman’s Wharf makes the city the perfect embarkation point for a land based cruise substitute.

While the dramatic scenery of Big Sur to the south is a natural target for road warriors, we opted for a northward journey of more off the radar adventure. The initial 45 mile segment of Highway 1 might leave you uninspired but the drive north of Santa Cruz offers the inimitable imagery that is a hallmark of coastal California. Less than two hours into the journey of visual cinema we enter the southern boundary of San Francisco. For every morsel of negative media coverage so widely dispersed these days, the City by the Bay offers main course servings of appealing attractions that shine through the ubiquitous fog. 

With little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, a brief half day visit reveals touristic kitsch mitigated with celebrated charm compressed into a fluid metropolitan setting. The list of must see and do’s is endless but our mission to seek out spots further north demands that we leave our hearts and cross the iconic Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. 

While disappointed to discover that Muir Woods National Monument was temporarily closed due to pandemic regulations, the spectacular views and trails overlooking Muir Beach soothed the letdown of planned hiking through the gigantic redwoods that reside in the park.

An overnight stay at the quaint Pelican Inn is the perfect anecdote to city bustle. Nestled in a forested ravine, the seclusion facilitates California dreamin’ and ticks every box of hospitality excellence. A welcome departure from large scale resorts, the property unsuspectedly captures the spirit of a West Country England inn with whitewashed Tudor architecture adorned in ivy, old world furnishings and an authentic pub. The colorful character of each of the 7 cozy rooms is replete with canopied beds and traditional Oriental carpets and characteristic artwork.

Pelican Inn

Pelican Inn | Photo: Steve Leland

Successfully bucking the new age trend of California cuisine, the inn’s restaurant serves up English tradition with delicious pub fare, carefully crafted full scale dinners and craft ales and beers. The property is very popular as a romantic getaway and easily pulls double duty as an invigorating retreat to reconnect with nature as the magic of Muir Beach is just steps away.

Properties such as this embrace the area’s local character, sheltered from the fast paced metro area to the south.  

Fueled by a hearty breakfast, we embark our surrogate cruise ship, the S.S. Subaru Outback, that effortlessly navigates northward along the rugged coastline, dominated by the mist of the churning sea crashing into spectacular cliffs. The crescent shaped surfing mecca of Stinson Beach provides opportunities to feed social media photo quotas and going slightly off piste, a visit to the village of Bolinas deploys a mind blowing return to the Californian free spirit nostalgia of the 60’s. 

The urge to stop and soak up the sun and seascape is overwhelming but our compass heading is calibrated further along through the beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore. This region is saturated with forests, oyster farms, cheese outlets and a slight detour to the east will deliver visitors into Bodega, the actual setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Napa Valley, Wine Not?

“Cruising” eastward through Santa Rosa and south to Sonoma, the road will eventually reach the historic town of Napa, ground zero for oenophiles. As would be expected, accommodations run the gamut of luxury hotels, spas and smaller inns but to truly engross yourself in the Napa culture an overnight or two at one of the historic B&B homes is something exceptional. The charismatic Cabernet House is extra special with Dolly, the jolly innkeeper providing local knowledge and insider tips to make your visit something to remember.

Although downtown Napa is an attraction in itself, it is impossible to escape the call for exquisite wine tasting and the Highway 129 Vine Trail running 30 miles from Napa up to Calistoga provides every opportunity to indulge in California’s fruit of the vine at award winning wineries farmed by large commercial operations alongside family run boutique vineyards.

Defying Covid-19’s stranglehold on travel, our road trip continues with a cross state pilgrimage. To be honest about the proclamation of life’s new normal, it is an oxymoron on steroids. There is nothing normal about it. The pandemic relentlessly flexes it’s muscle restricting our daily routines, forcing us to retreat behind masks. Mother Nature, on the other hand rebels and fully exposes herself with the grandeur of Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park | Photo: Steve Leland

Taking A Liking To Hiking

Beyond the massive bald faced, granite monolith of El Capitan that greets visitors, it is impossible to escape the innumerable natural attributes of the park. Dramatic waterfalls spill over terraced cliffs into rivers and streams that flow through grassy meadows teeming with flora and fauna.

Although the park offers shuttle service through the immense valley, visitors can do a DIY drive to spectacular viewpoints such as Half Dome, Yosemite Falls or Glacier Point. To actively immerse yourself, expertly designed hiking trails expose backcountry splendor. Whether it be a short jaunt to a scenic overlook or multi hour treks, there is something available for all desires and abilities. Although off site hotels can be reserved several miles from the entrance, convenient accommodations inside the park range from luxury hotels, to wood cabins or cozy basic camp sites.

The final day of this seven day, 1000 mile surrogate cruise itinerary circles back to central California with a visit to the Pinnacles National Park. The eroded rock formations are remnants of an extinct volcano that has moved 200 miles from its original location on the San Andreas fault. An elaborate trail system transverses through the unusual topography, making it a popular destination for hikers and those that enjoy active pursuits through the wilderness. 

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park | Photo: Steve Leland

Road trips can’t offer the extras of a cruise holiday.  Of course you miss the entertainment, three meals a day and the benefits of consistent accommodations, but while ships remain dormant, getting out into the world is far better than watching our waistlines expand in quarantine. Until our ships sail again, embarking on a California voyage of discovery retains that ever essential travel wanderlust. 

-Steve Leland

As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.