15 Days On The U.S. West Coast

27th Aug 2017

A road trip on the U.S. west coast has been on the bucket list for a while. When our friend Kevin decided to get married in Anaheim, it gave us the perfect excuse to check it off.

The itinerary in a nutshell:

We flew in to SFO, drove everywhere while in the States and flew out of LAS via SEA on Emirates

San Francisco 3 days

Yosemite National Park 3 days

Southern California 5 days

Las Vegas 4 days

It was our first time on the west coast and we tried to cover all the essentials but of course there's so much more left to do for next time!

Day 1

We arrived in SFO the previous afternoon and checked in to the Westin St Francis on Union Square. If it fits your budget, highly recommend this historic hotel in the heart of the shopping and financial district. We basically slept the entire day away - please build an extra day into the itinerary for jet lag. Our day began with breakfast at the iconic Mill bakery in Divisidiero. There seems to be a line in SF for every eatery irrespective of the quality. So of course we stood in line for 20mins to order our toasts and coffee. This place is famous for its freshly baked bread and that's almost all there is on the menu. We got one of each kind of toast, cappuccinos and hot chocolate to split between the 5 of us. The cinnamon honey toast is delicious, the others were insipid. The whole experience was a 2.5/5 for us.

Tip 1: Be careful about where you walk in SF, avoid Tenderloin completely. The areas with high crime, drug use and homelessness are within 1-2 blocks of all the prime locations

Seals of Pier 39

Photo of The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square, Powell Street, San Francisco, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

Alcatraz island

Photo of The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square, Powell Street, San Francisco, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

Golden Gate Bridge

Photo of The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square, Powell Street, San Francisco, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

After breakfast, we took an uber to Pier 39 to see the Seals. This was one of the highlights of the trip! It's so bizarre but beautiful - about a 100 seals just sunning themselves on wooden platforms by the pier. They're chubby and aggressive, keep throwing each other off the platform; fascinating to watch. We wandered on the pier for a while, bought candy and souvenirs and watched a free magic show.

Further down, from Fisherman's Wharf, we boarded a hop on hop off tour by Open City Tours. There are several companies that offer the tour but Open was the cheapest and gave us a group discount. If I have a short time in a city, I always take the HOHO bus tour. It seems trite and touristy but it's the best way to orient yourself in a strange city.

Tip 2: If you're 3 or more people, buy the tickets directly from the bus and ask for a discount. You can save up to $10 per head

The bus took us around the city and over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was fully covered in clouds and driving over the bridge was cold and windy in a totally unexpected way. On the other side, we went into the town of Sausalito and had a meal at one of the local restaurants facing the water. It's a charming little place overrun by tourists but definitely worth a visit. On the way back, we froze while crossing the GGB again - strangely refreshing. The guides on the tour bus make it a point to mention the real estate prices in every area you pass through. Clearly the normal people living in the city of tech millionaires are obsessed with the rising cost of living.

Our last stop was a highly recommended Vietnamese restaurant called the Slanted Door. It's located in the Ferry building on Embarcadero which is worth visiting even if you don't go for dinner. The food was delicious and fresh. Welcome after the tiring and long day we'd had.

Tip 3: Make restaurant reservations a couple of weeks in advance, all the good places are always booked out

Finally I was ready to hit the sack and head to the hotel. That's when my wife reminded me that we had drinks with friends at a bar called 620 Jones.

Unfortunately when we lugged ourselves over there, they didn't let my wife enter because she wasn't carrying an ID!

Tip 4: if you plan to drink or even enter a bar, be sure you always have your license or passport on you. You can't talk your way out of this one.

Day 2

On the second day my parents were craving eggs for breakfast so we found a highly rated breakfast place near the hotel called Honey Honey. We got there and stood in line for 35mins before we could order and grab a seat. The food was mediocre, not sure why the line for this place goes round the block. A 3/5 at best.

After breakfast, we hopped back on to a bus and headed to the Palace of Fine Arts. I had seen it the previous day and had made a mental note to come back. This highly underrated 'hidden gem' is a must see. It's beautiful in a picture postcard way and the perfect place to lay out a blanket and read a book on a sunny day. It was a solid 4/5

We went back to Pier 39 to see friends for lunch and spent the rest of the day lazing around on the open top tour bus, waving to pedestrians and taking photos.

Palace of Fine Arts

Photo of Palace Of Fine Arts, Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

Dinner was at Scala's by Union Square. Wholesome Italian food and great service. Good for a relaxed dinner. Plus it's open late unlike other restaurants.

Day 3

The third day was fancy. We had breakfast at another popular breakfast place called Pinecrest diner. Then, we hired a stretch limo from Rixos limos ($500 for 5 hours) and drove to Napa valley. There are over 500 wineries in Napa so pick 1-2 you want to visit or sign up for a wine tour with the limo company. We chose V.Sattui. It is repeatedly voted the #1 winery in Napa and has a deli with an outdoor picnic area. As someone who doesn't drink, I wouldn't do justice to a $50 wine tasting so this was a better idea. The drive was lovely. Friends and family, movies and travel magazines created an image of this gorgeous undulating wine country that I'd want to live in once I see it.

Tip 5: I recommend ditching the more popular and touristy vineyards and go up the hills to less visited but more beautiful wineries like Antares.

Day 4

This is the day we left for Yosemite. We had booked a car from Hertz on rentalcars.com. The pick up kiosk was conveniently located within our hotel. But since we were leaving at 2pm, we had time to make one last SF stop. We had breakfast in the Oak Room at the Westin. Beautiful old timey restaurant with mediocre food and service. We then took an Uber to the Bison paddock. I'd heard that there are Bison that are being bred in the Golden Gate Park for a century but had to see it first hand to believe it. It's unbelievable. These majestic beasts are sitting around in a meadow in the middle of a busy city. No one told us to visit this park but it is so beautiful, I highly recommend it. From the Bisons, we walked over to the dog park where the highly energetic pooches were running around. The next stop was a beautiful pond with lots of gulls, ducks and mallards. We were on our way to the Japanese tea garden and saw many pretty sights on the stroll. Definitely worth a visit.

In the afternoon we started our long and arduous journey to Yosemite. We were stuck in jams for over 2 hours getting out of the city. We only got to Yosemite at 9:30pm which is far too late to be driving in the hills. We checked into our large and well appointed log cabin Alpenglow1 and settled in quite easily for the night.

Tip 6: Pack enough food and water when you go to Yosemite and ensure you have a full tank of gas. Amenities are few and far between

Tip 7: If Yosemite is on your itinerary, book accommodation at least 3 months in advance. There are very few options inside the park and they sell out pretty quickly.

Bison Paddock

Photo of Bison Paddock, John F Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

Golden Gate Park

Photo of Bison Paddock, John F Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA, United States by Michael Pargal
Day 5

Waking up in the wilderness is such a delight! We sat on the balcony drinking tea that mom made.

Yosemite is huge and there are tens of trails to choose from. We chose the most popular trail to hike that day. The climb up to Vernal falls starts at Happy Isles trailhead. You can park at one of the campground sites and walk up. It's very busy but not very easy. The entire 2.6mi is uphill but the views of the beautiful waterfall are worth the effort. Remember to pack enough snacks and water and take Baz Luhrman's advice to always wear sunscreen! We were exhausted by the end of the loop, partly due to the heat but mostly due to the exercise. After a quick lunch at the Yosemite Valley lodge food court, we took the Yosemite Valley Floor Tour ($35 a head). Ranger Christine led the tour, told us interesting facts about the history of the park, including the sad history of the displacement of the Native American people. If you're traveling from India, you will be amazed by how pristinely clean and well kept the park is, I really wish we could maintain our national parks the same way! The evening was spent relaxing in the cabin and cooking dinner.

Half Dome

Photo of Vernal Falls, Mariposa County, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

Drive to Yosemite Valley

Photo of Vernal Falls, Mariposa County, CA, United States by Michael Pargal
Photo of Vernal Falls, Mariposa County, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

El Capitan and a waterfall

Photo of Vernal Falls, Mariposa County, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

Sentinel Beach

Photo of Vernal Falls, Mariposa County, CA, United States by Michael Pargal
Day 6

We decided to spend the second day being lazy after all the activity of the previous day. We drove down to Sentinel beach and waded in the cold water. You can also entertain yourself by panning for gold flakes (for reals!)

After lunch at the Pizza Patio in Half Dome Village, we shopped for groceries and headed back for an afternoon nap.

The evening was an adventure. We left the cabin for dinner at the Majestic hotel and were halfway there when the fuel light went red in the car! Remember I said there are no fuel stops in Yosemite? Well, we learned from experience to always keep a full tank! We made a mad dash to the El Portal Chevron station at 9:30pm praying that it would be open all the way. It wasn't fun, please try and avoid being in that situation. We finally made it to the hotel which is historic and grand - really old world charming and had a pleasant dinner there.

Day 7

Friday was for travel. We took the toilsome drive down to Santa Monica from Yosemite. Some of the roads out of the park were closed due to forest fires so it took a while to get on to the highway. We stopped for lunch at an IHOP in Fresno, as nondescript as it was polite. Entering SaMo was a traffic nightmare! We finally got to our Airbnb on 3rd Street by 9pm. On the positive side, the apartment was well appointed and a stones throw from the beach. We settled in with some Indian comfort food from India's Tandoori - Brentwood delivered by the ever handy UberEats driver.

Day 8

Saturday morning was warm and sunny, we walked to the beach looking for breakfast. Bad idea! It was too hot. We finally made our way back to humanity with brunch at a chic restaurant called the Penthouse at a boutique hotel called Huntley. Highly recommended for its views and food. Post brunch I wore a tuxedo, packed my wife and brother into the car and drove to Anaheim for Kevin's wedding. It was a small ceremony in a small town. We left feeling warm and fuzzy from all the sweet speeches (and champagne). It was my first time at an American wedding - really interesting experience, like what you see in movies. Very different from our own band baaja baraat experiences. We got hungry on the long drive and ordered Indian on UberEATS again while on our way back. The driver was waiting on our doorstep with a delicious veggie thali! You can take the desi out of india but he'll always look for Indian food abroad

Santa Monica

Photo of The Penthouse, 2nd Street, Santa Monica, CA, United States by Michael Pargal
Day 9

Lunch the next day was at this delightful beachside restaurant in the Shutters hotel. It’s meant to be famous for celeb spotting. Unfortunately the only stars of our day were the deliciously decadent truffle fries on the menu

In the evening, we drove down to Venice beach to eat at this communist themed new age-y restaurant called Mao’s kitchen. Very popular with the hippie crowd, the food is yum and served in huge portions. The fellow diners were fascinating, the free spirited yogis who didn’t make it to India or Bali seem to be hanging out in Venice, CA!

Day 10

Hollywood, here we come! We started the next day with a Warner bros studio tour. $68 for two hours, highly recommend it! It was a 5/5 for me. We got to see the sets, studios; actually walked onto the empty set of the Ellen show which made my wife very happy! We also saw the ‘Mill’ where costumes are made, sat on Joey and Rachel’s spot on the famous central perk couch... it was fantastic!

After the studio, we hired a Lyft to take us around town. We hit the jackpot and had a hilarious Armenian driver who sang Raj Kapoor songs and cursed the Americans while he drove us through Mulholland drive where all the stars live, down to Beverly Hills and finally dropped us off at the very fancy Rodeo drive. We ate lunch at 208 Rodeo - posh but not snooty. Good food.

Day 11

Day 11 was all about food . Starting with breakfast at the highly recommended Gjelina in Venice beach. Highly disappointing - snobby service, tiny pretentious servings of too sweet food. 2/5! From the restaurant, we took an easy stroll down to the lovely canals (ala Venice!), walked to the beach and bought some candy before it was time for lunch!

The driver recommended Paradise Cove in Malibu. While it wasn’t originally on our list, this was a great tip! The 40min drive from Venice beach to Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway is beautiful - right by the water. We got there to a serene, all white beach cafe with a chill vibe and friendly service. The food was delicious and in huge helpings - great upgrade from breakfast!

Paradise cove beach cafe

Photo of Paradise Cove Beach Cafe, Malibu, CA, United States by Michael Pargal

In the evening, we were back in Santa Monica. We had walked by the Fairmont Miramar hotel every day and planned to go in. Just across from the beach promenade, it’s a beautiful hotel which seems to be busy at all times of the day. We ate a lovely dinner at the Fig restaurant in the hotel. You must try their home baked Arabic bread if you make it over!

Day 12

This was our day to leave for Vegas - the last stop on our long vacation. We left SaMo at 9:30am hoping to make it to Vegas before lunchtime. En route we stopped at Peggy Sue’s diner which was highly recommended by our friend Dania. This place was brilliant - a real slice of Americana! It’s filled with 50’s memorabilia. The original Peggy Sue was smiling from black and white photos on all the walls, posing with all the celebrities that had stopped by her diner. We weren’t hungry so we settled for shakes which were thickly delicious and served by an old lady who called you ‘Sweetheart’ just like the movies. Loved it!

The drive took longer than anticipated (maybe because of the multiple stops!) but we finally made it to Vegas at 3pm. Half a day gone, we were very happy to check into the huge, snazzy and visibly new hotel Encore. Hertz has a car drop off in the hotel itself so it was super convenient for us to return the car here on arrival. If you go to Vegas and it fits your budget, you must stay at this hotel. As we discovered later during our stay, the crowd and vibe at this hotel is much less ‘Vegas-y’ than the others. When you’re traveling with family, it’s an important distinction! We explored the hotel, tried our hand at some roulette and finished the evening with a walk down to see the magnificent fountains of the Bellagio.

Tip 8: when in Vegas, stay on the Strip!

Day 13

We concentrated all our US shopping into this one day at the outlet mall in Vegas. We’re not big shoppers but whether you’re bargain hunting or window shopping - this place is fun. In terms of brands - most of the usual suspects were there; Ralph Lauren, Ted Baker, Tory Burch etc.

Day 14

Totally unexpected activity for our trip. My brother wanted to shoot guns that he wouldn’t have legal access to in any other country he’s likely to visit. So we ended up at Battlefield Vegas - a shooting range run by Army vets. I don’t like guns at a conceptual level but if you’re into this kind of thing, it’s a fascinating place for this loud and expensive hobby!

The afternoon was spent ambling through the Shops on the Grand Canal at the Venetian hotel. It’s one of those places where the sky is painted on the ceiling and always feels like it’s twilight o clock. If you’ve been to culture gully in Kingdom of Dreams, you’ll know what I’m talking about. In the evening, we saw Jerry Seinfeld live at the Caesar’s Palace - by far the highlight of our trip!

Day 15

The last day, we made it count! I hired a Ford Explorer from the Hertz in our hotel ($210 for the day). We drove to the Grand Canyon via Lake Mead. Such a beautiful drive; Endless stark landscape, surprising lakes that pop out of nowhere and strange Joshua tree groves. We arrived at the West Rim of the canyon in 2.5 hours. You park here and take a helicopter ride. We signed up for the ‘Flight of the Eagle’ which costs around $200 per head. Such a fun albeit short flight, we got to see spectacular panoramic views of the Canyon. The Colorado river was muddy because of the drought and the rocks were greener than I had expected. But this place is overwhelmingly beautiful - a must see. It’s our last day and we don’t want to go back but sitting out on a rock in Guano point eases the anticipatory nostalgia a little bit.

Tip 9: If you’re a party of 3 or more, it’s economical to drive to the Grand Canyon and take a chopper from there. If you book a helicopter tour from Vegas, you’re likely to pay $500 a head or more.

Flight of the Eagle

Photo of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, United States by Michael Pargal

Colorado river

Photo of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, United States by Michael Pargal

Guano point

Photo of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, United States by Michael Pargal
Day 16

We flew back the next day via Seattle and Dubai. A 24 h journey which was followed by a week of weird sleep patterns aka jet lag.

As someone who has not traveled much in the US, this trip took a lot of planning and built up a lot of anticipation before it even began. I know most of my friends plan to take a road trip on the Pacific Coast at least once in their life. The grand vistas of Yosemite and Grand Canyon are unlike any other I’ve ever seen. Vegas is the original sin city which gives as much in entertainment as it takes in gambling debt! SF is a paradox of overlapping ingenuity and shallowness that I have mixed feelings about and SoCal is a gorgeous playground for the rich, famous and elderly. The verdict is to most definitely do it!

Seattle from the air

Photo of 15 Days On The U.S. West Coast by Michael Pargal
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