When spending my year living in America, Spring Break was one of the things I had most looked forward to. It’s something you see on TV and in films all the time — sun, crazy parties, and Instagram-worthy destinations. I was lucky enough to be invited, along with another English girl, Amy, who I was out there with, to stay with a friend in Los Angeles for the week of Spring Break. Her final exams finished ahead of ours, so she flew home on the Tuesday while Amy and I rented a car on Friday and spent the weekend driving down the coast to LA in time to kick off our week on the Monday. I couldn’t drive, since I only have a provisional driving licence in England and there was no way a rental company would let me behind the wheel, so the responsibility was down to Amy — we felt confident that nothing could go wrong. We’d spent a long time looking at Google Maps, planning our route, our stops and our breaks, and we were sure that we had everything planned.
The whole of California in one weekend? Perhaps a little naïve. But we were confident we were up to the challenge, and headed into the weekend idealistic and enthusiastic.
Our first problem came when we were booking our car. We noticed that the extra night added a huge amount to the cost of the rental car, and rather than just sucking it up and paying the extra, we reconfigured our route and decided that we would still have plenty of time if we rented the car first thing Saturday morning, as long as we were on the road by 7am. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen like we had hoped. Whilst we made it to the car rental office as planned, we had apparently picked the worst possible day to rent a car. There were only two other customers ahead of us when we arrived, so we thought that we would be on our way in no time, but it soon became clear that there were problems in the office. We were called up to the desk and started filling out our forms, but the people ahead of us were still lingering at the front, and once we’d finished giving them our details they told us that we would have to wait a little while because the printer was broken, and apparently they couldn’t let us have a car without taking our receipt.
More and more people arrived, and they were all being told to wait, just as we had. After two hours sat in the office watching the clock, they were finally able to call their manager in, who gave us a handwritten receipt, the keys to our car and finally let us go. By this point it was gone 9.30am, we were behind schedule, and my friend was having much more difficulty driving on the other side of the road than we had anticipated. However we were still optimistic, and we were out of Oregon and driving through California before midday.
Unfortunately the weather was not on our side, and before long the skies were grey and the wind was roaring. We had planned to make our first stop in Crescent City, on the Northern California coast, to see the Redwoods. However, when we tried to drive into the trees we were stopped by Park Rangers who told us that the wind level was too high, a few trees had already fallen, and we weren’t allowed to drive in at risk of more being blown down. We were disappointed to have our plans derailed, but we were more frustrated that we had taken the longer, coastal route to make this stop rather than the much quicker I5 road which would have taken us much further on our journey. So, we turned into the wind and starting racing towards the highway, discarding our notions of scenic stops and beginning the 320 miles we still had to make before we reached the city of Petaluma, just outside San Francisco, where we would be stopping for the night.
The drive got a little hairy as we got closer to San Francisco, and driving in the dark in heavy traffic was not ideal for Amy driving in America for the first time, but we made it to Petaluma in one piece. We had found a hotel deal online, and found ourselves checking in to a very swanky, old-school hotel, in a really lovely city — full of quaint little shops and independent restaurants and bars; we were disappointed that we were arriving so late and wouldn’t be able to look around properly. Because of this late arrival, there weren’t many restaurants still open, but we tracked down an Italian place just off the main high-street called Cucina Paradiso, and I have to say that if anyone finds themselves in Petaluma, it’s a must-visit. It was a little fancier than we had intended for our budget, but I can honestly say that their pappardelle was the best I have eaten.
And so our first day drew to a close. Amy had been driving us for around nine hours, and our only major stop had been a complete disaster. But we knew that the next day we had a shorter drive — only six hours or so — and we had so many stops planned that we were sure it wouldn’t feel like we were in the car much at all.
If only we knew…