China Cove, Point Lobos

Coastal California

China Cove, Point Lobos

China Cove, Point Lobos

From San Francisco I headed straight for Ano Nuevo State Park. I’d read that April was a great time of year to see the northern elephant seals that call it home. You can, in fact, find elephant seals here year-round, although access is difficult from December through to February whilst the seals are mating and birthing. By March, most of the adult seals have deserted their pups, leaving them to rest and moult on the shores of Ano Nuevo.

Elephant Seals, Ano Nuevo

Elephant Seals, Ano Nuevo

Northern elephant seals have been resting in Ano Nuevo since 1955, and it is now the largest mainland colony of them in the world. Slaughtered in the 1800s for the oil taken from their blubber, by 1892 fewer than 200 seals existed (these last few remained on a remote island off the coast of Baja, California). The increase in numbers only started during the 1920s, when the government finally granted elephant seal’s protected status.

Elephant Seal, Ano Nuevo

Elephant Seal, Ano Nuevo

Leaving the small park station, the hike to the staging area next to the beach was a moderately easy, flat four-mile return. From half-way I heard the occasional grunts and bellows of the seal pups, and after climbing over some challenging sand dunes I reached the designated watching area. With amazing views of the beach front resting area, I was so close to the seals that my zoom lens was barely needed; with the closest seal barely five metres away. Mostly sleeping, the remaining baby and adolescent seals were no threat to me.

Ano Nuevo

Ano Nuevo

I stayed watching the seals for over half an hour, mesmerised by their size and the sheer number of them on one beach. A nearby lighthouse and research centre could be viewed in the distance, and a docent (park ranger) explained that California sea lions and sea otters have taken residence there; they avoid the elephant seal colony. I would love to return to Ano Nuevo during the winter months, to see the 2+ tonne male elephant seals battle it out for the alpha male position.

Elephant Seals, Ano Nuevo

Elephant Seals, Ano Nuevo

The next day I drove down to the top of the Big Sur. Confirming its title as one of the world’s most scenic drives, the Big Sur did not disappoint in views.

Driving 45 miles in the opposite direction to my accommodation that evening, I’d heard from colleagues at Steppes Travel that Carmel-by-the-Sea (or, just Carmel) was the place to see on the California coast. Arriving in the small town, with cottages and alleyways that appear to be straight out of a storybook, I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Carmel Wall Mural

Carmel Wall Mural

Carmel Sweet Shop

Carmel Sweet Shop

Time was not on my side, unfortunately, but I did squeeze in a leisurely stroll up the boutique shop-lined Ocean Avenue which was every bit as pretty and delightful as the rumours advised. Along the road, little alleyways fit snugly between buildings, leading to rose-covered courtyards and hidden galleries. It is a town where the locals really put in the effort to make it beautiful.

Hidden Alley in Carmel

Hidden Alley in Carmel

Colourful Carmel

Colourful Carmel

Before heading inland to Kings Canyon National Park I made one final stop at Point Lobos State Reserve, a short journey from Carmel. This stunning coastal park was originally created to protect the Monterey Cypress trees that grow there (it is one of only two Monterey Cypress tree groves remaining), although it is now home to families of California sea lions, harbour seals, sea otters, and many bird species.

Cypress Tree, Point Lobos

I hiked along a couple of the dozens of short trails on offer at Point Lobos; notably the Bird Island Trail, which was a short walk around the top of China beach, where baby harbour seals played in the sea, to a small outcrop just off the land that was covered in Brandt’s Cormorants and other sea birds. Another hike, Sea Lion Point Trail, took me out to Headland Cove where on offshore rocks I saw my first California sea lions, as well as basking harbour seals.

Brandt's Cormorant, Bird Island

Brandt’s Cormorant, Bird Island

Headland Cove, Point Lobos

Headland Cove, Point Lobos

Things to note:

– To see the Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo a hiking permit is required. These are free of charge, but only a small quantity is available each day. To visit the park, a fee of $10 per car is payable upon entering.

– Pets aren’t allowed into the park, and cannot be left in parked vehicles either.

– The Pescadero area doesn’t offer much for overnight guests; we struggled to find anywhere good to eat, and other than hiking there wasn’t much else to do.

– It’s not luxury, but I stayed at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which offers stunning views out over the Pacific Ocean. The day I arrived there had been several species of whale spotted, and the hostel has a private outdoor hot tub, overlooking the sea.

– The fee to enter Point Lobos Reserve is $10 per vehicle, and there are very informative maps available.

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36 Hours in San Francisco

 

 

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San Francisco skyline

Before heading east next month, I flew west for a brief visit to see my dad in the US, starting in San Francisco. Known as ‘Fog City’, San Francisco is home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the infamous prison island of Alcatraz and its own herd of urban bison.

Alcatraz Island

Our exploration of the city began with a ferry ride to Alcatraz. Upon arrival on the island we were welcomed by a large sign noting ‘Indians Welcome’. Following a brief, and optional, talk by a park volunteer, we learned that in the years following the closure of Alcatraz as a state penitentiary (in 1963), the land was reclaimed and occupied for nineteen months by a group of American Indians activists. It was only in 1972, after a few remaining protesters were removed, that Alcatraz Island became a national recreation area – opening for public visits for the first time in 1973. Graffiti from the native Indian occupancy is still visible around the island.

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Alcatraz Island from the ferry

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Welcome to Alcatraz!

During our visit an interesting art exhibit was open, displaying the work of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. Weiwei’s sculptures are of particular interest as he explores captivity, liberty and speaking out about your beliefs – something Ai himself has been detained for previously (in China). Even now he is not able to travel outside of China, and both Dad and I were inspired by his creations and the messages they portray.

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Artwork by Weiwei

The highlight of our visit was, of course, the self-tour around the prison buildings. Before heading into the main cellblock we were handed a headset each, and a narration guided us around the buildings. Despite not usually being a fan of audio guides, I found the Alcatraz tour to be fascinating and well-worth the island entrance fee. Voices of Alcatraz wardens and prisoners enabled me to really get lost in the story and gave a true insight into life on Alcatraz.

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Alcatraz outbuildings

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Golden Gate Bridge

After travelling on a bus recently vacated by a large group of naked passengers, we arrived at San Francisco’s most recognisable landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.

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The Fog!

Although we had already seen the bridge from Alcatraz Island, the first close-up view was spectacular. Covered from mid-way up in the infamous fog, the Golden Gate Bridge, with its autumnal red paint, contrasted with the crystalline blue waters of the bay below. We took a walk along the seashore and read up on the design and history of the structure.

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Cable Cars

I loved riding to work on a tram each day during my time in Melbourne, and having seen photos of the iconic cable cars in San Francisco, I knew it would be worth the queue to ride on one. Making our way up and down the steep hills of the city, I was lucky enough to have the chance to hang off the side. No longer an official mode of public transport, the trams now run down only a couple of streets in San Francisco and have been revived for tourists.

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Our short time in San Francisco quickly came to an end. Making our way down the coast we made one final stop at the Golden Gate National Park to visit the donated crowd of American Bison that now call it home. Having never seen one before, it was quite surreal to see these big fellas chilling in a city park!

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Huh?

 

Things to Note

Alcatraz:

– Ensure you pre-book tickets at least three weeks in advance, especially for visits over weekends. Only a limited number of tickets are sold, and they nearly always sell-out.

– There is a small cafe at Pier 39 (where the ferry departs for Alcatraz).

– Take a hooded jumper/coat. Alcatraz Island is infested (?) With seagulls and Cormorants, as well as a few other bird species, and a walk across the poop-covered penitentiary yard told me there had been a lot of lucky/unlucky visitors!

Golden Gate Bridge:

– As a pedestrian you aren’t allowed access onto the bridge, and can only view it from the bay area. Although we didn’t ourselves (dye to time restrictions), I’d recommend hiring bicycles, as this enables you to cross the bridge and get a different perspective.

– Don’t despair if your visit isn’t accompanied by clear, sunny weather. I was worried that the fog and dull skies would ruin my chances of a decent photograph of the bridge; in fact the fog gave an eerie feel and my favourite snap has since become my most popular Instagram one.

Accommodation:

We stayed in a twin room at the Mosser Hotel. The location was spot-on, very central and close to the various transport options. Our room and ensuite bathroom were both on the small side, but the frappe coffee on check-in and complimentary breakfast muffins were a nice touch.

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