California. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I was fascinated with the Golden State. The mere mention of our nation’s most populous state conjured up dream-like images of pink skies, palm trees, and seemingly infinite coastline.

 

In quiet moments, I’d steal away to my room and unfold paper maps to study the geography of the place. (No matter how many times I looked, the size of the state always boggled my mind.) 

Understandably, then, during my senior year of high school, I was pumped when Mom and Dad informed me we’d be spending Christmas break out West. The plan was simple: We’d fly into San Diego, spend the holiday with relatives, then rent a car and drive up the coast to San Francisco. All told, we’d be gone 10 days.

Big Sur, from a distance. Photos courtesy of Visit California.

According to a handwritten journal I kept on the road trip, our adventure started like most of our early West Coast benders did – Dad and me sleeping-off jet lag in front of the fireplace at my Aunt Vera’s house outside of San DiegoAfter two days of eating (and a copious amount of presents), we woke up well before rush hour and headed north on the 101, blowing through Los Angeles toward Santa Barbara.

 As we approached, two main questions emerged:

 a) Who knew there were so many vineyards so close to LA?

b) What are those islands off shore in the distance?

Over the next eight hours, as my parents dragged me to winery after winery, I learned all about the Santa Ynez Wine Country. And at breakfast the next morning, a server informed me we were looking at Channel Islands National Park, home to some of the biggest bird and seal colonies in the U.S.

Viewfinder Tip: Allow extra days for exploring along the side of the road (and along the beach). 

Before we pulled out of town, I insisted on walking to the end of the pier. It was the right move – as the three of us stared out across the Pacific, we spotted a pod of dolphins splashing by. Later in the trip, the highpoint of a stop in San Luis Obispo was the discovery of a one-of-a-kind store that sold smoothies like none other I ever had tasted. I wrote down the name of the store because it my drink was so tasty. The name: Jamba Juice. Maybe you’ve heard of them?

(As an aside, I also remember being equally intrigued and disgusted by Bubblegum Alley.)

Hearst Castle. Photos courtesy of Visit California.

 

The sights only became more mind-boggling from there. At Hearst Castle, for instance, I marveled at the marble sculptures surrounding the Neptune Pool, and daydreamed about spending the day playing Marco Polo with a bunch of girls in bikinis. Along the switchbacks of Big Sur, I spent hours contemplating whether we’d survive if our little rental car careened off the roadway and landed in the ocean below.

Near Monterey, as we tooled around 17-mile drive at Pebble Beach, I imagined besting golf legend Jack Nicklaus in a 1-hole playoff as the waves crashed on the rocks behind us. We reached San Francisco just before sunset one night, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge as the orange orb dipped below the horizon in an almost-imperceptible blaze. As we pulled up to our hotel in the Marina District, the clouds turned pink and palm trees swayed in an evening breeze.

 This was the California I anticipated all along; the California of my dreams. For a 17-year-old kid from New York, the introduction was well worth the wait. As it turns out, it also was a road trip I’ll never forget.