Marie's and my big adventure for 2019 was our epic road trip around the south-western United States. Starting from San Francisco, we headed to Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Phoenix, and Los Angeles before returning to San Francisco via the coastal highway. – Unlike the other albums in this gallery, this album is a long day-by-day travelogue with lots and lots of pictures. It was published for some of our friends and family in “real time” (saving on picture postcards), and now it is time to take it “public”.

Click on any picture for an enlarged view.

4th October – The Streets of San Francisco

On our first day in San Francisco, we take a long walk from our hotel to Union Square (with lots of posh shops and hotels), Chinatown, and down to Embarcadero. We stroll along the waterfront, peek into the “Pier 39” tourist trap with its famous sea-lion colony, and then spend a long time on SS Jeremiah O'Brien, one of only two remaining World-War II “liberty ships” which were used to carry supplies from the USA to Europe. After that we slog up Hyde Street to the top of Lombard Street (the famous steep zig-zag street with flowers) and then take a cable car back to Powell Street station – from where it is an easy walk back to our hotel.

We have dinner in a tiny hole-in-the-wall Mexican place on Geary Street, close to our hotel.

It's unbelievable why anyone would want to build a city in a location that has so many steep hills, when loads of more level areas are available all over the place. But that's America for you.

5th October – Modern Art, and Scottish Dancing

We spend most of our second day in San Francisco in the SF Museum of Modern Art, which has a great collection of works by artists from all over the world. We especially enjoy the pop-art section (with works by Lichtenstein, Oldenbourg, Warhol etc.) and the dynamic sculptures (a.k.a. mobiles) by Alexander Calder. But the museum's architecture itself is also fascinating.

After the museum we walk through Yerba Buena gardens and then have an early dinner (or late lunch?) at an Indian/Pakistani restaurant called Chaat Corner. After that (and a brief pit stop at our hotel) we take the subway to Castro station and climb yet another steep hill to the residence of Claire, a Scottish dancer who kindly volunteered to give us a ride to Mountain View, where the RSCDS SF Branch's monthly dance party takes place tonight (we packed dance shoes especially for this). This is great fun with lovely live music – which the Bay Area is justly famous for –; thanks a lot to Claire for getting us there and also dropping us off at our hotel afterwards!

6th October – Across the Golden Gate

After retrieving our car from the parking garage for a three-figure charge (parking in SF must be as expensive as anywhere in the world) we take another drive past Lombard Street, this time the bottom end, before heading out to the Golden Gate Bridge visitors' centre. This is basically a big souvenir shop with a bunch of explanatory posters on the walls; the content of these posters is mostly repeated on various signs outside as you walk from the visitors' centre to the viewing area.

The bridge itself is quite an engineering marvel and actually quite beautiful close-up, with lots of art-deco style elements. It cost $36 million to construct, and the builders were quite proud that due to a heavy emphasis on workplace safety, only 11 workers died in the process (the “normal” number, we hear, is 1 death per million dollars expended).

We drive across the bridge to Marin County and from there on to the town of Martinez, where we visit the house of the famous writer and naturalist, John Muir, who is regarded as “the father of the environmental movement”. Having immigrated to the USA from Scotland as a boy, Muir was instrumental in securing Federal protection for the Yosemite area (among others) and co-founded the Sierra Club, which is a lobbying organisation for preserving nature.

Our destination for the day is the town of Mariposa, one of the “gateways” to Yosemite National Park (even though that is another half hour away from there – but trifling distances like that don't matter in the US). We have dinner in a fun place called the Happy Burger Diner, which serves not just burgers but also tasty Mexican food from a massive menu.

7th October – Range of Light

Our visit to Yosemite National Park is made a little more difficult because the direct road from Mariposa to the park is blocked due to a brush fire (which apparently takes quite some time to put out according to the local TV news). So we have to take a detour via the town of Oakhurst to enter the park from the south, and after buying our “America the Beautiful” annual national park pass (which is good for all national parks, yay) leave the car in a big parking lot and take a shuttle bus to the “Mariposa Grove” (nowhere near the town of Mariposa) of giant sequoia trees. We get to see sequoias in botanical gardens in Germany, of course, but in their natural environment they're something else altogether – an unforgettable experience!

After this we pick up our car again and drive to the Glacier Point viewpoint – a 16-mile detour from the road leading into Yosemite Valley but well worth the time, the views of the mountains surrounding the valley defy description. You think that you've prepared yourself studying photographs and watching TV shows and movies about Yosemite but once you're there you find that there can be no preparation for the real thing.

We enter Yosemite Valley from the Wawona road and stop at the classic “Tunnel View” viewpoint which gives an iconic vista along the length of the valley towards the east, with “El Capitan” on the left and “Half Dome” in the distance. After that the road goes along the valley floor in a big one-way loop, which is convenient because the road has two lanes and it doesn't matter if you creep along in the right-hand lane because you want to make every second count. Luckily we've noticed that our rental car actually has a glass roof, which makes driving through the valley extra fun since you can look up at the mountaintops from the air-conditioned comfort of your car.

But of course we stop and get out of the car time and again to take in more of the scenery – Bridalveil Fall is one of the iconic waterfalls that are actually still there in late summer. Many waterfalls in Yosemite are fed by runoff from melting snow and dry up over the summer, which means that we didn't get to see, for example, Yosemite Falls (depending on how you count, at 739 metres one of the highest waterfalls on Earth when it is going), or Horseshoe Falls. (We may have to return in spring to cross those off our bucket list.) If you look carefully at the last photograph you can see how the low sun makes the colours of the rainbow appear near the bottom of Bridalveil Fall.

We also spend some time in the meadows below El Capitan. Having watched Free Solo – the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold's free-climbing no-rope-belay solo ascent of this sheer vertical 1000-metre granite wall – we're even more impressed by this feat once we're seeing what the mountain actually looks like in reality. There are a few climbers visible on the wall but we're pretty sure they're going to have to spend the night there. We're not offering to trade places.

All in all it seems to us that John Muir was right: This is a place that needs to be preserved at all costs. We're visiting at a time when there are comparatively few tourists but even though it is still quite busy (we shudder to think what the Valley is like in summer) you can get a sense of what it must have been like when Muir explored it on his own. John Muir said that he didn't understand why these mountains are called Sierra Nevada, “range of snow” – he would have called them “range of light”, and as a photographer I agree completely!

We're returning to Mariposa via Oakhurst again, stopping only to fill up the car's tank (an unexpected challenge since the rental company apparently neglected to tell us what grade of petrol the car requires, and in any case the pump doesn't like German credit cards which means I need to go in to pre-pay for the fuel before the pump is prepared to dispense any). In Mariposa we have dinner at China Station, which is across the road from our hotel (and given how Americans frown on jaywalkers this means a hefty detour to the official zebra crossing).

8th October – From Mountains to Desert

We're getting an early start today, sharing the hotel's breakfast room with a bus-load of eager Japanese at 6.30am, because it's the longest leg of our trip altogether: from Mariposa across the Sierra to Tioga Pass (at 3031m, the highest mountain pass in California), down past salty Mono Lake, first going south and then veering off to the east in a town called “Lone Pine” to cross more mountains into Death Valley, where we're spending the night in a settlement by the alluring name of “Furnace Creek”. We're staying in a fancy resort and have dinner in one of its restaurants, made up to look like the popular image of a Western saloon (minus the pianist, the poker players, and the fist fight); I have what is probably the most expensive steak ever but after almost eight hours behind the wheel I think I've earned it, and it is delicious!

This is a journey of opposites – the forests of Yosemite form a stark contrast to the bleak desert landscape of Death Valley. But Death Valley is beautiful in its own way, and it doesn't really do its name justice because it is in fact teeming with life. Even so we're glad that we're not here in high summer – even though it is October, the thermometer still shows almost 40 degrees Celsius, quite a change from the chilly Mariposa morning! But we assume that the heat will stay with us as we continue on to Las Vegas and beyond.

9th October – Hell's Gate and the City of Vice

Even though the guidebooks say that Death Valley is at its best at sunrise, we're allowing ourselves a leisurely start into the day. After a quick breakfast of cookies and coffee (or tea) on our room balcony we set out for the ghost town of Rhyolite, which around 1905–10 was the biggest human settlement in the area (at 5,000–8,000 people). The gold mines, however, became uneconomical quickly and now all that is left are a few gutted buildings (plus a house built from thousands of empty beer bottles; we're wondering whether the guy drank all that beer himself).

Coming back into Death Valley via the main eastern entrance, “Hell's Gate”, we go past our quarters again on the way to Badwater, at an altitude of 80+ metres below sea level the lowest point in the western hemisphere. The heat is in the quite-uncomfortable-but-bearable range and we hate to think how it would be in August! At least there are loads of warning signs exhorting people not to walk around outdoors after 10am, and to drink lots of water.

On the way back from Badwater we're taking the “Artist's Drive” detour, a 10-mile one-way road that winds through the hills, occasionally opening out into parking places from where one can see rocks in all sorts of unusual colours. Yay chemistry! It's a very scenic route which for the most part I didn't get around to photographing because I was busy keeping the car on the road (and in many of the interesting places the road was too narrow to stop and take pictures, anyway).

The road climbs out of Death Valley past Zabriskie Point, which offers spectacular views on the “badlands“ at the edge of Death Valley. These craggy hills are completely devoid of vegetation but the formations are endlessly fascinating. Too bad we don't have more time to explore.

From Death Valley we head south-east, past the sprawling town of Pahrump, Nevada (where we stop for petrol, bottled water, and food, and marvel at the huge billboards advertising recreational-cannabis outlets) and then on to Las Vegas. We have booked a room at the Park MGM hotel-plus-casino-plus-theatre, and thanks to satnav we actually manage to find it in the maze of intertwining streets on the first attempt! After navigating the self-checkin process (probably a huge savings for the hotel but not necessarily a great experience for the customer) and declining a $30 upgrade that would have given us a bigger room facing the Las Vegas Strip, we're assigned a smaller-but-still-nice room (one of seemingly thousands) on the 9th floor with a view on the backyards of various other hotels, which having seen the Strip is probably just as well.

We're having a brief rest and then, after looking at an exhibition of crazy-but-apparently-genuine Lady Gaga costumes outside the hotel's theatre, head out to explore the Strip – which in its way is just as overwhelming as the Death Valley desert, except at the other end of the serenity-vs-bustle scale. Dinner is at Chili's, a tex-mex chain which offers reasonably-priced fajitas and enchiladas and bottomless glasses of iced tea. After that we stroll down the Strip some more, watch the Bellagio casino's water fountains (which remind us of the Ocean's Eleven remake), and finally return to our hotel for some relief from all the sensory overload.

10th October – Hoover Dam to Zion

The question “what do you do in Las Vegas during daytime” seems to have an obvious answer, at least to people who aren't hard-core gamblers: Go see Hoover Dam. This masterpiece of engineering is about 50 kilometres south-east of Las Vegas (the Arizona-Nevada state line goes right across the middle of the dam) and conveniently reached by means of a purpose-built highway – and it is one busy attraction! We're not sure whether in Germany there is a technological (as opposed to historical, architectural, …) sight that is remotely as popular, but then again it's not as if there's a lot else to look at in the area (Grand Canyon, perhaps; but that is presumably the answer to the question “what do you do in Las Vegas during daytime if you've already been to Hoover Dam“).

Having said that, Hoover Dam is worth checking out. It was built in 1931–5 as the culmination of an effort to get the Colorado River under control so it would no longer flood the agricultural areas on its lower course in Arizona and California and then dry up in summer. 5000 workers first diverted the river through four tunnels drilled and blasted into the canyon walls, then excavated the river bed down to the bedrock before constructing the actual dam, which is 221 metres high and 379 metres wide at its crest (23 metres at its base). The dam contains enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York City and is almost as thick at its base as it is high. Lake Mead, the reservoir behind the dam, is 177 kilometres long, with a total shoreline of 885 kilometres, and can store enough water to keep the Colorado River going at its normal rate of flow for two years. The power plant contains 17 turbines that can nominally generate just over two gigawatts of power.

(Note that I had to use a fish-eye lens to get the whole dam into the frame. Also note the “bathtub rim” in the picture showing Lake Mead, which shows where the water line ought to be in theory – due to the prolonged drought the lake is really quite a bit smaller than it is supposed to be.)

From Hoover Dam it is a 3½-hour drive (skirting Las Vegas once more) to Springdale, which is the gateway town to Zion National Park. We arrive too late to look at the park itself, but check into the Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and fortify ourselves with delicious complimentary cookies and coffee/tea before heading out to dinner at Jack's Sports Grill nearby. (American football and baseball on various large-screen TVs; very interesting to look at but we wish we'd understand more about the games.)

11th October – Zion National Park

Having arrived too late yesterday to make much of Zion National Park, we're getting a fairly early start once more in order to secure one of the coveted parking spots at the park's visitor centre, where the shuttle buses depart. From March to November private vehicles are not allowed on the Zion Canyon “scenic drive”, which is probably just as well given that the canyon is way too narrow to accommodate a Yosemite-style two-lane-loop system. The shuttle buses operate very frequently and run on propane gas, which helps preserve the environment in the canyon.

It's a 40-minute bus ride from the visitor centre to the far end of the shuttle bus route, at the “Temple of Sinewava” near the upper end of Zion Canyon. From here there's a fairly easy walking path that leads farther up the canyon (which we follow for most of its length) until you end up at “The Narrows”, where the canyon basically becomes two vertical walls with the river between them. It is possible to hike further up but you have to have special waterproof gear because the only way is to walk in the river, which is cold and fairly swift; according to the guide book, “it's not a question of whether you fall in, but how often”. Not our cup of tea even if we had the time – as early as we are, the sun paints the tops of the mountains in vivid colours but the bottom of the canyon is still fairly chilly!

Instead we're taking the shuttle bus down again, getting off at various places, including one where a juvenile California condor can be seen in its nest (bringing binoculars turned out to be a good idea). We also marvel at the stamina and audacity of hikers ascending to Angels Landing, which is a big rock towering 500 metres above the canyon floor, and which can only be reached by first ascending the canyon wall in a grueling sequence of switchbacks and then following a razor-thin causeway with sheer drops on both sides (the guide book says that “token stretches of metal chain offer the illusion of security”). Not our cup of tea again!

Instead we have coffee and hot chocolate at the Zion Lodge and then stop at the “Court of the Patriarchs”, where a moderately steep but short path leads to an overlook which offers a great view of the three mountains named after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Another stop at the “Museum of Human History”, which is thin on human history but features a 20-minute film about Zion National Park, completes our stay.

We retrieve our car at the visitor centre and continue on Highway 9, which climbs up a side canyon in a series of switchbacks offering increasingly better views of the “Great Arch” (not really an arch) and the west wall of Zion Canyon, before it disappears in a mile-long tunnel, apparently another great engineering marvel of the 1920s. From the other end of the tunnel the highway continues past the east entrance of the park; the landscape is a lot different with all sorts of crazy striated sandstone rocks and mesas. Eventually we veer north to continue on towards our day's destination, the Bryce Canyon Resort. On the way we're stopping at a German bakery, which sells delicious apple-crumble cake, cheesecake, and jam-filled marzipan macaroons (Ochsenauge, “ox eye”, in German), and pass through Red Canyon, whose fascinating limestone formations amount to a taster for Bryce Canyon.

The “Bryce Canyon Resort” is actually a fairly nice motel on the plain near the rim of Bryce Canyon; you can see Escalante National Monument in the distance, and there's a decent cowboy-style restaurant, where we have dinner – the “Utah BBQ ribs” are a house speciality and definitely to be recommended, but the chili and the beef enchiladas are also very nice!

12th October – Symphony of Colours

We allow ourselves a bit of a lie-in today, and after breakfast in the resort restaurant (quite nice – if one doesn't mind, here and everywhere else, the mountains of paper cups and plastic cutlery that are an unavoidable consequence) we're heading for Bryce Canyon a few miles down the road.

Following the guide book's advice, we drive all the way south down the scenic road to an overlook called “Rainbow Point” and then work back towards the visitor centre and the park exit. The main advantages of this approach are (a) you're working up to the more spectacular views, and (b) since all the turnouts and overlooks are to the east of the road, you avoid having to make left turns to reach them – this is probably more of an issue in summer when the park is really busy but it's still convenient.

Since this is the Saturday of a long weekend (Monday is “Columbus Day”, a federal holiday) we expect the park to be quite crowded but in the end it's not as bad as we thought – only at the most famous and popular viewpoints is there a brief wait for a parking space to become available. There are buses full of Japanese and Chinese who are sometimes a bit of a nuisance since they tend to be posing everywhere with their selfie sticks, but again this is only a real issue in the most famous and popular places.

There is little that can be written about Bryce Canyon itself since the vast scope and beauty of the place basically defies description, so I'll just let the photographs speak for themselves. It may be worth mentioning, though, that Bryce “Canyon” isn't actually a canyon (i.e., deep-cut river valley, as in Zion Canyon) – it's the eroded east slope of a large plateau. The canyon rim (plateau edge) is at up to 3000 metres of altitude, which makes hiking surprisingly strenuous even on moderate slopes; we agree that before we were to attempt a climb down into the “canyon” we'd want a few days to adjust to the altitude! So we confine ourselves to walking along the canyon rim in some places, where there are paved trails and no big ascents or descents.

We arrive back at the hotel at around 5.30pm feeling quite tired, and after a brief rest head to the restaurant once more for dinner. Then we're turning in early since there will be another long (but scenic) drive tomorrow.

13th October – Big Sky Country

Today's drive takes us from Bryce Canyon to Moab, according to the guide book one of the hottest tourist destinations in the mountains (but more about that later). Setting out at 8.30am we eschew the faster route for Utah State Highway 12, a designated “scenic byway” and “all-American road”, which is slightly longer but much more interesting – it crosses the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which features some of the wildest terrain in all of the United States. Much of it was explored and mapped only after everything else in the lower 48 states, and it is still very sparsely settled with few roads. On the highway it's a fun drive through all sorts of terrain, and it's almost guaranteed that when you round a corner something new and fascinating will appear. I'm stopping for photographs almost too often as we have nearly 300 miles to cover today!

We pass through Boulder, Utah, the last town in the US where mail used to be delivered by mule train until Highway 12 was built in the 1930s. The highway climbs up to nearly 3000 m between Boulder and Terry, and this 30-mile section was only paved in the late 1970s; before that time it was impassable from November to May, and people would have to take a 200-mile detour to reach Boulder from the other side.

In Terry we stop briefly for petrol and snacks before continuing through Capitol Reef National Park and then on towards Moab. Out of Capitol Reef the road becomes a stereotypical Western highway – very long straight stretches where the tarmac disappears in the haze on the horizon. You set the cruise control to 65 mph and play Springsteen in your head while you're driving through a virtually endless moonscape of barren expanses, with mountains or mesas in the far distance. There's a brief interlude on a four-lane Interstate before we turn off once again for Moab.

By the time we reach the Moab area it's early enough (3pm) for us to take a peek into Arches National Park, which is predictably busy on a long weekend. We plan to be back early in the morning, probably on Tuesday, but we scout out various short hikes that we might wish to take to see some of the famous rock arches that give the national park its name.

We reach our motel, the Big Horn Lodge, shortly after 6pm, and after carrying our luggage to our room go for dinner in the adjoning Moab Grill, where we're sitting at the counter as no table for two is available – as we said, Moab is a very popular destination! After the meal we visit the local 24/7 fully-automated laundromat across the road so I can get a few shirts washed; a pre-planned chore (thanks Google Maps!) to cut down on the amount of luggage required for more than three weeks of travel! Everything works fine once we've changed a 5-dollar note to quarters (which sounds like the sort of luck we'd never have at the slots in Las Vegas) to feed into the detergent dispenser, washing machine, and tumble dryer, and the motel kindly stocks its rooms with a steam iron and ironing board, so I can put the finishing touches on a few collars and shirt fronts before putting up my legs at the end of an exciting but also somewhat tiring day.

14th October – Island in the Sky

Canyonlands National Park, like Arches National Park, is reasonably easy to reach from Moab, and we hope that on a public holiday like today (“Columbus Day”) it will be less busy than its companion – it is more out of the way and less iconic. We're getting a fairly late start today, having breakfast at the Moab Grill and setting out for the park around 11am. It's a 30-mile drive to the visitor centre, and once we get there we find that it is quite busy but not overly so – in fact, throughout the day we manage to find a parking space everywhere we're looking for one, so what's not to like?

Canyonlands National Park covers a very large area (much larger than Arches National Park) around the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. After WWII there was some prospecting for oil and uranium, and there was talk about building a big dam just below the confluence, but before that could be put into action the area was declared a national park in 1964. Phew.

Like ancient Gaul, Canyonlands National Park consists of three parts: “Island in the Sky”, “The Needles”, and “The Maze”, which are separated by the rivers. Out of the three, “Island in the Sky” is the only one accessible with normal cars – the others require 4-wheel drive off-road-capable cars (or hiking boots) and are very difficult to reach in the first place; there is no way to get to “The Needles” or “The Maze” from “Island in the Sky”, so you need to go the long way around. What it all boils down to is that we're taking a scenic drive around “Island in the Sky”, a large mesa (table-top mountain) which has paved roads and parking lots with restrooms and, of course, breathtaking views of the mesa walls and the canyons below. We even manage a short (1.2-km) hike to see “Mesa Arch”, a natural rock bridge that offers scenic views of the canyons and mountains once the other tourists have deigned to move out of the frame. (Again, selfie sticks were in evidence.)

We're back at the motel around 5.30pm, only to discover that the famous Moab Brewery (a micro-brewery/restaurant) is only a block down the street from where we're staying, so we postpone our original plan of having Chinese food for a change in order to sample the local beer, which is indeed very nice, as is the food. We finish our dinner by grabbing absolutely massive gelato cones (also made locally by the brewery) on our way out – they're delicious but it seems we won't need to eat anything for a long time …

15th October – Back to the Arches, and on to Bluff

We spent some time in Arches National Park on the afternoon of the day before yesterday, but we decide we want to go back and actually look at some of the arches more closely, which involves hiking. So once more we're setting out early in order to beat the queues at the park entrance, and indeed when we arrive at the Devil's Garden trailhead at the far end of the park, the parking lot there is only two-thirds full.

The hike on the Devil's Garden trail to Landscape Arch (one of the most iconic arches in the park) is a little more than a kilometre on a fairly well-prepared path, so really nothing to worry about, but the altitude and the dry air make this more challenging than one might perhaps expect. The immediate area around the arch was declared off-limits after a large rockfall in 1991 (where fortunately nobody was injured), but judging by how spindly the remainder looks now it's probably just as well. At least when the thing eventually falls down completely we can say that we'd seen it when it still existed.

Afterwards we take another brief walk to Skyline Arch, which is not very far away but uses a different parking lot and is much less frequented. It, too, doubled its “window size” by way of a rockfall in the early 1940s, but the remainder looks a lot more solid than Landscape Arch …

We're heading back to town (with a brief stop at the park visitor centre to fill up our gallon-size water bottle) to have a late breakfast at the Moab Diner, which does delicious pancakes and omelets (among other things that we haven't tried). Then a stop at the petrol station and we're off to our next overnight destination, the town of Bluff near the Utah-Arizona stateline. This is only 110 km or so from Moab, which is not at all far by our standards …

According to the guide book, Bluff is the most authentic of the various towns in south-eastern Utah, and indeed looks a lot less “touristy” than Moab. We check into the Desert Rose Inn (a modern upscale motel with large and luxurious rooms – ours has two queen-size beds with 7 – seven! – pillows each) and rest for a while before heading to the Twin Rocks Café for dinner. This promises Native American cuisine, and we try the Navajo Taco and the beef-and-steamed-corn stew, both of which are delicious and based on – or accompanied by – Navajo frybread, which is essentially deep-fried dough. Think “Hungarian lángos” but with wheat flour instead of potato flour. The dessert, “Peaches de Chelley” is also a piece of frybread topped with peaches, ice cream, and whipped cream – simply divine (and for the record, we had only one of those between the two of us)!

We're not counting calories tonight but should mention in the interest of historical accuracy that frybread is not a traditional Navajo food. The Navajo invented it based on the ingredients given to them by the US government – flour, lard, etc. – when they were evicted from their original territory in Arizona in the 1860s and it is about as controversial as a symbol of oppression as it is yummy. Not something you'd want to eat every day, that's for sure!

16th October – Monument Valley

It's not actually a valley, and calling the sandstone mesas and buttes “monuments” is stretching the concept a bit, but Monument Valley is still the place most people automatically associate with classic western movies (thanks John Ford!) and Marlboro cigarette commercials. We don't have a long way to go today so take it relatively easy, setting out from Bluff in mid-morning and taking a short detour to visit Goosenecks State Park (which is basically the Saarschleife on steroids).

From there it's not far to go to Monument Valley, which is on Navajo tribal land and straddles the Utah/Arizona state line. The turnoff to the visitor centre is in Utah but the visitor centre itself is in Arizona. Visiting Monument Valley costs $20 per car (including up to four people inside), which is money well spent compared to various other attractions we've visited on this trip. The visitor centre has a big souvenir shop, a small museum explaining about the history of the Navajo nation and how it is organised politically, and a huge display about the WWII Navajo “code talkers”: It occurred to the Marine Corps that Navajo is a very complicated language which almost no non-Navajo people, and certainly no 1940s Japanese, understand let alone speak. So, enlist Navajo as US Marines, and tadaa, instant secret communications! This seems to be a major point of pride for the people hereabouts.

The other thing your $20 will let you do is take a 17-mile drive on a one-way circular dirt road through the valley. This hits a variety of scenic spots, many of which feature stalls selling Navajo jewelry and ornaments. You're not supposed to park just anywhere you'd like and you're certainly not supposed to go on unsupervised hikes – jeep and horseback rides and hikes are in fact quite possible but you must be accompanied by an official Navajo tour guide, presumably so you don't accidentally disturb a sacred site or do other things that ignorant palefaces will do but really shouldn't. (It also keeps the official Navajo tour guides in employment.)

The road isn't actually that bad and passable even for normal passenger cars like ours (remember that I declined the upgrade to a “medium SUV” that the car rental guy at the SF airport wanted to push on me “for the national parks”), although the rental agency will probably have to give it a very thorough scrub once we're done with it. The guide book promised a “bumpy and dusty ride”, and it didn't disappoint on either count. It is totally worth it, though – the views are second to none, and you almost expect to see John Wayne or a band of Indians come round the butte in front of you.

From Monument Valley it is another 45 minutes to Kayenta, which as a town seems to consist mostly of motels, chain restaurants, petrol stations, and malls, but the award-winning Hampton Inn, where we're staying, is actually quite nice. We don't really want to go out to Macdonald's or Taco Bell so for convenience we have dinner in the hotel's own restaurant, which is also nice. Incidentally, Kayenta is still on the Navajo reservation, which means no firewater – all the so-called beer and wine that the hotel sells is indeed alcohol-free. It feels a little like the UAE but we don't really mind.

17th October – Grand Canyon

As national parks go, we seem to have saved the best for last: After a delicious breakfast at the award-winning Hampton Inn in Kayenta we're on our way south-east to see the Grand Canyon. Near Tuba City we're passing two fascinating rock structures which don't seem to be in any of the guide books and which OpenStreetMap aptly calls “The Elephant's Feet”, but otherwise, except for a stop for petrol, the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Grand Canyon National Park's less-frequented east entrance remains unremarkable.

We're stopping at a place called “Desert View” for our first glimpse of the most famous Arizona landmark, and it really is as spectacular as everybody (especially the relevant tourist authorities) are claiming. The size is quite overwhelming: The canyon is about twice the size of the state of Delaware, which for our German readers means approximately five times the size of the Saarland. And of course the rock formations stretching off into the distance and their varying colours are absolutely fascinating.

From Desert View we're moving west, first to an overlook called Lipan Point and then another called Shoshone Point. This one is interesting because the National Park Service doesn't advertise it but our guide book does; you leave your car on an unmarked parking lot and walk for a mile or so on a well-prepared path through forest until you arrive at the overlook, whose main advantage, apart from spectacular views, is that very few people come there, so you have a fair chance – as we do – to have the canyon basically to yourself at least for a brief time. Also it feels good to walk after sitting in the car for most of the day.

After Shoshone Point we go right back into the thick of it: We park the car on one of the huge, busy lots near the main visitor centre (it takes not quite ten minutes to drive there from the Shoshone Point parking lot) and catch a free shuttle bus to Grand Canyon Village, where it connects with another shuttle bus that goes to “Hermit's Rest”, a viewpoint farther west along the canyon rim (on that shuttle the ride there and back takes around 80 minutes). There is quite a number of tourists around but fortunately everything stays manageable – queues are short and we do manage to get to where we want to go. We stop at various scenic overlooks along the way and finally end up on our way back at a place called “Mohave Point”, where we stay for some time while the sun is going down – quite a spectacle as the canyon is growing dark from its bottom up the walls and the rocks are turned red by the setting sun. Lots of photographs. We could have done without the ukulele lady, though; there are placards that exhort people to reduce “human noise” so visitors can experience the sounds of the canyon itself, and gratuitous strumming and singing doesn't seem to fit those intentions.

We're back at the parking lot at around 6pm, at which point it is quite dark, and drive to our abode for the night, the Holiday Inn Express in Tusayan, which is approximately 10 km south of the visitor center. Like Kayenta, Tusayan seems to consist mostly of hotels and restaurants; we check into the hotel (which is nice) and then repair to We Cook Pizza & Pasta for a large pizza “with everything”, a Caesar salad, and bottomless glasses of iced tea. Today was a day with many great experiences but it was a bit tiring, too – we drop on our bed(s!) and are happy to have visited one of the “seven natural wonders of the world”.

18th October – Tusayan to Sedona

We're now starting to loop back towards southern California, by driving south from Tusayan through a wooded area where “prescribed fire” is taking place. This is when forest managers deliberately ignite a controlled fire in order to clear undergrowth or otherwise benefit the forest; this is preferable to waiting for lightning to strike which might cause a fire that is a lot less easy to put out again.

We forego the delights of the Flintstones “Bedrock City” theme park in Valle, which has clearly seen better days. Instead we visit the Grand Canyon location of the Planes of Fame aircraft museum; this is a lot more interesting even if the collection seems a bit random and the really good airplanes are obviously at their main location near Los Angeles.

Then it's on to see Arizona's second most important hole in the ground. This is the Barringer meteor crater, which is approximately a three-quarter hour east of Flagstaff, off the Flagstaff-to-Albuquerque interstate highway. The guide books are divided as to whether this privately run attraction is worth the entrance fee, but as holes in the ground go it is quite an impressive one and the visitor centre is pretty decent, too. They could work on their terminology a bit – AFAIR from my years as a volunteer at the public observatory, an object that is about to collide with the Earth is called a “meteoroid” until it actually hits something solid, at which point it becomes a “meteorite” (most meteoroids burn up early and don't make it all the way to the ground). A “meteor”, on the other hand, is the track of light that a meteoroid leaves in the sky as it turns the atmospheric gases that it travels through into a plasma; the light we see is in fact that plasma's electrons getting rid of their excess energy as they rearrange themselves into proper atoms again. So the hole in the ground should properly be called the “meteorite crater”, but let's not be picky; they're doing a pretty good job overall.

Afterwards we walk around the town of Flagstaff for a bit – it's a pretty laid-back place with stores selling sports equipment and Native American art; the vegetarian cafés and espresso bars that the guide book promises seem to be harder to find. We end up buying some nice pastries from a bakery and eat them sitting in the sun on the “heritage square”.

From Flagstaff we continue on to Sedona, which is 30 miles or so to the south. Driving there takes a little longer than planned because of roadworks on the main street which cause a very long queue, but finally we find the turnoff to our hotel, the Amara Resort and Spa, which is posh enough to offer complimentary valet parking (in other words, you drive up to the main entrance and a guy from the hotel parks your car for you somewhere). Other indications of poshness are the very large rooms, the free glass of wine everybody gets between 5–6pm, and the long list of expensive procedures one may inflict on one's body in the “spa” part of the hotel (not something we're that much interested in). And of course the hotel is too posh to offer a free breakfast; there is free coffee in the morning but people who actually want to eat will apparently have to go elsewhere.

Speaking of eating, we want a change from the usual fare and walk uphill to the main part of town again to find the Thai Palace Uptown, which serves very nice big bowls of curry and glasses of Thai iced tea (we presume that “Thai” here means “with coconut milk”). On our way home after dinner we get to do a bit of window-shopping – Sedona is a hotbed of new-age woo: You can get your psyche read, your aura photographed, and presumably your chakras or qi polished, lubricated, and realigned, all at very competitive prices. We're told all of this is due to a few “energy vortexes” in the vicinity which make the place interesting for people who are interested in such things (this does not include us). But there are also more reasonable shops, the usual clothing and Native American art outlets, tour operators, and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, where they dip apples into chocolate – this sounds like a delicious treat in principle, but we're too full to want to think about this.

19th October – Pie and Culture

Once more we're off fairly early in the morning, although we don't have that far to go – it's “only” two hours to drive from Sedona to Phoenix. But we have plans for the day. We stop for breakfast at the Rock Springs Café, which is just off I-17 and apparently has a huge reputation for pie, so we're having a breakfast hamburger and a stack of pancakes instead. But we do buy two slices of pie to eat later in the day (spoiler: they are wonderfully delicious but at $5.95 each they'd better!).

Phoenix, at almost 1.7 million inhabitants, is the 5th-largest US city by population (#4 is Houston, and you can probably figure out top three for yourself) and a sprawling desert metropolis. It is also purported to be the hottest large city outside the Middle East, which having spent a day there we're not disputing, and offers some top-of-the-line attractions.

First is the Heard Museum, which devotes itself to the history and art of the Native American peoples of the area. This is very well-presented and powerful, and if you go to just one museum in Phoenix it should probably be this one. Almost next door is the Phoenix Art Museum, which is also well worth seeing – it is huge and it's a bit challenging to find your way around, but it offers a good selection of paintings and sculpture from all over the world and all ages, certainly in a world where most of the really prestigious stuff is in more renowned museums. We particularly enjoy Yayoi Kusama's You Who Are Getting Obliterated In The Dancing Swarm Of Fireflies; according to the museum's web site: “The piece is a dark room lined with mirrors on every surface and strands of looping LED lighting suspended from the ceiling. This deceptively small room feels as if it's a vast, infinite galaxy of lighting and allows the viewer to enter and be surrounded, or obliterated by Kusama’s fireflies.” (It's too bad that other people want to see this exhibit, too – you could just stand there for hours and gaze into infinity).

From there we continue to the Desert Botanical Garden, which is not to be be missed if you have any affinity at all for cactuses – but there are loads of other plants, too, and a large butterfly exhibit with more than 3,000 butterflies of various species. One admiral butterfly perches on Marie's sun hat, and it is very difficult to convince it to give up this choice abode so we can leave the butterfly house again! Unfortunately the hummingbirds in the “hummingbird garden” next door have apparently decided to call it a day before we arrive. Parts of the botanical garden are off-limits today as there are four (4!) weddings going on, so we run into brides, grooms, photographers, bridesmaids, and groomsmen at almost every other corner. In addition, there is an art project with large plastic animals in various locations (see the photograph of the penguins pretending to be cactuses, a very convincing disguise if there ever was one). We do manage to see a good part of the botanical garden as the sun is setting but decide to leave because we still have a way to go to our hotel.

That hotel is the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, and it's safe to say that this will be our poshest accommodation on this trip – we have a small suite on the top floor of an outlying building with a balcony and a reasonably nice view; too bad that we're going to have to leave fairly early tomorrow morning! We switch off the A/C (it's one of those models which force you to tie down or put something heavy on top of any small objects so they aren't blown all over the room) in favour of opening the balcony door a crack (there's a screen door) and then go to dinner in the resort's Pointe in Time restaurant, which is reasonably nice; we're having salads, hummus and pasta, all of which are a welcome change from burgers and fries … Dessert is the last slice of 50-cent-a-bite pie from the Rock Springs Café, but each of those 50-cent bites is worth it!

20th October 2019 – Going West

We're starting at 8.30am or so, first to get petrol and then to take an incredibly dull 4,5-hour drive on the I-10 interstate highway from Phoenix to Palm Springs. Thank goodness for podcasts (various history topics and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue) which keep us awake. This is only interrupted by a stop for a late (but delicious) breakfast at the Times 3 Family Restaurant in Quartzsite, Arizona (just shy of the California state line).

In Palm Springs our first stop is the Palm Springs Air Museum by the airport, which boasts an impressive collection of original aircraft from WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars, many of which are (in theory) flyable. We get to climb around in a veritable B-17 Flying Fortress, which the museum is trying to get back to an airworthy state (world-wide there are 46 complete specimens left in total, although most of these haven't actually been in combat in WWII; 10 of them are airworthy). But the other aircraft are also fascinating, and there are volunteers all over the museum who are eager to tell stories and answer questions.

From the Air Museum it's a short drive downtown to the Hyatt Palm Springs hotel, which contrary to yesterday's conjecture can give the Hilton in Phoenix a run for its money. Here all rooms are suites, and ours has a balcony that is facing the town and, later in the evening, lets me take long-exposure-time photographs of the main street below. We go for dinner at the China King restaurant a block away, which is a matter-of-fact family-run place with excellent dumplings, lo mein, and General Tso's chicken.

21st October – Freeways, Beaches and Tar Pits

Once more we want to cover some miles before breakfast, so I retrieve the car from the street behind the hotel (I was too cheap to spend almost the equivalent of last night's dinner on valet parking) and we leave Palm Springs after a stop at the filling station to get back on I-10 towards Los Angeles. Breakfast is at the Ruby's Diner near Banning – very 1950s! But the food is reasonably good.

We hit Santa Monica beach (the parking lot) at 1pm or so and spend some time walking around in the sand before we reach the iconic pier and sit on a bench watching the pigeons (and gulls) for a while. This is the inofficial end of the famous “Route 66”, and we can see how this place might appeal to someone travelling from Chicago.

Our next stop is the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum. The tar pits were, of course, a fixture in all the prehistoric-animal books I used to read when I was a kid – various animals getting stuck in the tar (asphalt, really) and, not being able to escape again, ending up as fossilised bones for us to study –, but I never realised that they were right in the middle of L.A.! Anyway now these can be checked off the bucket list. We explore the well-presented museum with loads of fossils on display, watch the preparators at work in the glassed-in “fish bowl”, and take in a 20-minute 3D documentary film explaining about the tar pits and their ice age victims. Afterwards we take a walk in the park to check out the tar pits themselves, including one where systematic digging is currently taking place (although nobody is working when we look).

From the tar pits it's a short drive to the Rodeway Inn Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, where we'll be staying for the next three nights. To be fair it's a step down from what we've been getting used to in Phoenix and Palm Springs – but this is Los Angeles, the room is reasonably big and reasonably clean, and there's a convenient place to leave the car, so what's not to like? They're even promising a complimentary continental breakfast, but we're not getting too excited about that yet.

Hollywood Boulevard with the celebrated “Walk of Fame” is only two blocks from here, so we can't resist the temptation to take a little stroll (we also want to find something to eat). We're surprised to see that former RSCDS chairman Jim Healy seems to have a star here – although we realise later, when we get around to checking on the Internet, that while Jim probably deserves a star, the actual star appears to belong to another Jim Healy. That's life. Dinner is at a “New York Pizza” place on Hollywood Boulevard, where Marie has spaghetti with feta cheese and I have a Philly cheese steak sandwich (so much for iconic East Coast fast food; we may be looking for Mexican tomorrow). We're back at the hotel at 8pm or so and are happy to put up our legs!

22nd October – City of Stars

It's another day of sun here in L.A.! Today at 10.30am we're scheduled to visit the Gamble House in Pasadena, so we get an early start because the traffic is entirely unpredictable, and make it there by 9.30am. We don't mind – there's a nice bench where we get to sit in the morning sun and watch while the place gradually comes to life. In spite of the slightly ominous-sounding name the Gamble House has nothing to do with vice, but is the custom-built residence of David B. Gamble (of Procter & Gamble) and his family. It was built in 1908-9 to designs by the Greene & Greene architectural firm and is generally considered the masterpiece of the American Arts and Crafts movement. It incorporates many elements of Japanese architecture and uses lots of natural materials such as wood and leather, but still incorporates modern (at the time) technology such as electric lights and a central vacuuming system. There is a unity to the overall design of the building, the details of its execution, and the interior design, furniture, etc. that is incredible in how uncompromising and effective it is. We have a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide and our 1-hour visit (which is effectively 90 minutes long) just flies by. Thanks to Robb Quint for suggesting this as worth visiting, we enjoy every minute of it!

From the Gamble House we go to the Misión de San Gabriel Arcángel, the “godmother of Los Angeles village”. This was established by Spanish priests in 1771 as part of the chain of missions that reaches from San Diego in the south up to San Francisco. It does seem that in the meantime the “village” has outgrown its godmother; the mission has a quaint, Latin American feel to it and you almost think that time passes more slowly here than in the surrounding area. But then again in the gift shop they offer shampoo that is “made with real Lourdes water”, presumably so that you, too, can have hair just like the Virgin Mary! Too bad they don't allow photography in there but they probably know why.

We stop at a supermarket for a few lunch items and decide to try to have a picnic in Griffith Park. Unfortunately the road that leads to “Cathy's Corner”, the overlook on Mt. Hollywood where, in the film La La Land, they shot the iconic Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone yellow-dress dance scene, is closed, but we find a nice picnic area where we have our late lunch, watching a squirrel and a woodpecker going about their business.

From there we decide to visit at least one other famous film location and drive up to Griffith Observatory. We write off the extortionate $10-an-hour parking fee – this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, after all – and join the crowd in order to take in the views of L.A., the HOLLYWOOD sign, and the various displays inside the observatory. We don't have time for a planetarium show, but then again the Griffith, like pretty much all other famous planetariums, uses German-built Zeiss technology and we can see much the same thing much closer to home if we want to.

We're back at our hotel at around 5.30pm and after a short rest we decide to have dinner at Urban Masala on Hollywood Boulevard, which we passed yesterday. They're doing budget-friendly Indian food which is actually quite decent, and we chat for a bit with the server who is quite a nice guy. Going home we find that we're suitably tired. What a day!

23rd October – Downtown L.A., On Foot

We're in for a special treat today: Robb Quint, a long-time e-mail friend of mine, will take us on a walking tour of downtown Los Angeles. Since he lives in Thousand Oaks, which is 50 km or so away from where we're staying, and since rush-hour traffic in L.A. is something one would not want to wish on one's worst enemies, it's 11am before he comes by to pick us up – but that's not a problem as far as we are concerned.

We're leaving the car in Barnsdall Art Park (where parking is free and there's no time limit), have a quick look at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House, and then take the metro to Union Station, which is an impressive art-deco building. I don't recall who it was that said “in the USA, the railway stations look like cathedrals, and the cathedrals look like railway stations”, but this railway station surely carries all the dignity of a temple dedicated to mobility (and we will come back to cathedrals that look like railway stations later today).

Near Union Station are the oldest parts of Los Angeles, including the Avila Adobe, which is the oldest remaining building (from 1818). Not all that old by European standards but there you are. There used to be a city ordinance which stipulated that due to the danger from earthquakes, no buildings taller than the city hall (a pretty tall tower already) would be allowed – but that has since been rescinded, and indeed the tallest building west of the Mississippi is now to be found in L.A.! Many of the buildings downtown date from the 1920s and 1930s. We have a delicious lunch in the Suehiro Café, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Little Tokyo district which serves excellent sukiyaki and tempura.

After that we get to see another few exciting and iconic buildings such as the Bradbury Building (of Blade Runner fame) and the Grand Central food market, and take a ride on the newly renovated Angels Flight funicular. From there we make our way past the YMCA building to the very futuristic Westin Bonaventure hotel (where we take a glass outside elevator almost all the way up to the top) and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry (who also designed the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao) and arguably the most modern piece of architecture in L.A.

Our tour finishes at the new (opened in 2002) Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which does have a distinct railway-station vibe to it. It's a huge building but one that ultimately leaves you cold; there's probably more soul in any of the 21 old mission chapels along El Camino Real from San Diego to north of San Francisco (San Gabriel Arcángel, which we visited yesterday, is the fourth in the chain) than there is in this massive pile of concrete. We do appreciate the irony that it is situated on the intersection of Grand Avenue and Temple Street – a “grand temple”, indeed!

We take the metro back to the car and Robb kindly drops us off near our hotel before he braves the L.A. rush hour traffic for his drive home to Thousand Oaks. We had a great time and it's safe to say that we wouldn't have seen a fraction of all these fascinating places on our own.

At the hotel we have a well-deserved rest before we dash out again for a quick Mexican dinner at a Tacos el Gavilan fast-food joint down the road, with dessert from the Seven-Eleven ice cream cooler. We turn in early because tomorrow we will need to go out in the rush-hour traffic.

24th October – Rome and Spain

We're leaving Los Angeles to start driving up the Pacific coast towards San Francisco again. But the morning is earmarked for a visit to The Getty Villa, a replica of a rich Roman's house from Herculaneum (where the original rests under a thick layer of hardened lava from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 CE). This was funded by the billions of oil magnate J. Paul Getty, who wanted a suitable venue to present his huge collection of Roman and Greek antiques.

The villa is slightly tricky to reach – you need to take a specific turnoff from the Pacific Coast Highway, only accessible when driving west –, and, even though our tickets are marked for 10.30am, we are so early (having wanted to play it safe given the L.A. traffic) that the off-ramp to the Villa isn't even open yet. This gives us enough time to backtrack, stop at a nearby Starbucks for coffee, and to wait until our official time of entry is closer. On the second attempt all works fine and a few minutes later our car is installed in the huge (and, at this time of day, almost empty) parking garage for Getty Villa visitors. Entry to the villa is free but anyone arriving with a car must use the official parking garage, which is $20 – we have a slight suspicion that Getty may have stipulated in his will that no fee may be charged to see his stuff but didn't say anything about extortionate parking fees. On the other hand, we're not complaining; they could charge $25 or more per ticket and that would be neither unusual given the entrance fees for other sights, nor would it be too steep considering what is being shown.

Which is to say that the quality of the objects on display as well as their presentation is completely mind-blowing. It's amazing what one can get together if money is not an object, and it's great that the general public gets to see all these wonderful artifacts, too. The antiques include statues of all shapes and sizes, coins, jewellery, vases, urns, and many other objects, and to see them in a setting that tries to replicate their original surroundings adds to the effect. It may be silly to travel from Europe to California to look at Greek and Roman antiques but the truth is that it would be difficult to find the a collection of the same scope and quality, in a similarly stunning setting, elsewhere in the world.

From the Getty Villa we drive west towards Santa Barbara to see the county courthouse, another Robb Quint recommendation. Finished in 1929, this is considered one of the finest examples of the Spanish Revivalist style in architecture, and indeed we get the impression that the people in charge tried to out-Spanish the Spanish wherever they could. Especially notable is the “Mural Room”, which as its name suggests contains huge murals showing scenes from the founding of Santa Barbara by the Spanish (it is a bit condescending towards the Native Americans who lived here when the Spanish arrived) and the subsequent takeover by the USA. There's also a tower which from its top affords scenic views of the surrounding town, hills, and Pacific coast, and an original tower clock which we unfortunately get to see only through a glass partition (in theory if one is there at the right time it ought to be possible to go in and watch it from closer by).

After Santa Barbara and a stop for petrol and snacks we continue on the historic California State Highway 1 towards San Luis Obispo. CA-1 splits off from the modern highway as that crosses the mountains going north, and wends its way along the Pacific coast, through Vandenberg AFB (which gives the ubiquitous “speed limit enforced by airplane” signs a more-ominous-than-usual ring) and then past a succession of places with lots of Spanish-looking shops and street names to San Luis Obispo. Our abode for the night is the Best Western Plus Hotel Royal Oak, with a nice big room and a view of the hotel's swimming pool from the balcony (which we don't really have time to use). We don't want to drive anywhere for dinner and so walk for a few minutes to the nearby Tahoe Joe chain steakhouse – the food is very nice but the server is a bit slow on the uptake, which is probably just as well because otherwise we might have eaten dessert and we're full enough as we are already!

25th October – Big Sur, and Tons of Fish

Our final full day of travelling takes us north from San Luis Obispo to Monterey, via California State Highway 1 (again). This stretch of CA-1 runs alongside the Pacific coast most of the time and is one of the great scenic drives in North America, passing through the wild and sparsely populated area called “Big Sur”.

We first pass the famous Hearst Castle – it's probably worth looking at in greater detail, but we don't really have the time and in any case this is one of those places where you're strongly advised to order tickets in advance. We confine ourselves to stopping at the side of the road and looking at it up on its hill through binoculars (or the long telephoto lens). A few miles on from there comes the Elephant Seal Viewing Area, which is a busy place – both as far as seals and people are concerned. In October, the seals there are juveniles but they're pretty big already, and while they seem to be content, for the most part, to lie in the sun and casually throw some sand on themselves with a lazy flick of a flipper every so often, displays of temper aren't exactly rare, either. It's good fun watching the elephant seals from an elevated boardwalk, especially since this isn't a zoo – this is simply where these wild animals like to hang out.

Big Sur is breathtakingly scenic and so we stop again and again at viewpoints to take photographs or simply to enjoy the huge space – the road is busy with tourists but not overly so. We reach Monterey around 2pm and go straight through “Cannery Row”, immortalised by John Steinbeck and now a long array of tourist traps of all types and descriptions (we enjoy the shirt shop that sells “Hairy Otter” tees in a Harry Potter-inspired design) to the aquarium, which is the main sight in town and probably deserves to be called one of the best in the world. It certainly has the most expensive tickets that we can recall ever buying for a single attraction, but, to be fair, the place must be extremely costly to maintain and it is completely self-funding.

Inside we marvel at a replica kelp forest (5000 litres of water are pumped up from the bay every minute to keep it going), watch the penguins being fed, and look at a giant “deep ocean” tank with tuna, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, a huge school of sardines, sunfish, and various other rarely-seen species. There's a fascinating display of tentacled beasties – octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and even nautilus – and many varieties of molluscs. We spend the rest of the afternoon here almost until the aquarium closes, and then retrieve the car and drive through the Monterey rush-hour traffic to our hotel, the Casa Munras Garden & Spa.

After a short rest we decide to spend our last evening in California in style and repair to Papa Chano's, a small taqueria on the main thoroughfare of Old Monterey and according to the guide book (which we only consult afterwards) the most authentic place for Mexican food in Monterey, for enchiladas and a BBQ pork dinner. Bliss! Now all that remains is to get our luggage organised for the flight home tomorrow.

26th October – Going Home

This is our final day in the USA! We have breakfast at the Wild Plum Café across the road from Casa Munras, with great pancakes but a slightly confusing menu/specials board, and then hit the road one last time to go to SF International Airport. This is a fairly unremarkable two-hour-plus drive, and thanks to satnav we manage to find the dropping-off point for rental cars, where we say goodbye to “our” Chevrolet Malibu. A nice car and it served us well for 5,600 kilometres of highways and by-ways! We take our time dropping off our bags and passing through security but still end up at the gate quite early, which as far as we're concerned is not a problem at all. The flight home, on a Lufthansa A380, is reasonably OK but we find we liked the outbound leg on United better!

This was a wonderful trip with many once-in-a-lifetime experiences! It would have been nice to have had more time in many of the scenic places, but on the other hand, that would probably have meant not getting to see as many of them. In spite of the distances and the large number of sights to see we feel quite well-rested and are sure we've built lots of memories!