How can one resist a place that claims to be ‘the happiest place on earth’ and ‘where dreams come true’? I am talking about Disneyland, of course. Having such fond and fun memories of a holiday to Disneyworld with my family ten years ago there was no way I was going to California without visiting Disneyland. Guy and I spent two fun days at the Disneyland resort reclaiming our childhood.

Disneyland is an amazing place where the level of detail is truly incredible; nothing has been forgotten. The first day was spent in Disneyland Park where we went from world to world enjoying the rides and trying not trip over the hordes of overexcited kids on sugar highs. We got our first rush of adrenalin on the Space Mountain roller coaster, got soaked on Splash Mountain, grimaced through the painful It’s a Small World and caught glimpses of chilhood friends such as Mary Poppins and Pooh. The Christmas decorations were already up so it looked even more storybook-like than usual. The next day it was of to the othe Disney attraction, California Advenure. here we found a few more ‘hard-core’ rides including a most thrilling roller coaster and a 13 story free falling lift in the haunted Hollywood Hotel. As we raced around trying to squeeze just one more ride in we had to agree that Disneyland comes really close to being the happiest place on earth and is definitely somewhere we’ll take our kids – and not just for their sake!

My main reason for adding San Diego to our itinerary was to visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo but once there we discovered a buzzing beach city with lovely warm weather. It was also here that we were bounced and reminded of the importance of carrying ID to bars and clubs – something we haven’t thought about for years! The zoo was great – as far as zoos go and I have to admit I am not a huge fan, preferring my animals to run free. The upside of this zoo is the huge amount of incredible conservation work they do. Their panda research centre is world-renowned and you may have seen the news of the recent birth of their new panda baby on TV or in the papers at home. We once again realized how blessed we are to have seen animals such a lions, gorillas, elephants and even just the common impala in ‘real life’ as for most of the visitors to the zoo it is their only chance to see any type of wildlife. Guy decided that the Museum of Man looked interesting (?!) so we went there too but left quickly after realising that the evolution display of early man that was donated after featuring in a Playboy film (!?) was a a supposed high point! So it was a short but fun stay in San Diego and next time we hope to actually cross the border into nearby Mexico!

From San Francisco we headed towards Yosemite via Napa Valley, which is in the opposite direction and not actually en route at all but we wanted to pop in given its reputation for fine wine and picturesque location. I must say we were somewhat disappointed with Napa as we had been to Healdsburg the week before, a smaller wine town that is a bit more off the beaten track and thus has maintained its charm. It seems food and motel chains as well as outlet stores have invaded Napa.

Disappointment was a thing of the past when we got to the Yosemite National Park. After a long drive, expertly navigated by me thanks to Google Maps, we arrived at our old-world hotel in the park where we spent 3 nights. It took us a while to get into Yosemite; I think partly because we are so used to looking for game in the parks we go to that to ‘just’ look at scenery was a bit tricky at first. This wasn’t helped by the fact that our latest rental car, an electric-blue Dodge Avenger, had extremely narrow windows! It didn’t take long though for the spectacular and majestic surrounds to win us over as we admired view after view after view. That’s not to say we weren’t extremely excited to spot a black bear!

From Yosemite we headed back west to the coast to follow the famous California stretch of Highway 1, including Big Sur, down to Los Angeles. Our first stop was the lovely town of Carmel. Despite being a very wealthy town they have rules in place to preserve its appeal, including no streetlights, pavements or home postal delivery … and certainly no McDonalds! We stayed in a lovely B&B that is a true testament to the fact that there is great yet affordable accommodation available throughout the States. We visited the Monterey Aquarium, which is consistently voted the country’s number 1, but as hard as we tried were still bored by fish swimming in tanks. Not so with our next stop – Pebble Beach. Yes, Guy was in heaven as we drove the 17-mile route around Pebble Beach admiring its top courses – Cypress Hill, Spyglass, Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach itself, my golfing husband’s ultimate. Even as a non-practicing Golfer I could appreciate the beauty of these perfectly manicured courses. Unfortunately, Guy didn’t play and as we stood watching the golfers come in on the 18th I am sure I caught him wiping a tear away! Definitely on his ‘to come back to’ list!

From Carmel we made a beeline down the coast, enjoying some of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen, with a stopover in San Simeon to ogle at the OTT wealth on display at the stunning Heart Castle.

Our next stop, and the last before San Diego, was supposed to be Santa Barbara but our lack of forward planning caught up with us here, being a popular weekend spot for southern Californian’s, and with no room at the inn we kept going. We didn’t think we’d have a problem getting to LA soon enough and finding a place. That was before we hit the mother of all traffic jams at what we later discovered is the second worst point of congestion in the US despite the 6 or more lanes – in each direction! So despite it being a Saturday night a 4 or 5 hour trip became 9 hours and eventually we stopped at the airport and crashed into the nearest bed.

Guysie and I spent a week in San Francisco, a city we quickly came to love. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (and cycling across it a few days later), such an iconic American image, on a sunny day we knew we’d enjoy this break from the road trip. There is always so much to see and do in the big cities making them hard work for weary travelers so we took our time getting to know this city and really enjoyed it.

Our hotel was in the perfect location only a block or two from the cable car route. I can think of no happier mode of transport than the San Francisco cable cars, especially on a sunny day or a clear night. We loved riding up and down the hills hanging onto the sides a la movie-style or sitting back on the bench enjoying the sights whiz past. The drivers are part of the charm too, always friendly but with a quick chirp for anyone not obeying cable car protocol, e.g. ‘move it Death Wish’ to the man who suddenly ran across our path! My favourite cable car trip was late one night on our way home after cocktails, dancing and jazz at the Top of the Mark – we caught the last car home and had it all to ourselves, our own private able car … and we were allowed to ring the bell!

We enjoyed some great food in this city known for the high quality of its restaurants and particularly enjoyed our forays into Chinatown, one of the oldest and largest in the States. I loved the food hall and Farmers’ Market at the Ferry Building filled with tempting and exotic offerings. And I cannot forget the cupcakes that should be crowned world’s best, which are completely responsible for ‘perfect the art of cupcakery’ being on my to do list!

Sometimes when visitng a new place you get a chance to experience a real, not for tourists part of the city life be it a dinner with a local family, a conversation with a stranger on a bus or discovering a great restaurant that is not in any guidebook. These things cannot be planned or anticipated and we had one such experience in San Francisco … an earthquake! On Halloween we were in our hotel room when the buidling began to shake, and shake, and shake. At first I thought a big truck was going past but then realised it was something much bigger and it turns out it was an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richetr scale! The shaking went on for almost a minute and nobody seemed very concerned but we really felt we had experienced a slice of life on a fault.

We had both been looking forward to the road trip down the west coast and before we knew it we had our car – unfortunately a Kia and not a convertible Mustang (if we opened all the windows we still got the feeling of the wind through our hair!) – and were setting off from Seattle armed with a map and very little else. Our roles were clearly defined – I was mapgirl and Guysie the driver (he was supposed to turn when and where I said and I was not supposed to backseat drive – this usually went according to plan!).

We navigated our way through Seattle and onto a ferry – the same one often seen on Grey’s Anatomy, after all McDreamy ‘has a thing for ferry boats’! Our first destination was the Olympic Peninsula and its Olympic National Park. We arrived at Sequim (pronounced ‘skwim’) and decided this small town was as good as any for our first night on the road. We checked into a motel and I was relieved that it was not at all dodgy contrary to what Hollywood has led us to believe. Not much to report about Sequim although it is the largest lavendar growing area in the US. Our plans the next day were somewhat thwarted as the peak we wanted to drive up to, Hurricane Ridge, was closed due to unseasonally early and heavy snowfall. So we drove around the park for a while, the highlight being seeing wild salmon jumping upstream. We ended up in what has been the smallest town on our trip – Forks. You know a town in America is small when it has no Starbucks or even McDonalds and it’s not because the town has voted against these chains as in the case in some upscale areas. We had only planned to spend one night there but while watching the news realised the Peninsula was on high alert for a wind storm warning and by the sounds of it we would be lucky if the roof stayed on. So to be prudent we decided to stay in the next day and see how it went rather than drive through a wind storm. Seemed more like a breeze to us the next day!

From the Peninsula we made a beeline for Portland as we figured this would be our best bet for finding a place to watch the most importamt event of the year, i.e the rugby world cup final. Somehow our carefully chosen accommodation was 12 miles from the centre of Portland but since rugby was the mission for this city finding a pub to watch it was more important that sightseeing. However, this location did hinder our restaurant choices considerably and resulted in us resorting to Burger King for dinner. This was something Guy has actually been looking forward to?! It was cheap, that I cannot deny, but we have not gone back and have actually only had fast food a handful of times thereafter in similarly dire situations. We arrived in Portland the night before the match so immediately starting phoning pubs and bars enquiring if they were screening the game – the answer was no. Eventually we found a website for the Portland Rugby Club and emailed the entire commitee asking for help. As has been the case so many times on this trip we were taken aback at the willingness of people to help out and within minutes we had a few replies suggesting Kells Irish Pub. We made sure we got there early the next day decked out in our patriotic green and gold that we had picked up from Target at 10pm the night before. Unfortunately, there is only one channel in the USA that screens rugby and the poor weather in Portland meant there was no signal until the second half!!! You can only imagine Guy’s anxiety. But all’s well that ends well and we were thrilled with the result along with the rest of South Africa. It was very strange leaving the pub and walking back into a country that for the most part had no idea that the tournament was even on … made us think of you all celebrating at home.

From Portland we headed west to the Oregon Coast where we joined the Pacific Coast Highway that eventually took us all the way down to LA. We stayed in a different small coastal town each night, which enable us to enjoy walks on some beautiful beaches in the mornings and evenings, and we really enjoyed the beautiful coastal scenery along the way. After a few days we crossed the border into California marvelling at the enormity of the fabled Redwoods and continued down to San Francisco.

Despite our preferred flashpacker style, at the end of the day we are budget travellers and have met many like-pocketed along the way. Couchsurfing was on many lists of recommendations and so it was inevitable that we would have our turn at some point along the way.

Couchsurfing.com is a website set up to assist travellers in finding accommodation with locals around the world who have a couch/floor/room to spare to those looking for a place to rest their weary selves. It’s a great network of people, some stranger than others, willing to open their homes based on the idea that one day you will host someone too. After signing up and realising Seattle was our first unplanned stop in the US we thought we’d give it a try. We carefully went through the list of Seattle hosts and found a couple called Rick and Carrie who seemed not to have any frightening axe tendencies and I liked their wedding photo on their page. After sending our request and anxiously awaiting a reply we were pleased when they accepted.

Soon thereafter we touched down in Seattle and found ourselves in a cab (with an old Indian driver dismayed at the high number of co-habiting couples in the States!) heading to our hosts’ home. It was about at this point that my anxiety, which had been building during the flight, reached fever pitch and without my ever-calm husband I am not sure I would have got there. When we arrived they didn’t hide and pretend not to live there anymore (one of my many irrational concerns) but welcomed us in and showed us to our room. And what a great experience – it was super to stay with people who lived in they city and they were so helpful with where to go and what to do, even taking some time to show us a few sights. It was also a great chance for us to really chat to Americans and understand what their lives are like. The best thing is we left hoping that they would come and stay with us one day so we could share our hometown with them.

Other than the couchsurfing, Seattle was rainy (as expected) and there were no Grey’s Anatomy sightings (also as expected, I guess). But boy were there a lot of Starbucks, being the home of this great coffee institution and we even popped into the first one ever – and are still wondering why they aren’t in SA? After four nights there it was time to fetch the car and start the road trip down the coast – with a tall coffee to go, of course!

Since being on this trip I find myself so appreciative of places that live up to ‘postcard’ expectations – and most do, generally exceeding all expectations. Fall in the Berkshires was just like the postcards and guidebook photos – a sea of red, orange, yellow, brown, gold and green foliage. Really different to autumn at home!

Guy and I spent almost a week there in a lovely timeshare resort where we brought the average age down by about 40 years! I am so impressed by the elderly in the States – they are totally with it. At the resort there was a computer room for guests that we would use for wireless. Each time we went octogenarians ordering medical supplies, emailing, viewing photos or checking stock performance in the Internet occupied the computers! And all that before a dip in the pool at 10pm (adult swimming hours)!

Being in a self-catering unit was the ideal, and very welcome, opportunity for me to shop at Whole Foods (i.e. a food lover’s supermarket heaven). And despite the hour and a half drive to get to the closest one, making it a day’s outing, it was well worth it. We also discovered the fun side of self-checkout – who knew how novel the act of checking out one’s own groceries could be! Asides from Whole Foods we visited two wonderful art museums in the area – the Norman Rockwell museum where we were introduced to his whimsical and charming illustrations and the wonerful Clark Art Institute where I was most pleased to see my mom’s favourite painting Sargent’s Smoke in the Amber Gris.

Our little road trip to the Berkshires also gave Guy a chance to get used to driving on the right/wrong side of the road – and I was so impressed (although that’s not to say there weren’t a few hair-raising moments). Besides being told by the tollbooth jockey to ‘turn that damn radio down’ it went smoothly, giving us confidence for the many miles that lay ahead of us down the west coast.

After a peaceful week in the country we headed back to Boston to catch a flight to Seattle – 6 hours and a 3 hour time difference just to cross this enormous country!