Since the weather can’t pick between summer and winter, we decided you shouldn’t have to either! So here’s a trip combining the best of summer and winter in the US of A, that our editors went on back in 2009. Let’s hit the road, shall we?
Words by Sam Haddad
California is where it all begun. Without that sunshine-soaked state there’d be no snowboarding or surfing as we know it.
America is back. Not that it ever truly went away, it’s just George Bush and his pals made it difficult for us to feel the transatlantic love for a while. But now, unless the forces of darkness have a strong late showing, the mighty Barack Obama is set to be the new leader. Alright! So we thought it high time we paid homage to the nation that gave us our beloved sports of snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding, not to most of the bands we currently love, from MGMT and the Cool Kids to Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver.
Thanks to the dollar still languishing in the doldrums, there is no better time to head there, and no better place than California. The nature is indecently beautiful, the people cool as fuck and where else can you plan a trip where you surf and snowboard in the same week, or even the same day if the tides and traffic work for you. And we mean killer waves and quality mountains, with almost-guaranteed snowfall! The best way to do it is to fly to LA or San Francisco and then take a good old-fashioned road trip, in the spirit of Thelma & Louise, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, though obviously with more emphasis on sobriety and legality. Most people head along the Pacific Coast Highway, which is stunning don’t get us wrong, but if you head inland you can hit the mountains of Mammoth and Tahoe as well as the key surf spots of Huntingdon Beach and Half Moon Bay at each end of your stay. We gave it 10 days last March, and it was without doubt the trip of a lifetime. Here are some of the highlights.
If you’re landing in the middle of the day local time, it will be the middle of the night back home, so have sunnies at the ready. We squinted like newborns when the wall of sunlight hit us, but luckily recovered our composure in time to admire the futuristic shapes of LAX airport as we took the free bus to collect our hired car. The roads were super-easy to navigate, and we made it to the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach in no time.
Now this place is lush. It has a stylish courtyard, cocktail bar, comfy giant beds and the top-end rooms even had in-room Jacuzzis with lights that changed colour. Imagine. But there was no time for any of that. We borrowed the hotel bikes and hit the Manhattan Beach cycle path, as part of our quest to cram as much stuff as possible into 10 days, combined with a strange but constant urge to experience the place through the eyes of jaded locals, rather than eager tourists. We passed beach houses of all shapes and sizes, from glass wonders to ugly kitsch things, and had fun peering in. We passed old and young joggers, school kids playing volleyball, and hot guys and girls surfing the quintessential LA piers. Then we hit Rock n Fish, where we got ID’ed (nice), and ate seafood portions the size of small countries.
Venice may have come a long way from the days of Dogtown and Z Boys, but it was also nothing like the muscle Mary/silicone-breast bun fight we’d expected.
Venice may have come a long way from the days of Dogtown and Z Boys, but it was also nothing like the muscle Mary/silicone-breast bun fight we’d expected. We watched some skaters and ballers, then hired cruiser bikes from one of the Camden Market-esque hippie stalls and burned down to Santa Monica to take in the wonderful fairground vista, just looking mind, it was way too hectic to venture in. We headed back to the streets behind Venice beach, such as Pacific Avenue, which are packed with wicked shops and cafes, such as Mollusk Surf Shop, a vintage clothes shop called Queen of Hearts, and a popular Vietnamese restaurant, Mao’s Kitchen. A few more streets back is Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which is also great for shops, such as the vintage surf store Surfing Cowboys, art galleries, such as Altered Space and good bars, such as The Brig.
We drove north to the legendary longboard beach Malibu, though sadly it wasn’t firing so we couldn’t surf, though we did get to see some sweet millionaires’ mansions nestled into the green hillside. Then, bearing in mind we had one day in LA, made a punter error of much gravitas. We hit Sunset Boulevard at 3pm, the start of rush hour and we shit you not, were still on it at 7pm, the end of rush hour. We spent sunset on Sunset, if you like. Sure we went through Beverly Hills and were probably in the same grid reference as some A-list celebs but we missed checking out Echo Park and West Hollywood, the cool, up and coming part of LA. The travel gods weren’t totally ignoring us though, as we chanced upon the Griffith Observatory at dusk and the view of the entire city lit up was beyond goosebump-inducing. We thought London was vast. As we walked to the car we even noticed the Hollywood sign skulking in the shadows, and we liked it that it wasn’t lit at night. It seemed poignant for some reason, as if even iconic landmarks need some time out.
Rather than blaming each other for Sunset Boulevard-gate we’d been frosty with the SatNav lady for not providing an alternative route, so we turned her off for the, albeit easy, journey south to Huntington Beach. The drive was fuelled by Vitamin Water and Hershey’s Chocolate bars and marked by eerie lit up oil refineries. We stayed at one of the only quintessential surf motels in the recently upwardly mobile Huntingdon beach, which had a good “running from the law feel to it”.
The next day we had a sweet morning surf, though steered clear of the pier, as the standard was intimidatingly high and we’d never surfed a pier before. The water was a nice temperature though and the waves had something for all levels. We refuelled with a giant breakfast at the amazingly-located Ruby’s Diner right on the end of the pier, and strolled back past benches inscribed with stuff like “Jack and Maude loved to watch sunsets here”. Ah.
Retro beach cruiser cars with straw roofs sat alongside shorty wetsuits from the 1950s, which probably never worked but looked good so who cares.
We lucked out to find a vintage surf expo going on in the car park. Retro beach cruiser cars with straw roofs sat alongside shorty wetsuits from the 1950s, which probably never worked but looked good so who cares. We saw shiny old wooden longboards, vintage surf film posters and the same brand of wobbly wooden skateboard from the 1970s that they ride in Dogtown and Z Boys. The skateboards were on sale for around 50 euros and we’re still gutted we didn’t purchase.
Huntingdon Beach is dubbed Surf City USA. Santa Cruz, just south of San Francisco, used to be called it too but a recent injunction gave Huntington the sole right to the trademark and the city’s development seems to have gone skyward ever since. There’s now a Hyatt, a fair few Japanese tourists and much credit card spanking to be had at giant surf stores such as Jack’s, 101 Main Street. There’s also a cute surf museum at 411 Olive Avenue, just off Main Street. We couldn’t help noticing the city had lost that ‘real’ surfer vibe so excellently portrayed in Kem Nunn’s novel Tapping the Source. But then it was written in 1984, and so violent and dark that we wouldn’t have wanted to hang out there anyway. This cleaned up version suited us just fine.
We took a drive down south on the Pacific Coast Highway to Newport and then hit the European-style Laguna Beach for Rose-drinking at sunset. Watching real life good-looking OC kids hanging out by the beach fire pits we wondered how they got by without drinking until they were 21. Then we gazed longingly at the fat clifftop pads overlooking the sea, and decided it was time to bag ourselves some plastic surgeon or rich mafioso husbands pronto.
The drive from LA to Mammoth is a pleasant one. Especially when there are no speed-police in the skies above so you can sit above the speed limit (though beware less lucky people get ticketed regularly on this route). It took five and a half hours and our eyes were treated to a range of different landscapes along the way from squishy green hills to baron, “sheep skull lying in the sand-style” deserts and then bright white mountain vistas. It’s definitely best to drive this puppy in the day, as aside from the eye candy, it’s a single lane carriageway, which can be dangerous at night with the LA kids speeding along it.
We arrived as US ski resort virgins, who’ve spent far too much time in the quaint but crowded French Alps, and first impressions of Mammoth were extremely high. There were huge conifers and nice-looking chalets everywhere, and styley hotels, restaurants and shops at the Village at Mammoth. We were staying at one such hotel, the Westin Monache, which was right by the gondola. The rooms were super-spacious, with great mountain views and beds from the gods. We had an altitude acclimatising dip in the outdoor swimming pool and hot tub (bear in mind the hotel is around 2500m, higher than many Euro ski lifts!) before sampling some of the insanely strong cocktails in the hotel bar, and getting all dizzy again. We ate at the Whitebark restaurant in the hotel, which does great high-end, though expensive, tucker.
We arrived as US ski resort virgins, who’ve spent far too much time in the quaint but crowded French Alps, and first impressions of Mammoth were extremely high.
Now Mammoth mountain, as the name suggests, is vast, and didn’t we know it as we gawped at the giant sun-drenched face from the gondola window on the way up the hill. Having snowed every single day in January and most of February, we were gutted to hear it hadn’t snowed for three weeks. But after one fast run on the soft corduroy-groomed slopes we realised the difference between not having snowed for three weeks in Europe, where all you get is tracked out crust and rocks showing, and having not snowed here, where it stays super-lush. Not that we wouldn’t have traded an arm to have had this steep, tree-peppered mountain on a powder day but it was nonetheless immense.
We bombed around doing chutes and steeps off the top, such as Cornice Bowl, Scotty’s, Huevos Grande and Beyond the Edge, most of which were double black diamond, a term we think means hard and fast. We mixed it up with some more mellow stuff, such as the nicely-named Haven’t the Foggiest and Back for More, plus some gentle tree runs at the edge of the bowl off the Cloud Nine Express chair. Sitting on that lift we also saw a baby grizzly bear scampering about, which was so cute we almost fell off, and a tree full of girls’ underwear and strings of beads, which is apparently something of a tradition in these parts.
After an amazingly non-European mountain lunch, as in cheap, with good service, and healthy options, from soup to salad wraps, we hit the Unbound Park area. We pussied out of most of the big stuff, leaving that for teenage rippers to fly off, but had some fun on the smaller hits and dropping into the super pipe, where, thanks to the steep as hell, sides, we managed to poke our noses out of the top a few times. People are amazingly friendly there, in a way we thought we’d find annoying but somehow didn’t. It’s at least 50 per cent snowboarders to skiers, and lifties smile and ask how you are, rather than simply dishing out a grunt, and they have tissues at lift stations, plus benches at the top of each lift, so you don’t have to get your arse wet when you’re putting your board on. The lifts are speedy too, though watch out for chair 23, it’s shit-renderingly high with no bar. Bizarre.
After an amazingly non-European mountain lunch, as in cheap, with good service, and healthy options, from soup to salad wraps, we hit the Unbound Park area.
Later we dragged our lactic acid-laden legs to Sushi Rei in the Village for good vibes and an awesome supper of, as the name suggest, sushi (have water on standby if you have the chilli-tastic Tuna Serrano). And then way too many beers at the Irish pub called Hennessy Tavern, a few doors down.
Tahoe to Mammoth was an easy two and a half hour jaunt in the car, with one of the most beautiful backdrops of ever. We stopped at the beautiful, other-worldly Mono Lake along the way and were later treated to a sunset, just before we hit the comedy casinos that clutter up the Nevada border. We arrived via some winding mountain roads in South Lake Tahoe after dark and checked into the Forest Suites Resort right by the Heavenly gondola. It also had a wedding chapel, which was weird. We fed up at Blue Dog pizza in the village centre, which left us leaving us well fuelled for the slopes the next day.
Tahoe has a host of different resorts within easy reach, so it makes sense to get a mixed pass and head to a fresh place each day.
Heavenly was the nearest (and largest) so we hit that on the first day, followed by Sierra and North Star. We took the super slick gondola up the hill from the village. The snow-caked scenery with lake backdrop was most beautiful, and though some rude bad luck meant that we were also there during the only patch of the season without much fresh snow, we heard from a friend who’d been there the month before that a powder day at this place is epic. And we could see why, as the abundance and variety of runs, parks and pipes was insane. On this bluebird day there was much fun to be had jibbing, or at least trying to, from Groove park with its nice small jumps and boxes to the border cross/powderbowl park, laden with cool berms, steps ups, table tops and basic rails. There was also the high roller park, with its giant super pipe, massive jumps and kinky rails, where we were happy to watch the local talent ripping it from the sanctuary of the sidelines. There were some awesome but tough tree runs on the Nevada side too, such as Mott Canyon and the Milky Way bowl.
The super-friendly locals in the board hire shops were good tipsters for the best places to spend an evening, so on their advice we went to the very cheesey but very amusing Cabo Wabo bar, where a covers band played with a lead singer that looked like a Dad with a mullet.
We spent a rad day at Sierra, home of legends including Hannah Teter and Jamie Anderson, and had fun charging the black diamonds such as Castles and Easterpoint and bombing around the boardercross park. The back bowls of Sierra are well renowned on powder days, and one of them, Huckleberry Creek, is expected to get its own lift this season. We also had a wicked day at the super-modern North Star, which wasn’t as steep as the other resorts but was home to Burton’s natural terrain park The Stash, where much fun was had hucking off logs and feeling deep in the forest.
Half Moon Bay
Our legs were akin to wobbly jelly as we drove towards to the coast and the wonders of Half Moon Bay, for the last stop on our California road trip adventure. It took a speedy four hours and deserves special mention for being such a beautiful surf spot, and because neither of us had ever experienced such cold water in our lives, in spite of wearing 4/3 winter wetsuits and having hardened bodies accustomed to spring surfing in Cornwall. Each wipeout gave us with ice cream heads, and left us feeling as if our lungs were being attacked by spears, as we plunged into the dark waters beneath. It didn’t help that we were a stone’s throw from Mavericks and all too familiar with the film Riding Giants, and the dangers of the cold dark waters. Though, as our instructor rightly pointed out, crossing the road to get to the spot we were surfing at was way more dangerous than the surfing itself. The paddle out was mildly tough but the waves were lovely, and we finished the session with sparkling eyes and glowing faces, feeling strangely liberated for encountering such cold.
So there you have it, one helluva road trip as our new American best friends might say, with asthma-inducing scenery and stacks of amazing snowboarding and surfing along the way.
You most likely want to head there immediately, but best wait for the start of the snow season in November eh. Or to make the most of snowboarding and surfing at the same time, late February/March is best as the water in Huntington Beach will be warmer then.
Virgin Holidays LA to San Francisco Flydrive Seven nights flydrive from 793 euros per adult, includes car hire and basic vehicle insurance for the full duration and return international flights with Virgin Atlantic, from London Heathrow to Los Angeles and back from San Francisco. Prices include fuel surcharges and tax, which are subject to change, prices are based on two adults travelling from 11 Nov-18 Nov 08. Travel from Jan-Mar 09 starts at 727 euros. To book visit virginholidays.com