California dreamin’ – culinary delight?
My other half, Tom, and I, both 60+, took a trip 'California and the Golden West' between May and June this year. We had 16 days in total with Titan Travel, who seem to specialise in tours that mostly older people go on (our group of 42 had only 2 people under 60 in it).
We had hoped that the reputation of California for good vegetarian food would make up in some way for the large number of miles we had to cover.
Our first day was quite positive, though we had difficulties with the veggie catering on the long leg to LA, despite booking in advance online. The cabin staff were helpful, though, and managed to resolve the issues. We were impressed that one of the three choices on their main meal menu is always vegetarian/vegan.
The hotel in San Diego, Sheraton, was comfortable, with tea and coffee-making facilities in the room. The restaurant served good, though pricey, breakfasts and we were pleased to see spaghetti Bolognese with vegan meatballs on the evening menu. Tom thought it was really tasty, if somewhat over generous in quantity.
The next day we explored San Diego and we walked back to our hotel via 'Little Italy', so plenty of pasta and pizza. We also found a brewery serving food and Tom had an excellent veggie burrito.
We moved on to Scottdale, after a long and tiring day on the coach with only a 'fast food stop' for lunch. Only Pizza Hut had anything vegetarian. Most fast food places in Arizona seem to have lots of meat and not much else except vegetarian burritos/enchiladas.
Because the hotel was located near the town we could go out to eat. We found a karaoke bar that served an amazing pasta primavera and a tasty vegetarian burger. Again the quantities defeated us, so we went on to share more food. Nearly all meals in the places we visited were served with fresh fruit on the side – lots of delicious melon, which was really pleasant.
We moved on from there to the Grand Canyon for our 45 minute helicopter flight over the Canyon. This was amazing and truly the high spot of the holiday.
The hotel that night had put on a special menu for the Titan guests. Unfortunately the vegetarian offering was salad to start and salad for the main course, so they do need to go back to school. We found a diner down the road that did soya burgers. Cheap and cheerful but not high cuisine!
Then on to Vegas where we found a fast food place on the strip that did excellent enchiladas. We also had a gorgeous meal at the Cheesecake Factory in Caesars Palace. I think there would have been quite a bit of choice at the various casinos but we were only there for a day so had no time to explore them.
We found the service at nearly all the eateries we visited to be second to none, much more polite and helpful than many UK staff – one area we could definitely learn from in the UK
Staff were also always willing to amend a dish to leave out the meat or fish – unlike in the UK where you often get the answer that the menu can't be varied!
We managed to acquire tickets for Cirque de Soleil's Love Show at Halfprice Tix. They were not quite half price, but 40% off, which was still pretty good, and we got front row seats. The show was unbelievably good, positively breathtaking and the best show I have ever seen. Wonderful music, dancing and amazing acrobatics.
The next day we were transferring between Vegas and our next stop, Visalia. Lunch break was at a pretty boring designer outlet with again very limited catering – Mexican or pizza.
The Hotel (Marriott) was nice in a lovely green setting but limited choice for us on the menu. So again we went out and I had a delicious broccoli soup at a brewery in the town. Tom had another veggie burger. He enjoyed the various veggie burgers he had because no two were the same.
After that we moved on to Modesto. I can't remember what we ate there so it can't have been impressive! Then at last to San Francisco – the culinary highlight and lowlight of our trip!
Lunch was just a sandwich, but on decent ciabatta bread and lovely fresh filling from a bakery. In general we found American bread to be dry and sweet.
In the evening we went on an optional excursion with a group meal and then a trip over the Oakland bridge to look back at the lights of San Francisco. This was a big mistake.
The tour manager had assured us that she would organise a veggie meal for us. Because it was an Italian restaurant we thought it would be safe. The restaurant (Swiss Louis on Pier 39 – avoid at all costs) offered us spaghetti with just tomato sauce. When we said that was not really good enough they offered to throw in some vegetables! This turned out to be a few undercooked strips of courgette and carrot. It was a pretty dire meal and we would have been happier if they had just given us pizza! The starter was a few leaves of lettuce and a quarter tomato with a dressing and the dessert a really poor tiramisu. I would not recommend this establishment.
Our tour manager was not helpful. She said: "What do you expect? I have not fought my way up the food chain to eat vegetables". Hardly supportive or helpful, and most unprofessional I felt.
"What do you expect? I have not fought my way up the food chain to eat vegetables."
The next day however was a free day and we walked down to Pier One. We found excellent food and very interesting shops full of various almond concoctions, lots of tofu dishes and a wholefood store. No shortage of good food there.
We got a streetcar back to Fishermans Wharf then walked over to Fort Mason where we had a great meal at Greens, the only vegetarian restaurant we managed to find on our trip, thanks to helpful advice from the hotel. I had a really pleasant stir-fry and Tom had an interesting kebab-style dish. Both contained tofu and heritage vegetables and were really delicious. On hearing of our previous problems our waitress brought us a complimentary glass of wine to cheer us up!
The next day was another long driving day, but more interesting this time. We drove 2 hours through nice scenery, even seeing the occasional wild deer, to Monteray – a lovely coastal resort which we were allowed just 45 minutes to explore.
We stopped at a beach to see the sea lions nearby and the little ground squirrels came begging for food. Afterwards had a lunch break at the delightful Carmel, another arty town, which had a nice food and crafts market on that day. We had a lovely lunch in the French restaurant. I had the best homemade quiche and salad ever and Tom had a soup with an interesting sandwich, all really fresh and tasty.
We stopped off at Seal Beach to see a large colony of elephant seals – totally disinterested in us tourists.
We arrived at the Cambria Pines that evening. This was one of the nicest places to stay because they had fantastic gardens. They grew their own fruit and veg, had an interesting menu, and an excellent and inexpensive breakfast buffet including apple muffins.
Finally we moved on to Anaheim, LA for our final stop.
We paused en route for 1.5 hours at the delightful historic Danish town of Solvang, all wooden buildings and a windmill. The shops and cafes were lovely – no fast food here and the prices very reasonable.
We moved on to Santa Barbara for a lunch stop (good meal at an Italian restaurant) then a walk along the pier. I saw a dolphin swimming and lots of herons and pelicans were close at hand.
The Sheraton Castle, our final hotel for 3 nights, was very roomy and comfortable. There was a good free shuttle service to Disney from the hotel so we went in to explore and were favourably impressed. Downtown Disney had lots of eateries (including Italian, Mexican, bakery, New Orleans style and others) and also free entertainment. There was a lovely atmosphere so we enjoyed our evening and went back the following night.
The next day was an included all-day tour of LA. It took us to the older part of LA established by the Spanish (circa 1818). We went on to a Farmers Market for lunch. It was not like a UK Farmers Market but more like our permanent markets – though with a much wider range of places selling meals.
Just about any cuisine under the sun could be bought here: Korean, Brazilian, Spanish, Chinese – anything really! The food was freshly cooked, good and well priced. I had a tasty aubergine dish where the aubergine was breaded before being put into tomato sauce. Delicious. Tom had a pesto pasta and I was tempted by the savoury and sweet pancakes. The market was overflowing with fruit and veg but also some gift stores, sweets, gluten-free items, homemade ice cream (yum!) and lots of other stuff.
On our last free day and our last full day in the USA we went to the original Disneyland because I would never have the chance again.
It was great fun there because the architecture and vehicles are all gorgeous. We were very surprised by the cleanliness and the quality of the food offered – all at a good price. I had an excellent broccoli quiche with salad, which I could not get at a UK theme park. There were loads of free shows but we never got to any of them because of the size of the site. You really need a 3-day pass to make the best of it all.
And finally off home again. Travel really makes you appreciate how lucky we are in the UK with our wonderful scenery and history, as well as generally good food. No veggie sausages or bacon were to be found on our sojourn in the USA, which surprised me very much. Perhaps if we had more free time I could have found more adventurous food, but time was pretty scarce. I am sure it is on most tours.