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Hosteling in California, Costal
By: Michael Shapiro (justin) 2011.12.28



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What's the best way to get from San Francisco to L.A.?
By discovering every cool hostel along the Pacific coast.

 

As the sun sets in an orange-red blaze and the waves crash on the rocks 35 feet beneath us, my girlfriend and I sit in 100-degree waters in one of the most spectacular hot tubs on Earth. Perched on a finger of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles south of San Francisco, the tub is surrounded on three sides by surf, in the shadow of a 115-foot lighthouse that shines its beam over the water every few seconds.

So how much are we paying to spend a night on this spectacular stretch of California coast, where an ordinary motel room costs $100? If you guessed $200 or $300, try again. We're spending the night at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, paying $20 per person for a private room for the two of us (210 Pigeon Point Road, Pescadero, CA 94060, phone 650-879-0633).

As I soak, it becomes clear that hostels aren't just cheap sleeps ($12-$15 per person in most places, add another $5 per person for a private room for two; hostels in major cities cost a bit more), they're often some of the finest lodgings in the area. And they offer opportunities you can't find in motels, such as preparing dinners with new friends from across the globe. "No matter where you land, it feels like you just got home," says Terry Lee, a hostel guest from Orlando, Fla.

My hot tub epiphany comes midway through a whirlwind tour of official hostels (members of the Hostelling International/American Youth Hostels network) along the California coast. During the trip, my view of hostels that was formed while knocking around Europe during my college years is redefined. Most hostels today aren't ramshackle dorms where backpackers sleep in barracks with dozens of others.

Today's typical hostel room has four to six beds, and nearly all hostels have private rooms for couples and families. Those who don't opt for the private rooms typically stay with a few others of the same gender, and in the morning everyone is assigned a brief clean-up task, but it's not really a chore. It's part of the economical, community lifestyle of hostellers.

The San Francisco Bay Area
For some reason, it seems the majority of those exploring coastal Highway One begin in the Bay Area and travel south. This region offers a wealth of hosteling options, including the Marin Headlands hostel just north of San Francisco, where we began our trip. Just a few minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Headlands hostel (Fort Barry, Bldg. 941; Sausalito, CA 94965; 415-331-2777) is housed in whitewashed turn-of-the-century buildings that once housed those stationed at Fort Barry. Hostelling International took over the main building in 1971 and recently expanded the hostel to include a second house down the road, for a total of 100 beds.

Inside, like just about all the hostels we visited, the rooms were clean and the beds were spartan but comfortable enough. Private rooms with double beds for couples are available at slightly more than the standard rate of $14 per person per night. Nearby is Hawk Hill, where you can sometimes see dozens of the predatory birds waiting for the right wind conditions to shoot across the Golden Gate. From the hostel you can hike through Tennessee Valley to the Pacific Ocean, or drive (or bike) to Muir Woods and explore an old-growth redwood forest.

After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and spending some time sightseeing in San Francisco, we continued about 20 miles down Highway 1 to the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel (16th Street at Highway 1; Montara, CA 94037; 650-728-7177). Established before the turn of the century, the lighthouse is now automated (and thankfully silent) and guests stay in the nearby buildings, formerly Coast Guard staff quarters. The low-slung, single-story building we stayed in had immaculate rooms with stunning ocean views. And just like the Pescadero hostel, you can enjoy a sunset soak in a hot tub overlooking the ocean.

Continuing south, past Half Moon Bay's artichoke fields and beaches, is Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, with its famed statuesque lighthouse. Guests stay in one of four single-story buildings adjacent to the lighthouse, quarters once occupied by the Coast Guard. If you're there between December and April, you may spot migrating gray whales from your window and even if you don't, it's cool to simply watch the pounding waves. If you surf, ask the hostel staff for the best places to hit the water.

Pigeon Point opened in 1981 and has become enormously popular, it is sometimes booked weeks or months in advance. So if you can plan ahead it's a good idea to reserve your room at least a few weeks before hitting the road, especially for weekend nights. The hostel holds a few slots for the inevitable late arrivals, so sometimes it is possible to get in at the last minute.

Pigeon is just a few minutes from Ano Nuevo State Reserve, home to thousands of elephant seals, which lounge on the beaches there. About two miles inland is Duarte's Tavern (202 Stage Road, Pescadero, CA; 650-879-0464), famous for its hearty artichoke soup, fresh fish and strawberry-rhubarb pie. You can enjoy a filling meal of soup, fresh sourdough bread, and pie for under $10, or feast on the catch of the day for about $15.

Next it's on to Santa Cruz, with its boardwalk amusement park, home to the Giant Dipper, one of the country's few remaining wooden roller coasters. Another 30 miles south is Monterey, where the can't-miss attractions include Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, ranked among the world's finest, with its remarkable displays of jelly fish and a tidepool "touch tank."

The Central Coast
Continuing south through Big Sur, you'll enjoy sweeping views of the coast, but keep your eyes on the road because the drops are frighteningly precipitous. Below Big Sur, the coastal highway passes William Randolph Hearst's 144-room "castle" at San Simeon. From there it's just a short drive past the azure waters of Morro Bay and its Gibraltar-like Morro Rock to San Luis Obispo and the only HI-AYH hostel on the central coast.

Nestled in a residential neighborhood in this small college town, the hostel, a white house with green shutters could pass for an ordinary house, except for the big "Hostel Obispo" sign affixed over the doorway. Inside the homey, 20-bed hostel (1617 Santa Rosa St., phone 805 544-4678), guests recline on comfy sofas to read or flip through a photo album of "Amber's Southwest Vacation." Amber is the owner's golden retriever, and the album shows the pooch posed in front of sandstone arches and other southwestern landmarks.

We prepared a big pot of vegetarian curry soup and offered some to German travelers we'd just met. "Oooh, oh ho ho, this is spicy," said one, trying her best to extinguish the flames on her tongue. We learned that Germans aren't used to food this hot as they returned to their individually wrapped American cheese slices and bread, before making another tentative attempt at the soup so as not to offend us.

The hostel is a hub for outdoor lovers, about half from the U.S. and half from abroad. Don't miss Montana D'Oro State Park, with its windswept dunes and an achingly beautiful bay called Spooner's Cove. The sheer cliffs at the cove plummet 150 feet to the ocean, where sea otters often frolic on their backs in the gentle waves.

Southern California
After traveling another couple of hours down the coast, you'll reach Santa Barbara, famous for its Spanish mission, where you can enjoy a pleasant stroll along the pier near State Street. As you continue toward Los Angeles, you'll pass famous beaches at Malibu and Zuma Beach.

The Santa Monica hostel (1436 Second St., phone 310-393-9913) is within walking distance of dozens of ethnic restaurants, cafes, and cinemas showing independent films. Unlike many of the quaint rural hostels, Santa Monica, with 200 beds, was built in 1990 with the express purpose of being a hostel.

The city of Santa Monica, known for its progressive politics, wanted to ensure that budget travelers had a place to stay and helped secure the land. Occupancy is a staggering 96 percent, says manager Kevin Kuehn, with the hostel completely full about half the time. The hostel looks like a thoroughly modern college dorm, with an open-air courtyard in the center. Like many urban hostels, Santa Monica has a large proportion of international visitors, giving it a worldly flavor.

An information desk, staffed by volunteers four hours a day, has a board listing L.A.'s top attractions with directions for getting there via public transit. The hostel offers guided tours to the sprawling Getty Museum, for a total cost of 50 cents (to cover bus fare). And Santa Monica's famed Big Blue Bus (cost: 50 cents) gets people around town or to the carnival atmosphere of nearby Venice Beach.

If you want to get a taste of a more serene Los Angeles, try the Long Beach hostel, or continue south to San Clemente where you can enjoy a bountiful Thai lunch of chili-sautéed salmon and soup for $6 a plate at Mongkut Thai Restaurant (212 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, phone 949-492-3871).

In San Diego, we stayed at the Point Loma hostel (3790 Udall St., San Diego, 92107; phone 619-223-4778). Typical of many hostels, Point Loma is a rambling house in a residential neighborhood, offering a spacious common area where visitors converse, read or watch TV. For just $1, you can check your email at the iCom Internet kiosk in the common area. The bookshelf has become a book exchange, where you can leave books you've finished and take one you haven't read. You can play ping-pong out back or rent a mountain bike for $10 a day. Our room is simple but clean, furnished only with a bed and bookshelf and decorated solely by a sign saying "No Smoking." Because the hostel is near the airport, planes rattle the windows, but the air traffic stops around 10 or 11 p.m.

All told, the trip described here covered the coast in about a week, but if possible you should try to spend 10 days or more on this journey. There's so much to see and do and you'll probably want some hang time to play in the waves and enjoy some lazy days on the beach.


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