Venice Beach

Five Things we Learned on a Trip to the United States

We’ve just arrived home after a whirlwind visit to California, and, while we’re still suffering the effects of jet lag, we thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to jot down a few of the things we learned from our adventure. For eight glorious days, we got a taste of life in the United States. From Venice Beach to Monterey, San Francisco, Napa and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we covered a lot of ground and a couple of things really stood out.

1. It’s so much more diverse than we realised

Given Australia and the US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) are about the same size, we knew what we were getting ourselves into with long days and long distances, but we didn’t expect the landscape to change as quickly and dramatically as it did. Based on my previous experience in California, mostly in and around L.A., I thought I had a good idea of what the landscape was like. Nope. It was so much more diverse than I realised. We travelled from gritty urban sprawl through stunning mountain ranges, along picturesque stretches of coast on Highway 1, and into remote national parks where the people were outnumbered by the giant trees. By avoiding the major highways for most of the trip, we got to see what the raw, untouched Californian landscape was like – and it was made even better by our convertible hire car. With the roof of the car down, we were immersed in the landscapes that we explored – particularly among the towering redwoods of the Sequoia National Park.

Our convertible Camaro in the Sequoia National Park

2. The people are warm, friendly, and always willing to chat

Californians, you are wonderful humans, and we can’t thank you enough for welcoming us into your country with open arms. Everyone was friendly, chatty, and more than willing to share a little local knowledge to help us. It was easy to strike up a conversation wherever we went, especially once people heard our accents – ‘Oh, you’re from Australia!’ The hospitality industry puts Australia to shame too. I know it’s primarily due to the tipping system, but all of the servers really did go above and beyond to ensure we had a good experience. Out of everything, I think it’s the people we met along the way that we’ll remember most.

Walking along the beach in Venice

3. Food can be hit and miss, and the coffee is really bad

Quantity does not equal quality, and not every meal should contain cheese. We had some fantastic meals during our trip, particularly the fresh seafood in Monterey and slow-cooked barbeque in Napa, but for every good meal there were probably two average ones. We tried to be clever and choose restaurants based on Yelp/Google recommendations, but, even with that, they were still a bit hit and miss. Portion sizes also tended to be way too big, and we quickly learned that it was better to share the starters than to waste half the meal. With this said though, the meals we did enjoy were absolute knockouts and we’ll be seeking out similar restaurants next time we visit. One thing with no redeeming qualities, however, was the coffee – it was truly awful. I’ve never considered myself to be a coffee snob, but I think Australia’s coffee culture has ruined me for life. The bottomless, percolated drip coffee we encountered everywhere had us longing for a good, old-fashioned espresso or long black.

One dish, five types of cheese

4. Everything is so cheap

Exchange rate aside, everything from the clothes to meals and alcohol was so cheap! Once we got past the listed price being completely different to what we were actually going to be charged, it was easy to hunt out a great bargain. As an example, we picked up a 1.75L bottle of Absolut Vodka for just US$20. The equivalent would be around AUD$80-90 here in Oz. Granted, it did explode in our suitcase on the return flight and make us smell like a distillery as we walked through airport security, but it was still a bargain. We took an empty suitcase and filled it to the brim with clothes, plus more than a few bottles of amazing Napa wine.

Soaking up the vibe of San Francisco

5. Road rules seem to be more like guidelines

Hiring a car gave us the freedom to see and do whatever we wanted, and enjoy a taste of what it’s like driving on the other side of the road. Aside from a couple of quickly corrected mistakes in carparks, it was generally pretty smooth sailing. ‘Long left, short right’ was our mantra to keep on the correct side at intersections. One thing that stood out though was that many locals seemed to have no regard for speed limits or indicators, or know how to safely merge. Road rules? What road rules? Many cars had battle scars from this fluid driving style. If it was signposted at 55mph, people were often flying by at at least 65-70 mph. We were in no real hurry, so just did what was signposted and enjoyed the ride.

Honestly, we can’t wait to go back and experience some of the other states.  The majority of what we knew about America, we’d learned from the media. And while a lot of it was pretty accurate, there were still a lot of things that surprised us along the way. We covered a lot of distance on the trip, but barely scratched the surface of what California and the country had to offer. Once we’ve saved up enough annual leave, we’re going to make a return visit and spend a few weeks travelling around. We’ve already started working on the route map!

Written by
Chris Ashton

We're Chris Ashton and Simon Ceglinski, two Aussie travellers with a love of exploration and adventure, and the odd bit of luxury thrown in. We seek out street art, street food, and scuba diving wherever we go, and prefer the road less travelled over well-worn tourist paths.

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  • Try to visit Fern Canyon. It is a 5 mile hike from the visitor center at Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park. The canyon empties out to a quiet beach. You are likely to see elk as well. Just don’t be the idiot who tries to pet the elk.

    • Thanks for the Fern Canyon recommendation. It looks beautiful. We didn’t get that far north in California unfortunately, as we only had a week on this trip. Hopefully next time we’ll go for longer and be able to spend a couple of nights in each place. Definitely won’t be going anywhere near the elk!

  • Come visit us up here in the Washington DC area! It’s beautiful in the spring and fall, we have a great wine country in Virginia and a ton of history. It’s a really cool, eclectic, diverse area. Check it out:)

      • You can spend a long time on the east coast to see even half of everything. The New York to DC area even has some public transportation. PS: almost everywhere else has better coffee than the state’s, you have to go to cafes to get a decent cup.

        • Australia is the same. We often joke (though it’s actually true) that tourists have seen more of Australia than we have, mostly because they have the time and ability to just hop on the road and explore. The DC area is one of the places we’re really keen to visit. There are so many famous monuments like the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall that we’d like to see.

  • Chris and Simon,
    Unfortunately I don’t live in California or Arizona but I think Minneapolis Minnesota is just as nice. When you come back to the states I invite you to come to the Minneapple (forget the Big Apple)
    California is pretty but Minnesota is (BEAUTIFUL).
    I do not have a website I just read your Blog.??

    • Thanks for reading, Jinette. I love the name Minneapple! I don’t know much about Minnesota, but will be sure to delve a little deeper and check it out.

      • And if you need to scuba dive in Minnesota, head up to Duluth and you can dive in Lake Superior and see a lot of cool stuff. With our Land of 10,000 lakes, we have more shore then California Florida and Texas combined.

  • If you haven’t already, you have to make a trip to (western) Washington state! To the west of the Cascade mountains, you have beautiful old growth rain forests, lakes, meadows, oceans / beaches, and several snow capped mountain peaks. Seattle and Vancouver, BC, Canada are only about 2 hours from each other and they both have lots of unique culture to offer. Plus, Seattle is knows as the top spot for coffee in the country. One of the top seafood spots as well!

  • Check out Colorado. You can go from Denver which has a great food scene to the rocky mountains and down to the sand dunes in a week and a half. Catch a concert at red rocks ampitheatre whiled you are here. It’s an unforgettable experience.

  • Come to New Hampshire in the fall. We have the best foliage here. We also have awesome seafood and some of the best lobster rolls and clam chowder. I recommend the seacoast, take a ride up the coast up to Maine.

    • Just searched New Hampshire in the fall – looks beautiful! Driving among the coloured leaves was one of the things we loved most on the way back from Sequoia National Park. Will be sure to keep New Hampshire in mind.

  • If you come back stay the f**k out of Texas. We hate Yankees and we hate foreigners even more. Other than that cheers mate.

      • Meh. We aren’t all closed minded bigots in Texas with huge egos. Come visit Austin, Texas! It’s huge in the music scene and has some of these best festivals in the country. Avoid 6th street though. It’s a tourist trap full of drunkards. Must have street tacos and BBQ!

        • Glad to hear it, Ophelia. We never judge a place off just one person. We’ve heard so many great things about Austin, TX – particularly how good the food scene is! I remember seeing an episode of No Reservations that visited there, will have to rewatch it. Thanks for the 6th Street tip. We prefer to avoid tourist traps if we can.

  • Great article. I aspire to visit your gorgeous country someday 😉
    These comments need some East Coast love! I live in the artsy, amazing town of Asheville, NC. Come visit and experience Southern hospitality, excellent food, Appalachian landscape, and yes, bad coffee.

  • Come to Whitefish Montana. We are close to Glacier National Park, have mountains, lakes, forest, and plenty of hiking, biking, and backpacking trails.

  • Loved your observations of the region that was home for two decades. Through my military service, our civilian jobs and in to retirement we have been fortunate to have lived in the four corners of the states and traveled extensively over the entire nation. Beyond California the USA is far more diverse and hospitable than you can imagine as you have been hearing from others. You are generally correct about the food and coffee but the seasonal culinary treats one finds in the mid west when fresh produce sold in farmers markets and incorporated into the finer major city restaurant menus will delight the taste buds. However be prepared for a culinary waste land between California and the Mississippi where the catfish meals can be surperb. The trick is to “eat local”. The Spanish flavors of the South West, the East Coast seafood and the August sweet corn of Ohio are only a few of the seasonal treats that bring joy to the taste buds. As for coffee Starbucks and other pure coffee houses cater to coffee lovers. Some restaurants have decent coffee but they are few and far between. We also have a growing microbrewery industry that will surprise and delight. So, come back for a month or two and see what else this vast landscape has to offer in visual and culinary treats.

    • Thanks for reading, Len. Appreciate your insights. Couldn’t agree more about eating local and seasonal – that’s when you really experience what a region has to offer.

  • You clearly didn’t have any coffee in San Francisco! We are packed with amazing coffee shops…

      • Oh my best advice is to stay as far away from Starbucks as you can. At least here in (Eastern) Washington we stick to local stands…

        • Yeah we normally avoid places like Starbucks, but a few people we spoke to suggested it was our best option for a quick and decent coffee. It was also right next door to our hotel.

  • I came to Australia and had my first good coffee My favorite is a long black.
    I understand when you say our coffee is bad

  • You Seriously need to come to TN! The Great Smoky Mountains are beautiful and you can drive thru Cades Cove to marvel in the God’s handiwork, look for deer and possibly black bear. Hike a few rugged miles to a waterfall if you want. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge both have plenty to do, restaurants, shopping, ripleys aquarium and other ripleys attractions. Many go cart tracks. We live about 45 minutes from there and visit frequently.

  • Add my adopted state Georgia to your bucket list, and hopefully you can make it to my home state of Massachusetts, but keep in mind GA have a friendlier crowd compare to Massachusetts.

    • Consider it added. Not sure whether we’ll be able to get down to the southern states, Massachusetts is probably more likely. From all these comments, I think we’re going to need a few months at least!

  • You visited California, hardly a representative of the country as a whole. Take a trip to the Great Lakes region or Southeast.

    • Couldn’t agree more. We’ve only seen a very small portion of a very large country. Hopefully it won’t be long til we get to see more of it.

  • I live in western Canada but I’ve spent close to a year traveling in a self converted Van/Bus and my favorite states have to be Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. Oregon is beautiful minus the rain seasons. But you definitely need to experience the landscape and cultural/mentality differences of these states. Californians have a different view and perception than most other states. Not bad, just different. Variety; like the provinces of Canada range quite a bit.

    • Gotta say we’re a little envious, Todd. We would love to spend half a year travelling across the country! It sounds like you’ve got the right attitude for the trip too. Everyone and everywhere is different; experiencing/appreciating the differences is what makes travel worthwhile.

  • Come Back to California! I’ve live here for 55 years and never tire of it. Traveled to many other states and each has its beauty and can’t speak bad of them but nothing beats our great state politics aside. My wife teaches 4th grade which is the grade that studies state history, as such her and I have spent the last 30 years tranversing the state and never tire of it and always seem to find new treasures. Thanks for visiting.

  • Consider starting out in Seattle. Make your way through Olympic National Park and the Olympic peninsula. Drive down to Portland. More than any other city in the U.S., Portland is a coffee town. Visit the Oregon coast and the Willamette valley. Both Washington State and Oregon also have some fantastic wines, as well as many specialty beers. Continue south to Crater Lake National Park. One of the deepest lakes and the clearest waters in the world. Cross the boarder into California. Make your way to Yosemite National Park. You can visit San Francisco and again drive the length of Highway 1 back to Los Angeles.

    The best time to do this trip? Mid to late Spring or in Autumn. Try to avoid our Summer.


    • You’ve read our minds, Armando. We’re currently thinking of flying into Seattle and exploring Washington State and Oregon, then probably heading over towards the East Coast. There are so many options!

  • My wife & I fell in love with Sydney when we visited a couple of years ago. We hope to see more of your amazing country (& New Zealand) soon. I agree that your coffee is one of the best. Visit us in Kansas when you have the opportunity to do so.

  • Minnesota is very diverse itself. The North is just like visiting Scandinavia, but the heritage and cuisine is mostly Eastern Europe. You can get your long espresso here. We know how to make old fashioned coffee. The South is a little more diverse in culture and food. The state does not charge tax on food or clothing so when you look at the price tag on a t-shirt that is what you pay. The lakes and beaches are beautiful. Come in the Summer when it is your winter. You would love it.

  • Next time try Colorado, Utah, Nevada, …. . There’s so much more to see than California. We did a roadtrip in 2016 from almost 12000km. And we still haven’t seen it all. Greetings from Belgium

    • 12000km!! That’s an epic adventure! It’s impossible to see it all, but sounds like you gave it a good shot. Thanks for the recommendations.

  • Rent an RV and go from Washington, Glacier, Yellowstone! Montana, South Dakota, Great Lake area and end at Niagra Falls if you really want an adventure. Give yourself two months leave September 1st. Come back another year and do Colorado, Utah south to Arizona, East to New Mexico, Texas and end up in New Orleans.

  • Try Florida, but not in July or August. It’s too hot and humid here during these months. Visit us in April or May when its cooler. And stop at any Latin Cafe for better coffee, from an espresso, cuban coffee or cafe con leche.

  • I have always found that the people are friendly where ever we have travelled in the world (including Australia) but am pleased that you found our state friendly as well.
    As for the coffee, I’ve had Australian coffee. Give me good ole U.S. coffee any day. Lol.

  • You really should try Tennessee; middle and eastern portions of the state. Very nice people, great music and gorgeous scenery.

  • Come visit India there is colour,noise and spice every 500 km is a new country and cultural

  • You should try north idaho and west Montana in the summer time, you haven’t seen natural beauty like this before. May-July though before the fire season hits.

  • Colorado is definitely a really cool place with abandoned mining towns and a real “western” feel.

Written by Chris Ashton