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California scheming – Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour

Without Google Maps we’d be stuffed.

We use it everywhere. In California, Google Maps was a godsend. Los Angeles sprawls for 503 sq miles across a huge coastal basin.

Can you imagine landing there after an overnight flight, getting your rental car and using a paper map to find your accommodation?

I know, crazy huh?

‘Stop the car!’ I barked at Fraser as he pulled away from the airport parking lot. ‘I’m not going anywhere until I’ve got wifi for Google Maps!’

I fiddled with my old UK SIM card, accepting it would cost £5 to get connected as we hadn’t got US SIMs in the airport.

With relief, the map filled with detail and I tapped in the address of our accommodation – a recreational vehicle parked in the backyard of a North Hollywood home. (I still missed Jeff from New Zealand.)

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
In my defense, I will claim that it’s really hard to read the screen and read the roads at the same time!

From then on, whenever we went anywhere in the car, I gave directions via Google Maps whilst wishing I could gaze, uselessly, out of the window. Oh, the tutting and withholding of breath that Fraser and I did as we navigated our way around the Golden State of California.

Google Maps is also great on public transport to check stops and as a deterrent to being scammed whilst using metered taxis.

It’s useful for finding restaurants and accommodation too.

All you do is center on your chosen area and type in what you’re looking for. Google Maps will return a list, plus a map with the places marked.

You can even ‘Search this area’ and it’ll give categories to choose from… breakfast restaurants, good for families, dinner, lunch, where the locals go, cocktails (never used that one) and more.

In the USA, where competition is hot, every establishment is reviewed. Most have photos uploaded by customers.

We chose our motels according to price and how well they’d been reviewed. We did the same with diners, ignoring the ones that had more than one ‘$’.

Our favourite motel chain was Motel6 which was reasonably priced and always clean. My least favourite was a family-run motel room in San Luis Opisbo where the carpet was grey with dirt, the bed covers were so acrylic they could’ve generated enough electricity to run a lightbulb and the bath had lost its enamel.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Our Motel6 room in Monterey. Nothing special, but perfectly adequate

And though we were always on the lookout for cheap diners, we were never brave enough to embrace chain places like Denny’s or Taco Bell.

Our favourite diners were:

The Horseless Carriage in Los Angeles.

Way WAY beyond tourist town, this place had a cheap kids menu ($4 each), was busy with locals and sported tidy leather booths and loads of chrome because it was America’s first full-service, Ford car in-dealership restaurant.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
The Horseless Carriage diner in Los Angeles. Takes half an hour to read the menu – the options are endless!

Fresh Awakenings in Salinas. 

The streets of Salinas were dead at 10.30am on a Sunday morning. Google Maps showed just one, brilliantly reviewed, ‘breakfast restaurant’. This was a true American diner – a well-oiled machine delivering everything you could ever want and pleasing every single customer with personable service.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
First Awakenings in Salinas, California, a stop we made on our Highway 1 detour

Grandma’s Kitchen in Monterey.

Pale blue and stuffed with owlophenia, the boys ordered themselves hamburgers whilst Fraser and I marvelled at how much Grandma resembled Grandma (Fraser’s mum)! I wanted to hug her.


It’s only when you zoom in on Google Maps that these smaller, local places show up. You need to search around and press on every plate icon to get the reviews.

You might think I’m teaching you to suck eggs, but I do now consider myself to be a bit of a Google Maps master after months of relying on it for just about everything.

Kids want to know exactly how far it is to the cafe and exactly how long it will take? Google Maps’ walking option will tell you. It will even tell you which bus is best, or which train, even combinations of public transport, the exact stops, platforms and walking times between them.

I even have glamourous lists on Google Maps of various accommodation addresses from around the world (very handy for quickly finding your way back home) and I’ve used other people’s Google Maps overlays to look at parkrun courses and find secret alleyways and swimming pools in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Pipped at the post

At times, I’ve been compelled to leave my own reviews on Google Maps, like the inspiring laundromat we used in LA. It was called Happy Bubbles and it literally sparkled. Turns out I wasn’t the only one to be moved by a laundromat and someone had already beat me at leaving a long, romantic review.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Happy Bubbles Laundromat! The stuff of dreams and beginnings of books

If I ever open a laundromat in Bristol, it’ll be just like Happy Bubbles but with a jukebox, free coffee, pinball machines, an old-fashioned typewriter ready with ink and paper, acoustic open-mic every Monday night, stacks of books, magazines and local notices, free sweets, wifi, a loo AND it’ll be attached to my world cuisine cafe next door serving authentic Sri Lankan curry, Indian masala dosas, Mexican hot chocolate, Indonesian nasi goreng…

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
The boys went bananas over a pinball machine in a laundromat in Monterey
Oh. I’ve gone a bit off track. Let’s get back to Google Maps

Use Google Maps in traffic mode and it’ll show you the accident hot spots. I think it may even work out routes in real time to avoid traffic congestion.

Had it not been for a combination of this feature and me searching for a motel north of Santa Barbara, I would never have clocked that our chosen route up to San Francisco via the scenic coastal road of Highway 1 was closed.

Heavy winter storms had caused rock slides and a bridge had to be demolished. Big ‘no entry’ signs and angry red dashes lined the route on Google Maps.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Live traffic view of the Highway 1 road closure in California (6 April 2017)

On a normal holiday, we may have been sorely disappointed. But with this much time and this much travel to do, we just shrugged and detoured via Highway 101 through the never-ending vineyards and massive fields that gave us a better understanding of the huge contribution that California makes to the rest of the States.

It was a pleasure to be pushed off track and one of the few times I could gaze, uselessly, out of the window.

We managed to do some of Highway 1 when we backtracked from Monterey to Big Sur Station. It was beautiful, but I felt glad not to have stayed in any of the few touristy motels along the way.

We made some good calls in California, like staying on the outskirts of expensive towns like Santa Barbara, stopping in San Luis Opisbo and spending more time in Monterey and Santa Cruz.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Amongst the towering redwood trees north west of Santa Cruz

The boys will say that Universal Studios was sick (I totally loved it too). They also liked Monterey Bay Aquarium and Alcatraz in San Francisco. But my highlights were watching the boys learn to skateboard, being observed by a sea lion whilst having lunch on a Pacific Grove beach and laughing ‘til I cried over a conversation-starter game with Thomas.

California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Robert has read every Harry Potter book several times. Here he clutches his wand at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios
California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
The Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Look carefully and you’ll see Thomas and Fraser
California scheming - Google Maps + the Highway 1 detour by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Learning to skateboard in Santa Cruz

We also enjoyed Robert having fewer freak outs, I think in response to Thomas being disciplined after some poor behaviour (imagine snide backchatting, bugging me to the point of tears and punching Fraser in the nose).

No matter how straightforward a route may seem…

There’s always something that can throw you off course. But grinding to a halt is a chance to stay still, taking a wrong turn can test our sense of direction and abiding to a detour can reveal hidden treasures.

Thank you, Google Maps, for holding my hand. And thank you Fraser for doing all that driving and for not (always) being annoyed at me when I called left when it should’ve been right.

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1 comment

Well Ruth, I know I freaked at the thought of you going away for a whole year, but, we’re full of admiration for the two of you and how you’ve managed the way you have. It takes guts to do what you’ve done and the boys have learned so much while away. Afraid I’ve got to say it though…………….roll on the next few months – we miss you. Great blog (again). xx

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