CALIFORNIA

If you want to feel like the king of the road, there is little to beat tooling down the Pacific Coast Highway -- US 1 -- on a Harley-Davidson. The scenery is stunning; almost everyone speaks English, or something very like it; gas (petrol) is absurdly cheap by European standards; accommodation is mostly very affordable; and you can eat very well indeed, at absurdly modest prices provided you avoid the more relentlessly fashionable and up-to-the-minute places. And if you've time for more than Highway 1, there's the Gold Country (as in the 'Miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine') or Yosemite National Park or Big Trees or the high desert or San Francisco or Hollywood or...

But things are not always as they seem to the outsider. The first thing you have to realize is that the US state of California is by rights two states, quite apart from the Mexican state of Baja (lower) California, where Karl has a house.

Northern California is part of the quasi-nation of 'Ecotopia' that also embraces Washington state and most of Oregon. This is where you find micro-breweries, Gay Rights, eco-warriors and the like.

Southern California, on the other hand, is the conspicuous consumption capital of the world. The Japanese try hard, but they haven't got the space that Southern Californians enjoy to store all their possessions. Insofar as it is anything other than itself, Southern California is a part of Mexamerica, along with Nuevo Mexico, Arizona and Tejas.

Officially, the state capital is Sacramento, in the north, but this is a technicality: it's where the legislature happens to meet. The true capital of Southern California is Los Angeles, and as you go north, the last city of the South (the cruel call it the last suburb of Los Angeles) is Santa Barbara. The capital of Northern California is San Francisco, or possibly Berkeley; the southernmost city of the North is San Luis Obispo. In between there's a huge no-man's-land of more than 100 miles. La Hermosa Ciudad de Guadalupe, which is where we used to live, is right in the no-man's land on the Central Coast.

Second, the general attitude towards motorcyclists is somewhere between fear and loathing. California, remember, is where the Hell's Angels were born. At worst, motorcyclists are actively targeted. I was overtaking an 18-wheeler once, on the Pacific Coast Highway -- and yes, I was riding a Harley, a full-dress Tour Glide Evo with Frances on the back -- and as I drew level with the cab, the driver screamed "Motherf**er" and swung the wheel hard left. He was trying to kill me.

Fortunately, even a full-dress Tour Glide is a bit nimbler than an 18-wheeler, so I managed to get out of his way; but I shall never forget that. I wouldn't pretend it is an everyday incident. If it had been, I shouldn't have continued to ride for the five years I lived there. But it was not entirely atypical: many Californian riders can tell similar stories.

Third, the climate isn't always as ideal as you might think. When I used to go down to Santa Barbara from Guadalupe, I might set out in a temperature of maybe 75 degrees F, 24 degrees C; ride through the Santa Ynez valley half an hour later, in temperatures pushing 90 degrees F, 32 degrees C; and then go through the pass at Point Concepcion, where the proximity of the Pacific brought the temperature down as low as 68 degrees F, 20 degrees C.

These are not enormous variations in temperature -- except when they follow one another quickly. It's impossible to dress for all of them: I'd take off my jacket, and put it on again, all in an hour and a half's ride. If you want greater extremes, for a significant part of the year it is entirely possible to go swimming in the morning down by the coast (preferably in a pool, because the Humboldt Current means that the Pacific is pretty chilly all year around) and skiing in the afternoon in the mountains.

There are numerous excellent web-sites, as you might expect from the home of Silicon Valley. What is perhaps less expected is that many of the best are official government sites. For the state tourist site use http://gocalif.ca.gov/state/tourism/tour_homepage.jsp. This not only has many useful links: you can also download PDF maps and details of road conditions including live traffic webcams. Then there is a Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) site, www.caltrans.ca.gov and a California Highway Patrol site, www.chp.ca.gov. You might also care to look at www.calhtsa.org and www.dot.ca.gov.

For maps, the 'Bible' for the whole of California is the Thomas Guide, which is not so much a map as a state-wide street atlas. You can find pretty much anything in Thomas's, provided it was there when the atlas was published. Older Thomas's maps may omit whole neighbourhoods that have sprung up since the book was printed. It's not much use on topography, either.

For proper detailed topography, buy USGS (United States Geological Survey) maps, but don't necessarily expect them to be terribly up-to-date on streets and the like. Once, when I complained about this to a young woman at the USGS, she replied haughtily, "We're a geological survey, not street-mappers. USGS maps are expensive and hard to find.

The CHP (California Highway Patrol) and California tourist offices both give away very good though not very detailed state maps. I have always found Rand McNally maps to be rather poor, despite their well-known name.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

The low esteem in which motorcycles and motorcyclists are held has already been mentioned, but if you ride yourself, you are unlikely to get any grief from even the hairiest, meanest-looking hard-case biker (American for 'motorcyclist'), except perhaps in two situations. One is if you start pretending to be a Hell's Angel with colors you aren't entitled to -- most Angels, not too unreasonably, regard this as warranting a good kicking -- and the other is if they decide you're not really a biker at all but just a poseur. But if you're serious about riding, they can be incredibly helpful (or they may just ignore you completely, especially if you aren't on a Harley).

In all fairness, there are some staggeringly incompetent motorists and motorcyclists on California's roads. According to one CHP man I spoke to, anything up to half of the motorcyclists may be riding without licenses. Even if they have got a license, the test is hardly demanding, and in the past, it was even easier. When I took it in 1987, it consisted of a low-speed ride through some cones, plus a theory test. When Frances took it in 1984, it was even less demanding.

Whether they have licenses or not, about half also ride without insurance. Incredibly, riding or driving without insurance isn't an offence (sorry, offense) unless you have an accident where you should have been insured. As a result, a lot of people don't actually bother, and a normal (and expensive) extra on Californian insurance is 'uninsured motorist' coverage, in case you have an accident with someone who isn't insured. If you do insure yourself, rates can easily be two or three times as high as in Europe.

To show how bad this can be, Frances was once stationary at a traffic light (in a car, fortunately) when she was hit by not one, but two uninsured motorists, both trying to beat the light from different directions. The insurers tried to welch on the deal, but as soon as she threatened to put the matter in the hands of her attorney, they decided that maybe the 'irregularity' wasn't that big after all. This sort of ducking and weaving by insurers is regarded as normal in California. Helmets have been compulsory for all ages since 1992, but there are recurring moves to make them compulsory only if you are under 21. You are not required to carry a first aid kit, nor spare bulbs. Nor are daylight riding lights compulsory. Unexpectedly, modulated headlights (that vary in intensity as you drive along) are legal, and federal law forbids any state to ban them.

On the other hand, earplugs are iffy. They are specifically banned by the vehicle code except for 'custom earplugs or molds designed to attenuate injurious noise levels' and they must not impair your ability to hear a siren or horn. I suspect that 'custom' would generally be interpreted pretty leniently, especially by the California Highway Patrol.

ROADS AND RIDING

Most roads in California are pretty good, though some of the back streets and country roads are rather chunky. Allegedly, California has more sub-standard roads than any other state, though to a considerable extent, this may be because they just have more roads than most other states. Certainly, by comparison with the roads in (say) Malta or much of Greece, Californian roads are like billiard-tables.

Some of the freeways are extremely crowded, though, especially around Los Angeles and San Francisco -- and they are free freeways, without tolls, though there are some bridge tolls. Some toll roads have sprung up in recent years, but they are normally fairly short sections which bypass sections of freeway with a history of traffic congestion. In Los Angeles more and more people use the 'surface streets' (Angeleno for 'not freeways') because they are quicker.

Some of the older freeways have rain grooves -- a lethal form of drainage in which the grooves run parallel with the direction of travel. This can make the handling of a single-track vehicle very interesting, the more so as car and truck drivers do not slow down one iota (nor do they need to). Once you get used to the feeling, there's no problem, but it can be quite disconcerting at first.

A few freeways have lanes that are reserved for buses, cars with two or more people (rarely, three or more -- it is always posted), alternative fuel vehicles (!) and motorcycles. Single-occupant cars risk significant fines if they are caught driving in these lanes. Good!

Other priority rules are mostly just priority to the right, except when otherwise marked. Emergency vehicles always have priority. So, unexpectedly, do blind pedestrians. Look out for four-way stops, where everyone stops at a crossroads and then moves off in the order in which they stopped. On the bright side, you can turn right at a junction even if the light is red, as long as it is safe to do so.

Speed limits are all over the place. Since the general abolition of the hated and widely ignored 'double nickel' limit of 55 mph (a whisker under 90 km/h) I have seen maximum speeds of 50, 55, 60, 65 and 70 mph. That's 80, 89, 98, 105, and 113 km/h.

In built up areas, the limits is usually 25 mph (40 km/h), but sometimes they are 20, 30, 35, 40 or 45: that's 32, 48, 56, 65 or 73 km/h. In the vicinity of schools, there is always a speed limit of 25mph (40 km/h, whether posted or not) but 15mph (24 km/h)is commonly posted. This lower limit may be all day, every day, or only when flashing lights operate: hence the wonderful American road sign, "School --- 15 mph while flashing." I always wondered if it was to ensure that the children got a good look. There is also a speed limit of 15 (24 km/h) mph when you are within 100 feet of a railroad track and cannot see the tracks for 400 feet in both directions, though this limit does not apply if the crossing is controlled by gates, a warning signal or a flagman. Should you wish to try your hand at lurking in alleys, the speed limit in these is always 15 mph (24 km/h -- I kid you not).

Sometimes, there are even different speed limits for different lanes of traffic!

Fortunately, this ridiculous proliferation of speed limits -- quite possibly, even worse than France -- is normally well signposted. They are normally reasonably closely observed, too, except on the open road where (as in every other country) traffic tends to find its own natural speed.

Going very fast on the open road is extremely likely to get you nicked. Years ago I was pinched for speeds 'in excess of 90 mph' (145 km/h) on the 101 just north of Point Concepcion. The policeman was badly scared: the poor fellow had been chasing me in a Chevy Caprice, which is in trouble at 100 km/h (62 mph), never mind 100 mph (160 km/h). He wanted to have me for over 100 mph, an arrestable and imprisonable offence. Fortunately, there was no way he could prove how fast I was going. It was certainly in excess of 90 mph.

That was a sheriff's officer, though. Another friend was nicked by the CHP. The CHP man said, "Do you know how fast you were going?" (my answer in the situation above was 'Quite fast') and Steve replied, "No." The CHP man then said, "OK, do you want me to book you for reckless driving, or for speeding? Because if you don't know how fast you were going, I'd say that was reckless, wouldn't you?" At this point Steve remembered that he was doing nearly 90 mph, or a bit over 140 km/h.

Otherwise, ten per cent over the limit is a normal sort of driving speed -- but they will nick you for that if they catch you. Even 5 per cent is dangerous if they catch you, though there are far fewer speed traps in California than in most of Europe so you usually have to get someone's attention by doing something other than going slightly over the speed limit.

Overtaking on the inside (on the right) is regarded as normal on freeways. You are less likely to get a ticket for that than for pulling out, overtaking, and pulling back in: lane-changing attracts the attention of the police more than overtaking on the wrong side.

Otherwise, overtaking is normally governed by a mixture of signs and common sense -- don't overtake on railroad crossings, for example -- but I lived in California for five years without ever realizing is that if there is a double yellow line in the middle of the road, you may not overtake even if in doing so you do not cross the line. I used to overtake regularly where there were double lines, assuming that (as in most of the world) as long as I didn't cross the lines, it was legal. And I was never caught.

Frances apparently thought I was just ignoring the law. Then, a couple of years after we left, we were back in the state and she was nicked for overtaking a slow-moving farm vehicle that had pulled over to the hard shoulder to let her past. That was how I found out! She produced her UK licence and said as little as possible: he took her for English, gave her a lecture, and let her go.

Lane splitting is legal provided it is done in a safe and prudent manner, according to the CHP.

Motorcycle parking is as tightly regulated as automobile parking: sometimes, there are even tiny parking bays with individual parking meters for motorcycles. The good news is that there is so much parking space that this is rarely a problem. Watch out very carefully for parking spaces which are legal most of the time, but illegal at certain times of day (during the rush hours, or for garbage collection) or even certain times of the week (for street sweeping). I have been caught twice on this -- and they're bastards: there's not even 5 minutes' grace. If it becomes illegal at (say) three o'clock, they'll be standing there with their ticket-book and they'll nick you at 15:01. But they won't warn you that you can't park there, if you don't know.

You're not allowed to park on the sidewalk, and unexpectedly, you're not allowed to park in front of your own driveway (or that of anyone you're staying with). And you must always park in the direction of the traffic. This means getting on and off your motorcycle on the wrong side, in the middle of the road. See? The British really DO drive on the proper side of the road! (As they do in Cyprus, India, Japan, Malta, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. It's the French who got it wrong, and the Americans followed. Except (I am told) in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and they cravenly gave in many years ago).

WHEN TO GO

As suggested above, more depends on where you are than when you go. Southern California around Los Angeles really is pretty close to perpetual springtime, though it can get stinking hot in summer. August is the hottest month: temperatures in excess of 40 degrees C, 104 degrees F, are not particularly unusual, though the average daily maximum is in the high 20s C, or low 80s F.

Contrary to popular belief, it does rain in Southern California, with more than 0.1mm of rain falling on an average of 6 days a month from December to March inclusive. When the first rains come in September or October, the roads are more than usually lethal: the rain mixes with months of rubber-dust and creates a slick surface which has Angelenos spinning all over the place.

Death Valley is famously one of the hottest places on earth, with average daily temperatures in July and August in excess of 45 degrees C, 113 degrees F, and the highest recorded temperature (in July) of 47 degrees C, 134 degrees F. There are enormous variations between day and night, too: commonly over 30 degrees F, around 20 degrees C.

In San Francisco, the average daily maximum never even reaches 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F, though it comes close in September, the warmest month; the next warmest, unexpectedly, is October. June and July are still rain-free, as they are down south, but you can expect 10 or 11 days with more than 0.1mm of rain from December to March inclusive, and a lot of fog and mist. This is very localized, though: even the Gold Country, around Sacramento a few miles inland, is warmer and drier.

In other words, as with much of the world, spring and autumn (fall) are the best times to visit, but winters are far from cruel -- even in San Francisco in January, the daily minima and maxima are 7/13 degrees C, 45/55 degrees F -- and while summers may be hot, they are not hopelessly so, at least up north.

Because Americans get such short holidays (vacations), times around public holidays can be very busy and prices go up. In American the word 'holidays' normally means 'the Christmas holidays' though it has a secondary meaning of 'public holidays' (such as Independence Day, July 4th). In English, Americans may be interested to note, 'vacation' was normally applied only to when universities and law courts were vacated or empty.

Unless you like seriously tacky Christmas celebrations, with saccharine carols on every in-store music system and Christmas decorations everywhere (including incredibly-decorated private houses), the whole of December is probably worth avoiding -- and increasingly, the second half of November, for much the same reasons.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

When non-Americans learn how few public holidays the Americans have, they often find it hard to believe. Often, too, the bigger stores are open anyway on public holidays. The only way the visitor can tell it is a holiday is because the banks and post offices are closed, and there are rather more people on the streets than usual (and the gas prices go up a few cents -- the distinctions between 'honest profit', 'what the market will bear' and 'gouging' are often blurred).

Easter Day is celebrated according to the Christian calendar

Veterans' Day (better known elsewhere as Armistice Day, November 11th) and Martin Luther King Day (3rd Monday in January) are not universally celebrated. Freedom Day (February 1st) celebrates the end of slavery but is only observed in a few states or (understandably) by African-Americans.

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS

When entering the country you have to be aware that the Customs amd Immigration Service of the Department of Homeland Security ('La Migra' to the Spanish speaking population) has draconian powers which a small minority of power-crazed functionaries delight in exercising. They seem to find it impossible to believe that you do not intend to settle permanently in the United States and all but give you the third degree. The only immigration service that is similarly paranoid is Britain. As a Briton married to an American, we have had plenty of grief from both.

The worst was when I went to collect Frances after we had become engaged; she was to move to England with me. The immigration officer had very considerable difficulty in getting his head around the idea that I had a job and a house in Britain, and liked it there, and my fiance was going to leave the United States. Then on the way back into Britain, we had to go for a visitor's visa (6 months) because a fiance visa is only 3 months. Foolishly, we went from the UK to France a few days before the wedding, and we had to get the immigration officer to call his superior before Frances was let back in.

Always be very polite to Customs and Immigration officers, and to the equally power-crazed security staff at the airports. Once, I was afraid that a security guard was going to drag my coat off the table, and with it, my camera. I shouted 'Careful' and he threatened to arrest me for arguing with him and shouting at him!

If you change planes in the US on the way in, you have to clear customs and immigration at the first point of entry. This may be easier, or (very rarely) it may be a little worse.

To get in you need a passport, but not (usually) a visa: the 'Visa Waiver Program' allows nationals of most affluent countries to enter the country at the whim of the officer of La Migra at the airport, provided you sign away the right to appeal if he doesn't like your face and refuses you entry. Like so many laws in the United States, this sounds far more draconian than it is: I have never seen anyone refused entry. It is however applied on quite a racist basis, so if you are not a pink-skinned Anglo-Saxon or Celt you may find you have a rougher time than the less pigmented. Those with names or looks that suggest a Near Eastern origin may have a particularly bad time.

Carry your passport or some other form of identification with you at all times. It is not exactly a legal requirement, but especially if you are travelling near the Mexican border you can run into road blocks. If you are not an American citizen, you may be required to produce identification -- but only 'may', because if you look like a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) they'll probably wave you through with the words 'American citizen?' Answer 'no' (as I once did) and they get quite upset: Frances had to produce her American passport as well.

Bringing your own 'bike in is likely to be impractical for most motorcyclists, so the questions of insurance, registration, etc. do not arise. If you buy a 'bike for Californian delivery, so that you can ride it before you ship it home, you will have plenty of 'hand holding' for temporary registration and insurance. As already noted, insurance is very expensive indeed, and the legal minimum requirement is not really high enough to cover the costs of a serious accident. Go for the higher insurance levels.

For visitors, as distinct from immigrants, there are no special health requirements unless you are coming from an area where a particular disease is rife. Sometimes there are frankly silly anomalous problems -- one case of a disease is treated as an epidemic -- but this usually makes the headlines in the popular press anyway. Visitors from Europe need not normally worry.

Health insurance is not compulsory but you would be very, very foolish not to take it out before you go there. Once in the Gold Country I had a kidney stone -- unpleasant, but not serious -- and ran up a $1300 bill in 6 hours. One item that sticks in my mind is $5 for a 39-cent disposable razor that was used to shave my arm before inserting the morphine drip.

As for customs the main thing not to bring into California is food: even a packet of biscuits can lead to a rough time, and if you try to bring in a ham sandwich or worse still an apple you may wonder if they are going to throw you in the slammer and deport you, or just deport you.

Otherwise it's one litre (misspelled liter) of booze of any kind -- rocket fuel or beer, they don't care -- plus 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars (provided they aren't Cuban, of course) or 3 lb (!) of tobacco, plus $100 in gifts. These allowances may only be taken by visitors over 21, who are staying in the United States for at least 72 hours, and only once every six months at that. Either of the last two restrictions alone sounds reasonable; both seem a bit odd. Limits for American citizens are different.

SHOPPING AND TIPPING

As the old calypso line has it, 'Money in de land is a Yankee dollah bill'. The US dollar is probably the best-known currency in the world, and the one in which this site is billed, so it requires very little extra explanation. There are plenty of hole in the wall machines (autotellers) though some of them are a bit short on international links. Credit cards are very widely accepted.

Plenty of supermarkets are open 24 hours a day in the bigger cities (and even in plenty of quite small ones). Otherwise, shopping hours tend to be around 0900 to 1700 or 1800. Many stay open throughout the lunchtime, though a few small businesses (jewellers, that sort of thing) may close for a maximum of an hour or so. Department stores are often open until 1900 to 2000 and a few stay open until 2200, though not normally every night of the week: Thursdays and Fridays are favourite. Small shops mostly close on Sundays; big ones (and supermarkets) mostly stay open, often for the same hours as weekdays.

Bankers' hours vary but are normally 0900 to 1600 or 1700 Monday to Thursday, 0900 to 1800 Friday, 0900 to 1300 or 1400 Saturday, Tipping is general, and high: 10 per cent is regarded as a minimum, 15 per cent as normal, and 20 per cent as not excessive. Some restaurants, in particular, add a tip in to the bill (check, in American) whether you intended to pay it or not; the worst of them keep very quiet about it, in the hope you will give them still more money voluntarily. Always scan both the menu and the bill carefully -- and don't be afraid to ask them to remove the tip if you don't want to pay it, for example if the service is lousy or if they add it to the bill without warning.

A nasty little aside is that it is legal to pay waiters and waitresses less than minimum wage, on the grounds that their income is made up by tips. I am always torn on this one, between a desire to help the waiter/waitress make an honest living, and disgust as the meanness of the proprietors who work this way. Note that in the restaurants that adopt this system, tips are normally put into a 'tronc' or common pot and divided at the end of the day, so a waiter who delivers truly lousy service gets the same as one who is first class. As I said, very nasty.

Note that a bill is a check, while a banknote is a bill, so while in Britain you might settle your bill with a cheque, in the US you can settle the check with a bill.

Note too that in most of the United States, you only say 'thank you' when a transaction is complete. In other words, if a waitress brings you a bill (check) for $16, and you hand her $20 and say 'thank you', she may assume that you are giving her a $4 tip.

Americans are much amused at the English version, where both sides say 'thank you' repeatedly: on receiving the bill (customer) on accepting payment (waitress), on receiving the change (customer), and on leaving a tip (quite possibly both parties). As Wilde said, 'divided by a common language'.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

Petrol is silly-cheap: maybe one-quarter to one-third of European prices. It's all unleaded, and many pump nozzles have a vapor recovery system, a sort of spring-loaded foreskin through which petrol fumes displaced from the tank are sucked away. This is something of a problem with most motorcycles, because the nozzle has to be shoved in so far (in order to retract the foreskin) that the pump cuts out when the tank is about quarter full. The only answer is to pull the foreskin back with one hand while operating the pump with the other.

On remote rural roads, gas stations can be few and far between, especially after seven or eight o'clock at night (1900 to 2000). They can sometimes be persuaded to open, but only at scalper's prices: we were once charged three times the normal price, per gallon, on Pacific Coast Highway.

Oil is not expensive, but neither is it regarded as a consumable. Californians shun any vehicle that consumes any oil whatsoever, except possibly Harley-Davidsons -- and often, those do such tiny mileages that more ends up on the garage floor than is ever burned. We once took Frances's Guzzi down to a new 'Biker Bar' in Los Alamos a few miles south of Lompoc. Of the dozen other bikes in the parking lot (all Harleys, of course) only one had more than 1000 miles on the clock.

By the same token, don't look for much in the way of repair expertise. Basic maintenance is not something that Californians are very good at. The nearest that many get is a 'tune-up' and it is widely accepted that a car will often run worse for a few hundred miles after a 'tune-up'. Motorcycles are sometimes slightly better maintained, if they are bought by enthusiasts, but often, they are just run into the ground.

To be sure, there are many superb mechanics in California, but with a few notable (and noble, and admittedly expensive) exceptions such as Luftmeister, you shouldn't expect much from a run-of-the-mill garage, even a motorcycle specialist. Unless their bikes are serviced by Harley-Davidson dealers (and even those aren't always too good) most Californians who maintain their bikes at all either do it themselves or know about a small, enthusiastic garage in the back streets. In Santa Maria we used to go to a marvellous guy called Abe Villasenor who was a real enthusiast -- he lent me his Honda transverse six, once, when he was servicing my R90S, purely out of the kindness of his heart. Then again, the local Harley man, Vance, was an enthusiast too: the last man to ride a Harley competitively at the Island. He came dead last, but as he said, he's ridden a Harley competitively at the Island.

POLICE, ACCIDENTS AND BREAKDOWNS

Police exist in a bewildering variety throughout the United States. In California there are local police, organized on a city or town basis; sheriff's men, who function mainly in unincorporated areas; and the California Highway Patrol (CHP), organized on a state-wide basis.

The CHP are incomparably the easiest to deal with, principally because many of them are experienced motorcyclists and because they are far more rigorously selected and trained. The quality of sheriff's men and local police is far more variable. The vast majority are remarkably helpful and polite, especially to visitors, but you run into the occasional bad apple who looks and behaves like an extra in one of those movies about racial discrimination set in Alabama or Mississippi in the 1960s. Remember that the LAPD -- 'To Protect And To Serve' -- engendered the Rodney King beating, and don't think that not having a black skin will necessarily do you any favours. Or favors.

Police do not need to be called to minor accidents, which is just as well, because there would never be enough coppers to go round. You must however report to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) any accidents where there is vehicle damage over $500.

In emergencies call 911 in almost all areas; they may finally have got it standardized by now but for years there were random local numbers for emergency services.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

A lot of people hire motorcycles in California. If you are coming from the UK you may prefer to deal with www.hctravel.com who work with a wide range of suppliers in the USA and where your contract will be under UK law. I say nothing against Californian motorcycle hirers -- I have never used them and do not know them personally -- but they may make certain assumptions about minimum insurance cover, damage to the bike, etc., that a British agent might spell out in more detail.

Having said this, there are several who look perfectly kosher and above board, though as I say, I don't know them personally. The cheapest bike is normally a Harley Sportster (883cc) at anything from about $60 per day upwards -- maybe a little less on long hires -- to de-luxe, fully equipped BMW R1150R bikes with hard-side panniers and full touring facilities at anything from $150 per day to $2500 per month (the equivalent of $90 a day). Try the following for a start:

www.calif-motorcyclerental.com

www.harleymc.com

www.bnm.com/eagle.htm

No doubt more will be added if their proprietors care to contact us.

FOOD

There is probably more good, cheap food in California's restaurants than anywhere else in the world. Californians eat out a lot, and competition is very fierce indeed: in Guadalupe, where we used to live, there were at one point 14 restaurants in a town of 5000 people.

It is true that a really bad place can do very well indeed for a while, purely because of fashion, and there are a very few places that survive more on reputation than on actual quality, but they are mostly so expensive that they are popular only with those on expense accounts. This really applies only in fashionable areas in Southern California, especially Hollywood, Santa Barbara, and areas near Palos Verdes and Pasadena.

And of course there is plenty of really nasty, greasy, chain-restaurant-type food, but at least that has the redeeming grace of being ridiculously cheap.

Even the chains can quite good, though: Pizza Hut, Red Lobster, Sizzler, Olive Garden and more, and a few such as Steaks'n'Ale (or 'Steak Snail') are very good indeed. Sushi bars are plentiful, and among the most affordable in the world, and some of the steak houses are without doubt among the best in the world. The Far Western in Guadalupe is regarded by many serious carnivores as ne plus ultra, especially for their 20-ounce fillet steak. That's right: a pound and a quarter of fillet steak, rather over 550g. The Far Western is a particular favourite among Air Force and space personnel from Vandenberg a few miles away. But when it comes to 'the best steak-house in the world', both Jocko's in Nipomo and the Harris Ranch can make serious claims in the same direction.

Despite the availability of monster steaks at the Far Western, it is worth dispelling a popular British myth about American restaurants. The portions that they serve are most assuredly not always enormous. They are, in fact, roughly comparable with modern British portions, except that it is harder to get really small steaks (8 oz or under) in the United States. Where this myth came from, we cannot imagine. Perhaps it originated in the 1950s when rationing was rife. But it ain't true any more, except perhaps in the matter of desserts.

Many years ago, marketing 'experts' came up with the theory that if you serve someone a truly monstrous dessert, more than any reasonable person could eat, they will leave the restaurant with the impression that the whole meal was massive. Maybe it works with people who are very stupid and like cake (including starved post-war Britons) but if you are blessed with both taste buds and a brain, it don't work.

And then there's Mexican food. Yes, there are chains, and no, you wouldn't really rate Taco Bell as great Mexican food. But nine out of ten independent Mexican restaurants are good or excellent. Most of what is on the menu will be unfamiliar to European eyes, because it is cooked by actual Mexicans, but almost all of it is worth having. The only dish where I would recommend caution is menudo, a tripe soup often promoted as a hangover cure. I've tried it and I think I'd rather have the hangover.

DRINK

Avoid the mass-produced cheap beers, which contain corn and rice and all kinds of muck. I get a hangover from them before I get drunk, and Frances's nephew Dane once passed out after drinking a six-pack (about three and a half UK pints) of 'three-two' (3.2 per cent) American beer. This is a man whom I have seen in England drink (without ill effects) five pints of Old Roger, about twice the strength, ten times the flavour, and a hundred times more enjoyable.

In fact, there's a story about a great gathering of beer magnates. At the end of their meeting, they all call for beers. Adolf Coors's grandson calls for a Coors; the scion of the Budweiser company for a Bud; and so forth. They all look expectantly at the Guiness heir, who is the last to order. He asks for tea. Pressed to explain why, he says, "Well, if you're not going to drink beer, I'm not going to either."

Among the better bottled beers, Anchor Steam (from San Francisco) is widespread and there are many Mexican beers. Ignore the way that Californians rave about these: they only look good next to truly awful American beers. Otherwise they are pretty ordinary: about like French beer, maybe. Next to Bavarian, Belgian or British beer they don't amount to much, though Negra Modelo can hold its head up high in even quite distinguished company.

There are increasing numbers of microbreweries, especially in the northern half of the state. Some are very adventurous. The SLO Brewery in San Luis Obispo, for example, occasionally makes a beer flavoured with chillies. Sounds disgusting: tastes superb. A common way to order in such places is by the half (US) gallon jug, two litres, to share.

Californian wines need little introduction except to say that the cheapest are sometimes rather sweet, and the most expensive are for the most part grossly overpriced. Mid-range wines are often good and good value, and those few restaurants that serve wines by the carafe (the Far Western again) often sell decent, drinkable wine at a very fair price. The reds are sometimes served a bit hot -- 'room temperature' in California is not quite the same as Northern France -- but that's better than half-freezing them as they sometimes do in California desert resorts or (worse still) in Las Vegas. Incidentally, if you want to see Las Vegas (which is of course in Nevada) it's less than a day's ride from Los Angeles and you get to see the desert as well.

Californian sparkling wines are excellent (if they are methode traditionelle/methode Champenoise) or vile (if they are Charmat bulk). Prices for the drinkable wines are higher than for a comparable Saumur or something similar in France, but still not disastrous.

Californian brandy is drinkable, a bit better than Spanish, while cheap bourbons and rums are very good value.

We drink on picnics (technically illegal, see below) or in friends' houses: bars are unattractive dark, gloomy places where people go to get drunk or to meet drunks of the opposite sex. There are a few decent pubs on the English model, especially the ones with microbreweries: a few (the SLO Brewery, again) are as good as the best English pubs, with first-class beer and good food as well.

Californian sake is excellent and goes very well with sushi, but most sushi bars keep Japanese sake.

The water is safe, and there is no shortage of soft drinks.

Unlike the rest of the world, drinking under age is a serious offence. The miscreant is arrested and dragged off to jail, whence he is not normally released except into the custody of his parents. What is doubly incredible is that the drinking age is 21. The Party Line is that this is because of problems with teenage drunk drivers. Personally, I'd rather have a roomful of teenagers, all pissed as rats, without a car between them, than be on the same piece of road as a single stone-cold-sober sixteen year old trying to impress his girlfriend with his driving (why teenage boys imagine girls are impressed by driving is one of life's mysteries, but we all believed it at the time).

If you are under 21, or if you are touring with a companion who is under 21, watch out for this one. I am not kidding.

Drinking in public is illegal. You are unlikely to be rousted at a picnic, unless you are in a city centre or something, but otherwise, it is taken very seriously. I realized just how seriously when Frances first came to England in 1981. In those days, the pubs used to close in the afternoons. We were walking along, and we were thirsty, and the pubs were shut, so I bought a couple of cans of beer, popped the tops, handed one to Frances.

She stared at me. "Are you going to drink it now? In the street?"

"Yes. Why not?"

"Is it legal?"

"Of course it is. It's my beer. I've paid for it. What problem could there be?"

And that was when I learned about Californian law -- and I also learned about the wonderful hypocrisy of 'brown bagging', where you take swig from a brown bag, but that's OK because it isn't a bottle...

The blood alcohol limit is 0.08 per cent (80 mg/100 ml) unless you are under 21 in which case they throw away the key. You can also be nicked for driving boats, aquaplanes, water scooters and the like and this counts as a DUI (driving under the influence) conviction.

ACCOMMODATION

The cost of accommodation is roughly similar to the cheaper countries of continental Europe. You will be lucky to find a room with a private bath at much under US $35, call it 30 euros, but it does happen, especially out in the back country. Rooms without private baths are comparatively rare, except perhaps in the Gold Country. At the other end of the scale, the cost of a modest hotel room in San Francisco is probably comparable with the cost of a modest hotel room in Paris.

Many hotels and motels (the latter are more common) belong to chains. Motel 6 is one of the best known of the low-cost chains, but no longer the cheapest. Consistency tends to be pretty good among the chains, and in most you can pick up directories of other hotels in the chain: they will even book ahead for you. Independents are much more variable in quality. The best are very good, and the worst are pretty bad: clean enough, but chipped and peeling paint, mildew in the corners, holed carpets and old, stained bathtubs. Most (though not all) are air conditioned. It is always worth asking to see the room before you agree to take it.

Very often, you can get independent hotels and motels to knock anything between five and fifteen per cent off the price by asking straightforwardly if they do a commercial rate. Chain hotels are less inclined to do so, though the higher their prices, the likelier they are to give a discount. They are also more likely to give a discount later in the evening, as they try to achieve the Holy Grail of 100 per cent occupancy.

A surprising number of rural motels -- which often offer the best value -- are run by Indians (from the Sub-Continent, not Native Americans). This is probably more true in other states but it is increasingly true in California as well. Most of these motels have clearly seen better days but are equally clearly on the up-and-up again. Be wary of motels that advertise themselves aggressively as 'American Owned and Run', as this is sometimes shorthand for 'run by xenophobic rednecks who may well be unwilling to extend much of a welcome to any kind of foreigner, let alone one who arrives on a motorcycle' -- though there are plenty that are also very good.

Avoid bed and breakfasts, too, as they are normally a good deal more expensive than modestly-priced motels. Many offer tarted-up rooms in 'historic' houses (in California, the 1920s counts as 'historic') laden with ruffles, dried flowers, pot-pourri and an indecent amount of pink.

LANGUAGE AND ROAD SIGNS

Californians mostly speak English, or at least American, which sounds quite similar and contains many of the same words, often with similar meanings. Then again, there's the story of the Valley Girl whose father said, "There are two words I never want to hear you say again. One is gross, and the other is awesome." And she was, like, fer sure, dad, but, like, what are they?

Those Californians who speak other languages -- mainly Spanish, but also Vietnamese, Urdu, Korean, Japanese, Hungarian, Hmong, French, Chinese and so forth -- make a considerable effort to speak English as well, but the ones who speak only English are quite content to stay that way. There is, therefore, no need for the usual capsule vocabulary for English speakers.

Road signs are increasingly international but watch out for Xings (crossings) such as School Xings, Railroad Xings, etc. A pedestrian in a yellow diamond signals a pedestrian crossing (or Xing).

A particularly bizarre regulation -- not just in California, but in most or all of the United States -- governs school buses. When one of these stops to disgorge a part of its load, it turns on flashing red lights. As long as these are lit, everyone must stop on both sides of an undivided road, or on the bus side if it's a dual carriageway. They take this seriously, too. The fact that there are not hecatombs of schoolchildren in just about every other country in the world, where no such ordinances exist, seems to have escaped the notice of American legislators.

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 10/11/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks