If you can't stand the heat, get out of Death Valley

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The Independent Travel
Best Discovery

The Forestiere Underground Gardens, a flourishing subterranean orchard where boughs laden with oranges and lemons emerge, as if by magic, from holes in the sunbaked hardpan of suburban Fresno, are the product of one man's passion. In 1905, Baldasare Forestiere, a Sicilian emigre and former New York tunneller, found the surface conditions too harsh and put his pick and wheelbarrow to work on what turned out to be a lifetime's project.

Over 40 years, he dug a vast labyrinth of caves and tunnels, planting fruit trees and grapevines 15ft down, then training them up through skylights in the roof. The effect is extraordinary. Parting the lush foliage at ground level reveals a warren of cool, stark rooms where Forestiere lived while perfecting his horticultural techniques. As well as peepholes to spy on visitors arriving at his hobbit's front door, he built an underground bath (the water was sun-heated in a tank topside), and even constructed an underground glass-bottomed aquarium.

Best Communal Dining

Good press and Bakersfield are not intimately acquainted - unless you are into Basque cuisine. A long tradition of Basque immigration guarantees a slew of classy Basque restaurants, but the authentic dining experience is an $8 all-you-can-eat lunch at the turn-of-the-century Noriega Hotel, located on an unlikely looking backstreet next to the tracks. Slug down a beer while the bar fills up with local office workers, oil company execs, foodies up from the coast and the occasional foreign tourist. At noon sharp, the lunch bell sounds, normal reserve disintegrates and a communal spirit descends.

Everyone troops through to the dining room, with its ceiling fans and bare boards, packing the trestle tables as if they had known each other for years. Jugs of a heavy local red are handed along as the soup is dispatched, and everyone tucks into hearty platefuls of pasta, beans, a cut of meat (it changes daily on a fixed rota pinned up by the bar), salad and bread. By the end of the cheese course, I wanted to come back every day for a week, but that would have meant sticking around in Bakersfield.

Hottest Place

With autumn temperatures in Death Valley nudging 115F, running the car's air conditioning on max has to be a good idea, but this puts a heavy load on an already labouring engine. The car could cope on the flat, but the climb up to Dante's View is a stiff one and, in the first mile, the temperature needle was making a beeline for the red zone. The air conditioning had to go. As the climb steepened, the needle crept up again, and the heater had to come on. Visit Death Valley, but make sure you do so in the winter.

Coldest Place

The dedication of a Rough Guide researcher knows no bounds, and to get the real low-down on rock climbing in Yosemite, I invited my climbing partner to help tackle the classic Royal Arches route. We knew it would be an all-day exercise, but had not fully appreciated the scale of Yosemite's cliffs. As darkness descended, we were forced to spend an October night lashed together on a ledge with no sleeping bags, and just one leg each in a single day-sack for warmth. Perhaps a little less dedication is required.

Best Hotel

After a lonely drive through an unseasonal snowstorm, I stopped at Volcano, a town distinguished by its singular lack of anything volcanic. The only place open was the former gold-mining St George Hotel. After an excellent dinner, I retired through saloon doors to a dim bar where the walls were plastered with banknotes and wisecrack bumper stickers. To the nods of the barflies, the bartenders spun tales of their days as gig promoters in Sixties San Francisco, and the backstage antics of Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia. As the tales became increasingly tall, I staggered up to the soft mattress of a big brass bed.

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Getting there

Most direct flights from Britain go to LA, though a change on the east coast lets you choose airports in San Diego, San Francisco and others. A return scheduled flight from London to LA or San Francisco is close to pounds 500 in summer, pounds 300 for much of the winter.

Where to stay

California specialises in up-market bed and breakfasts, but there are plenty of budget motels too. The St George Hotel is at Main St, Volcano (tel: 209/296 4458) and the Noriega Hotel is at 525 Summer St, Bakersfield (tel: 805/322-8419).

What to see

Yosemite National Park is open all year ($20 per car per week), as is Death Valley National Park ($10 per car per week). Hourly tours of Forestiere Underground Gardens, 5021 W Shaw Avenue, Fresno, are $5.

Further information

The California Office of Tourism, 801 K Street, Suite 1600, Sacramento CA 95814 (tel: 916/322 2881).

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