San Francisco to Los Angeles: Sarfraz Manzoor road-tests a friendship on a drive down California's Pacific Highway 1

Their little girls are best friends. But would that count for anything as two fathers take a nine-day road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles by themselves?

Sarfraz Manzoor
Sunday 07 February 2016 01:21 GMT
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Sarfraz and Matt between Pismo Beach and Los Angeles
Sarfraz and Matt between Pismo Beach and Los Angeles

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Travelling companion: The dad of my daughter's best friend

Trip: Nine days on the road from San Francisco to Los Angeles

The airport shuttle weaves through the streets of San Francisco with me, bleary-eyed and exhausted from an 11-hour flight, crumpled in the back. Sat next to me is Matt, the dad of my young daughter Laila's best friend. I usually only see Matt, who is an actor (he once played an illegal Croatian immigrant in Coronation Street), when he is with his daughter; we are both fathers in our forties and used to being sensible. Yet we are about to do a nine-day drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles without our families. My wife is forever urging me to make time for my friends and so has been completely supportive. Matt's partner has been equally encouraging; he has promised she can go on a yoga break without him and their two children some time in the future.

This has long been a fantasy – the great American road trip – but as the shuttle drops us outside the Argonaut hotel in Fisherman's Wharf, we are both nervous. When we usually hang out, conversations are conducted as our young children play or sometimes row; we are used to being interrupted. We are about to go from hurried family meet-ups to spending 200 hours just in each other's company: will we become closer or will we end the trip unable to stand the sight of each other?

Sarfraz puts his feet up in the Andaz hotel
Sarfraz puts his feet up in the Andaz hotel

"Are you wearing that?" It's the next morning and Matt emerges from the shower wearing a red checked shirt. I have a similar one. I was planning on wearing it. This is new: it's been a long time since I've shared a bedroom with a man; I usually travel with my wife, who prefers flowery dresses to plaid shirts. I find a different shirt.

After breakfast at Mel's Drive-In – an explosion of chrome and Formica that was the setting for American Graffiti – we walk to Russell Street, a tiny alley in the Russian Hill district. This is where Jack Kerouac lived and apparently wrote On the Road. The iconic photograph of Kerouac and Neal Cassady was taken here. Matt and I replicate the image; obviously I am Jack.

We have two days in San Francisco and the more I explore its streets, coffee shops and restaurants, the more convinced I am that it is the sort of city where, had life turned out differently, I could imagine living. To make the most of our time, I meet up in the morning with Michael Lax, who runs photography tours of the city, and shows me the best places to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. In the afternoon, we meet Wes, who founded Wild SF Walking tours, to take us round the Mission district, which, with its hipster coffee shops and vintage clothes stores, feels like Hackney by the Bay.

We've been secretly hoping for an open-top Mustang, but our hire car is a disappointingly sedate Mazda people carrier. Undeterred, we bid farewell to San Francisco and head south with Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" blasting from the speakers. The scenery is stunning as we wind along the coast, the ocean glittering and the highway an endless ribbon ahead. "Bit different from the usual drive to East Grinstead station," notes Matt.

Sarfraz and Matt by the Golden Gate Bridge
Sarfraz and Matt by the Golden Gate Bridge

When we reach the surfer city of Santa Cruz, we stroll along the boardwalk before walking the length of Pacific Avenue, where a middle-aged man armed with an acoustic guitar does things to "Just like A Woman" that constitute a cruel and unusual punishment. We come upon a poet standing with an ancient typewriter, offering to write a verse for anyone walking by. I tell him about our journey; within a few minutes, he has written a poem.

The north-south Highway 1 is car-advert breathtaking; we keep stopping to take photographs of the foaming waves crashing on rust-coloured rocks, but the images can never capture the grandeur.

The brightness of the blue sky, the winding road and the ocean at our side – it all feels too good to be true, as does the Post Ranch Inn, situated 1,200ft above the ocean in Big Sur. The hotel doesn't admit children – so we wouldn't usually have been able to stay here – and seated in the restaurant, listening to the waiter deliver a spoken-word performance on the local provenance of the vegetables and fish, course after amazing course, I suspect the ambience would be affected by two children asking for chips.

The Post Ranch Inn is a luxury hotel – stone bath you could drown in, drop-dead gorgeous views – but the true luxury of this trip, I am learning, is about time: time to enjoy a shower, time to have a lie in and time to get to know Matt. We talk openly about our childhoods and the lives we had before we met our partners and what it's like to be away from them.

The land is flatter when we resume our drive; elephant seals sunbathe on the shore, artichokes and avocados are on sale at the roadside, the sun is low in the sky.

"Do you ever get the feeling that our lives are like a highway?" I ask Matt over dinner in Giuseppe's, a fantastic Italian restaurant near the Seacrest hotel in Pismo Beach, where we have stopped for the night. "I mean, the view is amazing and the ride is comfortable but the road is straight – is it still possible in our lives to decide to take a left?" Matt says nothing.

Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" is playing in the car the following morning. "Don't stop believin'," we sing, "hold on to the feelin.'" We have lunch in Solvang, a city in the Santa Ynez Valley where Sideways was filmed, and which looks like a small Danish town dropped into southern California, then carry on to our final stopover before LA, at the gorgeous Canary hotel in Santa Barbara. "I hadn't realised how slow you walked," says Matt, charging ahead as we explore the city's wine-tasting bars. "What's the rush?" I say. "Don't you want to slow down and enjoy the view?"

Sarfraz and San Francisco's tallest skyscraper
Sarfraz and San Francisco's tallest skyscraper

Later that day, we are standing on the rooftop of the Andaz on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, enjoying the spectacular view. This is our final destination: Los Angeles. The hotel was once known as the Riot Hyatt because it was where Led Zeppelin, The Who and the Kinks would stay; Little Richard lived here for 20 years and Almost Famous and Spinal Tap were both filmed here. It feels like the fulfilment of a California dream to be staying here, just as it feels freakily perfect to spend a day strolling through Venice Beach before visiting a few cool vintage clothing stores in the afternoon.

One evening, as we leave the hotel, I notice that the comedian Louis CK is playing a surprise show at the Comedy Store next door. We manage to get tickets and after the gig we continue to Soho House, where Matt enjoys a vodka Martini and I have my usual Diet Coke as the city sparkles below us.

The hire car weaves its way through the LA traffic on its way to the airport. The Mamas and Papas are on the radio singing "California Dreaming". It is the last day of our holiday and we have survived: we have not had one major argument or harsh word – our friendship, we are relieved to learn, is about more than our families. I take out the poem the guy in Santa Cruz wrote. "There are some who would say that fathers without their children are like kites with cut strings," it begins, "but in reality we are archaeologists excavating a living city…"

California has made me feel young but it has also reminded me that I am not young any more. You can leave the things you love but they don't really ever leave you. It has been an unforgettable week but Matt and I both have partners and children back in Britain who love and miss us. We return the hire car and slip on our winter sweaters and coats as we check in at the airport: it is time to go home, time to awake from the California dream.

A two-week coastal road trip starting in San Francisco and ending in Los Angeles costs from £3,445 a person through Audley Travel (01993 838 755, audleytravel.com). Price includes flights, taxes, car hire and accommodation on a room-only basis at four- and five-star hotels. For more: 020 7257 6180, visitcalifornia.co.uk

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