Friday, 25 January 2013

The Expected Journey Part 4: Los Angeles and Disneyland

So timing is everything in life, and being the hyper-organised people that we are, C2 and I pulled into Culver City for dinner and then found the carpark at LAX's Terminal 2 exactly 30 minutes ahead of our 16-year old niece's arrival.  We collected her and carried on a further 45 minutes to our hotel in Anaheim at the gates of Disneyland.

Again, being manically organised, we had purchased a North American GPS whilst in Canada and a darn good thing because ANYONE who can figure their way around the maze of Los Angeles freeways without one deserves a medal.  I think we changed freeways six times between LAX in Westchester County and Anaheim in Orange County.

A couple of Star Wars geeks imitating Wookies, Yoda and R2D2

The next six days were spent in a blur of being tourists and trying to find the balance between entertaining a 9-year old boy and a 16-year old girl.   Our first day at Disneyland was unfortunately the last day of the school holiday which translated into fierce queues at some rides but we managed with good humour and good shoes.  I hear the Star Wars simulator was awesome, however,  I only witnessed 10 seconds of it before I had to scrunch my eyes closed and grip the handles for fear of vomiting over everyone.  Good thing C2 has an iron stomach.

C2 and J had a ball on Space Mountain and other roller coasters before I (and even The Niece's rolling nausea) finally convinced them to queue up for "It's a Small World".  Funnily enough, that queue only took 3 minutes.  They all rolled their eyes but indulged me nonetheless.  We watched the evening fireworks from the balcony of our rooms, much to J's delight. 

Next up was Venice Beach which was fascinating for its insight into California counter culture and also for its unassuming realness.  Lots of interesting "smells" too.  After a walk on the broad beach and an amazing lunch at an organic cafe on the Venice boardwalk, we headed to nearby Santa Monica beach and pier, also known as the end of Route 66.  The pier was fairly touristy but very pretty once the sun set.

Venice Beach

The ferris wheel on Santa Monica pier

Santa Monica pier at sunset

Santa Monica pier at night.  Muscle Beach in the foreground
 On day 3, we headed into Los Angeles and Universal Studios.  This was a highlight for us.  Universal Studios is part theme park, part genuine movie/tv lot, and part kitsch at its best.  We headed straight to the brand new super simulator Transformers 3D ride.  I hear it was awesome, but had to close my eyes and grip the handles about 10 seconds into it for fear of vomiting over everyone again.  C2 and J went back three times in a row until the queues built up.  The Niece and I just waved at them wanly.  Same deal with the Simpsons simulator which J claims was the best.

From no flood to flood!

The back lot tour was great fun as we toured sets from War of the Worlds, Psycho, Jaws, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Mummy, and Desperate Housewives.  As I worship at the altar of Peter Jackson, the 360 3D tour through some of the King Kong set narrated by him was my personal highlight.  The somewhat dated but still impressive WaterWorld live production left J speechless while the Jurassic Park ride and 84-foot water drop left him gasping with laughter.  The haunted house, on the other hand, populated with actual people doubling as mummies and ghosts, left him slightly traumatised.


Psycho's Norman Bates...he chased our tour too!

War of the Worlds plane crash scene - scary!

A mummy from the haunted house, not sure J was sure he was pretend

With the hunky main character, Marriner; he even looks like Kevin Costner!

The following day, we headed back into L.A. for the requisite walk to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Kodak Theatre, and Grauman's Chinese Theatre.  Only thing I can comment about this part of Hollywood is that the box is ticked.  It is seriously seedy!  From here, we drove up into the Hollywood Hills and did an hour's trek.  This was another highlight.  Away from the madding crowds, we really enjoyed seeing the city stretched out below us, with the Pacific Ocean and the beaches of Malibu twinkling in the distance.  Late in the afternoon, we drove into Beverley Hills and Rodeo Drive.  Comments?  Well...tick.

Our final day had us back at Disneyland where we did EVERYTHING on the California Adventure Park side.  Multiple rides on the California Screamin' roller coaster (well honestly them not me...that vomiting thing again), the Cars high speed ride through Radiator Springs (awesome), the amazing Soarin' Over California simulator (didn't have to scrunch my eyes though might have still gripped the handles), and the remarkable live Aladdin show with the funniest genie this side of Robin Williams were all memorable.  C2 and The Niece finally gave up around 6:00 and headed back to the hotel.  J and I indulged our love of flumes by ending our day back at the Enchanted Kingdom's Splash Mountain.  Perfect way to end a near-perfect family day.

Thing 1 and Thing 2

The next day, we took The Niece back to the airport.  We killed our day at a large outlet mall where we sourced a few things that are cost prohibitive in Australia.  We headed back to the airport but thanks to some closed freeway ramps got lost and found ourselves in Compton.  Let me quote Wikipedia here  "The city of Compton as well as southern Los Angeles County in general is notorious for its heavy concentration of gangs and gang violence, such as the Bloods, the Crips, and Sureños, which all originated in the Los Angeles area."  Sigh...well that made for an interesting end to our time in L.A.

Los Angeles is a very very big city and we did a lot of driving in it.  Still, I'm not sure we touched on the neighbourhoods that really make it a great place to live and work.  Now that we've done the touristy things, next time, I'll call upon some friends to help us see the real place.  For anyone visiting Los Angeles and Anaheim, it might be good to divide the trip so that you're not commuting between them and dealing with the distances and the intense traffic.

We had a fantastic time in California and can't wait to explore more.  Next time...more Carmel, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Elizabeth...

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Expected Journey Part 3: Central Coast California

We pointed our rental car south and headed out of San Francisco passing away from the Bay area and into Silicon Valley through San Jose and Palo Alto, past Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon Universities,  the NASA Ames research center, and a plethora of high tech companies.  We kept remarking to J that "we were in the heart of where most innovation takes place".  I'm not sure he was as awestruck as we were.

Eventually, the busy Santa Clara Valley landscape changed to seascapes and rural, rolling hills.  A couple of hours later, we reached our destination of Carmel.  I might have been more impressed that Clint Eastwood used to be Mayor but after the most recent Republican National Convention and that  conversation with the empty chair... but anyway, back to Carmel.

After the hustle of San Francisco, I was utterly slayed by Carmel.  I've been lucky enough to explore many a seaside town,  in Australia, in Oregon, and along much of the Pacific Northwest U.S. and into Canada but I have never been as charmed by another seaside town as Carmel.  The small town is based on a planned European village.  Its streets are an easy grid filled with delightful cafes, wonderful restaurants devoted to local and seasonal cuisine, interesting shops, little courtyards brimming with hibiscus,  birds of paradise, and Eucalyptus(?) all designed around Californian Spanish colonial architecture.  All roads lead down to its magnificent foreshore and beach.  It was about a 15-minute stroll from top of the village to water's edge.

In one of Carmel's many charming cafes; J is well-trained in coffee culture!

Oh and did I mention that Carmel townspeople are MAD about their dogs???  Mad, as in every shop has a dog water bowl in front of its door, and most boast signage welcoming their canine friends inside.  Ok so great coffee - check!  Innovative restaurants boasting local and seasonal fare - check!  Most restaurants encourage you to bring your own wine - check!  Awesome beach - check!  Love dogs - check, check.   Hello!!!! I have stumbled into paradise!

We stayed in a sweet little Inn, steps from the beach which offered afternoon tea, sherry, and biscuits.  Late in the afternoon, the three of us curled up on stuffed sofas in the front room of the inn with our books and indulged in a little of all three.  Later, we wandered up to a wine shop, settled on a California Pinot Noir (which proved outstanding), and made our reservation at Basil, a tiny, jewel of an organic restaurant with a divine menu and equal service.  It was a memorable evening.

Mr. Whiskers - the 20-year old resident cat at our Inn
 After a restful night's sleep breathing in the California ocean air and an early breakfast,  we turned our car south onto the Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur.  Now this has been on my list of desired experiences for some time but an interesting thing happened along the way to Big Sur.  Guide books and travel websites wax lyrically about the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and its magnificent views.  The views are indeed superb, the cliffs do indeed cut away dramatically into the sea but the problem is I've seen it before and more gloriously.  In Melbourne, we take the Great Ocean Road somewhat for granted as it is on our doorstep but it has affected me more profoundly than its California cousin.   The fact that we were almost three hours on the PCH at a slow 35 miles/hour before we could head back inland to a Freeway was not a selling point.

In any case, we made our destination of Los Angeles by early evening.  But that's fodder for Part 4!

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Expected Journey Part 2: San Francisco

 It's super-easy flying from tiny Victoria, Canada directly to San Francisco.  Two and a half hours later, we were checked into the Marriott in Union Square and reunited with our great pals from Geneva, the Millers, who live in the mid-west United States.

Though J and their two girls were practically raised together for three years, they hadn't seen each other in almost four.  They circled each other like cats for the first few minutes but muscle memory eventually kicked in and they reverted to their remembered dynamic very quickly.

It was the day before New Year's Eve and San Francisco was BUMPING  (to quote the twenty-somethings).  The streets were crowded with tourists, and queues were long everywhere.  After being quoted 90-minute wait times at most of the restaurants we had hoped to try, we eventually found a fantastic modern-Indian place, where we shared our traditional coupes,  plates of vindaloo, butter chicken, koorma, and naan, and reconnected with each other.

The next morning, the seven of us hopped onto a streetcar and headed over to Pier 35 at Fisherman's Wharf to catch a ferry out to "The Rock" - Alcatraz.  It was a fascinating experience learning about its evolution from Army fortress to federal maximum security high risk prison housing some of American's most notorious hoodlums including Al Capone, the psychotic Robert Stroud - the Birdman of Alcatraz, and Machine Gun Kelly. 

Alcatraz with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background

TheAlcatraz exercise yard
Alcatraz lived up to it's reputation of being inescapable.  During its short 29 years as a federal prison, 36 prisoners attempted to escape, none ever succeeded.  One of those attempts resulted in the notorious and bloody Battle of Alcatraz in 1962.  Alcatraz is cold, grim and gloomy and clearly was a place of last resort for America's most hardened criminals.  It was interesting, however, to read the histories of a handful of Alcatraz's last prisoners (it closed in 1963).  Following their releases, they have worked to contribute to society by working extensively with at-risk youth providing intervention services.

We explored Fisherman's Wharf after returning to the mainland, laughing at the antics of the Sea Lions lolling about Pier 39, finally settling on The Fog Harbor Fish House for dinner with a marvelous view of the harbour and the Sea Lions.  Another coupe may have started our meal...

We headed back to the hotel amongst the throngs of New Year's Eve revellers, had a swim, and a soak in the hot tub before sharing a couple of bottles of champagne: one Australian, one American to ring in the 2013.

New Year's Day found the city much easier to navigate as many of the tourists seemed to have cleared out early.  We walked up toward Union Square and hopped on one of San Francisco's famous cable cars and rode it up through Little Italy, Chinatown, and Nob Hill before disembarking back at Fisherman's Wharf.  We chose the San Francisco landmark Sicilian restaurant, Alioto's, for lunch with a marvelous view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

After lunch, we walked and walked and walked, first to Ghiradelli Square (home of the famous chocolate) and back toward Union Square via Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Lombard Street (San Francisco's crookedest street), and Nob Hill.  It was a great way to get out of the touristy parts of the city, and see more of the real place. San Francisco is architecturally beautiful, original, and fascinating at every turn.  That we were blessed with spectacular weather didn't hurt.

Early the next day, we bid farewell to our friends.  They headed north to Napa, we headed south to Carmel and the Pacific Coast Highway.  Stay tuned for Part 3.