Friday, 29 January 2016

California, Nevada and a snippet of Arizona (Jan 2016)

As my brother pointed out when I told him I was on my way to the States, I wasn’t meant to be going there again this year as there are still so many other stars to gain on my map. However, it seems there’s something to pull me to the great US of A almost every year. This year, it was for arguably the most scenic drive in the country, a road trip down the coast of California. To start, I had seven days to explore Palo Alto, San Francisco and the surrounding area. 

Being on a plane for almost eleven hours and not ending up in Asia was a first for me. Although I’ve been to America almost every year since I can remember, it was my very first time on the West Coast. The early morning flight from Heathrow and losing eight hours threw me - a lot and I suffered with jet lag worse on this holiday than any before (with the exception of my return from Australia). On my first night I remember thinking I had to eat before I went to bed so around 7.30pm I was sitting in Armadillo Willy’s waiting for my order of ribs and coleslaw looking at my watch which I hadn’t changed yet and was still saying 3.30am UK time. Somehow I made it through the meal, back to the hotel and was in bed by 9pm. It had been my initial intention to stay awake longer though so my body clock would adjust sooner. The inevitable happened and I was wide awake by 3am and ready to start the day…it was a long wait until the day was ready to be started however.

Palo Alto Christian church
Hubby had spoken a lot about the church he attends when in Palo Alto so it was great to visit and meet the congregation. Everyone was really friendly and I enjoyed meeting them all over coffee at the end of service. One of the ladies, Karen, had emailed me a couple of weeks ago with a lunch invitation. Had lunch at her home with another couple, Jan and Luke, all very interesting people. Karen is the widow of the man who invented the first computer mouse and pioneered several technology advances. How cool is that! I could have easily chatted to them for an entire day.

Jet-lag has it’s benefits. I was wide awake from 3am once again the next morning.  I checked and replied to emails for about an hour. Someone had emailed to say he’d been calling but unable to get a hold of me. I gave him the number for the hotel and he was surprised to learn I was talking business at 4am from California.
Alcatraz morgue
By 7am I had left the hotel and was on my way to the station. I took the Caltrain to San Francisco and as I couldn’t figure out the bus route, took a 50 minute stroll to pier 33. I had ignored all advise about pre booking as the website had shown lots of availability. I purchased a ticket for the 9.30am ferry and was off to Alcatraz which I enjoyed far more than I thought. The ferry ride took about fifteen minutes and upon reaching the island there was a short briefing from one of the rangers on the do's and don’ts of the island. I started with the talk about the great escape of 62 and then did the audio tour of the cell house.  The tour of the hospital area that is normally closed off was my favourite part of the day as it gave an interesting insight to what went on and the chance to ask questions.  Towards the end of the day I made my way to an exhibition titled Prisoners Of Age. For me this was the most emotional part of the day as I was confronted with the reality of many people who had gone astray in their youth and were still paying for those crimes into their seventies. Very, very sad.
San Francisco Dungeons
After returning to the main island, I visited the San Francisco Dungeons. I have a very nervous disposition as it is so why I decided to do this attraction by myself I’m still not sure. It was a bit of silly fun and thankfully the lady I accidentally grabbed as I heard a sudden noise didn’t mind.
Had a walk around Fisherman’s Wharf and then decided to walk another route back to the station. But I had no idea on just how steep the roads of San Francesco were. I was literally bent over at one point going up and then going down the other side I had to step carefully to make sure I didn’t fall downhill….I think the San Franciscians knew something I didn’t - as I hardly saw any walking around me. I walked through Union Square all the way to Westfeild shopping centre by which time the roads had levelled out much to the delight of my poor knees.  Eventually I made it back to the station, exhausted but it had been a great day.
Alcatraz signage 
San Francisco cable cars
However, the delay on the return journey was so horrendous that I had to make an earnest effort not to allow it undo all the good work of the day. The station was unmanned by staff and there was a repeated automated announcement saying which on the incoming trains were cancelled and which were delayed but no info on when our next departure would be. Commuters around me were desperately searching their smart devises but to no avail. After more than an hour waiting they announced a train had hit a car on the track. All in all, I waited more than an hour and forty minutes for the train to come and the journey which should have taken just under an hour, was doubled. 

Oval Garden @ Stanford University
Shopping in Stanford
The next day I had a pain at the side of both butt cheeks - didn’t even know those muscles existed. But no time to sit around (pardon the pun). I headed to Stanford University for a tour. Just walking around the grounds was amazing and I couldn’t help but feel a little envious as I remembered my far less lavish surrounds at the Alsager facility of Manchester Metropolitan. Maxine, a student, shared about the history of the Univeristy, student life, some of the former alumni, like the guy who invented Nike, Google and the co-founder of Netflix.  After the Uni visit I went to Stanford Mall for a spot of shopping. Back to the hotel to relieve myself of the bags and then to Armadillio Willy’s for the pulled pork salad I had spied on the menu my first night. Like everything else in America, the salad was humongous and I struggled to finish it but on the bright side I did get through a good few pages of my book while eating.

Early to rise early to bed, that was definitely my motto for this trip. Another early night meant I was awake and ready to go at the crack of dawn. Spent a little time Skyping the UK who were eight hours ahead and even Barbados was four hours ahead. While searching for places to shop online I came across Eastridge Shopping Centre and thought to myself it was one bus ride away so I’d try it rather than hopping on the train again. What I didn’t realise though was that the ride would be almost two hours! The journey was interesting at points, especially towards the end when soaring mountains came into view creating a picturesque backdrop. It was a leisurely shopping day and among my best buys was my minions leggings and a Guess necklace I had purchased two years ago and given to my niece (and then regretted ever since…) On the way back I took the Rapid bus which by-passed a lot of the stops and got me back quicker.

On Thursday I headed back into San Francisco, this time to do a tour of the Golden Gate Bridge led by SF City Guides. Thankfully most of the tour took place around the bridge and I was only on the bridge for the last 30minutes. More than enough time for me! I walked slowly behind the rest of the group taking deep breaths but praise God, I made it. Also learned how the bridge got it's name despite being red but I'll let you find out for yourself. Clue, nothing to do with the gold rush as I had thought. I did another scenic walk back to Fisherman’s Wharf. Disappointedly Ghiradelli's was closed (no mention on their website). I stopped for a quick fish taco at The Codmother Fish & Chips, only because the name stood out, the food was a let down. I saw the Sea Lions at Pier 39 and took in some other sites. Unfortunately it started raining, proper raining! By the time I got back to the train I was soaked through making the return journey uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to have a long hot shower once back at the hotel, stuck a bag of popcorn in the microwave, curled up in bed and was asleep before I’d finished eating it.

Friday was my last day before heading down the coast. Not knowing when my next shopping opportunity would come I used the morning to buy some goodies for the family back home including several boxes of Mike & Ike sweets which my nephew is a fan of. I had a lovely lunch with Karen and we were able to chat a lot more. She is an incredible woman!  She offered to come explore Goggleplex with me and I was glad for the company after doing everything solo this week. I’d read online somewhere that they have brightly coloured bikes for employees to get around the complex and that visitors could help themselves, so we did. I was glad too as it would have been a large area to cover by foot. The bike ride was a lot of fun, it was interesting exploring the grounds and I’m still bemused as to what the Android garden was all about…
Google Android Garden
Google bike
My lovely new friend, Karen
Today began the great road trip down the Californian coast. We collected our Hertz hire car shortly after 9am and not too long after we were on the road! I had heard all the stories of how incredibly beautiful it was and it didn’t disappoint. What was disappointing though was the weather. For a state which wasn’t meant to  rain it sure felt like I brought the British weather with me. Thankfully I had my rain coat at the ready, unlike Thursday. The first stop was Santa Cruz and I had to battle the wind to make it out to the pier. Thankfully the rain soon held and our other stops along the coast for breathtaking photos were dry, though very windy at parts. So seals and sea lions are a big thing along the coast here and just as we approached San Simeon, our resting stop for the night, there was a beached lined with hundreds and hundreds of them - unbelievably amazing - and a tad bit stinky. 

Thankfully the next day started dry and we continued on down the coast to Pismo. As it was still cloudy and windy and the sea was very rough making a pier visit uncomfortable, we went to the Butterfly Grove instead. I wasn’t particularly interested and only did it as the lovely lady in the visitor’s centre suggested it was a good alternative to the beach. But once there I learned a thing or two about butterflies that may one day come in handy in a trivia game… And then it was off to Santa Barbra the stop I had been looking forward to most on the drive.  It was a beautiful, quaint, Mediterranean-styled 

looking town and I enjoyed walking around snapping photos of the Spanish influenced buildings, the posh boutiques and the fancy restaurants. After lunch we visited the pier. It was a very long pier and I was glad we were able to drive along it. We continued our drive, passing a turn off for Santa Claus Lane. I was intrigued but the tight itinerary meant the were no time for exploration. The next stop was Malibu before arriving in Los Angeles by whig time I had to admit that the Pacific Coast Highway did live up to the hype. We dropped the car at the hotel and I took my first Uber ride to The Griffith Observatory (had to be done). It was crowded. I could just about make out the Hollywood sign off in the distance as it was nighttime; I had always thought it was lit. By far the most interesting part of the observatory was looking through a powerful telescope at the moon, which made it was easy to make out the craters. Fascinating. The night ended with a meal in Thai Town.
I know this sounds crazy with all the things there are to do in LA, but I just wanted to see behind the scenes of a talk show or comedy being filmed. The only thing I could get availability for during our time there was Doctor Phil…which I vaguely remember seeing an episode of in the distant past. Thankfully it wasn’t a ‘shady’ topic. Family in the mist of breakdown, fifteen year old daughter more like the parent, two younger children off the rails, dad away from home a lot. Dr Phil didn’t seem to do a lot though, just recommended somewhere for them to go get counselling and give the daughter some horse riding lessons. Never-the-less it was good just seeing how it was all filmed and how they got the audience all revved up before he came on set etc. and of course all the little promo bites he filmed at the end as well. From there it was a walking tour of downtown LA, boring in my opinion (the tour, not LA). And then on to the Walk of Fame and the surrounding areas. A big breakfast at Denny’s the next morning. I was bamboozled with all the choice for breakfast and some of the options seemed more like dinner. Next was the drive along the famous Mulholland Drive with a few stops at the scenic lookout points. Never did find the house from the horror film though… And then Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills with all its luxurious shops and eateries; one day…maybe…
I ain't afraid of no lion!
We left LA after a few days and headed to San Diego. I hadn’t realised just how close our hotel was to Fashion Mall, which came in handy for a few late night purchases (including matching beach dresses for me, mum and my younger sister). 
I’m not a fan of animals and as such not particularly interested in zoos but the San Diego Zoo was a nice day out and do some surprisingly important conservation work around the world. After almost having my head taken off by a vulture during one of the shows and watching a gazelle drink the pee of another (to see if she was pregnant or not…idea on how to save on pregnancy test?) it was about time to leave. La Jolla Cove (pronounced La Hoya) was mesmerisingly  beautiful but again you could smell the seals all around. 
The advice on Tripadvisor was that Perry’s Cafe was the place to visit in Old Town for breakfast so, as I needed energy for a day of shopping, this is where we headed. Again, the breakfast choice gave me a headache. I finally settled on the pork chops and egg (yes, pork chops for breakfast) thinking I was being good and having a low carb breakfast til the waitress said it came with a choice of potatoes and then a choice of muffin or toast and seeing as it was all included in the price…. Anyway needless to say my intentions of a low carb breakfast went out the window and I gave in to the ridiculous portion size that seems to be the norm in America. 
Las Americas Mall was right on the boarder with Mexico, literally two miles or so. So much so that T-Mobile sent me a message saying ‘Welcome to Mexico’. These malls really deserve an entire day to do them justice but I maximised the five hours I had.  That evening dinner was at The Cheesecake Factory. Funnily enough, I’d purchased their cheesecakes before but had never realised that they were actually a dine in restaurant. I couldn’t face another full portion meal so I opted for a starter and saved enough room for the huge slab of cheesecake dessert that followed.
We set out early on our last morning in San Diego for the five hour drive to the Hoover Dam. Which turned out to be more like eight hours with rest stops and a leisurely lunch at Peggy Sue’s Diner. The memorabilia is fantastic as are the 1950’s outfits the waitresses wear. The food, less so. I was excited by the buttermilk, southern fried chicken but it didn’t cut it for me.  It was plentiful though, a half of fried chicken and I was already full from the milkshake which I thought was just a standard glass of milkshake but oh no. They bring your glass and then what’s left in the shaker, which turned out to be anther glass and a bit! Unfortunately I wasn’t travelling with someone who does sharing when it comes to meals so there was a lot of chicken to go! I kept my eyes peeled for the Zzyzx road sign, pronounced Zye-Zix. We finally crossed the boarder from California into Nevada - meaning I could add yet another state to my map.
The Hoover Dam was breathtaking in more than one way. Firstly the sheer size and power but also the height as heights aren’t my thing. The most fun I had here though was jumping between the Nevada and the Arizona boarder which are an hour different time wise… and of course, another US state for me.
Finally, tired from the long day, we made it to Las Vegas. I had been a little apprehensive about intentailly going somewhere dubbed Sin City but then Romans 5:20 sprung to mind :)  Anyway, my agenda for the three days there were very clear.  Checked into the Bellagio which was hands down the best accommodation on this road trip. The view of the fountains from the room were beyond amazing. It was right across from Paris Las Vegas which meant there was a beautiful view of the ‘Eiffel Tower’ and the surrounding part of the strip, including the High Roller.  Which yes, I did with hardly any tears…hardly.  I had timed it perfectly and got to watch the sun set while up there so the lovely contrast of unlit versus lit Vegas Strip. A couple of hours at the mall to grab some last minute items and visiting the surrounding hotels kept me adequately occupied and out of mischiefs way. The Bellagio fountains I kind of took for granted as I saw them shoot up several times from the comfort of my room and could tune the TV channel to hear the accompanying music. The erupting volcano at The Mirage was probably my favourite and the talking statues at Ceaser Palace were also entertaining. Didn’t bother to do the Venice canal ride as I had done the real thing a few years ago.  With everything else going on there wasn’t enough time to see a show. Can’t see myself returning to Vegas anytime soon but if I did for whatever reason then yes I would take in one of the several hundreds of shows on offer.
All in all a great trip of California and Nevada…go on, I’ll squeeze Arizona in there as well. Saw a lot, learned a lot and ate A LOT!  Very grateful to God for His protection as as travelled as we had clocked up almost 1100 miles by the end.  And my body knew it. On the flight home, I ate a meal, then lay flat and had one of the longest sleeps I’ve had on any flight.  And I continued it in the taxi on the way home.
The evidence left by that frozen Daiquiri

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