Hearst Castle

Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway lies a European castle.  In the middle of nowhere along the coast you arrive at sign for Hearst Castle.  Tired from driving you pull off the highway to see what it is about.  Passing row upon row of parking you arrive at an unimpressive building.  Saddened by what is the worst castle you have ever seen your gaze slowly drifts above this building and onto a large structure towering on a hill far in the distance.  Now that looks promising.  Further investigation reveals that your current location is only the visitors center.IMG_1187.JPG

Entering the front doors you are reminded of a bus terminal.  Walking past a small cafe to your left and a gift shop and restaurant on your right you arrive at the ticket counter.  Here you are presented with an array of tours.  The ticket agents(employees, park rangers, team members?), I’m not sure of their title, are more than happy to take the time to explain the differences to you and steer you to what you want.  Not only do you have to pick which tour you wish to join you also need to pick a time.  Do not be fooled into just picking the soonest slot as there are quite a few activities in the visitors center.  There are the aforementioned shops, a cinema showing the history of the castle and owner, a nice outdoor sitting area(though the birds are extremely aggressive), and I believe some other things.  When your scheduled time gets near you must line up at the proper gate near the ticket desk as buses take you up to the castle and different tours depart on different buses.  I guess the building gives the impression of a bus terminal for a good reason.IMG_1192.JPG

After queuing inside you take a short walk to a concrete shelter outside where you wait until called by the bus driver.  After this you queue again..just kidding.  Once you get a seat on the bus you can relax and enjoy the curving and elevating ride up to the castle.  The views and stunning and the buses audio fills your ears with information about the trip.  Explaining why there are animals on the hills near the road that have no natural business in California.  Such as that Zebra staring right at you.  IMG_1196.JPG

Most people would believe that a castle on the ocean would be right on the sea, but you would be mistaken.  This castle is far back from the sea high up on a hill.  Actually on the top of a hill with a commanding panoramic view and the ocean a tiny blue streak in the background.  You are taking all this in as your bus twists back and forth up this steep, meandering hill.IMG_1198.JPG

Once you reach the top you are ushered off the bus and assigned a tour guide and your journey begins.  Quite a bit of walking is involved as this is a large structure, as the name castle should have hinted to you.  Also there are quite a few stairs, again as the being on a hill should have been a giveaway.  The tour follows along the lines of most other tours.  If you have been to any other castles the format will be familiar to you.  Some interesting architecture, interesting rooms with interesting stories, a garden, a pool, so on and so on.  All very expensive and extravagant of course.  There is quite a bit of truly interesting information about the owner and castle so pay attention to your guide(or get the tour book at the gift shop, $19.95).  IMG_1199.JPG

Hearst Castle is a rest stop for those driving the Pacific Coast Highway.  Out in the middle of nowhere it is not worth a trip in itself, but it is absolutely worth a few hours of your time as a break from driving.  Enjoy this little piece of European aristocracy transplanted to the center of California.  IMG_1202.JPG

Morro Bay, California

The jewel of Morro Bay does not exist.  Like many, my first and only knowledge of Morro Bay came from the wonderful film Finding Dory.  The aquarium and area looked fantastic in the movie so we decided to spend a night here on our Pacific Coast journey.  Pulling into town we were somewhat disappointed.  It looked like any other small coastal town.  Little did we know then how severely disappointed we would be when walking along the coast looking for the aquarium. IMG_1167

We drove through the town to get to our hotel.  One of the drawbacks to traveling in the off season is that tourist towns look depressing, especially coastal tourist towns, and Morro Bay is no exception.  Our hearts sank driving the bland main street with its plain concrete strips of shops.  Not ones to give up we started bouncing funny and cute Dory quotes off each other to raise our spirits.  When we pulled up to our hotel we were quite a bit happier.  It had some nice flowers in the front and out towards the sea we had a view of Morro rock, which was looming large, quite beautiful and impressive. IMG_1171

Leaving the hotel we avoided the main street and instead directed our steps straight towards the ocean.  Walking down quite a steep hill we passed an RV park and a few hotels and hit a bay.  To our right was Morro Hill and a giant power station and to our left a road lined with shops.  To the left we went, passing shops that may have been open but without a customer to be seen.  The road was much the same.  A ghost town.  IMG_1184

From the start we were not satisfied.  The shops blocked any view of bay.  To see anything one had to use special sightseeing openings that took you behind the buildings to a dock.  It was quite annoying.  After looking out upon the bay for a while and taking some pictures with the rock in the background we headed for the aquarium, quite surprised that such a nice place as seen in the film would be located in this small town.  To our surprise(though we shouldn’t really have been surprised), the aquarium was nothing like in the movie.  It was a tiny little shack on the water.  We were bemused.  We shook our heads and passed on by, using what we think was the only Mexican restaurant in town to lift our spirits.  Unsurprisingly we were the only guests.  Here was the best part of our stay.  The food and drinks were good and our table overlooked the bay where we got to watch otters play in the water.  It was a much needed pick me up.  After dinner we went to our room and slept until leaving the next morning.IMG_1182

As always, Hollywood has exaggerated.  This time outdoing themselves.  There is nothing even remotely resembling the Morro Bay of Finding Dory fame.  Especially not a jewel.  The closest you will find is the excellent though bloody expensive Monterey Bay Aquarium about three hours North.  Plus that city is fantastic.  Do not waste a night in Morro Bay.  Stopping by for a few hours is more than enough.  Move along, nothing to see here.

Solvang, California

Heading off from Santa Barbara we take a detour from the Pacific Coast Highway and head less than an hour inland.  Cutting through tree lined winding hills and wineries spreading out from both sides of the road we enter a tiny town named Solvang.  The outskirts of which look like any Californian town but then changes dramatically when you turn onto the main road.  Suddenly you are in little Denmark.  Danish houses line the street.  True that the road is too wide and the buildings too spread out to really be Europe.  It hits you that this is more of a Disneyland version of Denmark.  IMG_1151.JPG

We slowly drive down the main strip towards our hotel admiring the view, though quite often interrupted by loud, spewing pick-up trucks which severely ruin the European feel of the place.  Arriving at our hotel, Wine Valley Inn, we get our bags and check inn.  The hotel feels like a cozy cottage and we enjoy the little maze we have to walk to our room.  Our room is fantastic.  It feels like it is out of a fairy tale.   After settling in we set out to see the town the European way, by foot.  IMG_1157.JPG

Our first stop is actually part of the hotel, Tivoli Square.  This is not a main square in any sense.  It is really just a little open area in front of a clock tower.  After posing for some pictures we move on.  There is only the main street and maybe one or two small side streets for tourists entertainment.  We cruised up and down these looking in the shops and taking pictures in front of the Danish architecture and tourist traps such as the windmill.  After finishing our sightseeing we got down to brass tacks.  What Solvang is really about.  The wineries and wine tasting.  IMG_1162.JPG

After visiting four of these establishments I was unable to count how many more there were but I would say at least a dozen, plus many more within driving distance.  My memory is hazy after starting on this adventure but I clearly remember a place with dog in the name, Wandering Dog perhaps.  I remember delicious wine and something else called a Shrub, which I think was good and spicy but I will stick with wine, thank you very much.  The misses and I were drinking there alone as it must have been the off season.  The next place we stumbled to was nearer our hotel and here we enjoyed some glasses of nectar with the one other gentleman in the place.  Our evening continued on like this.  A wonderful atmosphere and nice, but cool, weather.  It was extremely enjoyable.  IMG_1155.JPG

It the morning we had breakfast at one of the bakeries which was just satisfactory(The coffee was bad) and continued on our way back to the Pacific Coast.  It was a wonderful night in this pretty village but I couldn’t imagine spending more than a night or two.  Maybe in the high season it is more fun since there would be more people to talk to but I enjoyed the low season with just us, the wine, and a comfortable bed.  IMG_1164.JPG

Santa Barbara

It is a beautiful thing to break away from traffic and arrive in fantastic Santa Barbara after the minimum hour and a half drive up the coast from Los Angeles.  East Beach is my recommended destination.  As the name implies it is the beach area on the East side of Santa Barbara.   Here you will find an assortment of hotels and resorts mixed into a residential neighborhood, one block from the beach.   IMG_1131.JPG

After checking in and getting settled your first destination will most obviously be the beach.  A short walk across a four lane road and jogging/bicycle path brings you to the beach.  Take your shoes off and feel the squishy sand between your toes.  Walk down to the edge and feel the cool water splash over your skin.  Then raise your eyes and enjoy the complete panoramic view.  Ocean and beaches to one side and the town and mountains to the other.  Walk along the beautiful beach towards the pier that marks the beginning of State Street, the main road of Santa Barbara.  On your right will be beautifully tall palm trees lining the jogging path which will be populated by people doing what they do on such a path.  Every so often the view will be marred by tents of the homeless set up on the rear of the beach.  Try not to mind too much as they need somewhere to live and they truly aren’t really bothering you.  When you have walked enough, turn your feet to the path, wipe off the sand, put on your shoes, and double back to the hotel.  IMG_1134.JPG

There is little need to drive in town as there is a little trolley bus that hits all the main sights for free or a very slight fee.  Come morning simply ask your hotel host where the trolley stops and follow their advice.  You will most likely get off on State Street and your day will mostly consist of walking up and down this one street.  Let us begin at the beginning with the pier.  This is the same as other piers.  A structure of wood stuck out into the ocean.  You can drive a car onto it and park for a fee.  There are a few restaurants, mostly seafood of course, some tourist shops, and a candy store.  First, walk out onto the end of the pier.  If it is a crystal clear day it is possible to see the Empire of Japan and Islands of New Zealand far in the distance.  Once you have enjoyed the view peruse the shops and get a ten dollar ice cream or sit down for a meal.  Then it is off to State Street.IMG_1138.JPG

State Street is a normal Californian main street.  Full of shops, restaurants, and bars lining both sides.  The very beginning of it down by the pier has nothing as this is where the train track runs through town.  But once past this it turns into a beautiful small town strip.  Spend all day ducking in and out of shops and stopping for a cold drink every so often or when you find a happy hour.  You will find homeless walking next to you or sleeping on a bench but unlike the rest of the world they do not ask you for anything.  It is the only place I have been where they say nothing to you.  They don’t even hold out their hands.  You are completely ignored.  IMG_1140.JPG

There are other parts and sights to Santa Barbara but I am unfamiliar with them.  Every time I pass through I stick with East Beach, the pier, and State Street.  I have driven through West Beach and the West part of the city and don’t feel like I am missing much.  I end with the note that if I ever felt the desire to become homeless, Santa Barbara would be my home.

Las Vegas High Roller

Las Vegas is a city of extremes and its Ferris wheel is no exception.  At 550 feet(167.6m) it is the tallest in the world.  It opened in 2014 as the anchor of a new tourist area called The LINQ, which like everything else is located on the Strip.  There are twenty-eight large cabins, each capable of holding 40 persons except for when they change to a bar layout.

Walking into The Link from the Strip is like stepping into a towns main pedestrian street.  There are pubs and restaurants lining both sides of an immaculately clean and crowded pedestrian walkway.  Towering over the background is the High Roller.  During the day it is a massive white bicycle wheel spoke and at night it transforms into a stunning neon alien hula-hoop.  After sitting down for a meal and refreshing beverage you carry on towards the Ferris wheel, stopping to laugh and pose at the cupcake ATM.  IMG_1110.JPG

Like all tourist attractions you want to avoid the High Roller at peak time unless you enjoy standing in a queue for hours.  Time it correctly though and you can walk through the maze of twists and turns and escalators without so much as slowing down.  Shortly before getting to the boarding area there is a lobby with toilets and a bar, which are nice if you do get stuck in a queue.  At the boarding area you will be split into two groups depending of your ticket.  One for those with, and one for those without, the drinks package.  Thirty-eight of the cabins do not have a bar so there is usually a very short wait.  Being only two drinks cabins you have to wait fifteen minutes for one of the cabins to arrive, as it takes thirty minutes for a full rotation of the wheel.  While waiting you can get to know your fellow riders or, more likely, just stare as the massive wheel slowly spinning next to you.  When it is your turn to hop on you simply walk onto the cabin as it slowly glides by.  The High Roller does not stop or change speeds.  Do not be afraid of falling to your doom as there is a net below the loading area for those that have had one too many and have difficulty either seeing the cabin or controlling their legs.  IMG_1116.JPG

Once on board you can sit down if space allows or more likely stand so you can get a better view and view all sides. There are television screens above your head spouting out information about the journey.  Things are a bit different in the drinks cabin as the bar takes up a decent amount of space.  There is no order to the drinks ordering so it will depend on how pushy you are and how friendly your traveling companions are.  The one bartender will be overwhelmed at first but the drinks are well made and you will get yours faster than you think.  During the full rotation you could possibly pound quite a few if that is your thing but most people will just get through two drinks.  As the drink cabin is crowded, sticky, and noisy, and expensive, I would recommended drinking before and after the journey and just enjoy the rotation in the normal cabin.  Unless of course you are there to drink as much as you can then the drinks cabin may be worth it to you. IMG_1120.JPG

The view during the rotation is fabulous.  You will have excellent 360 degree views of the city and will tower above most of the giant hotels.  The television screens will announce when you reach the top, and then it is fifteen minutes back down to the bottom.  The whole ride is perfectly stable and uneventful.  The cabins are largely windowed so those with a fear of heights may be quite uncomfortable.  Once at the bottom of the rotation you simply step off your cabin and walk down a long ramp back to The Linq.  Again the safety net covers all open areas where you may feel a desire to walk off an edge.

The High Roller is a fantastic addition to the hundreds of other tourist attractions of this city.  Save some money from the gambling and prostitutes and instead go for a ride on this Ferris wheel.  Perhaps even purchase  a cupcake from a machine on your walk there.

Mammoth Lakes, California

Paradise on Earth exists, and Mammoth Lakes be its name.  Actually there are quite a few paradises on this globe of ours and this definitely is one of them.  L1040325

Sitting near the border of Nevada and California this area sits.  Driving in from the Nevada side does not look promising. Brush covered desert with barren rolling hills and snow capped mountains in the distance.  The one sight you will pass on your journey is a disgusting mud hole.  Here you must stop and cover yourself in therapeutic mud.  At least a salesman once convinced someone else that it was therapeutic and that belief has continued unabated to this day.  L1040328

My how the scenery changes once you enter the lakes.  Beautiful hills, pine trees, water like glass, and beautiful flowers surround you.   Take your pick of how to enjoy this pristine nature.  Row out on a lake, hike a well kept trail, sit in camp drinking a few cold ones with friends, or sun yourself behind a waterfall.  Nature is yours to do with as you please.  L1040341

Take a few days and explore.  Hike up to the top of a cliff overlooking a lake and enjoy a secluded picnic.   Go off the beaten path and find a new adventure, such as getting face to face with a bear and live to write about it.  L1040363L1040376

One day must be devoted to Devils Postpile National Monument.  An incredible natural formation of rock.  It takes a little bit of a hike from the entrance to get but everyone should go.  If you need help get somebody to carry you or crawl or hire a pack mule(Bring your own as they are not available on location). Climb on them, lay down on them, take lots of pictures and enjoy.  Do not to miss this formation.  L1040370.JPG

There is one item that impresses me that is not of nature and that is the locals.  They are a weird bunch.  I have not seen a dog groom anywhere else in the world.  L1040332

Old Rag Mountain-Virginia

Less than two hours drive from the capitol is a gorgeous hiking area in the Shenandoah National Park of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I say two hours but that is without traffic and as we are all taught in school Interstate 66 always has traffic so give yourself at least five hours driving time.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nick and I left Washington DC in the early morning in my car and after arriving in the parking area of the Old Rag hiking trail we laced up our hiking boots and set off to conquer 1,000 meter hunk of rock and trees.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now I consider myself in good physical shape but I wasn’t prepared for this hike.  Right from the beginning the trail goes pretty much vertical with severe switchbacks.  Nick and I consulted each other about going back for climbing gear but decided to press on.  After multiple breaks on the way up to take in the  sheer beauty of the area, or perhaps just to catch my breath, or dare I say a combination of the two, we arrived at a rock wedged into a crevice with space to walk through underneath.  After taking the obligatory photo of me holding the rock up we cracked on.  Old Rag Hike 10.2.05 008

Up and down the trail we continued, making little excuses to stop from time to time.  I need to tie my laces.  Look at this spider web.  This plant and/or rock is interesting.  Lets just take this view in for a few minutes.  You know the drill.  After a few hours we came out in a rocky outcropping near the summit.  Here we took yet another little break to fill our bellies with home made gourmet sandwiches and water before turning around and retracing our steps back to the car park.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Do not be under the impression that this is some lonely trail where you will be alone at  the end of the world.  Though it is forest as far as you can see, the trail is well worn and fellow hikers will be greeting you the whole way up and back down.  But enough of nature for today.  It is time to get back to the city and get my aching body into a hot bath.

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