San Diego is a very pretty city with a moderate climate. We visited the Hotel del Coronado, built-in 1888, it is quite majestic, and expensive. In San Diego, Balboa Park is the home of 13 museums, theatres and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Many of the buildings are Spanish colonial architecture and the grounds are full of mature huge trees and gardens. Every Tuesday has some free museums and we hit the Museum of Art, the highlight of which was a show on Annie Liebovitz, the portrait photographer famous for her work in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. There were many pictures of Susan Sonntag, the author, and it would appear, her gay partner, who died recently of breast cancer. Liebovitz had 3 children after age 51, presumably by artificial insemination. Her pictures were inspiring. On the second day, Barb went to the zoo (I begged off as I’ve seen it twice before) and I went museuming. The Museum of Photography was so bad, I complained, they offered me my money back, and I took it. The Aerospace Museum was almost entirely devoted to warplanes – how the Americans can glorify it! Going to museums is hard work and often kind of boring. The animals were nice to Barb and she liked all the babies and endangered species. It is a very impressive place. We camped in the Zoo parking lot despite all the signs prohibiting it – the Nazi street cleaner made us pay every morning at 5 by doing doughnuts around the truck. We visited the Gaslamp section of downtown and the next day went on a tour of the aircraft carrier, Midway, now a museum in the harbor. Quite interesting and we got to see a huge variety of fighting jets and helicopters. SD is the home of the Pacific Naval fleet and a very military town. Thank god Canada has not spent all its money on developing a war machine. Old Town is a state park that has restored the original San Diego.
That night we stayed on Soledad Mountain, above north SD and La Jolla. I-5 snaked below us, it rained and blew all night. The signs showed that it was closed from 10PM to 7AM and sleeping was prohibited – so we tried to stay awake all night. We could see for miles in all directions, and the mountain is the location of a war memorial with a huge cross on top.
La Jolla and Del Mar are very high-end towns – big ritzy houses with security signs stating ARMED RESPONSE, Mercedes, BMWs, and designer stores. We stopped at Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course (site of the PGA’s Buick Open and the 2008 US Open and $163 green fees) and Torrey Pines State Reserve with great hikes along the cliffs above the beach.
Heading inland east of Escondido, we went to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. We had free $30 tickets (given to us by the Balboa Park visitor centre) and saw many of the same animals as the Zoo. We especially enjoyed the Lion Camp (separated from the animals by a sheet of glass). There were triplets.
It seemed like a long drive to Los Angeles and arrived the day of the Academy Awards but decided to skip attending. We heard people had been lining up for two days to watch the stars arriving. Venice Beach was great fun with a wild boardwalk – hundreds of souvenir shops, basketball players, muscle men, flea markets, restaurants, street performers and people to watch. Some of the panhandlers had interesting angles – “money for marijuana”, “will work for marijuana”, “money to support a man’s alcohol problem”. Santa Monica has a famous pier with rides and a carnival, and the Third Street Promenade (shopping and street performers). The break dancers were very talented athletic young men – spins on their heads and bent arms, one-armed hand stands, tumbling and tons of great moves. Barbara didn’t want to do much else in LA and I’ve seen most everything before so we only spent Sunday there.
Santa Barbara is a very affluent, beautiful city of 250,000 people. Building codes require that all buildings be of Spanish Revival style – white (or occasionally beige) smooth plaster and red tile roofs. The courthouse is the showcase with lots of tile, a bell tower, and huge murals. We did a walking tour, many street performers, homeless and went to the mission. Named after St. Barbara, this had special meaning for you know who. In the 3rd century, Barbara was a 16-year-old who much to her father’s chagrin, converted to Christianity. Refusing to revert, he cut her head off. Except for the murder (Barbara’s dad is a much nicer guy), this all sounds very much like Barbara’s rebellious teen years. The mission was the nicest we’ve seen with many old paintings, beautifully painted walls, statures and a museum. The Museum of Art had many Impressionist painters – Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, and more recently Dali and Picasso.
Heading north we hiked an oak forest and out to Morro Rock, where we saw peregrine falcons through spotting scopes. San Simeon is the location of Hearst Castle where we did two of the 4 potential tours at $20 each. This is the most over the top place on earth – opulent, decadent, and wow, are useful descriptors. Built of reinforced concrete (earthquake-proof) and furnished with old European furniture, art, and the ceilings alone are worth the price of admission. Built on 250,000 acres fronted by 50 miles of ocean, the castle is surrounded by a cattle ranch with the most lovely green hills.
A few miles north is elephant seal country – throughout the night the bulls were bellowing. They are easy to see on the beach below 20 foot cliffs. The bulls weigh up to 5000 pounds, are 16 feet long, covered with battle scars and are not very cute. The much smaller females have their pups in December/January, breed immediately again, nurse for a month and then leave. They can dive up to 5000 feet and feed 100’s of miles out to sea.
Big Sur is a long section of coast where the twisty road snakes up steep cliffs that plummet to the rocky shore. Big Sur is the site of the famed Esalen Institute, the Cadillac of New Age retreats. In Julia Pfeiffer Burns St. Park, we photographed the only waterfall in California that lands on the beach, McWay falls, the most photographed spot in California, and did a 5 mile hike through the redwoods and oak forest. Point Lobos State Reserve is a spectacular coast trail with rocky shores, birds, seals, and the Monterey cypress, a rare tree seen only here.
Clint Eastwood used to be mayor of Carmel, another very affluent town. We drove around looking at all the high-end real estate ending up in Monterey. The Monterey peninsula is home to 17 mile drive ($9 to do the drive which we decided to pass on), the home of Pebble Beach Golf Links and Cypress Point. The Monterey Aquarium is touted as the best aquarium in the world. The sea otter, eel, kelp forest, and tuna exhibits were highlights. It is an incredible place.
We detoured inland to Salinas, John Steinbeck’s hometown, where I had an emergency root canal and Barb visited the National John Steinbeck Center, a museum of all his books. A highlight was Rocinante, the green truck and camper used in the book “Travels with Charlie” (which Barbara has been reading to me) where Steinbeck travels around the US with his pet poodle, Charlie in the late 60’s. Compared with our camper, his was much smaller, rustic and quite quaint.
We continued the detour SE to Pinnacles National Monument, where we did the High Peaks Trail, which winds through spectacular basaltic domes and spires, and then descends through a neat cave. California condors (largest NA bird at 20 lbs and a 9 1/2 ft wingspan) circled overhead. From a low of 20 birds, there are now over 200. We’ve seen them before at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The coast north of Monterey to San Francisco is rugged with high cliffs and pretty beaches.
Entering San Francisco from the SW, the views from the top of Portola St were fantastic with the entire downtown and the bay spread out below us. Driving and parking in SF is a nightmare so we didn’t and our only cost is a lot for $14 per day. We obtained the City Guides free walking tour guide with over 30 tours available on different days. Market St is the main street downtown. On the tour we learned how SF is trying to make it’s downtown people friendly – skyscrapers lean back, have low sections, broken roof lines and must provide green areas to prevent that closed in feeling. The street levels are devoted to stores and shops and attempts are made to include living spaces so that cars can be avoided. It is a great walking town very much like downtown Vancouver. We went up to the 52nd floor of the Bank of America building, had tea and tremendous views of all of the Bay from the Golden Gate Bridge around to the Bay Bridge, downtown, and the Trans America Pyramid – the most recognizable building in SF. We have developed a strong sense of SF history with tours like Gold Rush City. Nob Hill has many great hotels and the Grace Cathedral, a huge EpiscopalIan (Anglican) church like many of the cathedrals in Europe. The City Hall is more fantastic that any state legislature with a huge dome and a solid 24 carat gold statue on top. The Palace hotel, originally built-in 1875, destroyed in the 4 days of fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, rebuilt by 1909, and totally refurbished in 1989 at a cost of $150 million is San Francisco’s finest. We went on several self guided tours like Telegraph Hill with its famous Coit Tower and murals, Italian neighborhood, beatnik area from the 50’s and wild parrots, Union Square (the shopping mecca with all the large American department stores – a blue diamond ring at Tiffany’s was worth $437,000), the Bank of California with its large gold display, Pacific Heights with many mansions and Victorian houses, Chinatown, and Fisherman’s Wharf (little more than multiple t-shirt shops and tourist traps – our least favorite place). In Pacific Heights, we went into an Inuit store. They had many carvings by the same artists that I have collected from my trips to the Canadian Arctic and could not resist buying a wonderful whale carved from a musk ox horn. SF is clearly our favorite US city.