Saturday, October 17, 2009

San Francisco – cable cars and stuff

Our last three nights were in San Francisco.  We had booked two nights at famous restaurants but had not planned anything else.  Curiously, we had also not looked at our (by now) trusty Lonely Planet guide and consequently, the last three days felt a little flat.


We arrived in SF with the rental car, due back at the airport by 1 pm.  We made our way there with no issues, aided by our (by now) trusty GPS.  We found the place at the airport where all the hotel shuttles congregated and asked where was the shuttle for the Vintage Court hotel.  This hotel had been recommend to us by someone Peter knew, as being in a great location (it was), reasonably priced (it was), and with good staff (they were).  We had to wait a little while (say, 30 minutes) for the shuttle and people came and went with other shuttles and a small line formed for ours.  Finally it arrived and we were driven into the city.


It’s nice to be driven, as opposed to doing the driving because then you see more.  Once we got out of the boonies where the airport was and into the old city proper, we started to see familiar things, especially street names.  We passed through the Mission District which is a bit notorious for drugs and street people and dropped people off here and there and so we got a little lost.


Our hotel was on the edge of the financial district (where the streets roll up at night – sort of) and also only a block from the Chinatown Gate.  There are quite a few one way streets in the old city and only the intersections are flat.  Everything is either going uphill or downhill.  So getting anywhere in a vehicle requires some forethought.


We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and set out to have a look at the cable cars.   There is a cable car museum which we didn’t go to – it turns out we could have/should have gone to lots of places like this museum.  But we seemed to have lapsed into a strange sort of ennui and mostly just walked around in circles.  It was fine but as this is a travelogue, I would recommend to future visitors to San Francisco, that they do a little more planning than we did.  For example, we thought we would just go get tickets to visit Alcatraz when we got there but they were sold out for at least a week in advance.


Anyway.  The brief history of cable cars really is interesting.  A manufacturer of steel cable witnessed a horrible accident involving horses and carriages on the steep hills and invented a means of getting up and down the hills that wouldn’t have those consequences.  The cables run under the street surface and the cable cars have a mechanical gizmo that grabs onto the cables as they constantly move up the hills.  They travel down hills using gravity and they have multiple brakes for safety.  And they are on tracks, like trains.  Because the cables run in grooves under the street, you can hear them "singing" when they are moving.  We found it fascinating.

Our hotel was on Bush, between Powell and Stockton.  There are only three remaining cable car routes and two of them run up and down Powell (they branch off onto other streets at Washington), so it was totally easy to see cable cars any time you wanted.  It was not however, easy to catch them, especially the one running up or stretch of Powell, as the cars are mostly crammed with tourists.  Later at night or in other areas, we discovered that the cable cars would have fewer people on them and you could catch them as they rested on the level intersections. 


If you want to ride a cable car like a pro, here is how you do it.  Scope out spot on a route that is not filled with tourists.  The California Line doesn't seem so crowded as the other two, maybe because it doesn't have the fancy/fun turntables at the ends.  On both Powell lines, tourists are lined up to get on at the terminus (where, it is fair to say, it is fun stuff to watch the operators manually turn the car on a giant wooden turntable) so the car will be full until they start getting off at other touristy sites like the cable car museum in the middle.  Position yourself prudently along the route and wait for the cable car to come along.

There are designated stops at the curb but when you see a car coming, move yourself into a readiness position and be prepared to run a little into the intersection when the light is red for the cross traffic.  The car will stop on the level intersection while the light is green for the direction it is travelling in and that’s when you jump on board.  Keep your wits about you because there may still be car traffic travelling in the same direction as the cable car and there may also be a cable car coming in the opposite direction.  There is not much space between the cars and when two pass each other, passengers hanging on the outside are warned to keep their heads in if they want to keep them.

If you’ve had the presence of mind to buy a “Muni Pass”, you need only flash that at the ticket-taker and you can go sit down (if there are seats available).  You can get Municipal Transportation Passes at drug stores and we got ones that lasted three days.  They cost $18 but they allowed us to ride on any bus, cable car, or tram in the city, as many times as we liked.  Those hills are some steep and when you have a pass like that, it is so simple to just wait for the next bus and go a few blocks, to save your legs.  Of course, with a name like “Muni Pass”, I started flashing it at Peter and saying “Leeloo Dallas, MultiPass!” which cracked us up.  Maybe you had to be there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Back to Monterey

Leaving Hearst Castle, and stopping to admire the zebras on the way out, we made for Monterey again, driving the Big Sur coast road.  This time, going north, we were in the lane next to the mountain side, not hanging over the edge of the cliffs.  It was still a maze of twisty passages, all alike.  There was some fog and we could see the damage from wildfires in previous years.
We looked at it a bit differently since it was the second time we drove it.  We didn't stop as frequently but the view was as stunning as ever.  I don't know that I would choose to live on this stretch of coast but I do love a good coast.  This one is really quite isolated - it would take you an hour just to drive somewhere to get groceries.  If you were rich and had staff and could send them out for groceries, then it might be different.  But life would be totally different if you had staff anyway.  I am of course, presaging Pebble Beach.
When we got to the Monterey peninsula, we decided to drive the scenic 17 Mile Drive.  17 miles doesn't sound very long and it isn't but it IS very scenic and there are numbered suggested stops along the way, so you can spend a few hours at it.  There are various entrances to the toll road and it cost $9.25 to get on the road.  There are several golf courses along the road too, not just Pebble Beach.
And there are the houses.  A few were obviously older houses that had been built before it became so expensive.  They fitted in with the landscape and were bungalows with board and batten siding.  They might have been quite large and maybe they had luxurious interiors but they blended.  Unfortunately, like at Hearst, some people with more money than taste have been building monstrous Italianate villas that stick out like sore thumbs.  It's too bad, really.
And then there is the famous "lone cypress".  When you are there, it somehow doesn't look as wonderfully evocative as it does in portraits.  But there are friendly little ground squirrels who make up for it.
Some people think it is worth making the trek for wedding photos.
We thought the entire drive was worth the price of admission, even if it was cloudy and cool.  We left at the gate near the tiny town of Carmel.  It's worth a visit for the carefully controlled look of the town and the street signs that are painted vertically on posts.  On one street, we were trying to get our bearings while walking and I started to read a street sign, having some difficulty spelling it out because it was vertical.  I got to "NOPARK..." when I realized it was a No Parking sign.
Then we walked by the Hog's Breath Inn and Peter remembered that was Clint Eastwood's place, so we had to stop.  Apparently, he still owns the building but someone else owns the restaurant and bar.  We walked down the alley and into a courtyard and then down some steps and into the bar and had a beer.

We had talked about spending another night at the Beachcomber motel we had discovered on the way down but Peter had picked up some local pamphlets on other motels and we browsed through them along the way, finding another motel (the Rosedale Inn) almost within spitting distance from the Beachcomber.  It was about the same price but the room seemed cosier - it had a gas fireplace - and the wifi was free and available in the room.  We decided to eat at the same fish place as we had on the way down and walked over there to see if we could reserve a spot. They had one for us at 7, so we decided to walk along the beach as we had done less than a week before.  It was still cold and windy so we bundled up as much as we could, given that we hadn't taken many warm layers with us as we expected August in California to be unbearably hot.

We didn't see the deer again and the light faded so we were glad to get back to the Fishwife.  They initially seated us at the oddest  table in the corner by a drafty although permanently shut door, but we asked to be seated elsewhere and were glad we had.  I don't think I could have stood the draft for an entire dinner.  The food was good and the local wine was good and we had a satisfying evening, our last night before getting to San Francisco.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

SLO market and Hearst Castle

After successfully navigating our way out of LA, we stayed on the 101 and headed north to San Luis Obispo.  Much of the 101 is along the coast, so we had nice scenery (except for the fog).  We rolled back into the PeachTree Inn right around 6pm, when we had planned to, said hello to the innkeepers we had got to know only a few days before and set out for the market and dinner.  We only had to walk down the hill toward the downtown and then across a couple of streets and we hit the market.  On Thursday evenings, Higuera Street is closed for several blocks and the closed area is full of vendors of all sorts, some street performers, some colourful beggars, BBQs filling the air with smoke - you name it.  Even political conspiracy theorists have booths.DSC_3309





We had dinner again at the Big Sky Cafe and it was good.  They still didn't do reservations but we put our name on a wait list and went back out to enjoy the market for 20 minutes.  It was surprising but good, how many people were still wanting to eat at a restaurant, even though there were so many folks sitting on curbs having BBQ.  It looks like everybody benefits from having the market in town and a lot of the shops lining Higuera Street were open as long as the market vendors were there.

We went to bed at a reasonable hour because we had to be at Hearst Castle for 10am the next morning.  I had booked tickets online before the holiday and had chosen 10am without thinking about where we might  be exactly, or how long it would take to get there from here.  We had even passed by Hearst Castle on the drive down to L.A. and timed the drive from there to SLO and confirmed that it should only be a 30 minute drive.  However, in an abundance of caution, we left the Peach Tree Inn before 9 am.  We did encounter fog along the route, as we drove along the coast road.  We also noticed highway signs that instructed drivers to turn on their headlights and that when we realized that Americans still don't have the automatic-on headlights/driving lights that we do in Canada.  I turned to Peter and said, "How can it  be that we decided this was a great safety feature on cars in Canada and the Americans still don't do this?"  He didn't know.


As (I) expected, we arrived at Hearst 45 minutes before our timed entry.  We had bought the tickets online and ever since the screw-up with the rental car on day one, we were a little gun-shy about unconfirmed events.  However, our fears were unfounded as they had us in their system.  Because tourist traffic was a little light that morning, we got slotted on the next bus up the hill and didn't have to wait until 10:10.  The castle itself is a five mile drive up a winding road that, we were informed in a pre-recorded tour as we rode the bus, had not been paved until the 1930s.


Apparently, Mr. Hearst had kept a zoo full of animals at the time, including carnivores but only a few herbivore species remained roaming wild, like zebras.  We saw some Barbary Sheep on the way up but it wasn't until we were leaving the grounds that we saw the zebras.  I thought it was remarkable that any animals at all remained but apparently, they live their lives, reproducing and doing whatever zebras do when they aren't escaping from lions on the veld.


At the top, we piled out of the highway coach and gathered around our tour guide. She gave us some instructions about not wandering away, staying out of marked areas and told us roughly what we were going to see.  She also warned us about how many steps we would be going up and down, although this was clearly stated on the web site and everywhere else we looked.  They actually do have some tours for handicapped folks but you have to arrange for them specifically.  It turned out, as we went along, that she thought Mr. Hearst was the bee's knees and I wondered what she would say if I'd criticized him.  I chose not to.



I felt that the place was a monument to conspicuous consumption, the very embodiment of more money than brains (or taste, in this case).  Of course, some parts of it really were beautiful - they couldn't help it, like the carved ceilings he had buyers bring back from war-torn and poverty-stricken Europe.  It almost felt like he had looted some churches.  The reception area walls were lined with carved wooden choir stalls that no sane church would have sold unless they were desperate.  And there were huge tapestries hanging on the walls, rivaling the famed unicorn tapestries in The Cloisters for size, if not skill.  When we toured one of the guest houses, I wondered aloud about what appeared to be a 14th century devotional painting and how they managed to preserve it in the heat and humidity, as the atmosphere in the building was not controlled in any way, especially with tours traipsing in all day long.  Our tour guide claimed that the paintings were fine but I have my doubts.


There was a large mosaic that might have been Roman or merely Romanesque, in the entrance foyer and the tour guide indicated that this was now off limits for walking on because it had finally arrived at the too-delicate stage.  Just a year ago, we saw real Roman mosaics in a museum in Arles, France, and I was happy to see that Mr. Hearst had not managed to get one of those.

Our tour guide described how Hearst invited all sorts of famous people up to his castle but then he would lurk in his study and only come down to see them for a few minutes here and there.  She made it sound like he was shy and just wanted his guests to have a good time.  I got the impression he was more like a puppet master and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out he had secret passages where he could spy on them.  I checked some of the oil portraits on the wall for cut-out eyes but didn't see any.


At the very beginning of our tour, when we were outside on one of the many patio areas, a fellow tourist approached Peter and asked if he had a spare SDI card for his camera.  In fact, Peter had one and lent it to him.  I sidled up after and whispered, "How are you ever going to get that back?"  He explained that the guy would take the card back to his laptop that he had left in his car and upload the photos and then come back to the base building and give him back the card.  I thought it was pretty trusting of him.  Then he told me the card was only worth a few bucks so I stopped worrying.  As it turned out, this fellow was from Australia, visiting his brother who was a chef in San Francisco and he did exactly that - uploaded the photos and then went back searching for Peter and gave him the card back.  I know we tend to focus on the negative but I do believe there are more good folks in the world than bad, Mr. Hearst notwithstanding.


Monday, September 7, 2009

In which we meet a fellow blogger

... and finally get to meet a dog!
One of the really nice and interesting things about blogging is meeting other bloggers.  I met my first blogger in real life only two years ago and since then, I have had breakfasts with groups of Ottawa bloggers and even met a Brooklyn blogger in Paris!  Back in 2005-6, I kept a blog chronicling my raising of a puppy for Guide Dogs.  Other puppy raisers found me and we read each other's blogs and created a sort of online community.  One puppy raising blogger in particular stood out, in part because of the quality of her writing.  We became friends and when I announced I would be in California on a pilgrimage to see Cesar, we decided we had to meet.
Jenny knew of a restaurant near where she lived south of LA, which actually allowed dogs on the patio and we agreed (through an exchange of emails, mostly on Facebook) to meet there for lunch. 

We checked out of our motel in Santa Monica that morning and set out to find some free internet access.  Peter had looked up the address of the library (the branch nearest us, in any event) and we drove over there first.  He parked while I went to see if it was open, which it wasn't.  Then I spotted a man emptying the external book return box and asked him about the wifi.  Most people until then had faked knowing whether there was free wifi.  When asked, they would look around at the air and mumble something about how it should be over there, somewhere.  This fellow seemed to know what he was talking about.  He said that the library was actually going to be closed for renovations for some time, starting today!  But he then said that down the street was a restaurant that offered free wifi if you ordered something there.  I must have looked skeptical so he gave me directions and encouraged me to try.

We ended up having a perfectly decent breakfast at Panini Garden on Main Street, not that far from our motel or the library.  It was a little place with only two fellows running it.  We asked about the wifi and once we figured out something we had done wrong with our computer, we got on line and were able to read and respond to emails.  I think I had finally written one of these entries (I was probably still on day 2 of our trip!) and I uploaded it from there.  Peter had eggs with spinach and I had yogurt with fruit and granola and we both had coffee and relaxed.

After breakfast, we wanted to have a look at Venice Beach, and in particular "Muscle Beach", as we had heard about it and one of our friends back home wanted to know what it looked like, really. 


It was just down the road a piece and if we had been staying longer in the area, we would have walked there from our motel.  Instead, we drove down Main Street for a short while and then turned right toward the ocean, parked the car and got out for a short walk.  Not only were we running out of time to get to Torrance, but as usual, the morning was very cool and there was a lot of fog obscuring the sun and so not many people were out and about on the beach anyway.

We did run across a large bunch of people all gathered together, with someone talking to them.  They each had an empty plastic bag in one hand and as we watched, they dispersed and began to pick up litter from the beach!  We didn't find out for sure but they looked like volunteers.  Maybe they were from some social club?  We saluted them, took their picture and left. 


Then we set out to find the place where we were to meet Jenny.  We had looked up the street address of the restaurant but we also knew it was in a mall.  What we hadn't counted on was the mall being so HUGE.  Even our trusty GPS seemed flummoxed by where we wanted to go.  Eventually we did find the place and we knew it was the right place because we saw Jenny, sitting outside on a bench with Truman.  Even though I am now an old hand at meeting fellow bloggers, it is still a bit of a thrill to see them looking so much like they do in their posted pictures.  Truman in particular had reminded me so much of Rockwell that it was even more interesting to  meet him in real life.  He was quite the intense little yellow dog and focussed on Jenny, as she asked him to wait before he greeted us.  He is only 3 (2 and some) so we are pretty sure he will mellow as Labs are wont to do, as he gets older.

We had a lovely lunch, marred only by the fact that Jenny's husband had to be at work.  Truman sat obligingly under the table and only licked my toes when I asked him to.  As usual, there was too much food but this time, we were able to ask for a doggie bag, not because we had a dog but because Jenny could take it home with her, as we couldn't because we were driving and didn't really have a home.  Up until then, I had tried to only order just what I could eat, knowing leftovers would have to be thrown out, which I hate.  I had brought Jenny some Canadian souvenirs for fun and we talked about everything under the sun and it was a real pleasure to get to meet her.  Then it was time to go.

We had planned to drive back to San Luis Obispo for the night, because the next morning we were due at Hearst Castle at 10, plus we had read in the guide book that SLO had a big Thursday night street market that was worth seeing.  We drove on the infamous 405 north through LA and out the north end, connecting with the 101 heading to SLO.  Traffic wasn't bad but it was only about 1 pm and rush hour traffic hadn't started.  One thing we noted that we had never seen before were traffic lights on the on ramps.  Your GPS would tell you to take a particular on ramp to get on the freeway and when you got there, the car ahead would stop at a red light on the ramp and then when it turned green, that car would spurt ahead and you would find yourself facing a red light.  The sign even said "one car per green" or words to that effect, so it was for controlling access to the freeway.  It does seem to me that there has to be a better way of getting people around LA.

Don't forget - Peter is still putting up pix in sets at Flickr, so you can go and have a little slideshow of the things already written.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The rest of the day in LA with no dogs

After our wonderful visit with the 29s, and since we were on Wilshire Blvd., I thought we should visit the LaBrea Tar Pits. I don't know why but the concept of the place has fascinated me since I was a kid. The idea of an open pit, connecting with the centre of the earth (well, sort of), left open in the middle of the downtown of a large American city, just had to be experienced. Plus, it was featured in the fairly recent movie "Volcano", so we pootled up the street and smelled it before we saw it. Was that true, or was it our imagination? We found parking around the back and drove up to the booth to get our ticket. The booth guy said we had to leave nine dollars in cash and then, when we left, he would give us back the excess. We said, "we're only going in for 30 minutes!" but he said, "that's the way it works." We rooted around and only found a five and three singles. I said, "We're Canadian! We wouldn't lie to you." He smiled and shrugged and took our $8 and let us in.

We found parking in the shade and walked into the green space, with the museum on our left. We headed toward a fenced area near Wilshire and saw the life sized statues of mammoths and knew we were in the right place. I don't seem to recall that it smelled like tar when we were close to it, and in fact, it is not actually "tar" that fills the pits, but asphalt but it didn't smell strongly of road paving either. While we stared at the surface of the pond, we saw bubbles come up on a regular basis. It's an eerie feeling to think that it is the earth itself that is alive under these ponds.

When we got to the other side of the pond, I actually got choked up when I saw the sculptures of the mammoth family, with the mother mammoth struggling vainly in the pond and the baby watching helplessly from the shore.

After only a little while, we decided to hit the road again and availed ourselves of the public washrooms, as they wouldn't let us use the ones in the museum without paying to get in. I didn't need to see the whole museum. I am fan of museums but we had limited time and it had to be used judiciously. We went back to the car and as we drove out, I said the the booth guy, "See! We were only 30 minutes!". We were actually about 45 minutes but we got back $5 of our $8, so I didn't tell a lie.

We headed over to Hollywood Blvd next, to see the Walk of Fame. It was just as portrayed in any number of tourist articles and movies. Peter spotted Superman walking by and told me to go over so he could get my picture taken. Just as I was protesting I didn't want to, Superman came over for the picture. He said he worked for tips (of course) and when Peter stuck his hand in his pocket, he was unprepared to only find 4 quarters in there. I said, "Never mind!" and felt embarrassed but Superman posed anyway. I don't know why we didn't have any cash on us to speak of unless it was because we were paying for all this parking (we had to park underground at the Walk of Fame) but if you are reading this, Superman, sorry about it dude. Especially because you don't have pockets.

From there, we checked our now indispensable Lonely Planet Guide and it listed three different studio tours. The most expensive was Warner Brothers but the guide said it was the most fun so we went there. Even though we didn't have tickets in advance, it was no trouble to fit us into the next tour of about a dozen people, as there are tours leaving every 20 minutes. We started with a brief movie of what shows are made at WB (movies and tv shows) and then we got on the electric trolley and headed out onto the lot(s). We weren't allowed to have our cameras with us as we were driven around the lots but once or twice, we stopped and were allowed to take a few pix.


We had a very enthusiastic guide - it was his first summer doing this and he said it was the best job in the world. We saw outside sets where they were filming a new tv series with Christian Slater (the crew had just disappeared inside a building to film a scene so we didn't see anyone famous). We also saw some museums where they had an entire floor of the Harry Potter costumes. The lower floor had costumes from lots of other movies, including Casablanca, and there was Sam's piano. I was amazed to see that this little upright piano was almost half-sized. It didn't have a full 88 keys and it almost looked like a kid's piano. Coincidentally, "Casablanca" was on tv when we got home and I was amazed all over again to see that it really was a dinky little piano!


They also had a museum of some of the cars used in films, like the Batman cars, The Dukes of Hazzard Charger, Clint Eastwood's own Grand Torino (on loan), and the Nerd Herd car from the tv show "Chuck". We got to see the set where they film the tv show "The Big Bang Theory" and heard about what it was like to be a studio audience, even though we didn't get to be one.


Most shows are on hiatus in the summer, especially in August but they were filming a few things. They were just starting to dress the town square where many movies and tv shows had been filmed, for the new series "Eastwick" starring Paul Gross, who I pointed out to the tour guide was Canadian, eh.


And when the tv series “Friends” was over, they packed up all the props from the sets and put them away until they recreated the set from the Central Perk cafe scenes for an interview they were doing. When they were about to pack it all away again, apparently Jay Leno persuaded them to leave it set up and now it is on the tour.


It really was a fun tour. We bought some souvenirs and then asked the gal at the checkout where we could go to get a good view of the Hollywood sign up on the hill and she pulled out a photocopied piece of paper that had driving directions on it, for just such a request. Guess we weren't the first ones to ask. So we drove up into a suburb and got a pretty good look at the sign from a distance. The photos don't look that sharp because it was a bit foggy.

We packed a lot into this one day because we planned to hit the road the next.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A day with no dogs, in LA

As those of you who know me know, one of my reasons for choosing to go to California was the hope that I might get to meet the Dog Whisperer.  I had watched all his shows, over and over in repeats, while I was having chemo.  Plus I had discovered what he meant by "energy" when he talked about how dogs understand people.  I also felt this energy from people when they learned about my diagnosis and I could discern whether it was positive or negative.  I had written him at his 61st St. address but had received no response.  I also emailed him from his website and only got a standard response, very polite but "we don't do tours, sorry", sort of thing.  Undeterred, I had Peter put his address, which I obtained from Mr. Google, in the GPS and that was one of our destinations the next day after we got to Santa Monica.

But first, we had to do laundry.  We like to pack fairly light and this means that halfway through a two week vacation, we have to do laundry.  I brought my trusty unscented liquid Tide with me and we found the Bubbles Beach Fluff and Fold laundromat not far from the hotel and drove over there.  We were the first ones in and a very nice lady who worked there helped us get sorted out with the change and everything.  She also recommended a place for breakfast just up the street which we went to when the laundry was done.

DSC_3106  This was a very nice restaurant called Amelia’s (on Main Street) run by a Mexican husband and Italian wife team and the breakfast was good and they were friendly. After that, we dropped the clothes off at the motel and headed out to south east LA.  It's not advertised as a haven for tourists but we locked the car doors and went anyway. 

We found Cesar's place with no trouble and it looked all locked up tight.  I got out and buzzed on what appeared to be an intercom but no one answered.  Dogs barked right behind the sliding canvas barrier that you see on tv and they didn't sound very calm and submissive to me.  I decided to write a short note and stick the Canada-US flag pin on it for Cesar, when a car pulled up.  A woman was driving and she seemed to be on the cell phone in the car.  Finally, I got out and approached her and asked if I could leave something for Cesar in the mailbox.  She told me that Cesar had moved and I was dumbstruck.  And that's when I remembered that he had been going to buy a nicer place in the mountains.  And I remembered suddenly that everything we get up in Canada is last season, so even if the re-runs were the most recent, they were still old shows.

I was surprisingly calm and unperturbed.  She said she still forwarded all his mail and she took the note with the pin.  I got back in the car and Peter commiserated with me.  We reset the GPS to our next stop (which Peter had called "dog 2") and took off.  Our next stop was the fire station on Wilshire Blvd. called the 29s.  I had seen them in one of Cesar's episodes and they had a Dalmatian named Wilshire who they had got as a puppy and needed Cesar to help them.  As Cesar always says, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people.  The fire fighters seemed like nice guys in the show so I decided I would drop in on them, especially as I had been pretty sure I would not be able to see Cesar, even if he hadn't moved.  Our GPS took us there and it looked just like the street views on Google maps.  It was also locked up and no one was about.  I rang the doorbell anyway and someone showed up and let us in. 

I explained that I was on a pilgrimage (I don't know why but that word popped into my head right then) and I was hoping to say hello to Wilshire.  Just then, the Captain (who was the same fellow as in the show) walked by and said hello and I explained our little mission, that we'd come all the way from Canada just to see Wilshire.  I know that's not exactly true, but at that moment, it was.  He was just as nice as pie and he told us that unfortunately, Wilshire the dog was at the trainers that day.  But he wanted Wilshire's handler to meet us.  He called for Ryan to come over to meet us and he was also the same fellow as in the Cesar episode. They were just as nice as they could be.  I had brought a BBQ apron as a token gift and it had a maple leaf on the bib, so I gave it to them and they seemed inordinately pleased to get it.  They do do all their own cooking at the fire station so I guess it can come in handy.

It turned out that Ryan's mother (who I guess may be a little older than I am) also has breast cancer and so we had a great big hug and talked and talked until our parking meter ran out.  They invited us for a tour of the fire station but we said no, we were just happy to meet them.  For all that there was no dog there, and we forgot to take even a single photograph, that short visit was a real highlight of our trip.

If you go to the link for Wilshire, you can see all sorts of videos of him helping kids understand fire safety, like "stop, drop and roll".

Really.  Go now. I’ll wait.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

SLO, Solvang and Santa Barbara

After our leisurely but sometimes hair raising trip down the Big Sur coast, we decided to stay at San Luis Obispo for the night.  I am not sure where I first heard the name of the town but it has stuck in my head for years.  The Lonely Planet guide book writes it up nicely and it is off the beaten track because it is in from the coast a little.  We also used the Guide to direct us to a motel.  We were daring (for us) and did not book accommodations for the four nights we would be driving up and down the coast.  The Guide had not let us down in Pacific Grove so we decided to see if it would work for SLO and it did, in spades.  We pulled in to the Peachtree Inn and were bowled over by the rates (mid-week) and free internet access (the wifi at the Beachcomber was there but just not in our room).  The folks running the place also owned it and breakfast was included.  After a huddled confab, we decided to book them on the way back, especially because they were less than an hour from Hearst Castle, which we would be touring in a few days.  And because of the market on Thursday evenings, more of which later.

We asked the owner what restaurants she recommended and she gave us several business cards.  The downtown area was a 20 minute walk from the motel so we changed and headed out.  It seemed like a very pleasant place and not all touristy, with real people walking around.

We looked at a few of the restaurants and settled on the Big Sky Cafe, which was also mentioned in the Guide.  They don't take reservations at Big Sky but they had a table for us.  They had an eclectic menu and a great wine list and Peter selected a locally made Voignier, a white wine grape, even though we hadn't settled on our menu selections.  We've decided it's OK to drink red wine with fish or chicken and white wine with a BBQd New York Strip ... Well, OK, if we're having any kind of beef, a full bodied red rules!  But instead of selecting the wine to complement the meal, a lot of times we select the wine first and then we look the menu and, maybe subconsciously, select the meal to go along with it.

This time we selected the Voignier and we both selected a meal that went with it.  I had the Buttermilk fried chicken with peppered pecans.  It was tasty!  It came with corn and black eyed pea relish with cucumber tzatziki and toasted ranch dressing.  Peter wanted four or five things and said we had to come back here, they all looked so good, but finally settled on the brown sugar brined pork roast.  It was a slow roasted pork roast loin, dry rubbed with Caribbean seasonings and served on a risotto of arborio rice, yams, onions and chardonnay-garnished dried fruit with tangy mostata and veggies of the day.  They turned out to be kale with some very interesting seasonings we couldn't identify and Napa cabbage, cut fine.  We thought it was baby Bok Choi.  As usual, we passed forks-full throughout the whole meal, so it's like we both enjoyed the spoils.

Food was good, service pleasant and we were happy.  We had not realized however, that downtown was also down hill and the walk back took us more time on the suddenly apparent slope.

The next morning, we headed out for Santa Barbara, but Peter had put the town of Solvang in the GPS because it figured in the movie "Sideways" and he wanted to have a coffee at the Solvang Restaurant.  Solvang is (sort of) like little Denmark but quite touristified.  We found it nice enough but the Guide gives it the brush-off by saying, "grumpy families and blue-hairs plod down Copenhagen Dr., where over priced trinket shops lurk behind faux-Scandinavian facades".  Which is true.  But we like everywhere we go, so never mind.

We also had the Americanized version of the Danish version of a sort of donut (doughnut?) called aebleskiver, which of course we mocked by using our Swedish chef voices.  bork, bork, bork.  Even though it was very tasty and just what we were wanting at about 11 am.

We then took off for Santa Barbara, where we planned to have a late-ish lunch before ending up in Santa Monica for the night.  Again relying on the Guide (please note that I am not getting any money for recommending this book), we set the GPS for the Brophy Brothers seafood restaurant and enjoyed the spectacular California scenery all the way there.  That is one beautiful state.

We were starting to trust "her", our GPS guide, but still second-guessing some of her directions.  We were gradually coming to realize that when the GPS said "turn right in 300 feet", we were probably already, almost at the intersection.  In any event, Santa Barbara didn't seem that complicated and we got to the harbour-side restaurant with no wrong turns.  Parking initially looked to be an issue and we circled the building, wondering about what looked like a municipal lot but then, just as we were hesitating, someone pulled out of a free (non-metered) spot and we had the same serendipitous parking experience as we had had at Muir Woods.

We walked up the flight of stairs to the restaurant and were told our wait might be all of 20 minutes.  We were given a pager and I set my watch timer and we wandered back down to the docks and hung out in the sun.  We watched a fishing boat come in and unload a few barrels of fish, much approved by the local gulls.  There was a kayak rental place right below us and we watched tourists clamber in and shakily take off in their plastic boats.  Before we knew it, we were being paged and sat at our table, outside on the railing, overlooking the harbour.

The food was good and I tried to get them to hold back on the portions but it was too much to eat all at once.  I felt guilty leaving behind food on my plate but I made sure to eat all of the fish, because it had given its life so I could eat and I owed it at least that.


Pretty soon, it was time to leave and we drove along the shore line until we had to get back on the One, toward Los Angeles.  We drove through Malibu and gawked at what were apparently, over-sized houses hiding behind walls and gates and then we got to the beach part and I spotted a public changing house thingy and realized I had to pee so Peter pulled over without hesitation onto the no stopping shoulder of the highway and sat in the car while I "leapt" over the rope barrier and made a break for it.  Other than that, Malibu was unremarkable and so we continued on to Santa Monica, where we had booked two nights at a beachside motel.


We had not thought before booking (some weeks earlier) to see if they had free wifi and they did not.  You could pay for it but we had heard that Santa Monica was full of free, public wifi so we went hunting for it.  Mostly in vain.

I am sure you could spend a very nice week of your vacation in Santa Monica but we seemed uncoordinated in our plans and didn't find any outstanding dining. 


We had a nice walk on the pier and the boardwalk and did find a place to eat whence we scored some free wifi.  But it wasn't enough to post blog entries and barely good enough to do email.  We decided to call it a night and went to bed early, planning quite a few things for the next day, all day in LA.