Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Back home with the Kids

Back to Northridge, to Andy and Lizzy's flat, and time to get to know their area a bit. We drove back via a shopping centre not far from them, and I spent a very happy hour or so, whilst Ian checked out a nearby sports shop, selecting from masses of fabric and sewing hardware at "Jo-Ann's" fabric warehouse. Crafts are a big leisure activity over here, and there are even craft aisles in the local "Albertsons" (a bit like the co-op over here). Consequently, because it's not such a "specialised" activity like it is in UK, and also because cotton is still manufactured in USA, whereas we import it from them, the cost of fabric and accessories is almost half the price in US, so I was having fun. But you've always got to remember the addition of roughly 9% in two types of tax added at the till! Still!!
On Saturday it was Lizzy's 25th birthday, and we'd bought her a Mexican Lime Tree, which they were both thrilled with. Andrew bought her a rosemary plant, which she can use in cooking. So it was looking very mediterranean on their verandah! Lizzy was delighted that her mum rang her to wish her happy birthday, all the way from Saudi.
Ian and I used the kids' mountain bikes and cycled out to a little oasis in the streets of Northridge- Balboa Park. It has a large lake and lawns and planting, with cycle paths, jogging and walking tacks running around the perimeter. Really relaxing place, full of wild geese and ducks and herons sitting by the water's edge. Although it was only 7.30am by the time we arrived, the park was already ful; of people, and the car parks were full. They rise very early here. Andrew starts work at 7am, breaks for lunch at 11am, and finishes at about 4pm, unless he's got overtime.
Lizzy made a cracking breakfast of eggs, bacon and french toast. That evening we went out for a meal with them and a small group of friends from work, and then on to a bowling alley. Back at the flat, all the "dudes" gave a rock concert on "Rock-Band", which was impressive and much more skilled than our efforts a few nights ago!!
When it was suggested that we had a go, we knew it was time to go to bed, or be humiliated!!! The evening was great and the dudes that Andrew works with were really nice guys and great fun.

Our last day began with a cycle ride in the Santa Monica National Park. We drove up to Mulholland Drive, with magnificent views over the San Fernando Valley and picked up a cycle/ running/ walking trail, the Westridge Trail, where Mulholland Drive changes into a dirt track! There are several trails which run off the tops of these big hills and weave along the top of them, all the way to the sea, with great views of Downtown Los Angeles, all the way down. Unfortunately, what goes down must go up, and it was hard winding back to the cay, but well-worth it.
Altogether there are about 55miles of trails all over the Santa Monica National Parks. The Americans are great at creating these parklands and preserving some of the wildness of this area. It's a great spot where their flat is, being only half an hour cycle from the park, and a short drive from the National Parks of Santa Monica and a bit further to Big Bear.
Although it was Sunday, Andrew was working, because he'd had the previous day off for Lizzy's birthday, and when he arrived back home at 5pm, we went out to Claimjumpers, which served great, wholesome food, with fantastic veggies.

With a lump in the throat we said our goodbyes and set off for the airport, on yet another very warm, sunny, blue-sky day. Just time to call in at the secret gem that is Venice. Not the brash, Blackpool-with-sunshine, crazy, slightly seedy Venice Beach that neither of us liked, but the beautiful, character-filled area of the Venice Canals. Five canals run alongside each other, inland from the sea. The locals had built them to emulate what they had seen in Italy. Clapperboard houses mixed in with modern, chiq properties jusr a few blocks inland from the beach.

ByeBye to LAX, USA. See you again soon.
Hugs and Kisses to Andy and Lizzy from Ma and Pa!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Winter Wonderland in Socal

To start our second trail, we had to drive back up to the Aerial Tramway, from Palm Springs where we were to spend the night. We were to stay at the Holiday Inn Express,which was really good value at about £50 - admittedly it was cheaper because it was mid-week, but it was in a great spot for good value restaurants, had a lovely pool with views up to the Mountains and desert. We'd eaten at a great Chinese complete with plainly-cooked chicken, masses of green veggies, steamed rice and jasmine tea. My stomach was greatly appreciative!!
A short cable car ride up the mountain side and we were back where we'd been about a week earlier with Lizzy. We'd taken fleeces because we knew it could be cold up there, and with the mist down it was quite cold. We set off on the six-hour hike up Mt San Jacinto, 10,800ft, through pine-clad hills on great, well marked tracks. We were the first up there and had the benefit of stumbling across deer near the tracks. This was great. Walking in almost alpine scenery, whilst looking down on the grid-system development of Palm Springs in the Desert below! However there was a strong, cold breeze, as we climbed, and it became progressively colder.
We reached the summit without too much difficulty, but we were very cold, and felt a bit silly in shorts, as we dropped off and passed a couple of guys, clad in duvet jackets and several layers! We rushed to get off as quickly as possible, and couldn't wait to get back to the warm valley floor. On reaching the cable-car station, we discovered that the temperature at the top had been 37deg F, 31f with wind chill, so 0 deg, freezing, in real money!
We'd had a great walk in beautiful surroundings and both said that we'd go back there again. The beauty of it is, if we visit Andrew and Lizzy in May-time, there's more temperate areas to visit, like San Francisco, and the parks of Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. If we want to get away in our winter, then there's the guaranteed sunshine of Southern California, and the desert areas. What surprises me is that we really liked the desert and especially waking up to warm sunshine and blue skies every day.
Back to Northridge to stay with Andrew and Lizzy for a few days, before setting off back to UK on Monday.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Camping at Cottonwood

Having previously decided that two days in San Diego would definitely be enough, we set off on a camping trip back to Joshua Tree National Park, just for one night, hopefully under the stars. We'd borrowed Lizzy and Andy's camping gear- which was surprisingly quite extensive- how they grow up. Also in excellent condition and well-packed, mainly down to Lizzy, who organised the camping pack-up. I'm beginning to realise that Lizzy is quite tidy and organised about getting ready for trip- I suppose she's had plenty of practice!
Anyway, less than 3hrs later we were back in the desert. Before we'd been to the North part of the park, in the Mojave Desert, and although there were several camp-sites in that area, it was another couple of hours drive, so we decided to stick to the Colorado Desert in the south of the Park. This turned out to be a good move, because there is no drinking water in the North, whereas there was at Cottonwood Springs, where we camped. It was also very quiet, with only three other couples camping- one in an RV.
The site was great, and we pitched opposite the trail, water, restrooms not far away, complete with toilet paper,a large bbq/fire pit just for us, with stunning desert scenery. But no stats or sunset, because it was overcast.
Just after 1pm we were pitched, and all set for a walk on the trail to Lost Palms Oasis. The Ranger told us of a number of smaller routes, and said that one we wanted to do was such a long way at this time of day- all of 9mls!! Obviously hadn't come across keen walkers from the UK! Actually, we just about made it back in time, and walked at a good pace, but the desert, we learnt, is one of those places where distances can be deceptive. We did it in less than the advised time but with about half an hour or so of daylight- dark by 5.30.We'd walked over to Lost Palms Oasis, a great little spot, with a large number of Californian Palms,watered by an underground water-hole. We walked past the lush Cottonwood Springs oasis, climbing up to views over the Salton Sea, and on towards Arizona.
Once you get used to the arid, bleached views, you start to distinguish the varied and subtly colourful plants and shrubs- jojoba bushes, creosote trees- which the Indians used to make tea out of and, not as I originally thought, paint their fences with! Lots of herbal plants and shrubs- apparently a local Indian woman was famous for saying that she looked at the desert like the rest of us would look into a supermarket!
Once back at the tent there was enough light to get the bbq going, but as it got colder we wished we'd brought some more wood with us! Instead we found a nearby dead yucca and managed to keep the fire going by stripping bits off it. The Indians wouldn't have approved of us burning the materials they use to make footwear from!!
As we sat by the fire we could see tiny gerbil-like creatures looking for scraps.
A great night in the tent, hearing coyotes howling in the distance, and Ian scaring me by saying he could hear something outside!!! The following morning we awoke to a lovely pink sunrise at 6am, but not extensive because it was overcast again, though would be warm. Off for another hike up Mt Jacinto today.

Down Mexico Way

Well, not quite.
About 18mls from the Mexican border, to be exact, to San Diego. After about a 3hr drive, we arrived in San Diego. First impressions- another big city. Our 2night stay in Hampton Inn was within walking distance of the "Gas lamp area". We were right near the sea front and wandered down past the USS Midway, a floating museum, aircraft carrier docked nearby. So big, you couldn't fit it on the camera screen. On past that to a 120ft high statue, one of twenty or so art installations along the waterfront. This particularly huge one was entitled "Unconditional Surrender", and was of a marine embracing a nurse, and she's falling back into his arms!
We saw what was to be the first of numerous vagrants, pushing all their worldly goods around in shopping trolleys.
We wandered around the historic gas lamp area, a bit reminiscent of the Rocks area in Sydney, and had a superb meal at one of the "fine-dining restaurants". You can eat cheaply here, but everything comes with a waist-expanding portion of fries and coated in seasoning and mayo, with not a trace of veggies in sight, unless you count the humble gherkin! Or you can eat beautiful food, which costs a good deal more, and comes with a lot of other stuff you'd rather not have ie. "Unfortunately we haven't got that wine, and would sir prefer this one (which costs 5$ more), $5 extra here and there, just takes the edge off what would otherwise be a great meal!

The following day, up at 6.30am, and yet another blue sky, very warm day. First ferry over to Coronado Island. We LOVE ferry rides, so reminiscent of the ferries from Darling Harbour. 30mins ferry across to a sandy beach and jetty, with other commuters getting on at the other side to travel to work in the city. Coronado is lovely, with its miles of sandy beaches, harbour-side, or ocean-side. There's a historic hotel, dating back to the 1890s, famous for Edward and Mrs Simpson's first meeting, and the setting for the film , "Some Like It Hot", starring Marilyn Munroe.
It has a very opulent lobby, with dark wood and crystal chandelier.
From here, we boarded the historic city tram, which took us on a circuit of San Diego, round to the Park and world-famous zoo(which we decided not to do, but may come back to with the kids another day), around to the Old Town, where we stopped for a few hours. We had a mexican meal of quesadilla and chimichanga with re-fried beans, and then had a wander. This is where the city began. The Kumeyaay Indians were the native people, until the Mexicans took over. There is a restored house and garden, owned by the Estudillo family. Capitan Estudillo was a fort commander, and his house is built in the typical adobe construction, 3-5' thick walls of sun-baked, adobe, mud and straw bricks on a river cobble foundation. The Kumeyaay Indian worked as cowboys, raising and grazing cattle for their Mexican landlords. The garden was in the middle, full of herbs and flowers, with a cool, shady roofed terrace around the perimeter.
After a look around the tiny graveyard, with occupants who'd been shot, hung for stealing a canoe and eaten by coyotes, we boarded the bus back over the bridge to Coronado and the ferry back. Looking out from the bridge, you got a real understanding of the importance of San Diego as a military and commercial port, with vessels all the way down the port as far as the eye could see, but then it is one of a few large US ports which are on the Pacific.
Old photos in the Info Center showed how the Old Town was just a few adobe houses and scrub in the late 1880s and 40 years later, it had boomed into a large town.
That night we ate in Little Italy, an area with a lot of character, and then off tomorrow, having seen much of what San Diego has to offer, we feel. Good but we'd probably not be coming back again.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Someone's got to get back to work!

Up at 6.30 and off by 8am Drove down 4lane highways speedily back to Andrew and Lizzy's. Only took us two and a half hours. Called in at the local store to pick up some steaks for tea.
Back at the flat, all was well and the new "baby"/lime tree was in tact!
"Busman's Holiday"- Andrew spent the pm introducing Dad to the intricacies of the FIFA Match game- he's currently playing Burnley against Malaga. Ian's a bit gutted to learn that Burnley had just drawn with Man City, having been 2-0 up in the first half!!!! I bet Laura was cussing like a fish-wife!!!

U4 in Joshua Tree!

Up and off early today to head up to Joshua Tree National Park, made famous partly by the band U2, with the picture of a lone Joshua Tree, on the front of the album of the same name. The Park lies on the border between two deserts, and two subtly different climate and vegetation zones- the Mojave Desert, cooler and more moist than the Sonaran Desert, its slightly hotter, drier neighbour. The route there took us through an extensive area of windmills- 4800 in all. Situated in the valley between the San Bernardino Mountains to the north and the San Jacinto Mountain range to the south, the windmills are perfectly placed to catch the winds which almost constantly funnel down between. (Just a little bit of info especially for our mate, Stuart, who's training to be a wind turbine service engineer, or a "wind-surfing" dude, according to Jools). A weird desert landscape, full to the gills with huge wind machines, set against a crystal sharp, bright blue sky. Mum and son had to get out and take what were to be the first of a gazillion photos that day, whilst Ian patiently waited around!
We drove in through the west entrance to the park, having paid our 15$ admission fee, which was good for seven days. From top to bottom of the park, you travel over fifty miles. There are short walking trails of .25 to 3mls and a hiking trail of over 30 mls, with several campsites for tents and RVs, so that you can spend the night under the stars, with basic facilities of small restrooms, picnic table and even fire grate for bbqs, so really well equipped.
The Lonely Planet guide recommended a 3ml trail into the Hidden Valley, discovered by a member of the Keys family, who lived on a nearby ranch from 1920s to 1960s, raising five children in this hostile environment, pre-air-conditioning! The Hidden Valley has some of the best views of rock formations and plant life anywhere in the Park. Rock climbers flock in to scale the unique landscape. The circular route winds in and around the rocks, with views of Joshua Trees, yuccas and cacti, and dozens of other tenacious plants that manage to live here. Info boards tell you that the huge rocks cast shadows over the desert floor, encouraging moisture and enabling life- its own micro-climate.
Several dozen photos later we managed to tear ourselves away and drive around to Keys View, at about 5000'. We were able to look across to the famous San Andreas Fault and the Plateau below. I met and chatted to a couple from Wickersley, Rotheram, who were here in an RV and had almost been joined at their previous evenings bbq by a passing coyote, and they'd gone to sleep listening to coyotes howling to each other at night. I liked the sound of that.
We drove south through the Covington Flats, into the Sonoran desert, lost the Joshua trees, which were replaced by miles of drier hotter conditions, cholla cactus "gardens", which have a strange, stark beauty of their own. After an hour or so of this, though, we all agreed that we were more at home in greener forests and mountains!
We emerged from the south exit of the Park, after about five hours, and drove the short way back to the Hampton Inn in Palm Desert.
Because Ian spends so much time in the car driving during the day, we tend to take the easiest option at "night", and grab a burger or quesadilla, beers and margaritas a short walk across the road to "The Firehouse". Really good reasonably priced food that pleases everyone.
"night" because this can be anything from 5pm to 6.30pm. We're up at 6.30, off by 8am and back by 4pm. So meals tend to be pushed forward as a result, and as for sleeping, we haven't made it past 9pm yet!!!


Set off 11am flight to Los Angeles
Arrived 3pm. Not too bad a flight really, and collecting the Dodge car from airport went very smoothly. An hour or so later in busy LA traffic we were at Andrew and Lizzy's flat, which is literally opposite where he works. Great to see them again, and Lizzy had made us a lovely lamb curry for tea, which Ian later accused her of being too mild, as I kicked him for saying, as she'd specifically made it mild out of consideration for our post-flight tummies!!!!

am We called at Home Depot to buy a BBQ for tea! and a Mexican Lime tree, which was to become the latest addition to the family. After potting the tree, we drove down to a sea-misty Santa Monica and ate a Bubba Gumps seafood and burger bar on the pier. The food was great,and it was a shame that there was a cold sea fret over the Ocean, which meant you couldn't really see anything. We drove back along the famous Mulholland Drive and christened the new BBQ with some fantastic ribeye steaks bought from the local food-store.

After a 3 hour drive, we arrived in Big Bear National Park, after a fairly convoluted road journey. We did a short walk up Castle Rock, among rocky and pine-clad terrain. It's a lovely spot with a lake, quaint clapper-board houses, painted grey, beige and stone-coloured to blend in with the stone surroundings. Another bright, blue sky and pleasantly warm. We drove back down the twisty road to the Hampton Inn just outside the park, in the Highland area. We ate out at an Applebees and I had my first Quesadilla, which tasted great!

Our second day drive into Big Bear, where we drove along the beautifully understated "Rim of the World" road. We walked on the Pacific Crest Trail, or rather part of it, up to Cougar Trail, which Andrew and Lizzy had walked previously, with great views over the lake and across to Big Bear village. Back to the car and back to the Hampton, and another quesadilla at Applebees!!!

Because it's bright and cheery by 5.30am and more importantly, because our bodies are telling us not to stay asleep any longer, we were up and in the hotel gym for 6.30am. Weird!!! I'd been awake since 4am!!!

We were off to Palm Springs today, in the middle of the desert. We drove for an hour along ever "deserty" roads to the Aerial Tramway, or cable car, which goes a fair way up Mt Jacinto. At 10,800ft, it's the highest peak in Socal (which is the cool way of referring to Southern California).

After a brief and incredibly smooth cable car ride, we had climbed up from dry, barren desert, to pine-clad cooler forest land, with about 54mile of trails up and around the mountain. Also views across to the San Andreas Fault, the San Bernardino mountains, down towards the valley smog and Palm Springs, and on towards the incredibly salty Salton Sea, the largest land mass, the deepest below sea-level in the Western Hemisphere, or so the "exhibit" says!
A Big Sandwich with 4 types of fillings and then onto the "Living Desert". Well-thought out landscaping divided up the park into different landscapes and vegetations -Mojave, Sonaran, Colorado and Chihuahua, to name but a few. Really well done. We arrived at feeding time just in time to watch a (beep-beep) Roadrunner consume a white mouse all in one, complete with rather large pink tail! We saw hummingbirds, butterflies whose chrysalis were brought in from Florida Keys, which we'd visited when Kate was small. Fabulous plants, cholla cacti, yuccas, Joshua trees. Animals such as Lynx, big-horned sheep,which are indigenous to the area, bob-cats and coyotes.
Back to the Hampton in Palm Desert. Big rooms and big beds- kids were really happy. Off to the "Fire House" for burger and fish and chips, and margaritas, and thought I'd give the quesadillas a miss tonight. Palm Springs is very upmarket and swishy, with Palm Desert its apparent younger and less expensive neighbour. Both very beautiful, very artificial, probably very expensively sustained resorts in a strangely, hostile environment. Weird!