Thursday, 29 November 2012

Walking in Palm Springs

Palm Canyon 
Most people come to sunny Palm Springs for the golf or gambling. Not many people come here to walk in the desert! We do, but at least we have the sense to set off at 8am and be finished before lunchtime. 3 hrs is plenty even in the "cool" November weather of about 80 degrees!
We arrived here on Saturday after 4 hrs drive from Santa Barbara to quite cold weather but going to pick up. It was also Veterans Day on Sunday so hotel very busy with lots of noisy Americans especially in smokers corner right underneath our window! Added to that was our neighbour listening to the TV until 3am - unbelievable. No doubt much more civilised people in the "Bay" area.
Anyway, weather much better on Sunday so went for walk in Indian Canyon around the Palm Canyon and East canyon routes. Really beautiful seeing palms in the canyons contrasting with the sparse vegetation all around. There is not much water but what little there is supports so much life and is where local Cahuilla Indians lived.
The walk we did on Monday was in the Coachella mountains and the palms we discovered there were situated on the San Andreas fault. It was fascinating following line of the fault by observing the trees, again in sparse desert environment. The fault throws up water from below and supports growth. We completed the Pushawalla and Horseshoe Palms route. Hotter today so glad to get back and relax around the pool.
Pushawalla Palms
We were delighted to see the maid cleaning the room next door- a sure sign that we were in for a quieter night!

James Bond in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens
Really chilly start but bright blue sky.  We drove up into the hills to the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens.  Full of native plants, trees and shrubs, with informative identification boards, listing the uses that the various Native American Indian tribes put them to, medicinal, nourishment and basket weaving.  A mile long walk into a small canyon, with the remains of an old dam and water transfer system, set up by the Franciscan monks in the early 1800s, who lived in the nearby Old Mission, an imposing building, a  mile or so away.
A drive up Mountain Rd and then Gibraltar St took us almost to the top of Mt Calvary, with great views over the coastline and out to the Channel Islands, about 10 miles off shore.
Fire fighters guide to planting fire resistant plants
Lunch in town took us to the best and the cheapest meal we've had so far, at Nature Cafe.  Sweet potato and spinach soup, Thai chicken and artichoke noodle salad, and half a massive cookie each for less than $20.  They pride themselves on no additives, no unnecessary sugars and flavourings, just good, honest food.  Brilliant!  Turns out there's one at San Luis Obispo, so I think we'll probably be calling again another year.  In the afternoon Ian went to the gym in town, where the hotel had a concession for guests, free entry.  Took him to Marcel Hemp's shop and bought a hemp/organic cotton shirt for $50.  Great heavy duty cotton form the plant famous its other quality, marijuana!  Looks great on him, and it was fun to talk to the owner, Marcel, who's been there for 24years, and designs all his own clothing.  There was a lovely smell of patchouli in the shop-took me back!
In the evening, we had a pint and fish and chips during happy hour at the Brewhouse, where we've been before.  The beers are much stronger here, averaging 5% and sometimes as much as 9%!  Great buzz and really full, but difficult to get to- have to walk over the railway lines to find it!  Then went to see the new James Bond film, Skyfall.  Really good and without the hassle of having to go to Chesterfield to see it - the cinema just being a block away.  Off to Palm Springs tomorrow.  Hope it's a bit warmer there, without that cold Northerly.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Morro Bay and Santa Barbara

Detour north to Morro Bay

Josh Talbott
We'd zipped straight past here earlier, and it was with some reluctance that Ian agreed to go to yet another fabric shop!  But Morro Bay, even on a cool, overcast morning was definitely worth a visit.  With an hour to kill before the shop opened up, we wandered down to the fishing port.  An industrial backdrop of power station chimneys and transformers doesn't spoil the attraction of the real, working fishing port.  We watched as large swordfish were winched ashore from a boat, weighed and covered in ice before being cut up.
Further along we watched as the local artist, Josh Talbott ( painted a large mural, of  a seascape, painted in acrylics over a collage of his personal collection of literature about the sea.  It is to raise awareness and to protest against moves by the local energy company to survey the local coastline with imaging equipment, which basically involves high frequency sound waves being used, harming the fish, sea mammals, and ultimately threatening the fishing industry and way of life of the local community.  I hope that's right.  I was being distracted by a large pelican, which seemed to have been attracted to a kindred spirit!  His favourite work is painting seascapes over sheets of music.

Morro Bay
We both found that this central and northern regions of California seem more reflective, less driven by materialism, a bit bohemian, and back to nature.  Really like it.  Buildings are low-rise, often wooden.  Countryside is greener and tree-filled.  Advertising is low-key, with smaller stores.  We continued on, after a successful visit to a very nice shop for flannels, the Cotton Ball, to Santa Barbara, about 120mls down HW101.  The weather worsened to drizzle, with temperature dropping to the low 60s.  We booked in at the Hol Inn Express, where we've stayed before, and headed straight for the Shellfish Company Bar at the very end of Stearns Wharf, where we've been before.  Great seafood cooked in front of you, as you sit at the narrow bar, around the cookers, watching the chef at work, with flames licking up the old, battered pans.  Great fun!
A stroll down the main State St, however, revealed suggestions of a decline since last year, with several shops closed down, some looking in need of some attention, an influx of massage shops and, (the sure sign that things are on a downward trend), nail bars!!  More vagrants and beggars than last time, and just a bit shabbier than I remember.  Maybe the recession has started to bite even in the upmarket towns.  That said, Santa Barbara still has one of the most beautiful hinterlands, with pine, oak and eucalypt clad mountains, layer upon layer coming down to a lovely sea front.  Here for two nights, so we'll probably have a drive up into the mountains tomorrow.
Missing Lily, Andrew and Lizzy.  Missing little hands pulling you inside, missing little feet pattering on the wooden floor of their apartment!  The weather has gone a lot cooler and wetter up in Novato now.  Andrew and Lizzy will be pleased with the change, and Lizzy will be able to wear her new gloves, hat and scarf she got for her birthday, on 14 November.

Monterey and the Big Sur

Elephant seals on Big Sur
It was hard to leave everybody this morning, particularly a bemused Lily, but it was time to go.  We drove about 130miles south to Monterey, and stayed for one night at the Holiday Inn, separated from the sea by two major roads, Highway 101, which runs all the way to Los Angeles, past where Andrew used to live, and Highway 1, which runs along the coast and Big Sur.  All the rooms we've stayed in have been excellent and good value.
After lunch at Bubba Gumps, we walked through the historic Canning Row, made famous by Steinbeck, where there was once a thriving sardine canning industry, until over-fishing and climate change caused its collapse.  The industrial warehouses have been restored and reused as shops, in a sympathetic way.  The world-famous Monterey Aquarium is housed in one of these old warehouses, and we spent a couple of hours wandering around it.  Really enjoyed the layout of the aquarium, with massive tanks showing kelp forests, the deep sea conditions and fish, the deep sea, with sharks, turtles, sun fish to name a few.  The tanks dedicated to seahorses and sea dragons, and jellyfish were fascinating.  Would definitely go back again, and would love to take Lily there, when she's a little bit older.  Great place.

Monterey near Aquarium
The following day, we set off on the famous Highway 1, the Big Sur.  Weather unfortunately dull and thick mist over the rugged coastline, which is quite common.  Though much quieter than height of season, November seems to be the month of road repairs!  Classic of reality not meeting expectation!  Scenically stunning but stark and wild.  A road for driving but not stopping, in that what you see is all there is!  But then, just when we were both feeling a bit deflated, the most interesting sight.  The coastline flattens out and looks particularly bleak, and then you see all these, what look like white rocks in the distance, on the beach.  Turns out these are colonies of elephant seals of the Piedras Blancas.  The seals live out at on the Pacific, and come ashore for a few months in the winter to breed and give birth, and then most leave by March.  More than 4500 pups were born here this year.  It was full of seals basking in the sunshine, swishing sand over their fat bodies with their flippers, to act like sunscreen.  Large bulls were fighting at the water's edge.  It was so unexpected to see a phenomenon that only happens in this particular spot at this time of year.  We stopped overnight at a Holiday Inn express, in San Luis Obispo, exactly half way between San Fran and Los Angeles.  Just expected it to be a fairly uninteresting staging post, but turns out to be a very characterful town, busy with young undergrads at CalPoly.  At a bar in town we got talking to Jim, who worked at the recycling plant, designed and made his own retro-style clothing, and had travelled to Ireland, and was visiting Scotland next year. He recommended a fabric shop about half an hours drive back north at Moora Bay, where he lives, so thought we'd call in tomorrow!

Lily first haircut

No posh booster seat for Lily
Started the day with Lily climbing into bed with grandma, grasping a torch, hiding under the sheet like a tent and shining the torch inside!   Today was a big day for her with her first haircut. The few long kiss curls were trimmed and saved for grandmas, and the rest tidied up to reveal thicker, waiver locks!  Lily sat remarkably patiently, whilst mummy trimmed away.  Andrew seemed a little sad that his little girl had lost her long, thin curls.
I extended my jog up to Miwok Park, to enjoy the views again, as the morning already began to heat up.  Today it got up to 75deg, and too hot to sit outside until late afternoon.  but it's given cooler up here for the next few days.  At the moment it's hard to believe that it's November 5th.
Ian hired a road bike from Old Town cycle shop in town, for a very reasonable 25$ per day, compared with $50 we paid in Sonoma, and went off for a 60 ml ride to the sea via Nicasia, and Point Reyes.  Later we drove out to explore some of the many hill roads, up Vineyard Rd and San Marin Rd.  They certainly live in much leafier and greener place.  We had a smoothie at a curiously named Dr. Insomnia Cafe, followed later by a pint of Blue Moon at Finnegans Irish Bar, before returning to our last meal together for a while.
Tomorrow we head off South to Monterey, about 170miles away.


Point Reyes national park

North Beach on Pt Reyes
Day out with the family in Point  Reyes State Park.  After a quick jog in the morning with Lizzie, we set out for the state park alongside Pacific Ocean. It looks just like Scotland but with the sunny weather. The lack of trees and vegetation is due to the cold winds and salty atmosphere which are a feature of this area.
The local town is called Inverness which is appropriate. We went to North Beach which has rough sand and a lot of signs warning of sharks, rip tides and the like. Lily got her feet wet but didn't like it - too cold I think.  It was lovely kicking the ball around the beach, with views to the North and the South, and high waves crashing on the beach.  A few guys were surfing, but seemed to spend more time in the water, than riding the waves.
Back to Point Reyes Station, which we've driven through before,an interesting place with a mix of warehouse style buildings, and outpost style shops.  Quite busy and the road to the lighthouse was chocker with daytrippers so we headed off back to Novato.
The way back was full of lovely views across the channel.

The following day was spent trying to give the family some space, and us exploring the area by foot and cycle.  After we'd facetimed mum and dad and then Laura and Emma,  I went on a run up the block and then further on to the Miwok Trail, named after the Native American Miwok Indians.  The views from the top from a short, steep climb were great- across the sierra as far as the Bay of San Francisco.  It made me realise how close they are to the sea, and the city.  Wouldn't mind going back to SanFran on the ferry again.
In the afternoon, Ian and I cycled up to the Cheese Factory, about 20 miles round trip.  Ian continued on to Nicasia, whilst Lily had her afternoon sleep and mum and dad relaxed.
Our last day altogether tomorrow, so Xmas presents and birthday presents to wrap and hide away!
Trying to convince reluctant Lily to edge of water

Cycling around Sonoma

West Dry Creek Sonoma Valley
The local paper announced that this year's vintage is one of the best they've had for a long time, because of the weather.  We noticed that there are lots of new vines being planted all over.  Sonoma is more recent on the wine scene than it's more well-known neighbour Napa, just 10 miles or so away.
We booked two road bikes with a nearby bike shop, Spokefolk Cyclery in Healdsburg. We cycled along quiet vineyard roads on West Dry Creek Rd, up to Lake Sonoma, then on to a lunch stop for a sandwich at Geyserville, then along a lovely stretch of road called Red Winery Rd to Jim Town Stores where they did great coffee and cookies, in a vintage store full of hand made crafts.  Then eight miles back to the cycle shop.  We'd been out for about forty miles, fairly easy riding through the main wine-growing area, and felt we'd got to know it quite well.
On the way back to the family, we made a little detour up Adobe Canyon Rd, to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.  Plan to go back there in the future, where there are a number of walks with views out to the sea or over towards Napa Valley.  Called in for lunch at Finnegans Bar in Downtown Novato, and organised a bike to hire at the nearby bike shop.  On this occasion only able to hire one bike for Ian, but took his details for the future.  We'll give him more notice next time!
Jimtown Stores Nr Healdsburg

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Around Sonoma

What a lovely way to waken up with little Lily cuddled up next to me!  She has a cute way of putting her hand under yours!  She lies there and babbles, attempting to answer your questions about where are her eyes, ears, nose etc. What was she going to do today?  Was she going to play with her friend from the library group, called Yokari?
Packed and then we were off for a few nights in the vineyards of Sonoma, Russian River and Dry Creek, not far from the better known Napa area.
VJB Vineyards
We pulled in at our first vineyard, VJB, an Italian family vineyard, which pride themselves on enjoying wine in a sociable way, with family, friends and food.  We particularly liked the atmosphere there.  Relaxed and informal, without intimidating stuffiness you sometimes get, a lovely sunny courtyard, where you could sample wines, or just buy a glass or bottle, with sun-dried tomatoes, cheese and herbs, olives and artichokes.  Really nice place and again just up the road from the family.
On to the Hampton Inn in Windsor, a great place from which to explore Sonoma, with a reasonably priced Applebee's next door.

The forecast for the following two days wasn't great.  Hurricane Sandy was bashing the coast near New York, bringing two feet of snow to West Virginia.  Chicago has certainly been a lot colder since we left, so we were very lucky.  It was going to rain heavily this afternoon.  So exploration by car today.  First up to Russian River.  Wooden shacks hidden deep in the huge redwood trees, quiet roads, thick mist over high hills, it had a very different feel to it.  Apparently in this part of Sonoma, it's usually misty in the morning, and this burns off by lunchtime.  Perfect for growing.  Today the mist would develop into heavy rain.  Russian River is very scenic and atmospheric, littered with historic villages from the 1850s.  Bohemian and quirky.
We called into Bodega Bay for clam chowder, and watched a pelican coming in to land on the jetty, and a seal poke his head out of the water to see if any easy food was in the offing from a nearby fishing boat.
Dry Creek Valley
We hadn't been to many vineyards, so decided to pick one which looked interesting.  Quivira vineyard, recently awarded for its excellent Zinfandel, or colloquially Zin, is surrounded by acres of vineyards, undulating up the many surrounding hills.  Autumn is a great time to visit, with the vines changing colour as well as the trees.  The area is ablaze with red and gold.  Quivira sells vegetables as well as wine.  Raised beds, carefully tended support chard, rhubarb, squashes, beets, herbs, and several varieties of chilis, salad leaves to name a few.  Wine tasting has become much more expensive, doubling in price.  A 10$ tasting gives you small tastes of a lovely citrus Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Zinfandel, Grenache/Mourvèdre blend and a Syrah.  They knock the price of the tasting off the price of a bottle, if you buy.  We bought a bottle of the Grenache blend, Elusive, which is very good, but at 30$ average it's quite expensive.  Wine in the supermarkets is still very reasonable, but drinking wine in vineyards and restaurants is still high-end and special.  So different to Spain and France, where most wine is inexpensive.  Wine=wealth and status in the US!  That said, reall impressed with the area.  Very hilly, green, full of forests around the river, rustic, historic buildings and, best of all, very quiet roads.
Back to Windsor, via Healdsburg, another very chic, pretty town with a square, like Sonoma, with a Mediterranean feel.  Pretty individual, expensive shops for the well-heeled from San Fran, visiting the wine area.
San Francisco Giants have just won the World Series Baseball, so "Go Giants"!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Cycling by Car!

After an aborted attempt at cycling, with a puncture!, I took Lily for a stroll in the pram into Novato.  It had been busy with Halloween celebrations last time, so I was looking forward to a quiet stroll down the street, just me and Lily.  It was really quiet and pleasant ambling along in the sunshine.  Christmas lights were being strewn around the trees that lined both sides of the street.  It looks really pretty at night.  We made our way to the great little toy shop, on the Main Street, where I bought Lily's Christmas present and birthday present.  The shopkeepers were quite happy to have this little girl excitedly pottering around picking things up, with little squeals of joy!
Marshall Oyster Shack
A bit of lunch with Lizzy, and then Ian and I drove past Lakeside, on to the hamlet of Marshall on the sea inlet, looking across to the park of Point Reyes.  Almost like a fjord, this narrow channel of water is dotted with shellfish shacks.  We stopped at a crab shack, and ordered 6 oysters and a beer.  It's a really lovely unspoilt place, which we found to be much less touristy than some of the places on the coast further North, made more busy by their proximity to the wine-growing areas.  It's great to have this just on the doorstep of Novato.
Cheese Factory
Later we called in at Lizzy's favourite spot, the Cheese factory, home of the famous Rouge et Noir cheeses, produced by the same family for generations.  They've even won awards in London, beating French Bries!  We bought Triple Cream Brie and blue Brie to take back to the family.  We're under strict instructions not to buy any more cheesecakes, which are delicious!

San Francisco

A 45 minute ferry from Larkspur took us to San Fran.  A beautiful, sunny, chilly morning promising another hot day ahead.  The Bay is superb, with views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.  The Golden Gate stands out red against the bright blue sky.
The ferries don't run as regularly at the weekends, as they do for the commuters during the week, so we couldn't set off until 10am.  Earlier would have been more impressive in the early morning fog.
Where to start, when you're plonked down in the port!  Well, the Market at the Port is a great place to start, with warehouses full of food and chic items!  Then a long walk along the front to Fisherman's Wharf.  Not really impressed with this part- just full of gift shops and typical visitor fare!  But we did get to see the dozens of sea lions, basking in the sunshine, on pontoons floating just out from the wharf.  We moved on to Boudin's Sourdough Museum and Bakery.  Operating since the 1850s and run by the same family, it is unique to San Fran.  It's been using the same sourdough Mother Starter, yeast starter, since 1850s, and that mixed with the foggy air of the San Fran Bay makes a bread specific to the area, and yet hardly gets a mention in the Lonely Planet guidebook!  The highly informative talk and presentation by guide and boards makes the trip to the Bakery fascinating.  The massive Kenwood-style mixers are a joy to behold, mixing bread that was a feature of Greek and Roman times.  They even reimburse you the price of the admission to the factory, $3 each, if you eat on the premises, which is a treat anyway.  Clam chowder in a sourdough bun, which comes in two different sizes, so you don't need to feel over faced - unusual in US.
Famous SF Cablecar
A tram back to the port and then a famous cable car up to Union Square.  An ingenious way of being pulled up the high street, which is no mean feat here, as the streets are so steep!  Great fun travelling on the cable car, and a pleasant rest after all the walking about.
Apart from visiting Chinatown, which we'll do in the future at night, we felt we'd seen enough now and headed back.
It was wonderful to be greeted by Lily with a big hug and be pulled into the room!