Wednesday, March 30, 2011

California Central Coast - With Disaster!

Planning's really not my favorite activity but I can do it especially when it comes to travel. I'm not the type of person to just "wing it" so, unless someone else is planning the trip, I usually spend a good deal of time looking into places to stay, transportation, places to eat, and stuff to do. I'd like to think that it's not reducing the spontaneity of the experience but rather it keeps the "uh oh" moments to a minimum, which is good.

When I went back to California this past month I had planned a big trip around the state to see a whole bunch of stuff, some of which I had never seen or done. Start in San Diego, go up to Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Monterrey, San Francisco, over to Yosemite, back down to Las Vegas, out to the Grand Canyon, and then back to San Diego. All the dates, routes, and places to stay were lined up. I also took the MINI out of storage and got it serviced/reviewed to make sure it was up to the trip. Everything was ready.

First stop, Santa Barbara. After leaving San Diego at around 630am on a Thursday, taking the freeway to L.A., and then driving up the coast highway from Santa Monica, I got into Santa Barbara around noon. Had lunch in a good Indian restaurant and bought a new shirt at a store on State Street (photo below) but I left my sunglasses in the store when I tried on the shirt and didn't notice until a few hours later. I called the shop but they hadn't seen them. Okay, not a huge bummer but still; I liked them and it wasn't a good way to start the trip.

From downtown Santa Barbara, it was up over the mountain to the Santa Barbara wine region. You might have seen the movie Sideways (in Spanish: Entre Copas), which probably did more than anything else before it to make the region famous. My favorite wines are Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara and I drink it like water as often as I can. My recommendation? Caretaker Pinot Noir from Trader Joe's for about $10. I think it's the best wine I've ever had more than once. Here's a photo taken from behind the Bridlewood winery in nearby Santa Ynez, which isn't a pinot winery but is still good:

Once again, so far so good. All the way up to Morro Bay to a motel that's just about half way between San Diego and San Francisco. In the morning, breakfast was at the restaurant in the photo below that overlooked the Morro Rock. It was cool to eat with the nice views and sounds of sea lions hanging out and boats going by.

The trip north from Morro Rock up to San Francisco is almost completely along the edge of the Pacific on the 101 highway. It's super scenic and extra fun in the MINI because of all the tight curves. On this day there was very light traffic so I didn't have to slow down too often for rental cars or RVs. About an hour or so south of Monterrey near Big Sur is the often-photographed Bixby Bridge. I think it's probably the most iconic thing on the entire drive up the coast, if not the entire coast of California (well, maybe the Golden Gate but still). I had never stopped to take a photo but this trip was all about making sure that I did things that I had never done before so here's the photo:

Everything was going great. The weather was good. Traffic was light. It was a very nice Friday. The next stop was in the town of Carmel, which is just before Monterrey and probably three hours south of San Francisco via the 101. The goal was to get to San Francisco that night after quick stops in both Carmel and Monterrey.

I stopped to get some photos in a beach park in downtown Carmel but when I got back in the car and tried to start it all the power cut out. The only items in the entire car that I could tell had power to them were the back hatch release and that annoying buzzer thingy that goes off when the key is in the ignition and the door is open. Great. I went through the mental checklist and tried everything I could think of. Nothing. Crap. What now?

I figured at that point that the battery had given up the ghost since the car had been in storage for a year. I called AAA and asked them to send out a battery service. Battery service is a guy with a truck full of car batteries that comes out to give you a jump start when your battery is dead. If they can't jump start it they'll sell you a battery and install it. The guy came out and tried to jump the car but it still wouldn't crank over. Actually, there was still nothing working in the car. He tested the battery and found that what was in the car was fine. Crap...again. I asked the battery guy to call to have a regular tow truck sent out. I'd need to get it to someone who could figure it out.

About 15 minutes later, a flatbed tow truck showed up and took the car to a shop that I had found over in Monterrey, which was only about 6 miles away. It was an independent shop that specialized in foreign cars but not specifically MINIs. Being that it was getting late on a Friday, there weren't too many options as I wanted to make sure that the shop would have hours on Saturday in case it wasn't a quick fix. The mechanic at the shop was nice and told me I'd have to leave it for the night and he'd get to it first thing in the morning.

There was a Travelodge around the corner that had space and was surprising cheap and nice. Dinner that night was at a mediocre Chinese place followed by a walk down to the Monterrey Wharf, which was, as always, a great place to visit. It was back to the shop on Saturday morning to see what was up. The mechanic eventually figured out that the problem was in the ignition system "somewhere" and replaced some fuses. His guess was that it was "the immobilizer" -- a security feature that I wasn't even sure was in the car. He told me that he did as much as he could but that he'd have to keep the car until Monday when he could spend even more time on it. Crap...again.

At this point, it was get-creative time. I happened to ask the tow guy the day before how much it'd cost to tow the car back to southern California and he told me $10 per mile! That would be like $4,000 or so, which, as you can guess, wouldn't work. I decided that I didn't want to risk having to be stuck in Monterrey for a week while a mechanic who didn't know MINIs worked to figure out what was wrong.

It would be U-Haul to the rescue. In case you don't know what U-Haul is, it's a company that rents trucks to people who want to move their belongings from their old house to their new house. When people move long distances they sometimes rent a car trailer along with the truck so that they can make a one-way trip with all their items and their car. So I went to a nearby U-Haul and rented the smallest truck and trailer I could get to tow the car back down to a mechanic closer to home. At least I'd be "home" and wouldn't be stuck somewhere for who-knows-how-many days waiting for the car to be done.

With the car on the trailer, I made the drive down to SoCal and dropped off the MINI at the shop on Saturday night. After a night of fitful sleep back at Dave's, I returned the truck to a local U-Haul shop. On the good side, it cost far less than I thought but on the bad side, my plans were now, officially, out the window. Oh well, I still had my health! :-)

The MINI ended up being in the shop for over a week, which was a bummer. It turns out that a new starter that I got installed for me prior to putting the car into storage was faulty and had shorted out the car's electrical system. It would have happened sooner if I had been driving it regularly as it was destined to die. The mechanic actually figured out the problem within the first day or so but only has one lift, which was occupied already with a major engine job. He replaced the starter and did a couple of other small adjustments to the car and I eventually got it back just like it was new.

As has been said before, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry... I enjoyed the trip up the coast to Monterrey but the trip back, not so much. The MINI is back in its warm home awaiting for my return one day to the Golden State.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shabu Shabu

Buried deep in the heart of Orange County is a restaurant that can be a little hard to categorize...but I'll try. California Shabu Shabu is a Japanese-style place that is fully Orange County but, like much of Orange County itself, very foreign.

Shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), which originated in Osaka Japan during the mid 1900s, is based on the Chinese-hot-pot style of cooking. The Japanese name comes from the sound the food makes as it's waved back and forth in the boiling water, literally "swish swish".

California Shabu Shabu is a California-ized version of shabu shabu. In this case, each person has their own pot of boiling water to which you add your choice of thinly sliced meat, sauces, veggies, and tofu. A more traditional version would be served family style where a family or group would share the same pot. I once had an amazing shabu shabu with a group of 8 or 9 people while in a tiny bar in downtown Nagasaki. What they serve here is similar but comes with the BONUS of being able to understand more than 15-20% of what's being said around me!!!

Most ingredients are cooked and eaten individually. The cooking process only takes a few seconds for the meat and less than a minute for most of the veggies. When you're done cooking all of your ingredients you're left with a brothy liquid that you can add rice or, my favorite, udon noodles to make a great soup.

California Shabu Shabu is one of my favorite OC places to eat and is one of several Japanese-style and authentic Japanese businesses located near the intersection of Bristol and Baker streets in Costa Mesa. The place is fun and sometimes exciting as the folks who go there are usually having a good time playing with their food and drinking beer or sake.

If you haven't been there yet, get your butt into your car and go. Better yet, give me a call and we'll go together. You can thank me later...maybe by buying me something interesting at the nearby Mitsui Japanese supermarket! For now, swish swish しゃぶしゃぶ。。。

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Palm Springs

I love going out to the desert, more specifically, I love going out to Palm Springs. It's only about three hours from North County San Diego via fun, twisty back roads. I try to make it out at least once a year right around my birthday to check out the wild flowers that grow around that time of year and to potentially see some snow up on Mount San Jacinto.

Palm Springs has a whole bunch of history originally serving as a place for folks in southern California to go during the "brutal" winter months. Over the years it's turned into a snowbird paradise when folks from the northern parts of the U.S. move to town. What we now call Palm Springs is actually made up of bunch of small cities including the cities of Palm Springs, Desert Hot Sprints, and so on. There's about 1/2 million people out there and it gets hot...f'n hot during the summer. This is Palm Canyon Drive that runs through the downtown area of the city of Palm Springs. It's kinda' like main street...

This time of year is usually beautiful out in the desert. This year it was exceptionally green and full of wild flowers, which was bit surprising because it was the greenest I've ever seen it. This is a photo taken near the tram station looking north towards the San Bernardino mountains with some snow on them:

Probably my favorite thing to do is take the Palm Springs Aerial Tram up to the top of San Jacinto. It's sometimes referred to the Palms-To-Pines tramway because it starts in the dry desert and ends in the pine trees and (winter) snow at the top of the mountain. This photo was taken at about the half-way point of the ride up where you can see only desert landscape:

This year was a good year for snow because there was still plenty of it on the mountain. In this photo you can see the snow on San Jacinto on the right, the Palm Springs area in the center, the Chocolate Mountains to the left (where part of the San Andreas fault is), and the Salton Sea towards the top right:

I once took the tram up to the top with John to snowboard down from the peak of San Jacinto. It took about three hours to hike up with all our stuff and I remember both the hike and the ride down like it was yesterday. This time, though, it was just walking around, checking out the snow and the views. Verrrrry nice!

On the way out of the desert via the freeway route you pass what looks to be thousands of wind mills. The pass between San Jacinto and the San Bernardino mountains always has strong winds going through it so they've built huge wind farms to take advantage of it. This photo was taken out the front of the car while on the 10 freeway just west of Palm Springs:

I can definitely understand why so many people go to the desert during the winter. It's beautiful and a fun place to visit. I'm just not sure I'd want to have to stay there all summer when the temps are up around 120 degrees or so. They say that it's a dry heat but, damn, 120 and dry is still HOT! I'll happily take my 85 degree days in March though.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Former Coworker Get Together

This past Friday night Dave had a bunch of folks that I used to work with over at his house for a get together. See, he still works there but hadn't held a house warming at his new place yet. Having me stay with him gave him the motivation to finally have them over.

We drank wine, ate snacks, and had a fun time catching up. It was nice to see everyone again. Thanks to (clockwise from top left) Nicole, Dave, Ruma, Andrew, Heather (not a former coworker), and Malin for coming out. Also, thanks to Belgis and Marina who left before we started taking photos, Diana who took this photo, and to Jen who was at work. I miss you guys and can't wait to see you again soon!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

San Diego Zoo

So you're in San Diego. Other than warm weather, sunshine, and Mexican food, what do you think of? The world-famous San Diego Zoo of course!

The zoo is in Balboa Park, which is just north of downtown San Diego. The whole place is like a giant botanical garden with some animals mixed in. For most visitors, the highlight is seeing one or two of the three resident pandas on loan from China:

Since I reached my panda quota while visiting the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base in China late last year, I only made a brief stop at their pens. I was in a rush to get over to Hippo Beach because they just had a baby hippo born at the zoo and I wanted to see it swimming in the giant pool:

The San Diego Zoo has two "beach-style" enclosures and I love them. The first is the hippo one above and they also have Polar Bear Plunge. Usually there are a couple of polar bears playing in the pool but, unfortunately, there was only one sleeping bear on duty while I was there. I even went back to the enclosure twice to try to get to see it swimming but didn't have any luck. I counted my blessings to have seen the baby hippo and went on to enjoy the rest of the zoo.

One of the coolest things I saw during the visit was in the cheetah enclosure. When a baby cheetah is born or added at the zoo they pair it up with a dog who then becomes the cheetah's life-long friend. Apparently, the dog helps to calm the cheetah especially when they do human-cheetah encounters. When the cheetah sees that the dog is calm it becomes calmer and since it's (I guess) easier to calm a dog it works out well. It was cute to see them running around and even playing a little together in their enclosure:

Because the zoo was empty, I was able to see the whole thing in a couple of hours. I remember going there with my mom about ten years ago and it being relatively empty too. The photos from that trip were old-school-film style so I don't have any available to post. As a consolation prize, here's a random photo of some animals standing on their hind legs eating branches, which was cute, along with the nearby church in Balboa Park.

The combination of San Diego's weather, the beautiful plants, and Balboa Park make the zoo an absolutely must-do while there. Next time I'm in town I'll go back to the San Diego Safari Park (formerly San Diego Wild Animal Park) up in Escondido as that's even more fun.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pollos Maria

My first visit to California was waaaaay back in 1989 when I came out to visit my high-school friend Joe who had moved out to Carlsbad about a year earlier. On the first afternoon he took me to my first real Mexican restaurant. That place was (and still is) called Pollos Maria and it's in Carlsbad just a few blocks from the beach.

Pollos means "chicken" in Spanish and Maria, well Maria means "Maria" in Spanish... So, it's Maria's Chicken restaurant if it were in English. As you can sort of see in the photo above, it's located in an old converted house and has fire pits out front on the patio. Maria's specializes in flame-broiled chicken and other healthy Mexican food items.

I've always had a warm place in my heart for Pollos Maria since it was my "first". When I moved to Carlsbad a couple of years ago I would stop by at least once or twice a week on my way home to pick up a chicken combo that comes with rice, beans, and tortillas. I'd load up on the free chili-verde salsa and some of the fresh jalapeno-and-carrot mix.

It made for a great after-gym stop because I could sit outside by the fires in my sweaty clothes and no one'd mind. Like the Kebab Shop, Pollos Maria is a spot where everyone I've taken there has really enjoyed it. It doesn't have the addictive quality the Kebab Shop does but it's still super good. If you'd like to go, let me know and, if I'm in town, I'll go with you!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Los Angeles

So, I spent about four full days last week "up in L.A." and while writing this story I got to thinking about "what is L.A." and how to do I sum it up in one post rather than writing 10 different stories? Let's try this!

First off, if you've never been to Los Angeles, your image of what L.A. is geographically is probably much smaller than what people in California refer to it as. There are really two L.A.s when people talk about the place. The first is Los Angeles CITY, which contains areas like Hollywood, South Central, the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro, and West L.A. There are other independent cities mixed in (and completely surrounded by the city of L.A.) such as Beverly Hills, Culver City, and West Hollywood. These cities all combine with outlying unincorporated areas to form Los Angeles COUNTY. The combination of the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and Ventura counties make up what is often referred to as the "L.A. area". This giant megapolis covers about 4,900 square miles (12,500 km2) and is home to around 18 million people. It's big! You can spend months traveling around and not even come close to seeing it or understanding it all. What I'm sharing here is only scratching the surface of what L.A. is.

Back in the early 90s, I attended the University of Southern California (U.S.C.) to get my Master's degree. U.S.C is located about five minutes from downtown Los Angeles (yes Virginia, L.A. has a downtown) so I'll start from near there. Just up the street from the school is the Staples Center where the two L.A. basketball teams (the Lakers and the Clippers) and the L.A. Kings ice-hockey team play. Over the years, they've really built up the surrounding area with tons of shops, restaurants, and hotels. This photo is looking north on Figueroa Street towards downtown:

The next stop on our abbreviated tour is the Our Lady Of The Angels catholic cathedral, which is located next to the 101 freeway on the northern end (of the center) of downtown. It has a not-very-church-like exterior and the interior kinda' feels more like a concert hall than a church but it's a definite must-do if you're on an architectural tour of the area.

One of the newer highlights of downtown L.A. is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was designed by Canadian-born but L.A.-based Frank Gehry. Gehry is probably best known for the similar-styled Guggenheim Museum in northern Spain. I have no idea how the quality of sound is for concerts but the exterior is awesome to see because it is such a radical design. The majority of the structure is made out of stainless steel and has no straight walls. It's also a must-see and only a couple of blocks from the cathedral.

As you move out west from downtown, you come to the internationally-famous neighborhood of Hollywood. For many people, the word Hollywood is associated with images of movie stars, movies being made in the streets, and possibly a beautiful area. Well, it is occasionally like that but not normally. Most of the famous people live in the hills west of Hollywood and most movies and TV shows are made in the suburbs. What makes it a great place to visit are things like the Kodak Theater where the Academy Awards are held:

...and Grauman's Chinese Theater, which is famous for the hand prints and signatures of celebrities that can be found in the concrete in front of the theater.

Hollywood is full of fun things to check out. Probably the most famous is the Walk Of Fame where the (honorary) city of Hollywood has given many celebrities a star on the sidewalk. It's fun to walk around and find and take your photo with the stars for people you like. The area in front of the Chinese Theater is also full of celebrity-look-a-likes. I saw Tom Cruise, Catwoman, Spiderman, and even Darth Vader when I was there.

No visit to the area would be complete without getting your photo in front of the famous Hollywood sign. The sign was originally built in 1923 as a temporary advertisement for a nearby housing development that was being built. It originally said "Hollywoodland" but the "land" part was later removed when a renovation was done to make the sign more durable and permanent. This shot was taken near the Lake Hollywood Park, which is about as close as you can legally get to the sign (hint hint!):

Going a little bit farther west along Mulholland Drive from the Hollywood sign, you come to one of my favorite view points in L.A. Located just above the Hollywood Bowl (the seating for which you can see to the left of my head in the photo) all of downtown, Hollywood, the 101 freeway, and much of the west side is visible from this spot.

I couldn't resist putting a photo of some L.A. traffic in this post. The area is famous for its traffic and rightfully so. I remember when I moved out to L.A. and sat in my first 11:30pm-on-a-Saturday traffic jam. Anyone who's lived in L.A. can vouch for the experience. Still, one thing I can say after traveling around the world, southern California drivers are generally excellent. I know there are a ton of people that will roll their eyes at that statement but where else do you have people driving 75 miles per hour well in dense traffic situations? Also, my guess, is that a higher percentage of people use their turn signals here than almost anywhere else I've been, save Japan. This photo was taken on the 110 freeway heading south in downtown L.A. at about 6pm Saturday night (and, no, there wasn't an accident or any other blockage):

Finally, what I love best about L.A. besides the weather is that you have this massive urban area that's on the edge of the ocean. No matter how crowded L.A. feels, I challenge you to not feel relaxed at one of the many beaches. One of my favorite spots in all of L.A. to see the ocean and great views is this cliff side in Palos Verdes, which is in the southwest corner of Los Angeles county. From this spot, you can see almost all of the coastline of L.A. county, the tall buildings of Century City and downtown L.A., and the snow-covered mountains beyond the city. (If you look hard enough in this photo, you can see one of the Goodyear blimps flying just off the coast.)

If you can't tell from this story, I love L.A. The mix of cultures, people, weather, recreational activities, and scenery make for an amazing place. It may, at times, be a little crazy, but like family, there's just something that you love about it even though you sometimes hate to love it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Getty Center

There are those who say that Los Angeles has no cultural significance because it's not "old world" like places in Europe or even in New York with their old churches, museums, and attractions. In my experience, it's mostly people who see L.A. only as "the land of plastic surgery and sunshine" or who have never actually spent any time there. I love L.A. for lots of reasons but especially for the mix of cultures that you can find pretty much on every corner in the city.

One of the newest and probably best places to visit in the city if you're looking for a bit of culture is The Getty Center. This large museum complex is located on top of a hill in west Los Angeles that overlooks the 405 freeway and a lot of the city beyond. To get to the museum buildings and gardens you need to park in an underground parking lot near the freeway and take their tram up the hill.

The parking costs $15 per car but the museum is free to visit. Once you get off the tram and walk up a flight of steps, you're rewarded with amazing views of the city, ocean, Getty buildings, and the Getty Center Garden. It's quite impressive.

The view of Century City and downtown LA beyond:

During my last visit about a year ago and on this recent visit the museum had large photographic exhibits. This time there were three different ones that I saw all of which were of different places in Asia. One set of photos that was particularly cool for me was of scenes in China from over a hundred years ago. In the bottom-left photo below you can see the main gate in the city of Xi'an, which I visited and wrote about back in November. It was very cool to see those places as they were a long time ago.

I like going to the Getty to hang out in the gardens but the exhibits are also great. The Getty may not be adequate for some culture snobs but it's fun none the less. Besides, where else can you go to a great museum in late winter and get a sunburn at the same time?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Daily Habit TV Show Filming

I first met my friend John on my first trip to California in 1989. He used to live in Oceanside so we've spent lots of time together including many fun snowboarding trips. John moved up to Los Angeles about six or seven years ago to work for Fuel TV, which is one of Fox Sport's channels and is dedicated to lifestyle (extreme) sports. I was up in his office last year but I jumped at the chance to go see his show being taped last week over at the nearby Fox Studios in west Los Angeles:

The studio is sort of a Mecca for me because a couple of things were made here over the years that you might have heard about. A little movie called Star Wars was made here in the 70s:

...and something called The Simpsons came from here too:

I'm sure John's show, The Daily Habit, will be up there on the side of one of those buildings one day. For now, they share studio space with Fox's Sunday football program. There's a whole bunch of photos on the walls of former (American) football stars with the various employees. John told me that you'll occasionally see them wandering the halls. I, unfortunately, didn't see any of them during my visit but I did get a photo next to this banner...

The layout of the studio is pretty much like that of all my TV-show experiences. :-) There's a Green Room where people who will be on the show can relax, eat some snacks, and wait for their turn. This particular room is used on Sundays for the football show and John told me that each of the TVs will have a different game showing on them. While there, I may have enjoyed a free bottle of water and an apple but I can't confirm it.

They record four episodes of the Daily Habit along with four different band's performances each week. The day that I was there they were filming a band called Dance Gavin Dance, which seemed to me like a combo of metal, hardcore, and screaming. I'm sure that they have lots of fans but I probably won't be loading them onto my iPod anytime soon.

Between band sets we went into the control room to watch what happens there. Basically, the director sits in front of all the monitors and tells the other folks to change what will ultimately show on your TV to another camera or angle. It was cool to see the "processed/produced" version of the program since it looks and sounds so much better than what you see in the studio.

Thank you John for letting me stay at your cool new place next to the beach and for taking me to see what you do! It was fun to go "all Hollywood" during my trip up to LA.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Driving fast. If there was a Like button for it, I'd click it in a second.

Because driving fast in my car on city streets isn't really a good idea, I love going go-karting whenever I can. The local karting place is called K1 Speed and it's located in Carlsbad, which is in the northern part of San Diego county. Their track is inside a warehouse and they use electric karts, which is kinda' nice since you don't leave smelling like a two-stroke motor...

I've been karting many times including once in Barcelona, once with the MINI club, and to this particular location quite a few times. I've even taken my crew from my last job twice as a thank you. I'm such a nice guy, huh? :-) Anyway, Diana, Jen, Dave, and I headed over the other night for a quick race.

The facility is super nice and I always have a ton of fun. You usually race with about seven or eight other folks of varying skills but if you have a big enough group you can all run together. The night we went there was a group who I could tell goes frequently. They all had their own helmets and were very competitive.

After a quick lesson on driving etiquette and the different color flags used on the track, we mounted up for our race.

A session lasts for about 10 laps, each of which takes about 40 seconds or so. I love getting to slide around the corners and trying to improve my times on each lap. By the end of the four-minute session, I actually start to feel a little bit of much for a potential career at Top Gun...

Zoom zoom! Like! Like! Thanks for a fun night out and lets do it again soon!