Tuesday, September 29, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Point Lobos

When we checked into the Secret Garden in Carmel, Michael, our host, recommended that we visit the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and hike the Cypress Grove Trail.  On this trail, he told us, we would see one of only two places where the Monterey Cypress trees grew naturally - the other being on the Monterrey Peninsula around Pebble Beach.  (More on that in a future post.)  While Monterrey Cypress are found other places, it's because they have been planted there by people.

On Wednesday morning, Sept. 23, we decided to visit the park early in the morning to get in a walk before breakfast.  During a couple hours spent at the park, we saw some spectacular scenery.  It was the highlight of the vacation so far, and it spoiled us for some of the scenery we saw later in the trip.

Point Lobos is a 350 acre park located three miles south of Carmel on Hwy 1.  The reserve includes several offshore areas - accessible only to divers.  

The name "Point Lobos" is derived from "Punta de los Lobos Marinos" or "Point of the Sea Wolves" - so named because sea lions frequent the offshore rocks.  We saw a few of these original residents during our hike.  They were sunning themselves on a rock about a hundred yards offshore.

The Cypress Grove trail takes you through the Allan Memorial Grove - named for Alexander Allan, an engineer and conservationist who, in the 1930's, bought much of the land that now makes up the Point Lobos Reserve.  At that time a real estate developer had drawn up plans to sell a thousand tracts for houses and create a subdivision called "Carmelito".  We are fortunate that Mr. Allan intervened!  The trail follows the contours of a point that juts out into the ocean.  The combination of forest and ocean creates some memorable views. 

As we began our hike, before we ever saw the ocean, we saw the cypress trees silhouetted against a clear blue morning sky.  There is something about the shape of these trees that lets you know you are no longer in your familiar back yard.  You are approaching something wild and different.

In the morning light, the forest could be alternately beautiful and spooky.  Some of the trees looked like they belonged in story books.  Harry Potter could have had a nasty encounter with this one.

And then we rounded a bend in the trail and began to see the trees against the backdrop of the sea crashing over the rocks.

Following the trail leads to views of larger rock formations, with Carmel across the bay in the background.

In places, there is an eeriness to the grove.  Some of the trees are bleached white by the salt spray.  Many have an orange lichen growing on them.  The combination is otherworldly.


We spent over an hour walking slowly along the mile long Cypress Grove trail.  It was early in the day and there were no other visitors to the park.  The only sound was that of the surf, and the occasional sea bird flying nearby.  In some places, the early morning fog had still not burned off.


A different trail in the Reserve takes you around Whaler's Cove and to the Whaler's Cabin - a small structure built in the 1850's by Chinese fishermen.  It has been restored and now houses a small museum with exhibits on the various commercial fishing ventures that have taken place in the area over the last 150 years.  During the restoration, pieces of whale vertebrae were found used as foundation stones.  The large tree at the end of the building was probably a sapling when the cabin was built.  It now protrudes into the building.  In this photo, Mary and Katherine, the docent on duty, are setting up a telescope to get a closer look at a pair of egrets across the cove.

So much of what we've seen on this trip is accessible (though not fully appreciated) through the window of a car.  Our experience at Point Lobos was shaped in large measure by the time and pace of our examination.  To see it required us to get out of the car and make an effort.  We could not rush by it, talking on cell phones or listening to the radio.  We had to walk slowly and deliberately.  The path was prepared for us, but it was rocky and uneven and required our attention to every step.  We had to "be there", to be aware and mindful of our surroundings.  And because we took our time, we came away with clear memories, images not blurred by velocity or inattention.  We saw something worth seeing ... and worth remembering.   

Sadly, my small photos on this small web page don't do justice to the beauty we saw at Point Lobos.  I guess you'll just have to go there and see it yourself.  Please do!


Friday, September 25, 2015

West Coast Vacation: The Secret Garden

One of the decisions we made as we planned this trip was to stay almost exclusively in properties listed on AirBnB (airbnb.com).  This site allows individuals to rent out extra rooms to entire apartments or homes for travelers. 

Properties get rated by the people who stay there, and we, as renters, get rated by the property owners.  This check-and-balance helps deter dishonest listings and vandalism of the accommodations.  You generally request a lodging and get a confirmation from the owner, presumably after they have checked your online reputation.

We have used it frequently over the past few years and have found the lodgings to be economical (usually cheaper than a hotel, particularly in metropolitan areas), well maintained and having much greater personality than your typical hotel room. 

The Secret Garden in Carmel, California was one of the best experiences we've had using AirBnB.  In addition to being positively reviewed, the owners, Jill and Michael, were on site and welcomed us when we arrived at their home. 

Their house sits just off California Highway 1 - the scenic Pacific Coast Highway we traveled part way from Santa Monica to Carmel.  It's one of those places that's easy to find - once you've been there.  It took a cell phone call to Michael to confirm the location.  After that, we found our way easily. 

The gate shown above is the entrance to their courtyard.  Inside, a brick path winds around the house, through a beautiful small garden, to their extra room.  It had an outside entrance, ensuring privacy for guests.

A small sitting area is nestled in the corner of the garden, just outside the room.

Inside, we found a room that had been recently remodeled by Michael and Jill, with wooden plank walls stained a light gray.  We were tickled to see the bird motif bedspread (we have an identical spread in one of our guest rooms.)  Jill had continued the bird theme in the decorative plates hanging on the wall and others in the cupboard for our use. 

In addition to creating a warm and inviting guest room, Jill and Michael also provided a variety of amenities for their guests.  These included freshly ground organic coffee, maps and guidebooks, and passes to local parks and the Monterrey Aquarium.

We stayed two nights in The Secret Garden while we explored Carmel and Monterrey.  The small table in the corner was a perfect place to eat take out food (which we did the first night after a long day on the road), and to plan our activities for the day.

This was exactly the kind of place we wanted to stay in on this trip.  If we have reason to go back to Carmel in the future, our first choice for lodging will be the Secret Garden.

West Coast Vacation: Santa Monica to Carmel

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

This morning we were up and out by 6:30am.  California Highway 1, aka The Pacific Coast Highway, was accessible a few blocks from our apartment, and that's where we went.  It was a gray and overcast morning - not very "scenic".  We moved with traffic north from Santa Monica and into Malibu.  We could see the ocean much of the time, but there wasn't much to see - gray water, gray sky.  It didn't matter though - we were up and moving.  It would get better. 

After Malibu, the scenery became more sparse - fewer people and developments, more open space.  The ground around us looked alternately like the surface of the moon, the landscape in Afghanistan (based on what we've seen in the news), or some other barren landscape. 

We made it to Oxnard and began to see a difference.  We were now in commercial agriculture territory.  We saw acres of fields neatly plowed into raised beds with taut plastic covers over them.  We saw row after row of plants on trellises under white covers.  After a few miles we figured out these were grapes.  We saw fields with many different kinds of produce being grown - tomatoes in one area.  Row after row of lime trees in another.  Long, multiple hooped covers with shrubbery - probably destined for back yards in the east and Midwest.  Everywhere we looked the ground seemed brown and dry - reflecting the drought that has affected California for several years.  Many of the farms had irrigation systems in place - long slender pipes running parallel to the beds, with an occasional upright leading to a spigot.  Many farms appeared to be using drip irrigation - a method that uses tubing with small holes that lay on the ground throughout the bed.  It drips water into the soil - a more efficient method than spraying water into the air.

We saw lots of equipment - tractors, trucks, pumps, generators - all the tools of modern, large-scale agriculture production.  But we also saw people - small groups in the fields, many wearing broad-brimmed hats, bent over, picking the produce that will end up on our grocery store shelves for our consumption.  We guessed that most of the people doing this work had brown skin.  We saw the rough houses they lived in along side the fields.  We saw them walking to the fields.  We knew they live a hard life and hope they find some sense of satisfaction and reward in what they do, for we are dependent on them for our food.

And we made a wrong turn somewhere along the way.  We naively thought that Highway 1 would be clearly signposted, but apparently it was not.  We stopped for coffee in the town of Moorpark and realized we were off course.  Cursing, we asked Siri for redirection and spent an hour or more on Highway 101 getting back on track.  We looked at our road atlas and decided to stay on 101 for a while to make up lost time.  It didn't seem to matter much, since the morning was so gray.

We passed Santa Barbara on the 101.  We had stayed there are few years ago and enjoyed the town.  Today, we couldn't tell it from any other place that an interstate highway bypasses.

After awhile we stopped at a rest area outside Govita.  When we got out of the car, we were surprised by how windy it was.  The terrain looked like much of what we had seen all morning - dry, brown, windswept.

Then the first amazing thing of the day happened - we drove through the tunnel, around a corner and BANG! - we went from gray, overcast skies to clear, blue skies with the sun shining!

Within a few miles we were in the Los Alamos area and saw acres of vineyards.

We stayed on Hwy 101 to San Luis Obispo, then reconnected with Hwy 1 to proceed up the coast.  The scenery got progressively better as we continued north.

We stopped often.  ...to see the sea lions lounging on the beach.

...to look at the road ahead.

We began noting a change in vegetation - seeing the Cypress trees that are a prominent symbol of the central California coast.

The coast changed - becoming more rocky, and more colorful.

And when we looked back, we could see how the ribbon of road paralleled the ocean.

We stopped to appreciate the small details which were easily overlooked in the context of the grand landscapes we saw.  (We learned later that this flower is Anise.)

As we proceeded north, the landscape became rockier, sharper, more well defined.

And then, at the end of a long day of driving, we arrived at The Secret Garden.

More to come!


Thursday, September 24, 2015

West Coast Vacation: Staging in Santa Monica

Our first few days were spent in Santa Monica, California, visiting with our daughter Sarah and getting ready for the road trip.

We flew to Santa Monica from Indy on Saturday morning.  It was a 7:15am flight, which meant getting up way early to do the hour drive to the airport.  This meant disturbing the routines of our two Boston Terriers, Beans and Sox. 

If you live with dogs, you know that they develop a sixth sense about your activities.  Beans, our older BT, gets nervous whenever we get out the suitcases.  She starts to shiver and will hardly get out from underfoot until we drive away.  Mary got smart this time and put both dogs in a back bedroom while she got the suitcases out and set them on our bed.  While Beans' radar was twitching while we packed, she didn't get alarmed like usual.  On Saturday morning, Mary took them into the back room while I loaded the suitcases into the car.  That diversion, along with a couple dog biscuits, allowed us to slip away without a lot of drama.  (Don't worry...we didn't leave them alone for two weeks!  Our other daughter, Katie, is house sitting.  She and fiancé Adam came out later in the morning.)

We were on the road by 4:30.  It was a dark drive to Indy, compounded by construction - concrete barriers crowding the shoulders, dim lines, lanes rerouted - and rain.  We white-knuckled it through to the airport.  Not a great start for a driving vacation.

Running the gauntlet through airport security is always a hassle.  Nine times out of ten, my bag gets pulled to the side and the TSA agents have to inspect it.  This morning, though, it was Mary's turn to win the lottery.  Her bag ended up in the bad suitcase lane, and a terse agent (remember -  it's 6:00am and his job is to rustle through peoples' personal belongings) asked permission to search it.  Mary said "Sure, go ahead.  I don't know what you're going to find, though."  As the agent opened her bag, she muttered "Oh, shit.  I forgot!" 

"Forgot what?", I asked.

"My shampoo and conditioner.  I forgot to put them in the bag we checked.  Damn it!"

At about that point, the TSA agent pulled three plastic bottles from her suitcase - shampoo, conditioner and eyeglass cleaner.  "Sorry, ma'am, these are larger than 3 ounces.  You can't take them on board."

Now I'm standing there thinking how much can this cost, five or six bucks?, when Mary says to the guy, "I hope you can take that stuff home to your wife.  It's fifty bucks worth of product!"  (This is why I don't enquire about what a trip to the stylist costs, nor am I ever told.)

"No, ma'am.  We can't keep it.  You can go back out to the lobby and check your bag, if you like."

Mary muttered something, and I stepped in.  "Just let it go", I said, and guided her to the end of the line and on towards our gate.

Thankfully, the flight was uneventful.  I took a nap while Mary read a magazine.  She doesn't sleep on a plane.  Her explanation:  "I can't sleep.  I have to be ready in case the pilot needs me to fly the plane." 

After a couple hours in the air, the pilot announced that we should look out the left side of the plane.  It was a beautiful clear morning and we were flying over the Grand Canyon.  We had a great view.

Sarah and Pearl, her French Bulldog, met us at LAX and drove us back to their apartment.  Along the way we passed what, to us, was a typical crazy California sight - a CVS drug store that had a two story high, three-dimensional figure of an evil looking cross-dressing clown on its façade.  I didn't get a picture because we were anxious to get to the apartment.  "We'll come back later for a photo", I said.  That statement became the basis for our first new rule of the vacation:  If you see something photo-worthy, take the picture now!  Don't plan on coming back to get it later.  You won't...especially if you have to contend with LA traffic.

Mary's brother, Eddie, drove up from Carlsbad and met us for brunch.  We don't get to see him very often, so it was a fun way to start our time in California.
We checked in at the AirBnB apartment mid afternoon.  It was in an apartment building in downtown Santa Monica, about 7 blocks from the beach.  Nothing special, in fact it was smaller and not as well equipped as the online description had led us to believe.  We quickly discovered that the internet and cable TV did not work.  Yep, we wanted to get away and disconnect.  Be careful what you ask for!
However, the temperature in Santa Monica was in the mid-90's, much higher than normal for them.  Many places, including Sarah's apartment, didn't have air conditioning.  We stocked up with wine and snacks from a nearby grocery store and happily spent the late afternoon and evening sitting and talking.  Yes...talking.  Remember that?
On Sunday I bought an LA Times and enjoyed sitting on the patiodrinking coffee and reading a real newspaper.  (The Columbus Gazette lasts me about 5 minutes on a typical Sunday!)  While I read the book review section, Mary read the real estate ads aloud:  So-and-so director's estate is up for sale for $55M.  Marginally known actress selling her big house for $12M.  She bought it 3 years ago for $9M.  Wish I could get that type of appreciation!
Later in the morning, we walked to the beach and along the walking / skating / biking path for a mile or so til we got to Sarah's side of town. 

There was a lot of activity on the beach that morning.  In addition to the joggers and bike riders, there were local surfing schools holding classes near the water's edge and some aerobics classes being held in the sand.  Of course, there was also beach volleyball.  We saw three teenagers doing acrobatics off the concrete curb.  They took turns running across the sidewalk, leaping up onto the curb and doing flips in the air.  Mary asked if they could do it together, and they obliged.

Away from the beach, we wandered through the local Farmer's Market.  It occupied almost a full city block and was open all day on Sunday - imagine that!  We sat on the sidewalk and ate delicious burritos stuffed with organic vegetables, rice and feta cheese while we listened to a quartet mangle some otherwise good songs.  You gotta take the good with the bad.
On Sunday evening, Sarah recommend that we have dinner at Seasons 52  ( https://www.seasons52.com/ ).  It was our first great meal of the trip.  Our waitress, Stacy, had a great sense of humor and was very knowledgeable about everything on the menu.
We began with appetizers.  We had an Ahi Tuna Tartare that was fabulous.  It was layered with wasabi-avocado mousse and a tropical salsa and was served with Hawaiian sea-salt crisps.  (I could have ordered a second one and stopped there.  OK...who am I kidding!) 
Along with it we had a flatbread with a trio of roasted mushrooms, garlic confit, spinach, green onions, goat cheese and truffle oil.  Also delicious.
As an entree, I had Asian-glazed Chilean Sea Bass with organic black rice, snow peas, shitake mushrooms and a micro wasabi.
Mary had a wood-grilled pork tenderloin with sweet potato mash, saute of bacon, French green beans and Brussels sprout leaves and a zesty jus.

Sarah had a filet, which looked delicious, but I didn't get a picture.
All of it accompanied by a chilled Viognier - a crisp white wine we've come to enjoy, but don't find on many menus.

On Monday we got serious about the rest of the trip.  Mary and I started by walking several miles to  to Sarah's place and back.  (We'd left something in her car the day before!)  We then had a nice al fresco breakfast at the Blue Daisy Café (http://www.bluedaisycafe.com/), a block from our rental.  Mary's was the best - a bagel with salmon, cream cheese, capers, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers.  I was tempted by big breakfast sandwiches and benedicts, but opted for some oatmeal with strawberries, bananas, honey and cinnamon.  (Something about the healthy southern California scene must be rubbing off.)

In the early afternoon we took an Uber to LAX and picked up our rental car.  A few minutes of stress as they had difficulty preparing the rental agreement to match the cost we had booked. 

Problem solved, we asked Siri to get us to In and Out Burger for a late lunch.  Mary had been on a previous trip and we said we'd go once on this trip.  We arrived at about 2pm to find the parking lot full and the drive thru backed up 10 cars deeps.  After circling the lot a couple times we found a spot and went inside.  There had to be 12 - 15 people working in the kitchen and front counter.  The place was running full bore and everyone working there was smiling!  (I'd like to know their secret...and share it with employees and servers everywhere!)  Our burgers came out hot and delicious.

On the way back to the apartment, we made a couple stops to pick up a cooler, some ice and a variety of supplies for the trip. 

We had one last dinner with Sarah on Monday night at a local tapas restaurant - Manchego (http://www.manchegosm.com/).  It was a warm night and the place was not air conditioned, but we had a great time trying a variety of the small plate dishes.  (It was also dark - no pictures.) 

We really enjoyed getting to spend some time with Sarah, to talk at length about her work in the law firm, and to see the area where she lives.  We'll have to make it back to Santa Monica again soon. 

We took an Uber back to the apartment and packed our bags, ready to set out on the road trip the next morning.

West Coast Vacation - The Big Build Up

Vacations are to working adults as Christmas is to small kids.  Sometimes it’s more about the anticipation than the event.  And the realization can be a letdown after the visualization.  Let’s hope not in this case.  We’ve certainly loaded this vacation with significance….

I haven’t taken a vacation all year.  I need to get away and unplug.
Mary has been stuck on the farm for three years without a lengthy trip away.  She really needs to get away and see something different.
We’ve started calling this vacation the “trip of a lifetime”.  Sounds like a setup for disappointment, doesn't it?
But we have as much fun, or more, planning trips as we do planning what we’d do with our lottery winnings.  This one got some extra attention.  The conversation went something like this: 
      “Let’s plan a driving trip up the west coast.” 
      "OK.  I think we can make it from LA to Vancouver in two weeks, don't you?" 
      “And let’s plan to stay in AirBnB’s all the way.  The quirkier the better!”
So that's what we're doing.  We started in Los Angeles and in two weeks will end in Vancouver.  We're going to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway in California and enjoy the scenery.  We're going to tour some wineries in Napa on bicycles.  We're going to visit Crater Lake in Oregon.  We're going to explore a bit of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.  We’re going to stay in some city apartments (probably not that quirky), but also in some places with intriguing names, like “The Secret Garden” and “The Writer’s Retreat”.  Also in a BlueBird bus that’s been converted to overnight lodging in, where else, Portland. 
And of course we're going to eat some great food and drink some great wine.
We busted our asses getting ready to leave.  I've said before that I wish I could maintain the level of activity I achieve in the week before a vacation.  I'm like a mad man, crossing stuff off my “to-do” list every day.  I surprisingly become a much better delegator.  (My staff may wish I'd just stay home!) 
Mary had a poster-sized calendar with a list of 20 things that needed done every day of the two weeks before we left.  Most of it got done.  (The other dynamic of getting ready for vacations is that you become crystal clear about your priorities.  Some stuff on the to-do list get reprioritized to be done after the vacation, meaning it may never get done at all if you shred the list before you leave.)
I talked to my staff, peers, and boss:  “I’m going away for two weeks.  I’m not going to read email.  I’m not going to call you.  I trust that you will make good decisions while I’m gone, and I won’t second-guess you when I return.”  Everyone said some variation of “Wow, I wish I could do that!”
Let’s see how it goes.