Well, I took an epic trip to California for 2 weeks in May. My only other trip was 30 years ago, which included a brief, hectic day at Disneyland.
Now for this trip, there were 3 phases: the first was supposed to be a scenic bike trip from Monterey down to San Luis Obispo along the famous Highway 1 overlooking the ocean. The second part was a visit with some relatives in the L.A. area. And the third was 2 1/2 days at the Disney resort.
Some background: I'm a fifty-year-old bachelor living in New York City for most of my life. I enjoy travel and am mostly comfortable traveling solo, but sometimes wish I had a travel companion along. To that end, I try to arrange some group activities somewhere in the trip. I've been to Disney World in Florida 6 or 7 times, and always had a great time. I admire the concept of "entertainment that appeals to people of all ages." And in 2005, I had a great trip to the Tokyo resort. So this would be my return to the "original park", the "park that Walt walked around in," yadda yadda.
Unfortunately, phase 1 of the trip hit a snag, when my leg had injuries that resisted all efforts to heal them. I realized it would be impossible to do the bike trip as a point-to-point tour, even with the modest 25-mile increments I'd booked, because the terrain was very hilly. So I bailed on that, reserved a convertible to do an old-fashioned driving tour, and hoped to get in some local biking in a few towns.
My first stop was San Francisco. Since the injury, I started looking for alternate activities, and decided to book a Segway tour with the San Francisco Electric Tour Company. I really liked San Francisco a lot; everyone seemed to be taking niceness pills; it really caught me off-guard. Because it's a very serious, substantial city with a lot of commerce and whatnot, and quite a lot of energy like New York. But everything is just kinda Mayberry-like. The cabdrivers are nice and everyone is really folksy.
And the tour was a blast: there were 20 of us in the group, which they divided into 2 sub-groups. Each sub-group had a guide, and they rigged speakers to the Segways so the guide could ride out front and give a talk to us as we passed various landmarks. We went up and down some of those crazy streets in town, and S.F. is very friendly to Segways, bikes, etc. We basically rode 2 abreast and the cars behind us just had to stay behind us, and didn't seem phased by it. My impression of the Segway itself is mainly of the cleverness of the inventor -- because it does so many things automatically by kinda sensing your intention, rather than your pressing a button. It's an experience unlike any other form of transit -- you sorta float through a story. Now I don't think it's perfect; if you're healthy, I think a bike is better because you have a seat and you get a nice workout pump from it. Another interesting technology is e-bikes -- bikes with a motor that runs one or the other wheel, while you can pedal to assist, or not. The battery is rechargeable and you can zip around on those things pretty fast. I test-rode one in New York, thinking it may allow me to do my tour. But the mileage-per-charge numbers, and the heavy weight of the thing, are just not where I felt safe from getting stranded mid-route. Plus, once I started thinking about using a convertible, I was pretty attached to it -- never having driven one before. Let's face it, convertibles are cool!
I finished my Segway experience and cabbed it back to the airport to pick up my first of 3 rental cars for this trip. Booking a convertible is a nightmare and my first price quote, for the whole trip, left me wondering, is that for rental ... or purchase???
Then you get into the rules of which companies don't allow pickup from certain cities or dropoff in certain cities -- in the end I needed a Hertz car for week 1, Monterey to Santa Barbara, then a separate Budget car from Santa Barbara to Long Beach. Plus a cheaper car for the first few days.
Convertibles just rule, though -- I loved the experience, and I really don't like driving much in general. You are much more connected to your surroundings with the top down -- basically my argument for the superiority of bikes as a sightseeing instrument. And the greater visibility makes the car safer too, especially when backing up or changing lanes on those insane California highways. My first car was a Mustang and the second was a Chrysler Sebring; I'll have more on that later but basically I preferred the Mustang.
Monterey became my base for several days, and this was a beautiful place to visit. I was a bit freaked by the coldness of the northern Cali climate. But adjusted to it, and basically wore a lot of layers. I wasn't about to allow chilly weather to keep me from using the convertible! I visited the world-famous aquarium -- maybe a tad over-rated, but certainly a fun day. They have amazing displays of jellyfish, and also seahorses -- showing them from tiny little babies smaller than your fingernail, through various ages and right up to full-grown.
I managed to do 2 separate bike rentals in the area, and ride the surreally beautiful coastline around the Pebble Beach golf courses. The second ride was a lot more satisfying than the first, because the bike was a better fit for me and I also bothered to have them swap out the pedals for the ones I brought from home. Mine have toe clips and it made a world of difference. I liked that the route had some mild rolling hills -- enough to make it interesting, but not so much as to risk injury (my problem is mostly in the shin and calf but extends around the knee also).
Then it was time for the trip down the coast, roughly 25 miles per day (just right for biking but sorta silly for a car). In fact, I considered cancelling some of those hotels -- but ultimately decided to go ahead with the 25-mile plan. And then it worked out well, because I kept coming back to Monterey for various things.
That road through the Big Sur area is one of the most remarkable stretches of scenery I've ever seen. It's hard really to describe, and pictures don't really do it justice. And you know that what you're seeing is exactly what it was 10,000 years ago. Really remarkable if you like that kind of raw nature. The driving experience was interesting and at times scary -- lots of curves to negotiate and I found that if I went over the recommended speed on those yellow signs by even a few mph, I regretted it.
That road is really well designed, in contrast to some places -- cough -- L.A.
Along route 1, there are many pullouts or scenic overlooks. So even though the road is only 1 lane in each direction, the slower folk can pull over and let the impatient ones go on ahead, then mosey back along the route whenever they feel like it.
Aside from simply admiring the view, there isn't a whole lot to do there though. Recent wildfires closed off large chunks of the state parks, so there wasn't much hiking to do. Along the route from Carmel to San Luis Obispo there basically is just one art gallery and the Henry Miller library/museum for culture, and then a sparse sprinkling of motels, most unfortunately pretty pricy (though I saved some money by not staying at the $500/night one). I did pay a visit to the Miller place and it's fun for a half-hour or so if you're a fan.
Oh also of course there is the Hearst estate, San Simeon. On a bike tour, I wasn't even planning to stop there, as it's not really my kind of place -- but in a car I couldn't resist. It's right there along the route after all. Hearst was someone who amassed an almost unbelievable amount of wealth and also was pretty much a saint -- to hear the tour-guide tell it. Well, whatever. It is an amusing place to see -- I actually most liked the twisty, 5-mile bus ride up to the mansion from the visitor center. The house is basically a museum of what passed for "bling" in the 30s and 40s, tapestries and whatnot. I enjoyed the Imax film that depicts his life and also the actual film clips of guests to the mansion such as Charlie Chaplin.
Backing up a little, Carmel, the first town down the road from Monterey, is a fun story-book type place that most fans of Disney or the painter Thomas Kinkade would enjoy. Lots and lots of art galleries there. I felt awkward walking around in them, with no intention to buy anything. I would have preferred to pay a small fee.
Eventually I reached San Luis Obispo (SLO) which was a little more inland -- and suddenly the temperature jumped by about 15 degrees! My cars had cool temperature gauges inside, as well as indicators of your direction. Maybe these are common now but I found it cool -- I hardly ever drive.
I managed to do another bike rental here (Wally's) and had a pretty good ride around town and out into the countryside/farmland surrounding it. Nice to be in a place that had cross-streets after 5 days of just basically one road. SLO is a nice, livable town, a college town. But there was definitely some disappointment at finishing the "tour" route and not being able to really bike it. I stayed at a hilarious hotel called the Madonna Inn -- look it up online and you'll see what I mean. My room was actually pretty understated, I guess I didn't pay enough for a really over-the-top one.
Anyway, the next day I drove down to Santa Barbara to exchange the Mustang for what turned out to be a Sebring. The Mustang has a better top up/down mechanism, one which doesn't care if you have stuff in the trunk or not (the Sebring does). One thing about the Mustang though, I probably am the laughing-stock of Hertz and they can tell this story for years: after driving for a day, I thought the engine was making too much noise and the car was struggling up hills. I called them and they said I should bring it back and let 'em look at it, if I was concerned. So I did, and the mechanic went for a test drive with me, and he drove. He pushed down much harder on the accelerator than I had, and the car was plenty fast, and handled hills just fine, and made a lot of noise. And he was like, "Dude, it's a sports car, that's the sound they make!"
Another thing about the Mustang is that after closing the top electrically, you still have to fasten 2 manual clasps -- one step that the Sebring does without. Okay, point Sebring. But once the engine issue was cleared up, I really bonded with that Mustang and hated to give it up and learn a whole new car. (Budget was half the price of Hertz for a week.)
As I got further south, the roads took on a whole new character. A pretty nightmarish character. Okay, Los Angeles, for those of you who don't speak the language, is a Spanish term meaning "The Freeways." That's all it is. Roads, and cars, and lube shops. You have 5 lanes going in each direction. And forget anything you learned in driving school about keeping a certain number of car lengths in front of you. Forget it, it's physically impossible. You're lucky if you can get one or two car lengths between you and the next car. So you just clutch your rosary beads and hang on for dear life. And the shoulders? If they exist at all, they are littered with glass and refrigerator parts. And they're about 5/6ths the width of an automobile. The lack of decent pullouts was really a problem for me in Southern Cal, because traveling alone you occasionally have to check your Mapquest sheet, or reapply sun lotion or whatever. Somehow, I survived.
I visited with some family members for a few days. It made for an interesting break in the trip. While there, my brother and I went over to Hollywood after I said I wanted to see it. He warned me it wasn't much to see -- and he was right. Still, for a film fan like me, it's kinda cool to see: the Hollywood sign, Hollywood & Vine, the Paramount lot, etc. The Griffith Observatory was fun too, in the evening. But generally I was forming the impression that LA isn't the kind of place I'd want to live in. Everything is just too vast. Nothing is connected. You can't walk from one neighborhood to another like you can in New York. And forget about doing much in the way of biking.
I learned the lingo -- you don't drive on route 5 and then transfer to 110. You drive the 5 or the 110. Okay, nice to know the lingo. Doesn't make the roads any less horrible.
And finally ... the moment you've been waiting for ... I drove down to Disney. Driving around the resort is as hairy as at WDW in Florida. What is with this U-turn on Ball? With some effort, I found the parking garage and then made my way over to the parks. I would be checking into the Disneyland Hotel later for 2 nights, and then my last 2 nights of the trip would be at the Howard Johnson.
My first impressions of Disneyland were actually a little disappointing. I had an okay time, but something was missing.
Here's the thing about Fla vs. Cali: In Florida I have a much stronger impression of being in a special place, removed from the real world -- and this is even true if I'm staying off-site because that whole 192 area is like an extension of Disney World to me. You're in a vacation kingdom, a place with its own roads, its own food-delivery systems, water-treatment systems, transportation systems, etc. The whole arrangement of the Magic Kingdom with the huge lakes around it and the ferry and the monorail and everything ... it just creates a different mood. At Disneyland, you're just kinda -- there. There you are, you're in the park. There's no buildup.
I also think the layout of Magic Kingdom is better aesthetically than DL. I know there are historical reasons for this -- but at any rate, for the visitor experience, the sightlines are better in the MK, the walkways are better, the landscaping is better, the water looks better.
It's unfortunate that my start in Disneyland was focused on Tomorrow Land -- a clutter of construction walls and poor sightlines. I actually lost view of Space Mountain. That's a pain, when you can't find an attraction you just saw moments earlier.
As my visit continued, I did warm to the park somewhat. It was better when I stopped comparing, and just enjoyed what was there. The New Orleans Square area is nice. I enjoyed breakfasting at River Belle Terrace and people-watching. That's something MK sorely needs. And some of those construction walls came down over the weekend, and revealed some attractive landscaping in spots. Main Street is nice, probably a little nicer in California. Fantasyland is more developed in California.
These attractions were significantly better in California: Pirates, Space Mountain, Indiana Jones*, Nemo Submarine Ride*, Columbia sailing ship (especially the lower deck)* (asterisked rides don't even exist in Fla).
But Splash Mountain, jeez, what happened there?
And no chance to see the much heralded Fantasmic, as they have discontinued that. (They are working on a Fantasmic-like show for California Adventure).
Maybe my expectations were too high. I was expecting some kind of intangible charm to hit me in the face, and it really didn't. It seemed like a pretty good version of a Magic Kingdom-type park, but not as outstanding as I'd hoped. There was hardly any live performance, and not even enough piped-in music for my taste.
There isn't enough that's really new in Disneyland to take my breath away. I had a good time; I just wasn't blown away.
Now as for California Adventure, I think some have been too harsh on it. It boasts, in Soarin, the world's best Disney attraction in my opinion. And an excellent version of Tower of Terror. And, in the Animation Academy, one of the few places that engaged my mind much in either park. Toy Story Mania is very clever technology. I think it has potential as a nice second gate and it is clear, from the "Blue Sky" exhibit they have, that they are committed to expanding and trying new things. Oh, also Grizzly River Rapids was pretty fun.
And then, in the Hyperion theater, they have this experiment going on -- codename "Aladdin", to see if serious fans of live theater will go insane when subjected to an audience heavily sprinkled with crying babies and where practically every adult is videotaping the whole thing. I survived somehow. Look for a report soon in Psychology Today.
I went back a few days later, had a better seat in the Balcony, and it really is an excellent show.
One thing about California Adventure though, there really isn't a lot of, um, adventure to it (apart from Soarin and Grizzly). I took an off-day and drove up and over to Santa Monica for a bike ride, and that day had more pure adventure in it than anything in the parks. First of all, the 5 was murder that day. Pretty awful experience yes, but then a relief when the 10 wasn't so bad, and great joy when I finally reached the ocean in Santa Monica. Then I had to find a bike rental place of the several I'd researched online, decide whether to get the mediocre bike available at the beach or drive 20 blocks inland to get a better bike, ... get fitted to the bike ... scope out a route in and around the towns along the strip, free as a bird to decide which direction to go in ...
And then, after the ride, to get back in the convertible and race back to Anaheim in time for an 8:30 reservation at Napa Rose -- to check into my second hotel before dinner (HoJo), take a rush shower and put on new clothes (sweaty bike clothes would stretch the definition of Smart Casual to the breaking point!), navigate the crazy roads over to the Downtown Disney parking lot, not find that -- but notice the Grand Californian to my immediate left ... decide to slowly make my way across 2 other lanes to get into the turning lane, get there but positioned diagonally thus blocking traffic from behind, one of which when he does get past me yells something along the lines of "I bet you went to a state college!" (which is true), and being GLAAAAAD I blocked him -- then casually entering the lot and turning my car over to the valet ...
Enjoying an outstanding meal, then walking over to the Disneyland Hotel to pick up the luggage I'd checked there that morning. Walking my luggage across thru Downtown Disney (yay for luggage with wheels!), back to pick up the car from the valet at the Grand Californian, drive back over to the HoJo and prepare for bed, and reflect on the pleasures of the day ...
All that had a lot more adventure in it, a lot more mental engagement, than anything in the theme parks. So I don't know what to suggest to them ... I'm not a brilliant imagineer myself. Just more rides like Soarin, I guess. More Soarin, please! Bring back Horizons! Bring back the Adventurers Club (whoops, wrong coast!).
Anyway, some summaries:
Hotels: The Disneyland Hotel was a fine place, although only slightly themed compared to the places in Florida. Overall, I was happy with the place, it was a very nice room with a floor-to-ceiling window and comfort all around.
Howard Johnson on Harbor Boulevard: this place disappointed me. I know it has a good reputation, but I found it a little noisy and cold. The heat didn't work, and a complaint to the front desk brought a "we'll look into it" but the next night it was the same thing.
Restaurants: Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen: 3 1/2 out of 5 clarinets. Good solid food with some flair, excellent beignets for dessert, fun atmosphere.
Blue Bayou (I know): 2 out of 5 mists. Food was okay but more hearty than special. Service quite spotty. All you're really getting there is atmosphere.
Napa Rose: 5 out of 5 grapevines. A really special meal, easily the best of the trip. I had mushroom bisque (way better than Campbell's!) and a perfect Filet Mignon, then a dessert of almond cake with strawberries. Excellent service too -- at 3 figures including tip, certainly a splurge but I'd do it again.
Airlines: I flew Virgin out to the West Coast, and Jet Blue back, to get the best flight times. Jet Blue has the better legroom and cooler flight attendants. With Virgin, they were always giving people a hard time for walking around when the seatbelt sign was on. First of all, that's a bad graphic -- it looks to me like it's saying "open up your seatbelt." Anyway, if it's so dangerous, why are you all walking around so much?? If you ever wondered what happens to school hall monitors ...
Virgin did have larger TV screens and more food options.
Well there you have it, the good and the bad, I try to give an honest impression. I do have nice memories of the trip, including Disneyland. In some stressful work days since, my mind has drifted back to the Riverbelle Terrace, eating pancakes and sausages and watching the boats go by ...
There are some pictures from the northern part of the trip at http://www.flickr.com/photos/2777042...7618938572873/
You can click a thumbnail and then "All Sizes" to see an enlargement.