Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year & Welcome to the New Blog layout!!!

As you can see, we have a new header with some pictures of places we’ve been (in case you’re curious, from left to right: Bow Lake in Banff National Park, Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley National Park, the California Coastline). Some other changes/additions/moves:

  • You can add your name to the Follow this Blog link

  • You can now Share this Site with the Bookmark link

  • The Subscribe To link is easier to find (on the right)

  • The Blog Index (very helpful in finding information about specific places or topics) is the last bit of information on the right margin

  • The Blog Archive is now below the last post.

We look forward to hearing what you think of these changes! Just click on the word "Comments" below any post or email us.

Thanks for reading our travel blog these past few months, and we look forward to more camping and travels in 2009. Peace to all.
Suzanne & Brad

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hiking in the Coachella Valley Preserve, Thousand Palms, California

Located in the Indio Hills north of the Coachella Valley is the Coachella Valley Preserve (free admission; donations are accepted at the Visitor's Center). This 17,000 acre preserve is a part of a larger system of preserve land designed to protect the threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, found no where else in the world. The preserve offers visitors the opportunity to explore several desert palm oases (which are fed by a constant flow of water coming from the San Andreas Fault). The largest and most easily assessable by car is the Thousand Palms Oasis. This oasis is located at the Preserve’s Visitor Center and is right off Thousand Palms Road. Here you will find easy trails and board walks that take you through an amazing dense grove of fan palms, cattails and high reed grasses. The Visitor Center offers a wealth of information regarding the preserve’s history, the resident animals and the numerous hikes that you can take to other oasis and viewpoints. We decided to hike out to the McCallum Grove Oasis and then do the Moon Country loop trail totaling about 4.5 miles. McCallum Grove is about one mile north from the Visitor Center. The trail is level, well traveled and takes your through typical desert flora. What makes The McCallum Grove unique from the other oasis is it has a large pond and the water contains Desert Pupfish. These minnow sized fish were placed here to protect them against extinction. Near this oasis we picked up the Moon Country loop trail. This is an easy trail the takes you up the ridge along a large wash area and loops down back through the same wash area to the Visitor Center. The terrain is very open but the trail is well marked. It’s a nice desert hike with the oases being the prize destinations.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

College of the Desert Street Fair, Palm Desert, California

We went to the street fair at the College of the Desert, held every Saturday and Sunday, 7am-2pm. Located at the corner of Monterey and Fred Waring streets, the fair is quite large with an assortment of items - jewelry, pottery, art, pet accessories, tons of golf equipment including bulk golf balls (a dozen for $5), clothing, etc.... There is food to eat, as well as a small farmer's market with fruit and vegetables. It is a fun way to spend a few hours. There is free parking at the college and there is no admission to the street fair.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Desert Hills Premium Outlets & Cabazon Outlet Shopping, Cabazon, California

Like many of you, we went shopping the day after Christmas and went to the Desert Hills Premium Outlets and the Cabazon Outlets, neighbors to each other on I-10 about 20 minutes west of Palm Springs off Apache Trail Road (take the rotary to Seminole Street and you’re there). Now this is outlet shopping like none-other ~ yes, there are the typical outlet stores: Eddie Bauer, Bass, Samsonite, Harry & David (MooseMunch – YUM!), but have you ever seen stores like these in an Outlet Mall:

Barneys New York? Burberry? Dolca & Gabbana? Gucci? Hugo Boss? Prada? Movado? Jimmy Choo? Judith Leiber?

Granted the RV life doesn’t require much use for 4” Jimmy Choo’s, but they are pretty! Now there weren’t great sales at the mall, although Coach and Burberry’s had lines out the door with great sales – they know how to discount!

TIP: If you go to the Management Office at the Desert Hills Premium Outlets, you can buy a coupon book for $5.00, yet is free with some group memberships, like AAA. The savings range from a free drink when you buy a lunch at the food court, to $50 off when you buy $500 at the Ralph Lauren store.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

More free things to do in the Coachella Valley, California

Here’s a list of some more FREE things you can do in the Coachella Valley (Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio area):

First Wednesday of Every Month ~ Art Walk in Palm Springs, 6-9pm
The Backstreet Art District shows original contemporary art and modern art in several studios. Meet behind the Mercedes dealer on Cherokee Way & Matthew Drive, off Highway 111.

First Thursday of Every Month ~ Art Walk on El Paseo Drive, Palm Desert, 5-9pm
Walk around and enjoy the art, artist receptions, galleries and festive atmosphere. There is parking on the street or behind the galleries. If you get a bit early, there shops on El Paseo are wonderful.

Every Thursday ~ Old Town La Quinta Concerts, 6-8pm
Concerts on the lawn – bring a blanket, chair, cooler of food & drink – enjoy!

Every Saturday in February & March ~ Wine & Music Series 5:30-7pm
The music is free and begins at 6pm at the Gardens on El Paseo, however if you want to enjoy the wine and cheese, there is a $10 donation which benefits a different local charity each evening.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Free things to do in the Coachella Valley, California

Here’s a list of some FREE things you can do in the Coachella Valley (Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio area):

VillageFest in Palm Springs every Thursday 6-9pm
The streets are closed on North Palm Canyon Drive and vendors come out to sell their wares. There’s food to eat, fruit & vegetables, crafts, art, and street musicians. The Visitor’s Center, local animal shelter, and local police also have booths. We went to this a couple times, and it was a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. We wrote about going to this a couple times, click here for more information.

Palm Springs Art Museum every Thursday 4-8pm
The museum is free every week during this time. We also went one evening and enjoyed ourselves. Be sure to get there early, as parking can be a hassle. We wrote about going to this a while ago, click here for more information.

Oasis Gardens in Thermal (by Indio)
This is a date garden that has a nice video showing the date farm history. There are free samples, a small place to grab a bite to eat (along with date milkshakes), and a gift shop. Click here to read more.

Shields Date Garden in Indio

This is another date farm with free samples, date milkshakes, and they even sell produce such as oranges and grapefruits. We did not go to this date farm, but it’s right in Indio on Highway 111.

Indio Farmer’s Market & Flea Market every Wednesday & Saturday
Behind the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indo, off Dr. Carreon Street) is a farmer’s market and flea market from 6-9pm. Some days it is free, other days it is $0.50 per adult. They have a variety of fruits & vegetables, household items, clothes, shoes, personal items, etc…. Click here to read about our visit.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Back to Catalina Spa & RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, California

We’re back at Catalina Spa and RV Resort for two weeks and continue to enjoy the Palm Springs area. One thing we really like about this campground is the people – we have felt very welcomed. When we were here prior to last week, we played water volleyball, Brad played horseshoes, we played pickle ball, joined in pot lucks, as well as the Sunday night sirloin burger meals. It was the same experience at Indian Waters (our campground last week) – although we didn’t particularly like the separation we wrote about last Monday, the people at Indian Waters were also very nice and there were a lot of activities, such as organized hikes, meals, game night, pool tournaments, etc… We didn’t partake as much in Indian Waters as we were busy exploring more of the surrounding area, but were welcomed at game night, learned a new game and made some new friends.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ladder Canyon, Near Mecca, California

If you want a great moderate loop day hike through narrow desert canyon passageways and a view from inside the San Andreas Fault, then Ladder Canyon is the place for you!

Nestled in the Indio Hills northeast of the town of Mecca, Ladder Canyon is actually an offshoot canyon from Painted Canyon. From Box Canyon Road, take 66th Ave about 3.5 miles until you see the Painted Canyon sign. Turn left onto a dirt road for 5 miles until the end to Painted Canyon. (There is literally a sign that says "End".) As you face the canyon, to your right there is an information sign - this sign doesn't mention Ladder Canyon, but you are in the right place. To get to Ladder Canyon, you hike up this smaller canyon (the one on the right) a mile or so to the trail head. Watch for a brown wooden post on the right side labeled Ladder Canyon which has an arrow pointing left to the beginning of the hike. The trail was a little difficult to find, but once get on the path, it's well traveled and obvious. The first third of the hike takes you up a narrow wash area where you have to scramble over several rocky areas and up four ladders. The narrow passages give you a very unique perspective on how water has cut these deep cracks into the hills. At times the passageways are as narrow as two people and extend straight up for more than sixty feet. As you continue to climb uphill the hike begins to open more and more until you reach the summit. From here you have nice views of the Salton Sea and a 360 degree view of all the surrounding mountain. The hike continues towards the television towers to the north. Watch for cairns and arrows to help you find your way. You'll continue past a field of ocotillo and eventually on your right you will see the trail down. The very end of this downward hill is a bit of a scramble, so be careful. Now you will be back in the canyon is which you started, but the fun is not over yet! As you continue walking (you should be going to the right - there are arrows and cairns to help) in about a mile or so there are two more ladders to descend, and alas, you are just about half a mile from the start. This was a fun, different kind of hike; about 5 -6 miles in length, and except for the scrambling and ladders, an easy hike.

If you are just in the mood for an easy walk/hike, you can go to the canyon on the left by the "End" sign and walk for miles. We actually looked for the trail head in this canyon first, walked about one mile before turning around, and it was open and nice. Remember, you are walking in the San Andreas Fault, so cross your fingers for no earthquakes!
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Farmer's Market & Flea Market, Indio, California

Every Wednesday and Saturday evening, 6-9pm, there is a farmer's market and flea market at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio. The admission is 50-cents per adult and it is a large market, with about 6-8 rows of vendors each probably a football field in length. There's a lot of fresh fruit, including cacti, as well as clothing, shoes, furniture, toiletries, household items, gardening supplies, hand tools, power tools - practically anything and everything. Most of the vendors and customers were Spanish-speakers, so it was fun to try to speak the very little Spanish we know (which pretty much is the word "gracias"). The fresh roasted peanuts were a huge hit with Brad.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow in Joshua Tree National Park, California

Snow in the desert? We planned to do the Lost Palm Oasis hike in Joshua Tree National Park today, but due to a very rare nine inches of snow at the southern end of the park by the Cottonwood Visitors Centre, it was recommended we not hike to Lost Palms. So we decided on the shorter three mile loop trail to Mastadon Peak. This hike is nice, starting with a paved walkway down to an oasis. If you just go this far, you will see some beautiful fan palms and yuccas. The trail continues past typical Colorado desert flora – small cacti and yuccas - and eventually forks to where you can continue onto the Lost Palms Oasis, or bear left towards Mastadon Peak. (Good hikers can do both hikes in one hike as Lost Palms Oasis is 7.2 miles and Mastadon Peak is an off-shoot of the hike.) Continuing on the Mastadon Peak trail, this is where the slight uphill climb begins, as you ascend to the peak. Once at the peak, you can see views of the Eagle Mountains and Salton Sea. Unfortunately, due to LA smog (yes, this far away – 150 miles) we could not see the Salton Sea. At this point the trail loops back to the parking lot, but due to the snow, we couldn’t follow the trail past the peak, so we turned around and went back the way we came for an overall four mile hike.

If you’re in the area, this would be a good hike. There’s some uphill elevation to the peak, but it’s not difficult at all, and you can get some very good views on clear days. We added some snowy photos of Joshua Tree ~ enjoy!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fantasy Springs Resort Casino and La Pinata Restaurante, Indio, California

We have heard so much about the casinos in the Coachella Valley that today we decided to check out the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, only a few miles from our RV park. This is a nice hotel & casino which offers it's guests a well-equipped weight and fitness room, beautiful outdoor pool and hot tub, a 24 lane bowling alley, many restaurants and of course, the casino. Although we didn't eat in the restaurants, we did review each menu and toured the locally famous buffet. All provide a large and nice variety of items from which to choose. The casino is nice, but it's a typical smoky casino. The casino is predominately filled with slot machines, but has an assortment of table game including one craps table. The minimum bet on each table was $5 or more. We asked if the table minimums are ever less than $5, and were told no; given that we like to play craps, that's a lot of money on the table, so we passed. However, we did see penny slots, and decided to grab the pennies we've accumulated in the ashtray of the truck and see if we could win a buck or two. First we signed-up for a free Players Club Card, which allowed us to partake in the casino's various promotions. Upon registering we each got a free t-shirt (XL, so Brad got two free t-shirts and Suzanne got none), our names were entered for a drawing for a new car and we each received $3 free on our Players Club Card to start our gambling. Well, we parlayed our total of $6 in free money into $12.50 at the nickel-slot machines! Now if only the stock market would yield that kind of return......

All that winning and casino excitement made us hungry, so we headed to La Pinata Restaurante, a Mexican restaurant recommended to us by a woman at the RV park . When we got there it was still Happy Hour so we decided to eat the half priced appetizers in the bar. The appetizer menu has about eight items to choose from and the portion size is quite large. If we had known the large sizes, we probably would have only order one item to share. The drinks were at a discounted price as well. The food, staff and atmosphere were all very good. Their regular dinner menu consisted of a wide range of authentic Mexican food. We'll definitely go back if we are in the area again. This restaurant can be found on the left side of Hwy 111 just past Monroe Street going west. Bring your appetite, you'll need it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Date Oasis Garden, Thermal, California

Southeast of the Palm Springs and Palm Desert areas in the Coachella Valley is the Date Oasis Garden . This is a 92 year old 175 acre working date palm ranch that specializes in the wonderful Medjool variety as well as many others. At their store you can taste over a dozen different dates, read about the history of the ranch, purchase dates and other gifts, and enjoy their famous date milkshakes. The store is nearly surround by the fields of palm trees which makes for a very tropical and relaxing feel. This ranch is also one of the largest providers of date palm trees around the world. We learned that all the varieties that they grow are originally from Iraq, Iran or Northern Africa. It turns out that countries in the middle east now are purchasing trees from Date Oasis Garden to reestablish groves that have been eliminated due to wars. Who knew that the Coachella Valley played such a role in the world's palm dates? If you like dates or want to try them for the first time, then we recommend a visit to the Date Oasis Garden.

Tip! We learned after our visit that there are free milkshake coupons in the Date Oasis Garden's tourist brochure, so watch for them tourist information stands.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Slab City, Niland, California

Why go to Slab City? Well we were curious to see it because we had heard about it in RV circles and also because it was featured in the book and movie Into the Wild. Slab City is an abandoned WWII marine base east of Niland, California which is located on the southeastern edge of the Salton Sea. Needless to say it’s in the middle of nowhere. Soon after the war, the military removed the buildings leaving the concrete slabs and access restrictions, so people moved there in their campers and trailers to live free and “off the grid”. Living there today is a mixture of permanent residents as well as RVers that are spending a few days. All the residents live or park where they want in this 60+ acre area without water, electricity and sewer facilities…it’s as primitive as it gets. After driving around on the dirt roads we came upon a structure called the Slab City Oasis Club so we decided to stop and have a look. We were soon greeted by a friendly gentleman named Mike Bright who provided us history of the city and answered any questions that we had. He also showed us photos taken of him with Sean Penn during the on-location filming of the movie Into the Wild. He provided us much insight into the nature of the culture and people who make Slab City their home.

As we were leaving we stopped at the entrance of Slab City to explore Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain creation (which the Folk Art Society of American designated as a National Folk Art Site). This is one of the most famous landmarks in Slab City made popular by visitors posting pictures on the internet and again by the story told in the book/movie Into the Wild.

Living in this remote desolate desert, Leonard has been able to make his own adobe (mixture of clay and straw) and find inorganic materials from the desert like tires, car window and more to build a 3-story creation of his faith’s message. Inside and out, Leonard has painted every surface with a selection of bright colors. His creation has been a work in progress for over 19 years with surprising vision. With each visitor that appeared, he was eager to walk everyone through the inside of the structure and explain how he built various parts. He was also very patient to take a picture with anyone that asked. At the end of his mini tour he wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to walk on his yellow brick road path that takes you through and to the top of Salvation Mountain.

What’s more interesting than the obvious uniqueness of this creation is Leonard Knight’s enduring commitment, passion and open generosity to share what he believes in with anyone that stopped. After walking and exploring freely his mountain and vehicle creations, he surprised us again as we left by not asking us for money to support his efforts rather by giving us a picture puzzle of Salvation Mountain and sincerely thanking us for stopping to visit. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate what Leonard has created out of nothing in the desert. You will have to see it to truly believe it.

We posted more pictures of Slab City, and oh, if you go to Salvation Mountain, we're sure Leonard would love another can of paint!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Indian Waters RV Resort, Indio, California and A Great Restaurant!

Indian Waters RV Resort is in Indio, California which is a nice area to stay if you want to explore southern Joshua Tree National Park, the Salton Sea, and more. Indian Waters RV Park is a Western Horizons park and part of the RPI network. Quite honestly, not our favorite park. There are two different sections - one for Western Horizon's members, which we are not, and one for RPI members. Although all the sites are large with a concrete pad to park your rig, the area for members is grassy with full hook-ups and the area for non-members is gravel with only electric and water. Neither of us has ever been a fan of this kind of separation - it does not look favorably upon the RV Park. There is no cable throughout the park, and wifi is free, although it is terrible. Western Horizons knows their wifi is bad because they even give you a disclaimer when you check-in of the reasons it's bad. Computer-maven Brad can tell you that they just need to spend a bit more money and get some more bandwidth. The positives of Indian Waters, as there are some - it is clean, has a pool and hot tub, horseshoes, shuffleboard, a dining area and lot of activities. There is a social room with a small book exchange. Quite honestly, we probably would not come back to this park - the segregation just gives the place a negative vibe.

Now onto one of our favorite subjects - food! We found incredible Italian restaurant on our way here - Papa Dan's. It's in Palm Desert and Suzanne had, with no exaggeration, the best Margherita Pizza that she's ever had. Brad enjoyed a meatball sandwich which was also great. They make their own Mozzarella cheese and it was fantastic! We have plans to go back - their menu is full of choices, their staff was great, and the prices were reasonable. When you're in this area, this is the place to go - yum!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Joshua Tree National Park photos, California

Some photos of Joshua Tree National Park have been posted ~ Enjoy!
We'll be in the area for a few more weeks, so this is just the beginning!

Check our our NEW Blog Improvements (on the left-hand margin):
  1. A Blog index was added for finding content easier.
  2. Blog posts archiving is now done by month instead of by week.

The holidays are coming!

Please remember to use our button on the left if you plan to shop at Amazon. Did you know that they have more than books? They have CD, DVDs, games, gifts of all types - probably anything you need! Can't think off what to buy for someone - give an gift card. They also gift wrap & send items (some items even ship for free)- can't be easier!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fortynine Palms Oasis Hike ~ Joshua Tree National Park, California

According to desert oasis legend, you can see an oasis from a distance but once you get close, it always vanishes. At the end of our three plus mile hike today, the Fortynine Palm Oasis at Joshua Tree National Park was quite real and spectacular against this mountainous barren landscape. The trail is a one-way moderate hike over rocky and loose gravel that takes you up several ridges and then down into a deep valley where the oasis lies in a collection point of several adjoining canyons. Here you will find several large and tall native California fan palms scattered amongst several small pools of water. This is one of 158 desert palm oases in North America and Joshua Tree National Park has five of these oases. You can also find cattails and cottonwood trees in this isolate garden. The trail itself offers several great views of the valley to the north, as well as desert flora including many red barrel cactus. This oasis is such a unique and stark contrast to the desert landscape that you don’t want to miss. You can find this hike on the north side of Joshua Tree National Park just four miles off Hwy 62 at the end of Canyon Road. We did the hike in two hours including the twenty minutes exploring the oasis itself.

To round out our day in Joshua Tree NP, we hiked the Indian Cove Nature trail that was nearby. This is a .6 mile interpretive trail providing information about the unique plants and animals that make this desert wash (a major drainage channel) their homes. This easy loop trail is surrounded on three sides by large rock hills where rock climbers are often seen. If you are looking for a 30 minute, easy and informative desert hike with nice views, then definitely check this out. You can find this hike on the far west end of the Indian Cove campground.

Joshua Tree National Park costs $15/vehicle per week, $30 for an annual pass, or free if you have an America the Beautiful pass.

Check our our NEW Blog Improvement (on the left-hand margin):
1. A Blog index was added for finding content easier .
2. Blog posts archiving is now done by month instead of by week.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Palm Springs Art Museum & Villagefest (again), Palm Springs, California

The Palm Springs Art Museum ($12.50 per adult) is free on Thursday evenings from 4-8 during the weekly Villagefest, so we went to enjoy the Keith Haring exhibit, as well as other exhibits on show. The Haring exhibit was quite interesting, with art that was less colorful and more indicative of his somber take on the world. There were also a few Andy Warhols to enjoy, as well as the rest of the museum. The museum building was quite modern and nice, with friendly docents who were quite informative.

Of course, all of this art browsing made us hungry, so we enjoyed dinner at The Vineyard Tuscan Grill, where the third time was a charm - we finally found a very good, well staffed restaurant in Palm Springs! Although a bit on the expensive side (we're starting to think that all restaurants in the Palm Springs area will be on the expensive side), the service was very good and the food excellent.

Again, Villagefest brought out the interesting, the talented, and the crafty. One thing we forgot to mention last week was The Palm Springs Walk of Stars - similar to the Hollywood Walk of Stars, the Palm Springs Walk of Stars is dedicated to those stars who at one time called Palm Spring their home.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

campgrounds in the Desert Hot Springs area, California

There are many campgrounds within a 3 mile radius of Catalina Spa & RV Resort (where we're staying), so we decided to check them out and see what type of amenities, sites, etc.. they offer.

Desert Pools RV Resort - This is a Western Horizon's park, so a membership to Western Horizons or RPI is needed to stay here. One interesting thing we've learned is that Desert Pools & Catalina have a reciprocal agreement, so members in both parks can use the other park's facilities, so many members go back-and-forth to play water volleyball, pickleball, etc.. The sites here are all very long and fully-graveled, but quite open with very few hedges/greenery for privacy or wind (it can get windy in the desert) protection. The central clubhouse has three hot tubs, a large pool, and the usual library book exchange, meeting room, etc...

Caliente Springs RV Resort - This is a private park open to the public, so no membership is required to stay here, although it is a 55+ park, which means at least one member in your group must be at least 55 years old for you to stay here. This park has a lot of mobile homes, and there is a section for RVers, with sandy, large sites (although there is a sign that they have limited big rig access) and no hedge between, so privacy is lacking. The clubhouse was very nice with nice gardens around it.

Sands RV Resort - This is also a private park open to the public, so no membership is required to stay here, and it is also a 55+ age park. This was a beautiful park- there's a nine-hole public golf course and the grounds are maintained quite well. The campsites were all gravel and had very nice, high hedges on two sides, yet many sites were back-to-back; the campsites were co-mingled with park model homes, rather than sequestered as with Caliente Springs. The clubhouse was beautiful - a large dining room, very nice weight/exercise room, library, card room, pool area with spa, etc....

The holidays are coming!
Please remember to use our button on the left if you plan to shop at Amazon. Did you know that they have more than books? They also gift wrap & send items - can't be easier!

Also, is having a new promotion: Now you can save 70% off at when you try our new coupon code "ONLINE". It can be used on both of their most popular products, Dinner of the Month Club and their $25 Gift Certificates. This offer is valid December 8th through December 11th! Please remember to use our button (again, on the left) as well. Thanks!!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Living Desert, Palm Desert, California

The Living Desert is a zoo in Palm Desert, just a few miles south of Palm Springs. They have many animal exhibits of desert animals, many which are rescued and/or endangered animals, as well as botanical gardens which represent deserts from around the world. Every December, The Living Desert hosts the WildLights Holiday Festival which is a festival of beautiful holiday lights throughout the front part of the zoo, food including make your own s'mores over open fires, Santa Claus, music, and a nocturnal animal show at 6:30pm. We went to the WildLights Festival ($7.75/adult, however we had complimentary tickets from someone we met at the campground) and although enjoyed it, we were glad we didn't pay $15.50 for the experience - it was more geared towards families with children. There were two very interesting things, though - they have a huge 1:22.5 inch scale Model Train Display which was quite detailed with trains running through more than 3000 feet of track past a variety of destinations, and just outside the entrance to The Living Desert was a telescope which was positioned on the moon - it was so powerful, we could see the craters on the half-moon. The astronomer with the telescope explained to us that when the moon is half-full, it's the best time to see the craters.

Prior to our visit to The Living Desert, we had dinner at Restaurant Guillermo, recommended to us by a very informative woman we met at the Palm Desert Visitors Center. Well, the restaurant started with potential - the waiters were very nice and the decor equally nice, but the food was just average to good, and as the waiters were all focused on a large party coming-in after us, the service lacked. Not sure if we just hit the restaurant on a bad night, or it is normally just so-so. We also strolled around the El Paseo Shopping District, which is the Rodeo Drive of Palm Desert, with art galleries, restaurants and high-end shops such as Gucci. Unfortunately, we got here when the stores were closing - we thought they'd be open late as it is the holiday season, but they all closed at 6pm on a Saturday night in December - go figure!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Off to explore Joshua Tree National Park today (entrance fees: $15/vehicle for the week; $30 for an annual pass. We have the America the Beautiful Pass, so it was free). After getting hiking information at the Oasis Visitor Center, we set out to explore the park and take a few short hikes. Since we got a late start today and only had about five hours of daylight left, we chose a couple of short hikes and one viewpoint.

Our first hike was Arch Rock at the White Tank Campground. This is a .5 mile moderate hike through some very interesting rock outcroppings to a small arch. The trail takes you through many narrow cracks in the rocks which makes the hike a lot of fun. There are other trails (not sure if they are official) throughout this rocky area to also climb around and see other very interesting rock formations. Next, we made a quick stop at Skull Rock. This is a 30 feet tall rock right off the road that looks like a elongated skull. We then proceeded to Keys View. From this viewpoint you are able to see the entire Coachella Valley which includes the cities of Palm Springs, Palm Desert, the Salton Sea and more. But the most interesting view from this 5185 ft vantage point is the San Andreas Fault. From here you can actually see the ridge where the continental plates meet. It was very interesting and well worth the drive to the view point.
Our last stop and hike of the day was Hidden Valley. This is a one mile loop hike in the middle of a huge rock outcropping that is in the middle of a yet larger valley. The one mile round trip hike begins by taking you through narrow passage ways in the rocks to where you are inside a bowl or fort of surrounding rock walls that encompass the valley thus the name Hidden Valley. The trail then follows along the internal parameter of the valley winding through groups of Pinon and Juniper pines, cactus and the numerous other desert plants. Also along the walls of the valley are several higher groupings of rocks that look like sentinels of the valley. This is a very unique and interesting hike that you don't want to miss. Surrounding the Hidden Valley and throughout the park are forests of Joshua Trees. These aren't trees but a variety of yucca that can grow to be 40 feet tall with multiple branches. Seeing these majestic trees and you'll immediate know why this is an amazing place.

Speaking of the San Andreas Fault, we experienced an earthquake as we wrote this blog! No kidding!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

VillageFest ~ Palm Springs, California

Every Thursday evening from 6:00 - 10:00 pm, Palm Canyon Drive, the main street in Palm Springs, is closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian street fair with a variety of entertainment ~ from places to eat, small tables to shop, musicians, and of course, people-watching. We first had a good, but over-priced and less-than-stellar service meal at Kalura Trattoria (although the location was great) and then enjoyed meandering the tables. There were the usual merchants - jewelry, soaps, candles, lamps and fire pits made to order, chair massage (which always had a line), fresh fruits, sweets, dinner food; and the somewhat unusual - like the street performer who had a wind machine so his cape could capture the high-on-the-mountain-breeze while he "played" the violin - but it was actually a CD, and the music continued while he stopped to adjust the air machine to better sway his cape. It was entertaining, to say the least.

The holidays are coming!

Please remember to use our button on the left if you plan to shop at Amazon. Did you know that they have more than books? They also gift wrap & send items - can't be easier!

Also, is having a new promotion: you can save 60% off at when you use the coupon code "LIST". It can be used on both of their most popular products, Dinner of the Month Club and their $25 Gift Certificates. This offer is valid December 5th through December 7th! Please remember to use our button (again, on the left) as well. Thanks!!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Exploring Desert Hot Springs, California

Desert Hot Springs is a suburb of Palm Springs with basic amenities such as a couple major food stores, a few gas stations, library, Chamber of Commerce, chain restaurants, etc... The one area attraction that we happened upon as we searched for a Visitors Center (which is found at the same place) was the Cabot's Pueblo Museum, which is a Hopi inspired Pueblo handmade by Cabot Yerxa which includes his collection of early Native America pottery and tools and furniture of the period. We didn't stop to view the museum, but have plans to return when we have a bit more time. We did learn about many hiking, shopping, eating, and exploring opportunities in the area, so stay tuned for those!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Catalina Spa & RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, California

We booked two-weeks at Catalina Spa & RV Resort (an RPI park) with plans to come back for another two-weeks at the end of December. We, of course, were taking a chance that we would like this park sight-unseen. We are thrilled!! This is one of the nicest campgrounds we've stayed - the sites are clean, large, have some privacy with flowering shrubs - there are many, many activities, five nice swimming pools - two (the spas) at the adult center and three at the family center. The family center also has a large lodge-type facility with many potlucks planned. The adult center has a large area for games, a book exchange, poker room, pool room, and small restaurant. Although we no longer have our sweet dog Mickey, it cannot go unnoticed that there is a great off-leash dog are (actually three, so dogs that do not get along can be separated) with shade trees, toys, water bowls - chairs for the parents -the works! There are two laundromats which are both very nice, and it happens to be the least expensive laundry we've found so far. The staff is also incredibly nice - we even had someone stop by and welcome us to the park! We're very excited to be here for a while and are looking forward to enjoying the activities as well as the surrounding area of Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, and more!

Photos - we've posted the San Diego photos as well as the photos from Los Angeles, so enjoy those!

The holidays are coming!

Please remember to use our button on the left if you plan to shop at Amazon. Did you know that they have more than books? They also gift wrap & send items - can't be easier! is having a promotion: You can save 50% you try the new coupon code "JOY". It can be used on both of their most popular products, Dinner of the Month Club and their $25 Gift Certificates. This offer is valid December 1st through December 4th! Please remember to use our button (again, on the left) as well. Thanks!!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California

One word to describe the San Diego Zoo...WOW!. We both agree that this is by far the best zoo we have ever visited. After one visit, you too will understand why this zoo is internationally recognized. The San Diego zoo not only has more animal exhibits and shows than you can do in an entire day but is the largest botanical garden in the world. Right away you notice the plant life throughout the park is just amazing and complements the exhibits and layout of the park very well.

The crowning exhibit at the San Diego Zoo are the giant Pandas. At the Giant Panda Research Station, there are two viewing pens where you are able to watch up close one male and one female with her cub. When we were there the cub in one pen was actively climbing around a tree while mom slept and in the other exhibit the male sat upright eating on twigs of bamboo. It was special to see these much heralded animals in action. We beat the crowds by making this our first stop in the park, so viewing was relaxed and unhurried which made the experience even better. (tip: There were long lines the rest of the day, so be sure you hit the Pandas first thing.)

The rest of the zoo hosts many wonderful animal exhibits that in several cases are grouped together by like botanical zones and the animals that share the same natural wildlife habitat. This was evident by the jungle area you walk through to see the gorillas, other apes and many species of birds. Speaking of the gorilla exhibit, this was extra special to see for two of the females in the group had babies. It was very interesting to watch the mothers cuddle these babies and take care of them while the group's huge patriarch vigilantly watched over his family. Another highlight exhibit for us was the koala bears. Here we were able to watch several bears eating and sleeping in their stands. We were surprised and thrilled to see one female with her cub riding on her back. We learned that like the panda breeding program, the San Diego Zoo has one of the most successful koala bear breeding programs in the world.
In addition to all the wonderful animal exhibits, there are several bird aviaries throughout the park. The most spectacular being the Scripps Aviary. If you like beautifully colored birds, then don't miss this exhibit and the other amazing aviaries.

In general, the park and exhibits are setup so there are multiple viewing locations for most exhibits. This seemed to disperse the crowds so even visiting the zoo on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it didn't seem that crowded. This is another reason this zoo is world class. Lastly, we spend 8 hours at the park and felt like we still had more to do and see when the zoo closed. This zoo and botanical garden is a must see if you are in southern California...don't miss it!!

Tips and info:

1. Our CityPasses included the narrated tour bus ride of the zoo which we did, but wished we would have ridden on the top deck for better viewing. Also, we rode the bus at the end of the day when the lines were less. The CityPass ticket also included a tram ride where you see an aerial view of the zoo and San Diego, but as we said, we ran out of time and didn't get to this.

2. Parking is FREE.

3. All purchases within the park go directly to support the zoo in it's endangered species conservation efforts, education, and purchase away at the numerous shops and restaurants, it's a great cause.

Friday, November 28, 2008

SeaWorld ~ San Diego, California

Today we spent the day experiencing and enjoying SeaWorld, which was part of our CityPass ticket packet we purchased (which included Disneyland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and San Diego Zoo). This park offers marine mammal shows, sea animal exhibits and a couple theme park like water rides that are guaranteed to cool you down on a hot day. The three big shows are: Shamu and other killer whales, sea lions, and dolphins - each held in its own stadium. The Shamu show was done to music and video with very little commentary from the various trainers that participated in the tricks. Seeing these large and beautiful animals perform was great and we wouldn't have wanted to miss it, but it would have been more enjoyable to get at a little background information on each whale. The trainers for the sea lion and dolphin shows provided background information and interacted with the audience throughout the shows, so we enjoyed these more. Both these shows included comedic antics which also added to the fun of the experience.

In addition to the shows, SeaWorld offers many very nice animal exhibits that give you an up close experience with the animals, and in some cases you are able to even touch them. Our favorites include the Manatee Rescue, Penguin Encounter, Wild Arctic which includes polar bears, walruses and beluga whales, and Rocky Point Preserve where you can be very close to dolphins and sea otters. SeaWorld also offers opportunities to directly interact with an animal under a trainers supervision, like swimming with some dolphins. These activities can be arranged the day of at the Reservation Center or future dates can be reserved via or by calling (800) 25-Shamu.

The rest of the park is made up of gift shops, small aquariums and restaurants. The Calypso Smoke House offers mesquite smoked ribs, chicken and brisket. Brad had the half-rack of baby back ribs and found them and the accompaniments better than expected. Overall, we enjoyed the park and found it clean and well run. However, we were surprised to find it more on the commercial side where most of the walk through exhibits conveniently ended in the corresponding gift shop. It's also interesting to note that Anheuser-Busch owns SeaWorld, so you can enjoy one of their many beers while touring their famous Clydesdale horses.

1. It costs $12 for parking.

2. Make sure you get to the big shows at the three big stadiums at least 20 minutes prior to get the seat you want.

3. At the show, the seats in the 'soak zones' get very wet, so come prepared to protect your electronics and yourself if you choose to sit there.

4. You are not allowed to bring outside food into the park, but can go back to your car at any point, so you can always pack a picnic lunch. We were surprised that food prices cost more than Disneyland.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

San Diego, California

We drove around the San Diego area today and meandered through several areas:
  • Old Town is full of restaurants and stores, and is quaint and charming with the buildings of Spanish architecture. There is also an historic park with many original and reconstructed buildings.
  • Gaslamp Quarter is downtown and had many upscale restaurants and city-shopping. It seems like the perfect area to spend a day in the city.
  • Coronado is an area south west of downtown and you need to take Route 75 to get there. This is a small island connected by a very large bridge where the famous Hotel del Coronado is located, which was beautiful, well-staffed, and luxurious. We meandered on the beautiful beaches here and enjoyed looking at the multi-million dollar homes on Ocean Boulevard. By the way, since no one took us up on our offer to buy us a place in Carmel, the offer is still open - if you want to buy us a home on Ocean Blvd in Coronado - we'd appreciate it!

We want to wish everyone a very HAPPY THANKSGIVING.

  • By the way, instead of going out shopping on Black Friday, why don't you use our Amazon link (on the left) to buy, wrap, and send your gifts this year.
  • Or perhaps try (also found in the left margin) - they have gift certificates available as well! As a Thanksgiving treat, is having a promotion: save 70% Off + $10 off a $75 purchase at when you try the new coupon code "THANKS". It can be used on both of their most popular products, Dinner of the Month Club and their $25 Gift Certificates. This offer is now valid through November 30th!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Santa Fe RV Resort, San Diego, California

Santa Fe RV Resort is close to all of the tourist places one would want to see in San Diego, such as SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. We'll be here a week enjoying the area. This campground has a lot of positives - a nice pool, a very nice clubhouse with pool table, full kitchen, nice exercise area with weights, nice laundry room, clean bathrooms, free WiFI and free cable, as well as full hook-ups at every site. In addition, AAA and Good Sam's members receive 10% off the rates, and Passport America members get 50% off the rates. The biggest negative is it's location - it's very,very close to I-5, a major highway, so it's noisy. But for a week, it'll work!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Last Day at Disneyland & California Adventure, Anaheim, California

Today we rose early to enjoy our Magic Morning at Disneyland. We received a Magic Morning with our CityPass, which is the option to enter Disneyland one hour before opening with rides open in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. So by 7:30am, we were on Space Mountain! Since the crowds were drastically less, by 8am we had ridden Space Mountain twice, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters once, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds once as well.

We decided to spend our last day enjoying all of our favorite rides using the FastPass system described a couple days ago. All-in-all, our favorite rides:

In Disneyland ~ Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and Space Mountain.

In California Adventure ~ The Tower of Terror, California Screamin', Maliboomer, Soarin' Over California.

As we leave Los Angeles, there are some things that we would have liked to have done, but ran out of time. In no particular order:

  • Drive Malibu Ocean Road to see the beaches and homes.

  • Go on the Warner Bros. tour - we heard this was a great tour - much better than Universal.

  • Rodeo Drive - we were there one evening, but the stores were closed. We meant to go again, but never made it.

  • Go see the graves of some celebrities - there are a few cemeteries in the area, and you can see a lot of graves.

  • Perhaps go to an award show

  • Go to some more beaches, such as Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Downtown Disney, Anaheim, California

Our heads were still spinning when we woke this morning, so we decided to use the third day of our 3-day parkhopper tomorrow, and relax a bit today. We did walk to Downtown Disney to check it out, again, it's about a 15-minute walk from our campground.

Downtown Disney is just outside Disneyland & California Adventure, and it's basically a mall with some Disney stores, some specialty stores such as The Lego Store, and also some typical stores one would see in any mall, USA, such as Baskin Robbins or Illuminations. At the other end of Downtown Disney is the Disney Hotel, so it basically connects the hotel to Disneyland & California Adventure.

We wouldn't recommend Downtown Disney as a destination in-and-of itself, unless you want to buy some Disney merchandise and you're not going into the parks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Disneyland & California Adventure ~ Anaheim, California

First, notice the photo and who earned the better score!

Today was Day 2 of our 3-day parkhopper pass, and we went to both Disneyland and California Adventure.

After putting our stuff in the Disneyland area locker (again, $7 per day for the smallest locker, which we can easily fit a backpack fairly full), we went to California Adventure, which is a California-focused theme park. It is smaller than Disneyland, but no less fun and full of exciting times! California Adventure seems more teen to adult oriented, although there are some attractions for the little ones.

As we meandered trying to get our bearings, we walked by some Cast Members (Disney-speak for staff) and heard, "5...4...3...2...1...Congratulations!" We each won a Disney Dream FastPass! So a FastPass (which is free), as we learned yesterday, is a way to get to the front of the line in the more popular attractions (Disney-speak, again, "attraction" = "ride"). Not all attractions are part of the FastPass system, but many are, such as Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror. The way the FastPass system works is you go to the attraction and slide your admission ticket through their FastPass machine and you get a FastPass ticket -which is like a reservation of when you can go back and enjoy the attraction. The FastPass ticket will have 2 times, such as 10:30 - 11:30. This means that at any time after 10:30, you can go to that attraction and go in a separate line that takes you to almost the front of the line, and you get on much quicker than waiting in the long "stand-by" line. The second number, in this case 11:30, only means that you cannot get another FastPass at any attraction until after that time. Basically, you can't hoard a bunch of FastPass tickets. Now a tip - Disneyland and California Adventure FastPass systems are NOT linked, so you can hold two FastPasses simultaneously, one at each park. Now, what we were awarded was a Dream FastPass, which is a plastic card with the name of every eligible FastPass attraction on it. This gave us one FastPass "ticket" to every attraction, without any time restrictions - we could go on any attraction at any time, and did not need to wait a certain period of time before using the FastPass again. How did we get it? By just happening to be in the right place at the right time. Knowing it would be busier in the afternoon/early evening, we held onto our Dream FastPasses until later in the day, then hit every attraction back-to-back - it was a blast!!!

Of course, all this FastPass action got us hungry, so we enjoyed burgers in California Adventure's Taste Pilots Grill and later, dinner at the Pacific Wharf Cafe where they served soups in sourdough bowls. Although we didn't partake, there is alcohol served in California Adventure, but Disneyland is a dry county.
Two big events happened in Disneyland today - one was the start of Disney's Christmas Season with "A Christmas Fantasy" Parade, with many favorite Disney characters singing Christmas carols, with a guest appearance by Santa himself. The other was the "Believe..... In Holiday Magic" Fireworks Spectacular which was a fireworks display set to Christmas tunes, and a had a special finale of snow! Tip - if you want to see any parade, or any fireworks in Disney, get a place about an hour before the event - if not, you'll be standing behind the 6'6" man and his equally tall friends.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, & The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, California

In yet another busy day here in the Los Angeles area, we went to three well-known places:

Venice Beach ~ this is the well-known area of colorful people, interesting stores and body builders. The beach is beautiful, wide and long with soft sand and easy ocean waves - nice for swimming, sunbathing, or people-watching. Along the beach are volleyball nets, basketball courts where we watched some pick-up games, tennis courts, and of course, a full-fledged outdoor weightlifting gym with the expected weight-lifter men. Then there's the sidewalk - with a variety of people, many hucksters, and stores where you can get a prescription for medical marijuana and get it filled on the premises (how convenient), or buy 4 t-shirts for $10, or hear many musicians who enjoy their own unique style. This was an interesting place to visit.

Santa Monica Pier ~ another well-know area, and this one with a small carnival, including a roller coaster and Ferris wheel. Of course, there were restaurants and shops on the perimeter of the pier, along with a place to take trapeze classes! On all edges of the pier there are smaller fishing decks built just below the main pier, so if you're interested in fishing, that's where you'll drop your line. Off the pier were many condos, homes, restaurants, and shops.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno ~ When we went to Universal Studios earlier this week, we stopped at the Hollywood ticket counter and got two free tickets to The Tonight Show, and today was the day to go! The Tonight Show is filmed at NBC, and if you have "guaranteed" tickets (which you can only get at Universal Studios), you do not need to get there until 3pm. If you do not have guaranteed tickets, you'll need to get here by 2pm, and the line starts forming at that time (more tickets are given out than seats, since they have many no shows). Ours were of the guaranteed variety, so we didn't have to stand in too long of a line. At around 3pm, we started getting seated, and once inside, it was again interesting how small the set was - and this included the band area, the stage where Jay sits, and a third area for guest bands and such. The show tapes at 4pm, and around 3:45, Jay came out very causally without an announcement, still not dressed for the taping, and started chatting with the audience and answering a few questions. Here's a tip - he answered only 3 questions and took pictures with the guest & signed the photo, so if you want a picture with Jay, be sure to get your hand in the air quickly. He then left to get ready (which took only about 10 minutes or so), and the announcer continued the fun, tossing prizes (t-shirts, socks, hats), having members of the audience come up and tell a joke or sing, and letting us all know the "rules", such as when to clap, what not to do, etc.... Then Jay came out again as it was announced, "and here's Jay.................." in his suit & tie, did the monologue, and we were off! Hugh Jackman, People's Sexiest Man of 2008 was the first guest, to the delight of many women (and some men) in the audience. After Hugh Jackman, Jack Black appeared and he was the band for the night as well. The taping lasted about 75 minutes altogether, as the show is 60-minutes, and they pause for a couple minutes throughout the taping for commercials. During this time, the band played to keep the audience entertained while Jay chatted with the guests. After the show was taped, Jay did a few promos with the guests, then stayed on stage meeting a few audience members (Hugh Jackman's parents, for example). Then it was over. It was a great time - much quicker than seeing a sitcom tape as there were no retakes, and the chairs were much more comfortable! On the way back to our car, Jay was leaving in his classic Corvette to go to the Jimmy Kimmel show and we chatted with him a moment or two.

Our take on the whole experience:

- Jay Leno seemed like a very casual, friendly guy - he initially came on stage without any introduction, chatted with anyone who he saw as he left the studio driving his own car, and waved to people as they left the show and called his name.

- At one point, the make-up & hair people came to "fix" Jay, and as soon as they left, her ran his hand through his hair & wiped the make-up off his face - gotta love that!

- Admittedly, after seeing this and The New Adventures of Old Christine, some of the "Hollywood magic" is gone for us. Of course, maybe we just held onto that too long.

-The one bad thing is to find parking - NBC does not offer a lot for public parking, so you need to drive around until you find a parking spot that doesn't have a 2-hour limit, since you'll be there longer than 2-hours. (Check Bob Hope Street for parking.)

-The show is done at 5:15ish, so you will hit the legendary LA traffic on the way home, so plan accordingly. Also, eat before you go, there is not place to eat around NBC studios.

We definitely recommend going to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - he's funny when not reading what the writers write (before the show he also told some jokes), and he seems like just a good 'ole guy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Disneyland ~ Anaheim, California

It's a small world after's a small world after all...........

We enjoyed our very long day at Disneyland today, arrived at the park's open at 10am and left at the close, 8pm. Since Disneyland is only a 15 minute walk from our campground (Anaheim RV Village), we walked both ways. (If you want to bike it, which we will probably do for our next visit, there are bike racks at the front gates, and of course, parking lots for cars.)

So what can we say about Disneyland?

First, go off-season and on a week with no school holidays - we waited no more than 20 minutes for the Indiana Jones Adventure, and the rest of the rides were either walk-right-on or a 5 minute wait. We rode Space Mountain and Splash Mountain twice without any wait, and we both agree that they tie for our favorite rides so far.

At first we tried to find the "Adult" rides, but found that even the non-thriller rides were fun for adults, such as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan’s Flight. I don’t think we’ll be going on any of the “kiddie” rides again, but were glad to do it all once. It’s a Small World reopened after being closed since January for repair, and it was decked in a holiday theme. It was amazing – over-and-over again throughout the park, we were amazed at the attention to detail in the rides, the staff, and the park grounds themselves.

Food – there is a lot to choose from, and you can bring your own food, store in a locker (which rent from a low of $7 and have in/out privileges all day), but we decided to try the various restaurant at Disneyland – pasta for lunch at the Pizza Port and fajita tacos for dinner at Rancho del Zocalo. Both meals were surprisingly good, well-portioned, and reasonable priced for the portion sizes. Where Disneyland really earns it’s profit, food-wise, is the little carts and shops all over the place where you can get a soft pretzel for $2.75, a coke for $2.50, an (incredible) chocolate chip cookie for $2.75, etc…..

To end our day, we saw Fantasmic, which is a nighttime show of Mickey Mouse battling good vs. evil, which of course ended with some fireworks. If you want a front-row seat to this, be sure to get here early – we got here at 7:20 for the 7:30 show and stood in the back, but we could still see since Brad’s tall & Suzanne is squirrelly enough to finagle her way to the front row.

A couple tips:
1. Seeing Disneyland any time of the year is incredible, but seeing it decked out for the winter holidays brings it to an entirely new level.
2. The Citypass we used for Universal Studios also had a Disneyland/California Adventure 3-day park hopper pass – which included a Magic Morning pass, which is a pass to enter Disneyland one hour before opening on one of the two remaining days, so we’ll be setting our alarm clocks early and we’ll be at Disneyland at 7am on Saturday!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Universal Studios Hollywood and The New Adventures of Old Christine, California

Today we went to Universal Studios Hollywood. This entertainment center is made up of two distinctive areas which include the Theme Park/Studio Tour and the City Walk. The City Walk area is an outdoor mall that gives you the feel that you are walking through a downtown area of a city. It is full of movie theaters, shops (themed by the Universal movies and TV shows) and restaurants. This area is located outside the theme park and is free except for parking. The positioning of parking requires you to walk through this area to get to the actual theme park and studio tours - very cleaver. Once in the park there are three areas to explore and experience: the Upper Lot (which is the main area), the Lower Lot (nestled amongst actual studios) and the Studio Tour (lower outdoor movie sets). To start, it's recommended to do the Studio Tour right away before the crowds grow too large. So that's what we did. The Studio Tour is a narrated tram ride that takes you through many actual outdoor sets like those used by Desperate Housewives TV show as well as the neighborhood airplane crash scene used in the movie War of the Worlds and many more. The tram narrator provided information and video clips about each set that made the stops that much more interesting. It was very interesting how the small scale of the sets is made to seem actual or larger size in the various movies or TV shows. The tram tour also includes specifically designed themed attractions like Jurassic Park and Jaws where the tram is rushed by dinosaurs or attacked by a robotic shark. The tram narrator hams up the these campy scenarios. These themed scenarios make up about fifty percent of what you will see on the tour.

After our tour, we explored the Lower Lot which has a handful of attractions and rides. We found the best ride in the park to be the Revenge of the Mummy. The other attractions were more like demonstrations on how special effects are done with one show devoted to the movie Backdraft. We got hungry, of course, so we ate at the Jurassic Cove Cafe which included a Panada Express chain restaurant. The food quality and portions were good and what you would expect from a fast food Chinese restaurant.

Stomachs full, we turned our focus to the Upper Lot. This area has more restaurants rides, attractions and outdoor shows like WaterWorld. Everything in all areas carries theme of Universal's movie and TV offerings. In general we were disappointed with this theme park. We found the attractions to be a little campy and fewer in number than expected. It seemed the number of gift shops and restaurants far out-numbered the actual attractions. We would not recommend this park unless you are a huge move and TV fan.

1. If you want Jay Leno show ticket (which are free), go to the Hollywood Ticket Outlet on the Upper Lot and ask if tickets are available for the current week's show. We went directly to this ticket office when we got into the park and were rewarded with our choice of two nights to choose from. They have a list of who will be appearing on the show which helped us choose a date.

2. General parking is $12, but you can purchase preferred parking for $20 which puts you closer to the entrance if needed. If you go off season and don't mind a little walk then $12 "non-preferred" parking lot is just fine.

3. Citypasses can be purchased in various locations, or you can find other discounted tickets for Universal. Check local tourist information, visitors guides, etc.. We purchased our Citypass for $219 per adult at Costco, which gives us admission to Universal Studios, a 3-day parkhopper to Disneyland & California Adventure, Sea World and Sand Diego Zoo. Costco seemed to have the best price in citypasses, we've seen them for the $270 range elsewhere.

4. Universal Studios dining accepts AAA discount and offered 10% off the price of food and drinks.

5. Sit on the left side of the tram tour - you'll see more and be able to take more photos without a bunch of heads in the way.

To finish out our day, we attended the filming of the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We got our free tickets online at the Audiences Unlimited website. This was great way to see the filming of a sitcom. You can see the "behind the scenes" of how the director, writers, and actors work together. The actors film a scene, then based on the audience reaction to jokes and how the writers felt the script worked, it was rewritten and retaped. We got to see the dialogues tweaked several times for each scene. During the many pauses in the shooting to change the script, a comedian entertained and educated the audience, which was actually quite a bit if fun. We didn't even know this show very well, but still enjoyed our visit quite a bit.

Tip: We were surprised by the very few tourists in the audience - there were many locals and groups. We found out that groups can go to these free tapings for fundraisers, and each member receives $20. If you're in a group of 10 or more, when you make your reservations, you may be pleasantly surprised to make a few bucks, as well as have a few good laughs!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Newport, Balboa and Huntington beaches, California

If you want to really catch some sun in Southern California, you need to hit one of the many beaches. So to do just that today, we visited Newport, Balboa and Huntington beaches. Newport and Balboa beaches are located on the peninsula that protects Newport Bay and the harbor. We stopped about half way down the peninsula and walked the beach near the Balboa pier. The beaches here are large, clean, and extend as far as you can see – and they are very beautiful. On the non-ocean side of the vast beach are homes that face the beach. There is a sidewalk promenade between the line of homes and the sand, which is a great place to walk, bike or skate and see the beautiful homes up-close, while also enjoying expansive views of the beach and ocean.

All of this sun may make you thirsty, so if you want to relive some of your college years (i.e. a place that smells of beer, has very loud music, and everything is somewhat sticky) or experience a very casual beach bar, then head to Cabo's, adjacent to Balboa pier on the sidewalk promenade. This place offers up-close viewing of the people passing by, as well as the beach and park at the entrance of the pier. We enjoyed a very strong margarita, beer, and some surprisingly very good nachos. Also in this area are several small gift shops and some non-college type restaurants.

On the other side of the peninsula is Newport Bay. This is an active harbor lined by expensive homes. There are several fee parking lots throughout the peninsula as well as metered parking ($1 for an hour) where you can park and get out and explore the homes, boats, and entire area.

Heading north on the Coastal Highway (Hwy 1) to Huntington Beach, you will find the quintessential California beach - full of surfers, sand volleyball courts and large beautiful beaches where you can walk for miles. The Coastal Highway offers great views of the ocean and there are several fee parking areas that are right on the beach.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hollywood and Beverly Hills, California

Acting like typical ticky-tacky tourists, we set out to explore both the Hollywood and Beverly Hills areas today. Our first stop took us to the Kodak Theater which is in the heart of the Hollywood Boulevard attractions. This theater might sound familiar for it's the home of the Academy Awards. The outside looked nothing like the glam and glitz that see during the red carpet TV coverage shown before the actual Academy Awards. That's the magic of Hollywood. It will be interesting to watch the Academy Awards next time to compare to what we saw. Right in front of the Kodak Theater is the Hollywood Walk of Fame which extends many blocks on both sides of Hollywood Boulevard and some side streets. The Walk of Fame is where over 2000 entertainers are honored with a sidewalk-embedded star. We enjoyed walking many blocks finding our favorite celebrities' stars.

Adjacent to the Kodak Theater is one the must-sees of this famous area and that's Grauman's Chinese Theatre. In the entry area of this 1927 pagoda-styled theater are the famous hand and footprints of celebrities in the cement. Here you will find hand and footprints from old Hollywood stars like Clark Gabe and Shirley Temple to the stars of today like Will Smith and John Travolta. The biggest surprise was to see how small John Wayne's feet and hands actually were indicating that he wasn't as large in stature as Hollywood made him out to be. Don't miss this stop so you can make your own discoveries.

Next, we really went all out as tourists and took a Hollywood Sightseeing van tour. The company we chose was which provided a two hour guided tour ($20 per person - be sure to get this price - everything was negotiable on Hollywood Blvd!!) of the famous streets like the Sunset Strip, Melrose Ave and Rodeo Drive, as well as the viewing of dozens of celebrities homes including the Playboy Mansion, Jay Leno, George Clooney, the newest couple in town - the Beckhams, and many more. Along the way the tour guide pointed out clubs where people got their start, as well as where celebrities were arrested, frequented, or died. Remember when Hugh Grant was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, well you'll see that corner and many other famous celebrity haunts too. Our guide was also constantly looking for paparazzi (signalling a celebrity was in the area) and watching the many very expensive cars that passed by so that we could get a glimpse at a celebrity. Unfortunately, we didn't have any celeb-sightings on our tour but understand it's very common. If you have an interest in seeing someone famous or want to see astonishing homes, then definitely take this tour, for it was ticky-tacky-tourist fun!

The restaurant where we ate - Clafoutis on Sunset Boulevard. This was in a nice location (parking in the rear for free, so don't pay to park.) and the food was quite good - unfortunately the same cannot be said for the waitress - let's just say arrogant, which is a shame, since she works for tips. Keep your eyes open around here as well, as celebrities frequent the restaurants on the Sunset Strip.

Time for tips:
1. Parking on Hollywood Boulevard - there are a few city-run parking garages, and if you purchase something in the area, be sure to get your ticket validated for a few bucks off the parking rate.

2. In front of the Kodak Theater there is a visitors booth - ask for "the elephant card" - this is a free card that offers discounts at the stores in the area. They also can give you discount coupons for tours, such as Kodak Theatre tours. Don't be shy - just ask what they've got - it seemed as whatever we asked, they offered some money savings.

3. You can get a free map of the Hollywood Walk of Fame from the Chamber of Commerce on Hollywood Boulevard - go to the second floor.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Anaheim RV Village, Anaheim, California

We are staying at the Anaheim RV Village while we explore the Los Angeles area. This is a very nice park, about 1/2 mile to Disneyland. They have a variety of RV sites, some pull-through, and all sites are full hook-ups with a small patch of grass. There is an RV wash ($1 per minute) pool, a great laundry room, store, free wifi, small arcade, and playground. What is the nicest thing about this RV park is the staff - every person we have met, either in person, telephone, or email, has been extremely nice and helpful. There is a shuttle to Disneyland ($3 round trip), or you can wal. We highly recommend this place if in the area.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

canoeing Santa Barbara harbor, California

The Santa Barbara harbor has so many boats and great places to tool around, we decided to go back today, bring our Sevylor Inflatable Tahiti Classic Canoe, and see the boats from the perspective of the water. We saw lots of beautiful boats - they came in all sizes, form small sailing boats to larger sailing & motor boats you could cruise the seas, to a couple huge yachts that need a crew. We also ventured into the ocean a bit, and enjoyed the frolics of a sea otter and many pelicans. If you're interested in doing the same when you're in the Santa Barbara area, there were many kayak and canoe rental places that can get you afloat.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Santa Barbara's Old Town & more, California

Today was a busy day...........

First, we checked out Oprah's (yes, Oprah's) digs in the outskirts of Santa Barbara. She has a $50 million estate, and of course all you can see from the road is the gate (pictured). Not surprisingly, we weren't invited in. This is the most "paparazzi-esque" we've been - literally a drive by as we took pictures.

Back to the Old Town of Santa Barbara - we meandered the streets and checked out the many shops - some unique to the area, others chain stores. There were a ton of restaurants, many with outdoor seating on the sidewalks, and a lot from which to choose. From a recommendation, we went to Uncle Rocco's Famous New York Pizza - it was good if you're in the mood for pizza.

One very interesting building in Santa Barbara is the County Courthouse which is a National Historic Landmark, based on it's history and architecture. Free tours are given everyday except Sundays at 2pm - meet on the 2nd floor in the Mural Room. We took the tour, which lasted about an hour, and it was very informative - we learned more of the history of California and the history of Santa Barbara, as well as the building of the courthouse. The very top of the courthouse is the best view in the city (well, Oprah may have a better view) - it's a 360-degree view of the ocean, hills, and Santa Barbara. We were lucky enough to be there on a sunny, clear day. This is a definite place to go when in Santa Barbara

We also spent a bit of time at the Karpeles Manuscript Library, which showed some original, some copied, manuscripts ranging from music to literature to history. This was very interesting, and again, free. If you have a few minutes, stop by.

Finally, we had to get the oil changed in the truck, and this is where we met Jon - the owner of MeinekeEcono Lube Car Care Center in Santa Barbara. The reason we mention this - because this was the nicest group of guys (Jon and his mechanics) that you could meet - and they did a great job with the oil change and didn't try all of that upselling that is popular with places like this. In fact, Jon is who gave us our lunch recommendation today, as well as list of other restaurants we look forward to trying. Keep Jon's place in mind if you need an oil change (or anything else) while in Santa Barbara.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Exploring Santa Barbara's Bay Front & Farmers Market, Santa Barbara, California

Today was our day to begin exploring the city of Santa Barbara. Our first destination was the Visitor Information Center at corner of Cabrillo Blvd and Garden Street which is located in the heart of the bay front. This small and busy place is full of various maps of the area, information about things to do and see, as well as it had a schedule of various area events. This is a great place to help you get acclimated to the area and to get recommendations from local people that will help tailor your visit to your likes and time frame. There is parking behind the Visitor Center and its done on the honor system from $2-$7 depending how long you stay. There are three areas along the bay front to explore; the Harbor, the Wharf and the beaches that connect these first two areas and extend as far as you can see. After receiving the information we needed and a restaurant recommendation for lunch at the harbor, we made the 15 minute walk along the beach and Carbrillo Blvd past the Wharf. This is a beautiful palm lined street with terrific views of the beaches, Wharf and Harbor.
Since our first priority was lunch, we headed directly to Brophy Bros. Restaurant. Brophy's is a second story restaurant in the heart of the harbor that provides indoor and outdoor seating with views over looking the entire harbor. We chose to sit outside and glad we did for we were able to watch a sail boat being lifted out of the water and placed on it's trailer by a small crane, as well as we watching a couple small fishing boats offloading their day's catch of shrimp and halibut. Brophy Bros's menu offered several fresh fish dishes, clam bar selections and various non-seafood options. Suzanne settled on a chicken sandwich and Brad chose the Albacore tuna melt. Both dishes came with fries and their homemade creamy sweet (not too sweet) coleslaw. Both meals were terrific as well as the accompaniments. We also found all the wait staff very friendly and provided great attentive service. We won't hesitate to eat here again when we find ourselves back in the area. (like tomorrow maybe!)
After lunch, we walked out onto the harbor jetty. From here you have open views of the entire bay, the Channel Islands to the west and the city of Santa Barbara against the mountains to the east. The huge bay is teaming with activity. So much so that we found ourselves at times stopping to watch the sailing schools in their small sail boats darting around and the numerous boats coming and going in the harbor. Before leaving the harbor area, we learned of the Tuesday afternoon Farmers Market, so decided to go there after we walked the Wharf. The Wharf is the oldest working wooden prier on the west coast. It has several restaurants, gift shops and locals fishing at the very end. If you don't want to make the quart of a mile walk there is parking on the pier for a fee.
Next we walked up State Street to the Farmers Market. This market occurs every Tuesday evening from 3pm to 6pm and is located between the 400 and 600 blocks on State Street which is in the old historic shopping district. The three block section of State Street is closed off so you can walk with ease. The market had a great selection of locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables along with flowers, herbs, honey, fresh eggs, cheeses, shrimp and many street musicians. We thoroughly enjoyed our casual stroll sampling the local fare.

1. There is a $.25 trolley bus that you can take to/from the Visitor Center up State Street to the old downtown area.
2. There is free parking by the harbor.

Stay tuned....we're heading back to Santa Barbara tomorrow............

Monday, November 10, 2008

Solvang, California

The town of Solvang is a Danish community that is about thirty minutes north from Rancho Oso. The main town center is about three blocks in radius and is full of gift shops, restaurants and much more. In addition to the strong Danish influences, you can also find German and Dutch as well. This is evident in the authentic food that can be found in many restaurants and the architecture that is prevalent in this area. This is a wonderful area to explore and walk around if shopping and these ethnic influences appeal to you. To get some authentic Danish food during our visit, we stopped at Heidelberg Inn Restaurant & Beergarden for an early dinner. The menu had a small selection of Danish/German sausage dishes, open-faced sandwiches (a Danish tradition) as well as American fare. Suzanne stayed with a pastrami sandwich with soup and Brad ventured into the world of Danish sausage which came with sauerkraut, red cabbage, fried potatoes and a pork sausage. The portions were definitely enough but both meals were just okay. You might want to try one of the other restaurants in town touting similar food. After dinner for our dessert, we frequented two out of the four bakeries that are in this area...we had to sample the fruit danishes and cinnamon crisps. They were all delicious.

Some other places that might be of interest to you while in Solvang: the free Elverhoj Museum, dedicated to the Danish American experience and Danish ancestry; Old Mission Santa Ines; the free Hans Christian Andersen Museum; and the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum (admission $10 per adult).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rancho Oso Campground, outside of Santa Barbara, California

Rancho Oso (an RPI park) is a horse ranch, so the cool thing is that there are a lot of horses around as you drive in. They do offer trail rides and a few other ranch activities. The facilities are very nice - there is a well-maintained adult lodge with free, albeit slow, wifi, a pool table, book exchange, tv, common areas, etc.... There is a family lodge for the kids to enjoy, 2 pools (one heated year-round), a hot tub, mini-golf, horseshoes, tennis, basketball, etc... There are a lot of activities and meals, and what's nice, is it's year-round (too many campgrounds stop the fun activities off-season). All this being said, however, we were disappointed that the camping spots weren't nicer - it's dusty here - no grass. The campground is row-upon-row of RV sites, and although decent in size, they're just dirt, not even a concrete slab. You are in the middle of nowhere, so whether this is good or bad is up to you - it's about 30 minutes to Santa Barbara.

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