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 research.....so 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 http://www.seaworld.com/ 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.

Tips:
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 restaurant.com (also found in the left margin) - they have gift certificates available as well! As a Thanksgiving treat, restaurant.com is having a promotion: save 70% Off + $10 off a $75 purchase at Wine.com 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 all.............it'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.

Tips:
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 ehollywoodtours.com 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.

Tips:
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.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California


In the 1920's, William R. Hearst started building what is truly a castle as his private retreat. This is a magnificent, one of a kind estate built on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific coast, and is a destination that you won't want to miss. To give a little historical context, Hearst's parents' wealth was made in silver and other mining in the late 1800's - this provided them the means to purchase over 390 square miles of land along the coast and hills near San Simeon. Hearst grew up camping on this land and grew to love what it had to offer. As an adult, he became a newspaper and publishing mogul, thus becoming extremely wealthy in his own right. After his mother's death, Hearst inherited this land and almost immediately began his dream of building what he called "better accommodations" than the temporary camp that he was used to all these years.

In the 1920's construction started, and with his ever-changing visions coupled with his interest in the creative process of building, he had built, but never completed, Hearst Castle. Through the heyday years, Hearst shared his private retreat with many celebrities, movie stars and politicians of the time. Name someone famous back then and they probably were a guest at Hearst Castle.

Hearst decorated the gardens, the outdoor Greco-Roman style Neptune pool and inside each building with lavish European antiques that he purchased through auctions. These items ranged from 500 year old doors from Spanish churches to ornate hand-carved wooden ceilings from Italy. The gardens contain many stone statues that were imported, including one that was 34 centuries old from Egypt. Inside the house, the furnishings rivaled what you would see touring the famous castles of England. Every piece of furniture, tapestry and picture is a an antique. The entire estate is more of a museum than a part-time retreat as Hearst used it.

Hearst also had a great love for animals. So much so that during the 1930's he had one of the largest zoos of the time. He had polar, brown and black bears as well many species of big cats, including lions. He also imported many types of grazing animals including Zebras and Kangaroos. Most animals later were donated to California zoos, but there are still Zebra that you can see grazing along side Highway 1 as you approach the castle.

In the 1950's after Hearst died, his family sold the castle and over 100 acres of land to the State of California. The state made it into an historic monument and started sharing this wonderful place with visitors. The Hearst family retained ownership of the remaining land, which is still an active cattle ranch to this day.
The State Park service offers five different tours of the various buildings, gardens and pools. Each tour takes you into a different combination of houses, rooms, floors and areas in the gardens. Also each tour is offered several times a day so you can go to multiple tours, as we did. If you only have time for one tour, then definitely take Tour 1 - The Experience Tour. This will give you a good broad exposure.

Because of all the grandeur, we felt one tour wasn't enough to see all that we wanted to see so we took Tour 1 - The Experience Tour first, which included an additional 45-minute movie about the making of Hearst Castle. We also took Tour 2, which included more of Casa Grande, the main house of the estate. Tour 1 is what most people take, and this was a tour of 55 people, which was a bit much. The tour takes you through one (of the three) guest house, the Neptune Pool, the indoor pool, and a few of the larger rooms of Casa Grande (again, the main house). There were a few too many people on this tour, although it was a good overall perspective. The second tour we took was Tour 2 - this included the Neptune pool again, the indoor pool again, and all of the rooms of Casa Grande. This tour was much more intimate - about 8 of us with one tour guide. We were able to ask questions of any sort, and get to know the castle and the man a bit better. This tour was more to our liking.

Here are a few tips we learned to make your day more enjoyable:

1. If you take more than one tour, book them at least 30 minutes apart if you want something to eat between the tours. We didn't do this at first, and had only 15 minutes between tours. However, we arrived at Hearst Castle early, and moved our first tour time up a bit earlier, and moved out second tour back about 20 minutes. This gave us enough time between tours to use the restroom and eat our picnic lunch.

2. There is (an expensive) cafeteria there, if you want to eat between tours. As mentioned, we brought a picnic lunch and went out to our car to eat - this worked out very well.

3. There are often announcements of open seats on tours that may be earlier than the one you reserved, so listen for these announcements.

4. If you take Tour 1, there is a movie of the making of the castle that comes with your admission price (which, by the way is $20/per person/per tour). You can see this movie before or after your tour.

5. You can reserve tickets early by booking online with ReserveAmerica. It is recommend that you pre-order tickets. Surprisingly, there's no charge for this service.

Check below the adsense for more - there are two posts today - the one below if about the Elephant Seals we saw!!!


Viewing Elephant Seals, San Simeon, California


Just 5 quick miles north on Hwy 1 from Hearst Castle are beaches where colonies of Elephant Seals gather from December to January to give birth, mate and molt. We drove there hoping to see a few early seals and were surprised to find many just lying on the numerous beaches. There are several parking areas and fenced off paths where you can view these huge seals from no more than 20 yards away. It was fantastic to see and hear them being this close. We watched several males sparing for females and others just lying there scratching an itch and snoozing. It was a great experience and well worth a stop - don't forget your camera!
Check out more photos of Elephant seals, Hearst Castle & Morro Bay!!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Morro Bay, California


Today was a beautiful, warm sunny day so we decided to take walk along the beach towards Morro Rock (pictured) into town, all of which was about one mile from our campground. The walk along the sandy beach was very nice, and there were many surfers (in full wet suits) enjoying the waves. Once by Morro Rock, there is a lovely walking path that you can follow into town which is follows the bay. Alongside this walking path is a bike path, and we're sure the bicyclists appreciate having a path separate from both the cars and the walkers. As you walk or bike this route, be sure to look in the bay, as we saw seals, sea lions and sea otters as we walked - all of which was very cool, to say the least!

The quaint town of Morro Bay is a typical harbor town - lots of restaurants, shops, salt water taffy places (of which Carousel Taffy was the best), touisty shops, and some art galleries. The harbor is very accessible as well, and there was even a replica of the Nina (as in the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria) that Columbus sailed in 1492. Needless to say, neither of us would have sailed in a ship that small from Spain to the US!

All this walking, of course, made us hungry, and on a recommendation (from the same woman who recommended last night's dinner at Chapula's), we went to Tognazzini's Dockside Restaurant - YUM!!!! Brad had the albacore tuna melt with a green salad, which he said was one of the best sandwiches he's ever had, and in Suzanne's continued quest for great crab, the crab melt (with side salad) was incredible! Be sure not miss this restaurant when you're in Morro Bay.

A nice drive in this area is along Main Street going south. Not only can you meander through the neighborhoods, but the road continues to Morro Bay State Park, where there is a golf course, Museum of Natural History, a Heron Rockery where we didn't see Heron, but instead saw a lot of Turkey Vultures, and some great views of the bay. It's only a couple miles, so it would be a nice biking area as well. Speaking of birds, while in the harbor area of Morro Bay, just by the Power Plant, there are about 10 trees between the docks and the plant - look up - the Black Crowned Night Heron makes it's home in those trees.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Morro Dunes Resort Campground & Chapala's Mexican Restaurant, Morro Bay, California

The Morro Dunes Resort Campground is a nice place and just a short walk to a great beach by the Morro Rock. (In fact, there are views of The Rock from most places in the campground.) The campground is also located within walking distance (about a mile) of the harbor and tourist areas. Morro Dunes offers RV sites with full hookups with or without TV, free WiFi, and many tent sites. There are several shower and laundry facilities conveniently located throughout the park. The only down side is that the park is very compact, meaning sites are close together and the adjacent property to the east is the water treatment plant for the city of Morro Bay. So far there hasn't been an odor problem.


Tonight we figured it's time we get some good Mexican food while in California, so per a recommendation from a woman at the campground, we set out to find Chapala's Mexican Restaurant. The directions were.....go north on Main Street and the restaurant is in the 76 gas station. Yes, you read correctly - the 76 gas station. On the outside it is a gas station, but inside there are several tables and a nice casual decor. The chips and salsa were all freshly made and were terrific as our meals - Brad had the highly recommended chicken soft tacos, and Suzanne had the chicken fajitas. This was some of the best Mexican food that we've had in recent memory. The whole time there, we were fascinated that this mom (who does the cooking) and pop (who does the serving) joint served two purposes - gas and great Mexican food. Their menu indicated that they are open for all three meals of the day, so don't miss this place if you are in Morro Bay!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Monterey State Historic Park, Monterey, California

The Monterey State Historic Park is comprised of a variety of preserved buildings that show the cultural diversity of the area, from when Monterey was a Spanish outpost, to it being the capital when this area was a Mexican province, to California becoming a state of the United States. A good place to start is the Pacific House Museum, open everyday from 10-4 (and free). The Pacific House is a museum which illustrates the growth of Monterey and California through the years, as well as an area dedicated to the Native Americans of the area.

There is a free walking tour you can take throughout the city which takes you by all of the historic homes, or you can join a park ranger for a narrated walking tour on most days. In addition, there are free ranger walks through many of the homes, each lasting 45 minutes - be sure to get a schedule of tours at the Pacific House. Some buildings you can visit: Royal Presidio Chapel, the oldest structure in Monterey; Colton Hall, where the Constitution of California was written, California's first theater, and more.

We enjoyed the tours we took today - the ranger was very informative, and it was all very interesting. If you're a history buff, or just have some free time, or are looking for something to do that is free, this is the place for you.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cannery Row, Monterey, California

Cannery Row is the historic waterfront area that was once the home of Monterey Bay's fish processing and made famous by John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row. With many of the original cannery preserved, now this area is full of restaurants, wine tasting stores, gift shops of all types and many art galleries including two Thomas Kinkade Galleries. This is a great place to walk, shop, and take in the great views of the Monterey Bay. There are also a couple of very nice hotels if you what to stay right in this happening area and to be close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Check Spellingwas simply one of the best aquariums that we have visited. We enjoyed it so much that we ended up spending nearly 6 hours there, when the average visit is typically 3 hours. The main aquarium attractions are the otters, penguins, the Outer Bay and the Kelp Forest tanks especially at the designated feeding times. There are two large tanks and exhibits for two different kinds of otters. One is for the central California coast sea otters which were nearly extinct until very recently and the other for fresh water otters from Africa and Asia. Both types of otters are cute, playful and energetic, making them very fun to watch, especially during feeding which you don't want to miss. (Times for all feedings are found on the aquarium's website, as well as the visitor's guide you'll get when you enter the building.) The penguins are a variety from South Africa which are use to water temperatures similar to Monterey Bay ; they are smaller than their cold climate cousins but equally as interesting to watch. We went twice to watch the sixteen or so penguins being hand fed (that way the aquarium staff can ensure each one gets enough food). The very large Outer Bay tank contains huge fish like bluefin tuna, sunfish, sharks, schools of anchovies and other sea life from sixty miles out the Pacific Ocean. It was very impressive. The enormous Kelp Forest tank contains fish and other creatures that are found in the local waters, but live closer to shore. This aquarium was the first of its kind to have a tank of live kelp, made possible by the use of an innovative pump that was developed to replicate the moving surf which is critical for these sea plants. You definitely don't want to miss the feedings at these main exhibits. The rest of the aquarium is very nice clean and full of smaller hands-on exhibit and aquariums. The jellyfish area has many varieties that are truly amazing and bewildering. You cannot bring your own food into the aquarium, but you can eat at their cafe Portola. - we found their cafe quite good for the price, quality and selection. If you are in the Monterey area, we would highly recommend taking the better part of day and enjoying this wonderful aquarium.

Tip: If you are a AAA member, you can save $2 off the admission price ($24.95) by first purchasing your tickets at the local AAA office (they do not honor AAA at the ticket window). Also, you'll need to pay for parking somewhere near the aquarium. We found a close-by lot that charged $1 for every half hour up to a maximum of $12.

See more terrific photos of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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