Friday, February 28, 2014

BORREGO WITH FRIENDS

It had been over a month since we went anywhere, which in our book is a long time, so we decided to head out again.  This time over the hill to Anza Borrego with friends Gary and Diane and neighbors/friends Willie and Patty.  Willie and Patty had recently purchased a motor home and wanted to go on a shakedown cruise so it was all the excuse we needed. The plan was to include some four wheeling, some exploring, some partaking in happy hour and some swapping of lies around the campfire.  We managed to follow the plan without any difficulty at all, especially the happy hour part.

CAMP AT BLAIR VALLEY

For those readers who are unfamiliar with Anza Borrego Desert State Park, it is the largest state park in the country and is located in eastern San Diego County.  Having lived in San Diego for our entire lives, Cathie and I were surprised to learn that Patty and Willie had never been to Borrego, so we took it upon ourselves to remedy the situation.

Any tour of the Anza Desert region must include a stop at the Pumpkin Patch.  After following various 4-wheel drive type trails, we took a break to walk among the pumpkins. This Unique landscape is the result of wind and water continuously eroding the surface soil and revealing these globular sandstone concretions. Such concretions are believed to be formed by the natural cementing of sand particles to a small object such as a piece of shell, a grain of sand, or even an insect.

PUMPKINS


I know that California is the Nanny State, but seeing a toilet with handicapped parking out here in the middle of the desert is beyond belief.  Can you imagine the cost of construction in a location 10 miles or more from the nearest paved road.  The bathroom is a nice touch, but a concrete apron painted with the mandatory blue symbol?  There's something wrong here.

BREAK TIME

We then made a stop at Seventeen Palms Oasis, located in the badlands east of the town of Borrego Springs.  As the spring here was unreliable, early travelers with extra water would leave it in large glass jars. Thirsty visitors came to rely on the jars hidden in the shade of the palms.  The desert wanders would leave notes attached to the jars. Today the custom of leaving messages in the prospector's post office is carried on by visitors.  In the post office barrel hidden in the 17 palms among the bases, lies a visitor's log book, notes and of course, bottles of water.

PATTY READING THE MAIL

SANDSTONE CLIFFS IN CANYON SIN NOMBRE

We to another excursion to the southern part of the park where we traveled down Canyon Sin Nombre, a beautiful canyon with high sandstone walls.  After Canyon Sin Nombre we headed up Arroyo Tapiado which along with the aforementioned canyon are located in the Carrizo Badlands.  Hidden in the mud hills of the arroyo are numerous mud caves, carved out during the infrequent rains.  You can explore the caves if you have a mind to, but some of them are pretty scary.  We checked out Chasm Cave, easy to enter through a very narrow crack in the arroyo wall.  This cave is large with high ceiling and a beautiful skylight.

LUNCH IN ARROYO TAPIADO

ANOTHER BREAK, SHEEP CANYON THIS TIME.

We spent some time checking out the numerous metal sculptures which are found on open land around the outskirts of Borrego Springs.  Philanthropist and Borrego resident Dennis Avery purchased over 3000 acres around the town to prevent the land from ever being developed.  Calling the land Galleta Meadows Estate, he opened the land to the public.  In 2008 he hired artist Ricardo Breceda of Parris, California to build metal sculptures of prehistoric beasts that once roamed the Borrego Valley.  Today there are over 130 of these sculptures spread out over Galleta Meadows for the viewing pleasure of those who discover them.










Saturday, January 18, 2014

A SHORT BREAK ON THE CENTRAL COAST


Getting the urge for some travel, we used our 43rd anniversary as an excuse for a short getaway to California's Central Coast.  We found a nice B&B in Cambria called Her Castle which boasted that we could skip lunch after it's "full breakfast".  A true statement, which fails to mention that coffee and scones are brought to your room prior to the full sit down breakfast in the dining room.  A great choice in this small coastal town on Hwy 1.

Our only disappointment was the drought which has hit this area hard.  Normally the hills are an emerald green, inviting one to walk through the grass, but not a green blade of grass was to be found.  With the hillsides an  ugly shade of gray we were saved by the beautiful ocean views on a couple of short hikes we took.


We took the short drive down to Morro Bay and paid a visit to Montana de Oro State Park, which for a California State Park is unusual because there is no entrance fee.  Very unlike the State of California to overlook the possibility of getting more money out of it's citizens.  We were intending on hiking the bluff trail but much of it was closed because trial was being transformed into a 4 mile road to meet access standards for the handicapped.  Not that I'm complaining, but it is a hiking trail.  But with clear skies and temperatures in the 80's we did manage to walk along the bluffs for a short distance, taking in the great coastal views.

MORRO BAY

Next we drove north on Highway 1 to Piedras Blancas and paid a visit to the Elephant Seals who just happen to like spending time on the beach.  The seals spend eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving up to 5000 feet deep for periods of 15 minutes to two hours.  Migrating thousands of miles, twice a year to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.  The Piedras Blancas rookery is home to about 17,000 animals.  This is time of the year is when the pups are born and they we plentiful.     It is amazing that more pups aren't crushed by huge male seals, but the females are very protective of the pups.



Day two found us taking another short hike to the Harmony Headlands, another state park which much to our surprise is free.  A 1.5 mile trail leads from the highway to the rocky shore, which is the only reason to go here.  Most of the area leading to the ocean was burned in a controlled burn a couple of months ago and the hillsides are black with ash.  With the drought conditions there is no new growth and the landscape looks pretty desolate.

For a change of scenery we walked the beach at San Simeon, a beautiful near empty beach.


Besides the ample breakfast at the B&B we had some great dinners on each of our three nights out.  We tried a different restaurant each night opting for The Sows Ear in Cambria as our first choice.  We both ordered heart attack on a plant in the form of chicken fried steak.  It was really good and we were about to finish without any ill effects to our health, near as we could tell. 


After surviving our first night out we drove to Morro Bay and the The Seafood Gallery Grill for our second dinner where Cathie had her once a year lobster tails and I had some really great scallops.  A great seafood restaurant on the bay.   Our last night, on our anniversary, we drove over the hills to Paso Robles where we found the best meal or our trip at Robert's.  In San Diego we have Restaurant Week but in San Luis Obispo County they have Restaurant Month.  We had a fabulous fixed price three course dinner of Braised Pork Belly,  Salad, Beef Stroganoff Braise Short Ribs, and for dessert Chocolate Souffle Cake.  What a great meal to help us celebrate our 43 years of wedded bliss.  Well, at least that's the way I remember them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SIGNS WE SAW

Everywhere we travel I look for interesting signs.  Here at the ones we found on this trip to Europe.

Might as well use a marked police car if you're going to warn people
about the unmarked ones.

 Just how slow is Dead Slow? 



Ben Nevis, highest mountain in England


We saw this sign a lot in Scotland




Never saw any zebras





My kind of store

Wales, the land of long names


Paris, on the side of a garbage truck

Best welcome ever

Switzerland, make sure the other driver sees you.

NOW FOR SOME PUB SIGNS







Friday, November 08, 2013

WHAT WE DID RIGHT, WHAT WE DID WRONG

We've been home now for several days and I thought I would report on what we did right and what we did wrong.  For the most part we did it right, but there were a few hiccups.

TRIP PLANNING AND LODGING

We started planning this our 3rd trip to Europe at least a year in advance.  Mostly using the computer, researching places to go, things to see and where to stay.  For the first time on any of our European trips, we had reservations for every night.  I relied heavily on Trip Advisor, both for reviews of B&B's we were considering and the forums for answers to some of my questions.  I also used these web sites for research.

Slow Travel
Fodors
Silver Travel

Silver Travel is a British travel site and was a great resource for information about what to see and where to go in Great Britain.

We picked B&B who's reviews on Trip Advisor were current and in the top 10%.  It was a good move as all the B&B's we research on the site were excellent.

Our London B&B was a disappointment.  B&B's in London are few and far between.  You can find lots of hotels with breakfast included, but that's not what we wanted.  Also hotels in London are very expensive for anything that is halfway decent.  We found our B&B through a service, At Home in London which lists numerous locations throughout the city. The only reviews were reviews on the At Home web site and none could be found on the individual B&B's on any other web site.  Our B&B was in a great location in Central London, and we knew in advance that we would be below street level, but the bathroom was in the laundry, the carpets were dirty, and the breakfast didn't change for 6 mornings. The description on the web site was misleading, but has been changed since I wrote a less than stellar review.  Of course you won't see my review on the web site.

We rented an apartment in Paris to save money.  Hotels are expensive and we wanted a place where we could stay with our friends Hansjorg and Silke.  We rented this apartment through Perfectly Paris after communicating with two different people who had stayed there.  They spoke highly of the apartment and the rental service.  The photos in on the web site don't tell the whole story.  When you look at the photos, read the reviews on the site you would think it's a great place.  We knew going it that it was old as are most buildings in Paris, but  this place was run down and in need of a major cleaning.  There was a leak under the kitchen sink, where someone had put a pan under the drip.  Problem was no one was emptying the pan and the water was running on the kitchen floor.  The leak had been there long enough that mold was beginning to grow in the area of the leak.

There was mold in the tile grout and the grout was filthy.  Guest reviews in the book in the apartment made no mention of any of this, but most only spoke about their experience in the city.  I couldn't understand how previous tenants put us with the situation.  We were stuck and couldn't change so we made the best of the situation.





Bathroom pullman water damage






 
When I told the rental service they said if we had told them of these issues they would have rectified the problem.  The thing is, this mold  has been there for some time, so why didn't the rectify the problems before?

We stayed in one hotel on the entire trip.  On our return to London before taking the Eurostar to Paris I booked a room at the Thistle Hotel because it was close to our rental car return and within walking distance of St Pancras Station where we caught the train to Paris.  Small but comfortable room it was a great choice for one night.

TRANSPORTATION

We flew on British Airways because they have a direct flight to London from San Diego and who wants to change planes in Chicago, Dallas or on the East Coast.  We sprung for Premium Economy which in our opinion was worth every penny.  Board before the masses, bigger seats with more leg room, and better food.  We were actually able to get some sleep on the flight.

We bought Oyster Cards before we left for London which allowed us to used the Tube and buses while in the city.   The Oyster Card is a plastic smartcard you can use instead of paper tickets which you preload with cash.  We took the tube from Heathrow to a station 10 minutes from our B&B.  Fast and efficient, the Tube or Underground is the way to travel in London.

We took the train from London to York and purchased our tickets 4 months in advance for a reduced rate.  The closer you get to your travel date, the more expensive the tickets.

We rented our car through Auto Europe, a car rental broker and an American company based in Maine. We have used them on previous trips and have always been satisfied with their service.  We picked up the car at the train station in York from National Car Rental or Eurocar as they are known in Europe.  We were upgraded to a fully loaded Volvo which was a pleasure to drive, even on the wrong side of the road.

From London to Paris we to the Eurostar or as many call it the Chunnel.  Again by buying our tickets in advance we got a great price.  I far as I'm concerned, this is on only way to travel between London and Paris.  2 hours and 45 minutes to and from the center of both cities.  Although you go through a metal detector, it's still faster than traveling by air.

OTHER STUFF

In Paris, Hansjorg had pre-purchased the Paris Pass for all of us.  It includes entrance to most of the museums, monuments and cathedrals in Paris plus some of the other attractions.  Also included was a metro pass for the subway and buses in zones 1 and 2. (central Paris)  Doing the math after we returned home, it was a break even on the cost, but it did allow us to bypass some lines at some of the attractions.  If we had been willing to hit two museums a day and rush around more than we did, it would have saved a bundle.

I made on bonehead mistake that I'm willing to talk about. On the Sunday we arrived in Paris, I went to the bank down the street to use the ATM.  Some banks allow access to a machine inside a secure door where you to use an ATM that's not out on the street.  I did this, but the machine I used turned out to be for deposits only and it ate my ATM card.  I had 40 euros from a previous trip and my credit card so not to worry.  I would just go back on Monday and get my card.  Well, banks are closed on Monday in France. So I returned on Tuesday and they said I could get my card on Wednesday.  Hansjorg loaned me some cash to tide us over and on Wednesday I did get my card back.  I have since learned what d├ęposer in French means.

When using a credit card in Europe and probably in other countries too, you are sometimes asked it you want to be charged in dollars.  This is not a good option as the merchant is then doing the currency exchange and it's a much higher rate than you would get with your bank.  One time at a restaurant in London, I was not given the option and the restaurant did the exchange at a rate about 10 cents higher than the bank rate.  I should have had them cancel the charge and just pay it cash, but I didn't.

Luckily we didn't make any serious bone head moves.  We were pre-warned about scams in Paris and by staying aware of our surroundings we did not become victim of any.

If we were to change anything, we would make sure we took a day off every once in a while.  We were go-go-go for most of the trip and towards the end we were dragging.  But we still had a great time.


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

WE FINISH WITH SWITZERLAND

Hansjorg informed us as the Travel Master for the past two weeks, he wanted to finish the tour off with some gelato.  In order to get good gelato, we would have to go to Italy or at least to a place where the people spoke Italian.  So, we headed back to Switzerland where he found us a great little B&B in the Village of Rhazuns called Villa Artistica and run by a man who’s name just happened to be Hansjorg.  Using the old post/beam barn as the outer walls, Hansjorg #2 build his B&B inside the barn.  New and modern on the inside and old on the outside, a comfortable place to stay for the next two nights.

BARN ON THE LEFT

BREAKFAST TABLE AT VILLA ARTISTICA

On the way to Rhazuns, we made a stop in Sattel-Hochskukli for a little journey on the tramway there. Hidden at the top of the tram is a suspension bridge that Hansjorg, knowing that I don't like heights, had found just for me. The Raiffeisen Skywalk, just shy of 200 feet above the valley floor and 1200 long, is the longest suspension foot bridge in Europe.  And yes, I did cross it.  Two times.  I looked straight ahead and walked real fast.





The next morning after breakfast, we boarded the Bernina Express for a trip across the Swiss Alps.  The train travels on a route carved out of the mountains between 1896 and 1904 for 122 kilometers and passes through 55 tunnels and 196 bridges and viaducts.  Starting at an elevation of 1900 feet, the train climbs to 7400 feet before descending to Italy.  In order to reach the summit the rails at times have to circle around as pass over themselves in order to gain altitude in a short distance.  It's difficult at times to tell that this is happening as some of the loops are in tunnels.

There was thick fog when we reached the highest pass, so we didn't get to see too much on the way down to Poschiavo where we got off for lunch. Although still in Switzerland, Poschiavo may as well be in Italy as just about everyone speaks Italian.  The prices were still Swiss though as lunch for the three of us topped $127!  And we never did get any gelato.

POSCHIAVO

HANSJORG MAKES A FRIEND

We got lucky on the return trip as the fog lifted as we reached the summit.  It was a great a beautiful trip that is a once in a lifetime experience.  We have to thank Hansjorg and Silke as our ride on the Bernina Express was a gift from them.



The next day we returned to Hansjorg and Silke's home and a farewell dinner with their families in a local guesthouse.  

  Starting on the left and going around the table is:  son Frank, son-in law Oliver, Cathie,
 Hansjorg Silke, nephew Steven, nephew Max, Silke's sister Angie, her husband Mino,
 Silke's mom, Mum, Hansjorg's daughter Bergit, and Iris, Franks girlfriend.

The next morning at 3:30 we piled in Hansjorg and Silke's car for the ride to the Zurich Airport.  We had a 7am flight and both Hansjorg and Silke insisted on taking us.  We had a great time with the best of friends over the last 3 weeks of our trip.  We are looking forward to seeing them again as we know we will, but it's their turn to do the traveling.

Our flight left Zurich on time so we could fully enjoy our six hour layover at London's Heathrow.  We were lucky and found a couple of very comfortable seats where we hung out and people watched.  The 11 hour flight to San Diego was uneventful.  Managed to watch two movies and actually get a couple of hours sleep. We were happy to see our daughter Julie when we exited the terminal as we were beat.  Home by 7:30 and in bed by nine.

 BOARDING AT LONDON HEATHROW
(old style)

ON APPROACH TO SAN DIEGO