California: A Traveler’s Review
In the summer of 1993, I was 12 years old and that summer I was finally allowed to stay up late.
Every night, my mother and I would stay up late and watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. At a time in my life when few things made me laugh, he did. From that summer on I decided that some day I had to see him in person.
Thirteen years later, 4400 miles, and more money than I care to add up, I have crossed a few things off my list of things to do before I grow to old to care (or have children), not to mention the addition of several new map pins!
And before I go about recapping the highlights of our journey, I have to say this: Southerners, we need to reconsider our claim to “Southern Hospitality” because the people I met in California were without a doubt, the friendliest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. People seriously went out of their way to help us out, provide suggestions, ask us how they could help and even carry my 60 pound suitcase (hey, two weeks, what can I say?) With the notable exception of the folks at Disneyland, I can say I spent the last two weeks with some of the nicest people in America.
We began in Hollywood. Our hotel was located directly behind the Kodak Theater. It was an eclectic Art Deco style building with vintage movie posters decorating the walls and inside the rooms. It was clean and very reasonably priced not to mention the fact that within two minutes we could go from our hotel room to the Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theater. Those two things were not as impressive as the enormous shopping gallery filled with local and chain shops and fantastic restaurants. The Hollywood sign in the background was where I knew we’d arrived!
Monday morning we got up early to see the NBC studios. There, we picked up tickets to that night’s taping of Jay Leno. We also had tickets for Thursday but I wanted backup. We had some time to kill before getting in the Tonight Show line so we went in search of the Hollywood sign. It seems like it would be easy to find but it wasn’t. Eventually we got close enough for some pictures and then back to wait in line. Two hours in the sun and finally we got into the studio. The woman at the door seemed to have the job of giving subtle evaluations of people either sending them up the stairs or to another employee “down the hall”. By the time I realized what was happening I was nearly having a heart attack. They led us, not only to the floor seating but to the FRONT ROW! I barely had time to calm down with Jay came out to chat with the audience. He looks just like he does on TV and seems very genuine and naturally comical. We got to stand in the front and he shook our hands when he came out and this is where I am visible for about a split second during the airing. I have to say that watching the show in the studio is a very surreal experience and so much like it is on TV that sometimes I felt like I WAS watching it on TV. Before I knew it, the show was over and I got to cross that off my list.
For the rest of our time in Hollywood we spent time in Santa Monica where I was very impressed by the length of the beach. The promenade was my first bit of sensory overload but very enjoyable. Beverly Hills and Rodeo drive definitely live up to their reputation of catering to the rich and famous. The homes are not just huge but stunningly beautiful as well. We received a wonderful suggestion to visit a place called Sprinkles which sells gourmet cupcakes and I’m telling you, they’re worth every penny of the $3.25 you pay for one! I don’t think I can ever go back to eating regular cupcakes again.
One of our days in Hollywood was actually spent further south where we were able to visit the Capistrano Mission. The history of California Missions is fascinating.
Another day was spent at Disneyland and what a place! We were just in time for the opening of the new Pirates of the Caribbean ride where the Jack Sparrow character is made to look just like Johnny Depp. I will have to say that Disneyland’s rides are a bit superior to Disney World’s, particularly Space Mountain but in all other areas, DW rocks in comparison.
Finally, our last morning in Hollywood was spent at the Warner Bros. Studios. I have a bit of a closet obsession with the Hollywood life style, movie stars, film production, you know, all that stuff that makes a person “star struck”. Since the WB studios house two of my all time favorite TV shows, I was anxious to see the very gates where my favorite actors and actresses pass on their way to work each day and of course, anything else I could catch a glimpse of. I was not disappointed! The tour included a stop (a stop not long enough by the way) to the prop museum which is home to all sorts of exciting things. There is a whole floor devoted to Harry Potter movie props like Hagrid’s clothes, a dementor, the sorting hat and a petrified Hermione. The other floor had a large amount of TV memorabilia from shows like Friends and ER. But nothing compared to the section of West Wing props. I tried to absorb it as much as possible and I would have loved nothing more than to take pictures but it’s all in my memory now, everything from Gail the goldfish’s bowl, Toby’s rubber ball, Margaret’s day planner, and costumes from all the main characters, to my two most favorite props, Bartlet’s desk and the emotionally significant, “Bartlet for America” napkin. That one gave me goose bumps!
The tour ended all too soon with many other stops to see important sets and scenery from beloved shows and movies. It’s clear to see how very much it is a working studio and peeks at Gilmore Girls sets to the building of a casino in a sound stage for Oceans 13 was enough excitement to last a great while.
From Hollywood we headed north and visited some friends in Santa Barbara. I have to say, having locals show you around is the absolute best way to see a place. We ate at an amazing restaurant on the beach which we’d never have found otherwise. Of all the places we visited, Santa Barbara was the place I could most see myself living—you know, should I ever happen to convince my family and friends to move with me and I manage to accumulate a million or so bucks for a shack on the beach.
The trip further north was punctuated by the twisty, winding, cliffs overlooking the Pacific along the narrow road that is known as the Pacific Coast Highway. I had been warned that this drive was not for the faint of heart or stomach and I discovered this to be true in every sense of the word. There are few things that I can imagine would make up for feeling like you’re going to puke for 4 straight hours but the scenery did it. I’d do it again in a second. This was the most terrifically beautiful, serene part of our trip.
We stopped in San Simeon to visit the Hearst Castle, a jaw dropping mansion high atop a mountain and overlooking the ocean. The castle had the feel of a museum with some artifacts a thousand years old or older. I spent most of the tour thinking Hearst must have been the most spoiled brat imaginable but then the IMAX movie about his life changed my mind. The scenery there was also spectacular.
Finally reaching Monterey, we visited the Aquarium. You know when 4 different people recommend a place as “something to see in California” it has to be good and the Monterey Bay Aquarium did not disappoint.
Mesmerizing scenery and obviously well cared for, content animals made us want to stay much longer but we had more to see like Pebble Beach and other stops along the “17 mile drive”. We stopped to pick up some “pebbles” which are more what I would call “rocks” and discovered that popping the kelp seeds (or whatever they are) is an oddly satisfying way to entertain oneself. It was a bit cold for my taste though, so we got back in the car and headed for our northernmost stop: San Francisco.
There have been few times in my life where I was truly without expectations. I had been told that San Francisco was a magical, wonderful place but aside from that I had no real impression of what I would find there. At some points, when driving up a steep hill I got a sense that I was in a familiar place, one I’d seen in pictures, but other times I stared in awe at the New York-esque city around me. I guess the SF locals wouldn’t want me to make that comparison but it did feel an awful lot like NYC only with hills and ocean. I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t fall in love with San Francisco like I’d been told I would. Perhaps in that sense my expectations were too high, but I did truly enjoy the experience. My favorite place was in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. A few blocks from Ghirardelli square, there is an old building that I believe used to be the Del Monte Cannery. Now it’s several shops and restaurants. We had about half of our meals right there in the square surrounded by twinkle lights, live music, and people who were just having a great time. I will deeply miss the Ghirardelli crepes.
Alcatraz, the Muir Woods, and The Wine Country of Napa and Sonoma Valley are three of the most exciting things we saw on our stay in San Francisco but I could probably write a page or two about each of them. I’ll try to keep it to a few sentences. Alcatraz is worth seeing no matter how short your stay in the city. In it lives a feeling of deep sadness and maybe even a little remorse. I know some of the most terrible people of that time stayed there but as I looked out the window across the water at the beautiful city before me, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the men who could not return on the next boat. It was like the windows were a worse punishment than anything else.
The Muir Woods was breathtaking and it was there, if anywhere, that I could get a sense of the magic that I’d heard about. When you breathe in, you feel as though you’re taking in the essence of life itself. The trees, old as they are, stand so majestically and so proudly you feel hesitant to speak above a whisper.
Finally, the Wine Country is a treasure of the state. After tasting 10 different wines I discovered that I’m really not a wine drinker. But that didn’t stop me from absorbing the scenery and feeling a warm happy sense of peace in the vineyards (which could also have been the feeling one gets from tasting 10 different wines).
July 4th was the oddest Independence Day I’ve ever experienced. The thing that no one really mentioned to me about the city was that it’s perpetually cold there. Now locals will tell you that they can’t stand the thought of living somewhere warm. We’d mention being from Florida and they’d groan and moan about the heat here. Well I have to groan as much about the windy, cold weather we had the entire time we were there. It made me wish I’d brought more than one jacket! So there we were, July 4th, watching the spectacular fireworks show put on by the city bundled in our sweatshirts and jeans and holding our hot chocolate to warm our hands. It honestly felt like New Year’s Eve and not the holiday celebrated in the middle of summer. After the fireworks we walked the 20 blocks uphill back to our hotel room and watched in amazement as the entire crowd around us also walked back up the hills to their homes. Our trip wrapped up with a ride on a Cable Car and a trip to Union Square where I saw the original Williams Sonoma and the largest Macy’s I’ve ever laid eyes on.
San Francisco was beautiful but the cold weather kept our minds focused on warm sunshine and beaches. It seemed a shame to go all the way to California and not spend at least one day relaxing on the beach so we got in the rental car and drove 6 hours south to Santa Monica where we found ourselves some sun and sand. Looking back, it feels like we cheated summer a little bit. Back home it’s hot, sticky and rainy. Despite the cold in SF we had some glorious weather overall. The beach was a perfect way to end a truly incredible experience.
And so we are home now. We are back to the reality that is life. As we managed our way through LAX (a treacherous experience) and listened to the destination cities of various flights, we felt lucky. We may have been leaving one of the most beautiful states in the country but we were headed home to Florida and that’s not too shabby! And when it’s hot and sticky or pouring down rain or there is a nasty storm headed our way, I just have to take a look at one of my 845 pictures of California and remember that there really are places on this planet just a little bit closer to paradise.