Califooorniaaa

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Another city, another amazing Servas host! After a 12 hour flight with Aeroflot from Moscow (which was fine: $500 cheaper than the next competitor, below average airline food but comfortable enough with plenty of movies to choose from) and a 2 hour queue for immigration we were delighted to be picked up by our host, Dennis. To help us stay awake he took us on a little tour of the quaint Venice canals, pointed out huge murals on the sides of buildings and went for a stroll along Venice Beach. After a long flight it was great to be outdoors and breathe in the smell of the ocean and.. something else. There were waves of cannabis, legal in California for medical purposes, and from some beach front stores for $40 you can purchase a doctor’s note to buy it if you have ‘anxiety’ or ‘sleeping problems’, hence why it was so popular! We also visited Muscle beach where Arnie used to work out and enjoyed cheering on some folks who had drawn a crowd with their impressive work out on the rings. Most importantly we found an ice cream shop selling delicious butter pecan flavour.

Epic taco salad for dinner on first night in LA

Epic taco salad for dinner on first night in LA

After a quick pitt stop at Dennis’s place we headed out to join some friends of his at a Mexican restaurant down the road. We made the mistake of ordering a dish each (at $7 it hardly broke the bank) a taco salad and meat plate. I had forgotten about the gargantuan American portions and could barely eat half of the delicious salad which was served in a big crispy taco basket with a layer of black beans on the bottom, melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, salsa, sour cream.. Yum!

The following day we set out early to spend the day at Universal Studios. Dennis kindly dropped us off at the metro station and for $1.75 each we spent an hour getting across town to Universal City where we met up with an Edinburgh uni friend, Lyndsay.

Universal Studios - water world special effects

Universal Studios – water world special effects

We enjoyed the 3D simulator rides such as the Minions and the Transformers, were impressed with the effects at the Water Show World, loved the Studio Tour with the King Kong versus dinosaur 3D simulator and enjoyed a Duff beer alla The Simpsons. However we were slightly underwhelmed by the animal actors and special effects shows which talked more about what could happen rather than wowing us with demonstrations.

The Getty
The following day Dennis kindly dropped us and our bags off early at The Getty museum, an amazing art gallery displaying oil magnate, Paul Getty’s private collection which incredibly is free! The building was designed by architect Richard Meier to blend in with the surrounding mountains. The free architecture and gardens tours were excellent, the docents are extremely knowledgeable and passionate. Interestingly, the gardens were designed by a different artist and represent a living, moving sculpture.

The Getty

The Getty

They’re really beautiful and worth a visit in themselves with a tranquil stream flowing through the middle. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore all of the art work but enjoyed two temporary exhibitions, one of Greek antiquity sculptures and Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography. The latter displayed works from seven different artists who have explored alternative approaches to photography. My favourite was Matthew Brandt who took photos of three different lakes, developed them and then submerged the prints in a water sample from each of the lakes. The different minerals and chemicals from the water affected the photo so the landscape influenced the final artwork. Cool stuff!

View over the cactus garden to LA from the Getty

View over the cactus garden to LA from the Getty

Emily & Jeff’s Wedding
Lyndsay generously offered us a lift out to Thousand Oaks where we were headed for another old university friend’s wedding. Thousand Oaks is a strange town which seems to be somewhat in the middle of nowhere and feels a bit artificial. It’s also a place to have a car as pavements are somewhat sporadically placed! We were pleased to be treating ourselves to two nights at the Hyatt where most of the wedding guests were staying and loved relaxing by the hotel pool. It was a little odd that the room didn’t come with many amenities however you could order from a list of luxury items (such as a fridge!) to be delivered to your room. It was fun getting to know some of the other wedding guests at drinks the night before and great to enjoy some American tucker at the local pub – mac and cheese with chorizo topped with salt and vinegar crisps!

Iconic American school bus transports guests to the wedding!

Iconic American school bus transports guests to the wedding!

The wedding itself was beautiful, set in a stunning walnut grove and decked out with white chairs, decorations and fairy lights. The bride and groom smiled their whole way through the evening and we had a lot of fun celebrating their marriage. We loved the buffet dinner with the Yukon mashed potatoes, the best I’ve had in my life! The wine mixing ceremony led to a wonderful combination of a South African Pinotage and Californian Pinot noir. There were also a lot of fun extras including a silent disco, croquet and DIY s’mores around the campfire. S’mores are made by toasting a marshmallow over the fire until golden on the outside and gooey in the middle and then sandwiching it between two biscuits and a few squares of chocolate which are melted by the hot marshmallow. Decidedly sticky and ridiculously delicious!

Enjoy cocktails with the bride - Foodies reunited!

Enjoy cocktails with the bride – Foodies reunited!

Driving Highway 1 – Santa Barbara
We picked up our not so sexy sedan hire car in Thousand Oaks and Mitch handled driving on the right (read wrong) side of the road like a pro. We found our next Servas hosts in the pretty Spanish inspired town of Santa Barbara. Darrell and Carol have a gorgeous house set up on the hill overlooking town.

Dinner with SERVAS host Darrell, Santa Barbara

Dinner with SERVAS host Darrell, Santa Barbara

We boosted our vegetable intake with a delicious stir fry for dinner with a tasty bottle of red that Darrell had just brought back from Mexico. They were a lovely couple, really interested in us and the purpose of our trip. They also shared some of their travel experiences in Israel and Spain and gave us some great suggestions for the rest of our road trip. Carol grew up in Brooklyn and returned to her roots serving up a tasty Jewish Babka (chocolate cake/bread) for dessert.
We were up early the next day for a hike around the surrounding mountain trails with Darrell before it got too hot. There was a little sea fog so we didn’t see out as far as the Channel Islands but got great views across town and to the sea. We spent the rest of the day exploring Santa Barbara by foot.

 Santa Barbara old Mission

Santa Barbara old Mission

We started with the old Spanish Mission which is very pretty and the blooming rose garden provided the perfect spot for our picnic lunch. We continued on to Karpeles Manuscript Library and Museum which we were the only people visiting and received great explanations of some the pieces from the lady on the front desk and enjoyed looking at exhibits such as the first computer in space, old peace treaties, and the first camera. It was a really interesting and diverse collection and worth popping in for twenty minutes or so. The courthouse is a beautiful building from the inside and out. The mural on the second floor is wonderfully colourful and you get great views from the top of the tower. We didn’t spend much time at the art and craft market along the harbour front as we were getting a bit hot but liked watching the stand up paddle boarders and other water sports from the pier. There’s a great shuttle service which for 50c takes you back up the hill which we happily took advantage of. Back at Carol and Darrel’s we cooled off in their pool before heading out to a Mexican place for dinner where a highlight was the horchata, a rice milk drink which was a bit like an iced chai latte.

Driving Highway 1 – Santa Barbara to Morro Bay
Our first stop was only about 10 minutes out of town up a big winding hill to find a cave containing American Indian paintings.

Native American Chumash cave paintings

Native American Chumash cave paintings

The cave was small but it was really interesting to compare the paintings with Aboriginal paintings. It was thanks to Carol and Darrel’s local knowledge that we found this old cultural gem which was unmentioned in our guide book.
We drove on through Solvang, an old Dutch influenced town which seemed very touristy and not much else so we kept on, stopping occasionally at vista points to take in the vast mountain views.

Clam chowder at Pismo Beach

Clam chowder at Pismo Beach

We enjoyed walking along Pismo Beach and, a little windswept, found our way to Splash cafe to try their infamous clam chowder for lunch. It comes served in a large scooped out bread roll with the top alongside for dipping. It was delicious, creamy and full of plenty of clams! We were full so had to get take away cinnamon rolls from the Great West Cinnamon Bun bakery – the one topped with cream cheese icing was ‘to die for.’

Cinnamon rolls - the one with cream cheese topping was delish

Cinnamon rolls – the one with cream cheese topping was delish

We followed Darrell’s advice again and treated ourselves to a hot springs mineral spa at Avilla Beach hidden up in the trees. It was wonderfully relaxing and we had beautifully soft skin afterwards. That evening we walked along the beach at Morro bay and watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean whilst admiring the giant rock jutting out of the sea. The perfect end to day 2 on the road.

Morro Bay at sunset

Morro Bay at sunset

Driving Highway 1 – Morro Bay to Monterey
After another Mexican meal of huevos rancheros for breakfast we were set for a big day on the Big Sur. Our first stop was one of our favourites on the route, admiring the enormous elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

Due to the time of year we only saw the males as the females were out at sea apparently fishing for squid. We observed a few of the males practising some sparring techniques and heard from the ranger about their lifestyle breeding patterns. They really were incredible to watch and amazing to see such enormous creatures up close.

Elephant seals sparring

Elephant seals sparring

A little further up the road we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer State Park to find the McWay Falls where a waterfall tumbles off the cliff straight onto the beach.

Big Sur - McWay Falls

Big Sur – McWay Falls

It was really very pretty but given the long line for the car park, we think it might have been a little overhyped.. Similarly our Lonely Planet advised a stop to check out a cove about a mile’s walk down a steep path to a rocky beach. Again, very pretty but perhaps not worth the detour. Simply driving along the Big Sur (a long stretch of coastline rather than a particular place or beach) and taking in the impressive cliff tops and views out over the ocean are what makes this drive special. I couldn’t help but compare it to Australia’s Great Ocean Road which I’d driven with my Dad back in March. Both provide stunning scenery, wonderful view points, winding roads and unfortunately, lots of other tourists!

Bixby Creek Bridge - Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge – Big Sur

Things were looking up as we neared Monterey and decided to stop at Point Lobos State Park. The car parks were rather full but we secured a spot near the seal look out and sat on the rocks being greatly entertained by two gorgeous sea otters. We went for a stroll up around the look out and heard the sea lions barking at each other before we saw them. Not as up close and personal as the elephant seals we’d seen earlier in the day but on our way back a deer and fawn crossed right in front of us!
That evening we joined our next Servas hosts, Phillip and Heidi for drinks at their local with a few of their friendly colleagues. I enjoyed sampling a local Monterey white wine and then meeting the rest of the family including Ginger their wonderful Labrador-pitbull cross.
The next day we visited the Monetery Bay Aquarium, dodging the $40/person entrance fee as Heidi and Phillip were members! It was a little smaller than I expected however as a research and conservation organisation they had some excellent talks and feeding presentations.

Point Lobos state park

Point Lobos state park

We spent the afternoon back out at Point Lobos on a hike around the coastline where we saw more sea otters, birds, seals and deer. It was definitely my favourite State Park of those we visited and worth the $2 to get a map of the hiking trails.
We cooked Thai green chicken curry for the family that night followed by cranachan which all went down a treat. It was interesting to talk to Heidi and Phillip about their work and I was particularly interested in Phillip’s mediation technique – the game of 3 Rules.

Monterey was our last stop before dropping the car off in San Francisco. It was great to have a sense of independence which came with having our own car (even though it wasn’t a convertible mustang!), take in the rugged coastal beauty and see so much wildlife in their natural habitat. Highway 1 – a must do for road trippers but try and avoid going during school holidays!

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