Wednesday, 25 July 2012

California: Little Boat, Big Boat

Well, you got a little break there, due to Toby putting the laptop out of commission and Graham having his hip replaced.  The laptop is now better and the husband is getting better, so on with the saga!

We thought it would be kind of nice to venture out on to the Pacific Ocean, rather than just look at it from the shore, so we investigated our options.  The Channel Islands seemed like a pretty manageable trip, even with a one-year-old, so we booked a boat and hoped for fine weather.  The Channel Islands National Park encompasses five islands and the ocean around them, just off the coast of California.  Like many islands, they have some pretty incredible biodiversity, with many unique plants and animals.  It would have been great to stop off and see it close up, but actually staying on the island entails taking everything you might want with you.  With a toddler this always seems to involve everything bar the kitchen sink (actually, that could be handy too), so we decided to stick to the wildlife tour boat.

Dolphins and birds following the boat

The rock of Anacapa Island is liberally coated in guano
Sea arch and pillar behind, on Anacapa Island
This took us out to the closest of the islands, Anacapa Island, where we admired the rock formations and spotted sea lions basking on the shore.  We would have been very lucky to spot a whale, as they usually feed at the other end of the islands, but we were delighted to have dolphins jumping around us.

 
 

Graham enjoyed the scenery somewhat more than I, as, despite calm seas, I rapidly discovered that I get seasick!  I spent most of the three hour trip staring fixedly at the horizon and trying to persuade Toby that butting his head into my tummy wasn't the best thing to do right now.  He didn't seem affected by the motion, fortunately, and enjoyed splashing through the waves.  All that sea air tired him out, though!
 
Tired baby and mother

So that was the little boat.  The big boat really was at the other end of the scale!  For our final two nights in California we had got a good deal to stay on the Queen Mary, a 1930s cruise ship now permanently docked in Long Beach.  I have to say we were beginning to wonder about the wisdom of it - it would be our fourth lodging that holiday and offered none of the conveniences of your average cheapo Best Western.  No fridge, free breakfast, free wi-fi or free parking, and a suggestion that the room would be tiny.  Would we survive?

No, that's not a giant sun behind the Queen Mary, it's a dome which used to house the Spruce Goose flying boat.

On British territory (or at least British-built!)
But the moment we walked into our cabin, we were smitten.  There were actual portholes to look out of, and a 1950s style bathroom with big chunky taps, and plenty of space, and you could even, occasionally, feel the ship moving ever so slightly underneath you.

Ahoy there!

OK, so we had the car park view, but still - a porthole!

Endless corridors

Best of all, we had free rein to roam about all of the ship's public areas.  We happily explored from the heights of the bridge to the depths of the engine room, walking the long corridors which felt like being inside a hall of mirrors, pressing buttons in the walnut-paneled elevators, and imagining ourselves relaxing on the sun deck with no land in sight.  After my seasickness, though, you can imagine I was glad to remain firmly moored to terra firma!



One of the grand reception rooms


Long Beach lights from the Queen Mary
In the engine room.  Graham said it was a lot more complicated than a modern aero engine, because it was so many separate systems.

Hard a-port!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

California: Spanish and Danish

Those two words really ought to rhyme, shouldn't they?  You might not expect to find them in such close proximity, and in California, of all places.  But read on, and all will be explained.

The Spanish is pretty obvious.  As you may be aware, the Spanish were the earliest European settlers in these regions, and as in Texas, they sought to convert the natives and colonise the area by building missions.  You can tell they had the pick of the land, because the Mission in Santa Barbara is in the most beautiful spot, just in the foothills of the mountains.  We spent a while relaxing and letting Toby run around in the park, which incorporated a rose garden and some venerable trees.


Looking at art from a recent festival - not your average chalk drawing!
View from the Mission
Toby loves having sun cream put on his face!
 

The self-guided tour took us through the peaceful inner courtyard of the Mission.  Up some stone steps, we wandered into the graveyard, where thousands of Chumash Indians were buried under a shady mission fig tree.  The church was simply but colourfully decorated, and the tour finished with a small museum detailing some of the history.  I was absorbed by some newspaper articles from the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake.  One hotel had lost a wall, leaving its rooms as open-fronted boxes, "in some of which the occupants could be seen gathering their scattered belongings preparatory to leaving".  Well yes, if the front of my hotel fell off I think I'd leave, too!

Courtyard of the Mission
Inside the church
Stations of the Cross
And on to the other main example of Spanish architecture, the Santa Barbara courthouse.  Everything we read said, "We know you wouldn't usually go see a courthouse on vacation, but trust us, this is worth seeing."  Everything we read was right.  There's a bell tower which you can climb for a view of the city, and a room you can peer in and see the clock mechanism with everything whirring round, and there are murals, and arches, and decorative tiles, and little nooks and crannies, and... hey, all those hard surfaces amplify Toby's screaming really well, so let's get out of here right now...

The clock room
The courthouse from the bell tower
Painted ceiling




Floor detail

I want steps like this!





Let's go to Denmark!  Or the closest local equivalent, a town called Solvang.  This was founded in the early 20th century by a group of Danish-Americans, who later decided it would be nice if the town looked Danish as well.  The result is really quite pretty, if a little heavy on the windmill motif.  It even has a little Little Mermaid!



Hans Christian Andersen features quite prominently too; we viewed his statue and walked to a park bearing his name, where Toby enjoyed a musical wall.




We also stopped at one of the many bakeries for coffee and a Danish pastry (what else?).  Toby was treated to an owl-eye cookie - round with a blob of jam in the middle - and demonstrated how to use the cutlery.

A spoon?  Really?
On the way home we ate lunch at the Cold Spring Tavern.  Nestled in a beautiful spot in a tree-lined valley next to a stream, this was on the old coaching route from Santa Barbara.  The valley has now been bridged, so the main road arches far overhead, and the inn is left in peace.  It serves much better food than you might infer from its exterior, although with Toby not feeling too good, I had to try and enjoy my quiche with him wedged in my lap.


The steel arch bridge carrying the main highway

And finally, a few miscellaneous photos to round off this portion of the trip.  Next time, we're heading to Long Beach!

Enormous Moreton Bay fig tree in Santa Barbara.  This became a bit of a joke, we meant to go and see it so many times, and only made it right at the end of our visit.
Our rental apartment came with resident cat.
Feeding the ducks at a local park.
Lots of houses had orange trees growing in their gardens.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

California: Santa Ynez Mountains

On one side of Santa Barbara is the ocean; on the other side you very quickly find yourself in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.  Our excursion in this direction turned into one of those serendipitous days where nothing goes as you'd planned, but it all turns out rather well in the end.  Our idea was to drive downtown, pick up a National Forest pass and go to a park, then drive up to a viewpoint in the afternoon.  Unfortunately Toby downright refused to go in the car, so we plopped him in the pushchair and walked to a local park instead.  It was a pretty little place, with nasturtiums sprawling over wooded banks, and a little stream running through.  There we just happened to get chatting to a local family, who suggested that Gibraltar Road would be a good drive up into the mountains.

The buggy stops here!



So after Toby's nap we plotted out our route and set off up a steep and winding road.  Graham was having the time of his life, doing some 'proper' driving, while I hung on tight and tried not to look at the edge too much.  That was hard work when the views were so spectacular!  There were multiple pull-offs where you could look back down to the town and the sea, or the other direction into corrugated wilderness.

Santa Barbara with the Channel Islands in the distance




Our map marked a road leading back down to Santa Barbara, which we intended to take, giving us a nice loop drive of an hour or so.  Whether this road really exists or not, we still don't know, for we certainly never saw it!  Instead our nice strip of tarmac turned into a dirt track, leading us further and further into the hills.  We bumped our way along for at least half an hour, seeing not a single other car or person.  The heat got more and more intense - these are desert mountains, the temperature was a good 20°F warmer than at sea level - and the stillness of the dry air when we stopped underscored the immensity of the terrain.




As we pondered whether going on represented complete insanity on our part, the first vehicle we had seen just happened to drive by.  The occupants informed us that Big Caliente Hot Springs were just down the road.  How far?  Oh, only a couple of miles.  Two miles further along the curving dusty road, we found a sign saying "Big Caliente 2 1/2 miles" but having come so far, we pressed on and were rewarded with a deserted car park and a little hot tub beside it, all to ourselves.  Amazingly, we just happened to have our swimming stuff in the car, so we were all ready to slip into the inviting, naturally hot water.  Toby was suspicious at first - "They brought me all this way just to have a bath?" - but once persuaded in, he enjoyed it too.



After all that, our car just happened to be rather dirty.