s m i l e y i o a n a
Howdy Darling, what can I get you?

Howdy Darling, what can I get you?

or The Grand US West Coast Trip

The idea of the great US West Coast Trip and celebration of the new year’s eve 2020 was seeded in February 2019 with a special direct flight deal from Munich to San Francisco.

Day 1 SFO

It is the first day of our adventure when we are still feeling the effects of the jet lag, as we spent the time flying watching movies. After breakfast at our accommodation we have started walking towards our first objective, the Painted Ladies. We passed by our shady neighborhood close to Minna St. and walked towards the UN Plaza & the SF city hall. 

On our way we passed by the Twitter & Uber HQ and wondered around the Hayes Valley. In the hipsterish area we have had coffee at a relaxed, local cafe, enjoyed bakery products and tried out a drink with Cayenne pepper.  

Our discovery journey continued with the touristic spot of the Victorian and Edwardian houses, a visit to the Japanese center and a walk on the Fillmore street towards the Pacific Heights. It is here that we wondered further along the streets as we felt safe and enjoyed the views & cleanness of the rich area. For lunch we found another seemingly local restaurant “Split” and had a delicious salad.

With new energies we targeted the Fisherman’s Wharf with stops at the Lombard street and the Ghirardelli Square. All of these are well known touristic attractions and overcrowded with tourists. Their supposed splendor pales in comparison to the richness & silence of the Pacific Heights. Nonetheless, in the Wharf we saw our first seals and had dinner at Boudin, another touristic attraction. We delighted ourselves with the first taste of clam chowder in a bread bowl. 

After about 26k steps we concluded a first, great day.

Day 2 SFO

The weather on our second day was not really appealing to spend time outdoors. Ambitious as we are, we started off at Union Square and walked through China town towards the Fisherman’s Wharf to visit the seals. At the “Beacon” cafe we enjoyed our second breakfast with the locals – we identify the locals by their Patagonia Jackets and dogs as accessories.

We could see the seals from far away providing their own circus and as the rain started pouring we sought shelter at the Applebee’s: a true American culinary experience with plenty of calorie rich meals. The menu offered few options for us European-midgets and we settled for 2x Pommes, a tomato soup and a Caesar salad – no chicken was harmed for this salad. For this feast we were allowed to pay $36, not the best quality-to-money ratio.

We met Dieter from Berlin who is working at a bike rental shop. He recognized our origin by the Deuter backpack, in the same manner as we recognize the Patagonia jackets. For a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge with the rainy weather he advised us taking bus 30 and the 28 for $3 each.

The GG is an impressive piece of engineering thinking back when it was build. Walking on the bridge you can grasp its sheer dimensions. With the distinctive shape and color it offers a great photo team and boy did we shoot some awesome pictures there. At the visitor center we stamped the postcards for our families and had a nice chat with Don, who has Dutch ancestors.

For dinner we tried Lori’s, a touristic destination, at the Union Square. The food was typical American with a rather medium quality and disappointing service – it was only later that we learned that they charged us extra $10 for tips. The Victoria’s Secrets shop at Union Square is an ideal pastime activity for the girls before heading to the airport to pick-up our rental car.

For the rental car we had the option of a RAM 1500 and we took it: It does not seem like a wise decision, yet will most likely be a very fun adventure with this pick-up.

Day 3 SFO to Vegas

Our first achievement of the day was finding the pick-up where we parked the night before. We hit the road towards Vegas and stopped some hours later for lunch shopping at Walmart on the highway. We set the table in the cargo bed with the groceries we shopped and tanked energy from the sun while eating. It was fun and different!

On the Ram 1500, it is a huge car to our European standards yet useless as there is no trunk. We started off with 3 persons seating in the front with me & our luggage taking the back seat. After our glorious cargo bed lunch, we moved the luggage in the cargo bed and secured them by each other with my backpack stripes and my Levi’s belt. They all arrived safe in Vegas.

Just in time for a break and sunset was the small detour to the Route 66 sign. In an awesome lighting at sunset and background of the RAM we shoot some American Dream pictures at the sun. Shortly after we dropped of the car in Vegas and checked in at the Westin. 

Despite being tired from the trip, we did a first visit to the Strip with a first Casino visit at the Bellagio. In size, glamour, shine it is something we have not seen before. The show of the Bellagio fountain was mesmerizing such that we followed 4 of its shows – this is how we learned a new song that is very appropriate for Vegas: “Big Spender” 

Day 4 Vegas & New Year’s Eve

Starting the day at the heated hotel pool with a view over the LINQ and the high roller seemed to follow the “Big Spender” mindset. We continued our consumerism tour on the Strip with visits to the Coca-Cola Store with an international soda testing – in contrast to Europe, one could observe that Pepsi is the market leader in the US – and the M&M store with a 4D movie audition.

Our casino visits continued with the New York, New York and in the evening the Mirage with its exploding Volcano, the Venetian and a quick tour of Caesars Palace. The dimensions & the cities within the casino are stunning and imposing. Once you have seen some of them – with Bellagio playing in its own league – one can get a feeling over the casino life without a need to see them all.

New Year’s is the only day in the year when shops close because the strip is closed to traffic and the employees cannot get home. This is needed to make room for the about 300k visitors to spend the NY. We did as all tourists watch the fireworks from the strip, next to the Bellagio. The fireworks were synchronized across the hotels, all displaying the same, mediocre show. We appreciated how well the city was organized security wise and how competition vanished between the casinos in offering a single firework experience to the visitors.

Just before midnight one visitor could not hold his alcohol just behind to us. We got hit. 

Day 5 Vegas to Williams

The second Vegas day started off chill. Ioana visited the pool & spa while I hanged around the Strip visiting the Paris, Ballys and Caesars again to find the splendor we missed the night before.

We picked up our rental car which will be our friend for the remaining of the trip. On our way to Williams, close to the Grand Canyon, we visited the Hoover Dam. It is a megalomanic construction imagining the efforts required for the construction in the 1930’s, the view however was a bit less than expected. 

Black Bear Dining was the scene of our next American dinner experience at a truck stop along the highway: “Howdy darling, what can I get you?”

Day 6 Grand Canyon

… and Grand the day was. Leaving Vegas with the pleasant temperatures, we woke up to a deep frozen world. This includes the pool at our stay. The cold never bothered me anyway in our quest to see the canyon. Without a clear plan in mind we started driving towards the Grand Canyon National park. For breakfast we enjoyed bagels and pancakes at a randomly selected restaurant on the road.

The clock showed 9:40am when we discovered the Airplane Tours of Grand Canyon. The next tour boarded at 10:30am. We drove off, not knowing if we will make it on time for the plane and we did. At 10:40 we booked our seats with an online special discount we found while having breakfast for 262$/2 persons instead of the standard 159$/person offer. At 11:00am we were ready for take-off.

The tour was pure awesomeness and mesmerizing, much more than my vocabulary allows to express in words. Hours after the tour we could hardly believe what we have experience with the first sight of the grand canyon from the air. It is only left for the pictures to tell the story, even though no single shot can fully comprise the grandeur of what the Colorado river has carved.

Deeply impressed by the airplane tour, we drove towards the southern entrance of the park, where a park ranger directed us and some other cars on a side road. It seems we have as such been indicated to skip the pay counter and got ourselves a free park entrance. 

The park was an endurance tour of checking 8 view points of the grand canyon. It felt like we could not get enough of it. The wildlife performed its part too, when an elk was eating from a tree next to the road. He could not be bothered by the honking drivers. After watching the sunset at one view point, Ioana spotted 3 peacefully grazing deers. 

Physically starved but very happy with what experienced during the day we drove to the next Walmart in Page, our destination for the day, and over shopped for food.

Day 7 Horseshoe Bend & Lake Powell

After the spectacular Grand Canyon day, a more quiet day was needed. We reached soon past sunrise the horseshoe bend with its pleasant sights. We had a short hike through the desert and visited the hanging gardens & one peak. Cactuses were growing wildly there. Lake Powell visitor#s center presented us the story of the area.

We had a great time for sunset at the Lone Rock beach. It is a huge beach with beautiful scenic landscapes and very, very quiet – at least out of season.

Arrived at the Rodeway inn close to the Bryce Canyon. The inn was operated by an Indian family who were funny and friendly. We did our laundry there for $5.

Day 8 Bryce Canyon

The Bryce Canyon is the second national park for us to visit. We have met Sebi & Irina at the park entrance and traveled with a sole car. As the sky was clear yet the temperature low, we decided to start with a park movie at the visitor center and pass time as temperatures rise.

On the road through the park we have visited several view points up to the natural bridge. The ranger at the visitor’s center informed us that the road is open only up to the natural bridge. The road was nonetheless passable and other cars for driving further. So did we and reach the last stop at the butterfly view.

As midday approached and the temperature became comfortable we endeavored in sneakers on a 2 hour hike through the Canyon. The hike is very scenic while you descent from the edge of the canyon in the valley and walk through the hoodoos. This hike was the highlight of the day in the park.

Wrapping up our day with the final sun rays, we started driving on the highway 14 through the Dixie National forest towards our next destination. The entire drive was memorable: we saw a pick-up truck stuck in snow on the side of the road and being pulled out by another, bigger truck. As we stopped first to ask for help, the stuck driver very casually said “ I will try to dig myself out for a while” when reaching for his full size shovel. The second driver coming for help, casually said “ I think I can pull him out” and sure he did. We enjoyed the entire show from the safety and warm of our small car.

Reaching about 3000m we reached at the right time a sunset viewpoint. Together with other locals we spent some time enjoying the wonderful view. The landscape was a fairytale winter wonderland. The Americans have plenty of toys for big boys to play with – snowmobiles for example – that they do not shy off towing around.

Close to our accommodation we delighted ourselves with a tasty dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I had very tasty Fajitas, the best and sole ones I ever had.

Day 9 Zion Valley & Vegas

Our disappointment was big when we learned that there is no park movie to start the day with at the Zion Valley’s visitors center. With this quickly forgotten and a sun to warm us up, all 4 of us proceeded to a short hike at the end valley. The hike was easy and we learned about neopren socks when we saw people hiking in winter through the river upstream.

A second hike was spontaneously planned aroused by the warm weather. We hiked to the middle & upper emerald pools, completely opposite to our planned intention to visit the Grota. Nonetheless, if was a very scenic hike with good viewpoints over the park.

Back to our car, we drove towards the east exist of the valley on another scenic road. We saw many deers on the way and an American eagle eating from a deer corpse next to the road. Bother he could not be by us stopping by.  It felt like the Discovery Channel in live.

We safely reached Vegas with a first stop at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and checked in at the Hard Rock Hotel. The hotel is similar to a museum of music with a remarkable gear collection from Elvis, Johnny Cash, Hendrix, Steve Vai, Queen, Madonna, Katy Perry, Gogol Bordello etc. etc. The room we were assigned to is at the 17th floor with a great view over the northern Vegas Strip & the high roller.

Day 10 Vegas to LA

The day started early as I had a work related call to take at 6am. Ioana wanted to go to the spa, yet was demotivated by the extra charge for the service by the hotel for its guests. Moving on, we stopped for about 2h at the National Atomic Testing museum which was a nice experience, though slightly different than my expectation. I learned new things and enjoyed the experience of the projection of the first test.

For sunset we reached just in time the Calico ghost town on our way to LA. As we arrived late, we skipped (again) paying the entrance fee. The landscape in Calico was straight out of a western movie and we enjoyed it.

One more stop until LA was spontaneous at an outlet where we did our first shopping stop. In LA we checked in at the Banana Bungalow.

Day 11 LA

Ioana is super excited about LA and the entire movie industry. Our day started with the tour of the Paramount studios. It was impressive to see their collection of Oscar statues and all the sound stages. Dagny, our guide, is fascinated by the industry and has very high goals of the future career at Paramount. We visited the parking lot that also acts as a pool, the Bronson gate, New York, the Godfather alley and the props room.

Returning to the Farmer’s market we had lunch at the Veggie Grill, a small paradise for vegetarians as everything on the menu is meat free. We wondered around, visited the Barnes&Noble, had a Chinese fast food and booked a celebrity houses night tour.

The tour organizers left a bad impression on us. The other tour participants were very different characters – people from California and people from New Orleans. We tried to make the best out of it while visiting the homes of Elvis, Michael Jackson, Ellen, the Playboy mansion, and the Rodeo Drive. Our bus guide was a funny dude. Walking afterwards on the hall of fame, we were demoralized by the homeless population setting up camp next to the stars of famous people. Quickly visited the Dolby Theatre were the Oscar gala is hosted and organized an Uber back to our accommodation.  

Day 12 LA

A new day, a new adventure: whale watching tour. From our hostel we drove to Long Beach for the tour. The whale watching tour was guided by Aquarium stuff that are knowledgeable and friendly. Our group comprised 46 visitors for their first whale watching tour. While searching for the sea mammals we saw some pelicans, seals, and decommissioned oil platforms. Without having seen any whale, we were returning to shore when the captain abruptly returned the ship. We had a feeling it is going to be interesting, and it was. Following blue prints we traced one gray whale. The marine biologists assumed by the movements of the animal that is a pregnant female on migration since October. It was a unique scenery for the first whale watching tour and everyone was mesmerized by the sight. The only sounds to be heard were the roar of the engine and clicks of photo cameras.

Back on the main land we grabbed lunch, did a stop at a close by outlet and drove to Venice beach. The people there are quite alternative, taking drugs, and hanging around. We saw the “Luminaries of Pantheism” mural and the Venice sign before returning to the safety of our car.

The Pier in Santa Monica at the end of Route 66 was our next destination. It felt safer and cleaner than Venice beach and could relax with a huge chocolate killer ice cream before returning to our hostel.

The traffic in LA is still overwhelming – riding Uber is a good, relaxing way of going within city limits from one place to the other. 

Day 13 LA to Santa Barbara

The Warner Bros. Studio tour was booked in advance and one of the few appointments we had to make on time for 8:30am. The “Classics Tour” was appealing to our interest of learning more about the history of the movie industry. As it turns out, we were the sole ones to have this idea for a Thursday morning and ended up with our own private tour. Our guide looked a bit alike to the pig in Bugs Bunny. The tour was interesting and we saw objects from Batman, Friends, A Star is Born, Big Bang Theory and learned about the history of the studio.  

One cannot leave LA without having a good shot of the Hollywood sign and we did no exception. At the Griffith Observatory we have not found the perfect spot for the view and were not motivated into walking too far as we had still a piece of road ahead – the goal was still to reach Monterey. The rooftop parking of Home Depot on Sunset Blvd was the perfect spot. We had an awesome, private, clear view of the sign.

With this achieved, we started driving towards Malibu; LA traffic is still overwhelming, crowded and takes plenty of time to cross the city. We shortly visited Malibu with its private beaches. Ioana exchanged stories with a nice lady, and we put our feet into the Pacific waters. We continued to Santa Barbara for a fancy dinner at Moby Dick on the Pier. As it was already dark, we spontaneously booked an accommodation close by and decided to continue our trip on daylight the following day.  

Day 14 Santa Barbara to SFO

The goal of the last day of our great adventure is to make it on time to the SFO airport. Therefore, after a simple breakfast at the hotel we hit the road with Ioana bravely driving most of the distance to SFO – highway driving in the US with its wide lanes and low speed limits is not strenuous.

Curious as usual, we intended visiting the Gaviota state beach when we learned that we have to pay a $10 fee for parking/entrance that is valid for state beaches. As our time was tight, we decided to drive further. 

Randomly we have stopped in Pismo. The Pismo beach is a surfers spot, many trying their skills in catching the waves next to the Pier. It is here that we a great clam chowder in a bread bowl in a local pub. The soup was great and they were bragging that it was decorated as the best chowder for 18 years.

Just before driving further, we did one more last minute outlet visit and then continued to Cupertino. On the way we filled up the tank and tried the fountain drink and Jack in the Box – the fountain drinks turned into an American experience for us. We visited the Apple Park, passed by visitors center, drove around the building and entered a one way road only for the employees. The security guard let us enter the campus for a few meters and directed us to the next exit. Was a funny experience. We still stopped briefly at the visitors center, appreciated the architecture and proceeded towards SFO.

We dropped our friend for the journey, the Hyunday Elantra, after driving 2975km. By chance, Sebi & Irina arrived 5 minutes later at the drop-off and we met at the parking lot without prior arrangement. 

Our Lufthansa Airbus A380 is ready for boarding at 21:10 at gate G13. A good start for many happy landings in 2020. With us boarding the aircraft, an impressive US west coast trip comes to an end. Looking forward to the next, great adventures! US, see you soon.

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