I get around.
I get around.
The next morning, Orsi said she was going to stay at the hotel with the kids, who wanted to swim in the pool. Kris decided he wanted to come with Matt and I down to the beach, so it was decided it would be their Man Walk. I was just along for… well, everything awesome about the beach.
We found Popsie, who drove us down to the far end before the megaresorts begin, and dropped us off at the Treehouse. Matt and I had never been down past Margaritaville, so it was awesome to see a new spot.
We got drinks at the bar and hung out looking at the beach for a while, then went up to their patio for another view. It was gorgeous outside, if really windy.
The Treehouse seemed to be a pretty laid-back property like Legends. I’d definitely consider staying there.
We decided to walk down the beach, so Kris led the way (walking waaaaay too fast for the beach). I followed behind at the appropriate strolling speed. We passed Margaritaville (they couldn’t be convinced to have a rasta shot), and stopped in at Tony’s instead.
As we walked up, Matt and I realized that Tony’s was probably actually the boat bar we were thinking of. It was nautical and wooden, and the view was right from the direction we were walking. We were very excited to find it.
The guy running the place was really funny, and most of the people sitting at the tiny bar looked like they’d been there all day, every day. The men got seats at the bar, and I preferred to sit on the low wall overlooking the beach. People had left their names all over the place, so Kris got us markers to leave messages ourselves. I took this picture to show Orsi how the Man Walk was proceeding:
Matt found a Twins’ Homer Hanky on the ceiling, so we left a pro-Gophers message right by it. It seemed appropriate.
The telephone ring man passed by, and I grabbed cash to get one. We’d run into him at least a few times before, and his rings are really awesome. He’s well-known on the beach, walking up and down yelling, “Ring! Ring! Telephone Rings!” He told me that kids collect the old telephone wires and bring them to him, and he teaches them to make jewelry. I only wanted one ring, but in typical Jamaican beach-consumer fashion, I ended up with five rings for $10 and a Red Stripe from the bar. Considering he initially wanted $15 for one ring, I feel like I did well. I brought the extra rings back to Orsi and the kids later on.
Then it was time to move again. Kris marched us down to the Boat Bar, because they were intent on having the house drink, known as the STEEL BOTTOM. They went to the bar and ordered, and the bartender laughed and said, “These guys want to make babies!” I realized then that the Steel Bottom was not going to be a drink for ladies (according to Jamaicans, and also my desire to not drink overproof in the morning), so I ordered a Red Stripe instead.
The Steel Bottom was a decent-sized shot of Red Cap with a beer, meant to be poured together and consumed. It looked terrible, and I was really glad I didn’t have to drink it. Here’s an appropriate picture of how they were probably feeling about drinking it at the time. BLACKOUT.
While we sat there, a guy came up and asked Kris if we wanted a boat ride. When he said no, he asked if we wanted cocaine. Oh, Jamaica.
Then it was time to move on again, because we were hungry. Conveniently, we encountered the patty man and his bike on the beach. We got patties, and Kris got a coco bread too. We headed to Yellow Bird, ordered Dirty Bananas (the exact opposite of a Steel Bottom, I think), and Kris made a sandwich out of his bread and patty.
There were a few women sitting next to us who really wanted to talk to Kris, and their voices were so ungodly scratchy and horrible that they actually chased us from the bar. Eesh. Also, there was a super-drunk local harassing people, so we figured we should probably move on.
The wind was picking up more and more, and it was started to get a bit overcast. We headed all the way down past Legends and Bourbon Beach to the last big hotel, called Travelers. It seemed pretty laid-back as well, and they had a concrete pingpong table sitting in the middle of the courtyard, for reasons we were unsure of.
Kris said the mudslides there were great (he’d done this same beach bar crawl before). I really didn’t want anything sweet after a Dirty Banana, so I got a rum and diet instead. Matt said they were delicious, but definitely really sweet.
At that point I was sick to death of sitting at bars instead of somewhere in the sand, because we were on one of the best beaches in the world. We decided to walk down to Bourbon Beach, where we could actually get a table on the beach itself. The second we left Travelers, though, we realized our mistake: the wind was coming from the direction we were walking now, and it was HORRIBLE. We got sandblasted the whole way, and I was the only one wearing sunglasses and therefore able to see. We stopped at Bourbon Beach to get a beer, and Kris got a text from Nav saying that Orsi and the kids had gone to the German Bar to get pizza. That sounded like an excellent idea, so we went over to Legends to get a cab back up to the cliffs.
They weren’t at the German Bar when we arrived, so we figured we’d wait for them. Then it occurred to us that maybe they’d been there and left, so we decided to order. We got a bunch of pizza, and left carrying a to-go box. It was so windy at that point that it was hard to hold the pizza box as we walked down the road.
We stopped back at the hotel to clean up, and found this sign waiting in the room. It was no joke… the waves would come up so high on the cliffs that you could be washed off the edge.
It was actually getting cold outside in the wind, too, which was a surprising and new experience in Jamaica. We decided to stay close by, and went across the street to Ciao Jamaica for dinner. We got an indoor table (I couldn’t believe people were sitting out on the patio) and ordered cocktails.
While we were waiting for our food, a table of ladies arrived. They were well into the day’s celebrations, and didn’t seem to understand that they were in a nice restaurant, not, say, Senor Frogs. They were yelling and doing shots and generally annoying everyone in the place. We spent a lot of time glaring at them.
After dinner, Orsi wanted to take a Lady Walk over to No Limit for a drink, so we did that and the men and kids went back to the hotel. We had a beer there, and then went back to to join them. We sat out on the patio for a while, and the waves were so rough we were getting sea spray all the way over there (past the cliffs, two swimming pools, trees, and a wall). It was cold, too, which still blew my mind.
Matt and I went back to our room around 10. We left the windows open because we thought the breeze would be nice, but I kept waking up panicking about the noise of the waves crashing, and eventually had to close the windows. Plus I was freezing to death!
Friday was supposed to be our day to go to Floyd’s Pelican Bar, but with the weather there was no way one could possibly take a tiny boat to an offshor bar on stilts. It was crazy.
The hotel had half the grounds roped off so people couldn’t get within 30 feet of the edge of the cliffs. The waves were so big they’d occasionally splash up over the roof of the two-story spa building.
We walked to Pablo’s for breakfast. Up on the road it was a least a little calmer, but you’d still feel sea spray even at that distance. Across the street, Sastick was standing in the door of his little produce market wearing jeans and an Aran fisherman’s sweater. It was cold in Jamaica!
While we were sitting there eating, a Canadian drove by on a motorscooter and crashed it a few doors down. He laid in the road for a good long time with a big crowd around him before getting up. We thought he was seriously injured, but apparently he was just embarrassed. (There’s no way in hell I’d ride a scooter up on the cliffs. Those taxis drive like maniacs around the curves.)
After breakfast, we ran to Lance’s for snacks and beer. I had to take a picture of it, since I’m pretty sure we’ve been in this store 20 times.
We went back to the hotel and hung out on Kris and Orsi’s porch, watching the waves crash. Kris smashed up fruit and made delicious rum punches. A little after 1pm, Matt and I walked over to the bar to use their free wifi and check in for our flight the next day.
The kids were invited to a birthday party with one of Byron and Nav’s friends, so we walked down to No Limit to drop them off. We played dominoes on the street, and the sun even came out for a little bit.
A bit later, we crossed the street to PeeWees and had a beer there, and then went up to get a cab to the Rockhouse. At that point, we were sick to death of beer and wanted proper cocktails. The Rockhouse excels at that.
We got seats at the bar, and got to know the bartenders, who were hilarious. One of them set up elaborate tricks with toothpicks, both for the purpose of making dirty jokes and as brain-teasers. We had a couple appetizers, and the ackee dip was incredible. We need to go back there again for dinner sometime.
After a couple drinks, we decided to go get food at 3 Dives. Kris had called ahead with our order, because the wait at that place can be ridiculous. (The last time we were there, it was beyond packed in the middle of a rainstorm.) We paid our tab and headed off down the road in that direction. A cab came by honking, and it turned out to be their friend Champion, who hangs out at No Limit all the time. We all piled into the back of his cab, and he dropped us the restaurant.
The place was nearly deserted, which was strange. We thought it might have been the weather, but learned later that it was because of a big show down on the beach. People had crowded in early, and then headed that way. We had a gigantic awesome meal including jerk chicken, red snapper, and curry conch (I had steamed veg and callalloo), covered in their many varieties of hot sauce.
We got a cab back to No Limit, where Matt and I had to set about the business of saying bye to everyone. (It helped that we’d already made plans to revisit Negril in two years, which will be Kris and Orsi’s 10th anniversary.) Kris ‘helped’ Jason by hiding his shoes above the door, though he managed to find them himself.
They’d made arrangements for us to get a ride to the airport with Champion the next day. As we walked out the door, we saw him nearly passed out on the domino table. Everyone goes hard in Jamaica.
We headed back to the hotel to have a last Appleton on Kris and Orsi’s patio, and then went to the room to finish packing up our stuff for the trip.
We got up at 8:45 Saturday morning and got our stuff together. It was refreshing to not have to get up at 6am and catch the shared shuttle, because that’s always kind of painful. We rolled our bags up to the front desk to check out just as Champion was walking in. We told him we had to say bye to our friends, and he took the bags to the taxi.
We met them down near the water just so they could show us that it was once again perfect outside, and the sea was calm. SIGH. We said goodbye, and cursed them a little for their extra week in Jamaica. Then we hopped in the cab and were off.
Champion said he had to make a stop to drop something off, which was fine with us. When he pulled into Hedonism 2, the nude resort at the far end of the beach, we were dying of hilarity inside. He dropped off a ‘package’ for one of the guests who came out to meet us, and we were off.
There wasn’t much traffic, so the drive was quick, around 90 minutes. Some of the little towns along the way had flooded roads because of the crazy weather the previous day.
It started raining just as we got to the airport in Montego Bay. We thanked Champion and rolled our bags to the gigantic US Air bag drop. That took forever, and then security also took forever, and finally we were inside the terminal. We walked around a bit looking for food and drinks to bring on the plane, and I grabbed a bottle of water. They announced our flight, and I realized while getting out my boarding pass and passport that my hands were shaking violently. It was 12:30, and I’d kind of forgotten to eat all morning. Luckily, I’d brought a Suncake along.
The exit row in row 9 was awesome. We ended up talking to the flight attendant again, and this guy had previously been in IT and moved into his current career just because of the opportunity for tons of time off with not much seniority. That sounded pretty appealing, really.
Matt had thought that morning that maybe he was getting a cold, and by the time we were in the air, it was clear that he had one. His ears and sinuses were blocked, which made the descent miserable.
We landed in Charlotte and headed to customs and immigration. We were very excited to use our Global Entry privileges for the first time ever, and found the bank of machines empty. My machine wouldn’t scan my passport and didn’t recognize the info I was entering, so I was worried I’d have to get in the giant line. I tried another machine, and while it still wouldn’t scan my passport, the manual entry worked. We got little printout slips with our photos on them that we took to the passport line. That was quick, and so was customs. The downside was that we just had longer to wait for our bags to arrive, but I took that time to go to the bathroom and change into warmer clothing. We were heading back to the cold.
We first went up to the US Airlines lounge, and went in because I had free passes. They had some snacks, but you had to pay for a full meal. They also had free rail drinks, but you had to pay for anything good. I grabbed some crackers and cheese cubes, and we had a cocktail. Then we headed back out, because Matt was badly in need of cold meds and some real food.
We bought Mucinex at a shop, then went to get a table at the Bacardi Rum Bar. They were playing reggae and had shockingly authentic Caribbean food, so it was a welcome return to the Jamaican atmosphere. By the time we were done with dinner, we were both nearly falling asleep on the table. We went to get a quick beer at the Carolina Beer Co, and then headed to the plane. After another exit row, another friendly flight attendant, and another shuttle ride, we were home.
It was -35 windchill in Minneapolis. Our shuttle driver took us right to the parking ramp instead of to the park and ride lot, and earned a $20 tip for that. It was worth it.
My in-laws rented their friend’s condo in Scottsdale for the entire month of January, and invited us to visit. We took a long weekend, and went down to spend our first trip with any significant time in Arizona. Plus we both got to visit the Grand Canyon for the first time!
(The entire photoset is here on Flickr.)
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
Matt and I had our first adventure on Spirit Airlines heading to Phoenix on a Friday morning. While they don’t have Precheck, they charge for carry-on bags (we checked a shared bag for cheaper), and there is indeed no leg room, we decided it was worth it for a really cheap flight. I just wouldn’t use them for anything over three hours or so.
We landed in Phoenix around noon, picked up our bags, and Matt’s parents arrived to pick us up shortly thereafter.
The in-laws had been there for a while, having rented their friend’s condo in Scottsdale for the entire month of January. Neither Matt nor I had spent any time in Arizona – we’d both only crossed the border at the Hoover Dam – so we were looking forward to seeing more of the state. Also, Minnesota was horrendous and cold, and this was the weather in Scottsdale:
We went to the condo, unpacked, and hung out. My mother-in-law mentioned that the condo had fruit trees, where we could pick our own grapefruit, lemons, and oranges. I love that.
There were a ton of shops and restaurants near the condo, so we walked over to a place called Blanco’s to get some food and beers. (The in-laws kept calling it Blank-ohs, so we didn’t get it til we arrived.) We sat outside in the glorious weather, and were joined by a couple of Matt’s parents friends from South Dakota. (All the snowbirds tend to congregate in one place, after all.) We had guacamole and tacos, and were pretty impressed with the food there.
We hung out at the condo for a while, discussing our plans for the next day. We were headed to the Grand Canyon, and Matt’s dad wanted us to book the hotel we’d picked out in Tusayan, so we didn’t have to make the drive there and back in one day. We looked it up on Hotels.com and saw that it was totally booked, which seemed strange in January. I expanded the search, and found that that was the case with almost everything there – Tusayan was almost full. We finally decided on a hotel that looked pretty motel-ish but had good reviews and was cheap, so I booked two rooms and we were set.
Around dinner time, we headed down to Old Town Scottsdale. It was about three miles down the road from where they were staying. It was 6pm, and they wanted us to see a legitimate cowboy bar, the Rusty Spur.
‘Legitimate’ was no joke… there was a guy on stage playing country music, and people wearing unironic cowboy hats hanging out. The in-laws did some dancing, and we had a beer.
Then it was dinner time, so Matt and I did some quick online research about which places might have vegetarian food. A few blocks away, we found Tommy V’s Urban Kitchen and Bar. Matt’s dad had been paired with one of their servers when he was out golfing earlier in the week, so we were seated in his section.
The food was really good, though the place was busy and super-slow. After dinner, we decided to walk over to The Mission for a cocktail before heading back. On the way, Matt’s mom stopped into a shop for souvenirs, and I took crappy pictures of Old Town at night. It’s really cute!
The Mission was insanely crowded, but they managed to find us a table out on the heated patio. We had a margarita there before heading back to the condo.
Back home, the in-laws headed to bed and Matt and I went to sit in the hot tub for a hour or so before heading to bed. I’ve mentioned before that a hot tub in the desert is the greatest thing ever, and I stand by that assertion.
I got up Saturday morning and went downstairs, where Matt’s parents informed me they weren’t going to the Grand Canyon after all. His dad had come down with a cold, and really didn’t feel like making a long roadtrip.
I figured we had no chance of getting a refund from the hotel for the reservation within 24 hours, but I gave it a try anyway. The hotel said I had to call Hotels.com. The lady at Hotels.com was super-friendly, and said since I was a high-level member, she would give me a refund for one of the rooms. That made me an even bigger fan of their service.
Matt and I packed and got on the road around 10:30 and headed north. The second we got on I-17, Google started warning me that there was an accident ahead. I did some research, and discovered that we didn’t really have any options. There’s one big interstate through the desert mountains, and that’s it.
We reached the traffic jam about 20 miles ahead, and sat. Then we sat some more. I spent my time laughing at and imitating every single saguaro I saw. Seriously, look at them. They’re awesome.
There’s not much to look at besides the cactus until you get up into the mountains. An hour later, we’d made it about 10 miles and the accident had cleared. There was rest area near the peak, so we pulled off to use the restroom. So did everyone else who’d been stuck on the highway for an hour, so we ended up waiting in line at the bathrooms, too. The parking lot also contained the smashed remains of the car that was the cause of the slowdown, piled on top of a tow truck.
Finally we were on our way at normal speed. We exited shortly afterward at Hwy 69, heading toward Prescott. I hadn’t really known much about it until we arrived in Arizona and read all the tourist magazines, but what we learned is that it was an old west town where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday used to hang out, and therefore Matt had to see it.
Also, there’s a street called Whiskey Row.
Prescott was an adorable little town centered around the old courthouse plaza. Whiskey Row had a line of awesome oldtimey saloons and touristy shops. Before we visited those, though, we needed some lunch.
We walked a couple blocks up the hill to Prescott Station, which had an extensive menu and good beer list. My chile relleno came with soba noodles for some strange reason, but it was delicious.
After lunch, we walked down to Prescott Brewing Company, which faced courthouse square. The place was packed at midday, but we found a couple spots at the bar. We didn’t have much time to hang out, but there was enough time for a sampler.
Then it was time to visit Whiskey Row. We’d researched the bars there, and picked one that was particularly history. Matt had to get his picture outside his namesake bar first, though.
Then we headed into The Palace, which still had the swinging doors that Wyatt Earp used to walk through.
The place was mostly empty, but all the seats at the bar except one were full. The three stools next to that were occupied by some Confederate soldiers in full uniform, drinking Coors. No, really. Union soldiers. And one of them got up and offered me his chair.
See, here’s surreptitious proof of the soldiers. The staff were dressed in period costumes, too. It was great. We ordered beers, and hung out in the Old West for a while.
Then it was time to head out. We’d tried to time it so that we’d make it to our hotel near the Grand Canyon before dark, but we’d have to hurry to get there.
We headed back north on Highway 69, and saw a lot of the middle of nowhere in the desert. We reached I-40 (back on Route 66 again!) and headed east. We stopped to pay a million dollars for gas in Williams, and then exited I-40 to go north toward the Grand Canyon. The sun was starting to set.
Our hotel was in Tusayan, a little town a mile south of the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. As far as we could tell, it existed solely for that reason, since it was all hotels and restaurants. Since the park passes are good for a week, we decided to drive up to the ranger station and buy a pass so we didn’t have to deal with it in the morning. Then we made a u-turn and went back to Tusayan.
We found the Canyon Plaza Resort right away because it was gigantic. I was nervous because it was one of those old motel-style buildings, but our room was actually very clean and the bathroom had been recently redone. In addition to the outside door, we had another door facing in on the atrium, which led directly to this magical place: the Wintergarten.
(No, I have no idea why there’s a bar called The Wintergarten at a hotel by the Grand Canyon.)
We had a beer in the room, and then went over to the Wintergarten for another one. I asked our server how late they’d be open that night – it was a little after 7:00 and strangely quiet for a Saturday – and he said, “Oh, pretty late, depending on how long people are here. Probably 8:30 or so.” That kind of set the tone for the evening.
I noticed even walking around our room that I was kind of off-balance, and realized that it was due to the altitude. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is at about 7,000 feet, which did not cooperate well with my inner-ear-related vertigo. It wasn’t too bad, just strange.
While it had been very pleasantly in the 70s during the day in Scottsdale (and a slightly-chilly 50s at night), such was not the case at the Grand Canyon. It was in the 30s, but we were prepared with winter coats and mittens. We walked a couple blocks over to a place called Sophie’s Mexican Kitchen, because it had the word “vegetarian” on the sign.
There were a few people in there, and a couple that came in directly behind us, but it was definitely quiet. We had prickly pear margaritas (delicious) and dinner (acceptable), and by the time we were ready for our check, they were flipping chairs up onto tables. It wasn’t even 9pm yet.
So then it became a contest to see if we could find another place open for a drink in Tusayan. As we walked down the street, three guys came out of the steakhouse nearby and set off, obviously on the same mission. They crossed the street to another mexican restaurant, but we decided to head for the fancy resort (The Grand Hotel) at the end of the “strip” (it’s about three blocks long). We figured they had to have a cocktail bar there, or at least something at the restaurant. I was semi-teetering along the way, not due to drunkenness but altitude-based vertigo. What a strange sensation.
They did indeed have a bar. It was western-themed. I sat on a saddle.
The bartender was really funny, and had moved from Portland. We had a drink there and hung out talking, and were glad there were still other people sitting at the bar. The massive restaurant closed, and a few people came in for very complicated nightcaps (there was a lot of Baileys involved). Matt ordered another drink, and then suddenly it was last call. Their last call was no joke, either… around 9:45 the register basically shut off and wouldn’t let our bartender enter orders or do anything but print checks. It was kind of amazing.
We headed back to the hotel for a beer in bed, where we discovered the many Japanese channels on our hotel TV. We ended up watching Cat TV, which was an entire show following house cats around a farm in France, narrated in Japanese. Amazing.
We got up bright and early the next morning, to get to the Grand Canyon before “the rush”. (We didn’t really expect a rush that time of year, but you never know.) We checked out of the hotel, grabbed a drive-through breakfast, and headed into the park. The sun was just coming up.
I parked the car in the gigantic parking lot near the main visitor center. There were very few cars there, so that was a good sign. We grabbed our cameras and headed toward a nearby overlook for our first-ever view of the Grand Canyon.
It was not disappointing. I got choked up when I saw it.
We walked along the trail by the visitor center, taking pictures at each stop. There were very few people around. It was cold, but not terrible… when the sun came up, it was around freezing.
The biggest crowds we saw were at this overlook by the entrance. There were a bunch of people with selfie sticks taking photos of themselves. And by ‘a bunch’, I mean 30 at most. It was kind of amazing.
Bally was impressed, too.
What we’d learned about the Grand Canyon is that January is a pretty questionable month there, weather-wise. It’s very likely that the roads to some of the more remote overlooks are closed in January, so you can pretty much only stick around the visitor centers and Grand Canyon Village. We got incredibly lucky, because all the roads were open.
The other huge plus to going that time of year is that during the high season (March to November), you can’t take those roads to the overlooks. You park at the visitor center, board a bus, and ride to each of the stops along the way. But in the off-season, you’re on your own. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have been able to get to half the things we saw if we’d have had to wait for buses all day.
From the visitor center, we drove on through Grand Canyon Village and onto the road to Hermit’s Rest, which heads westward along the south rim of the canyon. We stopped at most of the overlooks along the way.
From the first overlook, you can see Bright Angel Trail. There were plenty of people walking it already, and I did not envy their climb back up.
It didn’t take long for us to notice the effects of altitude: we just had to try to climb back up the stairs from the overlook. We were gasping by the time we got to the top.
God, it was gorgeous there. Especially in the morning light.
There’s no good way to get the appropriate perspective in your photos, either. It’s so gigantic. (I still have trouble believing that the Colorado River was actually a mile below us.)
We drove to Hopi Point, then took the trail back to Powell Point. (All over the overlooks are connected by a walking trail, most of it paved.)
There’s a monument to John Wesley Powell there, commemorating the first (white guy) explorer to boat the length of the Colorado River.
From those two stops, we decided to drive all the way to Hermit’s Rest. I didn’t really know what to expect there, but it was awesome. Also, there were two other cars in the parking lot. It felt almost like we had the park to ourselves.
We went into the building there, and saw the fireplace that people had been warming themselves at for a hundred years. There’s a shop in there, too, so we picked up the requisite souvenirs of our visit.
Matt plugged a quarter into the telescope so we could check out the view.
He’d read that you could use those telescopes as a telephoto lens for your camera, so I tried it out. Um…. nope.
We walked down the trail behind the building, which led to the trailhead parking lot, where there were a couple campers parked. There was also this array of bones, which wasn’t at all creepy.
I wanted to steal the walking sticks there. (I have a fetish for those little medallions you can buy at any national or state park as souvenirs, which you’re supposed to attach to your walking stick. I have zero need for them, but I really want them.) Matt said I couldn’t, lest we get murdered by the campers or the people who left the bones there.
Then we filled our bottles with Grand Canyon spring water. It was deliciously mineraly.
We went back to the car, and went to see the stops we’d passed along the way. First was Pima Point, which we had to ourselves.
Those railings are there to protect you, but they’re kind of beat to hell:
We found our initials carved in a tree!
Then there was The Abyss, the best-named overlook.
Once we’d seen all the stops along the Hermit’s Rest road, we went back to Grand Canyon Village and parked the car. We walked down across the railroad tracks to visit the mules. The guy in front nickered ‘hi’ to us, which was adorable.
Then we crossed back along the tracks (which were still somewhat ice-covered, due to being in the shade) and went to see a train parked there, and the station.
We realized that the buses parked there with a bunch of bus drivers hanging out meant that the train was arriving, so we stayed to watch it pull into the station. I really want to take the train sometime.
Then we walked up the hill to see the hotels. Climbing two flights of stairs at altitude is not a fun adventure, and makes you feel hella old.
El Tovar is the fancy old lodge-style hotel with rocking chairs on the front porch. We sat in one, and then went inside to take a look.
It’s chock full of dead animals, as expected. Apparently the cocktail lounge there is really cool, but it was closed for renovation. We decided to move on.
Next door is Bright Angel Lodge, which also has a very outdoorsy appeal. I liked their lobby better, because it reminded me of all the up-north cabins in Minnesota.
We decided to go have a beer in their lounge instead. It was the opposite of fancy, but it was oldtimey and comfortable.
Then it was time to make our way onward so that we weren’t driving the whole way back to Scottsdale in the dark. We first went to the visitor center, used the restroom, and got coffee for the road. Then we took the park road heading east toward Desert View. We’d seen a sign at the entrance saying the road going that way might be closed, but that was not the case.
I was glad we’d taken the other route first… there’s not as much to see along the way, at least until you get to the end.
The tower was really cool. It was built by the same people who built Hermit’s Rest.
There was more snow at this end, too. Unfortunately it had started to get overcast in the late afternoon.
From there, we continued on the highway out of the park. The exit leads to a very large Navajo reservation with awesome views of the mountains. I learned later that there’s fossil evidence of dinosaurs all over the place there, too.
We descended very slowly along the route back south. There’s not as much to see going that direction, and the desert is very scrubby. We stopped in Flagstaff to get a burrito, and then headed onward. We had considered stopping to see Sedona, too, but realized we’d be pretty late getting back to Scottsdale.
On the way, we were listening to the NFC championship game on Sirius, and heard the Packers get knocked out of the playoffs. That was satisfying.
We got back to the condo in Scottsdale around sunset, where Matt’s parents were anxiously waiting for us. We had pizza for dinner, showed them all the photos we’d taken at the Grand Canyon, and hung out playing cards, followed by another visit to the awesome hot tub.
The next morning, I got up and Matt’s mom and I took a walk around the condos to pick fruit. I took pictures of cacti, because I seriously love cacti.
They had orange, grapefruit and lemon trees.
Seriously, how nice is it to be able to pick your own citru? I can’t wait to live somewhere warm.
I hung out on the patio soaking up the sun, and then we piled in the car and drove to Talking Stick casino. The in-laws said they had amazing bloody marys. We had beers, since that’s not really our thing.
The casino and resort were really nice, and obviously fairly new. I was excited to read that they had craps there, but couldn’t find the actual table. I realized it was actually one of those craps machines with the giant Boggle-style dice popper in the center of the table, but that was alright since it seemed to work exactly the same as the normal game. Matt, his dad, and I sat down to play for a long time, and we all did pretty well.
Afterward, we headed into Old Town to do some more shopping. We covered a lot of ground, and I had to resist buying everything at the shop that had everything southwestern-and-Mexican that you could ever want. (Especially since we were sharing one checked bag.)
Since we were right by the Rusty Spur, we decided to stop in for a beer again.
Matt’s parents were tired of walking, so they took the car and headed back while Matt and I did more shopping. And by ‘shopping’, I mean we mostly went to the tiki bar. Hula’s was great.
Since we had dinner reservations that evening, we decided to take the bus back to the condo so we could change into nicer clothes. It dropped us off right across the street from the condo, and we went in to hang out for a while before leaving again.
Our dinner plans were at Culinary Dropout, which was halfway back to Old Town in the Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall. (It was this gigantic hulking fake-downtown looking thing, the kind that always makes me uncomfortable. We’d ridden through there a couple times, since the trolley stops there.)
It was colder outside than previous nights, and I was wearing my winter jacket. It was funny to see people in a vast array of covered-up; there were ladies in clubwear, and people wearing full-on winter gear. It’s basically exactly how Minnesota is when it starts getting into the 40s in spring.
The restaurant was great. It was noisy and the in-laws didn’t entirely get the menu concept, but their food and cocktails were excellent.
Matt and I had considered going out again after dinner, but decided to just ride back and hang out with his parents instead, since it was our last night. We played some cards again, and then hit up the hot tub for one last time after they went to bed.
I got up Tuesday morning and went out to the patio to knit. It was a little bit chilly in the 50s, but I was determined to soak up as much sun as possible.
When Matt got up, we went to say bye to our good pal, the hot tub.
Then we packed up our stuff and headed to lunch. We’d seen Diego Pops on the way there from the airport, and knew we had to stop in for a visit sometime. Especially since they had vegetarian tacos, which were great. (Not to mention prickly pear margaritas.)
Then we drove down to another spot I’d wanted to visit since I learned of it on the first day of our trip: Sphinx Date Ranch. They sold locally-grown dates, and a bunch of other food gifts. We bought a bunch of awesome things there, and had to figure out how to get it into our luggage. (I ate a date a day for two weeks after that.)
And then it was time to head to the airport. Matt’s parents dropped us off, and we headed to our flight. We took off right around sunset, and the view over the mountains was great.
It was so insanely cold when we got back to Minneapolis that we opted to take a cab to our parking spot rather than have to walk the two blocks from the train. Living in the frozen northland isn’t that great, in case you were wondering. That’s why we’re so glad to escape!
Since we’re planning to move toward the end of 2015, Matt and I wanted to book a trip that allowed us to take a long roadtrip with minimal time off work. Thanksgiving weekend afforded the best option for that, and really cheap airfare into Las Vegas and out of Los Angeles didn’t hurt, either. We spent three nights in Vegas, and then the rest of the time driving around Southern California.
(The entire photoset is here on Flickr.)
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
Matt and I headed to the airport bright and early for our 9am flight to Las Vegas. We landed shortly after 10am, the earliest we’d ever arrived there. (We’re fans of the postwork late arrival that basically just looses us onto the Strip.) We hopped the airport shuttle and picked up our car, which was a much larger Nissan than I’m used to driving; we wanted one with a trunk, since we’d be leaving it parked with our luggage quite a bit.
Our first important stop was the In-N-Out Burger south of town. We picked up our usual lunch and continued on the interstate to the Hoover Dam. Matt had never been there before, and I hadn’t been in years.
We got there within 45 minutes, drove through the questionable security check, and parked in the ramp. Having been in sub-20s weather in Minneapolis just a few hours earlier, the sun and warmth were a very nice change.
We jumped into the ‘dam’ puns as soon as we arrived. It’s an important tradition to uphold. (I was later pleased to buy some ‘dam mints’ at the gift shop, and I’ve been carrying them around ever since.)
The highway bridge had been constructed since my previous visit, and it made the view even more impressive.
There was a paddleboat tour sailing around Lake Mead north of the dam. I made a note to look into that on our next visit, because I’m pretty sure that would be awesome.
At the center of the dam, there’s a sign marking the border between Nevada and Arizona. I hadn’t noticed that before.
Since Matt hadn’t been to Arizona, we made a point of walking across to the other side. It was Bally’s first visit, too! We’re actually going to Scottsdale in 2015, but it’s not often you can just walk into another state.
We went back across the dam, made the obligatory gift shop visit, and went back to the car. I’ve never actually taken the dam tour, but we decided to save that for later. It’s a time commitment.
On the way out of the visitor center, we drove up to the overlook. Lake Mead looked very appealing from there.
I’d read that it was a more interesting route to take Lakeshore Drive through Lake Mead National Rec Area, so we decided to go back to Las Vegas that way. The desert scrub is pretty great to see, and also it’s easy to get down to the beaches. They’re rock instead of sand, but still scenic.
We stopped at a few more desert overlooks along the way. There seems to be a lot of mysterious industry going on out in the desert.
We exited from the northwest corner of the park, and headed back in the direction of Las Vegas. After a few miles, the desert started changing into this weird terraforming zone, where they were obviously in the middle of building a ton of new properties. We took a wrong turn and ended up in a golf resort neighborhood, which just made me angry with all its perfect green grass and fountains. It’s the desert, for god’s sake. Watering lawns is just wasteful.
We could see Vegas in the distance, so we knew we were headed in the right direction, but Google Maps wasn’t making it easy for us. It sent us down a dead-end road that ended in a future roundabout, and then couldn’t quite figure out another route from there. We finally found a major street that led us back to the south end of town, and from there managed to get on I-5. We took the loop around the west side, and exited to find a spot we’ve wanted to visit since we first started going to Vegas so many years ago: Frankie’s Tiki Room.
It was 3pm and full sun outside, so we walked into the nearly-dark room and were completely blind. We could kind of make out the back of the bar, and saw that there were a few tables with candles on them, but otherwise we couldn’t see anything in the room. We wanted to sit at the bar, but couldn’t even tell if there were people there or not. We had to stand around for a couple minutes before our eyes adjusted enough that we could find seats.
We had a couple drinks and lost $20 apiece on stupid video poker. Matt bought one of their souvenir mugs, which is shaped like a slot machine. We didn’t know it then, but it was the first one of a collection of new tiki mugs we’d get on the trip.
We unfortunately couldn’t stay all night even though we wanted to, because we had show tickets and a car to drive. We decided to head downtown to the hotel before going to get dinner, since it was after the 4pm check-in time. We found our way down to the Plaza, but the parking there was really confusing. We ended up parking in a flat lot a block down (rather than the ramp), and had to roll our bags through some road construction to get into the building.
The casino looked a lot nicer than it had on our previous visit (we’d had dinner at Hash House A-Go-Go a few years back), and the front desk staff was really nice. There was a beer bar in the lobby with a good selection, so we got a drink to take up to the room while we unpacked. We had a great view looking down Fremont Street, too.
Once we were settled, we headed back out to the car and drove to the SLS. I’d done some research, and discovered that Umami Burger had both 1) vegetarian food and 2) a sports book. Plus we wanted to see what they’d done to the former Sahara. The casino was waaay fancier than before, and basically unrecognizable from its previous incarnation. Umami Burger was fantastic, too: we had good food, excellent beer, and there were sporting events on about a billion TVs around us.
After dinner, it was time to head to the Rio for our show. On the way out to the parking ramp, we noticed something I’d seen and totally forgotten about on previous visits: there are footprints ALL OVER THE PARKING RAMPS IN VEGAS. Like on the walls, overhangs, and all over the ceilings. Seriously, look in any parking ramp in Las Vegas and it will look like humans were walking all over the ceiling. Why is that??
The Rio is one of the offstrip casinos we hadn’t been to before (and one I regularly confuse with The Palms, which we’ve stayed at). It definitely wasn’t as nice as I was expecting, and shortly after walking in we were harassed by one of those people trying to get you to play dumb games that are really a way to get you to buy a timeshare or something. (I don’t even know what their scammy bit is about, but it’s dumb and ends up with people littering their fake million-dollar bills all over the place.)
We had tickets to see Penn and Teller at 9pm, and since we had some time to kill, we figured we’d stop and get a drink to bring into the theater. We found a really nice-looking bar at an Italian restaurant down the hall, and got Manhattans to take with us. Then we headed to the theater, and discovered at the door that you weren’t allowed to bring drinks in with you. So we were the super-classy people slamming fancy cocktails at a table right by the entrance. We then went up to our seats in the balcony, and the show started shortly after.
I’d kind of forgotten than Penn is a weird libertarian-type, and was surprised that he managed to work a lot of those opinions into the show. Still, it was really great, and despite having seen them do numerous demonstrations of their tricks on TV, we still couldn’t tell how they pulled any of them off. It was pretty entertaining.
On the way out, we found these photos in the lobby. They disturb me every time I see them.
We drove back downtown and parked at the hotel (in the ramp this time, noting the footprints all over the place). It was close to 11pm (or 1am Minneapolis time), so we decided to go wander around downtown for a very short time before heading to bed. Fremont Street was crowded, the display was going on overhead, and a band was setting up near the hotel. We stopped into the Golden Gate for a drink, and then went to wander.
We ended up at Binion’s, just like we always do. It’s one of our favorite spots to gamble. I wanted to play craps, and ended up being lured to a table by a Canadian couple who saw me looking at it. Matt didn’t want to play dice, so he went to find a blackjack table. I talked to the Canadians for a bit before they wandered off, and then set to losing my money at that table. After a bit, the guy came back and we ended up talking about hockey forever; he was an Edmonton Oilers fan, and had no end of complaints about the fans’ bad attendance and the team just being bad in general. He was envious of the Wild being good, which is funny since that’s a fairly recent development. He also did a really good job of distracting me from craps, which meant I managed to lose $100 more than I thought.
When he took off, I grabbed the rest of my chips and went to join Matt for blackjack. He was doing very well, and I managed to recoup some of my losses too. By the time we decided to wrap up at Binions, it was of course really late at night (this always happens in Vegas). We walked back toward the Plaza and ended up standing and watching the cover band play at the end of the street. The scantily-clad female bartenders from the Golden Gate were up dancing on the bar, and the whole area was surprisingly crowded.
We finally made it back to the Plaza, and decided to stop and get a late-night slice at Pop Up Pizza in the lobby. Because not only did they have good pizza, they had a statue of a horse wearing a lampshade.
Saturday, we got up and headed down to the Strip. We decided to park at Caesar’s because it was centrally-located, though soon discovered that you have to walk about a million miles through the parking lot and the casino even to get out to the Strip.
Bally stopped to say hi to his casino (still under renovation, at least near the front entrance), and then we went to Paris for breakfast at one of our favorite spots, JJ’s Boulangerie.
From there, we went back through Bally’s, and crossed over to Drai’s/The Cromwell. It used to be the Barbary Coast/Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and is now really fancy, though that means you probably can’t get a crappy $2 margarita anymore. It’s a fine tradeoff.
We cut through the Flamingo, and decided to stop out back to see their namesakes. I’m a fan of the turtles with their names painted on their shells, too.
If you go out the side door of the Flamingo, you’ll find yourself in The Linq. The open-air mall and observation wheel were all new since our previous visit, and I was really excited to see them! (Technically, the Linq is the former Imperial Palace.)
The High Roller is impressive, not to mention photogenic.
FYI, the Linq has a cupcake ATM. We didn’t really want cupcakes (it was apparently out of order anyway), but still. Cupcake ATM.
There are a bunch of bars and restaurants along the block-long pedestrian walkway. Most of them are large national chains, but they’re pretty fun regardless. After looking at the menu at Brooklyn Bowl, we decided we should have lunch there. Having just had breakfast, though, we figured we’d go have a beer or two first. We headed into the Yardhouse to watch some football (which we conveniently had also bet on the previous night).
From there, we went to go check out O’Shea’s. I’d heard over a year ago that it would be closed permanently, but apparently the Caesar’s group changed their minds. It lives on at the Linq, though it’s only a tiny portion of what it used to be. It’s a big room attached to the side of the Linq/Imperial Palace, but it has much of the same trappings, like cheap drinks and tables, and beer pong. Plus it smells a lot better than it used to.
We didn’t see Lucky there, but we did see a good enough version of him outside:
We spent longer than expected wandering around there and the Linq, so then it was time for a late lunch. We walked over to Brooklyn Bowl and took the escalator up to the second floor. They had a small bar area there with TVs showing the games, so we grabbed seats at the bar and ordered food and beer. Our bartender was awesome, and kept trying to convince us to stay until happy hour, which was something like two hours away.
We decided to go back to the Flamingo and do some gambling, since it’d been at least 12 hours since we’d given money away. One of my longstanding goals was to make an irresponsibly large bet on something, and I’d decided on craps. Matt’s not a fan of dice, but he decided he’d try it out this time. I set down a $50 bet on the pass line, and he made a $10 bet. We didn’t crap out, so I put another $50 behind my bet. On the very next roll we won, so I ended up with $200 instead of the nothing I’d expected. I put my initial stake to the side, and we decided to keep playing.
We were there a long time, because the table was running hot. At one point, Matt made a joke about getting an oversized check as a prize for something, and the old guy standing next to him perked up and said, “hey, I have one of those!” He then proceeded to tell us a story about how he won half a million dollars in the lottery several years ago, and had moved to Vegas to become a gambler. Three years later, he’d burned through his money and had to move back home. But he got to keep the giant check, so that was something.
Our lottery friend knew a lot about craps, so he taught us some of the more advanced betting techniques. We also got to experience the world’s longest streak at craps (for me, at least)… we were all waiting on a four, and the British guy rolling just kept going and going. When we finally hit a four, we all erupted in yelling. It was fantastic.
It was dark by the time we left, so it was time for the High Roller. Admission is something like $25, but Matt’s only cost $5 because of their Movember deal. We got tickets, bought glasses of champagne to take along, and went to board. There was virtually no wait, despite it being Saturday night.
We piled into a pod with a few other people, and off we went. The views of the Strip were spectacular, though very few of my pictures turned out due to the glass and movement. Still, it was great.
The whole trip takes a little over half an hour. We hopped off and decided to walk over to the Cosmopolitan for dinner. First, we had to make the obligatory stop at the Chandelier bar, because when you get the chance to have a cocktail in a chandelier, you take it.
Post-drink, we went over to China Poblano and sat at the bar for dinner. It’s one of our favorite places in Vegas, so we’ve been there a lot.
After dinner, we walked all the way back to Caesar’s to get the car, and headed back downtown to the Plaza. We parked, and decided to walk down to Atomic Liquors, a divey bar we’d been meaning to check out forever. It was a little over a mile down Fremont Street, far past the ‘Experience’ and the pedestrian avenue.
They have several of the old neon signs from the Neon Museum set up along the way. Also, the El Corez’ signs are their own museum. It’s oldtimey.
Atomic Liquors was nearly empty, probably something to do with the fact that it was after 1am. But the bartender was super-friendly, and we met a guy at the bar (we called him Vegas Dennis… I have no idea what his real name was) who regaled us with stories about how horrible it was living in downtown Las Vegas. We stayed there talking far too long, and then decided to stop into the El Cortez on the way back for some gambling, which was an equally bad decision. I don’t really know how much I gambled there, but apparently I didn’t do too badly, since I still had money left the next day.
If you don’t have a stumbling, blurry night in DTLV, you should definitely put it on your life to-do list. It’s important.
Late Monday morning, it was time to say goodbye to DTLV. We hauled our bags across the Plaza, loaded them into the car, and drove down to the far end of the strip to park at The Tropicana. It was too early to check in, so we left our stuff in the trunk and went to wander around.
It had been a very long time since we’d visited the south end of the Strip, so we headed into MGM to look around. After walking a million miles to get to the restaurants in the back of the building, we determined they didn’t open til dinner time. We walked all the way back up to the main lobby area and went to the sports bar there for brunch. They ended up having good food and beer despite the look of the place, and there were sports going on on a million TVs. (Mostly reruns, but you’re never sad to stare at sports in Las Vegas.)
Post-lunch, we walked across the street to New York New York to gamble. It’d been a long time since we’d been in there, too! We found a spot at a pai gow table, and ended up playing (mostly successfully) for a long time. By the time we wandered out again it was midafternoon, so we walked over to the Cosmopolitan, wandered around some stores, stopped at the Chandelier bar and got a drink from the same bartender again, and then went into China Poblano to order carryout. We had the same server there, too, so it was basically a Vegas victory lap. I got a mushroom taco, and it was delivered to me in a tiny box to take with me.
We crossed the Strip to Planet Hollywood and grabbed a couch at the sports book to eat our late lunch and do some more sports-gambling. My four-team NFL parlay bet had fallen apart, so I wasn’t that enthused about it at that point, but my taco was delicious.
After hanging out there for a while, we went to check into our room at the Tropicana. It was a really nice newly-remodeled room (even if, in typical Vegas fashion, we had to walk a billion miles to get to it). Our bathroom had a huge Jacuzzi tub, which was awesome. We changed into fancy clothes and headed back out.
The whole hotel seemed to be suspiciously empty, and we saw so few people in the hotel area that we decided we had it to ourselves. (It was Monday of Thanksgiving week, so that probably had something to do with it.) We headed back to the car and drove over to a strip mall in Chinatown, on the west side of the highway toward the very north end of the Strip. There was a wait at Raku, so we put our names on the list and they said they’d text us when it was time. We decided to head to an awesomely divey-looking bar on the other side of the strip mall instead, called Kilroys. It did not disappoint.
Dinner time rolled around, and we walked back over to Raku and got our table. Since we both wanted something less potent to drink, we decided to get a pitcher of Asahi. They neglected to tell us it’d be the largest pitcher of Asahi in the universe:
Our meal there was incredible. They make their own tofu, and it’s hard to describe how amazing tofu can be. Trust me, it was. (Even Matt agreed.) But the far-and-away highlight was the cold green tea soba. Just seeing this picture makes me hungry.
After dinner, we headed back to the hotel. It was late and I was sleepy (and full), so we decided to get a drink at the bar in the VERY EMPTY casino and head up to the room. I filled the bath, and we hung out in the hot tub for a long time before bed.
Despite our fairly early night, I got up Monday feeling terrible. My vertigo had gotten really bad, too, so I spent a lot of time feeling like the world was spinning. We packed up our stuff, checked out of the Tropicana, and loaded up the car.
We then headed back over to Caesar’s Palace to do some shopping and have lunch at the Forum Shops before heading out of town. Matt got some new shoes at the Nike Store, since it’s an obligatory stop every time we’re there.
Then it was time to get on the road. Matt was driving and I was reclining most of the time, trying not to be dizzy. This was his first time driving the Baker/Barstow route through the desert, so he got to experience all of it.
There’s a monstrous solar array out in the desert. I didn’t get a very good picture of it, but it’s massive.
The drive into the Inland Empire (or IE, for those in the know) was uneventful. The thing we noticed most is that it’s HUGE. Everything is so far away from everything else. It’s incredible.
We found our way to San Bernardino, and exited at the road formerly known as Route 66. A few miles down, through a rundown residental area, we found the Wigwam Motel!
(It was actually dark when we arrived, so I took these photos the next day. How awesome is this place??)
Due to the time of year, there didn’t seem to be many other people staying in the wigwams. The front office told us we’d be upgraded to a deluxe model; I didn’t know what the difference was, but we appreciated it.)
The wigwams were small but clean and well-maintained. I like how the windows are at floor level, too. The bed was so tall I could barely climb into it.
We hauled our stuff in, and then headed off in search of dinner. Matt was starting to get hangry, and I still felt crappy so I didn’t really care about food. We’d picked out a place about 15 miles away (because NOTHING in the IE is close), and I gave directions as he drove. We got there to find it was totally packed, with a 45-minute wait. We decided to go elsewhere.
Also, it was really cold there at night! I was wearing a dress and freezing, so I hated even being outside.
Our second plan that night was to go to Hangar 24‘s brewery, so we decided to try that and see if maybe they had food there or something. They didn’t, but they did have a gigantic beer selection. We got all the samples.
By the time we were done we were really hungry, and I felt really crappy, so we decided to just find a grocery store, get some sandwich makings, and go back to the Wigwam. You’d think this would be an easy prospect, right? But no, you have to drive a million miles, and then you find a grocery store that’s like a castoff discount bulk grocery store that only has everything in mega-packs, and you have to drive to another store another million miles away. But finally you’re at Trader Joe’s, and things are looking up again. (I’m pretty sure this Trader Joe’s was still technically in San Bernardino, even though we were 20 miles from the hotel.)
Having obtained food, we went back to the Wigwam to eat, and I went to bed right away afterwards. We needed an early night for once.
We got up the next morning, checked out of the Wigwam, and got back on the road. It was time to head into the desert… after a filling breakfast, of course. We found the highly-recommended DJ’s Coffee Shop about 15 miles away (but still in San Bernardino, of course), and sat at the counter to eat. It’s a classic greasy-spoon-type place, but their food was great; I had an omelet full of green peppers that was spectacular.
I’ve seen most of coastal California, especially San Francisco and SoCal, but I’ve never really been into the desert (with the exception of the Vegas drive). I’ve always been kind of fascinated with it, so I was excited to see what it was about. We learned from a friend later on that Thanksgiving weekend is the official start of ‘desert season’ in California, where everyone heads over there to camp and ride 4-wheelers around. Kind of like summer cabin season here in Minnesota.
The drive to the Coachella Valley was really scenic:
We got off I-10 just past the Palm Springs exit, and headed east instead. We stopped at a gas station in Morongo Valley, where I bought three bottles of water, in addition to the full Camelbak I had in the car. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that it’s smart to have a ton of water with you in the desert.
Back on the road, we passed through Yucca Valley, a super-cute little town full of art and antique shops. From there we hopped off the main highway, and headed into Joshua Tree National Park.
We bought a park pass and got a map from the ranger station. While I was paying, Matt was busy reading the sign I missed on the building: it said, “Watch out for tarantulas on the road”. While I’m sure that was meant to protect tarantulas, he thought maybe we should run over any of them we found. Hopefully they’d travel in a giant train, so we could get a bunch of them at once.
Since we came in the north entrance, that meant we entered via the Mojave, or high desert side. The hills were very volcanic looking (some of them reminded me of Haleakala), but the geology also varied quite a bit. There were Joshua trees all over, too.
Some of the Joshua trees were dead. They make for good pictures, though.
I have a million pictures of the park, and none of them really do it justice. It’s gorgeous. Also, the sky. Totally perfect.
There were rock climbers all over the bigger outcroppings. These looked appealing:
This is my favorite Joshua tree:
A few miles in, there were cars pulled over because a coyote was wandering down the other side of the road. It would pass each car slowly and approach warily, which sucks because that means it had been fed by tourists before.
This was a popular climbing rock. You can see some of the lines right in the middle. I bet the scrub was chock-full of tarantulas, too.
Several miles in, there’s a turnoff for a spot called Keys View. It’s a few miles up a mountain at about 5,000 feet, with a short trail to an overlook. It’s worth the drive.
Off in the hazy distance, it’s the Coachella valley. I really didn’t know how much farming went on there; it’s a lot. This is looking west, directly over the San Andreas Fault, with the San Jacinto Mountains in the background.
Looking south, you can make out the Salton Sea, and Signal Mountain near Mexicali in the far distance.
We headed back to the park road, and passed through a section of giant rocks. (I think one of the turnoffs is actually called Giant Rocks.) This is Skull Rock:
I wish we had more time to stop at all the roadside attractions, but it was a long drive through the park. We did have to stop to see the cactus garden, though. By then we’d crossed into the low desert, the Colorado, and the landscape started to change quite a bit.
(Confession: I touched the cactus and lived.)
The cactus garden is surreal. There are a million of them, just waiting to kill you.
This is the inside of a cactus stem:
Bally liked the view. Bally likes everything, really.
We stopped at the visitor center on the south end of the park to pick up a souvenir and to fill my Camelbak, because yes, I’d consumed all three bottles of water plus that entire container. It’s the desert, man.
Rather than get back on I-10, we followed Google’s directions (which were suspect in California at best, even with GPS enabled) toward Mecca. This led us through Box Canyon, which was kind of amazing.
The road twists and winds through at least 10 miles of canyon like this, and there are areas on the side of the road where people have parked their campers and created little compounds. They all had ATVs, too.
We exited Box Canyon onto the road heading into Mecca, a small town at the north end of the Salton Sea. Looking for the road to the sea, we passed acres and acres of produce of all kinds. It was kind of amazing to see that much food production up close, and in full bloom during late November.
We finally found our way to the highway that circled the Salton Sea.
We headed east, toward the state park area. The sun was starting to set, so we had pretty spectacular views. I pulled off at one of the beaches so we could get photos, and upon leaving the car was instantly greeted with the main reason people had deserted the Salton Sea: the smell. It smelled like dead fish and chemicals, and not just a little bit. It was overpowering.
In case you weren’t aware of this bizarre wonder in the California desert, here’s the short version (or the long version, via Wikipedia): the Salton Sea was formed accidentally in the early 1900s while workers were trying to funnel water into the very fertile Coachella Valley. It flooded the low basin, and created a huge inland sea. It soon became a huge resort and vacation destination, because, well, look at it.
The problem, however, was that there’s no natural exchange of water in the Salton Sea; it’s not fed by streams, nor does it have any drainage. So all the industrial and farming runoff from the valley poured right into the sea, and it poisoned everything. Almost all the fish died, creating a hell of a stink, and people left in droves. In many cases, they just left the stuff in their houses, and fled.
So now you have places like Bombay Beach, a former resort town that’s mostly abandoned and falling apart.
We unfortunately got there very close to sunset, and couldn’t see as much of it as we wanted to. It’s strange and mostly-deserted, but there are still people hanging on there at the end of a giant stinky sea. It’s a really bizarre place.
And then it was dark, so we pointed our car in the direction of Palm Springs. It took about an hour to arrive at our hotel, the Movie Colony. I’d picked it because it was walking distance to Tonga Hut, the only real destination we had in mind there, because we knew virtually nothing about the town beyond its awesome 1960s architecture.
The hotel was an excellent choice. It was very small, centered around a courtyard with a firepit, outdoor bar (which currently had free happy hour cocktails), and swimming pool. The lady working there was super-friendly, and took us up to our room on the second level overlooking the courtyard.
Matt had done some research on dinner options on the way there, and we’d decided on a place a few blocks away called Workshop Kitchen. We changed clothes and walked down there, finding it in the back of an open mall area. It was small, modern, and thankfully had a couple seats for us at the bar, since the entire rest of the place was already booked. We had a great meal, one of those that reminds you how completely spoiled California is, foodwise. It’s so easy to be vegetarian there.
We’d made plans to get together with my very longtime friend Paul, who lives in Long Beach, while we were in Palm Springs. He was there for Thanksgiving, and it just so happens that he and his friends love tiki bars as much as we do. So our obvious next stop was Tonga Hut to meet them.
We walked several blocks down there, passing a ton of great-looking restaurants and super-cute shops, which were all closed for the night. I kind of regretted not having more time in Palm Springs, because I’m pretty sure we’d have loved it. I liked that everything was centrally-located, too.
We headed upstairs to Tonga Hut and didn’t see Paul there, so Matt and I grabbed seats at the bar. We were worried we’d missed them, since they had dinner reservations elsewhere. After a while, they all showed up: Paul, his husband Eddie, and two of their friends who loved tiki far more than we ever could… they regaled us with stories of all the places they’d been, and the huge tiki collection they had in their new house in Palm Springs. (Paul sent photos later – it’s truly amazing.)
We hung out with them for an hour or so, talking about travel and what it was like living in the area. Apparently it’s really common for everyone in the LA area to head out into the desert that time of year, like a pilgrimage. I’d do the same, really.
Then it was time for them to head to dinner, so we said goodbye and hung out a bit longer before deciding to walk back to the hotel. It was even colder than it had been in other places in the desert at night, but it wasn’t cold enough to deter us from hanging out in the hot tub for a while before bed.
Thanksgiving morning, this was our view from our hotel room. I wished we were staying longer!
We had a 3-night Airbnb rental in Topanga Canyon starting that night that we’d booked several months in advance. The owner called and left a voicemail that morning, so I called him back before breakfast. We reviewed the plans we’d made via email: we had dinner reservations at 7:30 in Venice, and would get to the house to meet him before 9-10pm. That worked out well for him, too, since he had Thanksgiving plans.
We ate breakfast at the little bar in the courtyard, then checked out. Here’s the daytime view down the street from our hotel. We didn’t even know those mountains were right there when we arrived.
We checked out and got on I-10 again. Our destination this time was Anaheim, and Disneyland.
I’ve been to Disney World a few times in my life, a couple times as a kid and once as a sarcastic adult who expected to hate every minute of it, and ended up having a really great time. (Occasionally for sarcastic reasons, but also because I can’t stop loving Epcot Center.) People in California really seem to have a thing for Disneyland, even those I wouldn’t expect to, so we figured it was worth checking out. Plus since it was a holiday, it wasn’t as crowded!
We got to the parking around 11am, and rode the monorail to the park entrance. Everything was decorated for Christmas, which was pretty great. Also, LA was having a huge heat wave that day, around 85 degrees, so it was heaven.
One pleasant surprise was that it’s super-easy to walk anywhere in Disneyland quickly (well, semi-quickly, depending on the crowds). That’s not really that easy at Disney World. This park is a lot more compact.
We walked down Main Street USA, and stopped to take pictures of the much smaller castle. Then we consulted the map to figure out our plan of attack for rides. I was a little nervous about them in general because I still didn’t feel great, and my vertigo was terrible. But dammit, we were at Disney, and I was at least going to go on Space Mountain.
We circled for a while to get our bearings, and then went to see what the deal was with Fastpass at Space Mountain. The last time I’d been to Disney many years ago, Fastpass was awesome and enabled us to get on Space Mountain multiple times in a row. That didn’t seem to be the case anymore; you had to go stamp it with a time you were allowed to come back and get in the fast line. Those times were multiple hours in the future, though. We stamped our passes anyway (for 4:30) and headed out again.
We needed lunch, and for some reason this was more challenging than expected. We didn’t really want a sit-down restaurant, especially since everything seemed to have a long line outside it. And while I know there’s plenty of vegetarian food there, none of it seemed apparent. We finally decided on a Mexican restaurant because they had vegetable enchiladas. They weren’t the greatest I’d ever had, but they were pretty good, and nowhere near as expensive as I’d expected.
Refreshed, we went to go get in the line for Pirates of the Caribbean. Having walked past most of the rides we wanted to go on, we’d already accepted that we were going to end up standing in line for most of the day. But it was nice out, so that made the half-hour-or-so wait worthwhile. The ride was entertaining, and I didn’t really remember much of it. There was also a guy sitting in our row who texted for the entire ride, so that was pretty funny.
From there, we decided to go on the Indiana Jones ride. It was about the same wait time, which wasn’t terrible. This one was advertised as being more jarring than the Pirates of the Caribbean, so I figured it was a good test of how I would feel in Space Mountain. We got into our Jeep, held on tight, and I screamed at every fast corner. (Screaming like an idiot is the best part of going on rides.) I was a little worse off from vertigo afterwards, but it was fine. Plus the ride was great.
Next we took it down a notch at the Enchanted Tiki Room. I’m sure I’ve probably been in there before (in Florida), but I didn’t really remember it. I definitely remembered the cheesiness of that animatronic era, though. The birds that descended from the ceiling looked a little bit ratty.
After that, it was time for some actual tiki. We walked over to the monorail, and rode over to Downtown Disney. They had a skating rink! Did I mention it was 85 degrees?
We found Trader Sam’s amongst the resort buildings. It was a glorious little tropical oasis.
We walked in, and the entire place was full. There was a bunch of patio seating available, but we’d been hoping to get a seat at the bar. Paul’s friends had told us that some of them were rigged to sink into the floor occasionally, and I really wanted to see that.
Regardless, the place was great. The bartenders were hilarious, and if you order a Shipwreck on the Rocks, they trigger this whole animated diorama of a ship on stormy seas that’s built into the wall. It would’ve been nice to stay there for a very long time, but we had places to be that holiday night.
After our drinks were finished, we rode the monorail back to the park. It was still a bit before our Fastpass time, so we grabbed a pretzel from a vendor and wandered around. People were sitting on the curbs on Main Street for the parade, even though it wasn’t happening for quite a while.
Finally, it was time for the one ride I’d come to Disneyland for: SPACE MOUNTAIN. The Fastpass line was pretty great, at least.
One thing it’s important to know about Matt is that he hates roller coasters with a passion. He doesn’t like heights, so he’s waited nervously by while I’ve done things like skydive and jump off the Stratosphere. But since it was just the two of us there, he’d agreed to go on Space Mountain with me. That’s true love right there.
We were both pretty nervous by the time we boarded. I was scared of our stuff flying out, so I had my purse wrapped around my legs as much as possible. Matt was carrying a tiki mug in a box and bag that he’d picked up as a souvenir, so he had to ride with it clamped between his feet. I was scared about my vertigo and the fact that I hadn’t even been near a roller coaster in probably 10 years. Then I looked over at Matt as the coaster started up, and he looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but there at that moment.
Space Mountain was FANTASTIC. It’s as good as I remember. Matt doesn’t agree, but he survived!! I was a little shaky getting it, but it didn’t seem to make my vertigo any worse.
Then it was time to start heading to the car. We hadn’t had very much time there, but it was good to see Disneyland. And we managed to get out before the parade insanity began.
We stopped into the gift shop to get postcards for my Disney-loving nieces, and was told they didn’t sell stamps there. Didn’t see stamps! At Disney, the place which can give you anything you want. That’s really strange, right?
We rode the parking train back to the car, and Matt pulled up directions to LA while I drove. We had dinner reservations at 7:30 in Venice, and then were heading to our AirBnb rental afterwards.
The drive was faster than expected (mostly because it’s safe to assume that generally traffic in LA will be the absolute worst), and we got to Venice with almost an hour to kill. I parked on a side street by the beach, and changed clothes in the car because I’m super classy (and was too underdressed for fancy Thanksgiving dinner). We then went to walk down the boardwalk to see what might be up in Venice on a Thanksgiving night.
The answer: nothing. There were a bunch people who lived on the beach hanging around, but all the businesses were closed. We saw one bar that was open, but the bartender told us they were just shutting down as we walked in. So went back to the car and decided to go try to find something on Abbot Kinney instead.
The one place besides our restaurant that was open was a bar that Matt had noticed more than once, and had wanted to visit. So we parked at The Brig and went in for a drink. The people at the bar were friendly (who isn’t when they’re drinking at a bar on a holiday most people are with family?) and they had sports on TV.
Then it was time for our reservation, so we drove down about half a mile (it was too cold to walk in sandals at that point!) and checked in at Joe’s Restaurant. I was a little worried we’d have to wait forever, because the bar area was packed, but they had our table waiting for us. They definitely weren’t wanting for business for Thanksgiving dinner, either – the entire restaurant was full, too.
They had a prix fixe menu that we’d approved beforehand, due to their good vegetarian options. We picked our three courses and a dessert, and Matt ordered from their awesome cocktail menu as well. My entree was half a butternut squash filled with vegetables, in case you were wondering if California is good at food.
Our dinner was going quite nicely when my phone rang in my purse. I looked at it, and it was the number for the guy who owned our rental house, so I answered right away. He started huffily exclaiming about how he’d been at the house since 7:00 waiting for us, and where were we? (It was close to 8:30 at that point.) I told him that no, like we’d discussed a couple times, we were at dinner and were supposed to meet him between 9 and 10pm. But he was having none of it; he just kept repeating over and over that he’d been waiting there forever, and that this was very rude, and what was he supposed to do? He even told me he had a recording of our phone call from that morning, where I’d told him we’d be there at 7:30. (If that was the case he probably should’ve listened to it, since I told him very clearly that we had dinner at 7:30 in Venice, and would meet him between 9-10.)
I told him we’d get there as soon as we could, and hung up the phone upset. We had to grab our server to get the tab quickly, run to the bathroom (it was still a long drive), and get our dessert to go. The restaurant was super-busy, though, so our dessert didn’t show up, and we ended up leaving. I texted the guy from my dying phone that we were on our way, and we jumped in the car and headed out of Venice and up the PCH.
We turned off the highway at Topanga Canyon, and began the 10-mile drive up into the mountains. I was glad I’d looked at Google Streetview earlier so I knew what to expect along the way. The road going up the hill wasn’t narrow, but it was really dark. We found the turnoff and headed up the wrong road initially, which ended up as a tiny narrow street that two cars couldn’t possibly pass on. After realizing that was wrong, we found the correct road up the hill to the house.
We found the driveway, which had a gate and closed garage door, with no path up to the house. My phone was dead, which didn’t much matter because Matt couldn’t get a signal up in the mountains anyway. The lights at the gate were on and there was a security camera pointed at us, so we figured he’d probably see us there. There was no bell we could find, so we waited around there for ten minutes or so, unsure what to do.
Finally, we gave up. I wasn’t thrilled at staying there knowing the guy was really flaky, accusatory and generally bizarre, and he obviously wasn’t in that much of a hurry to let us in. I wanted to just leave without telling him, but Matt convinced me that calling was the right thing to do. We plugged in my phone, drove back down the mountain, and I called him to tell him we were going to get a hotel instead. He was argumentative at first, but calmed down really quickly once I told him why I didn’t think it was a good idea to stay there (i.e. that I didn’t trust him at all, since he was being totally unreliable).
By the time we got back down to the PCH headed back toward Santa Monica, it was after 10pm. I was upset from the ordeal, and we had to find a hotel. Matt pulled up hotels.com on my phone and started searching for places, and I told him to look near LAX, since hotels were always cheap there. We decided on the Sheraton Four Points, and he used my phone to book the room while we drove there. Hooray, technology!
We got to LAX, found the hotel, and pulled into the driveway to find a ‘lot full’ sign in the parking lot. A guy who worked there was standing outside, so I pulled up and asked him about it. He told us that we should pull a ticket and go into the lot anyway, because a bunch of the staff was leaving right then, and there would be spots opening up.
Well…. no. We drove around and around in the lot, which was packed full. People had invented their own spots in driveways, so I’d go down an aisle and have to back all the way out to leave it. There were other cars circling, but nobody seemed to be finding anything. We discovered an underground parking area that was somewhat hidden, and ended up getting stuck in there and having to turn around, too.
We probably circled around there for half an hour, finding nothing. Finally, I drove back to the gate and pressed the call button and explained our problem. The lady told us to go park over at the Radisson, and they’d reimburse our parking.
We drove down a very long block, pulled another parking ticket at the Radisson, and found a parking spot. By that point it was 11pm, and I was on the verge on a panic attack. (I don’t deal with unplanned changes well at all.) We unloaded our suitcases and rolled them through the parking lot, across the street, and finally into the Sheraton to check in. When the very friendly lady at the front desk told us she couldn’t find our reservation, I wanted to cry.
It turns out that because I’d most recently been looking at hotels in Quebec in May, Matt had ended up booking a room for Thanksgiving 2015. Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be a problem for the front desk – she just updated the dates, and we were fine. We even got the same rate.
(Fun fact: while hotels.com will acknowledge that you did indeed stay for a reservation booked on the incorrect dates, they won’t credit your Welcome Rewards until the original dates actually occur. So I still technically have a room booked at the Sheraton Four Points LAX over Thanksgiving 2015.)
FINALLY, we were in our room and settled for our longest stay in one place… three entire nights!
We got up the next morning, rescued our car from the Radisson lot, and headed into downtown LA. It was still experiencing an unseasonable heat wave (though it was a little cold in the shade), and it was gorgeous outside.
Our destination was Grand Central Market, a giant building full of vendors and restaurants. I absolutely love places like that.
Our first stop, though, was the bathroom. I still wasn’t feeling 100%. (Shockingly, the bathrooms in the basement were very clean. Also, there’s a weird dollar store down there.)
There are a ton of produce shops there, and the prices actually made me angry. One dollar for a huge bag of avocados, or citrus, or tomatoes??? That’s unheard of. California is spoiled.
We wandered through the entire building to see what was there, and decided our first stop should be for some super-fancy coffee at G&B coffee. (They were delicious.) Also, the market was decorated for Christmas, complete with festive yarn-bombings. The knitter in me was proud.
From the back of the building, we could see the Angel’s Flight. It’s unfortunately not currently in operation, but I have faith that it will be back.
The BBQ place out back didn’t have anything vegetarian, sadly. We decided on sandwiches from DTLA Cheese instead. Mine was a mushroom grilled cheese, and it was possibly the most decadent grilled cheese I’ve ever had. We took them out front and found spots at a table with an umbrella, right next to a guy who was chatting up two girls he’d just met. We learned from their conversation that they were definitely employed in the entertainment business (models, photographers, and such), so I assume they also worked as servers.
After we were done, we crossed the street to see the Bradbury building. It’s famous for being in a bunch of films (such as D.O.A. and Blade Runner) because it’s so distinctive. We were excited to find the door unlocked, so we went in to take a look.
There was an architectural tour group in the lobby, so I assume that’s why it was open. They didn’t seem to mind us being there.
Bally made a friend in the lobby, too.
Our next stop was a museum over in Chinatown, and rather than drive the mile over there, we decided to flaunt all Los Angeles traditions once again and walk. It was really nice out!
City Hall was decorated for Christmas. I like the pink tree.
On the freeway overpass, we found this:
On the way there, we made note of the pueblo, which is right next to Chinatown. I’d been there once before to take photos, but there hadn’t been much going on. Today it appeared to be bustling, so we decided to stop and see it afterwards.
Our destination was the Velveteria, a museum dedicated to the art of velvet painting. It’s located in an easy-to-miss storefront on New High Street.
We went in and were greeted by one of the owners. She didn’t seem to mind that we were all sweaty from the walk in the unseasonable heat. When we entered I was a little dismayed at the $10 entrance fee to look around one small room of paintings (all of which I could see from where I was standing). I hadn’t realized that the curtain over the doorway led into the rest of the museum, which was substantial.
The owner was fantastic, and full of stories. She clearly knew everything there was to know about the history of velvet painting, and told us about how they collected them. For instance, I had no idea people were still working in the medium, so they’re still adding to the collection.
The museum has a no-photography policy, but she said she was fine with us taking a few. They’re struggling to pay the rent, and needed help spreading the word. We were only happy to do so, because the place was fantastic.
It’s divided up thematically into areas and by artist. There’s a big collection of tiki-era work, and the obligatory crying Elvises. They have tons of celebrity paintings, a black-light room, and a room full of nudes. She told us to check out the bathroom, which has paintings of people on the toilet, including Anthony Bourdain. Hilarious.
We loved the place, and loved the stories she told even more. So if you’re in LA, please don’t miss this place. It’s amazing.
Then we were off to the pueblo, a couple blocks away in the direction of downtown. We checked out the mission church first.
(For a nonreligious person, I have a weird obsession with Spanish missions. I’ve been to many of them.)
Then we crossed the street to the plaza where there was a dance group performing, and a ton of carts selling arts and crafts. You know what I’m also obsessed with? Mexican crafts. Especially anything having to do with Dia de los Muertos. I was in heaven.
The oldest house in Los Angeles is there, and you can walk through it to see how they lived. I have to say that it’s actually quite spacious.
We walked through a bunch of shops, with me trying to restrain myself from buying everything. I did manage to find a purse shop with gorgeous hand-tooled leather purses from Mexico, so I decided I needed one even though it was $350. (It was a good decision – I love it.)
Matt found a t-shirt at a really awesome art shop, and we picked up a few other souvenirs. He also noted that a menu posted outside one of the many restaurants had an entire vegetarian/fake-meat section, so he suggested we go there for lunch.
Our meter was going to expire over in downtown, so we decided to go get the car, and drive back to the restaurant. The walk back was quite warm, and we drank a bunch of water along the way (provided by the nice lady at the Velveteria). When we got back to Grand Central Market, we decided to stop at the Press Brothers juice bar. I got one called Rx Tonic that had celery, turmeric, garlic, ginger, lemon, and yam. All I know is that shortly after consuming it, I felt way better than I had for the last few days.
We drove over, parked by the Pueblo, and walked to Las Anitas. The staff was super-friendly, and the food was great. I had a hard time choosing what to order, because they had so many vegetarian options. (That never happens.) I ended up getting a combination plate with a fake-meat taco that was amazing. Matt had carne asada fries and a Tecate, so you know he was having a good day
After our late lunch, Matt wanted to drive up into the Hollywood hills to find the Double Indemnity house. We’d recently watched a documentary about films made in LA, and the narrator mentioned the location. We looked it up on Google maps and headed that direction.
There were pretty great views of the sign on the way there, and most of the traffic on the street was people pulling over to take pictures of it.
I drove while Matt navigated. The further into the hills we got, the narrower the streets became, all blind corners and people parked haphazardly wherever their (very expensive) cars would fit. The houses were incredible, but it was seriously nervewracking driving up there.
But we found it!
Achievement unlocked: visiting Barbara Stanwyck's house from Double Indemnity. pic.twitter.com/FXLxgAwo4B
— Matt Konrad (@mattjkonrad) November 29, 2014
Then we decided to head up to Griffith Observatory, because Matt had never been up there (this continually shocked me, since it’s one of my favorite places in LA). The traffic near the park entrances had at that point become terrible, so we sat at stoplights a lot. Then we turned into the park, and headed up toward the Greek Theater. Suddenly we were sitting in completely stopped traffic, occasionally crawling up the hill. As we got closer to the theater, it became clear that the road to the observatory was closed at the bottom of the (insanely steep) hill, and they were directing people to park there and walk. There was no way we were doing that, especially since I was wearing a dress and had vertigo.
We made a u-turn with the rest of the traffic and exited the park. There’s another main entrance, so we decided to try that route instead. That one seemed to be open, so we headed up the mountain. It was nearing sunset, so the road was really backed up near the top as expected, but it wasn’t too terrible. We finally made it up to the overflow parking and found a spot just as the sun was setting.
I haven’t been up there in the evening before. It’s great.
The air was actually fairly clear, and you could see most of DTLA:
We went into the observatory (which was completely packed) and looked around. I discovered that there was an entire lower level with an exhibit about all the planets that I’d never even seen before. Bally made another pal there, too.
Up in one of the exhibits, Matt saw a sign about how anyone could visit the telescopes. We wanted to see it, so we looked around to try to figure out how to get there. We finally discovered that you have to go out the front of the building and climb the narrow steps up to the top of the building. There was a great view there, too:
I like that you can see all the way to the Pacific. There’s the airport and Santa Monica in the distance:
Once it’s fully dark, you get better insight into just how massive LA is, and why you spend so much damn time driving everywhere.
We walked back to the car and drove down the mountain, this time with no traffic. Since we had dinner reservations back in downtown, we headed that direction.
Since we had some time to kill, we decided to go to The Varnish. We’d attempted to go there on our previous visit, but it was closed because it was Easter. (We ended up at the place next door instead.) It’s in a back room at Cole’s, the famous restaurant that claims to have invented the French Dip sandwich.
We got there a few minutes before the opening, so we hung out in the lobby. Somehow, even though we were sitting there waiting, a couple people managed to get to the door ahead of us. It’s a very small room, and was full within 20 minutes. I’m glad we were there right away!
They had a super-nice, small cocktail menu, and I was glad that they were able to make fancy non-alcoholic drinks, too. We sat there for a couple rounds, and then got our check because it was time to head to dinner.
We drove over to a weird abandoned-looking area of downtown and parked around the corner from Alma. It didn’t look like there could possibly be what’s considered one of the best restaurants in the country in that spot, but it was indeed there. It’s just easy to miss.
We had 8:30 reservations, and were promptly seated. The place was small, modern, and very spare. They offer one ten-course tasting menu every night (with a vegetarian option, of course), and a wine-pairing option. Matt decided to try the wine pairing, even though he’s not normally a wine drinker.
It’s hard to describe how great our meal was. Here’s some of what we had, based on the notes Matt was surreptitiously keeping as we ate:
So when you’re in LA, this is a place you need to go. They don’t even mind if you take blurry pictures of the food.
Then it was late, so we headed back to the hotel and called it a night.
In the morning, we got up and drove up the PCH to Malibu. I remember really liking the beach there, and wanted to see it again.
I couldn’t remember where my sister and I had visited in the past, so we drove up into town, made our usual vacation-obligatory stop at Walgreens to get about 10 things, and then decided to stop in and see what Malibu Lagoon was about. We figured maybe we could walk to the beach from there.
Parking there was expensive, though, so we just pulled in and went to take a look at the lagoon. There were lots of birds hanging out, and a view of the ocean in the distance.
Rather than go to the beach there, we decided to drive back down to one of the many more accessible beaches we’d passed along the way. (The drive up and down the PCH in that area is really incredibly entertaining, seeing all the expensive beach houses hanging on the very edge of California, and all the surfing paraphernalia.)
We decided on Topanga State Beach, because it had cheaper parking, and looked, well, like this:
It was too cold to swim, but it was plenty warm to hang out in the sand, eat some Takis from Walgreens, and watch the surfers and shorebirds.
The waves were pretty small, but it was fun watching the system the surfers used to line up and decide who got what wave. There was a stand-up paddleboarder surfing, too, which I’ve never seen before. Usually they’re just on flat water.
After sitting and staring at the ocean for a good long time (possibly one of the most restorative activities possible), we went and tested the water temperature. It was freezing. (I’m not sure I could handle California water temps even in the summer, though. I turn into an icicle very easily.)
After watching our feet off and putting our shoes back on, we got back on the road and headed back into LA. Our lunch destination was Golden Road Brewing.
We found it between the Los Angeles River and some train tracks just off the Ventura Freeway, and had to park a ways down the street. Despite the place being gigantic – a huge hangarlike taproom, a covered and uncovered patio, and a fenced-in side yard, the place was absolutely packed. That seemed to have a lot to do with the USC-Notre Dame game on TV, and the fact that it was lunchtime.
Matt got a beer at the bar, and we stood around watching for someone to leave so we could sit down. After half an hour or so, we found a couple leaving from the end of a long table shared with a very exuberant group of college friends who had clearly been there for a while.
Even though they were packed, the service was quite fast. I was really excited about the menu, because they had multiple vegan options, including a really delicious tofu banh mi.
After lunch, we headed back in the direction of downtown. But first we pulled off near Griffith Park again, and went into Hollywood to find the nearest natural foods store. As with every visit to LA, I had to stop and pick up a bunch of Sun Cakes. They’re the best!!
From there, we headed into downtown. The 101 was backed up even more than usual, due to Ferguson-related protests. We finally made our way towards LA Live and found a parking ramp very nearby that wasn’t charging a ton of money for parking. There were a ton of people wandering around there already, even though it was a few hours before gametime.
We’d never been to LA Live before (it’s the entertainment complex surrounding Staples Center), and it was much bigger than expected. Also, there was an ice rink set up in the middle with Christmas music playing and people skating. Awesome.
We’d planned on going to Trader Vic’s, because even though we knew it’d be chain-y and far from the original, we still wanted to see it. We didn’t see its name on any of the signs, though, so we went to find a map. Where it should’ve been listed alphabetically with the restaurants, there was a blank spot. Apparently it had closed sometime recently.
We walked around a bit and looked into a couple of places that looked promising, but they had a wait for tables. There was an awesome-looking bar in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlson, but it wasn’t open yet. We decided to try Lucky Strike, the bowling alley, because it advertised that it had a big bar. Thankfully, that was one of the places that wasn’t packed yet at 5pm, and we were able to get a couch in the bar.
We hung out there for a long time, watching sports and the place fill up. I couldn’t believe how packed everything was, because LA Live seems to consist of only giant chains, not local bars or restaurants.
Then it was time to head to hockey! The LA Kings were hosting the Chicago Blackhawks, and we were really excited to see it.
There was a big line-up outside the arena, and the metal detector checks were running painfully slowly. It made me grateful for Xcel Center‘s efficiency. Finally, we got in and found our way to the third level. We were at one of the ends in the fourth row of the upper level, which were surprisingly good seats.
The pregame show had LASERS. Get on that, every other hockey arena.
The people in the seats next to us arrived, and we learned that they were a father and daughter from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. We ended up talking to them for nearly the entire game, because they were even nerdier about hockey than we are. We also discussed various cities in Canada (he refused to accept that we actually wanted to visit Montreal), travel, the awesome hotel they were staying at nearby (the Figueroa – we’d noted the awesome Moroccan-style lobby when we passed it earlier), and the fact that he knew half the staff of the Kings due to previous hockey-related jobs. They were really entertaining.
I’d never seen the Blackhawks play live, despite the fact that the Minnesota Wild is in the same conference with them, and we visit Chicago a lot. (I’m more of a college hockey loyalist with my Gophers, anyway.) The Kings are a really good team, too, but the Blackhawks completely destroyed them. It was amazing to see that in person!
The Kings were losing solidly with a few minutes left in the third, so we decided to head out a couple minutes early. (With most of the crowd, it turned out.) On the way to the car, Matt was regretting not stopping to use the bathroom, so we decided to go in and see if we could use the one at the Figueroa. While we were waiting there, our Canadian friends walked in. We said bye to them again, and headed to the car.
Our next stop was for a late dinner at Chego. We’d really wanted to visit one of Roy Choi’s restaurants in LA (since his Korean taco truck was so awesome), and when we mentioned that to the lady at the Velveteria, she told us he had an awesome place really nearby in Chinatown. We found it in the back of a strip mall, the only place open that time of night.
Here’s Matt’s dinner. My tofu bowl was incredible, too. Plus it was way too much for one meal, so we ate half of it and then wrapped it all up to take back to the hotel with us.
We were going to visit Cana once again after dinner, but at that point it was after 11, parking downtown was a mess, and I was tired. So we headed back to the hotel instead.
In the morning, we got up, finished packing, and checked out of the hotel. Three nights was our longest stay in one place! It didn’t really feel that long at all.
We stocked up on coffee in the lobby and got on the road to San Juan Capistrano, where we had a date with the Amtrak station. One thing we’d learned and yet refused to accept is the Google Maps (or Google navigation) just isn’t that good in California. We got lost a lot, and Capistrano was no exception. We ended up driving all over the damn place, which was really stressful since we had a train to catch.
We finally found our way there, and parked in the ramp. They had long-term spots there that weren’t too expensive, so we were happy about that. We grabbed our carry-on bags, which just had a change of clothes and other necessities, and locked the rest of our luggage in the trunk.
I had never ridden the Amtrak before, at least not since I was a kid in Chicago going to visit my grandma in Milwaukee. Matt had taken the City of New Orleans years ago, but neither of us was entirely sure how it worked. We found a conductor on the platform, and he told us where to wait to board. We had standard tickets, not first class. You know, we’re not fancy.
When we heard the train coming around the bend, I was almost jumping up and down with excitement. I’ve wanted to ride the Pacific Surfliner since the moment I learned about it.
We boarded the train and found an open seat. The windows were configured in such a way that the view wasn’t perfect, but it was still pretty amazing. We headed off, and the conductor came through and punched our tickets. After a while, we decided to go check out the cafe car.
The view there was much better, so we stayed there until the end of the line. The staff working there was hilarious, too… they were mostly interested in smack-talking each other about their fantasy football teams.
We’d decided to take the train from San Juan Capistrano rather than Union Station in LA because north of Capistrano, it pretty much just follows the interstate, which is well inland. Starting where we did, we got just the section where you’re riding along the coast. I’d heard the views were spectacular, and that was absolutely true. We didn’t leave the ocean side until about La Jolla, heading into Old Town San Diego.
We headed back to our seats shortly before arriving at the end of the line, Santa Fe Depot in San Diego. Even pulling into that historic building was fantastic. We walked around to the other side, and found our friend April waiting there to pick us up. She had big plans for us!
April’s friend Dave had come along, because they’d been talking for a while about how he wanted to rent a boat and go sailing again, because it had been a while. April knew that Matt and I would never turn down a chance to go on a boat, so we were thrilled with that arrangement.
We drove out to a boat rental shop on Mission Bay and they made arrangements. It was a little chillier than I’d expected, so I bought a cute blanket they were selling in the shop. (I probably would’ve bought it anyway. Who’s a sucker for nautical stuff? ME.) Then we headed out to the dock, where we saw this amazing thing waiting nearby. I want to own it. (That’s a grill in the center, in case it wasn’t obvious. It has a gigantic sunshade that goes over the top, too.
While it had been overcast when we left LA, because bad weather was approaching, there was nothing but blue sky in San Diego. It was gorgeous.
There was a bit of difficulty sailing out of the harbor, but Dave got back into captainship quickly. Our instructions were to sail under the bridge into Mission Bay, since the opposite direction would take us right out into the ocean. Nobody needs that in a 20′ sailboat.
The center span of the Mission Bay bridge is just barely tall enough for the sails to pass under. It was nervewracking.
Then there was just sailing, and it was perfect. They’d brought banh mi sandwiches for everyone, so we had lunch on the boat. April is the best.
Bally had a good time, too, I think.
We couldn’t stay out long because the place closed before sunset, but it was really nice to get out on a boat again. Also, these dudes were hanging out in the harbor when we got back.
Also, there’s this seagull riding a jetski. I laughed about this forever.
After our sail, we decided to go get drinks before dinner. They took us to an awesome little dive bar called the Aero Club, which, to Matt’s great delight, had an absolutely massive whiskey selection. Like the shelves went all the way to the ceiling, and we spent a ton of time speculating as to how they’d get up there if you were to order from a bottle on top. (Later we found out the answer: they have a stepladder.)
We hung out there talking for a while, and another of April’s friends joined us. Then we decided it was dinnertime, so we walked down the block to Starlite. (You’ll just have to go look at the photos on the website to see how amazing it is.) We had an excellent meal there, and since we spent so much time discussing beer, decided to organize a beer exchange program with them. San Diego is pretty spoiled when it comes to great breweries.
Then it was time to go check into the hotel, so April and Dave dropped us off at the Urban Boutique Hotel in Little Italy. We said goodbye, and went inside. The place was super-cute and in a great location for walking anywhere downtown. Unfortunately, the room had some issues. Like no toilet paper, and the cable was wired wrong so the TV didn’t work. I didn’t discover til the next morning that the shower didn’t work, either. NOT OK.
We dropped our stuff off and headed back out to get a post-dinner drink before bed. It was still really nice outside, and walking through Little Italy was great. (I hadn’t seen much of that part of town before.) We walked down to Richard Blais’ restaurant, Juniper and Ivy, and got seats at the bar.
The place was really nice, and even though it was late, the restaurant was still full. (That’s one of the things I love about the coasts… it’s not weird to go get dinner at 10pm.) We hung out there for a bit, and then decided to walk down and see the Embarcadero before heading back to the hotel.
That end of downtown is immediately under the flight path for planes landing at the airport, so it was pretty awesome to see jets coming in that low over us. We walked down the hill and saw a couple huge yachts with parties in progress, and a very eager pedicab driver waiting to give drunk people rides home. We looked at the museum ships along the waterfront, and then walked back to the hotel and called it a night.
Being unable to take a shower in the morning was kind of distressing, but since it was our last day I didn’t care that much. We washed up in the sink as much as possible, and went to have breakfast. We’d seen a really cute place a few blocks away while walking around the previous night, so we headed that direction.
The sun was out during breakfast, but it quickly became overcast, just like it had in LA. There was a storm moving in that evening, so we knew our timing was pretty excellent. (It was the storm that would result in a week of flooding over a lot of the coast.)
We walked through Little Italy again, heading toward a shop we’d also scoped out the night before. We wanted to pick up sandwiches and snacks for the flight.
Did I mention that Little Italy is great? We walked past a group gathered around a podium of speakers, which was apparently a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new pedestrian-only street in the neighborhood. We approved, because it’s a really cute little area with lots of great shops, restaurants, and housing.
(Plus this sign.)
Seeing Christmas decorations in warm-weather places is always confusing to us. We’re going to have to get used to that if we’re moving to the Caribbean, though.
We went into the excellent Mona Lisa Italian Foods to stock up. It was a very Italian store, and I wanted to take everything home with me. (Broders in Minneapolis is pretty good, but not that good.) We bought sandwiches and a couple more bottles of beer to take home with us, and Matt got the duty of carrying the really heavy bag back to the hotel and up to our room. We distributed the items between our carry-ons, at which point I wished I had brought a backpack like Matt, instead of the shoulder bag containing bombers, food, bottles of water and espress, my toiletries, dirty clothes, and the blanket I’d bought the day before.
We checked out of the hotel and headed in the direction of the Santa Fe Depot.
I love this building a lot.
Since we were early for the train, we decided to walk back down to the harbor to have a look in the daytime. Stormy weather was definitely rolling in.
We walked all the way down to the end of the cruise ship pier. It’s always interesting to see buildings like that empty. (There had been a ship there the previous evening, but it had sailed off already.)
I was happy to put my way-too-heavy bag down for a bit. Matt and Bally chilled on the pier while I took pictures.
Then it was time to go back to get our train. When we got back to the depot, our train was sitting there waiting. And it was a double-decker one this time!! I was so excited. We crossed the tracks and headed for it, but were stopped by a crabby conductor who pointed at the line of people standing over by the depot. Apparently that was the boarding process in San Diego. (There were maybe 6 people waiting at San Juan Capistrano, so we didn’t know.) We went to stand in line, and they announced boarding about 5 minutes later.
As we all rushed to the train, Matt pointed out the cafe car also had seating on the upper level. We boarded that one, and found the upstairs nearly empty.
This train was way newer than the one we’d ridden south on. We found seats with the best possible window configuration for a good ocean view, and we were off shortly thereafter. During the boring part of the ride, we went down to the cafe car and got a glass of beer, so that I could enjoy as many beverages as possible.
Though we had a much better view, the weather was nowhere near as nice. We did notice a ton of campsites along the way, and I made a note to do some research on that. (As much as we love San Francisco and LA, I think our next visit should just be to San Diego and environs. It’s such a great walking city, and the beach options are excellent.)
We arrived back in San Juan Capistrano about 1:30, and took our bags up to the car. We still had some time before we needed to head back to LA, so we went over to the mission. It’s one of my favorite places in California, and I was dying for Matt to see it.
This is the view from the parking ramp roof. I love that cute little town.
The sky could’ve done a better job of cooperating, but at least it wasn’t raining.
I probably have 20 different versions of this photo I’ve taken at various times. I’ll keep taking it, too:
Unfortunately we had to rush, but at least Matt got to see it. I resisted shopping at the newly renovated gift shop, and we went back to the car. We hopped back on the interstate and headed north to Costa Mesa, where we had two important stops to make before our flight. The first was Hi-Time Wine, where Matt had his eye on some rum we couldn’t get at home. We bought that and a couple more of those bubble-wrap bottle protectors, since we’d already used the ones I’d brought with me (for beer).
So now we had carry-on bags and a couple more bottles to add to our already-stuffed suitcases. Because we’re super-classy, we dragged our bags out into the parking lot at Hi Time and started re-packing. Conveniently, I had my blanket from San Diego to wrap things in. When both bags weighed in over 50 pounds, we had to resort things again. After some rearranging, we had exactly 100 pounds of luggage in two 50-pound bags (mine was something like 50.9, but I dared Delta to challenge me), and a couple of packed-full carry-on bags. Mine had tiki mugs in it, because we figured they were safer that way.
Our second Costa Mesa stop was a return visit to Taco Asylum, because I had regular fantasies about their paneer tacos. We had a quick lunch there, then got back on the road to head to LAX.
One of the fun parts of planning any return trip to LAX is that there could be no traffic (unlikely) or there could be the worst LA traffic in the world, with cars sitting 14-lanes wide at a dead stop. That option always seems more likely, but we got lucky this time. We made it to the car rental place with no hassle, and hopped on the shuttle bus to the terminal. We were extremely pleased with Delta’s recent upgrades to their formerly-crappy terminal (it looks a lot more like MSP now), though we’ll miss Malibu Al’s fake beach bar, where we’ve spend several hours of delays in the past.
We arrived back in MSP around midnight to brutally cold temperatures, and decided to take a taxi to Matt’s car rather than having to walk the two blocks in the cold. It was an excellent decision.