California Day 8/9 – San Jose to Leicester

It was a restless night – with so much noise around the hotel it meant it was difficult to sleep. At around 04:30 there were loud banging noises that sounded like large metal containers being moved. Eventually though it was time to get up and head to the airport, having had only 3 to 4 hours of sleep at best.

Due to how early we were leaving it meant having breakfast at the airport – fortunately unlike some airports I’ve been to there was a reasonable selection to choose from. I decided to have a “Pain au Chocolat”, or as the locals call them “Chocolate Croissant”. I also took this opportunity to buy some lunch to put in my backpack for later as with the tight connections I’d have it would mean I wouldn’t get chance to buy anything in Denver or Newark – if all went according to plan.

They began boarding the plane at 07:15, and was up in the air by 08:15. For this flight I sat and watched episodes of TV shows to pass the time. Though it was only a short flight so had to pause the second episode part way through.

When I got into Denver I said goodbye to my friend who would be going on to Chicago and then Toronto. I still had plenty of time for boarding the next flight as it turned out that the flight had been delayed 24 minutes. This meant my flight out of Newark was going to be very tight and I’d be lucky to make it. They did say though that they’d make up around 15 minutes in the air so we’d only be 10 minutes late arriving, however we still landed 25 minutes late. During the flight from Denver to Newark I finished off the episode I was watching and ate the turkey sandwich I’d bought from San Jose. Throughout the flight though I kept nervously looking at my watch – wondering if I was going to make it in time.

Upon touchdown the gate for my final flight had been open for sometime. It was slow progress getting off the plane as although the attendants asked that they let those with tight connections leave first, there wasn’t anyone allowing this to happen. As soon as I could I ran through the terminal. Luckily I had seen the gate on the way in so I knew where to go to get to it. I arrived just 5 minutes before they closed the cabin door – but that was all I needed. I’d made it to my flight home just in time.

During the flight they served drinks with cheese and crackers, and then later on they served dinner. Just like the flight out to the US, the options were chicken or pasta – I went with the chicken again and this time it was not curry, but some strips of chicken with red peppers. For the rest of the flight I put my feet up across the row of three chairs and tried to relax. I wasn’t able to sleep, but at least I was comfortable. For a while I watched more TV until eventually they served breakfast – a cold croissant with jam.

An hour later and the plane was finally preparing to land in Birmingham. My trip had come to an end and home was almost in sight. It seemed like the week in California has passed by incredibly quickly yet at the same time even events such as being in Los Angeles felt like weeks ago. It felt like it had been a good week for my first US road trip.

California Day 7 – Palm Springs to San Jose

I had originally planned to go for the run I’d missed the day before, however my foot was still a little sore so reluctantly decided to not go out. Instead, I got up at 07:00 and headed over the road to Rick’s Desert Grill (same name as the place I had an evening meal at, but not the same place) for breakfast. As part of the motel booking we’d got a voucher to get egg with hash browns, toast, and a small drink. During breakfast we could see the occasional hummingbird flit onto and passed the flowers outside the window.

Once breakfast was done we got the car loaded back up and was on the road by 08:20 for the start of what would be a very long drive. We had however decided that we’d take a short detour to Coachella Valley Preserve. The reason for this is that this park sits on the San Andreas faultline and has an example of hot springs that have formed due to the fault.

As we were short on time we went along the McCallum Trail – one which was supposed to be about 2.4 miles. This started amongst the palm trees but soon left the boardwalk and onto a dusty trail of sand. Eventually the almost barren landscape surrendered to a small oasis known as McCallum Pond where some volunteers were working on removing the invasive crayfish species from the pond so that one day they can reintroduce native species of fish.

One of these volunteers then led us around the path to another pond which was much clearer and told us that when the light is right you can see bubbles seep through the water from the porous ground beneath. This is a side effect of the sort of terrain that the San Andreas fault has produced.

The route back from this included a deliberate diversion up a sand dune to get a better view of the area, but also included an unintended diversion to where some private residences were located. I’d been trailing behind due to stopping for photographs, and I thought we were heading in the wrong direction, but wasn’t heard when I commented on this. By the time we got to a dead end it was evident that we should indeed have taken the other path but I chose not to comment.

By the time we left the car park it was 09:50 and from then on we were continuously getting closer to San Jose. As the miles ticked by the landscape changed many times from desert palms, to barren landscapes, and then back to a cityscape as we skimmed the outskirts of Los Angeles towards the Pasadena area. Eventually at 13:40 we made a stop near Bakersfield to stretch our legs and get some food. The only place other than Subway was “Jack in the Box” so we tried that.

I went for a turkey, cheese and bacon grilled sandwich which was incredibly greasy, but didn’t taste too bad. Once we’d eaten I then took over the driving for the rest of the day until we reached the hotel at 18:00. This drive was long and monotonous with me driving in a straight line at constant speed, except for during traffic and roadworks, for way over 100 miles. As the sun set the last hour of the drive became more difficult as it was a constant battle to avoid the sun glaring straight in my eyes and obscuring the now winding road in front.

Once we’d checked into the hotel we got the car unloaded and then headed out to get it dropped off. As the pick-up location was now closed we’d opted to have the drop-off point at the airport. Personally I wanted us to look for a fuel station before heading there but instead we drove to the airport only to find there wasn’t one there (as I’d suspected).

This meant to get through we had to pay $2 for the carpark, and then made another attempt at looking for fuel there before leaving the airport and finding one around the corner. Unlike other stations where they hold your card, they instead pre-charged my card for $75 and would refund anything I didn’t use. This meant the car was now ready and so we headed back to the airport.

The Avis drop-off point didn’t really make much sense. When we got there there were no signs indicating where we were supposed to drop off the car so we parked it in a bay. When we spoke to the assistant she then behaved like we were stupid and that it should be obvious where it needs dropping off. It wasn’t though – we had to park it on row G as opposed to row D.

The taxi back to the Arena hotel wasn’t too bad at only 20 USD (slightly less than at the start of the trip), and from there we wandered out into the night looking for somewhere to eat. At first it seemed like we weren’t going to find anywhere, but eventually we came across an Italian place called Pasta Pomodoro. I went for the lasagna which was actually very good, and even decided to try their New York Style Cheesecake for dessert.

By the time we were back at the hotel it was 21:00 and didn’t really have time to run – I finished packing for the flight the next day and after an hour tried to get some sleep.

California Day 6 – Endeavour

My original intention was to run this day, but with a sore foot (not sure why) and needing to be out by 07:30 it wasn’t really an option. Instead, I got up at 06:30 and was on the road an hour later driving north to Mann’s Chinese Theatre – the famous theatre where a number of premieres have taken place – including Star Wars in 1977.

Just around the corner from the theatre is some parking, but they charge $2.50 for every 12 minutes. Unfortunately we ran over into the second 12 minutes by just 4 minutes, but it wasn’t a bad stop. We got to see the impressive exterior of the building and also the stars and handprints for some well known people along the walk of fame.

One thing to note about the stars on the Hollywood walk of fame is how underneath each name is a glyph that represents what they are best known for, or rather why they got the star. So in the case of “Slash” he got his for his music, whereas the great comedic actor Robin Williams was obviously for acting. There are also images to represent the other types of career that make up Hollywood.

Back in the car we then carried on driving up onto the hill nearby to Canyon Lake Drive as I’d found this would be a good position to see the Hollywood sign relatively close-up. This did however then pose some problems trying to get a clear photograph of it due to the number of trees blocking the view – possibly intentional due to it being a residential area.

An hour later we then got to the California Science Center, arriving just before 10:00. The parking here cost $10, but the entrance to the museum itself is free. To start with we had to ask for directions for it from the Natural History Museum, but it turned out there are a couple of museums in this area.

Inside the museum we soon found that we needed to buy a $2 ticket each in order to gain access to the space shuttle Endeavour. This didn’t take long so we got back inside and tried to get to the space shuttle ahead of a school class that had arrived. Unfortunately when we got to the entrance we then found that we needed to exchange the tickets we just bought at a desk elsewhere on the floor to get a yellow admission ticket. A crazy system and one that was far from obvious.

Now having a second ticket we went back to the entrance and had a quick look at the information about the Endeavour before sitting down to watch a very short video about it’s arrival in LA and it’s transportation to the Science Center. Once this was over we finally got to head down to the hanger where it is located.

The first thing I noticed about the Endeavour is how you can see the wear and the discolouring from 19 years of service and the 25 missions it completed. This is a contrast to the Enterprise – that one was clean due to it not having any service history in space. Surrounding the space shuttle OV-105 are cards detailing each of it’s missions and a couple of videos about it’s history. The Endeavour was constructed after the destruction of the Challenger in 1986 – a disaster that resulted in a 36 month hiatus of the space shuttle program.

Leaving the hangar behind us, we then had a quick look around the air and space section, but it wasn’t that impressive. Instead of looking around any more we headed out to the car park where the map indicated a Blackbird was parked. Once we’d seen it we headed back to the science center for lunch. I went for crispy chicken and fries – and hoped for an evening meal I’d be able to avoid fries.

Our next stop of the day was the Bradbury Building, a registered historical and cultural landmark in downtown LA. Today it houses the LAPD Internal Affairs division, but it’s interest comes from both the design of the interior and it’s use in many film and TV productions including Blade Runner. The closest parking we could find for this cost $5 as a day rate near the LA Times building, but we only needed 20 minutes as once inside you can’t go above the ground floor.

What followed was then a long drive out of Los Angeles into the Mojave desert. This desert landscape takes up a good portion of this part of California but also stretches out into the states of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Driving along this part of route 62 we soon realised that we might not have enough fuel to get all the way to Palm Springs after this detour to Joshua Tree National Park, though fortunately we found a fuel stop in Yukka Valley.

At the entrance to the National Park it turned out that as it was Veterans Day we wouldn’t need to pay an entry fee – we could just continue driving. This park is so large that it’s not really an option to hike all of it unless you’ve got a lot of time there – instead you drive to what you want to see and then take the trails from there. As we’d only got a couple of hours until sunset we drove from place to place taking photographs as we went.

At each stop we spent no more than 10-15 minutes, but we got to see rock formations such as the one known as “Old Woman” which we could see climbers on. There was also an abundance of Yucca brevifolia, the Joshua Tree, for which the Park and town are named. On one of the trails I decided to climb some rocks but found their surface to be incredibly abrasive and cut my hand open when trying to climb.

The trail which led to Barker Dam was the only proper trail we took, though we found that the body of water it should be holding back had dried up to almost nothing – a strong reminder of California’s severe drought. By this point it was starting to get dark, but it was too late to find somewhere to get a sunset photograph in the park as the mountains were already hiding the sun from view. All we could do is head out of the park and back to the junction where we could then head on to Palm Springs.

By the time we got to the junction it had been dark for some time and so was driving farther out into the desert on the dark, unlit roads. Eventually though we made it to the town and to the motel that was booked for the night. Once there we walked down the road to a place called Rick’s Desert Grill for dinner. I went for their thanksgiving special – turkey with sage dressing, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mashed potato.

California Day 5 – Lights, Camera, Action!

Today was mostly about Hollywood – our main activity for the day was the deluxe Warner Brothers Studio tour which would take at least 5 hours, but I also hoped we’d get to see the Hollywood sign, Manns Chinese Theater (now named the TCL Chinese Theater), and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

To start the day I got up at 06:00 for a short run – this was along Santa Monica Boulevard to the ocean and back again. Whilst out on this run a taxi pulling off a drive almost hit me as he didn’t look before pulling out. The breakfast that followed this short run was very basic and consisted of oats, some toast, and some apple juice.

We were on the road to Warner Bros. by 08:00 and we thought this would give us plenty of time to get there, and hopefully see some sights along the way. This was not to be the case though – traffic in LA is chaotic (though maybe erratic would be a better description) and slow. When we turned onto one road we had about an hour to spare and thought there may be the opportunity to see the Hollywood sign to kill a bit of time, but the traffic was not moving and before we knew it the estimate increased.

Eventually the ETA increased so much that it predicted we’d arrive 1 minute before we were told to arrive. The satnav though kept insisting we take a different route that was 1 minute faster and involved a U-turn – it just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

As we arrived at the security desk it had just turned 09:45. We’d made it, seemingly just in time – but when we got inside it turned out the deluxe tour wouldn’t leave until 10:15 anyway. The tour started with a brief film about the history of the studio and this was followed by being introduced to our guide for the day. At this point we got to hold one of the academy awards they had received a few decades ago for a photo opportunity in front of the Warner Bros. Studios sign. The group then boarded the cart and proper tour begun.

To start with we headed into the backlot where we were shown office buildings that get redressed to be used as exteriors for TV shows – a practical way of using space that is required for admin for productions also. This then led into the greenery area where they have real trees which include a few buildings scattered around inside. One of these was used in the TV show Tru Blood.

Next to this is a lagoon, which is currently empty to conserve water during the drought, and another house. One section of the trees around this area was hired out to Universal during the shooting of Jurassic Park to be used for the scene where a T-Rex is chasing Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). They shot this in different directions to give the impression that the road was longer than it really was, and was winding around.

Different pictures require different set dressings so they make up these areas to suit their needs, but they then have to change it back to how they found it. Except in the case of if the studio like the change it may be something they decide to keep – such as two of the buildings in the jungle section.

Fairly recently they tore down their western backlot to make way for an upper-class town area. This has been done by building actual buildings for offices for writing staff, and have then made the fronts look like an upper-class suburban area. At the time we were there this was being used by Fuller House and 2 Broke Girls.

The next backlot was originally decorated by the decorator of an old movie, Annie and is named Hennessy Street in his memory. This backlot has been used to represent New York, Chicago, and many other cities and has also featured in films such as A.I., Road to Perdition, Minority Report, and The Last Samurai. Not all of these were produced by Warner Brothers, but was space rented out by Universal, Sony, and other companies in order to meet their needs.

Again these are dressed to suit their needs and had recently been used by the TV series “Supergirl” for a very short scene in the second episode. Some of the buildings on this backlot are also practical sets so they can be filmed indoors as well. One of them also has an upstairs built and was one where we were allowed inside on the ground floor. We were being led into the sun whenever possible as it could get quite cool in the shade.

Around this area they also have the alleyway which was used for a famous scene in the first Sam Raimi-directed Spider-man movie, and was also used in Batman Returns and Batman Forever, and an episode of Friends featuring Jean Claude Van Damme. Similarly we were told about many other famous productions to use this backlog and how the set dressing and post-production effects make it unrecognisable. They’ve found though that in the days of high definition and budget savings in other cities that it is now being used less.

By the time we’d been led around this backlot it was time for dinner. We were warned that we couldn’t take pictures there as it is also used by staff and cast. The room used for this was also used as a dining area in a Looney Toons movie, though it’s one I don’t think I’ve seen.

The meal and drinks were included as part of the tour. I went for the Warner Burger which was a gourmet burger with fries, and the beef soup for starter. For the desserts they bring out a small selection of desserts (mostly cookies) on a plate which you can take what you want from. The drinks seemed to get constantly topped up as mine never dropped below half full. For those that did want alcoholic drinks though this was something they had to pay for. As we ate we were able to ask questions about Warner Brothers, and was pointed out anyone who might be recognised that walked in.

From the dining room we walked around the corner, passed their theatre, to the museum. At the time there were two exhibits – one per floor. On the ground floor they had exhibits from the 75th Batman anniversary which featured many costumes from Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and the Christopher Nolan trilogy. In the entranceway they also had the costumes for Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman from the (at this time) upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie.

I dashed around photographing the Batman exhibit as quickly as I could – getting photographs of absolutely everything they had before going upstairs. On the second floor they’d dedicated this to the Harry Potter films. Having been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Leavesden I wasn’t sure there’d be much to see though as it turned out, even though there was some overlap there were also quite a few bits I hadn’t seen. For those that want to they can even be sorted into a Hogwarts House by the Sorting Hat. Amazingly the one it chose at random was the same one as what I was wearing a t-shirt for.

From the museum we got back on the cart and headed over to another backlot that is made up to look like a small town. At the time we got there a show called The Middle was using it to film a scene involving a sorority. We got to watch some of the filming but was not allowed to take photographs and had to be careful to not get in the way of the shot.

Once they’d finished their take they switched to a steady cam and for that we had to move on. The tour then took us passed the soundstage for “The Big Bang Theory”, but that one was currently filming so instead we went into the one for “2 Broke Girls”. The soundstages used for short episodes that have a live audience work by having all the sets in a row in front of some bleachers. The ones used most frequently by the production are in the middle, directly in front of the audience, whereas the lesser used ones known as swing sets are made up as necessary and are off to the sides. Again this was an area where we couldn’t use cameras.

The next stop was at what I would describe as the “Batman Garage”. In this building they have the batmobile from the 1980s Michael Keaton Batman movie, some of the bikes used in the various films, the batmobile from Batman Forever, one from Batman and Robin, as well as tumblers used in the Christopher Nolan trilogy. For the tumblers, one of them was the black one that Batman used, and the other was the camouflaged one used by Bane. In the centre of this room was the new Batmobile from the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie, the same Batmobile that Zack Snyder, the director used to surprise fans at this year’s SDCC.

A short walk from this was the props department – from here different productions, not just Warner Bros. ones, can rent out props to be used as set dressing. There is an incredible amount stored here, some of which that have tags on to say what production they’re going to next. They even have a fully fitted out Oval Office from the White House which you’re allowed to sit in for photos.

We were then driven to the soundstage that has walk-in sets built for the TV show “Pretty Little Liars”. This one differs to the sitcom style soundstage as the rooms are built in full, but with the ability to take out walls for filming if required. We walked around some of the different sets – a loft apartment, a cafe, and a school room.

As we left the soundstage we passed an actress in costume from Supergirl, taking a break outside of the soundstage she was working in. The guided tour then concluded at the entrance to a cafe that has the “Central Perk” sign from friends. The next section of the tour was self guided and didn’t take too long to do. To start with there were details about the production process for different films such as writing, casting, and preproduction. This included costumes from the Zack Snyder “Superman” film, Man of Steel.

One of the fun interactive parts of this tour is the set replica for Central Perk from Friends. It’s not 100% perfect as I noticed a few bits missing, but it was good to have my picture taken on a set I recognise from TV. I then photographed a set from “Two and a Half Men” before having my picture taken again on the “forced perspective” set from The Hobbit, and “The Living Head” example of a practical effect used in horror movies.

For the last section of the tour they’re a little pushy about you having a go on the green screens – purely because they want to sell you photographs and videos of it, but I don’t think they were particularly good. This was then followed by the “Art of Sound” where they played three different clips from Gravity containing different audio mixes: dialog, sound effects, and then music. Finally they then shown these all come together to create the final mix.

As with most American tourist attractions you then exit through the gift shop. The studio then operates carts to drive people back to the front of the studio once they’re ready. This was only a short drive, but it was starting to get dark and chilly.

My friend then took over the driving again and drove to Griffith’s Observatory up on the hill. This was busy and a lot of cars were parked up on the road – we never did find out why though, but we know they weren’t in the observatory. We got to the top of the hill and then had to descend the other side quite a way before we found parking. From there we walked back through the chilly night up to the observatory.

Inside I found the observatory to be a little boring. The majority of it was informational signs describing things I already know, and the equipment wasn’t usable during the night or when it’s cloudy. Still, we probably spent about an hour there before heading back to the car, but first standing out in the cold to get some photographs of LA at night.

The drive back to Santa Monica wasn’t too bad, but it seemed to wind all over the place despite on the map it looking like we could take a single road to get back from where we were. We parked up in a public carpark just off Wilshire before heading over for food at Milo and Olive.

This restaurant is one where you can sit at a bar and watch them cook as you eat, though it seemed the majority of what they cook is pizza. I did opt for the pepperoni pizza though and it was actually quite good. One odd thing about this place is that they add 3% onto your bill for providing health care for their staff.

Although late, it was at least then only a short drive back to the hotel.

California Day 4 – Surfing and Santa Monica

The day started early – an 05:45 start in order to be on the road to Santa Barbara in time for the surfing lesson at Carpinteria Beach. This meant that we couldn’t have the provided breakfast and so ate the bagels we’d bought from Target a few days previous. I decided to have two – one with peanut butter and one with jam.

We’d left the motel by 06:30, left the keys behind in the room for them to collect later, and continued the journey. Once again I was behind the wheel as the first signs of light started to illuminate the sky. This however was a harder drive as between the low sun and the intermittent patches of fog the visibility was not amazing. I could definitely have benefited from having my sunglasses to hand instead of them being in the boot.

After the first several miles I started to use the cruise control, another feature I’ve not used before, to try and make it an easier journey. The route was scenic and in some places you could see low-lying fog over fields and in valleys in the distance. It was quite picturesque, but we didn’t have time to stop. Our ETA was a little passed 08:30 which would mean we’d arrive 30 minutes before the surfing lesson was due to start – if we didn’t hit traffic outside Santa Barbara.

Fortunately we made good time and arrived at Carpinteria Beach with plenty of time to spare. After parking up we wandered around for a while before getting ready for the lesson. When the surfing instructor arrived we got into the wetsuits and headed out onto the beach. To start with we had to practice going from laying down on the boards to standing up so that we’d not only know what we needed to be doing before we got into the water, but also to know which foot to tie the board to.

Once we’d learnt the basics we went out into the water. For my first attempt I got onto the board and was told when to start paddling and when to quickly push up. Amazingly, and almost unbelievably, on my first attempt I stood up quickly and rode the wave in all the way to the beach. The next few attempts weren’t so fortunate and I found it was actually quite difficult to do – I’d just gotten very lucky on my first attempt.

As time went on we had many attempts at riding the waves in, all to a varying degree of success. There were probably 3 or 4 more times I’d been successful, and one of these was a very last minute attempt – whilst going back out I saw a wave coming in so quickly jumped on the board with only a second to spare so immediately stood up and rode it in to the beach.

Some of the waves that were coming in were incredible and numerous times they were so big that myself and the board disappeared under the wave – one of these times included the board smacking into my face and tearing the prescription goggles from my face (though I did save them from being washed away).

About half way into the lesson I had to pause for a while as my left calf muscle suddenly went completely taught and I found it incredibly difficult to ease it off. It did however start to fade and I was able to stand enough to continue the lesson. After about 90 minutes we headed back to the car and dried off. The lesson cost $89 + tip each, something which I do think was worthwhile for the new experience and the enjoyment of the morning.

Although it had been quite cool when we arrived, by the time the lesson was over it had warmed up to at least 19C and was proving to be quite a pleasant day. Due to the cramp in my calf muscle, my friend decided he’d do the driving from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to give my leg time to ease off.

This drive was about another 90 minutes and as we approached Santa Monica the number of lanes became crazy – in places there were 6 or 7 lanes of traffic in each direction! Based on the amount of traffic though it was a clear indication that they were needed just to keep traffic moving.

We arrived at my friend’s office at 12:25 and for the next 20 minutes I sat in the car whilst he visited his colleagues. However I soon joined him up in the office when he found that he needed to do a bit of work. Not the best thing to need to do whilst on holiday on a day that was already going to be tight due to the amount of driving and how much we wanted to see. We’d arrived slightly ahead of schedule though, so in some ways we weren’t really losing any time – so it did in fact no matter. It also gave me chance to catch up on a few things.

At 13:25 he’d finished his work and we headed with one of his colleagues to a nearby place for food, called Mango Cafe. His colleague was incredibly kind and bought us both lunch – I had a packet of crisps (or potato chips as the Americans call them), and the Parisian sandwich which was a croissant filled with maple ham, brie, and green salad.

Our next stop after lunch was the Battleship Iowa, but getting to it proved interesting. The freeways in Los Angeles are wide and busy, and the driving at times seems a bit erratic. The satnav didn’t really help matters either as my friend who was driving still found some of it’s directions to be a little confusing. Understandable really, as I found myself that it didn’t always make sense. With the traffic being heavy we got to the USS Iowa at around 15:30 which left us with 90 minutes to see it all.

The USS Iowa is pretty impressive, and is apparently the only remaining warship in the world. This one was commissioned during World War II and later was recommissioned by George H.W. Bush in the 80’s – presumably because of the Cold War. The tour winds all over the ship and there are many decks you don’t get to see – but those that you do give you a good idea of what life onboard the ship would have been like and to some degree it’s operation. This is one where you don’t get to see engineering, etc. though unlike the aircraft carrier, USS Intrepid.

By 16:00 they were starting to close up the tour, and by 16:50 we’d just finished looking around – it seemed like they were eager for us to go even though they were technically open for another 10 minutes. I got the feeling that during more normal hours the ship is probably a lot busier, though it was nice to have photographs without getting other tourists in the shot. The tour eased off the cramp in my calf muscle and I hoped it was enough to mean I’d be able to run the next morning.

I drove from the USS Iowa to where our hotel was located in Santa Monica. Having 7 lanes of traffic travelling in one direction, in the dark, with many drivers switching lanes at a seconds notice (seemingly without looking and often without indicating) and slotting into spaces that were barely larger than their car created one of the most stressful drives ever. Although it was under an hour I was still glad when it was over.

The Days Inn on Santa Monica boulevard wasn’t bad, and for the first time this trip it offered secure underground parking for the car. Once we’d checked in and dropped off the luggage we headed out looking for food and decided upon a cafe over the road called Coogies Cafe Santa Monica.

I went for the Orange Chicken which was a crispy chicken in orange and ginger sauce and was served with rice and and bell peppers. Unfortunately they’d used so much ginger it was overpowering and was pretty much inedible. I did however force myself to eat the chicken, though the sauce prevented me from eating much of the rice.

Once again we were back at the hotel by 20:00 at the end of another long day of sightseeing.

California Day 3 – Big Sur

I awoke during the night once again, and a few times in the early hours of the morning. My plan had been to get up at 05:45 to go out for a run, and I was awake at that time, but somehow I’d managed to set my alarm for 06:45 instead. Despite this, at 06:10 I quickly got ready and went out for my first run in California.

As I was later than intended I decided I wouldn’t do the full 8.5 miles I’d planned and instead decided I’d do about 5 miles. To start with I ran around the blocks until I got to some sand dunes along the coast – this was the start of a trail so I decided to join this. Along the trail it wound up and down along the coast and in some places required a lot of effort. By the time I got to 3 miles I could hear something in the distance, so instead of turning back to make the run 6 miles, I instead accepted I’d be later back at the hotel than intended. I was stopping every now and then to take photographs, but at 3.67 miles I found I’d stumbled across the start line for the Bay of Monterey Half Marathon just in time to see the elites start. If I’d known about it prior to flying out that I may have considered entering it.

After 47 minutes of running I’d done a couple more miles than planned, but was back at the hotel and getting ready for breakfast. It wasn’t amazing, but there was enough there I could eat to make it filling. I had some apple and cinnamon oats, a banana, a bagel, and some fresh orange juice.

By the time we were ready to leave it was already 09:00 so not quite the early start we’d wanted – but we’d failed to plan the day the night before as we’d wanted so had to check on Google in the morning to see what there was to do.

Our first proper stop of the day was at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This one cost $10 to enter again, but we found that the entrance fee for this also covered entrance into other state parks along Big Sur. The very first part of this trail goes past a number of impressive California redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) – some of the tallest trees in the world. Although reminiscent of Endor in the Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, those redwoods were actually located further north in Redwood National Park.

After this the trail was partially closed which required us to continue on the road for a while before rejoining it. This trail continued for quite some time, winding around the valley as it went up and down until it reached a fork in the trail. To start with we took the right-hand route which led down to a waterfall. Whilst photographing this though I managed to knock the lens cap off my big lens and it dropped over the rock and down into the stream below. Not wanting to lose this I climbed over the rock, down a couple of metres to the stream, carefully crossed and moved down it until I reached my lens cap and safely retrieved it.

The climbing back up along the waterfall, stream, and rocks was not so easy but again I managed it without falling into the water. A definite relief!

This seemed to inspire a couple of English tourists we’d met to also go off the path, and closer to the waterfall – so we joined them also. We didn’t stay there long though due to the number of flies so headed back to the fork in the trail, and this time took the other trail to a view of the tree-covered canyon.

On the way back from this one we bumped into the English tourists again who introduced themselves as Aaron and Caitlin, professional photographers – one of which had been paid to fly out to Houston for a day of photographing a wedding and was now spending 7.5 weeks travelling around. They recommended another sight along the route called Ragged Point where apparently they have a large number of Hummingbirds you can get close to – this seemed like a great idea for something to do.

Back at the bottom of the trail we checked out the gift shop, but there wasn’t really anything of interest so we went back to the car and continued on our drive along Big Sur. The next stop was another state park called Julia Pfeiffer Burns where there is a coastal trail that gives a good view of a beach and McWay Falls. The waterfall wasn’t that impressive, most likely due to the extended drought that California has been experiencing, but it was a good view though. Whilst here we could also see what people were saying was a condor flying around overhead – I did think it looked more like a Turkey Vulture though. We then took a coastal route in the opposite direction as well – but this turned out to be a waste of time.

This state park also had redwood trees, but we decided we didn’t have enough time to see them here as well so we continued on our way, with our next stop being at Lucia Lodge for a late lunch. I went for the locally made Lucia burger – which was a beef burger with cheese, lettuce and tomato on a seasoned bun – this also came with fries.

It was a great view at the lodge as we could see the waves crashing along Big Sur as we ate. The downside though was the number of flies, and by 14:00 it was starting to cool off. We did however see a hummingbird up close that was feeding on some flowers there.

The next stop was at Lime Kiln Trails, but this one was apparently not included in our parks pass so cost us an additional $10 for entry. This one was intended to be a short stop as we were getting closer to sunset and didn’t have much time left to see the hummingbirds. The trail leads through a camping ground and eventually to a bridge across the stream. The bridge however has been damaged by a tree falling through it so instead you have to climb down to the stream and cross there instead. The trail then wound through a valley and eventually reached a place where we could either continue on to the lime kilns, or fork off to a waterfall.

To start with we headed to the waterfall – this involved crossing the stream many times as the path switched sides. Eventually we got to the waterfall and found that once again the droughts had reduced the waterfall to a very meagre effort. I decided to climb up to waterfall to get a closer look, though even then it didn’t really improve the photo opportunities.

After a few photographs we headed back to the fork in the trail and decided to risk spending the extra time to take that trail to see the lime kilns. My friend wasn’t sure about taking this diversion, but I insisted that if it took any more than 5 minutes we’d turn back. As we passed some American hikers we asked how long it was to the kilns, and when they said 10 minutes I suggested that at our usual pace it would only take us five.

It only took us around 4 minutes to get there from that point, even if at one point we did have to crouch under a fallen tree to get passed. There are 4 lime kilns there – all of which are damaged to some degree revealing the inner workings.

The area is partially roped off saying it’s dangerous to go up to them, yet it’s actually possible to walk around them anyway. These kilns were built in the 1890s to convert limestone into lime and was then transported from there in carts along the local road to the Everett area. None of the structures that were used for loading the carts still exist, but you can still see the various ports for stoking the fires that were used up until the 1930s.

We took the trail back to the car as quickly as we could to try and save some time. Once back at the car we then headed onwards to Ragged Point as it was starting to get dull – partly due to the cloud cover. Unfortunately we didn’t see any hummingbirds when we got there, though I get the feeling they’re probably only about until around midday at the latest anyway.

From Ragged Point I took over the driving and found it really strange. This was my first time driving on the left-hand side of the car (and on the right-hand side of the road), and my first time driving an automatic. Awkwardly I found the brakes were far more sensitive than I was used to with my MX-5, so it took a while before I was actually used to them.

As we reached a viewpoint for Elephant Seals the sun had about set, be we pulled in there anyway to find out if we could see any. When we went to Antarctica we’d seen only juveniles and females, we hadn’t seen any of the really large males with the proboscis they’re famous for. Sadly there weren’t any of the large males on the beach, even though there was a small chance that they may have arrived by now, but we did however see some larger juvenile males fighting.

As I carried on driving from this viewpoint it grew dark and eventually I was driving on a winding pitch black highway along the coastline. For my first time driving like this it was a little stressful, but I got us there without mishap. After over an hour it was a relief to finally reach San Luis Obispo and roads with street lights, although it had started to rain.

This motel looked a little better than the Magic carpet from the outside, and sure enough once inside it looked better too. With the car was unloaded once more I then drove us to a nearby place called Firestone Grill. This was a barbecue place that did a good variety of dishes – I went for the half chicken which came with barbecue beans and a reasonable amount of garlic bread. It was a very tasty meal, but also incredibly filling. Although it wasn’t quite as good as the one I’d had in Kansas it was still one of the tastiest meals I had in California so far.

On the way back to the motel we filled up the car with some petrol – we still had half a tank, but we wanted to save some time when we reached Santa Monica as we’d have a busy couple of days coming up. This however did turn out to be a little more difficult than you’d think as you have to pay by card, but when putting the card in the machine it asks you for a ZIP code. As we don’t have one we used the one for the motel, which presumably was the same as the gas station. This resulted in having to go into the station and handover a credit card before being allowed to fill up and then retrieve the card and the receipt. So very different to in the UK!

With the tank filled, another day was over.

California Day 2 – Point Lobos

Despite how tired I was, I still awoke at 02:00, and then just dozed until I got up at 07:00. At around 05:00 there was shouting down the corridors – not the quietest of places I’ve stayed in. The breakfast at the Arena hotel however was a good one, and had a selection of hot and cold food.

Upon ordering a taxi it arrived pretty quickly and as it happened it was a very short drive to the Hilton Hotel where we needed to pick up our rental car from Avis. We got there a little too early, but didn’t have to wait too long. The whole process for hiring the car seemed overly long, collecting details from us both that we’d both previously provided. Oddly, although it was being paid for on one car we both had to provide credit cards in case of any fines. Although the UK Government said I’d need a special code for car rental places to confirm the status of my license, it was not needed.

We were then led to the car to inspect the Nissan and before long we were out on the road at the start of our road trip. Our first stop of the day was in a small town called Capitola where we stopped at a bakery that had been recommended to us, called Gayles. From here we bought some lunch to take away which we could then eat somewhere along the coast. I went for a steak and blue cheese sandwich with a bearclaw for afters. Judging by how busy the place was, and that they use a ticketing system, it’s fair to say that it’s a very popular bakery.

We’d decided our lunch stop would be at Point Lobos, however along the way we came across some good views and found we could pull off the road at a place called Marina Dunes Preserve. This area was quite sandy, but allowed us to get down on to the beach and to the sea. Whilst there a biplane passed us overhead, one we’d later see again when we got to Point Lobos.

The drive from Marina Dunes to Point Lobos wasn’t too bad, and the entry for the state park was $10 but once you’ve paid for parking you can spend the entire day there if you like (we later found out that park entry tends to cover multiple parks too). To start with we took the farthest route and headed out with cameras and food. After a while taking photos of Cypress Cove we paused for lunch overlooking the cove. The route then carried on around to where we could see otters, sea lions, and harbour seals in Pinnacle Cove and Middle Cove.

There were a couple of park rangers there that had set up a couple of spotting scopes and were talking about the wildlife that could be seen here. Apparently it used to be possible to get down to the sea here, but that was before they found some seals were starting to move further ashore and so they closed the path to protect them.

Although we didn’t have that long we also walked along the North Shore Trail for a while before turning back and driving farther along the road inside the park to Whaler’s Cove. We stopped there for about 10 minutes and photographed the scenery and the wildlife. In terms of wildlife, there was a heron, an egret and a number of cormorants.

We then left the park and drove on, next stopping at the historic Bixby Creek Bridge. Prior to the building of this bridge the locals would often be cut off during bad weather due to the trails that flooded. At this bridge there are plenty of places to pull off the road to park up and take photographs, and that was exactly what quite a few people were doing. As usual I went the extra step to try and get a better photograph and partially climbed down into the ravine where there were some flat areas I could stand on.

Continuing on along highway 1 we eventually got to Big Sur, but did not go any further than the first State Park, which would also have cost $10 to enter. It seems that there is a common charge for state parks along this area, so potentially the next day could mean quite a few $10 entrance fees. A lot of people were parking up on the roadside though to avoid this. As we were about an hour from sunset we instead drove back to Monterey and Seaside.

As we arrived back in Monterey we first stopped off at Target and bought a few bits for breakfast on Monday – the day we’d need to head off early to get to Santa Barbara for surfing. By the time we left there it was dark, but only a short drive to the Magic Carpet Hotel where we were staying.

When we arrived at Tarpy’s, the place we’d gone to eat, we were told that there was a 45 minute waiting time. As we said we’d try somewhere else they then offered an outside table under the heaters where we could eat instead with no waiting time. This seemed like a great idea so we went for it. I decided to try their Angus Sirloin steak, and it wasn’t that bad – but despite the heater it was actually quite cold still outside. Quite a contrast to the weather we’d had during the day. This meal with non-alcoholic drinks cost us $86 with an 18% tip between us.

We got back to the hotel at around 20:15, but I was so tired I didn’t really get ready fully for the next day and instead decided to get some sleep.

California Day 1 – Leicester to San Jose

It was an early start to the day, so early in fact that not only could I not get a lift to the airport, but there wasn’t a train running either. My only choice was to take a 05:30 taxi to the airport, and that was probably slightly later than I should have really. The taxi turned up late, but I was still at the airport in plenty of time to drop off by bags. Even though I’d checked in online and had the boarding passes on my phone they still printed off passes at the desk. Between baggage drop and security it took about 30 minutes which left me with just over an hour to wait until the boarding was scheduled to begin.

The flight out of Birmingham left the gate 20 minutes early, something that is fairly unusual as far as flights go. During the flight they served crackers with a drink, and a little later on the option of either chicken curry, pasta, or a vegetarian meal. During the flight I watched “The Vacation”, “Pixelated”, and a couple of episodes of television programs. A couple of hours before landing they then served a turkey and cheese sandwich which was actually quite nice.

The flight then landed 1 hour earlier than scheduled, but it still took 30 minutes to go through customs. As always with Newark airport I had to collect my luggage on the way through to transfer it to another carousel before taking the AirTrain to terminal C. By the time I was through security and at the gate around 80 minutes had passed since landing. This left me with two hours to waste at the gate before catching my onward flight to Denver, Colorado. As the flight time approached they announced the flight was overbooked and that some would need to give up their seats for the flight. With a connecting flight out of Denver I couldn’t volunteer for this even if it was the polite thing to do.

The plane was then delayed a few minutes, and by the time it was in the air it was running 15-20 minutes late. This meant there was then the possibility that I could miss my flight to San Jose. I was fortunate though – the plane I was arriving on was the same one I’d be leaving on (I realised this as my arrival gate and departure gates were both the same!). I wasn’t in Denver airport for more than 15 minutes before I’d reboarded the plane – almost in the same seat as the previous flight. In this time my friend had just arrived in from Toronto and caught the plane as I was boarding.

By the time we landed in San Jose I had been awake for over 24 hours. It would be safe to say I was exhausted. The day wasn’t yet over though – it was then a 50 minute wait before we could collect our luggage, apparently due to another plane coming in within 6 minutes of ours.

From there it was a $21.74 taxi ride to the hotel, which was only a short journey. That was a relief though as it meant that I could finally get some sleep.

California Roadtrip 2015 – Trip Preparaton

After having already been abroad twice during the year – first of all to Mexico and Canada on vacation, and then to various US states for work, there was still time left for one last trip. Originally the plan was to travel to Florida with my sister, though after realising that leaving a trip to Florida for another year would allow for Disney to open up a new Star Wars area first we decided to delay that. Instead I started planning a trip around the state of Arizona where we’d be taking it in turns to drive.

Unfortunately my sister was ill just before I went to Mexico back in May and the plans for Arizona had to be cancelled, or at least delayed as it was unlikely she’d be able to fly in November. Instead I spoke to a friend I often travel with and we decided that we’d attempt a roadtrip along the coast of California.

Before anything could really be decided on we needed to come up with a list of what we wanted to see. It had been recommended that we included some surfing at Carpinteria Beach, and we wanted to see Big Sur. I was also keen on seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour that I knew was located in the Science Museum in LA. I also didn’t really want to go as far south as San Diego, and I wanted to visit San Francisco some other time so I could spend more time there so with this in mind we began to plan the road trip along the coast from San Jose to Los Angeles.

The planning from this point on meant figuring out how long we’d need in each place so we’d know where we’d be each night so we could get a hotel booked. There were a few bits I thought might not work out quite right, but perhaps it would add to the adventure of a week driving through a foreign country. I’ve never driven overseas before, so have never driven on what we’d consider to be the “wrong side of the road”, and I’ve never driven an automatic either as I prefer manual.

I also needed to figure out where I’d be able to run each day as well, as I needed to keep my training going as I’d be beginning the build-up to an Ultra Marathon in the new year. I accepted though I might not get to put in as many runs or as many miles as I could do with though so I tried to time my runs around the trip as best I could to minimise how many miles I’d need to do whilst there.

In the week before the trip I had to sort out getting a code from the DVLA to be able to drive abroad, and also finish packing what equipment I would need for the week. As it was only a week and fairly predictable it meant I could pack lighter than I have done for most trips in the past.

SDCC 2013 Day 5 – San Diego to Leicester

Although I didn’t need to check out until 10:00 or be at the airport until 13:00 I decided to get up relatively early to allow time to get the last few items packed ready for flying. I couldn’t pack entirely as I was still waiting for that friend’s drink he wanted me to take back to England with me and he’d got in late and wasn’t awake at the time. Can’t blame him  though, he’d been up late watching the reruns of the panels in Hall H.

USS Midway

Instead I showered and went for a light breakfast and by the time I got back I was able to finish packing. For a while I sat around trying to waste a bit of time and by 09:30 I’d checked out and was walking towards the USS Midway. It was about a 30 minute walk from the hostel, though I may not have taken the most direct route as I had to double back on myself to cross over the road to it. At first I queued at a kiosk and paid before realising that was for a boat tour and not the Midway, fortunately I got a refund for it and was pointed in the direction of the right kiosk.

The Bridge

The tour of the USS Midway cost $19 and they allowed me to leave my luggage and backpack at the visitor information point – this was a huge relief! To start with I headed straight up to the flight deck so I could get ahead in the queue for a tour of the bridge. Amazingly there were only two people in front of me so I was able to go more or less straight up. It was an interesting tour and very informative – the guide talked about what everything was for and even talked about some of the experiences of the Midway.

On the bridge

Once done I wandered around the flight deck taking photographs of the airplanes and helicopters on deck. There are a few which you’re allowed inside of which I thought was quite cool. Inside one of the helicopters though there was a dove nesting so they’d put up a sign asking people to avoid disturbing the mother and the chicks. I was pleased to see people paying attention to the sign too.

F-8 Crusader

This isn’t Top Gun…

Back below the flight deck there are various areas where you can go below deck to engineering, sick bay, the mess hall, crew quarters, and other parts of the carrier. On the main deck that is referred to as the city they have a place to get food and a souvenir shop. I had a brief break there to get a hot dog before continuing swiftly around the self-guided tour. I could have spent a lot more time there, but with needing to get to the airport the available time was limited so just after 12 noon I continued on towards the airport.

Pilots Briefing Room

Once I’d left the Midway I continued walking in the direction of the airport. It was a little further than I thought but I arrived with plenty of time to spare. The commuter terminal has basic facilities so its possible to have a snack whilst waiting for the flight. I decided to have some crisps and a drink whilst making use of the free Wi-Fi.

Once again it was a small aircraft for the San Diego to LA segment of the journey, and I was told my luggage should be transferred through all the way to Birmingham. Again, I’d believe it when I saw my luggage at the other end. The arrival in LAX was quick and relatively easy, though I didn’t understand what TBIT meant on the departures board. After speaking with the information desk for United it turned out it meant I needed to take a shuttle bus around to the international terminal.

As I didn’t have any luggage to check in I walked around to the security and onwards to the gate. At the airport I bought a California magnet for my parents for $7.09. If I’d thought about it sooner I would probably have been able to get them a better one whilst in San Diego. I was surprised the only souvenir shop in LAX was a kiosk though, at least as far as I could tell from my walk through the terminal.

The flight to Frankfurt wasn’t as good as the outbound journey; this one was on an older 747-400 that had no entertainment system. As I couldn’t pre-select seats for this flight I also ended up with a bulkhead seat so I didn’t have much leg room either as there was a dividing wall present. The first meal wasn’t too bad as it was pasta again. It was then a long, uncomfortable wait until breakfast – which I didn’t eat.

Once again it was quite a trek across Frankfurt International Airport but this time I had a little more time to get there and at a very brisk walk got there with 25 minutes to spare. I expected to pass through immigration at this point due to coming in from the US, but there was only a security check.

The flight from Frankfurt to Birmingham was far more comfortable and was on a newer Airbus. Surprisingly they also served sandwiches during this very short flight. By the time this was done it was almost time to land. Getting through Birmingham airport was as quick as ever and from landing to sitting down on a train I think only 20-30 minutes had passed.

One thing I found at baggage claims though was that the lock on my suitcase was gone. There was no sign of it having been opened or inspected so I can only assume I didn’t put it on right when I changed my t-shirt in San Diego airport.  It didn’t bother me though as this had been a fun trip and one I hoped to do again in the future.