Tag Archives: California

Fourteen Days in Trump’s America: Part 2 – Los Angeles, October 2017

Los Angeles from Skyspace

Los Angeles from Skyspace

Click here to read part one

On my last two visits to California I made the journey from the Bay Area to Los Angeles using the Amtrak Coast Starlight railway service. While an in places spectacular (if fairly slow) ride, having done it twice it felt a little like a wasted day to do it again, while also involving an early start and a late night.

This time then I made the choice of hiring a car to make the drive down the famous Californian coast highway. While the most famous chunk, through Big Sur and down to Morrow Bay, was out-of-bounds thanks to some spectacular landslides earlier in the year, I thought it still worth doing – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Picking the car up near Union Square in San Francisco meant the first half hour of drive was something of a baptism of fire having never driven a left hand drive car on the right hand side of the road before and being launched into city traffic.

Lands End Point Lobos

Lands End viewing point in San Francisco

By the time I reached the Lands End viewing point though, my nerves were largely overcome and after a brief stop to work out the radio system (Sirius XM Satellite radio is a godsend on a long drive, particularly the Lithium 90s alternative station) I set off along Ocean Beach and onwards towards Santa Cruz.

This stretch of coast road is hugely impressive with quaint sheltered bays, rousing surf beaches and many small communities dotted along the way. As I was aiming to drive all the way to LA in the one day I didn’t really have time to stop, but I would suggest if you have the time allow at least two days to make the drive if not more.

After lunch I joined the 101 freeway through the farming valley between Salinas and San Luis Obispo, the so-called ‘Salad Bowl of America’. While not the most fascinating scenery, it was my one real experience of one of those long, straight American roads you see in movies, the expanse of the land is astonishing and great to experience from ground level.

Channel Islands from Gaviota vista point

Channel Islands from Gaviota vista point

After San Luis Opisbo the scenery gets a little more exciting again and from Gaviota there’s another coastal stretch affording some amazing views of the Channel Islands and the oil rigs that sit just offshore.

This is followed by the beginnings of the sprawl of Los Angeles, via Santa Barbara – a fine city I’m sure, but I hit it at rush hour – then Oxnard as night fell leaving an exhilarating run along the Malibu coast in the dark and on to El Segundo, my home for the week.

While I had visited El Segundo before this was the first time I’d had any opportunity to properly explore the town. The first thing that struck was how, despite being a stone’s throw from a huge international airport and within minutes of Santa Monica, Venice Beach and even Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles, it felt like its own entirely separate, comparatively sleepy, small town community.

Centred on a couple of streets (and yes one is called Main Street), it features a selection of local bars and restaurants and a polite but bustling feel, particularly I think given the fact I arrived as the baseball World Series was reaching its peak, with the LA Dodgers being one of the teams vying for the championship.

El Segundo Brewing Company

El Segundo Brewing Company

I also discovered, in the modest but inviting tap-room of the El Segundo Brewing Company, that they are brewers of Broken Skull IPA, the official beer of former WWE world champion Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Of course the forty-two cities of the vast dystopian sprawl of greater Los Angeles have a hell of a lot to offer so narrowing it down to a week is always going to be a challenge. With this in mind I focussed in trying to do as many different things as possible to my last visits, so I started out by heading south, an area I’d never really visited, and going to Long Beach, famed for its aquarium and harbour.

The drive to Long Beach, despite being largely based on the freeways that criss-cross this vast urban sprawl, was as smooth and simple as possible so I arrived at the Aquarium of the Pacific just before lunch and headed in, hoping to keep out of the midday sun that was even stronger than usual for LA thanks to an unseasonal mini-heatwave.

Rays and sharks at the Aquarium

Rays and sharks at the Aquarium

The aquarium itself features an impressive display spanning everything from the warmer tropical regions to the south to the colder, rougher seas to the north, along with touching on the natives of the river systems around the LA area (though I doubt much lives in the concrete canals of the LA or Santa Ana rivers that reach the sea near by).

While the likes of the sharks, rays, sea turtles and sea otters provide the most obvious visual highlights of the aquarium, it was the story of the rainbow trout and steelhead that particularly captured my imagination thanks to an explanation from one of the museum staff I entirely failed to remember the name of. While it may not look to exciting its well worth asking the staff on duty about the detail of this exhibit should you find yourself there.

Outside the aquarium is Long Beach’s tourist harbour area with boat cruises, fishing trips and seafront restaurants on offer along the stretch of boardwalk.

Queen Mary in Long Beach

Queen Mary in Long Beach

Adjacent to this is a precision manicured headland park area overlooking the estuary to the LA river (looking slightly more natural here than further upstream, though still very man-made), including the permanently moored Queen Mary cruise ship which is open as a hotel and museum.

Given the heat, I think, and the fact it was mid-week this area was near deserted and that gave it a slightly eerie feeling despite the picturesque views and the same was true of the shopping centre behind the waterfront.

I’m sure Long Beach, like all cities, must have a bustling heart but this was certainly not it as it felt more like a ghost town than anything else.

Los Angeles city itself nestles at the heart of the sprawl and is generally referred to simply as Downtown, bordered by freeways and the concrete channel of the LA river. As city centres go, it is a strange one and it’s clear to see, even now, how the writers of the likes of Blade Runner extrapolated this to their bleak future visions.

Lavish office blocks, apartment buildings and hotels stretch up to the sky making concrete, glass and steel canyons of the wide streets and, despite the relatively small area, it feels as much designed to be navigated by car as the whole of greater LA does.

Michael Jackson costumes at the Grammy Museum

Michael Jackson costumes at the Grammy Museum

This makes walking the streets a very strange and slightly on edge experience (see my previous blog for a bit of discussion as to why), our first stop over the weekend spent largely in the area though was the Grammy Museum, a part of the LA Live complex that includes a central convention centre and the Staples Centre arena, home of many events and sports teams including the LA Lakers and a run of WWE SummerSlam shows over the years.

While not as big as I initially expected the Grammy Museum packs a lot in over three floors of exhibition space. Starting with an introduction to the awards statues themselves and how they have developed over the years, it goes on to take you through a history of American music that could easily take up hours if you explored every facet of the several interactive displays.

Leaving the first floor you encounter an exhibit on how the Dobro style of resonator guitar is made that, while a little on the specific side, is still interesting, along with a look at the songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of the last hundred years, including some original notes from Woody Guthrie on his most famous song, This Land Is Your Land – a particular highlight for me.

Ella Fitzgerald Grammy

One of Ella’s Grammy awards

The next floor of the museum boasted a selection of Michael Jackson’s stage gear that is impressive to see in all its glory, but the highlight for me was an exhibit that, using a live recording from a Grammys show of the Dave Matthews Band, demonstrated how recording technology has advanced from wax cylinders in the 1800s through vinyl to Dolby home surround systems, and the now prevalent ear buds of MP3 players.

The museum also housed two special exhibitions during my visit, the first of which was a comparatively small but none the less interesting look at the career of Ella Fitzgerald with trinkets and mementos alongside elaborate dresses and photos of her performing with many other jazz greats.

The other, taking over the entire lower floor of the museum, looked at the LA punk rock scene and specifically the band X, who mark their anniversary this year. While I’m not hugely familiar with the band the exhibition was still fascinating showing how they developed and with a wealth of artefacts, photos and film of the band in their prime.

X posters at the Grammy Museum

X posters at the Grammy Museum

Also fascinating was a map of the city with the main venues for punk shows from orange county to Hollywood to Santa Monica marked (now mostly defunct) along with flyers for gigs from the late 70s punk heyday adorning the walls showing the expressiveness of the DIY scene and featuring the names of bands who went on to be international players.

While the mainstream entertainment side of things in Downtown might be centred on LA Live and the Staples Centre (the area was packed with cosplayers over the weekend for Stan Lee’s Comic Con as well), the rest of the area has a number of interesting places dotted between the downbeat looking jewellery stores and literal sky scraping high rises.

You’ve probably guessed by now I like a good bookshop and Downtown features a real gem in that regard with The Last Bookstore. Downstairs the store is relatively regular with bestsellers and some vintage special editions lining the shelves, alongside a modest vinyl and DVD section.

The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore

Upstairs however is where it comes into its own as the bookshelves become a maze spanning genres from sci-fi to political history through tunnels made of free-standing books.

It genuinely feels like you could lose yourself here both literally and figuratively, all making for a place that feels as much an attraction as a regular shop, and it’s a great place of pick up some reading matter related to the city so I took the chance to get some vintage noir and something by LA native Charles Bukowski.

Not far from The Last Bookstore stands the outcrop of Bunker Hill, while it’s now home to several tower block offices, the Broad Museum of art and the Disney Concert Hall, it was once a residential neighbourhood so the presence of the Grand Central Market at its foot makes some sense.

Now the market feels more designed to cater to the office staff for lunch and visitors like us on the weekends, but despite this has retained the bustle and charm of a real market place.

Grand Central Market

Grand Central Market

With many of the stalls now selling takeaway meals, a number do still sell fresh produce of various sorts and the place was packed during our visit.

It really felt like a microcosm of all the communities that make up LA with ‘street food’ type cuisine available spanning everything from pizza to sushi to noodles and probably a whole lot more besides making this one of the few places in Downtown that felt genuinely like part of a real living city and hopefully I’ll get to eat there on a future visit.

Across the street from the market is something that looks somewhat out-of-place but, at over a hundred years old, feels like a rare actual historical artefact in this constantly evolving metropolis, the Angels Flight railway.

Angels Flight with the US Bank Tower above

Angels Flight with the US Bank Tower above

Only traversing a distance of a few feet, the orange cars are useful for the fact they also take passengers up the near vertical incline of Bunker Hill’s south-east side, and for a dollar remains a nice taste of the history of the area that is otherwise almost lost at street level.

In contrast, towering over Angels Flight is the US Bank Tower, atop which is the viewing area Skyspace, 69 and 70 floors, and more than 1000 feet, up. With an introduction featuring some truly epic panoramas of the city from many vantage points, the actual views were a little hampered by an uncharacteristically misty day but being the highest I’d ever been in a building was none the less impressive – though I feel I’ll probably have to return some time on a clearer day to get the full effect.

In a lot of ways this blog has been looking at the real side of LA, which also included a brief visit to edges of Santa Ana in Orange County for Tiger Army’s Octoberflame show, so I’ll save the other side of the city, arguably its more famous aspect, for my next (and hopefully final) blog on this trip…

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Fourteen Days in Trump’s America: Part 1 – San Francisco, October 2017

San Francisco skyline

San Francisco as seen from Alcatraz

Ok I’ll admit that given the fact I’m talking about a visit to California, specifically in this case San Francisco, we are far from the heart of Trump’s America. But, given the inescapable nature of his presence over the last twelve months (and more) it’s hard to avoid it even when visiting this most liberal of cities.

In that regard, and don’t worry this won’t be all politics and will settle into more travelogue based things soon, a few things did spring to mind while exploring the city. Primarily amongst these was the continued growth in the number of homeless people.

While it’s fair to say that during Obama’s time in office this isn’t something that decreased, it seems the number of people, particularly men of colour, living on the streets of the city has expanded even further.

Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz island

Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz island

With one notable exception, these people seemed largely harmless (and I don’t have any evidence the less harmless person was actually homeless) but it remains a disturbing trend, particularly in light of the other trend I witnessed, and both of these were echoed in Los Angeles as well.

That other trend is how the higher end of the property market has expanded.

In San Francisco this was most notable in the sudden escalation of skyscraper development with three structures that, two years ago looked almost stagnant in the South of Market area, having been completed or near completed in the last two years.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, new high-rise offices and hotels have appeared along with an increase in the ‘gentrification’ of the downtown area leading to a really stark contrast between those on the street and those in the towers – particularly poignant given the recent release of a new Blade Runner film which I saw twice during this visit.

With all that in mind, back to my trip.

Mission Dolores Park

Mission Dolores Park

For the second time I had chosen to use AirBnB for accommodation in San Francisco, but, rather than staying in the area of North Beach/Downtown as before, I headed further west, to the Castro side of Mission Dolores Park.

While Castro is famously the city’s gay district, the area between it and Mission Street to the east, roughly within three blocks of the park, has become something of a hip area in recent years and this was obvious right away with the selection of smaller business that have sprung up focussing on fresh produce and moving away from the usual chain stores (though of course the likes of Starbucks, Walgreeens and Seven-Eleven are never far away).

These seem most prevalent along 18th Street with coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and grocery stores aplenty.

The ones that grabbed my eye in particular were the Bi-Rite Market grocery store that had the feel or a real local store with a great selection of speciality produce from cheeses and meats to teas, wines, and more.

Pride flags at Castro

Pride flags at Castro

Another was the Tartine Bakery that was a fine place for breakfast and had a selection of impressive looking cakes and pastries, even if it appeared to be near permanently packed.

On a couple of occasions I ate at the small Pizzeria Delfina that had a great, bustling atmosphere and very nice traditional style pizza, along with a very relaxed service style that was refreshing in light of the often painfully forced service offered elsewhere in the US.

A couple of blocks up, at 20th and Valencia, was a great bookshop as well, part of a small chain dotted around the city, Dog Eared Books. While not as iconic as City Lights (which of course is always a must to visit) this came with a similar feel and charm celebrating the independent side of things while also stocking the bigger names.

Not too far away on Church Street, near the intersection with Market, was another bookstore specialising more in second-hand and older titles, Aardvark Books, that also featured a rather friendly cat.

Mission San Francisco de Asis

Mission San Francisco de Asis

Along with the evident history provided by the Mission de San Francisco de Asis and more recent historical structures makes for a fascinatingly varied area to explore.

Mission Dolores Park is a hub of all of this and, on the warmer days, it was packed with people relaxing in the sun, playing ball games, walking dogs and anything else you could think of doing in a municipal park, creating a great friendly atmosphere that permeated the area.

By the time of reaching Mission Street, and the Mission District that surrounds it, this atmosphere had changed slightly and, while still generally friendly, took on a slightly more down at heel vibe. While I would like to explore this area more, it’s one I would do in day time and, in this instance, led to one of the few disappointments of my visit to the city with an at best average meal at the otherwise strongly reviewed WesBurger ‘N’ More restaurant.

Heading to the west the Castro district remains one of the brightest and friendliest in the city with a genuinely cosmopolitan and welcoming atmosphere from its many cafes and bars that open onto the street, with a real sense of modern life mixing with the history of the area. Even the homeless guy who seemed to have a regular pitch outside Walgreens had a sense of this with his various signs playing up on the area’s obvious more liberal political stance.

Cable car

Cable car

On my first full day in the city I headed to the tourist and commercial hub of Union Square, mostly to pick up a Muni Passport for the week (a must for anyone without a car as for $40 you can use any of the cities main bus and tram lines as much as you like), but also to indulge in some of the more typically touristy things, starting with a ride on the cable car tram from its Powell and Market turnaround point.

Riding the cable cars is a must and, while about the most typical of things to do in San Francisco after Alcatraz, is great fun and gives you a view of real cross-section of the city as it goes from the bustling commerce of Union Square through the edges of China Town and some more residential areas of the city centre, all the way to the sea front park at the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist district.

I hopped off at the top of Lombard Street, the highest point of the ride, to soak in the views and see this famously winding block of street.

Lombard Street

Lombard Street

While busy with tourists doing the same it is a unique sight and has great views both down to Alcatraz and across to Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill.

If you really feel brave and fit find your way to the bottom of the hill on Columbus Avenue and walk up – I stuck with walking down a block then heading down towards the coast, stumbling on the cute little Fay Park garden in the process (the city is dotted with these from small ones taking up a house plot to ones a block or two in size).

Coming out at the Maritime Park, with great views afforded across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz and some old ships that have been converted in museums, I made my way along to Pier 39. While not especially edifying and packed with tourists seeking out food, souvenir tat and little more, there are a few interesting little things on offer including the Musee Mecanique which I also visited on a previous trip and the always entertaining and fascinating sea lions on their pontoons at Pier 39.

Sea lions at Pier 39

Sea lions at Pier 39

I followed this by taking one of the vintage streetcars (also covered by the Muni Passport) around the Embarcadero for a gentle ride to the Ferry Building, another bustling tourist spot but a little more relaxed than Pier 39 with some interesting, less naff looking, shops and cafes and a local produce market in the old harbour transport terminal.

Another area of the city I headed to this time, which I had previously not explored at all, was the westerly most point, at Ocean Beach.

Stretching miles down the Pacific coast of the peninsula the beach is genuinely impressive, even with mist hanging in the air.

Along with some great views along the coast it features some impressively graffiti’d sea defences and, somewhat uncharacteristically, a pair of traditional windmills emerging from the end of Golden Gate Park that lies on the other side of the coast highway.

Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach

While I’m not really one for sitting on the beach, given the mini-heat wave that was starting up many were taking this opportunity, though few were venturing into the surprisingly rough and famously chilly sea – I guess the potential for sharks could be a deterrent too, though there were some surfers out amongst the waves.

From Ocean Beach we picked up a bus along the length of Golden Gate Park to the famed Haight-Ashbury District – home of the original 1960s ‘hippy’ movement. While it’s a little on the touristy side, it has a certain tatty charm that evokes something of its most famous time and clearly still attracts some of the same people it has for the past 50 years or so, and, if anything, has become less commercial over the years since my first visit back in 2006.

Another place I headed this time that I hadn’t before is to be found in The Presidio out towards the Golden Gate.

Yoda fountain

Yoda fountain

The area is a lush green one with residential and business space nestling among leafy glades and a surprisingly large and unspoilt forested patch, but where I was interested in was in the grounds of Lucasfilm’s extensive ‘campus’ that includes the company’s offices and Industrial Light and Magic space.

As well as the business side of the now Disney owned company it features an iconic statue of Yoda as well as a publicly accessible lobby with artefacts from the Star Wars films and a collection of vintage movie posters and an impressive cabinet of awards trophies.

Of course no trip to San Francisco is really complete without a visit to the infamous island prison of Alcatraz. Once again I was lucky to get a trip with clear weather, leading to some great views of the city and the bay and the historical side remained fascinating even on a return visit (you can read more of my impressions of the island in the blog on a previous trip).

Alcatraz island

Alcatraz island

Away from all that and a visit to the Academy of Science for their Nightlife show which is also well worth a visit and this time featured an exploration of our attempts to discover and communicate with extra terrestrial life, San Francisco remains one of the most interesting and welcoming cities I’ve visited with new things to explore in a place where walking doesn’t make you feel like an alien and with one of the best public transport systems I’ve found anywhere.

And all that recommendation even with the event of a random pepper spray attack on one of my tram trips that led to making a statement to the very helpful local constabulary and meeting some very friendly firemen and paramedics as it seemed if you call one you get the lot!

While in the city I also caught the band Dinosaur Jr at The Regency Ballroom, you can read my review of that by clicking here

You can see more of my photos in a public album on Facebook by clicking here

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Blink-182 – California

Blink-182 - California album coverIn summer 2016 two of the biggest bands in the world of pop punk released records that had something of a comeback feel to them. I’ve already taken a look at Green Day’s effort, Revolution Radio, so now I’ve had a listen to Blink-182’s California.

Originally forming in the wake of the pop-punk explosion caused by the likes of Green Day back in 1995, Blink-182 became arguably the biggest band of the following wave of American pop-punk with their 1999 album Enema of the State and 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.

Since then something of a direction on their self-titled 2003 album was followed by a lengthy hiatus and then a change of personnel before California with Alkaline Trio leader Matt Skiba joining in place of founding guitarist and vocalist Tom DeLonge.

So to California. As the name suggests this is a partial concept record about the band’s home state, particularly the southern part of it – Blink originally formed in and around San Diego – and it is the three tracks that most obviously provide this theme that are three of the highlights. Los Angeles, San Diego and the title track all present different aspects of the band at their most mature and inventive sounding.

Blink-182 circa 2016

Blink-182 – Hoppus, Barker and Skiba

This is balanced with the kind of songs that made the bands reputation with pop hooks, singalongs and catchy choruses aplenty, that had me singing along after only a couple of listens. Particularly in this group are She’s Out Of Her Mind and Kings of the Weekend.

On top of this Built This Pool and Brohemian Rhapsody show the band still have their juvenile streak with these two 30 second skit-songs very reminiscent of several from their back catalogue.

What sets California apart from Blink’s past efforts is, I think, something that Skiba brings to the table. Alkaline Trio are known for adding gothic elements to their pop-punk and dealing with darker themes and that sneaks through here. Sober is a song that while upbeat and still has the Blink thing going on suggests something deeper as do the Californian tryptic.

Admittedly Blink have headed in these directions in the past as well with the likes of Stay Together For The Kids and Adam’s Song but Skiba’s presence adds an extra level to it as well as making for a more digestible sound than DeLonge ever managed.

Blink-182 playing live

The band playing live

With a lot of variety for a pop-punk record California still falls together like a complete package of an album including some moments of the more modern style of pop-punk with heavier guitar tones along with the upbeat feel.

It’s not just Skiba who’s on top form either, but founder member Mark Hoppus (bass and vocals) and long time drummer Travis Barker are both clearly at the top of their game as well, and as ever the drums are a big part of what elevates Blink-182 above the rest of the pop-punk pack and California certainly shows this longstanding band can still be a cut above the rest.

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Coast Starlight: San Francisco to Los Angeles – October 2015

Coast Starlight

The front of the Coast Starlight

Read about my last day in San Francisco here

Heading out into San Francisco at dawn shows it in a different light, with Broadway all but silent and the streets quiet before rush hour begins, it genuinely felt as if it was sleeping. The yellow cab I had booked stood out against this starkly; especially considering the slowly lightening sky was clearly a steely grey.

The temporary trans-bay bus transit terminal was about as clinical as they come. Replacing the dilapidated Amtrak terminal by the ferry building it was certainly more organised, although long haul land travel in the US still feels like the poor relative when compared to air travel.

Thankfully the coach driver was a cheerful soul, albeit with a slightly world-weary edge, as we boarded his coach for the trip across the bay. Quickly joining the freeway that becomes the Bay Bridge it was clear we were, traffic-wise at least, going the right way as the four lanes of traffic heading into the city were already jammed.

It wasn’t long until we were over the bridge and off the freeway, into the narrow streets of Oakland, which at points I was surprised the coach could even navigate, as we headed into the city’s more gentrified area around Jack London Square.

Jack London Square Station

Jack London Square Station

As with my last visit I was still surprised by quite how small the train station here is considering it lies on the main line route that runs from Vancouver in the north to San Diego in the south.

With just two platforms and a modest, if fairly well designed, waiting room/ticket office, it just adds to the notion that America really doesn’t do passenger rail travel anymore and is the land of the plane and, to a much greater extent, the car.

Following a stop at the nearby maintenance yard the Amtrak Coast Starlight finally pulled in about two hours late and we were rushed aboard the (at least) 11-double-decker-carriage-long train and were soon slowly trundling through Oakland and the rest of the east bay sprawl towards San Jose.

While Oakland remains as rundown as I remember and again its southern regions back up its northern ones in its image as the less well to do of the cities on the bay, as it gives way to open land there are interesting things to see, so I soon made my way to the train’s viewing/café car, where I stayed for the best part of the next 12 hours.

Abandoned houses

Abandoned houses

South of Oakland a stretch of track runs through an area that lays below sea level. Amongst the swampy ground and tidal pools were a surprising number of long abandoned shacks and small houses – I don’t know the history of these dwellings but I’m sure there are stories to be told there – they certainly look like it

Heading into the outskirts of San Jose the train passed right by the Levi Stadium, home to Wrestlemania 31 earlier in 2015, that I had investigated attending. On the other side of San Jose, after a brief stop at the city’s station, we found ourselves stopped for a lengthy period in a small timber yard and passing point, waiting for a freight train to go by, thanks to the logistical nightmare that is the single track system used up and down this line.

The next chunk of the journey, about six hours worth at an estimate, stretches down to the hills before San Luis Obispo so is, for the most part fairly repetitive, however the views across the at times arid farm land and small communities we passed through brought their own interest. Some of the hamlets (if Americans use that word) were run down and looked barely lived in while others were, in contrast, clearly quite well to do. Along with this the train passed through the Elkhorn Slough Marine Reserve near Salinas, which gave the chance to see some fairly impressive seabirds in the estuary.

South of San Jose

South of San Jose

Most of the trip I spent lost in the views and various podcasts, occasionally separated by friendly chat with some of the other passengers who ranged from other relaxed tourists to anxious travellers hoping to meet connecting trains in LA, meaning their journeys would last well over 24 hours on the Amtrak network.

The second half of the journey became more visually interesting as we passed through oilfields down a long, increasingly deep valley, before the three engines at the head of the train really did their work as we wound up the hills and moutains to San Luis Obispo. As we did so there was a lot of talk of how dry the surrounding countryside was and the ongoing drought which all the Californians onboard were hoping would break soon thanks to El Nino.

The plateau on which San Luis Obispo lies is punctuated by the peaks of a series of extinct volcanoes, today with clouds gathering around them, while the train snaked around a remote prison in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

Mountains at San Luis Obispo

Mountains at San Luis Obispo

As we headed down the other side of the mountains there was more farmland and small clusters of houses before we entered the vast airforce base that lies on the coast and we soon got our, long-awaited, first view since Salinas of the Pacific Ocean as the sun began to set.

The waves crashed onto undisturbed beaches, accessible only from the sea, in the twilight making for some impressive sights while the runways used for Space-X, and previously the Space Shuttle programme, lay on the landward side.

This area also brought the first faint traces of Hollywood as these were the beaches and dunes used in the likes of Planet of the Apes and, much earlier, the epics of the silent movie era.

As darkness fell in earnest I made my way back to my seat in the coach cabin for the final hour or so through the beginnings of the vast sprawl of Los Angeles.

The rough Pacific

The rough Pacific

Union Station, in the city’s ‘Downtown’ district, is a grand looking place with a 1930s style vibe, though its nine platforms felt somewhat meagre for a station in the centre of a city this size.

The baggage reclaim hall offered the same meagre feeling as mine and only a handful of other cases tumbled down the chute onto the dated conveyor (I was amazed the vinyl in my case survived this fall).

Heading outside with my cousin I was struck instantly by the warm air, despite the fact it was now nearing 11pm. The other thing that struck me, once again, was the size of Los Angeles and the sky scrapers of Downtown.

We were soon past these though and on the freeway heading towards the coast making for a surprisingly quick journey to El Segundo, a suburb near LAX with an amazingly small town feel considering its location.

After a much-needed welcoming cup of tea it didn’t take long for the day of travel to catch up with me and sleep called in preparation of my time exploring the mind-boggling hugeness that is Los Angeles.

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San Francisco – October 2015 – Part 1

San Francisco

San Francisco

It’s been a few weeks since my return from California so this will take a slightly different approach to my blogs from my previous trip (which can be found here) and will, possibly, come with something of a sense of hindsight.

Flying into San Francisco in late October it was clear that the much reported drought the region was experiencing had had a great effect on the landscape with fields and open spaces that, on my last visit had been green, appearing parched under the tropical paradise like blue skies.

Once out in the open after a surprisingly quick stop at immigration it was clear why, as rarely did the temperature drop below the mid 20s day or night for the duration of my stay – while not great in environmental terms this made for a particularly good climate for exploring the city.

Taking a taxi from the airport (located south of the city and right on the bay) gave me the chance to get my bearings and take in some impressive urban vistas (for an island boy like me) as the Twin Peaks mountains looked down over the sprawl of San Francisco.

Entering by freeway from the south, after some more industrial surroundings, you soon find yourself surrounded by smaller wooden houses of Bernal Heights, Mission District and Potrero Hill before entering the city’s street system ‘South of Market’ by the AT&T Park baseball stadium and surrounded by high-rise offices that give way to the city’s few skyscrapers in its Financial District.

Within two or three blocks of that though the city really comes to life and, as I was dropped off on Broadway, bustling centre of the original city’s nightlife for over a hundred years, I already felt as if I’d caught a taste of the contrasts San Francisco offers.

North Beach apartment

My AirBnB apartment

Despite being my third trip to ‘the city by the bay’ this was first time staying in what felt like the living city thanks to the AirBnB service through which I had rented a cosy and well-appointed top (fourth) floor apartment for the week.

Having briefly spoken to him on the phone on the way from the airport the owner of the apartment, Jason, popped in shortly after my arrival to say hello and check all was ok and I couldn’t have asked for a friendlier welcome.

Following a few notes about the small apartment block we were in from Jason and a few no doubt stupid post-long-haul flight questions from me, he uttered the sentence that I think summed up Broadway, the street that really divides the Financial District and the more ‘real’ North Beach area perfectly for me: “When you head out, if you want strippers or weed go left, if you want liquor or groceries head right.”

Whether this was a piece of standard patter or not it hit the nail on the head and captured something g of the bohemian spirit that has been a fixture of this area since the city was first settled. Close to the old docks, North Beach welcomed sailors from around the world, followed in the 1950s by the still clearly evident ‘Beat Generation’ and now a wide range of pretty much everyone as Chinatown and Little Italy merge and hipsters and vagrants share the streets – all it seems with little hassle from any higher authority.

Pizza Calzones

4am/7pm pizza

Despite this description I’ve rarely felt safer in a city than I did here and it was clear this was a feeling held by the locals as well with a communal spirit pervading.

Following a trip to find the nearest supermarket where, despite living the old idiom “two countries divided by a common language”, I got hold of some suitable tea and breakfast food, and an attempt at eating a fairly amazing pizza at Calzones, at what my body was screaming was about 4:30 in the morning, I settled in for an early night before beginning my holiday in earnest.

 


 

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

There are few things that come to mind when San Francisco is mentioned; there’s the fog, the Golden Gate Bridge, counterculture, and, of course, Alcatraz.

Despite this being my third trip I’d still yet to visit the former prison island so I got up early(ish) on my first morning and headed down to Pier 33 to catch the ferry across to the island. For those with knowledge of the Channel Islands the ferry reminded of a slightly larger version of those that service Herm and Sark. I was particularly impressed by the hybrid diesel, solar and wind-driven engines – such use of renewable energy being far more evident throughout this trip than even two years ago.

The short trip across to Alcatraz was a fascinating one in itself as the various rushing tides and currents of the bay were clearly evident, even on this calmest of days, and the views of the San Francisco skyline from ‘treasure island’ and the Bay Bridge round to the Golden Gate were tremendous.

Alcatraz signAs we docked at the island’s small jetty and the infamous cellblock loomed above us atop the steep-sided ‘rock’, what really caught my eye was the large sign on the facade of the old admin building. Detailing the basic features of the island and the rules for admission from its prison days above the sign, in large red, hand painted letters are the words ‘Indians welcome’.

This instantly sparked my curiosity and revealed one of several fascinating stories of Alcatraz not associated with its time as a prison. When the island was all but abandoned and derelict in the early 1970s a group of native Americans occupied the island under the name ‘Indians of all Nations’. While they were eventually evicted from the then still government-owned facility their protest, which lasted almost two years, set in motion the ongoing programme returning lands and rights to native people of the USA and the marks of it are evident all over Alcatraz adding an extra layer to it’s already rich history.

Alcatraz tunnel

One of the early buildings on the island

This layered history is at once figurative and literal as you explore the island. Under the current admin building are the remains of a Civil War era fort that was the first structure built here, it’s mid 19th century brick work giving way to the blocks of the more modern construction.

The cellblock itself has a similarly layered physical history and the former fort parade ground is lined with the ruins of mid 20th century houses built to home the prison guards and their families. This all combines to make the islands whole 22 acres worth taking the time to explore separate to the famous prison.

Of course, the tour of the cellblock is the island’s centerpiece attraction and it is genuinely fascinating. Featuring audio recordings for former guards and inmates it conjures a real sense of quite how isolated life was for the inmates and why it gained the reputation it did.

This is highlighted in a part of the tour that takes you past the big, single glazed, heavily barred, external windows through which, on the right day, the sounds of the bustling and vibrant city could be clearly heard across the short stretch of water acting as a constant reminder to inmates of what they were missing during their incarceration.

Alcatraz prison

Inside the cellblock

The other highlights come in the stories of the escape attempts which ended with varying levels of success, the most fascinating of which involved a trio escaping into the sea never to be seen again – though authorities still regularly receive information on the men (now at least in their 80s) and there is still a multi-million dollar reward should any of that lead to their arrest!

My visit happened to fall on one of the clearest and calmest days possible so the 360 degree panoramic views of the Bay Area afforded by Alcatraz’s position were a fine bonus and added some context to the inner city urban geography. I can heartily recommend taking at least half a day to explore Alcatraz should you find yourself in the Bay Area as it is an experience like no other.

Southern panorama from Alcatraz

Looking south and west from Alcatraz

After a slightly bumpier crossing back, which seemed to surprise a few on the ferry despite being calmer than the average trip to Sark, I headed down The Embarcadero, past the occasional ‘Tsunami evacuation route’ signs towards, The Ferry Building. Though this footpath lines one of the cities major roads – six lanes of traffic and two tramlines – The Embarcadero from Pier 39 to The Ferry Building is a pleasant place for a stroll with views across the bay toward Oakland and Berkeley and several restaurants and bars it’s clearly well maintained for visitors but without the intense tourist feel of Pier 39.

Heading inland at The Ferry Building (now more market and boutique shopping mall than actual ferry terminal) takes you into the city’s main thoroughfare of Market Street, though not before a chance to browse the stalls of a small local arts and crafts market where you could pick up anything from typical naff souvenirs to hand-made jewellery and photographs.

Tsunami Evacuation route

Tsunami Evacuation route

Though only made up of maybe 20 or 30 stalls in the small junction plaza at the top of the street it had its own atmosphere with traders, visitors and the inevitable and ever-present homeless contingent all chatting about anything that happened to come to mind – and I’m sure some sales were made too, though that was less obvious.

Barely a block down market street though and the feel was very much that of a bustling financial centre with high-rise office building on all sides representing a range of banks and financial institutions and after meeting up with a friend we walked around the feet of a few of these Titans, topped by the Transamerica Pyramid, as we headed back toward Broadway.

After a brief rest we headed out to navigate the bus system to Golden Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences. Thankfully, San Francisco has a great public transport system that is fairly easy to understand, once you get the hang of it, and is surprisingly quick at taking you from one side of the city to the other and even across the bay if you use the underground BART network.

Thursday evenings at the Academy, the city’s main science museum, is Nightlife, where the museum reopens exclusively for over 18s to explore the exhibits, see some special attractions and have some food and drink. This particular Thursday the theme was all things space related so I was in my element!

Academy of Science dinosaurThe centerpiece highlight for me was the show in the museum’s spectacular Imax-like planetarium. Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson it explored the universe from Earth to the far reaches 14 billion light years away with a focus on dark matter and dark energy.

While the show was clearly aimed at an audience with only a superficial understanding of the subject (like me) it was still somewhat brain-melting in its scope but enthralling throughout and the visuals alone would have been breathtaking – I could easily have sat watching the flying star fields all night if given the chance!

As well as the usual science museum type exhibits the Academy features a subterranean aquarium that for the purposes of tonight was doubling as a kind of nightclub (the fish didn’t seem to mind one bit) and it was quite an experience exploring its dark tunnel-like structures with a specialty cocktail in hand listening to vaguely psychedelic trance beats.

Academy of Sciences AquariumAfter taking part in the fun pub-style quiz, themed to match the night, and exploring the inevitable gift shop it was time to head home, but I would strongly recommend that you check out Nightlife if you’re in San Francisco on a Thursday night as no matter the theme I imagine it would be a fascinating experience and a chance to explore the museum away from the school parties and family holiday groups during the day.

Read the second part of my blog on my trip here

You can see more of my photos from the trip on Facebook by clicking here

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