Barcelona 2010

In the early parts of October, we took a week off to celebrate being able to take a week off and all the hard work we’ve been doing the past year.
The journey took us and a dearly befriended couple to Barcelona, where we stayed for 6 days to eat, drink, sleep and gaze upon everything that makes this city special.

Below a small selection of all found images.

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Close encounters

Moving further down south along the coast from Los Angeles, one may find a huge urban area driving on the 101 southbound. That is, until one reaches another San, which is San Diego.
This town with 1.3 million inhabitants is also the home of Sea World San Diego, which is the original Sea World.
Here they feature shows with dolphins, sea otters, humans, California sea lions, and most importantly, killer whales!

It is for these guys that we went there, and like a whole lot other people we went to see Shamu(R). Yes, that name is indeed a trademark! The show features three or four of these killer whales, and after an tragic event at Sea World Orlando the shows are kept ‘dry’ which means the trainers will not go into the water with the animals during the show.
Nevertheless, it was great, and really American.

The show starts with a tribute to all active and veteran servicemen and -women of both the US Army and their allies. The audience gives a resounding ovation and the show is off! It features jumping, twisting, sliding and especially a whole lot of splashing whales.
Oh yes, the Americans sure do like their splashing whales! The first 16 (!) rows are the so called ‘Soak Zone’ and viewers with cameras are strongly advised to go sit somewhere else if they want to keep their equipment in a working state until after the show. Let’s say the tail of a killer whale can cause quite some drenched people! And they all love it. Called the Shamu(R) Slam, the soaking lasts for a solid 10 minutes where all visitors are being blasted in various ways while doing a special move to encourage the animals to get as much water out of the basin and into the seating area.
As a certain big Galician would put it: strange folks, those Americans.

Returning to the drop off point for our car, we started ti realize that there is only the final leg of our vacation left; the ling trip back home. Tomorrow, we have to up around 4 am to catch the first plane to Washington, and then on to Amsterdam, where my brother will pick us up…

So long America! You have been a true blast!

Tharrrr she blows!

Aye matey’s, raise the anchor, clean the decks, we’re going whaling!
Oh well, whale sightseeing then.

A short drive from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara brought us to the Condor Express, a twin engine hydro propelled catamaran operated entirely for the whale watching business. It a 75 foot long vessel equipped for the scientific and touristic spotting of all kinds of whales visiting the channel between the California Channel Islands and the mainland.

Usually, the boat sees Humpback whales, the occasional Blue whale, Sperm whales, Killer whales, Grey whales, all kinds of dolphins, California sea lions, and regular seals. And a lot of birds as well; of which Pelican are the most interesting for us.

We set out to sail the Channel around 10, and with a warning from Tue captain that we were likely not going towards the Islands, the chances of running into a Blue whale were really slim. We were far more likely to see Humpback whales, so we’d have to settle for those.

So we did. And to not only our, but also the captains amazement we ran almost immediately into a mother calf pair of Blue whales, with the calf showing an remarkable amount of interest in the boat. Remember, the boat is 75 foot long, the baby Blue whale about 35 and mom about 80 feet. That is huge!

BTW: when the captain and his crew get really excited about what you are seeing, you know you are part of something special.
We saw the calf playing with the boat, by swimming underneath it and trying to get it to play by swimming upside down alongside it! It was great!

We did not see any Humpback whales though, so that was unfortunate, but all in all the sighting of the majestic Blue whale and even a calf was just awesome! We’d do it again tomorrow if possible…

The long drive south

Right after our spectacular day in San Francisco, we were forced to leave town to head towards Los Angeles.
We have been planning on doing so via the renowned Highway 1. This is said to be the most beautiful road in the entire United States.

It turned out to be the best road ever, albeit curvy, steep and really slow. For the 90 miles of Interstate, there’s about 200 miles Highway 1 and it takes you at least 6 hours to drive. Not because you have to drive very carefully, but because there is hardly and room to pass slower traffic, and you’re driving as slow as the first in the string of cars you happen to be in.

We started our day with driving to Año Nuevo State Park where we were told we could find Elephant Seals. These weird looking creatures can be found there for 3 periods per year, we happened to be in the period where there are only males present and they are there for 4 to 6 consecutive weeks to molt. They shed their old hair which comes off in small patches, after which they migrate back north to feed again. The seals are fasting during the time they are ashore and live entirely off of their blubber.

The State Park was well equipped, and with a 2.5 mile walk to the seals with two strategically placed volunteers to answer any questions, was a fun place to be. As the walk turned out to be pretty long due to steep sanddunes and a lot of wildlife to see, we were running out of time! While we still wanted to drive the 17 mile drive at Monterey and reach our hotel the same day, we started to get a move on. Luckily, it was still early in the day, so we hare time.

So we thought. When we arrived at Monterey, we were strongly discouraged from driving the famous and really scenic 17 Mile Drive as it alone took 2 hours, and as it already was 4 pm and with another 4 hours to drive to Santa Maria where the hotel was located, we decided to skip the d-tour and go straight for Santa Maria.

Right in the very last leg of our journey that day, we saw a big crowd at one of the Vista Points that were created alongside the Highway 1. So we stopped, and to our amazement found a whole lot more Elephant Seals! These were even closer than the ones we saw at Año Nuevo SP, so we stood there in awe for some time to gaze at the marvellous weirdness of the creatures.

When we arrived at the hotel, the Historic Santa Maria Inn, it was already half past 8 which meant that we could not fully enjoy the hotel itself. It is great! Built entirely in “ye olde” style, it offer a good view into the American hotels of the 40’s and before. Wonderful!

Doing time

Our only full day at San Francisco was planned full to the brim.
First, we started off with the Painted Ladies, 5 original imperial style houses painted in pastel colors sitting in a row next to a big park which made for a very scenic view. This featured a long drive by trolley bus and San Francisco’s most famous way of transport: the cable car. Riding is is a great adventure, and with cars built as late as 1993 the system is still pretty well maintained. It is not the fasted though, but will get you there faster than you can walk most of the time.

Returning to the Financial District, we made our way back to Union Square to snap the same shot as Mark & Christa did when they were in SF. It good fun guys!
We continued by riding the long cable cars down to the wharf where most tourists are.
This included a trip to San Francisco’s windiest street, Lombard Street. Really good fun.

We also paid a visit to the Aquarium of the Bay, which features not one but two 100 yard tunnels through 2 gigantic fish tanks. This aquarium was a pleasant surprise, as everything was way better maintained then expected.

Finally, and this must have been the mist impressive part so far, we went on a boat trip to Alcatraz. Awesome. I’m not going to say more about it: it’s just that great. We were both in awe for the rest of the day. What a trip!

After dining at the very posh restaurant in our hotel we tucked in early to prepare for the long drive tomorrow. We are heading for the Historic Santa Maria Inn, in Santa Maria. We’re planning to drive all the way on highway 1, which is not quite the same as the interstate…

Entering the Bay Area

After a night with a very loud air conditioning system, we got up and prepared for the trip to the best anticipated city of our trip: San Francisco.
Getting out of the Yosemite region is about as hard as getting into it, long and windy roads lead you eventually to an Interstate leading to SF.

Entering the Bay Area is probably one of the most impressing things we’ve done so far. After driving through the upper Bay Area with cities like Daly City with approximately 400.000 inhabitants and bigger, you arrive at a two bridge system called Bay Bridge. This is the Eastern entrance to San Francisco and almost as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge.

First thing we did in San Francisco wad to find a route called 49 Mile Scenic Drive. This road will lead you to most of the car accessible sites the city has to offer. As we couldn’t find the start of the tour, we started touring ourselves and found our way to the Golden Gate bridge. We first drove it Southbound and went to the tourist designated site there, especially made for all photographing tourists. The view from over there is great, but it is at about the same level ad the deck of the bridge itself. We heard from another tourist that driving to the other side of the highway and going up the hill would yield a better view.

So we went up there and got excellent views of the bridge and the city from across the bay. Wonderful. Albeit a bit windy. And cold.
With us getting comfy with temperatures high in the 30’s, the mere 21 in San Francisco was quite a switch. Stewed in shirts, shirts and jackets we stood there to take pictures while our pants were nearly blown off by the syringe gusts of wind up there.

Going back Northbound we had to pay toll; 6 dollars. Going over the Bay Bridge was cheaper at 4 dollars, but the Golden Gate is quite a bit bigger. After returning to the city, we drove to the hotel to find that the Hilton Financial District is located directly next to Chinatown. Hoe great is that!

Also, we had a grim reminder that the hotel was dead in the middle of the city: parking was a whopping 45 dollars per night. With 2 nights to spend, we have been parking cheaper…
After checking in at the very luxureus hotel, we made our way into the town to start sightseeing. We did Union Square and a whole lot of walking up and down steep hills, which is good fun as long as you’re going downhill. The other way around is really not ok!

To find dinner, we started searching for non dinghy looking places in Chinatown. Luckily, this was daily easy and we settled for some teriyaki at a restaurant called Floating Boats Sushi Restaurant. As you might suspect judging by the name, it features a carousel of chain linked boats (floating in real water!) with sushi dishes on the boats for the guests to pick and eat. It was really funny to look at. The food was great, and pretty cheap, so the day ended great.

Giant trees and a whole bunch of wildlife

Today we’ve got a full day to explore the wilderness of Yosemite National Park. And there’s lots of it!
Like Grand Canyon NP and Zion NP, Yosemite NP has its own free shuttle bus system. It runs on hybrid drive buses with diesel-electric power, which are on a 10 minute schedule. Great for hopping on or off!

We started our day off with a long drive to Mariposa Grove, where the giant Sequoia can be found. In total there are about 500 trees in both upper and lower Mariposa Grove of which trees with names like Faithful Couple, Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree are the vest known trees.
And yes, we walked through a tunneled tree!
Previously, there were two, but the biggest of the two toppeled over in 1957.

There is very much wildlife to be seen in this park. There are a lot of deer, chipmunks, squirrels and even bears. We are proud to say we’ve seen all of those.
Yes, we even stumbeled upon a bear!
It was a small black bear, which is remarkably brown for it’s name. We suspect it was a juvenile bear, as it was not as big as a fully grown bear and there was not a big bear in its vicinity. We hope. We actually don’t know. It was a bear. And it was not as big as you’d think. Still a bear though! Amazing!

Yosemite is perhaps most famous for having huge waterfalls by the dozen. And huge they are! They are not by the dozen, but we visited the three most famous ones: Yosemite, Bridalvail and Nevada falls. Especially Bridalvail falls is amazing as it gives out a huge spray which photographs really well, but you and your camera will get soaked by doing so. Really big fun.
The park also boasts about having the best scenic view in the world. It is said to be from Glacier Point and is located around 7200 feet or 2200 metres above the valley floor. It also gives you a spectacular view of the granite mountains on the opposite side if the valley, which are whopping big and equally tall.
I must say, we were impressed by the shear size of it all and the grandeur such a view just has. Perfect place to end a wonderful day!

Unfortunately, as Yosemite National Park too is really big, we had a 45 minutes drive to the pizza place for our dinner. As described, there was not a lot to choose from, so pizza it was! Good pizza, even though we were both too tired to enjoy it fully.

We tucked in early, as the next day would be the day that we are driving to San Francisco! We are really looking forward to it, as we’ve only heard great stories about the city.
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Snowy peaks ahead!

Parting Ridgecrest was easy, after a cosy breakfast watching soccer with two other couples (I guess there were not more guests at the hotel) we left and headed for the second National Park in the USA, which also is the biggest in the lower 48 states: Yosemite National Park.
Home of two valleys where Giant Sequoia can be found, and four different habitats. Ranging from highland alpine meadows to thick pine forests; this park has them all.

We entered the park via highway 140 and the Tioga Pass. Only since June 8th is this mountain pass opened for traffic, which at over 10 thousand feet altitude is not a big surprise.

The park is huge! After driving for about 3 hours, we reached the valley, the park it’s visitor centre. After that, it took us another 40 minutes to get to the exit and yet another 20 to get to the hotel. So that is 4 straight hours driving to get from the east entrance to the south exit! The park is spectacular! Best park so far.

We particularly liked a part called High Sierra, which is flat highland almost alpine meadows and grassland. Because this is very high up the mountain there still was quite some snow up there which made for some very lovely views and equal pictures. I think we could’ve spent an extra day up there just to get to grips with the beauty of the scenery. Unfortunately we had to get a move on to go to the hotel.

We passed by the other types of land and eventually made it to a place called El Portal where the hotel Cedar Lodge was located. It is quite warm up here! Still in the 30s degrees Celsius, and the airco in the room is very much needed.
There are four dining facilities in the vicinity (that is within 30 miles distance both ways) 2 a la carte restaurants, a grill restaurant and a pizza place. We quickly figured out that today there would be grilled food on the menu and tomorrow pizza!

What stays in Vegas…

What stays in Vegas… doesn’t leave Vegas. It is as simple as that. So we left. Checked out, tugged al baggage to the car and drove off. Destination? Ridgecrest.

Our main goal for today was not Ridgecrest, as one might have guessed; it is Death Valley.
The lowest and hottest point of North America. Today it was a mere 43 degrees in the shade at the visitors center, so at Badwater (at -68 metres the lowest and hottest point) it was several degrees warmer.

We went out to see all major points on the roadside and after the advice of the very cheerful National Park Ranger “In this weather, you don’t want to walk more than 20 metres from your car” we kind of did.
At Badwater, we walked about half a kilometre over the salt crust to the more virgin salt crust and took some pictures. Very impressive, and equally warm!

Other points of interest we attended were: Zabriskie Point, Dantes View, the Towne pass, Badwater and Artists Drive. The last is a very scenic drive to several bumps and big rocks on a hillside with loads of different colors. There are yellow, green, blue, red and all other tones to be seen in these formations which is fascinating.

Leaving Death Valley is not an easy task as it is surrounded by three big mountain ranges. You have a steep climb to come in and an even steeper descend to go out. After that there virtually is nothing there, as it simply is yet another dry, low valley where almost nothing lives.

There are a few people though, in places called Trona and Ridgecrest (formerly known as Crumville). Tomorrow off to Yosemite National Park!