Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Paso Robles, Morro Bay and Hearst Castle – California Road Trip

Back in late August 2017 mum came to visit us in Los Angeles. As part of her visit we went on a mini road trip to California Wine Country, Morro Bay and a famous tourist spot: Hearst Castle.

Being August the temperature was in the 40C’s (100F) and bush fires were burning around LA. We set out in my car from Pasadena on Saturday afternoon and drove up the I-5 before heading cross country to Paso Robles – a town of many wineries. According to the car, the outside temperature on arrival was 46C/115F.

We headed to Le Vigne Winery which had been recommended to us. Glad for the extra-strong aircon inside the tasting room, we shared a simple tasting with a paired cheese (the “cheese flight”). The wine was fairly average, and the experience of standing up at the bar in a very noisy room was not great. Overall it was not a very interesting experience (for example, compared to a good experience at Pfeiffer Winery, Rutherglen, Australia), so we left fairly quickly and headed to our accommodation – Americas Best Value Inn in Atascadero, which was also not very interesting but was the only place for miles around that had any vacancies. Actually, the interesting thing about the Inn was that the guy behind the reception was so unbelievably rude that it amazed me the place was still in business.

Le Vigne Winery
The Cheese Fridge at Le Vigne Winery

Since Atascadero had a lake, we headed there for a walk before dinner. The lake was beautiful and the temperature had dropped to manageable levels. There were a few people jogging, and others strolling around. Back at the carpark we paused at the little zoo which had flamingos in an outside enclosure.

Atascadero lake
Flamingos – yes, they are real!

We had fish and chips for dinner at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. Afterwards we got beer from the local Trader Joe’s then headed back to the hotel for the night.

The next morning, Sunday, we drove towards San Simeon and Hearst Castle. The coast road was very scenic and strangely quite empty. We stopped off in Cambria to get closer to the water. Scrambling down a small cliff with limited stairs we found a rocky beach which was actually more rocks than beach. After looking at the water for a while we headed on to Hearst Castle.

We arrived at the visitor center at the base of the hill at opening time. Like pros we went straight to the gift shop to get postcards – something which is pretty close to impossible to find in Pasadena ­– then got coffee.

As we had prepaid our tour tickets online via the California State Parks Reservation System we thought we were all set, but little did we know that those tickets are useless without also going to, yes, the ticket counter, to get them exchanged for…tickets. This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d known when we arrived and the line was non-existent. However, by the time we found this strange fact out the ticket line was literally out the door: 100 people long. Luckily once we had stood in the line for about 20 minutes we were good to go.

Hearst Castle, as seen from the visitor center

We boarded the bus which drove us up the steep and winding road to the villa on top of the hill. On arrival we were greeted at a wide set of steps by a number of volunteers, all pleased to see us. Just for a second it was easy to imagine arriving as a VIP.

Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the villa, and she took our group on the “upstairs suites” tour. William Hearst Sr. apparently loved to entertain guests at the villa, and had differently designed bedrooms for guests. We were amazed by the amount of European art and sculpture in each room. We also saw the spectacular dining room and library.

Living Room
Guest bedroom
Another guest bedroom
Dining Room
View to the Pacific Ocean from inside the Villa

After the tour we were able to wander around the grounds. We enjoyed the piazza and the wonderful views before heading to the last stop which was the swimming pool, tiled in azure blue and gold leaf mosaic tiles. It looked so inviting it was hard not to jump in.

Guest suite?
Hearst Castle swimming pool
Hearst Castle swimming pool
Hearst Castle swimming pool

That afternoon we drove to Morro Bay and arrived at our accommodation (Morro Crest Inn) to discover it did not have aircon. Luckily it was only 100F at that point so we had a cup of tea then went for a walk along the bay to look for birds and other wildlife.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Along with various sea birds, sea otters and seals we saw a pretty spectacular sunset. We had dinner at Blue Sky Bistro and enjoyed the evening’s cooler temperatures.

Sunset and Morro Rock
Dinner – clam chowder

The next morning, we had breakfast at the same place then after checkout drove along the bay to spot the local sea lions. These are extremely noisy creatures and we found a big group of them sitting on a yellow contraption in the middle of the bay, honking at each other. At Morro Rock we saw a great group of sea otters, and upon walking around the Rock we saw some interesting birds and lizards.

More sea lions
Western Fence Lizard
White-crowned Sparrow
Black Phoebe
California Ground Squirrel
Sea Otters


After this we set our sights for Pasadena, heading along Highway 1 as much as possible. We stopped at Solvang on the way and found it to be a very touristy experience. We sampled the famous aebleskivers and were underwhelmed!


This was quite a low-key road trip as in total we drove about 550 miles in three days. I would like go back to Morro Bay to explore the area more, and I think Hearst Castle is an interesting place for out-of-town tourists – but I wouldn’t go out of my way for Paso Robles!

Posted in Travel

Two weddings and a family visit: UK/Ireland

Back in May we went to the UK & Ireland for two weeks. We had two weddings to attend within days of each other.

We flew with Virgin Atlantic and since the tickets were only marginally more expensive, went premium economy on the way there. It was sooo worth it: even though we were in the usual departure lounge, we still got to board first, and have sparkling wine in nice big seats while all the grumpy people (usually us) filed past. Later in the flight my husband managed to sweet-talk a flight attendant into giving us a cheese platter from First Class.

We arrived in Bournemouth for a quick family visit. Saw everyone, saw the beach, made a go-pro video of seagulls with Dad. Then we flew from Bournemouth to Dublin on the inaugural FlyBE flight of this route.

On arriving in Dublin we somehow got talked into upgrading our hire car to an Audi A5 which was all very nice until a few days later when we got to the narrow country lanes of inland Ireland, and found even a Mini would have seemed like an articulated lorry.

Too big for Ireland!
Too big for Ireland!

Approximate Route (1000 km)

In Dublin we stayed at the Croke Park hotel. We had one day to “do” the city so we put on our walking shoes and stepped out, and immediately got soaked by a thunderstorm. We squelched our way around to the Cathedral, the Castle (where we saw an random exhibit about everyday design), had lunch in a random pub (our first inclining that Irish portion sizes give the US sizes a run for their money), went to Grafton Street (recalling Cambridge, MA) and St Stephens Green, where we got rained on again. Finally we went to Trinity College and walked around until we stumbled upon a cricket match. Since the sun had come out we sat and watched it, having not seen live cricket for some years. That evening we had dinner at an Indian restaurant followed by a Guinness nightcap.

The next day we drove right across the country to Dingle. We had lunch out of a Tesco somewhere along the way, and as we got further west the roads got smaller and narrower.  We observed that on the big roads everyone thought that going 80 km/h in a 100 zone was perfectly acceptable, whereas the on the smaller roads, everyone went 100 km/h in the 80 zones.

We arrived in Dingle with the sun shining, so after a restorative cup of tea we decided to drive part of the Slea Head Drive (R559). The coastline was beyond spectacular, and exactly what I imagined the West Coast of Ireland to be: cliffs, rocky shores, crashing waves, beaches, green fields, dotted stone cottages, sheep. That evening after checking out the town (in 5 minutes) we went to Fenton’s for a great fish dinner.

The next day we drove out of Dingle via Connor Pass. The weather was foggy and rainy so we felt extra pleased with ourselves that we had done the loop drive the previous day – but it did mean we saw nothing at the Pass. We drove along narrow roads to the town of Lahinch where the Cliffs of Moher (or Mordor as I frequently found myself calling them) are located. It was foggy and miserable here too (even though it was about 100 miles north) so we checked into the Craglea Lodge B&B, where were greeted by an enormous dog.

Hello dog.
Hello dog.

To pass the time we visited Aillwee Cave then drove across The Burren, an interestingly bleak landscape, to Ballyvaughn where we stopped for an early dinner. Fish n Chips and Guinness later, the fog still hadn’t cleared. Still, we drove along the narrow coast road where the cliffs should be, saw nothing but fog, then retired for the night.

The next morning the weather hadn’t improved in the slightest, so we gave up on the Cliffs and headed towards the first wedding destination – Ballina in County Mayo. After a hair-raising drive on wet, narrow roads, and through the lunch-time rush of Galway, we stopped on the other side of town for lunch. We had thought about doing a massive scenic drive through more coastal areas, but soon realized that would be too much. Our short-cut through the hills (mountains?) was spectacular however – the sun was out, and there were lakes and forests, and sheep wandered in the road.  We randomly stopped at the village of Cong and checked out its spectacular Abbey.

We arrived at the soulless Hotel Ballina and almost immediately headed out again for dinner. We’d been assured by the Groom that his home town of Enniscrone would be a perfect place to eat, but after doing a couple of laps we begged to differ (sorry!). So we headed back to Ballina, and to Bar Square. We may have had fish n chips and Guinness for dinner again…

The next day after a quick lunch at the hotel we got a taxi (eventually) to the town’s Cathedral. It was lightly raining and the driver said, without irony, ‘nice weather for a wedding’. We got to the church with ten minutes to spare, only to find it almost empty except for the ushers (whom we recognized immediately as the groom’s brothers).

The cathedral soon filled up, and one mass later the wedding was complete. We headed over to Belleek Castle for what turned out to be an epic reception. The venue was amazing and the hospitality and food was out of this world. There were drinks, music, dinner, drinks, music, dancing, drinks, conga line, and a second dinner. The speeches by the bride and groom were hilarious and the company was great. We left around 2 am when the party was still in full swing.

The next morning we drove right across Ireland again back to Dublin where we got the FlyBE back to Bournemouth. After one night at home we drove with mum up to Leicester where the second wedding was to be held.

This second wedding was for friends we had known only since Boston (so for about 2 years) but feel like we’ve known our entire lives. They saved us when the US and Cambridge threatened to engulf us with its strangeness. We wouldn’t have missed this day for the world.

In contrast to our Ireland wedding, theirs was a civil ceremony held at Leicester Guildhall. The bride wore blue, the flowers were paper, and the vows were hysterical, containing references to ‘being that couple that works out together’ and who picks up whose socks from the floor. The ceremony was followed by tea and wedding cake, then speeches (everyone was introduced – such a good idea for an international couple) including a voice/ukulele performance by the bride and her sisters, drinking, dinner, more speeches (including a spell-binding monologue on raising a child by the father of the bride), conversation, and a traditional Irish/Scottish Ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-lee’). The Ceilidh was an hour’s dance extravaganza where willing volunteers (or unwilling, depending on the numbers) lined up and went through several variations of spinning, going backwards and forwards, side to side, changing partners and general carrying on. I was kicked several times and my husband stood on someone’s foot, but overall it was a riot.

A large bottle of beer was required to recover from this and as we sat on the balcony of the hotel, looking over Leicester, we marveled at our good fortune: to be able to travel from LA to Europe to see two sets of great friends from opposite sides of the US, where neither of them are actually from, get married in two different countries, within 3 days of each other.  Thanks for the invites guys – we’re so happy we could share your special days with you!

Posted in Travel

Roadtrip part 1: Pasadena to the Grand Canyon!

The adventures of grandmother, mother and daughter on a 9-day roadtrip from Pasadena to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.

Day 1 – Palm Springs, Salton Sea, Blythe, CA.

We drove out of Pasadena on the 210 east, then switched to the 10 towards Palm Springs.  After a brief stop at the visitor center to stock up on free maps we drove into town, found free parking, and headed to Ruby’s Diner for lunch.  We were served typically huge portions as the toy train overhead circled on its tracks.

It was baking hot in Palm Springs and we appreciated the cool mist spraying from the buildings.

We then headed south towards the Salton Sea. This sea was (re-)created by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River burst through canal gates.  We got there after going through approximately a million sets of traffic lights on the 111, and running alongside what I can only assume was the world’s longest train.  We stopped briefly at the village of Bombay Beach to see if we could get a view (we couldn’t). It was 117F outside, and the village was a slum.  Elevation -226 ft.

We switched to the 78 and drove east towards to the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area. You can pass through this area quite swiftly in a car but we found a place to stop and took in the excellent view.

After passing through a border check station we drove past irrigated fields and smooth roads to Blythe, CA.  We had dinner at Rebel BBQ, the yelp-recommended place to eat, and drank a much needed gallon of coca-cola.  It was still baking hot at bedtime.

Total miles: 299.

Day 2 – Wikenburg, Sedona, Flagstaff, AZ.

We started on the 10 east and as soon as we crossed the Colorado River into Arizona we stopped for gas. Soon after we started seeing cactus in the surrounding desert. These looked identical to cartoon wild west cactus, and they were visible for miles. Mid-morning, after detouring onto the 60, we had a coffee break in the small town of Wikenburg. By following signs to the visitor center we found the historic town center.  We stopped for a selfie beside a giant cactus and checked out the range of free maps available inside the old train station.

As we skirted to the north of Phoenix on the 74 we found ourselves in a band of thunderstorms, apparently from the Mexican hurricane Odile.  On a recommendation we turned off onto the 179 towards Sedona and then drove along the 89A through amazing red rock formations.

Overnight in Flagstaff.

Total miles: 280.

Day 3 – Meteor Crater, Grand Canyon South Rim, AZ.

Today we did two day trips from Flagstaff, starting with a drive on the 40 east to Meteor Crater.  It was raining and the outdoor tour wasn’t running, so instead we listened to an interesting presentation about how scientists decided meteor crater was from a meteor and not a volcanic crater (of which there are several in the area).  We got wet checking out the viewpoints, and I climbed to the top with an umbrella and saw the whole crater lifted above the surrounding plains.  Inside the excellent visitor center we admired the piece of the meteor.

After driving back to the hotel for lunch we set out on the 90 mile drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. By this point the weather had cleared and it was warm and sunny.  We spent a fantastic couple of hours at the rim, catching the sunset.  We picked up dinner at the General Store then drove the 90 miles back to the hotel in the dark.

Total miles: 267.

Next post: Sunset Crater, Grand Canyon North Rim, Bryce Canyon.

Following post: Las Vegas to Pasadena

Posted in Travel

Sequoia National Park in a day

We spent a productive week in Berkeley.

A surprising grove of gum trees at UC Berkeley.
A surprising grove of gum trees at UC Berkeley.

I went into San Francisco and had a mooch about: I got off the Bart at Embarcadero and just started walking up the biggest hill I could find (i.e. California), before heading back down toward Powell station to home.

From the top of a big hill
From the top of a big hill – that’s the Bay Bridge in the background.
Another big hill - I walked down this one.
Another big hill – I walked down this one.

I also went to the UC Berkeley botanic gardens, partially to have a look at the flowering Queen of the Andes (otherwise known as puya raimondii) and also because I knew I’d get a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from there.  And what is a trip to San Fran without seeing The Bridge?

Golden Gate Bridge - just!
Golden Gate Bridge – just!
The big 'thing'
The big ‘thing’ – i.e. the Queen of the Andes plant

Happily our membership to Huntington Gardens in Pasadena got me into these gardens for free.


When the conference finished at lunchtime on Friday we wasted no time – we got straight on the freeway to Fresno, which would be our overnight stop before tackling Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park.

More freeways
More freeways.
Not far then...
Not far then…
Good job we had snacks.
Good job we had snacks.  Mmmm artificial.

After an uneventful drive we arrived in Fresno only to discover we’d have to drive right through town to get to our hotel.  We had the amazing luck to get across the train tracks before the world’s longest train arrived (see video).

We were greeted at the hotel by a bunch of ducks (or geese?).

They seemed largely indifferent to us.
They seemed largely indifferent to us.

The hotel (Courtyard Marriott) was alright, especially once we’d partaken of a couple of happy hour cocktails each; and the next morning we were up bright and early to be out the door at precisely 8.17am.

Fresno is about 50 miles from the park, or about an hour’s drive.  There was essentially nothing useful on the internet about either park so we just had to piece together what we could to make a plan.  Plan A was to go look at the General Grant tree, then drive into Kings Canyon and back out.  Plan B was to drive Route 198 (otherwise known as the Generals Highway) through to Sequoia National Park and out the southern entrance back towards home.  The reason Plan B was in fact, Plan B, was because the Internet told us that the 198 was ‘very twisty’ and ‘difficult’ and you would ‘definitely get car-sick’.

So we arrived at the park at about 9.30am and entered at Big Stump.

Big trees.
Big trees.

We found the Visitor Center and discovered that, even though it’s only a few hundred yards, one couldn’t walk from there to the General Grant tree.  So we got back in the car and drove.  Happily there were loads of parking spaces.

We did a circuit of the trees in the grove and were suitably impressed by how truly staggeringly big they were, and how truly staggeringly annoying a particular bus load of tourists were.  When it was time to leave the carpark was full and cars were circling.

Yep, it's that big.
Yep, it’s that big.

At this point we decided we would tackle Route 198 to Sequoia – we’d already got to 7000 ft so we figured we were most of the way there.  The first part of the route was easy and had spectacular views.  We stopped at many turnouts before getting to the General Sherman tree parking lot at about 11am.  Again, there was plenty of parking.

The views were amazing.
The views were amazing.

General Sherman is supposed to be the largest tree in the world, by volume, if you count the branches.  The sign told us its diameter is 11 meters (36 ft), and it is 275 ft (84 m) tall. It was pretty damn impressive.

General Sherman.
General Sherman.

When we left, the parking lot was full again. We guessed we were about half an hour in front of everyone somehow.

General Sherman marked the beginning of the Sequoia forest area, and the ‘difficult’ bit of road, and we soon started seeing massive trees everywhere – so much so that they became ordinary.  The photos below really don’t do them justice – be assured they are the biggest things we’d ever seen.

Trees! Also, sunroof!
Trees! Also, sunroof!
Just some more MASSIVE trees.
Just some more MASSIVE trees.
Now we're driving between trees!
Now we’re driving between trees!

We think it was definitely worth taking that road, and it really wasn’t that hard to drive.

The downhill bit of the road was also beautiful.
This part of the road was also beautiful…
...with more spectacular views.
…with more spectacular views.

Then it was the long slog back to Pasadena, with a pit-stop at a miscellaneous gas station Subway, back over the mountain of Doom with the trucks, back into LA traffic. We were home (with a stop at the supermarket) by about 5.30pm.

Urg, freeway mountain.
Urg, freeway mountain.
Posted in Travel

Pasadena-Berkeley roadtrip

Last week we were in Berkeley and we decided to drive there over two days (luxury!).

There are a few routes between LA and San Francisco, including just hammering up the I-5 the whole way, or going in more leisurely fashion via the 101 then the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). We decided on a compromise – we’d take the I-5 about half way there, then head west on the 46 to the PCH. We would stop for the night at San Simeon, near the southern start of the PCH.

The route north along the I-5 took us past the Magic Mountain theme park, and over a quite wide and tall mountain range.  On the mountain, trucks would try to overtake each other going at 25 miles an hour, while the rest of the traffic was trying to get along at 65mph+. Going down the other side the trucks had their own special lane, which they were supposed to stay in, but didn’t, and still tried to overtake each other going at 25mph in low-gear.  It was pretty chaotic.

Heading North
Heading North
Hill of Doom
Part of the mountain-range of Doom

The plains on the other side of the mountain featured a lot of bare sand, oil wells in the same fields as grapevines, and smooth brown hills.

For quite a large section of this part of the route we were overtaking military convoys.  They were quite literally miles long, and were travelling at just below the speed limit, causing overtaking to take approximately a decade.

Turning West on Highway 46 we were confronted by a long, flat road with a vanishing point. There are signs telling you Daylight Headlights are required, I guess since the mirages are so extreme due to the massive heat.  We passed a vast oil field.  As we approached the coast the road became windy and hilly, and at every peak we were sure we’d see the ocean in the distance.

Vanishing point
Vanishing point

We arrived at the Days Inn, San Simeon, in time for dinner and a sunset walk on the beach.  It was pretty cold – such a contrast to the desert only a few tens of miles away.

'Ocean View' at the Days Inn San Simeon.
‘Ocean View’ at the Days Inn San Simeon.
Massive seaweed on San Simeon beach
Massive seaweed on San Simeon beach
Sunset walk, San Simeon
Sunset walk, San Simeon

The next morning we took set off along the PCH. We stopped on the way to check out the Elephant Seals.  They park themselves on this beach for a few months every year while they moult. The seals get so hot they need throw sand over themselves (see video below).  There were some seals in the water play fighting and barking at each other. It was quite an amazing sight (and smell!).

Seals, and chipmunk-type creatures.
Seals, and chipmunk-type creatures.
Elephant seals: not dead, resting...
Elephant seals: not dead, resting…
This is the life...
This is the life…

The road was inundated with sea fog for most of the route, so we didn’t get to see many of the celebrated views. But it wasn’t exactly boring either!

Seagull posing perfectly.
Seagull posing perfectly.
The long and winding road
The long and winding road
No view, but still visually interesting.
No view but still interesting.

Between San Simeon and Big Sur there really weren’t many places for a pit-stop, but because we were ‘on holiday’ we decided to break for coffee at a random roadhouse. When we walked in we noticed everyone was grim-faced, and the room was silent – then we found out why: a filter-coffee and a packet hot-chocolate cost us $7.  Ouch!

The world's most expensive pit-stop.
The world’s most expensive pit-stop.

As we got further north the road wended inland and the sea fog thinned.  The density of RVs didn’t however.

A familiar sight.
A familiar sight.

Just outside Monterey we spotted a shopping mall/gas station so we decided to stop, rather than fighting with crowds in town.  We had excellent fish and chips for lunch, and a zero stress stop.

Excellent fish shop
Excellent fish shop.
Mmm prawns.
Mmm prawns.

We then made the final push to Berkeley via the 101, I-880 and the I-580, which was not as stress-free, but was accomplished swiftly.

Sweeping past Monterey.
Sweeping past Monterey.