Central California – Feb 2014

Day 1:  February 9, 2014

My first official vacation of 2014 is off to a roarin’ start!  My boyfriend and I departed that charming hamlet of Los Angeles last night and drove up to Monterey to kick off a mini Central CA vacation.  The drive north was rather un-noteworthy, in part because 98% of it occurred in the dark, and the beauty of driving up the 101 freeway is the spectacular views of the California coastline.

We were not daunted, however.  Bikes were stowed on our rack on the back of our car, and we were as excited as two kids on Christmas morning.  We stopped for dinner in Santa Barbara and I faced my first true challenge since joining Weight Watchers almost 3 weeks ago:  we had Italian food.  I picked the restaurant – Palazzio on State Street for those who are so inclined – because it offered gluten-free noodles.  New experience!  But that still left me trembling a bit from worries that I was essentially going to “screw up” on my first time dining out: over-eat… order the wrong food… over-eat… and yeah, over-eat…

And the restaurant didn’t make it easy.  They ran out of gluten-free noodles.  Sigh.  So I ordered angel hair instead, but at least I got it with mixed veggies and jalapenos.  And, as I sat there chewing on my nails worrying about ordering the wrong thing that I would then scarf down like a dog that hasn’t eaten in 3 days, I decided to give myself a break.  I told myself that it’s all about compromise.  So, I let myself have red wine.  But I wouldn’t let myself eat the garlic rolls.  I ordered the angel hair with the mixed veggies and jalapenos, and when the heaping plate was brought out, I measured out 1.5 cups straightaway, separated it from the rest of the plate, and then ate.  The rest went into a doggie bag.  And… I let myself have dessert.  But, I only ate half of it.

I surpassed my point count for the day anyway, but only by a few.  Not too bad, I say.

Besides, I knew that today would entail exactly what it did:  a lot of biking.  The weather is not being the most cooperative – it has been cloudy, overcast, and spritzing most of the day – but as I told my reluctant boyfriend: at least it’s not pouring down rain.  And it worked out great.  Monterey is a FANTASTIC biking city; there are bike trails everywhere.  Granted, some of these trails are also pedestrian walkways, which makes navigating them a challenge.  Yeah, people, can you please scoot over when a bike is coming up behind you?  Or for goodness sake, move over when I’m trying to pass by a large group and can’t because you’re coming the other way and blocking the passing “lane”?  Sheesh.  But it was still a beautiful ride.

After a remarkable breakfast of oatmeal with mixed berries and regular coffee (for meDSC01895 anyway), we were off to that icon of Monterey icons:  the Aquarium.  Spectacular.  That’s how you describe it.  Simply and for truly spectacular.  There is such a peace in watching wildlife… I could sit down on a bench and watch iridescent jellyfish float for hours.  Or watch sea otters swim and scamper and dance and twirl … or watch penguins look regal and tall – well, watch them think they look regal and tall anyway.  Even when there are 2 million children running around me at the same time, I can get lost in the majesty of watching animals.

We didn’t stay for hours though.  With images of hammerhead sharks in our head, we headed next to the Point Pinos Lighthouse.  A relatively new passion for me, but I have become thoroughly enchanted with lighthouses.  There is definitely the history that pulls me, but I think part of it also stems from the sense of romance.  Similar to historic ships, I think lighthouses evoke wonder and awe about life in the past.  And part of that wonder is also in their stately and majestic construction and their placement in the landscape.  Nothing says peace and majesty like a lone lighthouse on a rocky shore, it’s beacon flashing across the horizon, while ocean waves slam into the beach below.  Throw in a whale or two, a few sea otters, and some remarkable cormorants, and you’ve got all the makings of heaven on earth.  At least for me.

Astride our noble and intrepid bikes – which, by the way, the rides along the coast, even in the spritzy weather, were stunning – we next headed into the Lighthouse District of Monterey, where we stopped and had one of the most glorious meals I’ve had in a long time.  Thai food at the Pacific Thai Restaurant (right on Lighthouse Avenue).  I ordered the Bali salad, which includes baked tofu, mixed greens, peanuts, and peanut dressing, and I can say this much:  I have never had such delicious Thai food.  I’m sure it was the talent of the chef, but I think there was something in the dish itself.  I felt so good eating a healthy option – tofu and mixed greens – that I think it affected the taste of the dish.  Plus the peanut dressing was unrivaled.

Tummies full (and yes, I left half of the salad and tofu behind, so I am pleasantlyDSC01943 surprised I felt full), we then headed next door to check out a local bookshop.  Of course.  Considering that reading is my favorite hobby, and the one to which I dedicate the most time, I am going to stop in a book store every chance I get.  By the way, it’s one of the things that my boyfriend and I share in common too.  He’s as nuts about books as I am.  So after the two of us wandered in the heavenly environment of a local book store, we decided to get more by visiting another one down the street.

Awww.  Life is pretty dang good.

Now, our first day winds to a close, but more adventures await tomorrow!

 

Day 2:  February 10, 2014

How does one describe the perfect day?  Let me try… it starts with breakfast at Katy’s Place in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I ordered a single egg, fried over hard, an english muffin, and a bowl of mixed berries.  Can we say delicious?  Yes, we can.  It starts with a single egg, fried over hard …

Okay, moving on.  Next up for us was a stop at the Carmel Mission or the Mission SanDSC01993 Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo.  I have become a dedicated student of California history since starting my job at the historic house museum, and I am particularly fascinated by the California Missions.  My poor boyfriend (whom I shall henceforth refer to as “J”) — I have dragged him to so many Missions thus far, and so many more yet to come.  He is such a good sport though.

The Carmel Mission is, in a word, beautiful.  Glorious.  Delightful.  It definitely ranks up there with my (thus far) favorite: San Fernando.  Both for its beauty and its history.  And what history too.  Any student in California is going to learn about Father Junipero Serra – literally the “Father” of the Mission system.  He was an integral member of Gaspar de Portola’s 1769 expedition up the California coast, and he started many of the California Missions that elementary school students across the state visit each year.  Carmel Mission is particularly important though because this is the final resting place of Serra himself.  He died here in 1784 and is buried in the current basilica.  What an incredible site … especially since Serra’s final resting place is marked by a reliquary featuring pieces of his original redwood coffin.

My favorite part of the Mission though?  The incredible library – apparently the first in California – and the whale bone art.  Yes, that was written correctly.  Scenes of Father Serra and the Mission itself painted on whale bones, and particularly, whale vertebrae.  Pictures are forthcoming, but just wait.  I have seen scrimshaw in its various incarnations over the years, but there is an extra element of magic to these giant vertebrae with scenes of the Mission painted on them … to say the least, I was captivated.  And I think I took about a half dozen photos.

Following the Mission – and finally a purchase of a comprehensive Mission guide book and map – we next headed back up to Carmel for lunch.  We stopped at a counter cafe in one of the shopping plazas and I had a peanut butter sandwich.  A very delicious peanut butter sandwich.  And some coffee.

Then we headed up to see the Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore, which I recognized immediately upon entry as an Occult / Wicca / Goddess / Astrology bookstore, but was fascinated nonetheless.  I ended up purchasing a coloring book.  Yes, yes, yes.  A coloring book.  And some markers … and some notecards with California birds on the front.  What can I say?  Coloring is such a great exercise in therapy.  And these images are detailed designs of California birds.  I can’t wait to start them.  And once they are done, frame them and hang them up in the library J and I are planning for our apartment.

After the bookstore, we headed back down HWY 1 to Point Lobos Reserve.  We literally stumbled across this absolutely amazing wildlife preserve on the side of the road!  And though it cost us $10 to park our car, I can’t think of a time I spent a better $10.  A wildlife preserve in every sense of the word, we saw an incredible array of birds (including the great white egret and the black oyster catcher), not to mention the ubiquitous California sea lion and harbor seal.  We saw beautiful beaches, coves, and rock formations, and we caught brief glimpses of those true treasures: the California sea otter.  Could we ask for a more spectacular wildlife watching day?  I think not!  And what a gorgeous, peaceful, serene, inspiring wildlife watching day.  Yes, it was windy.  And yes it was cold.  And yes, it was overcast.  But watching these amazing creatures in their native habitat?  What weather?!?!  At one point, I was standing on a rocky outcropping, watching a harbor seal try to find a comfy place to rest on this craggy, pinnacled rock, and I couldn’t feel one aspect of the weather.

When we finally dragged ourselves away from Point Lobos, we kept heading down the coast on HWY 1 until we reached Big Sur.  We passed by the Point Sur Lightstation – another lighthouse – but we saw that tours of the facility are only offered on weekends and Wednesday.  Sigh.  A reason to come back.  At least I took about 2 dozen pictures again, so I have plenty of shots of this most esoteric of the California lighthouses, even if they are from a distance.

Once we realized we weren’t going to spend any time at Point Sur, we decided to pull offDSC02080 in Big Sur, and again, am I glad that we did.  We ended up on an incredible hike through the redwoods with a final destination of the Pfeiffer Falls.  Now I’m sure you can imagine with a name like “Pfeiffer Falls,” it can’t be that bad.  And you’re not wrong.  Pfeiffer Falls, while not Niagara by any stretch of the imagination, are still a quaint and picturesque natural area in the Big Sur redwood forest.  We hiked and hiked and hiked, and once we reached the Falls, we took picture upon picture (while we also made sure the two stoners who were on the trail in front of us did not fall to their deaths!).  As I mentioned yesterday, there is a peace and wonder in nature that is simply not replicable anywhere else.

When we made it back to Big Sur Lodge (where I bought a book on shipwrecks off the Point Sur lightstation), we decided to head for our next destination of Cambria.  It is about 6:00pm at this point, so the sun is starting to go down … and I can again say with all honesty, that I am very lucky.  I have had many moments in my life that have taken my breath away.  Some of the more incredible that come to mind now include the first time I clapped eyes on the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, and the first time I set foot on Santorini.  The first time I went to visit the British Museum.  And the first time I saw the Pyramids of Giza.  And now tonight.  The first time I truly experienced a sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  If there is a God, then He is present in the nature around us.  That is all I can truly say.  I can’t remember a scene more spectacular than the pinks, yellows, purples, and blues of that sunset over the ocean.  Not even Charlie Russell, whom I admire as an artist like no other, could have captured something more beautiful.  And I am not religious (not anymore), but if I were to believe in a higher power, then I would believe in the one who created an image like the sunset I saw tonight.

And that brings me to the final magic.  After the sun had set, and we’re cruising along HWY 1 towards Cambria, what does J spot on the side of the road?  A 4-point mule deer buck!  He’s just trolling along like he’s window shopping on the beach!  I didn’t see him, but once J spotted him, we turned our car around and headed back up the HWY until we caught back up with him.  Then it was a few minutes of pure magic:  we turned off the lights, the radio, everything, and we cruised along the side of the road at the same pace as Buck.  Every few steps, he would stop and turn to look at us – almost like he was checking to make sure we weren’t doing anything more than we were – and then he would keep plunking along.  And we plunked right along with him.  Again, I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than drifting along a dark and quiet highway with nothing but a mule deer buck for company.

God?  Yes, He is in those moments.  That is who God is.  He is not an all-powerful being with a white beard and trident who watches over us like Big Brother.  He is the lights in a sunset.  He is in the serenity of a deer walking along the side of a road.  He is in the magic of seeing history right in front of you in the form of whale vertebrae with images painted on them.  That is God, and nothing any religious expert or theologian tells me is going to convince me otherwise.

He is also in the pumpkin bread pudding that, yes, I indulged in tonight.  With only 10 points out of 36 taken for the entire day, I let myself splurge at dinner.  I had a Caesar salad and I had red wine.  And I had the pumpkin bread pudding.  And I don’t regret it for a single second.  This, my friends, is what life is all about.

 

Day 3:  February 11

I mentioned to J that wildlife watching is such a romantic and ethereal experience, and mankind’s tendency to anthropromorphize our animal companions only adds to the “magic” of admiring them when we glimpse them in their native environment.  But it is important to remember that nature is often vicious, brutish, nasty, violent, and deadly, and our animal friends are not human.  It was a lesson I was reminded of today when we visited the elephant seals near San Simeon.

The day in and of itself was gorgeous.  The clouds had finally cleared and it was the first bright and sunny day we have had on this trip.  We had checked into our hotel in Cambria last night, so our plan was to bike along the famous Moonstone Beach this morning and then pick up the car and drive up to the elephant seals.  But it was such a beautiful day … the weather was so fantastic … I convinced J to bike all the way to the elephant seals.

And I am oh so glad we did.  Although we did run into a few Weight Watchers snags as a result.  Point in hand: our breakfast was delicious – I had oatmeal, fresh fruit, and one half of an English Muffin.  Delightful.  However, since we were only planning at most a 5-mile bike ride, we did not bring any provisions with us when we set out.  Well, our 5-mile ride turned into a 30-mile ride, so once we reached the halfway point, which was the small San Simeon village across HWY 1 from Hearst Castle, we decided to stop and pick up some snacks.  This charming hamlet has a population of 60 people and one grocery store, which as it turns out, is not open on Mondays and Tuesdays.  So we ended up purchasing some goat cheese and crackers from the Hearst Ranch Winery.  Not Weight Watchers friendly at all.  But considering how many activity points I was earning for this extended bike ride, I figured it would be okay.  I hope.

Anyway, snacks nestled safely in my bike’s basket, we continued our ride, where we DSC02119spotted turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, dolphins (!!!), great blue herons, great white egrets, and harbor seals.  This wildlife spotting only reinforced our delight that we decided to ride our bikes up HWY 1 rather than drive.  Even if it meant eating goat cheese for lunch.

Then we reached the elephant seals.  It was this attraction that prompted the entire trip.  We had seen the elephant seals when we visited Central California last October, and when we learned the peak season to see these guys sleeping and farting on the beach is January – March, we decided to plan this second trip. However, I either willfully forgot or never learned in the first place that January – March is also their breeding and birthing season.  Which made for some rather graphic wildlife watching.

Let me put it this way:  it made for some extremely graphic wildlife watching.  We saw elephant seals mating, which, I hate to say it but I’m going to anyway: looks an awful lot like rape.  I know that I sound very ignorant because nature is what nature is, but the males literally chase down a female, grab her, and pin her down while they mount her.  She’s screaming her head off and smacking his head with her own, and in some cases, it looks like she is trying to scootch away from beneath him, but he literally has her pinned in place.

So, I’m not kidding – picture a rape that you’ve seen on Law and Order: SVU and you have elephant seal sex.

We didn’t see any birthing, but we did see orphan elephant seal cubs dead and dying.  One particularly heart wrenching scene featured a small pup screaming and shrieking as it slid along the beach looking for either food or its mother.  Female elephant seals reject orphans, so every time this little guy pulled up alongside a female and tried to nurse, he was smacked away.  We could see that he was starving – he looked deflated compared to the other pups on the beach – and it just broke the heart to watch him plaintively try to find food only to get slapped in the face.  As J and I decided to head back down to Cambria to pick up the car, we wondered if the little guy was going to survive the night.

And since I don’t necessarily want to remember the dead pups, which had become buffet dining for the seagulls, we’ll skip that part.  Suffice it to say that while I do respect animal lifestyles, and understand that they are different from my own, it doesn’t mean I want to watch the less pleasant parts.  Can’t I just watch sea otters swimming around instead?

After picking up the car, we headed south to Morro Bay, our final stop on this trip.  We checked into our hotel and ended up at the Italian restaurant across the street for dinner.  Again, Weight Watchers took a bit of a side seat.  I did order a garden salad with Italian dressing, and I ordered the angel hair with basil, tomato, and olive oil, but I also indulged in a piece of cheesecake – J and I shared it – and I had some more wine.  What can I say?  I needed it after all that graphic elephant seal sex.

 

Day 4:  February 12

Disturbing and distressing elephant seal sex aside, our final day on the California coast was filled with the kind of peaceful and serene wildlife watching I prefer.  We had a delicious breakfast at Frankie and Lola’s Cafe in Morro Bay, and then walked across the street to the rather aberrant Morro Rock, where we spotted sea otters… and, can I squeal now?!?!  Sea otters have to be the cutest marine animals on the planet.  I have fallen so much in love with them I actually invested in a plush sea otter toy.  Which only happens for those animals that truly and completely steal my heart.  I have no desire to own an elephant seal plush toy, I have to admit.  Or a cockroach one.  Or any kind of insect actually.  But give me a sea otter any day of the week.  Adorable.  Adorable.  Adorable.

When J and I finally managed to tear ourselves away from those adorable weasels (and yes, they are in the weasel family), we continued to strike it rich:  great blue heron sightings (we love those guys) and great white egrets … black oyster catchers and cormorants, and ground squirrels.  It was a wildlife watching paradise, and the best part?  No disturbing animal sex.

We knew the trip was drawing to a close as we walked alongside Morro Rock, butDSC02175 decided to squeeze one more attraction in before we headed back to reality:  we stopped by the San Luis Obispo Mission.  Since we had seen Carmel – and I have dragged poor J to many of California’s 21 missions – we decided to just swing on by on our way back south.  I can’t lie here – I was not impressed.  Granted, part of the museum was under renovation, so we only got to see about half of it, but the part we did see was very weak.  Compared to some of the others in the system (like Carmel and San Fernando especially), the historic material was woefully inadequate.  We saw 2 rooms – one a recreation of a sitting room and one featuring the clergy vestments.  Yawn.  A couple of paintings hanging here and there and that’s got it covered.

Sad, really.

At least the church was beautiful.  One of the simpler sacristies and altars I have seen, and I loved the bright flowers painted on the walls.  It gave the church a very homey and welcoming feel, which, in my experience, varies from many of the larger gothic churches which are incredible structures in architecture but whew … don’t bring you closer to God, know what I mean?

Kind of a disappointing way to end such an incredible weekend, but J and I reminisced on the high points on our drive back to LA, and we both agree – one of the best weekend trips ever.  Now, we get to start planning the next one!

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