TEZZA RATES THE SOUTH WEST
Following is a lot of judgemental stuff on the best, worst, yawn-inducing, praise-worthy and annoying aspects of the south west. You may ask what qualifications I have. Well none, apart from excellent taste and the fact that I have always been very opinionated.
An outline of my 31 day visit: I did a loop of most of the popular locations in the south-west. After spending 4 nights in Santa Monica, 2 in North Hollywood and 2 in Long Beach I grabbed a rental car and headed for Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Yosemite, San Francisco, Big Sur and San Diego where I returned the car. After 4 nights I Amtracked back to LA for the flight home. I'd liked to have had the time to fit in Lake Tahoe and there were many more I did check out where I would have liked to stay longer - a half dozen spots along/just off the really nice US395 which runs up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas I could have spent a fortnight exploring. I gave Disneyland the big miss - when I was a surfer-grom I had a crush on Annette Funicello (yeah, I'm a seriously old dude) but in my adult life I've grown to abhor overpriced,/over-hyped attractions, long queues and crowds.
Main destinations - overnights or more at all those places apart from Death Valley and Yosemite Valley. Plus nights at Flagstaff south of the Canyon, Lone Pine - L P on image - (past the heat of Death Valley), Midpines (for Yosemite) and San Luis Obispo - S L O - plus Ventura (both between Big Sur and San Diego). My ticket from Alamo tells me I traveled 2761 miles which is 4473km. I did many more kilometers in city buses and trains plus intercity Amtrak.
The distance line between the aircraft and San Diego bottom left is 400km long.
I travel budget and stayed at 2 camp-grounds, 8 backpacker hostels, 2 budget motels and one Las Vegas casino (which because of the gamblers' subsidy was no dearer than the budget motels. But way sweeter. Not that the budget motels were bad).
HEY - THOSE COLOURS (get used to Brit spelling you Yanks) I USED ON THE MAP DO NOT STAND OUT REAL WELL - THING IS, I'M NOT PREPARED TO RE-DO THE MAP ON ACCOUNT IT IS SO TIME CONSUMING - SO MY ADVICE IS CLICK-EXPAND TO MAKE IT CLEARER. FAILING THAT, TAKE A HINT FROM LINDY LOVELACE - "SUCK IT UP BABY"
"HOW TO SING CONTRALTO WITH THE VIENNA BOYS' CHOIR" gives details.
I also have put up a page with lots of info and pix which you can access by clicking back to the index top right of page. SHORT CUT - I'm hoping SHORTCUT works fer yu - the previous link didn't fer me.
I have also done a separate page on Yosemite.
As far as man-made structures are concerned....
OVER THE TOP
SLIGHTLY UNDERWHELMING - BIG SUR
However I can well understand the raves the place gets - if I lived inland and rarely saw the sea I reckon I too could be blown away.
In summing up, I don't think Big Sur was a waste of time for me. I reckon it was well worth the visit - just not as exceptional as I thought it might be.
I've already mentioned Monterey. I also thought all those gated estates in California were bunging it on a bit with residents turning up their noses at outsiders and thinking they were living in some special place. Stand by for an incoming boast: Chez Tezza perched on a low seaside cliff on the NSW coast would blow them all away location wise.
Anyway, pretentious in a good, entertaining way was.......
There was a bunch of these. 2 standouts:
1 - Wapaki Monument/Sunset Crater Scenic Drive which loops off Arizona's route 89 (this is used to get from the eastern entry to Grand Canyon's south rim to Flagstaff). Above are some housing ruins of the Pueblo native Americans who lived in the area from around 500 ad to 1225. I'm not into archaeology but I found the ruins and the information in the museum fascinating - so much so that I stayed way longer than anticipated, meaning I made Hoover Dam near 'Vegas much later than planned....
....on a moonless night.
Oops! There's a killer dam wall, lotsa water and a deep gorge down there somewhere.
Sunset Crater back on route 89 aint exactly Mount Rinjani but was interesting and also cost more time than I'd budgeted.
2 - Sedona
psychicnirup.com on account my camera's battery went flat and my backup Olympus got drowned when I fell out of a speedboat at the Thai islands).
2 - Sedona
psychicnirup.com on account my camera's battery went flat and my backup Olympus got drowned when I fell out of a speedboat at the Thai islands).
BETTER THAN EXPECTED GEMI expected the Midway Museum at San Diego to be pretty good but it proved even better.
You can also check out crew quarters, sick bay, the mess, engine room, do a guided tour of command-central in the island (superstructure) and much more.
I expected to spend 2 hours here - I stayed over 6. Which is why I never got to San Diego's famous Balboa Park
Um - crowds in California's/Arizona's/Nevada's tourist season. Not exactly lacking in choice but I'd be giving to......
BEST PEOPLE WATCHING
Another one not lacking in choice. Was it at Santa Monica pier? Or just inland at the great 3rd Street Promenade? Drinking craft beer at a street-side Main Beach San Diego beer counter saw no shortage of colourful passing characters. Neither did a similar foot-path facing bar on The Strip at Vegas. Speaking of which - just sitting in the foyer of one of the Casinos was good value. I could go on, but I'm going to give it to the Grand Canyon's RIM TRAIL, where you can see all sorts of people from all over the United States plus a huge array of foreign visitors - all in full on holiday mode.
Note it was still 120F at Death Valley's Furnace Creek tourist "oasis" at 6pm - I'm glad I'd booked accommodation at Lone Pine on the lower slopes of the Sierras rather than pitch my tent at the Furnace Creek campground.
Note my Nissan Versa rental at back - horrible car! The understeer king of the highway screaming its lungs out near 5000rpm trying to keep up with traffic on interstate upgrades. I thought Alamo was giving me an upgrade from the promised (smaller) Chevy Spark until I read the Versa was the cheapest new car on sale in the USA. At least I squeezed 43.7 US mpg (5.4L per 100km) out of it (I'm a fuel nazi/mileage maniac) - but my own bigger, faster, more comfy Elantra has averaged 49 imperial MPG (5.8l/100km) everywhere since new whereas the Versa did mainly highway miles. The Elantra is often around the 4.9L mark on the highway.
MOST UNEXPECTED WEATHER
Mt Whitney is the contiguous 48 states' highest peak (14405ft/4421m) but I couldn't get a permit to climb the full route. Just as well - to make it up and back in one day needs a 4am start and I wasn't in the mood for that plus I had lots of other things to do that day.
The 6km climb from the Whitney Portal parking area (no permit needed) is a real nice trek thru a lightly forested area on a good surfaced track with no killer slopes - took me 4 hours return.
Note the smoke in the pic - big forest fires in the south-east Sierra made visibility quite poor. That's Mt Whitney at left - will be clearer if you click-expand.
A neat touch - National Parks has put a SEA LEVEL sign on the escarpment behind the parking area - check just below the black arrow (sorry about the positioning and colour of the arrow but that is my first try at Paint Box)
Note too the absence of 'Friscos very common fog and rain - I was real lucky both days of my stay.
BEST BIG CITY
'Frisco in 3rd place (there are probably more people in the greater San Fransisco conurbation) is a pretty nice place but San Diego edges it on account of better weather, beaches and myriad attractions.
Above is the entrance to San Diego harbour from Point Loma . The very first landing place of Europeans in California is said to be just out of frame to the left of that warship.
BEST MEDIUM TOWN
I thought San Luis Obispo between Big Sur and Santa Barbara was a terrific town but once again I judge another as superior - Flagstaff Az south of the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff is a nice place in itself with a very relaxed feel, lotsa good value accommodation and plenty of eats and drinks joints in keeping with its functions as a college town and a base for the Canyon + winter sports at the nearby Arizona Snowbowl. It has a host of other interesting attractions nearby like the Wapaki Monument/Sunset Crater Scenic Drive shown up page, other native American archaeological sites, the fabulous Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon and more. And for nostalgia freaks, old Route 66 runs thru town.
Walnut Canyon is 12mi/20km by road from Flagstaff (you can cruise Route 66 for half the trip) and is the site for the abandoned cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people who lived here from abt 1100 to 1250.
If you click expand the first shot, you can see at center a dwelling on the adjacent canyon side.
There are so many attractions on and just off the next 150km north along 395 I could have spent a week exploring them. I particularly liked the Mammoth Mt/Lakes area abt 170km north, and Mono Lake 200km north - but my research showed another half dozen could well have been as good/better.
My final destination that day was Midpines (for Yosemite) on the other (western) side of the Sierras (and 370km from Lone Pine) but I'd spent so much time on the eastern side I didn't arrive until after 11pm. Jeez it's great fun trying to make up a bed in a dark backpacker hostel dorm.
BEST MAIN STREET/DOWNTOWN
This is a hard one to pick - smaller places like San Luis Obispo, Ocean Beach San Diego, Ventura, Flagstaff and others had pretty good main street/downtown areas, but I'm giving it to......
In other respects I was a bit perplexed by Santa Barbara - travel guide raves are supported by sky high accommodation costs eg - a dorm bed at the HI hostel costs as much as my perfectly comfortable Pacific Inn budget motel at Ventura only 30 minutes further down the coast towards LA. But the market won't support excessively expensive accommodation over the long term - I'm a great believer that public demand determines high average accommodation prices - prices won't be high if the public isn't accepting them.
A further observation:,Santa Barbara's beaches, harbour etc were okay, but no nicer than half a dozen other places north and south along the coast.
MOST UNDERWHELMING MAIN STREET/DOWNTOWN
BEST VALUE ACCOMMODATION
Low room prices at casino properties of course are subsidized by the gamblers, but I'm no gambler - thanks Maverick and friends (am I showing my agea? If the reference to Maverick passed yu by, too right).
Actually I felt morally obliged to put a few dollars thru the slots, but these days they don't take coins which made the process more complicated for the passing person. Their loss - but I suppose they know their business. And when I recall famous economist Adam Smith's "Gambling is a tax on stupidity...." I don't feel too bad.
A thing I liked about both campgrounds - spacing between sites is quite big which gives the impression of camping in the bush. Well maybe not if you have a bunch of college kids adjacent. I had nice, quiet, friendly folk from Phoenix. In Australian campgrounds your neighbouring tent may be less than 5m away.
I stayed at 8 different backpacker hostels - HI Santa Monica , Orange Drive Hostel at Nth Hollywood, Grand Canyon International in Flagstaff, Lone Pine's Whitney Portal Hostel and Store, Yosemite Bug Rustic Resort near Midpines, San Francisco's HI Fisherman's Wharf, Hostel Obispo at San Luis Obispo and San Diego's Ocean Beach International.I chose all on the basis of good location, facilities and good reviews and was not disappointed by any apart from Bug near Midpines. I chose Bug for its proximity to Yosemite Valley (all the tent sites in the valley were booked out way ahead of my visit and I couldn't afford any of the resorts in or closer to the valley) its resort type facilities and good reviews. But proximity is a loose term - it is about 55km from Yosemite Village and the scenic but very twisty drive took me just over an hour (the YARTS bus does the trip - I intended to use it until I learned it takes nearly 2 hours). So I was leaving so early in the morning to fit in my Yosemite treks and getting back so late that I didn't get a chance to use any of the facilities lauded by reviewers. In retrospect, I should have lurked on the camp booking site until a cancellation came up - after all, I had nearly 6 months.
Some overall judgments on my hostels:
-US hostels tend to be more expensive that ones I'm used to in Australia and Europe. For cheapskates like me: Grand Canyon International in Flagstaff was by far least expensive at $US25 pn - and quite a good place overall: so represented best value.
The HI (Hosteling Internatioal) places were most expensive, but had the best dorms, kitchens, breakfasts* and overall facilities. Great locations too.
* breakfasts at San Diego's Ocean Beach International were as good. And cooking waffles at Flagstaff or pancakes at San Luis Obispo was novel with a tasty outcome.
-Service is way better. American places employ locals instead of travelers refurbishing their bank accounts - the locals have more career incentive than someone who will probably be gone next week. All the hostels featured staff who were universally friendly and informative. But a special mention for top service must go to Dave (Hostel Obispo) and Tanya (San Diego's Ocean Beach International).
- Fisherman's Wharf and Flagstaff had ample free parking. Obispo had limited within the property but plenty of spots out on the (quiet) street. Nth Hollywood is similar but the street was busier.
- Note HI hostels are dry. But Fisherman's Wharf is on federal land and apparently can't enforce the usual booze ban - so even the restaurant there sells beer and wine.
- Best party atmosphere was at San Diego's Ocean Beach. After good location, I chose most of the others on the basis of reviews mentioning how laid back they were, Most laid back? Um, a close one between all the non HI large places, but I'm giving it to Hostel Obispo.**
**Hostel Obispo is also a HI place, but unlike Santa Monica and Fisherman's Wharf it is small and very laid back. Was dry but super-informative Dave told me about a small store/snack bar just around the corner which sold very inexpensive Happy Hour beers. It had an outside seating area where all these old time locals and younger people would gather to shoot the bull. Very friendly atmosphere.
Being an unsophisticate, I've always considered craft beer the tipple of over-paid wankers. But having sampled some of California's offerings (there's no shortage - the south-west is a hot-bed of craft brewers) albeit at Happy Hour discounted prices, I'm converted. Wow!
Australia has no shortage of wine. I'm not sure if I've mentioned I'm an unsophisticate. And a cheapskate to boot - meaning I'm a world authority on sub $5 bottles of Aussie wine.
California too has wine to spare. I was amazed at the variety offered in the booze section of the supermarkets. But one deficiency - a shortage of super-cheap stuff like in Oz or found at French/Spanish supermarkets. No worries, I found myself....
And as the best-selling Aussie wine in the USA, it wasn't a bad drop at all.
My Aussie friend Kay, who knows about coffee, found the stuff here at Cafe Bellagio on Santa Monica's 3rd Street Mall, quite good. Top spot for people-watching and street entertainment too.
My award goes to The Larder at Tom Bradley International Terminal LAX. Gets a double gong - also my award for WORST SERVICE. Svelte-challenged African American Lady takes my order - commands me to "Stand over there!" which is to the side of the register. The next 5 minutes she's involved with some sort of money-exchange thing with other staff members. Another 5 minutes pass - I clear my throat and she gives a start and an "OH!!!!" But when I finally get my not inexpensive coffee it is only 70% full and luke warm. I should have returned it, but fact is by this time I was busting for a caffeine hit and wasn't confident of a quick remedy.
Overall I wasn't impressed with the beaches, rating them often featureless: many with less pristine sand, too much weed, unclear water, expensive parking and too many restrictions. I enlarge on all this on my dedicated BEACHES page which has a whole lot of sub-categories (with pix) such as BEST BEACH TOWN, CLOTHING OPTIONAL BEACHES, MOST EXOTIC BEACH etc.
But I did find a few nice ones......
MOST EXOTIC LOCATION
Arguably Vegas must win this, but on the basis of being foreign, I'm giving it to....
My thanks to Tanya, the super-informative Ocean Beach International Hostel staff member with the world's best 40 year old legs who told me about Rosarito, a touristy beach area to the south-west and the $2 share taxi vans for the 40 minute trip there. The ride was fun - locals tend to use the vans as a jump on - jump off bus service - but the suburbs of Tijuana sure are dusty and dirty. Then again, this is a semi-arid area in about the 3rd year of drought and the Mexicans haven't the tax base to harvest/poach water like the Californians.
Tezza’s Stayin’ Alive award must go to California’s road code (I got no idea what the official thingy is called. No matter.) 3 things I liked:
- -75mph (120kph) speed limit on interstates. This is a winner – plenty of drivers cheat by 5-10 mph which is perfectly safe in this age of anti-lock brakes, skid correction, high grip tires yada. Thing is, the shorter trip/greater concentration at higher speeds means people don’t drift off to sleep which is a big contrast to my NSW with its similar long distances but a 100/110 kph limits. As the NSW Minister for Roads never said: “Aint a good idea to start cutting the zzzs at 110 on the interstate”. Amen.
- -Turn right after stopping (unless sign-posted). This sensible fuel/time saving measure is the polar opposite of NSW. I didn’t see any near misses.
- -Overall, I thought drivers in the south-west were far more cautious and sensible than at home.
Fitness – the media tells us the USA is the home of the grossly over-weight dude. Big mystery – there seemed way fewer than back in Oz. You may point out that the south-west is on a health kick. But even at places like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Big Sur and San Diego’s Midway which attract people from all over the USA I didn't notice a big number of people suffering gross circumferential enhancement.
My Born to Run award for the most fit goes to ‘Frisco where an inordinate number of people seemed to be running, skateboarding, bicycling, drilling in the park and the rest.
Attitude – the overall demeanor of people I met was friendly and relaxed. Sure there were a few exceptions, but way fewer than at home.
My Good Vibrations award goes to the people of San Luis Obispo although the ‘Friscans weren’t too far behind.
Service – maybe the tipping culture breeds good service. Whatever it is, lower paid workers across the south west deserve my Nobody Does it Better award.
Street entertainment – LA attracts the cream of American and global talent. Not all make it to the big time meaning street entertainers tend to be a step or five above most places. The Putin’ on the Ritz award goes to the best I saw – at Santa Monica’s 3rd St Mall.
Public transport – the LA area has a reputation for sub-standard public transport. But I found it cheap, frequent and efficient. I particularly liked the free bicycle racks on the front of every bus I encountered.
I reckon the powers that be figure the working poor need a good, inexpensive bus and rail system to get to their jobs. Whatever the reason, Orange County’s bus system gets my Maybellene award narrowly ahead of San Diego, Long Beach and LA County.
Tipping – I’m not a fan of a minimum wage level lower than the cost of living. I’m trained as an economist and always thought the premier position of the USA was down to fantastic natural resources, skilled/educated workers, a great work ethic, innovation and good stable government. In later years I worked out that having a huge pool of low cost labour adds another advantage. Donald Trump seems to be singing from a different hymn book - wants to send many of them home. At any rate, such a system necessitates tipping simply to allow people on/near the minimum wage to survive – theme song Stayin’ Alive.
Homeless – crazies. The south-west (and I understand other parts of the USA) has way more street people than I have experienced in Oz, South East Asia and Europe. It’s a matter of political philosophy I guess. Americans aren’t prepared to shoulder the higher tax burden of supporting those who fall thru the cracks in society/the economy. Hard-liners don’t accept that this is often more a matter of bad luck than bad management. I personally wonder if money saved on lower social support networks is not balanced by the higher cost of law enforcement and the justice/jail system.
It would be churlish to trivialize the plight of the homeless with a theme. It may be better to strive for that core of optimism which is the catch-cry for the Land Of Opportunity (where even the very poorest may someday make it) by suggesting something like Someday Over the Rainbow.
Land of the free – NOT. In my travels both at home and overseas I’ve never seen so many signs with "DON’T---", come across so many rules and regulations, met so many restrictions on personal liberty. A lot has to do with official/public paranoia about the litigation culture – America would be a much calmer place if they deported the lawyers. And a lot is connected with the domination of the hard right in the area of national security.
Thing is, when a strong push in a certain direction occurs, inevitably there is a tendency to overshoot. Maybe this is what we are seeing in the areas of public safety/national security vs individual freedoms.
Of course when there are heaps of rules and regulations there needs to be a small army of people to oversee them. It seems so inconsistent for a population made up of such amiable laid back types but unfortunately it appears that once some don a uniform, an inordinate number go on a power trip – they can’t wait to order someone around. Dudes probably aren’t humming Que Sera, Sera as they troop into work each shift. More like Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower.
Okay, we've had THE GOOD, THE BAD. Now for.....
Testing the Waterhouse)
Don't get much uglier than a dude threatening you with a gun.
My WELCOME STRANGER award goes to....
I'm standing in the cul-de-sac taking early-evening shots of LA when some huge dogs on the balcony of the shack above start barking.
"Hey!" shouts a voice from the balcony, "You are on private property!" I had one foot on this dude's driveway so I moved 10m down the road and continued to take pix.
"You are making my dogs bark! And you are still on private property!" The latter is complete bullshit - I told him so and to ring the cops.
"Don't need to ring the cops. I got my gun!"
Now I can think of a million smart-arse answers but maybe this guy is a hot-head. Being a dead smart-arse is not very smart at all. And Lady Tezza would be pissed having to collect me in a box from the airport. So I shut the f... up and just continued to take snaps.
Do unto others:
Some of you private property hard-liners are thinking a man shouldn't give an inch. I disagree.
A much smaller favour didn't happen at West Granite Drive. Hats off to Harry. What a man!!!
Okay, you've seen my ideas of the South-West's GOOD, BAD and UGLY. Does the first outweigh the others? Most definitely - my visit was the most enjoyable I've done anywhere for several years.
I'm already planning next year's. Slight problem - SO MANY PLACES, SO LITTLE TIME (and money)..
IF YOU SEE MISTAKES OR HAVE ADDITIONAL INFO PLEASE MENTION THEM BELOW - BUT PLEASE DIRECT ANY QUESTIONS TO THE FORUM SECTION - I DON'T LOOK AT THESE INDIVIDUAL PAGES VERY OFTEN BUT I CHECK THE FORUM MOST DAYS.