Sunset Cliffs Park

I’ve always heard all these great stories about southern California – from the beaches, to the palm trees, to the wine. From August 2-16, 2011, my girlfriend and I decided to take a vacation to see what it was all about. We left on a Tuesday, and returned on a Tuesday. We flew into San Deigo, rented a car, eventually made it to San Francisco, and flew out of there back to Denver. In San Diego, we “couch-surfed” from the 3rd to the 6th, and in LA from the 6th to the 9th. We stayed in a hostel in San Francisco from the 12th to the 16th.

On August 2, we woke around 4am so we could leave by 5am and be at the airport by 6am for out 7am flight. We decided to take an early flight so we would basically have an extra day in San Diego. We also booked our return flight in the afternoon/night so we would have an extra day in San Francisco. We arrived in San Diego around 8:30am, and took a shuttle to the Hertz rental station. After picking up our car (a white 2011 Chevy Aveo), we drove along Harbor Island to check out the bay, and also to see a nice view of the San Diego skyline. After spending an hour or so there, we drove to the Point Lloma area to eat breakfast. We ended up eating at Denny’s. After breakfast, we drove around and ended up in the Old Town San Diego. We walked the area and checked out a bunch of the old stores there. We then went through the “new” downtown, and then to a Target to get some groceries and relax.  Later in the evening we drove to Sunset Cliffs Park to watch the sunset.  It was an amazing coast line and an excellent sunset.  After we left, we ate some dinner and went to sleep.  We ended up sleeping in the car in a Target parking lot since we couldn’t begin “couch-surfing” until the next day. We contemplated buying a motel room, but decided to stay in the car to spend our money on better things, like a good seafood dinner.

We woke on the 3rd around 7am, and went to a Starbucks to get online for a bit, and then went off to Balboa Park. We had plans to spend all day there, and then meet someone at 5pm to get keys to a boat that we would be staying on. So as we drove through Balboa Park, we decided to visit the San Diego Zoo. When we arrived, we

King Cobra at the zoo.

found admission to be $40, which was steep, but we decided to pay it to see what all the hype was about. We ended up spending most of the day there, and checking out nearly every exhibit. Although the zoo was nice and had a few unique features (such as tour bus and sky rail), it was not worth $40 and overall wasn’t any better than a $18 Denver Zoo ticket or any of the other zoos I’ve been to. After leaving Balboa Park, we headed north to El Cajon to meet up with Darius to get the keys to a boat we would be staying at for the next 3 nights (via couchsurfing.org). After getting the key from Darius, we grabbed some quick Subway, then we drove back to Harbor Island and checked out the boat. After looking at the boat, we went to the marina office to get a visitor parking pass, but the woman wouldn’t give us one since the boat had 2 owners and we only had permission from 1. She said that they wouldn’t tow the car overnight and that we would only get a warning. So we let it go, and then relaxed in the jacuzzi while the sun went down.

The next morning we wake to find the warning on the car that says something along the lines of “you need a pass to park here. Visit the marina office to obtain a pass if you are staying here.” We planned to try the office again, but the same woman was there everytime we walked by, so we just let it go. After waking, showering, and eating some breakfast, Sophie and I drove off Harbor Island, through downtown San Diego, across Coronado Bridge and around Coronado Island. The bridge is quite neat as it takes you way above the water across the bay. The island is a beautiful, relaxing place with lots of nice houses and a relaxing atmosphere. We ended up going to the beach on the east side of the island and spending much of our day there. For dinner, we went to a Mexican place to eat some delicious grilled burritos. After dinner, we bought some frozen yogurt, and then headed back to the boat on Harbor Island to relax.

By this time, we had seen pretty much all of the city of San Diego, and most nearby attractions. There were a couple other locations we wanted to checkout before we left, one of them being Mission Beach on the west coast near San Diego. We woke around 8am, showered and ate, and after a 20 minute drive, we arrived at Mission Beach by 9am. We walked along the boardwalk for a couple miles, sat at the beach for a bit, and then walked back to the car to get ready to jump in the ocean. By the

La Jolla Cove

minute, the beach was getting more and more crowded. After getting dressed, Sophie and I took turns watching our bags while the other jumped into the waves. After a couple hours of doing this, we headed to a nearby Mexican restaurant for some burritos and churros. After lunch was done, we headed back to the beach, asked a woman (who happened to be Irish) to watch our stuff, and then we both played in the ocean together. The woman was reading in the sun all day and was happy to help us out. It was my first real experience jumping in the ocean waves, and we both had a blast. We watched people do all kinds of different boarding and surfing sports along the water, and the hot sun kept us warm in the cold water. After leaving, we headed back to the boat marina, showered, and then drove around looking for a good meal. Even though we both put on sunscreen 3 times throughout the day, I managed to get sunburnt pretty much everywhere other than where my swimming shorts were. I was very disappointed to be fried after such an amazing day. Tip: if swimming in the ocean waves, put sunscreen on every hour or so.

August 6th marked the day that we leave San Diego and head north to Los Angeles. But before we left, we needed to return the boat key and we also wanted to check out La Jolla Beach, a popular attraction north of San Diego (we didn’t plan to meet our hosts in LA until 8:30pm). I also wanted to meetup with an old high school friend of mine, Jordan, sometime when we were in the area. We decided to meet Jordan at La Jolla Cove around 1pm. So we woke around 8am, ate some breakfast and went to the store, drove around the city another time, and then drove to El Cajon to return the boat key (we bought Darius a bottle of rum as a thanks for letting us use the boat). We then headed toward La Jolla. We intended to meet at a small park, but we were unable to find it, so we decided to meet Jordan in town somewhere, when proved to be difficult because of the lack of parking. After failing to find a good meeting spot, we were finally able to find a parking spot, so we walked until a bit until Jordan called. Once Jordan showed up (with his wife), we decided to find a place to eat. After eating some good Mexican food, we walked to La Jolla Cove and sat there for awhile and talked. Jordan asked if we wanted to swim, but I was badly sunburnt so I wasn’t in the mood for it, so we decided not to. The tide was low during the day, so there were water holes all over the rocks we were sitting on. A kid next to us had a bucket and caught a small octopus which was very interesting. There was also a wedding happening about 50 yards up the hill from where we sat. Around 4:30pm, we said goodbye to Jordan and his wife and took off to a Starbucks to get online and double-check our directions to LA. By 5pm we were off to LA. We planned to meet our hosts (from couchsurfing) around 8:30pm because it gave us plenty of time to get north. We arrived in the area (Lakewood, in Long Beach) around 8pm, so we grabbed some Subway for dinner, and then headed to the store to buy some snacks. At 8:40pm, we arrived at the house and met Danny and Mychael. Both were in their late 20’s, a married couple who grew up in Long Beach and had purchased the house around 3 years prior. Danny was a park manager in Huntington Park (near downtown LA), and Mychael was a physical therapist. Danny did his undergrad at USC – LA. We ended up talking the rest of the night until midnight or so.

Nice houses while kayaking near Sunset Beach.

The next morning Danny and Mychael took us to a kayak place in Sunset Beach where we rented 2 double-sized kayaks and kayaked the area. It was high class area, with most houses being worth $5M+, some $10M+, and most also had yachts, some certainly worth $1M+. It was a nice kayak ride, and it was neat seeing all the nice houses and yachts (especially after sleeping on a boat for a few nights). After about 2.5 hrs, we decided to head back to shore and grab some food at the Farmers Market. The Farmers Market had tons of free samples of fruit, and after eating many delicious California strawberries and plums, we had the choice of many different types of food for meals. I ended buying some chicken Thai curry, and also some fresh baklava for dessert. Although the curry wasn’t too satisfying, the baklava was excellent. After lunch, Danny and Mychael drove us into LA to Venice Beach. When we got close to Venice Beach, we sat in traffic for about 20 minutes. Danny then dropped Mychael, Sophie, and I off near the beach while he went to find parking (he ended up parking in a school lot for a $12 charge). Venice Beach itself is a pretty average beach – it was the other stuff that made it unique. The boardwalk along the beach was pretty interesting, with people and shops selling everything you can imagine, and also street performers doing all kinds of crazy stuff. There is also a outdoor gym in a section called Muscle Beach where body builders are doing all kinds of outdoor exercising. There is also several outdoor basketball courts which where packed with many 5v5 games. After walking there for an hour or so and watching a street performer drive a nail in his nose and swallow a sword, we decided to head away from Venice Beach and over to Griffith Park.

Griffith Park took us around the city of LA to the Griffith Observatory. The observatory sat on top of a hill near the Hollywood sign, and overlooked much of LA, including downtown. To get to the observatory, we had to hike for 20 minutes or so up a dirt road. Once there, we went inside and checked out all the exhibits they had, and also went onto the roof for the best views. After spending an hour or so there, we drove to downtown Long Beach (where Danny and Mychael used to live and also near to their old university) and grabbed some dinner at Lucile’s; it was an excellent restaurant with everything from steak sandwiches to BBQ ribs. After dinner, we went back to the house and played some board games, including Ticket to Ride, a game in for which Mychael went to a national competition.

The Hollywood Sign from Griffith Observatory

The following morning (Monday, August 8th), we left the house around 7:30am and headed toward Hollywood. Our plan for the day was to checkout western LA: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard, etc. After making a run to the store for some breakfast and snacks, Sophie and I drove for around 45 minutes looking for Hollywood Boulevard. One of the issues with the trip was a lack of a GPS. We relied purely on the internet and memorizing directions for most of the trip, as neither of us had a smart phone with easy-to-use internet. However, while in LA, we borrowed Danny’s nice LA guide book and map. Without a GPS, it really makes you appreciate having one.

Once we found Hollywood, we found 2-3 hr parking for a couple bucks, and then walked all around the Kodak Theatre area. We saw Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with all the handprints in the concrete, walked in/around the Kodak Theatre building (where the Oscars are hosted), and then up and down both sides of Hollywood Boulevard near that area (all along the Walk of Fame). Around noon we decided to grab lunch, so we headed to the big LA farmers market. We walked it for about 25 minutes before deciding on what we wanted to eat. I ended up getting a chicken parmesean sandwich, and Sophie ate spaghetti and meatballs. The food was not great for the price (most stuff in the market was quite expensive). After lunch, we walked into a store called the “World Market”, which was right next to the Farmer’s Market. We also walked the area around the Farmer’s Market, which had tons of shops along the way, such as an Apple store. After walking there for a bit, we went back to the car and took the 45 minute+ drive along Sunset Boulevard. We also drove a bit through the Beverly Hills neighborhoods to see some real expensive real estate and some nice cars. Sunset Boulevard took us right into Santa Monica. Once there, we searched for parking and after 20 minutes or so, we found a nice spot. We walked along the Santa Monica Pier for an hour or so, and then headed toward Long Beach.

After driving through Long Beach for a bit, we headed back toward Lakewood where we were staying. However, we ended up getting lost and it took us the better part of an hour or so to get back (we stopped past the grocery store to pickup some dessert stuff). Once back, Danny cooked up some burgers and corn, and after dinner Sophie made some strawberry cream dessert. For the rest of the night, we all chatted a bit and I showed Danny and Mychael some cubing stuff (blind, OH, etc.). This was our last night at their house, and we got to bed by 12:30am or so.

After thanking them for being our hosts, we left their house around 7:15am and headed to the store to pickup some snacks and plan out the rest of the day. Our initial

Knotts Berry Farm at 10pm

plan was to drive up highway 1 and stop at different places along the way, and eventually sleep in Cambria or so. However, after thinking that we had 3 days to get to San Francisco, we decided to spend another day in LA. So we headed to Anaheim (one part of LA that we hadn’t previously seen). Once in Anaheim, we grabbed some lunch at Carl’s Jr., got online at Starbucks, drove past the Honda Center and Angles Stadium, and then headed to Knotts Berry Farm (a nice theme park). We found decently priced half day passes (4pm-10pm) and decided to spend the rest of the night there. Around 10pm, we grabbed some food at Buffalo Wild Wings, and then headed to the car to sleep.

The next morning (Aug. 10th), we began our long drove to San Francisco up highway 1. Along the way, we stopped to take pictures and rest, with our ultimate destination for the day being Cambria. However, once we arrived in Cambria, we found that gas was very expensive ($4.50/gallon), and that there wasn’t much in the town itself. So we busted out the map and found the closest “bigger” city to be Paso Robles. So we took the 30 minute drive and headed there. It was more active than Cambria, and had a decent selection of food to choose from. We ended up eating dinner there, and also sleeping there. We went to a motel to get a cheap room, but all the cheap rooms were full, so we slept in the car again (which wasn’t too bad and was comfortable). With that long travel day out of the way, it was nice to relax.

Around 7am the next morning we left Paso Robles and headed back toward highway 1. The drive back was very foggy, with visibility no more than 40 feet. It cleared up as we got over the mountains. Once we hit highway 1, we cruised on it until we got to Monterey. Once in Monterey, we found some street metered parking, and walked along Cannery Row. We walked into some small shops, and then grabbed some quality lunch at a local seafood restaurant. After dessert was all said and done, the total price was around $70 for the 2 of us. We figured we would treat ourselves, especially since I rarely get the opportunity to eat fresh seafood. I ate a crab alfredo dish, Sophie had a Mahi Mahi dish, and we shared a cookie-ice cream dessert which was fantastic. After lunch, we headed to Starbucks to figure out how/where to go next. Sophie wanted to see the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, so after leaving Starbucks we headed to Salinas to check that out. It was a neat little museum, featuring a section on pretty much all of Steinbeck’s major novels. After leaving Salinas, we decided to head up toward San Jose to get closer to San Francisco. We needed to drop off the rental car in San Francisco by 9am the next morning, so we didn’t want to have to drive too much more in the morning.

Me in front of a Google sign at Google's Headquarters.

One of places I wanted to checkout on this trip was Silicon Valley, specifically Mountain View. So, on our way toward San Francisco (and while we still had the car), we drove around Mountain View to checkout Google’s Headquarters, LinkedIn’s Headquarters, and some of Microsoft’s offices. I wanted to checkout Facebook, Intel, Yahoo, and some others, but didn’t quite get the chance to. By this time it was nearly dark, and it was time for dinner. So we went to Chili’s for dinner in Mountain View, and then headed to sleep.

We woke around 6:30am the next morning, ate some breakfast, cleaned the car, and then began our drive to San Francisco. We were about a 1 hr drive from where we needed to be, and we also wanted to top-off the gas tank before we returned it. So we beat rush hour, and navigated our way through San Francisco. After dropping the car off at the Hertz Station in San Francisco, we began our walk to our hostel, the Green Tortoise. We ended up walking about 15 minutes in the wrong direction because we both misread the map. Once we arrived at the hostel, we checked-in and relaxed a bit, and then headed out to walk downtown and grab some lunch. After walking the city most of the day, we headed back to the hostel for the Friday night free dinner. It ended up being a vegetable curry with rice, which was decent since it was free. We also met the 2 people that shared the hostel room with us. They were a German couple, Holger and Yvonne. Holger plans to work in Seattle for 3 months, and Yvonne plans to go to Poland for a semester for school. Later that night we bought some beer and wine and talked while we relaxed.

Our plan for the next day, Aug. 13 was to check out the Golden Gate Bridge area. So we caught a bus to the bridge around 9am, and walked across the entire bridge. It was very foggy and windy, and extremely crowded. For some stupid reason, people still wanted to bike the bridge, so in additon to dealing with all the people, bikers rode the sidewalk. Apparently only one side of the bridge was open, so it made the open side very crowded. One thing that stuck out to me was the shear number of

Golden Gate Bridge

people who drove their car across the bridge. For all the hours that we were there, it was steady traffic moving both directions along it. The toll to cross is $6 per vehicle, and I was told that 250,000 cars cross it each day on average (174 cars per minute). That is $550 million in revenue each year from that bridge. The bridge itself is impressive in that it was built in 1937, at the time the longest suspension bridge in the world. However, it really isn’t that amazing to see, and it is more the long-time tourism that has given it its recognition.

After walking the entire bridge, around 1pm we caught the bus back toward the hostel. We grabbed some food, and then walked around the city more. We ended up walking Macy’s for awhile and checking out some of their $15,000+ rugs. We then treated ourselves to some cheesecake from the Chessecake Factory. After eating that in Union Square, we headed back to the hostel to relax (we had walked probably 5-6 miles that day). For dinner, I had some of the leftover rice/curry, and Sophie made some pasta.

The next morning, after eating the complementary breakfast provided by the hostel, we headed out and about. We took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the Mission District. We wanted to go the Mission District to visit a place we saw on the show Man vs. Food called “Taqueria La Cumbre”. This restaurant created the customizable burrito that we see in Chipotle and Qdoba these days. The food was excellent. After eating there, we walked through the Castro District toward Haight Ashbury, the old hippy area of San Francisco. On the way there, we hiked up a small hill into Buena Vista Park, which provided some nice views of the area. After resting there for a bit, we continued to Haight Ashbury. Apparently back in the 1960’s and 70’s, Haight Ashbury was the hippy capital of the US. Today, it is nothing more than a tourist area with a few hipsters sitting around. Once there, we also checked out the “Painted Ladies“, which were some nicely painted Victorian-type houses. We continued through Haight Ashbury into Golden Gate Park. Apparently the weekend we went was the same weekend as a big concert/festival in Golden Gate Park. We walked the park a bit, and then sat down in the grass and listened to a group of people bang the drums endlessly. We then walked back to the Mission District and caught the BART back to Market Street, and then walked back to the hostel.

Alcatraz

We woke Aug. 15th around 8am, and it was our last full day in California. We had to catch a 6:50pm flight back to Denver on the 16th. After eating some breakfast, we walked up toward Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. I was told by some people that it was overrated, and told by others that it had some excellent seafood. After a 20 minute walk, we made it to the bay side and walked along it, enjoying the nice water views and seeing the massive cargo shops go by. When we made it to Fisherman’s Wharf, we walked around to pretty much every food shop there was. Sophie wasn’t hungry, but I was and I wanted to try some authentic, fresh seafood that I don’t get to have much in Colorado. So after spending 20 minutes looking, I decided to get some clam chowder in a bread bowl and a crab sandwich. I also got Sophie a Sprite and a Coke for myself. We sat along a bench along the bay while I ate. The chowder was excellent, probably the best I’ve ever had (it was around $8 for a bowl). The crab sandwich was also very tasty, but had a bit too much pepper in it (it was around $7). After eating there, we continued to walk along the bay and ended up buying a “bay boat tour” for $15 each.

One of the things we wanted to do in San Francisco was tour Alcatraz, but all of those tours were booked a week or so in advance. We looked at alternative tours, but none seemed too promising and all were $30+. This boat tour appeared to be run by 2 guys who owned a boat, turned it into a business by selling tour tickets. There were several boats in this area all doing the same thing. It was an hour long tour that went along the bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and around Alcatraz (it didn’t stop at Alcatraz but we got a close-up view of it). We also got a nice skyline view of the city from the boat. The tour was well worth the $15, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone. We ended up seeing some sea lions, and some porpoise. We also got a brief history lesson of the area and gained some nice insight into San Francisco.

Once back on land, we walked up around Ghirardelli Square. Ghirardelli has always been a chocolate that I liked, and San Francisco has no shortage of stores selling

San Francisco from near the Bay Bridge.

it. The Square was essentially just a bunch of small shops, and several Ghirardelli stores selling ice cream and chocolate products. After walking around there for awhile, we walked back toward the hostel and relaxed for a couple hours. Around dinner time, we walked around China Town and ate some Chinese food for dinner. I had a Lemon Chicken which was excellent. The service itself was not great, however. After dinner, we went back to the hostel to mess around online, grabbed some drinks, and relaxed. We ended up meeting a nice Polish guy (Wojtek) who just finished his masters in Computer Science (as a year abroad from Poland) in Virginia and was traveling by himself around California. We also met a few Canadians, one who got offered a spot to tryout for the Florida Gators football team (apparently this 19 year old had set many Canadian records as a receiver). After finishing our drinks, the Canadians went to a party downtown, the Polish guy headed to bed (he was badly sunburnt), and Sophie and I headed to a sauna that was at the hostel. After sitting there for 20 minutes, we headed to bed.

For our last few hours in San Francisco, we walked to toward the Bay Bridge, relaxed along there for awhile, then headed to the Union Square area for some good Mexican lunch, and then walked into some different shops throughout the area. The last one we went into was a Bang and Olufsen, a very high-end electronics store. After getting showed some cool products, I entered my name to win a $22,000 TV, and then we left back to the hostel to catch our shuttle to the airport. The shuttle was $14/person, and took us from our hostel door, around the city to pickup others, and then to the aiport. It took around 40 minutes. Our flight was delayed around 30 minutes, but we made it to Denver and got a ride home from my brother around 11:20pm.

Overall, the trip was great. Everything pretty much worked out as planned, and we seemed to see almost everything that we could possibly see in the time we were there. We put nearly 1,200 miles on the car between San Diego and San Francisco, and it worked out well both for gas, travel, and sleeping for a few times. I thought the car was quite comfortable to sleep in. The weather was excellent pretty much the entire time, which made the trip that much better.

Some tips:
– If you’re under 25, renting a car can be very expensive. I was able to find a deal that waived the under-25 rental fee (which is normally $25/day). Look for deals like this. Also, before you leave, get a copy of your local car insurance. Otherwise, you may have to buy insurance from the car rental company (which can be hundreds of dollars).
– If you can rent/bring a GPS, do it. We take them for granted these days, but it would have helped immensely.
– Checkout couchsurfing.org . Meet new people, surf with people, host people in your area. It is a good thing.
– Utilize public transportation when you can. Unfortunately, San Deigo and LA have horrible public transit (welcome to the US!). But San Francisco had a great BART and was very walkable, so we dumped the car just when we arrived. Also, if you return your car after 9am, you typically have to essentially pay for another day, so try to return it as early in the morning as possible.
– Use lots of sun screen! If you jump in the ocean, put it on every hour.
– Consider renting a surf board. I wanted to, but didn’t.

Hostel Review:
Green Tortoise (San Francisco, California): This was a nice hostel, and it was my first time staying in a hostel in the US.  It was $30 per person per night.  It had a nice big room with tables and chairs, live music, and awesome kitchen, and the rooms and bathrooms were nice.  The staff was friendly in general (aside from one guy with a big beard who had a big temper issue).  The free dinner was nice, and the breakfast was excellent.  The location was super, located about a 5 minute walk from the city center.  The only complaint I have is this: the owner or manager came into the big room to introduce the free food, and she said: “rate us 10/10 or don’t rate us at all”.  That is terrible practice.  Why not say, rate us 10/10, and if you don’t think we are worth it, let me know and I’ll fix whatever needs to be fixed.  Either way, I thought the hostel was good aside from her comments.