Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Hearst Castle - Ode to Excess

Yes, it's Extravagant, Astonishing and Unrestrained. It's Inspiring, Surreal and Indulgent. It's Wealth, Power and Privilege.
It's in the middle of nowhere...
Don't get me wrong. The California countryside around Hearst Castle is beautiful. San Simeon stretches with ocean and farmland as far as the eye can see. But getting to the area takes time and planning. Advanced reservations for this popular attraction are a must and at least an overnight stay is required to see everything.
I was lucky enought to book a special Friday evening tour. What makes this tour different is the historical reenactors throughout the grounds who portray party guests from the heyday of social activities here. Celebrities, moguls and royalty all flocked to this legendary location for fabled parties and events. Cary Grant and Bing Crosby were regulars. Winston Churchill visited. Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers were guests. It was THE place to see and be seen.
Construction started in 1919 through 1947 and included 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, an airfield, and the world's largest private zoo on over 250,000 acres. William Randolph Hearst created a publishing empire at the turn of the 20th Century and when he decided to build, money was no object. Entire ceilings purchased from Medieval European castles were installed. Priceless
antique tapestries, paintings, first edition books, Egyptian pottery, furniture and art fills the 165 rooms. It's amazing. Mr. Hearst was a man of large appetites. His guests must have had the time of their lives. Need to watch Citizen Kane once more...

More Please

Cambria, California is a popular jumping off point for Hearst Castle and it is beautiful. Some would call it a "one horse town" but that is part of the charm. The coastline is spectacular and I can't get over how good the food is in California. Everything is extra fresh and minimally prepared. A chef friend of mine once said, "food should taste like itself". Now I get it. (I had the best trout ever at the Sow's Ear Cafe.)
Folks in Cambria are very helpful and sincere. A great base camp for my adventure to Hearst Castle.

Rockin' at Morro Bay

The City of Morro Bay, California is mostly known for the huge Morro Rock rising up from the ocean. It's a working fishing village and I had a great fish sandwich there on the way to Hearst Castle. I also visited their funky little Aquarium.

This family owned attraction is dedicated to rehabilitating sea creatures since 1984 and the sea lions greet you right at the entrance. Boy, are they loud. The inside room is dark and small with murky tanks filled with a variety of animals. A huge octopus was very popular along with a good local shark exhibit. The rest of the waterfront is filled with fun shops and restaurants. It's a great place to hang out and at the end of the road you can see the fishing fleet come in with their daily catches. A nice slice of local California north of Los Angeles. Totally.

Monday, July 23, 2007

I'll have the Danish

The charming Danish town of Solvang is just north of Los Angeles, California. It lies near the wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley and offers great hospitality including some amazing bakeries. The town was featured in the movie "Sideways" and their claim to fame is a taste of Denmark.
Here you can stroll the European streets, horseback ride, balloon, glide, bike, tour or visit the Hans Christian Anderson museum. Lots of events make this a wonderful place to visit. One of the highlights is the seasonal outdoor festival theater where top notch performances take place.
Plan to spend some time in this historic town and turn your cell phone off. Skoal!

Somewhere in Beullton

North of Los Angeles in the self-proclaimed, "Home of pea soup", known as Buellton, California is Ostrichland. When you see the small black and white sign, pull over. Not only can you buy some fresh produce but for just $4 you can hang out with Ostriches and Emus. These curious animals pose for photos and you can feed them. Inside you can buy bird related products. Enormous eggs, purses, hats and yes...even meat. Give Ostrich a try. Tastes like lean beef if you don't over cook it. This is a classic roadside attraction that harkens back to another time. If you're on the road to Solvang or the Santa Ynez Valley wine country do yourself a favor and feed the birds. You'll be glad you did.


I've always been a John Wayne Fan. I love his Westerns mostly. So here I was standing outside Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California and wondering why John Wayne's feet were so small. I mean really tiny. Like fall over when you take a step small. I couldn't believe it. On the screen he looked ten feet tall.

That's a big part of the appeal at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Reading the inscriptions and seeing the size of the celebrities hands and feet. Really. Of course, the interior is Hollywood glamorous but the action is outside where the crowds gather and with the crowds all manner of street entertainers. It's like a circus. Freddy vs Jason. Superman and Wonder Woman. Charlie Chaplin and Captain Jack Sparrow. What a hoot-a-nanny.

But Sid Grauman would be pleased I think. The Showman who invented Hollywood would appreciate the hubbub outside his theater where movie premiers and special events still pack'em in. As John Wayne said, "Sid, there are not enough words."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Aaaah Avalon!

When you need to escape the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, California then hop on board the Catalina Island Express shuttle and head for Avalon. In less than an hour on this high speed boat, you will be a world away on Catalina Island in the Pacific Ocean. The ship is very comfortable, serves food and makes trips throughout the day. Hotels are available on the Island, too. So are tons of activities. Tour, fish, scuba, snorkel, glass bottom boat, kayak, camp, hike; the list goes on and on.

If activity doesn't suit you then stroll the shops and restaurants right on the beautiful harbor, visit the spa or sit and people watch.

This is a great escape with a small town feel in an Island setting. Don't miss it.

Long Live the Queen

The Queen Mary in Long Beach, California is huge. Over 1000 feet with more than 2,000 portholes! The anchor chain alone weighs 45 tons and fuel economy. Howsa bout 13 feet to the gallon...

But this attraction is so much more than a ship's tour. You can do a guided or self-guided tour of the ship filled with old photos and artifacts from days gone by when royalty and celebrity stood on these decks but the cool thing is how parts of the ship have been converted. You can even spend the night.

A hotel with 365 original staterooms is available complete with spa, five restaurants, shops and banquet facilities. Events are constant from music and concerts to dinner with Psychic Peter James and The Rocky Horror Picture Show featuring a live local cast.

One of my favorite activities is the Ghosts and Legends Haunted tour. Our group explored deep into the bowels of the ship in areas not open to the public where historic tales were spun and special effects brought the many reported hauntings to life. Good stuff.

You can spend a lot of time at the Queen Mary exploring the many options. But don't get lost...some of the long-term residents aboard the ship you don't want to meet.

Filtered Light

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California features over 12,000 animals. It is a very busy place. The exhibits meander indoors and out with the favorites being the Shark Lagoon and the Lorikeet forest. I enjoyed the Whale film projected on the walls in the main hall.
Touch tanks are popular and folks lined up for the opportunities. Animal shows and feedings were a hit too. It's fun to watch the divers hand feed in the tanks.
The aquarium is basically divided into three sections representing Northern, Southern and tropical Pacific regions. Construction is in progress to make the Aquarium even better and my visit was wonderful. Don't miss "Monsters of the Abyss" in 3D. It's creepy.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hello, Clarice.

I saw him move. No really...he moved while a stood there. Just a little bit. It was creepy.

The Hollywood Wax Museum in Hollywood, California has very realistic figures. They do an excellent job on the set designs and lighting too. As you might imagine, this wax museum is dedicated to show business figures from Ron Burgundy to the Beverly Hillbillies. It's a nice mix of old and new celebrities and with good use of lighting they often look real. Because they have movie studio access, they can create authentic reproductions and in some cases use the actual prop from a movie or show including clothing. Jay Leno's suit or Hugh Hefner's pajamas and smoking jacket, for example. This is a great showcase of TV and Movie personalities to visit. Hannibal's waiting for you.

And the winner is...

If you love movies and happen to be a fan of The Academy Awards then a tour of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California should be on your list. The hours are limited so plan ahead.

The interior of the building is plush and the tour shows you where events take place during the Awards shows and offers some insider stories about dressing room controversy and who sits where in the Theater. We had a chance to walk up on stage in this beautiful theater and it was exciting! We also learned how they coordinate the arrival of the stars for the Red Carpet entrance. They stage all the limos from the Hotel behind the complex and simply drive around the block to the front of the building.
Oh, Hollywood magic.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hooray for Hollywood

The Hollywood Walk of Fame is longer than I expected. It stretches to over 2300 stars. Well, they're not all "stars" it seems. The criteria for getting a star turns out to be a bit loose and includes entertainers that aren't even human! Yes, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are here. So is Olive Borden. Dan Akroyd doesn't have a star yet but Judge Judy does. Go figure.

It's fun to walk the Walk and stroll down memory lane but the best part is the colorful characters who hang out here dressed in costume for the tourists. Superman, Batman, Darth Vader, Freddy; they're all here. For a couple of bucks you can have a photo with them. Hooray for Hollywood.


Pinch me...

I saw my first magician at a friend's birthday party when I was ten. He was funny and silly and made a dove appear in a small wire cage.

I was hooked. The Art of Illusion fascinates me to this day so when I had a chance to visit the private Magic Castle Club in Los Angeles, California, I jumped at it.

The mystery begins when you are told that in order to enter this private club, you must be invited by a member or staying at the Hotel on site. I took a room and made my reservations. The formal dress code is strictly enforced with jacket and tie for men. With my Johnston & Murphy's shined to a gleam, I entered the Magic Club lobby and approached the front desk. This is where the fun began. "Just walk over to the owl on the bookcase and say Open Sesame," she instructed. The owls eyes blinked when I uttered those magical words and the bookcase slid back to allow my entry. Very cool.

The building itself dates back to 1908 and is a labyrinth of hallways, nooks and parlours. Take the time to explore the space and enjoy the historical photos and charicatures. The evening consists of five different magic shows in three seperate rooms with special guest appearances. They range from close up magic to stage shows. Five bars are spread around the large complex and a highlight was the player piano where Irma the ghost will play any tune you call out. It was eerie to watch as the group tried to stump her and couldn't. Dinner was excellent and no sooner had I sat down when who should walk in but Magic Legends Eugene Burger and Max Maven to dine at the table across from me. Most of the people there were magicians.

I soon found out why so much buzz was in the air. That night I was lucky enough to see a farewell performance by the amazing Paul Potassy. Turns out the Who's Who of magic was in attendance for this performance. I'll just say that when Siegfried (of Siegfried and Roy) sat down in front of me at the show, I was impressed.

Mr. Potassy mesmerized us all with his amazing patter and flawless illusions. At one point he cleaned out the pockets of the volunteer on stage, without his knowledge, and began producing his watch, cell phone, comb, wallet, hankerchief and pen, much to the delight of the audience.

What a special evening this is for anyone who enjoys Magic. It is a classic setting with World Class entertainment. I will remember this for the rest of my life.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Cool Beans

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California is cool. Since their remodeling, a timed ticket system is in place and reservations are required. No parking on site so the reservation is for the bus transportation to get there.

The Observatory is perched above the valley with a great view of the Hollywood Sign. Exhibits explore space and our place in it. I loved the swinging pendulum and the Tesla coil that produces lightning! A Zeiss 12-inch refracting telescope is available if you go in the evening and during clear days Solar Telescopes are found in the Rotunda. One of the highlights is the state-of-the-art Samuel Oschin Planetarium that creates multi-media star shows. Also, the new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon features a short film by the actor himself. Make sure to save room to eat at The Cafe with outdoor seating overlooking the valley. Some effort and planning is required to visit here but it's well worth the effort.


With all due respect, I just didn't get The Hollywood Guinness World of Records in Hollywood, California.

When I was a kid, I used to love reading about the Guinness World Records and this attraction takes many of those records and displays them. That's it. Maybe I missed something but I didn't find giant plastic vegetables and a statue of the world's tallest man that entertaining. The place was very dark and hard to navigate, too. I was just expecting something more lively I guess. Oh well.

I'm ready for my close-up

The Hollywood Behind-the-Scenes Tour is an excellent way to learn about Hollywood, California's history. This walking tour takes you to all of the famous sites: The Walk of Fame, Grauman's Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, the Roosevelt Hotel, the Kodak Theater and even goes inside Stella Adler's acting studio and El Capitan Theater (owned by Disney).
One of the best features is the live audio system they use. Mike, our guide, spoke into a microphone that fed into our headsets, which could adjust for volume. I wasn't sure if I would like it at first but it was comfortable and you don't miss a word of the tour. This was a great balance of insider stories, photos and sites. The walk isn't strenuous and the pace is just right. Make the Hollywood Behind-the-Scenes Tour one of the first things you do here.

Beep-beep, Beep-beep yeah.

Wow. The traffic is everything they said it would be and more in Los Angeles, California. I'm staying in Hollywood, on the northern edge of Los Angeles and going anywhere is tough. The tradeoff in transportation is big. Convenience vs. Price. Public transport is cheap but takes longer. Private is more convenient but very expensive. However you decide to travel just make sure to give yourself extra time since the traffic is congested and the sites are spread out here. Sure wish I had wings!

California Dreamin'

I've lived on America's East Coast my whole life. Getting a chance to explore the great State of California is exciting. The plan is to visit Los Angeles then drive up the coast to San Francisco. Never been north of Anahiem before so this should be good.