My Life as a Traveler

San Diego Nov 2010


Beginning of the PrePack

It’s the last full day in San Diego before we head home. George only has meetings til noon so we can’t plan a boatload of sightseeing. What can we do? A walking tour (courtesy of Fodor’s guidebook) of the Gaslamp quarter? A walking tour of the Embarcadero area? A visit to the Maritime museum?

I can’t interest Morgan in any of the above; he’s happy on the internet. So we walk to Panera Bread for breakfast. Did you know they have their own loyalty program? Who doesn’t, right? Last week I stopped in at a CVS pharmacy and they offered me a card, too. CVS? Wow, what businesses are left that do not have a member card? The CVS offer shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did nonetheless. I know that most grocery stores, including the local Food Lion, have cards to scan for discounts, etc., but I guess I imagined the pharmacy as somehow exempt.

Anyway, we went back to the room and did a PrePack. The PrePack is done on the day before the departure for home. The best time to do a PrePack (my term, by the way, and my initials) is the afternoon before you leave one place to go to another. This will separate everything that is scattered about the hotel room into: dirty/won’t be used again, semi-clean/used but can be worn again, and totally clean. Of course, the goal of a good travel packer is to use everything up totally — don’t bring anything home that has not been used or worn. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way, but I try.

The PrePack begins with collecting the dirty clothes and rolling them into one sausage-shape for the bottom center of the suitcase. I lay out and roll the semi-clean clothes next, placing them next to the dirties. The clean ones (mostly supplemented by the semi-clean) are rolled and placed in the bottom. All of the toiletries are packed in their own bag, with only what I need for getting ready tomorrow left on the bathroom counter. Clothes for tomorrow are laid out; I’ll roll what I’m wearing today and put it between the three rolls on the bottom. Shoes go on the side filled with socks. Then souvenirs and miscellaneous items. Now when I get up in the morning, all I have to do is pack my nightgown, get dressed, and place the toiletry bag on top of everything in the suitcase.

George came home at noon and we went on a short walk and then later, going out for Indian food to celebrate his birthday with the DeLisi’s.

Seems like we’ve been in San Diego a long time – 10 days. All in all, a great place to visit. Tomorrow we fly home and will be home for 3 days before Morgan and I head out to LA, then home one day before we head down to San Juan for our cruise. It’s a whirlwind of travel!

Wild Animal Park

Today we rented a car and made the 30 minute trip north to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. This excursion is sort of a Holy Grail one for me – I remember when it opened up in 1972. I was 12 and I wanted to visit it soooo much. We were living in Oregon at the time, and San Diego was not on our family vacation travel list. We did not have family there, and it had neither casinos nor fishing. Too bad.

But today! Today I get to go and we’re heading up the freeway to the Park. We get there early enough to get on the first tram through the huge savannah. This park is 1800 acres, much of which is free roaming territory without fences. Rhinos and giraffes, gazelles and buffalo frolic together in one huge wonderful African backyard. First, we see the cheetahs (ok, separated from, but still able to see the gazelles in the distance.) Then, we come upon one of the remaining 8 rare Northern White Rhinos on the planet — they are feared extinct in the wild.  The zebras are also kept separate from the other animals, as they are supposedly very antagonistic and competitive and bother the other animals. Two giraffes are having a neck fight, sparring for fun and practice. Their heads are hard and I hate to imagine how much it will hurt if you’ve got one swinging at you.

We see the bird show and the amusing animal show where we can see a cheetah up close. There’s a baby cheetah, several times larger than a domesticated kitten, but fluffier, in the nursery. Morgan is quite taken with it.

We enjoyed seeing the lion perched atop his own personal jeep, the Dahl sheep who was the king of the 30 gallon empty water jug, and the gorillas thinking gorilla thoughts. Lots of birds here, too, although they don’t quite hold the attention of the 14 year old.

We had pretty much done the Wild Animal Park and had a little extra time before we needed to return the car. I reset the GPS to the discount shopping mall and we finally found some swim trunks for Morgan. He decided he had water shoes at home so didn’t need any sandals.

On the way out of the mall, Morgan was drawn to some heavy metal music. It came from a store called Hot Topic, who was hosting a live local metal band. I have heard enough Metallica and Nirvana to appreciate the genre and stood there among the black-clad, tattooed, nose and I’m sure other places pierced crowd, bobbing my head like the rest of them. Fun. Like the zoo, it was interesting to see this crowd in their habitat!

Sex Ed at the Zoo

Today we use our bus pass to visit the world famous San Diego Zoo. It’s just a 15 minute bus ride from downtown in Balboa Park, home of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition or World’s Fair. Balboa Park has tons of museums and things to do, but we’re just here for the zoo.

It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the zoo. When Morgan was a little guy, the zoo was a standard stop in just about every city we visited. We’ve been to the zoo in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, Miami, Hamburg (you can buy some carrots to feed the elephants here), Munich, Frankfurt, and probably half a dozen more zoos that I can’t remember. For a long time our main sightseeing was the zoo and the science museum. Now that Morgan’s older, we have many more sightseeing options.

BUT this is the San Diego zoo. I went here when I was a kid growing up in this area, and I wanted to take my son here, especially.  Sort of a full-circle type of thing. It’s not cheap ($37pp with an AAA discount) but it’s well worth it. Here are some of the things we saw and the school subjects covered:

  • Monkeys flying through their cage, hootin’ and hollerin’, then doin’ it. From the back, and from the front.  Sex ed, check.
  • Pandas, not doing it, thank goodness, but might as well have been for the explicit lecture that comes with how they got here. It’s almost a soap opera – who can perform and who can’t. Sex ed, check again.
  • The elephants got a good wash of their feet and we got to hear the trainers explain how they get the elephants to obey them. Psychology, check.
  • The otter will pee on the rock and then turn around to lick it. What lesson is this? Otters are gross?
  • The antelope who was peeking over the wall at the other antelopes next door. Looked like a peeping tom to us. Stalking, the wrong kind? Check.
  • Many animals have very long penises. ‘Nuff said. Sex ed, check.

Hmmm… it’s a different experience going to the zoo with Morgan at 14 years old versus Morgan at 6 years old. Here I thought we would cover biology and animal behavior, and I guess I was right. Sort of. Just didn’t anticipate the adolescent boy’s radar picking up really random, yet sex oriented, fun facts.

And we still have the Wild Animal Park to go! Will the animals be as wild as the ones here at the zoo?

What’s your favorite zoo animal?

Mexico Madness

One of the cool things you can do when in San Diego is to go to a totally different country. Mexico! It’s easy to take the 45 minute ride to the border and walk over a bridge into another world. All you need is your passport (and you better have it!) and a ticket for the trolley.

But first, breakfast. On the way to the trolley from the hotel we breakfast at Café 21, home of the amazing and wonderful Peanut Butter and Banana-Stuffed French Toast. The recipe is simple, really. Take 2 pieces of French Toast, spread peanut butter on one and place some nice (but not overly) ripe bananas on the other one, and put them together to make a French Toast sandwich. Add syrup as needed. Yum. Do try this at home.

I’ve always heard about this trolley to Mexico, carrying folks from downtown San Diego to the border. The ride was underwhelming, really, passing through shopping centers and neighborhoods along I-5. Not many tourists, but hey, this is slow season, and a Monday, to boot.  In fact, most of the folks on the trolley looked like commuters of some sort.

We get to the border and follow the crowd over the 7  lanes chock full of cars (50,000 vehicles cross the border every day) waiting to get into the US. Across the highway, through a turnstile and past a guy with a machine gun – we’re in Mexico! So easy to get in. No one to check our documents or even remind us that we need a passport to get back.  Good thing we’re prepared. We walk along the tourist trail to the Avenida de la Revolution, the heart of tourist Tijuana. (And, it’s pronounced Tee-Wan-ah, not Tee-ah-wan-ah, FYI). It’s either early or it’s Monday, or something else is going on, because we are just a few of the handful of tourists strolling up the street. We stop at the wax museum for some kitschy fun (why do they have Tom Cruise in a Mexican wax museum? Bill Clinton? Madonna?)

On the Avenida, the vendors see us coming. We’re fresh meat and they offer us special deals on blankets, silver, velvet paintings, and pictures sitting on donkeys painted like zebras (huh?) We “no, gracias” our way up the street, wishing we were hungry enough to try one of the restaurants lining the Avenida. It’s spooky, though, not many people here today. At the top of the street, we detour to find the local winery to see if they’re giving tours. Sadly, no, and the cultural museum is closed as well. However, the street parallel to the touristy Avenida is brimming with life. The sidewalks are crammed with people and the shops are busy. Sidewalk vendors sell all sorts of edibles and gifts (it’s almost Christmas) and the church square is lively with locals. There are not too many tourists in sight.

We find a nice little square and George tries to haggle some beers down to $1 from $1.50 and is eventually successful. However, he fails to take account for the $3 soda that Morgan wants. Oh, well. There’s a guy sharpening a knife below the balconies of the cheap hotels that line the street. On the way back to the border, we stop at the crafts market and it’s a ghost town.

We find the place where we came into Mexico, but the exit from Mexico is somewhere else. After a bit of wandering, we find it, recognizable by the huge line. We can’t see the front, but join it anyway, since it looks like it’s heading in the right direction. It’s right along the road and it looks like the cars are backed up for miles. It takes almost an hour to shuffle back into the U.S. We are just 3 of the 25,000 pedestrians that cross the border every day.

The next day we found out that the concierge at the Westin where we were staying was advising guests against crossing the border. Yes, the State Department issued a travel warning in July, and then again in September. But a warning is just that, a warning to be careful, not a reason to stop traveling. Usually warnings are issued when there is trouble in the outlying areas of a town, not in the tourist areas. So, as I always try to be careful and perceptive of my environment, and stay out of dark alleys and bad neighborhoods, I still travel. I believe that it is the right thing to do. My travel presence, as well as my dollars, will help this poor country, in an infinitesimal way, become a little richer and more friendly toward America in general.

The underwhelming trolley now seems like a pristine coach whisking us north. Shopping centers are bright, cars on the freeway look luxurious, and the poor neighborhoods stand out as free. Of course, now we’re hungry and our trolley pass will get us to Old Town San Diego (where the first settlers came) and ironically, some pretty good Mexican food. Strange to visit Mexico and end up eating Mexican in the US. Go figure. Next time, we’ll skip the French Toast and be hungry for enchiladas and margaritas!

Sea World Snores

Today we move from our sweet suite in Mission Valley to the Westin Gaslamp Quarter, a downtown hotel where George is having his meetings. We sleep in, then pack our things and drive over the Coronado Bay bridge to have a nostalgic diner breakfast on Coronado island, complete with one huge jukebox that connects to smaller jukeboxes on each table. Fun, and good food, too.

After breakfast, we drive past the famed Hotel del Coronado and south down the island, looping around at Imperial City, the last US town before Mexico, then heading back up to downtown to check in, leave our bags, and then head out to Seaworld for the afternoon.

Because we have the premium Busch Gardens passes at home, we get into Sea World for free, including parking. Gotta take advantage of that, right? Unfortunately for Morgan, there are no serious roller coasters there, only an “Escape from Pompeii” type of ride (all you Busch Gardens alums know what that means), and some other ride where you got wet. It was sunny, but still only in the 70’s, so getting wet was not an option. We did, however, enjoy the fish and sharks, the seal show, the dolphin show (sort of), and closed the park with the Shamu show. Fortunately, no humans were killed in any of the shows, and we were happy for that.

Maybe the best thing was the IMAX-type theatre showing the 20 minute version of “The Polar Express.”  We never watch kids movies anymore. Made me kind of nostalgic for the days when now 14-year-old Morgan believed in Santa Claus…

We returned the car back to the airport, since we’d be downtown from now on, and got a taxi back to the hotel. All in all, a good day, but I think the guys were a little bored with the whole SeaWorld thing. I guess I have to say me, too. We’ll get a bit more challenge tomorrow as we head to Mexico for the day.

Grand Slam Birthday

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it’s George’s birthday and we decide to go to the desert. But first we have to eat, since the hotel lounge is closed. George has had a hankering the last couple of days for a Grand Slam breakfast at Denney’s. Not my first choice, but what are you going to do? It’s the man’s birthday! There’s a Denney’s right by the hotel, but we need an early start to get to the desert, so we bypass that one and hope for something good to show up on the way.

Leaving San Diego heading east, you find lots of open space hills covered with house-sized boulders filled in with cactus and sage. There are two sets of mountains to cross to get to the Arroyo-Borrega desert. Over the first rise of hills we descend to Ramona, a small ranch town in the valley. And what do we see as we enter town?? Denney’s! Guess where we had breakfast. We were all Grand-Slammed.

After breakfast, we drive over the second set of mountains to look down on a seemingly neverending flatness that is the California desert. We’re still in San Diego County, but this is another world. Rocks, bushes, and cactus as far as the eye can see. We wind down the hills to the desert floor and find the State Park Headquarters. They direct us to the nearest most interesting trail and in ten minutes, we are hiking up a valley between the brushy mountains. There’s plenty of water in the backpack. It’s about 10:30am and there are a bunch of people on the trail; lots of kids excited to be there. After about 20 minutes of walking up a dry riverbed, we turn a corner and come face to face with some of the Desert Bighorn sheep that clamber up and down the rocky slopes. They don’t mind if I take their picture.

After about another 45 minutes on the slowly climbing trail, we reach our destination, the desert springs. OK, it’s not just springs, it’s a true oasis! A huge stand of date palms sit atop a stream tumbling over some boulders. At first glimpse, it looks like a scene from the Arabian nights. We sit in the shade and marvel at the place. However, there’s a nagging question: where is the water coming from?? Inquiring minds want to know, so we follow the stream, hauling each other up the huge boulders that mark the end of the State Park trail. We’re in death march mode now, off trail and Morgan’s loving it. Finally, we stumble onto a narrow trail along the stream that’s littered with sheep droppings. Ah, we must be in the right place!

The source must be just around the corner. We turn the corner, and no, the trail continues around another bend. Still no source, not here, or around the next bend, nor around the next bend. We’re getting tired and it’s getting late, so we give up, take our shoes off, and cool our toes in the stream, enjoying the utter quietness of the canyon.

All good things must come to an end, though, and it’s time to head back. Morgan hikes ahead to find the best way to negotiate the boulders on the way back. As he summits one of the bigger rocks, he sees a guy in a funny-looking hat who commands him to STOP! The guy then whips out his harmonica and starts playing “Jingle Bells”. By the time George and I get there, he’s on “Silent Night.” When I requested “Happy Birthday” for George, he was happy to comply. How random.

Back on the road, we leave the desert and wind back over the hills. We stop by Julian, an old mining town known for its 1800’s architecture and apple pies. Unfortunately, everyone else in California was there, too, so we got the heck out of there and headed back to San Diego through the blackened skeletons of the Cuyamaca Forest.  In October 2003, The largest ever of the California wildfires raged through here, destroying not only the fir, cedar, pine, and oak, but also the homes of many of the residents who had no choice but to move away.

The final treat of the day was dinner at Solare, a nice Italian restaurant on Point Loma. A Living Social deal (sort of like Groupon – got $75 of food for $35), this was one of the places where one of George’s favorite movies, “Top Gun”, was filmed. When I made the reservation (used, I told them it was George’s birthday. They gave us their special wine room – a table for 4 in its own little glass room in the middle of the restaurant, where they keep the wine bottles. How cool! Great food, excellent location, special birthday service, and a good deal to boot. From Denney’s to the random harmonica guy, to this fine dinner, all in all it was a great birthday for George!

California Coastal

First day in San Diego, weather cool in the 70’s but sunny. Nice day to go to the coast, right? We hop in our rented car (a steal at $70 for the three days we need it – holiday weekend rates in a business destination again!) and head up to La Jolla and Torrey Pines State Park.

This is the only place in the world where Torrey Pines grow. There were more many years ago, spread out over a larger piece of land than this park, but with cattle ranching and farming, the pines were disappearing. Disappearing, until, sometime in the 1890’s, some concerned tree-loving Californian conservationists convinced the state to buy this property and preserve the pines. There’s an old lodge converted into the State Park headquarters and lots of trails from the top of the hill through the pines to the bluffs and down to the beach. It’s the day after Thanksgiving and the trails are busy with families and groups of friends, all here for the natural beauty. We find a little squirrel guarding the steep cliff, just daring someone to challenge (or feed) him.

We climb down to the ocean, wind around a narrow walkway, and we are on the wide, seaweed-strewn beach just below the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course. My shoes, as if by magic, immediately come off and my toes are happily squishing in the dark sand. Morgan climbs the cliffs above, wanting us to join him, but all the cliff trails are going the wrong direction. A little miffed, he climbs anyway. Back on the beach, a group of seabirds skitters in and out with the waves. George finds some graffiti which he thinks describes him. Around some rocks, we find some folks sunning… nude… oops, time to turn back.

On the way back to the hotel, we drive through La Jolla proper, looking for the famed harbor seal and sea lion populations. There’s a nice promenade along the cliffs right in town that links the two, but the only places to park are along the street and there’s not a free spot in sight. Just as we’re about to give up and call it a drive-by, we see someone pulling out right ahead. Success! It’s close to the Children’s Pool, a little cove with a beach built for the kids, but taken over by the seals. They look like huge stuffed sausages and honk- bark whenever another seal steals into their territory. The confrontations are fun to watch – fighting, barking, sausages rolling and scooting to find the best place to sun.

About a 15 minute walk the other way we find the sea lions. We can hear them way before we can see them. They seem to bark for no apparent reason; maybe it’s just for the sheer joy of it. They live in a part of the shore protected from boaters and easily take over the place on the rocks, in the water, everywhere. We poke around the nearby tidepools, searching for urchins and rock-covered anemones.

Back to the room for a quick refresh and then Thai food for dinner. Here’s my latest discovery: Groupon for travel! For those of you who don’t know Groupon, it’s a company that offers super-reduced prices on local businesses (spas, restaurants, dance lessons, tours, specialty stores, you name it). When you sign up at (use this link and I get credit), you receive one deal per day by email and if enough people sign up for it, you get it. I’ve found great deals on spa treatments, a food tour of Virginia Beach (yum!) and photography services for super-low prices.

Here’s the travel deal: Groupon is alive and well in many other US cities, including San Diego. Just a few days before we left, I took advantage of a restaurant deal close to our hotel – pay $25 for $50 food credit – printed out the coupon, and the upshot was a great meal in a different neighborhood for an awesome price. Love Groupon!

Thanksgiving Travels

This is the second holiday in as many months where we are getting on a plane. Usually, over the Thanksgiving weekend, we have a big get-together with Julie, Karin, and/or Matt and their families. We’ve also been known to travel down to Morganton to see George’s mom this weekend. But the kids aren’t coming to town and George’s mom passed away this summer. What to do? Well, George has a meeting in San Diego the week after, so we decided to fly out a few days early for a little vaycay (before our cruise vaycay in just a couple of weeks).  It’s actually quite a bit cheaper to fly on Thanksgiving day – the airfare was $230 each, the car rental $70, and the hotel is free using frequent-stay points.

I had been home nine days from Phoenix, managed to get some school work done with Morgan, made some progress on my DEFY the Bad Guy website which will launch soon, and caught up with friends and housework.  And Christmas! When we get back from San Diego, we’ve got 3 days before Morgan and I head out for Los Angeles for a 3 day meeting, fly overnight to get home on Sunday morning and catch the 5am flight to San Juan on Monday. Thank goodness for the internet, Amazon in particular, and the kind hearts who accept gift cards and certificates.  Everything I’ve ordered will get here while I’m gone (those things that are not going direct to their destination) and I’ll mail them out during those three days before the next trip.

Even with that kind of planning, we still were scrambling trying to get things together Thanksgiving morning. Driving to the airport (no traffic!) and catching the 11am flight was a cinch. When we arrived in Charlotte, we wound our way through the crowd to the lounge and found our flight was delayed 2 hours. No worries, in fact it was nice to take a breather. Not a lot of people in the lounge, we didn’t really expect a crowd, since usually it’s populated by business people anyway.

But here’s the weird thing. When we emerged at 4pm and headed into the main terminal to board our flight, it was a ghost town. Any other Thursday, this is one of the busiest places on the planet. The place is crowded with people rushing to make their connections, sitting in the rocking chairs, and visiting the restaurants and shops. But today, we are just about the only people here. In fact, there are only 3 more flights leaving after ours for the rest of the day! Looks like all the airlines give their employees at least Thanksgiving evening off. Who knew?

Oh, and for our meal, there is no turkey, only chicken or pasta.

Landing in San Diego, we experienced the same phenomenon. An empty terminal with closed stores greeted us upon arrival. Thankfully, the car rental office was still open, and we rented our car, plugged in the GPS, and headed for our hotel.

The airport was not the only thing empty for Thanksgiving. Here’s a tip: use a business hotel on a non-business day. The Sheraton Mission Valley must not have had many rooms available tonight because they upgraded us to their 2 room suite with a (sort of) view of the ocean from the wrap-around balcony. Suite!