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USA...California Dreamin' - week 2 by ColinG
Submitted By: karenc Date: March 5, 2010, 2:53 AM Views: 521

California Dreamin' - week 2
by by ColinG

In the our first week we made an initial exploration of San Francisco and the areas to the North & South along Highway 1 and had been three days in Yosemite National Park enjoying the great outdoors to the full.

For our final day in Yosemite I had been planning to do the Panoramic Trail which starts at Glacier Point and follows the rim of the valley round to Nevada Falls and descends via Vernal Falls and the Mist Trail back to the Valley. However having been in the Valley for only a few days the scale of the undertaking in the heat of the summer seemed far beyond our capability and we elected for a softer option. However M&K were still keen so gave them a lift up to Glacier Point to get an early start before the shuttle bus from the Village arrived. Once they had set off we visited Washburn Point for a slightly different aspect of Half Dome and the surrounding grandeur. Our next stop back in the Valley was Bridalveil Falls, the parking and trail were very busy and there was only a trickle of water to give an impression of these spectacular falls; another bear crossed our path as we returned to the car!
We found a pleasant spot for a relaxing picnic lunch and paddle on the river at Sentinel Beach before heading off via the Day Parking and Shuttle Bus to the trailhead to tackle the hike to Vernal Falls. It was early afternoon by now and very warm which made the steep path up to the bridge quite strenuous. We took a long rest there and decided to continue a bit more to get a better view off the Falls from the Mist Trail and meet M&K on their way down. The trail was initially less steep until the final section which is a 300+ step stairway cut into the cliffside! Being summer the amphitheatre surrounding the falls was not filled with the spray which gives the trail its name but there was sufficient to create a nice rainbow at the base of the plunge pool; M&K met as at this point after their 6 hour hike.

We returned to the Valley and only then appreciated how steep the first section of the trail up to the bridge actually is; we marvelled at the madness of the people who were still setting off, some in flip flops and others pushing baby carriers! We went over the The Ahwanhee for a well earned drink and the best food we found in the Valley!
We stopped at the Valley View on our way back to base, this is another favourite sunset location and there were about a dozen tripod set up at various points along the river's edge.

On our final trip to the Valley to pick up M&K we stopped to walk on the boardwalks at Sentinel meadow and take in the tranquillity and magnificence of this wonderful valley.
It was a long drive back to Menlo Park to drop off M&K and then onwards to start the second phase of our three week trip. Our first stopping point was Carmel-by-the-Sea described in the official website as "A City in a forest. The greatest weather, cleanest air and water and one of the best places in the world to live"; I had not actually made any research about Carmel before we travelled but our first impressions when we drove down to the sea front for a walk would certainly have agreed with this statement. Astounding beaches washed by the ocean tides, beautiful villas in mature surroundings with warm sunshine and a refreshing sea breeze, idyllic!

Monterey Bay Aquarium is acclaimed to be the "Best Aquarium in the World" and based on the vast diversity and scale of the marine habitats and creatures exhibited it would be difficult to disagree.

Fascinating jellyfish displays, huge tanks with sharks, sun fish, rays, tuna and shoals of smaller fish, the amazing 3 storey high kelp forest tanks, otters, penguins and much, much more plus outdoor areas with access to the Bay for diving experiences and viewing the natural marine habitat and wildlife spotting including whales. They also have a high profile focus on education about marine conservation issues. Judging by the huge number of visitors on the day when we were there, including a high proportion of children, this is certainly a world class attraction. The swarms of small kids got the better of us after about three hours, although we could easily have spent another three before we would have seen enough, so we headed back to Carmel River State Beach with a picnic lunch. Stunning location frequented by huge numbers of pelicans and other sea birds. The beach shelves steeply along the shoreline and the ocean rollers plus the offshore kelp forest would make swimming strenuous and quite perilous in the cold ocean waters. Historically this beach is also the place where the first missionaries from Spain landed in Northern California and founded the Carmel Mission.

In the afternoon the wind became too strong to comfortably stay on the beach so we headed to visit the Mission founded Father Junipero Serra in 1770 to bring Christianity to the indigenous Indian tribes. The Chapel which was extensively renovated in the mid-20th Century still operates as a local Chapel and shortly after our tour was being closed to visitors for a wedding of obviously wealthy locals.

We headed round the bay to the Point Lobos State Nature Reserve; unfortunately the fog had rolled in by now but this did not deter us from exploring various trails to watch a wide variety of wildlife. The lighting across the bay and over to the tree covered hills of Carmel Highlands was surreal as the fog and mist swirled around letting shafts of light through.

There was a selection of eateries and a couple of friendly bars close by our hotel which provided good evening entertainment.

We had pre-booked a Whale Watching trip in the hope of seeing Humpback and Blue whales in the Monterey Bay National Marine Park. We were at the pier early for the 0900 departure but feeling slightly the worse for slight overindulgence the previous night, not the best idea before a five hour sea trip! Before we left the marina at Monterey the sun was already trying burn off the fog but as soon as we powered off towards Moss Landing we were back in totally overcast skies and a heavy ocean swell; we sat at the stern in reach of the rail and near the middle to lessen the roll! Nearly two hours later we were approaching the other side of the Bay when the first whale was sighted. This is a popular location for whale watching because the sea bed plunges into a canyon over 10,000ft deep but only half a mile from the shore! There were several other boats around and we watched three Humpback whales and a few sea lions etc at close quarters for over an hour. It was a truly amazing experience but unfortunately conditions for photography could hardly have been worse.

It was time to head back across the bay; we fleetingly saw a couple of Harbour Porpoise then another whale was spotted so we went for a look. As we approached and from absolutely nowhere another Humpback shot vertically out of the water less than 100ft in front of the boat, everybody on that side of the boat (myself included) gasped in shocked astonishment at this unbelievable spectacle; nobody was ready with their camera but suddenly we were all on tenterhooks for a repeat performance but alas it did not come again! When we disembarked at Monterey we were solid with the cold, we literally could not stand up straight. First priority was a restroom then a traditional sour dough bread bowl of clam chowder on the Fisherman's Wharf to bring us back to life.
Rather dismally the sun had not broken through the fog today so the beach was not an option. We set off to the famous 17 Mile Drive, a large gated parkland enclave where the rich and famous live and play in privileged luxury with surroundings which even on this gloomy day could be seen to be spectacular. Famous landmarks include the Lone Cypress tree, which I believe was photographed by Ansel Adams, and the Pebble Beach Resort and Golf Course where the practise putting green was like a velvet carpet. We left the Drive at the Carmel Gate and found our way to the centre of the town with its posh and exclusive shops and restaurants. We recognised no celebrities that day not even Clint Eastwood who was once mayor of the town and I believe still has a house there.

When we looked out in the morning the car park was damp from the fog and mist or had it actually rained overnight? We packed our bags, checked out and set off for our Big Sur drive to San Simeon. The guidebook says allow five - six hours for this 90 mile drive which I had difficulty coming to terms with, surely the traffic could not be that bad to slow the average speed to 15mph? Indeed it was not, but the guidebook estimate was actually conservative because whilst we made five longer stops for walkabouts, beaches & lunch en route and countless other stops at turnout points for photos or just a look at the breathtaking coastline scenery, the drive took us nearly nine hours!

The Big Sur section of Highway 1 was only completed in 1937 with the extensive use of convict labour. Along the tortuous route which hugs the mountainside high above the Pacific waves there are many concrete bridges perhaps the best known being over Bixby Creek whose claim to fame is being the highest single span concrete bridge in the world. The sun began to break through by the time we passed the Big Sur Lighthouse and it was warm and pleasant before we made our first long stop at the dramatic and beautiful Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Beach. Stunning! Next stop was at Nepenthe a long established and well known lunch stop in a tremendous location with lush gardens overlooking the coast.

Looking at the map I was beginning to think we would not make our destination before nightfall due to our slow progress so far; but the driving was stress free and enjoyable, so why worry? We both remarked that the road and scenery was reminiscent of the Amalfi Drive in Italy but several times grander, well of course, this is California!
Next stop was the McWay Cove Waterfall overlook where I nearly got into a spot of bother with the Park Rangers for not having enough change to put into the parking envelope, but I was damned sure I was not missing out on one of the highlights of the Big Sur just because I was $3 short in small change, neither was I going to pay $20 to park for half an hour so I left $5 and took the chance that they would not do any spot checks before we left! It's only a short walk to the overlook point to see the waterfall plunge 50 graceful feet directly onto the sandy beach in the cove, very picturesque!

Continuing south we wanted another beach stop and came across Sand Dollar Beach which was swarming with wet suit clad surfing parties and for good reason as there was a continuous barrage of big waves coming in to shore.

We watched for a half hour or so then headed off towards San Simeon but as we passed the Punta Blanca Elephant Seal reserve we could see that there were quite a few people there so we turned in for a look. There were about 15 full grown bull seals and a few younger ones hauled out on the beach grunting and flicking sand with their flippers. Occasionally a couple of these enormous mammals would take a disliking to each other and raise themselves up in a challenge, quite a spectacle to witness.

We did not stay long as we had time to come back over the next few days. We found our hotel right on the ocean front with easy access to the beach for walking and a small pool with hot tub for relaxing in and in the evenings they even had three outdoor wood fires along the bluff for guests to meet for a chat and watch the sunset, perfect!

I had not been enthusiastic about visiting Hearst Castle until a friend who had been said that we should not miss the opportunity to see this real world fantasy residence. Constructed in the 1920s, 30s and 40s by newspaper magnate W R Hearst the title castle does not convey anything of the nature of this private estate and mansion extraordinaire! Pictures tell more than any amount of words can convey, take a look at the two swimming pools and the flag adorned dining room!

The structure of the buildings are basically made of concrete but fitted out and adorned with second hand antiquities and treasures from castles, cathedrals, monasteries etc which needed funds to recover from the ravages of the First World War. This place is quite simple unique, there is even an airport and the enclosures of a zoo within the estate, we did actually see a zebra wandering with a few of the prized Angus cattle herd! This place was the venue for lavish entertainment and party weekends with a guest list including the most eminent politicians, Hollywood stars and sports personalities of the time including Churchill, Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, etc etc, Visit their website for more information about this palace!
Having had enough fantasy we headed off to Cambria to find somewhere that would cash VISA Traveller's Cheques! It was initially quite intriguing to discover that hotels could not provide this basic support function to tourists, then it became serious when the first bank we went to also refused and extremely frustrating when one branch of the Bank of America only wanted to cash up to a limit of $200! Mind Boggling reality!
Cambria is a pleasant almost Olde Worlde kind of township and I laughed aloud when I saw a sweet shop called the Taffy Barrel; surely this must be a serious contender for the worst American corruption of the English language; Taffy = Toffee!?!? After lunch at the village Deli we took a walk on the boardwalks and stayed a while on the beach at Moonstone Bay before the wind beat us back and we returned to the hotel to use the pool and (very) hot tub and watch the parasurfers leaping about in the bay.

We returned to the Moonstone Inn for an early dinner where the table next to was a Batchelorette (syn Hen) Party where the strongest drink seemed to be Chamomile tea; then headed back towards Punta Blanca to catch the sunset.

A fine clear morning with no fog for a change so we headed straight to the WR Hearst State Beach at Old San Simeon. The pier there and various buildings were all part of the construction site infrastructure for the Castle but remain now as private residences in a very small township.
For lunch we drove back north up the Big Sur to Ragged Point which we had missed out on Sunday. The nature trail path to the waterfall looked decidedly precarious so we passed on that and wandered around the cliff top gardens in the sunshine, we even spotted a couple of whales out to sea.

Afterwards we stopped at the turnout before the Elephant Seal reserve and walked out towards the Piedras Blancas lighthouse and were amazed to find that in contrast to the main reserve turnout where the tourists are corralled safely behind fences to prohibit access to the beaches and seals, here we found small beaches and inlets with quite a few more bull seals basking or wallowing but without the artificial barriers in place, a much more satisfying wildlife watching experience! We then returned to our own sunny inlet to bask and wallow for a while before the shadows lengthened again for sundown to mark the end of our tremendous second week.

Still to come in Part 3 Pelicans and Waders on Morro Rock beach, Downtown San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

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