Our summer 1998 vacation trip was great. We picked Danielle up at SeaWorld camp on Friday afternoon, August 7th, and headed to the airport to catch a Delta non-stop to Los Angeles. The lease ran out on Linda’s car last month. She has her heart set on a Corvette, but the color she wants isn’t available right now, a situation worsened by the recent GM strike. So she’s been renting a car for the past few weeks. It seemed strange to drive to the airport and have no car to park, but it sure was convenient to be able to simply abandon it in the rental car lot like we do when we’re traveling.
The flight was uneventful. Since I earn Delta SkyMiles on American Express card purchases made on my own and the company’s Amex cards, we’re usually able to get free first class tickets for vacations. First class makes traveling with a busy seven-year-old a lot easier. That coupled with plenty to do — a couple of game CD’s on the laptop, an activity book, and some plastic-tasting food — made the flight go pretty quickly. There are usually a lot of Disney people in first class on the Orlando-Los Angeles non-stop, and this flight was no exception, so we had a chance to visit with a few people we don’t see all that often.
When we arrived we rented a car and drove to Linda’s parents’ house. On the way I swung past the house I grew up in and lived in until I got married at 22. The neighborhood seemed a bit more run-down than I recall, with a fair amount of peeling paint and uncut grass, but I suppose it’s holding up better than most of Los Angeles. I drove past the site of the Baldwin Hills Dam, which was only a few hundred yards from our house, but there was little sign of where it had been.
Linda’s parents live in a two-story, semi-Victorian house that was built near downtown Los Angeles in 1903. The house features hand-painted ceiling murals and elaborate oak paneling. Originally lit by gas lamps, it was refitted for electricity in the 1920’s. Saturday we spent a quiet day at home, letting Danielle play with her grandparents.
One of the advantages of an old house is the attic. With an accumulation of seventy years of “stuff”, there’s always something interesting. On this trip I dredged up some old photos for scanning and some interesting old jewelry and books. Linda found a toy crane from her childhood, a recreation of the arcade-type candy or stuffed toy cranes. It has two levers that manipulate the arm and jaws, and a chute into which objects may be dropped in order to get them out of the enclosed plastic cover. After a little WD-40 Danielle had a great time manipulating the levers to retrieve small “treasures” (crumpled paper) and drop them down the chute. It beats losing fifty cents a shot.
We also unearthed a model of Disneyland that Linda made for her sixth grade art fair, in an eerie presaging of her career as an Imagineer. It’s really quite good, and her parents are still annoyed that she took second place behind a girl who leaned her father’s stamp collection against a prefab castle. Talk about holding a grudge. . .
For dinner we went to El Cholo, a 70-year-old Mexican restaurant just a block away from their house. We’ve been going to El Cholo all our lives, originally for their unique style of Mexican cooking, then later for the country’s best frozen Margaritas. The restaurant began as a small house on Western Avenue, then gradually expanded over the years, until today it occupies almost half the block.
Sunday afternoon we headed for the Los Angeles Zoo. Orlando doesn’t have much of a zoo. While Los Angeles’s Zoo has always stood in the shadow of the San Diego Zoo, it’s pretty nice. Located on a hilly corner of Griffith Park, a wilderness area that is the largest municipal park in the country, the zoo offers thousands of animals in very natural settings, with no obvious bars or cages.
When Linda and I lived in Los Angeles we were members of GLAZA, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. During the 1980s we watched the zoo grow and improve its exhibits year by year. Since then there have been animal care problems, management scandals, and funding shortfalls, and now the zoo population seems somewhat sparse.
We saw lions, giraffes, rhinos, antelope, ibex, lynx, wolverines, koalas, seals, polar bears, gorillas, flamingoes, lemurs, marmots, kangaroos, wallabies, foxes, wolves and many more. We enjoyed the otter exhibit the most. Two otters in a large area filled with pools, streams, logs, slides, tubes and other playthings spells fun. The two were in constant motion. We watched them play tag for about half an hour. They have quite a sense of humor. The leader would dive into the top end of an inclined tube and slide through, while the chaser jumped in the water and waited to surprise him at the bottom.
After the zoo we drove up to Burbank and had dinner at The Smoke House, a restaurant we’ve been going to for over thirty years. Their business is built primarily on the fact that they have the world’s best garlic bread — really more of a crumbly cheese / sour dough loaf. Mmmm.
Monday Linda and I headed out to Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale. Linda went to visit co-workers in the department she belonged to before she established the Florida presence of WDI Electronic Engineering. I went to make a presentation about our new products to the Audio/Video department. There were about a dozen engineers in the meeting, and our products were very well received. Most of these people are old friends. Since my company makes many of the A/V systems used in new attractions, we have a special working relationship with them, and it’s always a pleasure to see them when I’m back in Los Angeles.
Tuesday we visited the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits. Danielle enjoyed seeing the skeletons of giant sloths and saber-tooth tigers that were trapped in the tar. We also watched a film about dinosaurs, and why there aren’t any at the La Brea tar pits.
Wednesday morning, bright and early, we headed for San Francisco. We had to pay for this flight, and since it’s only 40 minutes, we flew coach! We rented a car from Dollar, and were pleased to be offered a convertible at the mid-size rate. So top down, bundled up against the fog, we headed for Cliff House and the Sutro Baths.
The Sutro Baths were built at the base of the cliffs overlooking Seal Rocks, in the late 1800’s. The original bathhouse was an enormous structure, nearly spanning the coastal outlet of the rocky canyon. A great, curved roof several stories high protected the bathers from the chill sea air, completely enclosing the football-field-sized pool, steam baths and changing rooms. The structure burned in the early 1960’s. All that remains today are the concrete walls of its foundation, and the caves cut into the jagged cliffs.
Danielle climbed about on the slippery walls under Linda’s fearful gaze, then we all climbed the path to the Cliff House. This is the third structure to use that name. The first two were large hotels perched above the baths. One burned in the early 1900’s after only a few years of service, the second lasted somewhat longer. Today the Cliff House is a restaurant serving well-prepared California cuisine, with a wine list honored by the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
After a delicious lunch we headed north, through Golden Gate Park and across the Golden Gate Bridge. With the convertible top down the bridge was most impressive, rising some 500 feet above the cold waters of San Francisco Bay. Danielle took a photo looking straight up as we passed under one of the massive arched supports. A mile away from the bay the fog lifted, and we found ourselves surrounded by eucalyptus, oak, cypress, and a few pines.
After a quick stop for sunscreen, we drove up the winding coast on Highway 1, enjoying the contrast to the flatness of Florida. Rocky cliffs plunged to the Pacific as we took in the sights and smells along the way. We skirted a large, freshwater bay at Stimson Beach and headed inland. Near Point Reyes the road wound through thick stands of eucalyptus that provided a deeply shaded canopy. After a stop at the Pt. Reyes National Recreation Area Visitor’s Center, we headed back.
By now it was 4pm, but we couldn’t resist stopping at Muir Woods, a pristine Redwood forest. Walking on deeply shaded paths amid the giant trees, Danielle commented, “We’re not in Kansas anymore. “
Finally, we finished our first day in San Francisco by heading back across the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown, to The Mandarin Hotel, where Linda and I had stayed about ten years ago.
The hotel was as nice as ever, and we had the pleasant surprise of possibly the best room in the entire hotel, on the top (48th) floor, overlooking the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz.
We dined at Silks, the hotel restaurant. The Sommelier, Reneé-Nicole Kubin, formerly of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, was a charming hostess, and the winelist was extremely well thought out. Unfortunately the food was not really at the same level, and the food service was truly disorganized. Still, it was a very pleasant end to a very busy day.
Thursday, after Danielle’s obligatory room service breakfast, we drove down to Fisherman’s Warf. I bought a cap to cover my head, which was slightly sunburned from our convertible exploits, despite liberal applications of sunscreen.
After a pleasant lunch at the end of Pier 39 we picked up the Alcatraz tickets we’d reserved prior to the trip, and caught the boat out to the island.
It was cool on the boat, but still the warmest I’d ever felt the air on San Francisco bay. The ten-minute boat ride provides a time to get in the proper mood to enjoy the lonely solitude of “The Rock”. It’s easy to imagine the hopelessness that the “incorrigibles” sent here for incarceration must have felt.
A new audio tour uses binaural sound, prisoner interviews, and dramatic reenactments to capture the experience of life in the cellblock. We all enjoyed it very much.
Thursday evening we dined in a Japanese restaurant at the Plaza Hotel. After dinner we sat in the lobby listening to the piano music, and pretended that it was one hundred years ago. Danielle had some interesting opinions on the advantages of gaslight over the newfangled electric lights the hotel had just installed.
Friday we walked to Market and Powell, grabbing pastries for breakfast on the way, and stopping at the St. Francis Hotel, where Linda and I spent our honeymoon 20 years ago, to ride the glass elevators. After about an hour wait, we caught the cable car. Danielle enjoyed her precarious perch on the side of the car, right up front. She also photographed the mechanism that grabs the cable.
At the end of the line we got off and walked to Ghirardelli Square. After shopping and lunch we crossed to the Hyde Street Pier. A new Maritime Museum, operated by the National Park Service, takes up the whole pier. There, for the bargain price of four dollars, we practiced riveting, toured a ferry boat from the 1930’s (the longest wooden vessel still afloat), and explored the Balclutha, an 1880’s square rigger used in the grain trade of the newly blossoming San Francisco.
Afterwards we enjoyed the variety of odd musical instruments in a terrific music shop at the Cannery, then caught a cab back to the hotel. We had a quiet and pleasant dinner at the Hyatt, a block from the Mandarin. Both hotels are located in the financial district, which was already growing deserted for the weekend as Friday night drew to a close.
Saturday we arose late, packed and checked out of the Mandarin. Since we’d seen so much more than we’d expected to in San Francisco, we decided to drive through wine country before the plane flight home. We headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge, and in a little more than an hour found ourselves in Sonoma.
Our first stop was Cline Cellars, known for their Zinfandel, and “ancient vines” line of wines. While Danielle fed the giant coy fish in the pond we sampled several wines and purchased a delicious Carignane (“CARE-EE-NYON'”) to bring back with us. We also bought a salami and some cheeses, which we enjoyed out by the pond. Our next stop was Gundlach-Bundschu, a charming stone structure tucked up beneath a hill. We purchased a Reserve 1985 Cabernet from their library, which we’ll share with our wine group. Danielle enjoyed socializing with their rather over-stuffed golden retriever.
Finally, we visited Buena Vista, California’s oldest premium winery, founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, the father of California viticulture. There we purchased a 1986 Reserve Cabernet from their library, while Danielle chatted with their resident artist. Outside, one of the winery cats lounged lazily under a picnic table, consuming a mouse for its lunch.
The day was waning, and we regretfully headed back across the Golden Gate a final time, and on to San Francisco Airport, where we returned our beloved convertible and caught the 7pm flight back to LAX.
During our layover we munched on Mexican food and grabbed one final Margarita at the mini-El Cholo in the Delta terminal. Danielle and I keep journals when we travel, and we used the time to catch up on our drawings and writings about the trip, and to fill out a few post cards. The red-eye left Los Angeles at 11pm, and we all caught a few winks before arriving in Orlando around 7am. After renting yet another car, we headed home, for our own comfortable beds.
And a long nap.