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I used to be surprised at how dependent Americans are on their cars, but now I understand it. USA is so vast , and the cities are so spread out, that it is impossible to get by without a reliable vehicle. This is why cars and gas are so cheap, people get their driver’s license at 16, and infrastructure is so good in the States. Good roads are key to keeping this huge country connected and to enable business. No wonder why Americans love their roads and have even created legends around some of them and have raised them to the status of national symbols.
I feel lucky to have traveled the two most famous roads in the States within the same month – Highway One and Route 66. Both of them have the official status of All-American Roads, granted by the US Department of Transportation, which means that they are national scenic, cultural, historic and natural sites.
Historic Route 66, also known as The Mother Road, links Chicago to Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles through Arizona, Illinois, and New Mexico (3,945m). I travelled along Route 66 roughly between Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Lake Havasu, and Los Angeles. The best attraction on Route 66, I think, are the many roadside bars and eateries, such as Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In.
Snow Cap is a popular roadside attraction in Seligman, AZ along Route 66. Juan Delgadillo, the owner of the place, is notorious for his weird sense of humor. The front door had two doorknobs, and of course, the one I held first turned out to be a dummy. When I ordered a bottle of water, Juan Delgadillo, the man behind the counter gave me a baby bottle. Then he squirted fake ketchup on my shirt. Then he asked me if I wanted a straw for my water – and handed me a bunch of dried hay straws. I must say, I was not prepared for the pranks, but I did appreciate them!
The backyard of the Snow Cap is full of vintage automobiles with faces, hand-written signs like “Sorry, we’re open”, a wooden outdoor toilet with a TV and a hula dancing doll inside, and more random craziness. It turns out that Seligman, AZ is the prototype of Radiator Springs from Pixar’s Cars: a small town on a rather abandoned road where a great sense of humor and a few good local stars are the only way to attract tourism.
Taking a road trip along West Coast’s Highway One is one of the quintessential “Bucket List” items that all Americans have. I took that trip twice – once from San Francisco to LA, and, three weeks later, from San Diego to San Francisco.
Some of the highlights of Highway One that I saw were:
Pebble Beach – a peninsula with beautiful bays, lodges, and vista points turned into a ritzy golf resort and gated community. Here is The Lone Cypress, which most Californians will recognize in photos.
Monterey – The two must-see attractions are the Monterey Bay Aquarium (read my previous post) and the shops and restaurants at Canary Row.
Big Sur – the most stunning coastline I have ever seen in the entire world is between Monterey and San Lius Obispo! The sheer walls of the Santa Lucia Mountains vertically drop in the Pacific Ocean to create breathtaking views of the dark blue ocean, waves crashing and foaming into the jagged rocks, the narrow white strip of Highway 1 meandering on the edge of the cliffs, and the green mountain tops almost touching the blue sky. I spent almost the whole ride with my hand outside the window taking photos. You have to be prepared to snap them fast because if you are a moment too late, you could just miss the perfect shot of the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Architectural wonders – Madonna Inn and Hearst Castle (previous post), two eccentric establishments built by America’s richest people of the day.
Beautiful beaches with seals and sea otters – harbor seals around Carmel and elephant seals around San Simeon, as well as interesting human-inhabited beaches such as Muscle Beach and Venice Beach (I took lots of cool pics here).
The desert landscape of Imperial Sand Dunes and the Chocolate Mountains – I did not expect to see this, but yes, California has everything – from lush green sequoia forests and magnificent coasts to sandy deserts south of San Diego.
In conclusion, Highway One and Route 66 have definitely met and exceeded my expectations of the perfect road trips!
Other famous streets I’ve visited in the States: The Las Vegas Strip, Broadway and 5th Avenue in NYC, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard (where I saw Katy Perry) and Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, The Freedom Trail in Boston, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami (read about my awesome spring break).
In California, I discovered a new passion for extreme sports: skydiving. Too bad we don’t get to watch more extreme sports at the London 2012 Olympic Games*, but at least we got a taste of the extreme with James Bond and Queen Elizabeth’s heroic jump with a parachute from a helicopter over the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony.
With its all-year-round perfect weather and scenic views, California is a paradise for both first time skydivers and licensed skydiving enthusiasts. The Golden State has the largest skydiving community in the States and one of the highest number of drop zones worldwide.
I jumped for the first time in a tandem at the Parachute Center, Lodi, CA. To tell you the truth, parking the car in front of the drop zone was the most terrifying moment of the whole experience! My pulse had almost stopped and there was not even a drop of blood in my face. My legs felt like melting cheese as I was putting on the jumpsuit, and my mouth had frozen in a crooked horrified smile as people around me were cheering for me and saying that I’ll do great. My instructor was going to be Mike, a white-haired man with over 10,000jumps.
As I was walking to the airplane, I was silently cursing Ethan who persuaded me to do it. I had already accepted my doomed fate as I was watching the airport below us become smaller and smaller. At 13,000feet (4,000 meters), my instructor tightened the straps that secured my back to him and gave me a signal to go up to the door. I remember thinking: “Whatever. Just do it!” … And we jumped.
These were the most amazing 60 seconds of my life!
Pure adrenaline rush!
If you’ve never been in freefall, you don’t know what you’re missing! The speed and sound of the air rushing past you in the first moment and the sight of the airplane flying away somewhere above you. Then the sensation of floating or even being lifted up due to the air friction and the view of the blue sky, the thin horizon, and the fields and mountains below you. Time stretches, and for those 60 seconds, you are very aware of everything you see and feel. Just take it all in!
When Mike opened the parachute and we went under canopy, my first thought was “WOW, this was awesome!” From there, I just enjoyed the relaxing flight over Lodi and then a perfectly soft landing.
Most people say that they would like to jump at least once in their lifetime. A small portion of them really do, and they love it! An even smaller portion of those love it so much that they want to do it over and over and over again!
About a month after my first tandem jump, I had already completed AFF, the Accelerated Freefall Program, at the Parachute Center, which enables me to solo jump. The program consists of seven jumps with an instructor who at first only holds you stable during the freefall, and later only watches you from a distance while you maintain a stable position and perform basic maneuvers in the air. My AFF instructor was Zak Tessier, check out his skydiving, wingsuit flying, and BASE jumping with Team Go 4 It!
Take a look at Ethan’s TheExtremeEJDe video blog on YouTube as well for more from the world of skydiving, scuba diving, and motorcycling.
When I came back to Bulgaria after my California trip, I immediately went to jump at Skydive Sofia. As the skydivers in Sofia say, “Don’t worry about the fear. Worry about the addiction.”
And although there isn’t a skydiving competition in the London 2012 Olympic Games, we all saw who arrived at the Opening Ceremony with a parachute – James Bond and Queen Elizabeth! They have already done it, and so should you!
*Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing skydiving, water ski, scuba diving, power boating, auto racing, or motorcycle racing in the Olympics any time soon because the International Olympic Body deems sports with an element of motorization to be ineligible for the Games.
By the way, the closest I’ve gotten to an Olympic gold medal is when I won three ribbons at the intramural swimming competition at Boston University. Read about it in the link.
Seals are such beautiful creatures. They are big and mighty when they argue, nudge and shove each other, but then become gentle and peaceful when napping cuddled together. They are very clumsy on the shore, but fast and graceful in the water.
During my trip, I saw elephant seals, sea lions, and common harbor seals everywhere from the beaches of Big Sur and Carmel to the harbors of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. These are some of the pictures I took.
I also went to the San Diego Zoo, which is one of the biggest zoos in the world. It’s marvelous how they have recreated the natural habitats of various animals with unique plants and environments: the pandas are in a bamboo forest, the alligators are in a swamp, the kangaroos are in an outback-like desert, the exotic birds are in a jungle. They also have many animal-themed shows and performances such as the Chinese Theatre we saw near the Asian section of the zoo. Thus, the San Diego zoo combines an animal park, a botanical garden, and an entertainment center where children and parents can observe, learn about, and interact with nature.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best aquariums in the world.
Monterey Bay in California holds an abundance of interesting, unique ocean animals and plants, which make the region a paradise for scuba divers and ocean explorers. At the Aquarium, I saw a bunch of interactive exhibits where biologists were feeding the otters, the deep sea fish (imagine a school of thousands of herring moving in giant tank along with hammerheads and sharks), and the inhabitants of a kelp forest. I also saw a sea horses exhibit, a jellyfish exhibit, and a playground where you could touch various creatures.
In addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo, I encountered several California species that I had never seen in the wild before: blue jays, a humming bird in Mount Diablo, seals, otters, two scary snakes, a herd of very friendly elk by Grand Canyon, redwoods and giant sequoias in Yosemite, and of course, the yellow California poppy. So my number one advice to travelers is: always combine sightseeing in the cities with exploring the local nature and wild life!
As Shakespeare said, “Two houses both alike in dignity…” and eccentricity.
While traveling on Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, I visited two almost equally peculiar “homes”, Hearst Castle and Madonna Inn.
Hearst Castle is the mansion of the notorious American media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Built between 1919 and 1947 near San Simeon by architect Julia Morgan, “La Cuesta Encantada”(the Enchanted Hill), as it is also known, today is a national historic landmark . It is a huge castle build on a hill with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by open fields that used to be orchards and a private zoo for exotic animals.
Yes, exotic animals. Hearst was a millionaire and a very eccentric person. Together with Julia Morgan, he designed an eclectic, flamboyant castle that combines many architectural styles and epochs in one. Inspired by the wonderful cathedrals, castles, palaces, fortresses, chateaus, and villas he had seen while traveling through Europe with his mother as a child, Hearst incorporated everything in his mansion. “The Ranch”, as Hearst himself called it, has an ancient Roman mosaics pool, Medieval tapestry, Gothic hallways, a collection of antique furniture and Mediterranean art, a modern movie theatre, church-like bell towers, painted and wood carved ceilings, marvelous gardens and patios, and much more. It is architectural madness and genius at the same time. It used to be frequented by the political elite and the highlife of Hearst’s time like Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Hearst Castle is magnificent, no doubt about that, and it does feel like something out of a dream about the Mediterranean. Still, I would recommend to anyone, if possible, to visit the European palaces and learn about the Mediterranean cultures that inspired Hearst to build his dream ranch.
The second peculiar mansion I visited in California was the Madonna Inn. It is a hostel on US Route 101 near San Luis Obispo built by construction magnate Alex Madonna. The Madonna Inn is famous because each of its 110 guest rooms is uniquely themed: heaven, whisky factory, desert sands, caveman room, rock bottom, safari, love nest, old mill, Bridal Falls, jungle, flowers, cloud Nine, amusement park, etc. The outside of the Inn looks like a palace-chalet from a Swiss alps fairytale – adorned with decorative rocks, a giant fireplace made up of boulders, stained glass depicting the owner’s businesses with construction, cattle, and limber, hand-carved stairs, a dining room that looks like a hot pink flower cave, and bathrooms resembling an underwater cove.
This time, I only went in for a few minutes, but I bet that staying in this landmark resort hotel is an experience in and of itself.
Hearst Castle and Madonna Inn reminded me a lot of the palace in Cintra, Portugal. Take a look here.
I was considering posting this as a thumbs down review on Yelp, but instead, I decided to turn it into a “funny”misadventure story on my blog.
Irinka and I had chosen what we thought was the perfect youth hostel in LA: Hollywood International Youth Hostel – centrally located in front of the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and dirt cheap (that already should have set the alarm bells ringing).
So we moved in our four-girls bedroom around 9pm and went out for dinner and a drink. The day had been action-packed with travel and sightseeing, so all we really wanted to do as we headed back to the hostel around 11:30pm was go to sleep.
As we entered the lobby, a gray wall of thick smoke hit our faces. “Since when is it allowed to smoke indoors in America?!” was the first thought that crossed my mind. My second thought was, “Oh, shit!” There was blasting music and disco lights in the lobby! There were teenagers all over the place (it’s a youth hostel!) dancing around the couches, smoking around the computer desks, playing pool near the kitchenette, and drinking on the dining table. The common room was turned into a night club!
We were offered free beer – on the hostel! Yes, the hostel provided free cans of Budweiser to the “youths”! The walls were shaking under the sound of Lady Gaga and Usher (later someone bragged to me that this was the owner’s new sound system: “Isn’t it sweet!”).
Did I mention that our room was exactly next to this common room and that it didn’t make any difference whether we would leave the door open or closed – we could hear the loud music equally well.Irinka and I immediately googled other hostels nearby and tried to check-out only to find out that our hostel won’t return our money, which we had to pay in advance for the entire four-day stay.
She and I tried picking up a conversation, repacking our suitcases, and taking a looong time to brush teeth, take a shower and get ready for bed, hoping that the party nextdoor will end by 2am. Nope! I guess this hostel had transformed into one of the few clubs in America where the party goes on all night long. Eventually, I just ended up sticking my head under the pillow and passing out from exhaustion.
The only thing I didn’t understand is why on earth would you want to be at a party in the common room of a hostel on Sunday night when there are plenty of other real clubs everywhere around you in Hollywood. Wasn’t a hostel a place for tired travelers to sleep?
On the following day, Irinka and I had assumed that this little incident was something of the past… Yeah, right! The same thing happened every single night while we stayed there! FML!
As I told you, I was going to post this on Yelp, but you know what, the Hollywood International Youth Hostel eventually atoned itself. There was a free Katy Perry concert right outside of it in front of the Kodak Theatre. Irinka and I managed to find the perfect vantage point (after some squabble with the security guards) and watched the show hidden inside a decorative bush very close to the stage. Well, there is a trade off to choosing the most central hostel in Hollywood.
My impulse for self-preservation was triggered in Venice Beach: “Get me out of this madhouse!”
Venic Beach is a strange mixture of something very commercialized and touristy and something absolutely alternative and controversial. Why did those people dress like that? Why did they behave in such a way? Are they so eccentric? Are they simply crazy? Do they have some unhealthy urge to express themselves in the weirdest ways? Or is this just the pot fumes of Venice Beach? You tell me! This is what I saw; the good, the bad, and the ugly:
The Marijuana Doctor: booths that sell Medical Marijuana Licenses. You pay to see the doctor, tell him that you have chronic migraine/dislocated shoulder/high stress levels/ stage fright/toothache, etc and he grants you a license that allows you to buy medical marijuana.
- A Real Freakshow: I saw double-headed turtles and the famous wolf-man from the Guinness World Records. Find more pictures of the show on Yelp (not for weak stomachs!).
- Muscle Beach: the home of bodybuilding, where very athletic people perform gymnastics and acrobatics on special installations
A skinny guy who had the skin color of the Tanning Mom in rollerblades wearing a thong and a helmet with the American flag
- A guy playing a piano on the street
- Completely stoned hobos lying by the side of the street
- Very creative beggars by Santa Monica Pier had made cardboard “targets” where you have to throw throw coins through tiny slits. It’s a fun way to give money to the homeless!
- Artworks of Marilyn Monroe as a Lakers player
- Paintings drawn on old skateboards, sculptures made out of spare car parts, lots of graffiti, homeless people making sand sculptures, tattoo and piercing parlors, henna tattoos, bong shops
Sexy girls in bikini riding bicycles and rollerblades; lots of silicone
- Gangster boys on longboards
- Lifeguards who look like they came out of the TV show Baywatch
- Lots and lots of surfers and street performers
Venice Beach reminded me a lot of Camden Market in London. Where else have you ever seen such eccentric street dwellers?
As a sophomore, I was thinking about spending a semester “abroad” in LA, but my employer at the time and good friend Scott told me that this place wasn’t for me. He told me that it was dirty, overcrowded, superficial, drained your energy, and invariably enticed you to dye your hair blond and fill your lips with collagen. I ended up studying abroad in London instead, but I always remained curious about this strange place called Los Angeles.
Scott was right. The City of Angels is one of those places in the US that I very much enjoy visiting but where I don’t see myself staying. Like New York, LA offers more than you could take in just a few days:
The Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard is as crowded and touristy as Times Square. Rodeo Drive is as jaw-dropping glamorous as Fifth Avenue. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is as impressive as the Guggenheim. Beverly Hills, with its multi-million dollar houses and palm-lined boulevards, is exactly what you see on TV.
When I imagined LA, I used to think about the movie industry, the music industry, the fashion industry, and the luxurious houses of America’s highlife. I used to think of starving artists struggling to make their breakthrough and rich businessmen living a thrilling life. But in fact, there is a whole other LA that I saw. I saw what seemed to be two distinct cities: an American and a Mexican city.
To my surprise, Los Angeles carries very old Hispanic heritage. It’s history began with the establishment of a Spanish mission in 1782 – El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles. From 1821 to 1848, the town was under Mexican rule. The influx of English and continental Europeans came in the 1880s and to a great extent changed the face of the city. More recently since the 1920s, the immigration of Mexicans and other Hispanics to the States has been steadily increasing, and data shows that LA receives the most such immigrants out of any city in the West. Therefore, LA is being increasingly influenced by the Latino culture anew.
It was very interesting to see the old part of LA: El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, only a short walk from Downtown. My friend Irinka and I visited Olvera Street, which is painfully cheesy but still cute with its colorful souvenir shops and stands with mouth-watering sweets. We saw the oldest house in LA, Avila Adobe, and the city’s first grand hotel, Pico House.
Later, though, we had an even more authentic contemporary experience. We took a 50 minute trip by public transport from Downtown LA to Citadel Outlets in East LA. Now this was very different from the city we had seen earlier: many of the signs were in Spanish; the cafes offered Mexican food; many of the girls were dressed as latino divas. East LA clearly carried a Hispanic vibe.
We didn’t have much time to explore that part of town because it was getting late and dark, but I wish someone had told me that East and West LA are so different – I would have probably spent less time in Hollywood!
I’ve always dreamt of doing a road trip around the States! So after my Graduation, I spent a month and a half trekking and touring the West Coast.
For the trekking portion of the trip, my Bulgarian friend Irinka, who also just graduated from a university in the UK, and I booked a professional service, TrekAmerica. We joined a group of fourteen internationals from Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland for a two week adventure. We traveled by van and camped all over California, Nevada, and Arizona.
I’ve created this map in Google where you can follow my trip as I upload more posts and pictures. I’ve also included some side trips that were not part of the organized tour as well as posts about things that made an impression on me in California.
So buckle up and off we go! First stop: LA!