California: Days 4 to 14

Day 4: Tijuana, La Jolla, and Hollywood: Talk about extremes. We started the day by walking across to Tijuana Mexico for what turned out, unsurprisingly, to be a reminder of how the rest of the world lives. We were bombarded by shop keepers and jewelry sales people. Not 10 seconds went by without a request by someone to do something or another! After a walk down the main drag, we stopped for a bit of Mexican food and headed back to the border.

After leaving San Diego to drive north, we stopped by La Jolla to see the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course, site of the 2008 US Open. I had hoped to play the twilight rate for the North course ($51 + $30 club rental), but the North course, as I learned, was in its two week dormant state which meant that it was a crisp yellow! Wonderful! The South course was in decent shape, but I wasn't going to spend $120 on a game of golf!

By nightfall we had arrived in Los Angeles. We checked into our hostel and couldn't believe that it was almost directly behind the Kodak Theatre. Checking out Grauman's Chinese Theatre was a lot of fun, and for a small fee we got a tour. Our tour guide was excellent and we ended the day feeling like we had already had a memorable Hollywood experience. Before heading back to the hostel, we had supper at Mel's Diner. The special was a turkey dinner with mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing. How perfect, since we missed Canadian thanksgiving only a couple of days before!

Day 5: Hollywood, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles: We started the day taking a limo tour of Hollywood, Bel Air, and Beverly Hills. It was fun to see where the celebrities live in their 15 million dollar homes, all packed into these three mega rich communities. Many of the homes were fenced and had vegitation grown strategically so that it was difficult to see any further than the main gate. As Meredith and I stood on Rodeo Drive, I pointed at this poor lady driving by who's face was all bandaged up. She was bruised all over and I figured she had been in a nasty accident. Meredith laughed and cleared things up... nothing more than a face lift. After the tour we were more than ready to get going. The too-good-for-you air of this city is distasteful and quickly tiring. We stopped by Santa Barbara to visit the history-rich mission, and then drove until late in the evening, ending up in Paso Robles to enjoy what turned out to be another fantastic Fodor's Choice accomodation: The Adelaide Inn. How can you get this for $80/night? Incredible.

Day 6: The Pacific Coast Highway, Hearst Castle, and Big Sur: One of the highlights of our trip was driving up the PCH #1 along the Pacific coast. It is beautiful, windy road that rises several hundred feet above the ocean. And the turns are enough to make you feel a bit queasy, so we had to take it slow. After a couple of hours I noticed that we were a little low on gas, and gas stations were rare to be seen, so I stopped to fill up when I had the next chance. As I was almost done filling the tank I looked up at the meter and couldn't believe my eyes... $3/litre. Yuck! One of the stops along the way was Hearst Castle, which was built early in the 20th century by a media tycoon. It has a fascinating history, documented by a very well done National Geographic documentary that they play in a full sized theatre for you. We toured the castle and I was amazed by the swimming pool, which is filled entirely by fresh spring water which runs down the hillside. We made it to the Big Sur campground by nightfall and enjoyed our first night of camping. After setting up our tent, we were overjoyed to discover a beautiful lodge on the campgrounds with fine dining. We weren't exactly dressed for the occasion, but we enjoyed a very tasty dinner before heading to bed.

Day 7 and Day 8: Pebble Beach, Mountain View, and San Francisco: On our way further up the PCH #1 to San Francisco, we stopped by the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, which you can play for a mere $450 US! It can be found along the 17-mile drive, a beautiful private road just south of Monterey. Just for fun we stopped at Mountain View CA to see Google's headquarters, and then continued along to San Francisco. That evening we took the ferry over to tour Alcatraz. The audio tour is quite good, and the fact that we did an evening/night tour made it a bit spookier. It was interesting to learn that Alcatraz is only a mile from San Francisco -- so what made the swim so challenging? The sharks aren't really a problem, and while the water is pretty cold, that wasn't really preventative either. The answer, apparently, is the fast currents that sweep out into the Pacific. The next day we walked San Francisco by foot. Wow! The incline of those streets is absolutely amazing, and the incline stays constant for 6 or 7 blocks. At the top, you have a great view back down to the bay. That evening we watched Michael Clayton, which is a great thriller.

Day 9 and 10: Muir Woods and Sequoia National Park: On our way out of San Francisco, we stopped by Muir Woods National Monument, which is home to many beautiful redwood trees. By the early evening, we were in Sequoia National Park. We checked out General Sherman, which is volumetrically the largest tree in the world, and then checked into the lodge. Again, we were happy to be greeted by an extremely beautiful lodge complete with fine dining and complementary buffet breakfast. We highly recommend it! The next morning we toured the Crystal Cave, which is 3.5 miles of cave network about an hours drive south of the lodge. During the tour they turned off all of the lights and had everyone be quiet so that we could experience what a cave is truly like. Ok, turn the lights back on already!

Day 11: Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Mountain: While we saw a lot of different terrain over the five national parks we visited, Yosemite National Park was the most abrupt and breathtaking. We drove in at night, so only the next morning when we crawled out of our tent did we see the amazing beauty that surrounded us. The campground is in the valley, which is 3,000 feet below the mountain range that surrounds it. Sheer granite cliffs, such as El Capitan, are an amazing sight to behold. Backing up a little bit, Yosemite was our second opportunity to camp. We were warned about the bears, and it turned out to be good advice. We awoke in the middle of the night to our fellow campers yelling sternly at a bear to go away, probably 150 yards across the campsite! I don't think Meredith slept very well that night! After touring the valley, we headed out of the park and really enjoyed the drive north and east out the valley. The park road crested at just under 10,000 feet, with snow capped mountain peeks and wonderful colours all around. That night we stayed in Mammoth Mountain at a rustic old lodge that received a Fodors Choice. What a treat! The Tamarack Lodge was a welcomed escape from the 32 degree fahrenheit temperatures and gusting wind outside. The lodge was complete again with fine dining and a warm fireplace. We enjoyed chatting with an older couple that had been visiting the lodge for several decades and cherished it as a family secret.

Day 12: Death Valley: Our adventure was almost done, but it was really only beginning. We headed out from Mammoth Mountain and after a couple hours of driving, we entered Death Valley. We had altered our intended route so that we wouldn't have to backtrack to Scotty's Castle, but that meant that we had to take a rough dirt road for 75 miles. About 45 miles into the dirt road, in the middle of stark desert, we started to hear some thumping. We stopped, I got out and walked around the car, and to my horror and slight amusement there was a completely flat tire. We were about here, 30 miles or so from any people. We had been driving along the dirt road for an hour and a half without seeing a single car. Staying calm, we pulled the spare tire out from the back of the Forrester. But wait, where is the jack? Dollar Rent-a-car strikes again! Where the jack was supposed to sit, there was nothing. No jack. What do we do now? Hike for 10 hours? Wait for a few hours and hope someone drives by? We lucked out, or we have a friend in high places, because literally 3 minutes after we stopped, the only other car to traverse that road in the entire 4 hours we were on it happened to drive by. We flagged it down, and a kind man from Hungary was more than willing to let us use his jack. We were back on the road in 30 minutes and keeping it to 10 mph. Whew! That evening we enjoyed some sights and set up our tent at the Furnace Creek Campground. Were we ever in for another surprise. That night, at about midnight, the wind suddenly picked up. Our tent fly became a sail and we had to take it down to keep from flying off! Just as you'd almost fall asleep, the sides of the tent would whip up and just about knock you over! The next morning started at 5:40 AM when I got up to play the Furnace Creek Golf Course. It was hard to imagine, but there was an immaculate 18 hole golf course in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world! It was fantastic! Once Meredith was done at the shop getting a new tire, we headed down to the Badwater salt flat, the lowest point in North America, after which we headed out to Las Vegas.

Day 13 and 14: Las Vegas and Grand Canyon: Las Vegas, Las Vegas! What a strange place. We managed to snag a night at the Bellagio for a mere $199, which wasn't too bad considering our travel agent saw prices for $799 the next night! Yikes! The hotel was gorgeous as one would expect, as was the food.

That night we enjoyed "O", which is a wonderful Cirque du Soliel presentation that is based around a multi-million gallon pool. It was well worth the money and we were left speechless.

As for the casino, I was nervous to try a game of blackjack, which is the only casino game besides poker that you can win at. By default you are at a 8% disadvantage to the house, but by memorizing a large table you can reduce that advantage to 0.5%. For a $10 hand, that means you're losing 5 cents on average. So it becomes a game of 50/50 that you can play for about $10 an hour. Going into the game I decided I'd put $40 on the table and make the minimum $10 bets until I either doubled my money or hit 0. It started to look a little shakey when I lost $30 of my original $40, but I ended up working my way all the way up to $70. I should have cashed out there, but I decided to stick to my original game plan and ended up hitting 0. Oh well! It was an experience! The next day, which was our last, Meredith and I took a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon which was a lot of fun. We flew over Lake Las Vegas, Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam, and finally the canyon. The helicopter landed down in the canyon so that we could get out, take some pictures, and sip some champagne. Then it was back to Las Vegas to catch our flight home.