Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Friday, May 29, 2020

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Welcome to Stephen M. Bailey's Tourist First! I hope these photos and impressions from my travels will help you plan your own trips once we are again able to travel.  In 2020, my wife and I had to cancel a long-planned two-month trip to Australia and New Zealand because of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, though our own fears of being in a plane during the pandemic would have made us cancel anyway.  As it is, as of the end of November, we haven't eaten out in a restaurant for almost nine months and can't imaging being comfortable doing so any time soon.  We live in San Diego's Little Italy, where restaurants have taken over much of the streets for expanded outdoor dining, but restaurants are the main transmission points for the virus in San Diego. I sympathize with the restaurateurs and other business people who want to fully reopen, but not to the point of risking my health.  

I urge readers of this blog to also put their own health first. Wear masks every time you leave your home and keep them on.  And, while we wait for effective treatments or a vaccine for the virus, we can still dream of traveling the world, and maybe this blog can fuel some dreams. 

These blog posts are not updated once they're posted. For example, my post about a July 2019 visit to Venice does not reflect the terrible damage done by flooding in November 2019. And some hotel links may no longer work, though I do try to delete them when that happens.

Click on the orange links

General Travel
In the Air, a Caste System
Here's What I Want in a Hotel Room 
And see what more than 1,000 of my New York Times readers want in a hotel room
Travel Experiences With Minimal Expense
Strategies for Saving on Travel
My 2008 New York Times column on travel in a motor home or RV
My 2004 New York Times article on eco-resorts in the Caribbean (not all are still operating)
It's Easy to Avoid Credit Card Ripoffs Abroad
Road Trip: Driving from the Chesapeake Bay to San Diego
A Few of My Favorite Travel Snapshots

African Safaris
Itinerary for Six Weeks in Africa
My 2019 New York Times Article on Tips for Your First Safari
The Safari Experience
Botswana: Kalahari Desert
Botswana: Okavango Delta
Namibia: Chobe River
South Africa: Sabi Sand Game Reserve
Tanzania: Ngorongoro Crater
Tanzania: Serengeti

Mendoza: Home of Malbec

Wales: "Retiring" to a Canal Boat

Anzo-Borrego State Park: A Desert in Bloom
Central Coast: Hearst Castle, Elephant Seals and Points South
Idyllwild: Mountain Retreat
Los Angeles: Explorations on Foot
Malibu: The Getty Villa and More
Palm Springs: A Fall Getaway
Paso Robles: A Focus on Wine
San Diego County: A Joy Ride in the Mountains
San Diego County: Life During Coronavirus
San Diego: Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego: Embarcadero Walk
San Diego: Harbor Tour
San Diego: The "Other Zoo" is a Safari Park

Itinerary for Three Weeks in Southeast Asia
Small Airlines for Touring Southeast Asia
Religious Images: The Divine in Southeast Asia
Elephant Valley: Saving Asia's "Living Tractors"
Kep: The Place for Crabs (My Apologies to Chesapeake Bay)
Phnom Penh: Where the Past Is Past
Siam Reap: Gateway to the Angkor Region
The Angkor Temples: Angkor WatAngkor ThomBayonBanteay Srei, and Ta Prohm

Montreal: Frenchy but Not Exotic
Niagara Falls: The Canadian Side, Please
Toronto: First Impressions
Toronto: Second Impressions

Itinerary for Two Months in the Balkans
Dubrovnik: Beach Resort and History Theme Park
Hvar: The Blue Waters of the Adriatic
Split: Ruins and 20th-Century Art
Zagreb: The City of Broken Relationships

Czech Republic
Prague: Music, Art and Architecture

My 1997 New York Times article on the Caribbean's greenest island

Otavalo: My 2002 New York Times article on a New Years visit to the Andes
Quito: Mountain Capital

A Family Road Trip Finds the Best of France
Bordeaux: Wine Capital
The Loire Valley: Chateau Visits 
Paris: Trying to Avoid the Crowds

Itinerary for Two Months in the Balkans
Athens: Better Than I Imagined
Chania: Walls and Charm on Crete
Delphi: The Oracle is Silent
Heraklion: The Capital of Crete
Hydra: Quiet and Carless
Santorini: Island as Shopping Mall
Thessaloniki: A Party Town With Few Foreigners

Reykajavik: Geothermal Wonderland

A 2016 Family Visit
What to Expect If You Visit Iran

Itinerary for a Three-Month Visit
Agrigento: Sicily's Valley of the Temples
Alberobello: Home of the Trulli
Capri: Another World
Catania: Gateway to Mount Etna
Lecce: Baroque Wonderland
Maratea: Italy for Italians
Masala: More Than Wine
Matera: Modern Cave Dwellers
Naples: One Night Isn't Enough
Palermo: Beyond "The Godfather"
Pompeii (and Herculaneum): What Vesuvius Wrought
Rome: The Palaces
Rome: The Churches
Rome: The Ruins
Rome: Dining
Rome: Walking
Siracusa: Outpost of the Ancient Greeks 
Taormina: Mountains and Sea in Sicily
Trieste: The Least Italian City in Italy
Trani: On the Adriatic
Venice: A Summer Visit

Itinerary for Three Weeks in Southeast Asia
Small Airlines for Touring Southeast Asia
Religious Images: The Divine in Southeast Asia 
Luang Prabang: Monks and Tourists 

Assateague: A Fall Afternoon
Annapolis: My 2008 New York Times article on Maryland's capital city
Baltimore: My 2002 New York Times "36 Hours" article on Charm City
Blackwater: My 2012 American Forests article on Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Chesapeake Bay: A Fishing Trip
St. Michaels: My 2004 New York Times "36 Hours" article
Tilghman Island: Where I Lived for 10 Years

Ajijic: Expat-Friendly Town on Lake Chapala
Baja California: Cabo Crowds and Peaceful La Paz

Boundary Waters: My 2011 American Forests article on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Ole Miss: My Alma Mater
Oxford: My 2008 New York Times article on Faulkner, Football and Food  

Itinerary for Two Months in the Balkans
Kotor: Small but Choice 

Itinerary for a Three-Week Visit
Chefchouen: The Blue City
Essaouira: Beachfront Medina
Fez: The One Must-See City
Meknes: Discovering an Outpost of the Roman Empire
Marrakesh: Not So Tourist-Friendly
Sahara: Camels and Sleeping in a Posh Tent
Tamatert: Village in the High Atlas Mountains
Tangier: Cosmopolitan City With a Past

New York 
Finger Lakes: My 2012 American Forests article on Finger Lakes National Forest

Land of Great Diversity and Monkeys and Volcanos
Managua: Not a Pleasant Place
Ometepe: Volcanos in the Lake 
Rio San Juan: Howler Monkeys and River Huts
Selva Negra: Ecology-Minded Coffee Plantation
Solentiname Islands: A Poet-Priest's Art Project
Solentiname Islands: My 2012 New York Times article and a photo slideshow

Bastimentos: Nature Inn and Chocolate Lodge
Bocas del Toro: Surfers and Backpackers
Boquete: A Coffee Estate in the Mountains
Panama Canal: An 11-Hour Trip Through an Engineering Marvel
Panama City: My 2014 New York Times review of the Panama City Waldorf Astoria 
Kuna Yala: A Cabin on the Water

Adamstown: My 1999 New York Times  article on Shopping for antiques in Amish country

Itinerary for One Month in Peru
Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu: Mountain in the Rain Forest
Amazon: River and Wildlife Cruise
Amazon: Fatal Fire on a River Cruise Boat
Arequipa: Juanita's Story
Colca Canyon: In Search of Condors
Cusco: The Inca's Capital
Lima: Museo Larco's Amazing Pre-Colombian Pottery
Lima: Ancient Culture, Modern Life
Ollantaytambo: Life Amid the Ruins
Paracas: An Ancient Mystery Beside the Sea

Itinerary for a Three-Week Visit
Belmonte: Mountain Retreat
Evora: Cusine and Cork
Douro Valley: Where the Grapes Grow
Lisbon: Riverfront and Seafront
Obidos: Old Walls and New Buddhas
Porto: The Sweet Life
Sintra: Royal Aerie

St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Bequia: The Moonhole Experience
Bequia: A Happy Island
St. Vincent: My 2004 New York Times article on Petit Byahaut and Other Eco Resorts
St. Vincent: My 2004 New York Times Slide Show on Petit Byahaut

Itinerary for Two Months in the Balkans
Ljubjana: Cozy Capital
Piran: At the Concrete Beach

South Africa
Robben Island: A Visit to Mandela's Prison
Sabi Sand: Safari Satisfaction Guaranteed
Western Cape: Beyond Cape Town and the Wine Regions

Hondarribia: Basque Country
Santa Engracia: Hidden in the Pyrenees

Zanzibar: As Exotic as Its Name

Itinerary for Three Weeks in Southeast Asia
Small Airlines for Touring Southeast Asia
Religious Images: The Divine in Southeast Asia 
Bangkok: River Metropolis

A 2010 Vacation, Istanbul and Beyond
Aboard a Gulet for a Blue Cruise
Istanbul: Seth Kugel Does It on the Cheap
Istanbul: Visiting a Hamam

Itinerary for Three Weeks in Southeast Asia
Small Airlines for Touring Southeast Asia
Religious Images: The Divine in Southeast Asia 
Ha Long Bay: Two Nights on a Junk 
Hanoi: Swarming and Sophisticated
Hoi An: Fine Dining, Fine Silks 

My 2008 New York Times article on Virginia's Eastern Shore

Yellowstone National Park: Morning Glory Pool and Other Wonders

California: San Diego Life During COVID

Our granddaughter on the sparsely populated beach at Coronado on a Thursday morning in late May.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost everyone in the entire world.  We've not known any of the tens of thousands of Americans who have died of the virus, and, as retirees, Jane and I fortunately don't have jobs to lose or hours to be reduced. So the impact on us has been relatively minor. We can't travel, hug our granddaughter and are afraid to enter restaurants as they reopen. We can have socially distanced visits with our granddaughter, one of which was recently at the Coronado beach.

There's a fellow who works in our San Diego apartment building who, when asked how things are, always responds "another day in paradise." He's from Chicago but his point of view isn't that skewed. San Diego is a good place to live, even during quarantines and lock downs. We can walk along the waterfront Embarcadero, get excellent pizza to enjoy at home, and from our terrace we can enjoy the relative quiet as airlines reduce flights to the nearby airport, as traffic jams disappear and even rail traffic gets lighter. With an hour's drive, we can be in the mountains of eastern San Diego County for hiking on trails in the Cleveland National Forest at Mount Laguna. For the first time since moving here in 2017 we're aware that a neighborhood church's bells chime the hours. And, we can go to nearby beaches, including those at Coronado, a city on the west side of San Diego's harbor, and at Del Mar, a horse racing town just north of the Torry Pines area.

Here are some snapshots from May 2020.

That's Interstate 5 cutting across the top of this photo. Before the pandemic, it was
always jammed with traffic. In this view from our apartment building, you can
see that our Little Italy neighborhood also has little traffic and for once plenty
of parking. This was taken before restaurants started reopening.

It's called "May Haze" here, overcast skies almost every morning. In this view from our building's
roof, you see the harbor without all the watercraft that normally zip across it all day. That's
the county building in the lower right. It's set up a "hut" for marriage licenses and ceremonies
so that the masked brides and the masked grooms don't have to enter the building.

Zoomtails, drinking with friends on a Zoom or Skype call,
is one way to battle the isolation of the pandemic.
A drive-through coronavirus testing station at UCSD's Hillcrest medical center. It's reassuring
to be in a state that is taking the pandemic seriously, though there's a lot of debate about
whether the state is too hasty or too slow in allowing businesses to reopen. 

Plans call for beaches to start letting people sit down on the sand in early June. In April, beaches
were simply closed to the public, but in May they were opened for walking, running, swimming
and surfing, but not for sandcastle-building and sunbathing,  This is the beach at Del Mar,
a town just north of Torry Pines. It's where Bill Gates recently bought a house for $43 million. 

The day we were at Del Mar, a Wednesday in late May, the waves were barely big enough
to propel a surfboard, but that doesn't keep people from trying.

The bridge carries the coastal road over an inlet. 

Most people at Del Mar were keeping their distance.

Beachfront homes at Del Mar. The beach, of course, is public.

A snowy egret at Del Mar. We also saw flocks of pelicans in flight,
but oddly no sea gulls or even pigeons. Maybe like most people they
can't afford to live in Del Mar.

This area connects the beach with a city street where we found free and convenient parking.

A Thursday morning at Coronado with my granddaughter and her glamorous mother. 

At the tide pools in front of the Del Coronado hotel.

Renovations at the famous Del Coronado hotel were planned well before the virus. 

The cruise ship Celebrity Millennium at anchor off Coronado. It, the Celebrity Equinox and the Disney Wonder,
all gigantic ships, have been alternating between being at anchor like this, and tying up at the cruise
terminal near our apartment.  They have no passengers but are still housing hundreds of mostly foreign
crew members who are not allowed to disembark in San Diego. The plan is for the cruise
industry to restart in July or August
Sand dollars at Coronado. When I was a kid visiting Gulf of Mexico beaches,
I was told that finding a sand dollar meant that you would return to that beach. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

California: San Simeon to Santa Barbara

The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, the lavish estate that William Randolph Hearst
built on land his father had bought decades earlier and where he had camped as young boy.

On a February 2020 visit to Paso Robles, Jane and I went an hour west to the coast to see Hearst Castle at the tiny community of San Simeon.  Having seen the movie "Citizen Kane," I was surprised to learn that it's not actually a biopic about William Randolph Hearst. The childhood, the relationships with this parents and other basic parts of the movie are entirely wrong. Orson Wells's masterpiece, often referred to as one of the best movies ever made, used buildings at San Diego's Balboa Park as "Xanadu," his film's version of Hearst's estate in the hills above San Simeon. Actually, those buildings are much more coherent and elegant than Hearst's hodge-podge lodge.

Paso Robles, the nearby wine center.

     Guides at the castle and a film shown there about its construction are quite reverential in referring to Julia Morgan, the architect who collaborated with Hearst on it between 1919 (when Hearst's mother's death freed him to start spending the family fortune) and 1947, four years before Hearst died at age 88.  During a time when Frank Lloyd Wright and others were creating a new architectural vocabulary, Morgan (who was a pioneer as one of the world's first female accredited architects) was content to do whatever her client wanted, and her client was a man who changed his mind often. It's known today as Hearst Castle; he and Morgan called it La Cuesta Encantada or Enchanted Hill.
     The several buildings, supposedly an homage to churches and palaces of southern Spain, is actually a pastiche, with bits of architectural salvage stuck here and there. Intricate wooden ceilings are installed (and, indeed, often cleverly enlarged) in some of the grander rooms. A Neptune sculpture lost its feet in order to fit in a fake temple facade at the truly grand Neptune pool, which started out as a small pool for Hearst's sons. The castle is a poor replication of the stately homes, castles and palaces that had captivated Hearst as a boy on a European tour with his mother. Its fame is due mostly, I think, to Orson Wells.  One aspect of the castle that I think most visitors miss is that it is unfinished. Its reinforced-concrete construction is still exposed on the exterior of some parts of the Casa Grande, the main building, and what was supposed to be the grand entrance to the complex is unfinished stairways around an empty concrete fountain or pool.
   After the castle, we went up the coast road to see elephant seals at Piedras Blancas beach, who show up here to molt, to breed and to give birth. They spend the rest of the year in solitary swims throughout the Pacific.  Hundreds of these large mammals (males can be 16 to 20 feet long and almost 8,800 pounds; females are much smaller) were lounging along the beach, with a few moving toward or out of the water. The males' large proboscises give the species its name.
    After the seals we headed back toward San Simeon and lunch from a food truck at the Hearst Ranch winery tasting room, which is basically across the coastal highway from the castle itself. The Hearst Corporation (which I worked for back in the 1980s at the now-defunct Baltimore News American newspaper) still raises beef cattle and produces wine at San Simeon.
   The next day, when we headed back to San Diego from Paso Robles, we took U.S. 101 south, stopping at Pismo Beach and Santa Barabara, where we found lunch on Sterns Wharf. That lunch, steamed clams and a three-pound rock crab at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, cost us dearly, putting us in Los Angeles during the afternoon rush. Remember the opening scenes in "La La Land"? There was no dancing. It was after 8 pm when we arrived home.
   Here are some photos from our quick visits to San Simeon, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara.

The Neptune Pool is adorned with the facade of
a Greco-Roman temple. Some of the architectural
elements such as columns came from ruins
in Europe; some are very faithful replicas.

When Neptune was too tall for the temple,
architect Julia Morgan had the feet removed
from this third-century Roman statue. Also
missing is the trident that he once held
with his left hand.

Casa del Sol is one of three "cottages" at
the complex. The cottages contained bedrooms
and sitting rooms, but for food and drink,
guests had to go to the main house,
Casa Grande.

The views of the Pacific are excellent from Hearst's "enchanted hill," but in all
fairness, most hills along the Central Coast must have similar views.

Casa Grande is the main building in the complex, built for hosting and feeding the
many guests who came to the castle in its heyday. The section to the right
appears to be reinforced concrete that was never given stucco or stone
cladding. To the left are 3,000-year-old representations of the Egyptian
 goddess Sekhmet, the oldest sculptures on the property. Hearst and Morgan
bought antiquities largely through European dealers. Casa Grande contains
115 rooms, including 38 guest bedrooms, a movie theater, staff quarters,
and the grand assembly room, dining room and billiards room shown below.

The top of one of Casa Grande's two towers shows
the detail that Julia Morgan's craftsmen were
capable of. She not only designed everything,
she supervised much of the construction.

Our guide called this the assembly room, because Hearst's guests would assemble here
to have drinks before dinner.

A fireplace in the assembly room. Like much of the adornments in
the house, it came from Europe.

The dining room. We were told that Hearst preferred to dine without
a tablecloth and with condiments like ketchup put out in their
original bottles. It reminded him of his childhood days
camping on this hilltop with his father, our guide said.

Bits of architectural salvage, as well
as new carvings made to match,
are found throughout the first floor
of Casa Grande, the only part
we visited.
 Our guide said Hearst was unusual for his time in that he allowed women
to join the men after dinner in the billiards room. Tapestries in Casa Grande
are all centuries-old antiques from Europe.

The indoor Roman Pool is beneath the estate's tennis courts. Hearst heated this pool
and the Neptune pool to 75 degrees. 
About four miles up the coastal road from Hearst Castle is
an elephant seal rookery.

Hundreds of the large marine mammals were
lounging on the beach when we were there. A
boardwalk above the beach gives visitors
a great view.

That's a male on the left. The pup on the right is throwing
sand on herself (himself?), something we also saw
the adults doing.

A bit of the rugged coastline near San Simeon.

Farther south, in Pismo Beach, homeowners are fighting erosion, a common
problem in coastal California.

A public stairway connects a residential street
in Pismo Beach with the actual beach.

Jane and I shared a lunch of steamed clams and
a steamed three-pound rock crab at the Santa Barbara
Shellfish Company on Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara.

Sterns Wharf is large enough to accommodate a parking lot and several
restaurants, all just a few feet above the waves of the Pacific Ocean
in Santa Barbara. 

California: The Wine Life in Paso Robles

Two of the wines we tasted at Daou. This hilltop winery and tasting room
should be a must-see for visitors to Paso Robles.
                                     In February 2020, Jane and I took a Sunday-Wednesday trip to Pasa Robles, an inland wine community north of Los Angeles and about a five-hour drive from our home in San Diego.  It had been included in The New    York Times's "52 Places to Visit in 2020," so we did.
    One of the town's attractions, a temporary outdoor installation by the English/Australian artist Bruce Munro called Sensorio, was still in place for our visit (it ends in June 2020). It consists of more than 58,800 lights strewn across 15 acres of rolling hills. The pathways and other infrastructure will remain after the lights disappear as part of what will eventually be a 150-acre art park.

Hearst Castle and Other Attractions of the Central Coast

    A more permanent attraction in this former cattle town is wine. Although local beef is still produced and promoted, visitors come for the wine. Endless vineyards and almost countless tasting rooms are clues that wine is taken seriously here. Unfortunately, like many other areas with lots of small producers, prices by the bottle seem high, especially compared with prices for decent wines imported from Italy, Argentina, New Zealand, etc.  While we greatly enjoyed most of our tastings and the wines we ordered with meals, we didn't come home with any bottles of wine. I was surprised by the variety of grapes used: Touriga Nacional, tempranillo, albarino and grenacha in addition to the more expected chardonnay, cabernet, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, etc. And almost everyone working in wine tasting rooms seemed extremely well-versed in wine and wine-making. If you're going to Paso to buy wine, here's a tip a local gave us: the Albertsons supermarket has many, many local wines at prices below what you'd pay at the wineries or tasting rooms. 
    I did make it home with one bottle, though it was above my usual price limit: Re:Find Rye, a bottle of Paso Robles rye whiskey. Re:Find also makes an interesting barrel-aged vodka that the distiller said is his go-to for mixed drinks like manhattans. The rye, he said, is for drinking straight. (I bought my bottle at the Albertsons because the distillery where I tasted it was sold out.)
    We stayed at the Piccolo, a small hotel that opened in 2019 and which is mentioned in the Times article. I recommend it for its location near the center of town and for its comfortable rooms, though we rejected the first room we were given, No. 25, because its only window is directly on a common-area terrace. Room 30, a brighter corner room a floor higher, has a small balcony overlooking a fairly quiet street. Why would they give people staying three nights a less desirable room? The continental breakfast on Monday morning was fine -- supermarket-quality bagels that could be toasted and adorned with cream cheese and salmon. Tuesday morning's offerings seemed to have been recycled from Monday, and on Wednesday we were given coupons for breakfast at another hotel's restaurants.
     Other meals were better: a cheese and charcuterie plate with a wine tasting at Daou, a winery on a dramatic hilltop founded by two brothers from Lebanon; a pork-and-brisket platter at an alley barbecue joint called Jeffrey's; hamburgers from a food truck at Hearst Ranch winery an hour away at San Simeon on the coast (during a side trip to see Hearst Castle, the subject of another post); and porchetta and roasted chicken at The Hatch.  And in between  there were stops at some of the many tasting rooms and wine bars within steps of our hotel. 
     Here are some snapshots.  
You might say Paso Robles is a drinking town.

Unlike the winery-specific tasting rooms, at the Pony Club you
can order a flight of wines from different makers.

Yikes! Another place to drink!
Paso Robles in a bottle? It would have to be a
very very large bottle.
The view is wonderful at Daou, and so are the wines, food and service. 

A view of the vineyards at Daou. Remember, we were there in February.

The Piccolo's lobby also has a wine bar. The check-in process
includes the offer of a glass of wine. In our room was a token
that could be used in a Champagne vending machine
to get a one-serving bottle of Moet. 

Bruce Munro's Sensorio installation is a few miles
out of town. Almost 60,000 lights came on at
sunset and subtly changed colors. Paths allow
visitors to explore different views of the 15 acres.
It's not all wine at The Hatch.  When we were there, a winery was having
a party for its employees and they were ordering cocktails by the quart.

Paso Robles is a low-rise town, with most restaurants,
tasting rooms, wine bars and various retail stores
centered around a two-block park.