Tourist First

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

Thursday, December 26, 2019

California: Malibu in Winter

A view from California Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, along the northern
part of Malibu. The houses on the bluffs below the highway are extremely
expensive. Jane looked up one with a "for sale" sign and the asking price
was just over 12 million dollars. It was not the most impressive house on its block.

Malibu conjures up images of surfers, endless summers and celebrities' mansions hanging off cliffs above the water. In winter, the summer has ended but the surfers and the houses are still there
along the 21 miles (34 kilometers) of Pacific coast that is Malibu, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of downtown Los Angeles.

On Dec. 23, 2019, after a rainy drive up from San Diego, we dropped daughter Katy and her family at the Los Angeles airport, and Jane and I headed up the coast for a quick visit to Malibu and one of its main attractions, the Getty Villa, the coastal counterpoint to the more famous J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Both museums were created to display the oil magnate's art collections: ancient and classical works in Malibu and works from the Middle Ages onward in the city. At both museums, the works displayed are not quite as impressive (to me, at least) as the buildings that house them.  Getty (1892 to 1976) was simply too late on the scene to scoop up the best art for sale in Europe. Nineteenth-century tycoons beat him to the punch, and most of their higher-quality collections can be seen in museums in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago.

But if Getty couldn't buy, he could build. The Getty Villa is a full-scale reproduction, down to the bronzes in the garden, of the Villa dei Papiri, a partially excavated residence at Herculaneum, one of the two main cities destroyed in the year 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Much of the building remains under a hundred feet of volcanic debris, mostly ash and mud. (For my visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum, click HERE.)  Although still buried, the building has been known since the 1750s thanks to tunnels created by a Swiss engineer, Karl Weber, working for the king of Naples. Among the objects recovered were more than 1,000 papyrus scrolls, which gave the villa its name.  Most of the scrolls contained works by Philodemos of Gadara, an Epicurean philospher, suggesting that the house belonged to the family of his patron, Lucius Calpurnius Caesoninus, who died more than a century before the eruption. Among other things, he was Julius Caesar's father-in-law.

Virtually everything recovered from the villa -- mosaics and bronze and marble sculptures -- is now at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (click HERE for my visit to Naples and the museum).  Admission to the Getty Villa is free, though there is a fee ($20) to park.

After our airport drop-off, we headed up Pacific Coast Highway, stopping for lunch at the first interesting place we saw, Patrick's Roadhouse, which is in Santa Monica just before you get to Malibu. I had a great chicken sandwich, though it's really a breakfast and burgers joint.

Next stop was the museum, where we had 3 pm timed tickets, but we were admitted more than an hour before that. After the museum, we continued up the coastal highway to Surfrider Beach and our hotel, Surfrider Malibu, just across the highway from the beach and the Malibu Pier. Its rooftop bar was dry enough after the rain for us to enjoy drinks beside a fire pit and under a chilly sky. For our visit, Malibu's temperatures ranged from mid-50s (about 13 C.) at night to low 60s (about 17 C.) during the day. These brutal California winters!

 That night we had tacos at Malibu Farm, the restaurant at the start of the Malibu Pier. The next morning we had breakfast the the Malibu Farm Cafe high above the water at the end of the pier.

Here are some snapshots:
After parking in a multi-level garage, we followed signs into the villa itself.
A wine cup made in Sparta around 570 B.C.E. depicts
the hero Bellerophon and his winged horse Pegasus
battling the Chimera. This is not from the Villa
dei Papiri. As far as I could tell, no actual objects
from the original villa are here, just reproductions.
But other objects, such as this cup, were originals
purchased either by Getty himself or by the museum
since his death. His penchant for collecting beautiful
objects is depicted in the film "All the Money in
the World," which portrays Getty as preferring
objects over his own children and grandchildren.

Getty began his classical acquisitions with marble statues,
such as those displayed in this small gallery. The architecture
supposedly duplicates that of the original villa in Herculaneum.

This small pool in the Inner Peristyle (courtyard) is lined with
reproductions of statues from the original villa that are now at
the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. It's difficult
to imagine the expense to which Getty went in achieving his
dream. After his last visit to Herculaneum, he wrote in his diary:
"Tried in fantasy to excavate the Villa dei Papiri while regarding
the 100 feet of lava that cover it." 

The Outer Peristyle features a garden that resembles
those seen in ancient murals and mosaics.

The original of this sleeping satyr can be seen in Naples.

These are not duplicates. These terracotta sculptures depict Orpheus (his lyre is missing)
attended by two sirens, women-bird creatures of the underworld. Orpheus, the
god of music, was a link between this world and the next. 

This bit of flooring shows the level of detail at the museum.

As at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, a water
garden is given a central spot, here between the villa
and the museum store, restaurant and parking structures.

Even a corridor between parking structures
seems to have come from the ancient world.

Our room at Surfrider Malibu.

View from our balcony. That's the Malibu Pier in the distance.

Patrick's Roadhouse in Santa Monica was a colorful
spot for lunch. 

The entrance to the pier.

We had Christmas Eve breakfast at the Malibu Farm Cafe at the end of the pier. The
other building is a shop with swimming and surfing gear as well as very pricey clothes
 and accessories. Great for browsing if you can keep your wallet in your pocket.

We had our breakfast indoors, but these three chose to eat in the sun
despite the strong and chilly breeze.

Looking back toward land from the roof of the cafe.
Malibu Lagoon.

The Historic Adamson House and Malibu Lagoon Museum is a short walk up the
shore from the pier.

It appears that the pot of gold might be on the Malibu Pier.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

California: Palm Springs in the Fall

One doesn't expect water in the desert (though the springs for which Palm Springs is named do exist),
and one doesn't expect deciduous trees. We saw this one in Andreas Canyon, one of the Indian Canyons,

  Looking for an easy getaway to celebrate a wedding anniversary, Jane and I headed northeast from our home in San Diego to the oasis town of Palm Springs for two nights in early December 2019.  This was our third time in PS, the first being in 2007 to look at Mid-Century Modern architecture prior to designing and building a home in Maryland. After enjoying that house for almost 10 years, we were back in Palm Springs for a second visit, a one-night stopover during our 2017 move from Maryland to San Diego.
    All three times we have stayed at the same place, the Orbit In, a shrine to Mid-Century Modernism that also happens to be affordable and in a great location for walking. This time we got the room, the Frey Lounge, that we stayed in on our first visit.
    Palm Springs seems forever associated with the Rat Pack era. Our Orbit In room was stocked with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. LPs and turntable for playing them.  In the adjacent town of Cathedral City, you can cruise on Bob Hope Drive, which intersects with Frank Sinatra Drive, Gerald Ford Drive (he spent his retirement years here), and Dinah Shore Drive. In celebrity-smitten Palm Springs, stars dedicated to people both extremely well known and extremely not-so-well known, are embedded in sidewalks.
    On this trip we returned to a restaurant we had liked during our 2017 stopover, Rooster and the Pig, a small Vietnamese-American place where we had fried mushroom clusters and shared a fish. A no-reservations policy means there's often a very long wait for a table. Fortunately, a table for two opened up quickly for us, allowing us to bypass larger parties who had much longer waits. This time we met the owner, the son of a New York father and a Vietnamese mother.  Our second dinner was at Shanghai Red's, a casual dining joint attached to the Fisherman's Market, where we had lunch just after getting to town. Simple grilled fish was good here, as were steamed clams, but I would not again order anything fried.
    Although we drove through heavy rain getting to Palm Springs, it was dry enough we when got there that we could walk out for meals and to browse the shops on Palm Canyon Drive. It was sunny the next morning and we could enjoy the hotel's pool, which was heated to 85 degrees. Then we drove south of downtown to explore Indian Canyons. The previous day's rain meant the canyon's creeks and waterfalls were flowing briskly.
     Here are some snapshots:

Mid-Century Modernism is often associated
with the early years of the Space Race.

Palm Springs is infamous for its intolerably hot summers, but the other seasons can be
quite chilly. We were happy that the Frey Lounge has a gas fireplace. It's other unique
feature is that the only place to shower is outdoors. (I was tempted to tell them that
a mild bleach solution would probably remove the soot from the fireplace.)

Our room came with all the essentials for the good life.
Our room's outdoor shower was just a few
steps outside and was completely private. 

The pool at the Orbit In, a nine-room hotel. Palm Springs discourages multi-story buildings,
meaning that with a hedge or a fence, you're guaranteed a degree of privacy. 

Palm Canyon Drive is the main shopping street. 

A lot of the stores seemed to target recreational shoppers
and impulse buyers.

Sidewalk stars honor celebrities
 whom I assume had some
association with the town. Many of the
names were people I had not heard of.

Several blocks of Palm Canyon Drive become a large outdoor market on Thursday evenings.

This is Lulu's on Palm Canyon Drive. We had a quick lunch
here before driving home to San Diego. My excellent burger
and fries cost less than the same items at the fast-food Burger
Lounge in San Diego.
The San Andreas Fault runs near here, but I think that's just a coincidence.

I slowed down quite a bit on this portion of the
road in Indian Canyons,

Trees and rocks keep parts of the Andreas Canyon Trail shady.

The day after a heavy rain, this waterfall had a strong flow.

Trails wend around and seemingly through large boulders.

The dead fronds reminded me of the skirt on Degas's "Little Ballerina" bronze.

What happened to the car that was parked
to the left of this one? 

Towering rocks are complemented by towering palm trees.

One of several mountainside houses visible from Indian Canyons. I'm not
sure whether they're on tribal land. 
Palm trees line a stream at the bottom of a canyon. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What I Want in a Hotel Room

This overdone room at an inn in Alberobello, Italy,
featured a bed on a glass floor that appeared to float
over a bed of rocks. The chair in the foreground is
an uncomfortable antique. The tiny room, which
looked like a stage set, had no space for luggage
and little space for people. After one night, we were
able to move to a much larger space, though still
pretty odd -- it was in a trullo, one of Puglia's
iconic conical houses.

Sometimes looks count, and sometimes you just want comfort.  Sometimes photogenic hotel rooms turn out to be supremely unpleasant places to stay. Antiques may conjure feelings of coziness and authenticity, but they can also be uncomfortable to sit on and easily damaged if you put your luggage on top. Rooms in some super-trendy hotels (I'm talking about you, Mama Shelter, in Lyon, France) can feel like afterthoughts, as if the designers had never stayed at a hotel where they had to open a suitcase, recharge a phone, or brush their teeth.

I wrote a short New York Times article on what I want (and don't want) in a hotel room. Click HERE to read the article. 

Avoiding Credit Card Ripoffs Abroad

It's happened to Jane and me, and it has probably happened to you if you used a U.S. Visa or MasterCard credit card in a foreign country.  You give the hotel desk or the store clerk or the restaurant server your card, and when you get the receipt, you notice that the amount of the charge is given in dollars, not euros or whatever is the currency of the country you're in.

The business is supposed to ask your permission before doing this, but it happened twice to us in Thessaloniki, Greece, without our being asked, once at a restaurant and once at a hotel. At the hotel we persevered in getting the dollar charge voided and the having the charge done again in euros. If we had stuck with dollars, we would have paid more -- a needless conversion fee and an unfavorable exchange rate. The hotel said its bank automatically does this.  Now when we're abroad, we make a point of saying up front that we do not want the charge to be in dollars.

The New York Times recently ran an excellent piece explaining dynamic currency conversion. Click HERE for the article.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Califorina: Idyllwild, a Mountain Retreat

The "town monument" is a large piece of chainsaw art on Village Center Drive.
 We were told that wildlife in the area includes mountain lions and bobcats.
The only wildlife we saw were squirrels, chipmunks and loads of birds.

We spent a couple of nights in September 2019 in Idyllwild, a mile-high Riverside County community in the San Jacinto Mountains about two hours northeast of our home in San Diego.  The drive was about half on Interstate 15 and half on twisting, two-lane mountain roads, complete with switchbacks and the risk of falling rocks on the left and sheer drops on the right. The kind of road made for Lambos and Porsches but navigable in an aging Chevrolet.

We stayed at Grand Idyllwild Lodge, which is more a small inn than a grand anything, but still very nice (click HERE for its website).  The only real drawback is that on weekdays it offers only a "continental" breakfast in which the only bread is an airport-quality bagel, along with no dry cereals, little or no fresh fruit, and supermarket yogurts.  Our room had a private deck, which would have been nicer had the chaise lounges had cushions clean enough to sit on. All that aside, it's a lovely building with a nice mountain view set among tall trees full of hummingbirds, blue jays, woodpeckers and more. Aside from the outdoor cushions, everything was spotlessly clean. There's a small gym, massages by appointment, a dry sauna, and a tiny nine-hole putting course. And it's within walking distance of several good restaurants.

We had our Wednesday lunch on our way into town at the Mile High Cafe (click HERE), which offers standard diner fare along with several Asian-fusion dishes. I had a BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado) sandwich; Jane had a salad, both very good. During the afternoon, we stopped in for tastings at Middle Ridge Winery (click HERE), which makes wine from grapes brought in from other parts of California. As with most small wineries, the bottle prices seemed high, but $15 for three nice pours in a tasting was a good deal. All the wines seemed well made and we were happy to have tried them. I particularly liked the red blends. Dinner that night was at the Aroma Cafe (click HERE) where Jane had ribs and I had half a duck, a very generous serving, with a slightly too-orange orange sauce.

Our other meals in town were lunch Thursday at Idyllwild Brewpub (click HERE) where I had a double-hopped IPA and a hamburger, and Jane again had a salad. The beer and burger were good, as was a side of charred brussel sprouts, but the salad's lettuce wasn't very good. Dinner was at the somewhat kitschy Gastrognome (click HERE) where the "gnome" refers to garden gnomes, which adorn the 1960s-lodge-style dining room. Again, though, the food was decent, both my trout almondine and Jane's hamburger.  No complaints about the bread pudding that we shared for dessert.

What most visitors do in Idyllwild between bouts of overeating is hike. The main road, State Highway 243, is lined with parking spots for trail heads. We did our hiking on well-marked trails near the Idyllwild Nature Center. We also spent some time driving on side roads wondering why people would build wooden houses in an area where forest fires are a major concern for maybe half the year. On the drive to Idyllwild, we passed several areas that had burned recently.

Apparently, another attraction for many visitors is shopping, particularly for art. Paintings and photographs are sold at restaurants, the Middle Ridge Winery, and at several galleries. There's abstract art, traditional landscapes, rusty yard sculptures, and more. And, of course, a weekend destination like this offers tons of tee-shirts and baseball caps.  The town center is where several small strips of commercial buildings create a critical mass at the convergence of State Highway 243, North Circle Drive, Village Center Drive and Ridgeview Drive, with free parking areas connecting the different mini shopping centers. This area was about a 15-minute walk from our inn.

Here are some photos.
This third-floor deck at Grand Idyllwild Lodge looks east
toward a ridge in the San Jacinto Mountains.
Part of the common space at Grand Idyllwild Lodge.
Our room, "Harmony," is to the left of the red painting.

The main entrance to the lodge is on the second floor.

A signpost near the center of Idyllwild.

North Circle Drive, on the walk between the town
center and our inn.

Motorists have to keep an eye out for Sasquatch or Bigfoot.

Manzanita trees (more like bushes) are everywhere around Idyllwild,
with dead sections turned gray and living sections a distinctive red.

Manzanita berries.

A manzanita tangle of dead and living branches.

Trails at the Idyllwild Nature Center have great signage.

Huge boulders are strewn everywhere in the San Jacinto Mountains. Perhaps this one
got cracked when some ancient god flung it down from the heavens.

The presence of huge old trees seem to indicate that
this forested mountainside hasn't burned in a long time.

I tried to count the rings and got to around 40
before I lost my place.

The Hillside Trail gets narrow when it cuts between boulders.

Natural landscaping.

A log bridge is hardly needed when the creek is dry.

Gnarly is the word that comes to mind here.

I think this is a view to the east. If it is, then Palm Springs is somewhere
in the desert on the far side of these mountains.

The pines most common
here are called Jeffry pines.

This land is my land. This land is your land.