Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “biking tour”

Hidden Treasures: Car-free carefree Catalina


20150324_092816docBefore William Randolph Hearst transformed a remote family campsite into a private Gothic Dreamcastle, before Walt Disney transformed an orange plantation into a fairy-tale theme park, there was Santa Catalina Island.  In the 1920’s it was mostly scrub, used occasionally as the setting for Western movies. (Leftover bison still roam the interior).  Then William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate had a vision. He bought Catalina Island and created an art-deco enclave , added the west’s first professional baseball team as an attraction, (the Wrigley – owned Chicago Cubs came across the country for their spring training), and invited the public to come. . The island is open to anyone who can get there, by ferry, by private boat, by plane, or you can, as the Four Preps famously sung, “swim with just some water wings and my guitar.”20150323_092507web

Wrigley wasn’t the first to build a resort on Santa Catalina Island, but he had the money to buy out his predecessor after a fire leveled half of the main town of Shatto (named for the previous owner). He renamed and recreated the town as Avalon, started up a ceramic factory with produced the  omni-present tiles and ceramics which set the theme of the town, and crowned the effort by building the Casino (“gathering place” in Italian). The Casino includes a theatre whose decor was designed by the same artist who created Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It also includes a ballroom with the largest hardwood dance floor in the US. THe whole thing is circular in shape and topped with a tiny little cupola which formerly housed a beacon guiding boats into the harbor. I’ve never seen another building remotely like it.

20150322_115128web In the 20’s and 30’s Santa Catalina was a getaway haven for Hollywood celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Humbphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Wayne. Winston Churchill came here to fish for marlin. During the war Errol Flynn sailed here and was arrested for indecent behavior. Norma Jean Dougherty lived here with her merchant marine husband Jim, years before she became Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood drowned here. The little Catalina Island museum is full of cinema history,

Access to Wrigley’s island is by ferry, helicopter, or private plane. There are almost no cars on the island. Transportation is mainly by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. The resort area included a lot of what you might see in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas: kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling and scuba diving, although the beaches are skimpy and the water is chilly.   Outside of the resort area of Avalon, the island is a nature preserve, harboring kit foxes, bald eagles, and the afore-mentioned buffalo. Hiking, camping and biking in the back country is by permit. Jeep tours are available, but pricey ($72/person for a 6 hour tour.) 20150323_120629web

So, you ‘d like to visit Tuscany but you hate long plane flights? You can experience the picturesque village of Avalon clinging to the steep hillsides of Catalina. You love the desert atmosphere and beach vibe of Cabo San Lucas but your passport has expired?  Hike the back country of Catalina and take in the 360 degree views of ocean and harbor from the heights of the island.  You just want to get away, bask in the sun, and eat great food?  Avalon has lots of sunshine and chaise lounges for basking, plus excellent food from fish tacos on the pier to high-end California Fusion at the Avalon Grill.

What are you waiting for?



Freeway-Free in California – San Luis Obispo’s Energy Source

On the move at Cal PolyWith its beautiful setting, historic mission, comfortable climate, and quaint downtown, what keeps San Luis Obispo from becoming just another haven for retirees?  The gods, in the form of the California State University regents, have gifted SLO with the Californial Polytechnical State University,  the queen campus of the State University system, affectionately known as Cal Poly.  An easy bike ride away from downtown, the campus radiates enough life force to keep the aterioscelerosis from building up behind those 100-year-old storefronts.

After walking Higueroa Street on both sides, plus several side excursions, we were beginning to be footsore, so we sought out Wally’s Bike Works at the far end of Higueroa street, and rented a couple of bikes ($30 for 24 hours, including helmets, a lock, and a bike route map. )Town cruisers from Wally's

The next morning we pedal through the craftsman shingle or stucco bungalows of SLO up  to the campus.   For those accustomed to the  pseudo-mission sandstone and tile roofs of Stanford, UC Berkeley, and San Jose  State, or the pseudo-Gothic granite of the Ivy League and Duke, Cal Poly is a  shock – all modern techno-architecture accented with corrugated siding and solar panels, suitable for the generation that buys  its efficient minimalist furniture from IKEA rather than from thrift stores.   We parked our bikes and began to explore.

We cross wiry  suspension bridges between the buildings, dodging construction sites, and  gradually move toward the campus center along with a stream of students  – it is nearly lunchtime. The dining commons features every student’s basic fare:  pizza, hamburgers, Chinese take-out, sandwiches, plus a salad bar for visiting parents.  The bookstore sells a wide variety of Mustang-logo’d apparel, and also sells postcards (for non-visiting parents?) There is a band playing in the plaza.  A housing fair is happening on the lawn.  A student spots us consulting our campus map and asks if she can help us find something.  It’s that kind of place.

Nutella crepe anyone?Even on a chilly February evening, the student energy helps light up the renowned Thursday night farmers market on Higueroa Street.  We pass bales of kale and columns of cauliflower, but stop  at the Cal Poly Dairy Science Department stall to sample and buy some student-crafted cheese for our train trip home.  We taste some local micro-brew, watch as another student chef crafts giant Nutella crepes for a drooling kiddie clientale, and ogle the ribs on what may be the state’s largest barbecue grill – a circle of smoldering charcoal carpeted with ribs and chicken parts, at least ten feet across (the grill, not the chicken.) Town and Gown – what a wonderful blend, when SLO-cooked!Grilling galore

Freeway Free in CA: San Luis Obispo by Train, Bike, and foot – Day 1

Coast Starlight arrives in San Jose

Beginning at the old San Jose Southern Pacific Station – now re-christened the Diridon Station in the mania to honor retiring politicians, thus adding immeasurably to the confusion of travelers (where the heck is Diridon?  And what happened to San Jose, where I need to get off?)

In front of the station, a horde of middle-schoolers, with half a dozen smiling chaperones (will they still be smiling at the end of this trip?)  They are training to Los Angeles.  Some are dressed for the 45-degree chill in the San Jose air; some are dressed in T-shirts anticipating LA weather – or maybe its just that the pre-teen metabolism is indifferent to cold.

We queue up to get an overnight parking pass, and are greeted by a smiling “San Jose volunteer host” who asks us if she can answer any questions, and is elated to learn that we are embarking on the Coast Starlight to San Luis Obispo.  “It is on time, so just wait here, and I will come to escort you to Platform One when it is time.” Wow –  this is a welcome improvement, and certainly beats the airport.

Dome Car on the Coast StarlightThe train is, in fact, a few minutes early – a first for my Amtrak experience.  Onto the train – the uniformed conductor assigns us seats in the coach car (not, thank hevvin, the one in which the pre-teens are traveling), and lets us know that we can pick any available seat in the adjoining dome car.  We stash our suitcases and immediately go to the dome car, where we find  seats nicely angled for looking out at approaching scenery and windows that have been freshly cleaned.  Fellow passengers include a large family of Amish, men and boys in dark trousers and suspenders, girls and women in white caps, busily occupied with their embroidery hoops.

Snow above San JoseWe coast out of the station and  past the back yards and graffiti-coated underpasses of central and south San Jose.  The sun is bright, the sky is blue, and even the graffiti looks vaguely festive.  We have had recent rain, followed by a cold snap, so we take off down a valley coated in electric green new growth, below snow-dusted hills. We travel alongside the freeweay for awhile, easily keeping pace with the southbound traffic, while pitying the jammed northbound lanes.

We ease our way through  Morgan Hill and Gilroy, postcard pretty in spring green, past the newly planted strawberry field in their plastic coats,past artichoke fields in various stages of maturity, through Elkhorn Slough with egrets and avocets strolling under the towers of the power plant at Moss Landing, making our first stop at Salinas.  I imagine John Steinbeck leaving from this charmless station to explore Cannery Row or start his Travels with Charley – it seems like a good place to be from rather than at.

Dining on the Coast StarlightOur turn in the dining car comes soon after Salinas.  The “table cloth” is  white paper and the “china” is  plastic coated cardboard, but there are flowers on the table and ample cloth napkins. We are seated with two young men, one vaguely Hispanic-looking in a sweatshirt and knit cap, the other  fairskinned and preppily attired.  The first was  on his way to El Paso, taking time off to back up his little brother, a boxer with a fight scheduled who needed “someone in his corner. He’s my little brother – what else could I do?” He took his cap off, revealing a shaven skull.  “My dad was a boxer, my uncle too;  I’m kind of the black sheep, going to college.”

The second  was French, on an exchange year at the University of Vancouver.  He had been in Canada since September and would be returning to Paris in April;  meanwhile he had been doing his best to see as much of the exotic west coast as he could –  Banff, the Yukon, Seattle, San Francisco, and points south.  He had visited New York several years earlier, and “this is a different world.”  His English escaped him and gestures took over as he tried to explain his meaning.

Coast Starlight on Horseshoe BendBy the time we had finished lunch, we were through Paso Robles and climbing up the Cuesta Grade, through tunnels, looping around 180 degree curves, with the Coast Highway at first far below, then finally paralleling the track as we eased into San Luis Obispo.

Why are we in SLO?  Because I craved a few days when I did not have to drive.  By train we arrived, by foot we traveled about 7 up and down blocks to our bed-and-breakfast, trailing our wheeled suitcases behind us like balky pets.   (Number of curbs without cut-outs for wheeling – 5.  Number of steps up to the door of our B&B – 9.  Number of steps up to our second-floor bedroom and parlor – 22.)Stairs - going up?

Stained-glass lit sitting room - Garden Hotel SLOOne look at the cozy sitting space at the Garden Streeet Inn, with  light filtering in through stained class windows and  comfy chairs inviting a good curl-up with one of the books from the library wall, and I was ready to nest.  But it was still afternoon, with plenty of daylight hours to go, so we stashed our stuff and stretched our limbs and set out to explore.

Next: Higueroa Street by night and by day.

Houston Environs – Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos…

But, Odetta’s old song notwithstanding, there are swathes of pink and white showy primroses, fields of yellow buttercups, creamy bull thistles, and blue trillium, plus lagoons filled with white spider lilies, nesting eagles, spoonbills, egrets, and more than a few lounging alligators of various lengths and fearsomeness – all in Brazos Bend State Park, about an hour southwest of Houston.

I had never been to and scarcely heard of this park. It was amazing. We biked for almost 10 miles on well-maintained dirt, gravel, and cement trails, passing by lagoons full of bird life, meadows full of floral color, and shaded forests hung with swamp moss. Another beautiful day with air cooled by early fog, clearing to blue skies with puffy clouds worthy of a Magritte painting.

By the time we had looped around the final lagoon and returned to Start, we were very ready to sit on something that didn’t bump and re-hydrate with fresh grapefruit, mango, tangelos, and yogurt.


By the way,  the April issue of United’s Hemispheres inflight magazine features “Three Perfect Days in Houston.”   Their take on Houston includes a lot more and a lot fancier eating and drinking than I have mentioned, but the article hits several of the same high spots within the city.  If you don’t have a Knowledgeable Friend to provide a private B&B experience, or the thought of biking gives you palpitations, or you are on an unlimited budget, this article offers a decidedly different, yet over-lapping take on Texas’s largest city.

Houston – Major and Minor Museum Highlights

Disclaimer:  To get Perfect Days in Houston, it helps to  have a Knowledgeable Friend (KF) with a pied-a-terre smack in the center of town within walking or biking distance of the most beautiful neighborhoods, interesting locations, and good eats. Unseeasonably perfect weather helps also.  Of course, this is true of any city…

So, that condition satisfied – off we go!

Up, shower, tea, yogurt, on the bikes by 9:30 – to the Cafe Croissant- Brioche, home of excellent croissants almost up to Rue Cler standard. Lingered over cafe latte, then biked through the leafy lawny street of the Rice University neighborhood (the trees really do meet over the center of the street – though many died in last year’s drought) and along a bike trail through Hermann Park, into the Museum District. The Houston Fine Arts Museum spreads across several large buildings – we parked alongside a medical building and negotiated our way across the light rail line (much fancier cars than the SJLR), past the bag checkers, into a subterranean tunnel with a light sculpture effect which was quite magical (an optical illusion which created walls of color where none existed) and up and down and up until we reached the “Tutankhamun: the Golden King”  installation.

There were very few people on a Friday morning well into the exhibit’s run, so we saw everything at our leisure. The National Geographic (show organizer) made up in presentation what was lacking in content – Harrison Ford as narrator, a breathless Egypian archaeologist to comment in awestruck fashion on every artifact (“When I found this statue, I felt I was holding the universe in my hand.”), videos, photomurals, and special effects galore. But the golden guardians of the coffins, and the coffins themselves, were present only in pictures – I missed them.

Next, to the Museum’s Express Cafe, which like most Museum Cafes offered excellent Ladies Luncheon type food, but unlike most, offered it in Large Portions, so that we were obliged to leave a lot of King Tut’s Trio (an appetizer plate of Eastern Mediterranean dips and pita bread) behind.

Next to the Impressionist Gallery – a very competent collection of B pictures by every artist you ever heard of – refreshingly familiar after we had worked our brains being taught so much about King T.

Next to the Gift Shop, again like most Museum Gift Shops with a collection of interesting and expensive items more or less inspired by the art available, but since this is Texas, bigger and more. Friday afternoon is evidently Field Trip Day, and we arrived at the Gift Shop just as the kids did – the clerks were going quietly mad trying to keep track and keep order. I managed to get away with only a couple of post cards.

Back to the bikes, and off to the Hermann Park Rose Garden. Houston is ahead of Northern California in this respect and we saw a very respectable number of blooms.

Then to the small but interesting Weather Museum, where we learned more about hurricanes and tornados. I had seen a lot of information on the Great Storm which wiped out Galveston in 1900, but this museum filled us on on some of the other titanic storms since. (Sample trivia: Tropical Storm Allison is the only Tropical Storm to have its name retired due to its impact although it never reached hurricane force. The Houston Airport registered 37 inches of rain in three days.) Some bemoaning that the areas devastated by Ike didn’t get nearly the same degree of celebrity and other response that New Orleans got for Katrina – I remember towns in Mississippi made the same complaint.

Then to the Menil Collection – an amazing private collection of modern art open to the public free of charge, hidden away in a Houston neighborhood near Rice, filling a large central  building plus a warehouse, two bungalows, and a few other out-buildings with modern art – lots of Magritte, some Braque, some Royko, and other artists too arcane and indecipherable to mention. The photo is  of one of the outdoor sculptures which reminded me of Stanford’s “Stone River” – a channel about 8 inches wide and 6 inches deep, lined in rusted steel, running across the lawn now straight, now curliqueing, now invisibly coming up into the air, then bouncing down again… oddly fascinating.

Dinner at a bustling seafood restaurant, Pappa’s Seafood Kitchen. I had spicy Crayfish Etouffe, KF had Texas Redfish, and we each brought enough home so that we did not have to cook the next day.

Alternating Universes

I have been slowly posting my travel notes from Nepal, and will continue to do so.  I have just returned from a four-day trip to Nepal’s polar opposite – Houston, Texas  – and will also be posting notes and photos from this alternate universe.  Hope it doesn’t make you dizzy!

Houston is a place which I associated with gray skies, unbearable humidity, overblown sports facilities, and oil refineries.  Who knew it has stately homes, miles of bike trails, masses of blooming azaleas, dozens of interesting museums?

On a day trip I visited Galveston, which I associate with destructive storms and polluted oceans.  Who knew it has dozens of meticulously maintained Victorian and Edwardian homes, an old downtown area strongly reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter, miles of friendly beaches, and people to match?
Stay tuned for “Four Perfect Biking Days in and around Houston”

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