Sunday, May 25, 2014

flying by the seat of our pants - (literally)

I thought I'd take a little break from posting nutrition/wellness/recipe posts, and give a little love to that tab up there that says "travel" - although it could be easily argued that travel can play a HUGE positive role in our health and wellness regimens. But that's a blog post for another day - today I'm just going to write a straight up travel story! A warning though - this post will be long - and will contain LOTS of pictures... :)

So, about eight months ago (September 2013), Rob and I were booked for our third trip to Italy together. We simply adore the country (you can read here about my unabiding love for bella Italia), and were looking forward with great anticipation to our first visit there since 2009. It had been TOO long. So, needless to say, we excitedly headed to the airport the evening of our intended departure with visions of slow drives through the winding roads of Val d'Orcia, sipping glasses of Brunello di Montalcino as we watched the sun set on the golden autumn hills of Tuscany. Ah yes, we could taste the spaghetti alle vongole and authentic Neapolitan pizza - Italy, we're on our way!

But first, a bit about our method of travel. Rob is employed by Canada's biggest airline (three guesses which one that might be), and as such, is in the enviable position of being able to travel almost anywhere in the world for ridiculously low fares. As his significant other, I too can take advantage of these rates...with one tiny little catch. We have to fly standby. When I first started travelling with Rob, this was a rather anxious way to travel - showing up at the airport without a confirmed seat on an airplane can be a somewhat stressful way to plan a trip - because you just never know if you're actually going to end up in the place you've planned for months to get to. That said - although we have had to make last minute alternate arrangements, we have never not gotten to our intended destination. We once showed up for a flight to Paris, but ended up (in business class no less) on a flight to London, and took an overnight bus/ferry from London to Paris; twice we have been in Arizona and Nevada and have had to rent a car and road trip it through the desert to L.A. to get a flight home. Over the years, I've actually gotten quite used to it - in fact, if you can stomach the unpredictability of the exercise, spontaneous travel can actually be fun - like our own personal Amazing Race! :)

This time however, it was not to be. We COULD. NOT. GET. on a Europe bound flight to save our souls. Forget that our visions of a return to Italy had disappeared in a puff of smoke - we couldn't get to London, Lisbon, or Lillehammar - forget it, Frankfurt, Paris, and Copenhagen. In fact, it seemed that ALL the Europe bound flights were not only full, they had been overbooked. Basically, for the first time ever in our illustrious career of standby flying, we were not going to make it to our destination of choice. So we sat there at the airport with sad faces on until almost 1 a.m., until our very last option had been exhausted, and there was no one left in the departure lounges except our sorry selves and an exceptionally tame airport mouse (who we ended up feeding cracker crumbs to). Now what?

Well, not ones to be easily discouraged, it was time for a hasty Plan B. We had the time booked off, and still wanted to take advantage of it. We really had had our hearts set on Italy, and were not in the mind set at all for lolling about on a Caribbean beach. (I know - First World Problems, big time). After tossing around a few ideas, we settled on a place we'd been a few times before, and loved - California. No, it's not exactly Italy - but to be honest, I've always found a geographical similarity between the two places - and of course, California has a pretty decent reputation for its own wine it was decided.

The next morning, we headed back to YYZ to try our luck again....and this time, we got on the flight, and were suddenly looking very forward to travelling thousands of miles in the exact opposite direction from where we had been planning on travelling just one night before.

So why am I writing about this now? Well, not long ago, I actually found a few spare minutes to finally browse through some of the photos I'd taken when in California last September - and I was reminded of what a glorious Plan B it turned out to be. Have blog, will write - what better place than to share some of those memories? For me, it's a wonderful way to re-live the trip, and perhaps for you, a little inspiration to visit some of the places we visited (I'll include any pertinent links). I'm going to attempt to keep my words to a minimum and let the pictures do the talking - so...let's get going!

Upon arrival in SFO, we headed straight to the ocean - Ocean Beach to be exact (hair was still in transition mode - remember, this was almost nine months ago!):

Then drove a little farther along the coast to Land's End:

...and ended our first day in California with a divine meal at Scoma's restaurant on the water in lovely Sausalito, where we were treated to this beautiful view of San Francisco at dusk:

The next day, we explored the famed Haight-Ashbury district (my inner hippie had always wanted to see this part of the city):

While there, we stopped in at the world-famous Amoeba Music to do a little browsing for vintage vinyl:

Ooops! How did this completely gratuitous photo of Sting get here? ;-) (but honestly, as the pricetag shows, it was taken at Amoeba Music!)

What visit to SF is complete without a stop in Alamo Square to view the famous "painted ladies":

(Sadly, all I could think of was the opening to "Full House" as I gazed upon this...)

As it turns out, I didn't have to travel to Italy after all for my spaghetti alle vongole - this delicious dinner at Trattoria Volare Caffe in San Fran's Little Italy was just like being there!

We took a day to explore the city by foot, and basically hit all the tourist spots, such as the heart sculptures in Union Square:

Enjoyed some of the city's gorgeous architecture which included the Market Street Clock:

Stopped at Ghirardelli's for coffee and chocolate to refresh and navigate:

You can't visit San Francisco and not take a ride on a cable car - we got on near Union Square and took a ride to....

...Chinatown! (I'm telling you, we were as touristy as you can get!)

From there, it was down to Pier 39, to listen to a barking chorus of their famous sunbathing sealions:

From Pier 39, you also have great views of the infamous Alcatraz:

As well as Coit Tower, and the landmark Transamerica pyramid:

I tried on a limited edition Heisenberg Hat at Goorin Brothers Hat Shop in North Beach (was SO tempted to buy it, but this photo is all I left with):

We watched a golden sunset on those famous hills:

And ended our day with a visit to the gorgeous China Beach...

...topped off with a spectacularly beautiful and classic view of the City by the Bay from the Marin Headlands:

What a gorgeous city!! I LOVE San Francisco - without question, one of the world's great destinations!

As if that wasn't enough, just 30 minutes from the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County, you can visit one of the world's most celebrated natural wonders - The Muir Woods National Monument:

We spent a glorious day taking a 20km hike through this natural cathedral of giant coastal redwood trees:

...and up into the hills high above this magnificent forest:

What a day it was! I honestly just could have stayed here for the remainder of our trip - but we tend to be explorers when we travel, soooo.....

.....we took another day trip to explore California wine country, in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys:

We spent the end of our day hiking up a small hill in Alston Park in Napa, looking over a vista of vineyards as the sun lowered and the moon rose. What beautiful country! I do hope we get a chance to return and spend more time exploring this wonderful part of the state.

Of course, no matter where you go in California, there are those world famous coastlines along Highway 1 - and we covered our fair share of them while there, from slightly north of San Francisco, near the small town of Jenner:

To further south along probably the most celebrated stretch of Highway 1, between the storybook charming town of Carmel-by-the Sea...

...and even further south down towards Big Sur, across Bixby Bridge (where many a car commercial has been filmed):

Pacific fog at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur
The perfect vantage point
Can you spot the lucky cow that gets to graze and gaze upon this view all day?
Another view of Bixby Bridge
Looking north up the California Coast from Big Sur
Such AMAZING. NATURAL. BEAUTY. It truly is almost overwhelming - especially when you consider that the coastline is just ONE of the many spectacular things that Mother Nature has bestowed upon California. When our plans abruptly took us to California, we decided that this was going to be our time to finally see Yosemite National Park - as a lifelong nature lover and very talented photographer, seeing Yosemite had always been high on Rob's "bucket list" - he wanted to see with his own eyes what he'd been introduced to as a boy through the eyes of Ansel Adams:

Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley, by Ansel Adams
And he was not to be disappointed! :)

A lifelong dream realized! :)
The guidebooks say that it's impossible to describe the majesty of Yosemite in words - that's it's something you MUST see in person to truly appreciate - and that when you do first catch sight of those monolithic rock formations, you will catch your breath in amazement. Well, the guidebooks are absolutely correct - although I was thoroughly looking forward to visiting Yosemite, I was truly unprepared for what an emotional experience it would be - truly, this is a place where the power and wonder of nature - of our planet - hits home with an overwhelming force. As we entered the park and caught our first sight of El Capitan, we got out of the car and just stood there, jaws literally agape, in reverence of the natural beauty before us:

El Capitan

As long as I live, I will never forget the moment we walked down a path to sit on the banks of the Merced River, with the magnificent face of El Capitan looming before us. As the photos show, the day was particularly spectacular - the sky was blue and cloudless, the sun was HOT - and the air was strong with the scent of evergreen - of nature. I sat down on a fallen log, literally overcome with emotion by the beauty that surrounded me - and I was literally driven to tears.

Although I know photos can simply not do it justice, I do hope that if you've never been, perhaps you'll be motivated to visit Yosemite by reading of my experience there. Although the world is full of natural wonders, and I certainly haven't seen them all, this is one that must be seen to be believed. No wonder Ansel Adams (and the many who came after him) were drawn to this magnificent place...

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley, River View
We spent our last afternoon in California on a small secluded beach just up the coast from Santa Cruz - Bean Hollow State Beach. It was a perfect place to share a bottle of wine, get our last blast of the California sun, take a few final photos, and and reflect upon the beautiful week we'd spent in this spectacular state:

California LOVE!
So, as you can see, one simply has to be flexible when making standby travel plans. I know it's not for everybody, but the way I look at it, I am BEYOND grateful to even have the opportunity to travel so relatively inexpensively. (Believe me, I KNOW how fortunate I am). It's all about living in the moment, and enjoying the ride - oh, don't get me wrong, it can be a pain in the rear to travel this way too - but you just have to have faith that you'll eventually get somewhere. And as you can see, in this case, "somewhere" turned out to be pretty darn sweet. Besides - Italy will always be there. :)

P.S. As it turned out, we didn't have to wait long for a return to Cali - while we were away, I got word that I'd won a contest I'd entered to see John Mayer at the Hollywood Bowl - so two weeks later, we were "headin' out west with our headphones on" again - this time, destination San Diego, and a road trip up the coast to L.A. Here's a double selfie from San front of the famed Hotel del Coronado (no, we did not stay there!):

One final travel tip - even though we are fortunate to be able to save on airfare, we still don't go crazy on accommodations - our philosophy is as long as it's clean, and provides the occasional complimentary breakfast (shout to the Best Westerns, Comfort Inns, and B&B's of the world!), all you need is a place to sleep.  Time spent in a hotel room is minimal.  We're there to explore! (That said...with the money we've saved on airfare, there have been rare occasions where we've taken the occasional splurge on a fancy hotel...but more on that in another post!)

Okay, enough already! ;-)

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