Country Counter: 23
Cities Visited: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas
Timeframe: August 2018
Ah, the US! Who amongst us hasn’t had “the American Dream” in some point in their lives. I’ve always been a fan of Hollywood. So much so, that I pushed my parents to visit the US for our first international trip. We instead went for England. Anyway, come 2009, when Barack Obama had just been historically sworn in as POTUS, we finally decided to visit. My family and I received 10-year visitor visas, giving us ample time for multiple visits. However, I will share the story of my first trip to the US (East Coast) in a future blog post. My sister moved to the US last year but my parents couldn’t accompany her, as my father had major health issues. Our aforementioned 10-year visa also terminates this (10 years passed by like it was yesterday), and I hadn’t been anywhere this year (first trip of 2018, can you believe it?). Hence, we decided to take a family trip to the West Coast of the US. This is that story.
First, let me say that I fell in love with the weather in and around San Francisco. With the bay nearby, it was around 12-18 degrees (Celsius) in August, which was a relief from the heat in Europe for me, and from the heat of Delhi for my parents. From the start, everyone, from people who had visited before to our cab driver, warned us to avoid certain streets and be mindful of the homelessness problem. I had also read numerous articles on how the real estate market in San Francisco was literally not affordable for most of the working population in the area, so all these added warnings started to worry us. However, on ground, the picture was different. Yes, there were homeless people (which country doesn’t have them), but they did not pose any problem at all, and didn’t fail to distract us from the beauty of the city. Walking around the bay, watching people celebrate, everyone with a smile on their face – we felt welcome. And that is something I do not usually say for every place I’ve been.
The highlight of the city was, of course, the Golden Gate bridge. Made popular by countless movies, the bridge is a delight to witness. San Francisco’s resident fog, named Karl lovingly, constantly lingered over the bridge, so it was difficult to get that bright, sunny shot. However, even engulfed with fog, the bridge was marvellous. I drove back at night to get a shot with the lights on. Clearly marked walking and hiking paths were laid out everywhere, for those who wished to walk around the area while catching a glimpse of the wonderful bridge.
We booked a city tour, which took us around town and saved us from walking all over the hilly roads. I was constantly seeking to visit all the sites made popular by Hollywood – Twin Peaks, Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies, Lombard street (known as the steepest street in the world, which it isn’t) etc. Twin Peaks was windy but worth the short drive up the hill. On a clear day, you get amazing views of the city. I took this picture (below) while the view was blocked by Karl, but still managed to capture it. The Painted Ladies, made famous by the now-decades-old show Full House, brought back fond memories of TV from my childhood. The best part of the whole experience was that, being a city located on a hilly terrain, if you drive just a bit in any direction, you reach a spot with great views of downtown, like this one.
Another short, but memorable, drive we took was to the Muir woods, home to some of the world’s tallest trees. The place itself is so tranquil and well maintained that, not only do you feel dwarfed (and somewhat humbled) by the sheer size of the trees, but the area also instills peace while you are walking through it. There are multiple hiking paths inside the woods area, which are easy enough for beginners (like my mother) to cover within half an hour.
The only thing I regret is not being able to visit Yosemite National Park. The day we landed, the place caught fire and was closed for all tourism purposes. The fire was brought under control only after 4 weeks, and I read that California is facing its worst year of forest fires. May God be with the people there. It pains me to see such historic and beautiful places getting damaged.
After four days in SF, we drove down to Los Angeles. Finally, my dream came true! I have dreamt of visiting Hollywood since I was 6 years old.
While browsing hostels, I stumbled upon one whose location seemed, at first glance, to be incorrect. It was right ON the Walk of Fame, and next to the studio where Jimmy Kimmel Live is shot. I’m a big fan of the show, plus, being right on the Walk of Fame seemed to be too good a chance to give up. After confirming the location, I booked a full dorm room with 4 beds (very convenient for a family). While I won’t make this whole post about the hostel, let me just say that everything about the Hollywood Walk of Fame hostel was great – location, helpfulness of the staff, ambience, etc.
For sightseeing in Los Angeles, we booked a day tour with one of the operators based outside the Chinese Theatre. Note: I usually never discredit anyone, but DO NOT book with operators next to the Chinese Theatre. Not only was it more expensive than alternative, but similar, deals on offer, the tour operator was not at all knowledgeable, and we did not hit any of the spots that were promised on the tour. By the end, I was chatting up with other groups on the bus, who said they felt cheated as well.
The city itself is like any other metropolis, with the downtown area having its share of beautifully designed buildings. However, I realised that staying in Hollywood, on the Walk of Fame, is not exactly staying in the city. Hollywood is on the outskirts, and it takes a 25-minute train ride to reach the centre. But this did not bog us down because there is plenty of action packed near the Hollywood area, including THREE major studios with tours – Universal, Warner Brothers and Paramount.
We spent one full day at Universal. While I haven’t been to Disneyland in the US, I have been to the one in France. I had imagined the experience would be quite similar, as they are all movie studio-based theme parks. Boy was I wrong. Honestly, I cannot stop gushing about Universal Studios to anyone who asks (Disneyland Paris pales in comparison). Universal is well worth its ticket price of $110 or so. One of the major highlights of the trip, and not just for me. Even my parents, who have limited interest in Hollywood, seemed to enjoy every ride. The famous Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Transformers: The Ride, Jurassic Park: The Ride – all were amazing. It was great to see my parents light up with smiles after, what is essentially, a roller coaster ride. Even the seemingly “humble” studio tour – where you just sit on a bus with a hundred people and drive through various movie sets – was awesome (includes the famous King Kong 360 3D, the world’s largest 3D set, designed by Peter Jackson himself). A must-visit for all if passing by Los Angeles. Remember to keep a full day aside for this, as the waiting times for rides can be long, especially if you go in the summer like we did.
On the 7th day of our trip, I started to get a bit annoyed. This was Los Angeles after all, one of my dream cities, and I just wanted to have a day to myself. Luckily, my family understood. So, on Friday, my sister hired a car and took my parents to see some beaches she wanted to visit, and try out some of the local celebrity ice cream – Ghiradelli (delicious).
My day alone turned out to be one of the happiest days of the trip, and of this year – unforgettable! I’ve been longing to write this bit down since I returned. I started off by heading into the lobby to see what kind of activity was planned for the day. Another good reason to stay in a (good) hostel – they always have weekly activities. I had been planning to hike up to the Hollywood, and luckily, the activity that morning was a hike to the sign. The lobby was filled with young people travelling in small groups or individually. Everyone was quite friendly. I met a small group of people who were ready to hike to the top of the sign – the guide was only going to lead us to the first viewing platform, which is BELOW the sign. It is a flat area quite close to the sign, which is on Mount Lee (not Mount Hollywood, as people imagine). He told us that once we reached there, he will give us directions to those who are willing to go up to the sign itself. Excited, we all set out.
A 20-minute walk from the hostel brought us to the bus stop which takes you to the starting point of the hike. The time spent walking, and on the bus ride, was a good way of getting to know your fellow hikers. Once we set off, the view along the entire way amazed me. The hills were packed with beautiful houses and mansions, which, by the look of it, could only belong to ultra-rich individuals. The guide told me that the average price of a house here was well over $10 million. But the view of the valley and downtown LA is to die for.
We reached the first point in about 35-40 minutes, including two 5-minute breaks. The hike was a moderate climb, although first timers would find some parts a bit tricky. Once we all finished taking pictures here, I again floated the idea of us going to the sign itself. Almost everyone backed out, either due to tiredness or other arrangements. Luckily, the group of 5 I met at the hostel agreed. Another tricky part here is getting on the right track. Before visiting, I had read that the main trail was closed in July 2017, as the residents complained about “too many” tourists. They took it a step further (and this is the part that appalled me a bit) by asking (paying?) Google to give FALSE DIRECTIONS on the Google Maps App. Initially, I had a hard time believing this myself, but as I talked to people from there, they confirmed that this was true indeed. What losers!
Luckily, our guide gave us the right directions. They did come in handy as this next part of the trail is quite a climb, the path is dusty with the occasional rattlesnakes, and the scorching LA heat is unbearable for a long hike. If you plan to attempt this, make sure you bring at least 2-3 bottles of water with you. People to keep you company are a great advantage as well.
When people ask me how was the trip, was it everything that you imagined it would be, I say LA was good. But this hike was the best (yet)! Once you reach the top, sweating and dehydrated, the killer view is worth the arduous journey. This picture below captures it all. That is a genuine smile on my face, not one that we fake for pictures. Do you see the sheer amount of happiness on my face, with the Hollywood sign and Los Angeles behind me? 😊
Welcome to Hollywood, baby!
The day ended quite well. We met some more people on our way down, on the bus and back at the hostel. The evening was spent playing pool and grabbing the local brews. We were longing for a beer after that hike. We even made a short trip back up to the Griffith Observatory, which doubles up as a cool science museum. Don’t miss their Tesla Coil, and go outside and wander around for the best night time views of the city lit up.
We checked out the next day and headed towards Las Vegas. We decided to spend only the weekend, as the city doesn’t have many “tourist” spots (unless you have a gambling problem). On our way, we stopped for an hour at the Hoover Dam. Again, made famous by featuring in many Hollywood films, the dam itself is an engineering marvel. Just walking along the bridge, with the huge installations towering above you, is a sight to behold. The dam, originally built to hold the “wild” Colorado river, is somehow, also beautiful enough to attract millions of tourists every year.
We reached Las Vegas around 3 PM. It is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles (traffic and halts included) through completely barren but beautiful landscape, including deserted valleys and small towns. We booked the Shalimar Hotel, another great choice. I would highly recommend this hotel if you are looking for a good price-comfort-privacy-staff friendliness package. Admittedly, even though there isn’t much to see and do in Las Vegas, keep the evening aside to just casually stroll through their world famous “strip.” The strip, a few kilometres long, is buzzing with activity till late night. It was also the most lit up street I’ve ever seen. Tall buildings, housing expensive hotels and casinos, lit up brilliantly with a myriad of colours and animations. Yes, they have their own Eiffel Tower, Disneyland, Manhattan and the like.
For those wanting to catch the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign, head to the other end of the strip towards the Mandalay Bay hotel, and you’ll arrive into an enclosed area. I was surprised by the planning that went into this area around the sign – it has its own parking lot, and by lanes to drive in and out for photo stops. If you plan on renting a car, you can easily slide into the lot, park for as long as you want, take pictures with the sign, and drive out just as easily as you drove in.
The next day, we decided to just “touch” the edge of the Grand Canyon. Our holidays were limited, owing to my sister’s PhD schedule, which she had to return to soon, and my work schedule back in Paris. While we wanted to spend more time at the Canyon, we could only squeeze in one day. However, we decided to go for it, as it is not very likely that all of us would be visiting the Eastern US coast again anytime soon.
The West Rim of the Canyon (the West and the South are the most accessible from Las Vegas) has a new attraction – the great Skywalk. I had read about its opening, and the accolades that came with it – highest in the Northern Hemisphere, can hold the weight of 72 jets etc. While it’s all good advertising, do not plan to go there thinking you’ll find it empty like the pictures you see on the Internet. For spending more time, the visitor centre has other attractions as well, including a helicopter ride of the Canyon (which my parents experienced and said was great), a visit to the tribal habitations of the area (the land belongs to the Native Americans) and other, heritage related locations.
The only thing that was a bit disappointing was that you are not allowed to take anything with you on the bridge – not even your phone or camera. If you want your picture taken, you must wait in a slow-moving line, and pay the company’s representatives to take pictures for you. A bit of on-the-nose capitalism, I thought. Driving all this way just for a short walk on the bridge, without any pictures to capture the moment.
We drove back the same night to Las Vegas and hopped on a bus to San Francisco. We spent another day in SF. Our initial plan was to visit Yosemite if it had reopened. Unfortunately, the fire was more difficult to control than was previously estimated.
All in all, a great trip. California had always been on my radar, and now I can happily cross it off my list.
Hope your summer went great as well.
Until next time,