Tuesday, January 26

West Coast USA, Day Fourteen: Escape From Alcatraz

Quite refreshingly we only had one thing to do this morning before my flight, and that was to visit Alcatraz.

Even though it was "just a prison", the whole visit was well worth taking. In particular the audio guide (included in the ticket price) was very welcome as it took us on a pretty comprehensive journey through all parts of the prison complex. For a completionist like myself it made the whole thing much more accessible and enjoyable, not least because it provided a colour I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

With the clock against us, we left the island. There was a few things that we didn't explore to the full, including the gardens and a few exhibitions, but the few hours we did spend there felt like it was enough.

Still running on borrowed time, me and a new friend whom I had met on the island grabbed 30 mins or so at the near by Pier 39 complex. This housed a few attractions and restaurants, and again would have been nice to have explored fully had I more time but alas my time really was up. Stopping off only for some Bubba Gump Shrimp, I bid my farewell to my friend, the pier, San Francisco and pretty much the whole state of California and I rushed to the airport to check in for my flight.

According to this journal, I've only spent 14 days here across Vegas and California. It feels like much more - the wedding we originally came for seems like months ago. Our tour of the west coast turned out to be amongst the busiest that I've taken part in and I have to say that I was surprised by much of it - partly because of what I saw and did but mainly because it was so different to what I had been expecting - or rather conditioned to expect. I know we always complain about the media misrepresenting certain sides of certain communities, but the one thing we sometimes miss is that they have this effect on everyone - what I've reaffirmed at least is that it's always worth seeing things for yourself, an undiluted view that might make you rethink the things that you've been told.

But for now I'm on my way home, tired from a trip that filled me up well. I like to think that I'll be visiting the States again, and this time sooner than the 16 years or so it's taken me to this time.

Monday, January 25

West Coast USA, Day Thirteen: San Francisco

And just like that, we've reached our final destination of San Francisco. It feels weird that there'll be no more drives, no more navigating a new set of roads, or packing to switch hotels. Even though we fly out tomorrow, there seems to be a sense of finality today. As the flight is mid afternoon, today is pretty much the only day we have for the bulk of the San Francisco sight seeing, so we made sure we had an early start; something which wasn't even a choice as we had a scheduled Tesla factory tour to attend this morning. Alas we weren't allowed to take photos on the tour itself... so a row of cars is all you're going to get.

The tour itself was really good. Partly infotainment, it was still impressive to see how things had been set up, how futuristic some parts of the manufacturing process was and how... old fashioned others were. It was a good way to spend the morning, although I did stop short of placing a deposit on a new Model S.

The rest of the day was spent on the tourist trail. The first stop was, of course, Fort Point for the Golden Gate Bridge. Although an obligatory visit, I have to say it was slightly underwhelming and not only because the actual Fort Point museum was closed on Mondays.

Next, we visited the famous twisty Lombard Street (so famous I hadn't even heard of it until this trip). It was a novelty at best, but at least it was easy enough to get to - despite advise to the contrary San Francisco appeared to be pretty car friendly, at least for those of us who just wanted to stop by the sights and see.

Which made the cable car even more of a curiosity. We actually thought that the quoted $7 per ride was a joke, but no - it turns out that the trolley is more of a tourist attraction than a decent form of mass transportation. Needless to say we hopped off as quickly as we hopped on. Still, they are kind of cute all the same.

The late afternoon was spent mopping up the rest of the area: Hot Fudge Sundae's in Ghirardelli Square, followed by a loiter along Fisherman's Wharf where we ate bread from the Boudin Bakery. It was a nice place to roam aimlessly, and with a bit more time we could have visited some of the smaller attractions there on the seafront. But overall I think we didn't miss out on much by our late arrival to San Fran.

Having passed sunset, we filled the gap before dinner with a visit to the Coit Tower (having just missed opening times) and City Hall, two further demonstrations of the quaint yet diverse architecture styles that can be found here in San Francisco. Overall I think we got a pretty decent feel for the place today, enough to make me wonder what exactly we would have done with the extra time had we arrived earlier. I guess sometimes it does pay dividends to throw schedules away.

Sunday, January 24

West Coast USA, Day Twelve: The Pacific Coast Highway Revisited

I've written before how desperate I can become looking for diving spots while on holiday, and this trip was no different. A quick web search suggested that the diving wasn't the greatest along the west coast, particularly during this season, but this didn't really deter me in arranging a dive for this morning anyway. And yes, it wasn't the greatest - in fact the combination of temperature (it was cold) and visibility (we couldn't see) it may have ranked as one of the least successful dives that I've been on. Nevertheless I'm glad that I went - a highlight was a sea lion, which was new for me at least.

Monterey Bay itself was yet another quiet little beach town, possibly most famous for the links in it's locality. Since none of us had any interest in (or indeed the time for) golf, we stuck to the local views instead, some of which were quite dramatic.

It was then that we decided to head south - for those of you paying attention yes, this was in the opposite direction of our eventual destination San Francisco. We felt that we owed it to ourselves to actually see as much of the Pacific Coast Highway by day as we could, starting with the 17 Mile Drive, a stretch of road that promised much more than it delivered. Still, it was our gateway into Carmel-by-the-sea, another small sea side town which housed a population that didn't seem to do anything but enjoy life.

From Carmel, we just continued retracing our steps south until the sun set. It turns out that this was plenty of time, as we did get to see some wonderful coastal views along the Big Sur

But for me the real highlight were the Bixby and Rocky Creek Bridges.

Our final stop before heading into San Francisco was a McDonalad's in Santa Cruz. I only write about this because of the extremely surprising and impressive Arabic greeting of Salaam given by the Simon, the clearly non Muslim white dude that was serving us our Fillets. Simon was actually surprised by our surprise, and rather than embarrassing the poor chap further we decided to think of our own theories for such behaviour: was it corporate instilled international customer service? Was Simon just more worldly that we often give Americans credit for? Did we all actually mishear? Who knows.

Tonight we entered San Francisco, the final town on our itinerary.

Saturday, January 23

West Coast USA, Day Eleven: Santa Barbara

Another stop that wasn't really on our list, Santa Barbara was a must stop if only to fondly remember the 80's soap we all used to watch with our mothers. But even aside from that, Santa Barbara was a worthy enough stop, a pretty, quiet little town that would have otherwise have been perfect to chill out in. We started with a lazy breakfast after which we spent some time roaming the main street and pier. By this point we were at least half a day behind schedule - the idea was to have spent the daylight hours along the Pacific Coast Highway... But I don't think anyone minded the delay really.

On the advice of a local, we headed to Lizard's Mouth, a nearby hiking trail that promised some great views. Many mistakes were made on this adventure, including omitting to bring enough layers (it was pretty windy and hence cold up there) as well as being particularly risky with fuel - we were on reserve before we even found the place and had to literally freeroll the 10 miles or so back down. But the advice did hold true and the views were more than worth it.

We left Santa Barbara at 3:30pm, the day pretty much exhausted. Next on our list was Pismo Beach, partly as a natural rest stop but mainly to try some recommended food. The drive up was very pretty and green - almost England like, and we once again got to experience first hand the friendliness of the locals as one of our demonstrated how to get a girl's number. At 70mph. With both driving. Sleaziness aside, it was a magical moment.

It turns out that the lazy beach town of Pismo was again a hidden gem worth hanging out in.

But hey, there was always enough time for some Clam Chowder.

But finally our inability to hit a schedule finally caught up with us as we realised the amount of time we had to spend in each place wasn't really up to us any more. In fact it was hurting us by this point: we left Pismo well after sunset and so the Highway 1 was driven pretty much in pitch black. The views we came to see were missed.

We finally came to a stop in Monterey, another small town not 100 miles south of San Francisco.

Friday, January 22

West Coast USA, Day Ten: Farewell Los Angeles

This being our second and final Friday on the trip, our day was pretty much centred on the mosque and Jummah. As such we managed to start the day relatively early, the idea being to mop up the remaining sights, pray and then head out of the city. Santa Monica was the main highlight where we checked out the pier, biked (myself on a tricycle, naturally) to Venice Beach where we checked out the canals, posed on Muscle Beach and generally horsed around till it was time to go.

Maybe it was the weather but I have to say that Santa Monica and it's surroundings aren't as glitzy as they might appear on the television. Oh for sure, it seemed like a wonderful place to hang out and possibly even live... but there was also something a little underwhelming about the whole place. We got our fill, and then headed to the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City to both offer our Jummah and meet one of my uncles for lunch.

After a hefty haul of pizza it was finally time to head out of LA. Unsurprisingly we were behind on schedule - we actually left the city at 4:30pm - but I suspect none of us had any expectations of any schedules by that point. As such, we decided to randomly stop at a cute little beach cafe in Malibu for an unwarranted amount of dessert and milkshakes before finally arriving at what became our final destination of the day, Ventura.

To be clear this was not part of the plan; heck I hadn't even heard of Ventura before arriving here today (my first thought was to try Santa Barbara). This, again, turned out to be a bit of a gem as we followed some suggested advice and caught the second half of a comedy gig being played not too far from our hotel.

It was a great way to end the day, and indeed mark our departure of SoCal. Our road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway had begun.

Thursday, January 21

West Coast USA, Day Nine: Today Is Culture Day

After prioritising our list of things to do we settled on starting the day at The Getty Museum. This is probably the top most attraction in LA for anyone with a vague interest in museums or art, and it was well worth checking out. The building itself was interesting enough, while it's collection had more than enough breadth to keep us busy for the morning and beyond.

It was actually so good, we lost all track of time - make sure you budget for just how much there is you'll want to see there. Although The Getty turned out to be the most wondering of timesinks, it did mean that we had to cancel our planned trip on a studio tour. Instead, we headed to The Broad, another excellent cultural highlight of LA, this time hosting a selection of fine modern art. It was no Tate, but pretty good nonetheless.

And that was all the tourism for the day. Like yesterday, our timekeeping and efficiency left a lot to be desired... and yet I don't feel that I missed out on too much. We had dinner plans with a friend of mine down in Long Beach which would have been nice to have seen in the day time, but we settled with Compton and Skid Row by night instead. Quite.

Wednesday, January 20

West Coast USA, Day Eight: Hollywood

Perhaps I spoke too soon? It seems that we have fully embraced the lazy-start-long-breakfast way of starting the day, and as such pretty much started our exploration of LA at around noon. For an early starter like me this was a disaster - flexible and meandering schedules only work if you have the time in which to flex and meander in. On the other hand breakfast at The Griddle was pretty awesome, and to be fair we did manage to squeeze in a quick look at Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills (I looked out for the Walshes but no go).

Today was all about Hollywood really. After parking up we spent more time than we really should have noting the Stars on the floor and the handprints of the TCL Chinese Theatre. We even got roped into taking a drive by tour of Hollywood, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. I won't bore you with the list of alleged celebrity houses we saw but I guess it was all part of the Hollywood tourist trapping. In total we spent 5 hours obsessing over the whole thing - oh and as a tip, if you want a really decent view of the Hollywood sign don't drive to any promised viewpoint: you can see it well enough from the viewing platform of the Dolby Theatre.

Cutting our losses, we headed to the Griffith Observatory. Now this was more like it - starting from the drive up, to the views from it's hill, to the architecture of the observatory to the actual science of the whole thing it really is a special place.

There were science demonstrations, experiments and we even regressed to schoolchildren and bought tickets to a show in the planetarium. My only regret is that we only had two hours or so there, but even that much time salvaged the whole day for me.

Our final task for the day was to catch a basketball game. Lakers was the target, and so we headed down to the Staples Centre to see what we could find. To say the mission was a failure was an understatement; a lack of research left us with pretty unrealistic expectations on how much it would cost to watch a game. We consoled ourselves with a cosy dinner at a lovely Italian called Osteria La Buca... after which we gorged on cheesecake at The Factory of such things. That was all a pretty decent turnabout if you ask me.

Tuesday, January 19

West Coast USA, Day Seven: San Diego

Our ad hoc trip into Mexico yesterday meant squeezing the rest of our schedule. I was probably the least bothered about this; as I have learned in previous trips the lack of schedules always adds a huge amount to any tour that I've previously been on. The trick is to prioritise what you want to see and forgive the rest, and in our case San Diego had a clear priority: The USS Midway. Actually wait, no. The first priority was actually breakfast, and with a little help from Google* we found a pretty amazing 24 hour place on the way.

We made the rookie mistake of ordering one breakfast each, when each could have supported a small family for days. But hey, welcome to California I guess. Aside from that there was something pivotal about this morning's breakfast, kind of like a formal transitioning from a vacation that was busy and scheduled to a holiday that was whimsical and dynamic. Despite the extra calories I actually felt lighter for it.

Back on the tourist trail, we eventually made it to the USS Midway, a deommissioned aircraft carrier that had been re-purposed as a maritime museum. Needless to say it was pretty awesome. The fact that it was a real life aircraft carrier was amazing enough, but the museum side of things was just as top notch... and once again we found ourselves struggling to consume it all. It was pretty late in the afternoon when we left for La Jolla.

La Jolla is, apparently, the fancy part of San Diego. Apart from a few shiny cars it didn't have much of that vibe, but that could be due to the classiness of the rich people around rather than their bank balances. It was clean and lush and oh my the sea lions were smelly. I could just about see it as a laid back place to retreat to, which in actual fact was a vibe I felt across the city as a whole. This feeling carried on through to a simple dinner consisting of fish tacos and some luscious desserts with some local friends; much fun and good conversation was had on this, our final and only night in San Diego - we left for Los Angeles right after saying our goodbyes.

Monday, January 18

West Coast USA, Day Six: An Impromptu Tijuana

Tijuana actually was originally on our itinerary - it got cut mainly due to scheduling concerns but also partly due to a growing reluctance to cross another international border. A few minutes with the chap who dealt with us at the car rental place changed that; not only was he from Tijuana, but he commuted from there every day. The way he pitched it Tijuana was extremely accessible and it would have been a crime not to make a visit. So we decided there and then to give it a bash. And he wasn't wrong: less than 30 minutes driving and we were in Mexico. It was so easy that we didn't even have to stop our car at the border; so no stamps, no customs, nothing. I guess the USA don't really care about those leaving the country, but it did make us wonder if we'd have any trouble getting back in. So no, we didn't have a plan - just a car and a tank full of gas - so we did one of my most favourite things to do on holiday: we winged it.

Our first stop was on encountering a local street market. This is as close as you can get to hitting the bullseye really: we were pretty much the only non residents there and so got a great insight to Tijuanan life.

And of course... we stumbled across a mosque while we were exploring.

Unfortunately it appeared to only open during salaat time, so we didn't get a chance to meet any local Muslims. Boo. After chilling out beach side in a cafe we backtracked back north by foot to the border as it hit the Pacific. Like all borders it was a little jarring as there really didn't appear to be any difference in soil between here and there.

We then headed into the central part of Tijuana, mainly to fulfil the shopping needs of those in the party. A couple of us did manage to absorb some of the locality by randomly walking around, including a brief visit ot a mostly closed Tijuana Cultural Center. It might just have been the inevitable naivety that comes with being a tourist... but we really never felt at all unsafe, even after dark. Well until we hit Zona Centro that is.

Our final stop before aiming to head out, Zona Centro, or downtown, was where we were advised to go to pick up souvenirs (in my case the bane of my travels: fridge magnets). It might just have been the time of day (ie late), but the place did feel pretty seedy and intimidating. We even got stopped by the police on our way out which was less fun than it sounds (especially since it was my driving licence that he took away albeit temporarily). The long story short is that we were glad to finally be heading back to California. Of course what we didn't realise was that although it was easy getting out of the States, getting back in was always going to be a little more difficult.

All in all, the border crossing took three hours, 2:55 of which was us waiting in a car queue. In hindsight we should have aimed to have gotten back before rush hour, but I guess it's not every day one gets to check out Tijuana.

Oh and as a side note don't bother ever trying to order a fish burger from McDonald's past 11pm - apparently they would have long turned their fryers off by that point. Sheesh.

West Coast USA, Day Five: Leaving Las Vegas

We didn't really do much this morning on this, our last day in Vegas. The plan was actually to leave much earlier but we didn't manage to hit that particular target - but failed logistics aside, we were finally leaving Las Vegas.

A friend suggested that we check out something called the Valley of Fire. It was in the opposite direction to where we wanted to actually go, but some quick research convinced us to give it a try. It turned out that this was a great decision; in many ways I found the views more inspiring than those I saw yesterday in the Canyon. It was pretty alien to be honest, and another example of exactly how diverse the USA can be.

Although our time in the Valley of Fire was unmissable, it did suck up more time that we wanted to; in fact we didn't really have much time at all to see much of San Diego when we arrived close to midnight. However that in itself gave us a great excuse to try the 24 hour diner that is Denny's, so I guess we managed to remain tourists till the end.

Saturday, January 16

West Coast USA, Day Four: The Grand Canyon

The insanely early start was actually worth it, as we were driven to Boulder City airport to catch our helicopter ride. Due to my size and weight I pretty much got a prime seat and so was subject to some spectacular aerial views of Hoover Dam:

As well as the Nevada Desert:

And of course some fantastic views from the bottom of the canyon itself:

But having seen it, I have to say that I was a little, tiny bit underwhelmed. I think I'll just have to put it down to desensitisation. Is it possible to have seen it all?

The afternoon was a free one, which I used to explore some of the remaining corners of the strip. I also did some halal food recon and was surprised at the options that were available.

Today was also the date for the main event of the trip; the reason I had made it out here in the first place. A dear university friend hosted a wedding party tonight at Joe's Seafood Prime Steak and Stone Crab. It was an intimate affair, with no more than 40 of us, but it was nice because of it; these were people I have known for almost 20 years after all.

But despite the partying I did endeavour to grab an early night; we're due to leave tomorrow and it'll be another early start.

Friday, January 15

West Coast USA, Day Three: A Jummah in Sin City

I'll be honest - I initially was wondering whether or not there were any Jummah facilities in one of the most decadent and sinful cities in the world. In hindsight I was being silly of course - it'd be hard to not find a mosque in any reasonably sized city these days, and Vegas proved to be no exception. We actually had a choice of venues, but picked the closest one we could find to the strip.

The khutba itself was insightful and progressive; the congregation young and enthusiastic. It's always refreshing to see a budding Muslim community and we spent some time talking to the locals to get a better picture of what it was like to practice there. And of course get some food tips - even though halal food wasn't impossible to find in this town it's always nice to get recommendations... even though that resulted in us having a turkish grill for lunch.

In the evening a few of us treated ourselves to a show - we watched Cirque Du Soleil's O which we were told was one of the best productions on the strip by the troupe, if not by anyone on the strip. It was pricey (even though we restricted ourselves to the cheap seats) but worth it: the whole show was pretty overwhelming and I suspect even a second or third viewing would have us missing stuff. What we did see was magnificently impressive.

We ended the evening hanging with the wider wedding party at Planet Hollywood. It's actually becoming quite interesting to see all the different themes and vibes the different hotels have, and Planet Hollywood was no less unique (and no, I'm not referring to its Pleasure Pit). Otherwise I didn't really party that hard and was in bed by midnight (if only for the early start the next day).

Thursday, January 14

West Coast USA, Day Two: Viva Las Vegas

It's probably missing the point checking out the strip during the day, but for me it did help gauge the exact size and scale of the strip and the buildings it held. Being a bit of a walker, I scoffed at all the warnings I got about walking - although possible it did take an absolute age to get around by foot. I have to admit that it was initially fun doing so; even during the AM there was lots to see and experience, especially for those who people watch. After a while, however, the whole thing did start feeling slightly superficial and even tacky. I'm hoping a proper look during the night will confirm exactly what the fuss is all about.

After a Korean BBQ, we headed to Down town, otherwise known as Fremont Street. This apparently was the original strip, and in some ways appeared to have more of a vibe and authenticity to it - albeit not in every way good. But there were icons to see, including those during a drive down that street of chapels. So tacky it was good.

We rounded off the evening with a Japanese dinner and then caught a comedy hypnotist show. Of course I didn't for once believe anything that was happening on the stage this evening... but equally of course I didn't volunteer myself just in case.

West Coast USA, Day One: What Happens In Vegas...

It occurred to me as I was waiting at the gate the significance of this particular time away. Not because of the destination (I've been to the USA before) nor the context (I've been to destination weddings before) but because I was leaving two days or so before my parents were due back from their own two week holiday. This would result in a whole month without seeing them, which, given other facts - that I'm pretty old now and a month isn't really an incredibly long period of time - doesn't sound that special but still remains the longest contiguous amount of time that I would not have seen them. That made me equally proud and sad.

It's also relevant that I've been having a bit of crisis when it comes to travel. Call it boredom, fatigue, ennui... I just don't seem to have much of a passion for it any more. In fact if I'm being honest I'm not sure I ever did really - most of the more amazing places I've been to have been pretty circumstantial more than anything (I've lost count of the number of destination weddings I've been lucky enough to be invited to), and I can only think of a couple of trips that I drove and planned myself. I mean don't get me wrong: there are very few trips that I didn't enjoy and even love, and I'm grateful that I've been able to see more of the world than most... but when I sit down and think about it the vast majority of the best times I've had in my life have happened within a 10 mile radius of my home. I'm okay with being labelled as spoiled or someone who's taken his travelling for granted... but it's usually only with the benefit of experience one realises that the things we chase in life aren't actually all they promise to be.

So yes. Vegas then. It probably would have been something I wanted to check out a decade ago, but given the above it was fair to say that I was looking forward to the company during rather than the location of this trip. Still, considering the distances involved it made sense to beef up the trip, and I have to admit I am interested in checking out the rest of the West Coast.

Between the news (anything with Trump that is) and anecdotal evidence, I was expecting lots of immigration woes during my travel to the States. It all started promisingly with me being picked for a "random search" at the gate just before boarding. I complied of course, but was surprised when I was declined any kind of report or receipt that the search had happened - even more so when the G4S chap was honest enough to say "give me a break mate, it's the US who've asked for this". But the really surprising thing was that the above was the only incident I have to report. Everything else was seemingly fine - even US immigration went quickly and smoothly, so much so that I felt a bit cheated that I wouldn't have to recite the whole spiel about being there for a wedding with all my friends etc. But still, brownie points to the USA. Maybe they don't actually hate Muslims after all?

We got in late to Las Vegas, but there was still enough time for me to check in and race to the Rio to catch the Penn and Teller show playing there. It was a lot of fun, both in terms of the magic and general level of entertainment. I only really had time for one magic show during my stay in Vegas and I think I picked the right one.

That was all there really was time for today, so after briefly checking out some of the bright lights I headed back to my hotel to catch some rest. I still wasn't sure what Vegas had to offer someone who doesn't gamble, drink or visit strip clubs... but I thought I'd make an early start finding out anyway.

Saturday, January 9

Food: DoubleTree Restaurant, Docklands Click for more info

So here's a strange one: a restaurant hosted by a hotel that was undergoing a change in ownership, management and layout. Needless to say it wasn't the ideal place to enjoy a dinner - the food came late, the service wasn't up to par and even the toilet was actually donated by a vacant room on the second floor. Even the name doesn't appear to have been decided upon.

To be fair it's probably not fair to review the place. But the food was okay and after a discount we didn't lose much apart from time. Perhaps I'll have a better review once the place is finished.

Saturday, January 2

Food: Rodeos Burgers & Shakes Click for more info

After such a spate of actually-not-that-bad burger joints recently, I guess the run had to end at some point. And unfortunately for Rodeos it did here.

The big shame is that Rodeos isn't that bad - the food is decent and the value and service are certainly there - but that it's just not special enough. Scratch the surface and you almost have a posh fast food place.

If I was ever passing I would stop by for a bite. Seeing as how Rodeos is placed south of the river this seems unlikely. But hey if you happen to be in the vicinity you probably can't do better.