Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Photography Road Trip to Northern California

Claudia, Laurie, and Libbie at a picnic site in Armstrong Grove State Park
What do you get when you throw three amateur photographers in a car and send them off to a beautiful location?  LOTS OF PHOTOS!  My sister and I both enjoy photography and have talked about doing a trip together since I was 20. It never happened before because we both had other commitments- family, job, illness in the family, etc.  During that time, my brother married a wonderful woman who shares our love of photography and we are very much like sisters.  Last year she posted some amazing photos she had taken with a friend from a day trip they made to Yosemite National Park, a place I have always wanted to see.  Somehow, we managed to cook up a plan for all three of us ladies to fly out to San Francisco and spend a week together.  What an awesome experience it turned out to be.  We also had my good friend meet us for the first weekend, so we were four ladies out seeing the world on a road trip in San Francisco and then to Sonoma.  From there our tour took the three of us to Yosemite, Carmel, and back to San Francisco.  There was so much beautiful scenery along the way.

Our route shown in red on the map
This blog post is full of photos, perhaps too many, and I only hit the highlights!  Should you decide to take this route one day, I'll try to include most of what we did, but be flexible.  Enjoy the ride!  Although the scenery and sightseeing were rated A+, it really was about the experience.

We started with a late night flight into San Francisco and stayed at the Comfort Inn Suites North because it had a free shuttle, wifi and breakfast.  I love FREE.  All we really needed was a bed since we arrived after 11 PM.  The next day we took the shuttle back to the airport and picked up a car.  We had a couple of local tour guides for the day, since my sister-in-law has a brother who lives nearby.  You could do the hop on hop off bus, if you want to see the city without driving.  I've used it before and it's convenient plus you get commentary about the places it stops.  Driving in the city can be frustrating due to traffic, and parking is really difficult in the major tourist attractions.  If you have some time on your hands, you might consider a free walking tour (didn't I say I loved FREE!?). San Francisco offers a variety of walking tours with local people.  Feel free to tip.  There are so many lovely places to see.  Here are a few photos of some things we saw while we were there.
Painted Ladies- pretty houses

Japanese Tea Garden bridge at Golden Gate Park
San Francisco Bay Bridge as seen from Marin Headlands
Ride a trolley if you can- this one was in Chinatown
16th Avenue Tiled Steps- a fascinating neighborhood project and good exercise

The following few days were spent in a Frank Lloyd Wright house called "Hammermark" which we rented in the Sonoma Valley.  This was very quiet and comfortable- 3 bedrooms and all the amenities of home with a view of the vineyards.  We didn't actually spend a great deal of time at the house, but it made for a good base to see the valley.  From here we visited the Armstrong Redwoods, Bodega Bay, and several wineries.  I don't really drink wine but the grounds are pretty at most of the wineries.  There are simply so many to choose from.  If you're a wine aficionado, you will find plenty to keep you busy.  Most wineries charge for tastings and tours.  My favorite winery was Benziger because it was just so much more than a winery.  They make biodynamic wines and have land that is used for many different purposes.  It's right next to the Jack London State Park, which I also enjoyed.
The house in Bodega Bay seen in Hitchcock's movie, "The Birds"

One of the huge thousand year old trees in Armstrong Redwoods


Vineyards with California poppies in bloom

One of the views along Bodega Bay coastline with ice plants in bloom
From Sonoma we drove the scenic route across to Yosemite national Park.  I might add that lodging is often booked months in advance, so it's a good idea to plan ahead or you'll have to drive very far.  You really need more than a full day in the park just to drive it.  If you plan to hike, you'll do well to stay longer.  The views are just breathtaking. In spring you get to see waterfalls, dogwoods, and wildflowers.  By early summer, often the waterfalls stop flowing but it is dependent on snowfall since they are fed from the thawing snow.  We entered the park at the north end so we saw much of the burned area from last year.  It's much larger than I thought so it took hours to get from the north entrance to the west entrance.  
We signed up in advance for the free photography walk (yes, there it is again!) done by the Ansel Adams Gallery staff.  It was a morning walk and took less than 2 hours.  We learned a little about Ansel Adams and his photographs of the parks.  The photographer also gave us tips on finding the best shots, lighting, and framing your picture.  I highly recommend this if you have any interest in photography.  We saw several waterfalls with shorter hikes and then drove up to Glacier Point.  I'll warn you that the ascent is quite steep and there are times you may feel like you could easily drop off the edge of a high cliff.  It takes about an hour to drive from the valley floor to the point.  There are many opportunities for photos and stops along the way.  Traffic was light in May, but rangers said it can be bumper to bumper in summer.  There's a free bus system that can take you around the park too, so don't feel you have to drive.
Just as we were leaving that day, we saw commotion- lots of cars stopped by the roadway and people looking at something.  Using my telephoto lens, I could see there was a bear in the valley!  That certainly made it one of the most fantastic days ever.  
Yosemite Falls seen from the valley- a spot in the photo walk
The view of Half Dome from Glacier Point
Willows changing color among the pines
A bear!
From Yosemite, we drove across the state again with Carmel as our destination.  We made a couple of stops along the way-  San Luis reservoir and Mission San Juan Batista.  The reservoir has some stunning views and a windmill farm up on a hillside.  This reservoir was created under the direction of Ronald Reagan to ensure drought doesn't hurt Californians too much.  There's a visitor center with lots of information and displays you can learn more about water and the reservoir.  Everyone should visit at least one mission while in California.  This one was just blocks off our driving route.  It's the largest in California and had a museum and a beautiful enclosed garden.  
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve just south of Carmel is a great place for ocean views and wildflowers.  People often see whales offshore here.  We saw sea lions, birds, and plenty of nice scenery. We hiked the park for a short while and saw the Cypress grove.  Then we went to the opposite side where sea lions were resting with calves.  The beach is closed for several months while the birthing season is on.  You still get a good view from above.  You can watch the sea lions play in the water.  We saw otter too.  There are a couple of rocky islands where you'll see hundreds of birds.  
After the park, we drove part of the 17 Mile Drive.  There's a $10 fee to get through the gate.  You can enter at 4 different locations and you'll get a paper map with more information about the stops and what you're likely to see.  People live in the area where the scenic drive goes, so of course you need to be respectful.  
A view near the San Luis Reservoir.  The hills looked like golden velvet.

Mission San Juan Batista

The inlet and beach where sea lions give birth and rest at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

The lone cypress on 17 Mile Drive
If you've never done a road trip with an adult sibling, I highly recommend it.  We laughed over childhood memories...cried about a few too.  There were plenty of stories to tell, and we only turned on the radio once in an entire week.  Turns out we had a lot to talk about.  During the day  we'd do sightseeing.  At night, we'd check in with social media (when we could find it), dine out, and prepare our plans for the next day.  We got along well, in spite of being grown adults who are in charge of our own lives most of the time.  And you will have to agree that the scenery during this trip was fantastic.  If you go, let me know!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Desert Safari near Dubai

Riding camels at a Desert Safari
We were in Dubai for just 4 days this month.  I've been there once before, and it's a real amusement park for adults and kids alike.  It's so family friendly, that I think it's becoming one of my favorite destinations.  If only it wasn't such a long flight from the US.  Basically anything you can think of, you can probably do it or find it there.

This time we decided to do an evening Desert Safari.  There are several vendors, but we chose one that was recommended by our hotel.  You get picked up from your hotel in a land rover mid afternoon.  We shared the ride with 3 other people, and luckily they were so much fun that it made the whole trip that much better.  It's about a 40 minute drive out to the desert where you really see nothing but sand, camels, and a few shrubs for miles.  We weren't the only ones there. I would estimate there were about 80 vehicles.  The drivers let some air out of the tires so we could drive safely on the sand.  We met up on the dunes with a line of cars.  Our driver cranked up the music, and we were off on what they call 'dune bashing' for 20 minutes.  As the vehicle twisted and turned, sand was thrown up on the windshield and sides of the car so at times you couldn't see outside.  You really had to hold on tight.  I was surprised we didn't roll over when we'd seemingly dive off the edge of a dune. My son Omar was laughing so hard that I wondered if he'd wet his pants.  It was a fun time for all.  Then we stopped to take some photos of the desert before we rode out to the compound where we'd have dinner and evening entertainment.
Gentlemen....start your engines!

Dune bashing across the desert
This was no small party.  There were maybe 500 guests.  You had a variety of things to try while waiting for the meal to be served buffet style on pillows at low tables.  We opted for a short camel ride.  The hardest part is holding on tight while the camel stands up.  You get thrown about a bit, but hey...it isn't easy for the camel either, I'm supposing.  Then we attempted dune boarding, but since we don't snowboard, it was too difficult for us to even get the boards on properly, and there was no one to guide us so we gave up on that.  You could ride a quad bike on a short course, but we didn't do that either.  We opted for a henna session and Omar tried his hand at holding a falcon.  It was dark before we could visit all the stations, but we could also have tried a water pipe, dressed in costumes for photos, or bought souvenirs.
Dinner was served on these pillows

The sun sets over the quad bike track

The falconer let Omar hold it all by himself

Even more fun when it's flapping its wings over your head!

Typically boys don't have henna, but she made a nice scorpion tattoo
Dinner was good with a wide range of foods- hummus, pita bread, kebabs, chicken and plenty of interesting side dishes.  There were actually too many choices and few people ate everything.  While we ate, there were entertainers- a belly dancer and what I'd call a whirling dervish.  Both were very good at what they did.  I especially enjoyed watching all the stunts the spinning man could do.  His costume seemed endless.  He pulled out umbrellas, spinning tops, and several layers of skirts!  It was good fun and we were back to our hotel by 9:30.  This was really good family fun.  I'm glad we tried it.
The male dancer spinning a layer of skirt over his head