Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cycling on Golden Gate

Time: July 11, 2015

Place: San Francisco

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights: To celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary "day" (Rio was already considered as our 7th wedding anniversary vacation), we finally chose cycling on Golden Gate after carefully choosing many nominations (hot air balloon, cycling, stretch limo ride, vacation, etc.)! Left house at about 10:30 am, took the BART & embarked at Embarcadero. First stop was the office where I work at Beale St. Then walked to waterfront and took snaps in front of Gandhi statue. Took street-side Indian samosa and then walked to Cupid's Span. More snaps.

Took a pedicab (like a manual cycle rickshaw in Indian terminology) from Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf. The last time I came here was in Sept 2006. Walked through the hustle-bustle to Blazing Saddles bike shop (had reserved previous day to get discount) and took two bikes. I rode the one with the daughter's child seat on my back.

After initial traffic of Fisherman's Wharf, it kinda became easier until we reached the Fort. The uphill was too much and had to walk through it. Then rode beside the beach (which was not so good because it was unpaved) until we were almost below the Golden Gate. Then again walked uphill towards the bridge. Finally we were on the bridge but for the first time, we were on the west side.

As usual it was cold and windy. Rode all the way from one end to the other. More snaps along the way and at the ends. The breeze and the chill added to the thrill of cycling on the bridge. Soon, we were back to the safety of the visitor's center on the east side. After a quick pit stop, it was all downhill. This time the ride was good and pedaling was easy (took the paved road). Even climbed the fort without getting down - and whooshed down! Spent some time in the beach in front of Ghirardelli and took the bikes back to the store for a roaring welcome! That was a surprise. 

Had planned to get back to Embarcadero by the trolley but the line was way too long. Thankfully, a neatly dressed man approached us and said he will get us there for the same price as trolley. We followed him, and guess what! It was a stretch-limo!! We were shocked at our surprise! Inside the limo, we clicked away a dozen more pics before we were joined with other customers. Then enjoyed the ride through the ups and downs of San Francisco.

Ended the day with a nice dinner & dessert at Osho Thai (my usual hangout for lunch with team mates during project parties). Then some more snaps at the night time Embarcadero. Walked back to BART station and took the ride home (it was packed but we were lucky to get seats). Reached home at about 11 pm.

All in all, it was a great day and had a great time. Cycling on Golden Gate was one of the items in our to-do list and so was riding in a stretch limo. Both done on this special day! Three cheers to our Seven years!!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rio for 7th Wedding Anniversary

Time: June 24-28, 2015

Place: Rio De Janeiro & Iguazzu Falls (Brazil)

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights:

Preview: Considering that we took all the trouble to go to India and had our visas stamped in Chennai, it made sense to take a little more trouble to visit another country before it was time to re-initiate visa extension and be stuck in US. Added to this, was our 7th (wifey’s fav number, by the way) wedding anniversary just around the corner. With a max air ticket budget limited to USD 600 per person, we started scooting around. Preference was countries in a different continent which we could not visit when we shifted back to India for good. So South America. Next search was for countries in South America that needed no prior visa processing for Indian citizens. There weren’t any eye-catchy countries, and if it were, air tickets were too pricey. Ecuador was, with its equator but too expensive for just experiencing equator. Machu Pichu was very enticing but it seemed too far to reach and highly expensive. We then found Rio de Janeiro for a little less than $600 per person. Quite surprised. We booked the tickets and relaxed for a few days. Then came the shocker.

The Brazilian consulate gave visas only on prior appointment and their first open slot was on the day after our planned departure date!! A few tense days ensued. Thankfully, we found out that there were travel agents who could get us our visas on-time but we had to pay additional fees. It set us back on our strict $600 budget but now we had no choice. A bunch of paperwork was needed, more for Tontu since she was a minor. Some notary seals too. So much hassle just to see new countries! We were wondering if all this was needed! If we had known about this issue with visa, we would never have booked the tickets. Be that as it may, we gave our passports to the agent and we got them stamped with Brazilian visa just days before our departure. Thank the Lord for the agents!!

During the wait, we read a lot about Brazil – how unsafe it was, how tough it was to get veg food, how we should not flaunt jewelry and be careful with our wallet, things to do, places to see, taxi and their fares, etc. All very useful.

Day 1: Flight was at around 2 pm. We left our house in BART at 10 am and reached SFO airport at 11:30 am. Some confusion at airport. Tickets booked as US Airways but flights are run by American. So we had to walk between terminals. Added to this, we were not seated together. The check-in machine at the kiosk was not working properly and I had to enter all three passports' information manually. Then the flight was delayed by 30 mins. Considering we only had 58 mins as layover in Miami, it was now reduced to 28 mins! Once on the flight, none of the passengers agreed to swap their seats to accommodate us three together. So I ended up seated separately from wife and daughter. This was the first time such a thing happened to us. Once we reached Miami after 6 hrs, we had to take a shuttle train and then run to catch the next leg to Rio. Our names were being called as final boarding call. Finally made it through and relaxed for the next 8 hours. 

Day 2: At Rio airport local time 10 am, after immigration formalities, exchanged $300 to Real, got our baggage, took the taxi to our hotel – Mercure Arpoador. We had chosen this hotel because it was one of the rare ones with a kitchenette. Yes, we had got some articles to prepare food considering getting Veg food was a rarity. Not only that, we even got some cooked food from US to ensure we don’t get hungry for first 1-2 days! This really helped all of us.

We had booked a shuttle (cheapest after we compared many other taxi services from GIG to Copacabana area) from airport to hotel and it was fairly comfortable. On the way, we saw dilapidated buildings and slum area everywhere – resembles Mumbai’s slum area neighboring the airport! And then as we near the beaches, the city transforms itself to international standards! Although check-in time was 2 pm, the staff gave our keys at 1 pm and until 4 pm, we ended up getting settled in the room, which was more of a 1 bedroom apt! Then, we walked to the Ipanema beach which was just 2 mins walk. It was great. The crashing waves are so good to see and relaxing. Reminded us of Hawaii beaches. Sun set at 5:20 pm but it was clouded and we headed back to the hotel for an early rest.

Day 3: We took a cab from the hotel at 7 am and reached the same GIG airport at about 8:15 am. We had a flight to catch at 10:15 am to Foz de Iguacu which is the airport closest to Iguazzu Falls. Flight was uneventful. At the airport, we took a taxi to the park entrance and then the shuttle to the falls itself. First sight at the last stop was pretty disappointing because we only saw the top layer of the falls and we could only hear the falls and the mist. But then we took the hike along the falls and then were greeted spectacularly to the mesmerizing falls which falls right beside us. If we thought this is it, we were then greeted with a small trail that goes on top of the flowing water further into the falls where we get a 260 (not 360 because it starts flowing off!) degree view of the falls. There are roaring waterfalls everywhere. Although the walk on the Falls trail resembled Cave of the Winds, this omnipresent falls makes mighty Niagara Falls look like a small trickle!! It was absolutely breathtaking! Added to this was the bright Sun which dazzled the falls with brilliant rainbow. Across us, we could see Argentina.

After getting soaked with the mist and soaking ourselves with this Nature’s glory, we started hiking beside the falls for a full mile – all along there were many more falls in the distance. Finally, we could see the last of the falls and we took the shuttle back to the park entrance and then the taxi back to airport. All in all, we spent 3-4 hrs at the falls and we were satisfied with it. A strange animal called Quitas are omnipresent near the falls and we almost had a run-in with them – need to be careful with food around them. Flight back to Rio was uneventful nor was the taxi back to hotel. However, since it was almost 9 pm, the fare was 1.5 times what we paid when we took the shuttle the previous day.

Day 4: The alarm was not sufficient to get us up and going, and as a result, we were late to get ready. By the time we got started, it was almost 10 am. A short taxi ride took us to the tram to Corcovado mountain. After a half hour wait, we took the tram to the top of the mountain. Nothing great about it but it was still fun. A few more flights and there we were – CristoRedentor: The massive statue of Jesus Christ looking over the city of Rio. We were so high up on the mountain that we could see miles and miles. Added to this, it was a great sunny day and we were lucky not to have clouds amongst us. It was overcrowded though and everyone seemed to be taking pictures. We spent quite some time observing Rio from all possible angles and posing in front of Jesus. Then it was time to head back to the tram and then another short taxi to Pao de Acucar – Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Here, we took the cable car (Tontu’s first) up the first mountain, spent some relaxed time looking at everything that Rio had to offer, and then took the next cable car to the next mountain. Views were different here, more so the beaches. Again, spent a considerable amount of time enjoying the beautiful scenery. Had some snacks, fruit salad ice-cream and then headed back down. There is a small beach right at the bottom and we spent some time there before heading back to hotel.

Day 5: Alas, our last day in Rio. It was a day reserved for Copacabana beach. Rightly so, we spent almost 3-4 hrs just relaxing and lazing. This is one amazing beach especially on Sundays when the roads are closed out to vehicles and hence used exclusively for tourists. Tontu had a great time with sand castles and playing with the waves and beach picnic, etc. Truly a tourist spot with so many beach-goers enjoying the beautiful sunshine and warmth of the day. The waves were spectacular, people were surfing, kids were enjoying. A pure blissful atmosphere. Then, we went to Ipanema again and this time the views were different. There was a haze over the edge of the mountain and it looked great. Some more pics, and it was time to head back to airport. Return flight was on time and uneventful.

Day 6: Immigration lines at Miami were too lengthy and it took forever to get to the next leg of the journey. It seemed they were severely understaffed to handle the onslaught of multitude of airlines landing in Miami at 4 am in the morning. Anyways. We got through and this time the three of us were together for the MIA-SFO flight. Reached SFO at about 10 am and after BART, reached home at about 1 pm. All in all, it was: Taxi from hotel to GIG airport, Flight to MIA, Inter-terminal shuttle train, Flight to SFO, BART train to home station and then the walk back to home!!

Overview: I never thought I would visit Rio, the city that is depicted as part of one of my all-time-fav movie Cidade de deus! And yet, Rio was a great vacation – it had waterfalls, mountains, beaches and excellent weather – and a great way to celebrate our 7th anniversary. Even though we just spent only 4 full days, we felt it was sufficient. There were other things which we could have done but we didn’t – the colorful steps at Santa Teresa, Tijucu Forest, favelas, The football stadium, Rio downtown, etc. but that was intentional. We covered only our priorities and interests. Also we refused to go on Rio day tours which seemed really exorbitant for a family of 3. Maybe those are good for single travelers. The coconut water was absolutely amazing and we had almost one daily. The coconut was paper thin and delicious. The beaches are great and water is not too cold. It really was a safe place and we never felt threatened by the state of affairs. The books and material we read were very informative, and as rightly mentioned everywhere, there is no need to rent a car because of the amount of risk that it entails. Taxis are everywhere and seem safe enough. Slightly expensive but better than the rental car risk.

The only learning was that I should have used my 0% foreign transaction fee credit card more often than cash and should have exchanged lesser USD cash in the beginning. The reverse conversion of remaining Real to USD was a total rip-off. We never once had dinner or lunch or alcoholic drinks in Rio! We didn't realize it until we came back! We survived on all that we had taken, the food that we prepared in the kitchenette and that put us through all 6 days. Despite all this, overall cost per person for this vacation was almost $1100. If this trip was planned in peak local summer season or during Carnival season, it would have been even more expensive.

After Asia (Singapore, India, UAE), Africa (Mauritius), North America (US, Canada, Mexico), it was South America’s (Brazil) turn! Now which will be the next continent?!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Sequoia and King's Canyon

Time: May 22-24, 2015

Place: Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

Just like last year, we had nothing planned until the very last minute although this time we had an inkling that we will head to Sequoia. Reason why we had not planned was because the weather prediction said it will rain over the weekend. But it also predicted snow showers until the Memorial day long weekend. So we hoped we could ski in May! Hence, last minute packing and plans. Booked only for Friday night halt at Red Roof Inn the day before departure thinking there might not be too much to see or explore for more than one day. But we were mistaken.

Day 0: Left on Friday at 5 pm in own car. Considering that the nps website said snow chains were mandatory for many roads, and seeing review comments that some visitors without snow chains were sent back from the entrance, our first stop was on a nearby Walmart but alas, they said it was seasonal and didn’t have it in stock. So, we continued on. Our next stop was at a rest area which we turned into a picnic spot. Nice little packed dinner with the setting sun at 8 pm and good time for the kiddo to run around and have fun. Continued on to find another Walmart in Fresno, saying no to us. Finally, reached Red Roof Inn at Tulare at about 11 pm and retired.

Day 1: Left at about 9 am to AutoZone to ask about snow chains. Again, same response – not in stock. Took the chance, and continued to Sequoia National Park entrance from Three Rivers side. Found one more store which said Snow Chains available. Just before buying, however, I called up the Park and enquired if the snow chains were really needed and they said no! All the shops we visited were utter waste!! Anyways, thanking ourselves that we didn’t end up buying, we continued on to the entrance to Sequoia National Park.

After a short break at the visitor’s center, our first stop was at General Sherman Tree – the World’s largest tree. A short trek down from summer parking and we were welcomed by a series of large trees. Very majestic indeed. It was quite cold though, in 40s. After clicking a few pictures, we then took two shuttles to Moro Rock. However finding Moro Rock too cloudy (a series of steps that leads to more clouds!) and with zero visibility, we continued in the same shuttle to Crescent meadow. A nice enough meadow, with a small simple trail and quite quiet. However, suddenly, at a distance we saw a bunch of people quite excited and pointing fingers at a faraway point whereupon we saw couple of bears grazing! It was quite a chilling thought to see untamed bears so close! Silently, we continued on, took some snaps and enjoyed the thrill of the adventure. Then took another couple of shuttles back to our parking lot at Sherman tree. Shuttles are mandated at some roads to avoid overcrowding of personal vehicles.

Although, all through the day it was cloudy, it hardly ever rained suffice for a few drops. But it was definitely cold due to the elevation. And we could feel ourselves being inside the traveling clouds. Once back inside the warmth of our car, we had our home-made packed lunch and then thought about next plan of action. Since it was already about 5 pm, and house was about 6 hrs away, it would have been a long journey back home. Also, we were not sure what we were missing in King’s Canyon. So, we decided to head back to Fresno to stay overnight, head back to King’s Canyon the next day and then return at nightfall.

At about 6:30 pm, still 1.5 hrs from Fresno, we came across Sequoia Kings Canyon motel - in the small city of Squaw valley - which displayed a Vacancy board. Expecting the rate to be upwards of $150 since it was a long weekend, we were shocked that it was just $80, with breakfast included!! Unbelieving, we unloaded and enjoyed rest of the evening in the beautiful teeny tiny room. Pizza was right next door and it was delicious.

Day 2: Left at about 9 am after a sumptuous rest. After a quick halt at King’s Canyon visitor center, we headed to Panaromic Point. It was truly Panaromic! What with snow-capped peaks and the overhanging clouds over mountains all around, it was very picturesque indeed! We skipped the General Grant Tree and headed down the King’s Canyon. It was a great drive, very similar to Zion.

There are a bunch of great view points like Yucca point, Junction view, etc. and we took a fair share of pictures. After about an hour, we come right down the canyon beside the gushing river and nature is at its best! Our next stop was at Grizzly falls. It seemed the falls was too thin – not sure if it is because of the drought. Nevertheless, it was nice and refreshing. Then we headed to Roaring River Falls. This one was good too but too far to feel the water fall-mist. Finally we reached the Road’s End and we headed back. On the way, we went to Zumwalt meadow. This was another nice meadow except that there were no bears! But nice scenic views everywhere! Had a quick lunch and finally, we headed back to home sweet home. It was pretty much a non-stop drive apart from few pit stops and we reached home by 8 pm.

Overview: It was a pleasant trip for a long weekend. In some aspects, we got more than what we expected in terms of views and waterfalls and trails – we were expecting only large trees. In some aspects, we got less since we wanted to ski and had high hopes of encountering snow. King’s Canyon was much better when compared to Sequoia since former has rivers running through it and has stunning views whereas the latter is just about trees. All in all, 675 miles driven and it was another memorable trip – especially because neither wifey nor dotty suffered motion sickness despite winding roads!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

India 2015 Vacation

Time: Apr 9, 2015 – May 3, 2015
Place: India (Bangalore, Chennai, Mantralayam, Karighatta, Nimishamba, Gosayighatta)
Company: Wife and daughter
Highlights:

Prologue: Kept weighing pros and cons of visiting India since late 2014 but was waiting for visa extension. Finally, in Feb,decided "for". Booked tickets in March. Started jotting down things to do, and looked forward to it eagerly!

Day 1 (9) T: Left the house at 4:30 am. Decided to go to SFO airport in BART so as to avoid long-term airport car parking. Dropped wife and daughter at Pleasant Hill Bart station at 5 am with luggage. Went back to apt, parked the car, and headed back on foot to station. Took the train to SFO. Was surprised to see the train was full, and I had to stand halfway despite such early hours. Reached airport at about 6:30 am. Was quite difficult to drag all the 5 suitcases from BART station to the counter but managed it somehow. Check-in done, had some breakfast and headed to security. Took the 9:30 am Etihad to Abu Dhabi. It was a long 15 hr flight. But Tontu was fine. She saw Frozen movie twice. I saw Drushyam and Excuse My French. Despite having got up early, didn't sleep till late.

Day 2 (10) F: Reached Abu Dhabi. Long walk in the terminal. Packed waiting room at the gate. Then had to take the bus to the next airplane. Next leg: Abu Dhabi to Bangalore. Tontu slept all through and was fresh at the BLR airport. Timing was perfect - parents waiting at the arrival lounge. After hugging the lot, took the taxi to home. Jumpy ride to Tontu although this time the road is all constructed well and good. Reached home by about midnight and retired.

Day 3 (11) S: Tired after the long journey. Had planned for friends' get together. But it got cancelled. Went to Jayanagar complex for US visa photo.

Day 4 (12) S: Relatives' visits. Dropped wife and daughter at in-law's. Complex to get photo and some shopping. After over an year, spent the night without wife and daughter. Tontu badly missed me and cried for me - apparently. Refreshing rain.

Day 5 (13) M: Complex again for some more shopping. And got ready for the morrow office visit related to visa stamping. More rain.

Day 6 (14) T: Office, to collect the visa related docs. Then met up with pals over lunch. Headed back just before some more rain.

Day 7 (15) W: Wife and daughter returned. It was the first time Tontu traveled in BMTC bus. Grand dad's 99th birthday. Left to Chennai.

Day 8 (16) T: Mine and wifey birthday. But holed up in the Chennai guest house all day until evening when we ventured out to Biometric scanning. Too hot!

Day 9 (17) F: 8 am appointment at the consulate. Was smooth. Good relief. Headed back to BLR in the 1:35 pm train. Good timepass. Reminisced previous BLR-CHN-BLR trips for visa-related. Every time we think its the last but it has never been so, so far. Was this the last?!

Day 10 (18) S: Karnataka Bandh. Stayed home.

Day 11 (19) S: Met some more pals. Tontu enjoying the two-wheeler wholeheartedly. Left to Mantralayam in train at night with parents.

Day 12 (20) M: Predictable and typical day at MALM. Reached station, took auto to hotel, refreshed, darshan, lunch, relatives visit, back to hotel for a siesta, back to temple for darshan, auto back to station and took Udyan back to BLR at night. Nice new station now!

Day 13 (21) T: Hectic day. Went to Kumaran's to enquire about admissions. Took rest at in-law's for the noon. Headed back home at 5. Went to Fort High School for Mysore M Nagaraj and Manjunath Carnatic Violin Duet performance. There was a standing ovation for accompaniments! Back home at 10 pm.

Day 14 (22) W: An outing! Went to Karighatta - a nice 3 hr drive on Mysore road. Wife had missed this temple in the last visit. And since we had not planned for TTD this vacation, KG was the best fit place. After spending some time here, went to Nimishamba which was just a short 10 min drive. Another nice temple right beside the river. Another 20 min ride later, we were in our fav spot Gosayighatta. Been coming here since I was a kid and still enjoy the same gushing river. And this time being Tontu's first - she enjoyed it too as much and didnt want to come off! Finally convinced her and made our way back to BLR. Had nice food at A2B on the way back - a pretty good rest area with world-class amenities. Massive rain on the way back. Reached safe and sound at about 10ish. Got news that stamped PPs were ready for pick up. Since we had planned for PP renewal for Tontu, worked till late night to get the Tatkal appointment set up for her.

Day 15 (23) T: Another hectic day. Up early for more prints. Drove all the way to Hebbal office to get the PPs with stamped visa. Then drove down to Lalbagh PP office for Tontu PP renewal. After 3-4 hrs, was all set with Tontu new PP. Headed to Tontu Pedi clinic for a casual visit but pedi out of country. On the way, showed Tontu birth hospital. Gandhi Bazaar for some shopping. Reached home just in time for more rain. trees uprooted everywhere. Still went to Mutt - the usual Thursday BLR routine. This being after a long gap, it was special! Couldn't go to Sai Baba temple because of lack of access due to fallen trees. 

Day 16 (24) F: Relatives' invite to a breakfast in a grand hotel. A nice gesture, and a nice breakfast at Krishna Grand. 

Day 17 (25) S: Shopping at complex.Caught up with office work. Water woes at home. Helped mom for morrow.

Day 18 (26) S: Dad's 70th birthday celebration at Kalyani Mutt. All day activity. All relatives visited and impressed with Tontu's accent and activities. 

Day 19 (27) M: Stayed overnight at in-law's place. Took it easy. Nice stroll in the evening and park for the kids.

Day 20 (28) T: Had plans of heading back home alone but Tontu did not let go of me! So changed plans and stayed over. Had enough office work anyways. So was busy all day. In the evening, went to Meenakshi Temple on Bannerghatta Road.

Day 21 (29) W: Came back home and started shopping for the trip back home. Had to start rejecting relatives' invitations since schedule became tighter and tighter.

Day 22-23 (30,1) T,F: Lots of chores - financial transactions at post-office, getting sweets, dresses for Tontu and other home-needs. Packing too. Met some more pals. Went to Ragigudda too! This Thursday, we did make both the Mutt and the Sai Baba temple although it was raining. Even went to Dwadashi Mutt food in the morning.

Day 24 (2) S: The last day in BLR. Final packing, adding, removing, new suitcase, changes, etc. Hectic all day long. Although the taxi came at 3:30 pm, we thought we had enough time and left at 5 especially because it was raining heavily. Big mistake. Heavy traffic everywhere. Got tensed because it was almost 6:30 pm and we still hadn't reached Planetarium. But once there, it moved rapidly. Thanks to the planners who made road from there till airport almost zero-traffic light. We were at airport at 7:10 pm. Although this drive was tension-filled, it was nowhere close to what happened last time! Quick checkin, quick security and boarding almost 1 hr in advance! Aboard Etihad from BLR to Abu Dhabi at 9 pm. Eventless flight.

Day 25 (3) S: Flight on-time everywhere. Nice and easy transit. Surprised to undergo Immigration at Abu Dhabi itself for US Customs. It was so much better and easy. All I had to show was PP, not even the petition. I had heard SF customs was tough, but this was a bonus. Then got into the final leg of the flight to SFO. Quite uneventful. More Frozen for Tontu. I saw Mardaani. Reached SFO at 7-ish. Quite surprising to come out directly to arrival's lounge on a US airport instead of Customs! But what a relief! Took our luggage, then to BART station, then aboard the train and then 1.25 hr on the train and finally our station. Repeated the same steps in the reverse order. Got the car, got the family and luggage and finally, home sweet home!

Epilogue: This trip was more of a precursor before we head back to India for good, that thought never being too far away. It allowed a great amount of joy - with family and awesome food. It was also an eye-opener in terms of many relatives advising against coming back to India for good. It was too hectic though from start to finish. Rain added to much of the delay but it was refreshing and kept the city cool - weather was something which we were fearing would be very hot. One thing I noticed about myself in BLR was that my temper was usually high. It was something I am not so used to in US! Tontu had great fun and kept saying she wont return to US but convinced herself to get back to US. She especially enjoyed the many parks we visited - whether it was for an evening park with simple rides or morning parks for walks. We love those parks! Missed out on a chance to go to Lalbagh though. She even had memorable fun in the two-wheeler rides, after years of being confined in car-seat on the backside of the car! She made more friends and spent so much time with them that we started missing her, what with she always being amidst us in US!

Even though it was 25 days away from usual grind, it still seemed less. Sigh.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Half Moon Bay

Time: April 4th, 2015
Place: Half Moon Bay
Company: Family and Colleagues' Families
Highlights: After successful Del Valle get-together, it was time now for another one at Half Moon Bay. This one was chilly but it gave nice opportunity for the kids to enjoy the beach with its magnificent waves and sand. Also played a number of games for the kids and adults. Good food summed it all up. Almost 6 hours of non-stop fun with amazing views all around couple with and good background music. A day to remember!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Drive Through Tree

Time: Feb 15, 2015 – Feb 16, 2015

Place: Drive Through Tree Park (Leggett) and CA-1 Drive

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights:

Day 1: Considering that this was a Valentine long weekend and we had IND Vs Pak World Cup cricket match on Saturday night going all the way till 4 am, we had not planned any trip. However, on Sunday morning at about 10 am, decided on the fly to go on a long drive. Drive Through Tree seemed interesting as well as CA-1 north of SFO (which we hadn't done yet). http://www.drivethrutree.com/ gave all required info and we booked hotel near the destination. Left house at about 3 pm. It was a nice drive on 101N. Took us about 4 hrs to reach the hotel. The hotel itself was very nice, with just 1 neatly made room, no TV, no fridge, no microwave. Wifi was available though. Paavani enjoyed jumping on the bed, as usual!

Day 2: Woke up at 8, just to be early to beat the traffic around the drive through tree. It was close by, and was surprised to see that it was drive through tree park and not just drive through tree, although the tree itself was the highlight of the park. Since it was still early (about 9 am), there weren't too many people and we took many snaps with many poses. The gift shop too was very enchanting. Then, we headed back to hotel, quick breakfast, checked out and headed towards CA-1S. 

Extreme winding road made Tontu sick within the first 10 miles. But once done with that, she was fine for the rest of the journey. But wifey got sick later on, and stayed sick till we reached home. Unlike CA-1 south of SFO which has many specific viewpoints, north of SFO - especially when driving south from Leggett - doesn't have too many vista points. It is still a good drive though, with great views, cliffs, misty scenes, etc. but the road has many curves. And driving a winding road for over 5 hrs makes it quite a drag, and you get tired of it all especially with a 4 year old in the car who wants to know "Are we there yet?"! So, took an exit from CA-1 at about 5 pm. 

Unfortunately, got stuck with traffic, and what should have been a 2 hour drive home took 4 more hours. In all, it was almost a 11 hour drive day, and was very exhausting. And to think, if CA-1 was avoided, the whole drive back home could have been made in 4 hrs! In all, 444 miles were driven in about 30 hrs, out of which 15 hrs were spent only in driving! It was a drive through vacation mostly!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hawaii

Time: Oct 30, 2014 – Nov 3, 2014

Place: Maui, Hawaii

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights:

Prologue: Since the time we moved to West Coast, Hawaii was always a dream vacation. What with direct flights being served from LA, I thought it was an easy trip to plan. Even went to AAA to get details on the package and was just one step shy of booking. However, it never happened. And for some reason, the ticket prices soared upwards of $500 per person, and it seemed unreasonable! So, kept pushing it out. Finally, after 2.5 yrs in west coast, the time came…

One of the main reasons for visiting Hawaii was to see the active volcano on the Big Island. But research (and some discussions with few folks who had already visited) led us to believe that seeing lava is not an everyday affair and that weather should permit such luck. Other than the active volcano, the Big Island was not that popular. Further calculations led us to believe that visiting 2 islands would cause about $1000 extra. So, we figured that it wasn't that worth it, and dropped the idea of visiting Big Island.

Research on the other islands led us to shortlist on Kauai and Maui. Both wife and me weren't very interested in Oahu since it was so commercialized. We further narrowed it down to Maui since it seemed to have more attractions than Kauai. Some of the best sites on Hawaii such as gohawaii.com, hawaiigaga.com, hawaiiguide.com gave ample information on things to do and what to expect.

It was 19th Oct when we were ready to book the flights for the most economical date. Google.com/flights showed that the best date would be 10/30 – 11/3. Any other date would increase the ticket rate by almost $50 per person! So, we hastily checked some “bnb”s but none were available. So, went with the usual option of hotel booking as well as car booking – all done independently with economic rates. The same 3 chosen itinerary (flight plan + hotel room + car type) were not available in the package option. So, off we went to Maui.

Day 1: Had planned to stay at a friend’s place overnight in Santa Clara to catch the 8 am Hawaiian flight to OGG airport from SJC. It was a pleasant enough flight with little turbulence. Was surprised to see light breakfast being served with steel forks! Once we landed at Maui, the heat wave hit us even in the airport. The airport resembled a bus station back in Bangalore! With no centralized air conditioning and walls opened to let the air come in, the sweat started pouring right there!!

Took the car seat, hopped on the shuttle to car rental, got VW Passat and then headed straight to Monsoon Indian restaurant in South Maui, since it was almost noon. It was a good ocean-facing restaurant with nice cuisine. Lunch done, we drove further south to the farthest point called Makena Beach (also called Big Beach). This beach has one of the finest sands and wonderful color of the ocean ranging from aquamarine blue to turquoise green. Basked in the afternoon sun for a while and then headed north. Our next stop was Kamaole Beach Park I. This beach did not have robust waves as Makena Beach, instead it had light refreshing waves that broke even at the shore – ideal for a nice walk or a jog with the feet caressing the lightly crashing waves. The waves had this buttery crunchiness which made it all the more worthwhile to spend as much time as possible. We walked a long way on this crashing shores and took some great pics. Finally headed for the night to Maui Seaside hotel, on the way stopping for basic groceries like milk, water, fruits to last us through the trip.

Maui Seaside hotel is no resort and hence there are no resort fees. However, there is parking fees of $5 per day. It is an economical hotel – meant only for the purpose for a decent night halt with a close-by restaurant, which is exactly what needed a hotel for. But one of the main reasons for us to choose this hotel was its strategic location to all the highlights of Maui. It was located within 2 miles of Maui airport in Kahului, it was a short distance (about 30-45 minutes) to Lahaina in the west and Wailea in the south. It was also very close to the beginning of ‘Road to Hana’ as well as to Haleakala Crater. The only thing it was missing was beach-access! But that would be too much to ask!

Our initial plan was to visit Haleakala on Day 2 since body was still not accustomed to the 3 hr time difference. However, weather.com predicted showers on Haleakala on Day 2 and hence we changed plan to visit Hana on Day 2.

Day 2: This road to Hana has the maximum number of winding roads that can ever be imagined. Although Hana is just 30 miles away, it takes almost 3 hrs to reach! At times, it becomes too much and it is better to take frequent halts and stops to admire the natural beauty surrounding all around. Luckily, there are good websites on ‘Things to do on Road to Hana’. The best one we found was http://www.hawaiigaga.com/road-to-hana.aspx.

The key to this expedition is leaving early. Thankfully we left early at about 6:30 am. The first sight of Hookipa was exhilarating. Our first stop, however, was the Waikamoi Ridge Trail. But within the first few minutes, we realized that there was more that this road had to offer than this nature trail and hence, we returned and continued on. After a short pit stop at Kaumahina State park, our next stop was at Keanae lookout for a breath of fresh air. It has awesome views of the crashing waves and nice tropical greenery all around.

Then, the little one slept off in the car, and we didn’t want to stop at any place. So kept surging forward, promising ourselves to check back in on the road back. Still, we stopped at Wailua Falls which is right across the bridge with its sprawling views. Continued ahead to the last point which we wanted to see – the final destination: Haleakala Visitor Center. Still the little daughter was sleeping. So gently woke her up. Time was 11: 30 am.

Fed her some packed food and started on the pipiwai trail. We had decided on a short hike until only the first lookout point. But even that was strenuous, what with the trail steadily climbing. It was also very hot and very soon we were all sweating. Nevertheless, it was a rewarding experience to see the waterfalls. Thankfully, although the clouds were always hanging over our heads and sometimes drizzling, it was not really raining. After the lookout, we headed back to the visitor center and then took the trail to the sacred Oheo Gulch pools. This is a short loop trail which leads to one of the magnificent views of the magnanimous Ocean with its crashing waves. It is a scenic beauty to behold for quite some time. Even the freshwater pools were nice to see.

Finally, left the place and headed on the way back. It was 2 pm already. Our next stop was Waianapanapa State Park. There are a lot of things to do here – a trail to a cave, a trail to black sand beach and another trail to Blowhole where the ocean kinda makes a hissing sound when it surges through rock holes that it has carved over so many years. We went only to the black sand beach and the blowhole and skipped the cave, mainly because there was a cave even at the black sand beach – a sort of two way cave that opened at the beach as well as at the back to the ocean! There were many arches on the rocks, similar to the one which we saw on Cabo.

It was almost 4 pm when we left this place. With only 2 hrs of daylight remaining, we wanted to finish as much of the winding road as possible. We were able to do just that since we did not stop anywhere else, other than couple of short breaks to get some fresh air. The little one still fell sick and we had to take care of her at some places.

At about 6 pm, we reached Hookipa and there was only very little rays of sunlight left for us to see the massive waves and surfers, for which this beach is famous for. Yet, it was fulfilling to see this dynamic nature of the waves – almost invigorating!

Since it was Halloween Day, there were people wearing costumes in the town of Paia. There was a costume parade at Lahaina which we had initially planned but later changed since we read that it would involve about 30,000 people. We didn’t want to get stuck in the traffic on a vacation! Anyways, after a short stop at McD’s, we retired for the night.

Day 3: After a strenuous Day 2, we relaxed on day 3. Got up quite late, had late breakfast at the hotel itself, got ready by about noon and visited Iao State Park at about 1 pm. It was just a 10 minute drive from our hotel. This has nice short treks. After some pictures, we headed to Lahaina in the West. This road is awesome too, with expansive views of the ocean. At one lookout, there is almost a 180 degree angle of pure ocean view. Also studded along the coast is a series of beaches with calm waves. Very different from both South Maui (Makena), North maui (Hookipa) and East Maui (Oheo Gulch lookout).

Our first stop was at Front Street on Lahaina which is considered as one of the top 10 best streets in America! Had nice lunch at India Express, then relaxed under the Banyan tree. It was fascinating that although the temperature was almost 90 degrees, under the tree, it felt like it was in 70s! The tree is fascinating, with roots bridging across tree trunks in wide arcs! While the missus shopped, I just relaxed on the bench while the little one pranced around. Then we drove on the Front Street all the way, until it met the main highway to Kaanapali/Napili.

On the way to Kaanapali, it started raining lightly and as a result, there was a beautiful full rainbow to our right. Took some pics with the rainbow and continued ahead. Since it was drizzling here, we realized that there was no point to go to Kaanapali beach, and headed back to anyone of the beach near Lahaina with good sunset view. Chose one random beach and spent time until the sun set. It wasn’t all that great since it set under a mountain as against the sea which I had hoped. Yet, it was soothing.

Day 4: Had read lot about Haleakala sunrise, had seen some good videos as well. All of then had suggested leaving at 2:30 am to reach the summit at 4 am. We followed everything to the book, even with a 4 year old! Got up at 2:30 am, reached the top at 4 am despite heavy clouds, despite the weather prediction that it was going to rain. From 4 am till 6 am, we sat in the car, covered in blankets. It was oh-so-cold at the top. An elevation gain on 10,000 ft in just 30 miles, 1.5 hrs was astounding. While the road to Hana were tiny Ss, the road to Haleakala crater is big Zs, but there are innumerous of them. So even this stretch of 30 miles takes over 1.5 hrs. The last 2 miles were quite tough, what with extreme winds and near zero visibility since we were in the midst of thick clouds. So I drove right on the middle of the road knowing fully well that no one will be driving down the mountain. When I saw the board ‘Haleakala Visitor Center’, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Parked the car and took some rest. Missus wasn’t feeling all too well due to the winding road but the little one slept all through. At 6 am, the cloud was still there, the fog was still thick. The Sun had risen but we could not see it anywhere. So, all the effort went in vain. We just passed the time walking about here and there, and took some pics. Then, on the way back, we saw the board pointing road to summit. This made us realize that we were not really at the summit, despite being on the mountain at 4 am!! The reason is this board to summit is only mentioned while exiting the visitor center, not while entering. So, at 4 am in the night in the middle of cloud, there is no easy way to see a road forking sharply to the right from the visitor center parking lot. Well, considering that the visitor center has restroom service, it is just as well that we were here and not at the summit. 

Yet, when we reached the summit at about 8 am, the clouds had dispersed and the sun was way up top, under another set of clouds. And we were on top of clouds. So, we were in the layer between two sets of clouds. It was an amazing sight – the kind of a view that a mountaineer usually gets when he is atop some remote mountain, when all around there is just cloud to see below you. If only there was no cloud that morning when sun rose, if only we had reached the summit and had better visibility – there was that slight bit of disappointment that we could not experience what is considered as the best sunrise point ever. Even at 8 am, I could see the reddish streaks of the sun rays on the clouds and it was brilliant. Maybe if we had come up here even at 7 am, it would have been a worthwhile scene. Well, lots of maybes and if onlys.

Headed downhill and there was no more cloud cover. We could see all the way to the ocean on all sides, and even see the town of Kahului. We reached at about 10:30 and took it easy thereon. Just lazed in the hotel and saw the Maui Visitor Channel on TV which airs some of the best information related to Maui. Finally, at about 2 pm, we saw a documentary on the top 10 beaches of Maui and realized that Wailea beach is something not to be missed. So, headed back to south Maui.

Wailea beach parking is nestled amidst resorts and it looks as if we are entering private gateways but it is actually open to public. Once parked, there is a nice paved walk that skirts the beach on the border of the resorts. We walked behind the Andaz resort and onto the beach. It was indeed another beautiful beach and the waves had the right measure of playfulness – not too soft nor too threatening. The little one enjoyed a lot, and for the first time I ventured to take her as much inside as possible to make her completely wet. The access to showers is just across the beach and is handy. After enjoying another sunset (this time behind cloud), we just walked on the beach again. Mr Sun had not allowed us to see himself rise or set twice. Be it as it may, we were actually having a heavy heart to be bidding adieu to Maui, since it was our last beach and our last night at Maui.

Near to our hotel is Maui mall inside which is a Thai restaurant dubbed as one of the finest in Maui for many years. True to the certificates posted all around, it indeed had one of the finest Thai cuisines.

Day 5: We had covered pretty much all that Maui had to offer. There was one thing we had missed – it was the Polynesian dance called Hula that Hawaii is famous for. Apparently, it is extremely pricey in the resorts. However, we chanced upon a magazine which said that the Queen Kaahumanu center had free Hula organized in their shopping center every Monday at 10:30 am! The center was 0.5 mile away from our hotel and hence was not all that distant from airport. What luck! We checked out at 9:30 am and had our seats for the 10:30 am Hula show. It was indeed a nice experience – a true traditional Hawaiian sing and dance program. Although, it was getting late for us, and we left at 10:50 am. Returned the car at 11 am, took the shuttle back to airport and back on our way to home!
 

Epilogue: Persuaded by the rental agent, I took a full tank prepay option for the car and when I returned it back, I still had about 5 gallons left in it despite all the day long trips in the island of Maui for last 4 days. So, advice is not to fall for that option. All in all, drove 356 miles in the 5 days that we were in Maui. Despite being in Maui for 5 days, still felt like staying a day or two extra to do some activities such as snorkeling or any other water sports activity, or maybe even visit a neighboring island, etc. I guess there is never enough of Hawaii to see in just one trip! Another fantastic place and another memorable vacation.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Roaring Camp and Santa Cruz

Time: Oct 12, 2014
Place: Roaring Camp and Santa Cruz
Company: Bro, SIL, MIL, wife and daughter
Highlights: A short 2 hr drive led us to this Roaring Camp in Felton where we boarded a steam engine that took us atop the Bear Mountain. The steam engine is fascinating. The ride is a short 1.25 hrs round trip with excellent commentary. Definitely worth it, although a bit pricey.
Santa Cruz - our second time here in as many years. And just like last time, again the rides were mainly for Paavani, who enjoyed it just the same, as if she were sitting on them for the first time! 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hanuman Temple & 17 Mile Drive

Time: Sept 20, 2014
Place: Hanuman Temple in Gilroy and 17 Mile Drive.
Company: MIL, wife and daughter
Highlights
Hanuman Temple at Mount Madonna is a very soothing and serene place. Even the drive is very scenic while climbing atop the mountain. At the temple itself, one can feel oneness with nature, what with the temple not having any walls and a soothing waterfall at the side.
Then visited 17 mile drive. I had last visited this same place as bachelor on Sept 2006. As then, it was not very impressive - instead a hyped up drive that doesn't count much when compared with just a drive on Highway 1. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lassen, Shasta and Crater Lake

Time: Aug 29-31, 2014

Place: Lassen National Park, Shasta and Crater Lake

Company: MIL, wife and daughter

Highlights:

Day 1: Had not planned for Labor Day weekend since there was an impending work scheduled - which got cancelled at 3 pm! Immediately, started planning to go to Crater Lake. Searched for 'things to do', 'places to see' and planned the itinerary. Then, searched and booked hotels. Started packing by 6 pm, had dinner by 7:30 pm and left at 8:30 pm. After 170 miles, at about 11:30 pm, we reached the Classic inn at Red Bluff. Rested for the night.

Day 2: Breakfast was home-made food packed yester-night. Our first stop was Lassen Volcanic National Park, which was about an hour away. It was quite a surprise on all that this park had to offer. The road got elevated to almost 8000 feet within the hour and there were spectacular views. The first scenic spot was 'Sulphur Works' where there was a boiling cauldron of sulphur. Much to our surprise, it was a similar boiling cauldron that we had seen exactly during last Labor day long weekend in Yellowstone. Next stop was at Emerald Lake which was truly Emerald in color. Then there was Lake Helen which was very blue but we did not stop there. We also did not venture to the Bumpass Hell since we were short on time. We then continued on to the highest point on the road, which was the trail head of Lassen Peak trail. We did not venture on the trail but it was fascinating even to see the trail from the parking lot, with a steady stream of hikers on the massive mountain. It reminded me of the Kedarnath and Yamunotri treks. After a few clicks, we headed next to Summit Lake with a short stop at King's canyon. Tontu enjoyed at the lake throwing 'Heaviest stone in the world!' into the lake. Had a quick snack and then headed once more on the Hwy 89. Although there were few more places, we did not stop anywhere else except at Manzanita Lake but only to fill fuel. End of Lassen. Had entered with no expectations and it ended up making us more than happy!

Next stop was at McArthur-Burney Falls on Hwy 89. Although had seen pics of this falls, it did come as a nice surprise to see the massive falls, which resembled Jog Falls in Shimoga but this was shorter and wider. Some of the streams seemed to be falling directly from the rocks which looked great, as if like a curtain coming down in the theatre. Truly a natural wonder. A short 0.3 mile trek takes one all the way down to the base of the falls where one can even feel the sprinkling splash of the falls. Tontu had a whale of a time, climbing amidst the rocks and enjoying the falls to the fullest. After spending considerable time, we went to the cafe for a soft serve ice cream (ended up having a sundae) and it was almost 5 pm when we left the place. Truly enjoyed this place. 

Hwy 89 is a dead straight road from there until it reaches I-5. A beautiful road with amazing scenery. After we reached I-5 NB, took the deviation after a short time towards Klamath Falls. Kept looking out for Mt Shasta but could not find it. It was about 2.5 hrs later at about 7.30 pm when we reached Maverick Motel at Klamath Falls. The town seemed dead at 8 pm and the only open restaurant was Thai Orchid. Were very sleepy when finally we hit the bed at 10 pm. Had driven 270 miles today.

Day 3: Knew today would be a hectic day, so left at about 9 am after breakfast in motel. It was a short 1 hr drive to Crater Lake. The crowd was just building up. After a pit stop at Visitor Center, we went to Rim Village where there was an expansive view of the lake. The blueness of the lake was reminiscent of Lake Tahoe. After some snaps and quick short snack at the cafe, went to Watchman Overlook where there was a different perspective view of the lake. It was already 1:30 pm. We decided to head back (instead of going all around the rim). 

After a long drive, we reached Shasta dam. During the drive, we had beautiful views of Mt Shasta too. Mt Shasta looks like a picture perfect mountain. Shasta dam visitor center was closed by the time we reached (nearing 6 pm). Spent not too much time and then headed to Sundial Bridge. It was a different kind of bridge, in the sense that it was only meant for pedestrians and cyclists. Did not understand how exactly the sundial worked but Tontu had more fun in the river below. Then, had dinner at Priya Indian Restaurant in Redding and left at about 8 pm. After a 3.5 hr drive, reached home safely. Driven almost 490 miles in a single day.

Overview: It was a short yet fulfilling trip, especially because it was all planned out within few hours of departure. Was lucky to get hotel rooms at the last minute despite it being a long weekend. Lassen was a surprise joy visit, McArthur-Burney was pure joy and Crater Lake, Shasta Dam and Sundial bridge were all pretty much as expected. All in all, had driven about 930 miles in about 50 hrs.