Sunday, April 13, 2014

Iron Horse Trail

Time: 12th April, 2014
Place: Iron Horse Trail
Company: Wife, Daughter
Highlights: There is this nice spawning over-bridge only for pedestrians near our house that each time we went on the road (in our car) that goes underneath this bridge, we used to say we need to go on it. This bridge was only for those on the Iron Horse Trail. Finally, we got to do this! Walked from Pleasant Hill BART to Walnut Creek (WC) and although it was almost an hour, we didn't even feel it! At WC, spent a nice time at the Civic park where Tontu enjoyed swing, slide and even a game of Frisby. A short walk in the downtown for an Indian snack and a stroll in the WC lib and we were on our way back. 

Unfortunately, Tontu had a minor fall and a small cut on her lips, and with all the exhaustion of the walking and running, she slept off in her pram. We leisurely made our way back home. All through, it was a great experience walking amidst nature on this man-made wonderful trail. It is so important to have such trails! All in all, it was about 4-5 hr outing and a day extremely well spent!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Golden Gate

Time: March 23rd, 2014
Place: San Francisco (Golden Gate and Crooked Street)
Company: Relatives, Wife, Daughter
Highlights: A quick trip to SFO for sight-seeing to appease visiting relatives. Just went to GG and the Crooked Street. Walked on the GG bridge to the first tower. With spring in the air, it was refreshing!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Aurora Borealis

Time: Feb 19 – 22 2014

Place: Fairbanks, Alaska

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

Overview - A trip solely made to view the Northern Lights [NL]aka Aurora Borealis. Multiple reviews suggested that 3 nights in Fairbanks gives about 80-90% chance of viewing the Northern Lights. Hence, planned the trip for 3 nights.

There are a lot of things to do and places to go in Alaska but there was nothing much to do for us in February because we are not that much into dog-sledding or any other normal winter activities like skiing or snowmobiling especially in the freezing temperature of 20 below 0 degree Fahrenheit. Also, there are a number of things to do in and around Anchorage but since our main intent of the trip was NL and since Fairbanks was a better place than Anchorage for viewing NL, we chose Fairbanks as our destination. Looks like Alaska is a place which needs to be visited once in summer and once in winter to truly take in its variety of offerings in each season. Some folks pay the extra buck to visit during March or October to enjoy a bit of both but it still risks the NL view-ability.

This trip was on our thoughts since almost a year now but the right moment had never arrived. Although - considering that aurora was in its peak from 2013-2015 (peak happens only once in 12 years) we had to act fast. As a result, a lot of research and planning had gone into it. We came across a number of good sites such as the ones for aurora forecast by Todd and GI. There are also a good many Alaska travel agency sites such as Northern Alaska, Alaska Tours, 1st Alaska and even those offered by Alaska Rail Road. In addition to these, there were a number of websites like tripadvisor where actual visitors have given their two cents on dos and donts, and personal recommendations and driving tips in winter. The method of charging even a fuel car like an electric car was a new experience to me.

Flights to Alaska are very expensive. So with Google’s help, we were able to find the cheapest rate for only this set of days for this entire year(!) and booked it without thinking too much. On hindsight, despite all the exhaustive planning, the execution of the plan fell just short of satisfaction due to reasons given in Summary below. 

Day 1: Drove in self car to Oakland off-airport parking lot at 8 am. Alaska Air Flight to Seattle and then to Fairbanks. Checked in at Best Western Plus at about 6 pm, after a squirm-ish time with car rental guys who had not misplaced the car reservation. The hotel guys called up at 10.30 pm that NL was visible and we put on layers and layers of clothing to brave the freezing temperature. We headed out in the car to a remote place where there was no city lights and were delighted to see a dazzling display of the green lights over the sky. It definitely was the experience of a lifetime. With a happy-happy thought that we were able to accomplish the objective of the trip, we went back to the hotel at about midnight.

Day 2: Went to North Pole to see Santa Claus house (unfortunately it was closed) but took some snaps in front of the huge statue and some ice sculptures. Then drove over to Chena Hot Springs Resort. It was a mind-numbing drive over icy roads that took over 2 hrs to drive the 60+ miles. Got real scared when the car started going on its own at times! The resort itself was nice with smokes emanating from the naturally hot springs amidst snow-laden surrounding. But with a limitation of no-toddler within the pool, we had to satisfy ourselves by just taking some snaps here and there. Then, went on a ice museum tour in the same campus to actually see an ice sculptor at work. The daughter could not withstand the cold too long and hence had to get back in the warmth of the car. Drove back to the hotel and took a brief nap.

Had booked for a tour to view the NL from a remote lodge with 1st Alaska Outdoor School via Alaska Tours and they took us on a 40 min drive to a lodge with a panoramic view of the sky. Within minutes, the NL made its way and we could see it end to end. While the previous night was more active, this one had a massive view. Although it was mainly green, it was still good to see the lights moving across the clear sky. We stayed for about 2 hrs in the lodge, taking turns to brave the chill weather (-24F) outside and after having had enough viewing, headed back to the hotel.

Day 3: Took it downright easy. Played with snow. Went to Alaska University Museum to take in the beautiful view from the top. Mount McKinley was not visible in the clouds. Had an extremely spicy food at Pad Thai. Drove over on the Steese Highway to view the Trans-Alaska pipeline and take some snaps. Then headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready to leave the next day.

Day 4: Got up early, rushed to the airport and took the 9 am to Seattle and then (after the kid enjoyed the train ride and the play area in Seattle airport) the 4 pm to Oakland. By the time we filed a complaint for the delayed car-seat and then took shuttle and drove back home, it was 7.30 pm.

Summary – 

There was some dissatisfaction on 'value for money' considering the things we missed. The blame was on booking the flight tickets prior to planning 'things to do'. This usually works in most vacations but for this trip, it should have been ideally the other way around (plan the things to do first and then book the flight tickets). 
- The drive to Arctic Circle happens only on Fridays and we could not go on the tour since our flight was departing within a few hours from arrival of the trip (if taken, and if allowed with a toddler which I later found out was not recommended due to the dangers of the adventurous 16-hr day trip on a gravelly road). 
- If we had planned for one more day, we could have driven down to Anchorage (to explore and experience some glaciers, enjoy some more scenic beauty south of Fairbanks including Denali National Park, driven on Stampede Road, etc) and flown back from Anchorage. 
- If the trip had been postponed by a fortnight, we could have seen North Pole as it would have opened by then and also the World Ice Art championship displays

But the greatest satisfaction and gratefulness lay in being lucky enough to view the NL on two out of three nights. Maybe we could have seen on the 3rd night too, if only it wasn’t so cold! We got tired wearing layers and layers of tops and pants. It took almost 30 mins just to wear everything and get ready (from top to toe) – and do the same thing for the 3 year-old! The temp being in 20s and 30s the following week made it feel even bad! 

Anyways, this trip turned out to be just for NL and rest everything was for the sake of ‘passing time during the day’. Suffice it to say, that it was not hectic like most other vacations - which is how vacations ought to be in the first place!! Although slight repents on not having fully utilized the trip to see some of Alaska’s must-sees (hopefully one of the summers), the trip was for Aurora Borealis and thankful that we were lucky to see the Natural Light Show!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Muir That Never Happened

Time: Dec 1, 2013

Place: Mill Valley

CompanyDad, Mom, Bro, Sister-in-law, Wife, Daughter

Highlights: Planned to visit Muir Woods. Last time I was here was in 2006. Saw on few websites that the address was Mill Valley city. So went to Mill Valley downtown. But when checked there, we were told that we should have taken another exit. Meanwhile, there was a winterfest going on, with bubbles, snow slide, santa and so on. So spent an hour since Tontu was enjoying. 

Then followed GPS to a narrow, winding and 'No Thoroughfare' road and got stuck in the middle of the mountain! Had a tough time taking a U-turn on the mini-van, and finally consolidated our position near Old Mill Park, Mill Valley since Tontu was enjoying her swing and slide in the park. Saw on nps site the correct address for Muir Woods and realized that we were just 10 mins away. But it was already nearing 4 pm. Realized that it was not worth it any more, since even the Old Mill Park had very tall trees, thus giving the effect of a mini Muir Woods. Hence, went back home. Thus, "The Muir That Never Happened"!

This ended up as the third 'Valley' in one week: Death Valley, Napa Valley, Mill Valley.

Napa

Time: Nov 30, 2013
Place: Napa Valley
Company: Dad, Mom, Bro, Sister-in-law, Wife, Daughter
Highlights: Had heard a lot about Napa Valley since I first had visited SFO in 2006 but also had read that there is nothing great here, especially for a person like me who is not so much into wine tasting and wineries. Resisted the urge to visit even during 2012 SFO visit. But now, I felt the time had finally come. 
Unfortunately, it wasn't the right time at all. None of the wineries had any great scenic views. It had all dried up. Thankfully, the short walk in Yountville downtown was a face-saver and fresh.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Death Valley

Time: Nov 23-26 2013

Place: Death Valley National Park

Company: Parents, wife and daughter

Highlights:

Pre: In the first week of November, it was announced in office that the Thanksgiving week will be off for us. So hastily planned a drive down to Death Valley. Flight rates were too costly due to the holiday season, and any other place in the country would be too cold anyways. So Death Valley was ideal both in terms of timing [it is 70s in November] and cost-benefit [USD 200 or less for 4 days of rental car].

Day 1: Had booked the rental car from 11 am, so went to Hertz office at 11 am. To my horror, there was a huge line that went out of the small shop, and each customer was taking almost 20 minutes. Finally when I reached the counter, it was 12.30 pm and then I was told that there was no ‘Full-size’ car which I had reserved. Instead I was given a mid-size Corolla. I was heart-broken. A Corolla is not fit for 4 adults and a toddler on a 4 day exhaustive driving trip. I was given the option to change the car in any airport but there was no  airports nearby nor along the route. So, went with whatever we had and tried to manage. It was 1 pm when we left our home town Walnut Creek.

Had only 2 pit stops. First one was on the rest area on I-5 South and second was in Bakersfield in an Indian grocery-cum-eat-out shop. It was about 7 pm when we had tea and left the Indian store. By the time we reached our Super 8 hotel stay in Ridgecrest, it was nearing 9.

Day 2: We checked out from the hotel at 9 am. There are 2 roads from Ridgecrest to DV. The shorter one was closed due to a recent flooding in DV. Thankfully we didn’t miss the board otherwise we would have faced a road block 44 miles ahead! The longer route put us back by about an hour. We felt like we were driving forever, when finally we reached DV at about noon.

Exactly 24 hrs after we left our home and 540 miles of driving, we reached the first point of interest: Titus Canyon. We trekked through few yards into the canyon and after savoring the moment, headed to Scotty’s Castle, more for a picnic spot and restroom than for seeing the castle itself. After getting refreshed, we headed to Ubehebe crater. 


This was really a wonderful place to visit. We hiked up the crater for a few yards to take in its complete vastness and beauty. At 4.40 pm, the sunset and it started getting both cold and dark. So headed back to our next place of stay at Amargosa, NV: Longstreet Casino. During the drive, I saw board that we were 100 ft below sea-level. We finally reached about 6.30 pm and retired for the night. Thankfully they have a dining area within the casino itself since there is no other place to eat nearby.

Day 3: To leave early was very vital since we had a long list of places to see and also head back the 3 hr back to Ridgecrest hotel. Thankfully we managed to leave at 8 am. At 9 am we were on the Dante’s Peak. It had snowed recently and there were snow blocks still on the peak. The view was breath-taking, as the nps website had promised. 


Then we headed to Zabriskie Point. This place is too is very unique and visually stunning. It needs a short uphill walk from the parking lot. Our next stop was Furnace Creek General store for a quick bite of breakfast. Our next stop was Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet below sea level – the lowest point in North America. It was a heady feeling – the thought that we were below sea level. Spent some time walking on the basin and taking pictures.


Then, headed to Natural Bridge, which needed a 0.5 mile uphill walk. It wasn’t all that great but it was nice. Our last stop was Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette which truly is a palette considering the wide variety of colors on the rocks. That, we had decided, was the last spot we would see. We came back to Furnace Creek for quick bite of lunch and then headed back home to Ridgecrest. Exactly as planned, it was 3.30 pm when we left DV. Considering 4.40 pm was sunset time, we only had about 1.5 hrs of sunlight left, and it was vital to be back on the highway at night time to avoid any risks – even something as minor as a flat tyre or anything else. Again, as planned, we were out of the DV area by night fall. There were 2 mountains to climb to get out of the DV park, and both of them had winding roads and snow on summit. Finally we reached the same Super 8 hotel in Ridgecrest at 7 pm. Had a short and sweet dinner at neighboring Kristy’s, and then retired.

Day 4: This was just an all-day drive back home day! Initially had plans of coming back via the Pacific Coast Highway but it would be too much of driving. So, stuck to the shortest and fastest route – I-5 N. Still it took 7 hrs to get back to Walnut Creek – thanks to the 3 pit stops and the traffic at the destination. Finally when the car was returned to the rental center and we came home, it was 6.30 pm. That was the end of the trip to Death Valley.

Post: In 2009, when my wife and I visited Las Vegas, we had planned a one-day trip to Death Valley National Park. The only thing I knew then was that Death Valley had the lowest point in North America – below sea level. Then, during the visit to Grand Canyon, we changed plans on the fly and made an exciting road trip to LA instead. There was a part of me which always repented the fact that we did not visit DV. But now, after hours of research, I am glad we didn’t make a one day trip to DV. This place deserves a 2-3 days’ duration of visit. Even in this trip, we had stuck to just the main features of DV. Many places here need a 4 WD [high clearance] vehicles and roads need to be open. But we had shortlisted only those that we wanted to see. And this was the right timing, too. DV was mesmerizing in its uniqueness, although at times the roads reminded us of the Utah trip we had done last year. 

In all, we covered 1300 miles in 4 days, and one more memorable trip of 2013.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Time: Oct 26, 2013
Place: Santa Clara
Company: Family
Highlights: A small research on the internet led us to Santa Clara boardwalk. This is a nice weekend outing with a rare combination of rides, casino, and many other entertainments on the beach boardwalk. Paavani enjoyed a lot with a multitude of rides for her age, and we enjoyed her enjoying. Once we felt she had enjoyed the rides enough, took her to the beach where she had even more fun with sea-gulls and sand. Headed back home - a 2 hr "sleepy" drive! Definitely a place not to miss!

Mt Diablo

Time: Oct 20, 2013
Place: Mt Diablo
Company: Family
Highlights: The address on Google maps gave the visitor center at the base of the mountain from where hikers hike up the mountain. So we had to head back on to North gate road to climb the mountain on road. It was a relatively steep and very winding road - one of the few treacherous one that I have driven in US. But more than the road, the tension was more on the dwindling fuel in the car due to bad planning on my part. There seemed to be 2 gallons of fuel at base but as I climbed, I got indications from car of low fuel and there was about 20+ miles distance for nearest fuel station. Due to this, we parked the car about 2 miles away from the summit and wanted to savor the moment as if we were on the summit. Spent almost an hour there contemplating if we had to scale up to the summit on foot or on car. Taking the risk, we went in car. Summit was good, with 360 degree view and a visitor center with good video/information about Mt Diablo's unique features such as the oldest rocks found in the summit (opposite to other peaks' features). Then it was time to head back. Did the whole mountain just on neutral save for couple of accelerations. Safely reached the fuel station 20 miles later. Really would have repented if we had not gone up to the summit. A nice outing, especially since the summit is only about an hour from home.

SFO and Pacifica Beach

Time: Oct 13, 2013
Place: San Francisco, Pacifica
Company: Family
Highlights: A trip solely dedicated to the visiting family members (Bro, parents, etc.). Visited SFO Financial District, showed my office, then went to Lombard Street. Then headed to Golden Gate. Went over it on both sides and then drove a little on the Pacific Coast highway until we spotted the first beach on the city of Pacifica where we spent some time seeing Paavani enjoying! Headed back home. A nice outing, although I was more of a driver than a tourist. Didnt mind much, since had seen these places already in 2012.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

Time: Aug 30, 2013 – Sep 2, 2013

Place: Yellowstone National Park


Company: Wife and daughter


Highlights: 


Prologue: Yellowstone National Park was a long sought after destination vacation. But for many years, it was elusive plainly because of lack of easy accessibility. We had sat for hours together planning a trip to this park but always coming short of it due to one reason or the other. Nearest popular airport was almost 6 hrs drive away and flights to airports near to the National Park were either too expensive or had long layovers, and if all was fine, access roads were closed. Hence, we had given this place a slip for many long weekends. But, after much deliberation and thought, finalized on this destination for the Labor Day long weekend of 2013 from our new source location airport SFO - about a month in advance - even though we hadn’t shifted yet from Costa Mesa!


Day 1: Left our apt in Walnut Creek, CA in car to an off-airport parking lot. Could have taken the BART train but for the fact that our return flight was at a time when BART would not be running. Car drive was almost an hour. Shuttle was quick and short, took us to airport about an hour before the flight departure. Flight was on time and left at 4.37 pm PDT to Salt Lake City airport. After a long wait at the Hertz car rental, finally left SLC at about 8.30 pm MDT. Although had ordered an economy size car, I was given Mazda 5 which could sit 5+1, and hence very vast and comfortable for just the 3 of us. 

After a short 15 min drive, we reached Bountiful to have dinner at Taste of India restaurant. We ordered take-out for Tontu to survive on Indian bread for next 3 days. And then, left to Pocatello, Idaho for our night stay inn. Tontu seemed to have caught on a cold and had trouble during the journey sleeping and it took some pacifying. Finally, reached Rodeway Inn University at about midnight and retired. 

Day 2: After a typical breakfast in a bed and breakfast inn, we left the inn at 10 am and Pocatello at about 11 am (after some grocery and pharmacy shopping, again, to last for next 3 days). We reached Yellowstone National Park at about 3 pm and were at the first attraction – Lower Geyser Basin at 3.30 pm. It was a spectacular sight, seeing the seething hot water cauldron and the hot water fountain everywhere. 

From there, we skipped the midway geyser basin to head to the Old Faithful. There was a wait time of 1 hr until we could witness the next eruption. So we grabbed a good lunch and some dessert at the local café, and then got good seats for the grant natural ‘Old Faithfulness’! It was more of an anti-climax since it did not last too long nor did it erupt to gigantic heights to which it is capable. Nevertheless it was a wonderful sight. 

Then, we headed to the hotel on the east entrance. We could have covered the West Thumb geyser basin but since Tontu was too sleepy, we skipped it, leaving it for the last day. The road to east entrance skirts the Yellowstone lake and it is a very nice drive. We reached Pahaska Tepee Lodge at about 8 pm. 

Finding hotel in Yellowstone was one of the toughest tasks. We had searched so many websites and hadn’t found any nearby hotels until we found Pahaska Tepee on the Google Maps when we searched for ‘hotels near Yellowstone’. This is not the typical hotel, it is in the middle of nowhere, in fact in the middle of bear-area! It is in between 2 mountains, almost like a valley. The lodges are wooden and the one in which we stayed just had a bed and a bathroom. No TV, no wifi. Not much lights, and hence when you venture out of the room, you could see a zillion stars on a clear night! A very different experience and worthwhile. Retired for the night. 

Day 3: Tontu’s syrup did its job well and Tontu was almost free of cold. We got up late and left at about 11 am. The drive on the East entrance is mesmerizing. It passes through Sylvan Pass and climbs enormously on winding roads with breathtaking views.

More spectacular views came by in the way of Hayden Valley where there were a number of bison. There were some that even crossed us on the road many times during the entire day. It was good to experience a safari-like adventure while being on self-driven car. 

Our first stop was on the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone on the South Rim drive for a view of the Falls. With Tontu, it would have been time consuming to take the 300 step steep hike where supposedly the view is amazing, hence enjoyed the view from the viewpoint near the car parking. After a few clicks, we then went on the North Rim drive and enjoyed the views on all the three overlook points. It truly looks like the Grand Canyon (although not so grand)!

Next stop was Tower Junction where we had a short bite. A few steps of hike and we saw the Tower falls. After the view of the falls in the GC of Y, this seemed small and hence not-so-great. Then, we moved on to Mammoth Hot Springs. On the way, we saw a bunch of Elks. 

MHS smells strongly of sulphur. It has a bunch of viewpoints like the mud cauldron, dragon’s mouth spring, terraces, etc. It is fascinating to see a bubbling mud pond smelling strongly, and a small cavish opening making dragon-like sounds, spitting out hot water, not to mention water falling from naturally made steps. 

Last stop of the day was Norris Geyser basin. We did a short 0.25 mile trek to see the Steamboat Geyser which had a fairly good minor continuous eruption. Then we just glanced over Porcelain geyser basin from the entrance of the trek, and headed back since it was getting late, and the drive back to Pahaska was about 2 hrs. Realized that we should have planned better to stay nearer to West entrance since we were closer to this side of the gate. Once more we skirted the Yellowstone lake and zoomed over the Sylvan Pass. Reached about the same time as previous day, had dinner at the hotel’s dining room and retired. 

Day 4: This was going to be a long day, considering we had to reach home back in Walnut Creek. Got up by 8.30 am, left at 10 am. For the last time, passed through the Sylvan Pass. It was a rainy day, and we were glad that all our major attractions were completed. The only remaining one on our list was West Thumb Geyser Basin. We did a pit stop at Fishing Bridge and got ‘to-go’ breakfast to have it in the car, to save time. It was raining hard when we reached and hence had to run through it in our hoodies. It was a different sight altogether – cold rain meeting the hot geysers. There was definitely more smoke. We wanted to visit the Lower Geyser basin once more before we left the park, but due to rain, we skipped it. 

We left the West Entrance at 1.15 pm. We ran into couple of traffic jams due to accidents and hence had to skip the plan of having dinner at Taste of India in Bountiful again. Instead, we did a Subway stop-over at Malad city, and directly headed to SLC airport. By the time we reached SLC, it was 8 pm – a 10 hr drive, out of which Tontu had sat on the child seat for 6 hrs straight! It was about 420 miles of driving. Comparable to my Grand Canyon to Barstow driving stint in 2009. 

At SLC, we were asked to let go of our toothpaste during security screening. Surprisingly this did not happen in SFO airport! Once aboard the flight, we were told that they did not have permission to land in SFO and hence they made us wait inside the flight for about 1.5 hrs. Surprisingly, Tontu did not sleep the entire day, although she was sleepy at many times during the day. She only slept when the lights dimmed during take-off at 11.30 pm. We reached SFO at midnight and after a long wait for the shuttle, got back to our car. 1 hr drive back home again, and by the time we slept it was almost 3 am. Thats almost 17 hrs travel time! 

Key Notes: 
- 995 miles driven in the rental car, 100 miles driven in own car from home to airport parking and back. 
- The only time where we have landed in the same airport (SLC) twice for two different vacations (Utah and Yellowstone). In both the instances, we did not see SLC city by itself! During Utah trip, SLC looked very beautiful with snow-white blanket covered everywhere and now in it’s 90s it looked like any other place. 
- States seen during this trip: Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. 

Epilogue: Finally, we could visit the elusive Yellowstone. It is the first national park of USA and it was a privilege to view and witness the geological natural wonder of this place. There are lots more to this than what we saw and enjoyed but then again, one can only do within one’s limitations. And within our own limitations, we enjoyed this place as best as we could. What next? ;-)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Walnut Creek

Time: August 21st, 2013 - 
Place: Walnut Creek, CA, USA 
Company: Wife and Daughter 
Highlights: Our 7th city of stay (after Marlborough, Woburn, Nashua, Irvine, Costa Mesa and Fremont) in US.

Fremont

Time: Aug 6th, 2013 to Aug 20th, 2013

Place: Fremont, CA, USA

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

With a sudden rush of things in the end, after a relatively cool time, I had to head to Extended Stay America [ESA] in Fremont, CA on 8/6 to report to office in SFO Financial District on 8/7. With stuff not yet moved, it was a difficult decision to make (travel alone and let wife take care of movers or travel together and entrust moving responsibility to a friend) and a decision that I had to make within early hours of 8/6. Finally after having obtained a helping hand, decided on the latter. Also, it was more convenient to travel on road than by flight as well as the coordination of the car movement. So, drove from Costa Mesa, CA to Fremont, CA.

It took 8 hrs in all and was one of the longest continuous road trip that I had done in US after a very long time. I think the last time was from Grand Canyon to Barstow in Sept 2009, which too was just about the same – 8 hrs but that was more difficult since I had to fight sleep in an envelope of darkness. But then that was in a rental car. Last long ride in own car was from Pittsburgh to Boston in May 2009. This trip I hardly felt any fatigue and it was also a pleasant drive. Although I was tempted to take the 101 scenic road, there were plans to do some apt hunting if we reached earlier than 7 pm and hence took the 5 North. But by the time we reached, it was almost 9.

I had heard a lot about Fremont and the massive population of Indians in the city. And so it didn’t come as a surprise but it was still unique to see so many Indian restaurants, Indian stores, even commercial buildings owned by Indians in this city. There were Indians walking in the evenings, just like in metropolitan Indian cities, there were chaat houses filled to the brim on weekdays, sweaty waiters taking pile full of orders just like any darshinis in Bangalore, etc.

And then on Varamahalakshmi festival, we went to an Indian temple nearby. It had a nice Indian touch to it. On the way back, we stopped to get a pizza with more Indian taste than Italian. That weekend, we went to Saravana Bhavan – a pure Veg restaurant, which is a rarity in US. Since ESA was right across Chaat Bhavan, we might have visited it half a dozen times – each time trying a different item on the menu! So, if you are in America and have an Indian atmosphere, then why would one want to go back to India?

Our apt search came to a halt at Walnut Creek city, about an hour north of Fremont. Many friends could not understand why we were moving away from Fremont. Many thought Walnut Creek was a new apt name in Fremont – such is the strong assumption that any Indian who has a job in the bay area will try to find an apt in Fremont! But we had lot more reasons to stay in WC than in Fremont. And so, on 8/21, we moved to our 3rd apt of the year in WC city.

All in all, it was a [gastronomically] delightful stay in Fremont which we will cherish for our lives.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Orange County Beaches

Time: 2012 and 2013

Company: Various

Place: Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach

Highlights: 

During our stay in Irvine, visited many beaches at various times with different sets of people - family and friends - just as an outing. 

- HB was the least crowded and vast. Wanted to see fireworks here on 7/4/2012 but did not get car parking. Out of all of them, visited this beach the most.

- LnB was more of a dock where we sailed on the Pacific Ocean to Catalina island. Even the Aquarium was nearby.

- NB seemed dense but the 'density' added vibrance to the atmosphere. Specifically liked watching the moon reflected on the ocean at 5.30 am in the morning when I had to drop off wifey for one of her dance company's video recording on the NB. Surprisingly, parking lot was full even at that time because of people wanting to shop freshly caught live crab and other animals. 

- LgB also was dense, and either seemed too short or we didnt explore much. More than the beach, the neighbourhood seemed vibrant. 

Overview:

Having so many beaches near home made me feel as if I was in a place like Mangalore or Udupi back home in India. For some reason, I always had felt like staying in a place like Mangalore or Udupi at some point in my life, and staying in Orange County has almost fulfilled this wish!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pretend City

Time: July 28, 2013

Place: Pretend City, Irvine

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights: Pretend City is a non-profit museum made exclusively for kids of all ages. Kids can become artists, waiters in restaurant, postmen, policemen, farmers, doctors, sailmen and can even play in house kitchen or room, beach, do grocery, go to bank and lot of other things that adults do. It is really a cool place and definitely worth a visit.


 

 


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Quail Hill Trailhead

Time: July 27, 2013

Place: Quail Hill Trailhead, Irvine

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights: A broken Kitchen stove led to a food outing, and since we were out anyways, we researched for a nearby short trek with nice far-out views, and we landed up at Quail Hill Trailhead in Irvine. This is a 1.8 mile trail in the open land with a small uphill elevation, and ideally suited for kids. It is beside the freeway, so its good to see zooming cars but bad due to the noise. However it is pretty barren, so it is not so great trail for those seeking trees and shelter. Surprisingly, Tontu walked (inclusive of 2 minor falls) the entire stretch because of which it took 1.5 hrs for us to complete!



Monday, July 15, 2013

Swami Narayan Temple in Chino Hills

Time: July 14, 2013

Place: Swami Narayan Temple in Chino Hills

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights: We planned to visit the Swami Narayan temple since it was just an hour's drive away. I had heard a lot about Swami Narayan temples around the world and how architecturally great they were but today I saw them in my naked eyes and I was astounded. It almost seems too good to be true. There are intricate sculptures on the walls, roof, pillars and almost everyplace where the eye is used to see blank plainness! I also read about swami Narayan and came to know his true self. It is definitely worth a visit.


5th Wedding Anniversary in Mexico

Time: July 10-12, 2013

Place: Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

Preview: Considering that July 11th 2013 was our 5th wedding anniversary, a thought always existed that this anniversary should be made extra special. However, it never was clear on what would be the ideal celebration. Definitely an outstation trip was in order, but considering July was a vacation month, all travel-related would be extra costly. So, if hotel in Hawaii costed $500 in off-season, it costed $800 in July. Added to this was my job uncertainty and hence my "home" city. So "from" was unknown and hence did not book flight or car. One option was to drive across the Mexico border to any nearest beach resort but folks said that was too risky. So, had all options open until July 9th when I knew for sure that I will be in present "home city". Last minute research led to 'Cabo San Lucas' in Mexico, a 2 hr non stop flight journey which boasted of 'Land's end - El Arco de Cabo'. Thankfully, even though it was a last minute booking, tickets weren't too pricey, although it was still about 100 USD more per person. Anyways, got the ticket booked to San Jose Del Cabo from Orange County for 10th, with rented car in Mexico and resort booking in Quinta Del Sol.

Day 1: There were multiple sites for me to book the tickets, and the most lucrative one unfortunately errored out many times. So I ended up booking via expedia. Later I checked that if I had booked via airtran directly, I could have got an earlier flight (0830 hrs) for same price. As it happened, our 1301 hrs flight was delayed by 3 hrs. Added to this the fact that the taxi guy had taken a long route to airport instead of a shorter one (hence more pricey) had messed up my mind. After a long wait in the airport (thankfully Tontu got a pal to play ball) and another long wait for the flight to take-off, had an easy journey and we reached Los Cabos International airport in Mexico. Customs was easy and finally got a shuttle to Europcar rental agency. 

I was told that the car rental insurance was expensive. Yet I had booked the car, instead of just relying on taxis. Added to this, the car was manual. So, it was my first experience with a manual car and left hand driving. Plus, we had lost that evening (had plans to see sunset). So all in all, I was grumpy.

Thankfully, drove safely from San Jose Del Cabo to Quinta Del Sol resort which is about 45 mins away at the start of Cabo San Lucas city. Nothing great about the resort, and value for money. Doesn't boast of private beach or 5-diamond style. Decent room service and accommodation. 

Wifey and self stayed up till midnight to celebrate the anniversary day commencement. 

Day 2: After complimentary continental breakfast, had booked an appointment with Grand Solmar group of resort for a free trip of their hotel (marketing), free lunch and free boat ride to see the natural arch. Unfortunately the free trip turned out to be a nightmare - it was more of a marketing gimmick to get us into a membership of sorts for vacationing in star resorts. What should have ended in 90 mins, prolonged to 3 hrs and we almost missed the last boat to the arch. Nonetheless, it was great visiting the Grand Solmar and its very impressive rooms and penthouses.

The arch itself was awesome and majestic. Very profound thought that this land was under the ocean many many years ago. Since this place marks the border of Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez, there are violent waves (good for surfing), and sure enough the boat rocked to and fro. It was a glass bottom boat, so saw some fishes too. Also saw Lover's beach (calm waves) and Divorce beach (dangerous waves). I was blue due to sea sickness but enjoyed the arch enough to see it as a dinosaur drinking water, which was spectacular, thanks to wifey for taking the picture.

Once back at the room, took some rest and enjoyed a cake and an ice cream. Then again headed out to the nearby Medona Beach for sunset but it is not a beach for sunset. It was more for leisure and for Tontu to play with sand. Then at night fall, enjoyed couple of Tequila shots (surprisingly, for the first time with wifey) at a local eat-out facing the ocean! 

Headed back to the room and ended the day remembering the wedding day 5 years ago!

Day 3: Had enough time only to finish breakfast, pack, check out and drive to rental agency, and take shuttle to airport. Trip back was all on time, and we were back in our home by 4 pm!

Overview: Cabo San Lucas is a great tourist destination. Perhaps we could have stayed longer and did other things such as adventure sports (zipline, snorkeling, etc.) but with a toddler, we were satisfied with what we did. Our primary attraction was the El Arco and it provided the satisfaction in many-fold. This was a different kind of an expedition, in the sense that we never got time to spend in downtown, rather allowed ourselves to enjoy the Mexican local ambiance such as in a small-time eat-out on the beach. It was another of those trips where we did not get to see a single Indian in the tourist spot. Surprising! 

Although it started grumpily, it surely ended on a high note, and we now not only have fond memories of Cabo San Lucas but also our 5th wedding anniversary!!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Legoland

Time: July 7, 2013

Place: Legoland, Carlsbad


Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights: An hours drive from our place, on the way to San Diego. It is an amazing resort theme park made entirely of Lego blocks. Excessive imagination and creativity at display! Also many rides that cater to all age groups. Again, Tontu had fun with helicopter, boat, sky-cycle, train all in one day. But the thing which she enjoyed most was the water park. A number of attractions in the water park such as water slide, water zoo and time spent in the 2 ft depth pools really made the day.

It wasnt as hot as 4th so it was not so tiring, and surprisingly Tontu didnt take a nap in the noon, as she usually does. That helped us cover most of the rides by 7 pm and allowed us to view the 4D picture. Definitely a place to visit with kids!



Disneyland

Time: July 4, 2013

Place: Disneyland, Anaheim


Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights: Disneyland is just one road from our home! It is just 10 miles on one single road! Yet hadn't been until now since we wanted to wait until Paavani was as nearer to 3 as possible (since it is free until 3) to better appreciate the characters. Finally decided on Independence day, although it was holiday season.

To tackle the crowd and lines, headed straight to the last section and worked from backwards. It was extremely hot but managed to still enjoy the parade and other rides. Paavani was extremely happy to have experienced train, boat, (elephant) airplane, carousel, etc all in one day, along with Mickey and Minnie character interactions! While she was asleep, wifey finished off the whoopy rides. Finally day ended with fireworks, but we ended up staying till 11 pm to finish the unfinished! Totally fun filled day!



Sunday, June 16, 2013

Venice Beach

Time: June 16, 2013
Place: Beverly Hills, Venice Beach
Company: Wife and Daughter
Highlights:

A lazy Sunday led to late planning and departure from home. As late as 5 pm! Just as we reached Rodeo Dr in Beverly Hills, ready to take a walk in the Santa Monica Blvd, Tontu fell asleep. So whiled away the time near a park which had Beverly Hills inscribed. Since she was still sleeping and since it was getting late, we headed out to Venice Beach, eager to see the boardwalk, on which we had read so much about. Sadly, the GPS took us to the southern most point of the parking lot, and by the time we spent some time on the beach and realized where the boardwalk was, it was already 8 pm. Curiously, the shutters come down early on most of the shops and there is not much happening at about 9 pm other than few tourists loitering around, which is surprising because this seems to be a happening place, like the NY Times Square, where time never sleeps, and one would expect happenings to be continuously happening! So, other than a simple walk and light shopping on the boardwalk, didnt experience much in this supposed-to-be-hep place.

Irvine Regional Park

Time: Jun 8th 2013
Place: Irvine Regional Park, Orange
Company: Wife and daughter
Highlights:

Chanced upon this place while browsing internet and it turned out to be a beautiful, beautiful park and a nice weekend outing. It is a great place for kids because there is this small, cute train that takes you through the park for quite some time. Then there is pony ride, a small zoo, a nice stream in which kids can stand and feel the water flowing, a nice shallow lake in which boats (huge cycles, really) can be paddled and a variety of bike rides - meaning single-rider, twin-rider, family-of-4-rider, family-of-8-rider, etc. Add to this many barbecue places, kids' play areas, nature trails, low-lying-trees which can be climbed, etc. - it was wonderful. The website has more details. 


Tirumala

Time: May 15-16, 2013
Place: Tirumala
Company: Wife, daughter, parents, MIL
Highlights: 

Prologue:  The day we landed in India, we went to a TTD office in Jayanagar for fingerprinting and booking Rs 50 tickets. Since we were 5 adults + 1 toddler, I was not keen on taking our Alto. Other alternatives were to hire a taxi with a driver or rent a car (US-style) or take train/bus till tirupati and hire taxi there. Weirdo that I am, I pursued the option of US-style taxi. Not that I like driving so much that I want to rent cars to drive in frenzied traffic conditions in India, let alone Bangalore! Only reason was to save a few bucks (in hindsight - amounting up to only 40 USD!). In this regard, found zoomcar.in. What they had to offer seemed nice and straightforward. The US ‘rent-a-car’ verbiage is ‘self-drive’ rented cars. Because Indian ‘rent-a-car’ is nothing but renting a taxi with a driver. Saw zoomcar website, made few calls and booked an almost new Scorpio (under 1000 kms) for the trip. This was the biggest car I had ever driven in the narrow and traffic-infested roads of Bangalore. Definitely not worth the risk.

Day 1: Zoomcar car pickup was located only in one place in Bangalore – near Brigade Gateway in Malleshwaram (now they have expanded). So at 10 am drove my two wheeler all the way from Jayanagar to pick up location (after having lost directions twice completely, even venturing into Orion mall (wow, btw)), dropped it there and boarded the Scorpio. Trip from Malleshwaram to Jayanagar in this immense car was nerve-racking, to say the least. My drive in the two-wheeler on the previous day on Nrupathunga road was a shocker, so I used an alternate road. Finally reached Jayanagar at 12 pm. Had a bite of lunch and started the journey at 1 pm.

Journey was uneventful. Road is beautiful until Mulbagal and has a median in-between. For the first time in my life, I touched 140 kmph. Had a small stop-over near a local farm for more packed lunch under a tree.  Continued onwards to Andhra Pradesh. Had a small issue at the border because the system was not taking my DL since it is not a commercial license. But the officer was able to get a way through it. Rest of the journey was uneventful, except that by the time we climbed the mountain, it was already nightfall. So tontu could not see the climb. Reached Karnataka Guest House at about 8 pm, had a quick bite of dinner and retired in the sweltering heat.

Day 2: Got up at 6 am, and headed out to Swami Pushkarni for a bath. Tontu’s first outside bath, and she enjoyed it. So much that she didn’t want to get out of it. But there were some tantrums on silly topics. Nevertheless, we headed to the Rs 50 queue at 8 am. This was the first time for Tontu and I was fervently wishing it to be quick and smooth, like so many of the previous trips. Unfortunately, this was the longest I had ever seen. Even the Rs 300 queue was long. After a certain point, the queue just stopped moving and we all sat down on available seats. Then it moved again and stopped, this time there were no seats. So we were stuck there, standing in the middle of 100 other sweaty people with no idea when it will move again. Tontu is getting sleepy but still no tantrums in the queue. Then all of a sudden, the queue moves and it moves so fast that within 5 mins, we are inside the santum sanctorum. And for the first time in my life, there is no rushing and pulling and pushing inside the sanctum sanctorum. It is a simple queue that is moving just like any other temple in India! We get a glimpse of Lord Venkateshwara and too soon, we are out of it!

By the time we came out of the temple it was noon. We rushed to Udupi Mutt (who were gracious) for a quick lunch (elders had fasted since morning for the darshan) and started off to Bangalore at 2.30 pm. For most part it was uneventful except for once when I tried to overtake from left and almost risked it all. Very soon, we had reached Mulbagal Mutt. Got blessings from Sripadharaja Swamy, and once more headed towards Bangalore. Reached Bangalore by 7.30 but took almost 1.5 hrs to reach Jayanagar home. Returned the car next day to zoomcar HQ.

Epilogue: This trip marked a first of many. Self-drive car. Top-speed. First TTD trip (queue, darshan, Tirumala climb, outside bath, etc.) for Tontu. And first trip for Tontu without a single snap being taken! Thankfully, by Lord Balaji’s grace, nothing happened to the new car – no scratch, no dent or anything. By the time I came back, I was quite confortable driving it in Bangalore!

Hubli

Time: May 11-13, 2013
Place: Hubli
Company: Wife, daughter, parents  (returned with them plus relatives-in-law)
Highlights: 

Day 1: Extreme health issue previous night made this trip almost a non-entity. But woke up at 4 am and decided to go with it. Took the car to Majestic and parked it at the railway station. Took the (again L) non-AC janshatabdi express to Hubli at 6 am. Remembered the previous trips on this train. This train works in tandem with other trains in a clock-work precision. Meaning, it arrives at Arsikere station and waits for an oncoming train. Once that train arrives at Arsikere, this train departs. Each time I have been on this train, I have noticed that this waiting time is just 2-3 mins. Same thing happens in Birur. This could be because of the single track but even so, this precision in timing is remarkable.

Reached Hubli on time at 1.30. Took it easy by having lunch at the new station café. Pretty cool setting, in fact. Checked in at the Chalukya Hotel. Relatively nice room and reasonable rate. Siesta. Wifey met pals along with offsprings. After a long wait, went to the wedding hall (wifey cousin wedding) for a quick bite and religious ceremonies. Retired early.

Day 2: Wedding day. Long hot day. Thankfully wedding hall and hotel were nearby. So did multiple trips to kill the time, and for change. Met lots of relatives, and most of them were seeing Paavani for the first time.  Paavani was tongue-tied, as expected. But tolerant of the crowd. Thankfully, it ended. Again, a siesta before heading out to the station. Comfortable train back home.

Day 3: Yeshwantpur was the place to get off, which we did. Then we hopped onto another train on its way to Majestic, since that is where the car was parked. Traveled in General Compartment, after a really long time. Not sure if I had traveled in GC before, either! Anyways, reached home at about 7.30. Car overnight parking charges in Bangalore railway station was 240 per 24 hrs.

Overview: Although we attended the wedding, this wedding was not the reason why we visited India at this time. This wedding just happened to fall in the same time period of our visit – for good or for bad. Good because we got to meet all the relatives. Bad because it added one more out station trip to our already 2 unmissable trips!

Chennai

Time: May 7-9, 2013
Place: Chennai
Company: Wife, daughter, parents, MIL
Highlights: 

Day 0: Left to Chennai in train. Train departure at 11.45 pm but even at 10 pm, there was no assigned cab-drop. Last minute excitement, but all’s well in the end. Daughter sick during the journey to the station in the cab. Wondered if it was a good idea to invite the parents, considering all the trouble with travel and Chennai heat. Had invited just so that they can spend more time with Paavani in the short 3 week duration. Bad planning was to take a suitcase with an uncomfortable pull-tag. Lugging it up all the way up the bridge and down the bridge was a big turn-off. If only there was a ramp in the railway station.

Day 1: The night journey wasn’t all that heat-ed! Since there was no AC tickets available, had reserved the regular second sleeper. Once arrived in Chennai at about 8, the heat hit us! Added to this was the annoying pull-suitcase and the challenge of the language especially trying to identify the waiting cab driver. Finally found him, and his – thank God – AC car!

Arrived at the guest house. Amenities at the guest house of previous company were better compared to present guest house. Anyways. Per plan, had booked a hotel within walking distance for the parents and in-law. So walked to their room after breakfast and spent time with them.

Back for lunch, got ready and visited the OFC for the biometrics scheduled at 3.30 pm. The guest house chosen was such that it was in between the OFC and PAI centers. Despite that the autowallahs were bargaining. One guy agreed for 80, and begged for 120! It was a reverse bargain! Finally paid 100. Biometrics was done by 4.30.

Then, all of us left to Marina beach at about 5.45 pm. It was way too crowded and also too far to walk to the Bay of Bengal. All ventured into the water except me and wifey. After some snacks and sand and sweat, went shopping on the beachfront. More sand, more sweat.

Finally, headed back to the GH, amidst wailing child and an over-packed autorickshaw. Retired for the night after a small dinner. Needless to say, each trip out of the AC GH room necessitated a bath!

Day 2: The big day. Got up early. So went to the parents’ hotel to spend about an hour. Had breakfast in a small 10 by 10 outside café. Typical Chennai breakfast. Met Prashanth for a short duration at the GH since had to return some of his stuff.

PAI interview scheduled at 11 got done by 11.30, after the usual rigmarole of frisking, documents check, waiting in many lines and finally the interview. Thankfully, the interview was not a big deal and it was smooth. Back in the GH by 12. Had a short nap before having lunch and headed out to the station.

Regretted not having booked an AC chaircar even though had tickets in RAC. Had to suffer about 4-5 hrs in the Chennai summer heat until nightfall. Too many people, too few seats, too loud TV!

Heavy rains in Bangalore just when the train stopped. Finally, got the cab and reached home by about midnight.

Overview: Hope this is the final trip to the Chennai US Visa consulate. If only, there was a consulate opened in Bangalore! Really tired of visiting Chennai and the consulate every time I visit India…