|Travelogue: Los Angeles 2000||
Michael Crichton, Travels (has nothing to do with Los Angeles, but was the book I was reading along the way.)
I'd been in Brazil for 2 weeks, and though I had another week to go, I just wasnít enjoying myself. The trip wasnít working, so I pulled the plug and headed back to Los Angeles early. Originally I had intended to arrive in LA and immediately head up to Seattle. My non-changeable ticket was set for one week later. Even though this trip wasnít planned, it still had the potential for a lot of fun though I didnít know what I was going to do here.
Friday January 28, 2000
Departing Miami on a Boeing 767-300. There is supposed to be terrible weather in Atlanta, but in Miami it looked great and I'm having super views out my window. This time the laptop power in the seat works just fine. Yee ha. LA should be great. I donít have any of my LA travel books with me, but there are several places I'd like to re-visit.
I hate to start out a travelogue with a gripe, but now that I am spending far too much of my life on airplanes this one is bugging me. I am just sick and tired of the lengthy announcements at the start of the flight. I'm so tired of the gobbledygook that I donít even remember what they really say anymore. You know how it goes: we're taxiing out and they're telling us about the number of exit doors on the airplane, where the lavatories are located, what the weather is, what time it is, how happy they are to have us on board, how to adjust the seats, what electronic devices can be used and when, how much a beer costs in coach, and on and on and on and always in a droning voice. Meanwhile, I'm trying to read my book and I'm not even allowed to listen to my walkman (no electronic devices - why not?) [Some day someone will tell me what could possibly happen to the plane if I am listening to a walkman. I assume this restriction is to force me to listen to their spiel.] If the bursar just had a seductive, sultry voice, or a grandmotherly (or grandfatherly) voice that reminded me of a time long ago, but noÖ well, at least it is in only one language. In Europe or Asia the droning would go on for half an hour in language after language. Now that Europe has a single currency, I think its time to adopt Esperanto as well.
So one of the movies is "Double Jeopardy", which I've been wanting to see. Of course, the video for this movie is completely screwed up. Shades of my experience with "The Sixth Sense" last month. I complained to the attendant, who has a serious attitude. Eeee gads. Time to write to United. They tried again to fix the video, but no luck, so they are substituting "Red Violin", the movie I just watched on the last leg. Sigh.
I do love looking out a plane window at the desert. What an amazing landscape. Clear and crisp. A joy.
I picked up a terrific Dodge Intrepid at National for a scant $35 a day, then over to the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles West in Culver City (6161 W Centinela Ave., (310) 649-1776). What a wonderfully ordinary hotel. Pleasant, clean, and most of all quiet. It's so easy. Nothing complex to figure out. The AAA weekend rate is $79.00 per day for a nice big room on the top floor. The room has both air conditioning and heating and I can control them myself. The phone works! The bed is a big comfortable king sized bed, not two twins pushed together. I never thought I would wax philosophical about a Radisson. It makes me wonder if I'm really not cut out for world travel.
After a bunch of phone calls to let people know I am home, I headed off to Jerry's Famous Deli in Marina Del Rey. Once upon a time I had a really great meal at a Jerry's, and have been trying to have another good one ever since. This morning the eggs were good, but the bacon was desiccated and the hash browns were terrible. Oh well, it's still the best breakfast I've had in two weeks. Nonetheless, I donít think I'll be going back to a Jerry's any time soon. I donít care if they are listed on the Nasdaq.
Since I wasnít planning on being here at all, I went over to a local Barnes & Noble bookstore and bought the Fodor's for Los Angeles and then I took my laundry to a laundromat. 50 minutes and $3.50 later I had clean clothes. I'm pretty sure the bill would have been more like $100 if I had used the hotel's service. When I was in Curitiba, Brazil I did a little shopping for a few things I needed, like a new camera strap. There I couldnít find anything I was looking for. Curitiba has dozens of camera shops, but they all sell the same stuff - the same 8 or 10 cameras, the same films, a few camera bags, and maybe one or two crappy camera straps. Shopping for 1/2 hour in an outdoor mall in LA I found everything I needed and more. While standing in line at one store I had a long conversation with a man about how we care for our elderly and the troubles he is having making the payments for his parents nursing home. It was a touching conversation. We spoke like old friends. Who says Los Angeleans aren't open and friendly?
I came back to the room, poked around for a bit, and then at 6pm passed out cold. So much for my plans to have sushi tonight.
Saturday January 29, 2000
Just give me a quiet room where I can sleep and feed me acceptable food on a regular basis, and I am so much happier. I woke up after 13 hours of sleep and watched the sun rise through the LA morning wall of fog. Then I went down to the breakfast room at the Radisson for an excellent breakfast of two eggs over medium, perfectly cooked bacon, English muffins, and great oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins. Oooh, I want to eat it all over again!
Gathering up my dirty dry-cleaning from the Brazil trip, I headed over to a nearby same-day cleaners, then back to the hotel to relax, write, and decide what the heck I was going to do in LA.
My friends Richard and Heather are in town for a convention, so we got together for lunch. Somehow they talked me into going back to Jerry's Famous Deli in Marina Del Ray, even though just yesterday I said I wouldn't go back. This time I had a corned beef sandwich, which was quite good. We basically hung out for the day and later had dinner at a mediocre Chinese restaurant called Lotus Blossom in Marina Del Ray.
Sunday January 30, 2000
It is cold and cloudy today in LA. Hi Ho. I had been considering Huntington Gardens for today. Given the weather forecast I am not so sure now.
I got together with friends at Martha's 22nd Street Grill in Hermosa Beach for an excellent breakfast of French toast. Yum. Though the weather was threatening, we sat outside anyway and lingered over a pleasant meal. Afterwards I hopped back in the trusty Intrepid and headed off to the fabulous Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. (www.huntington.org)
The last time I was there I spent so much time in the gardens that I missed the museum completely. This time I decided to take advantage of the bad weather (now drizzling) to see the museum first. For an important museum with significant pieces, the lighting is not very good. The paintings are hung very high, making it difficult to enjoy the faces of Gainsborough's Blue Boy, and Lawence's Pinkie, or really any of the others. Somehow the glare from the lights managed to hit on whatever the most interesting feature of a given work was. The magnificence of the new Getty museum has made me hypersensitive to any failure in a museum's lighting or presentation. Though the building is great, you have to be into British portrait painting to really want to spend a lot of time here. Alas, I am not. Though Blue Boy is very nice, I think it is blown away by anything Van Dyck (Gainsborough's Flemish hero) did.
Outside, the view of the gardens through the mists looked like a wonderful landscape painting. I spent a lot of time playing with my camera, trying to take the perfect picture of it. The mists forced me back inside, this time into the Scott Gallery, where Mary Cassatt's, Breakfast in Bed became my favorite work of the Huntington collection. I also managed to fall in love with John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Pauline Astor, but this time it was the woman, not the painting, that held my attention. Bad luck for me that she is long dead.
Braving the drizzle again I went out into the gardens. Around every corner some wonderful surprise awaits. The Huntington includes the largest and most beautiful Japanese gardens I've ever seen. The lighting was perfect for photos of the trees reflected in the pools and streams. For my last stop I went into the famous library, but was bummed to find that the regular collection of amazing books was put away for a special exhibit on the California gold rush. Sigh. The Guttenburg bible was still out, but the terrific Audubon books and other amazing manuscripts were all hidden away. There was a gallery section open that I hadn't seen before, where they were showing a newly restored Madonna and Child by Roger van der Weyden. It was great.
When I got back to my hotel I was very excited to see how the photos worked out, particularly the misty landscapes. Sadly, somehow they were all wiped out. Something must have happened to the digital chip as I was transferring it from the camera to my computer. 100% loss. Damn!
I got together again with Richard and Heather for a final dinner, this time at U-Zen Sushi, 11951 Santa Monica Blvd (at Brocton), West Los Angeles, 310-477-1390. The sushi was outstanding.
Monday January 31, 2000
It was rainy and overcast again this morning, but it had lightened and brightened considerably by 9am. I think an overcast Monday in late January is probably the ideal day for my first ever trip to Disneyland!
The breakfast here at the Radisson is really good. The eggs are fresh, and the egg-chef at the breakfast buffet does a great job. I think I could live here - perhaps I'll sell my house and move in. There was a true California-crazy sitting two tables away from me at breakfast. She was sitting pouring over the newspapers, cursing and muttering under her breath. A true master at the art of newspaper tearing, without the benefit of scissors she would deftly rip out the articles causing her such consternation. Some got shoved ungracefully into a plastic bag on the seat next to her, others were meticulously folded and ensconced in a giant bill-fold. I will never know what her criteria were.
After my excellent breakfast it was off to Anaheim and Disneyland. I'd never been to any theme park before, so it is appropriate that I started with the granddaddy of them all; the original Disney park, created by Walt Disney himself.
As I was driving I couldn't help thinking how impressed I am with American cities. New York City was once infamous for its crime. Now Times Square is cleaned up (some say too clean,) Grand Central is a glorious train station, and on and on. LA was once known as much for its traffic jams and pollution as for its stars. With strong emissions controls, burn bans, etc. the air is now vastly improved. With highway improvements, metered on-ramps, and sophisticated computer controls, traffic is managed. These cities and others are truly improving the quality of life for their residents. It is definitely an impressive feat.
I parked the car in the Pinocchio lot, hopped on the parking lot shuttle train, and was swiftly deposited at the head of Main Street Disneyland. This is truly a happy place. To get my bearings, I started off with the train ride around the perimeter of the park. I'm not sure this was really a good idea. From the train Disneyland looks unimpressive and a little run down. It really isn't the ideal vantage point. Ah well. After the train ride I ambled down the famous Main street, then got a truly terrible hot-dog for lunch. Oh well, what do you expect for only $8.00? The trash cans all say "Waste please", so I made sure to leave a little bit of my hot dog, chips and coke in case "waste" was a verb and not a noun. I'd hate to disappoint old Walt.
Thankfully Disneyland was pretty under-attended on this chilly Monday at noon, though there were enough people around to keep it interesting. There was a young child who seemed to want nothing more than to chase pigeons. His mother was directing him down the street by pointing him at one group of pigeons after another. "Jason, look!" she'd say, and off he goes, arms spread wide.
I started out on the Star Wars ride. I must say they do a great job of keeping us entertained while waiting. The 10 minutes waiting went by quickly, and the 5 minute ride was awesome. A virtual voyage through space, into an asteroid, through a Star Wars battle, with great visuals in a moving enclosure that somehow really conveys the feelings of acceleration, deceleration, climbing, falling, and spinning. I was blown away.
Afterwards I got into line for one of the newest rides, Rocket Rods. I walked right past the sign that said "30 minutes from this point", and was pleased to see that there was no one in front of me. Then I turned a corner and entered a large circular room where perhaps 100 people waited. But I wasnít really worried, since it was supposed to be 30 minutes from a point 100 feet behind me, it must be no more than 10 minutes from here. Right? Hmmm. Anyway, to keep us entertained they were showing some fun and funny movies about transportation on the 360 degree screens around the room. I am really impressed with how much effort they put into keeping you entertained while waiting. It seems like the wait is half the ride. Unfortunately, they also make it very difficult to tell how much farther you have to go. The path follows routes as circuitous as the intestines of a pig. In this case, my total wait was 40 minutes, of which the first 15 were fairly entertaining, and the last 25 were pure boredom and frustration, constantly believing that the ride was just beyond that next bend. If I had had any idea it would be a 40 minute wait, I either would have skipped it, or used the "fast-path" process where you can make a reservation for a specific time. The actual ride lasted 3 minutes, and was mildly fun. To say that it wasnít worth the wait is a massive understatement. It was an even bigger letdown after the excellent Star Wars ride.
Walking around the park, I was surprised at how small and fake-looking the Materhorn and Fairy Castle are. They look so impressive on TV. The Materhorn is downright silly looking. Next up was the Indian Jones ride, which was blessedly line-less, and really quite excellent. There was one effect where we went right through a holographic projection. I really wanted to know how they did it! Next door was the famous Haunted House, which again had no wait. It wasnít even a little bit scary, but rather was an awesome display of extremely cool holographic technology. Absolutely fascinating, if a bit silly. I imagine that kids jaded by Nintendo and looking for a scare could be disappointed. Pirates of the Caribbean, also no wait, was just plain goofy. It was the first ride I was on where I was actually looking forward to it being over. Verdict: lame.
After an awful cup of coffee and three grease-balls, which might have been someone's idea of a beignet, I walked over to FantasyLand. I think the best thing about Disneyland is watching the kids. What I wouldn't give to have the energy and boundless wonderment of a 10 year old!
Once upon a time some friends of mine wrote a song about Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, so that was my first stop in FantasyLand. What can I sayÖ it was wild. I almost queued up to ride it again. The other rides in FantasyLand really didnít cut it though. In Mickey's ToonTown I went on Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin which was a blast.
So far the Star Wars ride had been the best, so I headed back there. This time there was no wait at all. I did learn something though. My first time through I had been in the front row. This time I was in the middle and the effect wasnít nearly as pronounced. The front row was 1000 times better and worth waiting for. Since I was in the neighborhood, and there was no line, I went into a 3D movie presentation called "Honey, I Shrunk The Audience". A really silly premise, but the effect was astounding. Stuff flying out of the screen right at your face, wow! I am so impressed. The effect really worked.
So, my first theme park experience was fun and enjoyable. Disneyland is not nearly as vast as I expected. I saw pretty much all I wanted to see in 4 or 5 hours. It also isn't nearly as immaculate as I imagined. Somehow I had come to believe that everything was cleaned, pained and polished every hour on the hour, and that it would look like I was the first visitor to ever set foot in the place. It is clean, but this image of immaculate perfection is incorrect. I cannot imagine coming here when it is busy. The 40 minute wait at Rocket Rods was painful; if I had had that experience at every ride, I'd have a very different story to tell about my day.
For dinner tonight I went to Matsuhisa (129 N. La Cienega Bl., Beverly Hills, 310-659-9639). Reputably the best sushi in Los Angeles, Nobu Matsuhisa is said to be one of the best Japanese chefs in America today. Wanting to sample the best of what they had to offer, I chose the $65 prix fixe menu (there was also an $85 prix fixe, but it didnít sound as interesting to me.) Let me not keep you in suspense; the meal was spectacular. The first dish was toro (belly of tuna) tartar with caviar. A magnificent presentation of a cylinder of chopped toro, topped with caviar and floating in a pool of a wasabi-soy sauce. This was in a dish seated in a larger bowl of chopped ice and simply decorated with a slice of palm leaf. The effect was dramatic. Meanwhile I am sitting at the sushi bar watching my sushi chef, Katsu, prepare other magnificent preparations for the other diners. My next dish was "Salmon New style Sashimi." In a word, "wow." Four paper-thin slices of sushi grade salmon lightly seared in sesame-garlic oil. Again the presentation was immaculate in a beautiful ceramic dish, the orange salmon was offset by the slightly-greenish oil and bright green scallion. Moving on, the next course was "Mixed Sashimi Salad": a piece of seared tuna, crab, and yellowtail in a ponzu-like sauce with attractive greens. Each piece of sashimi was as fresh and perfect as any I have ever had. The next course was to be "Oyster in Filo", but I asked for a substitution, so they brought me Japanese style popcorn shrimp. The small shrimp were deep fried in a spicy tempura batter with a butter-ponzu sauce. Sounds boring on paper, but it was fantastic in the mouth. Not resting on their laurels, the next dish was probably the best Black Cod Kasuzuke (spelling?) I have ever had. Black Cod marinated in miso and cooked, this is one of my favorite Japanese dishes. Matsuhisa did not disappoint in their preparation with black cod that was firm and sweet. The final course of the meal was "Sushi and Soup". An excellent cup of miso accompanied by 4 pieces of nigiri sushi and one maki: blue fin tuna, Japanese scallop, hirame (flounder), anago (eel), and toro maki. All were excellent. For desert, a selection of fresh fruits, nice strawberry sorbet, and a mind-blowing sake jello topped with gold leaf. Insanely beautiful to look at in a black ceramic whale-tailed dish, the sake jello was subtle and wonderful - a sublime ending to an excellent meal.
Tuesday February 1, 2000
Finally a beautiful, bright, sunny day. I haven't seen one of those for quite a while. I went down to the breakfast room for another great breakfast, waffles this time. I could get really fat here. I also feel like I could easily just live here at the Radisson. A pleasant room, good breakfasts - a very low maintenance existence.
My plan for today was to go to the Getty center. There's just one problem: I didnít make a reservation. The Getty center is free to get into, but you must have a reservation if you want to park a car (and there is a $5 charge for parking.) No reservations are required if you get there in some other way, but you're not guaranteed admission if they are full. You can't park if you donít have a reservation (even if they have space,) and you can't get a reservation the same day - you have to have planned ahead. The Getty isn't far from UCLA, so I decided I would just drive there, park and take a taxi. After all, I could walk around UCLA after the Getty.
On the way out I stopped off at the reception desk to ask if my plan was a good one, or if there was a better way to get there. Bad idea. In the end not just one but two receptionists wasted 15 minutes of my time being uselessly helpful trying to find out how I could get to the Getty. After a few minutes I wanted to just grab them by the scruff of the neck and say "Look, I'm really good at doing this kind of research, and I've done my research already; if you donít know the answer, just say so!" I hate it when people are so helpful that they waste my time. This happened to me in Brazil too; I was looking for some address and I saw a person on the street and asked if I was near the place I was looking for. They said "Oh, I donít know, let me find out for you" and disappeared into a shop to find out. I hate that. I just want "Yes, it's over there", or "No, I donít know." Anyway, after about 15 minutes I finally convinced the receptionists to stop trying and let me gracefully move on without having to make a scene.
So I drove off to UCLA, found parking with no problem, called a taxi on my cell phone, and 15 minutes later was at the Getty. I had to pay $5 to park at UCLA, and the taxi was $7, so it wasnít entirely a cheap proposition. At the Getty Center there was absolutely no wait getting in and relatively few people were there. I'm sure there must have been plenty of room in the parking garage. Hi ho. I also found out about a better way to get to the Getty: Westside Limousine shuttle service has two park-and-rides on Sepulveda near the center. The cost is $5 to park plus $5 for the shuttle round trip. Call 310-454-1173. I can't imagine why Fodor's didn't mention it; that sort of information is their stock in trade.
Well the Getty is just marvelous. I was here a year ago, and it is no less wonderful the second time around. I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that the Getty Center is the greatest architectural masterpiece of our age. The fact that it was warm, clear and sunny didn't do any harm in creating this impression. I took a terrific 40 minute architectural tour of the complex, which further increased my appreciation of this stunning set of buildings. The tour is highly recommended. Inside, the museum buildings are no less impressive. This museum has astonishingly perfect lighting, placement, and backgrounds for viewing art. Every piece, regardless of size or surface texture, is perfectly illuminated with a flat light that defies glare or reflection. There is none of the craning of the neck to look up at a piece that is hung too high that one experiences at the Huntington, none of the nasty glare on the oil paintings like at the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum in Budapest. In fact, I have not seen a museum anywhere in the world that can compete. Now if only the collection itself were a bit stronger. Which is not to say that it is a bad collection, merely that there are masterpieces housed in other museums that I would love to see in such a perfect setting.
There is one room in particular which houses the greatest masterpieces of the Getty collection. My favorite is not the van Gogh Irises, which most people come to see, but rather The Promenade, by Renoir. There is also a wonderful Monet still life. But it is around the corner that I find the painting which feels like an old friend to me; William Adolphe Bouguereau's, A Young Girl Defends Herself Against Eros. I spent a long time with this work the last time I was here, and it was great to see it again. I am such a sap when it comes to art; you can keep The Guernica, give me this piece or Canova's statue of Cupid & Psyche at the Louvre any day. Elsewhere in the museum I really liked a painting by Jan Brueghel, the Elder, and the wonderful Rembrandt room. Astronomer by Candlelight, by Gerrit Dou is like looking in a window on a moment in time, and reminds me of several Vermeers. I was also blown away by the rendering of the woman's dress in Gerard Ter Borch's, The Music Lesson. Sadly, the gift shop did not have a postcard of this painting, so I am left with only the memory.
Of course, I spent the whole day at the Getty Center, taking innumerable photographs, walking, sitting, thinking. It's a great place. I called for a cab on my cell phone while waiting for the tram to take me back down to street level. I later learned that this was silly, since apparently there is a whole line of taxis waiting in the garage to take people away. Not that it really mattered one way or the other. By the time I got back to UCLA it was basically dark, so I didnít spend any time there, and the theory behind parking at UCLA didnít turn out to be as useful as I had hoped. Next time I'll use the privately operated park-and-ride. The silly reservation system at the Getty sure opens up an opportunity for entrepreneurs.
Since I was in the neighborhood, I drove down to the collegiate neighborhood of Westwood and wandered around a bit. I wanted to buy a cell phone charger; my battery had gone dead and I hadn't brought a charger with me since I hadn't expected to be spending any real time in the USA. The local Circuit City filled the bill. As I was walking I passed a Thai restaurant. Being a little hungry and permenanty up for Thai food I ventured in. It is always a bad sign when a Thai restaurant in a college town is empty, and I should have take the clue and walked back out again. Unfortunately I didnít trust this instinct and sat down to some of the worst Thai food I have ever had. When in Westwood, definitely avoid the Thai House restaurant. Ugh.
Wednesday February 2, 2000
Another spectacular day, and another fine breakfast, though this morning the breakfast room was really full. I wonder why. Today I'm heading down to San Diego to go to the zoo. Yee ha!
I got checked out, piled my stuff in the car and headed south for an uneventful 2.5 hour drive to San Diego. The roads were crowded but the traffic flowed smoothly down the huge slab of concrete that is Interstate 5, or "The Five", as it is known in California.
Here's a cute trick: How to get a room at the Westin for the price of the Sheraton. First, go on the internet and discover that the Westin and Sheraton are basically next door to each other, but the Sheraton has a cheap AAA rate that is not available at the Westin. Next, call Starwood and reserve a room at the Sheraton, carefully writing down the confirmation number, but erroneously write down "Westin" instead of "Sheraton" on your piece of paper. Go to the city in question, in our case San Diego, and go to the Westin, just like you wrote on your paper. Now, get your bags, go to check-in and look very confused when they say they can't find your reservation. Calmly and clearly spell your name for them over and over. Hand them your piece of paper (on Radisson stationary) with your confirmation number and the word "Westin." When they check their computer they'll discover that you actually have a reservation at the Sheraton, whereupon they will offer to put you in an excellent 9th floor waterfront room with a balcony and a "heavenly" bed, all for the special AAA rate you were going to have at the Sheraton. Accept their kind offer. Voila.
The room is slightly smaller than my room at the Radisson was, but is very attractively appointed and has this huge "Heavenly Bed ™." There's a nice balcony with a table and chairs overlooking the harbor with great views of military ships and planes going by. Very exciting. The one downside to this extra entertainment is that some of the military helicopters can be very noisy. Note for health club fiends: There is one disadvantage to the Westin, there is no health club. You have to go down the road to the Sheraton and use theirs.
So I got checked in, dumped my bags in the room, and headed over to the zoo. Along the way I stopped in for lunch at a place called Los Panchos Taco Shop on the Pacific Coast highway. I had three small pollo asado soft tacos, which were excellent.
I have always loved the San Diego Zoo. This was my third visit to this fine, fine zoo. My favorite spot at the zoo is the extremely hard to find humming-bird aviary. Even though I knew it was there and where it was located it was still hard for me to find. I think they hide it on purpose so that only people who really want to see hummingbirds will go in. One of the great things I learned in Brazil is the Portuguese word for hummingbird: beija-flor. It literally means, "kiss flowers." I love that. For some reason there were very few hummingbirds in the aviary today. Perhaps they were all asleep? There were, however, a large number of very beautiful small birds that were not hummingbirds, but were nonetheless fascinating. After my 15 minutes of peace in the aviary, a group of rambunctious kid came in. Their mother tried to explain the importance of quiet in watching birds, but alas, the lesson of silence is not for the young. This was my signal to leave.
I walked around, looking at animals and displays in the warm southern-California sun. The African Rock Kopje display was particularly great. I love zoos, but I gotta say they make me want to smack stupid people around. Some people say the most insipid brainless things, I want to shout at them "Shut up! If youíre that stupid, why donít you just stay home and watch reruns of 'Hee Haw' on TV or something."
All over the zoo, from corner to corner, are signs and banners pointing you to the giant pandas. When I finally made it to the panda exhibit I was fairly frothing at the mouth to see a panda bear. It is only then that you see the sign "Panda is on exhibit today from 10am to 12 noon." Oh, and by the way, the mother and baby are never shown. Hmmm. They could have told me that earlier. I mean really! The pandas were the only reason I came this way. Oh well. As a coupe de grace they invite you to visit the web site where you can view the 24-hour panda-cam and see them at any time. However, they donít have a monitor or video screen at the zoo where you can see the panda-cam. Hmmm.
Slightly disappointed I continued through the zoo, taking the odd photo and looking at stuff. This really is a great zoo. I didnít take many photos though because I rarely find zoo photos interesting and it is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. Because the zoo is so large, a lot of people see it from inside a bus. Listening to the bus operators' commentary amused and disgusted me. I was standing at the meerkats display, peering over the edge trying to get a glimpse of the one and only meerkat when one of these busses came by. The bus is about 6 feet away from the pen and the driver announces "here are the meerkats; I donít see any right now, but over here is a photo of what a meerkat looks like, which is really better than seeing them anyway." Right. I certainly go to a zoo to see photos of animals from the inside of a bus, donít you?
Leaving the zoo I headed back to the hotel. Even though I got a bit lost on the way I still made it back in time for sunset on my balcony at the Westin, sipping some Dewars and watching the pelicans go by. Having grown up in the Northeast of the US, I have always had an attitude about Southern California being a cultural wasteland. This is the source of "Starsky & Hutch", "Baywatch", "Family Feud", and little else. Clearly this position is wrong. After all, the Getty Center, the LA County Museum of Art, and the San Diego Zoo all reside here. That alone should redeem the whole region.
Since I'm so close to Mexico, I figure this has got to be the place for phenomenal Mexican food. I called the concierge and asked for a recommendation for cost-no-object Mexican haute cuisine. He suggested Casa de Bandini in Old Town. I went on the web and found a review that said that it was a very popular place with long waits to get in and a very touristy scene. Hmmm. Ah well, off I went. When I got there I found a huge restaurant in the very-touristy Old Town. It is in an attractive historic hacienda, but the menu looked really ordinary and the place seemed more form than substance. Instead of choosing from the menu, I asked the waiter to "knock my socks off." WellÖ it was good. The guacamole was very fresh, the carne asada was good. The salsa was good, but not great, the chips were good. It was good, ordinary Mexican food. Not great, not haute cuisine, it certainly didnít knock my socks off. Hi ho. I wonder why I keep on taking recommendations from concierges?
The weather report says that the temperature hit 83 degrees Fahrenheit today, a new record. Woo hoo.
Thursday February 3, 2000
I'd heard so much about the heavenly bed, I was really looking forward to it. It is a really nice bed. My favorite things are the pillows and comforters. But I donít think it was so great as to influence my future hotel decisions. Here's an astonishing thing about this hotel: they charge for the newspapers. Outside my door were a Wall Street Journal and USA Today. As I was getting ready to leave, I noticed in tiny print on my check-in information a note that said they would charge 50 cents for each newspaper, and I have to bring them back to the front desk for a refund. Astonishing! So I brought them back to the counter for my check-out, where they informed me that there really was no charge. I gave them a piece of my mind about the stupid note announcing the charge if it wasnít true, and while I was at it I gave them hell about the concierge's recommendation of the night before. One of the desk clerks said I should have gone to a place called Candela's downtown. Now they tell me.
The Westin was nice, but I'm feeling a little nickle-and-dimed. Even though I had the AAA rate, it was still $175 for the room. That does not include breakfast, nor does it include $12 for self-parking, or $18 for valet. You get one packet of coffee for your in-room coffee service. After that they want $2.50 for a second pot. At the Radisson when I wanted more coffee I called down and they sent up another package. Thus, the threat of 50 cents per newspaper really pissed me off. Imagine if I had paid the $350 rack rate!
One of the best things about fine American hotel chains is that they know that the food in their restaurants shouldnít suck. It may be a bit overpriced, but it is good. If you get up in the morning and you donít want to go out in search of a breakfast place, you can go down to the restaurant at a Westin, Radisson, or Sheraton and be confident that you will get a really tasty breakfast. I like that.
The day today is absolutely spectacular. The Santa Anna winds have brought a day of pure glory. Perfect temperature, bright sunshine, slight breeze, the cries of seagulls on the wind. Today is the day for SeaWorld - another first-time visit for me.
SeaWorld is astonishingly expensive. After paying $7 to park, it is $40 for adult admission. The place is incredibly commercial - everything is the Discover Card This, Southwest Airlines That and the Anheuser-Bush The-Other-Thing. The Budweiser Clydesdales march through the park, reminding you of who runs the place, and you cant go 10 feet without the opportunity to buy a Shamu the whale doll. Though there are a lot of good messages about nature and conservation at SeaWorld, I couldnít shake the feeling that this was Disneyland with prisoners on display. Quite a contrast to the San Diego Zoo. Among the highlights are a really nice tide-pool display where you can pick up and examine some of the animals, and a good (if small) aquarium. Though I liked the aquarium, I was quickly driven out by the nauseating music tittering on about the joys of the undersea world.
I was getting hungry but it was almost time for the famous Shamu Killer Whale show, so I grabbed a quick churros and a drink. As I stepped away from the concession stand, a band of seagulls dive-bombed me from a rooftop, grabbing my churros right out of my hand in what was surely a well-practiced move. Still hungry, I went off to the Shamu Adventure show. The show starts out with a 10 minute video presentation about the Shamu merchandise you can buy and where to get it, how much fun it would be to have a Shamu birthday party, and what a delight it would be to spend your next vacation at the new Anheuser-Bush theme park in sunny Florida. Then you get to see about a half an hour of Shamu and his friends leaping through the air, giving the trainers rides, spinning around on their bellies on platforms, tossing the trainers through the air, and soaking the crowed with splashes of their tails to the delighted screams of the children in the front rows. In short, they spend a half an hour basically doing all manner of things that a killer whale would never do in the wild. Interspersed among the antics, the video screens show brief films about killer whales in the wild and the importance of conservation; though they do take care to repeatedly point out that killer whales are not endangered, so there is nothing wrong with turning them into circus performers. I found the whole thing rather depressing, and was doubly depressed when Shamu dutifully soaked me.
After the show I had an absolutely dreadful bratwurst at the Anheuser-Bush Hospitality Center, along with a free glass of Budweiser beer. Mmmmm, mmmm, good.
Slightly re-energized by the re-fueling stop, I went off in search of more redeeming features of SeaWorld. The Penguin Encounter was quite cool. I was hoping to see some Little Blue penguins from New Zealand, but alas they donít have any. Next door was the "Wild Arctic" helicopter ride. The queuing area is clearly set up to accommodate hundreds of people waiting, but today there were only 6 or 7 of us. The technology of the "helicopter" ride was identical to that of the Star Wars ride at Disneyland. A room on a set of moving hydraulic arms with a video screen at the front simulates a dare-devil ride over the arctic with a few polar bears, whales, and walruses thrown in. After you "disembark", you enter a mock-up of an Arctic research facility, with windows onto polar bear, walrus, and beluga whale displays. It is an interesting concept, and I can see how it would be more exciting for kids than a standard zoo. The belugas were particularly beautiful. At the end, what a surprise, we exit through the gift shop; "No dear, you have enough toys," says a wearied mother to her disappointed child.
The best thing at SeaWorld was undoubtedly the Manatee Rescue. It had all the right messages of conservation and care for wildlife, with almost none of the rampant commercialism. Manatees are wonderful, gentle creatures - it is impossible not to fall in love with them on first sight. The display was excellent and included some amazing gars and Amazonian arapaima fish - some of the biggest fish I have ever seen. The Manatee Rescue was great and provided a shocking contrast to the rest of SeaWorld. Walking back through the park the feeling of disheartening ugliness returned. In my notes I wrote, "Let's get the fuck outta here." So I did.
On the way back up the 405 I stopped off at South Coast Plaza Mall in Costa Mesa, a mall filled with the most solicitous sales people on the planet. I really wasnít in the mood to shop, so I left fairly quickly. Back in LA I checked into the Sheraton Gateway at LAX, getting a Club Floor room at the AAA price of $115.00, which included breakfast but not parking. One unpleasant thing about this Sheraton is that the parking garage is quite far from the hotel, so you really have to use the $14 a day valet service. Fortunately the valets are really nasty, unpleasant people, so you donít have to waste money tipping them.
I quickly changed my clothes and then boogied over to Matsuhisa for another fabulous Japanese meal. This time I ordered individual sushis instead of going with the prix fixe menu. It turned out to be even more expensive, coming in at $79 with no drinks. My sushi chef this time was T. T., who did an excellent job. While I was waiting for my table I met a local guy named Scott who had been coming to this restaurant since it opened 15 years ago. We ended up seated next to each other at the sushi bar where he turned me onto the fresh wasabi that Matsuhisa has available, but only if you know to ask for it. It is really amazing stuff. He also introduced me to Nobu Matsuhisa himself, which I consider to be a great honor.
Friday February 4, 2000
There's something about this Sheraton that makes me uncomfortable. It is very comparable to the Radisson, but I felt great there. This morning I figured it out - the room has very low ceilings in the entryway and bathroom, and the main room has a bi-level ceiling that makes it feel like a small box. I would definitely stay at the Radisson again next time. This Sheraton isn't for me, even if I do get Starwood points for staying here.
My room includes a free Club Lounge breakfast, but it ends at 9am. This is the only morning of my trip that I've slept past 8am. I'm really not sure why I was so tired this morning. In any case, breakfast ending at 9am feels a little stingy to me. I headed down to the regular breakfast room, and had my free breakfast there. Again, I prefer the Radisson.
After checking out I somehow got into a pissing match with the valet, again saving myself the cost of a tip.
When I return my rental car at National, it is 4 days after I said I would return it. No problem at all. I get the weekly rate instead of the daily rate, and the whole thing ends up being just $202 after taxes and everything. At just $202 for a brand new Dodge Intrepid for a week, I can put up with the grumpy people that National likes to hire.
Sitting next to me in the National shuttle van is a guy who is fuming because the driver took his golf bag and held it upside down. I hope he never finds out what happens to his clubs when the airline baggage handlers get a hold of them. At the airport I get checked in and go to the Red Carpet Club. It is far too familiar. I find it vaguely depressing to recognize a Red Carpet Club in a foreign city. I think I've been travelling too much.
It looks like I'm not going to get my first class upgrade even though I've been on the list for 3 weeks; there are only 3 seats left and several 1K members waiting. So much for the value of Premier Executive. But, a pleasant surprise, I get my upgrade after all and use two upgrade certificates, which were due to expire soon anyway. Better still, I'm seated in the venerable seat 1A, the bulkhead window. Who could ask for anything more? Flying home from the drizzle of Los Angeles to the rain of Seattle, on an Airbus A-319, a slightly jittery plane which makes a nasty whine on takeoff. Another leg of world travel down.
© 2000, Andrew Sigal
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