WP_20150627_19_09_20_ProWe opted to haul our own bags so we could leave the boat early. Most folks didn’t seem to care. Presumably they had a plane to catch later in the day, and weren’t in any rush. We were on our way to hit the beach, or at least a beach town for a few hours, then check in at Disney. In all honesty, the departure from the boat was amazingly fast. Carnival really fixed the system for getting off the boat. Once our deck was called, the lines were so fast that we basically walked non-stop through the ship, off the ramp and right to passport control. I don’t think it took us more than 20 minutes. We were back to our car and on the highway in no time.

Yulia had the idea for us to spend a few hours beach time in LA after my sister (who lived in LA for a few years) berated us for not doing so. Several times. Finally, we got the hint, and put it into our plans. Originally we were going to go to Huntington beach. Yulia spent some time there during a Gymnastics event a few years ago, and thought it was beautiful, with cool stores and a wide, sandy beachfront. But once off the ship, our first thoughts were getting some breakfast. Sasha was checking her phone, and found that there was an Urth Café in Laguna Beach. That was around a 20 minute drive, but seemed like a good idea. Sasha and I hit an Urth Café last time we were in LA for a dance competition, and while being pretty trendy, they actually make fantastic food. They also had really, really good coffee, which we were dying for after the ship’s coffee from the last week.

The drive down the coast was really amazing. each small coastal neighborhood was a little different, with flavors of industrial, hippie, and big money mixed together. We were surprised by the number of small islands and canals along the shore. From the big maps, you don’t really see this. Each inlet was packed with marinas and boats, and with homes lining the canals with their own docks. I would love to take time to explore these areas in a boat, but that would have to be another trip.

We pulled into Laguna Beach, and the GPS told us where to turn to find the Urth Café. We pulled up to find it surrounded by a chain link fence, with an “Opening Soon! – Now hiring” sign on it. It was about half complete. Apparently, they updated their website just a bit early. That was a realm bummer, but we could see the main town waterfront just down the hill from us, so we drove over there to see if something else was open.

The Laguna Beach downtown was surrounded by hills, with the beach spilling out into the ocean in front of it. We parked by the beach, and started walking around to find a place. All the stores were funky little boutiques and galleries. After wandering the back streets a bit, we turned onto the main street, which went up the hill to some cliff side restaurants and a little art market. We found a breakfast joint, and finally had some really good coffee. The food was great too. Sasha had some good eggs, Yulia and I had yogurt and fruit. Just a light breakfast overall.

We walked around the street a bit and went to the art market. The stuff for sale was cool, but the view from the market was amazing. You could look down from here to see the beach curve away from town, turning into rocks as the hill rose up on the other side of town. People were swimming, surfing and walking the entire length. We had another great view from the Wyland Gallery next door. (Wyland is that guy who paints whale and sea murals all over the world. Beautiful, but I think they all look exactly the same. But hey, it’s art) The patio at the gallery had one of those standing telescopes, so we could look through and get a closeup of the seabirds out on the rocks, and the surfers waiting for waves.

After a bit more walking we headed back to the car. We drove out the main road towards I-5, and it began to rain. Yes, California is in a drought, we come from Seattle, and it rains. It always rains on us when we are on vacation. No exceptions. This wasn’t too hard of rain, and we figured that it would wash off some of the dead bugs that were littering our car. So it was welcome.

A short ride later, we were on the freeway, and heading north towards Disney. It has actually been a long time since we came to Disney from the south, So I had to pay attention since I didn’t know these ramps as well. It was all well marked, and since we were a carpool, we bypassed much of the I-5 traffic on the way. The ramp dropped us into the neighborhood just before Disney, and since we had stayed near here for New Years, I knew how to navigate to the right gate to get us to the hotel. We were staying this time at the Disney Grand Californian, which is the big and fancy hotel on the Disney Resort, and the only one we hadn’t stayed at before. We were only here for 3 nights, so we thought we would give it a shot. This hotel actually connects to the Californian Adventure park, so we will see if the short walk into the park is worth the cost.

Thankfully, there was a hotel laundry so we could get everything clean, we were pretty grimy after all this time on the boat. Our room seemed huge after staying in the boat cabin for a week. A shower, a rest, and changed into clean clothes, we headed into Downtown Disney to see if anything  was new. It was pretty much the same as the last time we were here (only 6 months ago). After a walk around, we fond space at the New Orleans restaurant just across from House of Blues. It was super busy, but as a party of 3, we were easy to find space for (all the other groups were huge, and waiting in an insane line). We were seated on the second floor balcony, with a view of Disney. A Jazz duet was playing next to us. Nice way to wind down the day.

WP_20150625_14_23_35_ProThe last two days of our cruise were at sea. After three days of getting up early for shore excursions we were looking forward to sleeping in and resting. Naturally, we got a 5:45am wake up call by mistake.

Fuckers.

We made up the time at the pool, where we spent almost all of our time. Sasha was working on a tan and resting. Yulia had a book that she was reading all week – she never likes to read, but this had her hooked. It was from the author of Gone Girl, and had murder, poverty, nasty characters – she loved it. I might check it our after Sasha gets it. I’ve been working on SevenEves by Neal Stevenson (as an audiobook) and it has been fantastic. It is typical Heavy written Sci Fi from Neal, with an extra layer of disaster space opera to boot. On our second day at sea I listened to it until midnight.

They had a Zumba party by the pool at one point, and Yulia did that. Naturally, she was better than the instructor. Everyone who danced got Carnival Medals on a red, white, and blue ribbon. Neat.

Sasha did a Disney Trivia contest, which had some seriously obscure questions.  She didn’t win, but she got one of the cool little medals for participating.

I went to the bar and got a beer.

When we took our Alaskan cruise, we went to a lot of the shows, partially because it was pretty cold on deck. Here we hadn’t bothered, so we decided to get at least one show in. It was the R&B Love show, and sounded great. Yulia had met one of the performers at another of the dance events on board, and he told we that she had to see the show. So we went. The theater on the ship had a Phantom of the Opera theme, and was gorgeous. We were excited to see the show, and found pretty nice seats near the stage to one side. I love Blues and Funk, so I was jazzed up as well. Sadly, while the dance was great, the singing was – not so much. The women were great, but the men simply didn’t have the range, or the soul frankly, to sing R&B. The show was good, but it was way outside their abilities. Bummer. Maybe we should have gone to the 80’s hits show.

At the end of our final day, we went to the Serenity deck, which was over 21, and brought Sasha. It was pretty cool out, we were back in Californian ocean weather. The staff manning the deck were cool with Sasha being there, most of the 23 year olds were loud and annoying, and Sasha was quiet and mature. We got a wicker day bed for Sasha to rest in, and we grabbed a bottle of wine and two lounges. That was really all we needed.

We would be glad to disembark tomorrow. We were off to the beach and Disney for the next week.

P1030267The difference between Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan was striking. We walked down the gangway out of the ship to a beautiful green plaza, with Mariachi players, and mini bird sanctuary, and lush greens all around. We braved the gauntlet of photography, where ship photographers have you pose with parrots, pirates, and whatever they can find as you exit the ship. We found out tour guide right away, and she moved us over to the correct waiting area as she waited for the rest of our tour.

It was hot here, but right away you could see that this was a very different climate from Cabo and Mazatlan. This was jungle. The hills were covered in lush, green trees, not the desert scrub we saw in our last two stops. The air was not desert dry, but not overly humid either. We had a tour today that was a multi stop tour on a Unimog, to a Botanical Garden, Local Town, roadside bakery, Hacienda for lunch, Petroglyphs, and naturally, a Tequila Distillery tour. You simply can’t go without a Distillery tour, it just wouldn’t be Cricket.

Once the rest of the tour group got off the ship, we all followed our guide towards the bus area. She went past the busses, and over to the smaller docks of the marina. A couple of big, Zodiac boats were there. She pointed at the nearest one and told us to load up. The tour apparently started in the South Bay area, and we were going there by boat. We loaded up, put on life jackets, and the boat pulled out and took off across the bay. The weather was clear, and waves were low, so it was a fantastic ride. As we pulled out from the city, the green hills came closer, with cliffs going straight into the water in areas, others with sandy beaches spreading out in crescents dotted with umbrellas. Homes and restaurants were in the hillsides, and became sparser and more extravagant as we got further.

We turned into a bay, and the homes turned from wealthy gringos to working locals in an instant. This was Boca, a local fishing village, and where we got loaded onto our Unimogs for the ride. It was a beautiful location, we had landed at a small dock, but the bay was a sandy beach all around, with little concrete homes and a fleet of small boats at anchor or beached. It was really a little paradise, without all the fake tourist crap around. No one ran up to us selling anything, they were busy, the tourists were just passing through. Yulia almost fell off the dock twice as she looked around, completely blown away. (apparently, safety rails are a insult to machismo, and strictly prohibited)

We were taken straight to the Unimogs, with the chance for a bathroom break. If you haven’t seen one, a Unimog is a lot like the German Troop carrier from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, it is a German Troop carrier from WWII, so technically it’s exactly like that, but since they were made by Mercedes Benz, they last forever, and have been in use as Farm vehicles ever since. Ours were bright yellow, and had a nifty safari vibe, and a great gasoline smell.

We loaded up, and started our loud and shaky ride out of Boca. There were a couple of Unimogs in our tour, we had the main guide we met at the dock in ours, and her name was Rubi. She had apparently had 16 cups of coffee this morning as she was REALLY HAPPY AND EXCITED ABOUT EVERYTHING. But we could also see that she wanted us to enjoy the tour, so we were looking forward to a good tour.

We stopped at the petrogylphs first. We had climbed up the hills for quite a while, and while the back of the Unimog had a canvas top, the sides were open and kept us cool. The instant we stopped, it was hot. The first thing Rubi did was pass around bottles of water and a wet hand towel, which was our “air conditioning”. These were both useful right away. We had pulled off into a private field, with a few farm buildings around and the obligatory burro. We walked through the middle of this to some large rocks fenced off from the farming areas. As we approached, we could see patterns in the rocks, and Rubi went up to start explaining them. These had apparently come from a nomadic group that had farmed and lived in this area during certain growing seasons, and these marked the good areas to be with traditional signs and symbols. There were Owls, symbols for water, a simple calendar, and of particular note, and four-petaled flower. This was notable because this flower symbol has remained in use in Mexican imagery until the present. It can be found on the peso, in artwork, and notable, on the Christian image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Another example of traditional pagan imagery coopted into Christianity. We would see this again in our church tour.

Our next stop was the Botanical Gardens. We had a half hour to walk around and see the plants, and the amazing view down the valley. This had apparently been started as a preserve for local naturally growing orchids, which get picked and sold by locals as they are very valuable. Now it is really stunning, with conservatories on the top of the hill, and a sweeping vista to the valley below. We were given lemongrass tea to drink and cool down. I ended up getting some bug spray, as the higher into the mountains we went, the bugs and flies got thicker. Lots of butterflies were also about, drinking from water spilling out of the central fountain, scattered along the ground. As you walked through the area, they would take flight, circle around your head, then land back where they were. it was a pretty cool effect. Sasha spent her time trying to get them to land on her hand. Eventually, she succeeded, and was ecstatic. We loaded back up and took off in a cloud of dust and gasoline fumes.

Once on the road, Rubi opened a cooler of drinks and made sure that we weren’t too thirsty, or sober. I immediately snapped up a beer, and a beer/squirt “shandy” that Yulia and Sasha split. The rest of our crew in the Unimog reluctantly took a few beers for the guys, while their wives looked on judgmentally. We’ve travelled to Mexico quite a few times, but I’ve never run across people, on a tour to a distillery, who drank so reluctantly. The Amish we saw last year were more fun. Fine. More beer for me. I had two more.

We pulled over to a roadside bread stand. Rubi had been pointing out that part of the theme of this tour was to visit real life in Mexico. Not “Golden” areas but real life. Both the bread stop and town visit were real, local people. The fishing village where we landed was where Rubi’s family had a house. The distillery was in the town where her grandmother lived. The whole staff of the tour company were part of these communities. This wasn’t just about driving a bunch of gringos around, They wanted us to love what they loved about Mexico. So far, it was pretty hard not to.

Rubi gave us a great description of the types of simple traditional bread made by the family running the stand. These were simple flour and water breads, sometimes with berry or chocolate fillings. They even did a ham, cheese, and jalapeno bread, which Rubi mentioned was the “Rubi Special”. We got a look around, and were shown how they mixed and made the loaves, and cooked them in a old fashioned clay oven. Looking at the oven, it took a minute before I realized that it wasn’t a portable clay oven, but was carved out of the hillside itself. This Pretty much defined traditional cooking. We bought a few of the rolls, and they were amazing. The “Rubi Special” was excellent. Yulia and I agreed that this was turning into an amazing tour.

Another windy drive up the hill and we were in Tuito. Everything was lush and green around here. The Unimog dropped us off on one side of the town, and we all started to walk along the street. We were just taking a tour towards the central plaza. Along the way we were introduced to how the local schools and clinic worked. We met some kids who just finished the Morning school session. and afternoon session would start later. The two sessions matched the work schedules of the parents. Kids were out enjoying Mexican Shave Ice, (either Berry or Tamarind today). We tried fresh Passion Fruit from a local vendor (awesome), and saw Mango and Coffee trees in local yards. The plaza was the oldest part of town, and we got the tour of the city hall, the local church, and how everything had been built, changed, and rebuilt over the years. Rubi took her time to point out that this was very typical for Mexico, which was the point.

We also went to the local graveyard, for a talk about the Day of the Dead. The celebration happens the day after the Catholic All Saint’s Day, but isn’t a Catholic holiday at all. It is literally a party in the graveyard, a celebration with the spirits of dead family and loved ones. Shrines are made at home for the departed, meals planned, and the celebration goes as long as a week in some areas. Here it is typically just for the day. We Took time to walk the graves. As we left, Rubi reminded up to brush off the spirits and tell them to stay here. Probably good advice.

From there we rode to a local family who ran a woodcarving business. They primarily worked with protected red hardwoods, which were beautiful, but you need a special license to gather (you can only use pre-fallen trees). The son of the family works the off season in Alaska on a crab boat to finance things. He had a Sitka shirt on when we arrived. They served up a few cheese tacos (made with a local cheese similar to Oaxacan cheese, they were small, but really good) as we looked around the place, and the son made Racida, a tequila moonshine, which Was given to me and the retired navy guy in our group. he seemed to want to drink, but his schoolteacher wife kept pushing him not to. She was nice, but talked to everyone like they were in 1st grade. It got really damn annoying. We both fired down the Racida, it was a bit rough, and required an extra cheese taco to keep in place.  Shortly after that, he commented, “all my back pain is gone” and was interested in more as his wife looked on in horror.

Back in the Unimog, I stuck to water for a bit to dilute out the moonshine, and we started our trip back down the hills, pulling into the Hacienda that was located pretty close to the gardens we were at earlier. This place was a small riverside hotel and organic farm, and lunch was setup for us here. We were amazed at how much drink and food was on this tour. They had chicken, cactus, a local Mole sauce, Guacamole, cold zucchini, and some drinks. As usual, nobody drank but us. Damn gringos.

After eating we walked about the grounds, saw a mother goose guiding her goslings around as Sasha made cute squealing noises at them trying to take pictures. The girls cooled off by the river a bit, saw a avocado tree that wasn’t ripe yet, then we found a lychee tree that was fully ripe. All the fruit that was in easy reach was already picked. I looked around a bit, and found some that were in *my* reach (at 6’5”, I have a small advantage in fruit stealing – insert note about permission and forgiveness here). Once Yulia and Sasha were munching on one, Rubi came over and was thrilled that we could get some down, as they were just falling and rotting at this point. I asked her if she wanted some as well, and the nodded while saying, “I never said that”. So I pulled down a whole bunch and handed them around to any of our crew that wanted any. Which was the navy guy, Yulia and Sasha, and Rubi. I gave Rubi a  handful, and she was pretty pleased.

Our last stop was the tequila distillery. we pulled off the main road and another small town, and went up another hill on a side road. This was Rubi’s grandmas town. The distillery was close to the top of the hill, and had a sign out front. at the bottom of the sign it read, “The only distillery on this hill.” They were right about that. +2 points for being funny. As we parked, Rubi told us that this area was used for the filming of the Schwarzenegger film “Predator”, and that the Helicopter used for filming was our front of the distillery. It was left in the jungle after filming, and the remaining frame was brought here after moving around to people over the years. If you had never seen one, this is what a non sequiter looked like in physical form.

Inside the distillery, and very nice guy with a beard shaved into a very thin, staircase shape across his chin (Mexican Hipster? No clue) gave us the tour. At this point I could do these in my sleep. What was different was this was all new. They place at Mazatlan we saw was an older distillery being revived and modernized. These guys started new, and the quality showed it. We went through a full vertical tasting – 3 regular tequilas, plus three tequila liquors. It was just Me, Yulia, Sasha, and the navy guy. Even though the shots were just small taster shots, these folks went on a distillery tour, and wouldn’t try any tequila. Damn Gringos. We gave Sasha permission to try it as well, we thought drinking with us is always better than behind our back, and these were some pretty small shots.

In the end, these guys made some really great tequila. I ended up buying a bottle of their Repisado. From there we drove all the way back to the Cruise Terminal in the Unimog. Rubi pointed out local city sights as we went.  This included her Grandmother who we passed as we left the Distillery town, she was in the local shop. Further down, we passed the filming location for Night of the Iguana, with Ava Gardner and Richard Burton from 1964.

Despite the rest of the Americans on our tour being complete deadwood, this was amazing. Rubi loved her city, and it showed in her passion for the tour. We couldn’t help but feel the same. I love the desert climate of Cabo, but it doesn’t compare to the rich jungle and city we found in Puerto Vallarta. The sea, sand, and jungle all came together here. We spent over 8 hours driving around the hills, and barely even touched the town.

We can’t wait to come back.

WP_20150622_18_23_34_ProThe cruise ship terminal was a freaking goat rodeo.

The terminal was easy to find, it was right across the water from our hotel. But once you got close the signage was unclear at best, and just plain wrong in areas. Guys in orange vests were waving sticks and pointing to tell us were to go. We thought we would be early, but everything was already packed. A guy waved us away from the parking garage, and over to a makeshift baggage drop-off. I left Yulia and Sasha there to watch the bags, and pulled out of the drop-off. The ramp up into the garage wasn’t marked, but after a loop I guessed right and got in the right lane.

The garage was completely full. I circled until I found someone departing the ship, and took their spot. When I got back down to Yulia and Sasha they were trying to figure out where to head next, and we had no damn idea. A porter came up, and pointed us in the right direction while he offered to take our bags. I had already printed our room labels, so this worked out great. We tipped him, and started to work our way into the crowd. The terminal itself was still closed, we were out in the courtyard. Nothing was marked as far as we could tell. I saw a huge group waiting for sunglasses on one side of the courtyard, and other people milling about near the doors. There were waiting areas marked “A”, “B”, etc., but no indication of where we were supposed to go.

We wandered over to the Sunglasses line, and found someone with a clipboard and Cruise line shirt. Apparently this as the check in line, it was just near the sunglasses booth so you couldn’t see the desks past the lines. That made mores sense. The line was pretty big, and slow. Once we had waited for a bit, we looked back, and the line was enormous. Apparently, we just missed the big rush.

Once we got checked in, they let us through the terminal, which had another full group of checking desks that weren’t being used for some reason. The terminal is a big, white half-dome on the shore, very impressive from the outside. On the inside, it’s mostly empty. As we went up the stairs to the boarding ramp, you could look across the whole place, and literally there e was a wall chopping the floor in half. The second half had nothing in it from what we could tell. It made no sense, but since there wasn’t a bar here, I wasn’t interested in sticking around.

We had our obligatory picture with a ship’s wheel taken, and walked up the ramp onboard. The ship is goddamn huge.

An atrium stretched from deck 2 through the top of the ship, 10 decks up. The whole place is in a “Fiction” theme, with characters from famous stories on the walls, and each area having a theme. The Main Restaurant is Horatio Hornblower. The Stage is Phantom of the opera. There’s a “Raven” library, etc. 2 pools, a spa, an uncountable number of bars.

Our cabin is in the aft, with a deck over the stern. We watched as they pulled the lines in, and the thrusters pushed us away from the dock. Once underway, we stood out on our deck and watched the wake of the ship curl out of sight.

This didn’t suck.

WP_20150619_17_32_00_ProOne advantage to the mistake of the hotel on the far side of Sacramento was that in the morning we avoided all the Sacramento rush hour traffic. So I guess that paid off in the end. I ended up with a big scar on my leg from last night. I fell into some kind of bush running across the street to get some bad wine from a Gas station Mini mart. I’m nothing if not full of great ideas and forward planning. The wine tasted like iodine, so I used it to clean the wound. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

If driving through Shasta showed us one end of the water crisis, then the farmland south gave us the other. In between the orchards and vineyards were big, barren stretches, and every one had a sign or billboard with a website or number to call to show anger at the government created water crisis.

There might not be a lot of solutions to the water problems here, but I’m pretty sure they will never run out of blame.

By default, California is a big desert. Nothing grows in big vast areas here except cactus. Want to grow lettuce? Pipe water in. Want to make a city? Pipe water in. Grapes? Lawns? Pipe water in. Probably not the best place to bottle water and ship it out either. The whole place has become a big, wet game of Prisoner’s Dilemma.

It was a long, dry drive to Los Angeles.

Naturally, we stopped at In N Out for lunch before the big climb into LA. (Neapolitan Shake. Fries Animal Style. 2 Double Doubles Protein Style + Animal Style. Cheeseburger with grilled onions) The food is worth a stop by itself, but this truck stop is perfect to a gas fill-up, and letting the car rest before big climb. We needed a bit of a rest as well. It was 100 degrees out, and sitting in some air conditioning for a bit was perfect.

The hill climb was easy, but we hit rush hour in LA as soon as we came over the hills and into beautiful downtown Burbank. The GPS tried to route us around the worst of it, but we ended up making some guesses on which freeway would clear up first. You don’t appreciate how big LA is when you blast through, but since we were stuck we tracked it on the GPS. It was 40 miles across town to Long Beach. The traffic was costing us an extra 1.5 hours. With some lucky freeway guesses, we cut 20 minutes off that, and rolled into the hotel just in time for cocktail hour.

We were at the Hyatt on the beach in Long Beach. It’s a seriously swank hotel. Yulia was here a few years a go for Gymnastics Nationals, and she knew that the place was worth it. She’s also on a whole bunch of hotel membership awards things for all her gymnastics travel, so we got a deal. Never hurts to get a deal.

We had a view of the harbor, and could see our Cruise ship, and the Queen Mary. Sasha’s first reaction was to ask if the Queen Mary was our cruise ship. It does have a bit of that Titanic Vibe, so I could sense her concern. But no, I pointed to the real ship, and noted that the Queen Mary is just a hotel now. And it’s haunted. And a bit run down. But it looks great from a distance. Most things do.

Once we showered up, we hit the boardwalk. Both Yulia and Sasha needed dresses for the formal dinner onboard, and I picked up some extra cargo shorts and beach pants. The marina at long beach is amazing. The boardwalk is on the old city pier, and it is dwarfed by the new marina on the ocean side. We walked up a bit, looked at the mandatory collection of tourist crap, and checked out he boats. One boat near the pier was a dead ringer for my dad’s old boat, but a bit worse for wear. It was a 42’ Grand Banks clone. White with teak decks. You really can’t beat old boats for beauty, but upkeep is a killer. This one had really dry, pale teak, quite a few cracks in the wood, and a damaged swim step. But even with that, it was a great looking boat. A bit of repair and a lot of teak oil and it would be amazing.

We found a reasonable line at a Mexican joint on the pier. They had a house special Guacamole that they made a the table. It was fantastic. Big chunks of fresh avocado never disappoint. Some Drinks, some Mole and Carne Asada and we were done.

Tomorrow we board the boat.

Well, we drive tomorrow.

It’s been a rough year so far, and we can’t wait to get out and hit the road. some years you are just ready to get on vacation, and sometimes, you just need to run away. This year is one of the latter. I have my crap laid out to pack. piles of cables and chargers, hats, shirts, and shorts. We are taking a cruise, so I had my tux re-fitted, so we should be all set.

I can’t wait to see Mexico.

We go through Los Angeles, and hit Disney on the way back. We will be on a cruise, so no matter what, it will be interesting.