Winter thou goest – Part I

Clearly my thoughts have evolved on this blog as to what I can do for you, what I can share to make your life more beautiful after you visit here, and am pleased to have settled on creating a travel sticky page for this website over the past year to go with each season. I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world and so consider myself a veteran. Ideally, I would have had this post up on December 22 of last year, but the holidays intervened and well, better late than clever, right? So, the title of this particular article seems especially apt.

Bay

Now, let’s remember that all of these recommendations are subjective and based on three key factors: where I’ve been, what I like, and iconoclasm. By the latter I mean, I am not going to recommend the predictable places that everyone thinks of for each season.  Most people’s favorite season is the spring. As you might guess, not mine! My absolute cherished time of year is and always has been the winter. For the first half of my life, I got to be in a four-season climate as my home base and so winter rolled around every twelve months and delivered my preferred weather, notably in Manhattan where I spent most of that time, with cold, clear, sunny, dry days and the occasional snowfall that draped the landscape in its magical glitter.

Mountain Home Inn II

However, here I am in one-season Southern California, where the temperature is hot or hottest and the skies are cloudless and blinding unremittingly.  So, when I tell you my recommendation, I am going to avoid my reflexive wish to suggest Banff or Quebec or St. Moritz. Or to my preferred beach resorts (the rare times I have gone to them of my own accord) like Montego Bay, Jamaica, or Nassau, or Fortaleza, Brazil. We are going to stay local and so, voilà, my choice: Oakland, California.

Oakland and the Bay Bridge

Whaaaaa? You are going to start to object and recommend that at least I switch this to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge. But, uh-uh.  Please do this. Forget about every single thing you have ever heard or thought about Oakland. I know the Bay area intimately (having lived in the East Bay and and visited friends and relatives who have lived there for decades) and SF is not where I want you to pin your protractor.  Put it right in the middle of the Elmwood section of Oakland in the up and coming East Bay and then draw a 50 mile (or 25 mile, depending on how much time you have) radius around it. That is where I would head if I wanted an exciting, rain-free, interesting and even exotic at times, winter getaway.

From Oakland, you are within biking, sailing, motoring, walking, boating distance of all the stellar things the lower end of Northern California has to offer.  And, you will be able to afford the hotel because you will not be staying in downtown San Francisco. It is mostly first-time visitors and businessmen on expense accounts who stay there anyway.

Oakland

Because the area is so vast and packed with things to do and places to see, I am going to divide this into two posts. First will be where to stay and eat. In a future sequel, I will remind you of the hundreds of museums, parks, beaches, theaters, aquaria, forests, and special features that the entire Bay area is known for, as well as a few words on shopping.  There is no better place to spend a week or a month, than this part of Northern California. You might not want to go home.

ca-oakland-city-call-c1940

First off. Where to stay.  I would suggest Elmwood via an AirBnB. Another good option is a VRBO (vacation rental by owner). Check out these videos on my link, strung back to back — there are several, all about the area and worth watching. Elmwood is just off College and above Telegraph Avenues, the main arteries through the best part of Oakland, near Berkeley. The homes in Elmwood are straight out of Nancy Drew or Father Knows Best. They are roomy, well-to-do Craftsman-style homes from the pre-WWII era. In fact, I cannot think of a better neighborhood in all of California, and I have been everywhere in the state in the 20+ years I have lived and visited it. If you stay there, you will be in walking distance of shops, eateries, poetry readings, concerts and lectures and all the marvellous perks for visitors to the UC Berkeley campus.

Elmwood II

If you are feeling really flush, you can stay at the Claremont Hotel in Claremont, between the Berkeley campus and Elmwood. You will get the full European spa hotel experience, but you will pay for it. It is an old East Bay institution, now owned by the Fairmont Group and they are the crème de la crème as far as hoteliers go.

The Claremont

My other two suggestions are my personal favorites. I have stayed at both hotels numerous times and would rave on about them if you and I had the time. The first is the Hotel Durant, as they style themselves, a ‘hip boutique hotel’.  It is old, maintained beautifully, immaculate and has impeccable service. Its breakfast library room and restaurant are first class. And, you can walk to the campus and transportation from the Durant, effortlessly. Take a virtual tour and you will get a sense of these two luxury hotels. Oh, and the Durant is affordable and they always find a way to give you discounts. I always request room 535/37 on the 5th floor, adjacent to the elevator. It is cheaper and amazingly quiet despite its location. Love the Durant!!

Hotel Durant

My last suggestion is the incredible, little known, beautiful, sprawling Woodfin now Hyatt House at the wharf in Emeryville.  You can get a view of the Bay and San Francisco from some of the rooms on higher floors. The rooms and suites (with bedrooms separated from the sitting area and full kitchen) are beautiful and reasonable — geared toward the business community and people relocating.  At the ground level, the Woodfin was planned to be in proximity to a sort of mini mall, old style with food, amenities and little shops. The food store delivers to the hotel. You can get pizza and Chinese takeout or sent to your room.  You can walk around the edge of the water and absorb the marine atmosphere. And, best of all, they allow pets!  We attended a wedding a few years ago in the area and brought both Psyche and Ollie with no problem. The Woodfin even put a mat and food and water in for Ollie. Can you imagine? All this in a beautiful place, with great parking (a big issue in the East Bay), at a rock bottom price. The Woodfin was sold to Hyatt and so I hope the new owners will keep all these wonderful features and pricing intact. Ssshhh. Keep this on the down low. I don’t want them to jack things up!

Hyatt House

OK, so now you have a jumping off place to stay. You want to get out and start seeing, doing, shopping and eating, right? Let me start with the restaurants and other eateries in the East Bay. You will be happy to hear that you are in the midst of what could modestly be called The gourmet ghetto of the Western United States.  In every direction for miles and miles are incredible elegant inexpensive (as well as costly, if that is your thing) places to get every cuisine on earth. It would take a year of blog posts to cover San Francisco, Sausalito, Monterey, Carmel, San Jose, Walnut Grove, Montclair, Rockridge, Marin, Solano and greater Oakland/Berkeley itself just to give you ideas of where to go. And a lot of boutique shopping flanks these restaurants, conveniently.

Vics III

Instead, I will list my personal favorites, which are ethnic, clean (spotlessly so), serving delicious, homemade exquisite food at prices you can afford. They cover: Greek, Indian, Mexican, Israeli, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian and Ethiopian super stars. This is where the locals who know the food scene eat, so you can throw away Zagats and forget about Yelp.  I will start with the most popular of them, La Méditerranée on College Avenue near the main hub of Ashby serving Greek/Middle Eastern food that is so delicious, you will want to order another meal or two to take home. You will definitely want to go back, but don’t give in to the temptation as you will need to visit the others before you go. I promise you, whatever Middle Eastern dish you have ever had, it is twice as good here. Trust me — in fact, I have eaten at every one of these places I am recommending at least half a dozen times.

La Mediteranee

Being a college town, there are no end of Indian restaurants to try. But, if you want the kind of food they eat in India, you have to try the hole in the wall, Vik’s on Fourth Street near the Berkeley campus.  It is cafeteria style, no atmosphere (other than brains and politics at every table, if you can hear it amid the din), cheap and delicious, authentic, aromatic Indian food from every part of India. There is a grocery section so you can buy things to take home. Believe me, you will walk out of there with bags of food — so be prepared and bring your totes.

Viks IV

Mexican restaurants are usually two to a block in California. But Cancun on Shattuck — one of the main drags in Berkeley — is special. It is more a take out place than eat in, but you can do that too. Believe me, the cognoscenti in the area come here for authentic, inexpensive, perfectly cooked to order quality Mexican food, Cancun-style. The Saldanas are the family that own Cancun and a farm that supplies its organic, natural products. Farmers and cooks, isn’t that what we would dream of? Having the farmer feed us. Healthy food, expertly prepared as you watch, delicious and fresh. What more would you want? It’s as close as you will come to Mexico in Northern California, in my opinion. From farm to table, what more could you ask?

Ordinarily, who would advise anyone to seek out Israeli food? After all, it is enough like — forgive me, all my Jewish friends — Middle Eastern food that you might think you could just eat at La Méditerranée and get the experience of the region you crave. Well, this is no ordinary town and Holy Land is no run of the mill restaurant. Don’t expect it to be particularly remarkable in appearance. It is clean and pleasant. But! The menu is the thing.  If you have never had Israeli cous cous, this is the place to get your initiation. It is fragrant, fluffy, perfectly seasoned and divine. Try the latkes and the Israeli pickles and olives.  They have shifted to include the non-Jewish foods of the region as well but you will be able to sample some of Israel’s best dishes, including hummus (pronounced hoo-muss by natives) and other kosher dishes including some that are vegan.

Holy Land

Most of us have had Chinese food from humdrum restaurants all our lives. If you live in NY or SF or Chicago or LA, you have likely had some unusual and very good Chinese meals. But, Oakland has, in my experience, one of the very best.  Shen Hua, is a beautifully simple, classic Northern Chinese noodle house, upscale and not inexpensive, but worth every penny.  Conveniently located right on College Avenue in Elmwood, it will be steps from your AirBnB. You will want to take home the leftovers, believe me.  There are rarely Chinese restaurants that could be termed elegant in every respect. This is one!

Shen Hua

While you are in an Asian food mood, you simply have to try the homey but sophisticated Cambodian menu at Battambang on Broadway in downtown Oakland. It is similar to Thai food but a bit more complex, heartier and with banana leaves. Think Siam-meets-Puerto Rico 😀 Delicious, whether you are a carnivore or a vegan as I am — a really unusual menu in a family-run establishment that prepares each dish fresh when you order and serves it in a warm and friendly manner.

Battambang I

There are literally hundreds of Italian restaurants throughout the Bay area so you might wonder why I picked just one. Because, while you can get pasta almost anywhere, great pizza is more elusive. One place that never fails to serve and also deliver, is Lane Splitters, by far the best pizza in the greater Oakland vicinity.  The ambience is pure urban hipster black, white and gray. They serve fabulous, handmade pizzas and a variety of other things including lasagna and calzones.  Eat there or order for local delivery.

Lanesplitter

If you are a lover of the exotic, and complex flavors outside the pedestrian, you probably crave Ethiopian food the way I do. The East Bay is loaded with Ethiopian restaurants, but if you want to know where Ethiopians themselves eat, it is hands down, Addis on Telegraph.  The atmosphere is basic but it is clean, friendly, and bright, and most importantly, the food is out of this world.  If you have never had Ethiopian or Eritrean food before, Addis is the place to start. I just wish we had one in Valencia, anywhere near as fine as Addis.

Addis

There are just a few more things I want to recommend here in Part I.  First, you simply must take a trip to Mill Valley and stay at the Mountain Home at the top of Mt. Tamalpais.  If you can’t manage a stay, then at least have breakfast and watch the sun rise, or have a drink there at the end of the day. Romantic, with breathtaking views, you dine or sip overlooking the entire Bay area.  Mt. Tam is exquisite and well worth the trip. Nearby are vistas that you can’t find anywhere else in the San Francisco basin.

Finally, you cannot leave Oakland without visiting Berkeley Bowl. There is no way to describe this indoor fruit and vegetable bazaar.  You simply have to go.  It is the largest and most bountiful food store I have ever seen anywhere. Its proximity to the fruit basket of the world means items so unique and so varied, that you will be tempted to buy them just for their beauty and singularity.

Mountain Home InnNo matter where you land in Northern California, a trip to Berkeley Bowl is a must. It is 40,000 square feet of gourmet heaven at farmers market prices. Think of a Home Depot for chefs’ quality fresh foods. Cheeses, condiments, olives, fish, breads, pastries fruits, vegetables, coffees, the list goes on and on.  So popular in its 40 year history, that they opened a second one.  Go to the original on Shattuck and prepare to be astonished.  By the way, go early, be nimble (parking is difficult) and arrive hungry. Bring bags, you will want everything you see, trust me.

Berkeley Bowl mushrooms

While you are at it, if you are anywhere near the Berkeley campus, hit the Gourmet Ghetto area and make sure you visit Andronicos, the Rolls Royce of “supermarkets”, since 1929. One thing I love there are the full line of European D’Arbo syrups that can be used to flavor everything from ice creams to cakes to carbonated drinks, ala Alice’s Restaurant nearby. I ordered a case of them and especially like the Elderberry syrup. When you add carbonated water to it, it tastes like champagne!  More on Alice’s coming up in Part II.

Andronicos II

Next time: Part II: what to do and see when you are not eating or sleeping ;-D

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Images: Public domain from travel sites, Chambers of Commerce and the establishments themselves

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Ooh la LA

The weather has been so delightful lately, that I realized it was time to invite people to visit Southern California before it’s too late and we are either roasting alive or dying of thirst, LOL! These are my insider’s tips on visiting La-La land: the only five places you will need to know to party like a native. 😉

Rooftop Bar, Hotel The Standard, Downtown L.A., Los Angeles, California, USA

New York is the place to visit in autumn, as I wrote last year.  Spring is the time to visit LA. When I was reflecting on Los Angeles, and trying to summarize what it is about LA that is so attractive to people — apart from endless sunshine, that is, natch — the word seductive came to mind.

9693479468_c3b18fda3a_z Cruisin Hollywood Musso and Franks

A few years ago, I read this book about France and the French character.  It is worth reading just to see how differently the French look at everyday life, relationships, food, tourists, Americans etc.  Not to say that they are right or wrong, necessarily but truly it is a culture apart. France is seductive.

13845068433_568041be87_z Boating fun

Los Angeles is like that. Someone should write a book about it (note to self). Unlike NYC that instantly triggers love or hate, Los Angeles sidles up to you and lures you in with that sultry come hither environment that allows everyone to be utterly, nakedly themselves. And that is no mere metaphor. You have permission to be as uninhibited and as outrageously ‘you’, as you want here — and that is what I love most about this city, its welcoming diversity.

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There are three urban hubs that you need to hit if you want to understand California.  In some ways it should be two or three states.  San Francisco and San Diego are distinctive megalopolises with their own sphere of influence and mindsets.  You won’t get to know or understand all three, by just visiting one of them.

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People everywhere are drawn to Los Angeles, but not for the beaches, because, honestly, there are others far more beautiful.  If you are looking for the ideal beach environment, go to Cape Cod, Monterey, the Northeastern coast of Brazil or the Caribbean.  Don’t come to LA for that.

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People love Los Angeles because of its gigantic entertainment industry and the allure of being close to the stars. If you are a wannabe, the magnetism of LA is powerful and rightly so. But, I think the true main attraction of LA is that, you can park philosophies and ideologies at the threshold when you land at LAX and step into a completely welcoming, accepting culture that signals immediately: anything goes. Relax, have a great time. Not a Hawaii-lie-around-the-pool great time.  A get-out-there-and-have-a-ball. Mingle, go to barbecues, hit the club scene, do a night on the town. Be free to enjoy yourself, however you like. Angelenos are incredibly outgoing and friendly, right away.  They don’t need time to warm up to you.  For a transplanted NYer it was palpable immediately. Smiles and welcomes, sincere ones, not papier-mâché politeness, characterizes the citizenry.

13081782663_936de88270_z the patio at Citi Group Plaza

Last week, my cousin was in Los Angeles on an assignment. She always stays at the London West Hollywood.  Claire and I chatted in her sleek ultra-modern suite and then went up to the roof patio for dinner.  It was a beautiful clear day looking out over LA on the top floor of the hotel in late afternoon.  As we were sitting there gabbing, afloat over the city, evening fell, draping everything with its violet shawl. All around us was a crystal view of the sprawl that is the LA metropolis,  its lights flickering on and the stars popping out overhead. Some miles to the east, Downtown appeared as a cluster of glittering stacks that huddled together like intimate giants sharing a secret. Farther along Wilshire, Century City was gazing across the concourse toward Westwood. It was pure magic.

The-London-West-Hollywood

Come to Los Angeles between April and July.  Summers here are too brutal now, the autumn is unremarkable and the winters, well, they can be misty and dull.

13285833245_38ba2a9787_z the Queen Mary Long Beach

Here is where I would start.  Stay at one of the newly restored more affordable hotels Downtown or on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. There is a lot to do at night on this stretch of the Strip. If you like off-off-off Broadway entertainment, lol, the Strip is the place to go.  Start at the Whiskey.  You can walk to it from the London WH, and frankly, that is where I would stay.  Rooms average about US$350, reasonable by LA standards. The other advantage you would have is being able to get to Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, the Melrose restaurant row very easily, even using LA’s notoriously limited public transportation.  I have ridden the Metro bus and train system locally and they are clean, air conditioned, safe and comfortable.  Not like London, Paris or NY, not efficient, fast and ubitquitous, but good. You can even get to Downtown and Pasadena using public transportation, from a central hub of West Hollywood. Hollywood itself is also east on Sunset, so you couldn’t ask for a better place as home base.

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Not to oversell this location, you can also take Sunset to Santa Monica, Brentwood and Venice Beach. Although, as I will explain in a minute, I would suggest the South Bay or Beach Cities instead.  They are far more exemplary of what Angelenos consider beach living, while Santa Monica and Venice are for tourists.

From the hub you choose, I would visit the following places, depending on how much time you have:

  1. Downtown, LA
  2. West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose
  3. Pasadena
  4. South Bay beach cities: Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach
  5. Beverly Hills/Westwood

As you plan your visit, just remember the LA Golden rule:

Everything is always 45 minutes away from everything else …

16585403846_19c427b102_z The Natural History Museum

Downtown, as I have said previously somewhere on this blog, is really hopping now.  If there is a happening place in LA, DT is it.  It is packed with restaurants, clubs, bars, loft-hotels and entertainment.  The Disney Concert Hall, the Chandler Pavillion complex and other similar venues for traditional theater- and concert-going are at the north end.  There are museums and cathedrals as well as the very trendy and cool Grand Central Market that is worth an afternoon of eating and coffee in itself.

There is also a fab Art Walk that takes you around to galleries and the hidden creative underground/grunge that makes LA appealing for millennials right now, from burning men to urban hipsters.  The Natural History Museum and the Staples Center are at the bottom of DT LA and both are worth the trip.  Just walk up and down the north/south artery of Figueroa and you will see a history of architecture from the 18th through the 21st centuries, rising on either side of you.  While you are doing that, make sure to stop at Fig&7th to have a snack or a drink and get in a bit of shopping. Just a block or two north and you can eat at the famous, original Pantry, continuously open since 1924. Or take Wilshire from DT, via the Metros, all the way West to the beach, and watch the progress of the city the automobile built, materialize as you go.

15711558979_82412f6476_z Free art walks DT

And while you are there, make sure you have afternoon English tea at the Biltmore Hotel. It is an LA institution and I guarantee you will gape at the world’s glitterati parading around you as they stream into DT in droves, snapping up refurbished buildings to re-rent out or install start-ups. It is very reasonably priced at about $200 per night for old world luxury.

12674350185_1fdcf10afb_z tea room at the Biltmore

When we are DT, we eat at various places.  You can always grab a bite at the Grand Central Market, with all its many food stalls. If you are deep in the dough, try the Water Grill for perfect food in a flawless upscale environment.  If, like us, you are on a budget, head to the Fisherman’s Outlet.  An LA legend is Philippe’s for sandwiches.

West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose I probably don’t need to tell you too much about this part of LA, West of Downtown.  This is the hub of the night scene. There is shopping, of course, with a robust array of boutiques and galleries. But clubs and restaurants are the main draw. The Viper Room, Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy Theatre and all sorts of sky bars are strung along Sunset.  Just drop your stuff at the hotel and head out in either direction on the Boulevard and you will stumble on them.  Whenever I am in this area and I have time, I make my way over to Little Ethiopia for lunch.  Not only is it affordable, it is exotic and exquisite food made and served by natives.  Try Messob, my fave.

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Pasadena may be a bit more staid but for my money, skip the Getty and the LACMA and head straight to the Norton Simon Museum, Gamble House, Asia Pacific Museum and Huntington Library and gardens that stretch from one end of Old Pasadena to the other.  There is more shopping and eating in Pasadena, with every kind of food from all over the world, than in any place outside of DT LA. It is a beautiful, pristine, elegant old city that has been updated and now boasts an influx of condo dwellers at an unprecedented rate.  Every possible kind of entertainment is available and you can walk to it, from the Metro which has several stations in Old Town. Definitely check out The Pasadena Playhouse for live theater, as well as various cinema complexes up and down the main east-west thoroughfare — especially at The Paseo –, Colorado Boulevard.  You can attend free concerts all summer at the Levitt Pavilion or the symphony at the stunning, world class Ambassador Auditorium.

Make sure you stop by the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, Vromans and have a homemade sundae at the 100 year old Fairoaks Pharmacy in South Pasadena. Eat dinner at the incomparable El Cholo, for Mexican food, SoCal style.

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Southbay/The Beach Cities This may be a bit out of the way, unless you have a car. If so, head west on Sunset to the 405/San Diego Freeway and points south.  Get off at Rosecrans and go west to Pacific Coast Highway, turning south again.  You will be in Manhattan Beach, the largest of the three.  Turn right on Manhattan Beach Boulevard and take it down to the Ocean. There you will find yourself amid the real coupon-clipping laid back millionaires that teem all over this part of LA.  These are the Angelenos who never work. Everywhere around you will be bronzed blonds zipping along in Italian convertibles.  There are literally dozens of places to eat, in every price range, as well as boutiques and bars.  But, of course, as you rise over the crest of the hill on MB Blvd., you will see the Pacific gleaming and winking ahead of you.  Bring a towel and beach wear. This is the place to watch the roller-bladers gliding along The Strand in front of the multi-million dollar manses that perch at the sand’s edge.  Take your margarita down there and imagine what life would be like if you had nothing to do every day but gaze out at the ocean liners and Catalina, while your help kept you supplied with refreshments.

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MBch is the best kept secret in the Southland.  Try the ancient Kettle for lunch and Love&Salt for dinner. Farther down PCH pointing south is Hermosa Beach.  Like Manhattan, it is for play not work, but trendier, younger, hipper and more bohemian.  Finally, a bit farther down is Redondo Beach.  It has the Pier and attracts an older, quieter crowd.  You can’t go wrong with any of the three.  Hermosa has a comedy club that is actually fabulous. You never know who is going to do a gig there, often well known comics, so check before you go and reserve a seat.

13306235795_dac947ac8a_z Cruise to Catalina Long Beach

Beverly Hills/ Bel Air/ Westwood I typically avoid the first two.  By the way, Century City is in this area but it is largely businesses and residential.  There is not much there to recommend you spend time in CC when you could be Downtown, in Manhattan Beach, or Pasadena. Beverly Hills needs little introduction. If mansion-crawling is your thing, just go west on Sunset from West Hollywood, and you will be in Bel Air in ten minutes.  It is self-explanatory once you see the sign (you can’t miss it). If you find yourself in Bel Air, visit the North side of the UCLA campus, the old part of this 419 acre magnificat.  You shouldn’t waste time looking at houses in BH, the main attraction of which is that Sultanic mecca known as Rodeo Drive. By the way, if you want to stay in this part of LA and actually go to the LACMA anyway, you can stay at the iconic Beverly Wilshire (Pretty Woman). But, it’s pricey.

Don’t bother eating in BH either. Overpriced, overhyped, mediocre food.  No celebs will be eating there, just tourists.  Eat instead in Westwood, the home village of UCLA, SoCal’s other premiere University (beside CalTech).  There are so many fantastic places to eat in Westwood, I would need another post for them.  Our favorite is Native Foods.

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Ok, ok, I hear you saying, but what if I absolutely must tell people I ate in Beverly Hills and money is no object? Then absolutely, you have to go to Crustacean, if for nothing else, the experience of the place.  You won’t be sorry — broke, but happy.   If you just need to use a restroom and grab a snack so you won’t faint while shopping, go to Neiman Marcus, located on Wilshire.

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Then head over to Westwood, gape at billionaire’s row on Wilshire as you approach the Westwood Village, and rest on the UCLA south campus after all this activity.

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By the way, there are three more items you might want to consider: LAX, Burbank Airport and Union Station.  If you want to start in the South Bay and see these three beautiful and entertaining beach cities, by all means fly into LAX.  They are just 15 minutes south on the 405 Freeway.  If you want to start in Pasadena or West Hollywood? Use the very nice, easy, safe Burbank Airport, you will be just minutes away from both.  If you plan to start Downtown, consider taking Amtrak to Union Station and see a classic with one of the best restaurants anywhere, Traxx.

9298839942_bbe4b9aed3_z Union Station

That’s it.  If you just hit those five key spots, you will be immersed in LA and totally ‘get it’ ever after.

Images: Beth Byrnes, The London West Hollywood and The Examiner

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Hot saws

Mexico has been in the news repeatedly for the past two years, and we all know why.  A deranged toddler averred that Mexico has not been sending their best. Really? Has this clown ever been there? Has he been in the Southwestern United States much?

One thing I appreciate about being in Southern California, and having a second home close to the border now, is my proximity to all things Latin American, without any of the drawbacks of living there.

I have lived south of the border and while I enjoyed the cultural enrichment, it isn’t easy for a pampered American to live abroad anywhere, including in our own hemisphere, no matter how sophisticated the country.

Whenever we want to, we can drive a few minutes to Olvera Street in Downtown LA or, when in San Diego, hit Old Town.

Since I have been in Mexico half a dozen times, ranging from Puerto Vallarta, to Mexico City, to Tijuana, I can say with confidence, Old Town is the same thing — almost.

We get the benefit of the unique and delicious food, the cheerful, catchy music, the colorful art, and the fact that without Mexico and Puerto Rico, most Americans could only speak English, and that, just barely.

Don’t think for a minute you can learn another language with Rosetta or Babbel.

There is only one way, either you are raised in a multilingual household by native speakers from other countries, or you immerse yourself in another culture without the benefit of falling back on English.

Where else would our English heritage have learned to add hot peppers to our bland diet?

Who do you think taught us about chili and cheese fries?

How else would we have had the good fortune to travel close-by to resorts that cost a small fraction of those in Europe or Hawaii?

Even the Caribbean is prohibitive. Not Mexico.

Would we have the beautiful architecture of all the Mission towns in the sun belt without the early Church fathers like Padre Junipero Serra?

And, Snow Birds who can no longer afford Miami or San Diego, can live like royalty over the southern border.

As you know, if you have been in my community for the last five years, I am no fan of hot weather, so when I choose to travel, it is always north.

In fact, we just got back from a wonderful trip to San Francisco. But I would be unfair if I were not to acknowledge the priceless contribution of South America to our country.

It needs to be recalled, that the people who come here want to bring all these good things to us in return for a chance to prove how wonderful they can be.

These are not lazy, untalented, unskilled people, nor criminals. These are hardworking ambassadors that contribute to our society in manifold ways. Let’s not forget it, or the words on the Statue of Liberty.

Images: Chez BeBe assets/Old Town, San Diego. Click on each photo to view it large.

Sogno divino

Can you believe it’s December?

I have been on such a marathon with my certificate classes, work, trips back and forth to our place in San Diego and the other householdy things I do in Valencia, that I have had almost no time to write on this blog.

Let me first say, what better time of year to introduce Little Italy on the water at the top of Downtown San Diego, than the holidays.

This old and venerated neighborhood — still hanging in there when many similar places have gone under, victims of “modernization” in other cities — is alive and hopping all hours of the day and night, all times of year.

But, especially in autumn and winter.

I had Kevin and Anna in tow when we made a shopping run to Little Italy recently. I still managed to get a few shots that could make up a series and ended up with over 150 pictures. Here are some of them.

Little Italy is colorful, as you can see. There is a misty haze in the air no matter the weather, being so close to the Pacific — evident in this set, too.

That gave me the ability to show the bright colors that characterize this enclave, yet with some softness imparted by the moisture.  It is never hot or cold, just pleasant all year long.

But that is a major feature of San Diego in general. It is truly mediterranean and likely one attraction for Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The similar neighborhood is long gone from Los Angeles.

One legacy of all this is the staggering number of grocery stores and restaurants, trattorias and cafes that still inhabit the area.  And, pastry shops are also unique to this little part of town.

Urban hipsters are moving in in droves. Some are able to rent the vintage wooden houses that still stand.

Others are snapping up very small but very luxurious condos with views that developers have used to attract people to purchase in this place what would buy a villa elsewhere.

You don’t want to know the prices.

But, I have figured out that for a 1000 square foot apartment with three tiny bedrooms and two tiny bathrooms, buyers are grateful to pay almost a cool million dollars.

Now, as to blogging. I have to admit, as much as I love coming here to discuss things that you and I care about, it is hard to be chatty while this catastrophe unfolds in front of us.

Those of you who voted for this deranged toddler/con-man should admit to yourselves it was a mistake. Those of you who abstained because you got it into your heads that Hillary was just as bad, you are just as culpable for raining all this down on us.   Geoff and I knew we would get exactly this, just not the degree of depravity.

But, I won’t dwell on it. Like many of us, I am riding it out and hopeful that the Democrats pull their collective heads out of the sand and get the majority back so we can save this country from going any farther down this Orwellian neo-fascist road.

I don’t care who we put up for POTUS, that person had better have experience and fortitude because it is going to be an ugly fight.

That said, I would love you to comment about anything (not necessarily the politics, of course!) but you don’t have to. We are a community and I know you are here and we have each other’s backs.

Hugs to you all! Belated Happy Thanksgiving to my US friends. And Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukkah and Happy Holidays to everyone, as well.

Hoping to get back here in January — starting another certification class but I will post as soon as I can.

“Sogno divino” is my play on words. It can mean three or four things in Italian. It is also the clever name of a wine shop in Little Italy.

Images: Chez Bebe Assets/Little Italy, Downtown, San Diego

 

Truckulence

Now for something completely different.  (Click on the pictures to view them large.)

Let’s just get an old truck and paint it ourselves! Genius. Then we save money for a Mercedes.

As I mentioned in my Flickr series featuring these pictures, Geoffrey woke up one day after Christmas and announced it was time to get two new vehicles. Finally! After 15 years. I was really looking forward to it, even though we buy cars to last. I always get either a Mercedes or a Volvo.  At one point I tried Mitsubishi Monteros — loved them and then for a couple of years drove a Chrysler Town & Country minivan — liked it a lot. But for longevity and safety, I am a Volvo fan.

Yup. Here’s my car, parked in San Diego while we went to a fair recently. No hesitation. Seats 7 and rides like a dream. Comfy seats. I love it!

So, I had been eyeing an XC90 SUV for a few years and didn’t even have to think twice. I ran right out and found one I loved, with sparkling dark gray metallic, just like my older one. Done and done!

I am not a Beemer fan per se, but how about a convertible with a sparkling roof?

Geoffrey was a different story. We already had, between us, five vehicles. He had two trucks and a car, I had two cars: my vintage Mercedes totally maintained and restored and my 2002 Volvo sedan. Both in the same silver grey.  Geoffrey had his two trucks, one with an extended bed (are you sleepy yet?) and his black 2002 Volvo station wagon.

Or a cool little job with glowing hubs and an iridescent “butterfly wing” finish? Works for me!

Naturally, I thought he was going to get a sedan. But no, he decided he simply had to have another truck. One that he could take to all the fancy clients when he needed to look professional and ready to work, but also upscale and sophisticated. Ugh. How does that work? Another truck? And, where would be put it?

Maybe a custom Jeep? Looks roomy.

Resistance!!

This is probably what he imagines, with me emerging from a massive metal monster looking fierce. I might be forced to get tattoos!

We have three garages at our house. One of them has my Merc, one has his Volvo, and the other one is full of junk. We can squeeze three vehicles in the driveway and he keeps one truck in front of the house on our street and another one at his building in Downtown LA. Now we would have my new XC90 and his truck? We can’t hog the street, so I was really getting upset.

Well, my favorite color right now is purple. How about this? Like, glow-in-the-dark, right?

Also, I don’t want to drive around in another ole truck when he is driving. What’s the fun of new wheels then? I wanted something really snazzy and snappy and cool. Not a clunky truck.

Or … mother-of-pearl!

So, the only resolution was to let me pick it out. Aha!!! Dangerous.

Copper and Dayglo pink?

These pictures reflect my ideas as I let my imagination do the shopping.

Uh, this is what a full extended bed and king cab look like! I just tweaked it a bit. Manly, huh?

I know, right?

Something spooky for Halloween …

Wait for it — right down at the bottom is the one we finally chose. We could agree on it because it has a regular bed and a totally tricked out luxurious “cab”.

Or eerie … for the coming apocalypse. Just sayin’ …

OK, so it’s not a Mercedes, but I scored a victory by getting one that matches my car and can fit, amazingly enough, both in the driveway and in front of our house (with his other truck sent packing to his building to join the first one).

Prrrrrrrrrr …

Got all that? Anyway, that’s one of the many things taking up our time as the summer draws to a close.

Thought you might enjoy seeing these “confections” that sprang full grown from my head.

Images: Chez BeBe assets/Santa Clarita, California

‘Tis the season

No, not the season of joy, love and giving.

The hunting season.

This post is for anyone who has the link.

Please do not friend, follow, “like” me or comment on any of my social media sites, if you are a hunter.

As far as I am concerned, in the 21st century, it is the cowardly and brutal act of a weak and emotionally handicapped individual.

I am not in the thrall of any organization. I have held this position my entire life.

The NRA has infiltrated every sector of American society with lies about the need for hunting. Many people call it a sport. Both would be laughable, if they were not so serious.

Hunters, the NRA are pathetic.

One hundred thousand years ago, certain tribes may have needed to hunt animals on a small, low-tech (naturally) scale for survival. There are virtually no tribes like these left. Certainly not the overweight, flaccid American men who like to hunt with computerized automatic missiles from high-speed vehicles in “preserves” where animals are cornered for the enjoyment of these sick people.

Don’t lecture me about overpopulation of deer. I am an expert on this subject. Don’t tell me you eat what you kill, that’s just as bad.

If you are a meat eater, I can understand somewhat because the animal concentration camps where the carcasses you consume are kept and tortured, are hidden and manned by immigrants desperate for work. Hunters confront their victims head on. They have no excuse.

When they wake up or get treatment, we might re-establish our relationship. Until then, I want nothing to do with hunters.

To my regular friends here on WP, I am sorry, but this is the best place to post this note. A regular post is imminent.

Tickling ivories

“Back up you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women. But you can’t intimidate me. Back. Up!”  I love that line. Wish she had said it during that debate. More on this in a minute.

August flew by, didn’t it? It is my birthday month (yay) and I would always stretch out every minute to enjoy it, but these days August brings the dog days of heat and humidity.

Back when I first moved to Los Angeles, it was dry and there were cold winters, hot arid summers, with a bit of rain in winter and spring and very warm but breezy autumns. That is changing fast. It is warmish all year long, rarely dipping below 50F. Sigh.

Still, the cusp of September brings memories of crisp, cold, sunny New York City days, when I was growing up. And the thought of the icy, bright beauty of Ithaca, where I went to school. New outfits — lots of them tailored wool. Snug thigh-high boots shuffling through a crackly carpet of muted red, gold and violet maple leaves on bumpy Upstate sidewalks. I miss the Northeast most in Fall.

Would it surprise you to know that I am somewhat heartened by the obvious developments of the current political scene? The man has lost his mind and is now so disinhibited, his true ugly inner self has emerged in all its pathology. He was in Arizona last night, which always brings out the worst in him (and worst for him is pretty damn bad). There, he made sure he praised a racist criminal, convicted felon and trashed a war hero with brain cancer. We, the sane here, just keep shaking our heads, but anticipate his marginalization imminently. Small comfort, but at least the pain is over. Mrs. Clinton, a virtual hug of support goes out to you, once again.

But, I am rambling.  What have we here? My latest Flickr series.

I finally ventured into monochrome photography. It’s a subject so vast and well covered elsewhere by serious photographers that I don’t feel the need to amplify it further. I am always looking for the next creative experiment and this was the one for August. Something completely different coming up in September.

We are heading down to our house in SD next week and will be there for at least two weeks. It means hauling more furniture, which is always tedious but beats buying new stuff. Our current house in Los Angeles is half the size of the previous one, so we have had furniture packed to the rafters in the garage. Might as well use it. Geoffrey has been busy refinishing some of it and he is so good at this, it looks brand new. Good to have a handy husband!  Well, it’s his hobby anyway. We should always face in the direction the horse is traveling.

The ‘ivories’ reference points to my preference for warm whites in black and white photographs. I tried in each one of these to process the final jpeg with varying shades from eggshell to egg cream. See what you think. I also concentrated on human subjects — something that always makes me nervous, but, for this set I used long lenses and cropped the interim TIFs close.

Some I really liked. Some I felt were so-so.

The full set of 30 shots is on Flickr right now.  What I find intriguing is that pictures I thought were mediocre sometimes garner the most attention and others that I found astonishingly good considering I am not a photographer, people yawn at. Ah well. I have no ego in this!

In fact, the Romanovs occupying the WH right now have sucked all the ego out of America for the moment. So feel free to react to them however you like. I promise you I will not be offended.

Hugs, everyone. I hope to be around to see you all, while we pack up the cargo van.

Images: Chez Bebe assets/Southern California