IRISH GRANNY IN THE SUN – USA

We left Sacramento on a rainy Friday morning and headed by train for San Jose in Silicon Valley California. We had penciled in a whistle stop trip here on our itinerary before heading for the sunnier climate of Los Angeles and Venice Beach. Our stop offs have been for relatively short periods from Seattle down to San Jose as our Visas have a 90 day restriction and to date we have spent the majority of this time in pretty cold weather. We intend taking in the last few weeks of our trip in the USA lapping up the glorious sunshine in Southern California and New Mexico.

Arriving at our Airbnb we were delighted to see that it had a huge clear blue swimming pool, a jacuzzi and sun loungers (in case we got tired of the sight seeing of course!). And so first things first, we ventured out into the city for a snoop. And lo and behold, as we walked into the centre of the city, out of nowhere, walking towards us was none other than a Stormtrooper from Star Wars!! Sure who else would ya expect to see on the streets of San Jose  And then, there were more! Seriously…all the various different characters from comic strips and movies appeared behind him on the street! What the heck??!!! It was like we’d landed on a movie set! We had inadvertently walked into the Silicon Valley Comic Con! Surrounding us were so many different versions of Superman, Superwoman, Batman, Catwoman, Wolverine, Legoman, Spider-Man, and every character from Comics/Movies that you can imagine. We got chatting the various cartoon and movie characters who were only too happy to pose with us for photographs in their costumes. Now it’s not every day that ya get to chat to all these dudes :-

First impressions of the city of San Jose is that it’s immaculately clean, pretty and with the warm temperatures and clear blue skies, it was just what we needed. Also, they really have got the whole public transport system right. In fact, travelling across the States using public transport has been incredibly easy. I’m constantly blown away by the efficiency of how you can get from A to B in a relatively short period of time. There’s little or no waiting around and the linking of transport services is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in terms of top class public service! Bottom line here is that you don’t really need a car to travel (unless you want to venture off the beaten track). In fact, it is probably much faster and cheaper to reach your destination using public transport than by car. The key to this is figuring out the transport systems/buses/subways etc. and Bob’s your uncle. You’re sorted! Another point worth mentioning is the standard of Airbnb’s here. We have had nothing but positive experiences at every Airbnb that we’ve stayed at. The hosts at each place have been wonderful and the quality of accommodation is right up there with the some of the best accommodation I’ve been lucky enough to experience. If you’re looking for a way to travel without incurring huge costs, Airbnb is definitely the way to go. Just read the reviews and do a bit of research on the Airbnb site before you book. It really does save you an arm and a leg when travelling. We certainly would not be able to do this trip without it.

And so, before we left San Jose, we met up with Colm’s friend Ralph and his wife Maria who kindly took us for a drive to see the playground on the coast, Santa Cruz. Then for dinner in one of the best Italian Restaurants for miles around! The day was typically warm and sunny as we headed out along the coast. I was ecstatic at the thought of standing by the Pacific Ocean and seeing it in all its glory for the first time in my life! And I was hoping that if the weather held out (as it’s inclined to do on this side of the world ) that I might even get to paddle in it. So, with fingers and toes crossed we pulled into the parking bay at the Santa Cruz pier, we took in the whole carnival rides that looked like a kaleidoscope of colors and the squeals of excitement that added to the holiday atmosphere that spilled out across the pier. The sweet smell of candy floss and sugar coated popcorn filled my head with childhood memories of visiting the old Butlins Summer Resort, or Tramore and Bettystown back home in Ireland. And I was trying to recall if the now closed resort of Butlins (which was my all time favourite place to go) had been replaced with similar ones for the next generation of Irish children to enjoy. I don’t believe there has been any like it I’m sad to say. I guess with the unpredictable summer climate back home it’s difficult to sustain such a resort for any length of time. What a pity! And so, having walked through the main entrance of the carnival, there in front of me lay the immense, wild Pacific Ocean with huge foaming waves crashing to the shore. And without further ado, off came my shoes and in I went (as far as my ankles ) for my first time ever paddle in the Pacific! And yep, it was pretty cold, but no colder than our very own Atlantic Ocean on a good day. But lads, to stand there looking out at the vastness of this impressively breathtaking part of our planet is something that will remain with me forever.

The one thing that’s really irritating about visiting San Jose, and I mean REALLY irritating, is that once you arrive you can’t bloody stop singing that song…”Do you know the way to San Jose”….I’m still singing it even though I left there over a frigging week ago! 😂😱😱😱

From San Jose we headed for a two-day stay in San Francisco. In the glorious sunshine we walked along the famous Pier 39, where we spotted the sea-lions gathered on wooden floats in the harbour. They are comical to watch. Over 100 sea lions, playing and fighting with each other and basking in the sunshine. Each sea-lion is territorial over its own little place on the float and dare another one jump up out of the water to move in on another’s space. That’s when the rows start. Barking at one another and pushing each other back into the water. But if you do visit this part of the Pier you need to make sure that you haven’t eaten. The smell from the sea-lions is a bit stomach churning and not for the faint hearted. Worth it though and I wouldn’t miss the whole experience to be honest because of this. Once your stomach has recovered there are plenty of cool restaurants to catch a bite to eat at, which we did before taking the pre-booked tour to Alcatraz! There’s a reason that we had to pre-book this tour and that is because it is probably the best tour that we have been on this side of the States. It is so popular and such a fantastic trip that we were even lucky to have secured two tickets almost three weeks before we headed out. And in fact this is one of the main reasons that we travelled to San Francisco.

On the face of it, as you leave the Pier for Alcatraz, the view of the prison on the island is amazing. But it only reveals itself when you disembark from the ferry and start the island tour with a guide who meets you as you arrive onto the island. The guide is a man (a park ranger in fact) who has worked on Alcatraz for 30 years and is on first name terms with some of the prison’s now released inmates. If ever I saw someone made for their job, this guy is it. It is clear that even after 30 years doing the tours, he is as committed and enthusiastic as he was when he started working there in the island’s book shop at the tender age of 14 years old. So much so that following the stories of the numerous unsuccessful attempted escapes from Alcatraz prison way back in the 1930’s right through until the 1960’s ….he himself trained to swim the treacherous waters surrounding the island, and succeeded in doing it. He does say that it took him months of training to do it, and that having done the swim, he is doubtful that any prisoner swam as far as San Francisco to freedom. The stories of the attempts to escape of prisoners is jaw dropping. We are all too familiar with the movie “Escape from Alcatraz” where three guys dig out a section of a wall in their cells with a spoon and reach the water’s edge and attempt to swim across to San Fran. Well, rumours are still circulating that one of the three guys is still alive and survived the swim. His family have come forward to say that he wants to make himself known, only to be told by the authorities that he is still a wanted man in terms of the law and will have to be taken back into custody if he shows up. And so the mystery remains…is he alive? Who knows. He’d be in his 80’s now if he was so it is plausible I guess. Another intriguing story of an attempted escape was where a prisoner who worked in the laundry room of the prison, over a period of about a year, gathered pieces of the guards uniforms that he was responsible for cleaning. After a year he had snook enough pieces of material and paraphernalia from the guards clothing that he made himself a uniform. His plan was that he would change into the guards uniform and board the ship that brought them from San Francisco to the island. And so the morning came for him to execute his plan. He quickly changed into his carefully made uniform and walked to the platform of the ship where other guards saluted him as he boarded (not realizing he was a prisoner of course). The ship left the dock of Alcatraz, with him onboard thinking he at last would see the sights of San Francisco and escape before the prison officers had realized he was gone. Unfortunately, he had mistakenly boarded the boat that was heading to another remote island, Angel Island, (and not San Fran! Oh jeeez!) just a short way away from Alcatraz which was home to a US Army base. The ship was travelling there to pick up more laundry!! Needless to say, he quickly realized what had happened and at that point the prison officers on Alcatraz discovered his empty cell just in time to notify the guards on the boat docking at Angel Island. The poor guy was caught and repatriated to Alcatraz to solitary confinement for a significant period of time. Can you just imagine…after all that work he had put in, all the planning…and here he was …caught and recaptured…jeez what a bummer. I have to admit, I did giggle though as the Ranger told us the story.

Oh, and did you know that the prisoners who stayed at Alcatraz before it closed in the 1960’s were the very few inmates who had the luxury of hot water showers? A thoughtful justice system? Ehhh…No. It was to make sure that they never got so used to cold water that they would be prepared for the ice cold waters surrounding the island. Imagine!

We spent the best part of a full day on the island and I would have stayed longer if we didn’t have to get the last ferry off the island. It was up there with the best a tour can offer and even had one of the last of the living inmates, Bill Baker (released from prison only 7 years ago) signing his autobiography at the bookstore. So lads, I would absolutely recommend that if you’re visiting this part of the world that you take in this tour. Fantastic isn’t the word for it. And then nothing like ending a fabulous day with some great company in the form of meeting up with friends Brian and Sherry from San Fran who we hooked up with for food and drinks and spent a wonderful evening back at their lovely home where we met their fluffy bundles of love, their two black and white long-haired cats. The following morning we headed out by Ferry to another quaint part of San Fran and that was to Sausalito to meet up with an absolute sweetheart of a friend of a friend, Anastasia. Anastasia is a native of Sausalito and took us around the town to see the lovely sights of this unique part of the area. On the ferry back we bumped into two Irish civil servants that I happened to have mutual friends in common with from my time working in Dublin. What a small small world…even this far away from home in a country with such a huge population that this happens. As it does…part of being Irish eh?

The following day we boarded the Amtrak Coastal Starlight train again and headed south for Los Angeles. The 12 hour trip along this route is quite frankly spectacular and probably one of the most beautiful parts of the train journey that we have done thus far. The train climbs up through magnificent mountain ranges and at one point twists and turns like a snake for miles until it reaches the coastline of the Pacific Ocean as it makes its way to its final destination of Los Angeles. We were glued to our seats in the viewing carriage of the train (which is basically a carriage with glass ceilings and walls so you can take in this incredibly beautiful coastline) and it’s most definitely a once in a lifetime experience to travel this route. The journey by train at first glance when booking it seems time consuming, but it certainly does not feel like it when you’re sitting in total comfort looking out at and experiencing the whole west coast of the United States as you travel. It is so worth skipping the flights and doing it by train for this alone!

It was late when we arrived into L.A. and we took a cab to our hotel (as we were only staying for two nights we thought it easier to pick up a relatively cheap but cheerful hotel before heading for Venice Beach). Our hotel was in Korea Town, a part of L.A. that seems to only cater for people from this Asian background. This is quite common in L.A. While it has an extremely diverse population, each nationality seems to have its own separate community and integration isn’t really evident in the context of people from different nationalities living together in the same space. We decided the following morning that as we were only doing a quick stop in LA we would have to venture out to Hollywood (which was pretty much on our doorstep) and see how “the other half” live. We weren’t disappointed. Oh holy mother of divine lord … lads, I’m not joking you when I say that what we read in magazines is only the half of it! I mean, how on earth can people afford to live like this? Streets paved with gold is an understatement! We took the bus around the city and everyone that had sunglasses on we were jumping up thinking it was a celebrity. And then we copped on and bought some cool sunglasses and walked around as though we were, watching people on the buses looking at us trying to see who we were…and if we were celebrities too. Ha haaa… That’s what it’s like here, I swear. Gas crack indeed! We got to walk the Hollywood Hall of Fame, Hollywood Boulevard, Beverly Hills and see where all the rich and famous people wine and dine. We passed the hotel where Whitney Houston passed away, which was actually quite moving. The Hilton hotel stands alongside the most prestigious hotels in this area and to be honest, is not overly impressive as far as the other hotels go and it’s quite sad to think that this is where this poor tormented woman spent her final hours, alone. Amongst the richest in society, amongst the most famous people on the planet! Her song, the Greatest Love of All is very poignant when I think about the life that she was exposed to as a result of her huge talent and fame.

And so we leave the wonderful and awesome lights and sights of L.A. and Hollywood for Venice Beach and Santa Monica…which is a whole blog onto itself. Oh My Gawwwwdddd….I’m still trying to get my head around this place since we arrived. It basically is exactly as it says on the tin! 😂😂😂

Be back soon on that one… man! 😂😂😂🌴🌴🌴🏄‍♀️🧘‍♀️🧘‍♀️🧘‍♀️

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