The Golden Coast

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Spending over half of my life in California, I've never realized until recently that the rest of the country, maybe even the world, seems to view California as a kind of semi-mythical land of sunny beaches, bikini babes, endless surfing days, and unspeakable wealth – largely thanks to the propaganda of TV shows such as Baywatch and pop musicians like the Beach Boys and the Eagles. In the last couple years, I have traveled around the country quite a bit, and had plenty of chances to answer “I’m from California” to people’s inquiries. The subtle reactions to my answers, especially among younger people, often contained more than a thread of refrained admiration, envy, and longing (not unlike the sentiment in California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas), which presumably arose from the fabled sunny beaches, bikini babes, endless surfing days, and unspeakable wealth. Such reaction was not totally unexpected if you consider the traditional American fascination about the west. From the romance of the wild frontier, to the ambitions of striking it rich in the gold rush (the contemporary version being a successful startup heading for IPO), to the yearning of becoming a movie or a reality TV star, the American Dream kept pushing westward and California has become the final destination for all the restless souls.

In this page we shall explore the core of this dream, the golden coast along the Pacific Ocean where the storied sunny beaches, endless surfing days, and unspeakable wealth were to be found (Sorry, no bikini babes). In the spring of 2016, we started from the San Francisco Bay area and meandered our way down to San Diego and back – there was no better way to spend a spring break than cruising leisurely along the picturesque Pacific coast, enjoying the warm embrace of the brilliant Californian sun.

 

First stop, Monterey, a small, pleasant town on the southern end of the Monterey Bay. The prominent attraction here had to be the world-renown Monterey Bay Aquarium. It has been our favorite excursion since time immemorial; and every single time we would be mesmerized by the riveting display of colorful marine lives and massive water tanks behind enormous single pane window – one of the largest in the world. .

 

The charm of Monterey also lied on its rocky coastline and its Fisherman’s Wharf – a petite, rustic version of the more famous one in San Francisco, with souvenir shops and seafood restaurants lined along the boardwalk. The food was great. My only complaint was that the seafood selection was limited, and that actually applied to the majority of American seafood restaurants – they're pretty boring. The outside display of this establishment pretty much covered everything: a couple species of crustaceans, half a dozen fishes, and a few mollusks -- that was it. Blessed with copious provision from two great oceans, that was all the American ever wanted. In coastal China you can find more variety of ocean tube worms plus more ways to cook them than what average American can imagine in their worst nightmares.

 

The impressive waves were inviting along the coast, but surfing in Northern California would require a thick full-body wet suit if you don’t want a thermal shock when dipping in. Because of oceans current from Alaska and the Coriolis Effect (rotation of the earth shears warmer top layer water towards the ocean, while the colder water rises to surface), the water temperature stay in the 50s (F) all year long in the Monterey area.

 

 

Further down south we cruised along CA-1 through perhaps the most famous stretch of coastline in the continent, the Big Sur. From Carmel in the north to San Simeon, some 85 miles of rugged coastal highway meandered between the majestic Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the vast Pacific – the “greatest meeting between water and land in the world.” Along the jagged coastline, the lush Santa Lucia Mountain plunged into the hypnotic blue, shattering into a thousand reefs all around. The ocean greeted them with raging creamy waves, which splashed, carved and chiseled the reefs year over year. The terrain was so forbidding that it took 18 years (1919-37) to construct a highway through the rock. Even with the highway, the area didn’t have electricity till the 1950s – mind you this is in the middle of the most developed state in the country. However, I’m sure that the few who chose to reside in the region wouldn’t mind trading a bit of inconvenience for the most breathtaking of all coastal landscapes.

 

Nowadays the area was still thinly populated and largely devoid of McDonald’s and hotel chains, thanks to an extremely restrictive state-sponsored coastal program. However, the problem was that the area was swarmed with tourists, hordes and hordes of them. So it’s not untypical for you to wait two hours for an over-priced hamburger in one of those under-staffed, family-run restaurants. Well, conservation did come with a price.

 

What made us somewhat more tolerant was the fact that the conservation effort left a hundred mile of natural landscape and farm land undisturbed. The slogan "happy cows come from California" certainly looked credible here.

 

One of the hidden gem along the coast was the Calla Lily Grove. Every spring, the valley would be lined with efflorescent wild calla lily, which stretched all the way to the 2-mile long beach front.

 

The beaches were tastefully adorned with drift woods – the perfect theater to enjoy a rich, fiery sunset.

 

 

Further south we reached San Simeon, a tiny “two-man-and-a-dog” kind of town half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The town itself was nothing more than a modest coastal community, but if you look up eastward, somewhere on top of the lofty Santa Lucia Mountain was William Randolph Hearst’s palace, Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the most magnificent private residence ever on this side of the continent, the Hearst Castle.

 

The 90,000-plus square feet mansion was the very definition of conspicuous consumption. Imagine a stately home with 165 rooms, 127 acres of yards (well, garden and terrace), two elegant Olympic-size pools (one in-door and one out-door), a movie theater, an airfield, plus the largest private zoo in the world, all sitting prominently up the hill, overlooking the gem-like Pacific Ocean, some 1,600 feet below. Would life ever be grander than that?

To access the castle, we had to travel miles of winding mountain path up the hill, past Hearst’s enormous ranch and the old site of the zoo. Hearst named the estate “La Cuesta Encantad,” or the enchanted hill. It was not hard to see why.

 

Upon arrival, all the guests had to climb up a series of stairs, past an expansive terrace with a panoramic view of the ranch and the Pacific, and greeted by the gorgeous garden and the stately castle, which we’ll get to shortly. Strolling around the garden, the guests would find, much to their delight, two stunning Greek and Roman styled swimming pools, clothed with the most intricate mosaic and surrounded by a rich assortment of immaculate marble pavilions, fountains, and sculptures. Such heady opulence would leave Caligula envious.

 

More scenes from the garden. Hearst seemed to be quite fond of the Roman tradition of decorating the garden with marble sacrophagus, a practice I was unable to appreciate.

 

The main building was the imposing and elaborated Casa Grande, modeled after a Spanish church. Its interior was just equally eye-popping. Hearst, as an avid collector, stuffed the castle with truckloads of European arts, antiques, and artifacts from his collections. There were riveting assortment of fine statues, furniture, utensils, paintings, drapery, rugs… Every single item was elegantly delightful and had a story to tell. The most fascinating display of them all, the wooden ceilings were mostly antiques from old buildings all over Europe. Hearst took the trouble to ship them all the way to the other end of the world and cut them into proper sizes to fit the rooms. Can you believe that?

 

The whole setting was clearly designed to inspire awe and admiration from the guests from every possible angle. Now is it impressive? Yes, extremely. But some acrid souls would mutter that it’s all excessive, pretentious showoff. Paul Fussell, for one, thought the place lack class, because Hearst “care too much what effect he was having on people.”

 

Well, pungent as he was, Fussell’s got a point. The castle was no doubt splendid and all, but it was regretfully embedded with certain incoherence. The problem was that Hearst was too anxious to display his best trophies from decades of treasure hunts in Europe. Upon his request, the architect and interior designer Julia Morgan couldn’t have the materials custom-made, but instead had to make do with what’s available in Hearst’s collection. Granted that Hearst had a huge warehouse of artifacts beyond any ordinary folk’s wildest dreams, and I’m sure that Morgan did her best, still, one would often find the ceilings, the walls, the fireplace, and the decorations at odd with each other. Those were all exquisite materials in their own rights you see, but sometimes their colors, textures, patterns just felt reluctant when put together (the afore-mentioned antique ceilings, mostly gloomy, heavy, and oppressive, were actually the worst offenders). It was like Dream Team III in the 2004 Olympic game. You got a superstar roster: Duncan, Iverson, Wade, Lebron, Carmelo Anthony... But they just couldn’t play together. They were blown away even by the lowly Puerto Rican by an embarrassing 19 points, and had to settle with a Bronze medal. Pity.

 

 

Leaving this temple of ostentatious consumption with mixed feelings, we cruised on southward. More rocky shore, sand beaches, and tide pools.

 

 

We stopped in Pismo Beach, one of the more picturesque, tranquil little coastal town.

 

The real reason for our stop in Pismo Beach was an unusual beach front where we could drive the car along. As it turned out, the drive wasn’t as easy as it appeared. One had to cautiously drive on the middle ground between the dry sand (too puffy and lacks grip) and water front (too liquid and sucks the tires easily). The car had to keep moving to avoid stranded on wet sands. We were amused to see a number of Camrys and Impalas trapped along the way, mentally admonishing these half-wits that they should have chosen an all-wheel-drive vehicle. Then at one point we were getting a bit too perky and paused for just one moment to gape at the waves rushing towards us, and what a mistake that was. All four wheels were immediately immersed by the quick sand and spinning helplessly. The harder they struggled, the deeper they dug, and the lower the car sunk. It really didn’t matter how many driving wheels we had, once a wheel was seized by a sand pit, it would be stuck. It was late in the afternoon, as we got out of the car, we watched with dismay in numbing gale as the tide was getting higher and higher, praying that a tow truck would show up before the mighty Pacific devour our ride. It would be another two hours before the car was finally dragged out of its doom. For months after the incident, the poor thing still shed small piles of sands from its underbody from time to time, even though I did flush it thoroughly. The lesson? Never get too perky and carried away.

 

 

Some 80 miles down south from Pismo Beach was Santa Barbara, reputedly the Pacific version of the Riviera, largely owing to its Mediterranean climate and leisure lifestyle.

 

The more memorable attraction was its County Courthouse, a National Historic Landmark and one of the most glorious Spanish Revival style structures I’ve seen. The group of four buildings occupied an entire city block, with its prominent clock tower as one of the highest points in downtown Santa Barbara. The top of the tower we had an excellent view of the city, which lied lazily between the Ocean and the steep San Ynez Mountain under the balmy sun.

 

 

Further down south we arrived at Los Angeles, the tinsel town from where Hollywood magic radiated out to all around the world. Speaking of the movie business, it was remarkable how a bunch of impoverish, under-educated, and reckless immigrants from Eastern Europe managed to transform the entertainment industry in this giant bowl of smog early last century. They kind of set the vibe of the town – saucy, tacky, pretentious, and crazy. You can definitely feel that by looking at the cars on the road and the way people drive. There were stretched limousines longer than a street block; there were hunky gangster SUVs blaring with thunderous rhythmic bass; and there were always some reckless kids drifting their heavily modified rockets across lanes like in a movie set, The Fast and The Furious perhaps, even in bumper-to-bumper L. A. traffic.

 

Anyway, we weren’t here for the show biz. Having two clingy little boys along, we needed something a bit more educational. Surprisingly, we found such a place, even in L. A.

The California Science Center, located in southern L. A., was reportedly the largest hand-on science museum in the west coast. It certainly looked the part. It was grand and well laid out, with exhibits largely reflecting the highly concentrated aerospace and defense industry in southern California.

 

Right in the front we met the fastest airplane ever built, the strikingly sleek Lockheed Martin SR-71 “Black Bird” (this particular copy was an A-12 trainer with an addition seat for the instructor). As the first ever plane built from light weight tatanium, the Black Bird set a speed record of Mach 3.5 (about 2,193 mph, faster than a bullet) in 1976, which remains unbroken today. It was so fast that whenever a missile attack was detected, the pilot would simply step on the gas (so to speak) to unleash the two mighty Pratt & Whitney J58 engines and outrun the missile. That’s why in its 34 years (1964-98) of reconnaissance service, none of them was shot down during action. It was simply the apex of American aviation awesomeness.

 

The most popular exhibit in the museum was the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the last member of NASA’s much-storied Space Shuttle Program. Delivered in 1991, it was a replacement for the ill-fated Challenger, which was lost in an explosion in 1986. In 20 years it served in a total of 25 missions, including a high profile repair of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. However, it wasn’t all glory. For one thing, the shadow of the Challenger tragedy (and the subsequent loss of the Columbia) never faded in public mind; in addition, the Space Shuttle Program didn’t quite live up to NASA’s expectation, and was way more expensive than anticipated. When the program was announced in 1972, the vision was that the shuttles would provide frequent (once a week) and low cost visits ($20 million per trip) to the low orbit – that’s why they were called shuttles. At the end, the program managed a total of merely 135 flights in its 30 years of operation, costing about $1.5 billion a pop (adjusted to 2011 value). Not to mention that two of the fleets and a total of 14 lives were lost in tragedies. The Endeavour shuttle costed $2.2 billion to build, while its contractor, Rockwell International, announced with a flat face that they didn’t make a penny of profit out of it. What’s more, the shuttles were horribly expensive to maintain and demanded an army of personnel to keep them operational. In 2005, the Space Shuttle Program alone sucked up $5 billion, about 30% of NASA annual budget. While the pocket of NASA was not expected to grow any deeper, the shuttles operation became more and more difficult to sustain. In 2011, NASA finally pulled the plug, signifying the end of a more fascinating era of American aerospace achievement.

 

So here was this enormous 2.2 billion-dollar piece of toy, 184 feet long, 78 feet in wing span. It was not much of a looker, bulky and clumsy in every dimension. It resembled one of those blunt sketches drawn by small children before they possess the motoring skill to produce sharp angles and subtle curves. It looked like a scaled-up Fisher-Price model for toddlers. But make no mistake, this was probably the most capable and versatile vehicle men have ever built, the ultimate SUV, no, more like 18-wheeler, for space exploration. With three massive rocket engines (and two addition booster rockets), it could carry 7 astronauts and a variety of cargo: satellites, spare parts for space station, lab equipment, spacecraft… to the space. It could orbit around the earth, reenter, and land on its own, which means unlike the space rockets before it, a space shuttle was reusable and potentially more cost-effective. In an ideal world that NASA envisioned, when there’s enough demands for frequent space missions, a re-usable space craft would obviously dilute the cost of development and construction and thus reduce the average cost per flight. Well, the problem was, NASA misread the market. To justify frequent shuttle missions, you obviously needed sufficient low earth orbit “infrastructure” – space stations, satellites, laboratories, telescopes, to provide the demands. In that aspect, NASA’s forecast was evidently a bit off. While the space shuttles were designed to fly more than 100 missions in their lifespans, the fleet managed on average only 26 flights per shuttle. So you see, I’ll say the economists should take as much responsibility as the scientists and engineers, if not more, for the massive cost.

But of course, that was not to say that the space shuttle program was a failure. Costly as it was, the space shuttle was no doubt a daring attempt to transform space travel; and it did succeed spectacularly in that aspect. It was the first reusable crewed spacecraft. Its operation, from launching like a rocket, to orbiting the earth like a space craft, to landing like a glider, was nothing short of revolutionary. It built the International Space Station, which provided the first permanent dwelling for human in the space; it launched and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, which lent the world a brand new perspective on heaven, now in high definition. It made space travel possible for ordinary folks like school teachers, like you and me, not just profession astronauts. It forever changed the relationship between human and the cosmos. It would be a bit difficult to put a price tag on that.

 

The rest of the California Science Center featured a comprehensive collection of high quality science and engineering exhibits, which managed to be informative, involving, and entertaining. It’s a place I would highly recommend.

 

 

After spending a rather pleasant day in the science center, we left Los Angeles with certain contentment. Next stop, the southern end of California and our final destination, San Diego.

A little diversion here, near the end of our trip. Have you noticed that a road trip in California, or in the most of the west for that matter, is generally a catholic history lesson when you pay attention to the places you pass by? If you take notes, there are 35 Californian cities and towns called either “San” this or “Santa” that, thanks to the pious Spaniard. Many others may not explicitly name themselves after a saint, but still carried subtle religious root. Antioch and Carmel are place names in the bible; Sacramento refers to the holy sacrament; Los Angeles is short for “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula,” or "town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula," a Spanish settlement dedicated to Virgin Mary. Today these names seems so out of place in one of the bluest of liberal states.

In northern San Diego County, we stopped at Carlsbad, a small seaside resort town. We weren’t there for the beach though, but a giant flower field in Carlsbad Ranch. Every spring from March to May, its 50 acres of kaleidoscopic, blazing blooms has been a pilgrimage site for wildflower lovers. The flower, known as Tecolote Giant Ranunculus, is a member of the buttercup family. It originated from Asia Minor and was introduced to Carlsbad in the early 1920s. After nearly a century of cultivation and breeding, horticulturists have transformed the original single petal, red and yellowish bloom into a gloriously intricate, rose-like beauty with 13 hues, from white to pink, red, yellow, and orange. Now imagine an enormous stretch of these exotic blooms, some 40 football fields in all, located on a hillside overlooking the Pacific... It was mesmerizing to be immersed in this dreamy ocean of colors.

 

If 40 foot fields sounds a bit intimidating, one could always have a joy ride in one of these rugged classic tractors. Our ride was an impressive 1950s Farmall Super M-TA fitted with a hearty 44-hp 4.2L 4-cylinder gasoline engine and a “super torque amplifier”, which had no problem hauling two dozens of us in the trailer with confidence.

 

The flower field was more than just a large expanse of buttercups. At one corner of the field, the rancher actually arranged blooms of red, white and blue into an enormous American flag. A bit cheesy, but visually splendid indeed. There was also a pleasant Artistic Garden.

 

On the pond, a nymph was struggling to metamorphose into a Flame Skimmer (Libellula saturata).

 

 

San Diego boasted itself “America’s Finest City.” That’s a bit of a tall order, but San Diego seemed to manage it quite well. The city had the leisure and laid-back atmosphere of a small town, despite its size – it was hard to believe that it was the 2nd largest city in California and 8th largest in the US. Being a border town, San Diego didn’t feel remote or exotic; in fact it was as modern, sophisticated and liberal as any other Californian town. It’s got all the niceties you would expect in a major coastal city: a plethora of world-class tourist attractions, a tidy downtown bestrewn with lively bars and fancy restaurants, long stripes of fine beaches, prestigious universities... It was one of the more attractive and hospitable cities I’ve been to.

 

The top attraction in the city had to be its world-renown San Diego Zoo. With over 3,700 animals from more than 650 species, the zoo occupied about 100 acres of land in Balboa Park – one of the biggest zoos in the world.

 

Fascinating as the animals were, the kids prefered fake animals – plastic one built from hundreds of thousands of Lego bricks. “They don’t stink like real animals,” commented the older one. Well, that was a bit finicky but incontestably true, so we visited the Legoland, a small but ambitiously over-priced resort to look at various piles of colorful plastics. Yeah, I know Lego is fun and educational and all for a toy, and it was impressive to look at a giant Lego sculpture of Mount Rushmore or Taj Mahal, but there’s only so much regard I could hold for some elaborate assemblies of a clever toy. Now you staged hundreds of Lego sculptures of uneven qualities in a yard and call it a theme park? I think that was stretching it a bit too far.

 

The SeaWorld, on the other hand, offered solid, wholesome fun for the entire family. I mean, who doesn’t like a riveting collection of thousands of otherworldly marine creatures in a number of high-quality, themed exhibits? In addition, there was a certain urgency for us to catch the last season of the controversial “Shamu” show because, after a long run of nearly 50 years, SeaWorld announced this March (2016) that they’ll discontinue using orcas for stage performance.

 

The Shamu Show, in case you don’t know, was basically a killer whales (Orcinus orca) circus performance in a swimming pool. Staged with fancy modern displays, it was quite a spectacle when several 6-ton creatures perform all kinds of tricks and jumped out of water to splash the hell out of the modest pool, soaking all the spectators brave enough to sit in the first a few rows. The problem was, all the killer whales in the performance were kept and bred in captivity, with limited space (compared to the ocean of course) and were reportedly treated cruelly. In 2013, a documentary named Blackfish, which investigated the tragic death of an orca trainer, drew wide-spread public attention to the lives of orcas in captivity and to animal welfare in general. The film would become the bane of SeaWorld’s life. Attendance to the park plunged 5% in the first 9 months of 2013 alone, and continued to trend down over the years (while competing theme parks like Disneyland enjoyed substantial growth); pop singers canceled their concerts in SeaWorld; the stock price plummeted 60% within a year. Finally, under tremendous public pressure, SeaWorld called a stop to the show. Tough break.

 

I felt a slight pity that the park’s defining attraction had to go. SeaWorld would never be the same without Shamu. As for the welfare of the killer whales, I wonder where we should draw the line? Consider the way we domesticated wild cattle, boars, mountain goats, junglefowls (wild chicken), from which we acquire the majority of our dietary protein; and horse, buffaloes, wolf, wild cat, whose labor we historically exploited, the captivity of killer whales for entertainment seems to me a minor concern. Yes, the orcas lost their freedom of roaming the vast ocean, but in exchange they received a steady and healthy food source and world-class healthcare, not so bad of a deal compared to our cattle, pigs, and chicken. However, the reality is, as the world progresses the social attitude towards animal welfare has leaned gradually to the more sympathetic side; humane treatment of animals has become more or less an extension of humanitarianism. The orca, being such an extraordinary animal, and the Shamu show being such a visible target, it seemed inevitable that SeaWorld would take the brunt of animal right activists’ attack.

 

With the way the wind is blowing, I’m guessing the next one to go is the Dolphin Show. Recall that even before Blackfish there was another critically acclaimed documentary The Cove (2009) that uncovered the bloody secret of dolphin hunting in Japan (for meat and baby dolphins wanted by marine parks in less civilized countries), which ignited heated discussions on animal welfare. SeaWorld dodged that bullet with deft crisis PR; but who knows when the next one will come?

 

One vivid detail I recalled from The Cove was, that permanent friendly smile on a dolphin’s face is just an illusion due to the upward configuration of the jaw. The film argued that dolphins in captivity would never be happy, even though their appearance gives a false impression that they are always pleased to see you. Kind of spoil all the fun didn’t it?

 

 

One last attraction that’s worth mentioning is the USS Midway, the longest-serving aircraft carrier in US Navy history (1945-1992) and nowadays the most visited naval warship museum in the country. It was a true behemoth, with a displacement of 64,000 tons and room for up to 137 aircrafts, more of a mobile island than a ship. In fact it was so big that it couldn’t pass the Panama Cannel. So just to go across the country, say from San Diego to Washington D. C., the USS Midway had to head all the way down to Argentina, almost halfway around the globe and back. Crazy isn’t it?

 

Commissioned just one week after the end of WWII, the ship was practically a book on the cold war. It has seen it all, done it all: the formation of NATO; the hegemony world tour of 1954, including a stop in Taiwan Strait to handle the aftermath of the Chinese civil war; the Vietnam War, and the first Gulf Wa. For 47 long years, the USS Midway was the very symbol of American military prowess and domination.

 

 

So that was it, our week-long, 1,200-mile road trip along the golden coast. We’ve seen pretty much everything we expected to see, plus a great deal we didn’t. The California we experienced was every bit as good as people think it was: the natural beauty, the agreeable weather, a lively economy, and a liberal atmosphere. Come and explore, you will find your slice of sunny beaches with bikini babes, where you can enjoy endless surfing days and if you got luck, maybe end up with unspeakable wealth some day.

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