What Are We Doing in the Shetland Islands?

by Bob Sparrow

Our ship departs sunny Norway and heads west into a cold and blustery North Sea to our next port of call, the village of Lerwich, which is the capital of Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Search as I may, I couldn’t find the Shetland Islands anywhere on my bucket list of places I had to see before I kicked the bucket, but here we are licking our Segway wounds and headed for, literally, places unknown. There are approximately 100 Shetland Islands, of which only 16 are inhabited. There is no deep-water port in Lerwich so we ‘parked’ our ship off shore and took ‘tenders’ into the city’s main harbor, in a fairly heavy rain.

I must say I really didn’t know what to expect on the Shetland Islands, other than maybe a few Shetland ponies, although I really wasn’t sure that there was any connection between the name of the islands and the ponies. There is. We visited a Shetland pony farm where we learned that these horses were bred to be small so they could fit into mineshafts in order to haul coal carts out of the mine. We also learned that they could live to be 50 years old. Sounds like a great life doesn’t it, hauling coal out of a mine for 50 years! We learned that Lerwich provides more fish than any other port in Scotland and we got to explore a 16th century castle. We also drove by two golf courses on the island where there is not a single tree or sand trap on either course, but the wind was blowing so hard that the flagsticks looked like they were going to snap in two.

One of the most interesting stories about the history of the Shetland Islands occurred during World War II, when the Nazis invaded Norway.  Many of the heroic Norwegian sea captains became ‘bus drivers’ by using their fishing boats to take Norwegians away from the bombing to safety on the Shetland Islands.

For all its harsh landscape (there are only about six trees on all of the Shetland Islands) and windy and stormy weather, our tour guide, who had a great sense of humor, was extremely knowledgeable about the area, thus making it a uniquely enjoyable stop.

Our next day was fully at sea so my intention was to cut down on the eating and drinking for a day and get to the gym. I later realized that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions as I sat in front of a TV, had a few beers and I watched The Open golf tournament from Royal Birkdale, England. Hey, it’s vacation!

 

 

Doorway to Norway

by Bob Sparrow

First let me report that in the middle of the night before we were getting on board, we got a phone call informing us that my suitcase and our golf clubs have been located and would be at our hotel in Hamburg in the morning. Before we leave the subject, I just wanted to put in a word about British Airways; that word . . . unprofessionalcondesendingarrogantbastards! Not only did they cancel our original flight to London (probably because it wasn’t full!), but then wouldn’t give us the same up-graded seats we had already paid for on our original flight. Their attitude, displayed in hours of phone conversation with them just trying to get back what we originally paid for, was unprofessional, condescending and arrogant. Damn bastards! I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on them, I mean they did get 1 out of 4 pieces of our luggage to the correct destination on time.

Our first night on board and all of the following day out of Hamburg was on rather rough seas with a slight sprinkle. So the only reason to go on deck was to watch the surf-like waves crashing over the swimming pool. So we decided that that first day was a good time to acquaint ourselves with the ship, more specifically, the ship’s bars. My personal highlight of that first day was the celebration of my luggage arriving with a ‘burial at sea’ of the shirt I had worn for the previous two-an-a-half days. May it rest in pieces.

Our first port of call was Alesund, Norway, a relatively small city on the upper west coast and home to the legend of the Norwegian Troll. Linda and I took an all-day excursion to the Land of the Trolls, where we really didn’t learn much about the legend of the Trolls, although we saw a lot of them in gift stores, but we did see a lot of beautiful country, which featured the famous narrow switchback road that will test any traveler’s nerves. A slight sprinkle compounded the difficulty of navigating these cliff-hanging hairpin turns, but our bus driver had done this more than a few times and navigated the road safely. While low-hanging misty clouds covered the tops of the surrounding mountain peaks and much of the snow pack, all the recent rains had made the crystal clear rivers and the multiple waterfalls spectacular – it was like Yosemite on steroids. I have to admit that when we started out on this 6-hour bus tour I was a little concerned that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but the magnificent views and our incredibly informed guide made the trip a great way to spend the day.

Back on board for dinner and an evening of entertainment as we headed south to our next port of call, Bergen, Norway, where we had scheduled a Segway tour of the city. To say the Segway tour was a disaster is being too kind. We had malfunctioning Segways, no headsets to listen to the guide’s narration of where we were and a young guide who didn’t know where we were anyway or a single item of history about any of the places we were wheeling by. The malfunctioning Segways lead to 5 out of 6 of us crashing, luckily avoiding serious injury. We had such fun doing this in Copenhagen; we were really looking forward to seeing the city this way, but ultimately the only thing we were looking forward to was for it to be over.

After lunch in the ‘fishing district’ of Bergen, we decided to take the ‘On-Off’ open-air bus tour of the city. This too failed to meet expectations, as we never found a place where we wanted to get off and explore in more detail, so it turned out to be an ‘On-On’ bus tour for us.

The Norwegians were nice enough people and the weather was especially spectacular, this part of the world only gets about 50 days of sunshine a year and we had a cloudless 75 degree day, it just wasn’t that interesting.

I think the doorway to Norway has closed for good for this traveler.

No. Sea Cruise

by Bob Sparrow

Hamburg water statue in Alster Lake

The title seems to infer that there is no sea cruise – there is! The title is simply my way of trying to label our trip of cruising both the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea.  By the time you get this blog, we will have embarked from Hamburg, Germany, leaving all the local Hamburgers behind and will be adrift somewhere in the North Sea on a 12-day cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, Jade. It’s actually a 14-day cruise, but they’re throwing us off early – more about that later. What I can tell you now is that I’ve never been to any of the destinations we’re visiting, so Wi-Fi willing you’ll join us as we discover some new places.

The ‘we’ on this trip, joining Linda and me, is the same as our Baltic Sea Cruise gang (where you could always find a ‘john’), Jack & JJ Budd, John & Judy VanBoxmeer, John’s  sister and brother-in-law from Canada, John & Mary Billham, plus friends of theirs, Steen & Sue also from Canada (I believe Steen is Canadian for John).  Why so many Canadians?  Just in case we get called ‘Ugly Americans’ we can all say were from Canada, eh?

Getting to Hamburg, Germany

Our trip over started ignominiously with a European air traffic controllers strike, so our original flight to Europe was cancelled along with our up-graded seats, so we ended up in ‘steerage’.  The good news is that after 27 hours of airplanes and airports we did eventually get to Hamburg, so either the strike was settled or the pilot landed by

Jack, JJ, me, Linda, John & Judy prior to Copenhagen Segway ride in 2015

the seat of his pants. The bad news is that my luggage went to Dubai and our golf clubs went to Kuala Lumpur or at least somewhere other than Hamburg.  As of this writing I’m wearing the same shirt I started out with two days ago, no wonder no one wanted to sit with me at dinner!  Hamburg has been in the news lately as the recent meeting/protesting place for this year’s G20 Summit. All the leaders and protestors have since left the city, but the Putin-Trump “I Got You Elected Comrade” t-shirts were still available in the gift shops.  We only had one evening in Hamburg to scarf down some schnitzel and German beer, which we did as we were pretty sure we weren’t going to get much to eat or drink on the cruise.

The Ship and Her Measurements

Many of our blog readers are big cruise enthusiasts, so I don’t have to go into a great deal of detail about the Jade, but I will anyway . . .

  • 93,558 gross ton; I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds like a lot

    The ‘Jade’

  • 965 feet in length – over 3 football fields long, and while there is no football field on board (I don’t think!) there are tennis, basketball and volleyball courts. (May not get to all of those)
  • Passengers: 2,402 of our closest friends
  • 1,037 crew member (most of them will be down in the hold peddling to make the ship go faster)
  • Library (I may not find it)
  • Gym (I may not find this either)
  • On board chapel (where I will be praying that I don’t burst during the cruise from eating and drinking too much)

Dining opportunities

  • 2 Main Dining Rooms plus, O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, Cagney’s Steak House, Jasmine Garden – Asian, La Cucina – Italian, Le Bistro – French, Brazilian Steak House, Sushi & Teppanyaki (What, no fusion Thai food?!!)

They know how that salt air can make one very thirsty, so they’ve made it so you’re never too many steps away from staying hydrated.

Adult Beverage Opportunities

  • Atrium Bar, Bliss Lounge, Jade Club, Magnum’s Champagne & Wine Bar, Malting’s Beer & Whiskey Bar, Mixers Martini and Cocktail Bar, Sake Bar, Spinnaker Lounge, Sugarcane Mojito Bar, The Great Outdoors Bar, The Pit Stop, Topsiders Bar & Grill (Makes me thirsty just listing them!)

On Sunday we headed north out of Hamburg, which is pretty much the only direction you can go on a boat out of Hamburg, to our next port of call.  This is the maiden voyage of the Jade after spending the last six months in dry dock getting a total ‘face lift’ .  Wait a minute, isn’t ‘maiden voyage’ the same words they used to describe the Titanic’s historic journey?  I hope I don’t hear Celine Dion singing ‘The Heart Will Go On’ as we board. Thank goodness for global warming, the iceberg’s aren’t as big as they use to be!

It will be an adventure; welcome aboard, we hope you’re not on a diet and we hope you enjoy the journey. Thanks for joining us!

 

 

 

My ‘HOLLYWOOD’ Story (the hike)

by Bob Sparrow

Whoever said getting there is half the fun, never had to drive from Orange County to Griffith Park in Los Angeles during commute hours. Griffith Park, where my hike to the HOLLYWOOD sign would begin, is only 42 miles away, but it took me exactly two hours to get there. Yes, that’s an average speed of 21 miles per hour . . . for two hours!!!  I arrived with little time to spare before the hike began and with a little bit of road rage.  It was a harbinger of things to come.

Not our group!

Our small hiking group was made up of a couple in their 60s, we’ll call them Jim and Wanda, because I can’t remember their names, who just arrived the night before from England and planned to ‘do’ LA, Disneyland and San Diego in the next 10 days. Another younger English lady, Leanne, a videographer, who didn’t know Jim & Wanda, also arrived from England the day before and was headed to Vegas in a couple of days to video a wedding. Nice blokes all.  Our hiking guide, from the company of Hikes & Bikes, was Ryan, a 20-something aspiring actor from New York, who expressed his disappointment that Bernie Sanders isn’t our president.  Not a good start.

Our group

The hike started at 10:00 a.m. outside the box office of the Greek Theater; it was already beginning to get warm and the first part of the hike was all up hill. So it made it harder to realize that the tour itself was already rapidly going downhill.  We observed a humming bird close by and Ryan told us that its wings were flapping at a rate of 70 times per minute.  Not wanting to embarrass him, yet, as we continued up the trail, I sauntered up next to him and whispered that the hummingbird’s wings flapped closer to 70 time per second.  He was amazed!  As the trail meandered up the hill, the L.A. skyline came into clear view. OK, not clear view, this is L.A. but the air was not quite something you could sink your teeth into yet. I took a few photos of the L.A. skyline and as you can see, it looked a bit . . . hazy (the word ‘smog’ is not allowed within the L.A. city limits).  I went on Google Images to get a clear picture of the L.A. skyline for a comparison, but soon realized that there are no photos of a clear L.A. skyline!

L. A. skyline

The group was actually very fun, other than the fact that they were mildly interested in ‘Hollywood things’, (why else would they fly all the way from England to go on this hike?) so, once Ryan told them that he was in ‘the business’ the narration of the hike turn into the history of actors in Hollywood. Ryan was happy to field their questions as he handed out his business card with his ‘head shot’ on it and talked about his auditions and the encounters he’d had with famous actors and actresses, as well as how agents of actors source their talent and what certain movie stars were really like. This is stuff you typically won’t find when you search information about the HOLLYWOOD sign, and stuff that I wasn’t really interested in, but the Brits were, so I pretended to be amused that one of them told a story about seeing Tom Cruise get into a car.

The hike continued to the Griffith Observatory where we learned about the eccentric Colonel  Griffith J. Griffith. Yes his parents obviously had little imagination giving their son a first name the same as his last, and later he gave himself the title of Colonel as he was never in the military, much less earning the rank of Colonel.  To say the least Griffith was a ‘bubble off plumb’ as his history included a small incident of attempted murder of his wife.  One night while drunk, he shot her in the head.   She lived, although lost one eye, and after he served two years in prison (yes, that’s it, but don’t get any ideas about shooting your spouse, the laws have changed), she was there waiting for him when he got out and remained with him until his death 16 years later.  So her elevator didn’t exactly go all the way to the top.  But he made a fortune in the mining industry and gave the land for the park away with the condition that a bronze statue of him would be erected on the grounds – a small price to pay for the nearly 4,000 acres that now include the Griffith Observatory, Greek Theater and the HOLLYWOOD sign.

Griffith Observatory

During our brief walk through the Griffith Observatory we came upon a map of the LA area, where Waldo, er Ryan indicated some points of interest. Unfortunately being from New York and not really familiar with the territory, he moved Newport Beach somewhere between L.A. and Santa Barbara. I was going to correct him, but he was on a roll, and the Brits didn’t really care where Newport Beach was.

The entire hike took a little less than 3 hours and covered about 6 miles and if you were asking me for a recommendation, I’d say, do a little research – if you read Monday’s blog you already know as much as the guide – and do the hike on your own. The main reason is that this hike never really got very close to the actual sign. I thought it would be interesting to get a little scale of just how big the letters are.  The picture of our group above (not the one with no clothes on!) shows us at our closest point to the sign – if you squint and look closely into the upper right hand corner of that photo, you’ll see the sign.

At the end of the hike the English couple needed a ride back to their hotel, which I was happy to provide and even happier to turn the car towards Orange County and head home albeit through commute traffic.  The things I do for you readers!

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My ‘HOLLYWOOD’ Story

By Bob Sparrow

The acting bug bit me early in life. I remember as a child telling my parents stories with great enthusiasm that were totally fabricated. I remember just for fun pretending I was someone else and telling strangers that I was lost or abandoned by my parents, just to see their reaction. Basically I was a really good liar. I remember getting into my mom’s make up, but hey that’s another story. So from an early age I felt that I was a natural-born actor. After all my older brother, Jack Sparrow was destined to become a famous big-screen pirate and sister Suz, well, everyone said she was a drama queen, so it was in my blood. As a child I remember my parents discouraging me from acting; they wanted more for me. They wanted me to have the things in life that they could never have, they wanted me to be the first in our family to graduate with a degree from Truck Masters. I knew early on that I was going to end up in Hollywood; as a senior in high school, I remember sitting in my microbiology class or was it my molecular biology class? Whatever. I remember raising my hand to be excused to go to the bathroom . . . and I never returned.  I went down to the railroad yard and hopped on the Burlington Northern heading south to Hollywood and never looked back. It wasn’t easy for a kid in tinsel town in those early years, but after a lot of rejection and a few years of living under the freeway, I finally got my big break. The rest, as they say, is history.

OK, perhaps I’ve taken a little too much license with the ‘Bird’s Eye View’ philosophy of not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, but I do have a HOLLYWOOD story, or more precisely, a HOLLYWOOD sign story. Last week I did the hike to this iconic landmark, but first a little history.

First put up in 1923

The sign rests on Mount Lee, in the Hollywood Hills area of the Santa Monica Mountains; the original sign spelled out ‘HOLLYWOODLAND’ and was erected in 1923, with the letters being hauled up the mountain by mule, as an advertisement for a new housing development. It was only going to be up for a year and a half, but with the Golden Age of Cinema and the movie industry booming in Hollywood, the sign, with the ‘LAND’ removed, remained in place.  In 1978, with the sign in need of much repair, the Chamber of Commerce got a number of Los Angeles celebrities to each pay for the restoration of a single letter. Donors included such luminaries as Hugh Hefner, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and singer Alice Cooper, who donated in the memory of his good friend Groucho Marx. The sign was restored with the letters increasing in size to 45 feet tall and all together 350 feet long – about the length of a football field.

As you are probably aware there have been a number of ‘alterations’ to the signs over the years, some authorized, most not. The sign has read, ‘GO UCLA’, ‘GO NAVY’, ‘CAL TECH’, ‘OIL WAR’, ‘FOX’ and several more, but the most recent was ‘HOLLYWEED’ which occurred in January of this year and was the second time the sign was changed to read like this, both commemorating passage of marijuana laws here in California.

It was time for me to see the HOLLYWOOD sign up close, so I booked a guided hike.

My HOLLYWOOD Story (the hike), continued on Thursday.

Stars in the Desert

by Bob Sparrow

As I was sitting out in the desert this past week, well I was not actually sitting in the desert, I was sitting at our Marriott Desert Springs timeshare, anyway, I recalled the first time I ventured out this way. It was in the early 70s and brother Jack had just started working as the restaurant manager at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert. Although I lived in Orange County, it was a particularly cold January and dark clouds hung in the sky as I traveled southeast on Interstate 10 to ‘the desert’. As I entered the Coachella Valley I could see that Mt. San Jacinto and the rest of the Santa Rosa Mountain Range was holding back those dark clouds so there was not a cloud over the entire valley. It was not only my first time in the desert, but it was the first time I could drive for an hour and a half from my home and find a totally differ ecosystem.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the desert; my impression of deserts had come mostly from movies where people were crawling on the sand dying of thirst, seeing mirages of palm trees surrounding a watering hole or of camels trekking across the wind-blown sand with nothing in sight as their destination but more wind-blown sand. This was not like either of those visions, Palm Springs was ‘Home to the Stars’

I learned that there were many famous people who had a second home in the desert, such as Bing Crosby (You can stay in his house today for $3,000 a night!), Frank Sinatra, with a piano-shaped swimming pool, Dean Martin, whose pool was filled with martinis (Just kidding . . . maybe), Sonny Bono (excuse me, Mayor Bono), Gene Autry, Liberace and many, many more. I subsequently found out why the stars back in the day made the desert their go-to get away place.

‘Interesting fact #1’: Most actors had a clause in their contracts, called the ‘2 hour rule’ where they could not be more than two hours away from the studio. Palm Springs was just under a two-hour drive, but a whole world away, so that’s where they headed.

But I digress; those aren’t even the stars with which I was first impressed. During that first trip to the desert, I certainly noticed that the weather was warmer, but the real ‘a ha’ moment for me came that evening, when I was sitting out on the deck of an Ironwood Country Club condo feeling a warm desert breeze, which hardly moved the umbrella in my mai tai, and I looked up to see billions of stars that sparkled as brightly as I’d ever seen them. The Big Dipper was bigger and dippier, the Milky Way was less milky and Ursa Minor looked Major. I could see half the planets in our solar system with my naked eye (the rest of me was fully clothed).

Aside from the spectacular stars, my other most memorable recollection was, ‘There sure are a lot of palm trees around here!” I did notice that these palms were a little different from the King and Queen palms with which I was familiar, these were Date Palms and there were thousands of them.

‘Interesting fact 2’ – This desert produces 35 million pounds of dates annually, that represents 80% of the U.S. crop. You may not have been aware that there are male and female date palm trees and you also may not know that they typically have trouble reproducing, so date farmers must climb the male date palm tree, collect the pollen then climb a female tree and pollinate its flowers. Caution: don’t try this with your date!

I learned more interesting facts about the desert, to wit

     #3: The 50,000 swimming pools are the most pools per capita in the country.

     #4: The thousands of wind turbines make it the largest wind farm in America

     #5: Over 100 golf courses make it the ‘Golf Capital of the World’

     #6: In 1980 the Cabazon Band of the Mission Indians opened the first casino in the U.S. on an Indian reservation; it is now called Fantasy Springs Casino Resort & Spa. I’m proud to say that my contributions (involuntary) have helped make it what it is today!!

For me the desert is truly an oasis, tons of beautiful and challenging golf courses within a few minute’s drive, great bars and restaurants, the Marriott Villas are a great facility and the weather rarely disappoints.

There was a bonus on this trip; I was introduced to some different stars – tennis stars. We attended the BNP Paribas Open tournament, which draws the top players in the world to the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden. I had seen this facility from afar many times while driving through Indian Wells, but never been in it until now. It is ranked as one of the finest, if not the finest tennis facility in the world.  Watching Djokovic and Federer win their matches on a beautiful desert evening was something very special.

The stars in the desert just keep sparkling.

 

“This is the Place”

by Bob Sparrow

slc

SLC and the Wasatch Mountain Range

That’s what Brigham Young said in 1847 after a long overland trek from Illinois, when standing at the mouth of Emigration Canyon on the east bench of the Wasatch Mountain Range looking over what is now the Salt Lake Valley. It was there that their journey would end and where the Mormon religion would call home as they committed to “make the desert blossom like a rose”. It is said that there was only one tree in the valley at that time, now there are over one million trees and lots of roses.

 

I was first introduced to Utah in 1964 when visiting the campus of the University of Utah on a football recruiting trip. I was immediately taken by the beauty and majesty of the surrounding mountains. It was January and a blanket of snow covered the Wasatch Range as well as the wide boulevards of Salt Lake City. It was a spectacular winter wonderland, especially for a young man who was born and raised in California.

tuscany-entrance2

Tuscany entrance

In recent years Linda and I as well as brother, Jack and wife, Sharon have tried to get back to a Utah football game each season. This year we were joined by Mark & Kathy Johnson for the Utah-Oregon game. The Johnsons had an additional incentive to go to Utah as Mark’s parents and a brother live there.  For the last seven years we have always had our ‘pre-game Friday night meal’ at a wonderful restaurant in Holladay, a southern suburb of Salt Lake, called Tuscany. It is nestled among cottonwood and box elder trees making it barely visible from the street and has a ‘cozy old world’ feel inside. On this Friday night we had one of the owners of the restaurant, Mark Eaton, eating at the table next to us. He was a professional basketball player for the Utah Jazz and is hard to miss at 7’4”. At 59 years old, he looked like he could still play. Delightful dinner, the pork chop is to die for!

rice-eccles

Rice-Eccles Stadium

The game was at noon on a clear, crisp Saturday, which kept us from using the day to stop by the campus of my son Jeff’s and my alma mater, Westminster College. But it did not keep us from heading to the tailgate party across from the stadium where Jeff had alerted a Utah alum friend that we would be there and so we were invited to their tailgate party, which was no small bash! With no professional football team within 500 miles, Salt Lake is a college football town, which was easily seen by the throngs of supporters wearing red and pouring into a sold out stadium. Rice-Eccles Stadium was brought up to its current state-of-the-art condition when Salt Lake hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. The football game itself? I suppose it was exciting, but not a good exciting, as Oregon scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2 seconds left in the game to win 30-28.

tailgaters

Tailgaters

Our ‘consolation dinner’ that night was down town at the Market Street Grill, which was just a couple of blocks from our City Center Marriott hotel. We were directed to the Main Street Grill by dear friend and neighbor, Marge Dunn, whose niece, Sarah works there. We had a delicious dinner and were able to talk with Sarah, who was bartending this night.

In spite of the Utah heart-breaking loss, which kept them from playing for the Pac-12 South championship the following week, the visit was invigorating. The weather was truly ‘fall-like’, which we don’t get much of in Southern California and Salt Lake has to be one of the cleanest and safest cities in the country. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list, you won’t regret it . . . and don’t forget to have dinner at Tuscany.

 

 

 

BODIE, BUTTS AND…BENTON

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

imageWell, judging from the response we got to Bob’s post last week, I’d say his butt is so popular it should have its own Twitter feed.  He continues to do quite well in his recovery but his now-famous derrière is still stuck at home.  So this week you’ll be traveling with me again to the Eastern Sierras.  Last time I wrote about the ghost town of Bodie, which is a state park that has been preserved in a state of “arrested decay”.  Hmmm, sounds like some people I know.  In any event, this week our travels take us to the towns of Benton and Benton Hot Springs.  If you’ve never heard of them, you’re in good company.

No gas or food here

No gas or food here

Benton and Benton Hot Springs are on California Highway 6, 32 miles north of Bishop and 46 miles east of Mammoth Lakes.  The towns are three miles apart and are literally in the middle of nowhere.  More on that in a moment.  The “Bentons” were established in 1852 by the Paiute Indian tribe who sought out the warm springs that surround the area.  During the gold rush Benton became a stop-over spot for fortune seekers traveling to and from the western Sierras.  With the discovery of gold in Bodie, Benton became a supply center for the mines and the population swelled to 5,000 people.  The heyday of the towns was from 1862 to 1889 and then, much like Bodie, the gold-seekers moved on to other states and the towns that supported the mines fell on hard times.

Today, Benton Hot Springs is noted for a rustic bed and breakfast, aptly named The Inn at Benton Hot Springs.  Remember when my brother wrote about the Inn at Spanish Bay?  This is nothing like that.  However, it is a jumping off point for many of the hiking trails in the area and is busy all summer long.  Note that I said it is “rustic” – only one of the rooms has its own bathroom.  The inn gets varying reviews on Yelp from “fabulous” to “flea bitten .  Since sharing a bathroom with a stranger is my idea of Dante’s Inferno, I’m going to pass on the Inn.  But if you want to hike the area it is your best – albeit your only – bet.

It looks innocent enough but...

Hasn’t changed since the ’50’s

Benton is the real “town” of the two spots, although the current population has dwindled down to 165 hearty souls.  The town’s gathering place is the Benton Station Cafe, which coincidentally is also the gas station, bus stop and post office.  My husband and I have mixed memories of Benton Station.  About 25 years ago on our first trip through the area we decided to stop and use the facilities at the cafe.  It should be noted that Benton Station provides the only bathroom in a 30 mile radius so we assumed they had lots of visitors with urgent needs.  When we walked through the front door everything and everyone came to a standstill.  Every person in the place (and it was packed) stopped talking and turned to look at us as we walked through.  No one said a word to us but they followed our every move.  Images of “Deliverance” raced through our minds.  We scurried to the restrooms, bought a couple of Cokes as a donation, and got the hell out of there.  I have since learned that, like The Inn at Benton Springs, the Benton cafe has widely divergent reviews.  While their pies are rated universally tasty, the food is deemed to be either “best ever” or “sick as a dog for three days”.  It turns out there is a “good” cook and one whose vocational talents lie elsewhere.  The locals have memorized the cafe schedule so they know which days will provide a delicious meal.  After reading that I thought back to the day 25 years ago and surmised that we must have hit the cafe on a day when the “good” cook was working and the locals didn’t want us horning in on the food.

Our wingman

Our wing man

This year we decided to make the trip from Mammoth Lakes out to Benton once again.  Truly, the scenery on the road there is spectacular – a mix of mountains and rolling hills, pines trees and a view of the southern end of Momo Lake.  But knowing that the past can be prelude, we prepared ahead of time for this journey out to Benton.  We brought Dash the Wonder Dog along to act as interference.  After all, the locals might be wary of us, but who can resist the face of a cute dog?

 

Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear Lake?

 by Bob Sparrow

arrowhead queen

The Arrowhead Queen

There are two major mountain lakes in southern California, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, they are both in the San Bernardino National Forest about 25 miles apart. They’ve been sibling rivals since 1922, when a dam was built to form Lake Arrowhead. They are both man-made lakes, with the dam that formed Big Bear Lake constructed back in 1884.

Having grown up around Lake Tahoe, I have a deep appreciation for scenic mountain lakes, so have visited both of these local resorts on numerous occasions, Arrowhead more than Big Bear, primarily because it’s a little closer and esthetically more appealing to me. In fact I had not been to Big Bear in several years, until a few weeks ago, when I  visited my daughter, Dana’s mother-in-law’s place to check out the ‘new’ Big Bear. I say ‘new’ because over the last several years, Big Bear has made a concerted effort to up-grade its redheaded stepchild image, with considerable success I might add.

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The Village at Big Bear Lake in Winter

As I explored Big Bear, I imagined a discussion between these two alpine lakes going something like this . . .

Lake Arrowhead (LA): “It’s nice to see that you’re finally cleaning up your act.”

Big Bear (BB): “Yeah, well let’s see what you look like when you get to be 132 years old!”

LA: “Why do they even call you Big Bear anyway, there are no big bears around?”

BB: “There used to be lots of Grizzlies here until man hunted them into extinction; and by the way, they used to call you Little Bear Lake’

LA: “But I still have 14 miles of beautiful shoreline.”

BB: “I have 22, which is why you were called Little Bear!”

LA: “You used to have 22 not-as-beautiful-shoreline-as-mine, but it’s shrunk considerably with the drought.”

BB: “Same shoreline, just much more beach now for a population of just over 5,000 to enjoy.”

LA: “That’s nothing; I have a population of over 12,000.”

BB: “So you’re saying that it’s more crowded there than it is here?”

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Celebrity homes on Lake Arrowhead

LA: “If crowded means we’ve had more star’s homes here like Tom Selleck, Shirley Temple Black, Priscilla Presley, Brian Wilson, Patrick Swayze and Michael Jackson, then yes, I guess we’re more crowded.”

BB: “Yeah, well we have the homes of Britney Spears, Mike Judge, who did the voices for Beavis and Butthead, Michael Richards, Krammer on Seinfeld, the metal band, Korn, and Richard Karn, who was the sidekick to Tim Allen in Home Improvement.

LA: “See, you have to explain who your ‘stars’ are; Michael Jackson needs no explanation.”

BB:Michael Jackson needs a lot of explanation, but that’s besides the point. So let’s stay in the show business genre, what movies have been shot there?”

LA: The Courtship of Miles Standish, The American President and Space Jam to name a few.”

Gone

“Frankly Scarlet . . .

BB: “Yeah, a few that are not very well known. Here’s some of mine you might remember: Heidi, Shane, Old Yeller and you may recall this one, Gone With the Wind. Case closed, let’s move on the skiing.”

LA: “We have great water skiing.”

BB: “You are a ‘private‘ lake and many activities are restricted to residents only. I have two marinas where the public can rent pontoon boats, go fishing, rent fishing equipment, take wakeboard or waterski rides, rent kayaks and canoes and ride a pirate ship.”

LA: “Well, the public can take a ride on my Arrowhead Queen and see all the spectacular celebrity homes around the lake.”

BB: “So what happens in the winter? How’s snow skiing at your elevation of 5,174?”

LA: “Well, we have Snow Valley fairly close by”

BB: “But it’s actually closer to me and I’m at 6,750 feet elevation; we also have Bear Mountain and Snow Summit at 8,200 feet elevation; so we are clearly the winter destination. Let’s move on, how’s your summer hiking trails?”

LA: “They’re awesome; I have Goat Trail, Little Bear Creek, Heaps Peak, Crab Creek, Little Green Valley and many more.”

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View of Big Bear Lake from Pacific Crest Trail

BB: “Not bad I guess, but I have Heart Rock, Vivian Creek, Castle Rock, Deep Creek Hot Springs, Big Falls, Cougar Crest and, oh yeah the famous Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from Mexico to Canada, runs right by me.”

LA: “Fine! Let’s talk about golf; do you have anything to compare to Arrowhead Golf and Country Club?”

BB: “No, not really, I’ll leave the country club set to you. I’ll admit you’re prettier than I am, but your ‘Village’ is looking fairly tired and my ‘Village’ is buzzing with new shops, restaurants and bars; summer or winter this is the place to be.”

LA: “But you said I’m still prettier right?”

Okay kids, enough! The fact is that neither one is a Lake Tahoe, but for my money, if you’re an adventurer, Big Bear Lake is probably your best destination in the summer and for sure in the winter, but if you just want to get to the mountains to enjoy some clean air and the scenery of a beautiful mountain lake, rent a home on Lake Arrowhead or stay lake-side at the luxurious Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa and take a cruise on the Arrowhead Queen.

 

The Coast of California

by Bob Sparrow

Borrowing a format from friend, fellow adventurer and blogger, Jeff Kane . . .

The music: Coast of California, a haunting melody sung by the Kingston Trio

The wine: Big Easy, a Syrah blend from central coast’s Fess Parker Winery

Hwy 1     I recently had the pleasure of experiencing 137 miles of the natural beauty of the California coastline. The occasion was a golf trip for a milestone birthday celebration for friend, Judy VanBoxmeer, put together by husband, John. It was an opportunity to make a drive I hadn’t made in over 35 years – up State Route 1.

State Route 1 is arguably the most scenic road in America.  It has several aliases: Pacific Coast Highway or PCH to the locals, Cabrillo Highway as well as just Highway 1.  It was built piecemeal in various stages, with the first section opening in the Big Sur region in the 1930s.  It stretches as far north as the little town of Leggett, CA, in Mendocino County and in the south it terminates in Orange County, which I will probably do as well.  Leggett is the home of some of the largest Redwood trees in the world, including the famous ‘Drive Through Tree’.  But we weren’t going as far north as Leggett, we were headed to a place called Pebble Beach – perhaps you’ve heard of it.

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Drive-Through-Tree

Hwy 1 and Hwy 101 join together just south of the college town of San Luis Obispo and then splits again just north of SLO with Hwy 101 staying inland and Hwy 1 heading for the coast where it meets up with the Pacific Ocean at Morro Bay. Over the next 94 miles to Big Sur, the road hugs the coastline in spectacular fashion, passing through the little towns of Harmony (pop. 18), Cambria, the midway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco; then, after you pass through San Simeon (pop. 462) you have to force yourself to turn away from the spectacular coastline and look high up on the mountains inland to see Hearst’s Castle – an adventure for another day.

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Bixby Creek Bridge

From San Simeon to just below Big Sur, the road really traces the coastline closely. This drive is not for the timid or those prone to carsickness; it is a winding road with barely enough room for two cars to pass. During our trip the road was narrowed to just one lane three times, due to either the road having eroding below us or from rocks having slid from above. Thankfully there are numerous places to pull over and watch the sea lions sun bathing, the surf crashing against the cliffs or the sun sinking into the Pacific.

As we entered the Big Sur area, the road turned inland just a bit and we found ourselves deep in a forest surrounded by trees of every description, coast redwoods, bay laurel, white oak, fir, pine, as well as the endangered wild orchid. Although Big Sur is sparsely populated (about 1,000), its beauty and serenity attract a good number of musicians, writers and artists throughout the summer.

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Moon over Pebble Beach

As we leave Big Sur and cross over the iconic Bixby Bridge, we have about another 15 beautiful miles before we are greeted by the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea – southern gateway to the Monterey Peninsula.

As we sat down for dinner outside at ‘The Bench’ just off the 18th green at Pebble Beach on a beautiful evening, I was reminded that we were only a few days away from the ‘longest day of the year’ as the last group of golfers were just teeing off on the 18th hole at 8:55 p.m.

Our stay at the Inn at Spanish Bay started with a most beautiful day to play the Links at Spanish Bay, which is laid out along the coastline, and ended with the traditional kilted Scotsman coming over the dunes at day’s end playing his bagpipe. The following day we played Pebble Beach, fog was included at no extra cost, although it seemed like there were some extra costs in there somewhere!  It was not as beautiful a day, but . . . hey, it was Pebble Beach! There is no real need to discuss my golf scores on these fabulous courses; the pleasure was in the beauty. The pleasure was in the beauty. bagpiperThe pleasure was in the beauty!

Great scenery, great friends and great expense made for a fabulous trip. I believe that every Californian MUST take the Hwy 1 drive at least once in their life.

 

Below is an aerial video from YouTube you might enjoy (Thank you son, Jeff for helping with the IT).

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