March 10, 2008

Operation Exploration

[Ed: Some edits made 9/15/16 for clarity and quality]

Somehow being out in the West made me feel like an explorer—like I wanted to blaze new trails of my own.

Standing on the beach behind the Hotel Del Coronado, being blinded by the gold flecks in the sand even through my sunglasses, I started dreaming of the Gold Rush and cowboys and every type of rancho I could think of.

During our San Diego trip, we used our downtown hotel, The Sofia, as a base camp for our many adventures - and not just the 59-Mile Scenic Drive that took us through La Jolla, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach.

Formerly owned by a groundbreaking stagecoach company, and currently located in the same building as Greyhound, it seemed appropriate as a launching point for our many travels (despite its very weird position near the County Court buildings, the law library, and several bail bond providers).

On Friday we drove about an hour north to Temecula, Southern California's wine country situated between San Diego and Los Angeles, serving both communities with lush rolling hills, strawberry patches, and, of course, vineyards.

Trying to curb our intoxication so we could actually drive home, we visited four wineries:
  • the Hart family-run winery
  • Callaway, the area's first winery
  • La Cereza, where we found a great bottle of "Girlfriends," a Gewurtztraminer blend, to ship home
  • Falker, where we found a great bottle of Riesling to bring back to the hotel with us, and spotted a bunny rabbit hopping across their outdoor tasting area

Filled up on wine, we decided to leave the rest of the wineries for another day and head into Old Town Temecula, where we happened upon the annual Rod Run which took over the streets with tricked-out lowriders and convertibles with their shiny inner workings hanging out for all the world to see.

Amidst the revving engines and hooting and hollering, we stopped into the Temecula Olive Oil Company for one more tasting, where they gave us shot glasses of olive varietals, sometimes with balsamic chasers and mixers.

Historic train

The next day, we took the harrowing route 94 south, taking winding roads through mountains and canyons and big boulder rocks to Campo, CA, where we met up with the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum for their "Ticket to Tecate" historic train ride to Mexico.

I'd really wanted to go to Mexico but had no interest in tourist trap Tijuana nor in driving there, fully aware of police corruption, so this group excursion was perfect. The volunteer conductors and trainmen were personable and informative, and although Edith and I felt very young amongst our mostly-retired fellow travellers, we loved every minute of it. No matter how weird it was.

The old San Diego Arizona Railway was renowned at its launch and even featured in a bunch of silent movies, but it was a horrible failure and victim to natural disasters and sabotage. We rode one of the later San Diego & Arizona diesel locomotives through the border into Mexico, past factories and innumerable shacks from which kids ran out to wave at the passing train, right into Tecate, namesake for the popular Mexican beer. With just about three hours to waste in Tecate, we grabbed margaritas and lunch (and an extended serenade of "Imagine" by a busker) at Lolo's near the plaza, took the Tecate brewery tour clad in hard hats and safety goggles (free 16 oz tallboy can included), and stopped at the town's only bakery for some delicious pastries and dulce.

On our way out of Tecate I noticed the Mexican kids waving again, but on this side of the train they ran right up to it, arms outstretched, and the Americans in the back of the train threw change out to them (the American dollar is accepted in Tecate in addition to pesos). Edith and I remarked about it and the couple across from us no sooner confirmed what was happening than actually took out a dollar bill, shouted out, "Hey, amigo!" and then chucked it out the window to a little boy, which was met with squeals and screams. These are kids that are being brought up in houses made of cinder blocks and tarps with advertisements printed on them, so they could surely use the money, but the whole thing felt like a petting zoo to me, treating those poor kids like animals.

When we got back to Campo, we decided we wanted to extend our Mexican experience so after rinsing off at the hotel, we took the Trolley to the flipside experience, San Diego's Old Town. A big tourist destination because of the strip of Mexican joints and all the Mexican-themed souvenir shops (which look nothing like Mexico), Old Town is considered the "birthplace" of California, the site of the first Spanish settlement.

We visited at night, so we missed all the historical elements and instead went off the beaten path to eat at El Agave, a Mexican restaurant with a bit more haute cuisine and over a thousand tequilas.

Balancing out eating/drinking with adventure, I think I could have spent at least one more day on this trip, and I can definitely foresee another trip in the future. There's still whale-watching, paragliding, hot air ballooning, hiking, and all sorts of other activities to be done. And maybe even the chance to poke my head into the BBQ restaurant that Top Gun made famous.

But I'm glad to be back in NYC. Ask me today, and I'll say that life is good.

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