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A sticky situation in California

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San Luis Obispo’s quirky Bubblegum Alley

 

SAN LUIS OBISPO, California – Walk down the wrong alley on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo and you could find yourself in a sticky situation.

Literally.

Bubblegum Alley

Bubblegum Alley in downtown San Luis Obispo, California

It’s not street crime about which you’ll need to be concerned.  Indeed, this sleepy college town in central California – called “SLO Town” by the locals — isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of nefarious activity.  No, there isn’t a local chapter of MS-13.

Instead, you’ll want to make sure you keep your hands off the alley’s brick walls, which are covered with thousands of pieces of already-been-chewed Bazooka, Juicy Fruit and Trident.

Welcome to Bubblegum Alley, a curious tourist attraction where adults can act like children – stick their used gum on a public wall — and no one will chastise them.

There are different stories about how and when Bubblegum Alley originated, but most believe it started in the 1950s as part of a high school tradition that – well — stuck.  Over the years, the city tried to discourage the practice, as many locals considered the place an eyesore.

But downtown business owners realized it was attracting tourists, who brought not only their gum, but dollars as well.  Now, a local bar owner steam cleans the alley once a month to keep things relatively sanitary.  And a nearby candy store does a booming business selling gum to tourists who wish to leave a mark in San Luis Obispo – at least until the next steam-cleaning.

Gum in Bubblegum Alley

Thousands of pieces of already-been-chewed gum are stuck to the walls in Bubblegum Alley

As for me, I’m not much of a gum-chewer, so I just looked at the mass of used gum on the alley’s wall rather than add my own contribution.  When posing for a picture, I did place my hand on the wall so as not to look like a stiff robot.  As soon as my hand made contact with the sticky goo, I realized it wasn’t my smartest – or most hygienic — move.

But the remnants of the pink Bubblicious came off after a thorough hand-washing.  As I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring downtown SLO Town, my visit to Bubblegum Alley reminded me how much I enjoy exploring rather bizarre and offbeat landmarks.

In terms of magnitude, history and beauty, Bubblegum Alley may fall short in comparisons with Niagara Falls, the Pyramids of Egypt or the Louvre in Paris.

But try sticking your used Juicy Fruit on the Mona Lisa – if you can get close enough — and I’m guessing the authorities won’t look the other way.

Anyway, something to chew on.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

SLO and Easy

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San Luis Obispo County offers a slow-paced, but action-packed vacation destination

The Arizona Republic — November 25, 2018

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, California – The locals in this central California region on the Pacific Coast Highway about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco refer to their county simply as “SLO CAL.”

Morro Rock

Kayakers paddle past Morro Rock in San Luis Obispo County

Spend a few days in San Luis Obispo County amidst the colorful tapestry of vineyards, rolling hills, sand dunes, cattle ranches, beaches dotted with lounging elephant seals, and seaside shops in Morro Bay selling saltwater taffy, and you’ll see that SLO is much more than an acronym.

It also describes a slow-paced, less-pretentious way of life that differentiates San Luis Obispo from many of the state’s more well-known tourist destinations.  As the county’s tourist board – SLO CAL — proudly proclaims with its new marketing slogan, “life’s too beautiful to rush.”

“We consider it the California less-traveled,” says Brooke Burnham, SLO CAL’s vice president of marketing.  “We’re kind of hidden and we offer similar experiences to other places but at a different pace.”

True, but for those not content with sunbathing on the golden sands of Pismo Beach while munching on a tri-tip steak sandwich – a local specialty – and washing it down with a chilled Chardonnay produced in the nearby Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo also offers adventure-seekers plenty of chances to experience the outdoors in a more exhilarating way.

During a recent four-day visit to this county of about a quarter-million people, I went paragliding in Santa Margarita, rode in a military Humvee up and down the wild terrain of the Pismo Dunes, took a three-hour sailing trip in a 44-foot yacht along the California coast, pedaled my way past several vineyards in the Edna Valley, hiked the Boucher Trail to the famous Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, and ziplined high above pinot noir vineyards.

And for a more cerebral activity, I was even able to squeeze in a visit to perhaps the most iconic castle in the country – the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.  The former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst has 165 rooms full of art that rivals museum collections.  The castle is part of a working cattle ranch set on 127 acres and offers stunning views of the Pacific and rolling hills of central California.

Here are my five top choices for adventure-seeking travelers visiting SLO CAL:

Riding the Dunes

Pismo Dunes

Riding the dunes in a Humvee at the Oceano State Recreation Area near Pismo Beach

“Do you want wild or mild?” our driver asked our group of five as we strapped ourselves into a 1987 U.S. Marine Corps Humvee for the drive to the dunes at the Oceano State Recreation Area near Pismo Beach.  I was outvoted.  Wild it was.

The trip made prior four-wheeling dune rides I had taken seem like the Disneyland teacup ride in comparison.  But our seasoned driver with Pacific Adventure Tours, the largest Humvee tour company in the country, was firmly in command.  Never once did I feel like we were close to tipping over, even when the driver zig-zagged across dunes seemingly as tall as skyscrapers.

The views of the Pacific – which I enjoyed while holding on tight and clenching my teeth — were magnificent.  Following the ride, we enjoyed a bonfire and clam chowder at nearby Grover Beach.

 

 

Bike and Wine

Edna Valley biking

A biking tour through San Luis Obispo County’s wine country

With more than 250 wineries, San Luis Obispo County is California’s third-largest wine-producing region (behind Napa and Sonoma).  I took a 6-mile bike tour past numerous vineyards through the bike-friendly Edna Valley, and stopped at two wineries for tastings along the way.

SLO CAL is known for producing top-notch reds and whites and offers a less touristy experience than wineries with more acclaimed – and expensive — products 200 miles up the coast.

“You’re often going to find the winemaker in the tasting room,” says Burnham.  “You’ll be able to have a much more casual experience.  You don’t need to make appointments.  And the cost of tastings is much lower.”

 

Paragliding

Paragliding

View from a paraglider in the skies over San Luis Obispo County

Not for the faint of heart, this is the most exhilarating way to experience the natural beauty of the ocean, mountains and farmlands of San Luis Obispo County.

My WingEnvy Paragliding pilot and I took off on a motorized paraglider attached to a parachute in Santa Margarita, a few miles inland. Originally, we were scheduled to fly closer to the coast, but the ocean winds were too strong.

My ride lasted just 10 minutes and the landing was a bit bumpy, but it was the most spectacular and picturesque activity of the trip (see video shot by the author of the landing: Paragliding in San Luis Obispo County).

Hiking Past Elephant Seals

Wildlife lovers will enjoy a 2-mile hike on the Boucher Trail that begins at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, the largest on the West Coast.

In peak times — December through March — there are 17,000 seals on these beaches. Docents are stationed on the trail to explain the animals’ behavior and mating habits. Gray-whale sightings also are common, especially in the spring when the whales migrate to Alaska.

The hike ends at the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, which was first illuminated in 1875. It’s open for tours and is now used as a research facility and wildlife sanctuary.

Ziplining

For those who want amazing views of the landscape but a tamer experience than paragliding, Margarita Adventures offers a zip-line tour in Santa Margarita. 

The two-hour tour includes six zip lines spanning more than 7,500 feet and takes about two hours to complete.

ziplining

Ziplining past vineyards in Santa Margarita

Odds ‘n Ends

It’s easy to get to San Luis Obispo; American Airlines offers daily 90-minute nonstop flights from Phoenix.  The airport is just a 10-minute drive from the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo, the county seat.

“SLO Town,” as it’s called by the locals, has a population of 45,000 and is home to a major university, Cal-Poly.  Founded in 1772, San Luis Obispo is one of California’s oldest communities and is worth exploring for an afternoon.

Accommodations in the region are pricey; an average hotel costs about $250 a night.  The Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon is a good choice; it’s a short drive to the Hearst Castle.  You’ll want to rent a car as public transportation in the area is virtually non-existent.  Even finding an Uber or Lyft driver was difficult.

But it’s best to act like the locals if things move at a more relaxed pace than you’d like.  Chill out, have a glass of wine and enjoy the sea air.

In other words, take it SLO and easy.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Exploring “The Graduate’s” History in Berkeley

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Fifty-year anniversary of groundbreaking movie presents sightseeing opportunities for the film’s fanatics

The Arizona Republic — October 22, 2017

BERKELEY, Calif. – Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

December marks the 50-year anniversary of the release of “The Graduate,” named the seventh best American movie of all time by the American Film Institute.  The film, which won an Oscar for director Mike Nichols, defined the zeitgeist of a generation starting to rebel against convention and pre-ordained life paths.

Downtown Berkeley

View of downtown Berkeley from the Graduate Hotel

The spirit of the groundbreaking movie, immortalized by Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson seducing an angst-filled Dustin Hoffman, still survives in this free-thinking college town in which parts of the movie were filmed.

To mark the anniversary, the Berkeley Historical Society is offering a walking tour Nov. 11 to see the sites shown in the film, many of which are still in use.  Steve Finacom, a past president of the society, will guide the tour.  He said interest is strong and more tours might be added.

“I think people are interested in seeing places from history — even fictional history,” Finacom said.  “The ‘60s has a hold on the imagination.  Berkeley did really capture the attention of the nation in that era.”

I recently spent a long weekend in Berkeley on my own self-guided tour into cinematic history.  I was too young to see the movie when it first came out, but I’ve seen it numerous times as an adult.  “The Graduate” spoke to me on so many levels. 

Graduate poster

“The Graduate” movie posters hang in each of the 144 rooms at the Graduate Hotel Berkeley

I also wanted to learn more about Berkeley, a city of about 120,000 people just north of Oakland and across the bay from San Francisco.  It’s known as a boisterous epicenter of left-wing political activism.

Appropriately, I stayed at The Graduate Hotel, which made a brief appearance in the movie and is one block from the University of California-Berkeley campus.  Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, pursued Elaine — a Cal-Berkeley student and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter — in hopes of winning Elaine’s heart.

But the hotel’s name has nothing to do with the movie.  Known as the Hotel Durant when the movie was filmed, it became The Graduate last summer when it was acquired by a company that owns a chain of 10 hotels in university communities around the country. (The Graduate Tempe is on Apache Boulevard across the street from Arizona State University’s campus.)

Nevertheless, the hotel has capitalized on its name, hanging “The Graduate” movie posters in each of its 144 rooms and offering occasional “vinyl nights” in the hotel bar, in which the movie’s famous soundtrack — recorded by Simon and Garfunkel — spins on an old turntable.  Berkeley’s quirky counterculture is represented by bong-shaped lamps in the guestrooms and a restroom urinal painted with the logo and colors of Stanford, Cal-Berkeley’s arch-rival.

As I took a short walk from the hotel to Telegraph Avenue to explore the filming sites, I passed the types of shops one might expect to see in Berkeley — a Buddhist bookstore, a restaurant selling “America’s first USDA certified organic fast food” and tie-dyed shirt stalls.  A man known simply as “The Wizard” gazed into a crystal ball while predicting the futures of passersby on a busy street corner.

Graduate boarding house

The Victorian boarding house in which Dustin Hoffman’s character rented a room while pursuing Elaine

My first stop was a stately Victorian house built in 1895 at the corner of Channing Way and Dana Street that served as Ben’s boarding house in the film.  This is where a crotchety landlord played by Norman Fell (who later starred as Mr. Roper on TV’s “Three’s Company”) accused Ben of being an “outside agitator” before evicting him.

Today, the building is divided into six apartments.  Finacom is petitioning the city to have the building designated as a historic landmark, noting that it’s “already an informal landmark; it should be an official one.”

Two blocks away, I stopped at the now-closed Caffe Mediterraneum, where Ben sipped a beer while surreptitiously watching Elaine emerge across Telegraph Avenue from Moe’s Books, a Berkeley staple known for its eclectic selection of used books and posters.

Moe Moscowitz, who founded the store in 1959, passed away 20 years ago.  His daughter Doris Moscowitz runs the business and proudly displays a large photo of the storefront seen in “The Graduate.”  She said it’s a point of pride that Moe’s Books appeared in such a landmark movie, adding that Nichols did a wonderful job of capturing “Berkeley’s iconic funkiness.”

Sather Tower

Sather Tower, located on the UC-Berkeley campus, is the third-tallest bell-and-clock tower in the world

Just down the block from my hotel I found the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity house, where Ben frantically parked his red Alfa Romeo Spider convertible and rushed inside to find out where Elaine was getting married.  It’s still an active frat house but no one answered the door when I repeatedly knocked on a Saturday morning.

Cal-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, the main square on campus, also was shown in “The Graduate,” although parts of the movie were also filmed at USC and UCLA in Los Angeles.

Today, Cal-Berkeley remains a hotbed of student activism.  Free campus walking tours are offered every morning at 10:00, leaving from the football stadium.  Indeed, the tour I took was briefly interrupted by a passing march for women’s rights.

There aren’t a lot of typical tourist attractions in Berkeley.  Perhaps the most noteworthy landmark is Sather Tower, located at the center of campus.  At 307 feet, it’s the third-tallest bell-and-clock-tower in the world.  For $3, you can take an elevator to the top, where there is a 61-bell carillon, not to mention stunning views of downtown San Francisco.

Country Joe McDonald

The legendary Country Joe McDonald performs at the Berkeley Historical Society

But visitors typically don’t come to Berkeley for the sites.  They come to experience the vibe.

A sample of the city’s energy and rich musical history is now on display at the Historical Society, which recently opened an exhibit – which runs through April — called “Soundtrack to the 60s: The Berkeley Music Scene.”

My visit happened to coincide with the exhibit’s opening, featuring a performance by the legendary Country Joe McDonald, a Berkeley fixture who has lived here since before “The Graduate” was made.  As the lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, McDonald, now 75, wrote and recorded one of the most famous anti-Vietnam War anthems of the ‘60s (see video shot by the author: Country Joe McDonald performs anti-Vietnam War song).

Like a 50-year-old suede vest with bright psychedelic trim, Berkeley is a bit frayed at the edges.  The city has a serious homeless problem.  But Berkeley’s charm, vibrant spirit and retro-feel more than compensate for some of its dinginess.

Just like Ben experienced with Mrs. Robinson 50 years ago, once you get past the brazen exterior, you’ll likely be seduced into wanting more.

© 2017 Dan Fellner