Just under a week in California was for the purpose of a warm recovery from the chills of Yellowstone, but it didn't quite work out that way. When it wasn't raining, it looked like it was about to rain, and they say 'it never rains in California'. Well, they do have to fill the dams sometime, we suppose, and it was nice to relax, and do some soggy people watching.
We drove 280km north of Los Angeles to stay with Maggie, a dear friend, in Arroyo Grande, a town near San Luis Obispo for a couple of days. Our departure was late, so the drive was at night, and our trusty Garmin navigator thought it was a good idea to take a shortcut, off the obvious US101 freeway, over the CA154, a mountain pass. This narrow, windy road took an eternity for about 50km, but at least there was little traffic.
Arroyo Grande itself is a charming little town representing a proud local community, and thanks to Maggie's guidance, we found excellent coffee in a friendly Branch Street cafe. One day the weather held off log enough to sit outside and enjoy it, but the other day, persistent drizzle (after a severe overnight storm) forced us inside. In reasonable weather, Maggie showed us round, and we saw a Monarch butterfly habitat where we were instructed by enthusiastic volunteer guides, and enjoyed visiting seaside towns, having a great lunch at Moro Bay. This town was busy mid-winter, so it must really buzz in summer.
The drive back to LA down the US101 was even more fraught, because when we arrived in Santa Barbara, a city jammed between mountain and sea, the through road was totally closed by flooding and mudslides. The few backroads through the town were also closed, mud was everywhere, and a (not very) helpful policeman told us we would have to back up to Santa Maria then take the I5, a detour which would add 350km to the journey! No other alternate was apparent. We found a nearby Starbucks, rather crowded with other stranded travellers, where a grapevine was running with also (not very) helpful gossip and information. After an hour or so there, a man in a Sherrif's uniform told us that one of the town's local roads, CA192, was now open and we could use it to bypass the US101 closure. He was right, we navigated through wet, muddy, hilly and wealthy suburbs of Santa Barbara to get back to an almost empty US101 right on the coast, where we found that most of the traffic appeared to be locals rubber-necking at the storm damage. In the end, this particular 3 hour drive took about 7 hours.
We had to ignore these signs and drive through several of these zones to bypass the US101. [Santa Barbara Independent]
The other half of our California interlude was spent in Santa Monica, a chill-out zone we have enjoyed in the past. The rain persisted, but it was nice to walk the town and the fascinating pier between showers, but we still managed to get pretty wet.
Somehow we knew in advance that it would be nice to stay somewhere warm and touristy to unwind before coming home. We had a week to kill, could not find anything in Mexico which appealed, couldn't find any logical connections to Tahiti, so in the end we chose Hawaii, Honolulu and Waikiki. It was a good decision, and we enjoyed warm beach weather, the odd tropical downpour, and some great sunrises and sunsets, not to mention cocktails and other good stuff!
Laziness kept us in Waikiki where we knew everything would be available without effort. Other islands like Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Hawaii did sound good, but we had to get there, so didn't bother. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, right in the centre of the beach, and that was a good choice too. Not too big, not too touristy, but within easy walking distance of everything, and our room was a very spacious suite on the top floor where we had no less than three balconies. Cross ventilation was a breeze! Someone asked us if we had the Donald Trump Suite - we exaggerated and said there was gold plumbing.
Waikiki is an ambiguously interesting place. On one hand, it is hideously overdeveloped and way too crowded. Maybe because they were established long long ago, hotels have been allowed too close to the beach along west Waikiki, and public access is ireegular and rough. Ugly narrow concrete paths cling to the edge, when something beautiful could have been there. Some stretches are devoid of sand - we suspect it has been lost to storms and bad engineering.
On the other hand, Waikiki (and the rest of Hawaii) must feel like paradise to winter-weary Americans who are here en-masse to escape sub-zero temperatures and polar vortex driven winter storms. It is warm, sunny and delicious here (latitude much the same as Townsville, Queensland), and there can be no beach, none at all, in mainland USA, that looks as good and enticing as Waikiki and any others here. The water has that beguiling turquoise hue, and the iconic Waikiki surf, those small but long rolling waves keep coming in day after day, safe and appealing to both beginners and locals. A never ending stream of catamarans and outriggers take visitors out for langourous cruises, riding such gentle wavesback to shore.
Waikiki is people watching paradise. The city is flooded with tourists, and by our observation, Japanese outnumber even mainland Americans. Japanese must be just as keen to escape their winter, and it's less distance from them to travel than even the closest USA mainlanders, according to a taxi driver.
We Sydneysiders live in a beach culture, so it's amazing for us to observe the behaviour of tourists on Waikiki Beach. It's clear that many of them have never seen the ocean before, never felt sand on their feet or dipped into (the mildest) of surfs. We saw people wearing expensive shoes onto the beach, turn their back to the water (always for a selfie) only to have those shoes swamped. Whole families, it's clear none of them can swim, venture out into deeper water with floaties, blow-up rings or even rented surfboards being all that is keeping them afloat. The lifeguards here must be vigilent, but lucky the surf is so benign. Beach umbrellas and chairs can be rented, and there's no concept of personal space on the sand - any square metre is fit to be occupied.
We tried and succeeded at doing not much at all in Waikiki. A slow start every day, then a beautiful swim at the beach, followed by really excellent espresso at Kona Coffee in the International Centre, breakfast wherever (but Basalt proved to be good quality at the right price), and a fresh squeezed orange and ginger at Jamba Juice by which time it was midday. Then a stroll around town or through the shops until happy-hour at Firepit at the Sheraton where, on almost every day, we managed to score the best location, within splashing distance of the incoming waves. Dinner was whatever grabbed our fancy - there's plenty of good restaurants available, although crowded.