The Pink Sombrero
They came from far and wide to celebrate my birthday, though none had ventured as far from home as us.
Two-point-five hours from Sydney to Auckland and then nigh on another twelve to Los Angeles, before embarking on a two hour drive through Southern California to Mission Viejo where our dear friends, Ed and Susan, were awaiting our arrival.
We met Ed and Susan in 2009 whilst waiting to embark upon Diamond Princess for a cruise from Beijing to Bangkok. Given that neither Ed nor Huckleberry B had ever met a stranger in their lives, they hit it off immediately. Susan and I are cast in supporting roles whenever Ed and Huck B get together to engage in chat and banter. Ed’s a very funny man, delivering caustic barbs at every opportunity; followed by a wicked smile and the words “I’m terrible, I’m terrible.”
In any event, my birth-month festivities began almost immediately…but not before a much needed, much appreciated and well deserved long, deep sleep. Bliss!
Refreshed and restored, celebrations began in earnest on Saturday night when Huck B, our two gracious hosts and I sat down to smash some Mexican food, while the sun set over the man-made lake at Mission Viejo. Expecting to smash the food proved, however, to be optimistic given that the meals were immense; particularly Susan’s chicken salad. Ultimately, therefore, it was the Mexican food which smashed us!
I did, however, enjoy my chicken burritos and we all sampled Ed’s fajitas, which were excellent.
I made the mistake, however, of sitting with my back to the kitchen. This proved a critical error of judgment, on my part, because I neither saw nor did I hear the approach of the Mexican band carrying an immense pink sombrero accompanied by a tiny sundae adorned with a lone candle. The waiters were already by my side when the festive sombrero was planted on by balding head and raucous singing began.
Ed, Susan and my beloved all joined the chorus with gusto; causing the colour of my cheeks to match the sombrero.
Laguna Beach Surprise
The next day – though still afflicted by some nagging time zone asymmetry – we piled into Ed’s car and traversed the manageable distance to Laguna Beach. Though the journey was short, I still managed to fall into a deep sleep – replete with weird dreams making absolutely no sense – which represented a recurring pattern during the early days of my celebratory month.
And so it was – through sleepy eyes and a slumbering brain – that I tried to process the fact that although there were only four in our merry gang, nine seats were assembled around our table at the Laguna Beach Hotel seafood restaurant. To be honest, I assumed the seats would be occupied by friends of our hosts, if I managed to think about it at all…
Soon enough, however, a cheeky smile appeared on Ed’s lips as Huckleberry B looked over my shoulder and bounced happily out of her chair. I had, once more, foolishly placed myself with my back to the entrance, so I (still) had no idea what the hell was going on. Once out of my seat, however, I saw a joyous sight: our old friend, Irene, was toddling towards us with a grin bigger than her face, accompanied by her daughter Michelle and her son-in-law, Joe.
(When describing Irene as old, I do so deliberately because she is 89 years of age…in addition to being somebody we have known for many years).
When greeting Irene, I remarked that she had come a long away for my birthday. But Joe quickly reminded me that she had moved from San Mateo (near San Francisco) to Pasadena.
I was truly surprised by Huckleberry B’s conniving. Dumbfounded would be more accurate!
But there were still two seats unaccounted for. My brain instinctively conducted an audit of our catalogue of American friends to identify who else might live in Southern California. The results were inconclusive, primarily because my data on where most of our American friends actually lived was incomplete.
While conducting this mental exercise – and struggling to extract information from the deepest recesses of my quiescent mind – I felt an arm around my rounded shoulders and saw a grinning face dominating my field of vision. Wendy! Oh my Gosh!
Huckleberry B and I met Wendy as recently as last December when cruising the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. She was but one of the many Americans on that trip who assured us that the Trump phenomena was a joke which would soon be over…
In any event, I could scarcely believe my red eyes. Was I still in a jet-lag induced coma, or was this really happening!
In any event, Wendy explained that she lived in reasonable proximity, at Playa de Rey.
With our cast of carousing diners complete, festivities were renewed, culminating in another round of joyous singing and the biggest chocolate cake any of us had ever seen!
Amongst the Vines in Temecula
The next day – the joys of our Laguna Beach lunch still warming our souls – my birthday caravan rolled out of Mission Viejo and trundled, ninety minutes later, into the wine country of Temecula. Positioned in the rear passenger seat, my brain resolved that our journey represented a good time, once again, to descend into sleep. More senseless dreams punctuated by snoring so loud that it woke me up, before returning to my restless slumber.
Once in Temecula, however, I forced myself to wake up and digest the sights around me; beyond the Old Town, along the highway, amongst the rolling hills, where the grapevines grow…
The countryside reminded me more of the Barossa Valley in South Australia than the Hunter Valley, closer to home, in New South Wales. The majority of the vineyards appeared to be positioned either side of Rancho California Road, which meandered through the Valley like an untamed grapevine unfurling towards the horizon. Stately wineries, mostly in a Spanish style, sat in harmony with vines which migrated across the hills.
Ed told us that the Temecula wine region was looked down upon by the more established wineries in Napa and Sonoma, but I think the young challenger was charming and enjoys great potential.
Soon Ed turned his vehicle towards the right and, disembarking, we looked for Ponte Resturant. We experienced some mild, short-lived confusion, when the hotel staff pointed us towards the restroom, rather than the restaurant! But we found Ponte soon enough.
And when we did, more surprise guests lay in wait for my arrival; John and Noelene, whom we met on our epic journey to Antarctica during the Christmas / New Year period of 2009 / 2010. But whereas there were just two of them 6 years ago, now there were five and John and Noelene soon introduced us to their three children, Noah (5), Isla (3) and little Jema (9 months).
The family had travelled from Ventura to join us for my (ongoing) birthday celebrations.
We had a great time eating, drinking and generally carousing under the shade sails at Ponte. Young Noah and Isla proved, in particular, to be entertaining lunch companions. Huckleberry B gave them each a clip-on Koala as a present. Isla, for reasons which were not explained, named her Koala “Bunk” and repeatedly reminded me of this fact by thrusting her little Koala toward my face and proclaiming: “his name is Bunk!”.
Soon, little Bunk was the subject of a game of hide-and-seek where Bunk was hidden and we, after re-opening our eyes, had to find him. When my turn came, I clipped Bunk to my right ear. Whenever Noah and Isla pointed to my ear and screeched “he’s there“, I turned my head (temporarily obscuring Bunk from their view), looked searchingly behind me and asked plaintively “where?“, causing Noah and Isla to jump up and down, gesticulate wildly and scream “there!”.
Not since the Underlings were toddlers had I had so much fun playing games with young children.
Relaxing in Mission Viejo
After a night at the charming Europa Inn, we visited a couple of vineyards in Temecula, a few shops in the Old Town before heading back to Ed and Susan’s house in Mission Viejo.
Huckleberry B and I agree with Ed and Susan that they have a lovely little home in Southern California. Situated in a peaceful gated retirement community, Castor del Sol, the homely bungalow is surrounded by trees and looks out over a valley to some tall rolling hills beyond. Susan has named the cluster of houses which occupy the distant slopes as her Amalfi Coast.
We spent the days which followed chatting and enjoying each other’s company, although the peaceful environment was interrupted on the Wednesday night by the Presidential Debate, which caused much consternation.
I am enormously grateful to Ed and Susan for becoming very willing and hyper-enthusiastic partners-in-surprise-celebratory-crime with my beloved Huckleberry B. Not only did they research suitable venues, they even travelled to Laguna Beach and Temecula in advance of our visit to personally ensure the restaurants were up-to-scratch. Being relatively new to the area themselves, it was important not to take any reckless chances.
Never in the history of my birth-month celebrations had such a highly organised conspiracy been perpetrated!
Cruising Along the Barbary Coast
A Week of Unparalleled Non-Adventure
Allow me to get one thing straight at the outset; our weekend onboard Ruby Princess was never intended to be a week of adventure.
There was nothing akin to trekking in the Himalayas or wending our way between the icebergs of Antarctica. This was always going to be a week of relaxation when we did as little as possible.
Most days involved getting out of bed, having breakfast, doing nothing, attending the morning trivia quiz, doing nothing, attending the afternoon trivia quiz, doing nothing, meeting Ed and Susan for dinner and ending the day by doing nothing.
For the record, our cruise took us from San Pedro (near Los Angeles) north to San Francisco; before heading south again and visiting Santa Barbara, San Diego and the Mexican port of Ensenada. Then it was back north again to disembark at San Pedro.
Huckleberry B and I had a lovely week together; but we didn’t do very much!
One More Birth-MonthSurprise
There was, however, one surprise awaiting me in the celebratory month of Pete-Tober.
Huck B and I were hosting Ed and Susan in our suite at the aft of Ruby Princess – overlooking her tumultuous wake – when there was a knock at the door. Assuming it was our room steward coming to enquire whether there was anything we needed, I paid little attention. I was, therefore, flummoxed when, glancing over my shoulder, I saw Charlene’s grinning face walking towards me.
Huckleberry B and I first met Charlene in 2009 during our early morning transfer from Beijing to the port which lay some two hours away, preparatory to boarding Diamond Princess to sail south to Bangkok (serendipitiously the same cruise where we met Ed and Susan).
During that long drive from Beijing, we also met Charlene’s husband, Jerry. Sadly, Jerry passed away several years ago, a suspected victim of exposure to Agent Orange during his period of service in Vietnam.
It was great to see Charlene again. She had lost a lot of weight since we last saw her, a product, she says, of her mourning. But she looked happy and entertained us with her stories during our week onboard Ruby Princess. She explained that she had adjusted to the new phase in her life, although we noticed she became teary, from time to time, when telling a story about her deceased husband.
Eating-Out in San Francisco
After a lazy day at sea, Ruby Princess docked in San Francisco.
This was a day of animated anticipation for Ed and Susan because they had arranged a lunch with their old friends from Los Gatos, where they lived before moving to Mission Viejo. Huckleberry B and I were honoured to be included in the festivities.
So, mid-morning, we left the ship and started strolling along Embarcadero towards Market Street. Along the way we encountered a homeless man walking towards us wearing a heavy overcoat. He must have have felt hot, however, because he had unbuttoned his overcoat; thus exposing every swinging part of the body which lay beneath.
Welcome to San Francisco!
Before joining Ed and Susan for their reunion lunch, however, Huckleberry B had a cunning surprise in store…
Stopping off at the Blue Bottle Cafe at the ferry terminal for a takeaway coffee, Huck B and I walked the short distance to the Robert Half office on California Street. The young lady behind the desk looked a tad perplexed when my beloved announced that she had a coffee delivery for AL..and the coffee recipient looked astounded when she entered the reception area to find her aunt and uncle standing there!
Our niece knew we were in town – and dinner was arranged for the early evening – but she did not expect an office visit.
We chatted with AL for awhile – thus interrupting her working day – before heading off to Kuleto’s on Powell Street for the lunch. We had a lovely time with Ed & Susan’s friends whilst enjoying some lovely Italian food.
After a stroll through San Francisco’s fabled Chinatown (much celebrated in story and song) and a coffee at Starbucks (much maligned by bitter experience), we joined AL and her husband, M, for dinner at the Wayfarer’s Tavern, where we engaged in animated chat.
A stroll back to Ruby Princess capped off a lovely day in the City by the Bay.
Seafood Lunch in Santa Barbara
Another day another leisurely lunch.
Home of the rich and famous – and fleeting home for the idle and lazy – Santa Barbara is a charming city with a village atmosphere. We were told that the likes of Oprah, Ellen and Portia, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and Kirk Douglas live in the hills which arc around the town and sometimes venture down to the restaurants frequented by the common people.
I adopted the covert sharp eye of a secret agent, but failed to spot anybody famous. I would have loved to tell Mr Martin that I enjoyed his performance in movies like Parenthood and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And should I have stumbled across Kirk Douglas, I would have loved to tell him that I was always more a fan of his son, so it’s probably better that I didn’t.
Absent a chance encounter with a star of stage or screen, Huckleberry B and I settled for lunch with Ed and Susan!
(For the avoidance of doubt, the last paragraph was, of course, a cheap joke and offered in partial retaliation for Ed’s onslaught of teasing remarks we have endured over a two week period!)
When we located and entered the Enterprise Fish Company Restaurant on State Street, we found – to no surprise whatsoever – that Ed had befriended two random strangers seated adjacent to the table he and Susan were occupying. They looked, for all the world, like two locals enjoying a meal, dressed down in their activity wear and caps. It turned out, however, to be a fortuitous meeting. As it transpired, the female stranger Ed befriended was the general manager of the restaurant; enjoying a quick lunch with her brother after they had ascended and descended one of the nearby tall hills for fun and recreation.
And the result? Two bowls of complimentary lobster bisque, thank you very much!
The lunch at Enterprise Fish Company was delightful as we were joined by two more of Ed and Susan’s friends who had moved from Los Gatos.
We had a lovely time together.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
Little Chopper and his Frisbees
Huckleberry B and I rounded out our journey to United States by flying from Los Angeles to Dallas Fort Worth where we were greeted by our dear friend Stephen.
We met Stephen and his cheeky wife, Sharon, in 2007 when enjoying our first river cruise through Eastern France to Avignon.
We were privileged, once again, to be invited into our friends’ home where we stayed for four nights.
Whilst we were looking forward to our time with Sharon and Stephen, neither Huckleberry B nor I anticipated that we would also make a new friend.
Whilst perhaps uncertain about at us at first, little Chopper – a Schnauzer Terrier – proved to be charming host. We both fell in love with him and will miss him when we leave.
Chopper’s favourite game is frisbee. Unfortunately, my frisbee skills were sub-standard at my first attempt and Chop Chop, clearly dissatisfied with my dismal performance, delivered a stinging rebuke and unilaterally terminated the game and headed back inside.
Appropriately chastened, I learned that I was required to stand in the middle of the yard with up to 10 frisbees in my hand. Chopper instructed me to toss one frisbee to one end of the large yard which he would chase and catch. He would then run back towards me, drop the frisbee from his mouth and hurtle towards the other end of the yard, reaching maximum velocity as he passed my stationary position. It was then my job to time my next frisbee throw so that Chopper could track the frisbee’s path over his shoulder and time his leap to catch it between his teeth.
Stephen laughed when he told me that Chopper ran faster, jumped higher and added a little dance at the end of his performance if the female dogs next door were watching him!
While Chopper was friendly once he accepted we were dog-people, he does not like people holding him and only truly trusts Sharon and Stephen. Huckleberry B was, therefore, greatly honoured – and our hosts were greatly surprised – when Chop Chop decided to leap up onto the lounge and snuggle up with my beloved. What a canine endorsement!
He’s a good boy, lil’ Chopper. And he’s a lucky boy too; he gets to go to work every day with his Daddy at his jewellery store. How much would our three girls love that!
Halloween in Fort Worth
As soon as we arrived at Sharon and Stephen’s house in Fort Worth, we knew it was Halloween!
Their front yard was dominated by a witch driving a pumpkin carriage through a cemetery! At the front door we were greeted by a six-foot tall Igor and the living room was dominated by pumpkins, vultures, ghosts and witches. Another creepy looking spectre with a puppet sat at the piano in the corner. How spooky!
In preparation for the trick or treat onslaught, Sharon’s grand-daughter had prepared sixty bags full of candy. When the night came, they were gone in 30 minutes! Huckleberry B and I had never seen anything like it. The doorbell rang constantly and we were greeted by gangs of ghouls of up to 12 in number.
To my observation, an implied contract was in operation. The kids dress up and they get candy. The trick in the trick OR treat equation appears to have been lost in time. Stephen said that ‘in his day’ the homeowner was entitled to request a trick, in which case the obligation to provide a treat no longer applied. But now, it seems, we live in more consumer-driven times!
The efforts of the marketing departments of major supermarkets back home notwithstanding, Halloween has never really taken off in Sydney. So we were excited to participate in a genuine Texan Halloween. It was great fun.
A Day in Fort Worth
After a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday evening when we had dinner with Sharon and Stephen, their daughter, Kim, and their son-in-law, Jim – before enjoying The Phantom of the Opera at Bass Hall – we spent Monday with Sharon’s general manager, Gracie, in Fort Worth.
The morning was occupied by a stroll around the Stockyards where we saw some Longhorns being herded down the road. Boy, those horns were long!
But the highlight was lunch at Joe T Garcia’s!
Joe T’s appears to be a Dallas Fort Worth institution! With capacity to seat 1,600 guests – most of them outside in the fabulous garden – the restaurant’s specialities are fajitas and enchiladas. Indeed, at dinner, that is all they serve. What a great business model!
Whilst their lunch menu is a little more expansive, Huckleberry B and I decided to stick with their specialities. I’ve never been a great fan of Mexican food, but Joe T’s was fantastic! We loved it.
A Day in Abilene
As readers may have gathered, this trip to America represented an opportunity to catch-up with the American friends we had met during our travels over the years.
The last couple we spent some time with – but one of the most anticipated – was Alice and Jim from Abilene. We met these crazy Texans during our week onboard Celebrity Xpedition as it sailed around the Galápagos Islands in 2008.
The small town of Abilene lies some 2 hours to the west of Fort Worth. As it happened, the day we headed in that direction – with much gratitude to Sharon and Stephen for lending their driver and Sharon’s car for the day – was our 22nd Anniversary.
Whilst visiting a working Ranch – where we saw a pump-jack and a wind farm – and whilst enjoying some Texan food (chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken), we joyfully reminisced about our time around the Galápagos Islands. Like the time Alice horrified our naturalist guide by politely enquiring whether the event of an animal attack would result in her producing a gun from her knapsack! Or like the time Jim expounded his theory that all the animals, birds and natural features were mechanically operated from a central control room.
We only got to spend 3 to 4 hours with Alice and Jim, but they were some special hours indeed.
Upon our return to Fort Worth, we enjoyed an exquisite meal with Sharon and Stephen at City Club to celebrate our anniversary! What a lovely way to end our American sojourn!
The Road Home
As I have intimated, we never intended doing much on this trip and we executed that plan with both precision and skill.
I therefore apologise with sincerity if my narrative has a `you had to be there’ quality about it.
What made this holiday special for us, however, was the time we spent catching up with a variety of American friends from our travelling past.
We are enormously grateful to Ed and Susan and Sharon and Stephen for allowing us to share their homes with them. So much so, that the words in the previous sentence seem wholly inadequate. We can not express how much we enjoyed chatting about everything and nothing across a number of meals and whilst doing nothing more than sitting around and passing time.
One topic which has, of course, dominated conversation during the last three weeks is the impending Presidential election. None of the Americans we have met have engaged in any full-throated, blue-faced advocacy in favour of either candidate. What we have experienced is reasonably polite, well-reasoned argument explaining why their antipathy for the opposing candidate outweighed the (sometimes profound) disappointment they felt in the candidate of their traditional party-affiliation.
Everybody has expressed concern for the what lies beyond November 8.
This evening, Huckleberry B and I embark on a 17 hour flight from DFW to SYD. It promises to be an epic journey. We leave late on 2 November and arrive early on 4 November. The day, 3 November 2016, will be erased from our lives!
All the best,