Wednesday, February 17, 2016

West Coast 2015: Third Time's A Charm

Yosemite Falls in 2015

But isn't that the fun in it though? How wonderful it is to be able to visit the same place again (and again) and get a different experience every time. With so many beautiful countries and interesting cities in the world why would we go back to places we have been to? I guess the simple answer would be because travelling is not just about ticking places off our bucket list. It's also about revisiting cities which have left a mark on our wandering souls and brought a lot of unforgettable fun memories to our family.
 Another reason may be that we were not able to see other interesting attractions during our visit. Time isn't always enough when you're on a holiday which calls for a second or (in this instance) a third  trip back. Then there is also the fact that some countries have four seasons - each bringing out a distinct beauty of a place at different times of the year. Wouldn't it be amazing to see the colors of spring and autumn or feel the winter chill while gazing into the vast snow-covered streets sitting in the same spot reminiscing how it looked like some couple of years or decades ago? Nostalgia.

So this is it. We've travelled back to the US and it took us 12 long years (and another son) to do so. True enough, the experience was never the same. It just got better.

Here's how our journey unfolded and the countdown to another memorable family road trip.

Six months - one year to THE DAY: After our South Korean trip with in-laws in mid-2014, we talked about a possible US trip (East Coast) in June 2015. Unfortunately, something came up with the boys' schedules that we were not able to go with them in summer. Instead, we decided to push for a fall/winter trip since we have not been on a winter holiday before. Considering we would like to see more natural attractions for this trip, West Coast was the obvious choice. 

Final destination, check!

Next, which dates and how long will the trip be? We've narrowed it down to sometime in the end of November to mid-December hoping for a white Christmas. My husband went into reasonable-airfare-hunting mode. After comparing prices and flight routes for several airlines that was within our date range, we finally settled with Singapore Airlines with their promotional price. Our trip was brought forward from mid-November to early December though but still within 21 to 24 days which was our ideal time frame. 

Travel dates and trip duration, check!
Air tickets, check!

4-6 months to go: The all-important visa application. Although it was already our second (but first for Ira) time to apply for a US visa one can never be too sure about getting one approved. We could only prepare the best we can and leave everything to the Consular Officer. I completed the online application in mid-May and scheduled for an interview. Our interview went well and we got our visas approved by the first week of June.

Permit to enter the country, check!

Next up, trial and error in daily itinerary planning. This was the more tedious part of the trip planning stage for me because I had to choose which attractions we want to visit and which ones we should forego. I had to recall which places in California we have already been to, which ones we wanted to see again and which ones we didn't see during our previous visits. That and taking into consideration what would interest each and everyone of us.
Yosemite Falls in 2003
I had to put aside the East Coast itinerary I finished (yes, that was done sometime in the first quarter of the year) and start reading on West Coast travel guides and websites. We have been to California three times so that was supposed to be the easiest part of the itinerary planning but it's the largest US state and with so many cities to choose from it was even more difficult to narrow down our choices. After several weeks of editing and re-evaluating and planning several driving route options I've come up with the following itinerary:

21 days of family road-trip
As I publish my blog for each day of our trip, I will link them in this page so watch out for updates.

Day 1 - leave Singapore; arrive in San Francisco; explore Silicon Valley; overnight at relatives' place in Fairfield, CA
Day 2 - Napa Valley; two nights in San Francisco
Day 3 - San Francisco sight-seeing (Alcatraz)
Day 4 - San Francisco Premium Outlet, Livermore; two nights in Mariposa, CA
Day 5 - Yosemite National Park
Day 6 - Gilroy Premium Outlet; Monterey Bay; Bixby Bridge; overnight at Morro Bay
Day 7 - Solvang; two nights in Pasadena, CA
Day 8 - Queen Mary; Santa Monica Pier
Day 9 - Route 66; Joshua Tree National Park; Thanksgiving with family in Arizona; overnight in Phoenix
Day 10 - Meteor Crater; two nights at Grand Canyon
Day 11 - Grand Canyon National Park
Day 12 - Horseshoe Bend; Lower Antelope Canyon; two nights at Zion National Park
Day 13 - Hiking at Zion National Park
Day 14 - two nights in Las Vegas
Day 15 - Las Vegas sight-seeing; Hoover Dam
Day 16 - overnight at Death Valley National Park
Day 17 to 19 - three nights at Squaw and Olympic Valley
Day 20 - Drive back to San Francisco; meet high school BFFs in Vallejo
Day 21 - Farewell, San Francisco

2-3 months to go: Since this was going to be a winter holiday, skiing was in the bucket list. I inquired about skiing lessons via Squaw Valley Facebook and website. Their rates were not yet available the first time I asked several months prior but I was given an estimate based on previous year's rates. It's not cheap so I had to take note of the cost and look for alternative activities, just in case this one did not pan out.

We also looked at another activity we wanted to do - walk inside the antelope canyons - and booked a tour online with Ken Tours.

Some activities, check!

1-2 months to go: Hotel reservations were booked, mostly through booking.com. We have been using the website for several years now and we have had positive experience so far. Due to our patronage we were able to avail of special discounts, too!

For our first night though, we were accommodated by our relatives in Vallejo, CA. The same house where we stayed for a few nights 13 years ago. 


For our stay at Death Valley National Park, I initially booked around the neighboring town of Beatty but since we only had one full day for Death Valley I thought if we could stay inside the park itself it would be more convenient. I found Furnace Creek Ranch and booked one night stay via http://www.furnacecreekresort.com

Roofs over our heads, check!

During this trip, we made sure that we were able to go on a tour of Alcatraz. We were informed during our last visit that it had to be booked way in advance. I checked their website regularly for available slots and 6 weeks before our trip we booked our Alcatraz tour.

Prison visit, check!

Of course, this would not have been a road trip without a car, would it? So the all-important car rental reservation was done well in advance but finalized a month or 2 before our departure.

Car to bring us around, check!

2-4 weeks to go: We booked travel insurance via Citibank Smart Voyage promotion for Citibank card holders. That's 30% off premium rate. My recommendations: shop around before making your final purchase especially if you have credit cards with local banks. The amount you save on travel insurance can be used for shopping, food or attractions when you are overseas!

Travel protection, check!

What else? Oh, yes! Kelvin specifically asked for us to visit Google. He has read about how "interesting and fun" the Google workplace is and would love to see it for himself. Unfortunately, only those who are from Google or who know someone working in Google can have access to their offices. We said we could go to the Google compound only. That was as close as we could get to a Google workplace. So he looked for another Silicon Valley icon and found out that Intel does tours. So I browsed through their website, sent and email inquiry regarding a possible tour and presto, we got a slot on the first day of our trip.

Intel tour, check!

1-2 weeks to go: I made reservations for the Top of the World restaurant at the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. It's free to make a reservation and you can change the timing in case there are changes in your plans.

Dinner reservations in Vegas, check!

Last-minute shopping for winter clothes. We bought most of our winter clothing from Uniqlo. They have good quality winter gear and have been highly recommended by friends specially their heat tech line of clothing. 

Clothes to keep us warm, check!

less than a week to go: We had been monitoring the exchange rates fluctuate for the past months and waiting for the right moment (if there was such a thing) to go down to the money changer and buy US Dollars. We had to make certain that we have taken into account all possible expenses and pay for them in cash and not by credit cards (which usually don't give better exchange rates). It was just a few days before our flight when we finally decided to make the purchase and get ourselves some greenbacks.

Pocket money, check!

Final itinerary checking. Printing of travel documents (e-tickets, insurance, hotel bookings, tour reservations, itinerary). Packing of luggage. This was another challenging task for me - to pack our stuff in 1 big and 2 medium pieces of luggage ONLY. Yes, you read that right. We always try to pack light if we can help it.

After making sure we have made all the necessary bookings and packed slightly more than the basic stuff (still within our pack light motto), we were ready and raring to go on our much-awaited holiday. The boys excitedly counted the days.

Stay tuned for my day-to-day account of our fall/winter trip.





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