Santa Cruz, CA. (USA).

Somewhere between San Francisco and LA on the California coast is Santa Cruz. Before visiting the place I had never heard of it, or if I had it was quickly forgotten. However having now been a couple of times I thought I’d share this charming Oceanside town with you.

Downtown Santa Cruz is a charmingly cosmopolitan and stereotypically Californian ‘hippy’ feeling highstreet of independent shops and cafes. As wiki puts it: ‘Pacific Avenue serves as an outlet for the artistic and unique culture that Santa Cruz possesses.’ You can always find a locally made gift, for both yourself and others, here – with prices ranging from the upper end of budget friendly to the lower end of eye-watering for a millionaire and you can always find a high quality dirty mocha chai latte in generous sized glasses in any number of cafes. There are also usually some street performers and other things to produce a pleasant and vibrant atmosphere. So a thumbs up here.

Whenever I’ve been here I’ve ended up downtown after visiting one of the other beautiful spots that are in and around Santa Cruz first.

Perhaps the most popular of these is Natural Bridges State Beach. This state park is a nice sized piece of Californian coastal beauty. The main beach offers a cove of golden sands, sun and stunning views across the bay. And, whilst this is on offer in much of the surrounding area also, this particular beach has the added feature of the natural bridge. In the old days this was ‘bridges’, but sadly now the archways across the sand and ocean have fallen away to leave a single remaining true arch. However this is still a lovely sight with it regularly attracting a constant stream of people taking selfies – often beautiful people in swimming costumes; though often not so beautiful people in swimming costumes – and when the sun sets and you capture it at the right angle this can be truly spectacular… so I am told… but I have never been here at that time of day :/

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The state beach is also a dedicated area for wildlife and there’s always an abundance around you to see. Well, there has been on my few trips there anyway. The list includes mammals like the whales, seals and sea otters which can be glimpsed from the beach often on the horizon, and a plethora of little critters to see in the rock pools/tide pools. The main draw, however, is the monarch butterflies. I have mentioned these before when writing about Pacific Grove so I won’t go into too much detail. But here in Santa Cruz at the state park is a second reserve for their winter migration and they get up to 150,000 butterflies come to their reserve for protection each year. Whilst PG has the reserve tucked away in the town, here it is in the state park near the beach meaning you’ll often see them fluttering around you as you sunbathe which is just lovely.

The second area I wish to talk about is a little different, though it does still have the stunning backdrop of golden sand, blue ocean and brilliant sun – the beach boardwalk. This is California’s oldest surviving amusement park and is beautifully located along the oceanfront 😍. Opened in 1907 it still has classic carnival games and an old wooden roller-coaster nestled amongst newer rides and experiences. And of course there are booths selling all the sorts of food you would expect at a place like this – most popular of these when I’ve been seemed to be potato on a stick… odd. What’s great about the amusement park is that you can pop in and out of it between swimming and sunbathing on the beach – meaning you’re not always stuck with the rides and noise and can come and go as you please, thus alternating sun with screams. Having said this the ocean can be pretty chilly so you do get screams sometimes when people first dive in. Its very entertaining and made me feel as though I was back home in Britain.

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So there you have it. Santa Cruz. A town with a lovely feeling and well stocked highstreet, natural beauty and a delightful amusement park on the perfect sands. If you’re ever in the area I recommend you pop on by 👍🏻.

Oh, and, Happy New Year!

Matt.

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Budget budgie at the Aquarium

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been to two different aquariums in two different continents (yes, I am indeed bragging). The first was in Lisbon, Portugal, and the second in Monterey, America. As I was walking around the second yesterday and observing how packed it was, I began to wonder about aquariums as tourist destinations and thought I’d write a post and share some photos.

Firstly, I’m a big animal lover – I have never eaten meat or fish and when I picture my future I picture a cat and not a partner or family. As a result, for me a zoo or aquarium in this day and age has to be about conservation and not money. These boxes are ticked with these two aquariums:

“The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean.” And Lisbon’s website says that “As a modern aquarium, it is committed to continuously developing educational activities aimed at encouraging people to learn more about the oceans and marine species. The Oceanário also focuses on its mission and seeks to draw people’s attention to current environmental issues. In this sense, it collaborates with several institutions with a view to promoting ocean sustainability, by supporting scientific research and marine biodiversity conservation projects.”

Essentially, they do good work for conservation and education and remind people who have watched finding nemo that these are great living things to look out for, and not to look at in a tiny bowl on our side tables. Rant and moral speech over. Onto the tourism side and some pretty photos!

So, are they worth going to on your days of leisure and on your travels? Well, seemingly many of us believe so. Like I said in the opening, they always seem to be packed! According to Wikipedia Monterey has an average attendance of 1.8 million a year and Lisbon has a million. These are big numbers- for example the iconic stone henge apparently gets around 1.3m a year! But anyway, yes, why are they nice visits?

Well, for one thing, they’re inside. So whilst the fish are wet, you can remain dry on a rainy day. Like the final day budgie al and I were in Lisbon – it was raining heavily and this contributed to our decision to go and visit the indoor aquarium instead – incidentally, this is apparently the biggest indoor aquarium in Europe.

And, as for seeing the fish, there are so damn many of them. Again returning to Wikipedia, Monterey aquarium apparently has 35,000 animals and over 500 species, whilst Lisbon has 16,000 and 450.

This isn’t limited just to fish, however. There are all sorts of water based critters to see, including mammals (like sea otters) and reptiles (like sea turtles).

And, whilst some of the animals are viewed in the way we perhaps more picture zoos and the like with a single viewing space looking at one type of interesting critter like this

for me, the main attraction of aquariums are the larger tanks with multiple viewing sections and a plethora of different things to look at. At the best aquariums these tanks are huge and you can spend an age gazing into them. At Monterey aquarium the largest tank of such a type is their ‘open sea’ exhibit which has a huge 90 foot window and a raised seating area so you can just sit and watch the sea go by. In the tank are majestic turtles, the dumbly evolved looking sunfish, stingrays and lots lots more.

Meanwhile, the Oceanário de Lisboa is centred around their huge central tank which the other sections lead off of. This 5 million litre tank has around 100 species in and can be viewed from all sorts of different windows – both large scale and individual little views and from different heights allowing you to see those that prefer to laze on the floor, those who sore high and then those who think the middle is just right. A particular favourite of mine in this tank are the sharks, including the Sandbank and the sand tiger, and when these starts swimming straight at you you can’t help but hear the jaws music in your head.

Monterey’s website has a few live cameras on offer so you check out for yourself what I am on about. http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals-and-experiences/live-web-cams/open-sea-cam

Yes. Well, as it’s off hours as I’m writing this it played me a prerecorded video instead which reminded me of a negative of Monterey aquarium: the bloody music!! It’s on a constant loop with each area having a different annoying bad instrumental track going on and on and on and on and on. Whenever I go alone I will always have headphones in. Even if I’m not actually playing anything. So far anyone who sees me and judges, I am not being a dick walking around listening to music and not taking in the place, I am simply attempting to block out the constant annoyance of the music!

And as we are talking negatives here, a biggy is the vast numbers who go. For one thing this means the prices can be pretty steep – why charge less when people are willing to pay? But secondly, it means that there’s a chance you won’t get to see everything in the zenful manner you may wish with children running around and people bumping into you as they try and push to the front of the window or elbow you as they take a selfie. Though this can offer some entertainment. For instance I once watched a gentleman with an expensive camera and VERY expensive lens lean forward and zoom in to take a photo of a jellyfish and smash his lens and then his face into the glass because he was so focussed on his photo he forgot where the glass was. That was fun. But yes, overall, like with pretty much everything in life, the people make the experience worse.

But ignoring them and focusing on the animals and the zenful calmness of the water and the peacefully moving critters I fully recommend everyone to visit an aquarium at least once in their life and I am very pleased to have gone to the lisbon one with Al as it was his first time. It’s always good to pop Al’s cherry on a trip and widen his eyes.

Anyway, here are a few more photos. I hope you have enjoyed the post and will come back soon to read more of our stuff :).

Take care, Matt.

Butterflies, Coast and Sunsets: A guide to Pacific Grove, CA. 

I have written about the areas around Pacific Grove in previous posts (see: California’s Wildlife – a free and beautiful guide.) however I haven’t actually written about PG (as us locals call it) itself and this is silly as it’s simply a lovely place. So, here goes!

PG is a small town in California within walking distance of the more known Monterrey Bay – a place I may well do a future post on. If you’re from California and have heard of the town, you’ll most likely know it as ‘Butterfly Town U.S.A.’ This is because the town hosts the annual migration of monarch butterflies who come to a protected sight right in the heart of the town forming their famous large clusters. The little park is free to visit and the sight is truly one of nature’s most amazing events. If you’re in town at the right time of year (October is the start) then this is an absolute must! I myself go to the park almost daily whilst I’m there in an attempt to capture the perfect photograph.

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With these huge clusters of butterflies gathering in PG, you will often see them all over the place flying around and, on one unlucky year I remember, they decided to settle in a nearby private garden as opposed to their dedicated natural park. This was not ideal to say the least. But anyway, yes, they float around the place and make it all seem quite lovely, occasionally settling somewhere so you can see them not just in their clusters, but in their own individual beauty too.

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The walk from the butterfly park back into the town and High street is also lovely. The town is a great example of Victorian housing in the states with 75% of the homes in the city being considered of historical interest. The people of PG are incredibly proud of their town and of how it is presented, and as a result each house is a visual delight. Either because it and it’s gardens are immaculately maintained, or because they have done something special. For example, there is a house just outside the town which has a miniature railway going all the way around it’s gardens! And, if this wasn’t enough, they and their neighbours have bookshelves on the property where you can take one in return for replacing with your own. This is very useful when you’re on holiday if you’re old school like me and prefer paper to paperwhite. (That was a kindle joke).

(I will go take a photo for here next time I go).
The town itself is adorably quaint. It’s basically one long high street and on either side there are cafes and shops selling locally produced jewelery and gifts. Perfect for Christmas shopping! Especially as whilst some of the shops are beyond a budget Budgie price range, there are many which have affordable local goods. Fantastic! There’s also a great local museum in the town if you want to sharpen your local knowledge and make the most of your trip as a result. I can highly recommend the place. Also, if you want your heartstrings to be tugged, there’s a cat and dog charity rescue centre on the high-street with fluffy adorable souls needing some love and stroking. (My parents hadn’t lived there for longer than a whisker before they caved and adopted a couple).

 
Parallel to the highstreet at all times and accessible down any number of little roads is the coast. Whoop. If you walk in one direction you end up at the world famous 17-mile drive, and in the other you end up in Monterey Bay. Both are stunning walks. However, personally I tend to go right and head into Monterey because that direction has more coffee shops. In either direction though you will see loads of nature on these coastal walks with seals, sea otters and all sorts of birds guaranteed sightings. (Probably. Don’t sue us if you don’t see them – we honestly have absolutely no money).

 

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A particular favourite beach area of mine is Asilomar State Beach. This favouritism is mainly because it’s under 5 minutes from my parents house but also because the conference grounds next to it have nice hot chocolates in the cafe. The sunsets here can be truly incredible too…

 

Pacific Grove Sunset

 

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So there we have it! Pacific Grove. A venue of spectacular beach sunsets, coastal walks taking you either into natural beauty or the lovely city of Monterey, iconic hugely important monarch butterflies and a high-street of good food, good coffee and lovely gifts and local artistry. Head on over!

 

But… preferably not when I go. It’s already a busy enough place for tourists and to be quite honest I’d rather there were less. So yeh… actually… the place is awful! Don’t go! Thanks.

 

Matt.

California’s Wildlife – a free and beautiful guide.

I had the sort of upbringing where a weekend was spent birdwatching in a dreary field with my parents excited to see a fairly common bird doing a fairly common thing. And, I confess, I did struggle at times to share in their enthusiasm. Looking back however, I am relatively happy with this as it gives me a great foundation now to appreciate the beauty of the world I encounter on my travels in comparison to this field near Luton. Here is a brief summary of some of the nature easily accessible to those traveling to California with my own photos to accompany.

In the Air…

We may as well then start with the birds. One of my favourite birds to be seen darting and zooming around the place are Hummingbirds. What’s great about these little colourful souls is that you don’t have to necessarily go anywhere to see them. Wherever I have stayed I have seen them. From an Airbnb in San Francisco to a campsite in Yosemite National Park – the city and the countryside. They are also very satisfying to photograph as they move so quickly and all over the shop making it difficult.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird.jpg On the other end of the size scale are Pelicans – moving from the couple of inches for a hummingbird to the few feet of a pelican. These can also be seen all over the shop. A particular haunt of theirs is Fisherman’s Wharf Monterey where they line the wharf alongside the restaurants waiting for spare food and fishing in the clean water of the bay. As can be seen in the second picture, they can scoop up a whole fish.

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The ugly California Condor. Ugly with nasty claws and a face designed for burrowing into bloody dead animals.  Ugly, but iconic.

In the Oceans…

Here we have the adorably cute Sea Otter on the right, and the ugly fat nosed smelly Elephant Seals on the left. They are huge and impressive and you have to travel to particular parts of the coastline to see them with their breeding grounds (stretches of beaches they prefer) being tourist attractions in their own rights. The sea otters can be found dotted all over, however can be allusive to spot. Monterey again is a good spot to try at.

A tourist attraction in San Fransisco are the Sea Lions on Pier 39. They’re present nearly all year and nearly all the time – though I have been there without any and was very sad. People buy a drink on the pier and then set up shop and watch them for an age with their squabbling, cuddling and squishing together as close as humanly, or sealionly, possible.

 

On Land…

The huge landmark animals are depressingly two I have not seen despite having been in the locations where they are meant to be. 1) Black Bears 2) Mountain Lions. The bears can be spotted (rarely) in Yosemite National Park and the closest Budgie Al and I got whilst there was listening to the bus driver boast to his passengers of having seen them once or twice in his thirty odd years driving around (seemingly without wearing deodorant). As for the Mountain Lions, my parents live in an area where they are on the prowl. http://www.montereyherald.com/article/NF/20150914/NEWS/150919881 – As you can see, they are damn damn damn damn damn damn damn cute. I have walked around the area with cat treats in my pocket but have yet to see them. All in good time perhaps. But maybe some distance may be good seeing as they can be quite deadly…

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For now this will have to do… but in time maybe a lion or two.

So there we have it, a brief look at some of my favorite nature you can see for free in the California area.

Matt.

San Francisco

San Fran is the best city in the world. Hands down. Unfortunately, its not usually an overly budget friendly option to get to from Europe. As we’re an internationally followed, world-renowned organization though some of our many readers will be based in the States and thus get there easier. Also, there are cheaper ways to get there for us in Europe. For example, encourage your parents to move there and then pay for your tickets out of a mixture of guilt for abandoning you and their air-miles. Once there, though, there are options aplenty for the budget conscious explorer and here are some of my top tips to make the most of this stunning city.

Let’s start off with the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you get to SF you will be bombarded immediately with adverts showing people cycling the bridge, proclaiming it to be THE way to travel its length. But, why? Its quicker to get across and back, sure. Its also no doubt liberating zipping along with the sea breeze whipping into you etc. But then… as someone who has walked it a fair few times… I can say that from observing cyclists they either do one of two things: 1) Spend the whole time stopping every few seconds to take photos and posing with the bike in selfies or group shots as opposed to riding it. 2) Zoom along enjoying the buzz of ‘I’m riding the bridge!’ and see absolutely nothing of the view or bridge around you. Walking is free, you can take your damn sweet time, take the photos and enjoy the view.

Sticking with the walking theme then… The city’s cable cars look lovely along the steep slopes and majestic going along the waterfront, and everyone should jump on one for a journey for sure. But using them every time? The city is very manageable to walk. Whilst Al may disagree with him whinging over his tired little feet and his burning thighs in his tight short shorts, the whole city is walkable. You can do the main street, take a right up into china town, carry on down and hit the waterfront and loop back round seeing the historic boats and moving back to fisherman’s wharf and pier 39 following the water back to the Ferry Building. And for those like me who have to put up with a complainer, there are cheaper public transport options all over the place with busses and trams and the underground. So just use those cheaper ones and save the cable cars for a one off and photos if your legs have given up.

China Town. Buy ALL your souvenirs here. They’re cheaper with warehouse style shops lined up full of the same sort of knickknacks that are twice the price up the road.

The Bay is lovely, and seeing the city from the water along with the bridges (not just Golden Gate but the others look lovely in the dusk light too for example Bay Bridge) and Alcatraz is a gorgeous thing to do. Instead of paying for one of the tourist boat tours though, go to the Ferry Building and get on a ferry across the water. You get all the same views and can spend a couple of hours in a different location before heading back. The best option is probably Sausalito. It has lovely views across the water to San Fran, the journey is a leisurely pace giving you time for photos and the likes, the town itself is full of sweet little cafes and gift shops and you’re certain to see the bay’s nature of sea lions and crabs and pelicans etc.

So there we have it, some budget budgie tips for San Francisco including some of its tourist hotspots.

(Oh yeh, you may have noticed I missed off going to Alcatraz. Well, some things you should just pay for and Alcatraz is one of these worthwhile things which you just have to suck up and pay for)

Matt.