I’m currently in Southern California, mixing a bit of business and pleasure. I’m officially visiting my parents, but yesterday, I headed up to Santa Barbara for the night to research a story for a guidebook. On my way home today, I went for a late afternoon run on my favorite beach. As a former SB resident, it’s something I’ve done dozens of times in the past.
As I pounded barefoot through the surf, I was struck by the fact that this beach, which shall remain nameless, was almost empty. It was bizarre, because usually there are lots of other runners, walkers and even the occasional horseback rider, all of whom come to take advantage of the mile-and-a-half-long swath of smooth sand. I also love this location because I never fail to see dolphins, but today, no dice.
After my run, I headed back to the car. Because I was trying to beat weekend traffic, I just brushed the sand off the tops of my feet and put my socks and shoes back on. I arrived at my parents’ house an hour later, and, upon removing my socks, discovered why the beach was deserted. Apparently one of the many offshore oil rigs had recently had an accident, because the bottoms of my feet were literally blackened with tar.
Fortunately, my 80-year-old mom spends a lot of time trawling the Internet, and she had the solution … sort of. “I’m pretty sure it’s mayonnaise,” she said. “That, or peanut butter.” Which is how I ended up sitting on my parents’ kitchen floor, rubbing both substances on my left foot with one hand, while trying to fend off their dogs with the other.
For the record, a cup of peanut butter works, although I don’t recommend you use chunky, given the choice.
I do not like zoos. I have no ideological problem with them, but every time I bring my children to a zoo, I feel drained – financially, physically and mentally – by the time we’re ready to leave. When my wife and I had the first of our two children in 2007, I don’t think I’d been to a zoo in more than 20 years.
But since then, I’ve been coerced into visiting zoos in Chicago, Brookfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Reston, VA, Zurich, Toronto, Baraboo, Wisconsin and a host of other places. And this week, I somehow got roped into taking my children to not one but two zoos: the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.
These are reputed to be two of the best zoos in the world, but they’re also huge places that you can’t very well just duck into for a quick visit. Other than placating my sons, ages 3 and 5, my goal for the visits was to find out if these places were worthy of the hype and to determine if even a zoo-hater like me could be won over.
My first impression of the Safari Park was overwhelmingly positive. You walk into the place and there’s a beached old Land Rover parked on the side of a small hill, next to a rushing waterfall. Speakers pipe in cool, tribal African music and the lush, tropical surroundings make you feel like you’re in the Hollywood version of a jungle set.
I had a vague impression that we were going to have our butts carted all around the place in some sort of vehicle or cart, but that isn’t exactly how it works. With the regular general admission ticket ($44), you get a 25-minute ride on the Africa Tram Safari, but have to walk the rest of the place. But if you want to spend more, there is a dizzying array of more expensive safaris, ranging from the $84 cart safari to the $599 ultimate VIP safari. Only in America can you drop a few grand on a trip to the zoo, right?
We opted for the cheapest ticket and I thought the Africa tram ride was more than enough for our needs. It’s a narrated ride that is about as close to an African safari as you’ll get in the U.S. You can probably see many of the animals we saw – giraffes, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, antelope, zebras and others – in a lot of zoos, but here you’re seeing them in a huge open space that looks like a much more natural habitat. (But if you want to get very close to the animals, you need to go on one of the more expensive safaris.)
And what’s more, our guide, Doug, even took it upon himself to give us some tips on how to reduce our carbon footprint. (I’ll be sure to slow down on the highways, Doug, thanks for the suggestion.)
My favorite animal was Vila, a 55-year-old gorilla that’s a great, great, great grandma who is believed to be one of the oldest “known-age” gorillas in the world. My sons dragged us all over the 1,800-acre park in search of all their favorite animals too, and, while it was a bit exhausting, I loved the fact that there are a host of unpaved trails that make you feel as though you’re on a hike out in the woods.
It’s not a typical zoo vibe at all and I liked that. But you will definitely need to watch your wallet at the Safari Park. There are opportunities to blow cash everywhere – you can even pay $6 to cut the Africa Tram line. If you’re on a budget, definitely bring your own food and drinks. A fountain soda goes for $5.19, a cup of soup is more than $7 and all of the other food and beverage options are similarly overpriced.
The San Diego Zoo, located in beautiful Balboa Park, in the city of San Diego, is more of a typical zoo experience, only better. The grounds are lush and expansive and the variety of interesting animals from all over the world is pretty astonishing. Everyone loves the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but there you can walk for miles and see only a handful of animals. At the San Diego Zoo, the variety of wildlife in a similar sized space is far more impressive but you don’t get the feeling that the animal enclosures are cramped either.
Like the Safari Park, there are a host of expensive tour options and expensive souvenirs and refreshments, but given the fact that it’s right in the city, as opposed to the Safari Park, which is in a much more quiet, somewhat remote area, there’s no reason why you can’t duck out to get a bite to eat or simply bring your own lunch.
The amazing thing about the San Diego Zoo is that it really is like a little trip around the world. We saw animals from all over the planet: komodo dragons from Indonesia, gorillas from Africa, pink flamingos from the Caribbean, an anaconda from South America, and crested porcupines from India to name just a handful. And I saw a whole host of animals I’d barely even heard of before: a mang mountain viper, a Bornea sun bear, a Manchurian brown bear, an Andean bear, a West African dwarf crocodile, an Andean Cock-of-the Rock birds, and assassin bugs to name just a few.
I also liked the descriptions and the attempts to humanize the animals. We sat and watched the six gorillas for some time and I though the descriptions of their personalities was spot on: Paul “The Player” was indeed “handsome, charismatic and playful,” as he laid on his back, spread eagle with his hands covering his eyes, Ndjia, “The Thinker” sat in Rodin’s “The Thinker” pose, and Frank “The Tank” was every bit the “strong, independent, playful” lad he was made out to be.
A few words of advice if you are going to be pushing children around this zoo at least part of the time. Go down Center Street and Park Way first toward the Pandas and Polar Bears because it’s a very long, steep hill. We did this part of the zoo last, when my kids were too tired to walk at all and I was exhausted pushing them in a stroller back up the hill to cap the day. And if your kids are as inquisitive as mine, don’t hand them the colorful map showing all the animals until you’re in the car ride going home.
My 5-year-old would see an image of an animal he liked -Porcupine! Zebra! Parrot! Bug house!- and then insist that we charge off to find that animal immediately, leaving me feeling a bit like Magellan looking for a spice route to the West Indies.
If you only have time to visit one zoo in the San Diego area, where you go depends on your preferences and where you’re staying. If you don’t want to stray outside the city limits, the zoo is the obvious choice. Those who want a more atypical experience and like the idea of seeing animals in a more natural habitat along hiking trails, trams or safaris should consider the Safari Park.
For sheer variety of animals, I’d go with the zoo – there are some 3,700 animals representing approximately 660 species in a 100-acre space, compared to about 2,600 animals representing about 300 species in an 1,800 acre space at the safari park. And the zoo has the advantage of free parking, though both of these places are worth visiting. Even if you hate zoos, like me.
Like most of us, I didn’t fully realize the extent of the daily hassles and challenges faced by those who use a wheelchair, prosthetic, or other mobility aid until it became somewhat personal. I’m fortunate to have two people in my life who’ve been an enormous source of both education and inspiration, and I’m writing this piece because of them. A little bit of background is in order:
When I moved to Vail in 1995 to attend culinary school, I became friends with Darol Kubacz, a young Forest Service employee. Darol had broken his back in a motorcycle accident about 18 months prior; at the time of his injury, he was in the Army, working in Special Ops. He was already an experienced outdoorsman who enjoyed scuba diving, climbing, and hiking. Despite the physical challenges and fairly recent onset of his paralysis, he made a huge impression on me with his positive, non-defeatist attitude.
Darol’s job with the Forest Service entailed trail assessment for the handicapped, while in his personal life he’d already undertaken a number of adaptive sports, including the aforementioned activities he’d enjoyed prior to his injury. He’d also started alpine skiing (he broke his neck in a skiing accident in 2000, but fortunately sustained no additional physical or neurological damage).
Darol became my workout buddy, and he was the first friend I’d ever had who was in a chair. Through him, I learned a lot about what it means to live with a limitation. Mainly, he impressed upon me that, to a certain extent, it’s possible for humans to overcome physical limitations. I’m surprised he doesn’t have, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” carved into his chest.Today, Darol works as a part-time adaptive hiking guide in Phoenix (he and his clients use off-road arm bikes),and is working on launching an adaptive paragliding program. He’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro –twice, summiting once– entirely under his own power, to raise awareness for his foundation, Freedom for Life. Following his ski accident, he has, he says, “Learned to embrace a more intimate experience with nature, that’s less about speed and adrenalin, and more about being in the moment.” Hence his passion for off-road bikes.
I met my friend Tony 12 years, ago, when I was living in Berkeley and working as a farmers market vendor. A loyal customer, Tony is also a documentary filmmaker and graphic designer. He’s quadriplegic, the result of a teenage diving accident. Tony has partial use of his arms, and until his accident, was a competitive surfer. Until a few years ago, however, he’d never been able to get back on a board due to some medical issues he was dealing with.
Today, a freakishly youthful 48, Tony is an avid surfer and skier (that’s him at Alpine Meadows, in the photo at the beginning of this story), thanks to several amazing adaptive sport programs. He says he’s in the best shape of his life, and his jones for salt water and snow matches that of any able-bodied enthusiast.
Living in the outdoor adventure mecca of Boulder as I do, I’m also in an epicenter of outdoor adaptive recreation programs. With my locale and both of these inspiring and incredible guys in mind, I wanted to provide a round-up of top adaptive sport centers across the country.
Based in Boulder, this is Darol’s preferred ski and summer program; he also co-produces a summer Moab Mania event for them. They offer alpine skiing, snowboarding, waterskiing, wake-boarding, kayaking, rafting, and cycling. Offers civilian, veterans, and kids programs.
Telluride Adaptive Sports Program
Darol and I both recommend this program (me, from living in Telluride and knowing some of the staff). TASP is very well-regarded, and offers summer and winter programs. This time of year there’s alpine, nordic, and backcountry skiing and snowboarding, snow shoeing, ice-climbing, Helitrax skiing, and snowmobiling. In summer, there’s horseback riding, hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, paddling, and camping.
This prestigious adaptive ski and snowboard program based in Snowmass is for civilians with physical or cognitive disabilities. Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (C.A.M.O.) is for injured military; a new camp this year has been developed to help adaptive skiers learn more about competitive Paralympic training programs and interface with Paralymic coaches.
High Fives Foundation
Tony is a huge fan of this Truckee, California, based non-profit founded by paralyzed former competitive skier Roy Tuscany. It’s dedicated to raising awareness and funding for “injured athletes that have suffered a life-altering injury while pursuing their dream in the winter action sports community.” High Fives also serves as a resource center for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and pilates, gyms, and adaptive sports and equipment.
WORLD T.E.A.M. Sports
Chartered in North Carolina and based in New York, Darol recommends this athletic organization that offers adaptive and able-bodied events in mountain biking, rafting, cycling, and more. They also offer teen challenges.
They Will Surf Again
Tony has hit the waves with this Los Angeles-based program offered by the non-profit, Life Rolls On (LRO). Founded by quadriplegic, former competitive surfer Jesse Billauer, LRO raises awareness and funds for spinal cord injury (SCI) research, and offers bi-coastal adaptive surfing, skate, and snowboarding programs.
Honolulu-based adaptive surfing and other recreational water sport programs.
Wheels 2 Water
Tony recommends this adaptive surf and scuba diving non-profit in his hometown of Huntington Beach, California.
Wheels Up Pilots
This research and instructional paragliding program in Santa Barbara is highly recommended by Darol, who is about to become one of the first two U.S.-certified adaptive paragliding pilots. Open to civilians and veterans.
Freedom for Life Off-road Arm Biking
For guided hikes in the Phoenix area, contact Darol Kubacz, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who doesn’t love a gorgeous sunset? While nothing compares to seeing one in person, these photos of Southern California sunsets by Nick Chill are just as good, if not better, than viewing a setting sun with your own eyes. According to Chill, the trick is getting away from the developed coastline and clean, sandy beaches.
“You can still find high cliffs, rocky surf, and other beautifully natural settings from which to view the warm Pacific sunsets,” he explains in an interview. “Another challenge to photographing sunsets in Southern California is the inherent lack of clouds. While this is a dream for tourists, photographers aren’t so enthusiastic about a clear sky. Clear blue skies tend to make for less dramatic images.”
While most people can agree sunsets make for moving moments, it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is.
For Chill, it is a magical time of day. “As the sun gets low in the sky, it casts a warm light over the land that seems to make everything beautiful. It’s sometimes hard to see the beauty of life when you are toiling away, at work or at home, but the magical light of sunrise and sunset is always there to remind us that life is beautiful. To watch the sun set over the horizon reminds me of the impermanence of life. It’s really a very spiritual, self-reflective experience for me, and I do my best to try and share that experience with the viewers of my work.”
To get a better idea of what he means, check out the gallery below.
As a native Californian and longtime former Bay Area resident, I have to confess there’s no place like home when it comes to the American food/dining/wine scene (New Yorkers, feel free to sharpen your knives…).
California’s always been progressive when it comes to food and drink, from the early days of the vaqueros and Gold Rush-era San Francisco, right up to today’s never-ending parade of talented food artisans, chefs, farmers, and mixologists. It’s only fitting then, to feature a California Restaurant Month.
In January, the second annual statewide celebration is back and better than ever. Presented by Visit California, nearly 30 destinations across the Golden State are creating special restaurant week or month-long promotions and deals, including celebrity chef, prix fixe, and wine pairing dinners, and a series of “Dine and Drive Itineraries” that map out the culinary and scenic highlights of specific regions. Included are “Wine Country Fresh,” “Food Lover’s Classic Coast Drive: San Francisco to L.A.,” and “A Taste of San Diego.” Participating regions for events include cities and counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Northern and Southern California.
If you’re worried about the calories, California Restaurant Month also offers travel tips on where the best skiing, surfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities are to be found, regardless of your itinerary. And that’s the thing about California. As my dad always said, “What other state offers so much diversity?” Whether bagging peaks, scuba-diving, camping in the desert, or having a blow-out shopping spree is your thing, California’s got it.