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FRIDAY, JULY 6, 2007
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The Hotel del Coronado is one of the largest turn-of-the-century wooden hotels remaining in America. If you like impressive homes with beautiful tropical flowers, Coronado, Calif., is the place to visit.
Courtesy photo by Uma Sanghvi
The Hotel del Coronado is one of the largest turn-of-the-century wooden hotels remaining in America. If you like impressive homes with beautiful tropical flowers, Coronado, Calif., is the place to visit.

Living it up on West Coast
Cruise to Mexico, Southern
California is worth the trip

By Ken Retherford
Special to The Daily

Catalina Island was scorched. At least half of its land victim to lightning-started flames that began May 11 and raced across scrub brush and cactus, devouring everything in its path, including homes.

The burnt smell still permeated the air as we drove our rented golf cart over roads marked "scenic tour" that skirted along fire-blackened areas.

Lilypads at Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban cultural park, in San Diego, Calif.
Courtesy photo by Brett Shoaf
Lilypads at Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban cultural park, in San Diego, Calif.
Our ship, Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas, had stopped at Catalina Island as part of a four-day tour of the Southern California and Mexican Baja coasts.

Luckily, the town had survived, as well as many of the multi-million dollar mansions that dot the hillsides dwarfed by surrounding mountains.

The drive, which took about an hour, carried us from Catalina's port and marina, on a winding tour through the scenic town of Avalon and then up toward the mountains.

There were six of us, my friend Jean Smith; her daughter and son-in-law, Kathy and Billy Turner; and their children, Amy, 20, and Taylor, 17.

They drove from their Phoenix, Ariz., home to Long Beach, Calif., and then met our incoming Southwest Airways flight.

Heading to California to cruise was a different idea for Jean and me. We are accustomed to Caribbean cruises to the Mexican Yucatan, The Camen Islands and Cosumel that many from this area take. We found, however, that it's well worth the trip west because we saw things we had never seen before and were unlikely to see on a Caribbean cruise — things such as sea lions.

San Diego

The sea lions graced us with their presence during a 4.5-hour tour of the San Diego, Calif., area aboard a comfortable, air-conditioned tour bus. Driven by a knowledgeable guide who kept up a verbal travelogue, we learned about the area's history and the steep property price jumps.

One appreciates Alabama more knowing that a California two-bedroom, block-constructed house from the '50s can bring upward of $600,000 or more. It's difficult not to imagine what that amount would build back home. The driver told us, however, it's not the house people buy, but the property. Anything near the water or with waterview causes that $600,000 figure to increase dramatically, he said.

La Jolla

We stopped at La Jolla, Calif., with the driver pointing out the beaches there were the backdrop for numerous Hollywood pictures and the inspiration for some of the Beach Boys surfing songs. And, despite water temperatures in the 60s, people were surfing and swimming. Nearby, sea lions sunned on rocky outcroppings while others swam, diving and then poking their heads above the water for a look around.

An artist enclave since the 1920s, La Jolla still reflects its background with quaint shops and restaurants, along with dozens of art stores showcasing fine art to local talent. La Jolla is definitely a spot to visit.

Also impressive was Coronado, Calif., home of the Hotel del Coronado, one of the largest turn-of-the-century wooden hotels remaining in America. If you like impressive homes with beautiful tropical flowers, this is the place to visit. And, according to our driver, about the least expensive home in this city of about 3,500 people would cost upward of $2 million.

Ensenada

Least impressive on the ship's stops was Ensenada, Mexico. Ensenada is about 150 miles down coast from Tijuana. Although clean, it's easy to see the city caters to tourists. Every shop is filled with T-shirts, baubles, bangles, pottery, hats, artwork, carvings and other items tourists haul off by the bag-load. It is somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans with barkers trying to coax tourists inside stores to look at their wares.

Interesting to visit, but a day was enough to take in the beautiful mountains and surround Ensenada and haggle your way past sales people.

The Monarch of the Seas is an older ship by cruise standards, built in 1991 in France. It still has most of the nice amenities, along with helpful room stewards and waiters who work hard to make sure passengers are well cared for.

The food was excellent, but not up to the high standard seen on seven-day or longer cruises. Some passengers speculated it's because they have to make such a quick turn-around to pack in two cruises a week. But give them credit for desserts. Everyone agreed they were amazing.

Overall, we were happy with the amenities and the help offered by the crew

Hotels at Long Beach are expensive, but what a great experience to open your room's drapes and look down on the Queen Mary.

If you're considering a cruise and are tired of the Caribbean, consider going west. It's a good way to beat the Alabama heat and spend some enjoyable days amid the Pacific breezes.

If you go: Monarch of the Seas

Airfare: The trip from Alabama to Los Angeles is long, even by air. Most trips take seven to eight hours from Birmingham. Air fare round-trip prices from Birmingham to Los Angeles ranged from $1150 per person to $354 per person at the time of our search. The lowest fare found was Southwest Airlines. If you are a senior citizen, be sure to ask for the senior discount and make arrangements about a month advance. If you have a senior fare you cannot use the online computer check-in. You have to check-in at the airport and have proof that you are a senior. Take along something to eat. Southwest serves only peanuts, soft drinks, or snack packs with crackers, cookies and trail mix.

Pack light: Itís amazing what you can do without. For the evening meal, long pants for men and suitable attire for women. The second night out on this ship was formal night and guests wore everything from tuxedos and formal gowns to suits or simply a shirt and tie with simple dresses or pants for the women.

Hotels: Booking a hotel room so you can arrive a day in advance is a good idea. Hotels at Long Beach, Calif., are about $199 a day plus tax and hotel tax brought it to $225. But it was wonderful opening the room drapes the next morning and seeing the Queen Mary docked a short distance across the bay and a city park below. Take advantage of tour offers onboard ship. A guided tour can give a wonderful overview of the areas visited.

Check in: Check-in at the ship is fast, as is leaving the ship. The slowdown comes from having to go through U.S. Customs on re-entry. Although a birth certificate is temporarily acceptable, it is advisable to have a U.S. passport. Apply early as it take two months or more to get one. Passports can be ordered at major branches of the U.S. Postal Service.

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