This is the time of year – in spite of this week’s forecast of a “false spring” – when the urge to escape the gray, rain and gloom of the Pacific Northwest may be at its peak.
Lots of Bainbridge Babyboomers and retirees hang out on the island during the holidays and throughout January and early February to enjoy time with family and friends. But once the presents are opened and the Champagne bottles are popped, the quest to seek out the sun is in full bloom. We know any number of island folks who head to the Arizona desert, Palm Springs, Hawaii, or some other warm locale shortly after the calendar flips to the new year.
Some people are true “snowbirds,” venturing south for several months at a time. Others, ourselves included, take trips to warmer climes for days or weeks at a time to escape the dark nights and rainy days of a Pacific Northwest winter. This has been a particularly brutal late fall and winter season, with records rains, December snow, and stretches of truly bitter cold.
Clearly, not everyone can afford to get away, but if you have the time and means, nothing refreshes the mind and body more than a trip to a sunnier state, regardless of how short, or long your stay.
In early December, while the rain was pelting our rooftop, we took a quick trip to San Diego, ostensibly to visit a nephew and look up an old friend. During this brief five-day jaunt, we were able to squeeze in a few nice hikes while touring the city from our rental car.
San Diego is a sprawling metropolis with lots of traffic, and any number of freeways and byways going hither and yon. It is also way hillier than we remembered from a previous visit a decade or so ago. Thank God for Google Maps and GPS! To quickly orient ourselves to the region, we jumped aboard a hop on, hop off bus that gave us a cook’s tour of the city, wending its way through historic neighborhoods and typical tourist haunts.
It was a little schmaltzy, with our driver going way overboard with silly sound effects and offbeat humor, but the tour did visit some interesting sites, such as Old Town, the waterfront (which is loaded with tourist traps), the Gaslamp Quarter, swanky Coronado Island, and downtown SD (By the way, the latter is nowhere near as interesting as Downtown Seattle). The highlight of our little bus ride was Balboa Park. It’s sort of like Seattle Center, a cultural oasis in the middle of a thriving commercial hub.
The park’s big attraction is the famous San Diego Zoo. But there is much more to do and see there, including visiting dozens of museums and performing art centers. Unbeknownst to us, a version of Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theater is housed there, along with air and automobile museums, and a very airy botanical garden. There are also plenty of trails to walk on, a carousel and playground for the kids, and any number of beautiful fountains and surrounding grounds.
One area not to be missed in Balboa Park is the Plaza de Panama, where you’ll find the Timken Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Man, the latter housed in an old Spanish-style church with a soaring steeple that makes you feel as if you’re walking the streets of Madrid.
Later during our stay, we piled into our rental car and discovered two wonderful places to walk and hike away from the city’s hustle and bustle. One was Mission Trails Regional Park, just east of the city, where a thousand or more acres of parkland takes you on trails near and over the San Diego River, and along the Father Junipero Serra Trail. There’s definitely some historic ties here to the creation of the early California mission network.
In beautiful La Jolla, slightly northwest of downtown, we discovered something wonderous – the Torrey Pines State Preserve. This 2,000-acre coastal gem is considered one of the wildest stretches of land still remaining on the Southern California coast. We took in this amazing piece of real estate on a Bluebird day, with nary a cloud in the sky or a wisp of wind in the air, meandering on numerous trails, with incredible vistas of the Pacific Ocean, while later walking its wide expanse of beach as the sun set.
If you’re a golfer, the Preserve abuts the equally majestic Torrey Pines Golf Course, where Tiger Woods, among others pros, have made names for themselves winning tournaments on the famous links. If you wander a bit farther, you may stumble across a well-worn patch of the old Pacific Highway, built in the early 1900s to accommodate trade between San Diego and Los Angeles.
If you’re looking for more of a desert experience, many Bainbridge Islanders go to Palm Springs, where there are dozens of golf courses, wonderful restaurants, great museums and attractions – such as a tour of Mid-Century Modern homes (some once owned by Hollywood celebrities) – and at least 125 places to hike.
We recently spent time visiting friends and family in Phoenix, Tucson and Ajo, AZ. People from Bainbridge, and the PNW in general, flock to Arizona this time of the year to watch Major League Baseball spring training (the Mariners train in Peoria), golf on scores of fine courses, play tennis and pickleball, hike on any number of great trails, or just soak in the sun and have fun in countless restaurants, museums and other amenities.
While in Phoenix, we visited the Mystery Castle, situated in the foothills of South Mountain Park and Preserve. This rather unique structure was built in the 1930s by former Seattlite, Boyce Luther Gulley. He worked for many years as a shoemaker for the old Frederick & Nelson department store, before being stricken with cancer. He fled to the desert and built the “sand castle” he had promised to his daughter, who ended up living in it for nearly 70 years after his death in 1945.
The castle, now listed on the Arizona Historic Register and featured in numerous publications over the years, including Life Magazine, is made of an odd assortment of building materials including recycled car parts, telephone poles, plow discs, tiles, stones, bricks and metals. It’s quite the site to behold, and has a very affordable admission fee – just $10!
Another cool spot in the desert – at least this time of year – is Ajo, about a 1.5 hour drive south of Phoenix and not too far north of the Mexican border. It’s known as something of a gateway into the nearby Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It was once a major copper mining center – you can still see tailings from the mine surrounding the town – but is now famous for its Spanish colonial architecture, historic railway station, relaxed charm, breathtaking vistas, and vibrant sunsets.
A number of expat Bainbridge Islanders live there, either part-time or year round, and many are involved in maintaining the community’s history along with sparking an arts and culture movement. A visit there is worth the drive.
Perhaps the most iconic place in Arizona is Saguaro National Park in Tucson, where you’ll find whole forests of this tall, awe-inspiring cactus. You can find Saguaro’s in other beautiful settings as well, such as Catalina State Park, with a mountain range of peaks that soar to over 9,000 feet.
If you’re looking for more citified activities, check out Historic Fourth Avenue in downtown Tucson. There you will find eclectic shops, locally owned restaurants and a bar and club scene. If you are hankering for a bit of the Old West, drive south of Tucson to Tombstone, a National Historic Landmark, where there are historic bars, museums and tours and daily reenactments of the famous Gunfight at the Ok Corral.
Getting away from the island can be refreshing, educational, inspiring and down right fun! Don’t forget your sunscreen!