In fact, my plan for that day, besides visiting the Maritime Museum and the USS Midway, was to drive six miles to Coronado Beach and visit the Hotel del Coronado with its iconic red roofs and enjoy the sunset there. But my fascination with Midway put paid to that plan. So with only a little bit of daylight left, I headed to Mission Beach and signed up for a spot of jetpacking. I thought photos of me shooting into the sky, blasted up by high-powered jets of water, would look cool on Instagram and it looked so easy. But after lots of dunking during my long learning curve I realised that jetpacking needs patience and perseverance. The jets of water were like living pythons that seemed to have a mind of their own and the directional adjustments had to be minuscule. Too much in either direction often had me slamming down into the water headfirst or doing a backflip mid air. I just about managed a vertical flight of 20 feet in the air. But for many days afterwards, thanks to my dunking, I had saltwater running out of my ears and sinuses.
Leaving San Diego the next day, I drove 40 miles north to Escondido, to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Though the famous San Diego Zoo is within the city and close to Balboa Park, I thought Safari Park a far better experience. Again I’d made the mistake of making too little time for it and with a number of animals and attractions I ended up spending a better part of the day there. On the caravan safari I got to feed giraffes, saw a 20-minute-old wildebeest calf take its first hesitant steps even before his mother’s placenta had dried up and fallen off, and a number of rhinos and buffaloes. The gambolling Sumatran tiger cubs were show-stoppers too.
As a result, my Dodge Charger roared into quiet little Temecula pretty late in the evening. I was up before sunrise and the crack of dawn found me standing in a wicker basket with seven others. The roar of a propane flame rent the silent dawn and, as 250,000 cubic feet of hot air filled the balloon, we lifted off in the wicker basket attached to it. There was a low mist and breaking through it and floating above it at 2,000 feet was a wonderful experience. Temecula is a wine-growing region and the rising sun soon melted away the mist and golden rays of light lit up symmetrical vineyards. After a champagne breakfast I headed to the Green Acres Ranch on De Portola Road, which is lined with wineries. At Green Acres Ranch they are passionate about horses and I was there for a horse ride. But before I could ride I had to make friends with my horse, brush it down and saddle it. Luckily he was friendly and quite easy to ride so I could look around and enjoy that mid-morning ride.
The rest of that day I spent leisurely exploring the vineyards on De Portola Road. Temecula is in California’s Riverside County, the stomping ground of Native Americans before the first Spanish missionaries arrived in the late 1780s. The stagecoach line through this region saw further development and Temecula Valley grew to become ranching land.
Vineyards and winemaking is relatively new–not even a century old–but that doesn’t mean that the stuff in cellars here is below par. In fact most wineries are family-run and winemaking here is practised in more with a passion for this art rather than an eye on the profit line. And the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere at most wineries make them a delight to visit. I had a fabulous lunch on the terrace of the Robert Renzoni Winery. The star of the menu was the meat, cheese and bread sampler plate served with olives, tapenades and dips. My favorite wine was Cougar Winery’s Pink Cougar Sangiovese Rose.
Temecula also takes the prize for my favourite meal which was at the Gambling Cowboy in Old Town Temecula. The slow-cooked prime rib is divine enough to make a grown man cry with happiness. The city’s main street, crowded with noisy, happy pubs and delicious restaurants, all set in architecture from when California belonged to Mexico’s Spanish Empire, is the place to be for a night on the town.
Happily surprised by Temecula, I headed northwest towards the beaches of Orange County, my last stop before I would fly out of Los Angeles.
Laguna Beach and Newport Beach are famous for their fabulous surf breaks. But bikinis and bloody marys are as much of a draw–the former have less surface area than a handkerchief and the latter is a buzzing meal by itself, with a shrimp, crab claw and vegetables added into it, not to mention the handcrafted Tito’s Vodka from Texas.
Broadway by Amar Santana, a restaurant from a chef of Indian origin from the Dominican Republic, is an intimate space in Laguna Beach that has a unique menu. The braised Beeler’s pork belly, the truffle-crusted Scottish salmon and the crisp brussels sprouts are all must-trys.
Huntington Beach–the grungier cousin of air-brushed Newport and Laguna–is also surfing paradise. Here, boards of all sizes take pride of place, used for surfing or stand-up paddleboarding. You can even practise yoga on paddleboards here!
At one of the quieter bays around Huntington Beach I met up with Rocky McKinnon, a surfer who not only offers superb stand-up paddleboarding lessons but also designs and manufactures surf and paddleboards. He taught me the basics of balance and how to hold the oar. I had never done this before so I was prepared for a dunking in the water, as with my jetpacking incident. But as I tentatively set off, I was surprised to find that SUP is easier than it looks. In just a few moments I had found my balance. Besides being a fun way to be out on the water it is also very good core exercise. It’s like cycling: once you find your balance and how to keep your centre of gravity low and within the dimensions of the board, you are set for good.
That was how I spent my last few hours in Southern California and a few hours later I had packed my bags and pointed the nose of my Dodge Charger towards Los Angeles. Nevada and another adventure were waiting, but that, as they say, is another story