Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Day in L.A. : Checking Some Tourist Attractions Off My To-Do List

Mexican-style architecture, lots of greenery, and churros on Olvera Street.
While visiting my niece in Los Angeles this spring, I came down with a flu or bad cold, so the amount of things I was able to see while there was greatly curtailed. Unfortunately, I spent more than 24 hours in bed my depressing little motel room. Actually, that's not really fair. It wasn't really depressing - I was just depressed because I was really sick on vacation. Jerry's Motel was actually a bit above the typical motel room. The location was right in downtown L.A., which seemed deserted, with almost zero pedestrian traffic while I was there. And the motel parking lot was next to two kinda shabby looking apartment buildings. But the room itself was clean and bright, with IKEA-style furnishings, and you could tell the management was trying to make it as nice as possible. The aircon worked fine, it was pretty quiet, and the price was great.

I was able to cross off a couple "must-sees" off my travel to-do list while in L.A. (one on the afternoon before I got sick, and a couple morning in the morning right before leaving town. The first place I visited (not counting stopping for burgers at In-N-Out - because you HAVE to do that while out west!) was the open-air Mexican market called Olvera Street.
Olvera Street Mexican Style Market in Los Angeles
I love the visual aesthetic of Latin culture, so I really wanted to visit Olvera Street market. My niece was up for it, too, and I couldn't believe she'd never been there. You really should stop in. It is a partially covered street market with a variety of stalls, plus shops that are inside buildings. It's like an outdoor pedestrian mall selling all Mexican items, from kitchy souvenirs to beautiful art. It was just fun to walk around and look at all the colorful and interesting items for sale. Lots of beautiful embroidered and bedazzled Mexican blouses, skirts, dresses, and costumes for special occasions. Food is available too, though we had just eaten so we didn't have anything. While we were there, there were also mariachi musicians. I bought some incense, candles, and postcards. My niece bought a tiny doll-sized sombrero and a pair of mermaid earrings.
Display window - and me in the mirror!
Another place I was able to visit was the Pinup Girl Boutique in Burbank.  I really wanted to go because I am a big fan of their online shop, but haven't really ordered clothing from them because they are not cheap and I wasn't sure I'd look good in their 1950s revival, retro-style clothing. So I headed out to the brick-and-mortar store with the intention of trying on everything I'd ever thought of buying online. The shop is pretty cute. True to their reputation for being very body-positive and inclusive, the sales girls were super warm, friendly and easy going. The shop windows were inspiring and adorable! The inside decor was cute, too. I was just a little disappointed that the shop held only a fraction of the clothing that is available online, so I wasn't able to try on everything I wanted to. But I did try on some of their full skirts and sundresses, and I'm so glad I did because they do not suit my body type, at all. My short but round figure was completely overwhelmed by the very full skirts and the stiffer fabrics with pockets and linings and petticoats. I looked really poufy! Not a good look. So while that was a bit disappointing, it's good to know. In the future, I will stick to their cute accessories.
The main pit of the La Brea tar pits.
I love all things kitsch and retro, especially including touristy roadside attractions, so the La Brea Tar Pits was on my list next. It is really cool and at the same time, a little disappointing. If you are a science nerd like I am, you will find the pits of natural asphalt that bubble up everywhere in this park, really interesting. But the site itself is not as kitchy as I expected. I (AMAZINGLY) was able to find street parking right next to the pretty park that hosts the tar pits, and then walked a few feet to stare at them. They smell like tar (a smell I love, strangely enough) but are surrounded by an ugly chain link fence. Families were in the park, playing, and nobody else was paying much attention to the pits. I did find a tiny one, unfenced, just bubbling up in the middle of a patch of grass. Apparently, the pits are an archeological site as well, and have bubbled up tons of fossils. It wasn't super spectacular, but it was interesting and I'm glad I took the time to see them.
Natural asphalt just oozing to the surface in the middle of a city park!
On the morning I left L.A., I drove to the Farmer's Market for breakfast. I was in no hurry, so I let myself meander through the neighborhoods on the way there, and was struck by these beautiful old apartment buildings. The architecture was so unique - unlike any apartment buildings I'd ever seen before. They had a romantic, time-worn, glory-days-gone-by majesty that really captivated me. I wished I could have seen the insides when they were new and shiny. I love studying architecture but I'd never read anything about these cool old Hollywood style apartment buildings. If anyone knows anything about them, please share with me. In my imagination, I pictured them populated with young actors and actresses, trying to making it in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. Everyone beautiful, idealistic, hungry for stardom.
Love the arches, juliet balconies, and ironwork!

Impressive entryway, little balconies, decorative doodads...

Spanish colonial style.

Pretty pink stucco, decorative awnings and architectural details inspired by Moorish Spain.

That curved balcony!!! I can just picture it graced by a starlet from Hollywood's golden age!

A mash-up of Spanish and Federal styles? Very regal.
The L.A. Farmer's Market was yet another tourist attraction that took me by surprise. I just feel like the tour guides don't really describe what these places are actually like. I hope I am doing a better job! When you hear the words "farmer's market," don't you picture an open-air space with stalls or food stands hosting a variety of local farmers who bring their just-picked fruits and vegetables to sell? And there are usually also vendors selling farm-fresh, homemade cheese, baked goods, maybe vinegars, fresh flowers, and honey? Well this farmer's market is NOTHING like that.
The famous L.A. Farmer's Market
It's a permanent structure across from a big shopping mall, with a paid parking lot. It is arranged in a rectangle and the shops are set up under roofs around the rectangle, with more shops, under roofs in the center. There was only one, maybe two, farmstands there. It is a great place for casual eating, but it's not a typical farmer's market. There were crepe shops, several bakeries, candy shops, Asian food stalls, Italian food stalls, Mexican food stalls, etc. There were gift shops selling candles, stickers, toys, clothes, souvenirs, and a newsstand. So to me, it was more like a food court and mini shopping center. I was thinking it was a real farmer's market, and truth be told, I was also thinking I might see some celebrities, because in US Magazine, you always see celebrities shopping at farmer's market for their gluten-free baked goods and their kale. But it wasn't that kind of farmer's market, and it definitely wasn't the kind of place you see celebrities. Anyway, I'm glad I got to see it. If you go to their website, it does have a cool history, which is interesting to read. I, of course, did not do this until after I got home! But I bought some fancy Mrs. Grossman stickers (love those!!!), some chocolates for the road, and ate delicious crepes for brunch before leaving town.
One of several candy shops at the L.A. Farmer's Market

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sewing Diary: Pink Gauze Swing Dress

I have had a lovely few yards of dusty pink crinkled cotton gauze in my fabric stash for a few years, so since the weather is now summery, I decided it was time to use it up. I leafed through my collection of drawings and clippings for ideas on what to make with it, and came up with this design for a loose-fitting flowing dress:

Pink Gauze fabric and my dress design.
Because the shape was so simple, I did not use a pattern for this. I just drew my shape with a Sharpie marker and a yard stick onto the fabric and cut it out. I also made neck facings, and some very slim spaghetti straps. Speaking of skinny straps, I highly recommend this tube-turning tool. It makes strap-making as easy as pie!
Here are my homemade spaghetti straps, ready to be threaded through the casings.
Neck facing about to be attached.
This gauze fabric does stretch quite a bit while it's being handled, but for this design, it didn't matter too much. Usually though, I would have stay-stitched the neck and armholes to avoid the stretch.
The finished product.
This dress did not take me very long, and I am pretty pleased with how it came out. As you can see, the hem isn't Exactly how I planned it - the pointed are on the sides, instead of in the front, but I still like it. The only other negative is that the fabric is really sheer, so it won't really work as a dress, but I can wear it as a swimsuit cover-up or as a nightgown. I am in love with this shade of pink, the two rows of gathers at the neck and the straps.

Monday, June 8, 2015

San Diego: Gaslamp Quarter, Pacific Beach, and Balboa Park

On my first afternoon and evening in San Diego, I went to the Gaslamp Quarter which is in the real urban-looking downtown of San Diego. I chose that neighborhood because all the tourist publications and websites you find advise checking it out. But in my opinion, it can totally be skipped! I think the only way you would find it interesting is if you were from a small town or didn't get out much. It's a bunch of tall buildings, some old, some newer, crowded, no place to park, and filled with national chain stores and restaurants, like Hard Rock Cafe and Anthropologie. SNOOZE! Nothing unique or interesting here, people. I drove around for a bit, saw that there was nowhere to put the car, checked out all the shops and restaurants (that you could find in any big city or urban area in the U.S.), saw there was no uniqueness or personality to the place, and then left.
The amazing and huge carved bar at Isabel's Cantina in Pacific Beach, San Diego

But by now I was hungry for dinner so I headed to Isabel's Cantina in Pacific Beach. I would highly recommend this stylish, hip restaurant. It's a big open room, furnished with all kinds of cool ethnic details, like a huge carved wooden bar, a dragon suspended from the loft-height ceiling, and a giant Buddha.The food is Latin and Asian fusion, and very delicious and trendy. My waiter was a cute surfer-type dude who was very flirty. There were lots of younger couples, groups of friends and families at this restaurant, and it was bustling and noisy.
Amazing sunsets were my daily treat from the balcony of the Pantai Inn.

After dinner, I was delighted to find there was a laundromat across the street, so I spent an hour or so there doing the wash. Then the drive back to La Jolla to tuck in for the night. I was delighted to throw open the door to my balcony from my hotel room and snack on the really good, locally produced chocolate bars that had been left on my pillow. I could get so used to this!
Awe-inspiring open air theatre

Balboa Park Architecture
After a quiet morning of sitting on my balcony and drinking tea, followed by a generous free breakfast at my hotel, I headed out to see Balboa Park. This is an attraction that exceeded my expectations and it's definitely a "can't miss" experience. There is so so much to do here, it would take many, many days to do it all. There are several museums, the famous San Diego zoo, gardens, conservatories, restaurants, performances, exhibits and much more. I was fortunate to score parking close to the El Prado pedestrian walkway. I couldn't stop oohing and aahing at every turn. The architecture, most of which was constructed for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, is simply stunning, featuring an ornate Spanish Renaissance style. I walked around for about 2 hours, popped into the Conservatory, and moseyed along in the Japanese Friendship Garden, the latter of which is undergoing expansion.
Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park $6 admission

Balboa Park: Ornate!

El Prado pedestrian walkway

Covered walkways cool you in their shade: Balboa Park
After my long walk, I headed out to Mission Beach to try and dunk my feet in the surf and scope out the famous boardwalk. Alas, after driving in circles for 40 minutes in search of parking, I realized it wasn't going to happen. It was a gorgeous, sunny Friday afternoon so every place was mobbed. I gave up on the idea of people watching on the Mission Beach boardwalk, and instead sat down at Costa Brava for a yummy Spanish tapas lunch, set on their covered patio, an important soccer game on the tv.
(.... to be continued .... )

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

San Diego and Its Neighborhoods: Different and Yet, The Same

The view from La Jolla. Are those sea lions out there?

On my recent trip to California to celebrate turning 50, one of the places I wanted to visit was San Diego, mostly because of its reputation for "perfect weather." To me, perfect weather is sunny everyday, but not too hot (i.e. not above 80 degrees) and not humid. This is the opposite of Chicago-area summer weather, which is often grey, and often very humid.

Cute little roadside Mission around Desert Hot Springs
Leaving Palm Springs, I drove East to San Juan Capistrano, in order to make a stop at the famous mission there (to be discussed in a later post), and also because I didn't want to simply take the fastest route, which seemed to backtrack through the Los Angeles area. On my way to and from San Diego, I wanted to be able to see different sights.  Then I drove on to my hotel, which I'd booked, after much weighing of ALL possible options, in La Jolla, right on the water.

The view from my hotel room! I am a very lucky girl!
I found San Diego a little tricky to understand/navigate at first. The city is huge and sprawling, and it has many "neighborhoods" which are treated as if they are separate towns, but are really all still part of San Diego, the city. Each neighborhood/town has a distinct personality, different sorts of businesses and different types of beaches. Beaches, shopping and restaurants were my priorities of places to visit during my three days in the area.
The Pantai Inn in La Jolla

The pretty, little bohemian chic hotel I chose for my stay in the San Diego area was a bit pricey for me, but I was able to take advantage of a 30% off sale featured on their website, and I really wanted to stay someplace right on the water. The Pantai Inn is rated very highly online, so I decided that would be my splurge for the trip. It was well-worth the money! See my TripAdvisor review here.
Two snoozing sea lions on crumbling concrete steps at La Jolla Cove.

I headed down to the water immediately. The "beach" in front of my hotel was not really accessible to me - you had to carefully navigate slippery cliff areas and rocks to get down to it. There were a few young and fit people down there, but I chose to walk a bit down the road, through a pretty cliffside park and over to La Jolla Cove. This postage stamp-sized beach had stairs to take you down to the water, and some veteran sea lions just lounging about. The tide was coming in strong, so it was fun to watch kids and adults alike squeal with delight as the cold, salty water inched its way up onto the sand, and crashed against the boulders that littered the beach. It was crowded but not too bad, and there were also a lot of kayakers and snorklers enjoying the water. Of course, the weather was my ideal, but the water was very cold - too much for me to swim in, since the air was only about 70 degrees.
An adorable cliffside cottage in La Jolla.

After about an hour at the beach, I drove around La Jolla to look at all the pretty houses in all different styles, from cottage, to modern, to Spanish style, all jumbled together on top of each other along the unsteady (signs posted everywhere said so!) cliffs. Parking was very scarce so I didn't visit many of the interesting businesses I passed because there was literally nowhere to put the car. But I did enjoy the scenic drive.

It's a steep drop down to the water from cliffs in La Jolla.
After a while, I decided to drive to dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego, an area touted as "can't-miss" by many tourism blogs and books. All of the neighborhoods seem to be connected by the main highway, so as I explored them all, I spent A LOT of time on said highway.All the highway driving time started to get to me after a while - this city is very much about the SPRAWL! But I have to admit, the highways themselves were a lot prettier than the ones around Chicago.
(to be continued ....)