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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” 
                                     Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A few days ago I was watching an old rerun of Britain's Top Gear television show. I'm a fan of both the British and American versions, and usually spend a couple of hours a week watching one or the other. You might say I am a fan of anything "Automotive", and watching a program with car enthusiasts who ought never to be allowed near one is a fun way to spend some down time. I know, in my heart, that I'm one of them, and so get a vicarious thrill of watching them screw up in ways I'm fully capable of matching.

A rough section of Route 66
A foggy road in North Carolina
On this particular rerun, actor Patrick Stewart -- he of Star Trek and X-Men fame -- was the subject of a popular segment entitled "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car". In the segment, (inexplicably relabeled "Big Star, Small Car" in the American version -- are our attention spans too short for the longer name?), a  celebrity is put behind the wheel of an economy car and set through the paces at Top Gear's race track. It's both humorous and competitive, with stars as A-List as Tom Cruise and Ryan Reynolds on the leader board.

Open Road
Stewart, who is a fine actor...you can tell because he speaks with a very authoritative British accent...was opining on his love of the open road, particularly of a long, lonely drive through the desert. it's a passion I admit to sharing with not only Mr Stewart but many thousands of other people. Those of us in the Southwest are blessed with an open expanse just a short drive from even our most urban neighborhoods. And for me one of the most truly relaxing and invigorating things to do is to climb into my bright red Hyundai Genesis Coupe and head out into the nearby Mojave Desert for a few hours tooling around largely empty roads, dropping into some out of the way diner and photographing the adventure for my archives and this blog. It's a way to retreat from the modern world and to recognize your standing in this vast world. (Hint, unlike your boss The World doesn't give a damn if your expense report is a few days late. It's too busy being much more zen about the universe than you are.)
New York, Seventh Avenue

Las Vegas' famed Strip
And for me one of the best things to do while traveling is to hit the open road. Yes, I love cities, but to truly understand a place you have to dig your toes into the sand, metaphorically speaking (and sometimes literally). One cannot accomplish this poolside at a 5 Star hotel. Even in New York, you learn so much more about the city by walking through the Village or Soho or the Upper East Side or Little (and growing littler) Italy than you will in the lobby of Trump Tower. 

So when I travel, I often get away from cities and try to experience more of the countryside, the environment surrounding the city to help put that destination into a better context. Recently I've blogged about our trip up to Santa Fe, Taos, Sedona and all of the open road between them. Our friends flew out to meet us and flew back to LA, missing, I think, some of the more fascinating parts of the trip.
BC's Sea to Sky Highway

In my life I've managed to drive in extreme conditions in most areas of the country. Alaska, Hawaii, across the mainland five times. Up and down both coasts. Out to Key West, Hana, Carcross (in the Yukon) and up the main coast to Boothbay Harbor. Out Cape Cod. Circumnavigated Lake Tahoe. Both sides of the Napa Valley. Internationally I've driven through the Loire Valley and between Paris and Giverny; we've been the length of Anguilla, and all around both Saint Martin and St Barth. 

The Columbia River Gorge
There is a feeling, a sense of adventure to being on the open road, but the fun extends into cities as well. Every major city has at least one, usually more, "legendary" roads to follow. Here in the LA area we have the advantage of filmmaking to push our roads into the popular culture. Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood. Mulholland Drive. Each of them conjures an image of old Hollywood and an era on the early to mid 20th century. Las Vegas has The Strip. San Francisco has Lombard Street. Ironically, Washington DC has Pennsylvania Avenue. New York, of course, has Broadway, 7th, Madison and others. London has Fleet Street. Paris the Champs Elysees. (I've driven them all save Fleet Street...London may be the last city in which I ever want to get behind the wheel. Give me a cab and I'm happy, and let the driver handle the pressure. The same goes for Rome which has the added challenge of utterly incomprehensible roadways in addition to crazy-assed drivers.)

Driving Lake Tahoe

But the point is to get out of the hotel and explore. For me that's the open road, but at the very least rent a car and go out of the area. Find a historic site a few miles from where you live and go visit. Grab the kids and head for a picnic in the nearby mountains. They'll hate it, but at least you can inflict nature on them -- make sure you're out of cell range and you'll score double points.

Today is supposed to be a real scorcher here in the City of Angels. 

Maybe I'll grab the keys and head down the Pacific Coast Highway a bit. There's always an adventure somewhere.

On the OPen Road

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


"The Journey Itself Is My Home"

                                               - Matsuo Basho

The key for me, I think, to finding the very best of travel destinations can be summed up in one newly-minted word: Wanderability.

Linguists will have to decide what kind of verb that is, but it's apparently a word I've just coined which I will define as (in self-explanatory wonder) "the ability of a place to be wandered".

It's second cousin to the better-known "Wanderlust", a word which spends much of its time looking for what *I* call Wanderability (got that?). It's different from the term "walkability" in that it doesn't need to have an end destination, no commuting a person from A to Z and in fact just the opposite of that -- Wanderability suggests an aimlessness of purpose.

Wanderability differs from "Wanderable" in that it connotes not just an area which can be walked, but an area which can be explored. It indicates a desire to go into that area and just spend time there, checking things out and generally enjoying or "experiencing" the surroundings. And its this discovery of the meaning of the word which now informs most of our travel planning. There are places we've been that invite you to wander, so seek, to explore, and others than want you to stop, stay and spend money. Years ago I used to talk about my early morning photo expeditions, which I took to calling "going walkabout". I'd grab my cameras and literally wander the streets shooting pictures as they woke up. You learn a lot about a place before its had its morning coffee, believe me. In its way, my old tradition of going walkabout was an exploration into the Wanderability of a particular destination. 

Essentially: Is a place fascinating enough to grab your attention and let you just explore? Do you WANT to go out onto the streets and take a look around. Does it engage you to the point of distraction? If so, its got the appeal necessary to be considered "wanderable", and therefore a high Wanderability quotient.

Wanderability also suggests an ease of use. That the casual visitor will find enough things to occupy them, as well as being imminently walkable. Los Angeles, for example, is not walkable. As a friend of mine, television and film writer James Moran, once described it: 

Walking. Not wandering. 
"London is like a dinner plate, and getting a minicab from one end to the other can be 30, 40, 50 quid at the most, during the day. That would have been fine, but Los Angeles isn't like a dinner plate. It's like a 57-piece dinner service, spread out over a football field, with long bamboo poles connecting some of the pieces. The poles are the freeways, which you have to use, and if you step on the football field grass, you explode. Or something. Anyway, it's staggeringly big and complicated."

London, as we know, is imminently walkable. It's big, it's as vast as LA in many ways, but you can walk from point A to point Z and be stimulated all the way. You can also hop the Tube and get to many other equally walkable neighborhoods. LA has walkable sections, but is not designed for that kind of access. It has areas of wanderability, but is not, in and of itself, a wanderable city.

Strolling the streets of Manhattan can occupy days and even weeks. Downtown Atlanta: not so much. Boulder, Colorado and areas surrounding it are wanderable in extremis

I've written more than once about our disappointment with Monaco. Monaco, specifically Monte Carlo, has virtually no wanderability. It's not designed for it and doesn't invite the stranger to even attempt it. Hills, heavy traffic, few really walkable streets -- and those that are don't possess the kind of attraction to get you to leave the car behind and saunter. Monte Carlo is a city of restaurants and destination stores. Of hotels who cater to people who want to escape the world in a pristine surrounding and not to get their feet or hands or faces dirty with the dust of a city block. (For some people, this is fine. They spend their lives in First Class cabins and elegant spas, returning home to tell their friends they've "experienced" Europe.)

Las Vegas has a very high Wanderability factor. (Some of you will need to pick yourselves off the floor. I will wait a moment.) Why is Vegas wanderable and Monte Carlo not? Aren't they two sides of the same coin? No, not really.

Yes, Vegas has huge buildings all designed to pickpocket you the instant you walk through the door, appeal to your sense of leisure and entitlement. The attraction is desire and money and self-indulgence. And there's nothing at all wrong with that, if that's what you're after in a trip. But Vegas also boasts a terrific number of sights which are, for the casual observer, free. Fascinating. Wanderable. Each of the casino hotels is itself a standalone, wanderable and interesting destination. Unlike Monte Carlo, where wandering is frowned upon, Las Vegas entices the visitor to do just that. One of my favorite "wanders" is from one end of the massive Caesars Palace complex to the other, encompassing the entirety of the hotel, the classic shopping district, the main casino floor and both winds of the tremendous Forum Shoppes complex. This one destination is good for hours of wandering and people watching.

Wanderability has less to do with the style of a destination than the character of it. The Vieux Carre in New Orleans scores highly for Wanderability. As does Manhattan's Village. Washington DC has Georgetown and The Mall (if you're an outdoor wanderer). Miami itself isn't as wanderable as South Beach. Santa Fe is wonderfully wanderable, but perhaps surprisingly its distant cousin Sedona is quite a bit less so. Phoenix is not. So there's really no central guideline other than "do you want to walk around and explore". If your reaction is "explore what?", chances are the area you're in is low on the Wanderability score. But if you cannot wait to get out, walk around and see what's around the next corner, you've found yourself a gem. 

(I should hasten to add that Walkable only applies to part of Wanderability. Driving, maundering, is also a form of Wanderability when the purpose is to see, not just to get from A to Z. Rocky Mountain National Park has a high Wanderability quotient, as does Tuscany in Italy. In each case it's the view from the windows followed by an exit and exploration which provide the key difference. I've ridden trains through Florence, for example, but not having gotten off it'd be misleading to say I've "been to Florence". Likewise, I've stopped over in Minneapolis but never left the airport. Not exactly "been there, done that".)

Exploration, Wanderability are the key. Getting out, getting around, seeing things from the street level and breathing in the scents -- good and bad -- of the air not distilled by air conditioning and perfume. Take=ing you out of the familiar, the known and outing you smack in the middle of another place. Kicking back while sipping a cup of local tea; taking photographs of people and scenes unique to where you are; tasting the local cuisine and specialties; watching the haggling at a local farmer's market. Registering the value of a place that's not your own, where you're the stranger and you're the fish out of water.

And that's the real purpose of travel, isn't it? To see those things you cannot necessarily find around the corner back home.

Gimme some Wanderability and I'm happy. Otherwise, I might just as well never leave the house. Travel is about broadening our experience, not about reinforcing the comfortable and comforting. If your intent is to seal yourself up behind windows of a car and the indulgent walls of a spa, then find one not to far from the house and save yourself booth expense and time.

My new word. Wanderability. I like it.

Grab your shoes...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

ROAD TRIP: Safari West

"In wilderness is the preservation of the world."
                                   - Henry David Thoreau                          

The phrase "well kept secret" is one of those two-edged swords. On one hand it connotes that it's somehow something special and something that deserves attention. On the other hand, "secret" isn't exactly an ambition for most of the people who are promoting a thing.

So it is with all due respect and admiration that I refer to Safari West complex outside Santa Rosa, in northern California, as a well-kept secret. It is deserving of as much attention as other facilities of its kind, but as a traveler and seeker of adventure I like the fact that it isn't overrun with tourists and daytrippers who are looking for nothing more than cotton candy and animals in cages.

First, few of the animal...well, wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Safari West, nicknamed the Sonoma Serengeti, is a large wildlife park located in the hills between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, neatly positioned between the twin wine regions of Sonoma and Napa. It is a research complex which funds a lot of their work through tours and safari-tent overnights on the grounds.

Taking their own description off their web page:

"Safari West serves two important functions: first and foremost, we are a wildlife preserve, with several important ongoing projects such as:
  • The propagation of endangered species. Safari West is the home of zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and many more exotic creatures.
  • Under the directorship of Nancy Lang, Safari West is breeding several endangered bird species.
  • Several Research and Conservation programs are ongoing: Conservation through Education.
But Safari West is more than a preserve. We are dedicated to raising awareness of our exotic neighbors and promoting understanding through in-person contact. That's why we offer safaris year-round. If your only experience with a zebra or giraffe has been at a zoo, you should see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. You owe it to yourself, and to them."

And therein lies the key difference between a zoo and Safari West, and that is the experience of visiting an operating preserve, and touring through open-meadow grasslands and semi-rugged terrain visiting truly wild animals in what passes for a natural environment for them.
The park itself is some 400 acres, with more than 900 different animals (everything from large secretary birds to predatory cats to giraffes and zebras).
Again, their words:
"Come through our gate and be transported into an exotic, new world. A captivating tapestry of raw sounds and earthy smells; a magic place with the sights and sounds of the Serengeti where the air is filled with melodious chirps from the aviary, squawking calls from gregarious parrots, and a occasional lemur screech. An African style oasis where guests experience a rare sense of freedom and gain renewed inspiration. "

A couple of the cabin-tents at night.
So the park is unique and fascinating, but the best adventure of all, particularly for younger ones, is a night or two inn the relative comfort of your own luxury safari tent. The accommodations are excellent, with a comfortable bed and good sized room -- the only drawback during our stay was a midnight call to the bathroom, which is located outside of the very cozy center part of the tent. This also made the shower a bit of a cold versus warm challenge requiring a swift drying off and dash through the canvas door back into the warm main room of the tent. (The bathroom is attached and completely enclosed, but outside of the area well-heated by a space heater.) If you're going during the off season be prepared for this very little bit of roughing it.
The tour itself, on board a safari vehicle, is excellent. The driver conveys a lot of good information about the animals without becoming overly academic. If you're tempted to sit on the upper deck just be aware that giraffes drool. A lot. One poor visitor didn't wear her raincoat and the sounds from the upper deck (we were seated below) were cringe-inducing in a Monty Python sort of way.
The tour lasts three hours, and is certainly worth the side trip if you're electing to stay in either Santa Rosa or Calistoga. But, again, our own selection was to stay the night, enjoying the ambience of the park. The sounds of the animals as you drift asleep is exciting and relaxing at the same time.
 (CAVEAT: If you're prone to nightmares, be aware the secretary birds screech out something awful, particularly in the dark when you're not expecting to hear anything but silence. One let loose with a banshee-esque shriek directly across from our cabin door at around 2am, which left me crawling the ceiling until I was able to piece together what I'd heard. A few too many horror films as a kid, I guess.)
On to the rest of the photos. Contact info for Safari West will be found towards the bottom.

The giraffe compound was directly opposite our door
Our tent/cabin

Inside the tent, a comfortable bed


Relaxing the California sun

Monday, June 17, 2013


                                    - Jackie Chan 

It will come as a shock to, well, just about no one, but coffee is a fundamental in my life. It's both a prop and a "propper-upper" in the morning. (If evidence is to be believed, I am far from alone. Coffee is the second most-heavily traded commodity in the world after oil. There's some reasoning behind the advertisement that "America Runs on Dunkin'". Their logo is, after all, a coffee cup -- not a donut.)

So when I'm on the road, coffee remains an important part of the overall experience. I've written previously in regards to the thermos full of coffee which my mother invariably packed for my father for our all-too-frequent early morning departures for some expedition to parts both known and unknown. That whiff of black coffee some four or five minutes in to what promised to be a long drive became synonymous, for me, with the road trip, or any travel for that matter.

(Last Friday, as my wife and I departed for an anniversary trip down the coast I added a good twenty minutes to our drive when I discovered that three of my favorite Orange County coffee houses stops had disappeared in the last year or so. It seems that the twin impacts of the economy and my working from home --  and therefore not buying my coffee from these fine establishments -- had done them in. Yes, I am wracked with guilt.)

All this noted, it should be no surprise that one of my chief tasks upon arrival at any destination is a rapid assessment of the local coffee scene. Some, like Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, are old friends demanding an immediate pilgrimage, not unlike that to Mecca itself. Others, like the Starbuck's down the street from the Westin in San Diego, are convenient and reliable. 

(No, I am not an SBUX basher. My preference is always a local chain, but in the absence of that a Starbuck's will do nicely. When you travel for business, as I often will, the local spots aren't as visible to the business hotels. It's when I'm on my own for personal travel that I get to play with the local kids.)

Sometimes both mix, as in a pilgrimage to Starbuck's in Pike Place Market in Seattle. It's the oldest existing location for the chain and marked the beginning but is itself a localized event.

In Las Vegas every large casino boasts a coffee shop, sometimes several. Again, SBUX is ubiquitous but with a little searching you can find an alternative. (One of my favorite is in the Paris Hotel and Casino. JJ'S Boulangerie. Tucked back into the hotel's "shopping street" JJ's is a bread and coffee house that -- belying the big business they are part of -- manages to convey a more neighborhoody vibe. 

In Rome I was deeply challenged. The Westin sat apart from the fun, in a distinctly UN-bohemian part of town, and would have required taxi service to find ANY coffee service (except the hotel itself, of course.) One would have thought finding a decent cup of coffee in the Eternal City would have been a cinch, but not quite so much in that end of town.

New York, of course, is simply a matter of choosing which one of many options. In South Beach the world goes to the News Cafe, while in St Barth it's Maya's to Go. Here in SoCal, my home town of Long Beach even fostered what has now become a national brand: It's A Grind. (Score one for the Home Team!) The city also boasts a dozen or so hangouts, including Portfolio and Viento y Agua -- a large number for its size and enough to give even Portland a run for the coffee cultural money.

Philadelphia has La Colombe, of course: Todd Carmichael's justifiably famous smackdown  response to Taster's Choice.

Hawaii, being a major bean producer itself, is not to be outdone with coffee houses and local bakeries abounding on most major highways. (Our favorite is The Coffee Shack in the Big Island town of Captain Hook. Strong Kona coffee and a stunning view! Good eats, too.) And there's nothing quite like a quiet New England sunrise at the Dock Square Coffee House in Kennebunkport, Maine, at with a good cup of joe at your side.

Finding that local coffee place is often part of the fun. The telling mark of a good place is the crowd. If you walk in and the tables are empty, run. (Well, unless they've just opened.) Optimally it should look like, and feel like, a warm and inviting place to sit down and enjoy your drink. If the purpose is to get in, grab the caffeine and get out, then absolutely find the nearest Starbuck's and enjoy.

But if your intention is to sit down, sip at your drink slowly, so as to let the caffeine soak into your brain and bring you awake amidst a true traveler's experience -- then grab a seat at the local joint where the people watching and the vibe give you a real clue as to what the neighborhood is all about. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

(You can find your nearest Dunkin' or Starbuck's anywhere -- no need for a link.)


Thursday, June 13, 2013

ROAD TRIP: No Cure for Paris

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."
     - Ernest Hemingway

For this morning's entry I elected to randomly pick a destination from my 30,000 photograph archive. 

Yeeks, some statistics are better left alone.

Today we journey to Paris, which probably should be everyone's first international destination. Full of adventures, history and art -- and the language barrier makes it just challenging enough to demonstrate that you're really, truly, overseas.

We have visited the "City of Lights" a mere three times now, yet with each journey the city reveals a bit more about itself -- and about ourselves as well. The romance is real, the vibe entirely unique. There are other wonderful destinations in the world, but none of them have the je ne sais quoi of the capital city of France.

We have had many adventures in Paris, and lived to tell the tale. 

My argument with the rude cabbie who spit -- only to be followed moments later, as if dispatched from the Paris Tourist Board, by another driver in a Yankees ball cap, who made us feel entirely welcome while we laughed and were cajoled all the way to the hotel. 

The first night ever in France in which we found ourselves a little postcardish corner cafe with red velvet walls, generous french waiters, incredible food and one very elegant french woman who sat reading Le Monde and gently pulling on a cigarette in a long holder; leaving us temporarily transported back to the romantic (and possibly imaginary) Paris of the early 20th century. 

Of the magnificent food...it's true it's impossible to get  a bad meal here. 

Spending a (relatively) short time in the Louvre so as not to detract from the -- for us -- far more interesting D'Orsay. 

Staying at the very modern and chic Westin Vendome this last journey, and not enjoying it nearly as much in the more humble and "local" hotels we've used before -- listening to the sounds of the city at 2am in the morning while a french couple have what only could be interpreted as a lover's quarrel somewhere in the apartments down the street. In French of course, but the emotions are raw, strong, passionate and identifiable.

Paris is, as Hemingway noted, a moveable feast that gets into your blood and soul, and never lets go.

Je t'aime.

Taxi queue near Place Vendome

The Bastille District
The Seine -- focal point of Parisian life

Monet exhibit at the Musee L'Orangerie
A "locking of love" on a Seine bridge

Students from La Sarbonne spend Saturday nights next to the Seine, chatting and waving at the tourist boats

Lovers walk along the river, lost in romance

Wandering the alleys and streets you can still feel the Paris of Romance and Love