Cathy H. Burroughs, HomeExchange member and Travel Writer/Blogger
We love long trips abroad and my freelance career goes decidedly below the radar during the summer. Over the past two summers and a winter we were first exposed to the joys of exchanging with a series of both divine and truly affordable overseas trades made possible by HomeExchange. For less than it would have been to stay home, we flew, bussed and trained all over Europe including Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece as well as the Caribbean island of Martinique in the French Antilles; But, frankly, we wore ourselves out with an average of sometimes up to 5-8 miles of walking and hiking a day in often extreme 100 F plus degrees as well as the cost and length of transatlantic flights, rigorous and requisite tours, extensive packing, unpacking, lugging or rolling suitcases over cobblestones as well as the constant tweaking of logistics in home exchanges that went to the double digits. So this summer we decided to stay stateside and head, closer to home, to the the diverse topography off the Pacific coastline and the varied urban neighborhood’s and terrain of Southern and Northern California’s West Coast.
As we have been exploring the notion of a move to either SoCal’s Hollywood and the City of Angels to resurrect my show biz career or NoCal’s dramatic oceanic San Francisco and glorious Bay Area, we thought an in-depth sussing out was just the ticket. At the same time we could pop in and out, spending quality time with my 92-year old mom actress Jo Farkas.
Additionally we’ve found the nuances of a region and a city really reveal themselves when you spend several months. You still get to see sites, attractions and have the buzz of unearthing and probing for often the first time but you also get a more realistic sense of what it might be genuinely like to live there.
It took us about six months of prepping with some twists and turns. Mostly we used GuestPoints and even had to turn down a terrific bungalow in Pasadena and a beautifully appointed lake side condo in West Lake as we ran out of our arsenal of saved GuestPoints. Additionally we booked a couple of non-reciprocal exchanges with our lakefront artists’ home near Stone Mountain in Atlanta, GA, to augment our bank of points while we were on the road as a fallback measure.
We’ve been very, very lucky and 99.999% of our home exchange experiences have honestly been totally and utterly fabulous, but you need to be prepared for the occasional glitch or miscommunication. Our original plan was an exchange with a family in their Culver City cottage with outdoor garden near the vintage downtown for the duration. At the last moment this cancelled after we’d already purchased our air tickets.
We panicked but need not have. After about two plus weeks of intensive additional searches, we’d landed about 10 great sounding exchanges with a few to spare. As it turned out this format really turned out to enhance our LA and outskirts immersion by exposing us to a whole range of neighborhoods including a new luxury pad with pools, workout facilities, three cats (optional) near mom, in the imminently walkable Studio City; the South Coast of the City at Marina Del Rey steps from the beach; the hip and central Silver Lake with car, the mountainous Agoura Hills with pool and car and more. The length of our trip also allowed several “vacations” and side trips within our tapestry of exchanges: one via AmTrack (so highly recommended!) to the Bay Area, another to San Luis Obispo and the opulent, not-to-be-missed Hearst Castle as well as the lovely beach town of Santa Barbara (next installment) where both Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey have sprawling digs of epic proportions.
Most all of our hosts were just wonderful: exceptionally generous, communicative, warm and welcoming; several included their cars in the deal (a godsend), pools and hot tubs (yay!), and other amenities. They often went the extra mile: fresh flowers and a card, spare Nespresso sleeves, providing carte blanche with their larder, leaving a nice bottle of wine, throwing in a few extra days for cat sitting. There is occasionally one less nice apple in every bunch, but don’t let it spoil the whole bunch, girl! One ostensibly nice family with a gorgeous home agreeably offered to allow us to cancel when we ran short on points, then reneged. Fortunately, Home Exchange’s Happiness team had our backs, and helped us navigate the odd unpleasantry or unexpected hairpin turn in the road.
We arrived mid May flying into the manageable Burbank Airport, then after two weeks with mom in her condo off Ventura Blvd near the CBS Studios on Radford, we headed to the Bay Area. I’d only ever spent the odd night there and it was years ago. My friend told us the long 11 or so hour train ride on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight was incredibly fun so we took her up on it, purchasing tickets both ways and were thrilled we did! The train’s hypnotic, alternately smooth and chugging rhythms, are tremendously relaxing, together with its really comfy seats, extension leg rests and constant vistas. Training is such an incredible way to see the coast: the primordial jutting and jagged mountains, resulting from ancient shifting of the region’s ominous fault lines and tectonic plates, the raging ocean and the desperately sad glimpses of the 100’s of tent villages of displaced migrant workers that dotted our route. The entire journey provided alternately a breathtakingly beautiful and heart-wrenching current history lesson as enhanced by the detailed and running commentary of the Park Service’s Trains and Trains guides of their outstanding volunteer docent program.
There was lots to do in route: snooze, write, dream, veg out, gaze out the window, wander the train to its cafe or dining car (Dinner was varied. We had delicious salmon, mashed potatoes, green beans, vegan sausage pasta and yummy chocolate pie) and its floor to ceiling windowed observation car that offered tables, chaises, and swerving seats from which to watch the central California landscape and central coastline go by.
Who knew the Bay Area could be so freezing in May and in So Cal June Gloom for the entire month - overcast and chilly - is a thing? You live, you learn, but still discovering as we like to say “Californya” has been a complete thrill to prospect, survey and take our time to uncover.
California’s Northern Coast: The Bay Area -Richmond Outside of San Francisco (about 2 weeks): Host Daniel
This was a very, very special exchange, indeed. Daniel, an on-line professor and author who specializes in dreams and spends part of the year in Hawaii, is a super nice guy, a terrific host and a superb communicator who has created a lovely dreamscape condo environment. His Bay Area Richmond condo right off the marina is within walking, biking or a quick Uber/ Lyft distance to the newly installed commuter ferry that was one of the high points of our visit. His place is impeccably pristine and serene with original art and sacred Balinese objects, Javanese puppets, lovely original furnishings and unique atmospheric lighting. Just outside there is a nice enclosed garden with lemon tree, succulents and lush greenery. The super secure, gated complex has a heated pool and hot tub to boot. The walk along the waterfront to the Rosie the Riveter Museum and to the ferry is exquisitely beautiful and we absolutely adored our 30 minute early morning ferry ride into SF on the brand spanking new ferry line and the Ferry Building offers a veritable cornucopia of places to eat fresh breads, coffees, cheeses, and full meals. Good news: they just added weekend service. The ferry stop is a short Uber or bike ride away. You can walk to a really scrumptious Vietnamese restaurant right on the water called Anh, just outside Daniel’s complex. This is an ideal base from which to spend plenty of time in glorious San Francisco and surrounds.
We took Grayline’s simply wonderful tours to wine country in Sonoma and Napa, Muir Woods with Redwoods ranging from 500 to 1200 years old and the houseboats and galleries of Sausalito which included a notable ferry boat ride back past Alcatraz and kept us from having to rent a car. We had super great tour on Big Bus On Off double decker across Golden Gate Bridge and all over town. Our Segway and Tuk Tuk tours with Electric Tour Company were a huge highlight we would NOT have missed! We also took the Bart to Berkeley to eat at Chez Panisse and fulfill a bucket list dream. An added treat was our train ride to the Bay Area from LA aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight described above. This was a phenomenal exchange in every way. Daniel’s place is a haven and really a heavenly pad on so many levels! You can bike the Bay Trail and parking is free and available. Such a special and fabulous exchange! Thank you, Daniel!
San Luis Obispo: San Simeon & the Hearst Castle (3 days): Host Diana
Our hostess Diana, a massage therapist, HomeExchange host and astrologer was so lovely to deal with in every way! Her Carriage House, behind her main Victorian, is a romantic and alluring place to escape. The wrought iron bed and luxe mattress is beyond comfy with fabulous soft bedding and there’s also a wrought iron day bed as well. Diana has chosen so many antique and theatrical elements like elegant gold trimmed French plates, and exceptional lighting fixtures and sconces including two diminutive crystal chandeliers. The Carriage House is lined with wood beams - floor-to-ceiling - creating an ultra cozy sanctuary and the outside courtyard has an inviting seating area and even a running on/ off fountain. This was a beautiful base from which to enjoy the super duper town of San Luis Obispo, home to Cal Poly, which Oprah dubbed, “America’s Happiest City,” and its great bistros and restaurants, the nearby beach towns of Morrow Bay and Cambria and the piece d’ resistance - the Hearst Castle. SLO was a perfect midway stop off our Amtrak Coast Starlight from the Bay Area and we just loved it. All and all an enchanted and magical weekend. Thank you so very much, Diana!
Marina Del Rey: Steps to the Posh Beach (10 days): Host Liz Reilly
Liz Reilly, newly married and recently retired theater producer, who had had her own flat in Rome, and currently owns both a Palm Springs house and vintage LA Duplex, is an exceptional host in every way and it was such a pleasure getting to know. A seasoned traveler, she is a delightful, high-energy person and so knowledgeable with great insider tips and suggestions. She had done a lot in advance and her gorgeous beachside pied d terre, loaded with original artwork, was impeccable and simply beautiful. We felt like we were living in an artist’s atelier. The almost all white cottage furnishings and many hand-chosen vintage pieces were stunning and the wrought iron bed was super duper comfortable as was its luxurious sheets and bedding.
Despite being in the eye of Marina Del Rey, an idyllic and magical beach and marina, complete with weekly evening sailboat parades aka boat regattas and free beach shuttle, Liz’s location, practically on the sand with its nearly private walled patio garden, is a surprisingly quiet and peaceful retreat. What an amazing beach location! We shopped at Venice Beach (deals to be had and bring cash for some really watchable sidewalk hip hop talent and acrobatic shows); had an incredible meal of risotto, pizza and headliner garlic knot at Santa Monica’s Milo & Olive’s and enjoyed silent movie star Marion Davies’ remaining gem of a guest house and idyllic pool and beach club at Annenberg Community Beach House. There are a series of nighttime special events; the night we were there, there was an astounding poetry reading presented by Red Hen Press.
Among the other outings we enjoyed was an incredibly fun golf cart tour thanks to Amy at E3 electric vehicles of the South Bay’s sleepy vintage Hermosa Beach, its strand and mini Spanish residential castlettes, adjacent to Manhattan and Redondo Beaches and a ravishing trip back through time at the Ancient Greek and Roman antiquities and masterpieces of the Getty Villa’s architectural tour and really unusually good cafe lunch.....All and all - an incredible stay. Love to you, Liz, and hope we can do this again. Loved every minute!!!
Studio City Luxury Apartment: Pools, Hot Tubs, Work Out Areas, Three Cats - Optional - and Two Bonus Earthquakes (two weeks): Host Daniel
Although we never got to meet our host Daniel while he was having a get-away in Puerto Rico, he was a very attentive and super generous host who left us with lovely wild flowers and a beautiful card. You would never have known this was Daniel’s first hosting experience as he went to great lengths to make a series of explanatory videos, on top of his welcome letter and was more than understanding when we inadvertently threw away the parking pass.
His is a full-blown luxury apartment with a gorgeous lobby with modern furnishings and a long horizontal gas fireplace with hosting facilities, giant screen televisions, a super-secure gated-parking, several pools, hot tubs, billiards, ping pong, outdoor movie viewing area and two state-of-the-art fitness facilities. Located just ‘round the bend from the iconic Garland Hotel, right off Ventura, with the hotel’s primo Sunday brunch easily available at its trendy Front Yard Restaurant and Sunday eve 3-course family “Dinner and Movie” events. Daniel’s place is truly luxe: newly remodeled with contemporary furnishings.
He clearly loves exotic travel and has shared a book about his favorite visit to Singapore and displays a cool collection of African animal sculptures and masks on his walls and game shelves. Gamesters of all kinds will really enjoy the possibilities here, and everyone will enjoy perusing his 100 years of Hollywood coffee table book and book collection, as well.
This is optional and Daniel offered to house his kitties elsewhere but we adore kitty cats and thoroughly enjoyed caring for and really became smitten with his very affectionate kitty cats Alley, Ginger (we also called Snowball and Cream Puff) and Ernie, a hunk a hunk of burning love! Daniel left us lots of kitty supplies and generously made his larder available to us humans as well. He even offered up a few much appreciated extra days for cat sitting.
We give this spot an outstanding walkability score; located near Universal City, it is under a block from the Ralph’s 24-hour supermarket, Starbucks and Rite Aid and lots more; a bit farther you’ll find Marshall’s and Sally’s. We could walk to my mom’s in Studio City place (1.7 miles), take a $3-6 Uber/ Lyft or securely park her car when she loaned it to us. Nearby we found an adorable and intimate Indian restaurant called the Bollywood Cafe; nearby delicious Granville Restaurant is always a favorite (do not miss the grilled salmon and mashed potatoes! We even spied Dolly Parton during one dinner!).
Two first-rate outings during our stay included the dozen principal gardens covering 120 acres of Chinese, Japanese, Rose, Desert, Palm and Fragrant Gardens of the exceptionally gorgeous Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens (with terrific and healthy cafe - www.huntington.org) near Pasadena and the pure delight of the Descanso Gardens (www.descansogardens.org). Skip the interstate and make the enjoyable drive through Glendale.
Daniel immediately texted us after two significant tremors of the earthquake of July 4, 2019 and after, when the king bed was converted into a massive massager bed. He really took such good care of us. We felt totally welcomed and had a real blast there. We very much appreciated Daniel’s excellent brand of hospitality and send love to Ernie, Alley and the Ging!!!! Maybe see you in Georgia, Daniel.