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A Golden State honeymoon

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Photos by Benny Loy & Lauren Vasatka
Photos by Benny Loy & Lauren Vasatka

Being her usual spontaneous self, my fiancé proposed that we turn a planned California trip into a honeymoon three days before we left, by scheduling a marriage ceremony at the courthouse. She persuaded me with a "two birds, one stone" argument: we could stop procrastinating on our "I dos" and be wed just in time to file our taxes jointly. Her promise to have, to hold, and to file till death do us part was more than enough to convince me. We tied the knot in December, and the next day, my new wife and I headed out on our honeymoon.

Our travel plans were convoluted, but we aimed to enjoy the journey as much as the destinations. First, we took the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Seattle to Los Angeles. I had always wanted to experience a train ride, and it is said that the scenery along this route is "unsurpassed."

Unfortunately, we did not see much of it. It takes about 35 hours to reach LA, and when we made it to the "stunning" coastal portion of the tracks, the pitch-black night made observing it impossible. If you are taking the train for the views, make it a part of your return trip to Seattle for a better chance to see the coast in the daylight.

After my train experience, I'm now a full-fledged fan, however. We had reserved a roomette, a tiny, closet-sized room that offers privacy, complimentary meals, and fold-out beds. We were prepared to spend our days in the observation car reading and our nights scrunched up in our roomette. But before settling in, we met our train car attendant, Monica, who made our ride unforgettable. She asked us about our trip, and my wife told her we were on our honeymoon. Monica went on her way and returned a few minutes later to inform us we had been upgraded to a first-class bedroom!

It was spacious compared to the roomette and had its own bathroom. Lounging on our room's sofa while the train gently swayed and rumbled along the tracks was tranquil. Monica had also left champagne and roses for us in our new accommodations.

Cell phone signals were not available for much of the trip, and taking a break from the pull of social media to read a book and talk to other riders was great. I recommend taking the train if you aren't in a hurry, want to be more environmentally conscious, and like to meet other travelers.

Los Angeles: Disneyland
We made it to LA and headed to the Moxy Hotel, which we learned was very understaffed. We were given our room key and a code for the supply closet — they had so few staff that they allowed guests free reign over the room supplies. Unfortunately, when we later searched for toothpaste, we learned that a group of dance moms had ransacked the supplies before we arrived. Honestly, with how much it costs to try to make your child a star nowadays, can you really judge?

Yes, you can.

We woke up to a beautiful, smog-filled sunrise. LA's air is very polluted, but make any mention of it, and the locals will remind you that it used to be a lot worse. I'll take their word for it. I recommend packing headache medicine if you are sensitive to the lower air quality.

We made our way to Disneyland. The theme park was dressed to the nines with Christmas decor: ribbons, tinsel, and garlands wrapped around every street lamp, lights strung in every tree, and a giant Santa hat on the "It's a Small World" ride's famous clock face. The theme park was incredibly fun, and being there the week before Christmas break was perfect for avoiding crowds. It was so uncrowded that, by utilizing "fast passes," we managed to ride every single ride, including all those in California Land, over the course of two days. The rides were the perfect intensity for those of us who suffer from motion sickness. So, unless you get nauseous riding elevators, you can leave the Dramamine at home.

I recommend saving money by not buying food in the park, or at least not more than you need. I let my curiosity get the best of me several times, and I ordered food that did not taste nearly as good as it looked.

Overall, Disneyland will make you feel like a kid again. I'm not a Disney fanatic, but the magic there is contagious, and it won me over. I'm planning to go back one day.

Universal Studios  

Los Angeles: Universal Studios
Next, we went to Universal Studios. In retrospect, we should have gone to Universal first. Disney raised our expectations so high for overall quality and attention to even the smallest detail that Universal was sort of a flop for us. We were very excited about its new Super Nintendo World Park, however. When I got off the escalator, I genuinely felt like I had stepped into the world of Mario.

I bought a "Power-Up Band," used to activate interactive blocks around the park, to participate in the games for about $60. Interacting with different parts of the park earns you points and collectible virtual stamps. The ability to punch blocks like Mario is excellent, but all of them are child-height, and adults must lean over or crouch to activate them. I quickly realized that if I wanted to collect all the stamps, I would likely have to tell random children, "It's my turn to punch the block." I did not want to be that person, so I decided to forgo collecting all of the stamps.

I was hoping that there would have been some effort to cater to the nostalgia of adults while providing experiences for children. However, I suggest that childless adults steer clear. I could see a lot of parents having fun with their little ones, but for my fellow baby-free peeps, this is an awkward experience.

Half of the rides at Universal Studios are simulated coasters or simulated-motion types. These attractions trick your senses into making you feel like you are being thrown around the settings of various movie franchises. It was novel when I first rode Transformers: The Ride-3D and The Simpsons Ride but quickly became disappointing when we realized that seven of the twelve rides were simulation types. By the time we rode the others, we had gotten used to it, and most of the excitement they could have provided was gone. I loved the Jurassic World water ride, though, and the Universal Studios tour was a nice way to end our day at the park.

Is Universal a must-see? I think it's skippable until they add more variety to the attractions.


San Francisco: Alcatraz, Pier 39, Golden Gate Park
The day after Universal, we drove from LA to San Francisco. Upon entering the city, we felt more comfortable. We settled for the night in our room at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, which treated us very well. They gave us complimentary trolley tickets, bike rental tickets, and meal vouchers for the restaurant. Its location in Union Square made for a perfect home base while we explored the piers, Golden Gate Park, and Chinatown.

First thing in the morning, we took the trolley to Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Experiencing the island prison is a must-do when in SF. Touring it is a haunting experience as you imagine what daily life was like for prisoners and guards. The prison was designed to mentally weigh you down, to loom over you, to give you little opportunity to remember that a world outside exists. Many of the other buildings on the island have succumbed to time and the elements; for example, the crumbling concrete of the warden's house stands as a shell of its former self. Yet the prison remains, with its cells barely large enough to stretch one's arms.

Here are some tips: Take the earliest boat, since the self-guided tour, the audio tour, and listening to presentations from speakers will take longer than you think. We spent half the day there. Second, according to one of the tour guides, December is one of the best times of year to go. Turns out, not only does the island get crowded with people when temperatures rise, but also with hundreds of squawking birds.

Third, after Alcatraz, I advise heading to the Escape Game (downtown or at Fishermen's Wharf) to play the "Prison Break: Alcatraz" escape room, which starts with you and your partner in separate locked cells. You have to communicate through the bars to find your way out. My wife and I love escape rooms, and this was one of the best we've ever done.

We then went to Pier 39 to shop in the novelty stores and watch sea lions. We found a pair of rubber ducky brides getting married and had to have them. We watched the sunset while eating ice cream and then took the trolley back to the hotel.

Golden Gate Park  

On our final day, we biked around Golden Gate Park, walked through the Japanese Tea Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers, and explored Chinatown.

Later that night, we boarded our flight and returned to Seattle. We sent the dog sitter home and crawled into bed, where our dogs (comforted to know that we'd safely returned) piled on us.

With train rides, Los Angeles, theme parks, San Francisco, prisons, piers, and gardens still in mind, we were glad to be back from our California honeymoon. After everything, all that was left to do was to prepare for tax season.