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Travelblog Gone with the Wine Blog

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Category: California

Greetings from the Hello Mini Kitty Cafe in San Jose

Paula Gaston

Last weekend my husband got stuck at London Heathrow due to a stormy weather, and he wasn’t able to spend the Saturday with us. So what to do? A phone call to a friend and come up with a plan. Our plan was to drive over to San Jose to check out the new Hello Kitty Cafe which was opened there during the summer. So we went!


The first permanent Hello Kitty Cafe in California was opened to Irvine in Southern California in September 2018. But before that the Japanese company Sanrio opened two smaller pop up cafes. The other one is very close to us in San Jose, and the other in Rancho Cucamonga. We usually spend our Christmasses in Rancho Cucamonga by visiting some family, so maybe we will get to visit the Hello Kitty Cafe over there as well. The actual permanent Hello Kitty Grand Cafe offers some Hello Kitty themed cafeteria products but also a 5 o’clock tea in their special Bow Room. In the evenings this room changes into a cocktail bar, and visiting in it requires a reservation.

But the Hello Kitty Mini Cafe we visited was far from “garnd”. We had read that in weekends they have had even over three hour lines to get in! That is pretty crazy! So we decided that in case of a long lines, we would go hang out somewhere else. But once there, there were no lines at all, so we decided to head in to this pink whole in the wall.


The Hello Kitty Mini Cafe was truly a mini. There were only room for few people to be in at the same time, and there were no seating at all, or tables. We quickly realised that many people came in to just to buy some t-shirts or mugs, and they had just sold out the latest coffee mug. Hello Kitty truly is a popular character I see, much more than I have ever realised.

We order something to eat, and went out to find a table from Santana Row Park. My cafe latte with a Hello Kitty picture and all the baked good were cute, but they tasted very industrial. Our daughter did not finish her strawberry smoothie and that says something about the taste right there. And I have to say, that the prizes in this place are totally something else, and there not very much to choose from. They definitely cash out with the name of Hello Kitty.


Unfortunately I have to say, that we were a little bit disappointed by the Hello Kitty Mini Cafe. In Japan we visited a Café de Miki with Hello Kitty and it was designed very well. It was so much fun and had lots of products to choose from. You truly felt like you were inside a “Hello Kitty world”. So we might not return to the mini cafe anytime soon. But I’m glad we went there to see what it was like, and our daughter was excited to see all the Hello Kitty products.


Back to Smokey California

Paula Gaston

So the summer in Finland came to an end and the school have started both in California and Finland. We returned back home last Thursday, and have been trying to get used to the American life. First days we were wondering about various things: Oh, this what our own bed felt like? Why are the toilet seats so low? What an earth did I used to cook for dinner? Even the hotel close to our house looks totally different now since it has been painted while we were gone.

The greatest thing was of course to get all your own things back that you missed during the summer, and especially my own car! Our daughter missed her own room and toys, while our baby has grown into a toddler, and many clothes found from home don’t even fit anymore.


Besides the freshly painted hotel, there has been one disturbing thing you can see from our window. The grey sky. And han’t been because of the clouds, it was smoke which was spread all around the Bay Area. The next couple days there was a warning of unhealthy air quality. Forest fires all around the California have been spreading the smoke to the Bay Area. Due to the global warning, some have said that California has turned into a matchbox. If the summer in Finland was unexceptionally warm, here it has been cooler than usual. For me that is fine since I don’t like hot weather, but in over all it is concerning.

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Many people vacationing have been disappointed this year that Yosemite National Park has been partially closed or covered with smoke due to the fires. At this moment, there are fires total in eleven different places. The number has gone down since we got back home. Yosemite is part of the UNESCO Heritages Areas and about one million people visit there yearly, so you can imaging how many people this have affected.

If you traveling to California, you can see the current fires at CAL FIRE site. 



The day before schools started our local florist was giving out some flowers to kids to bring to their teachers.

Our first week we were quite jet lagged. Our older daughter got into the new rhythm almost right away, but the baby has been waking up early at mornings to play. Only couple nights ago she slept without getting up, but she still wakes up and rolls around in the bed. I of course, have to get up when the baby gets up no matter how tired I would be. But I’m sure we will get through this soon.

The best way to do that is to keep up a daily routine. But even that we are still trying to figure it out since our older daughter started the first grade and their day is completely different than in kindergarten. And this week they have had a shortened days. The nap time for the baby should be great for the future school schedule, but this week we have had to play with the timings a little bit. We will see how things develop and how our new daily routine will feel like after the school really starts.

But now, greeting from California and see you later! Next week we have a lot of fun things coming up!

10 Pictures that Will Inspire You to Visit San Francisco

Paula Gaston

San Francisco is much more than just city life. Close by, in San Francisco Bay Area, there are many beautiful beaches, parks and trails. The giant red woods are amazing and the sun set over the ocean wont leave anyone cold. If you don't believe me, juts see for yourself!


The Golden Gate Bridge is the mark of San Francisco and its most famous sight. If you want to see it from somewhere else than from the city, you hike up the hills on the opposite side of the bridge and enjoy some fresh ocean breeze. 



The world's biggest China Town outside of China is colorful and full of life. It's a great place to just walk around, eat or stop in the many little stores they have. 



In the middle of the city there is a huge park called Golden Gate Park. It hides inside so many beautiful places but one of the most beautiful one is the Japanese Tea Garden. It is definitely at its best during spring with the cherry blossoms. 



In the 18th century the Sutro Baths used to be sort of a spa and its remains are right next to the famous Cliff House restaurant. It used to be the world's biggest indoor swimming facility but none of the buildings exist anymore. The pools now get filled by the ocean's crashing waves and there are great hiking trails in the area. Sutro Baths is part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area so it is protected and part of the national parks.  



One of the most beautiful places in the San Francisco Bay Area is for sure the Filoli Gardens. It is great all year round but especially gorgeous during the spring time. If you get bored of the flowers, you can also visit the mansion which was used in the Dynasty TV show. 



A little bit north from San Francisco lies the Point Reyes National Seashore. They have excellent beaches, forests and great hiking trails. One of the most visited places at Point Reyes is its old lighthouse. 



This well known ship wreck at the Point Reyes National Seashore is hidden behind a restaurant building, so most times you will be the only one visiting it. Unfortunately, some time ago someone set it on fire, so I am not sure how much is left of it anymore. 



In San Francisco and close by it, you can find many beaches where you can go horse back riding. This picture is from Drake's Beach. 



Muir Woods National Monument is north of the city of San Francisco. The rare coastal red woods grow on this protected area. After a twisty mountain road you will forget city life by walking into a whole different world. The oldest tree in Muir Woods is over 1200 years old.



Nothing is better than sun sets in California. And you will have plenty of places in San Francisco to see them. The city is surrounded by water, which makes it a special place to watch the sun go down on summer evenings. 


Everyone should experience San Francisco once in a lifetime!

A Night in Madonna Inn and the World's Most Famous Restroom

Paula Gaston

It was finally time to head back home from our Spring Break trip. We left the Santa Monica Mountains and the Channel Islands behind, and started our drive to Northern California. We still had a few vacation days left, so we decided to cut our drive in half by stopping at the Madonna Inn, in San Luis Obispo.

I remember years ago when I was still living in Finland, I saw a TV show about the most bizarre hotels. There was a hotel were each room was different from the other and had a theme, and their restaurant was pink. Then later I was on a road trip with a friend when she suggested that we should stop for a restroom break in this cool hotel. Right away when we drove to the Madonna Inn's parking lot, I recognised it from the TV show. At that time we only stopped quickly, but I have always wanted to stay the night there since. 



The Madonna Inn was opened in 1958 in San Luis Obispo, on Highway 101, and it was originally a 12 room motel. It was opened by Alex Madonna and his wife Phyllis. This unique motel became a success right away and they built more rooms to it in 1966. Unfortunately a fire destroyed all the original buildings in 1966, but Alex and Phyllis re-built the rooms and chose different themes for each of them. The goal was to offer people more than just a room, and make people smile when they stayed at the Madonna Inn. Alex Madonna died in 2004 but the family still owns the business and it has only been growing.

The Madonna Inn has 110 rooms. Some of the different themes are Caveman, Romance, Old Fashioned Honeymoon, Antique Cars, Italy, San Francisco, Desert Sands, Golfer's Room, Fabulous 50s, Hearts and Flowers, and Indians. Some of the rooms have waterfall showers. You can check out all the rooms from here. The whole decor of this place is over the top and kitchy, but also kind of cool. The dominant color is pink and some of the buildings are inspired by the Alps. Our room was called China Flower and all the furniture in our room was Chinese themed. For some reason I thought the rooms would look kind of old, but ours was really neat and clean. It really was "wow"!

 Soap Cake - not to be eaten!

Soap Cake - not to be eaten!

The Madonna Inn has been seen on TV shows like the Bachelor and the Simpsons. Many music videos have also been filmed here, like Roxette's The Center of the Heart and Lady Antebellum's Heart Break albums promotion video. 


At the same time when the Madonna Inn was growing and getting famous, they also started adding different kinds of services. Even though the Madonna Inn still operates like a motel, you can easily spend a whole day or weekend there by doing different activities. Or, you can just stop for a cup of coffee or lunch like we have done before this trip. The Madonna Inn has two restaurants, a bakery and souvenir shop. And they have live music everyday. We ate both dinner and breakfast in the Copper Cafe which is a little bit more relaxed than Alex Madonna's Gold Rush Steakhouse. It is also a lot cheaper too. You should still stop by the steakhouse since it is quite a site to see. In the middle of the restaurant, they have a golden tree and the whole decor is pink. I promise you, you haven't seen anything like this before! The breakfast at the Copper Cafe was delicious, but we thought that their dinner menu lacked for personality.


The Madonna Inn has several different buildings and usually you can park your car in front of your room, or at least pretty close. On the other side from our room there was a gate to a Secret Garden where you can go enjoy some garden flowers, play outdoor games or for example read a book. Down from the garden lies two pink tennis courts and basket ball hoops. The latest improvement for the place has been their spa section which includes anything from an infinity pool to a gym, and massages. A horse ranch next to the Madonna Inn offers trail rides or if you are into hiking, the trails leave practically from the parking lot. 

After breakfast we walked around the premises just to see what all was there. They also offer some pink bicycles if you prefer to use those, or you can go for a bike ride somewhere further. The staff was driving around in some cute pink golf carts. Even the outdoor lamps were painted pink. Unfortunately we didn't have time to enjoy all the activities that the Madonna Inn had to offer, but  hopefully we can come back someday. Even though some of the activities are included to the room price, this motel is not the cheapest kind. Be prepared to pay for a resort fee. 



Many people just stop at the Madonna Inn for a restroom break since they have heard of the crazy restrooms they have. The water fall urinal in the mens room has been on many TV shows and has become quite famous. Don't be surprised if you see women coming out of the mens room since they want to see this famous room. I also sneaked in to get a photo for my blog. Just make sure you ask someone coming out that there is no one else inside before you enter.


Also the ladies room is kind of interesting. It is completely pink and big chandeliers are hanging from the ceiling. This time I also visited the ladies room in the Copper Cafe which was kind of cool too. I think it's pretty rare for me to say to people "Don't forget to visit the restrooms when you stop!" but with the Madonna Inn, I have definitely done that.

If you want to see more of what the Madonna Inn looks like, check out my Instagram profile @paulagaston.  You can find some videos under the Highlights on the front page.


From Madonna Inn we drove straight back home. It was such a nice and short drive compared to what we are used to driving. And so our Spring Break trip ended. 

A Day in the Channel Islands of California

Paula Gaston

Our Spring break trip continued from Rancho Cucamonga to the Santa Monica Mountains and from there to Ventura on the coast. We'd made reservations to a hotel right by the beach since we'd planned a boat trip to the Channel Islands for the next day. We were so tired that evening, that I waited with the kids at the hotel while the hubby went to get us some tacos for dinner. And we didn't have to count sheep that night, we all fell a sleep faster than ever. 

The next day after breakfast, we headed to Ventura Harbor. We booked a boat trip from Island Packers, and we were supposed to check in at least 45 minutes early. For some reason, I was thinking that these trips wouldn't be so popular, but when we got to the office there was quite a long line. There was also another boat leaving before us to another island, and they also do whale watching cruises. Luckily the line went fast and we got our boarding passes. And off we went with our boat. 



The Channel Islands are an island group of 8 islands off the California coast, right by Santa Barbara. 5 of these islands belong to the Channel Islands National Park. These islands are part of one of the richest marine ecosystems of the world, and many endemic species live both in the water and on land. In the past, the Chumash and Tongva Indians lived on the islands, and later they were used mostly for fishing. Some are in military use today. The islands belonging to the national park are inhabited, but all of them can be visited by an organised boat trip. Two of them can also be reached by plane.

The main visitor center for the Channel Islands National Park is in Ventura, and you can board a boat going to the islands either in Ventura or in Oxnard. About 70 000 people visit them every year. You can see the islands from the mainland for example in Ventura or in Santa Barbara, and we have also seen them from up in the air on our way to Hawaii. You should make a boat reservation if you want to visit the Channel Islands, rather than just show up. 


We visited Anacapa Island. The most visited island is the biggest island, Santa Cruz, but at this time they were experiencing a wild fire there. In many ways Anacapa Island sounded more suitable for us, since it was easy to access even while carrying a baby. The brochures warned us about the ladder that we would have to climb to get out of the boat, and about the 157 steps that would take us up to the island. But in reality, the ladder was only one or two steps and the crew was there to help people. And the steps were not that bad when the baby was in the carrier backpack. 

It usually takes about an hour to get to Anacapa Island, but we stopped a couple of times to watch the dolphins swimming behind our boat and to spot some whales. Also, both when arriving and leaving, the boat went slowly around the island to show us what it looks like from the water. In that sense I can only say that we really loved the Island Packers for giving us what we payed for. They didn't seem to be in a rush and they really took their time trying to make sure everyone saw the whales. And note that this was not a whale watching trip. We were lucky to see some grey whales in both directions.  


Anacapa Island was beautiful and somehow I was surprised how much I enjoyed visiting there. For some reason I hadn't thought it was going to be such an awesome trip. The spring flowers had just started to bloom and the seagulls were nesting. And there were so many of them. The seagulls were everywhere! Their nests were right by the trails and sometimes they would start squawking at us if we were too close. From further away, it looked like the whole island was covered by white golf balls. We also saw some California Brown Pelicans which basically were saved by the preservation of the islands. Also the Brandt's cormorant nests here, and we saw some of them from the boat. I think the native birds were hiding from us but we did spot a few endemic flowers which I later recognised from our photos. 

 Inspiration point

Inspiration point

 The Brandt's cormorant

The Brandt's cormorant

We were on shore about four hours which gave us time to walk around the island, enjoy the sun, have a picknic and feed the baby. There are no services on Anacapa Island, but they do have a small visitor center opened by the ranger who travelled with us, and some restrooms. There is also couple old coast guard buildings and a lighthouse. The lighthouse is still in use, and you have to stay a certain distance from it, since the fog horn can damage your hearing. When travelling to Anacapa, you should bring enough snacks and water with you, and be prepared to take all the trash back to the mainland yourself. And don't forget the sunscreen! You can also camp and stay the night at Anacapa and just book your return for the next day. That actually sounds like so much fun! And if you are wondering wether you can travel there with a baby; yes you can! Everything went well and our baby took her naps in the rocking boat and in the backpack. Our 5 year old was excited to fill her Junior Ranger activity book on the way back from the island. 

In every possible way we had a great day!

The boat trip to Anacapa costs $59 per adult, $41 per child and the baby was free of charge. 

If you want to see more of what the Channel Islands look like, check out my Instagram profile   @paulagaston.  You can find some videos under the Highlights on the front page.