Stepping into the B-39, as it stands slowly being eaten away by vicious rust in the San Diego harbour, is reason enough to get a tetanus shot. Because of its tiny confines, the chances of scratching yourself on the profusion of metal within are very real. But on October 27, 1962, the threat onboard was even greater than that. It was on this diesel-electric submarine of the Soviet Navy that the world came within a whisker of vaporisation.
Submarine B-39 was involved in the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis and it had been cut off from communication with Moscow while submerged. It urgently needed to resurface for air. On top of that, the US Navy destroyer it was shadowing, USS Beale, started dropping depth charges on the beleaguered B-39. In the sweltering command module of the sub, Captain Valentin Savitsky ordered the crew to prime the subs 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo because he was convinced that the Cold War between the US and the USSR had finally heated up. The target was the USS Randolph, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force, blockading Cuba.
Political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov gave his consent for the launch but chief of staff of the submarine flotilla, Commander Vasiliy Arkhipov, who was also onboard, stubbornly refused to do so. The consent of all three was required and, by refusing to do so, Arkhipov effectively saved the worldwhat would have followed that torpedo strike would have been a barrage of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles laying waste to the world.
This bone-chilling tale, about how close the world came to nuclear apocalypse, told on a vintage cathode ray tube monitor right next to that very torpedo tube, is reason enough to visit the B-39. This is one of the 11 ships in the collection of the Maritime Museum, San Diego.
Half a mile south along the San Diego Bay is the Navy Pier and here stands the USS Midway, which is now a museum. I spent an entire day on it, fascinated by how realistically it is presented to an awestruck visitor. The self-guided audio often had me break out in goose-bumps as scenarios and situations were excitingly narrated. This mammoth aircraft carrier was commissioned a week after the end of World War II and served for 47 years. Today its 18 Mark- 16 guns, 84 Bofors-40mm guns and 68 Oerlikon-20mm cannons are silent forever, after having blazed away in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
In fact, my plan for that day, besides visiting the Maritime Museum and the USS Midway, was to drive six miles to Coronado Beach and visit the Hotel del Coronado with its iconic red roofs and enjoy the sunset there. But my fascination with Midway put paid to that plan. So with only a little bit of daylight left, I headed to Mission Beach and signed up for a spot of jetpacking. I thought photos of me shooting into the sky, blasted up by high-powered jets of water, would look cool on Instagram and it looked so easy. But after lots of dunking during my long learning curve I realised that jetpacking needs patience and perseverance. The jets of water were like living pythons that seemed to have a mind of their own and the directional adjustments had to be minuscule. Too much in either direction often had me slamming down into the water headfirst or doing a backflip mid air. I just about managed a vertical flight of 20 feet in the air. But for many days afterwards, thanks to my dunking, I had saltwater running out of my ears and sinuses.
Leaving San Diego the next day, I drove 40 miles north to Escondido, to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Though the famous San Diego Zoo is within the city and close to Balboa Park, I thought Safari Park a far better experience. Again Id made the mistake of making too little time for it and with a number of animals and attractions I ended up spending a better part of the day there. On the caravan safari I got to feed giraffes, saw a 20-minute-old wildebeest calf take its first hesitant steps even before his mothers placenta had dried up and fallen off, and a number of rhinos and buffaloes. The gambolling Sumatran tiger cubs were show-stoppers too.
As a result, my Dodge Charger roared into quiet little Temecula pretty late in the evening. I was up before sunrise and the crack of dawn found me standing in a wicker basket with seven others. The roar of a propane flame rent the silent dawn and, as 250,000 cubic feet of hot air filled the balloon, we lifted off in the wicker basket attached to it. There was a low mist and breaking through it and floating above it at 2,000 feet was a wonderful experience. Temecula is a wine-growing region and the rising sun soon melted away the mist and golden rays of light lit up symmetrical vineyards. After a champagne breakfast I headed to the Green Acres Ranch on De Portola Road, which is lined with wineries. At Green Acres Ranch they are passionate about horses and I was there for a horse ride. But before I could ride I had to make friends with my horse, brush it down and saddle it. Luckily he was friendly and quite easy to ride so I could look around and enjoy that mid-morning ride.
The rest of that day I spent leisurely exploring the vineyards on De Portola Road. Temecula is in Californias Riverside County, the stomping ground of Native Americans before the first Spanish missionaries arrived in the late 1780s. The stagecoach line through this region saw further development and Temecula Valley grew to become ranching land.
Vineyards and winemaking is relatively newnot even a century oldbut that doesnt mean that the stuff in cellars here is below par. In fact most wineries are family-run and winemaking here is practised in more with a passion for this art rather than an eye on the profit line. And the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere at most wineries make them a delight to visit. I had a fabulous lunch on the terrace of the Robert Renzoni Winery. The star of the menu was the meat, cheese and bread sampler plate served with olives, tapenades and dips. My favorite wine was Cougar Winerys Pink Cougar Sangiovese Rose.
Temecula also takes the prize for my favourite meal which was at the Gambling Cowboy in Old Town Temecula. The slow-cooked prime rib is divine enough to make a grown man cry with happiness. The citys main street, crowded with noisy, happy pubs and delicious restaurants, all set in architecture from when California belonged to Mexicos Spanish Empire, is the place to be for a night on the town.
Happily surprised by Temecula, I headed northwest towards the beaches of Orange County, my last stop before I would fly out of Los Angeles.
Laguna Beach and Newport Beach are famous for their fabulous surf breaks. But bikinis and bloody marys are as much of a drawthe former have less surface area than a handkerchief and the latter is a buzzing meal by itself, with a shrimp, crab claw and vegetables added into it, not to mention the handcrafted Titos Vodka from Texas.
Broadway by Amar Santana, a restaurant from a chef of Indian origin from the Dominican Republic, is an intimate space in Laguna Beach that has a unique menu. The braised Beelers pork belly, the truffle-crusted Scottish salmon and the crisp brussels sprouts are all must-trys.
Huntington Beachthe grungier cousin of air-brushed Newport and Lagunais also surfing paradise. Here, boards of all sizes take pride of place, used for surfing or stand-up paddleboarding. You can even practise yoga on paddleboards here
At one of the quieter bays around Huntington Beach I met up with Rocky McKinnon, a surfer who not only offers superb stand-up paddleboarding lessons but also designs and manufactures surf and paddleboards. He taught me the basics of balance and how to hold the oar. I had never done this before so I was prepared for a dunking in the water, as with my jetpacking incident. But as I tentatively set off, I was surprised to find that SUP is easier than it looks. In just a few moments I had found my balance. Besides being a fun way to be out on the water it is also very good core exercise. Its like cycling once you find your balance and how to keep your centre of gravity low and within the dimensions of the board, you are set for good.
That was how I spent my last few hours in Southern California and a few hours later I had packed my bags and pointed the nose of my Dodge Charger towards Los Angeles. Nevada and another adventure were waiting, but that, as they say, is another story
Etihad Airlines flies Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles and has convenient connections to Abu Dhabi from many Indian cities. A Mumbai- Los Angeles round trip costs 70,000 (approx.). Passengers complete US Immigration and Customs formalities in Abu Dhabi itself, enabling them to simply collect their bags and walk out at Los Angeles or any other US city. Several other airlines also do the route with stops either in the Middle East or Europe or Southeast Asia.
Where to stay
I drove from San Diego to Los Angeles, staying at San Diego, Temecula Wine Country and at Orange County.
> In San Diego, the Kimpton Hotel Palomar (from 13,000 hotelpalomar-sandiego.com) is in the popular Gaslamp Quarter and is walking distance from theatres, restaurants, nightlife venues and the harbour. Overnight valet parking costs 2,800 or you can find street parking around the hotel that is free on weekends and from 6pm to 8am.
> In Temecula Wine Country, I stayed at the Temecula Creek Inn (from 9,000 temeculacreekinn. com), which has a lovely 27-hole championship golf course on the property and offers in-room massage treatments.
> The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa (from 20,000 huntingtonbeach.regency. hyatt.com) was my base in Orange County. It is connected to the beach by an overhead bridge and has an onsite surf, yoga and watersports centre. About 24km south along the coast is Laguna Beach which is not as grungy as Huntington Beach and a little more upmarket. Here a good place to stay is the Inn at Laguna Beach (from 5,000 innatlagunabeach. com). It is right on the beach and yet in the heart of the city of Laguna Beach.
Where & what to eat
> Broadway by Amar Santana This cosy little restaurant at Laguna Beach is fantastic for a date night or an intimate family dinner. Standouts include the pork belly, the beef marrow and the pan-seared Alaskan halibut (broadwaybyamarsantana.com).
> Ivory Restaurant and Lounge Again at Laguna Beach, the crab cakes and Chilean sea bass are simply fantastic (ivorylaguna.com).
> The Gambling Cowboy Located in Old Town Temecula, this rollicking joint is all about local brews and hearty cuts of meat. The steaks here are grilled to perfection. But you should start your meal with the delicious bacon-wrapped scallops served with a Brie and chives cream sauce (ilovethecowboy.com).
> Caf 21 This bustling caf in the Gaslamp Quarter is known for its brunch and my choice of a scallop, tomato, pesto and mozzarella omelette was served in an old-style cast-iron skillet (cafe-21.com).
What to see & do
> San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers a great day out for kids and adults alike. There are plenty of helpful volunteers to help you plan your visit as well as handy and easy to read maps to carry around and orient yourself. They have 10 safaris to choose from, including the caravan safari where you can feed giraffes, and the jungle ropes safari for the fit and adventurous. The Ultimate Safari is a sort of VIP safari that is customised according to what you want to see. Day tickets 3,500 adults, 2,800 children sdzsafaripark.org
> Jet Packing can be done on the San Diego Bay at the Mission Bay Sports Centre. It is great fun and the crew are helpful and patient and will get you flying, but takes some learning. A 20-minute flight costs 2,000 jetpackamerica.com
> Stand-up paddleboarding and surfing lessons are offered by Rocky McKinnon at Huntington Beach. Rocky manufactures as well as designs surfboards and SUP boards. An hour-long lesson costs 7,000 mckinnonsurfandsuplessons.com
> A hot air balloon ride is a fun and unique way to float over Temecula, taking in the sunrise and the vineyards. A Grape Escape (from 8,700 per person) offer safe and enjoyable rides lasting about 90 minutes. Reservations are required and because these flights are very weather-dependent one needs to confirm the flight at 8pm the previous night. Check out hotairtours.com.