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Travelogue & Photos
Click on each photo in this report for larger images.
Serendipity! So how did I ever decide on this particular time and place for an extended weekend vacation? It all started without our week long trip to Hawaii to attend a wedding. We loved our trip to Hawaii so much that we swore that we would come back just to relax in the near future. Due to a mix up and cancellation of flights, the airline gave us free round-trip tickets to return to Hawaii within a year.
Click Here for photos from our trip to Hawaii.
Originally, we started to make plans to return to Hawaii before the end of summer. But, we could only spare an extended weekend. There was so much involved in just traveling to and from Hawaii, that we started thinking about a similar extended weekend vacation closer to home. Someone suggested Shell Beach and then I located the Dolphin Bay Hotel & Residences from www.tripadvisor.com. The Dolphin Bay Hotel was more expensive than any hotel that I've every stayed at in my life, but overall the extended weekend trip was probably less costly than if we had gone all the way to Hawaii. I've actually lived in apartments in my lifetime where the daily rate at the Dolphin Hotel would have been enough to cover rent for three months!
July 27, 2006 - Thursday Afternoon
My wife and I boarded the northbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Fullerton, California, at about 2:30 PM. This train was supposed to depart from Fullerton at 2:08 PM, but it was running a bit late. Because we had arrived at the station about 1:30 PM and the train was running a bit late, we had time to have a small lunch at the Santa Fe Express Cafe at the station. We had the rice and beans burrito lunch special which was so big that we just split it, plus we each had a cold bottle of beer. It was pretty hot in Fullerton as all of southern California had been experiencing quite a heat wave for the past week. We were definitely looking forward to the cooler coast climate at Shell Beach!
My wife and I rode Business Class from Fullerton to Grover Beach. Boarding in Fullerton, we couldn't find two Business Class seats together. I was expecting that problem. I had already told my wife that we probably wouldn't be able to sit together until the train got to Los Angeles. Usually a number of passengers get off in Los Angeles. Fortunately, we were able to find two seats right across the isle from each other. The person sitting next to me said that he was getting off in Los Angeles, so my wife was able to move to his seat once we arrived into Los Angeles. Departing north from Los Angeles, my side of the train would be on the ocean side, so we would have a good view of the ocean on our way to Grover Beach.
The major advantage to Business Class on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner used to be that it was pretty empty. But that is no longer the case! Business Class is usually very full on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. It is so full, that if you are not traveling alone and wish to sit with the other members of your traveling party, you are better off booking coach seats. It is often hard to find two or more seats together in Business Class unless you are starting your journey pretty close to the origination point of the trian.
There is a bit more leg room in Business Class than regular Coach Class, but not that much more. Even regular Coach Class has more leg room than many airlines provide for First Class Passengers! There are seatback TVs in Business Class, but they are no longer in operation. I was very skeptical about the feasibility of these TVs right from the beginning. Unlike airlines where everyone is on the flight for the duration of a movie, passengers get on and off all along the route of the train and few can enjoy a full length movie. Amtrak realized pretty quickly that it didn't make any sense to run full length movies on their seat back video screens. For a short while, Amtrak was running cartoons in the seat back video screens as cartoons are one of the few video features that only run for a few minutes and can be seen from beginning to end by most passengers regardless of where they board and get off the train. But how many Business Class travelers do you think were interested in watching cartoons? Anyway, the whole concept of seat back videos turned out to be a flop and waste of money for Business Class and the screens now just stare blankly at you during your travel. Another feature of Business Class is that free newspapers, coffee and juice are available. Sometimes you will find a muffin or some other snack in the service area of the car. Sometimes there will be a dedicated attendant in the Business Class car that will bring you one free beverage, including wine, and a snack package. Sometimes there is no attendant and you have to go to the Cafe Car to obtain your free beverage and snack pack.
Usually, I don't think the cost to upgrade to Business Class is usually worth it on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. If you attempt to call 800-USA-RAIL to book travel on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, you will usually hear a message something like: "For just a few dollars more, you can upgrade to Pacific Business Class" and then you will hear about some of the upgrade features. This has obviously been a roaring success for Amtrak as Business Class has usually been pretty crowded ever since they started this marketing program. And, Business Class is no longer confined to just business travelers any more. With this extra promotion, a number of families with small children tend to upgrade to Business Class. So, dont' expect Business Class to be a refuge from the noise from all the small children in Coach Class. It won't be.
I'm not exactly sure why I booked Business Class for this trip. Probably because my wife and I so seldom travel by train together, I thought I might as well book the "best" seats available for this trip.
During our trip I opened my seat back tray table and tried to pull it closer to me. Originally, the tray tables in Business Class had extender rods that allowed you to pull the tray tables closer to your seat. Since there is more leg room in Business Class, the tray tables need these extenders or else the tray tables are too far away from your seat. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could not extend the tray table. I looked over to the person sitting in the seat next to my wife and he had his tray table extended so that he could work on his notebook computer. Looking at the configuration of the tray table, I realized that the tray table at my seat was designed for Coach Class and not one that was originally installed for Business Class. I had to conclude one of two things: (1) The maintenance people didn't realize there are different tray tables for Coach and Business Class and just randomly installed the wrong tray table in Business Class when one needed to be replaced, or (2) Amtrak ran out of the special extender Business Class tray tables and decided to just install what they had plenty of: Coach Class tray tables. Ultimately, the tray table was so far away from my seat that it was just more comfortable for me to place my notebook computer on my lap rather than on the tray table.
Other than the oddities with the tray table, we very much enjoyed our relaxing ride up the coast to Grover Beach. Shortly out of Los Angeles, the Business Class Car Attendant did come by to offer us beverages and a snack pack. My wife and I both selected a glass of red wine. Most of the rail travel from Oxnard to Grover Beach is right on the shoreline. As we rolled on, we watched the beaches and the people on the beaches, though it was so relaxing that we would nod off from time to time. There was also someone on board doing market research for Amtrak who handed each passenger a survey. My wife and I filled out our survey forms mostly giving the Amtrak line good reviews with a few minor exceptions.
Around 6 PM, my wife and I started getting a bit hungry. I purchased a tuna sandwich and a small bottle of red wine from the Cafe Car and we split both the sandwich and the wine. I'm sure many of you are cringing at the thought of red wine with a tuna sandwich. That was my first reaction many years ago. But the tuna sandwiches and being able to enjoy some wine without worrying about having to drive afterwards are two of my favorite aspects of riding the train. Years ago I tried the two together and the tastes didn't seem to conflict to my surprise. So, I've been enjoying those two items together ever since and my wife didn't seem to notice any conflict in tastes.
After departing from Los Angels about 30 minutes late, I had called the Dolphin Bay hotel to let them know our status and that we probably wouldn't arrive into Grover Beach until 8:30 PM. I told them that I would call 30 minutes before I arrived in Grover Beach. They told me that it only takes 15 minutes for their courtesy shuttle to drive from the hotel to the Grover Beach Amtrak Station and they would have a shuttle on stand by. I did call them at 8:30 PM to let them know that the train had lost even more time and wouldn't be to the station until about 9PM. They were surprised and said they had already dispatched the shuttle to the station. As it turned out, the train got stopped at a red light for about another 20 minutes after I called the hotel, so we ended up getting into Grover Beach around an hour behind schedule!
Fortunately, the Dolphin Bay courtesty shuttle was right there waiting for us. The ride to the hotel only took about 15 minutes. For those of you thinking of staying at the Dolphin Bay Hotel and Residences, they offer free shuttle service from both Grover Beach and from San Luis Obispo. The Amtrak Grover Beach Station is only about 5 miles from the hotel, while the San Luis Obispo Amtrak Station is about 10 miles from the hotel. However, the Amtrak Coast Starlight does not stop at Grover Beach, so you would have to catch the shuttle from San Luis Obispo to get to the hotel.
July 27, 2006 - Thursday Evening
As soon as we entered our suite, I became a bit confused as I did not see the Master Bedroom that was supposed to be right by the balcony facing the ocean. When planning this vacation, my expectation was that I'd fall asleep each night while listening to the sound of the surf roll in. Plus, I had visions of relaxing in bed until noon watching the ocean outside our bedroom window. This suite had the Master Bedroom at the exact opposite end of the suite as far from the ocean as one can get! Also, we were supposed to have a spa in our room and we couldn't find a spa anywhere! Obviously, we had been given a suite different than the one that we expected.
After calling the front desk to get this problem rectified, we discovered that unbeknownst to us, we had specified conflicting room preferences to the hotel. First, we told them that we were looking for a single bedroom suite. When we found that the spa tubs were only available in the two bedroom suites, we upgraded to a two bedroom suite. Then we found out that some suites overlooked the ocean while other suites were a bit set back and overlooked both the pool and the ocean. We wanted to be closer to the ocean and would prefer to be away from the noise that can sometimes accompany rooms overlooking the pool.
What we didn't realize was that the only suites available that had our configuration of a Master Bedroom overlooking the ocean and a spa tub were the suites overlooking the pool! The reservation desk thought that our most important requirement was to be in a suite closest to the ocean. Thus, they switched us from a suite with our desired configuration to one with a different configuration that was closest to the ocean!
Fortunately, when we called from the suite they had placed us in, they still had suites with our desired configuration above the pool. The suite they moved us to was still on the 4th Floor so we still had a great view and were relatively far away from the pool noise. What I discovered later is that the suites with the configuration that we like are called "Ocean Suites", while the ones that are closest to the coast are called "Coastal Suites".
After settling into our room, we realized that we were still hungry. Unfortunately, it was almost 10 PM and most of the local restaurants were just closing. We did find a Dominos Pizza that stays open until midnight that could deliver to our hotel. We aren't big fans of chain pizza parlors, but that was all that was open that would deliver! Since the pizza place was so far from the hotel, it took almost an hour for the pizza to be cooked and delivered along with some soft drinks. This wasn't what we were planning to have as our first meal in Shell Beach, but it is good some food place is open and delivering so late at night!
July 28, 2006 - Friday
We relaxed for much of the day, but here and there we got in a few minutes of work. Both my wife and I brought our Sony VAIO subnotebook computers with us. The hotel indicated that they had free high-speed wireless internet in every room. When I turned on my wife's notebook, I immediately noticed that the list of available wireless networks shown on her computer was quite a bit smaller than what mine showed. I had noticed this problem a number of times in recent weeks and realized that I'd need to get to the bottom of the problem now. The wireless network with the greatest signal strength was completely missing from her list of available networks!
I suspected the problem might be that her wireless was configured for "G Only" while mine was configured for "Both B and G". If that was the case, then I would see all available networks that were compatible with either the "B or G" wireless protocol while she would only see those compatible with the newer "G" protocol. After calling and working with the technical person at the office, I was able to find the configuration setting related to wireless protocols. Sure enough, hers was set to "G Only" and mine was set to "B or G". A quick change to that setting and my wife was able to see all of the available wireless networks that I could see, including the one provided by the hotel.
The one provided by the hotel was labeled "InformaNet". It provided an excellent signal throughout our suite, but the wireless speed was only 11.0 Mbps since it was the older "B" protocol. It worked fine for most of the day, but started to have some problems later. Just for the heck of it, I decided to connect to another available wireless network. This other network was called "micros3700" but gave a "Weak Signal" indication throughout our suite. I don't know if both of these access points were being provided by the Dolphin Bay Hotel & Residences or if there was a resident in a nearby suite that had their own wireless network set up. I was able to connect to this other network just fine, but because it was the newer "G" protocol, the speed was much faster than the "InformaNet" wireless access. The speed on the "micros3700" wireless network was often as high as 56.0 Mbps. The extra fast "G" speed seemed to more than make up for the weaker signal of this network. From then on, I only connected to the "micros3700" wireless network during my stay at the hotel.
July 30, 2006 - Sunday Afternoon
The "Ocean Suite" worked out perfect for us! We could watch the ocean all day from anywhere in the main part of the suite (Balcony, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen and Kitchen Nook) as well as from our Master Bedroom. Because the glass doors and windows were floor to ceiling, we could watch the ocean from our bed sitting up, or even if we were lying down! The sound of the surf could be heard most of the day and all through the quiet night. There were times during weekend evenings when the sound from the Lido Restaurant & Bar and Pool were a bit louder and tended to drown out the surf, but the partying noise was never too disturbing for our 4th floor suite. During the weekend evenings, the hotel turned the Infinity Pool into a giant fountain with arched sprays of water illuminated with blue light, though it was still usable as a pool. The sound of this giant fountain mostly drowned out the sound of both the people and the surf, but the running water of the fountain itself was pleasant to listen to. Late at night the fountain would be turned off and the sound of the surf could once again be heard rolling in.
Every Sunday afternoon, The Cliffs Resort next door features free live bands. On this particular Sunday, the surf was so loud that I could hear the surf roll in over the sound of the music from the band next door!
The suite is a full apartment complete with everything but the food and beverages to fill the cabinets and full size refrigerator / freezer! Right next door at the Spyglass Village there are convenience stores open from about 6 AM to 10 PM that sell a variety of groceries, beverages, wines and even gourmet specialties.
Our original dissapointment was that we could not find a beach within reasonable walking distance of the hotel. There are cliffs right behind the hotel with the ocean right at the foot of the cliffs. However, on Saturday, we did find a very long stairway within a short walk of the hotel that did lead down to a wonderful beach! The beach was long enough for about a 30 minute walk along the shore which was all that we were looking for. If we hadn't found this local beach, I'm not sure that we would ever consider a return visit to this hotel or any of the other hotels at Shell Beach.
I think I should just let the photos tell the rest of the story of our stay at the Dolphin Hotel & Residences at Shell Beach, California. Just click on each of the links below to view each set of photos that I took while staying at Shell Beach. Captions on some of the photos will provide more information:
We definitely hope to return again to the Dolphin Hotel & Residences in the future, but not in the real near future. The cost of staying at this resort certainly puts it in the category of being a rare treat for us. The cost of staying at this resort varies by season, day of the week, and suite type, but be prepared for sticker shock whichever option you consider! The other two resorts that are right next door to the Dolphin Bay Hotel & Residences: The Cliffs Resort and The Spyglass Inn, are a bit less expensive but still quite costly compared to your average hotel room. There are other hotels in the Shell Beach and Pismo Beach area that are quite a bit less expensive but are not right on the shore and are not as self contained as these resorts.
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