The Customs and Border Protection officer at Tom Bradley Terminal, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) took my fingerprints, scrutinised my passport and the form I’d filled out crookedly on the plane, then looked directly at me.
“How many times you been to the States?”
“This is my first time.”
“How long are you here for?”
“Just over three weeks… 23 days.”
“How much cash do you have with you?”
“Two thousand American dollars.”
“Where are you staying?” he asked, even though I’d written it on the immigration form.
“The Santa Paula Inn.”
“You got family or friends in Santa Paula?”
“No, I’m just here on my own.”
“So what’s in Santa Paula?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What brings you to Santa Paula?”
“Hot air balloons,” I replied, unnerved by all the questions, even though the sensible voice in my head told me he was just doing his job and I had nothing to hide. “I’m going to a hot air balloon festival in Santa Paula.” I felt like I was blabbing on but thought I needed to explain myself better, so I kept talking. “I’m going to a photography workshop. I’m… we’re… going to photograph the hot air balloons at the festival.”
“You a photographer?”
“Not professional, it’s just my hobby.”
He stamped my passport and handed it back to me. He looked like he might smile… but didn’t.
“Thank you and have a nice vacation, ma’am.”
I’d flown Perth to Sydney, then Sydney to Los Angeles, and even though it was more than 24 hours since I left home, I had time-travelled and ended up in yesterday.
As I don’t drive, a key aspect of my organising for the trip was my transfers. Santa Paula is in California’s Ventura County, 1 hour 15 mins drive from LAX, too expensive as a cab ride. I’d booked Roadrunner Shuttle, a shared shuttle service that would take me from the airport to my accommodation in Santa Paula and back to LAX again at the end of my stay. It was a warm afternoon and unfortunately, the air-conditioning in the van wasn’t working and the windows didn’t fully open, so it was a stuffy ride. There were two other passengers and I was the second to be dropped off.
And so here I was.
I arrived before the check-in time of 3pm and as I expected, my room wasn’t ready, but the manager had a word with housekeeping so that my room would be the next one serviced.
You get two 23 kg check-in bags for free when you fly with Qantas, but as I had multiple domestic US flights ahead of me with fees charged for each check-in bag, and I only had myself to lug my things around, I figured two suitcases would just be a hassle. My room at the Santa Paula Inn was on the first floor and I was glad I only had the one suitcase to haul up the stairs. As it turned out, this wasn’t the only place I’d have to drag my suitcase up stairs.
My room was small but clean and comfortable, with a queen bed, bathroom, TV, fridge, microwave and coffee maker. Free wifi, too.
I was tempted to just sink into the bed and relax, but didn’t want to waste my first afternoon in America. It seemed like ages since my breakfast on the plane – spinach frittata, pork sausage and beans – I suddenly felt ravenous and craved some ‘real’ food. I’d done my research back home and knew there was a bistro serving Southern/Cajun fare less than 5 minutes walk from the inn. Early dinner beckoned.
I sat by the front window and ordered a glass of unsweetened iced tea. I couldn’t decide between shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes, both of which I had never tried before, and in the end ordered both even though it was possibly too much food for one.
One thing I liked in the US right away which we don’t get in Australia is the free refills of fountain soft drinks, including iced tea. I drank a lot of root beer (my favourite soft drink but a rarity on restaurant menus in Australia) and iced tea while I was in the States. I tried sweet iced tea and found the sweetness cloying after a few mouthfuls. ‘Half sweet and half unsweet’ was pretty good, but most of the time I chose unsweetened iced tea, which is very refreshing.
I loved the fried green tomatoes. The thick slices of tomato were fried in a crisp cornmeal crust, the green flesh firm and tart. I couldn’t stop eating the homemade potato chips.
The bacon seared Cajun shrimp were bursty and spicy, served with sauteed spinach and sweet caramelised onions, all piled on top of the stone-ground grits, which were blander than I’d expected – you really needed to eat it all together. The single slice of French bread was beautifully soft and a wonderful luxury after the abominable bread roll on the plane (Qantas, I really wish you’d stop serving those!). A bowl was US$12.95, a cup $6.95 – the cup was more than enough.
Slip an extra shrimp on the barbie
Thanks to a series of TV advertisements by the Australian Tourism Commission in the mid to late-80s, ‘shrimp on the barbie’ has become a popular phrase associated with Australia. But we call them ‘prawns’ here, not ‘shrimp’. You won’t see the word ‘shrimp’ on Australian restaurant menus, as ‘shrimp’ to many of us are the tiny translucent prawns that dart about in rock pools and freshwater creeks that are not worth eating.
We love eating prawns, but as they’re an expensive way to feed a family or party crowd, we’re more likely to throw sausages, steak or even lamb chops or chicken on the barbie. I ate shrimp and grits and would never call the dish anything else; but in my mind, those Cajun shrimp were beautifully cooked, tender prawns.
But although shrimps in America are prawns in Australia, to a crustacean expert, shrimps and prawns are related but different animals – here’s a pretty good explanation of the difference between prawn and shrimp.
It was in between lunch and dinner and not very busy in the dining room. With wifi, air-conditioning, free refills of iced tea and a mountain of food, I took my time over my meal and really enjoyed myself. I’d only be in Santa Paula for three nights but I knew I’d come back to Rabalais’.
Quick facts about Santa Paula
- Santa Paula is located in Ventura County, Southern California, approximately 104 km (65 miles) north of Los Angeles.
- The population of Santa Paula was 30,091 in 2013 (US Census Bureau).
- The town became the early capital for the motion picture industry in the (pre-Hollywood) 1900s and continues to be a filming location for television programs and movies. I didn’t know this at the time, but I saw the The Santa Paula Train Depot many years ago, when it appeared as an Australian outback train station in the mini series The Thorn Birds.
- Santa Paula was the birthplace of the Union Oil Company and an early centre for California’s petroleum industry. The ground floor of Union Oil Company’s original headquarters on Main Street in downtown Santa Paula is now the home of the California Oil Museum. The building has been declared a California Historical Landmark.
- Santa Paula’s economy is based largely in agriculture – it is a major distribution point for the citrus industry in the United States. The Limoneira Company, one of California’s oldest citrus growers and one of the largest lemon producers (as well as the largest grower of avocados) in the United States, is based in Santa Paula.
Visitor information: Discover Santa Paula
Mentioned in this post
Telephone: +1 800 247 7919
I booked a round-trip shared shuttle via Roadrunner’s website.
The cost to me was US$94 – $80 for two rides, $12 gratuity (15%, which I chose to pre-pay) plus $2 gas surcharge
For the return trip to LAX, I provided Roadrunner with my flight departure time, and they advised a pickup time that would ensure I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight. It worked pretty well.
Santa Paula Inn
111 N. 8th Street
Santa Paula, CA
Telephone: +1 805 933 001
Check-in 3pm, check-out 11am
I stayed for 3 nights in a queen room – cost was US$351.97 including taxes
Rabalais’ Bistro & Bakery
861 E. Main Street
Santa Paula, CA
Telephone: +1 805 525 2109
My solo USA trip (2014) – about this series
I travelled on my own to the United States from late July to mid-August 2014, during my long service leave. I went to California, Wyoming and Colorado to photograph hot air balloons, cowboys and wild horses, and catch up with an old school friend. I researched, organised and paid for the trip myself.
- Santa Paula, California, USA – Part 1
- Chasing Balloons, Part 1 – Citrus Classic Balloon Festival
- Chasing Balloons, Part 2
- Santa Paula, California, USA – Part 2
- San Francisco, Part 1 – Golden Gate Hotel (checking in), North Beach by Night walking tour, Sam’s (burger)
- San Francisco, Part 2 – Golden Gate Hotel (breakfast), Hop-on hop-off bus tour. Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, The Pork Store, Painted Ladies, Hearts in San Francisco project, Jardiniere
- San Francisco, Part 3 – breakfast in Chinatown, Ferry Building, sea lions of Pier 39, In-N-Out Burger, Fisherman’s Wharf and dinner with strangers at House of Nanking
- San Francisco, Part 4 – walking around Chinatown, Bacon Bacon truck, Mission District murals, Bi-Rite Creamery and Katana-Ya ramen.
- Wyoming cowboys and staying at K Bar Z ranch
- Wild horses and dining out in Cody, Wyoming
- My first day in Cody, Wyoming
- Denver, Colorado – Part 1 – Mizuna, Cherry Creek North Food & Wine festival, Chihuly exhibition at Denver Botanic Gardens, Argyll Whisky Beer, Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
- Denver, Colorado – Part 2 – The Curtis, Sam’s No.3, Etai’s, Bistro Vendome, Civic Center Eats, The Buckhorn Exchange, Syrup, Denver public art