Friday, July 30, 2010

Wrapping up the USA: New York (June 23-July 5) Part 3

As far as nightlife and entertainment goes, New York has so much to offer, but what was actually our favourite was surprisingly the buskers in the subway stations! One in particular absolutely blew us away….An African-American dude on the guitar singing all the Motown classics with some Credence thrown in. He had such a quality voice and we seriously would have paid good money to see him play in a club or bar. It wasn’t just his voice though, but the passion with which he sung/played. We were enjoying it so much that we ended up singing along with him and thankfully were joined by a couple of other enthused bystanders. As it turned out, the train we were catching was not running that night which we discovered after listening to his music for at least half an hour. A few donations and half an hour well spent! Below is a video of the occasion with Tim singing along to ‘People Get Ready’ (appropriate for the location we were in) which we requested he sing. It’s not the best footage as he couldn’t remember the words/key for the whole song, but entertaining nonetheless and you get a good idea of the quality of his voice. Tim actually had to drag me away because I could have stayed there all night and I still wish I did.

The Subway Busker

Of course we went to the top of the Empire State Building…well almost. It was US$20 per person to go to the 86th floor and then they slug you another US$15 to go to the 102nd floor! This was definitely a tourism cash cow and we really weren’t that keen on spending US$70 for both of us just to go to the top of a building, as famous as this one is. We joined the herd in the queue and waited for about an hour and a half to get to the 86th floor. The views of the city and the Hudson River were pretty special and we got there just in time to secure our spot for the sunset before the herd became sardines. Once the sun had pretty much gone down, we were done. A good experience with some great photos, but not one to rave about.

View of the sunset from the top of the Empire State Building

Speaking of sardines, we definitely felt like one when we boarded the train to go to the Yankees game at the new stadium in the Bronx. As the train pulled up we thought to ourselves ‘there’s no way we are going to fit on that train’, but the game had already started and we watched as people started forcing their way onto the train. ‘What the heck’…we decided to do the same and escaped being jammed in the train doors by a hair. Hmmm, too bad if anyone had personal space issues! This was beyond anything we’ve ever experienced on the Tube in London, even in peak hour. According to one passenger who we became ‘intimate’ with, the train is always like this for Yankees games, which we figured anyway because noone seemed to be that shocked or phased by it all. We were really excited about going to a game, especially since we’d heard how good the new stadium is. Unfortunately for us though, the Yankees were not playing too flash that night and the Seattle Mariners were just too good for them. We had some die-hard fans sitting behind us who enjoyed voicing their opinion about how bad the Yankees were playing, going as far as saying this was the worst game of the season. Regardless of the quality of the game, it was still pretty cool to soak up the atmosphere and watch as the thousands of Americans sat and ate their over-priced cheesy fries and hotdogs accompanied by a cup of beer. We decided to leave at the end of the 8th innings after the Yankees had not yet scored only to find out later that they scored 2 home runs in the last inning! Typical! Ah well.

At the Yankees

Other activities we did in New York that are worthy of note, but not quite worthy of a paragraph….or maybe I just don’t want to bore you at the very least are:

The Grand Central Terminal & Market: this one was like walking into a movie set, I guess because we recognised it from a whole lot of films, but in particular from ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’. The food market was a feast mostly for the eye because the prices of most items caused us to cringe.

Wall Street & the Financial Museum: These I was initially dreading but decided to go along willingly and joyfully because Tim was so keen on seeing them. In talking to Tim about what he enjoyed the most about the Museum, he said reading about the stories of all the people who wrought the system. I hope he’s not getting any ideas!! Lol! With Tim working in the industry, it was interesting for him (and a little bit for me) to see the financial and economic hub of the world. Tim also got a bit of a kick out of rubbing the testicles of Wall Street’s famous charging bull, the symbol of aggressive financial optimism and prosperity…..whether he thought this would bring him good luck, I have no idea!! Hmmm, I just wrote a paragraph on this one after all!
Having a good rub Tim??

Little Italy: Here we ate some yummy pasta that seemed really authentic, but I guess we won’t really know until we visit Italy in a month or two .

Gospel service @ Times Square Church: the atmosphere created by the 200 piece choir and the extremely extrovert preacher made this a pretty special experience.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET): we visited here on our last full day in NYC and as tired as we were, it was pretty amazing to see the diversity and rarity of the various types of art forms here. Highlights were definitely the work of Picasso and the ancient armour on display. The extensive Egyptian collection complete with ancient mummys, rock carvings and statues was also really impressive.

Serendipity 3 Restaurant: made famous by the movie Serendipity, we savoured the very popular and extremely yummy frozen hot chocolate.

Brooklyn Bridge: On our last morning before leaving for the airport we squeezed in a quick walk across the famous suspension bridge. It was about 35 degrees, but worth it all the same. Architecturally beautiful and incredible to know it was built in 1883.

During our 12 days in New York we walked and walked and walked and then walked some more… the end, we were so exhausted but one thing did surprise us. In most cities we have been to, after a few days we are ready to leave and retreat to somewhere peaceful and relaxing, but we didn’t feel like that about here. Despite needing sleep and lots of it, we had fallen in love with the city, its energy and its ability to make you feel like you can be and do everything you’ve ever dreamed. I’m sure if you live here for a while and especially for some, it isn’t all that glamorous, but for us this is definitely what we got from our short time in the Big Apple.

I guess our reluctance to leave was not just about New York, but knowing also that we were leaving the USA. This country treated us with so many incredible experiences, ones that it seems could be difficult to top. This has made us wonder about going back to the UK and preparing for our road trip around Europe. What we have enjoyed the most about the USA has involved the people we have met and who we now call friends. It’s the connections that we’ve made along the way that has made our travel so meaningful. So now we are asking ourselves the question of ‘how will we make these meaningful connections through Europe with a significant language barrier?’. The answer to that we’re not sure of, but what we do have to realise is that although Europe will inevitably be a very different experience, it doesn’t have to be any less meaningful. The language barriers will add to the challenge yes, but we may just find that our connections happen in different ways. We just need to remain open to whatever happens and have no expectations.

Another age regression....among other things - New York (June 23-July 5) Part 2

We spent quite a bit of time at Ground Zero and visiting the memorial gallery. We did the audio tour and walked around the perimeter of the site listening to the stories from people who were in some way connected to what happened on Sept 11, 2001. We heard from people who had lost loved ones, people who escaped the towers on the day as well as stories of the inspiring volunteers who assisted in the recovery process. This was followed by time spent in the gallery where we saw the faces of the thousands of people who lost their lives that day, we watched video footage of the clean up and viewed items recovered from the wreckage. It was a strange feeling to know that we were standing in the place where such a terrible tragedy happened and hearing the personal stories made it all the more real and sobering. It made us stop again and appreciate the joy of being alive and how much we need to value what truly matters.

The faces of those who died....this is no more than one tenth of the whole wall

Ground Zero

A few weeks before arriving in New York, we posted some online couchsurf requests to be hosted during our stay ( Although we didn’t manage to find a host, we were stoked to find that the couchsurfing network in New York is very active and so we joined in on a few activities. We met up with a few people at a sushi bar, we hung out and had a few drinks with about 50 csers in an upstairs bar, but the CS highlight was definitely sitting on the lawn alongside the Hudson River with about 30 people to watch the Independence Day fireworks. Although these were all whirlwind gatherings and we didn’t have any major deep connections, there was so much energy, everyone was so friendly and we felt really proud to be a part of a really cool worldwide community.

Sushi with couchsurfers

Couchsurf meet up on the Hudson to watch the fireworks

The best toy store in the world, or at least the best one we have ever set foot in was FAO Schwartz. Made famous by the movie ‘BIG’ and the giant piano, this is possibly home to the cuddliest, cutest, most creative and innovative toys anywhere in the world. The moment we walked in, we instantly regressed to about 5 years old I reckon. All the giant stuffed toys shouted ‘cuddle me’ (which I quickly responded to) and we had that overwhelming sense of ‘how could we possibly see and play with all of this in one day!’ LOL. I think we spent about 2 hours in the store simply fascinated with everything that we saw. Giant stuffed giraffes, elephants, polar bears, pandas and a soldier made of jelly beans! There’s even a section where you can design your own muppet! We had fun playing on the BIG piano, despite not being able to come up with anything better than ‘Mary had a little lamb!’….yep, sad I know! We watched all the staff who really didn’t look like they were working at all....just having fun demonstrating how the toys worked. I’m sure the store gets many applicants for that job!

The polar bear that screamed for a cuddle

On the 'BIG' piano

We couldn’t really say we had done our visit to New York justice without seeing the Liberty lady, but we were obviously among the other hundreds of thousands of people….unfortunately tickets into her crown were booked out 3 months in advance, and even getting into the gallery was not available for about a month! The only ticket we could get was onto the island and we weren’t that enthused about having a sore neck from looking up or about what we might see from being that close other than catching a glimpse up her skirt. So the better and much cheaper option was catching the Staten Island Ferry, a 15 minute trip from the mainland and travels within about few hundred metres of the statue. We got a great spot on the boat that gave us a very satisfying view and we were glad we didn’t have to spend one dollar for the experience.

Riding a bike through Central Park was on our list of things to do and we managed to find 50% off vouchers online which meant that we scored full day hire for $18 each….a bargain considering most of the signs around the place advertised the same price for 2 hours! I was a little nervous about getting on a bike for the first time in 14 years, but I was relying on the old saying of once you’ve learned you’ll always remember. Hmmmm….not so sure about that! It didn’t help that I’ve never really used gears before! That’s right, my last bike had the brake on the pedals (can’t believe I am admitting that)! Despite my humiliating ‘wobbles’ and my desire to return the bike to prevent further embarrassment, I continued on hoping that at any moment, my memory would kick in. Tim’s part to play in all of this….well, lets just say I didn’t get a whole lot of sympathy, just the firm words of ‘ON YA BIKE!!’ lol. It did actually take me about an hour to completely get the hang of it again, but when I did, all of those incredible freeing feelings returned. The ones I felt as a kid when I rode my bike everywhere….riding in the breeze, the sun on my skin, without a care in the world. It was so nice to have these feelings return and that’s when I completely let go and I discovered that actually I can ride a bike and I really do love it! Why have I let so many years go by without these two wheels in my life!? There couldn’t have been a better place to discover these feelings again. Central Park is such a beautiful place and because it is so huge, it is a haven from the city. When you’re in the middle of it you forget where you are and it’s easy to see why so many of the locals would come here to retreat from the hustle and bustle. I kept thinking about how beautiful it would be in Winter as well with the trees and shrubs capped with snow. We could have stayed in the park for much longer and were disappointed to have to return the bikes. Definitely one of our favourite periods of time in NYC.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Pocket Full of Dreams....New York (June 23-July 5) Part 1

'Even if it ain’t all it seems

I got a pocketful of dreams

Baby, I’m from

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothing you can’t do

Now you’re in New York

These streets will make you feel brand new

Big lights will inspire you

Hear it for New York, New York, New York'

We couldn’t help but sing these lyrics out loud as we were walking the streets of New York City. Ok, so we can admit this is just a little bit corny and we did have a good laugh in between our singing, but this city literally does make you feel like you can be whoever you want to be and no dream is too big. There’s a sense of freedom, of creativity and an indescribable buzz that causes you to feel so alive! Such an eclectic, outrageous mix of endless activities are going on here, some of which have a purpose in mind and others that are simply just for fun…like a massive bubble blowing battle in Times Square where you turn up with your bubble blowing instrument, decide what side you’re on and go for it! It happens once a year and last year over 1500 people gathered to get involved. I can’t actually remember what distracted us from being there this year having been in the city at the time, but a pretty cool idea nonetheless. Although we had 12 days in New York, we quickly became slightly overwhelmed albeit excited about the possibilities of how we could spend those days.

We arrived in New York late in the evening from Los Angeles and navigated the subway system to our b&b in Astoria, Queens. How nice it was to be watching the rats graze on the tracks while waiting for the train! Ewww! As if that wasn’t enough, a friendly little…or should I say fat rodent decided to greet me and scurried towards me as I was coming up the subway stairs to the streets the following day! Hmmm, at that point I was wondering if dodging rats would be one of our main activities in New York!

Although we were still running on LA time (3 hours behind NYC) and not getting out of our apartment until at least midday most days, we managed to cram so much into the 12 days that we were there. I am going to be here forever if I try and write about every detail of those days (and you’ll probably get bored too) so I’ll opt for covering our main highlights…which may just have to be broken into several posts.

We really wanted to see a Broadway show but really had no idea what….until we started researching on our last day in LA and discovered a play called ‘Fences’ starring Denzel Washington in the lead role. OMG!! The reviews were outstanding, had won all the Broadway awards for the year and was only running until July 11! We had to get tickets!! Disappointment struck when we discovered that the cheapest tickets we could get were US$335 each!! Ouch!! We just couldn’t justify spending that amount of money on a show as good as Denzel is and as good as the reviews were. Boo hoo!! So we put that one on the shelf and by the time we got to New York, we still didn’t really know what we wanted to see or even what type of show…musical? play? comedy? dance? Then when we started looking online at the myriad of options we were more confused. We had that nagging thought in the back of our minds that nothing would come close to seeing ‘Fences’.

Our first day in New York surprised us….we decided to check out some of the box offices on Broadway, specifically West Side Story and we just happened to stumble across Times Square. Although the magnitude of this famous cross road is not really something that sneaks up on you, it actually did! I guess we had no idea where we were and then suddenly Tim said ‘shit, we’re in Times Square’…what a laugh that was! Times Square blew our much better than the lights in Vegas! To top it off, while we were waiting in line at the West Side Story box office, we saw some people crowding around a guy out the front of the building. We very quickly discovered people were entering a lottery to get cheap front row tickets for the show to kick off in 2 hours. Brilliant! What did we have to lose!? We both put our names in for 2 tickets and had another laugh about the possibility of scoring them…..I had a good feeling, but Tim was doubtful and thought my excitement was a little bit silly. We came back half an hour later to hear my name be called first out of the draw!! LOL!! We had no time to go back to our apartment and get dressed for the theatre, so 2 hours later we were seated front row, centre stage in our shorts and t-shirts to see West Side Story, all for US$26.50 each!! Despite feeling a little bit conspicuous in our attire, it was an entertaining and visually stimulating show!

Times Square

After the show

During the week, I didn’t really want to give up on getting cheap Fences tickets so I continued to research online. My persistence paid off and I discovered that if you wait in line at the box office before it opens at 10am and you’re really lucky, you can get standing only tickets for US$36.50! Sweet! So the next morning we got up at 6am and were at the box office by 8 to find about 20 people already in the line and a 2 hour wait ahead of us! We had made the effort to get up early so we thought ‘what have we go to lose?’. We waited in line for 2 hours to be let down with 10 people still in front of us! Doh! We were shocked to find out that the first person in the line that day had been waiting since 4am!! That’s 6 hours until the box office opens!! Yes, we were really desperate for tickets and although we were not committed to get there at 4am, we did get out of bed at 4 and were there by 5am! We even went out and bought a stool from the 99c store for the occasion. Second time lucky, we managed to get 2 tickets! Yeeeeeew!! We were stoked!

Written by August Wilson, ‘Fences’ was beyond outstanding!! Set in the 1950’s, it explored the African-American family experience and all the struggles of race relations. The story gripped us from start to finish and we couldn’t believe how in one scene the writer and the actors were able to trigger in the audience the breadth and depth of every human emotion that exists! As we watched this play, the whole world seemed to completely fade away and we were literally gripped right to the very end. The performances by Denzel, Viola Davis and the whole cast were incredible and we knew we were so privileged to see probably the best current show on Broadway. To top it off, Denzel came out to say hi after the show and we got to shake his hand! Brilliant!


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The worst part about California....

Leaving! When you’ve fallen in love with a place and its people, it’s so hard to tear yourself away. At the beginning of this trip we decided that our plan would be to have no plan….there are some things that have to be organised in advance, but having our campervan really allowed us to be so spontaneous and our planning was at an absolute minimum. There were a few times that this was a little bit stressful, like when we were driving around a town at 11pm trying to find a spot to park the camper for the night OR having an upset stomach when there is no access to a toilet (don’t use your imagination too much lol). But these are minor inconveniences compared to the magnitude of what we have experienced and the people we have connected with along the way. When you meet the kind of people we have, it really encourages your faith in humanity and the goodness that is in our world. The media may feed us so many messages of fear, but in reality, if we are willing to open our lives and our hearts to strangers we might just find kindred spirits.

Our biggest highlights of California not only involved the locals, but the natural beauty as well. The National Parks here were so incredibly spectacular and literally blew our minds. The intricate complexity of our surroundings has left us completely in awe of our creator. The weather was so good to us as well – it was so nice to have sunny, warm days, especially with the freezing cold winter we just experienced in the UK! We have decided we could definitely live in California…probably because it is a whole lot like home actually, maybe with just little bit more sunshine (unless you live in LA and then it is spoiled by smog).

We have to give a massive plug to Escape Campervans ( who have a whole heap of brilliant vans for hire! Honestly the best way of travelling around California and really good rental prices too! Our van had everything we needed (minus a toilet & shower) including a really good comfy bed and a little kitchen in the back where we ate breakfast from most mornings. Every van is painted with a different airbrushed design and we thought our ocean theme was one of the best. We had the van for 34 days and could have continued our travel in it for a lot longer. It was quite liberating knowing that everything we really needed was in such a small space and we could go wherever and whenever we wanted. Our experience with the van has made us think seriously about buying one when we get home to Oz and travel around for a while…..and of course get it painted with a very funky design!

The very cool sign made from paint cans hanging in the Escape office

San Diego....where the sun shines all year round! (June 19-22)

That’s right, Winter is pretty much non-existent here and as soon as we found that out we felt lured to migrate! San Diego is known for its brilliant lifestyle…living by the sea, with perfect weather all year round. The people are known for being very chilled out, relaxed and why wouldn’t you be with those perfect conditions!

Our friend David, who we met in the UK, has moved to San Diego not too long ago and we decided to catch up with him while we were there. As it turned out, he was borrowing a condo apartment in a resort style complex and we had the absolute privilege of dossing on the couch (Thanks David!!). Honestly, what an incredible place to live….it had a pool, spa, sauna, games room, a beach volleyball area with real sand and outdoor eating facilities complete with barbeques for those long summer nights. In the short time we were there, we made use of the barbeques and had our first ‘cook up’ since leaving Australia over a year ago! We forgot how much we missed a good barbie and of course Tim did a superb job of cooking it. Some of David’s friends came for the meal and we all hit it off instantly! So much so, that we were invited to go out with one couple (also David – we’ll call him David2 & Nicole) for Sushi the following night. We had become extremely addicted to sushi since being in the US and could not pass this up, particularly with how well we were getting along with these guys. They were concerned that they might have been overwhelming us, but we couldn’t have been happier to go! We have learned to love those spontaneous moments so much and have discovered that it’s usually where the best experiences come from.

And this quickly became one of those best experiences….we arrived at the sushi bar and before going in, we sipped cocktails at the Italian restaurant next door while watching the sunset. Just beautiful! And the cocktails were exceptional too! We were all starving and made our way into the sushi restaurant. Nicole had told us that this was where her favourite sushi was made and it was handcrafted by a chef named ‘Go’ who she had lots of fun with every time she visited. ‘Go’ frequented our table and each time he did we geared up for a shot of warm sake (a Japanese spirit). Tim and I didn’t really bother looking at the menu and just let Nicole order her favourites for us to try. We were not disappointed!! The sushi that was served literally blew our minds! Honestly, we didn’t know that raw fish could actually taste that good! The sushi we had tasted in the US up until this point was incredible, but we were sure that nothing could be better than this. The servings were big, decorated like a work of art and the flavours complemented each other perfectly. We invited Go to Australia to come and live with us…the only condition being he needed to pay his way by making sushi on demand! Lol. He was keen! Two bottles of wine later, accompanied by lots of laughs and fun with the staff, it was time to leave (although none of us really wanted to). It was so strange to be saying goodbye to David2 & Nicole who we had just met and knew they could definitely be great friends! Despite imagining what could be, we had a choice to appreciate the time, albeit short, spent with some obviously special people. Through small windows in time, significant opportunities and experiences are waiting if we are willing to seize the moment.

The stunning sunset

The work of art, otherwise known as sushi

Us with Go, the sushi chef

Us with David, David2 (right) & Nicole

Some fun with the staff

Although most of our time in San Diego was spent recharging our batteries, we did spend our last day at the world famous zoo. The grounds were massive and we had a good hike around the multiple steep walkways checking out the very diverse group of animals. Unfortunately we viewed a lot of empty enclosures because the animals were hiding away, but who can hardly blame them with the huge number of people crowding around trying to catch a glimpse of them. The joy of peak season and school holidays! At times, it did feel a little bit like we were part of the herd and the animals were viewing us! Lol. Especially with one gorilla who sat right against the glass and tried to throw her food over the barrier to the people on the other side. It was the cutest thing though to see a small girl with her hands on the glass and the gorilla’s hands against hers. Unfortunately we didn’t capture that moment on camera simply because there were too many people in the way. We were a little concerned about a few animals that were in small enclosures on their own with seemingly no stimulation at all. One bear in particular was obviously in distress and pacing its enclosure back and forth…..slightly disturbing. We became very aware of how uneasy we were feeling about viewing all these animals in enclosures and wishing they could be free somehow. I’m sure most of them don’t know any different and they are cared for very well, but it did make us wonder. I think maybe we would prefer seeing animals in their natural environment and we might just consider a trip to Africa one day.

The highlight of our time at the zoo was the bird show. We had been to a few before at theme parks in Oz and expected this one to be pretty similar but we were unexpectedly surprised. We were entertained by a talking parrot with the incredible ability to sing ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’….for some stupid animal lover reason, it brought me to tears! We saw birds exhibit their natural behaviours and one who was trained to take monetary donations from people’s hands and place them into the slot at the top of the donations box. A cheeky yet very clever way of raising money for wildlife conservation. We even got to see one bird misbehaving and flying off into some neighbouring tree and the trainers trying to coax the bird to come back while still entertaining the crowd. You can watch a short clip of the show including the singing parrot by clicking this link: The bird show alone was worth our money.

The cheeky raven

We left San Diego with regret, knowing it was our last night in California and feeling like we definitely could have enjoyed staying there a whole lot longer. As a way of consoling ourselves, we stopped to pick up a serving of Cold Stone ice cream on the way out which we had previously discovered and decided it’s pretty darn amazing! It’s like cold rock, but so much better. Their signature creations are the best!

Mmmmm, one of Cold Stone's Signature Creations -
GERMANCHÖKOLÄTEKÄKE® ....chocolate icecream with brownie, caramel & pecan nuts.

We enjoyed driving the coast back to Los Angeles and when we arrived, took a stroll along the Santa Monica boardwalk. We had planned to spend the night parked in a Walmart carpark knowing that they allowed overnight parking, but we realised at the last minute that the area was less than desirable or more to the point quite unsafe. There were no campsites or RV parks anywhere in the local area, it was 10:30pm and we were running out of options. We finally managed to get permission from a local supermarket to use their carpark! Brilliant!! So our last night was spent listening to the sounds of sirens and local parties in Santa Monica and waking up to chainsaws being used on the carpark garden as well as the dump truck picking up rubbish. Ahhhh, the serenity.

Our deepest distress came when we had to drop the van back to the Escape Campervan office. After having it for 34 days we literally felt like it was ours and the keys literally had to be pried from our fingers. The crew kindly dropped us to the airport where we were headed for New York City. It was a sad day indeed.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Joshua Tree & the Back Roads of the Desert (June 18-19)

After spending an additional night in Vegas to break up the long drive, we set off for Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs on our way to San Diego. However that was not before we had breakfast for the second time, at ‘Hash House a Go Go’….scrambled eggs with goats cheese & sundried tomato served with crispy potatoes and a biscuit (which in Oz terms is a scone) AND the biggest blueberry pancake we have ever seen served with fresh cream and maple syrup! WOW! You can read more about this really cool restaurant in our previous Vegas post.

We’re not really sure what possessed us to venture to Joshua Tree, other than the fact that we were continuing on the nature theme and a National Park full of Cacti seemed rather interesting. It was also recommended in various guidebooks and magazines we had read. We figured later this was possibly only because some sneaky people were trying to lure more tourists into the area.

Anyone who has travelled in the US knows that any driving in between Vegas and Los Angeles/San Diego is dead boring and we were another pair to confirm that fact. On the way however, we were very excited to have Tom Tom lead us to the famous ‘Route 66’. Of course we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to ‘get our kicks’ and capture the moment.

No caption necessary

We did question though where Tom Tom was taking us at one point…it was a little unnerving to turn off the major highway and drive for at least 100 miles in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no traffic on the road. We did however have views of many desolate and abandoned houses, some of which were no bigger than 10 square metres surrounded by nothing but salt bush….we kept trying to work out how anyone could have ever lived in them! We also came across a service station and called in to use their services which turned out to be an interesting experience. We were shocked to see a big sign on the door that read: ‘Please do not complain to our employees as we have spent a fortune on this business and it costs us a lot to keep it going in such a remote area’. Hmmmm, we didn’t have anything to complain about, but after seeing that sign it became a classic case of reverse psychology… we began looking for things that were wrong! Good customer relations? I think not! A business that has obviously been burnt several times before.

Arriving in the town of 29 Palms, just outside the National Park, we expected it to be busy with tourists, but it was clear this was not a hugely popular place to visit….in the middle of Summer at least. Maybe because it was about 40 bloody degrees and drier than dry! We didn’t realise that the area was home to a massive military base and there was quite a bit of war propaganda around in addition to signs that read ‘get your military hair cut here’. It did make our belly’s churn slightly.

We were losing light, so we thought we’d better find somewhere to park for the night. The amount of Police activity we saw around made us feel uncomfortable about parking the van just anywhere, so we decided on an RV park. We were a little concerned about where Tom Tom was taking us again, but as it turned out we arrived in the right place. We couldn’t see much at night, but the park did seem to be an open plain in the middle of the desert. This was confirmed when we were woken by the extremely scorching heat. We were one of two couples who had stayed in the whole RV park that night and it catered for about 300!! LOL. Definitely an experience! That morning, we had a visit from the ground squirrels which we thought were a type of meerkat because they looked and behaved extremely similar. Despite moving very quickly, we manage to score a reasonable snapshot. Speaking snapshots and animals moving fast.....ever since planning this USA trip, Tim has wanted to capture a hummingbird on camera and it was here that he achieved that goal! Although he is not completely happy with how the one and only pic turned out, my personal opinion is that it is pretty good, especially with how speedy these birds are! Here it is:

Humming Bird

Our campsite at the RV Park

We had about a 5 hour drive to San Diego ahead of us and we chose to go through the Park. It was a National Park like no other…. it actually felt like we were in another world. We entered the park at 4000ft elevation where the space was completely dominated by thousands of joshua trees (a type of giant yucca) accompanied by hills of bare rock that were made up of loose boulders. These hills are apparently popular amongst rock climbers and we did manage to see some very enthusiastic ones who managed to scale the rocks even in scorching temperatures. As the elevation increased, it was interesting to see the Joshua trees disperse and eventually disappear as they only grow at a very specific elevation range. Instead, we saw other desert plants and cacti including the Cholla cactus garden…..not sure if ‘garden’ is the best word for this display of prickly plants, or maybe it just didn’t match the image of what a garden should be in our minds. Interesting nonetheless and beautiful in its own quirky way. Glad we didn’t go running freely with the wind in our hair in this garden….a little risky!

Joshua Tree

A hill made up of rocks...looks alot smaller than they were

The Cholla Catcus Garden

Although we can’t really say Joshua Tree National Park was a huge highlight, it was certainly something different and we left there feeling like we had truly experienced the wild wild west! At least the modern day version.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ain't It Grand (June 16-17)

After being in Vegas for a couple of days, we were thankful to be able to retreat to natural surroundings again, this time we were headed for the Grand Canyon. The major view points were at the Western Rim which was the closest to Vegas or the Southern rim which was pretty much the furthest away. We made a decision to go to the South Rim ­­for a couple of reasons…one because we really wanted to see the sunset over the canyon and two because the western rim is on native land and the charges to enter the area were ludicrous!

The 5 hour journey to the western rim was long with lots of nothingness to see yet again, other than Hoover Dam of course. Although not that exciting, it was interesting to see a man-made dam, particularly since it was constructed 70 years ago. We decided not to stop and viewed it from the car instead because we were racing against time to get to the canyon to see the sunset. As we were drawing closer to the canyon, we began to realise that all our ‘racing against time’ may have been in vain because it was looking like we weren’t going to make it in time. We ended up watching the sunset from our car window driving about 20 miles from the Canyon….we were gutted. We had driven all this way and missed the most beautiful sunset over the GRAND CANYON!! We discussed the shoulda, woulda, couldas of getting there earlier for a little while but quickly slapped ourselves out of that state to realise that we were still going to see the incredible Canyon the next day. Despite missing the sunset, we were excited about seeing it in all its daylight glory.

That night we were hoping to get a campsite inside the Canyon National Park, but unfortunately arrived too late to score….so it ended up being a night dossing in a local car park. I could swear the temperature dropped to below zero that night…after it being 35 degrees during the day!! Crazy cold! And of course nature did have to call in the middle of the night! lol

We rose earlier than usual to try and beat the crowds at the Canyon! Our first glimpse of it was nothing short of glorious! Layer upon layer of rock that had been carved out by the Colorado River….incredible to think that such beauty was created by a body of water. Most of the rim didn’t have guardrails and despite it being a little unnerving (at least for me), it was beautiful to see the Canyon in its natural state. The thing about the lack of barriers/rails was that it gave the ‘silly’ people opportunity to venture out onto really narrow ledges towering above an extremely long drop!! Those ‘silly’ people included Tim!! He kept telling me he wanted me to take a photo of him on the end of this particular ledge and all I could say was ‘don’t be stupid….do you want to give me a heart attack!?’ A few minutes later I started wandering off on my own and then heard someone yell ‘Darling….you wanna take a photo of me’? I turned around and my legs instantly turned to jelly. There he was on the end of that bloody ledge! “WHAT ARE YOU DOING…..GET BACK HERE!”…. “Not until you take a photo of me”….cheeky or what!!? That could have been the longest 2 minutes of my life. All I could think about was being asked the question ‘how did your husband die?’….hmmm. So we got the picture and here it is….

We spent the next couple of hours being herded onto shuttle buses with the crowds and visiting the other viewing areas. We took so many pictures, none of which do the Canyon any justice whatsoever. We can completely understand why this one’s included in the 7 Wonders of the Natural World.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Vegas baby! (June 14-18)

The drive to Vegas was long (just under 8 hours), hot and what we saw along the way was nothing but barren wasteland. Having left late in the day, we knew we wouldn’t make it to Vegas, so we decided we would have to park in another random spot to stay the night. While we were hoping for a campsite or RV park, what we ended up with was a truck stop in the middle of the Mojave desert….a dusty open plain with the wind blowing a gale! We couldn’t actually have the windows open on both sides of the van because it became a wind tunnel! Thankfully, the temperature had dropped overnight to allow us to get a reasonable sleep, but we woke at 6:30am feeling like we were sleeping in a pressure cooker! A good incentive to get out of bed! Needless to say there was no lazing around in bed that morning. It was good to get on the road early for a change though.

The Vegas ‘entertainment’ began about 50 miles out of town when we saw massive billboards advertising shows, casinos and buffets. The series of signs we found the most amusing though, were those that displayed each of the Ten Commandments with about 100m in between each one. Is that really going to stop people from ‘sinning’ in sin city?! Hmmmm.

The barren wasteland

We stayed in Vegas for 2 nights initially at Treasure Island, then spent one night in the Grand Canyon National Park before returning to Vegas for an additional night's stay at the Luxor Hotel. You’ll read about the Canyon in our next post.

So most things you’ve read about Vegas are true and then some….it’s equally tacky as it is classy, cheap as it is luxurious. The thing that surprised us though is it definitely is not the town that never sleeps contrary to common belief, unless of course you have money to burn inside one of the many casinos. We actually found ourselves wandering aimlessly along The Strip on both nights after trying to find a bar with quality music only to find that the 'good' ones were closing early! Hmmm. At one point, we resorted to drinking champagne in our hotel room because finding a good drink in a decent environment seemed hard to come by and we didn’t really fancy sitting at a bar surrounded by slot machines. The flashing lights and musical tones overwhelmed the senses, not to mention the ‘loud’ psychedelic patterns in the carpet. Even if we wanted to give one of these things a go, how would we choose….there were hundreds!!? Maybe the Wheel of Fortune ones or the Sex & the City machines in the corner? We escaped the lure of the slot machine and any other form of gambling for that matter, despite the winning cheers we heard coming from the strategically located hidden speakers in our hotel room.

The Strip

While in Vegas, we saw a Cirque de Soleil show called Mystere, which for us didn’t have a whole lot of meaning or story, not that we expected that. We did however expect to see some pretty spectacular acrobatics and circus acts. We can’t deny the performers definitely had talent and it was a good show, but we did come away feeling a little underwhelmed. There seemed to be a lot of ‘fluffing’ around with some acrobatics in between and there was always so much happening on the stage that we didn’t know where to focus our attention. We did wonder whether we were not that impressed because we had just seen the most beautiful natural scenery in the National Parks and anything manmade would always come second best.

We ate at ‘Bouchon’, a restaurant owned by chef Thomas Keller who is famous for his world class restaurant in the Napa Valley called ‘The French Laundry’. Bouchon was a treat, but definitely a lot more affordable than the one in Napa and was still very impressive. Salmon cooked to perfection, the most succulent piece of roast chicken and bread that looked like a work of art. We savoured every mouthful. Unfortunately, that usual pouch kept for dessert was so minutely small we had to pass or we would have had to roll ourselves out of there and we figured that wouldn’t be very classy at all.

Speaking of rolling out of the restaurant…..we decided we had to try one of the famous Vegas ‘all-you-can-eat buffets’ and although we had contemplated the unlimited 24 hour buffet pass, we were glad we did eventually decide against it. We gave one buffet a go, at the Bellagio Hotel….according to online reviews it was one of the best in Vegas. We can officially report that this was the best buffet we have ever eaten, however it was ever so easy to feel out of control and we ended up eating until we felt sick. NOT GOOD!! So no matter how good the food was, it seemed that our enjoyment of it was spoiled by our overeating, which I’m sure you can relate to. Not only did we feel a bit sick, we felt sad about the level of wasted food in the restaurant, from ourselves included. The left overs may have actually fed a whole village in Africa for an entire month! We felt like we didn’t need to eat for at least a few days.

That was until we discovered ‘Hash House a Go Go: Twisted Farm Food’, a restaurant that specialises in breakfast, but also caters for lunch and dinner. We ate breakfast there twice in three days as well as dinner for one night. The meals were massive and the plates even bigger, but it did give us the liberty of sharing without wasting much. We only just managed to get through the half a kilo rib eye steak between us though, which was served on a 10kg plate! Just a little ridiculous really. The breakfasts were definitely enough to cover us for lunch as well.

Food @ 'Hash House a Go Go'

Of course our activities in Vegas did involve things other than eating….we were blown away by the indoor garden on display inside the Bellagio Hotel conservatory. Giant snails and insects with bodies crafted using real flowers, hundreds of sunflowers looking so perfect we were convinced they were fake. It was an incredible work of art.

The Indoor Garden @ The Bellagio

We visited downtown Las Vegas to experience the light show on Fremont Street. Worth over US$70 million and stretching almost five blocks is the biggest LED screen or in this case canopy in the world. Every hour on the hour, the souvenir shops and casinos lining the street turn off their lights and neon signs to make way for a spectacular choreographed light and sound show displayed overhead. The special effects and accompanying music were impressive to say the least. It was hard to believe that a moving and flowing piece of art of that size could be created using 12 million LED modules.
The Fremont St. Light Show

While in Vegas, I searched everywhere to locate anything or anyone related to Elvis just so I could send something to Oz for my Mum, even if it was limited to a photo of me with some corny Elvis impersonator. The best I got, was a pic of Elvis on the neon sign of a wedding chapel. I now have to break the news to Mum, that the King is truly dead, even in Vegas! I wonder how she will take it? I suspect, that if we had the chance, we may have still found several impersonators behind the doors of the chapels but really, is there anyone out there who would still like to be wedded by Elvis? Mum? An alternative option would be to say your vows in a drive thru fashion….that’s right, we did come across a ‘Say I do Drive Thru’. Hmmmm, a little concerning?

Say I Do Drive Thru

In a nutshell, everything about Vegas was excessive….entertainment, lights, food, hotels, all were designed for the tourist to ‘live it up’ for a while. We simply found it a little overwhelming for the senses…some people say that Vegas literally sucks the life right out of you! It didn’t quite have that effect on us, but what we can say is that it was nice to stay in a fancy hotel for a ridiculously cheap price, have a few fun experiences and eat some good food. We were however not that unhappy about leaving and we can’t say Vegas will be on the top of our list of places to revisit in the USA.