Monthly Archives: June 2014

Viva Las Vegas

And so to the final stop on our West Coast tour, and the end of the annoying daily posts about how great my life is right now.  This holiday has been two years in the planning (and paying for) and it has certainly exceeded all expectations.

Vegas is amazing, in all possible ways.  It’s not my favorite place but it does have charms all of its very own and I think I’ve developed a soft spot for it.  I’m pleased we chose to stay at the Vdara, which is one of the few hotels that is casino-free, which means it’s a lovely quiet relief to return here at the end of the day and not have to wade through acres of gamblers on our way to bed.  We have a room on the 48th floor which overlooks a lot of the strip including the Bellagio Fountains but we’re high enough up to not be able to hear anything that’s going on down there.  The view is amazing, day or night, and you can see to the mountains in the far distance.  We have been waving to the helicopters flying past our windows.  I was also far too excited about the electric blinds and I can’t stop myself moving them up or down at any given opportunity.  Best thing about this room though, in my opinion, is the bathtub.  I haven’t mentioned it in a while, as after two years I am sadly resigned to the fact that Americans just don’t do proper baths.  Usually an American bath is no more than about six inches deep and really, what good is that to anyone?  For our stay in Vegas, however, we have a proper bath-sized bath that I can have a good old soak in.  I have had to build bathing time into my daily schedule and even bought some celebratory bath bombs from Lush for the purpose.

When I have been able to drag myself away from the bath, however, I have been out and about, enjoying the craziness this city has to offer.  You can walk huge lengths of the Strip without your feet ever touching the ground outside.  This is because a lot of the hotels are interconnected (and when I say “hotels” I mean miniature cities in their own right) and when you do have to leave a hotel complex you can generally reach the next one by taking a covered escalator, a tram or a gondola to the next one.  Considering that it’s over 40c out there at the moment, this is actually not such a crazy idea.  The thing does that irritate and amaze me in equal measures is that it’s virtually impossible to leave one’s own hotel directly by a front door.  This morning it took me fifteen minutes to get from my room to the pavement on the actual street outside.  I only had to walk through one casino to get there though, which is some achievement.

Our main entertainment here has been simply walking through the hotels and witnessing the madness contained therein.  We have seen dancing fountains, an exploding volcano, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, Egyptian Pyramids, and lots of other things that we no longer even bat an eyelid at.  Many of the hotels contain shopping malls which are bigger than our actual local shopping mall.  Several times we have had to stop and ask each other which hotel we’re standing in because we’ve been wandering around for so long that we’ve forgotten.

One morning we found ourselves transported by the magic of Vegas to the canals of Venice where we were serenaded by a gondolier.  Despite being inside a shopping mall at the time, we gazed up at the clouds in the blue sky and waved to the people who stood on the bridges above us.

We couldn’t do Vegas without seeing some over-the-top spectacular shows, and again these did not disappoint.   There is such a huge choice of entertainment that you could see a different show every night for a month or more, if you could afford it.  We saw Criss Angel: Believe, which I think has everything you could want from a Vegas show: lots of lights and loud music and sparkle, spectacular illusions and an audience gasping in wonder at the whole thing.  My favourite part was when he disappeared from the middle of the stage and reappeared seconds later in a seat in the middle of the audience.  I would love to have been sitting in the seat behind him to see exactly how he got there.

Our other choice of show embodied the fun and silly side of Vegas as we went to see Rock of Ages again.  It’s certainly not the most skilled of musicals but it is a fabulous night out.  Thanks to the finale, when we got home we found our underwear was completely full of glitter.  And that pretty much sums up Vegas.

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A Grand Weekend – Canyon Dig it?

I have just spent three days staring at a ruddy great hole in the ground, albeit the most spectacular hole I have ever seen.  Yes, we’ve been to the Grand Canyon, and it really is amazing.  You’ve seen the pictures, of course, and they look unbelievable, but the reality is something else entirely.  It really does take your breath away.  And no amount of photos will ever really capture that moment when you wander up to the edge and take your very first glimpse.

During our visit we saw some Navajo Indians performing traditional songs and dances.  They explained that a lot of these performances are to honour Mother Earth and Father Sky and to acknowledge the power of the natural world.  When you see natural landscapes like this, it’s easy to understand where this spirituality comes from.  It’s so much harder to be inclined to worship the power of nature when you grow up in a flat, wet, featureless landscape like England.  Admittedly we do have our fair share of interesting mountains, coastline and the like, but absolutely nothing on this scale.  It just fills you with awe.  It is literally AWESOME.

I’m not usually happy to get up at 3.45am, particularly when I’m on holiday, however it was absolutely worth it in order to see the sunrise.  Any sunrise is amazing, but to experience it in such a stark landscape is incredible, watching the sky slowly change colour and then seeing the sun just starting to creep over the top of the rocks, sharing the moment with only two or three other people who made the effort to get up and travel all the way out to the canyon.  And then all you can stupidly think is, Wow, does this really happen every morning?

We left just as the first daytime visitors were starting to enter the park, and made it back to our hotel in time for breakfast before going back to bed.  We went back to the park in the evening to watch the sunset.  This isn’t quite so special, I think because it doesn’t take quite so much effort and there are a lot more people to share it with.  Sunset is less about the sun itself and more about the amazing red colours on the rocks and how they change as the sun goes down.  It’s still ruddy spectacular though.

We also took the opportunity to walk the more remote end of the rim trail.  By this I certainly don’t mean we did any of the proper hikes; it’s way too hot and you really need to be properly prepared for all sorts of eventualities.  However, it seems to me that 95% of the visitors to the park don’t wander more than 100 feet from the car parks, gift shops or restaurants.  By walking a five mile trail around the rim of the Canyon we found ourselves alone for almost all of the time, able to relax and listen just to the natural sounds of the Canyon instead of the loud voices of tourists.  It was absolute bliss.

We saw plenty of wildlife, particularly at dawn and dusk, including coyotes, foxes, squirrels, rabbits and a couple of condors.  The most impressive by far were the elk.  It’s quite something to be on a bus hurtling along in the dark when it screeches to a halt and you hear the collective gasp of your fellow passengers as you see a massive elk that’s casually lumbering across the road in front of you and you’re all waiting to discover whether it’ll be venison steaks all round while you wait for a replacement bus.  Thankfully we all made it out in one piece.

So it’s been an amazing weekend, really lovely and relaxing and peaceful.  All about to be shattered as we head to the neon-lit, glitter-encrusted nutjob that is Las Vegas.

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Getting our Kicks

So after several exceedingly busy but strangely relaxing days it was finally time to bid farewell to San Diego and hit the road once more.  The day started unwelcomingly early as we left our hotel at 5am to catch a bus to the airport.  The public transport in SD has been excellent and another tick in the box for moving to this fine city.  A short hop on a plane and we touched down in Las Vegas.  We only saw the airport but even that is vastly reminiscent of Back To The Future in 2015 as it just has giant TV screens everywhere urging you to spend spend spend (not to mention slot machines to relieve you of your money.  I can’t begin to imagine what the actual city itself is like.

Anyway, we didn’t stick around to find out because we had several places to visit today.  We started with the Hoover Dam, which is spectacular not just as a feat of engineering but also as an Art Deco architectural delight.  It really is a joy to behold, as are the sparkling blue waters of Lake Mead which it holds back.

Despite still being early in the day we had already begun to feel a huge temperature change from being on the coast.  Over the last two weeks we’ve had lovely sunny days but without any humidity and it’s been absolutely lovely, nothing like the sweatiness we have to endure over on the East coast.  Now we’re in the desert, however, the temperature has shot up to around 100F although it’s still not humid thankfully.

We hit the road again and this time pottered off down the historic Route 66, which technically no longer exists and is hardly used. In fact, for the 75 miles or so that we were on it we saw virtually no other cars and hardly any signs of civilization at all.  It would have been quite peaceful if not for the constant nagging thought that if the car broke down it could be years before anyone found us (or at least half an hour, which in that heat would feel like weeks).  The one thing we did see quite a lot of was dust devils, which are kind of like mini tornadoes.  Well, technically not because to be a tornado it has to reach from the ground to a cloud and these were only a few feet high but hey, it’s still very much disconcerting to see something like that up close (and these were no more than a couple of feet from us at times) when you’re on your own in the middle of nowhere.

The other thing that struck me was how sad it was to see all the abandoned businesses along the route because it is no longer used by traffic.  I’ve read many an article about them but it’s another thing entirely to actually see a small gathering of abandoned buildings that still have all their big advertising outside but are completely empty inside.  Every so often we would come to a junction with an Interstate that would have lots of passing business and these would have a handful of Route 66 themed stores but these just seemed a bit Disney and not properly authentic.

At the end of our trip along Route 66 we called into the Lowell Observatory for a spot of stargazing.  Amongst other things, we were able to look at the Moon, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter through some big telescopes.  The skies are so clear out here that you can see so much in the night sky, in fact you can almost see too much and it becomes confusing to pick out any constellations.  I’m not complaining though.  Any excuse to gaze up at the heavens is all right by me.

At the end of a very long day in which we covered three states, we finally arrived at our motel for the night in Flagstaff.  I’m pleased to say that, despite being part of a chain, this is the first place I’ve stayed that properly feels like an old-fashioned traditional motel.  It is two floors with exterior walkways and all the cars are parked out front.  It’s actually on Route 66 and it even has a train track running alongside it that has those massively long trains that take about five minutes to go past because you just can’t see the end of them.  We took a wrong turning on the way here and found ourselves along what looks to be the main street with all the bars and other things along it, and it was all lit up in neon and looked just like the set from Northern Exposure or one of those eighties films where Kevin Bacon or Patrick Swayze is the troubled kid who needs to deal with his personal issues before he can get the girl.  It’s exactly what I always thought of when I imagined visiting small town America.  I think I’ve finally found what I was looking for.

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San Diego go go!!

We seemed to pack a huge amount into a few short days in San Diego.  For some reason we had thought we’d use this time as a chance to relax and recharge after our road trip, however we actually ended up walking an average of about five or six hours a day.  Which is kind of relaxing for us, I guess.  Especially when you’re so busy pootling between lovely places that you don’t notice the miles you’ve covered.

San Diego is a gorgeous city (I may have mentioned that previously).  It’s also very easy to get around without a car (which I think we proved rather convincingly and which gives it top marks in my book).  It has great beaches and a harbor and lots of lovely eaty drinky places and maybe I should be working for their marketing office?  Anyway, besides hanging around the eaty drinky places we also found time to visit the USS Midway which is a retired Naval aircraft carrier.  It was really interesting and gave the husband even more reminders of what he’s missing back home.  We also visited the Zoo where I met my soulmate.  His name is Otis and he’s two years younger than me.  He also happens to be a hippo.  I would happily have spent my admission fee just to spend the whole day alone with him.  As it was, I had to tear myself away occasionally to see some other beasts, including the big cats (who were all pretty cool, as they behave exactly like small domestic cats) and the pandas (who were a mite underwhelming as they aren’t real and are actually just humans in black and white fur suits, we all know that don’t we?).

The other highlight of the trip was a game of baseball at the San Diego Padres’ home of Petco Park.  I’ve been accidentally watching a bit of Major League baseball on the TV recently and somehow started enjoying it.  The Padres had lost the previous two nights’ games to the Pittsburgh Pirates so I wasn’t holding out any great hopes.  Well the Padres pulled it out of the bag with a convincing win on their third and final night.  The game was a bit of a side note really, though, as we indulged in what appears to be the tradition of pottering about the stadium, sitting in random seats at various times, visiting the rooftop bar, and finally getting round to eating a pretzel (it’s only taken two years and, at the end of the day, it’s just a posh bit of bread but actually quite nice with a beer in the sunshine).  Mission accomplished.

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Hit the Road Once More … Point (Loma) me in the right direction

Today marked the end of our coastal road trip as we travelled from LA to San Diego.  We passed yet more stunning beaches on the way down, providing us with yet more choice of retirement homes.

On arrival into San Diego we first visited Point Loma, which is a long finger of land sticking out on the west side of San Diego.   It is the site of the Cabrillo National monument which commemorates the first European explorer to set foot on the Western coast of the US in the 16th century.  It also has some of the best views across San Diego, especially when it’s your first time there as you can pinpoint pretty much all the landmarks like it’s a giant 3D map.

From there we headed across to Coronado which is an island that is home to a posh hotel, lots of very expensive houses, and the US Navy’s Master Helicopter Base, so the husband felt right at home.  In fact he’s now considering requesting a transfer over here (if only it were that easy).  We took a quick self-guided tour of the base.  Well, not that quick in the end, I suppose.  The thing with Government property is that it doesn’t appear in too much detail on public maps, and that particular base was pretty huge.  We didn’t do too badly, although we did end up along the airfield at one point and found ourselves having to give way to a plane, which is not as bad as it sounds.  Just not something that you do every day.

Later on we had a potter around various areas of the city as a brief introduction to the delights that are to come over the next few days. We ended by miraculously finding yet another British pub, which rose like a great red beacon in the evening twilight.  We were pleased to find that it was showing proper rugby on the telly as well as British tennis, although it was somewhat confusing that most of the customers were watching ice hockey and were cheering at what seemed like utterly inappropriate moments to those of us who were watching proper sport.  Anyway, I ended the day with a pint of Boddies and a cheese toastie which involved both proper cheese and proper bread, two food items I have seen very little of during the past two years.  All in all, a good result.

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Flexing some Muscle

So we thought we’d leave the crazy side of LA behind and spend a quiet few days at the beach instead.  We started in the lovely quiet spot of Marina del Rey which has some spectacular beachfront properties (which I prefer to the ones in Malibu, just in case you’re wondering which one to buy me).  The only drawback is the gazillions of annoying tourists staring up at them at taking photos all the time. However it’s still a really quiet and laidback spot compared to the insanity just a little further along at Muscle Beach.  This is where you find the open air gym where people go to show off (because why else would you choose to exercise outside in the blazing hot sunshine when you could be inside a climate controlled gym where you won’t get sunburn or heatstroke and you can concentrate on your technique instead?).  The first rule posted on the wall of the gym at Muscle Beach is “Shirts must be worn at all times”.  So obviously absolutely nobody wears a shirt there at all.  Aside from the gym, there are all sorts of other basketball courts, volleyball nets etc. set up which makes it a nice social spot for people watching.  Just a little bit further on, the madness really begins.  Venice Beach is proud of its status as a freakshow, although I have to say there weren’t as many weirdos as I was expecting.  Perhaps my definition of “odd” has been stretched way out of proportion after living in this country for a while.  Or, as the husband said, perhaps we’re the weird ones and everyone else is very normal, who’s to say?  Anyway, I would say that the highlight of all the oddities had to be the dog (quite a large one), dressed in a bikini and sunglasses, laid out on a small sun lounger and totally working it for tips.  Which it was earning by the bucketload.  And having them tucked into its bikini. 

A little further along the oceanfront we returned to some semblance of normality as we strolled into Santa Monica and went for a nice amble along its pier.  It has lots of fairground rides including its original carousel which is rather quaint.  The pier is also the start (or end, depending on your point of view) of Route 66 which we will be picking up in Arizona later on in this road trip.  We stopped for a while in a nice little place on the pier where I ordered a kid’s meal because that’s usually the only way to get a decent veggie meal in this country.  Well, it did not disappoint.  I had a grilled cheese (with proper cheese in it, not the rubber stuff) and corn on the cob.  All washed down with a beer that I don’t think was on the kids menu.  It was the biggest kid’s meal I have ever seen.  We ended the day walking back through Venice and it seemed that the afternoon sun had brought out the special people in full force.

The next day we decided to get ourselves a little culture by visiting the Getty Center which is at the top of the hills in LA.  Unfortunately my lasting impression will simply be that it needs more signposts!! Not only along the route, but also in the place itself, as it is very good at telling you things about two floors or one long tramride later than would be really useful.  Anyway, the building itself is simply stunning, both in terms of the architecture and also its position, nestled high up in the hills with a spectacular view across the city, looking down onto the madness of the LA freeways.  The Center houses lots of art and it’s not really my thing, being mainly French Renaissance, but it was a lovely experience and nice to get away from the heat of the beaches for a while.  However, after a morning of being highbrow we redressed the balance and had an afternoon of $2 beers in the sunshine.  We did have some poshed up bar snacks though, in the shape of demi-glace fries.  I might well have passed them up but on reading the description I realized they were just chips and gravy, something I have been sorely missing for two years and which is readily available in any decent chippy up north in the UK.  This is the first time I’ve seen it in the US, where it’s clearly a rarity and only available in the finest establishments.  Highlight of my day. Even better than the bottomless complimentary garlic knots from the previous night that I’d forgotten about until right now.

Our third day of pottering took us around the marina and the canals of Venice Beach (which are where it gets its name from).  This is a much quieter and lovelier area than the rest of Santa Monica and Venice, with thousands of boats moored along its length.  The highlight for me, however, was our visit to the Marina del Rey branch of the LA Fire Department, which surely has the best view of any fire station in the world, looking directly out across the water.  In addition to two fire engines, it also has a fire boat to respond to emergencies at sea.  I was lucky enough to get onboard.  I was even luckier to be able to meet one of the firefighters who used to be a coastguard and was David Hasselhoff’s body double on Baywatch and also had a few tales to tell about the celebrities he’s met in the course of his work.  My top tip – always hang around fire stations, cos you never know who you might meet!

We finished our visit by taking a stroll along the canals which were absolutely charming.  I have no idea what the canals of Venice, Italy, look like but these ones are picturesque and adorable.  I think I might consider living in one of these waterside residences rather than those directly on the ocean.  Only $2.6 million or thereabouts.  Again, just if you’re thinking of buying me one.

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