Thursday, December 28, 2006

Surprise Surprise

Our final part of our trip was spent in San Francisco and it was a very nice place to end our trip on too. Prior to arriving in San Fran we had spent a wet and pretty miserable few days unable and un- motivated to do what we had hoped (ie winery visits) because of the weather and sheer frustration of actually getting anywhere due to the roads and traffic.

The weather improved whilst we were in San Francisco though and it was a novelty not having to use the car to get anywhere. Instead we had a lovely few days actually walking and riding the ‘cable cars’ (trams) up and down the hilly streets. Our first ride on, we had to hang on the side and it was fun clinging on as we sped down the hills.

Our hotel was really nice and centrally located on Union Square which was handy for exploring the city. I found it to be a really pretty, picturesque city with lovely buildings and it felt quite festive too, although I wasn’t sure about the puppys in the window of Macy’s department store!

We decided to check out the modern art museum one day mainly because part of it was photography. As part of the modern art there was an installation that was worth going just for that. This consisted of a large video projection of Turkish people singing Karaoke of The Smiths! Some of them were really terrible and some of them were really good and sounded exactly like Morrissey (including a girl) and some were even crying as they sang. As is usual when I leave modern art galleries I left feeling bemused and slightly confused, but with the feeling that I had at least done something cultural!

I had been feeling very excited about our surprise return home and we had been concocting all sorts of lies about what we would be doing Christmas and new year eve which I began believing myself after a while. The day came for the final leg of the journey. The flight was very full and 10 hours and no sleep later we arrived in foggy U.K. We circled round Heathrow for a while because of the fog and I couldn’t wait to get off the plane. Coming through arrivals I felt a little sad as there were lots of people waiting for passengers but not us as only my Auntie Jean and my friend Nicola who booked our ticket home knew of our return. The rest of my family wouldn’t know for another few days either as we had stops in Slough, Durham and Nottingham to make before returning to Lowestoft.

Of all the places we’ve been, Slough was definitely the highlight of the trip. It was lovely; foggy, cold, wet and the hotel room was so large and good value (not).We fell asleep in the room straight away and then couldn’t sleep all night and it was a very long night. Finally it was time to pick up our hire car and I had to get used to gears again as we drove up to Tim’s mum’s near Durham. It wasn’t a bad drive considering the problems with the fog the U.K had been having and we arrived 7 hours later.

We spent a couple of days with Tim’s mum then drove to Nottingham and stayed with Jo and Andy for the night before leaving for the big surprise on Christmas Eve. We made good time and my excitement turned to nerves for some reason. I just hoped it would all work out OK. In the end it couldn’t have been better. We parked down the road so they wouldn’t hear us pull up, snuck down the road and rung the bell. We were waiting for a while because it turned out Mum and Roger thought we were Carol singers (oh yes, they were in the festive spirit!) but when they came to the door I couldn’t have wanted a better reaction which you can see on the video below.

With the shock still reeling through Mum she drove us (rather erratically) round to my sister’s. She was expecting my mum so didn’t come to the door as I walked in. I walked in to the kitchen where Joanne had her back to me and I said “hello”.She turned round and her face was the picture of shock for what seemed ages! Then she squealed and cried. I like to think that they were happy to see me and that all the tears were tears of joy!

Next I saw my nephew Max who has grown so much. Then we met my niece Lily. She is so gorgeous. She is looking so healthy and happy now and she never seems to stop smiling. It felt so good to be back with my family again. At times it was hard to be away especially when Lily was ill and it is such a relief to see her now doing so well.

It is good being back, but also a bit strange. When we first arrived it was very weird being back and everything so familiar seemed strange at the same time. I felt a bit spun out at first but maybe that was the jet lag. Everyone keeps saying, “oh you’re back to the real world now” I’m not sure I’m quite ready for it yet!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Operation Surprise Return

It had been quite hard for us but we had managed to put Gemma’s Mum off the notion that we might be returning for Christmas. Instead when we spoke on the phone or by e-mail we constructed a fairly intricate web of lies about what we were going to be doing over the holiday period. It took a little while but eventually the family bought it. The actual plan, of course, was to turn up in Lowestoft and surprise everyone. It worked like a charm.

At San Francisco airport we were pretty early for check-in. The girl on the desk informed us that the flight was overbooked and asked whether we’d like to volunteer to be bumped in the event of no shows. After some umm-ing and ahh-ing we decided against it. We’d planned hotels and hire cars for our return so we thought we better just go. What gave us pause was the fact that volunteers who are bumped on Virgin get a free return flight (or the equivalent frequent flyer miles) anywhere on the Virgin network, plus the usual nights accommodation. That’s a pretty good offer in my book. In the end though the flight had enough no shows that the volunteers weren’t needed.

The flight was fine but tiring. I didn’t bother trying to sleep and just watched films and TV shows for the 10 hour duration, interspersed with the odd game of Tetris. Once in the UK we had to circle London for about 20 minutes because of the fog. I was grumbling because by that point I just wanted to get off the plane, but it wasn’t any real hardship compared to the poor folks caught up in the chaos of trying to leave on domestic and short haul flights during the next few days.

Because we knew we’d be of no use after the flight we’d booked a room at the Slough Travelodge, definitely the highlight of our trip. Not. Still, it was a convenient stopping off point and easy (i.e. cheap) to reach by local bus. It served it’s purpose well. We wanted to try and fight the effects of jet lag by staying up until later in the day but as soon as we sat on the bed we dropped off and were snoring. Unfortunately this had the knock on effect that we woke up at 22:00 and couldn’t get back to sleep again.

In the morning we caught a cab over to the Hertz rental office inn Slough. I was glad I’d pre-booked everything when the lady said that their Heathrow office was out of cars and sending people to Slough for them. Another side effect of the fog related chaos. Our car was a little Fiat Punto. I reminded Gemma that she had to change gears and we were off into the fog.

It took us about 7 hours to drive from Slough to Great Lumley in the North East. The fog had caused accidents and we had to contend with some fairly slow moving traffic near Nottingham. I mused that out of the places we’ve had a car on this trip the UK seems the easiest to get round. We couldn’t surprise my Mam as she is hard enough to get hold of on the phone, never-mind in person! We spent a couple of nights with my Mam and managed to see my neices and nephews and my friend Lisa, which was nice.

Rather than drive straight to Lowestoft we decided to break the journey for an evening in Nottingham. We didn’t get away from the North East until about 14:30 which meant it was dark as we arrived into Nottingham. Gemma hasn’t had much experience of driving at night and doesn’t really like it because of the headlights reflecting on her glasses. Still, we got to Jo and Andy’s house in one piece. It was nice to see Jo and Andy although I couldn’t keep my eyes open and was like a nodding dog pretty early in the evening.

Because of my messed up body clock I was up at about 06:00 and doing the washing up. We managed to get a pretty early start away from Nottingham and had a reasonably clear run traffic-wise except for getting stuck for a while behind a man who refused to do anything even approaching the speed limit. As we neared Lowestoft I think Gemma began to get a little bit nervous. To keep up the surprise we parked round the corner and snuck up to the front door. I think Gemma’s Mum and Dad may have thought that we were carol singers to begin with as they didn’t open the door for a while. Once they did come to the door though the surprise was sprung successfully, as captured by me:

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

San Francisco

We checked in to the Travelodge at the airport in San Francisco. The reasoning was that we may as well be near the drop off point for the rental car, and this way we would avoid having to deal with city centre traffic. In the morning we dropped the car off and went into the airport to sort out the re-validation of our tickets. What should have been a quick job ended up taking ages. The Virgin desks don’t open until 12:30, and the ticketing desk not until 13:00. That meant we had to wait around to see the ticketer. We had asked another of the desk staff, who checked and then took our tickets away, but she returned them telling us to wait.

After we had the little sticker allowing us to fly we caught the BART into San Francisco. We’d done a little bit of homework and pre-booked a hotel right next to the BART station, The Powell. It was a little more expensive than some of the other hotels we’d looked at, but was worth it. The room was really nicely and newly refurbished and the hotels location couldn’t have been better, literally in the middle of everything and right next to the cable-car turnout.

We took advantage of the 3 day MUNI public transport pass, very good value at $18, considering a single cable-car ride costs $5. The cable-car’s were cool. It was fun watching the drivers and conductors turning them manually by pushing them round on a circle in the road. Old school. The first car we took was full inside so we had to hang on the exterior platform which was cool. Every time I turned and looked at Gemma she had a massive grin on her face. At one point we went rather fast down a very steep street which was quite exhilarating. We spent a nice couple of days charging round the city on the cable-cars and sometimes on foot.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern art confirmed my suspicions that modern art is rubbish. Not all of it was crap, some was interesting. We saw a video installation of Turkish people singing karaoke Smiths songs. I quite enjoyed that.

Do you know the way to San Jose

Do we know the way to San Jose? Almost. We missed the exit ramp for the route that we had planned and so had to work it out a different way. To be fair, the way that we ended up going was a bit more sensible than the route we were going to take anyway so it all worked out OK. We were actually staying just outside of San Jose, at Fremont Days Inn. I had rather too much wine and felt a bit hungover so we had yet another day of vegging out.

When we left the Days Inn we drove into San Jose to go to the Tech Museum. The museum was very interactive as one would expect from a technology museum. It was pitched more towards children although there were some pretty cool things in there. I think Gemma liked it more, she was quite excited and crawling through tunnels and things. I enjoyed the IMAX dome cinema where we watched a film called Mystic India. The shots of Indian temples, jungles and the Himalayas were beautiful. I also really liked the 3D earth exhibit. A large sphere hangs from the ceiling and four projectors each hooked up to a computer display a spinning globe overlaid with various data. Very, very cool, I want one.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Wine Country

We paused our southward journey on highway 101 in Santa Rosa to have a quick look in a couple of shops in a large mall there. Big mistake. The traffic was awful so getting back on the freeway took an age. I’m sure the inconsiderate driving style that people have over here doesn’t help these situations. We were only back on the freeway for a very short time before we reached our goal for the day, Rohnerts Park Ramada. This was to be our home and base for the next three nights. The motel is well situated for the freeway, but otherwise in a completely unlovely location in the middle of a huge trading estate.

The plan was to use the motel as a base for exploring the wine country of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. The plan didn’t come to fruition however. The weather was awful and had a very negative effect on our moods. I’m starting to believe that we are solar powered. So instead of lazily visiting wineries and sipping their produce we mainly holed up in the motel watching TV and looking at stuff on the Internet (via a power-line router). We did manage to take a drive out to Copia in the Napa Valley. Copia is a centre for American food, wine and the arts. On entering we were a little unsure what to make of it as it was very warehouse-like and very empty. We picked up a schedule and had a quick look around. In the upstairs gallery we found an exhibition of wine photography which was pretty good. We joined a ‘lecture’ downstairs. This consisted of a taste of a wine and then a completely unrelated overview of the lecturer’s favourite Christmas children’s stories.

We tasted a sparkling wine, some cheese and some pomegranate juice before going on the orientation tour, which at 30 minutes was far too long. Copia doesn’t have that much stuff going on. We left the tour at the museum-like section which had some interesting displays, some interactive, about food and wine. Apparently my ideal meal would be mashed potato and mayonnaise.

On the way out of Napa I thought we could be clever and drive back a different way. I found a suitable road on the map and had Gemma get us on it. The road was possibly the steepest and most winding road we’ve been on in this trip. Eventually we negotiated ourselves up, down, up again and back down and out into the Sonoma valley. We just drove through rather than stopping off anywhere, because the rain had started in earnest.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

North coast

From Santa Cruz we continued on highway 1 toward San Francisco. The road hugged the coast, not so hilly as further South but still with it’s own rugged charm. We stayed on highway 1 and went straight over the Golden Gate bridge. An unfortunate haze lay over the bridge and city so the obligatory photograph stop on the North side hasn’t produced much of worth. There was a detour on highway 1 which forced us through a very winding forest road. San Francisco almost seems to demarcate a line in increased forest growth between the northern and southern parts of California. We stopped for lunch at the small town of Stinson Beach.

It was pretty late in the day by the time we reached the lighthouse at Point Reyes. The lighthouse is supposedly one of the best places on the coast for whale watching but our late arrival meant we couldn’t spend too long there. Despite this it was a lovely spot and the drive there was good in it’s own right.

Back on the highway and with night falling we pulled into a motel in Bodega Bay. It was a little more pricey than we’d have liked, but we needed somewhere by that point. The lady running the place gave us a leaflet for the Italian restaurant next door which offered a free bottle of wine with two mains. We took them up on the offer but felt a little bit scruffy and out of place there. The wine was OK, although probably not worth the $24 that was crossed through on the bill.

The weather had taken a turn for the worse and we had quite a bit of rain the following day. For this reason the day was mainly spent driving up highway 1. We stopped off in the pretty little town of Mendocino for lunch. We’d had Mendocino or it’s near neighbor Fort Bragg marked down as a possible stop off, but because of the rain and as it was still early we decided to press on. Instead we stayed in the town of Eureka, simply because we had a coupon for a motel there. I didn’t see much of the town, but what I did see was quite unlovely. When we went for dinner at the Denny’s on the next block a shady looking bloke that had been smoking in a doorway started to follow us. We picked up our pace and hustled into Denny’s quick-smart.

The North coast is where the big redwood trees grow, which was the reason that had drawn us up there. Along the coast are a series of national and state parks protecting areas of the forest that once covered a massive amount of the Northwest. The rain was spitting on and off as we drove up through the towering trees. We stopped for a short loop walk through the forest. The individual trees that we were looking at were not the tallest of the species, but they were pretty big all the same. The grove was very quiet, we only passed four other people on the trail. The two of us got neck ache from staring up at the giants.

Along the highway we saw elk grazing on grass at the side of the road. A little further on at the place called Elk Meadow we stopped and looked out for elk. I think they were all at the side of the road because they certainly weren’t in the meadow that was named for them. We did see a coyote there though so perhaps they ought to rename it Coyote Meadow.

Further into the national park a scenic drive cuts away from the highway. Unfortunately the road was closed, possibly because of the weather which was starting to turn for the worse. Grumbling, Gemma wheeled the car around and retraced our steps southward. We turned off the highway and took the Avenue of the Giants scenic drive going South. We abandoned the lovely forest at the southern end of the drive and rejoined the highway. The rain got worse and the sky was getting darker as night drew in so we gave up driving when we hit Ukiah, and booked into the Holiday Inn Express.

Road rage to Redwoods

Leaving Monterey we stopped at nearby Pacific Grove to see the Monarch butterflies which apparently are in abundance from November to March. We took the walk where you can see them and saw.... 2. Apparently they can look like leaves on trees, so maybe we saw more than we thought, but we had visions of them flying around us. We quickly left and ventured onwards towards Santa Cruz, stopping for a coffee in the pleasant Capitola. I wished we had stayed there when we arrived at Santa Cruz. It kind of went down hill from the moment we arrived. Looking for where we were going I accidentally cut the jeep that was behind me up (I was convinced no one was behind me) I was aware of him when he beeped and hung out of his window and shouted. I was even more aware of him when I pulled into a road and he followed stopping behind me when I pulled up to get my head together. I felt nervous as he approached the car but I had no choice but to open the door. He shouted at me and I apologised profusely which seemed to do the trick and as soon as I said sorry he calmed down. Lucky for him I’m not a psycho and I didn’t shoot him or something. I couldn’t believe that he came after me. You just don’t do that... in my book anyway. People cut me up and I grumble to myself a bit, but I wouldn’t dream of going after someone.

After that incident we found our motel. Too early for check in we went and checked out the boardwalk which had the sea side array of roller coasters and funfair rides. It was all closed though and we were practically the only ones about. It was time to check in so this accomplished we ventured out again. Again we walked down the board walk. This time there were a couple of drunk people arguing and one lying passed out on the beach. Despite the beautiful sunny day I felt like there was a heavy cloud hanging over us and the place. Tim voiced how I felt saying he felt really depressed! It was so weird. It was like Great Yarmouth in Winter but with nice weather. There was a weird atmosphere in the air. I had expected Santa Cruz to be really happening and maybe it is, but not the day we were there. To be honest I couldn’t wait to leave. We carried on into town to see if the cloud would lift. Unfortunately it didn’t so we gave up and went back and hid in our motel!

The next day we made our escape and headed towards San Francisco. We got on to the open road and I felt relieved to be on them as I had not enjoyed driving in towns thus far. We drove straight through San Fran as we will be returning later for Christmas and drove over the Golden gate bridge. We stopped when we reached the other side to look over the bay, bridge and city. It was very hazy, but still pretty. Past San Fran we noted the increase in the amount of trees around us. We drove on to Reyes Point, more beautiful rugged coastal scenery with a lighthouse at the end. After unsuccessfully whale watching across the broad waters we drove on, calling it a day at Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was filmed and where we went to a posh Italian because it was near and we’d get a free bottle of wine.

After Bodega bay the coastal scenery became more wild and rugged with massive waves crashing on the beach below us. We stopped for Lunch at Mendocino and decided to drive on to Eureka. I liked the name, I thought it sounded promising, so thought that was as good a reason as any to stop there. The drive was quite nice, if a little scary, the area becoming more like a murder setting in a horror film, driving through forests with the occasional shack hiding in it (Obviously where the psychos live)windy roads and very little traffic. We had come up to these parts of Northern California to see the Redwood trees, the tallest trees in the world. Facts about the Redwood tree, courtesy of Lonely Planet are: Redwoods now only grow in China and two areas of California and a small grove in Oregon. They can live up to 2200 years, grow to 370ft tall and achieve a diameter of 22ft at the base, with bark up to 12 inches thick.

Continuing on our way to Eureka we passed a small town where a sign informing us of a tree that we could drive through! As it was getting on we thought we might check that out on our way back down. We also said that about the shop selling Big Foot merchandise. Yes, we were in Big Foot territory too. Not only did we have a chance of seeing Big Foot, but we could also buy a wooden life size sculpture of him.

Eureka did not match it’s name. It was full of traffic and was like a lot of towns we had seen so far, like a big industrial estate. The bad weather had started to set in too which didn’t help. We used it as an over night stop before heading to the Redwood National park. Near by we drove through a small scary looking town where the only shops all appeared to only sell giant wooden sculptures of bears and Red Indian faces. Maybe these are the essential items in those parts. We noted the mist hovering above the dense forests before we had a lovely walk through a forest of Redwoods. Before going in we noted the sign telling us what to do in case of an encounter with a bear or Mountain Lion and were told to walk through the forest making plenty of noise to alert them to our presence. This wasn’t hard for me as I am as agile as an elephant, so I happily plodded through the beautiful forest of towering Redwoods made more atmospheric with the rain and mist in the trees. As with any trees especially big ones these were magnificent and beautiful. After our walk we went to find some Elk which are throughout the area and were surprised when we happened upon them on the side of the road. As it wasn’t the best place to stop we decided to go to the specific viewing area to see them. However there were none there, but we did see a Coyote, a canine animal which looks a cross between a fox and a wolf. I was really chuffed to see it and we watched it for a while, before driving off and seeing more Elk on the side of the road.

As the weather wasn’t conducive to walk on nearby beaches and as a scenic drive we had hoped to do was closed we decided to start heading back down the coast. This time we drove part of it down the 32 mile scenic alternative of the Avenue of the Giants, a road which winds through California’s largest Redwood Park which covers 53,000 acres. It was lovely driving down the road with the magnificent trees towering over us on either side.

Unfortunately we will not be coming home with a life size model of Big Foot. We decided to by pass it mainly because it was raining which made the already isolated, foreboding looking shop look even more so. We also bypassed the drive through tree deciding that we didn’t need to drive through a tree to marvel at the size of them.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Yankee Yarmouth

It took us some time to get out of Monterey. We’d gone for a look at the very pretty Pacific Grove area but true to form managed to end up going around Monterey twice trying to get on the freeway. Not far North of Monterey is the town of Santa Cruz. We arrived a little early to check in to the Knights Inn there, but as it was located near to the beach boardwalk we thought we’d have a quick walk down there.

There is something a bit sad and depressing about a seaside town in the off season. The roller coasters are not running, the doors are locked and the place resembles a ghost town. Even the once inviting bright colours of the buildings seem to mock. Santa Cruz boardwalk was very much like that. The only sounds came from the hideous cackling of an animated figure in the one arcade that was open and the arguments of a pair of drunk people on the bench at the end. It reminded me very much of Great Yarmouth in the winter. Despite having something that Great Yarmouth lacks in December, the sun, the mood was the same. A certain dissonant chord seemed to hang over the town, putting me on edge. I’m sure there was something bad in the air. On the surface Santa Cruz seems like a pretty good place to be, full of punks, surfers, skaters and hippies, but the atmosphere grated on me like fingernails being scraped on a blackboard. I hid away in the motel for much of the day, briefly venturing out again to the boardwalk to take some photographs to remind me of what had put me in such a dark mood.

Marine Life Tastic

After Santa Barbara we continued up the coast stopping at various points to admire the scenery. We had glimpses of the coast driving along sometimes, but it was the area known as Big Sur where we hugged the coast, following the road high above the vast blue ocean. Before we started on this road though we stopped at Piedras Blancas to look at the elephant seals on a beach near the highway. Sometimes there can be thousands on the beach but although there were quite a few there were not a thousand. We stopped at two beaches to see them. On the first beach we saw females and a couple of what we thought were rocks, but which turned out to be Bull Elephant seals. They were absolutely massive. On the next beach there were again more females than males but there were some massive bulls lying among them.

In the next few days, marine mammals continued to be a theme. We travelled along the winding roads hugging the coast of Big Sur stopping at various points to admire the vast blue ocean stretching far away into the clear blue sky. At one point we looked out and at every point we looked at in the sea there were pods of dolphins jumping and swimming. The road is high above the sea which allows a good vantage point out over the ocean. Below us the cliffs dropped into sea crashing against craggy rocks. At another point where we had stopped we saw a whale spouting water. These sightings were quite close together which suggested the area was very rich in marine life.

The next day we retraced our steps to return to a part we had had to miss the previous day due to having to find accommodation. On the way we stopped at a scenic lookout and as soon as we got out of the car heard the bark of seals down below. Looking over we saw loads of seals on rocks and swimming about. I could have stood for ages just listening to them. Their barks were echoing up the cliff and made it sound so haunting.

We continued on to the part we had missed which was a waterfall falling into the sea. The waterfall was not very spectacular, a thin sliver, but picturesque all the same, falling on to the sand of a secluded cove with turquoise seas and craggy rocks. On the way back we stopped again to hear and look at the seals, this time also seeing four Condors flying over the cliff on the other side of the road.

After our lovely journey along Big Sur we arrived at Monterey where more marine activity awaited. The town itself we found quite frustrating to get around, with lots of traffic and annoying junctions. We booked on a whale watching trip hoping to see a Blue Whale, something which is at the top of our wildlife watching “ambition” list. However, when we booked it the lady said they hadn’t been sighted since June so we knew our chances were slim. Never mind, we still booked on to see (hopefully) Humpback Whales. The day before they had only sighted one, but on the list of sightings for previous days, 1000 dolphins and 25 killer Whales had been seen!

We arrived at the Wharf early for the trip and watched a couple of seals and sea otters in the harbour. The sea otter was really cute, swimming about on his back playing with sea kelp (which they also use to anchor themselves to the spot to sleep) and diving down to get shell fish which he then cracked against the jetty’s legs to open. Leaving the harbour on the boat we went past lots of seals and sea lions sitting on the breakwater with Cormorants. Some sea lions were swimming in the water and seemed to show off to us, flipping out of the water.

Out on the water, although a lovely day, it was absolutely freezing. The ride initially was a bit rough with the spray hitting us and we clung on whilst intently looking for a sign of a whale. We were called to the front of the boat to see Dall Porpoises (black and white) swimming along playfully with the bow of the boat which were lovely to watch. Two hours later, I think people were feeling a bit despondent when the Skipper said he had spotted a whale in the distance breaching. We travelled towards it looking out for the tell tale sign of it breathing (water spouting). Eventually we saw the spouting with the mist evaporating in the air. The whale had just taken a breath to go under to feed so we had to wait for it to come up again. We got a few good looks at it few times before it went under again. At one point it seemed quite playful playing with sea kelp something which the Marine Biologist on board said she has never seen before. We did not see any more whales, but I still enjoyed it. We had seen Humpbacks before in Australia where they were all round the boat playing with it. I think this one was concentrating on it’s food (which I can’t blame) You just can’t predict when you will see nature. The marine biologist said the day before she had gone out looking for dolphins on Big Sur and had not seen any. That was the day we saw about 1000 of them!

You’d think we’d had our fill of marine life by now, but never ones to miss an aquarium we felt we had to go to the one in Monterey which we’d heard was very good. On the way, Tim was like a small child, very excitable and he continued to be so all the way round the aquarium. I felt like I had taken a child out and I looked on with that proud, pleased smile parents have as they watch their children having fun! It was a brilliant aquarium though. I do believe it may surpass Sydney which is a very good one. It is in an old sardine cannery factory and has the old fittings all around, making it look really swanky. The displays were excellent and they had a separate children’s section which looked great. The thing that most amazed me though was a creature that I never knew existed. The sunfish swam past me in a tank and I couldn’t believe that it was real!

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Our time in Monterey was a mixture of happiness and sheer frustration. We checked into the Knights Inn which we’d pre-booked via Expedia. As an aside, we’ve been using Expedia quite a lot recently to look for cheaper rooms and have been finding it hilarious. The entries for individual hotels include traveller reviews. Some of them are pretty funny, people giving negative reviews for reasons like, ‘The toilet seat was uncomfortable.’ or ‘There were homeless people in the area.’ Understand that we are generally talking about the budget motel places, not exactly the Hilton.

Our first afternoon in Monterey introduced us to the source of our frustration, the road system. We had some problems finding our way in initially because the exit signs from the freeway didn’t correspond to anything at all on our map. Not such a problem, and we worked our way back in the right direction. The problem was that, this just continued throughout our time in the town, every time we went anywhere, despite having a fair idea where to go, we seemed to spend ages going round in circles. Sometimes I was to blame, sometimes Gemma was to blame, but mostly I blame the street name signs being so small you needed a telescope to see them, random one way streets and seriously strange junctions. Not knowing our way round the city it was very easy to miss a turn-off. Not normally a problem in most grid-layout towns. Here though we’d end up on the freeway going in the wrong direction then have to circle right back through town.

Our second day in the town was quite a full one. We were up and out bright and early for the whale watching trip that we’d booked the previous day. I decided that given our ‘adventures’ with road directions that we’d better leave plenty of time but as it happened we got there really easily and quickly. Because of this we were able to spend some time hanging around on the wharf and watching the birds, sea lions and sea otters in the water. An otter was diving next to the pier, pulling up shellfish which it would then crack against the pilings of the pier. Once the shell was open the otter would float on it’s back chewing happily.

Our trip was with Monterey Bay Whale Watching Centre, the only operator with a marine biologist on board. The boat pulled out into the bay passing the breakwater, every square inch of which was taken up by sea lions or birds. Monterey Bay is a marine park and a haven for marine life of all sorts. Not far out into the bay is an underwater canyon. The waters of the canyon are very nutrient rich and therefore rich in plant and animal plankton. This in turn supports the rest of the food chain including many marine mammals. Not far out into the bay we were joined for a short time by a pod of Dall’s porpoises, they skipped along by the bow, easily outpacing the boat.

The whales however were more elusive. It took about two hours before the boat’s captain announced that he’d seen a whale breach four or five times ahead of us. The captain got us up quite near to the whale, a humpback, which decided to become a bit shy and spend only a short amount of time on the surface. No more breaching, but we did see plenty of blowing, a couple of good views of the tail flukes as it dived and the whale playing with a patch of floating kelp.

If I’m honest, we’d been hoping to get a close up look at a grey whale or a blue whale, both heavily featured in the leaflet that we’d picked up the previous day. I try not to be disappointed with these things though as seeing any wild animal on a trip like this is a privilege.

Back at the wharf we wolfed down fish and chips before moving quickly to the aquarium. I have a bit of a thing about aquariums. The Monterey aquarium was fantastic. Set in an old sardine cannery, the aquarium focuses on the marine habitat out in the bay. It does have a small tropical section so the kid’s can see Nemo, but otherwise keeps it pretty local. It’s a very swish complex, lot’s of interactive exhibits and lots of very interesting marine life. The jelly section was especially fine and had me entranced. It may have been the best aquarium I’ve been to. The aquarium was funded by the Packard family (of Hewlett Packard fame), and David Packard even built some of the equipment in his garage. I think this is pretty cool.

Big Sur

In the morning we checked out and headed back on route 1 towards the coast. Our first stop was just down the road in the town of Morro Bay. Passing by three large smokestacks from an old canning factory we arrived at Morro Rock, a very large rock connected to the town by a road. Lots of people were out fishing and birdwatching along the breakwater. It was the perfect day for it with blue skies and warm but not too hot.

Not far from Morro Bay is the small town of Cambria, where we stopped for a quick lunch. There are three parts to the town, an older part, a newer touristy part next to the highway and a beachfront part. We ended up by bad judgement at the second of the three, although it was reasonably pleasant.

William Randolph Hearst (on whom Citizen Kane was based) built a huge ‘castle’ in the area. We passed it on the highway, but declined the idea of taking the tour. We were much more interested in what lay about five miles up the coast, a large seal colony. We stopped in two of the parking spots in order to get a good view of the elephant seals in the colony. During December the bulls come in to shore so we were able to see several of the huge animals along with the smaller females. When I say huge I’m not kidding. I was blown away by the size of them.

Back on the highway and we were soon in the area known as Big Sur. Big Sur is not really a specific town, rather the name for a stretch of the central California coastline. From the moment we hit the southern part we were travelling through jaw-dropping scenery the rival of any we’ve seen thus far on this trip. The craggy hills run right to the ocean with the road winding precariously along the side of them. Our average speed plummeted, but this was all the better to enjoy the views. We stopped in several small parking areas for a look out over the ocean. We were rewarded at two of these over and above the views of beautiful little coves. At the first we saw pods of dolphins leaping, so many of them that almost everywhere I rested my eyes I would see a group. At the second a white spray from the water alerted us to the presence of a whale, most likely a grey or humpback whale migrating to it’s winter breeding grounds.

The sun was getting lower in the sky and not wanting to rush on to Monterey or drive the winding coast road in the dark we decided to book in somewhere at the village, the place that is sometimes shown as Big Sur on the map. The village is a rather scattered lot of accommodation and eating choices. We pulled in and got a room for the night at Glen Oaks Motel. The room was a little over-priced for what it was but beggars can’t be choosers.

In the morning we turned back and went South again to visit places that we’d skipped over in our hurry to get a room the night before. A short way down the coast we came to a state park which is famous for it’s waterfall. We jumped out, paid the day access fee for the park and walked round the the waterfall view. The waterfall wasn’t too spectacular, but the coastal scenery was. Little unaccessible beaches nestled between rocky outcroppings and the sun made the ocean sparkle. On the way back northward we stopped at every turn off to check out the view. It continued to be beautiful. In several of the clifftop stops the barking of sea lions echoed loudly. The top of the cliffs was a great vantage point for watching the seals cut through the water. We took our time travelling up the road until we’d passed the limit of Big Sur and reached the towns of Carmel and Monterey.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

San Luis Obispo

Not far from Santa Barbara, California Route 1 heads inland for a time. This prompted much grumbling from the drivers seat to the effect of, ‘I thought it was a coastal highway, where’s the bloody coast then.’ Thankfully the road turns back to the coast at San Luis Obispo Bay. The bay consists of some small seaside towns and the grumbling stopped as we pulled into Pismo Beach, the first of them. The town was packed with surfy types and people generally just enjoying the weekend weather so it took us a little while to find a parking spot. We took a walk along the pier, watching the surfers and the pelicans doing their respective things.

Being at the beach and it being sunny gave me a craving for ice cream. I couldn’t see anywhere to buy it other than the fishing bait stall on the pier, and I was a little dubious in case they kept the two in the same freezer. Instead we jumped in the car and drove on up the coast to the town of Avila Beach. We felt like proper Americans driving 10 miles for an ice cream. Avila was much less busy than Pismo, but was just as nice. We found a great little ice cream shop, bought a cone each and made for the beach. Avila has another lovely pier, as well as a platform underneath it from which one can see starfish clinging to the wooden supports of the pier.

We decided to book accommodation in the town of San Luis Obispo, nearby but inland. I sat in the car using the laptop to jump on the wireless connection of the hotel we were parked by so that we could book something, the Ramada Inn. Back on the road it was only 15 minutes before we were checking in, having chosen the motel for no other reason than it had a guest laundry, something that was fast becoming a critical need.

In the evening we walked into town for food, finding the excellent Natural Café. Gemma was excited because they had a jacket potato with steamed vegetables on the menu, possibly the blandest dish in the history of cooking. Needless to say that is what she ordered. We’d read about a couple of places to have a beer, but couldn’t find one of them. The other had about 6 people hunched over their drinks at the bar so I decided I didn’t fancy it. Instead we went back to the motel and drank Canadian cider whilst watching a terrible horror film (Monster Man).

Santa Barbara

From Mojave we took the road toward Los Angeles. Instead of entering the city we veered off towards the coast road and the town of Santa Barbara. We’d pre-booked some accommodation as we’d read it can be hard to find a room in Santa Barbara. After check-in at the, quite expensive, Sandpiper Lodge we drove down the main road and into the town centre. The sun was shining and it was pretty warm, in contrast to the chilly temperatures we’d had inland. Santa Barbara is a nice little town and we had no trouble whiling away the day. We had to stay in the town centre as there was a Christmas parade on in the evening. Actually it was called a holiday parade for reasons of political correctness. Gemma insisted that we stay on and watch it because the parade’s master of ceremonies was Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future fame.

The parade went on for ages. I think my feet began to bleed. Endless columns of marching bands, gymnasts, cheerleaders and the like walked past us, most putting in a very half hearted effort. Every time there was a break in the flow of paraders I thought my luck might be in and the parade might be over, but it wasn’t to be. More people would come from up the road and march past us. We were stuck. The car was parked in a multi-storey directly across the street being used for the parade. We couldn’t risk dashing across for fear of being trampled by baton twirling teens. Just when I was beginning to think that I might be stood there all night the last float came past and the crowd began to disperse. We did get to see Christopher Lloyd come past in carriage, waving regally to the crowds. He didn’t go back or forward in time though, which was quite a disappointment.

Mojave To Santa Barbara

Leaving Las Vegas we headed through the Mojave desert to Mojave town. We thought it would be as good a stop as any especially because Tim had heard that planes are kept here to preserve them and so we thought that sounded like an interesting sight.

The journey was a good one, driving along near deserted roads, except for gigantic trucks, through the desert past a few ramshackle houses and alongside a freight train which looked picturesque chugging along against the backdrop of the mountains and the otherwise sparse land.

Approaching Mojave town we saw the massive wind farm before we saw the few planes which were behind a fence. There were also a few old fighter planes as well. However, the scene wasn't as bizarre as we had imagined, but undeterred we stayed the night anyway. We stayed in our first motel. The sign wasn't a broken neon one I'm afraid and there were no mafia murders (to my knowledge) although there was a connecting door to the next room and we could hear them quite plainly. I thought I might have been hearing a murder about to happen or at least a loud argument, until I realised it was their T.V.

To carry on with the bad film theme we had our tea at Jerry's restaurant which could have been in any American film complete with booths, local clientèle and waitresses who call you honey. Now I realise that I have made several references to American film and T.V but I guess they are the reason everything seemed so familiar, so sadly, when I see Chips going down the free way I get excited. Case in point the next day watching a Christmas Parade in Santa Barbara.

Driving to Santa Barbara the local radio announced that the Christmas Parade was on in town that night. Liking a good parade I was quite pleased anyway but I was even more pleased when they announced that the master of ceremonies would be Christopher Lloyd AKA Doc out of Back to the Future. Now maybe I was a little bit too excited by this but Back to the Future was a good film and when I was young, my sister and I watched it a lot.

Santa Barbara is a very pretty town and we had a nice day wandering round in the sun. I was a bit perturbed as the homeless people seemed better dressed than us. Making me feel even worse was the fact that being the messy eater I am I was wearing part of my lunch. I daren't sit down on a bench in case someone felt sorry for us and gave us their spare change.

We noticed with amusement that people had 'reserved' their spots for the Parade on the side of the pavement by placing their chairs and blankets, some locked to lampposts. At 6.30 we were waiting for the parade with the owners of these chairs. I felt sure the parade was going to be something pretty spectacular. I'm not quite sure why I thought that, but I was wrong. I thought that Lowestoft carnival was more professional! It was like any other parade in any other town but it maybe went on for a a bit longer. It was quite annoying because at the part where we were standing the parade would seem to have a break from their respective performances. For example the bands would stop playing, only to start up again further down the road, so all we got were a few randomly shouted 'Happy Christmas's'. You might say well why didn't you move. Well there were quite a lot of people and moving might have meant seeing nothing at all. In hindsight that might not have mattered, but I did get to see Christopher Lloyd who rode past us in a horse drawn carriage so all was not lost! Although I don't think my saying this to Tim made him feel better about standing on the side of the road in the cold watching a never ending parade.

LA to Las Vegas

The flight from the Cook Islands to LA wasn't hideous, with a brief stop in Taihiti where more cheery singers welcomed us making me wish we were staying for longer than an hour and a half. LA was our destination though and after a night at an airport hotel we were picked up by my cousin, Rachel who lives nearby in Orange County. It was great to see her and she took us to her lovely house where we stayed for a few days with her, Pat, Katy and Sean and Mitzy the dog. It was great to spend time with them in their home; a bit of family life and normality was welcomed. They took us to Newport beach and Crystal cove (In Pat's enormous truck) where we walked and watched the sun go down and we also had our first American Diner experience.

We had no real plans and so we didn't really know what we were going to do after leaving Rachel's. Pat said 'Las Vegas is fun' and so we decided to head there first. Rachel took us to collect our hire car and I agreed to hiring the Pontiac, a red sporty number that they offered us because they had no economy class cars. I think Rachel was jealous of my new car! It has features which include being able to turn the engine on remotely (why you would want to do that I do not know, but it amuses us. It's like Kit out of Knightrider!) I said Goodbye to Rachel feeling sad to do so, promising to ring her when we got to Vegas. This had a pleasing ring to it and although I was nervous about driving in The States, I also felt excited about our road trip to Vegas as did Tim and as we pulled on to the freeway we settled into our new car. I got used to driving it pretty quickly and felt fine about driving. As we travelled along the Freeway, I commented, 'if my driving instructor could see me now' (I think he despaired of me for a while when I was learning to drive 2 years ago).

I enjoyed the drive to Vegas although it took a bit longer than planned due to a traffic jam. We travelled through desert of sand and low scrub for a while when suddenly seemingly out of nowhere a town appeared. The town was Primm, which has casinos and over the top buildings as well but just not to the same scale as Vegas. It looked so out of place in the desert. Arriving at Vegas, singing the obligatory 'Viva Las Vegas', the sun was setting and the surrounding mountains and desert looked beautiful and unreal especially as it was the backdrop to the surreal city of Las Vegas with it's massive neon signs and bizarre buildings. We found our hotel, the casino The Excalibur, a massive toy town looking castle. It was exciting to be in Vegas.

Unfortunately it was also very cold. The wind was blowing and it was icy. Probably due to this the strip wasn't as busy/manic as I had expected it to be. We spent a fair amount of time in the casinos, due to not wanting to be in the cold and also because half the time we couldn't find our way out! They are designed well. Tim and I gambled hard and fast....on the 1cent slot machines! I got very excited when Tim won $20 and at one point the waitress who comes round to take orders for the free drinks remembered us. It was quite embarrassing when she said 'appreciate it again honey' when I gave her her tip from my pew next to Tim on his slot machine.

I think I have watched too many films, but I expected a lot of the clientèle to be glamorous so I was feeling rather scruffy in my travelling gear when we ventured out the first night. I needn't have worried as no one else was! I did consider buying a velour tracksuit to fit in but for some reason Tim wouldn't let me.

We had hoped to see a show whilst here and I was determined to as it is probably the only time I'll hear Tim say 'let's see a show'. However, we didn't fancy any of them. The only one we did fancy was Penn and Teller but disappointingly they were booked up. Also the free show of the battle at Treasure Island was closed for repairs so we couldn't see that. However we did see the dancing Fountains in front of the Bellagio which were impressive and we had a great time going round the casinos and walking down the strip. It just felt so different to anything we'd done so far. I usually hate slot machines and never let Tim go in the arcades in Lowestoft (bad teenage memories) but this was fun and Vegas is so over the top (although I'm sure it could feel more over the top on a weekend) that you can't help get into the spirit of it.

We went to Red Rock Canyon one day, a 20 mile trip to a beautiful canyon. Going here made me see there is so much more to Vegas and also it made the city seem even more bizarre: a huge neon city plonked in a desert. I'm glad we went to Vegas. I didn't get married by Elvis. Maybe next time.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


When we left Las Vegas we made the decision to give Los Angeles a wide berth. We didn’t want to drive back in and get snarled up in heavy traffic on the freeways. Instead we turned off I-15 at Barstow and headed towards the town of Mojave. This is in the general area as the desert of the same name so for miles the road snaked through flat scrubland bordered by mountains. It looked almost as if you could reach out to the horizon and crumble them. Incredibly long trains rolled slowly through the desert as we outpaced them on the road, empty but for us and a few trucks.

We picked the town of Mojave as our guidebook said it had aircraft lying all about the place, so I sensed some photo taking opportunities. On our approach into Mojave we saw that wasn’t really the case. There were a few large aircraft, but fully fenced off within the grounds of the airport. What Mojave did have in large numbers was wind turbines. A massive wind farm covered the surrounding hills. We checked into the Econo Lodge where the guy warned us that there wasn’t anything to do in Mojave. He was right. We did venture out briefly to Jerry’s, a nearby diner, which was very much like something out of a movie. Red leather effect upholstery on the booths and waitresses that called us ‘honey’ a lot.

Bright light city

Rachel kindly took us to the Hertz rental place down the road from her. We’d pre-booked a car on the Internet the day before so just had to pick it up. Being the cheap and cautious types, we’d selected the smallest economy class car we could. This being the US though, they didn’t have any economy sized cars available and so they gave us the choice of a couple of other cars (at the lower price we’d booked). We chose the Pontiac G6, mainly because it was red. It had automatic and electric everything including, to our surprise, a remote engine start from the keyfob. Cool. Gemma didn’t have too much trouble getting used to the power of the car and I soon settled back into my leather seat as we made for Interstate 15. Thankfully we were quite close and basically only had to make two turns before we were on it and heading toward Nevada.

The sprawl of the suburbs continued for some distance before turning eventually to desert. The mountains in the distance began to look painted onto a board. Gemma’s driving was excellent. In the beginning she had a tendency to be too far to the left, a little scary for me when passing big trucks, but she soon got over that. We paused for lunch at a small service turn off just before the town of Barstow, which earned the following mention in the Lonely Planet, ‘[Lots of travellers are] not looking for charm, nor would they find any.’

The journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas should take around four hours with no stops. When we hit a line of stopped traffic I realised that our journey would take a wee bit longer. It was only a single lane closed for roadworks but it took us about an hour to get through it. It is good that they are repairing the road as the surface is simply awful for long stretches. Just before the Nevada state line a marker informed us that we were at 4,000 feet. Cresting the hill we saw the casino town of Primm tucked in on the valley floor looking utterly out of place in the desert.

We were singing Viva Las Vegas as we turned off I-15 and into the parking lot of the Excalibur, our home for the next two nights. Although our guidebook claims that true luxury comes cheaper in Las Vegas than virtually anywhere else in the world, we had decided that we’d treated ourselves enough and plumped for the cheaper option. Entering the fantasy castle that is the hotel we’d barely made it to the check-in desk before being jumped on by very jolly staff asking whether we were a couple and whether we lived together, because of a special promotion for couples. After desperately contriving a way to satisfy their documentary requirements as to our status as a couple they offered us free show tickets, a holiday package plus a cruise. Guessing where it was heading, we asked about the catch. ‘None,’ the guy replied, ‘we just ask you to visit our property off the strip, where we’ll feed you and...’ I stopped him mid-speech to ask if it was a time-share. When he replied in the affirmative we shook our heads and said we weren’t interested. Even if all the free stuff was on the level I have known too many people who have been subject to intense pressure from time-share salespeople. I didn’t want that, and neither did I have the time to spare to sit through a sales talk. The rest of our time in Vegas we spent rebuffing such offers of free shows.

Our first night in Sin City wasn’t too sinful. We took a stroll through the casinos near Excalibur on the strip. The Luxor and Mandalay Bay join with it to create one big complex. We quite fancied getting out onto the strip to get a look at the casinos all lit up but were having trouble finding our way out of the casinos. They make it easy to get in there but don’t have any signs or other indications of where the exit is. After walking around in circles a lot we found our way out. Gemma had bemoaned the fact that she felt scruffy and had wanted to dress up. I think she’d been expecting tuxedos and glamour, but our walk around the gaming floors of the three casinos soon disavowed her of that idea. Velour tracksuits were more the norm, not what Gemma was imagining I think. On the strip the neon was burning bright through the dark. The casinos are just mental, huge insane monuments to their chosen theme. The light that shines from the top of the pyramid at Luxor can apparently be seen from space!

We continued up the strip to New York New York. Every few feet a guy would thrust a bunch of cards at us and Gemma would obligingly grab them. They were advertising escorts with semi clad ladies pictured on them. I think we collected the whole set. In New York New York we stopped for a drink and watched the beginning of Duelling Pianos. The hosts began to be a little forceful demanding that we had fun so we slid out. We had quite fancied catching a show whilst in Vegas but were a little bit disappointed by what was on. Penn & Teller appealed, but either weren’t on or were fully booked, either way we couldn’t go see them. There were other things on but I really didn’t fancy seeing Celine Dion. Actually that is an understatement, I would rather have drawing pins stuck in my eyes than being forced to endure a Celine Dion show.

In the morning we set off along the strip and westwards to Red Rock Canyon. I was freezing and forced to press the button that turned on the heaters in the seats. Mmmmm, warm cheeks. Although the park lies only 20 miles away from Las Vegas it took us about an hour. The park has an interesting visitors centre and a 13 mile loop drive which winds through a scenic vista of rocky outcroppings and flat plains dotted with low scrub bushes. The rocks here are vivid reds and yellows, hence the name of the park. Being out there amongst the natural and rather bleak splendour of the park brought it home just how astounding and out of place the spectacle of Las Vegas is.

All in the drive out to Red Rock took most of the day, so there was just chance for a Krispy Kreme doughnut before it got dark. We walked up the strip in search of the free entertainments. Unfortunately the Treasure Island show, in which a battle between a couple of full size ships leads to the sinking of one, was closed for renovations. Instead we made do with the fountain show at the Bellagio. This was pretty damned impressive, with massive water jets synchronised to classical music. By the time we’d watched two iterations of the fountain show my head was beginning to go numb with the cold so we popped into Ceasar’s Palace. We made our way back down the strip, stopping at the casinos along the way for a drink (free whilst gaming) and a go on the slots. We stuck to the 1 cent slots, sometimes winning a bit, other times losing. We are the last of the high stakes gamblers. Back at Excalibur, I quite fancied switching to a table game like roulette or blackjack (I’m no poker player), but by this time the low stakes games were all quite crowded and I didn’t fancy the $50 minimum bet ones. Instead we played some more slots for a while, trying, unsuccessfully, to win an Orange County Choppers custom motorcycle.

I quite enjoyed Las Vegas. The sheer scale of the casinos and their utter grandness and silliness is amazing. Miles and miles of neon tubing. Watching people chained to the slots is quite funny. When I say chained I mean it literally, lots of people have loyalty cards for each of the casinos on strings around their necks and plugged in to the machines. It wasn’t quite the mad cacophony of light and noise I thought it would be on the gaming floors though, in fact it was quite subdued. Perhaps because it was a weekday. At one point an alarm went off and everyone barely paused pushing buttons to crane their necks around their machines, perhaps looking for a super jackpot winner. An announcement later told that it was a false alarm on the fire system. It’s a good job that it wasn’t a real fire because nobody moved!