Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Island Time

I'm not sure how we ended up booking a trip to Vanuatu these holidays. I think we were looking at a ridiculously cheap deal to Fiji which actually turned out to be too good to be true and then to alleviate the disappointment of not going there I went on an internet hunt with our meagre mid year budget and ended up in Port Vila.

Anyway, with the weather we've had in Victoria lately the thought of a tropical holiday was very enticing and so, here we are at the Pacific Lagoon Apartments, on the edge of Erakor Lagoon. For those of you drooling green slimes of jealousy, I must add that it is actually raining and there's a fresh enough breeze that I wish I'd bought some long sleeves but it is a far cry from the misery of Mortlake.

We took a 7am flight from Melbourne via Brisbane with Virgin. I was surprisingly happy with the Virgin service. Extremely pleasant check in staff and flight attendants, delicious banana bread as a snack on the way to Brisbane and an even more delicious gourmet sandwich on our way across the Coral Sea. The only downside was the dickhead in front of us who insisted on reclining his seat the full way back - who needs to do that on a 2 HOUR flight? Thankfully he was sitting in front of Taine, not me or he would have had some nasty knees in the back!


From the moment you step off the plane and into the Port Vila airport you are on 'island time'. Here is the perfect place to wind down because no one will allow you to move at any speed! The lines to the immigration windows snake around a tiny room like a deceptive Disneyland queue and the silly sods who dressed for their Melbourne departure were sweating profusely by the time they get to the front.

The local currency is the vatu, some of which we tried in vain to access from the ATM at the airport. To pay for a taxi to our accommodation we exchanged the $100 AU in our wallets for $8500 vatu. There's just a fleeting moment where you feel really rich with those $1000 notes - till you realise that the taxi will cost $3000. They drive on the right hand side of the road here so there was a certain sense of American deja vu as we hurtled out of the airport on what seemed like the wrong side of the road. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that we seemed to be driving head on into the oncoming traffic most of the time, as we overtook everything in our way! And then there's the issue of the unmaintained roads. The pot holes are so big I thought I was back on the Hopkin's Highway! There was lots of horn tooting and swerving but in a totally non aggressive manner with the drivers exchanging high fives and big waves. No road rage in island time.


The manager of our accommodation is an expat Aussie who came for a holiday 5 years ago and didn't go home. ( It's not hard to see why!). In another example of island time, he dropped whatever he was doing and took us in his car for a drive around town to find an ATM and a supermarket. This proved to be a lengthy exercise because most of the ANZ machines were having island time of their own! Eventually we did get some money and managed to buy some food for dinner. By Aussie standards, the supermarket made our local IGA look flash, but we were able to get some sausages and locally grown bananas.

Port Vila is an assault on the senses and an oxymoron of 3rd world meets 1st world. Ute loads of islanders crowd into the back of pick ups as they drive past the construction of monolithic new resort and conference facilities. The produce market, where the native women sell bananas and taro and coconuts and sleep under their stall tables at night because it's too far to get back to their villages, is next door to a Billabong outlet. A game of barefoot soccer takes place across the road from the harbour where a multi million dollar cruise ship sits at berth. The city/town sits amongst the most beautiful tropical jungle and the streets are covered in litter.


Our apartment manager told us that the going rate for wages here is $150 vatu an hour - almost $2AU. Kids here go to school only if their parents can afford it and the unemployment rate is around 50%. There is no welfare system on the island so extended families are very important. Given that food costs as much as it does at home, the people here must live on a lot of instant noodles and taro. I'm glad we aren't staying at a 5 star resort when we are surrounded by so much poverty.

We caught a bus back from the supermarket. What an amazing system of beat up people movers this is. They pick you up wherever you are and take you to wherever you want to go for 150 vatu. Our driver was a rasta looking fellow called Chris who spent a lot of time leaning over the back talking to us and high fiving Taine rather than looking at the road. No drama though, the drivers coming the other way were doing the same thing and somehow managed to avoid hitting us! Chris has a great deal on round the island trips (as does every bus driver in Port Vila) but he seemed like such a genuine guy ( to the extent that he magically appeared on our patio to show us his brochure as we were eating our sausages!) that I think we will have to spend the few extra thousand vatu to go with him and his sister on Saturday.

I haven't taken many photos today. I've been too busy looking out the window in amazement and hanging on to the seat for dear life to be able to pick up the camera. I'll do better tomorrow.

In the morning I'm looking forward to walking the 50 paces to the lagoon and checking out some fish through my prescription snorkel mask. But only when I wake up. After I've had some island made peanut butter on toast. If I feel like it. Cause I'm on island time :-)


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Heading North for the Winter

It's been a very long term and it's really cold at home so we decided to seek out a few days of warmth to recharge our batteries. With temperature being the motivating factor, the far north seemed to be the best destination and so off we went to tropical Cairns, to bask in a very temperate 26C, thanking our lucky stars that we had escaped the cold front that moved across Western Victoria the day we left.

We flew to Cairns via Brisbane ( 2 hrs plus stopover plus 2 hrs) with Virgin, who have definitely improved their service since we last flew with them back in 2005. The second leg in particular was quite comfortable and because of a short delay on the tarmac, Taine had time to visit the cockpit to get his travel book signed.

Captain Taine
The taxi fare from the airport to town was a very reasonable $21, (the same as it would have cost 3 of us on the shuttle) and we arrived at the Best Western Sheridan at 11pm. Knowing we'd be late arriving I went for a budget first night and so we weren't expecting anything flash from the hotel. Just as well! The place has certainly seen better days and could do with a really good scrub. Cracked tiles I can manage but I'm pretty sure the toe nail clippings in the bathroom belonged to a previous guest :-( Coming from mid winter at home, the tropical heat was quite a shock and we quickly realised most of what we'd packed would be redundant. We cranked the air con up to cool down the room and went for a quick walk to get our bearings and some water. Not much happens after dark in Cairns on a Thursday night so we were soon back & in bed.

The next morning we picked up our rental and headed to the Esplanade and downtown. The highlight there is the swimming lagoon, a beautifully landscaped, FREE swimming pool right in the heart of the city. What a fabulous idea! Taine and Geoff checked out the water while I people watched and tried to find at least 10 who looked worse than me in bathers. It's not a nice thing to do but it's good for my self esteem.
Cairns Esplanade
Then it was on to the Big 4 Coconut Holiday Resort, our home for the next 2 nights. This is a caravan park with the lot! Water park, swimming pools, mini golf, gym, jumping pillows, hire bikes, tennis court & outdoor movies. Seventh heaven for Taine who thinks it's the best place we've ever stayed! The climate in Cairns is very reminiscent of Florida and the Coconut Big 4 is like a poor cousin to a Disney Resort (but without Mickey and the endless soft drink refills!)

Waterpark at Coconut Holiday Resort

For dinner we drove back into the city to the Night Markets. These consist of the usual junk that you find at markets and if you were an international tourist you'd be able to stock up here on kitschy, aussie things to take home. For us the highlight was the Chinese, stack-your- plate seafood buffet.

On Saturday I made the mistake of trying out the exercise bike in the gym and returned my damaged back to 'cannot move without intense pain' status'. This put a bit of a dampener on my day but after a morning of park activities we pressed on regardless and went for a drive to Kuranda to check out the rainforest. Having done our fair share of both in other locations we took neither the train nor the cable car and enjoyed the scenic drive from the comfort of the rental. Kuranda is full of rainbow clothing and 'mystic' gem stones designed to empty the pockets of the tourists arriving by the afore mentioned modes of transport. We bought a bit of both and enjoyed a couple of extremely over priced, locally made 'bliss balls'. Just to make sure my back was truly wrecked, we walked down to the Barron Falls lookout and back and then I had to recline the car seat so I could lay flat all the way back to the park :-(
Kuranda Market
The Captain Cook Highway hugs the coast from Cairns to Port Douglas. In fact this grey, tourist moving ribbon is the only thing that separates the rainforest from the sea. The views are spectacular and while there are lots of named beaches along this 80km stretch, there are also literally hundreds of patches of deserted white sand for those who prefer a more secluded stroll or swim. We drove into Palm Cove for a look but couldn't get a park amongst the Sunday brunchers.



We arrived in Port Douglas in time for quick squiz at the Sunday market. Taine enjoyed squeezing and drinking some sugar cane juice and we wandered through the gazebos of 'new agers' selling environmentally& ecologically sound, organic stuff full of antioxidants & other expensive goodnesses. I actually heard someone order a blackberry & spearmint green chai latte. I think the back pain may be making me a wee bit intolerant to such nonsense and Taine was getting sunburnt so we grabbed some codeine and an ice pack from the chemist and booked (the last available) tickets on a cruise out to the reef for tomorrow. July is a very popular time in Port Douglas. The place is full of other Victorians fleeing the cold and so by the time I got around to booking accommodation for this holiday there wasn't a resort room to be found and we had to settle for the Lazy Lizard Motel! It's ok and cheap by PD prices but I'm sure I would have been in less pain if I was soaking in a warm pool with a cocktail in my hand. We paid extra at the Lizard to have breakfast included. I had nostalgic visions of a La Quinta bagel buffet but they delivered our breakfast the night before - some bread, mini boxes of cereal & some long life milk. Ha ha ha. DIY breakfast!

Crush your own sugar cane
No trip to FNQ would be complete without visiting the Great Barrier Reef but that's nearly what happened to us. Having not factored in that every second person from Victoria would be holidaying in Port Douglas during the school holidays, we left our cruise booking until we got here. We had ummed and ahhed about which boat to take for ages but in the end the decision was made for us because we got the last 3 seats on any cruise available for our 3 days here! The Wavedancer took us to the Lower Isles for a day of snorkeling and sunshine. Apparently they start thinking about canceling the cruises when the wind gets to 25 knots so the 35 knots that it was today would account for the giant swell we encountered on the way out. Luckily we were armed with travelcalm and while I'm terrified of heights, big waves don't bother me at all so the roller coaster boat ride was fun so long as you avoided all the poor people throwing up into their paper bags. It was our first snorkeling experience and Taine and I had lots of fun frolicking in the shallows while Geoff managed to get right across to the other island where the water was clearer and he could chase the fish with his hired, underwater camera. The weightlessness of the water was a welcome relief for my back and I was sorry when we had to get back on the boat for the wild ride home. We went to the Yacht Club for a dinner and had a lovely, old fashioned, counter meal in their outdoor dining room.

Snorkeling on the reef

The Low Isles 
Our last full day in FNQ was spent exploring the rainforest north of Port Douglas. We stopped at the Mossman Gorge and took the shuttle ($6). The walkway there is very reminiscent of the Otway Fly (but free!). The Gorge Centre is very well run and an informative place to stop and learn about the local aboriginal culture. The staff are very helpful and friendly. This stretch of highway also provides a great glimpse of the sugar cane fields. The cane trains are fascinating and I'm motivated to find out more about the industry when we get home. I'm really surprised their isn't a tourist market for farm tours etc.

Mossman Gorge

Cane train

From Mossman we headed up to the Daintree Village, a completely non event town devoted to taking money from tourists for one of the many boat cruises down the river. At least Kuranda had interesting wares at it's market. The Daintree Village market was actually someone's second hand junk shop! Unwilling to be ripped off further we drove a few more kms to have a look at the ferry that crosses the river for travelers going on to Cooktown & beyond. The queue was very long and we were glad we'd already decided to turn back at that point. On the way back we made a visit to the fruit winery. These guys make wine out of tropical fruit because it's too hot for grapes up here. I tasted my way through the list from lychee to mango. I'm not sure whether I liked the wine much but the owners were lovely and my back felt heaps better by the time I got back in the car ;-)

Taine was very anxious to check out the cane toad races so we went to the Ironbar Pub for dinner. The food was very disappointing. I ordered the barramundi and it was the size of a large fish finger. Taine's pizza was more plentiful but so long in arriving that we had to leave half of it in order to see the cane toads. We each paid $5 for a ticket top watch the toads. Of course to actually get to race one you had to bid for them in an auction and there were enough people there with far more money than our brains so Taine had to settle for a ring side seat. As the poor toads were pulled out of the bucket there were lots of racial and homophobic and sexist jokes centred around the names of the toads (Gay Freddo, Camel Toad etc) and considering it was the early show of predominantly families with kids I found the whole racing spiel a bit offensive. I got to be the 'assistant', writing the winners on the whiteboard (teachers always get the whiteboard jobs!) and the reward for that was a free stubby. Mind you, the toad man wasn't too sure about giving the beer to me. Not sure if it was because I'm old or female but he said I could give it to my 'old man'.

Cane toad assistant
Next morning we savoured the pretty coastal drive again on our way back to Cairns before our long travel day home. Geoff dropped the car off at the rental depot in pristine condition. Unfortunately the poor boy who then jumped in the driver's seat to take us to the airport wasn't quite as adept at reversing and ran straight into the front of the building !

Oops
All in all, it was a lovely, warm break from the winter of home and we left enough sights unseen to ensure that we have to go back again some time.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mastania 2013

Having caught a bad case of the travel bug on our US trip, staying at home for the holidays has become unthinkable and so we made a last minute decision to travel over the seas to Tasmania for a few days.

I last traveled on the Bass Strait ferry back in the 80s but Geoff and Taine had never taken the voyage so we decided it would be fun but reasonably affordable adventure to tick off our travel bucket list. The beauty of the ferry of course, is that you can take your own car so you don't have the hassles of deciding what can and cannot fit in your baggage allowance! It also allowed us to throw our bikes on the back of the car in the hope that we might get some exercise as well.

The queue for the ferry is quite similar to a Disney attraction queue. When you arrive at Station Pier it looks like you are about to drive straight on the boat ( like the ads on TV) but in fact the first check point is just the beginning of a a winding route to the three lines of waiting cars at the garage bay. Although check in begins 2 hours before sailing, they don't actually start loading till about 45 minutes before, so there's a fair bit of sitting in your car waiting.

Deckside on the Spirit
The cabins on board are functional but tiny. Thankfully we only took a little bag with our toothbrushes and clean undies from the car because there is no room for storage in the cabins. Food choices on board are pretty limited and expensive. You can dine very expensively at the a la carte restaurant or fill a plate for $30 at the buffet. Cheapskates that we are, we made do with a couple of bags of chips and a bottle of wine from the bar!

We were blessed with beautiful, calm weather for our crossing. The sunset over the Westgate was pretty and the hum of the engines made for a fairly good sleep. Our trip coincided with the end of Daylight Saving but we forgot to change Taine's watch so he woke us in a panic at 5am, worried that we'd missed the 6am wake up call! Needless to say we were well and truly awake and ready to leave when our 6.30 disembarkation call came.

Luke warm coffee at Maccas put us in the mood for real food so we stopped at the supermarket in Devenport to stock up on food for our 5 day road trip (another bonus of having the car with you!). Having toured down the Tamar Valley and Hobart & surrounds a few years ago, we decided to devote this trip to the West Coast and set off in that direction. Our first stop was in Sheffield, a quaint little artsy crafty town about 30 minutes away. At 9am it was virtually deserted so we had a wander down the street, checking out the many murals for which the town is noted and the shops, most notably the marble shop and the lolly shop. Having made a few purchases (honey infused with Jim Beam - a dream come true), we meandered a few more kms to Tasmazia, a tourist attraction in Lower Crackpot. Tasmazia is someone's labour of love. Acres of hedged maze are dotted with quirky fairytale features and jokes handwritten on wooden boards and a whole miniature town has been painstakingly created within the maze. Taine enjoyed it but I'm afraid the grown ups found it a bit twee. A sign out the front says a South African tourist firm has listed Tasmazia in it's top 10 attractions. If this is true then I think their travel bucket has been quite limited!


Next stop was Cradle Mountain where we checked in for the night at the Discovery Holiday Park. Accommodation at Cradle Mountain is ridiculously expensive so we were happy to have a 2 room tourist cabin for $150. As a bonus, the park is just across the road from the Info centre and shuttle bus so we were easily able to get across and grab a shuttle down to Dove Lake. The views to Cradle Mountain were pretty spectacular and we did a couple of little walks around the lake before heading back to the cabin where we cooked up a yummy dinner from our supermarket supplies.

Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain

Next morning we were up bright & early to visit Devil's @ Cradle, a tasmanian devil sanctuary. The first guided tour was at 10.30 and I was glad we had timed our visit right because the ranger talk was very interesting but without it I would have felt pretty ripped off. Devils and quolls prefer the dusk and aren't very active during the day time so there's not a great deal to see. I was happy enough that our entrance fee was going toward the conservation effort though.



From Cradle Mountain we traveled down the island to Strahan, stopping off at the Rosebery Bakery for the most delicious bacon and tomato sausage roll and chocolate eclair I have ever tasted.

Strahan is like the land that time forgot, a beautiful coastal village at the mouth of the Gordon River. Again we stayed at the caravan park , choosing economy over the pricey harbourside accommodation. We were really pleased with our choice because Strahan has a great shared pathway that runs all the way from the park, around the waterfront to the other side of the harbor. Just perfect for us to ride our bikes in the unusually calm and cloudless weather. After our ride we rewarded ourselves with some ice cream from the lolly shop and watched the cray boats unload their catch on the wharf. Unfortunately, despite the hundreds of kilos of beautiful fresh crayfish caught in the harbor, it's impossible to buy fresh cray fish in Strahan. This seems quite bizarre to me!

Strahan harbour


We had set aside a whole day for the Gordon River cruise and we weren't disappointed. We bought discounted tickets on the Spirit and based on TA reviews just took the cheapest option of downstairs seats. I'm so glad we did because once on board you are allowed to roam free on the boat so I couldn't see any benefit in paying for the gold class, top deck seats. The cruise took us out through 'Hell's Gates', the narrow entrance to the harbour and because it was such a calm day we were able to travel quite some distance out into the sea. We did the whole 'King of the World' thing at the front of the boat and even though it was so calm the sea breeze was enough to blow all the cob webs away. From there it was off to Sarah Island, the site of Tassie's first penal colony. This is a fascinating place, full of history and great stories about the inhabitants. Very little remains of the penal colony itself and on such a beautiful day it seemed more like an island paradise than a gaol so it was lucky there were tour guides available to tell us what really went on.
Sarah Island
Back on the boat a sumptuous buffet lunch was served as we glided down the pristine Gordon River. There was an abundance of food, including locally produced salmon and camembert. Yum! A short walk through the rain forest and a very informative talk about Huon Pine helped to put us in a very relaxed mood for the return voyage.

We were back on dry land at 3 o'clock in time for another ride/walk to a Hogarth Falls near the People's Park before going to 'The Ship that Never Was', an hilarious, interactive performance near the info centre.

Taine getting into the act at 'The Ship that Never was.
We were on the road fairly early the next morning to negotiate the long and winding road to Stanley. Foolishly, we took Google Maps first suggestion for our route back up the island. It took us on a much windier, slower road than we'd come down and worse still, it by passed Rosebery so I missed a repeat purchase of their yummy food! In fact, we drove over 130kms without spotting another living soul, finally arriving in beautiful Stanley mid afternoon. Thankfully there was still enough daylight for us to take the chairlift up the Nut and do the 2km walk around the summit. This provides magnificent views of the ocean and the town. My terror of going down the chair lift won out over walking down the path but my calves were screaming by the time we reached the bottom! For dinner we chose the local hotel bistro. The food was ok but not startling and a little over priced for pub fare. We stayed at the holiday park, perfectly situated at the base of the town in walking distance to everything.

View from the Nut

On our last morning in the Apple Isle we rode our bikes down to the Stanley Wharf. It was like a picture postcard. We visited the Seaquarium, which was vaguely interesting and then hooked the bikes back on the car to head back to Devonport for our 7pm sailing. On our way out we drove up the hill to a honey farm honesty box where I picked up a huge tub of Manuka honey for $20. We drove back along the coast that is dotted with beautiful little bays and tiny fishing villages. Unfortunately, one of them was so beautiful we felt compelled to stop and wander over the rock pools. I say unfortunately because I lost my footing and landed heavily in the rocks, smashing my elbow and submerging my beloved Canon dslr in the process. It was a painful end to an otherwise relaxing and stress free holiday.

Stanley Wharf

I should have kept my distance from these rocks!
With any further physical activity ruled out we stopped at The Makers in Burnie to check out the crafty stuff and eat lunch. I was pretty underwhelmed by the crafts on offer although the paper making was fascinating. We bought a huge bag full of Tasmanian cheeses to take home and then wandered around the shops in Devonport until it was time to re board the Spirit.

Once again we had mill pond conditions for our voyage and arrived back well rested, just in time for a spectacular 6am sunrise in Melbourne.



Saturday, January 12, 2013

From sea to shining sea

From sea to shining sea went we....





In 54, days, hardly stopping for breath, we traveled 30,000 miles (see, I'm measuring like an American now!)

Texas- Arkansas- Mississippi- Tennessee- Louisiana- Florida- Maryland- Virginia- Massachusetts- Connecticut- New York- Arizona- Nevada- California.
Dallas


From the subway to the sky, we traveled by plane, car, bus, train, trolley, ferry, airboat, bicycle and foot.
From Venice Beach in Florida, across the country to Venice Beach in California
From the Southernmost point of the USA at 0 ft above sea level to the Grand Canyon at 7000ft
From the density of Manhattan to the emptiness of the Mojave Desert
From the mania of the Interstate to the tranquility of the Natchez Trace Parkway




Along Beale St, Bourbon St , Duval St, Times Square, Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive.


We're fatter but fitter than we've ever been. Geoff ran through the streets of Austin, down the Riverwalk of New Orleans, along the Southerly border of Key West, through Disneyworld in Orlando, around the National Mall in Washington and Central Park in New York (and he hiked the Grand Canyon with Sophie!).
We walked the length of the Brooklyn Bridge and the breadth of Disneyworld, Disneyland and Manhattan.

Washington war memorial
We ate alligator and pulled pork, po'boys, sloppy joes, grits, collard greens, plantain, fried green beans, queso, key lime pie, lots and lots of chicken fried chicken and bagels.

We drank a fair bit of iced tea, root beer, Budweiser and very cheap bourbon.


It was hot enough for me to swim (88 F in Key West) and cold enough to get Geoff out of his shorts and into his thermals (24 F at the Canyon).

We were hustled ($10 for a shoe shine in NOLA) and conned ($60 for tea leaves), road raged and abused by a taxi driver (he so didn't deserve a tip) but mostly we were welcomed and were happily surprised by the warmth and friendliness of the American people.

We paid $450 for a hotel room one night in NYC and $45 including breakfast (and taxes) in Melbourne FL. It was cheaper to eat out there than it is to cook at home here. So we did.
The shopping was crazy, Nike shoes for less than $50.

By the time we left we'd sorted the difference between nickels and dimes and almost collected an entire set of quarters from each of the states.

We ice skated in DC, shot guns in Key Largo, rode bikes in the National Mall.
Twice we were enveloped in human traffic jams.
We drove at 80mph (130k) on the i35 and were passed by trucks as if we were standing still.

Subway blur

We 'went early, stayed late & wore orange' with $90 000 passionate Longhorns fans in Austin and watched a game of NBA in NOLA.
We saw more Starbucks in the USA than there are houses in Mortlake.
We encountered countless homeless people and we stood outside the gates of the White House. We ogled the grand antebellum homes in Louisiana and wondered at the endless brownstone apartment buildings in NYC.

Visiting the Obamas
We had a $100 lunch at the Oriental in NY (thanks kids) and $2.50 lunch boxes from Walmart in lots of places.
We shopped at the Quincy Market in Boston, the Farmer's Market in LA, Macys, Bloomingdales, Saks, Walgreens and Whole Foods.
We held wild alligators and were bitten by fish!
We fell in love with squirrels.
We stopped noticing the sirens.

We celebrated our first Thanksgiving and our coldest Christmas. We learned to say 'Y'all', and 'Baahston'. I loved the different American accents but I also came to appreciate our own. The Aussie accent sounds so sweet when you're away from home.

We took 2000 photos - on our iPhones!

Every day was a new adventure and every day we had to pinch ourselves to remind us that we were still in the real world.

Living out of suitcases in such close confines for so long, we all got along remarkably well. It was family memory making at its best.

New Year's Eve at the Grand Canyon

My top 10 trip highlights, in no particular order;
  • The Washington Mall- history in a nutshell
  • Kennedy Space Centre
  • Visiting the graves of the Kennedys, Elvis, Paul Revere
  • The World Trade Centre site
  • Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Fireworks at Disneyworld
  • The red rocks of Sedona- I'm still not sure I believe they were real.
  • Key Largo- Islamadora
  • The New York subway- constant entertainment and transportation at a reasonable price
  • The Everglades- wild alligators!
  • The Longhorns football game ( I know that's 11 but all that passionate patriotism can't be ignored)
  • The Natchez Trace Parkway ( yeah, yeah, that's 12)
  • Phoenix and the desert (I could go on and on)
  • .........and the sunset over Santa Monica on our last night reduced me to tears


America is a beautiful place and it's people are friendly and inviting. The flip side is that the country is self combusting (and as a consequence ripping up our ozone layer at an alarming rate) with gross consumerism and use of fossil fuels. The things that people can use to kill themselves and other people  (cigarettes, alcohol, fast food, guns, cars, tanning salons!) are ridiculously cheap and accessible. Those things are so much more expensive in Australia that we tend to think twice about using them. On the other hand, life saving medical care and decent housing in the US is expensive and the economy is in trouble. I was a tourist in the US, not a judge but it  did seem obvious to us that taxing the bad stuff might help people access the good stuff. Just an observation.

It's true that being overseas increases your appreciation of what we have here. I loved the USA and I can't wait to go back for another visit but I was very glad to get back to human sized portions, fresh salad, coloured money, $1 coins, speed limits, bike helmets and vegemite!

Thanks to everyone who followed our trip and commented here or on Facebook or Fodors. It was great to have your company and your feedback :-)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

We're leaving on a jet plane

So...one minute we were landing in Dallas, next minute (and nearly 2 months later), here we are at LAX, waiting for the big A380 that will take us home and the second last post on this blog.

We made one last dash to Hollywood Boulevard this morning to find some luggage straps to hold my cheap duffle bag together and then we took off to the rich and famous area of Beverly Hills. We had a map of stars' homes but I couldn't make head or tail of it so we just drove aimlessly up and down streets ogling the lovely homes. Some of them are quite retro 50s and 60s bungalows but beautifully maintained. We didn't see any movie stars but we saw a lot of gardeners!


For lunch we went to Rodeo Drive. We were really just intending to window shop but starvation set in so we decided to throw caution to the wind and seat ourselves in a lovely restaurant at the top of a little avenue near Rodeo & Wilshire. To our great delight, not only was it amongst the best food we've eaten but the service was fantastic and the price no dearer than some of the less swanky places we've eaten.


With a whole day to fill we decided to meander towards LAX and stopped at Santa Monica Beach to watch the watch the sunset. What a serendipitous decision. It was a beautifully calm evening, a busker was playing some of my favourite Cat Stevens songs and the sky was clear and cloudless. It was the perfect place to watch the sun set on this wonderful adventure of ours.


Tonight we'll fly off into the future of home that has no Jan 9th but there's absolutely no doubt we'll be back here one day. Thanks for an awesome time America :-)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Walking in the hood

You've got to love those graphic tourist maps that aren't really based on any particular scale to speak of. This morning we decided to have a look at the Farmer's Market in West Hollywood. On the map in our 'local attractions' booklet, it looked like it was just around the corner. 5 kms later and sweating like crazy in the mad, Californian, winter sun we arrived at the corner of 3rd and Fairfax. The market is a bit like a small version of the Queen Vic, lots of fresh food stalls and speciality shops. We had really bad Cajun food for lunch and then took a ride on a cute little trolley to the Grove, a lovely shopping/ dining area at the other end of the block. The thought of walking all the way back to the hotel was too much for us so we text Sophie for some bus info and grabbed the 217 back to Hollywood Boulevard.


One of the amazing discoveries we've made here is that you can take your washing to a 'wash & fold' laundromat and for 89c a pound they'll wash it and fold it and pack it into a neat plastic package, all ready to pop into the suitcase. We picked up our washing and spent an hour recovering by the pool at the hotel.


Tonight we went back to the Boulevard to Madame Tussaud's. This is a little bit of fun and we spent a happy hour photographing ourselves with the waxen stars.
Just chewing the fat with Jack!

We almost saw a real movie star because the sidewalk was blocked off for the premiere of The Gangster Squad at the Chinese Theatre. We actually had no idea why all the people were standing there photographing absolutely nothing across the street but we worked it out when they all started squealing and chanting , 'Ryan, Ryan'. We got a fleeting glance of people in suits and evening dresses and lots of limos and security people.

That's Ryan Gosling in the suit!

We grabbed a few last souvenirs at the shop which, remarkably, had another, 30 minute, $5 sale today! We also bought a 'homes of the stars' map so we can do our own tour tomorrow before we go to the airport and then we went back to our room to start the laborious process of packing and weighing all our luggage. It's so hard to believe we have to go home tomorrow. I have no idea where that time has gone!

A toast to the end of the trip with $1 merlots from CVS.

Hollywood

The freeway was a nightmare this morning. Even on Sunday there were cars everywhere and when we hit a traffic jam we took an exit and 'winged' our way through the back streets towards Hollywood. As in all the big cities we've visited, the contrast between poor and rich neighbourhoods was stark. We drove through ghettos where the thought of the car breaking down was terrifying but as we got closer to the beach the tone changed completely.

We stopped at Venice Beach for lunch. We toyed with the idea of hiring some bikes to ride along the board walk but it was so windy we could hardly stand up let alone ride so we just walked out to the end of the pier and imagined how spectacular the beach must be in Summer.



From Venice we drove up through Santa Monica to the Hollywood Hills for a glimpse of the famous sign. It was pretty exciting to see this icon and we also had fun guessing who might live in some of the expensive homes set into the hills.



We'd really hoped to finish our holiday at a La Quinta because the chain has been an economical home to us for much of the trip. Unfortunately there isn't one in Hollywood so we settled for a Days Inn just off the strip.

There's a lot of Beale / Bourbon/ Duval St about Hollywood Boulevard! Similar homeless people with cardboard signs and costumed, would be movie stars offering photos with themselves for $1. It's not nearly as glamorous as I expected. We walked over several stars before we realised we were walking on THE walk of stars. It was fun seeking out our favourites and Taine was very excited to find Michael Jackson's star. We had dinner at a diner where Taine had his first root beer float (like a spider at home) and then wandered back to our hotel for an early night.