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.

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 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.


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.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Speed Racers

One of the number one 'to dos' on our trip planning list was the Radiator Spring's Racers ride at Cars Land. 'Cars' was the first movie Taine ever watched and he has been pretty besotted with all things Lightning McQueen ever since.

Of course Cars Land is at Disney's California Adventure Land as opposed to the original Disneyland and since we couldn't come all this way and not see the place our own dreams were made of as kids, we got up early to make an assault on both parks with a one day Park Hopper pass ($125 each, thanks very much!).

We walked to Disney because it's only 1km away from the hotel. When we got there at 8am there were already queues. Soarin' California was the first ride inside the gate so we did that while we could. At 8.20am we arrived at the queue for the Fast Pass to Cars. The Fast Pass is a system where you swipe your entrance ticket and are given a time to return to the ride later in the day, thereby bypassing the poor suckers who are in the stand by queue. The queue to get to the Fast pass for Cars was longer than the queue for some of the rides! We were told the line was 30 minutes long and all the passes may have run out before we got to the head of the line. At 8.20 in the morning! Not to be deterred we waited patiently in the line which actually moved quite quickly and scored ourselves a Fast pass for 8.20 - 9 pm, just 12 hours later! It was like scoring a gold wrapper because there were lots of people behind us who missed out.

Luckily the weather was glorious so we weren't too hot or too cold while we trudged around California Adventure trying to sneak into as many rides as possible. On a day as busy as yesterday that meant mostly tame kiddy rides but that suited Taine and I anyway. After lunch at Downtown Disney we went to Disneyland and fought our way through the increasing crowds there to visit all the Lands we'd seen on Sunday night TV in our youth.

We watched the Christmas Parade, not quite as exciting as the one at Disneyworld, partly because Christmas is over and partly because by then I was exhausted and cold and then ducked out to Downtown Disney again for some dinnertime pizza. There we met yet another Aussie family doing a similar trip to ours.

Finally it was time to go back and claim our Fast Pass to Cars Racer. I admit to feeling a little guilty as we passed the people in the stand by queue (now at 150 minutes wait time!) The ride was excellent, just like being in the movie as we passed through Radiator Springs and met all the characters. I think it was made all the more special because of our recent journey through the red rocks of Sedona and down Route 66. The racing part was just fast and furious enough to satisfy Geoff the adrenaline junkie and not bad enough to make me throw up, although as the photo attests, I had my eyes closed most of the time! We stopped on the way out to watch the 'Colours' fire and water display and in time to see Disney's fireworks as we went past their gate. By the time we started the long walk home we'd done 14 hours straight at Disney!

You can imagine our joy when we were mistakenly woken at 5.30am this morning by a wake up call intended for another room! Just one of the issues we've had with this hotel. Once we were properly awake we hopped in the car for a day trip to San Diego. Thankfully we'd had some training on the Racers ride because the traffic in Southern California is insane. It even puts Texas to shame. We drove through San Diego to the Las Americas outlets right on the Mexican border. We thought about crossing, just to say we'd been in another country but thought better of it because of the re entrance queues. It was an odd feeling to think of an artificial line being a barrier between people. Borders have made sense previously to us because we are girt by sea but watching the birds fly backward and forward over the border control buildings made our human differentiation seem pretty stupid.

We bought a few more pairs of ridiculously cheap Nikes at the outlets, visited an outdoor Mexican  bazaar and then drove back to Mission Beach in San Diego for a beautiful sunset. San Diego will definitely be on the list of 'places to stay longer' next time we come.

Then we rejoined the speedway for another white knuckle journey back to LA, counting our blessings when we arrived back in one piece.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas is a world of it's own. The casino complexes are so big that you can easily get lost in them. There are no clocks and the lighting is set to twilight all the time. In the shopping strip within Caesar's Palace, the roof is painted to look like the sky and the floor is imitation roadway. After a while you start to believe you are in a real street, until you decide to leave and then you can't figure out how on earth to get out of make believe world into the real world.

Looking up in the shops at Caesar's

Each of the complexes is a replication of somewhere else, like Caesar's interpretation of Ancient Rome and New York, New York's faux Manhattan skyline. We made the mistake of buying day tickets on the monorail thinking that would be an easy way to see 'The Strip'. Unfortunately the monorail stations are set right at the back of the different complexes and to get to and fro the stations to the street you have to walk all the way through the casinos. This means maneuvering through the myriad of slot machines and gaming tables, then the hotel shops, up the stairs to the station and back down again at the next stop.

Remarkably,while children aren't actually allowed to play the slots, they can walk right up to and around them. The casinos have pushers and prams in the walkways right alongside the high rollers. Smoking at the tables is permitted and all the rooms are filled with the smell of whatever it is they use to try and disguise the smoke smell.

My big payout

Anyway, we had fro yo for breakfast (as you do in Vegas ;) and then set off to walk/monorail 'the strip'. We wandered through endless shopping malls and checked out all the fake stuff. The highlight of the day was the water show at the Bellagio. I put a few bucks through a slot machine just because I could, we bought some naff souvenirs because it seemed like we should and we ate something greasy on the way back to our lovely suite at the MGM where I tried to make peace with my aching feet in a lengthy spa bath.

I found the whole 'fake facade' of Vegas a bit offensive. Nothing is real there and the gross consumerism just made me feel a bit icky. I'm glad we saw the city but I'm pleased we were only there for 48 hours.

Today we drove to Anaheim. It's a long, boring drive through the Mojave Desert. Breakfast was at a stray casino not far out of Vegas at an all you could eat buffet for $6.99. It looked like one of those places where scary movies start. Crazy. No lunch required. There were people eating breakfast in their pyjamas and then moving straight to the tables.

The traffic coming into LA was the worst we've seen and after one car literally shaved our front bumper and then nearly tipped themselves over cutting lanes, we were white knuckled by the time we arrived at the Anabella, a hotel across from Disneyworld. The room was cheap enough but by the time we were slugged $14 a night for parking and $10 for wifi I was starting to wish I'd forked out for the friendliness of a Disney resort. This was exacerbated at dinner when I was told it was not possible for the chef to prepare a meal without garlic in it. Excuse me? I'm thinking we'll eat off premises for the rest of our stay!

We met a family from South Australia in the laundry. They're doing pretty much the same trip as us but in reverse order and this is their first stop. Jealousy overwhelmed me. It's 41C at home and windy. I'm not ready to go back to that yet :-(

To satisfy Taine's obsession with 'Cars', Geoff's desire to see the 'real' Disneyworld and my insistence that there's lots of other things to see in L.A, tomorrow we're going to try and do both Disney parks in one day. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Getting our kicks on Route 66

Yesterday was yet another example of the wonderful paradox that is America. We started the day in the vast tranquility of the Grand Canyon and finished it in the 24/7 bright lights and turmoil of Las Vegas.

The Canyon was magnificent yesterday, even tempting me to the edge to drink in a few more views before we packed up for our trip West. The isolation of the GC village means there is little choice in eateries so once again we had breakfast at the Bright Angel. The food there is adequate but the table service is soooo slow. Despite the restaurant being half empty we waited 20 minutes for anyone to take our order and another 20 before our coffee and breakfast arrived. By then it was really close to check out time so we had to bolt our food down and run. Not quite the leisurely pack up time we'd hoped for!
View from the path outside our room

From the GC we drove to Williams and then we got off the Interstate and picked up the historic Route 66 to Kingman.

Route 66 is a long, straight, mindless road of nothingness. The speed limit is 65 but you can understand how Lightning McQueen got caught speeding because there's no corners and virtually no other cars. The side of the road is littered with remnants of the Mother Road's heyday; abandoned gas stations and motels that gave us great insight into the inspiration for Radiator Springs. You also get another sense of the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. We'd been driving for 3 hours but we were still skirting the western rim.

From Kingman to Las Vegas the scenery changes again. With mountains in the near distance on either side, the desert prairie of the roadside is highlighted. Desert scrub and cacti cover the paddocks (I know they aren't called paddocks here but I don't know how else to describe them!). There are lots of signs advertising land for sale and clearly these offers are being taken up. There aren't many houses but lots of trailers and huts dotted among scrub.

We reached the Hoover Dam just on sunset and luckily with enough light left to appreciate this engineering wonder. The immensity of the structure is impossible to describe. It's a couple of miles just to drive down to the dam level. We were too late to take advantage of the information areas or guided tours but just in time to take a couple of photos and confuse ourselves with yet another time change as the dam sits on the state border. On the Hoover bridge pylons there are two clocks, one with Arizona time and one with Nevada time. We weren't quite sure which time zone we were in as we sat in the middle!

Driving into Vegas in the dark is just as you imagine it, a sea of twinkling lights in the desert. We booked a suite at the MGM Signature for $59 plus tax. The bathroom is bigger than most of the rooms we've stayed in till now and it includes valet parking and all the other perks of an expensive hotel but without the bill. If you want a cheap holiday (and don't intend to spend the change in the casino) then Vegas is clearly the place to be.

After dinner we put Sophie in a cab so she could go back to slumming it in the hostels while she spends her last couple of weeks touring California with a friend. We won't see her again till she gets back to Aus. Tonight we saw the 7 day weather forecast and realised we'll be home before the last day of it. Where has that time gone?