Travelogue USA 3: Las Vegas


12-15 October 2016

Our day didn’t start out very well. We left our printed travel pack on the plane, in which was all the paperwork we needed to check into our hotel, claim our prepaid excursions and, most importantly, the tickets for our Billy Idol concert that evening – the entire reason for the whole trip in the first place!

Fortunately the hotel accepted the digital copy of the booking form I was able to access thanks to the hotel’s free wifi. And the concierge could reprint the pack for us… at $5 a page!! We passed, knowing there would be a better plan.

We checked into our room, which was a really lush suite on the 20th floor on the Carnival wing, one floor down from the Penthouse and with a spectacular view of the popular LINQ Skywheel; a huge circular viewing ride akin to the London Eye. I’d lucked out with this bargain, cashing in on Vegas’s willingness to lure (potential) gamblers by subsidising their stay. I’d joined a rewards programme and taken up their “first time stay” offer and paid motel prices for Harrahs, right in the middle of the Strip! They didn’t have to know that I had less than no intention of putting a cent into a machine or on a table.

Christian nipped off to the UPS business centre in the adjacent building and lucked out when the chap working at the store spotted the music folder on the flash drive we’d used to save the documents we needed printed.  Fortunately, some of it was to the clerks liking and he waived the printing fees in return for the music swap.

Meanwhile, in the room, I had found on closer inspection that the airline had ripped the zip off my suitcase. It hadn’t been noticeable until this point as it was only the outside part of the zip that was missing so my suitcase was perfectly intact for the time being, but the minute it was opened it couldn’t be closed again.

The hotel was quite helpful, providing a phone so I could call the airport and report the damage. 20 minutes later the report was logged and the best advice I could be given was to present the broken case and the Baggage Claims when we return to the airport on Saturday for them to replace it. A gamble (fitting for Vegas, I suppose), but the only option since the alternative given was a $75 Southwest Airlines voucher for my next flight, which was neither practical nor desirable after this poor first impression.

Determined not to let the suboptimal start ruin our day, we hit them Strip to do something we knew we’d enjoy: have lunch.

We went across the road to Caesar’s Palace and grabbed a burger at Planet Hollywood, an offer which came with our GO Card. Cheesy as it was (the burger and the venue), it was a good spirits lifter and once done we were far more ready to face the slow amble down the south of the Strip.

Our timing was good and as we exited, we were able to catch the Bellagio Fountains show with water spurting up into the air, timed to music. Along the lines of the show they used to do at Randburg Waterfront, but obviously bigger and way more impressive.

The Strip isn’t as big as we’d imagined. Granted, everything on the Strip is outsized and larger than life – including an Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty – but the Strip itself is far more compact than we’d thought it would be.  We’d been concerned about how we’d get from our hotel in the middle of the Strip to the Mandalay Bay at the very south end of the Strip which is where we needed to be – at the House of Blues, hosting the Billy Idol concert – in a couple of hours time. It was undue concern; we could see the Mandalay Bay quite clearly and while a decent walk, it was walking distance nonetheless.

It’s also much easier to negotiate Las Vegas on foot than Hollywood had been, thanks to its wide pavements and smattering of skywalks and pedestrian bridges that save the endless wait for the red “don’t walk” hand to become the white “walk” man.

Of course the layout of these paths is designed to guide you smoothly into casino and malls, because Vegas is all about getting you to spend. It is unashamed that you’re faced with slot machines as soon as you walk through any doors. There were even slot machines next to the conveyor belts in the Baggage Claims at the airport, and embedded on the counters at the breakfast bar and no doubt must be some installed in toilet booths somewhere in this town.

Unfazed by the influences, we only veered off our meander once: into Miracle Mile shopping mall to book our tickets for a show for the following evening. Given a choice between all sorts of variety / comedy / hypnotist shows, we’d opted for The Mentalist, which I seemed to remember reading about somewhere when doing the research for the trip and seem to remember it being quite famous and popular. A long-running regular in Vegas.

We got to the Mandalay Bay around 6pm. There was already a short queue at the VIP entrance even though the ticket had suggested an hour before the show, which was scheduled to start at 8.

A few minutes into our wait we made our first new friend, a lady in the queue in front of us who was bouncing with excitement. She thrust her forearm at us to reveal a squiggly tattoo. Turns out the last time she attended a Billy Idol meet-and-greet she’d smuggled a marker pen in and got him to autograph her arm – when autographs are expressly forbidden in bold letters on all the literature and even the tickets themselves. Apparently Billy had conceded graciously in the moment, pleased as punch with her plan. She was now returning to show him her handy work.

Clearly popular, it was only minutes later that the lady behind us sparked a conversation with us based on the “Weiner Dog” print on my holiday bag. Turns out she has a Sausage too – and of course that now meant that we were instantly bonded.

Shelley was a nurse from Cincinatti, travelling with her mom who had suggested they do a girls’ getaway trip to Vegas  together, which Shelley had initially snubbed because she’d been to Vegas with her boyfriend earlier in the year for a Billy Idol concert… and then she found out he was doing a residency with meet and greet and all of a sudden it was mum’s the word.

Shelley’s experience was a little more useful and she advised us on what to do as the door opened to get the best spots with the best views. Had it not been for her, I hardly think we would have rushed the doors and placed ourselves perfectly front and centre against the rail directly in front of the stage.

We had an hour’s wait, which always brings the battle of wills between the desire to drink beer versus the very harsh reality that beer leads to bathroom breaks… and that is as complication that front row folk want to avoid!

Fortunately the decision became a much easier one after we ordered our first beer and found out they were $13 each! R200 for a single beer?! One time wonder indeed.

The price tag didn’t seem to be deterring the rest of the patrons and House of Blues was an excellent venue for a very relaxed rock concert with highly spirited fans. Small open floor (where we were) which made for a comfortable crush for an authentic concert feel. Lipped around the floor was a slightly raised platform with cocktail tables and beyond that, on an higher level, big bar counters on all sides. For the more spectactor-focused, there was a U-shaped gallery upstairs with rows of cinema seating.  Possibly 1000 people in total max. Really intimate venue to contain and amplify the excitement of its inhabitants. Perfect.

The band came on stage to a roar from the fans. The lights flickered and flashed, guitars screamed and the drum beat provided the rhythm for the fans’ clapping… as Billy Idol himself hit the stage belting out “Shock to the System”.

Oh my word. Finished.

The stage was set with a big speaker in the front that Billy jumped on and off of, alternating standing directly in front of us with brief stints for the audiences on either end of the stage. All in all though we had the better part of 2 hours with Billy Freakin’ Idol about a metre away from us!

Nearing 60, he’s in perfect shape and still as trendsetting as ever, with his bleached hair, several costume changes and more than a fair share of bare-chestedness. His voice is album-perfect and his style as empassioned and captivating as any video you might have seen of his performances over the last almost 40 (!!) years.

Over the course of the concert, the band threw several collectibles into the audience. Being as strategically placed as we were, we managed to get an autographed paperplate (which was thrown like a frisbee), an autographed drumstick and a branded guitar pick! This added to the collectible poster and branded bag and Zippo lighter (odd choice) that we were given with our VIP tickets made for a quite a load of loot! And yet another bonus of being in the front? We were able to store this bag of treasure on the far side of the barrier in the passage between us and the stage, so it remained intact and safe from the enthralled masses.

And us, of course.

The set was incredible. They played all the songs we liked, none of the songs we’re less charmed with and in between Steve Stevens did some pretty impressive guitar solos, with tricks like playing the Guitar behind his head and then using his teeth to strum the strings. He’s quite a contrast to Billy Idol. Where Billy did multiple costume changes, all perfectly tailored black pants / shirts / jackets with accents like tasteful riveted silver skulls and whatnot, Steve only had one outfit and it was a strange combo of purple stretch velvet bellbottoms, silvery sheeny shiny pointy-toed platform heeled  shoes and what can only be described as a black blouse with big gold link pattern on it. Quite comical with his skinny legs, potbelly and teased black Robert Smith hair.

When we met them afterwards (!!), we were surprised at how short they are. Looking up at the stage, even a metre away as we were, gives no perspective and the massive personalities that had rocked the stage and enthralled a theatre full of people for a couple of hours turned out to be my height (Billy) and a good few inches shorter (Steve). And, even though they were lovely and warm and polite, it made them no more human and us no less starstruck… to the point that all we managed was a garbled introduction and repeat adulation on their incredible performance. They were awesome about it, smiling and handshaking and repeating gratitude on our compliments.

Unfortunately we were not allowed to use our own cameras for photos or videos, so our fate is sealed in the agent’s hands as to which photos they send us from the few that they took for us. We also have to wait “2 to 3 days” for them to process the pics and post them for us to download. We are very unthrilled at having to wait, but I ‘spose they want flattering pics of the artists in circulation.

Hopped and high on the once in a lifetime night we’d just had, we were grateful for the walk along the Strip to calm ourselves and work off the latent energy simultaneously.

We must’ve been exhausted from the excitement of the concert because it was a case of “head hits pillow; eyes open again 8 hours later”. Literally. Not a stir.

We woke up with 2 hours to spare until our 11am walking tour of Downtown Las Vegas, so we decided to walk to the Circus Circus hotel further north up the Strip to catch the Big Bus to Freemont Street, Big Bus being Vegas’s equivalent of LA’s Hop On Hop Off bus (but, as we found out, not as good because there’s a live tour guide instead of a recorded one, which makes for a very uneven experience).

The Big Bus took us past the wedding chapels, including the drive-through one where Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian tied their respective 24-hour knots! We also passed Las Vegas Grammar School which is in a charming original hacienda building.  It’s hard to imagine kids having a normal childhood amongst all the smut and neon on a road that’s even described as a “Strip”!

We had little time to spare so grabbed an “authentic New York pizza slice” in lieu of breakfast and met up with Kelly from Las Vegas Walking Tours at the Plaza Hotel on the corner of Main and Freemont, built on the site where the town started as a train station in 1904.

The train station was established by a copper mining mogul, the Clark after whom Clark County is named, because of its ideal location halfway between Salt Lake and LA, to act as a refuel and service station if needed on the long journey between his source and destination points. Ironically for a town with thumis history, nobody has been able to take a train to LV since 1997 since there are no passenger trains servicing the route (although there are still freight trains).

Kelly is a downtown local and very passionate about his town. He told us that the Strip isn’t actually within the Las Vegas city limits; it’s actually in Clark County.  It’s clear that there is strong sibling rivalry between downtown and the Strip – but only about 70% of people visiting Las Vegas venture to downtown, which is such a shame because it is awesome. (Although 70% of the 40 odd million people that visit Las Vegas every year is nothing to sneeze at).

It has a far more classic feel, still with the casinos and the neon, but nothing more than a few stories high with a very 50s feel. Even though Freemont Street, which runs perpendicular to the Plaza, has now been converted into a pedestrian walkway with the world’s largest video screen (12,5 million LED lights! 550,000 watts of sound!) acting as a canopy, you can still easily imagine the red and white Cadillac convertibles pulling up outside the Pioneer casino with the enormous Vegas Vic neon cowboy swinging his arm, ushering you in.

Freemont Street has had quite a colourful history (with more than its fair share of mob activity) and has undergone more facelifts than can be described without doing the walking tour, but what is fascinating is how the city has morphed and adapted to survive and how there’s always hope that the history beneath the facades of these current businesses might be revealed again when fashion turns and the layers come off again, as has happened with the Golden Gate which is restored to its original glory.

The are lots of peculiarities to get your mind around in a gambling town (that, peculiarly, doesn’t have a lottery). The no clocks and lack of natural lighting are obvious ones, but Kelly pointed out to us the lack of patios and that the hotel pools all close at 5pm… in a desert town! The point is that everything is focused on getting people to the tables and keeping them there. And anything that impedes that is curbed. The one exception is the Golden Nugget pool where they have a glass shark tank island – with 5 sharks and some other really big fish swimming around – in the middle of the pool with a supertube that runs through it! They’ve made it a commercial feature and charge $20 to use the pool – and have poker tables in the pool area.

Other than that there are slot machines literally everywhere.  Even in the grocery stores. It’s crazy.

We saw some other crazy stuff too, like Heart Attack Grill, with a massive industrial scale outside with huge neon display for everyone to see, offering that anyone over 350lb eats free. They have waitresses in nurses uniforms, serve wine in IV drip bags, have their smallest burger (the “Single Bypass”) weighing in at 3000 calories and their biggest, Quadruple Bypass, 2 pounds of patties with everything you can think of, tallying the burger up to 10000 calories! What do they offer as Vegetarian options? Cigarettes!

Moving to the newly uplifted East Freemont, Kelly told us the heartwarming story of how Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, decided to convert the area into a thriving tech hub. He’s bought up literally city blocks of property and created incubators and “crashpads” and invites anyone with good ideas to bring them there, where he would at the very least provide the environment and infrastructure for people to set up their start-ups but also might potentially provide funding as well. He’s put his money where his mouth is and co-owns countless businesses in East Freemont (including in Container Park, a mall he set up made of shipping containers), giving people the leg-up without which they would never be able to launch. His only conditions for partners are that they provide high speed internet and have tolerance for entrepreneurs who want to squat for hours, as Tony himself is known to do.

Needing to get off our feet for a bit we took Kelly’s advice (and and coupon he gave us) and went to 777 Pizza Lotto for a beer and a cheese slice. While the pizza and beer were both good, we were drowned out by and busker belting our the blues. Freemont Street, as much as it feels like a mall of sorts, is still a public place so there are buskers and entertainers dotting the walkway. Add that to the 3 stages with organised line-up day and night, and the ziplines shooting people up the street just below the roof, and the bar counters outside most of the casinos serving the passersby (in an attempt to lure them in) and the road is a circus!

Las Vegas apparently, according to Kelly, also invented the shrimp cocktail, so we sampled one of its finest at Du-Pars (in the Golden Gate hotel) to line the stomach for our next stop, back on the Strip at Senor Frog’s, where we had a ticket for an hour free open bar.

The paper place mat at Du-Pars was a wealth of information, reinforcing that it was actually Golden Gate in 1959 that brought shrimp cocktail to life, starting a Vegas tradition that continued to having sold 25 million of them by 1991. It also told us that the Golden Gate hotel got the first phone in Las Vegas. The phone number? “1” of course! But who was going to call them if they had the only phone?!

Clearly nourished in body and mind, we were ready to move on.

Senor Frog’s is a fun bar/restaurant in the Treasure Island hotel and casino. It’s decorated in bright colours with witticisms emblazoned on boards and signs affixed to the ceiling. The drinks menu is more extensive than the food menu (which is mostly burgers and Mexican), comprising sections like “frozen” and “rocks”. We started with a daiquiri and a margarita, which were served in our dedicated plastic punt cup.

Ice-cream headaches led us back to beer and we passed a relaxed hour sipping our sundowners and people-watching.

Our timing was spot-on and we were able to catch the last Big Bus to get us down to Miracle Mile in time for our show, The Mentalist.

On our way into the Mall, Christian spotted none other than Steve Stevens, heading into Lush, a Body Shop sort of store, with a lady friend.

Of course we stalked him.

We followed them in, circled the store and doubled back to where Steve and Lady were loading a little basket with their chosen bath salts and soaps. I sidled up to me Lady and asked her if I could get a whiff of the soap bar she was holding. She was very pleased at my interest and told me enthusiastically that they were taking it. Steve stood holding the little basket with both hands, seemingly numb to the whole experience.  I gave him a “hello” and got a little nod by return.

It was obviously quite an unremarkable exchange because The Mentalist starts his show with selecting members of the audience and providing some titbit of info about them that nobody could know… and he picked out the chap sitting next to us AND a woman sitting directly 2 rows behind us!

There was no more time for mingling with the stars after the show because we needed to be ready for collection for the Grand Canyon trip at 6.30 am, so it was early(ish) to bed for (very) early to rise.

It was a struggle to get up and out on Friday… but we did it. And were at the bus stop spot on time.

It’s a proper trek from Vegas to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We napped through the first section of the trip and woke up at the 9.30 pit stop In Kingman, a 1-horse town… and fastfood wonderland. Almost every chain was represented in a semi circle around the service station – McD’s, BK, Pizza Hut, Arby’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Jack in The Box. If this was the main artery into town, it was a clogged one no doubt!

BK on board, we were a bit perkier for the  next stretch of the journey, which was 2 hours and felt shorter thanks to the driver putting on a movie that displayed on the little screens suspended from the overhead storage units like they had I  planes in the old days.

The tour included lunch in a town called Williams at around midday. It was a buffet of mostly Mexican food; all the ingredients to make up tacos, burritos, nachos etc.

Finally we arrived at Grand Canyon.

It was a welcome to be able to hop off the bus and stretch legs at Mather Point. Fortunately there are kilometers of walkways around the rim of the Grand Canyon, so a better place to leg stretch one could not ask for!

The views are spectacular! The mere magnitude of the mountains stretching from the rim where we were standing, rippling strata all the way to the bottom, glowing with the characteristic red.

The info boards gave us the lowdown on what we were looking at.

Although the Grand Canyon’s origin is complex and not entirely certain, the simple answer is that it’s the result of erosion; the incision of the Colorado River carving the depth of the Canyon as it cut its way through the Kaibab Plateau. Side canyons, scoured by summer thunderstorms and winter snow melt produced much of its width. Compared to the rocks exposed in its 1500m (!) walls, the excavation of the Canyon is relatively young, occurring within the last 6 million years or so.

The paths are unrestricted by boundary rails of any kind, so you’re free to move as close to the rim as you’d like. We made an effort to inch out on Mather Finger to get one of those pictures with the panorama unobscured in the background but, to be completely honest, it’s not my kind of adrenaline rush, so for the most part we kept to the path, stopping to take pictures where the view looked a bit deeper or more vast (but I anticipate all the pictures will look the same!)

We had an hour at Mather Point and then moved down the rim to Angel Lodge, where we had another hour and a half. We probably didn’t need that long (you seen one rim, you seen ’em all), but it was probably to balance out the travel time; spose most people aren’t keen to travel 5 hours, hop out to take a few snaps and then turn around to get back again.

We of course were quite motivated to do so since Yellowcard was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl right next door to our hotel at around 9 and we were hoping to catch them.

No dice, leaving the Canyon at 4pm and with a 40 minute dinner stop in Kingman at Carl’s Jnr (with a burger with 3 types of bacon on it!) we were only back at the Strip around 10pm.

No matter though, that was a big bucketlist tick!

Travelogue USA 5: Napa Valley


19-21 October 2016

The second bucketlist item on our US tour was a visit to Napa Valley to do some (more) wine-tasting in this world-renowned wine-growing region.

We hadn’t pre-planned any of the transport arrangements and, after some debate, decided that a ferry/bus combo was a great way to combine form and function. This meant we only had to be at the ferry port at a very reasonable 10h40 for the hour’s commute to Villejo from where we’d catch the VINE bus for the remaining hour or so journey.

We do love a good ferry commute; old hands thanks to Shawn’s worthy induction at Gulf Harbour in Auckland earlier in the year. As per tutorial, we got ourselves a table and – thanks to having brought killer fresh turkey, gammon and mayo sarmies from a deli the port – settled in so comfortably that we might as well have been on a fancy brunch cruise, with very pleasant landscape view unfolding as we left the city behind.

The bus stop to catch the VINE bus to Napa was just across the road from the ferry port. On the bright side it was only $1.60 each for the entire hour-long journey. On the downside, we needed exact change because the bus drivers don’t handle cash at all. With my “spending money” (ie the coins Christian had discarded along the way) still sitting at less than a Dollar, we were lucky the  ferry ticket office was nice enough to break a ten to make up the difference.

The VINE runs a North-South route along Highway 29 all the way through the Napa Valley so you can take the same bus  (for the same fare) all the way to the end in Calistoga. It’d take a while getting there though – maybe a little over a couple of hours – with the number of stops along the way since the Napa Valley is just over 35 miles long (but only 5 miles wide and home to almost 300 wineries!).

We were very pleased when we arrived in the town of Napa. The downside of so much info available on the internet is the FOMO that comes with making a decision among so many options. We’d considered Calistoga, St Helena and Yountville, but ended up choosing Napa simply for the authenticity that came with its name. It is a pretty little town and felt like a great decision from the moment the bus pulled in at the Soscol Transit Centre (a very unglamorous sounding name in the planning phase!!)

The short walk from bus stop to the hotel – 3 Palms Boutique and Resort – took us on the 3rd Street Bridge over the river, past the Waterfront and along Coombs to 2nd Street. No more than 10 minutes and meant we’d already walked almost the entire one end of town!

Our check-in was unusually spirited thanks to a very animated welcome by the frontdeskman, Pablo, who it turned out was equally enthusiastic about EVERYTHING. And punctuated almost every sentence with “RRRIGHT?!” so you couldn’t help but be an active participant in what was actually a dialogue, but made to feel like a conversation.

Pablo magically produced maps from drawers and brochures from racks as he spoke so we ended up with a solid pack with circles and squiggles showing where we were and where we were headed, like one of those old animated Disney cartoons where dance moves unfold as a series of dotted lines, footprints and numbers.

Conveniently, Napa town has its own wine route, which Pablo suggested was perfect to fill what remained of the afternoon and then we could tackle the Valley the next day. 

As advised, we began by going to the Tourist Office to get “Taste: Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card” that for $30 allowed us access to 8 profiled tasting rooms in a walking tour around town.

Chuffed with our purchase (for both value and the clear direction it provided), we emerged from the Tourist Office into the glorious sunny afternoon – and got as far as the corner when we realised that the first tasting room was actually IN the Tourist Office!

Being a big shop with lots of commemorative items on display and and an equally large area dedicated to olive oil (for which the area is equally renowned apparently) info and tasting, we hadn’t even noticed the big bar along the left hand wall, which constituted Square One Tasting Bar.

The hostess was chatty and gave us a detailed account of her background (she was originally from Philadelphia, moved to Napa with her parents, returned to Phili only to find out she was pregnant, then baby-daddy came to lure her back to Napa, all spelled out in graphic detail) and some very scant, could-have-been-deduced-from-the-label info on the wine we were tasting. Between her long stories and heavy-handed pouring, we feared this was going to be a short tour!

To keep us fresh and lively, we decided to do the least practical route for the wine route, crisscrossing town rather than ordering by proximity so that we could get a bit of a walk in between each venue. While this may sound masochistic, you have to realise that 4 of the wineries were on 1st Street, 3 on Main Street and the last on the intersection of 1st and Main so we’re talking no more than a couple of hundred metres even doing the drawn out way!

The second stop, Napa General Store, was a bit more high end than the first and was also a huge long bar counter set to on side in (as the name would imply) general stuff; souvenirs, bbq accessories, cook books, branded clothing, some go-well-with-wine foodie items etc. The lady who served us was all business so we were in and out in less than 10 minutes, even with all the swirling, holding up to the light and comparative sniffing we did of the selection she poured us.

Next was Capp Heritage which was more  relaxed. The old gent behind the bar set a more gentle pace, talking through what he was serving more than just reciting the description on the label.  In the attached lounge was a group of ladies that were making an afternoon of their tasting, so this was obviously Capp’s hosting style. He served us a variety of St Vintners wines and chatted intermittently, leaving us to enjoy the wine and our own company in between. The painting featured on the wine’s label – a blonde cowgirl – hangs on the wall in the tasting room and apparently had just been a painting the vineyard owner’s daughter liked. Since it has hung on the wall, a visitor to the tasting room has recignised the artist and another named the lady depicted in the painting!

We then moved on to Bounty Hunter, which was our undoing. Not only did they have a menu of 21 pages of wines (and only 2 pages of food), but also a Happy Hour with 2-for-1 Guinness, which we had to buy to log on our Guinness Index.

The wine tasting rooms close anytime between 5.30 and 9 but even though there were some still open, we were done for the night.

Dinner was predetermined from our afternoon’s scouting: Filippi’s Pizza Grotto on 1st Street. The Feast offer gave us a small pizza to start with a half ‘n half lasagne / spaghetti main. Could not have asked for better!

A solid dinner and a reasonable bedtime helped return our vigour by morning for the long day ahead.

Certain growing regions are certified as American Viticulture Area (referred to as AVA or “appellation”). Napa Valley is an appellation with 16 sub-appellations. Each has distinct meso- or microclimates (functions of wind, rain, temperature and time in the sun) as well as terrain factors  (hill, valley, type of soil etc) that combine to influence the grapes that are grown there. With more than a passing idea of which appellation grows what, you should be able to do food and wine pairing from the AVA details on the label.

On Pablo’s advice, we planned to do most of our tastings in St Helena, which is a flat plane cooled from Northern winds, giving a high intensity and concentration, producing Cab, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Zin and Chard.

We began at Beringer, on the far side of St Helena from us, figuring we’d start at the farthest and work our way back home.  Having just missed the VINE bus by 4 minutes (we didn’t have a timetable so it was just really lousy luck) and with another hour until the next, we sucked it up and caught a Lyft so we were there 20 minutes later.

The Beringer estate feels like a country club with its meticulous landscaping, restored building and shaded walkways. There are various tour and tasting options but we were neither keen to be cooped up (excuse the pun; winebarrel-makers are called “coopers”) nor spend the annual budget, so we opted for a simple 3 wine tasting, which was still a notable  $25 each! (Plus tax. This tax on top of quoted pricing had gotten quite, well, taxing and we were oddly looking forward to the transparent world of VAT!)

Our sommelier welcomed us with “The dead of winter and you’re in shorts!” We took it in the good humour it was intended and pointed out that it was already 25 degrees and forecast to reach 29, so hardly what should be described as winter. He was friendly and helpful and talked us through the “flight” (as the fancy tastings are called), not only recommending different wines for each of us so we could taste twice as many, but also adding in a bonus Merlot for the hell of it because he “had a bottle open” (a common occurrence in his industry, one would think). He also told us that one of Beringer’s claims to fame was the brilliant marketing on the part of its owner who cashed in on the end of prohibition in 1934, inviting people to come and experience the vineyards. Obviously wine isn’t made overnight, but still 4000 people turned up just to celebrate the rebirth of wine.

On the outskirts of St Helena, we just walked into town to grab some lunch. Thoroughly enjoying the abundance of Mexican food in California, Village Corona was an obvious choice. Burritos and tacos with the complimentary chips and salsa lined the stomach quite nicely!

Following Pablo’s dance card, we walked through the other end of town to Sutter’s,  where we were delighted to find that the tasting was complimentary. Not an amazing flight though with 2 very sweet, 2 very dry, a pink and a white sparkling.  Still, no looking gift horses in mouths from our side.

Heitz Vineyard was across the road from Sutter’s… but easier said than done, remembering that this main road was a highway with steadily flowing traffic. In a game of human Frogger, we stayed on the side of the road for ages looking for a gap on both sides, before deciding to try our luck at one side then the other. Fortunately the road planners were smart enough to put a third central lane between the flowing traffic ones, which is designed for lane-crossing turners. Not sure how this strategy would be received by motorists since there is a strictly enforced (and abided by) no jay-walking policy everywhere, we were relieved it worked out well when motorists slowed down and flashed for us to cross in front of them.

Heitz was a bit snooty and since the hosts were too busy with their current patrons to even acknowledge us, we took some pics of their pretty vineyards and didn’t spend a cent on their experience.

Right next door was V. Sattui, a bigger, more commercial vineyard that Pablo had described as “The Disneyland of Napa”. Only selling its wines on site and having been nominated best vineyard in the valley for 4 years running (at various prestigious wine competitions in America), it does a roaring tasting and sales trade.

Being known for its outdoor acreage, we decided to forego the tasting and buy a bottle to enjoy at leisure in the shaded picnic area, overlooking Vittorio’s Vineyard, named for the founder who established its more than 125 year-old-tradition of producing excellent wines. This was a popular choice with most tables having secured for themselves a picnic mix-and-matched from the charcuterie, Italian deli and Marketplace inside the winery. With a generous selection of breads and over 200 varietals of cheese to choose from, no 2 tables were eating the same thing. Even though we’d had lunch, we sampled what was on offer as we walked through the Marketplace and it was all exceptional.

The VINE bus stop being outside V. Sattui’s was as good a reason as any to return homeside – and get a gander at what the towns of Rutherford, Oakhill and Yountville offered en route.

Our welcome home was a flight at Stonehedge because it closed earliest.  The lady was a bit curt and the store a bit short on atmosphere, so it was a quick one.

We had better luck at Wines By Mark Herold, which appealed to Christian from the outset with a “Hippies use the back entrance” sign on the door. It was a far vibier store, so we not only completed the flight but also got a glass of our favourite while we mingled with another group of tasters and chatted with the hosts.

Somewhere along the way we realised that Bounty Hunter hadn’t clipped our tasting card the previous evening, which was too good an opportunity to pass up redoing since they had such a wide selection… and it was Happy Hour. Their faux pas paid off for them though because (free) wine-tasting turned into Guinness… and turned into dinner when I saw in real life signature dish: a full beer can roast chicken.

We’ve seen it done at home on Webers, but this was a beauty. A big bird, perfectly roasted with golden crispy skin and served still perched on its beer can, the beer from which had made the chicken tender beyond description.  We sided with mac ‘n cheese, bacon beans and crisps. So so good. The poor lady next to us looked at our feast and then her hummus and low cal, low carb, low taste dunky things and her face dropped.  No mind, we’d walked t – which got the same jaw-drop expression when we told people so obviously isn’t commonplace – and machines must be fed!

We had less of an excuse with our mammoth Subway brunch… but we needed somewhere to put the (quite modest) leftover chicken and a mixed pork sandwich seemed like a brilliant place!

Soon we were checked out, on the bus and headed for El Cerrito to catch the train to San Francisco International Airport, where we would be welcomed by the Emirates Lounge as part of our new Skywards Gold benefits, so could freshen up and chingching with a spot of champers to celebrate another epic holiday well done.

Travelogue USA 4: San Francisco


15 – 19 October 2016

After a whirlwind Las Vegas visit, we had a relatively relaxed morning to get ourselves in order and to the airport for a 13h05 flight to San Francisco, which was a relief seeing as we had to make a detour past the Southwest Airline offices to get a replacement suitcase for my Cellini they’d damaged on the flight from LA.

The Lyft driver laughed out loud when he saw the state of my luggage. Completely zipless, we’d resorted to keeping it closed with tape wound around and around. I bet he thought we’d gambled away our fortunes and were leaving as paupers.

We got dropped off at the Arrivals Terminal that was home to the Southwest office and were relieved when the clerk simply brought out a new case for approval for a straight swap. With little choice, we cut open the old-new case and packed everything into the new-new case. I was sorry to see my fancy almost-new case go… but very relieved to have a zipable replacement! That came with its own lock!

With plenty of time to spare, we made our way over to the Departures Terminal… only to find our plane was delayed by an hour. Sigh. We made our way to Carl’s Jr and tried to make a slow experience out of the fast food to kill time.

The wait was longer than the flight. Thankfully. The delay had been thanks to bad weather on the San Fran side, so it was a bit of a bumpy ride in places. 

But we did get there in one piece (each, although my brand new lock had been ripped off – but zip intact this time – somewhere somehow in transit) and were soon in a Lyft ride into town, having evaluated that it was about the same price as public transport, but a door-to-door and a third of the travel time.

We checked into the Pacific Motor Lodge, which is a fading remnant of a motel that might’ve been quite something in its heyday (in the 60s!). Hard to believe that place was almost twice the price of georgeous Harrahs in Vegas!

Our room was more of a suite with king size bed, large credenza and desk, full lounge suite, full kitchenette and a little dressing room leading into the bathroom. Based on the wallpaper and the phone socket in the loo, this set-up was more legacy than opulence.

The tourist map told us what we’d hoped. Our hotel, in North Beach, very conveniently epicentred everything we planned to see and do, so we decided to satellite to Union Square since that was in the opposite direction to what we had planned for the next couple of days.

Sadly, it had started to drizzle as we left the hotel.

Our walk took us along Stockton through Chinatown and it was a mission to negotiate the vendors whose wares displays (mostly fruit and veg) spilled onto the pavement, and their customers, and people with brollies, along with our own intention of making the most of the many awnings overhead to save us from the rain.

We’d about run out of patience with the game when we emerged from Chinatown right into the upmarket shopping district around Union Square.

It was a bit of an anticlimax to get to Union Square, which held little interest bar a tall column statute (that we were not even keen to photograph in the poor dusk light and the unfavourable conditions), so we sought solace in the doorway of the iStore and used their free wifi to scan Trip Advisor for something in the area worth doing.

It turned up Happy Hour at Bar 587; the name referring to its address on Post Street (the road we were standing on).

We nipped up the street and were rewarded our efforts with 2 open stools, as we walked in, against the bar. What a pleasure to be warm and dry. And to have $5 beers to celebrate with!

The bartender was very helpful and guided us through the regular offerings, the specials and his recommendations – all verbally, saying he’d dispensed with the menu system since it changed too often.

It was amazing to watch him in action. He did the job that would take 3 or 4 people at home. He negotiated orders – with questions, consideration and detailed suggestion; prepared the drinks – which were often complicated cocktails; served – drinks and food; cleared and loaded a dishwasher below the counter and restocked his glasses.

We also marvelled that he tested every cocktail.  He took a clean straw, nipped a sip of the cocktail into it and tasted, adjusting the final product if required. He must be hammered by the end of the night!

Not that we were there to see it. Having entertained ourselves for a couple of hours, discussing “the game” (American football) with our neighbours at the bar counter, the rain had abated and went on the hunt for a good Chinese dinner in our home turf, prioritising a place called “Capital” that was recommended by Trip Advisor.

We found it with no trouble – and 15 minutes to spare before the kitchen closed. The waitress recommended the set menu and we couldn’t argue; it had a bit of everything: dimsum soup, spring roll, sweet & sour chicken, broccoli beef, fortune cookie, Oolong tea. Everything fresh and crisp. 

Perfect dinner with a short trot home afterwards to shift everything.

We’d pre-booked our Alcatraz Island trip so all that was required on Sunday morning was to get up and walk to the docks to catch the ferry.

The package we had booked included a pre-tour to Angel Island, San Francisco’s version of Ellis Island.

Until about ten thousand years ago, Angel Island was connected to the mainland; it was cut off by the rise in sea levels due to the end of the last ice age. From about two thousand years ago the island was a fishing and hunting site for Coast Miwok Native Americans. The entire island is included within Angel Island State Park and is administered by California State Parks. It has been used for a variety of purposes, including military forts, a US Public Health Service Quarantine Station, and a US Bureau of Immigration inspection and detention facility. The Angel Island Immigration Station on the northeast corner of the island, where officials detained, inspected, and examined approximately one million immigrants, has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The less romantic side of the story speaks of the Chinese immigrants who were detained on the island for unpredictable lengths of time – often amounting to months – while their connections to the US were confirmed; only foreigners with immediate family already naturalised in the US were considered. The Chinese detained on Angel Island carved poetry into the walls telling of their trials and tribulations,  which is still visible today.

All this was told to us on our 1 hour tram tour up and down the island in the pouring rain, with scenery being pointed to us by the recorded audio voice that clearly couldn’t see that we couldn’t see a damn thing through the misted plastic window sheets drawn on either side of the tram that both protected us from the rain and prevented us experiencing the scenery. This however didn’t stop the lady in front of us from snapping away wildly with her camera. Her holiday slideshows must be the worst!

We still had an hour free time “to explore the island at leisure”, which obviously wasn’t going to happen in these circumstances. We crammed into the café at Ayala Cove with everyone else and grabbed a bowl of chili  to try warm up. There were far fewer chairs than people so we gratefully accepted when offered the spare chairs at Wild Photo Snapper’s table. True to form she was still taking pics of who-knows-what until we left.

The ferry was a quick hop to Alcatraz and we were lucky to get a place to sit in the inside cabin to warm up and dry off.

Alcatraz is a National Park and its size (1/33 the size of the 1 square mile Angel Island) and isolation make it easy to see why it was seen to serve well as a fortress, military prison and then Department of Justice maximum-security federal penitentiary.

The tour comes with a free self-guided audio track, which is genius because everyone can start at their own time and move at their own pace, so you don’t have the waiting and bunching that come with popular group tours. The audio is narrated by former Alcatraz prison guards and prisoners for an extra dose of authenticity.

Easily the best audio tour we’ve ever done, the narration guides you through the cell blocks, providing background and anecdotes to bring the cells and their inhabitants to life in your imagination. It sounds like The Rock was a fitting punishment for the hardened criminals it housed, unashamed combining confinement, isolation and monotonous routines to make days and weeks blend into one another. Also, the fact that it was eventually closed (on 21 March 1963) due to deteriorating buildings and high operating costs (eg lack of sewage system) hints that life in the prison may have been even more unimaginably unpleasant than merely being cooped up.

We were fortunate to catch one of the ranger’s doing a talk on Escape Attempts (36 prisoners attempted; all but 5 recaptured or “otherwise accounted for”, ie killed), providing a granular account of events and pointing out the actual cells and bars for authenticity. It was captivating. So easy to imagine the desperation of the prisoners trying to escape and how terrifying it must have been for the guards trying to prevent them from doing so.

Many of the 90 guards lived on the island with their families, in a compound laid out like a very normal-looking suburb and the accounts from the now-elderly then-children speak of it as an idyllic place to grow up. There were lots of kids, who went to school on the mainland everyday by boat and then returned in the afternoon to play ball in their ballpark, laughing in the sunshine. Thankfully, none of those hardened prisoners figured out a way to use these families as a vulnerability or who knows what stories would be told on the tour today!

What is a frightening story is a stat on one of the placards in the Museum that said that 1 in 32 Americans is currently incarcerated, on probation or on parole. And, worse than that, 10% of American children have at least one parent in prison, on probation or on parole. Hectic! … Although if that stat is higher than ours back home, then maybe it should be seen more as good news that their law enforcement is effective and zero tolerance, rather than having offenders on the streets with no opportunity for rehabilitation.

Fortunately it had stopped raining  shortly after we got to Alcatraz so we were able to enjoy the grounds (although the majority worth seeing and doing is in the prison building itself).

We caught the 16h15 ferry back to San Francisco, so had made a real day of the Alcatraz tour!

Our dinner plan for the evening was to visit Kennedy’s, an Irish Pub & Curry House. With a combo like that, how could we not?!

We took a very slow amble along the entire waterfront, getting our ducks in a row for the Monday sightseeing as we window-shopped and enjoyed the not-rainingness. There is lots to do and see on Pier 39 and Pier 43 and everything in between so it was easy to entertain ourselves for a couple of hours.

Kennedy’s served a good curry! We had a firm favourite (chicken jalfrezi) and a new-for-me goat (!) served in an onion and black pepper gravy. Both were delicious, but would have been better with a garlic naan rather than the plain ones we’d ordered because we couldn’t justify the extra $1,50 each for garlic! Also a pity they’d just changed the Guinness barrel so it was warm, otherwise we’d have had the perfect pairing.

No mind, we managed a Guinness on the way home at a treasure of a pub called LaRocca’s. The owner is the current coach of the Golden Gate Rugby team and Tony Daly the ex-Wallabie player bartended there for 5 years. The pub was very lively  (well, loud at least) with locals watching Major League baseball.

Monday morning was far cheerier, with blue skies and no signs of rain. Our agenda was to make use of our GO card, which allowed unlimited activities at GO partners for 2 days.

We started with the most obvious: the Hop On Hop Off bus tour. The card only included the Red Route but when we got to the starting point, there were a few buses lined up and revving to leave and we accidentally jumped on the Blue Route bus.

What a fortuitous mistake. We had an excellent guide, Norm, with a wicked sense of humour and a remarkable knowledge of San Francisco so we spent 2 hours circumnavigating the 7×7 mile peninsular that is San Francisco.

San Francisco according to Norm’s tour:

San Francisco was a 600 pax fishing village until, in 1849, they found gold and the population turned into tens of thousands virtually overnight.

On 18 April 1906 an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale took out all but 27 buildings in downtown. The resultant 3 day fire did the most damage and was eventually prevented from moving further west by dynamiting a few rows of houses to create a fire break.

Trams were invented in 1873 by wire- cable manufacturer Andrew Hallidie when he witnessed an accident in which a horse-drawn carriage faltered and rolled backwards downhill dragging the horses behind it. The cable cars remained the primary mode of transport until the 1906 earthquake, when most were replaced with railway when the city was rebuilt. The remaining cable cars are the only vehicles of their kind still in operation and are thus designated National Landmarks.

There are more dogs than children in SF.

Lombard Street separates Cow Hollow from the Marina, which was created by moving all the rubble from the earthquake into a bog. In 1988 the next earthquake damaged this area the most because the rubble wasn’t compacted.

Lombard Street is also known as “the crookedest street in the world” because it has 8 sharp turns on a 40 degree slope! The switchbacks were built in 1920s to allow traffic to descend the sharp incline and zigzag around pretty flowers with a nice view of the bay. Pavements are replaced with cement staircases because the road is so steep!

9 years after the earthquake, San Francisco hosted a World Fair – 20 million people showed up. The only surviving building from this is the Palace of Fine Arts, the shape of which some say was the inspiration for George Lucas creating R2D2.

Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long and painted International Orange and named for the body of water it runs over. It is constructed with 88 thousand miles of cable that would go 3 times around the Equator. Before its completion in 1937, it was considered unbuildable because of foggy weather, 60 mile per hour winds and strong ocean currents sweeping through the rugged canyon below. But $37 million and 11 fatalities brought the bridge to fruition and it sways up to 27 feet to withstand the strong winds.

The Presidio has been an army base longer than America has been a country, ie 1776-1995. There is a 3000 name long waiting list to rent a house in Presidio now. (It looks a bit like the houses in Army Wives; pretty wooden slatted houses with green gardens and a hanging post box at the end of each driveway).

Golden Gate Park is 3 miles long by half a mile wide. Windmills pump water for the grounds, which includes a model boat lake, a golf course, a few museums etc. John Maclaren created this park against all odds, being told that nothing would grow on the previously arid soil. He collected all the manure he could by offering to collect all the horse excrement the whole town was producing and created the rich soil required for the lush park get succeeded in creating. He hated statues so planted trees around them to hide them. When the city put up a commemorative statue of him into his park, he hated it so much that he had his gardeners steal it in the middle of the night and buried it in his back yard, where it was only discovered after he died.He retired at 96 years old and died 4 years later.

It’s free to go up De Young Art Museum tower, which is 9 storeys and provides spectacular views.

Height Ashbury is the best ‘hippie spotting’ in the city; it is teeming with organic grocers and has zone laws prevent national chains from establishing in the area. There are  lots of brightly painted muralled walls and antique stores. The style that started in the 60s rings true in the hybrid mixture of shops, restaurants and residents and there is even still a store that always has and always will only sell tie-dyed stuff! 

Alamo Square has a mix of some 14,000 beautifully preserved – and wallet-shatteringly expensive – old houses in the Queen Anne, Matchstick, Victorian and Edwardian styles. Postcard Row is said to the the most photographed spot in the city, with its colourful Victorian “painted ladies” with the San Francisco skyline in the backdrop.  It also smells like oak bbq from all the restaurants.

(Norm was very smug that the) City Hall is taller than the one in Washington, since the law says no state capital buildings shall be taller than the nation’s… but Sacramento is the capital of California. The building is also really pretty, roof adorned with genuine 24 carat gold, and can be rented out for private events.

By stark contrast the Tenderloin, a sliver of seedy suburb in the midst of its opulent neighbours, is the kind of place you automatically clutch your bag tighter during the day and walk the long way around at night. Weirdly, there is an enormous Hilton hotel in the middle of it that takes up an entire city block and wouldn’t be misplaced in Vegas if it had a casino.

Chinatown’s entrance is marked with dragon-adorned Pagoda Gates on the Grant Avenue entrance, which was a gift from Taiwan. It has a population of over 100,000 people which is 1/5 of San Francisco’s entire population. The average age is about 50 (because all the young people move to suburbs) and the predominant language is Cantonese because the majority of immigrants came from Taiwan and SE China.

Grant Avenue was the first road in San Francisco and was oroginally named Dupont.

Our tour had taken us full circle and left us full of new knowledge, so we decided to do some more lowbrow entertainment.  Our GO Card was good for inspiration, so we took a walk through Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.

In need of (late) lunch and being in prime position at the Fisherman’s Wharf, we used our GO Cards to get tickets to the 2 Bridge Cruise (which would take a couple of hours to leisurely cruise to Golden Gate Bridge and then circle back to Bay Bridge) and then grabbed a traditional clam chowder in sourdough bread bowl for our trip. Living the life indeed!

Back on the Wharf, we were spoilt for sundowner options. Joe’s Crabshack won our favour, thanks to their $3 draught offer. It was a fine and festive spot and we learned more than we needed to about a total stranger who was sitting opposite us at the bar and talking the ear off her boyfriend’s friends that she’d obviously just been introduced to. They looked a bit trapped so probably needed the $3 beers more than us… and who knows how long the poor things had to stay there for after we left!

Now with a solid footing on the city layout, we’d masterfully chosen a Groupon offer for dinner in North Beach, the heart of the Italian District and our home turf. Minutes later we were at Pantarei sipping on Chianti and waiting on our Lasagne and Carbonara.

It was nice, but we have had better. I am a bit spoilt with the real Italian cooking I get at the office all the time!

Tuesday’s plan was simple but rather ambitious: cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge.

We got our 1-day bike hire from Blazing Saddles off the Wharf and were soon fitted with helmets and receiving our briefing in the dispatch area.

The briefing was a little brief for my liking and as we were walking our bikes down the hill to the Wharf (as one is legally obliged to, not being able to ride on the pavements), I wondered how Angela Lansbury could be so nonchalant in the opening intro to Murder She Wrote, riding along on her bicycle, trrrrringing her bell with not a care in the world when bicycles are, to be frank, terrifying. It’s hard to believe that none of her episodes featured a cyclist being sideswiped into Cabot Cove by a mystery car. Or a careless cyclist causing one of her whodunnits for that matter.

Fortunately our starting point was quite soothing for my restless mind.

Locals use Crissy Field and Marina Green as their front lawn and beach, where acres of grassy areas lead to the yacht harbour with stunning close-up views of the famous suspension bridge. Between the wide open spaces the oodles of people jogging, strolling and yes, cycling (even kids were getting it right), it seemed like as good a time as any to get started.

Ensuring a wide berth between me and anyone else, I hopped on, swaying a bit to get balance. Pedal, pedal, pedal. I was doing it. Not so bad after all.

After a few minutes, my knuckles loosened and I was able to take in some of the view. Just in time for a dastardly uphill to the Bridge.

Fortunately it was short and we were soon zooming  (to my mind at least) past the Presidio and onto the pedestrian / cyclist lanes on the Bridge.

The views are spectacular, with San Francisco on the right, Alcatraz dead ahead and the docks on the Sausolito side on the left. There was a bit of obscuring fog (and a fair amount of sweatiness) preventing us from the perfect pictures, but the memories will always be intact nonetheless.

Reaching the other side, we continued over the hill into Sausolito, which is a pretty little town that looks like it belongs in one of those movies where the opening scene is of a heroine who works in a seaside cafe with a warm window-dressing, a glass counter of homely treats and a bell that tinkles when the door opens.

We parked the bikes and took a quick walk-around. One end to the other and back again.

Given a choice of cycling back, catching the ferry back Sausolito or continuing to the next town, we decided to cycle some more and catch the ferry at Tiburon.

We cycled past the world-famous houseboat community and on an easy ride through Bike Route 8 to the ferry.  We’d cycled 32km in 2 hours!!

Originally we’d thought to spend our last afternoon on Treasure Island – halfway along the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland – but after all the exertion of the day’s outdoorsiness, we were quite happy to be back on dry land, so we went home and showered and went into Downtown instead for a bit of a wander.

After some shopping and window-shopping, we grabbed a bite at Murphy’s Pub. The fish n chips and Mac n cheese just disappeared into the chasm all that cycling had created!

Last thing on the agenda was to grab bargain $2.50 draughts at 901 Broadway where we happily spent our last few leisure hours in San Francisco.

Travelogue USA 2: LA – Hollywood


10-12 October 2016

Having purchased the LA GO Card in advance of our trip made excursion choices a little easier since it made sense that things covered by the card became go-to decisions. The card is purchased online and allows unlimited access to the included activities for the number of days you opt for. We’d opted for 3 days, thinking that we’d do all the Santa Monica stuff on Sunday when we returned from Malibu and then have 2 days to do all the Hollywood options.

Sunday didn’t quite go as planned thanks to Rosenthals last rounds being later than advertised, meaning we only got back to Santa Monica in time for dinner and missed out on the bicycle hire from Perry’s for a sunset flit along the promenade as well as the access to the theme park on the Pier, which now held no interest. No mind, we’d still had the Celebrity Home Tour, which at $50 a head was a good use of a day on the card anyway.

Now we were able to use the Hop On Hop Off bus tour as our transfer from Santa Monica to our Hollywood hotel, which was a double win both saving money on an Uber and combining sightseeing with our transportation.

It was also easy enough since the bus stop is on the corner of Broadway (our road) and Ocean Avenue (2 blocks down from our hotel), leaving at a very reasonable 9.30. That gave plenty of time to lie in, partake in the complimentary hotel pastries and commit the view of the coastline to memory while getting our tickets at the Pier.

The stops through Santa Monica are a bit thin, including arb sights like the hotel where Jane Fonda recorded some of her fitness videos, Marilyn Monroe’s house and the house where Shirley Temple was born. There was also a property claimed to be The Governator’s home… but based on yesterday’s Celebrity tour, Arnie  owns half of California so probably not such a big deal to see one of so many.

On completing the yellow line, we were delighted to find the red line bus already waiting at the crossover stop. We hopped off and then hopped on, much as the name implied we would.

The red line took us through Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive and we could see that the traffic was thickening noticeably.  It’s debatable whether this was a product of location or just because it was by now midmorning and the city was becoming lively.

Even though we’d come quite a distance, it was still easy to get our bearings as we crisscrossed key arterial roads like Wiltshire and Sunset boulevards, names that we recognise from a lifetime of movies. Wiltshire was also apparently the testbed for LA’s car culture so had the first left turn lane, the first traffic lights and has a generous allocation for parking to service its buildings and businesses. A bit of a yawn of a claim to fame as compared with its neighbours.

The bus dropped us at Pantages Theatre, a relic of the golden age of Hollywood, at its prestigious address on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

We got ourselves a map and headed off on the trek to our hotel (probably more fairly defined as a motel), on Sunset Boulevard a few blocks down.

Taking little more than 15 minutes and with no resistance from our wonderful new featherlight trolley cases  (replacements, thanks to my beautiful black leather case from China being broken on the last trip), we were still a sweaty mess when we arrived at Dunes Inn Sunset. I asked the reception fellow if it’s always this hot in LA; he looked confused and said it was a bit chilly. It was easily 30 degrees! Suppose that’s what you get from a local who enjoys 325 days of sunshine and as little as 15 inches a year.

By now it was midday and we had lots to do, so we dumped our things in our room and hightailed straight out the see what we could see.

Being based on Sunset Boulevard made navigating very simple – what isn’t on Sunset itself is on Hollywood Boulevard, parallel and one road up.

We had pre-booked online for the 2pm Redline behind-the-scenes Hollywood walking tour (included in our GO card), which gave us some time to grab a quick lunch (fried chicken at Popeyes) and have a nose about for ourselves.

The tour was a great decision. With the tour company operating from a small lock-up-and-go stand in the courtyard in front of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, it was all action from the moment we met our tour guide, Michael, who is a native born-and-raised LA resident, which he says is as rare as an unicorn.

The tour starts with viewing inside Grauman’s Theatre and a history of its namesake and his considerable contribution to making Hollywood and the film industry the profitable business it is today. If Michael is to be believed then Syd Grauman may be the among the most genius marketers that ever lived. He apparently coined the term “movie stars” which took actors from being paupers plying their trade for passion alone to create opportunities so lucrative that relatively soon thereafter Elizabeth Taylor was the first to command a $1 million paycheck, for her role as Cleopatra. The original Egyptian dogs from the epic movie are displayed in the Theatre as a testament to breaking through boundaries.

Grauman also built the Chinese Theatre found further up Hollywood Boulevard, which he made famous with having a very select few stars immortalise themselves with hand- and footprints in the concrete leading up from the pavement to the entrance. We stood next to John Wayne’s slab and, while a tall fella of considerable stature, his feet were tiny! No more than a UK size 6 or 7 at most!

We also went into the Dolby Theatre and saw the magnificent staircase where the stars ascend to attend the Oscars. Undraped, the venue is no more than a mall (with upmarket retailers) but clearly it has its day in the sun for the Awards each year, when the shops are contractually obligated to close so that they can be the invisible substance behind miles and miles of red velvet draping.

Done with the tour, we hopped back onto a HOHO bus, taking the Red Route so we could visit the Guitar Centre. Like Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it has handprints adorning its entrance, but this time with notable musicians rather than actors. We enjoyed putting our hands into the impressions of some of our heroes: ACDC, The Cure and our fondly-known-as Jeff Leppard.

Back on the bus, we were happy to take in the rest of the less important (to us) sites from the comfort of the upper deck, with the audio tour guide filling our heads with random arbitraries about Whisky a Go Go, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive that were forgotten almost as soon as imparted.

We disembarked at Pink’s Hotdogs, a classic diner on the corner of La Brea and Melrose that has been a Hollywood stalwart since the 30’s. We had a chili cheese hotdog and a chili cheese nachos hotdog to share, which came with a few surprises; hotdog chili is like a blend of mince and refried beans, and there were no actual nacho chips on the nacho hotdog, just the runny custard-coloured nacho cheese. Still, both delicious.

We celebrated by walking back up to Hollywood Boulevard to get a free chocolate sample from Ghirardelli’s (our HOHO bus map had told us we’d get the sample, but not that it would be an amazing salted caramel in dark chocolate. I don’t even like dark chocolate, but this was crazy creamy and like a bitesize Caramello Bear for grown-ups).

Last item on the agenda was a nightcap at the Pig n Whistle, next to the Egyptian Theatre where our walking tour had started. The pub has been a part of Hollywood for so long it hosted Judy Garland’s 18th birthday, along with her pals Shirley Temple and Clark Gable in the intimate party. Far be it for us to miss out on such an iconic part of the better part of a century’s history.

En route we were fortunate enough to happen upon the premiere for The Accountant in full swing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. We caught a glimpse of John Lithgow as was chauffeured up in an enormous black SUV, manned on all corners by equally enormous twitchy bodyguards with earpieces. Onlookers went dilly as he got out the car, shouting out his name (they were, not he was) as the press lightbulbs flashed madly, and screeching with delight as he cast a glance in their direction, with the resultant effect a sort of vocal Mexican Wave.

Poor JK Simmons had to follow that act; hopefully he hadn’t heard the John Lithgow uproar from his SUV so was still delighted with the (notably less) warm welcome.

Our timing had been so spectacular that if we’d been any earlier we probably wouldn’t have stood around, not knowing what to expect and if we’d been minutes later, we’d have missed everything.

We marvelled at our good fortune as we made our way down the Walk of Fame, as one does, continuing to the Pig n Whistle as intended, names of all sorts of famous people passing under our feet, immortalised on their gold-lettered pink marble stars embedded on the pavement.

Lucky for us, it was quite quiet, so we could get in a couple of rounds and tear ourselves away.

Unable to face too many more steps on a 20+ thousand step day, we found a Metro station and covered the 3 stops in no time, to flake on the bed in our hotel room, reeling from the pace of the past few days.

Day 2 in Hollywood was planned as a double-bill of studio visits. Our HOHO ticket also transported us to Universal Studios so we got up early to (walk the K and a half to) catch the first bus from Hollywood Boulevard just after 9am.

It was a good call because the park was relatively quiet when we got there and we were among the first group for the popular Studio Tour.

The tour is delivered quite theatrically, co-hosted by a tour guide and  (a recorded) Jimmy Fallon, with cameo appearances from some big names like Ellen de Generes and The Rock. The trolley bus moves through the lot while the guide talks through points of interest and what’s been used by whom for which movies when. There are also some experiential elements, like participating in a subway tunnel collapse, a flash flood and a car chase from Fast & Furious, complete with holograms of the cast.

Leaving the tour, we were grateful to have been in the first batch. The queue for the next group was already snaking through a long winding queueing system.

With little direction of our own, we wandered neatly straight into a Special Effects Show. It was equal parts education, exhibition and entertainment – and a very worthwhile way to spend a half hour. Not every day you see someone set on fire on purpose (and extinguished unharmed), another person chopped in the arm (with a trick knife, so unharmed despite all the “blood”) or anyone whizzing around the ceiling (as the volunteer was, illustrating the suspension ropes).

Not particularly fussy about rollercoasters and whatnot, we left the rest of the plan to fate, going on the rides with the shortest queues.

We got very lucky! The Transformers 3D experience was exceptional and we were rocked and rolled around as the Transformers fought each other over and around us as all sorts of shrapnel flew into our faces as we squeaked and flinched because it was so realistic. Then we ended up at a somehow completely queueless The Mummy ride; a forwards, backwards and sideways quite traditional rollercoaster… but in the dark with all sorts of creepy-crawlies. Exhilarating!

The afternoon had us at a 2pm Warner Bros studio tour, which was next stop on the HOHO bus Blue Line so we jumped on the 13h15 bus and were soon at our next Hollywood experience, being given all sorts of insider tips, unprompted, by a very sociable security guard as he did a thorough check of our bags (which, to be honest, seemed unnecessarily thorough for the sole purpose of allowing him to finish his monologue!)

Our timing was perfect and 10 minutes after arrival we were ushered into an auditorium for a short intro film and the assigned to Remsen, our guide for the day, and moved along to our cart that would transport us around the lot.

It was very exciting as we drove through the enormous studio buildings and Remsen filled us in on what used to and still is being filmed where. He was very knowledgeable on films old and new, so had something to say about almost every square inch we passed! … which has much to do with how the studio tries to make use of every inch of real estate where possible.

It was amazing to see how a patch of grass no bigger than that around our swimming pool was the same location used for “Phoebe & Rachel go jogging” and “Phoebe learns to ride a bike” and “Sheldon goes to the Renaissance Fair dressed as Spock” and another half the size for “Sheldon & Leonard fly kites” and “Ross plays rugby”. And Hennessy Street, which is a road lined with shell sets (facades with only a little room behind them where windows can be dressed) on the left side and practical sets (with whole rooms within) on the right has been the set for everything from Annie  (the classic and the 2009 remake) to Batman  (3 of the movies). It really is all about filming perspective and set dressing!

We drove past the live set of Shameless a few times, where we spotted Fiona outside Patsy’s Pies, the diner where she works. How exciting!!

Remsen took us into the set where Mom is filmed and explained how the whole process worked. The set consists of a dissected restaurant, kitchen, lounge and apartment entrance courtyard, which was no surprise since we’ve seen the show and already had a vague of how studio audiences work from what we’ve seen on TV… but what did surprise us was that these actors have a 5 day work week like everyone else.

I suppose we assumed the actors swan in and capture their scenes and then swan out again.  Not so. There are readings, rehearsals and recordings that alone can sometimes take a full day  just to get the footage that makes up the 21 minutes we see. Then there’s post production and editing and whatnot which take the few weeks between shooting and airing. If anything, knowing this will now make us a bit more empathetic when there are season breaks on our favourite shows.

We also visited the Conan O’Brien set. A different format entirely, being a “live” show (we found out that it’s recorded as a single take but aired a few hours later), we were able to sit in the audience seats as Remsen ran us through the intricacies of how the stage and set work to play the space onto camera for optimal perspective.

We also popped into the props storage facility (an enormous warehouse with anything and everything you can imagine) and I got to sit at the White House desk that’s been used in several shows and movies, like West Wing and one of my favourites, The Fixer.  Which is probably what the props team call Lady Gaga after she borrowed the table for a music video and gouged the leather surface with her heels so badly that she had to spend a fortune replacing it!

Christian was delighted to be up close to all of the Batmobiles in the Batman storage area. And our up-close-and-personal experience with costumes and props from a host of superheroes, including Batman, Superman, Supergirl, Wonderwoman, Suicide Squad etc etc.

The tour was really excellent and completely different to the theatrical Universal one in the morning. It ended at a building with interactive displays where you could sit on the couch on the Central Perk set from Friends, as well as pose for pics on sets with trick effects that for example had 2D painting on the back drop that gave false perspective when captured on camera in our photos.

We were then supposed to make our way to CBS Studios for the taping of Last Man Standing, but it was a bit late. The tour had been the better part of 3 hours, and we supposed to already be at the other studio which was miles away. It really didn’t smart as much as it would have had the Warner Bros tour not been so amazing.  We were sated on the production front – and frankly not as up for the experience now knowing it could take anywhere from several hours to all night to complete!

Our decision was vindicated when the golf cart deposited us back at the entrance and the HOHO bus was waiting for us. Literally waiting for us. The friendly old driver who had brought us to the studio from Universal had been pulling off when he saw our cart behind his bus. Recognising us, he stopped the bus and waited for us!

By the time we arrived back in Hollywood, we were starving so decided to head down La Brea to see if we could find the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles that the security guard at Warner Bros had recommended to us.

We walked and walked and didn’t find it so turned down Sunset Boulevard instead and were rewarded with a magnificent burrito at Chipotle.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we’d done more than 25km walking for the day! Good incentive to rest up for the following day’s trip to Vegas for The Big Experience.

Travelogue USA 1: LA – Santa Monica

08-10 October 2016

The holiday got off to a 5-star start. We’d recently been upgraded to Gold status on Emirates Skywards AND we’d traded our frequent flyer miles to upgrade our outbound flight to Business Class.

The Emirates Lounge at ORT is brilliant.  We literally could have ordered the buffet’s exact menu, given a choice, and struggled to restrain ourselves to a taste of rare roast beef (with rich brown gravy), chicken curry, Scottish salmon, mini chicken and mushroom potpies… and couldn’t even face starting with the dessert selection.

Our flight was equally lavish and, being on the massive A-380, we got the 2 middle seats. They have a retractable divider which when combined with our comfy side-by-side chairs that could be expanded to a full horizontal, left us with a “living room” only marginally smaller than our microscopic hotel room in Copenhagen!

With 16 hours on the plane, there was plenty of time to sleep (perfectly in our comfy chair-beds), watch TV (Emirates has whole boxsets of series) lounge in the bar and create our own tapas tour from the cosmopolitan selection of wines and champagne, with generous selection of bar snacks and light meals.

While fun at the time, our tapas did little to prepare ourselves for the magnificent 3 course lunch that was served towards the end of the flight.

We were in pretty good shape when we exited LAX into the blue-sky humid Los Angeles afternoon. We’d been well rested and fed – and the combination of headstart on cattle-class with visa waiver thanks to UK passports meant we’d been processed quite quickly.

As an added bonus, our Business Class experience came with a driver service to take us to our hotel and we were soon bundled into an enormous gas-guzzler by the suited driver who was waiting to meet us at Arrivals.

LA traffic is ridiculous.  For a mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the highway was as congested as ours in rush hour on a weekday! In both directions!

It took a good half hour for us to wind the relatively short journey to our hotel in Santa Monica. It wasn’t a very picturesque either, with high walls on either side of the highway obscuring anything there might have been to see. The only things visible were the hills in the backdrop, but were noticeably remiss of the Hollywood sign so didn’t capture our interest either.

The Carmel By the Sea is exactly that. Right on the doorstep of the Pacific Ocean. Prime location indeed! On the corner of Broadway and 2nd Street (as in 2nd from the beach), it was a hop, skip and jump to all the action on Santa Monica Pier and the famous (well, to us anyway, thanks to the Yellowcard song) Ocean Avenue.

Check in was blitzquick, thanks to the conveniences afforded by online booking and we were pleased enough with our room even though it had less than no view, facing onto the Central courtyard where all the generators are housed. What does it matter though? We had the whole of Santa Monica to explore!

We headed straight out after changing into holiday mode: shorts and slops.

We’d made few plans for the afternoon, based on concern for our state on arrival from the 30 hour journey. We were fighting fit though, so committed to the pencilled plan to walk the length of the promenade to Venice Beach, just short of 2 miles down.

It was a great idea. The beach experience is idyllic: thick belt of golden sand with wide (separate) walking and bicycle paths on the city side and large open public entertainment facilities like playgrounds, skateboard bowls and gym equipment built in for people to enjoy. And so many were! Muscle Beach – set up in the 30s and famed for being the birthplace of the California bodybuilding boom in the late 80s, where Arnie and Co worked out – had a generous collection of people of all sizes exercising in the afternoon sunshine. What a great idea to promote wellness!

It’s an easy walk to Venice Beach and you can feel the change as the relaxed atmosphere and elegant waterfront properties of Santa Monica gives way to Venice’s artistically tatty, brightly painted and muralled restaurants, shops and bars with the bustling walkway lined with buskers so as you move the soundtrack blends from bongo drums to blues to reggae to rock… with more than a few evangelists vying for airtime in between.

There are also a startlingly number of homeless people camped on the edge of the beach, settled in with dome tents and a scattering of worldly possessions. And more than a few begging veterans, mostly looking for a slice of pizza or a cheeseburger. The depravity is in stark contrast to the picture-perfect view just behind them with the silhouetted palm trees framing the sand and sea beyond.

Thirsty from the walk and pleased to have gotten a pic of the famous Venice sign draped across Windward Road, we popped into Danny’s for a beer and were lucky enough to be rewarded with great timing – Bud Draft $3 during “the game” (it seemed rude to ask which one that might be since the waitress was so enthusiastic that we’d responded to their offer).

We then walked on to Venice’s Muscle Beach lookalike. Quite different, it was a fenced-off outdoor gym that charges $10 for a workout pass. There were a few very impressively ripped chaps working out (shirtless, obviously) in the yard and clearly playing for the crowds by doing show-off tricks on the equipment, like handstands on the pull-up bars, and then feigning indignation that people were taking photos.

We had a beautiful sunset to keep us company on the return journey, along with the silhouettes of the beach volleyball enthusiasts taking advantage of the cooler dusk.

And it was quite cool; fitting seeing as, as hard as it was to believe, it is Autumn in beach paradise. So we decided to meander back to the hotel to get a jumper (me) and shoes (Chris) so we could make our way to 3rd, a pedestrian street known for bars and eateries (and shops, by day).

Always practical, our meander took us past the plan for the morning – the Starline Tours office, from where we would be catching the Celebrity Home Tours bus. Fortuitously, another or the landmarks on our list – the sign marking The End of Route 66 – was right outside the booth, so it was a double win.

We celebrated with a beer at The Lobster, strategically placed to the left of the Santa Monica Pier welcome sign.

Stopping for a jersey was Kryptonite. Chris sitting down on the bed was enough to zzzz him; me sitting next to him “to wake him” finished me off.

Our for the count. 3rd Street would have to remain a mystery.

Probably not the worst thing in the world, we woke at 5am, in time to open presents  (it was Christian’s birthday, the motivation for our trip), SSS&S before  “pastries and beverages” were served by the hotel (in lieu of continental breakfast) at 6.30 and then spend some internet time planning our route for the day.

We were the first at the tour office at 8.30 and were told that since we were using the GO Card pass, we were on standby for the Malibu Celebrity Home Tour, with paying customers given preference. We were told to return in half an hour to see if we could be accommodated.

We used the time to try find a convenience store to buy a local SIM card, which proved more challenging than we’d anticipated and our half hour wandering around Santa Monica just entrenched our inkling that it has an enormous fitness culture, having never seen such a hihh concentration of yoga studios per capita anywhere in the world!

Returning to the Pier (SIMless), we were delighted to be confirmed as included in the tour and were soon in the red topless 10 seater van, ready to go celeb-spotting.

Our guide started with a rundown of Santa Monica’s accolades: the 7th most popular beach in the world (omitting according to whom it had achieved this listing), inventing beach volleyball, the Pier and its amusement park (both established 1909) being the birthplace of Popeye and Santa Monica Boulevard marking the end of the Route 66. He also pointed out that Will Rogers Beach is where lots of Baywatch was filmed.

The drive took us along the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where he pointed out this person’s and that person’s house… but to be honest, it became a bit tedious – and the stars weren’t all sitting on their balconies or washing their cars in their driveway waiting to wave to us, as I’d somewhat delusionally imagined they would be.

The Malibu beach road had the highest concentration of homes / beach houses but it wasn’t as I’d imagined either.  While the houses are presumably palatial, the road view is quite modest with houses built up to the pavements, tightly side-by-side and devoid of any front gardens. The driver stopped so we could visit the Malibu beach itself and it’s a very narrow strip of sand, where the water must lap right up to under the houses (all on stilts with decks facing the ocean) in high tide, eating away all of the beach. We had a gawk into (what we were told is) Matthew Perry’s house, but came up dry, so settled for a photo and moved on.

We parted ways with the tour in Malibu Colony to again seek SIM card. Again unsuccessful, we retreated to Subway for a meatball sub (and a 42 ounce cup of Coke!) and to use the wifi to call an Uber to start our Malibu wine route, the core activity on the birthday agenda.

We struggled to get a driver, first attempting a new app called Lyft – fail! -and then being rejected by a driver from Uber and were starting to wonder if the plan was even going to be possible when a driver called Christopher responded.

A Malibu local, Christopher, packed us into the the back of his Mini and drove us to Malibu Wines, giving us a generous amount of overshare about his life and thoughts along the way.

Malibu Wines was a lovely setting to wile away a few hours. Lots of tables of merry-makers enjoying BYO picnics and clinking glasses of Saddlebrook and Semler wines to the soundtrack of the live musicman belting out (butchered) versions of everything from La Bamba to Sweet Caroline.

We made our bottle of pinot noir last an impressive amount of time, restrained mostly by the price tag since everything on the menu was north of $30! (Which is probably not very much for the locals, but burns when converted from ZAR!)

Again we called an Uber to take us to the next stop on our wine route, which we decided to be SIP, a wine shop rather than vineyard so we could enjoy a wider selection. It wasn’t very far up the Mulholand Highway we were already on and was a hive of activity with bikers pouring out of the General Store next door, which took “general” to the next level, selling everything from booze to convenience store stuff, clothes and an impressive takeaway menu of everything greasy conceivable. Everything including the decor had a price sticker on it.

The Sip shop itself was very quiet and we took our bottle of Malibu Ricky Oaks wine into the garden as solitary patrons. Of course, true to form, the next patron to arrive was a girl from Pretoria! She’d come to LA as an aspirant actress seeking fame and fortune but, seeing as she’d been here 15 years and we didn’t recognise her, apparently that had not (yet) happened.

When it came time to leave, we had a nasty surprise. Christian was out of data and neither of my phones had roaming so we asked if we could join the wifi to call an Uber.  Sip didn’t have wifi and the general store’s wifi was apparently only to support the security system so we were all out of luck! The general store manager offered to let us use the phone… but who were we going to call?!

Luckily, our Uber driver from earlier, Christopher, had given me his card so we called him and he came to fetch us. The reunion was that of old friends: we were so relieved to see him and not to have to spend the rest of our holiday at the general store and he seemed very pleased to see us and listen to us regale the stories of the afternoon’s adventures.

He drove us to Rosenthals on the Pacific Coast Highway, the last stop in our wine route and we said our bittersweet final farewells.

Rosenthals had claimed to serve last round at 5.30 and we’d snuck in with 10 minutes to spare… only to find it not such a strict deadline after all and the place was still doing a roaring trade, with live music and festive patrons.

We secured a bottle of Surfrider Grenache Blanc and a table in the garden, far enough from 1-man band to hear ourselves, but close enough to enjoy the people-watching. The entertainer even played “Wonderwall” as a tribute to Christian’s birthday, on my request.

It was much easier to summon an Uber from Rosenthals since it had wifi and was closer to Santa Monica so there were more drivers in the area. Our driver had the Clinton/Trump debate blaring and barely even noticed we were there. A surreal immersion into US politics indeed.

Back at base camp, we followed the plan and went to the King’s Head English Pub for cod n chips and a Guinness for dinner, as per Christian’s birthday wish. They did a fine offering, with lovely crispy batter and delicious thick cut chips that soaked in the vinegar.

As we were finishing our dinner, who should pop his head around the corner? My brother, Anthony!

He was in town for a conference of some sort and we’d told him where we would be, in case he could extract himself from the event. He had managed and it was great to have a beer and a catch-up!

After our long day and with his impending early morning, we weren’t in a position to make a long night of it, but a great end to a great day nonetheless.

Guinness Index

Irish pubs are like seasand in a bikini – you find them EVERYWHERE!   – so we’ve started compiling a comparative pricing index of what we’ve paid for a pint of Guinness around the world.

  1. ZAR 156.12: Denmark, Copenhagen (The Dubliner; Jun 2016) – Kr65
  2. ZAR 139.78: Sweden, Stockholm (Skeppsbar; Jun 2016) – Kr74
  3. ZAR 130.55: Iceland, Reykjavik (The Dubliner; Oct 2015) – 1200ISK
  4. ZAR 129.70: Finland, Helsinki (Molly Malone’s; Jun 2016) – €7.60
  5. ZAR 117.41: Kowloon (PJ Murphy’s; Mar 2014) – HK$83
  6. ZAR 116.79: Spain, Toledo (O’Brien’s; Sep 2013 ) – €8.50
  7. ZAR 112.90: Australia, Sydney Circular Quay (PJ Gallagher’s; Feb 2016) – AUS$10
  8. ZAR 110.96: USA, Santa Monica Ca. (Yes Old King’s Head; Oct 2016) – US$8
  9. ZAR 106.09: France, Reims (The Sherlock; Aug 2015) – €6.90
  10. ZAR 103.20: New Zealand, Auckland (Carpe Diem; Feb 2016) – NZ$9.60
  11. ZAR 97.07: Napa, USA (Bounty Hunter; Oct 2016) – $6.48 *and a 2-4-1!!
  12. ZAR    92.95: Japan, Tokyo (End of The World; Jan 2015) – ¥905
  13. ZAR    90.32: Australia, Port Douglas (Paddy’s; Jan 2016) – AUS$8
  14. ZAR 88.42: USA, San Francisco (Larocca’s; Oct 2016) – $6
  15. ZAR    83.69: Latvia, Riga (Egle; Jun 2016) – €4.90
  16. ZAR    68.95: Estonia, Tallinn (Albion; Jun 2016) – €4
  17. ZAR    68.09: UK, Newcastle Upon Tyne (Copperfields; Oct 2015) – £3.20
  18. ZAR    36.00: South Africa, Johannesburg (The Baron on Witkoppen; often)
  19. ZAR    34.00: South Africa, Durban (The George; Aug 2016)
  20. ZAR    32.83: Bali, Gili Trawangan (Tir Na Nog; Jun 2015) – 36,000Rp
  21. ZAR    32.05: Poland, Krakow (Mbassy; Jun 2014) – 10zls


PS: The index is ordered from highest to lowest in South African Rands, our home currency, at the time that the pint was procured. Bar tabs are used for local currency amounts and credit card billings are used where possible for ZAR amounts, so that both are actuals. Our currency is a highly volatile (mostly in a depreciating direction), so it makes for a wild ride on the index.



Australia, Melbourne: AU$11 (Casino; Jul 2016)


Travelogue Baltic 8: Stockholm


25-27 June 2016

The arrival into Stockholm’s Archipelago is breathtaking. As many as 24,000 islands filter from the Baltic to the city. The scenery calms from the windswept, wild beauty of the uncivilised woods, meadows and beaches into the mellow countryside of pretty little villages and summerhouses, then into the harbour, where at the mouth of Lake Malaren lie the 14 islands that make up Stockholm.

The Vikings passed through this Archipelago long ago, but the official story begins in 1252 when the fort was first built. A town grew around it and boomed when Sweden became a major Baltic power. Under Gustav III, the city began to flourish culturally and is now known for opera, cutting edge crystal design and Nobel peace prize ceremonies.

Our plan for Day 1 was to cover the islands closest to where our ship was docked in Frihamnen (Djurgarden, Skeppsholmen and Sodermalm). The hotel we were moving to the next day was across town in Soder so we would cover the further away sights from there in Day 2 (Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Ostermalm).

Little plays to plan though and after a brisk walk into town, we discovered that Djurgarden is essentially a big park – and the southern end of a massive “city national park”, which had been reserved for deer hunting until someone came up with the genius idea of preserving the green belt and opening it up to the public.  A very impressive commitment by the state since such a vast amount of prime real estate must be worth a mint!

Djurgarden is also home to the Nordic Museum, which looked great from the outside but didn’t stand a chance in luring us in from the bright sunny day (which we’d learnt was a gift not to be squandered in the Baltic!).

Further down the road is the famous open-air museum, Skansen, containing 150 buildings brought together as a representation of Swedish life, from farmer to aristocrat. While it sounded like it might be a better museum than most, the long queue and the promise of much more ahead prevented us from paying it a visit.

We took time to stop at the ABBA Museum and get our photos taken in one of those life-size posters with the faces cut out – so, yes, we are now immortalised as part of the Swedish supergroup! – on our route past Tivoli (same name as the one in Copenhagen; not sure if there’s a connection) funfair to catch a ferry to the next island.

We made a quick calculation at the ferryport and coughed up for an Access pass card which would cover us for all public transport for the full duration. They only do 24 and 72 hours, which is unfortunate since we needed for 48, but 250 Krone all in was still compelling versus 40 Krone per journey – and the hassle of getting tickets each time.

The hop from Djurgarden to Skeppsholmen is so short that it’s a wonder they didn’t just build a bridge instead. We posited that maybe ships pass through so the bridge would have to be too high. Or maybe there are so many islands that building a bridge feels like a slippery slope that would necessitate more bridge building. Or maybe it’s just a habit thing; there was a framed history on the wall, all in Swedish, which hinted the ferry might’ve been in operation since 1860 (as a small, open air service for a handful of people at a time).

Skeppsholmen had been home to the Swedish naval fleet since 1640. Everything had been built in “the era of the fleet” but have served as museums, restaurants and schools since military operations were phased out from the 1940s. New buildings, like the Moderna Museet, have been added and new uses are being found for dormant building, eg reopening the Torpedo Workshop for use for the performing arts.

A short bridge connects Skeppsholmen to a small island called Kastellholmen, named after the small citadel – Lilla Kastellet – at its highest point. Built in 1848, it is now a conference venue. Both islands form part of the city national park so are very green and make for a pleasant walkaround. Sad but true that some of the most wondrous places were only initially populated for their military purpose.

Our intention had been to go to Sodermalm next, for the remainder of the afternoon, but we got a bit sidetracked when we found our self-guided tour left is on the far side of Skeppsholmen so the most logical path was to walk along the bridge onto the mainland, along the harbour and then walk through Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which was the main item on Day 2’s agenda, holding and surrounded by most of the buildings of historical significance.

Nevermind though, it was lovely day so we embraced the change in plan and admired the scenery.

We’d been a bit ruined on being impressed by scale after grandiose St Petersburg, but otherwise Stockholm would be none slouch in weighing in on a Big Fancy Building competition.

The Royal Palace, at the foot of the Norrbro Bridge, contains 608 rooms making it one of the largest palaces in Europe. City Hall on Kungsholmen Island is built from 8 million bricks and 19 million mosaic tiles, houses the Municipal council and hosts the Nobel Prize Banquet each winter. Riddarholms Church was founded in the 13th Century, has been the Royal mausoleum for 400 years and is known for its distinctive open work metal spire.

Lots and lots of big fancy buildings – I just hope we can still tell them all apart when putting together the photo album!

Gamla Stan was packed and, being a 30 degree day, sweaty. The roads, being authentic in an authentic medieval town, are narrow and roughly cobbled so it’s not ideal for sightseeing, being herded and bumped around. It did smell good though from the number of open-fronted bakeries and ice-cream shops preparing and selling fresh waffles and ice-cream cones on the streets.

I’d hardly say we did it justice, but we did do it… all the way through to the bridge on the other side which connected to Sodermalm, our originally intended destination for the day.

We’d run out of steam a bit to start a whole new island, so picked a waterside pub instead from which to do some sedentary spectating.

We’d chosen well, being across the road from the ferry port, and even more serendipitously, the ferry arrived exactly when we needed it.

This took us back to Tivoli where we intended to grab a bus back to the ship from Djurgarden. Sadly, our luck had run out and we’d missed the last bus (by less than 10 minutes!), so we had to walk back but, as always, the walk back felt much shorter because we knew where we were going, so it wasn’t so bad.

Our return to the ship was bittersweet. We were glad to be back, but sad it was our last night.

Making the most of the time we had left, we did the rounds of a few of our favourite things  (like quesidilla and rare roast beef slices at the Park Café) before returning to our cabin to shower for dinner and pack (we’d been instructed to pack an overnight bag and leave our luggage in the passage by 11pm).

We’d been seated in the same section of the dining room all week, so had gotten to know our server (Melbert) and his assistant (Cesar) quite well. It was sad to be sharing our last meal – but they upped the ante with a whole basket of Christian’s favourite seeded rolls and a bonus plate of starters AND main courses. We may never adjust to real life meals again!

Disembarkation is, as you can imagine with anything with 2000 guests involved, quite a process. We were initially assigned to Group 8, designated to meet in the Safari Club at 06h45, but this would leave us waaaaay to early to check into our hotel so we pleaded and were reassigned to the second last group (30; 08h50).

This meant we didn’t have to get up at silly o’clock (although the sun would have risen several hours earlier) and had enough time for a full breakfast at the Windjammer, which was serving until 8.30!

In typical fashion, it was raining. We’d gotten first glimpse on waking that there was a light drizzle… and it hadn’t abated any by 9 when we left the Serenade of the Sea for the last time.

Our intention had been to use our Access passes to catch a bus to our hotel but the weather made that proposition far less attractive – especially since we now had 3 big suitcases to lumber. We flaked and caught a taxi to Solna.

Solna was to the East on the mainland and I’d chosen our hotel there for a few reasons:
1) diametrically opposite to the harbour so we’d sightsee from homebase to centre point and back each day
2) it was in the direction of and looked like an easy commute to the airport
3) there’s no such thing as bargain accommodation in Stockholm, which made the Radisson an unusually economical choice
4) breakfast included (which we would need after the gluttony on the cruise)
5) free wifi

The hotel was great. Even though we arrived very early (before 10), they happily checked us in and gave us our room… which was ENORMOUS  (and not just as compared with our cabin)… and on the 11th floor with a spectacular view. The hotel also had lots of amenities (sauna, gym, restaurant), attached to a shopping mall, and had a bus station and a train station across the road so very convenient. You never *know* these things from the online ads and descriptions, but this was all we’d hoped for and more.

We resigned ourselves to a truncated walking tour for the afternoon – based on the weather – and thanked our lucky stars that a) we’d gone so off course the previous day and b) we still had our (3) brollies.

The only things I really wanted to see were the Changing of the Guard (at 1pm at the Palace) and some of the sights from the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al).

We grabbed a Metro into town and effortlessly changed lines to get out at Gamla Stan. It was a lot more manageable than the day before, possibly because it was Sunday but probably mostly because of weather. With the rain little more than a fine intermittent drizzle, it was actually a pleasure for sightseeing – although won’t have made for such great photos as compared to a lovely blue sky.

We hightailed to get to the Palace for the stroke of 1, but needn’t have rushed. The Changing of the Guard is a lengthy affair – 70 or so marching band, complete with drummers and full brass section, so it takes some time for them to snake through town to get to the Palace. Of course, being elevated at the Palace (there’s a long steep ramp up to the entrance) gives a great vantage point and it was a sight to behold watching the soldiers slow-march from the mainland along Norrbro toward us.

… and then turn left past the Palace.

… and go around the corner.

Good to know for next time that they circle the building and do most of the show on the other side! I surmise we had placed ourselves at the back entrance.

There was quite a crowd around the other side – and people have terrible umbrella etiquette! – so we saw little, but could hear everything.  And we were surrounded by beautiful buildings and statues and a formidable church, so there was plenty to gawk at.

Our Plan B for the afternoon was exploring a pocket of museums in Ostermalm, just off town Central so, since the weather was still a bit bleak, we put the plan in motion.

Old hats at public transport by now, it was a quick ferry to Djurgarden and a tram across the bridge into Ostermalm.

Taking the opportunity while on home turf, it seemed only fitting to try the Museum of Swedish history. Their feature exhibition was on Vikings, with an impressive collection of artefacts, providing bone-chilling detail on the hard core existence people of that time lived.

There were a couple of skeletons that had been recovered and laid with buttons, gold thread and jewellery that had survived their owners, but it was the skeleton of a horse and dog that got me. They’d obviously been sacrificed “to the gods” and the horse had been killed by conk to the head and the dog on its back. Not nice.

The Museum had put some effort into making the exhibit more upbeat though and there were several interactive options in the courtyard, including archery and crafts but, like the napkin folding and towel animals classes on the cruise, we gave them a skip.

The weather was much better by this time so we renewed interest in the Millennium Tour.

The internet was rich with information on how awesome the tour is and how it’s not to be missed, but details were scant on when, where or how. Dated articles directed to the Stockholm City Museum on Sodermalm as the starting point for the tour (“on Saturdays” with no time given, not that it mattered seeing as it was Sunday anyway) or to source a map for a self-guided tour… but the museum is closed for renovations (until 2018!!)

We’d asked at the tourist office in Gamla Stan and they directed us to the tourist office in Central so, since Ostermalm neighbours Central, we hopped on a tram to find the tourist office.

The Girl With The Tourist Office Uniform (disturbingly) had no idea what we were talking about. We told her that The Girl In Gamla Stan had told us about tour maps and, with a little looksee under the counter, TGWTTOU found a Millennium Tour map!

It was in German, Italian and Spanish.

But it was a map.

And, we later found out, it was supposed to cost us 40 Krone (ZAR 80), so SCORE! (As much as a trilingual Trilogy map not in English can be considered a score).

Thrilled at our find, we made our way back to Sodermalm, negotiating our way deftly through the (now very familiar) Gamla Stan.

All this around and abouting was thirsty work so we combined lunch-on-the-go with lunch at McDonald’s so we could use their free wifi to translate the map.

Stieg Larsson’s stories of crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and his unlikely side-kick, a tattooed wildchild with a penchant for violence called Lisbeth Salander reveal more of Stockholm than its signature dramatic waterside views, designer shows and classic cafés. Larsson chose his real-time home, Sodermalm, to be the homebase of the good guy characters in his fictional works, quite pointedly having the official and evil influences across the bridge from his beloved island.

Our little tour took us past:
1. Bellmansgatan – Mikael’s attic apartment
2. Monteliusvagen – a gravel walkway overlooking Lake Malaren and the old town. Eerily misty from the rain!
3. Lundebron – Lisbeth’s original apartment
4. Mellqvist Kaffebar – hip café where Mikael met both Lisbeth and Erika, his mistress. Now just called Kaffebar.
5. Synagogue on 13 St Paul – nondescript and quite unexciting
6. Gotgatan – a main feature road where Millennium offices are and where Lisbeth shops at a 711
7. Fiskargatan 9 – Lisbeth’s new 21-room apartment  (which she only uses 3 rooms of)
8. Mosebacke – a square with a statue of entwined sisters in the shadow of the looming water Tower
9. Kvarnen – an old world tavern  (the stained glass windows say 1908) where Mikael enjoyed a drink and Lisbeth used to meet her rock-chick friends. Now 178 Krone for 2 beers!

We had planned on a traditional Swedish meal at Kvarnen for dinner – elk meatballs, smoked reindeer sort of thing – but the prices were outlandish (R400 for meatballs and mash), so we Googled a Plan B.

Sodermalm is known for being very trendy, in a sort of grungy urban way. We’d seen our first litter, more graffiti and a few hobos, which was dramatically different to the refinement of the Central district or the natural beauty of the leafier islands. But it is also (allegedly) rich with traditional food options so it was a question of cross-checking location, price and opinions.

According to several reviews, Meatballs for the People on Nytorgatan (600m away) was the place to go for atmosphere, flavour and price. Sounded like a win.

It was relatively easy to find… but closed for the summer! What?! And such a pity too because the venue looked so fun and the menu spot-on!

The sign in the window did recommend one of their other 3 sister restaurants, the closest of which was just around the corner so we thought we’d give it a try.

The restaurant we found ourselves guided to was a trendy lounge bar with an even more trendy artisanal menu. Not a thing we wanted to try and CRAZY prices!

Out of steam and ideas, we decided to go back to Solna and let fate decide.

Smugly using our Access cards to the fullest, we jumped on the Metro and crossed town to get home, grateful to have the mall annex on our hotel to fall back on. And ended up at Burger King.

All was not lost on the meatball front though and we were delighted to find that our hotel included meatballs in their breakfast buffet! Nice one, Radisson!

Travelogue Baltic 7: Riga


24 June 2016

Riga was a specific inclusion on our cruise request when we were shopping for quotes, after having seen it in the tail-end of a travel show and it seemed so quaint and pretty. There was also a cruise option a night shorter but that excluded the Latvian capital, which seemed a shame since it’s a relatively far-flung destination unless you’re already in the neighbourhood, as we would be. We were just very lucky that this cruise fell on our first choice of dates as well – a universal sign that this was the perfect Honeymoon choice.

And now here we were. In Riga.

Having learnt from our too-early start in Tallinn, we had a leisurely start to the day. Slept in a bit, hit the gym, casual breakfast at the Windjammer… and a good thing too because when we arrived we found out that the day before was their big Independence Day (celebrating the fall of the Communist regime) so the whole city was only opening at 12.

This gave us a chance to have a bit of an unfettered walk-around… everywhere, as it turned out. Riga is very small!

The shuttle from the ship had deposited us just short of the Opera House. A great big beautiful building with manicured gardens in front and a river with bridges equal in form and function alongside. Of course, it seemed a bit like Mini Town after Peterhof!

Across the gardens we found what turned out to be the Freedom Monument. A bit short on information, we tried to eavesdrop on a tour group, but we’d missed the gist of the story so moved on.

Our attentions – once we were past the McDonald’s that was doing a roaring trade, of hungover party-goers no doubt – were caught by a cylindrical castle covered in ivy. There was a weapons museum attached to it, which we would like to have seen, but it was closed on the grounds of it being The Day After ‘n all.

No mind, we could see an impressive rooftop of sorts from there so headed in that direction. It was the Church in the town square. This was clearly a major attractions because everything was at a glance geared to tourists; souvenir shops, waitrons in traditional dress, boards offering traditional dishes. On closer inspection, this was Dome Church and actually Dome Square, so we headed off to find the Town Hall Square.

We took the long way around so that we could incorporate walking along the river and in 2 short blocks time we were at the Daugava River, where we found a statue of a big fella in a glass case. Fortunately his story had an English translation:

Legend has it that a long time ago a tall strong man cold Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) carried people across the River Daugava. While sleeping one night, Kristaps heard a small child crying on the other side of the river. He immediately rose to fetch the child and began to carry him. Half way across the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get to the other side. Exhausted he lay the child to sleep in his shack and fell asleep himself. When Kristaps awoke the next morning he found a large chest of gold where the child had been. When Kristaps died the money was used to found the city of Riga.

So there you have it. As good as gospel.

The other story (according to the tourist brochure) is that, being at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga became an important port along the Vikings trade route, catching the attention of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds who dominated the Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe.

A little less romantic a story, but a trifle more believable.

Having walked the full length of the outskirts – from bridge to bridge – we then returned to the Old Town, there were signs of life, as everything opened up again, as is the way of the day after the night before.

We consulted the map to see what was left to do. The cityscape includes a 13th century cathedral, a castle, a few dreary Soviet highrises and dozens of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s a haven of museums with the Latvian War Museum, Art Museum Riga Bourse, Latvian Museum of Architecture, Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, Barricades Museum, Museum of Ancient Baltic Jewellery, Museum of Photography… Museum of film / sport / porcelain… you name it, they had a museum for it!

We went to none of those!

We did spot something called The Cat House, which piqued our interest because we’d seen the logo on lots of stuff in tourist shops.

Opposite the Great Guild stands 2 turrets, a black cat with an arched back sitting on each.  Legend has it that the Guild denied membership to a well-off tenant who was so infuriated him that he had the 2 cat sculptures made and put on the turrets with their tails turned towards the offices of the Guild. One of the Guild elders in a court proceeding turned the cats to a more appropriate angle.

But the statement was made, the annals written and the t-shirt gotten (literally in this case).

The Old Town is a UNESCO Heritage site and looks like a fairytale with its cobbled streets, but feels Parisian with its buzzing social life. Now with the town in full tilt and us having seen what needed seeing, we took our last half hour to sit and catch a breath, watching the Latvian day go by.

Travelogue Baltic 6: Helsinki


22 June 2016

Having done little to research for Helsinki, our Cruise Compass gave a sweetly succinct history to prime us:

In 1550, the king of Sweden had big dreams for newly founded Helsinki. Unfortunately, a series of disastrous fires, plague and war kept the town from growing…. until another series of events changed its path forever. After Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809, Czar Alexander I moved the capital – and the university – from Turku to Helsinki to be closer to St Petersburg. The city flourished, but Russian rule was short-lived. The Finns declared their independence in 1917, endured a devastating Civil War, and emerged with a new Republican government. Helsinki has since been its sparkling capital. Noted for its graceful architecture and elegant gardens; the Senate Square’s neoclassical style has Russian written all over it. Finnish art nouveau also defines much of the cityscape, with the mermaid fountain near the fish market its symbol.

Seeing as everything we’d read about Helsinki spoke of how small and compact it is and since we could see what looked to be a church spire of consequence on the not too distant horizon, we skipped the ship shuttle into town in favour of making the walk part of our own tour.

Right from leaving the docks there were signs of life: pierside restaurants, people on bicycles and pushing prams, a large and lovely park… only problem was that our location didn’t feature on the map we had. It was from the Cruise Compass and we rationalised that either it was because people getting the ship shuttle didn’t need to know or, more cynically, that without the knowledge would be compelled to take the shuttle.

With the spire to guide us, we simply felt that we were getting the full experience; the suburbs that others didn’t get to see. It helped that it was a beautiful sunny day (but not too hot) and that the city is so pretty and green.

It must’ve been a good 3km walk to the city centre, but we did manage to tick off a recommended sight or 2 en route.

We entered Helsinki at Kauppatori Market Square, located at the harbour end of the esplanade. A lively and colourful spot with everything from fruit, flowers, vegetables and freshly caught fish to local handicrafts, the market was a buzz with locals grocery shopping and tourists stroking woollen merchandise and sampling Finnish and Lapland delicacies. Strawberries must be a thing in Helsinki because scores of people were eating them straight out of little baggies or punnets.

Our rudimentary ship map indicated that there was a tourist office just off the square, which made for a logical first stop.

The tourist office is very jacked; lots of maps and brochures, lots of fluent and friendly staff and access to buy tickets to anything that needed.

A quick flip through the “Hel Yeah” book and we’d pegged our first 2 activities.

The first was Suomenlinna, only accessible by water, by a 15 minute ferry journey. The ferry departs from the east side of the market, opposite the presidential Palace. With 6 minutes until the next ferry to  Suomenlinna, the lady at the counter chuckled good naturedly at our fluster as we stuffed our research materials in our tog bag and rushed through our thanks and goodbyes.

It was only upon reaching the ferryport – maybe a minute later, on the other side of the market and 100m away at most – that we realised why she was amused. We were possibly the only people in Helsinki rushing. There is no traffic, the people are relaxed and the public transport is superlative.

Suomenlinna is an irregular bastion fortress constructed on uneven terrain and on separate islands. Suomenlinna is also a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the largest sea fortresses in the world, drawing over 800,000 visitors a year.

The main route across the fortress runs from North to south and takes in all the sights, so we got us a map and that’s what we did.

The brochure shared much of the back story to give context of what we were seeing.

Suomenlinna construction began in the 18th century (1748) when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. It served as a Swedish naval base during the Russia Swedish War in 1788 before surrendering to the Russian army in the Finnish War in 1809. When Finland was incorporated as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire the fortress became a Russian base for the next 110 years, until it became a prisoner of war camp in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. In WWII it served as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft and submarine base.

In 1973 the Finnish garrison vacated the islands and handed it over to the ministry of Education and Culture and today it is home to 800 or so permanent residents. It has the dubious honour of having served its role in the defence of 3 states – Sweden, Russia and Finland – with guns that still face west as a reminder of the period of Russian rule in the 19th century.

The islands are a completely open-air museum with guests free to explore the dark and murky tunnels inside the bastion walls. It can’t have been pleasant manning those bastions. They are far from comfortably and if chilly now on a perfect summer’s day, must’ve been freezing in winter!

Those first bastions lead to the Great Courtyard which has served as the main square since 1760s and now houses the tomb of August Ehrensvard (who must’ve been someone special, but there was no mention of him in the brochure and little more than his name and date – presumably of his death – in Roman numerals on his tomb).

The church on Suomenlinna did feature quite highly both in the materials from the tourist office and the Suomenlinna brochure. It was built to serve as a Russian Orthodox garrison church, but converted to a Lutheran church in the 1920s alongside Finnish independence. Its steeple doubles as a lighthouse for both air and sea traffic but besides that it’s a church among churches in a very church-intensive part of the world (and very plain after all the glitz and glam of the St Petersburg cathedrals!)

More interested in the military stuff (apparently), we beelined for Kustaanmiekka, which offers a view of the original bastion fortress as well as the late 19th century Russian defence line, complete with sand banks and artillery emplacements. Ramparts on Kustaanmiekka were built to house gunpowder during the Crimean War in the 1850s but with their big wooden doors and the grass grown over their rooves (presumably to hide and buffer the gunpowder reserves), they would fit just as well in The Shire.

What was more impressive was the collection of families on the postage stamp sized beach… SWIMMING!

To give perspective, it was a lovely summer’s day *for the Baltic*, meaning early 20 degrees without windchill, and clasping jersey neck together when the icy wind took up, which it frequently did.

The path next led to King’s Gate, built in 1753 as a ceremonial gateway to the fortress. The gate is built on the site where a ship carrying the fortress’s founder, King Adolf Frederik of Sweden, was anchored while he inspected the construction of the fortress. Royalty really did have it lush.

Last stop was at the Vesikko Submarine, the highlight of the tour for Christian. Built in the 1930s and having served in WWII, the Vesikko is literally one of a kind since, according to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Finland was forbidden to have submarines and all except this one were scrapped. It was moved to its present location and opened as a museum in 1973. Fully restored, Vesikko is an opportunity to get a feel for the confined spaces submariners worked in and find out more about the tech of the time. Christian’s report was that it was very small and cramped inside and that he was surprised that it was only manned by (up to) 4 people.

Feeling culturally enriched already, the only pressure left was getting to the 2nd excursion on time. SparaKOFF is a historic tram that has been converted into a pub and offers passengers a unique sightseeing tour on a 40 minute lap of the city. Of course, the next ride was on the hour, which was in 9 minutes time from when the ferry docked… and station was 600m away.

Again the only people rushing in Helsinki, we power-walked around the market, down the main shopping street, alongside another pretty park – a rarity to finding one right in a city centre – past the elegant cafés and the smartly dressed people casually occupying them, past the lilting quartet playing Vivaldi, barely eyeing the impressive architecture, but delighting in finding the corner to turn right at… and then alarm as we realised we didn’t know what we were looking for… until we saw it.

There it was. The red party tram.

On the other side of the red traffic lights.

We thought we’d just missed it.

But this is Helsinki. And the tram driver had seen us. So he waited for us.

What a fun way to see the city! The tram seats about 24 people at tables for 2 or 4 and has a wooden bar built in at the back end. With big bay windows either side and tram tracks that run past just about everything of interest, it’s the perfect way to get a lay of the land. And have a local beer or draught for a well-rounded experience.

From what we’d mentally navigated on the tram, we made Senate Square our first visit on foot. The Square sits on a site that originally held 17th Century buildings; it is considered a masterpiece of city design and neo-classical architecture with its current 19th century tenants. The Government Palace, Cathedral (a behemoth and a beauty, easily the most recognisable building in Helsinki), University buildings and The National Library of Finland surround the Square, with boutiques and restaurants in between.

The one thing we saw from the tram that we didn’t get to on foot was Temppeliaukio Church, which sounds very impressive, carved out of solid rock, with a dome spanning 70 feet, covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire. It is both a popular tourist destination and working church.

In the short time we had for our afternoon in Helsinki the big takeaway is that it’s very pretty. They’ve taken care to keep a lot of green in their city and it gives the whole place an overarching air of relaxation. The buildings are elegant, the people are graceful. It’s easily navigated on foot or, preferably on a sunny day like that one, enjoyed on ass, at a cafe or on the grass of one of the parks.

If we’d have an overnight in Helsinki there are several things we saw at the market that we’d have liked to try for dinner, ranging from fresh seafood delicacies to more meaty Lapland delights.

But we didn’t have an overnight so it was back to the ship for us. As always, the walk back felt so much shorter now that we knew what we were doing and we were back at the port within half an hour, having hatched a plot to pub crawl the ship to ensure that we had explored the whole thing.

Travelogue Baltic 5: St Petersburg – City Tour


21 June 2016

Our second day in St Petersburg started quite the opposite to the first. Both of us had a restless night, fearing we’d oversleep… and got up half an hour earlier than planned (which was *early* seeing as we had to be on the bus by 7 15!)

Fortunately, on this cruise there was no such thing as too early for breakfast and, in fact, the main dining room was ready and waiting to serve us. The main dining room offers a combination of buffet and table services, with waiters at the ready to bring you a plate of your own design. That seemed – even after the opulence of St Petersburg – a bit too decadent to be practical when there was a buffet right there, so we dished for ourselves and were soon happily munching our gravlax/bacon/eggs/sausage etc, at leisure with plenty of time to spare. As is typical, people at the table complained at how long their food was taking (no more than a few minutes), but they were damned if they’d get up and serve themselves!

Passport Control was even quicker than the previous day as they just checked the existing stamps, and we were among the first to meet on the platform, before the coach had even arrived.

The drive into town seemed that much quicker the second time around; possibly because more familiar so we were anticipating the destination with some sense of the route (you know how the way home always seems quicker than the way to a new place).

Our first familiar sight was the Neva River, the main waterway in the 6 islands that make up St Petersburg. We’d passed over it yesterday; today we stopped alongside it to cash in a wish by rubbing the brass gryphon heads that sit alongside the Egyptian sphinx statues.

This was also am ideal vantage point to get a good look up and down the wide river. It’s obvious to see why it is called rhe City of 1000 Palaces. St Petersburg is nothing short of magnificent with the grandiose facades along the riverfront of a bygone era where bigger was better and detail essential. No cost was spared in the elaborate designs and adornments  that distinguished one mansion from the next in the single continuous row. Even the exterior paint job is meticulous, with a pretty consistent palette of dusky pastel colours with the slatted columns painted white.

We made another roadside stop further down the river at the Rostrums. These are tall terracotta twin columns with ships’ props embedded. At the base of each is a huge statue of a Poseidon/Neptune type chap. This section of the river was even wider (apparently it’s a kilometre wide – in the middle of town! – at some points) and the row of riverfront palaces as grand and consistent, side-by-side, as far as the eye can see in every direction. This city is nothing short of magnificent, in every conceivable sense of the word!

Even the roads are broad, which is unusual for an olden times city. Bearing in mind it was by now around 08h30 on a workday, traffic was thick, but not unmanageable (especially for us, long-suffering Jo’burg drivers). I suppose everything is relative though because even in the 1800s there was considered to be too much carriage traffic… but then the solution was simple: only nobleman could use the roads. That wouldn’t fly nowadays where it’s all for one and one for all and the parking is even free to be fair to everyone.

The next stop was St Isaac’s Church. The previous day’s tour had ended with a visit to a souvenir shop. We’d been assigned 20 minutes to shop but since Uda had flippantly pointed out some pretty notable sights through the window a few blocks earlier, we sprinted down the street retracing our bussteps to get a photo of the church, Palace and statue she’d printed out. Little did we know that we were returning to these the next morning!

The Church is a behemoth of a building, able to seat (well, stand, since Russians stand while worshipping) 14,000 people! It is adorned within an inch of its life and surrounded by the more of the same massive mansion block buildings in every direction. Words cannot describe the scale of everying in this city to the point that your imagination can form a true picture from my words!

The statue across the road from the church is of Nicholas I, Catherine the Great’s grandson. The (magnificent) palace behind it was built for his granddaughter, Maria, who refused to live in it because she couldn’t bear the thought of the view being her grandfather’s ass. Proper First World problems.

The big excursion for the morning was a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It kicked off with a bang when even the entrance Baroque staircase was a sight to behold. The decoration accent colour is gold. As in gold leaf, not golden coloured paint. Not my idea of a good time, but gives you an idea of the reckless abandon with which construction and decorating was undertaken. It was mostly the Empresses (Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) that are credited with the elaborateness and, as Christian said, it was easier back then when the Csar/ina had complete control over all the wealth and could spend on whatever they chose. He further said it was a good thing too because otherwise we wouldn’t have these magnificent things to admire now, in a world that’s a lot more selective in its opulence.

The Hermitage tour kicks off with the Winter Palace, built for Elizabeth but used first by Catherine the Great. Catherine ceded to Alexander I, her favourite grandson. Then his brother Nicholas (from the statue) became Emperor. It’s a tricky story to follow.

“Hermitage” literally means “place for solitude” since the buildings were never meant to be public. Ironic for a building now this busy – as in queues out the door, down the street, around the corner, across the road and through the park! Fortunately we were there as it opened and had a pre-arranged group ticket so were just ahead of the rush.

The Small Hermitage is 2 buildings running parallel with a garden between them. This is where Catherine housed her art, which she was known to have never liked (but collected because collecting was fashionable). Since the art was hung as her private collection in her placw if solitude, she is known to have said “only me and the rats can see it. And I think the rats like it more”

It is a formidable collection of legendary artists – so legendary that even I know them and I know less than nothing about art!

The first masterpiece I recognised was Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, which he is credited as painting in 1669, the year he died, but had etched 30 year’s prior so really was a life work. This painting was in a whole section of tens of Rembrandt originals… and I’ve now got an appreciation for his talent. While I’m sure one is supposed to appreciate brushstrokes, paint texture and whatnot, the ones that appeal to me are where the paint is smooth and the likeness so good the painting could be a photograph.

The Hermitage also houses 2 of the only 14 Da Vinci originals that can be found outside of Italy, both of Madonna and Child (the religious icon lady, not the singer).

The full tour was about 2 hours and took us through the Winter Palace, Small / Old / New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. We also saw some of Rafael’s paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture, so were only a Donatello short of a set of turtles!

The next stop wasn’t far from the Hermitage, but took some effort for a bus in the traffic. We found a good drop off point outside Michael’s Palace – another magnificent hunk of building, which cost 7 million Roubles to build in a time when the entire social budget was 700k!

Our destination was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is located on the spot of assassination of Alexander II  (son of Nicholas I). He was very popular because he abolished serfdom and made military conscription compulsory  for all (previously noblemen were exempt). He also encouraged Finland’s autonomy, liberated Bulgaria and sold Alaska to the USA. Obviously though you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and thus this was the 8th attempt on his life – and was aimed at overthrowing monarchy. Terrorists threw a bomb under his carriage. He wasn’t injured but the General next to him died immediately. The Csar – being the good guy he was – got off his carriage to see if anyone was hurt or needed help and the assassins got him with a second bomb. He was badly injured and died 2 hours later in the Winter Palace.

Alexander’s son commissioned the church at the place of his death in his honour. He was so popular that the nobles donated a million Roubles and the common people another half bar. 700 square metres of mosaics don’t come cheap! ..  Although they do save a fortune on pews since Russians pray standing.

We were running a bit ahead of schedule so Uda called ahead to see if we could go straight to lunch. We were initially batted, but the host venue called back about 5 minutes later saying we could come in 15, so we took a walk down to Nevsky Prospekt  (the main shopping street) to get better photos of the big church monument thing that commemorated the victory in the 1812 Napoleonic Wars.

Lunch was served at the Museum of Fine Arts. Based on how particular they were about our time of arrival and the fact that we were served at tables in the middle of the foyer, I surmise this to be a limited offer for which they close the museum over lunch.

Salad was already plated at our place settings, with caviar canapés and bread on the table for self-service. Then followed a bowl of borscht and a plate of chicken stroganoff. Strawberry sorbet to close. It probably was a treat of a meal… but we’ve been spoilt by the restaurants on the cruise ship. We may never be able to eat normally again!

Last on the itinerary was the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another baroque construction, consecrated in 1733. This was the first main cathedral built in St Petersburg, as a memorial to their 18th century military glory and is the burial place for the Imperial House of Russia.

Peter the Great’s daughter Catherine had been buried in 1708 in the wooden church that stood on this spot and which laid foundation for the creation of this Cathedral to house the Royal tombs of the Romanov Imperial House, and which is currently the final resting place of 46 members of the dynasty.

We were starting to piece together the story and from what we could tell it was:
Peter the Great (unified Russia, moved capital to St Petersburg)
Catherine I (Cinderella
Peter II (Peter the Great’s grandson, last of the male direct line of Romanovs)
Anna (Peter the Great’s niece)
Ivan (Anna’s niece’s infant son, ruled for a year… as an infant)
Elizabeth (seized throne from Ivan; Peter the Great’s daughter)
Peter III (Anna’s nephew; assassinated within 6 months by his wife, Catherine the Great)
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, ruled 34 years)
Paul I (Catherine’s son; ruled 4 years, 4 months, 4 days, strangled in his bed)
Alexander I (Paul’s son, ruled 24 years and died of typhus)
Nicholas I (Alexander’s brother, ruled 30 years and died of pneumonia)
Alexander II (Nicholas’s son, assassinated at Church on Spilled Blood)
Alexander III (Alexander II’s son)
Nicholas II (Alexander III’s son, married to Alexandra)

The Romanov line ended with the October Revolution where the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas and his family so that there was no chance of returning to a Csarist regime. The whole family were buried unceremoniously at the time, but much later disinterred and brought to their own designated tomb in the Cathedral.

Quite a maudlin end to the day, but reaffirms St Petersburg as a place rich in history and stories of great victories and great tragedies.

Driving out of the city once again, it’s such a contrast of the beautiful elegant mansions built in the age of opulence versus the functional-to-a-fault grey compounds so obviously built by the Communists. Still enormous though, which seems to just be the St Petersburg way.

It was with regret that we said our goodbyes to St Petersburg as it grew smaller on what should have been the sunset, but of course wasn’t seeing as it was the longest day of the year, with darkness of less than 40 minutes so the sun was still high in the sky at 8 o’clock at night!

on the move