Category Archives: America

Travelogue USA 3: Las Vegas

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 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 offer to reprint the pack for us… at $5 a page!! We passed, knowing there had to 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 we 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 clerk’s 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 at 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 (not green, like at home) “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 as well as 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 this much history, nobody has been able to take a train to Las Vegas 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 who weighs 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 the 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 a busker belting out 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 pint 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 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 deifinitely 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 tidbit 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 in 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

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 at 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 busstop 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 itself 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 each 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! … so back in we went.

Being a big shop with lots of commemorative items on display 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, one visitor to the tasting room has recognised the artist and another had 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.

 

We awoke the next morning with plan in hand.

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 (and $27 poorer).

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, Villa 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 town flat – 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 final morning’s 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

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 chilli  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 enjoying a narrated circumnavigation of the 7×7 mile peninsular that is San Francisco.

San Francisco according to Norm’s tour:

  1. San Francisco was a 600 pax fishing village until, in 1849, they found gold and the population turned into tens of thousands virtually overnight.
  2. 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 though and was eventually prevented from moving further west by dynamiting a few rows of houses to create a fire break.
  3. 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.
  4. There are more dogs than children in SF.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long,  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.
  9. 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).
  10. 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. 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.
  11. It’s free to go up De Young Art Museum tower, which is 9 storeys and provides spectacular views.
  12. 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!
  13. 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.
  14. (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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. Grant Avenue was the first road in San Francisco and was originally 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 Sausalito 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 Sausalito, 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 Sausalito 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

LOS ANGELES – 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 recognised 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 highbrow 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 started 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 were 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

LOS ANGELES – 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 would have, given a choice, ordered the buffet’s exact menu – 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 us for the magnificent 3 course lunch (ordered a la carte) 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 drive 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 road in 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 did 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 – a permanent outdoor gym 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 is also a startling 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 equivalent. 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 of 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.

Out 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 high 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 the guide 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, which is just 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 crowd-pleasers like La Bamba and 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 at almost 15:1!)

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 Rocky 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 on 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 dinner – cod ‘n chips paired with a Guinness – 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.

Travelogue St Louis 2: London – St Louis

April 2008

 

sooo…. it’s been quite a week. they’ve actually had me <gasp> working. gggrrr. to make matters worse, there was a dark patch from bedtime on tuesday (later than i care to remember, but late enough that i’m constantly getting thooose impression-inspired reminders!) to lunchtime on thursday where there was no computer time at all. I KNOW!!! can’t remember the last time i was offline for that long!!

now, where were we? … mmmm…. at faye’s lounging and slothing.

post watching bubblegum horror film, having a superlative daytime nap (which NEVER happens) and much-needed showers all round, we headed off for Lix and RoRo’s place. Plan A (some schmancy restauranty thing) had been fraught with too many possible temptations for our resident Athlete – who we all know would have been led down the evil path by us, being Satan’s children wildly and freely wherever we can as we do <throaty> hahaha – so we cast aside all idea of going out into public and headed for Plan B – the ‘burbs. what a marvy idea!

lix outdid herself with ridiculously juicy and tender chicken schnitzels, with the most scrumptious mushroomy garlicky white winey sauce. which we made her make twice cos it’s one of those things where you just. can’t. get. enough!! gggrrr (in a nice way). complemented with a great vintage… erm… beer…. erm… or 7.

a great afternoon led to a great evening and into the inevitable grrreat night :o) lots of crap-speak, bonding, larfs and good times. yay us! got to bed way later than expected, after the usual bouncing around the lounge, with the added spice of Alex The Helicopter and a fun chapter called Clarks and Lix Fall Into The Telly. <blazing blushing stuff>

thought i was going to die when i woke up on sunday morning. real early. keeping real still so as not to turn queasy to dry heave (and / or worse). didn’t help. after fighting for hours i had to leopard crawl to lix to seek direction on The Strongest Drugs Known To Man Which Clearly Are The Only Thing That Could Save Me Now.

dunno what them little effervecenty things are, but man oh man – The Bomb. the world stopped spinning, thoughts of solid food (in the distant future of course) didn’t cause shudders and shiverless thoughts of day, outside and bright gave me hope that we might actually make it to the marathon that we’d travelled 11,000kms to see. happy happy days.

am so pleased too cos the race vibe was rocking (or maybe that was just me, being noticeably shakier than ever before) and faye was considerately on time-ish so there wasn’t too much arsing about with all them family and athleticky types. dry heave returned briefly when a runner in a Borat cozzie passed us. gave me a new mental image for next time i hear “Jump Around” hahaha.

sadly, had to hit the road straight after seeing Faye in an effort to automobile, train and plane to the States. Burger King saved my life. had a number 1 with cheese and bacon, which was a trifle dry. mental note to self, First World countries don’t give you any condiments unprompted. suck suck suckedy. <how ungrateful am i>

got to the airport on time. and was first in the airline queue, which i have never ever had before… would be the one time i didn’t need it! my colleagues (bless ’em) had checked in my suitcase so i sailed through and had time to chill with an ice cold coke.

american airlines food is superlative. had a chickeny cheesy pasta-y thingy. and a pizza later for a snack. actually, if that’s what they serve you gotta wonder about what Italia serve. mmmmm.

got in about midnight. great time to check in cos there are no queues. i also had no strength and no power of speech and the receptionist clearly no training and no logic. so, all in all, it was a worker of a moment, missing only someone to capture it in a moooooovie to make America’s Crankiest Home Videos.

alrighty, so now that we’ve put the ho into hotel, it’s a good time to take a repose and keep you hanging for the next gripping installment. that and i have to leave for the airport now (or you’re going to continue to get Travelogues cos i’ll never get home!!)

toodles xxx