Friday, November 21, 2014

Adventures in La La land

I confess, I’d just about given up on me finishing this so if anyone is still interested here’s the last few days condensed.

Day 14 – Downtown LA and Burbank

A spot of sightseeing to see fill the morning taking in:

The Colliseum – main venue for the ’84 Olympics and also right next door to and aerospace museum that happened to have a 2-seater Lockheed Blackbird on a stick outside, so naturally I forced myself to jog over and take a look at that too. 

“Historic” Olvera Street – Hispanic market and site of (perhaps) the original settlement in town.  Joan was happy to find a church and have time to light a candle, and she also got a lovely bracelet at the market.

La Brea Tar Pits – I have heard of these as sources of prehistoric animal remains, but never expected them to be in the heart of LA!

Farmers Market – Great place for lunch!

Then the afternoon took us to Warner Brothers for a studio tour.  That was a real hit and miss affair for us.  The insights into film and tv making were limited but interesting, and some of the standing sets were good to see and recognise, but the parts concentrating on current US tv shows were somewhat irrelevant as we had never seen any of those featured.  There was also a display of Harry Potter props and costumes, which was a nice little reminder of our trip to the UK studio earlier in the year, and also a load of Batman stuff for the 75th anniversary.  That was definitely my favourite.

Day 15 – Disneyland

As the hotel was only a stone’s throw from the house of mouse, and we had a free day, it just had to be done.  And I really enjoyed it.  I do like a thrill ride so managed a couple of those (Space Mountain, Indiana Jones) along with some more sedate experiences (It’s A Small World, Pirates Of The Caribbean, the Monorail) and those somewhere in between (Star Tours and a few others) as well as lots of wandering about and enjoying the place.  Plus the parade which was much more entertaining than I was expecting.  It was a little expensive but we didn’t see/ride half of it and I would definitely go again should we ever be in the area.

Day 16- Hollywood and home

And so our last day in America dawned.  A trip up to Hollywood to see some more famous bits (Chinese Theatre, that sign (from a distance), the Hollywood Bowl) and a drive to the airport via Beverley Hills and that was that.  OK, there were still a few diversions along the way – two of our group got pulled off to one side after testing positive for explosives on the hand swab at check-in (One had been handling her mother’s lighter, the other had perhaps picked something up off a cd thrust at him in Hollywood) and then I set the machine off too, but so did the people before me and we all retested negative on a second one so I didn’t have to get grilled and they presumably had to get the machine fixed.  I guess I managed to sleep through the night and woke up in time to see a bit of London from the plane before we touched down on what was technically Day 17.  Problem-free arrival back into the UK and then an untroubled drive home via Halstead to drop some of the group off.

Holiday score 10/10.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Onwards and southwards

Day Twelve: San Francisco to Cambria

And so the last part of the loop back to LA began as we left San Francisco and motored south to Monterey for a short walk along Cannery Row.  Lots of Steinbeck associations here, although as he is not an author I have read anything by these were largely lost on me!  The old factories that remain have of course been converted into shops, hotels and the like, but reasonably well done and I would have gladly spent a bit longer there.  If nothing else it would have been nice to visit the aquarium as I have heard good things about that.  Still we did catch a glimpse of a sea otter floating out in the bay, which was cute.

From there we headed south along the "seventeen mile drive" through Pacific Grove past some wonderful houses, stunning sea views (with a couple of photo stops) and several golf courses (well, you can't have everything.  I never did understand the point of golf). Lots of birds and a few deer were spotted, along with the inevitable squirrels - although seeing them on the beaches was a first.  That took us into Carmel, about which I knew nothing other that Clint Eastwood had been mayor for a while.  Another nice town - it reminded me a lot of Niagara-on-the-lake, which we have been to on every visit to Canada.

Heading South along Pacific Coast Highway 1 was the rest of the day in a nutshell.  There are restrictions on vehicle size down there, so we swapped over to a slightly smaller coach for the afternoon.  This was delivered to us in Carmel by a chap named Wolfgang, and he took our bus by other routes down to the hotel at Cambria.  The views were indeed fantastic all down the coast - and we even had an enforced swap around of seating on the bus half way so that those who had been inland got the sea views for part two.  The changeover was accomplished at Big Sur, where we had a brief break from cliffs, beaches and crashing waves in a grove of redwoods and other huge trees.  Not as dramatic as Yosemite, and we weren't there long enough to do more than wander from car park to lodge and back, emptied of bladder but filling up on ice creams instead.

The Pacific Coast Highway - looks much better than I can describe it!

It is at this point that I realise what an atrocious travel writer I am as I really can't describe the pacifc coast with any of the sense of drama we actually experienced.  I really wanted this blog to be more than a simple list of places we had been , but I guess I need to hone my craft a bit more.  So we will continue in this vein for the rest of the holiday and I shall try to improve my style before our next adventures...

The Cambria Pine Lodge was our stop that night.  When we were looking at the hotels before we left this one seemed to have the potential to be the best of the bunch. Located on the edge of town, in the woods, there was no easy walk to the town centre so we were basically a captive market for the night.  We didn't really mind this, and had planned to have dinner there anyway to celebrate the birthday of one of our group, but the food was a little disappointing. Rubbery scallops that close to the sea could have been so much better.  It was slightly made up for by there being music in the bar afterwards.  Also, the room was nothing special and the whole place was in need of a little sprucing up.

Day Thirteen: Cambria to Los Angeles

The pervading sense of disappointment hanging over us from the night before was not dispelled by a hearty breakfast.  Mainly because we didn't have one!  Just a slice of toast as neither of us felt like eating, and certainly not at the buffet prices they were charging.  That really was a case of captive market syndrome.  Still, we were both immensely cheered up by the morning stop at Solvang.

This was somewhere that had not been mentioned in the brochure or itintery and was an excellent surprise.  Originally founded by Danish immigrants it is a beautiful little town that quite took me back to my childhood holidays in Denmark and left a big grin on my face.  OK, so you have to factor in wider roads and larger buildings (and the odd palm tree) but the general architectural style of most of the town centre draws on Danish cottages or public buildings.  There are a couple of mock windmills, a littler than real mermaid and also a replica of the round tower in Copenhagen.  I really could have stayed there all day - or even longer.  As it was we had time to look around and also try some apple dumplings, which I don't think I ever managed in the real place.

Lunch and the early afternoon as at Santa Barbara where we got a group photo at the old Mission and enjoyed Clam Chowder which more than made up for the scallops of the previous night.  I was a liitle disturbed by the Tsunami Zone street signs but it was a nice place to kill a few hours.  And then we had the long drive into and through LA to reach our hotel at Anaheim.  That was the Sheraton, which overlooks Disneyland and was to be our final resting place for three nights before we headed home.  So that can wait for what will hopefully be the last of these entries (and I might then write about something else!).

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Back to the coast

OK, what happened to September?  Been a bit busy but I am determined to get the account of this holiday written up for my own sanity even if nobody is crying out for it...

Day 10 - Modesto to San Francisco.

A fairly early start saw us on the Embarcadero at San Francisco by about 0930, with a cruise round the harbour and up to the Golden Gate Bridge timed for 11.  So we had plenty of time to explore the delights of Pier 39 - tourist trap and regular meeting place for the local sea lions.  Who were of course nearly all off on their holidays as we only saw a handful over the next couple of days.  But not having been able to order anything less than the full breakfast buffet at the hotel in Modesto we had made do with a cereal bar and instead devoured an excellent spread from a Pier 39 cafe called Wahoo!  Bit of a surf theme, but superb sourdough toast, perfect poached eggs and splendid sausages.

The harbour cruise was just as good as the one we had in San Diego - although with a much lower level of naval activity.  Unfortunately the Golden Gate was smothered in fog (as is typical) so we never got a good view of the bridge at all.  Circling Alcatraz was enough of a visit for either of us.  Many of our fellow travellers went back the next day to do the full tour but it didn't really appeal to us at the time of booking.  Having heard their tales I think we might go if we are ever back in town, but I'm not weeping over lost opportunities just now.

After the cruise we picked up our second local guide of the tour for a look around the town proper.  Far too many highlights to get a good feel for most of them, but I loved the de Yonge art museum in Golden Gate Park (a fantastic building itself, never mind the contents) and it was great to get a feel for the hills and different areas of town.  After a quick pitstop at our hotel (the Hyatt Regency, which was just incredible - definitely the best of the trip) we were back out again for a group meal on Pier 39 - luckily not the same place as breakfast! - and a night tour of the city.  Here we got to see a bit more of the variety SF has to offer, including some of the seedier parts of town and also got to take a look from over the water at the night skyline.

Day 11 - San Francisco 2.

Luckily this was a day off with no included excursions as we were, quite frankly, knackered and slept until after 10.  We then had a near-disaster when Joan slipped in the shower and hurt her leg.  Luckily only really nasty bruising that she didn't let stop her, but I think it was a mere gnat's whisker from a break the way she fell.  We had planned to take it easy this day anyway (another reason for not going to Alcatraz) and this definitely ensured that was the case.

So rather than hopping on the cable cars for a thorough exploration of the city, we took a gentle stroll up Market Street for a look in some shops.  One of our potential objectives for SF had been to visit the flagship Old Navy store on Market, so that one got ticked off at least.  We have shopped in their outlets in Canada and the US on every previous visit so it seemed only fair to see the top of the tree, so to speak.  I am sure some would say that we are both too old for their clothes, but we do like some of their t-shirt designs and I have also got some excellent shirts there before.  Unfortunately they seem to have moved to skinny fit in the majority of the shirt lines (at least I couldn't find one I liked in regular or "western") which is no good for my wobbly belly.  Must try to lose some weight one of these days...  After a look in the Westfield centre we wandered back to the hotel for a break, then set off again along the Embarcadero, walking all the way form pier 1 to Fisherman's Wharf where we had a nice dinner before catching the tram/streetcar back again.  A very relaxed day all told, even if there was still a lot of walking done!

Friday, August 29, 2014

More holiday musings

Day Seven: Las Vegas    
A chance to have a lie-in and lazy day for some, but we were up early as usual for a trip out to the Hoover Dam.  Made sense to get up there before the day got too hot, and it was a sight that had to be seen, but a little bit of extra sleep would have been nice.

OK so I’m a sucker for a massive feat of engineering and this sure fits that bill, but everyone who took the trip came away impressed.  It is a mahoosive lump of concrete holding back water when you come down to it.  OK, lots of little lumps stuck together (fact gleaned from the museum bit – if it had been poured as one large block the core would still not have set).  That lump, though, is just wonderful.  Lots of totally unnecessary architectural details and flourishes (Art Deco ones at that because of when it was built) that add nothing to the functionality but make the thing gosh darn pretty to look at.  It was also interesting to see just how much the current drought is affecting Southern California – the water level in Lake Mead is visibly low and flow through the dam was obviously nowhere near what they are capable of.

The bridge across the river from the Hoover Dam, just to be a confusing picture of approximately the right place!

The busyness of the last week caught up with us after this though, and following a brief walk around the overbridges crossing the roads by our hotel (OK, I wanted to get some nice high level bus photos, so sue me!) we crashed out for the afternoon.  A lovely refreshing sleep but I am sure many would consider it a total waste of time in Vegas.  We wanted to be ready for the evening though.

Another optional excursion beckoned – this time for a show and a meal.  We hadn’t really thought about whether to see a show or not before we flew, knowing there was this option on the trip anyway but not wanting to commit until we had more of a feel for the place.  A couple of folks from the coach went off to see other things – some to Rock Of Ages, and one couple to see Celine Dion – but once more this was a trip that appealed to most of us.  And what we saw was the Ratpack tribute night over at the Rio.  Excellent sound-alikes (and not too bad on the looks either) recreating the feel of the heyday of the crooners, with some slightly odd updates.  That jarred a bit to me – just when you are getting the Sinatra vibe he cracks a joke about video poker or Viagra.  I felt it should have been left as a paean to the ‘50s.  Still good, just a bit odd.  This was followed by the Rio buffet which I believe is billed as the biggest in town and certainly had enough variety to keep us trying more dishes than was safe for the waistline.  Burp.

Day Eight: Las Vegas to Visalia.
Another day basically given over to travel, but with some interesting stops along the way; the first of these being the “ghost town” of Calico.  This had been “improved” with a paved main street which kind of killed the atmosphere for me, but accessibility has to be considered these days.  And it was possible to wander off down the old dirt tracks to really see the way it used to be.  Add in a couple of cowboys wandering around and some tasty pancakes in the saloon and it made for an enjoyable enough diversion.

There was another truck stop visit (where there was a chap selling fantastic fruit) but mostly the day was spent driving through the desert.  We passed some amazing solar power stations and also Edwards Airforce Base (but at an extreme distance so nothing to see) but nothing really sticks in the mind.

Our hotel that night was in Visalia and was once again very nice and comfortable.  We had dinner in the town at a sports bar (hilarious, given my total lack of interest in nearly all sport, but excellent steak).  And that was that really.  Probably the least thrilling day of the holiday.

Day Nine: Visalia to Modesto
Of course what that sub-header doesn’t mention is the via point…  In this case Yosemite National Park - another absolutely beautiful highlight of the trip for me.  A long and winding drive in and out again to reach the main scenic spots and visitor centre, so inevitably not as long at the heart of the valley as we might have wished for, but everywhere you looked something stunning caught the eye.  While we had a sandwich we were plagued by friendly squirrels and also blue Jays which was interesting, and then we had a wander up to the falls and through the woods.  Really peaceful (despite the crowds in places) and the redwoods are a joy to behold.  So big and yet fitting in to their surroundings perfectly.  Add this to the list of places I’d like to go back to.

Modesto was odd.  Most famous for being where George Lucas grew up and inspiration for American Graffiti (although it wasn’t filmed there as the town had changed too much in the intervening years).  I had a post-arrival wander down to the bus station as it was over the road from the hotel, but otherwise not much to see.  We ate in the hotel restaurant (perfectly OK) and that was about that.

A bus in Modesto!

Monday, August 18, 2014


I'm sure the writing up of a holiday isn't supposed to take longer than the holiday itself...

Day Six: Flagstaff to Las Vegas
From the relaxed to the frenetic, woodland charm to Sin City and other such clichés.  In some ways this was the part of the trip I was least looking forward to - I'm not a gambler and while I love a fantastic building and a bit of hustle and bustle I'd rather see the real thing than a fake in the desert.  But, it is an experience to see the place and I'm always happy to be proved wrong by such a visit.

To start the day off we called in at Williams, just down the road from Flagstaff and the start of the Grand Canyon Railway.  Not for us to board the train, but to see the short "wild west" show put on before departure.  And for a 20 minute bit of fun it did what it said on the tin, so to speak.  Back in 2006 we had a whole evening at a wild west theme village with a meal, shoot outs in the street and so forth which was several orders of magnitude better than this, but you can't really argue with a bit of free entertainment.  The cowboys then went off to hold up the train on its way to the Canyon while we headed west.

Next stop was Seligman, which unexpectedly turned out to be the most depressing part of the whole trip for me.  When you are in the area you have to do a bit of the Route 66 experience, and this was ours (if you don't count the night before in Flagstaff).  But this part of the route is slowly dying.  I know the whole route has been in decline since the opening of Interstate 40 alongside it, and much of it now survives on the tourist dollar rather than being alongside a major east-west link.  This was certainly the case in Seligman – a few empty buildings but a lot of gift shop junk to replace them.  And cars.  The whole lot centred on a single barber’s chair operated for the last 60 or so years by a guy named Angel Delgadillo.  But what was once a novelty place to get a trim when you were driving the route is now the sole reason for visiting the place, and it just struck me as a grim way of hanging on to the glory days and trying to sell a bit of branded tat to anyone who happens to stop.  And stop they do, I counted at least five coaches arriving and departing in the time we were there which must add up to a hundred or more, so maybe 500 people plus those who arrive under their own steam per day in the peak tourist times.  All buying t-shirts and fridge magnets and getting the occasional trim or burger.  And looking at the cars.

Anyone who has seen the eponymous Disney film and its surrounding details will know the idea came to Pixar head John Lasseter when he took his family on a route 66 road trip.  This was one of the places he stopped, and there is a cartoon he drew on the wall if the gift shop to prove it.  And in the way ideas go full circle, the Seligmanites have taken the Cars concept to heart and filled the place with American classics.  They may have been there before of course (a cursory look on-line has not answered this for me either way) but the majority of the ones parked around the various buildings now have eyes painted on the wind shields and smiles across the radiators to mimic the cartoon versions.  But not particularly well and a few years back and showing signs of decay and neglect already.  Add that to the also faded dummies on top of a road house and a general air of desperation about the place I was left feeling thoroughly downhearted by the time we left.

This was not helped by the lunchtime stop at some outlet malls where I didn't find anything I fancied in the right sizes.  I know, material concerns and all that!  But even though crossing into Nevada brought us up to 7/50 states visited by the time we got to Vegas I was definitely at my lowest point of the entire journey.  This was not helped by Alex having given us a spiel about pickpockets and vice while we were still on the road – not the best way to get people to look forward to seeing the place! 

We spent our two nights at the Tropicana, which is down the southern end of the strip on one side of a crossroads - also home to the MGM Grand, New York New York and Excalibur.  Quite dramatic views from the hotel and helped by us being up on the 11th floor – our highest room of the stay.  Of course you have to walk through the Casino to get to the rooms, which was further off-putting as they still allow smoking while you fritter your money away on the slots.  But the room was very nice and a chance to relax before heading out again and a quick croissant helped to calm my nerves somewhat.

So that just left the evening tour to round off the day.  This (and indeed a similar evening tour of San Francisco, which we will get to in due course) proved to be another slight bone of contention for some of the company again as they were optional rather than included, meaning an extra charge for something done using the bus, driver and guide we already had with us.  We weren't too fussed as we wanted to see the place for the first time in company anyway…

And what a place!  The sheer over-the-top-ness won me over big time and while I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to go back there I’d not dismiss a return visit out of hand.  Starting right down at the south end of the strip by the famous “welcome” sign we headed up to Fremont Street at the far end and back again.  We only made two stops after the obligatory sign photo-shoot but they were both pretty spectacular.  First the Bellagio for the delightful floral conservatory and fountain show and then the Fremont Street experience.  Click on the links there for a few images that do more justice than I could with words.  Between these we saw most of the big casinos and shops, the wedding chapels, the neon and glitz and most of all the people.  Everywhere the people.  Dressed in all manner of costumes from full on to practically naked and trying to get you to part with a few bucks to have your photo taken with them.  Been a while since I saw so many buttocks in one place!  I would have liked to have seen inside the Venezian, and maybe Paris too but we were out over four hours on the tour as it was.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Holiday Part two

OK, proper holiday days from now on (although some of them will still be mainly getting from A to B).

Day Three - San Diego
A whole day of seeing the sights - and what a beautiful city to see them in.  Early starts (well, earlier than we might have chosen when being on holiday) were to be a feature of the trip, and we were on the bus by 0830 with a local guide in tow as well as Alex for a look around San Diego and over to Coronado where you can look back on the downtown area.  In my mind San Diego is most famous for the Comic Convention which now covers anything Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror not just inky pages, and we did see the Convention Centre but there is a lot more on offer.  For instance I hadn't realised how big a naval presence there was, parts of the historic Downtown are wonderfully Art Deco and the "Old Town" area was gorgeous.  A touch of the Old West (down to a genuine Stagecoach in the Wells Fargo museum and chaps with big fat cigars on the porch of a tobacconist).  We ended that part of the tour there and had lunch at a place called O'Hungry's - good food at excellent prices, and thousands of dollars (and other notes) signed and stuck on the walls.  Given that Alex and Art went straight in there when we reached the Old Town we reckoned it would be reasonable, and thoroughly enjoyed it, as did a few others from our bus.  And especially when an entire coach load of Chinese tourists arrived for their lunch and basically took the joint over.  Luckily we had been served by then...  One of our rules for eating away from home is to try and work out where the locals go, and failing that to at least see what the guide/driver do as they always know good spots.

San Diego as seen from Coronado

When we were looking at things to do on the holiday, we did consider spending the afternoon of this day at the Zoo.  But it would really have needed a full day to even begin to do justice to the amount of things on offer there (Pandas will just have to wait for another time, or a trip to Scotchland) so we took up the optional harbour cruise offer instead.  And were really glad that we did.  Two hours on the water which reinforced the naval presence (the tour guide for that was ex-navy himself and knew every vessel we passed from Aircraft Carriers down to the tiniest of Tugs and Submarines).  We also got to see pelicans in the wild as well as a bunch of sea lions just hanging around the wharves.

The rest of the afternoon we spent hanging about the Embarcadero area, looking in shops, eating ice creams and ship-watching.  I would have liked to visit the USS Midway (aircraft carrier turned museum complete with planes) or the other ships in the maritime museum collection, but there wasn't time and we were all beginning to flag a little from the time difference.  There was a bit of grumbling among the group about having too much time to wait for our transfer back to the hotel, but nobody went as far as to get a bus or taxi earlier.  And actually the enforced hanging around gave us a chance to properly meet folks and get to know each other - which I am sure helped with the overall enjoyment in later days.

For dinner that night Alex arranged to take us up to the Homestyle Buffet restaurant, which did exactly what it said on the door and had a hundred or so dishes to choose from.  All very tasty (Joan adored the coconut cream pie).

Day Four - San Diego to Scottsdale
Time to leave the coast for now and head inland and into the desert.  Our first stop was Palm Springs which, frankly, didn't live up to expectations and was generally regarded by all our fellow travellers as a wasted opportunity.  According to Art it added about an hour and a half of driving rather than taking a more direct line to Scottsdale which, when added to the time spent in Palm Springs would perhaps have been more enjoyable if we had blasted through to Scottsdale and got there three or four hours earlier.

One trouble with an organised tour such as this is not getting long enough in some places.  You are always on a fixed schedule with hotels expecting arrivals at certain times, restrictions on driver hours enforcing breaks and so forth.  So we only had an hour and a half to explore the city and that wasn't enough to give us a particularly good impression.  Certainly I failed to see what has attracted the stars out from LA for all these years.  OK, it is in the desert so nice and warm, but then so are many other places about the same distance away.  The main street was mainly places to eat and souvenir type shops which again didn't inspire us as a destination to linger in.  Again, this could be linked to the short time available as there were a couple of museums and galleries in sight, but no time to appreciate them properly.  If we'd had a full day, or even an afternoon in town we could have had a good look around some of the cultural bits and perhaps got a better impression.  As it was we had a short wander up and down the road, looked at a few t-shirts and then had an early lunch. 

We had hoped to perhaps get a sandwich or something to eat on the coach while the journey continued, giving us more time to look around, but after about 40 minutes we hadn't found a single vendor of takeaway food of any description so plumped for Ruby's Diner and a sit down meal (again Art and Alex had headed in there, so we knew the food would be OK).  And mine certainly was - I'm a sucker for an all-day breakfast anyway, but this one was particularly tasty!  Joan had a veggie sandwich which started out OK, but she wasn't sure on the second half - something tasting old/rotten and so it was left unfinished.  I'm not sure anything was really inedible or if it was just unusual flavours, but there you go.

The rest of the afternoon was spent trundling through the desert, with just a break at a truck stop to break up the monotony.  All of which meant we didn't arrive at Scottsdale until after five, which was a real pity.

We had a couple of nights there back in 2006 and were quite looking forward to revisiting the Old Town.  Especially as this time our hotel was literally across the road from it, rather than needing a bus journey.  However by the time we arrived exhaustion had set in, and by the time we were ready to go out the shops were all shutting.  As a result we just joined a couple of our new friends and ate in the hotel.  Nice food and excellent laughs, but a shame and not what we had wanted from the day.

Day Five – Scottsdale to Flagstaff             
Now that really doesn't do justice to the day as a description!  This was a day re-visiting old haunts for Joan and I and as such was a blast.  The morning stop was spent in Sedona.  We only had an hour and a half or so in town this time around, so no chance to reprise the jeep tour into the desert we took back in 2006, but it is such a lovely little community that being limited to the town centre hardly mattered.  A chance to see the red rocks again was tonic for the soul, and a bit of shopping went down well too.
We had expected a diversion next, as the road through Oak Creek Canyon had suffered a landslide earlier in the year and was closed for repairs.  But much to our joy it had been re-opened the day before our arrival, so we were able to head north that way after all.  It is a lovely drive which we had done southbound previously, so it was nice to see in the other direction.  Beautiful wooded hillsides and some great rock formations.  We then pressed on north, through Flagstaff and various bits of forest (spotting a couple of deer and an Elk as we did so) and on to the Grand Canyon.

Having done the helicopter flight experience last time, we decided to stay on the ground this time, but have more time at the rim to explore and eat ice cream.  It was a glorious afternoon and we had a great time wandering along a bit, looking over the edge and browsing the native artefacts in the Hopi House store.  It is a bit of a cliché, but the place really is staggeringly beautiful and just huge.  I have been to Niagara Falls four or five times now but it still catches the heart and takes the breath away on each visit, and I suspect the Canyon is the same.  I’d love to spend a night or two up there one day, just to see it in the dawn and dusk, and maybe catch a sunset over the edge.  Many photos were taken that day it has to be said (including the Grand Canyon Railway and several buses, but then it wouldn't be me without them).

Canyon, Grand variety

Our hotel in Flagstaff was also somewhere we had stayed before, which was nice.  We had a drink with a couple of ladies from Norwich (and they asked to see my ID, which I decided to take as a compliment at age 43) then went down to the Galaxy Diner for dinner.  OK, so we had done a diner the day before in Palm Springs, but we had enjoyed this one last time and it is ON route 66 so was a bit of an essential visit.  Lovely food to round off a great day (a burger in sourdough toast for me, with proper cherry coke featuring your actual cherries).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Holiday 2014 part one

Ah, I seem not to have posted since February.  Time to make up for that...

Where does the time go?  It is now over a month since we started our holiday and I really want to write it up while things are still fairly fresh in the memory, but already feel that the details are slipping away.

As followers on flickr, twitter or instagram should have been able to work out, we took another trip to the USA this year.  Like the 2006 excursion (was it really that long ago?!) we travelled with Titan, doing their "California and  the Golden West" tour, the details of which we will get to below.  We did look around at other tour operators doing similar routes, as Titan are expensive, but when you add in the door-to door travel, hotel porterage, numbers of included versus optional excursions etc plus the level of quality and enjoyment we had last time it just made perfect sense to go with them again.

So, travel we did - 2700+ miles in a big loop.  Starting and ending at Los Angeles international we took in San Diego, Palm Springs, Scottsdale, Sedona, The Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Williams, Las Vegas, Visalia, Yosemite, Modesto, San Francisco, Monterrey, Carmel, Cambria, Solvang and Santa Barbara before returning to LA to see Anaheim and Hollywood among others.  Some real beauty in there - particularly the Grand Canyon and amongst the redwoods in Yosemite and Big Sur - but also bits of San Francisco are a pure joy and the Pacific Coast Highway was delightful.

I did think about just bunging up a list of good and bad but want to try to write a bit more of a proper travelogue, so here we go.

Day one - Home to Heathrow.
Rather than getting up at Stupid O'clock we decided to go down to Heathrow the night before and Titan offered a deal at the Park Inn which seemed OK, and so it was.  That meant we got a leisurly morning to finish off packing (I never did understand people who pack their cases weeks before going away - surely that just generates creases in the clothes) and a drive down off-peak which I must confess I slept through most of.  Nobody extra to collect on the way either, which was nice.  I can't say the hotel was anything spectacular but it did the job.  We also discovered we had forgotten to pack toothpaste, but that was the only omission from the luggage and easily rectified.  Nice pizza from a place over the road and a good sleep.

Day two - Heathrow to San Diego
While we were having dinner the night before, the hotel filled up with Chinese school kids.  At least six-coaches worth.  That made breakfast an interestingly multi-cultural experience but by 8 we were in a small minibus with the others from our trip who had also elected to stop over, shuttling across the road to Terminal 3.

At this point we got a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately not a flight upgrade, but the Tour Manager.  Alex Cussins was the guy who had guided us around Texas eight years ago, and here he was again to mange this journey.  Obviously we recognised him, but more surprisingly he remembered us too.  Now he does at least one tour a month and they run between 30 and 40 people on average so he has seen at least 3,800 folks since last time.  Maybe we made more of an impression than we thought, but either way that's good people skills.  This time the group was 37 people - mostly couples but one or two groups of friends, one each of mother/son and mother/daughter combos and a few singletons. All seemed friendly enough on first encounter and I think it is fair to say we got on great throughout the following travels.

Not having flown Virgin before, we were a bit disappointed by the on-board service.  OK, so we had chosen a two-seat at the back so as to get a window (and no stranger) but it really did feel like we were the last in line.  Oddly when we went BA to Toronto last year in roughly the same seats we got served first - funny how the same thing can be different, if you catch my drift.  So they'd run out of the meals we wanted by the time they got to us, and generally the crew seemed a bit bored by the time they reached us on each visit.  And yes, I slept through a good chunk of the flight (there's a theme developing here).

10½ hours later we were queueing to be let in to the USA.  It seemed to take forever for the immigration lines to wiggle their way to the desks, and while we were waiting spotted Verne (mini-me) Troyer who had obviously been up the front of our plane (or even upstairs).  Surrounded by hangers-on who looked like they would happily do a but of body-guarding should the need arise.  He'd not been in London for long as he was posting pics of being searched on the way out of LA only 3 days before...  Anyway, the paperwork was all in order so they let us in and the holiday proper could begin.

With a 3½ hour coach trip.  To be fair that was an hour or more longer than expected due to hideous traffic but still not the best way to first experience California.  Of course the whole holiday was one big coach trip so an extra hour didn't really make much difference in the long term - especially as it was a comfortable coach and Art an excellent driver who would prove a fount of knowledge and good humour throughout the rest of the trip.  A few interesting sights on the drive down to San Diego - Military training grounds, a Nuclear power station with suggestively shaped domes, our first look at the Pacific but the end result was well worth it.

Our base for the first two nights was the Sheraton Hotel and Marina, and it was really rather good.  Lovely room, fab views over said marina, nice food and free wi-fi in the lobby if not the rooms.  But the real appreciation of that was for later after we had a bite to eat and much needed sleep...

Oh, it seems Flickr doesn't want to link to Blogger any more, so click the link above to see the photos!

To be continued.

Friday, February 28, 2014


I'm sure somebody out there can dig up statistics to show it doesn't rain more at lunchtimes than during the rest of the working day, but it sure seems that way to me right now. Not that I had any pressing need for a lunchtime wander today, I just like to get away from the office for a bit if possible. And yes, I could wrap up and go out anyway, but the thought of spending the afternoon with slowly drying trousers doesn't appeal somehow.

Hopefully the weekend will have some bright spots.

Last weekend was lovely. The combination of a few days off, sunshine and my Birthday seems more than a week in the past though. Time, it would seem, flies just as fast when at work as when you are having fun, no matter how much individual minutes seem to drag on.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Sometime in the dim and distant past, somebody got a bit of translation from even dimmer and more distant times wrong and the Roman vomitorium (big passage to enable people to get in and out of theatres etc. easily) became the Roman vomitorium (special room to go and throw up in between courses at banquets so as to make space for more food).  The two don’t normally go together at all, but a couple of weeks ago I was right in the centre of an explosive conjunction.

Back in mid-January we went to see our fifth “Christmas” show by the Eastern Angles group.  This year snappily titled “The Brontes of Dunwich Heath…  And Cliff” which fit the pattern we have experienced before of borrowing characters and authors from great literature and adding in a silly Suffolk plot and songs.  As has become traditional, we met up with friends for dinner first then all bundled down to the Seckford Theatre in Woodbridge for the show.  All was fine and enjoyable until nearly the end when the person sat behind me started coughing.  Just a little disturbance to start with but then, suddenly, splat.

As can be guessed from the first paragraph, said person was not well at all and threw up all over me.  Which did rather bring the show to a halt.  I’ve not had the pleasure of washing my hair, neck, back (and indeed shirt) in a theatre toilet before and it is not an experience I want to repeat.  The Angles volunteers were very good, provided me with a t-shirt and all so I was able to sneak back in to the performance for the last few minutes.  Then it turned out that MrsB had also caught some of the extensive splattering so she too got cleaned up and t-shirted before we headed home for a very hot shower!  It is already becoming something we can look back on and laugh, but at the time…

They have given us tickets to the next production in recompense, so hopefully that one will pass off without incident.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bite that tongue

Ever had a real struggle to keep yourself quiet in public? Seeing Ian Lavender on Holly City tonight has reminded me of the time I met him.  I may have written about this before but never mind.

We were holding a bus user meeting in Bury St Edmunds and he came along to ask about a bus stop near his house. He ended up talking to a colleague about it, who promised to look into it and get back to him. A colleague who had no idea who he was talking to. So when said colleague asked for his name, the temptation to shout "don't tell him, Pike" was almost too much to bear.

Ten years or so on and that still makes me giggle and cringe at the same time.

Monday, January 13, 2014

2013 books

2013 books by The original SimonB
2013 books, a photo by The original SimonB on Flickr.
So here we go again, another bunch of books consumed in a twelve month span. Audio in italics...

Terry Pratchett - Dodger
Alistair Maclean - The Golden Rendezvous
Barry Eisler (Ed) - 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories From The Japan Earthquake
Michael Palin - Hemmingway Adventure
Terry Pratchett - Making Money
JerryWhite - London In The 19th Century
JimBob - Driving Jarvis Ham
Alistair Maclean - The Satan Bug
Robert Macfarlane - Mountains Of The Mind
Neil Gaiman - A Calender Of Tales
Tim Cahill - Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
Mark Forsyth - The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through The Hidden Connections Of The English Language
Arthur Ransome - Coots In The North & Other Stories
Guy Browning - Maps Of My Life
Jules Verne - Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
Erica Jong - Fear Of Flying
Derek Tait - A 1970s Childhood
Henning Mankell - The Man Who Smiled
Rene Goscinny & Albert Uderzo - Asterix In Switzerland
Mick Wall - Star Trippin'
Naomi Novik - Black Powder War
David Long - The Little Book Of London
Edward Enfield - Dawdling By The Danube
Francis Spufford - Backroom Boys
Alistair Maclean - Ice Station Zebra
Mark Billingham - Sleepyhead
Jean M. Auel - The Land Of Painted Caves
Jim Starlin et al - Batman: The Cult
Richard Cohen - Chasing The Sun
Arthur Conan-Doyle - A Study In Scarlet
Hardeep Singh Kohli - Indian Takeaway
Emma Marriott - The History Of The World In Bite-Sized Chunks
Esther Woolfson - Corvus: A Life With Birds
Michael Crichton - Jurassic Park
David Hewson - The Killing
Spike Milligan - Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall
Rene Goscinny & Albert Uderzo - The Mansions Of The Gods
David Long - The Little Book Of The London Underground
Terry Pratchett - A Blink Of The Screen
Chris Abbott - Travels In Canada: In Search Of A Reasonably Priced Sandwich
Jules Verne - 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
Bill Bryson - Shakespeare

George R.R. Martin - A Game Of Thrones
Fantastic Man - Buttoned-Up (The East London Line)
Nick Hornby - A Long Way Down
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
Alistair Maclean - When Eight Bells Toll
Mark Billingham - Scaredy Cat
Guy Walters - The Real Great Escape
Arthur Conan-Doyle - The Sign Of Four
Mark Forsyth - The Horologican: A Day's Jaunt Through The Lost Words Of The English Language
Terry Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Seth Godin (Ed) - The Library Book
Max Arthur - Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History
Rene Goscinny & Albert Uderzo - Asterix And The Laurel Wreath
Alistair Maclean - Where Eagles Dare
Geoffrey Fletcher - The London Nobody Knows
Tim Cahill - Pass The Butterworms
George R.R. Martin - A Clash Of Kings
Paul Morley - Earthbound (The Bakerloo Line)
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart &Jack Cohen - The Science Of Discworld
Neil Gaiman (Ed) - Unnatural Creatures
Alistair Maclean - Force 10 From Navarone

This year I am also doing "A year of reading" project on flickr, posting a book or something else to read every day...

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Who I listened to in 2013

2013 music by The original SimonB
2013 music, a photo by The original SimonB on Flickr.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned on here before that I don’t get as much time to listen to music as I would like, but the word cloud above is a good representation of what I have managed to get through in the last twelve months. (You can click it to go through to Flickr and then get to the full size version so you can actually read the smaller words). I started back in January to list every time any artist got played so while it doesn’t tell us whether I listened to someone more in summer or winter months, we do get an indication of how many times people cropped up. This is made up of in-car, in-house and in-walkphone listening with no differentiation between when and where (I may have been dedicated/sad enough to make a note of every aural experience, but not enough to further categorize them). And the cloud is a much nicer way of looking at them than just a list of artist names with. NB “Various artist” compilations or whoever popped up by sticking iTunes on shuffle aren’t here – only artists I have chosen to listen to a whole bunch of songs from.

As such, it needs to be pointed out that this is not a result of random choice or fully by the selection of who I want to hear on a given day. I realised a couple of years ago that I tended to stick to the same old stuff and was ignoring a goodly percentage of my music collection. To combat that I introduced a strict three-disc rotation system for in-car listening while still allowing myself free-reign over any other music. So the rotation is 1: Artist I have several albums by but haven’t necessarily listened to for a while (in chronological order for each artist as they come up), 2: Artists I only have one CD by (in alphabetical order) and 3: New discs. Two years in and I am still only up to K for number two, but I have rediscovered some absolute gems. Discs for number three seem to accumulate without me realising it (Santa and the sales have just added a slew more to that pile). So as an example starting today on the drive to work we had 1: Hayseed Dixie (actually started them last week so they got one entry on last year’s list. I have five official albums and two bootlegs – all will get played in order so if I do a similar word cloud next year they will end up quite “large”). This will be followed by 2: King’s X (always a surprise to me that I only have one of theirs on CD and really must get more); 3: Eat Static (a Christmas present replacing a 20year old cassette with the CD version at last) then 1: Hayseed Dixie again, 2: King Swamp and 3: Daevid Allen (another Christmas present) etc. On the rare occasions that I run out of new discs to bung in the rotation I generally double-up on the single cd artists. When I finally reach Z on the artists I only have one disc by I intend to go through again for those with just two on the shelf.

On my phone I listen mainly to Audio Books and podcasts (This American Life, Selected Shorts, Short Cuts, The Infinite Monkey Cage, Jon Ronson On…) but intersperse those with music too. That used to be just random tracks but as I am slowly getting all my CDs ripped I now generally fill up the memory card with four or five books, and then the same numbers of podcasts and albums. Although the album tracks get randomly shuffled between the books and pods they still count as full listens so the artists get added to the list. But as I am only about halfway through the ripping process this adds another level of bias into what I listen to. And there has been no structure at all to the ripping – just what I’ve fancied hearing when out and about or in the study so may as well rip the disc while I have it upstairs…

And then there is just general listening to whatever I fancy from whatever source when I’m home alone and can crank the volume up.

Why do I make my life so complicated?