17 January, 2014
Today was the last day of our trip, and after we got up and checked out of our hotel, we had to hotfoot it across to Burbank for our Warner Bros deluxe VIP studio tour. I’ve figured out the tricks of the motorway, and it took us just over 30 mins for a trip that was meant to take 50! We checked in and went into a little theatre, where we saw some clips from the history of Warner Bros, before being introduced to our tour guide for the 5 hour tour, Thom. He brought out a steel suitcase, containing an important little man called Oscar. It was a real Academy Award won by the studio! We both got to hold it and have pictures, before heading on to our big golf cart for the day.
Then we headed straight on to the backlot to start looking at sets! The first we checked out a street of houses, which are actually functional. Aside from serving as a set, the houses are also used as production offices, and we could see people coming and going, hard at work. Next we went past the sound stage that Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum were inside, working on a film called Jupiter Rising. I was hoping that Channing might come out for a coffee, but alas, no sightings. Then we headed to the Mid West – well, the TV version. It’s a set of two streets that are very country looking, and are fairly empty on the inside. They tend to just use these for exterior shots and film the rest on a sound stage across the lot. They were filming Pretty Little Liars today near part of this, so we couldn’t go near. We also headed in to our first set of the day, Suburgatory. It was interesting to see that different sets are right around the corner from each other, that it’s really cold inside there, and that one space can look very different in a very short space of time.
Then we continued on in our golf cart, and saw the area that used to house ER, and is the Chicago area. Tonight they were going to film a car crash into a building, and they were doing some rehearsing. They also had ‘snow’ ready to lay about. We continued on a minute in the cart, and came across ‘Central Park’ in Friends, which I immediately recognised from the scene when Rachel and Phoebe go ‘running’. Right across from this was Gotham City Hall from the Batman TV series. We kept driving, and came across ‘New York’, a series of facades made to look like an NY street. The famous water tower appeared (which no longer holds water), and then we headed to lunch in a fancy restaurant on the lot, where the executives tend to eat. It was a gourmet, three course affair, and was incredibly tasty. We continued on past the Friends sound stage, which now shoots Mike and Molly inside, and saw Nyambi Nyambi, who plays Samuel in the show. He stopped for a bit of a chat, and asked where we were from, before heading back inside to rehearse. We went past the Conaco (ie Conan O’Brien) offices, and through the design studio and workshop, where they fabricate the sets.
We hopped off the bus at the props warehouse, and went behind a big door with a picture of Friends on it, to be greeted by the ever so familiar orange lounge and neon lights of Central Perk from Friends! Being the VIP tour, we were able to go in and sit on things and take as many pictures as we wanted. I stood at Phoebe’s microphone, and at Gunther’s post behind the bar. It was amazing, and much, much smaller than I thought it would be!
We headed out into the props warehouse then, seeing famous props from films and TV, as well as every sort of house décor and fitting you could think of! There were also many that had hold tags on them for shows like America’s Next Top Model, and CSI. We walked across the road and into the transport museum, with cars from Get Smart, Great Gatsby, Harry Potter, Dukes of Hazzard, Austin Powers in Goldmember and Gran Torino (which is actually Clint Eastwood’s car!), Trinity’s bike from The Matrix, the Big Bang Theory space capsule, and four Batmobiles. We headed in to the sound stage right next door, and we were on the set of The Fosters.
Next we headed out to the Ellen studio, in the ‘artist entry’, and outside their dressing rooms. Yesterday, Kim Kardashian, Twitch and Dermot Mulroney’s names were on the dressing rooms! We were also able to go in to the studio, stand where Ellen stands for her open, and sit in the audience. Then we went across the lot to another sound stage, and this one was pretty active. The Big Bang Theory cast had just left for the day after on set rehearsals, so now stagehands, producers and other production staff were running around checking lighting, blocking and sound. It was really exciting to see a functioning sitcom set!
We were golf carted to the on-site WB museum next, and they have exhibits from 90 years of film and television on show. On the ground floor, we saw costumes from Smallville, the Batman films (including Heath Ledger’s Joker costume), costumes from The Hangover, The Great Gatsby (including Leonardo Di Caprio’s), Sandra Bullock’s spacesuit from Gravity, the piano from Casablanca, and my personal highlight – Friends props and costumes, including the red shirt Ross wore (that gave away he was Emma’s father), the bling bracelet Joey gave to Chandler, the sonogram of Emma, and that letter Rachel wrote Ross at the beach.
The entire second floor was dedicated to the Harry Potter films. There were costumes from most of the series (Harry, Hermione and Ron, Snape, Cedric Diggory, a dementor, Voldemort), the goblin from Gringotts, Dobby, a petrified Hermione, and probably the highlight of this floor – a working sorting hat! It was put on my head, and after humming and haaring, I was sorted into…Griffindor!
After almost six hours it was time to leave so we were carted back to the main building, where we could buy some souvenirs, and then we hopped in the car and headed to our final stop – LAX. We dropped off the car after our hour drive during peak time, and then caught the shuttle to Tom Bradley terminal. We got through security quickly and had time for our last dinner in the States – Panda Express for me, and Umami Burger for Clinton. The 11 hour flight on Fiji Airways went by pretty quickly for me, as I slept for about 8 hours. It was a four hour stop in Nadi airport, before heading on to our final three hour flight back to Brisbane.
Phew! Travelling is amazing, but it’s always wonderful to get home. Thanks for following this adventure! Now to start thinking about the next one…
16 January, 2014
Today we had a bit of a sleep in, heading down to breakfast as late as we could, before driving in towards Central LA. We parked at The Groves, an upmarket outdoors mall, and had mini hotdogs for lunch. We had a bit of a look around, and again were surprised by how many people take their dogs out shopping in department stores! I saw dogs as large as golden retrievers inside a Nordstroms! They are all well behaved, though, and even in the outdoor ‘park style’ centre, the dogs sniffing on poles didn’t even look remotely interested in peeing on them.
It was early, but we decided to head around the block to CBS Television City, where the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is filmed, and line up. We were only due there at 1.45pm, but we arrived at 1.15pm, and there was already a line! There were about 40-odd people in front of us, but by 1.45pm, the line was another 50m down the road, so we’re very glad we lined up early! While we were waiting, 1iota, the ticketing company, had people come down the line and take our information and make sure we had tickets. We had to wait out on the street, in the sun, with a massive Craig Ferguson golf umbrella. There were other shows lining up at the same time, too, but most of them didn’t have umbrellas (sucked in!).
At about 2.30pm we started filing through the gate, having our ID checked, our purple wristbands applied, and our phones confiscated. We then had to wait for everyone else behind us to do the same, but now we were underneath the building, seated, with access to toilets and, soon after, a snack truck. We were waiting here for another 40-odd minutes before a Late Late Show guy who looked a lot like Woody from Toy Story started telling us what we needed to do, how we needed to laugh, and what would get us kicked out. Then, in our lines, it was time to walk up four floors of stairs to Studio 58. A guy came walking along, checking us out (I think it was our clothing he was checking, as we were meant to wear bright block colours with no logos, which show up better on TV). Then, we went in to the studio. We were sent to the opposite side, and all the way down the front. Unfortunately, Clinton and I had to split up, so that I got the front row on the aisle, and Clinton was right behind me. Front row!
Before long, the warm up guy came out, and then it was time for the big cheese – Craig Ferguson! He came out, threw out chocolate coins to the crowd as he normally does, and I was disappointed to see that the one that I grabbed for bounced out of my hand and back on to the stage. The lady I was sitting beside me told me that another was on the floor beside me. Huzzah!
He did his monologue to start with, followed by the seemingly impromptu cold open, which actually screens first. The cold open was hilarious, with Craig reading from Harry Potter to his ‘horse’, Secretariat. Then it was time for the tweets and emails, followed by the first guest, Chris Pine. He wasn’t scheduled to be on today – it was meant to be Kenneth Branagh and Jane Lynch, but we had two segments of Chris Pine instead. He was a tiny guy, and I was surprised that the interview as you see it on TV was pretty much exactly the same as what we were seeing in the studio. Chris Pine seemed like a really genuine guy, chatting to Craig between segments and looking often at the audience, waving to us before he left. Morena Baccarin was next up, and considering she gave birth 12 weeks ago, she looked in great shape. She played Brody’s wife on Homeland, and has a new film coming out. While nice, she wasn’t as warm as Chris Pine. Then it was time for, “What did we learn on the show tonight, Craig?”, and the end of the filming. We also filmed a stand up comic, Chris Roth/Roff (???), who was quite funny, and it was interesting to see that Craig actually watched and was into the comic, too. Craig then came over to the front and did a couple more jokes before farewelling us one last time. We left, feeling totally satisfied with the last hour’s entertainment!
We headed back to The Groves for dinner, and ended up at The Whisper Lounge. The food was absolutely amazing! I had a gourmet cheeseburger, and Clinton had (what else) a steak. So yum! Today was our last full day in America, so our next update will be back at home, with our last day and our trip home!
15 January, 2014
Today was another big day of driving. We got up, had breakfast at the roadhouse across from our hotel, and hit the road. We had a couple of little stops to make before lunch, the first being McWay Falls, a waterfall on to the beach. Unfortunately, we missed the turn off, as there wasn’t a sign, so our first stop ended up being Limekiln Creek State Park. After paying to enter (something we think Australia does much better – and free-er!), we started our hike up to the falls. It was lovely and cool inside the forest, and there were again lots of redwoods. We had to do several crossings of the creek, some trickier than others, before arriving at the falls.
We hiked back to the trailhead, and decided to hike the trail to the lime kilns. It took us another 20 or so minutes to get there, and even though the kilns have been out of use for quite some time and have rusted and started to be reclaimed by the woods, they still seemed very out of place.
Then, it was time to get back on the road. The highway around this area was really lovely, and had lots of windy roads around sea cliffs. Unfortunately, this also meant no overtaking lanes for idiots in Jags doing the advisory speed (you can definitely go three times faster than that and still stick the corner in a Jag!), and roadhogging RVs. Every once and a while there would be a turnout (ie a 5 or 10 metre section of bitumen for you to pull over and let others pass), but these were few and far between, making an otherwise lovely drive very frustrating.
Next stop was the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas, just down the road from the little light station here. Having seen quite a few seals over the past week, I thought I’d be prepared for the smell – but these guys were pongy! The males had elongated noses, hence the ‘elephant’ seal name, and they liked to dig sand over themselves. This time of year is mating and birthing season, and there were lots of cute little seal pups with their mums.
Then it was down the road 10 mins to Hearst Castle. Unfortunately, you had to do a guided tour here, and it would take about 1.5 hrs – time we just didn’t have. As well, I thought you could drive all the way up to the castle and just take a look about, but we only got as far as the visitor centre, at the bottom of the hill that the castle is on. We did have a nice lunch at the visitor centre cafe, though, and got some photos from the observation landing.
Back in the car, it was time for the long stretch of driving. We continued south along Route 1, which turned into Route 101, through some nice seaside areas like Pismo Beach (“Clueless” reference, anyone?), before finally making our way in to Santa Barbara. We headed for Stearn’s Wharf, and were a little shocked to find that you could actually park out on the wharf! We got ourselves some saltwater taffy and watched the sun set, before getting back on the road.
It was another 90 mins down the road to our next stop, passing through Malibu on the way. The mind boggles to think of how expensive some of the real estate is through that area, and how many celebrities we may have been very close to! Finally, we made it to the Santa Monica Pier, and after parking the car, we went for a wander around its wooden boards.
Being after dark on a winter’s day, many of the shops were closed, like the amusement park rollercoaster and ferris wheel, and many of the smaller food outlets. We headed in to a restaurant that is quickly becoming one of our favourites, Bubba Gump, for a delicious dinner, before out final 15 min drive back to our hotel from our last stay in LA, the Inn at Marina Del Rey.
14 January, 2014
Today was moving day! After a quick breakfast, we packed the car and headed off to our last San Fran stop, Vermont Street. Much like windy Lombard Street, Vermont Street is steep and has many hairpin turns. In fact, Vermont is actually steeper and has fewer turns than Lombard, but the turns are sharper. Once we’d wound our way down, we headed for the Pacific Coast Highway, and Monterey.
It was only a two hour drive to Monterey, with picture postcards everywhere. We saw sea spray over the coastline, rocky and sandy outcrops, and pounding sets of waves.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and by the time we made it to Monterey, we’d certainly worked up an appetite! We had fish and chips at a nice restaurant on the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and had a table overlooking a pod of sealions and their otter friend, sunning themselves on a pontoon. I was excited to find out that some noted authors had called Monterey home, including John Steinbeck and RL Stevenson, and Clint Eastwood calls the area home now.
After lunch, it was on towards our home for the night, Big Sur. Continuing on down Highway 1, we saw one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline we’ve ever seen.
Everywhere we looked was amazing. We pulled over several times to take pictures, including at Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world, and certainly one of the most photographed.
Then, it was another 15 mins down the road to our hotel for the night, Glen Oaks Big Sur. We were excited to find out we had been upgraded (yay!), and our gorgeous room has a fireplace just across from the foot of our bed. We headed out to dinner up the road at The Restaurant at Ventana, which was super delicious, and came back to have our first experience of s’mores at the fire pit outside our room – fire roasted marshmallows on chocolate, between graham crackers. They were AMAZING! Just about to head off for bed – a big day of driving ahead tomorrow!
13 January, 2014
Today we headed to the Embarcadero to collect our last hire car for the trip. After getting our Chevy, we headed straight for George Sterling Park, where we tried to head a couple of days ago. We got there, and had a nice (albeit distant) view of the Golden Gate bridge.
Then we drove down the very bendy section of Lombard Street, amongst the throngs of people taking pictures, before heading to Baker Beach, just to the east of the bridge.
Again, we had another great view of the Golden Gate, this time from much closer. On the way to the beach, we passed a big viewing area, so we stopped there on the way back. We went into the pavillion, which housed lots of information and artefacts from the building and opening of the bridge in the 1930s. We could walk up to the top of the viewing area, and had an amazingly beautiful view of the bridge right behind us.
While we were up here, Clinton and I asked a random to take our photo. It turned out he was Australian, so he asked where we were from, and he happened to be from Brisbane. He headed off to bike across the bridge, and we hopped back in the car and drove over the Golden Gate. It is much bigger when you’re on it than you realise! The towers go way up into the sky, and the contrast of the orange bridge with the blue of the sky was gorgeous.
We continued driving up to Muir Woods, a pocket of Redwood trees only 30 mins from the San Francisco city. Over here, you need to pay to get in to many of the national parks, so we paid our $7 and went for a walk through the redwoods.
Most of them grow in clumps, or ‘families’, and are incredibly tall! It was so lovely and cool inside the forest, and I wish we had more time there. But alas, it was time to head back over the Golden Gate bridge and back into the city, to head up to Twin Peaks (cue creepy 90s theme music). Nope, not that Twin Peaks! Twin Peaks is the geographic centre of San Fran, and almost the highest peaks in the city. We had an amazing view of the Golden Gate bridge, downtown San Fran, and the bay from one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The sun was starting to set, and it was just another incredible vista, in a day full of them!
Next we headed across town and back over to Fisherman’s Wharf, to the Musee Mecanique, in interactive museum of arcade games. We had peeked in here on our segway tour, and it was a great way to spend an hour before dinner. There were old wooden diorama games, mutoscopes (think of an automated flip book), automatic pianos, fortune tellers, love testers, and some newer machines, like awesome 80s and 90s video games, a mini bowling machine, foosball tables and mine and Clinton’s favourite, air hockey (I won, for the record).
It was time for dinner, so we headed across the to Boudins, a famous sourdough bakery. When the earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906 happened, the owner rushed in to grab the starter yeast, rather than her cash register, and as a result they are the only bakery in the area that has used the same starter yeast since 1849. We had clam chowder in one of their amazing sourdough rolls for our entree, followed by steaks, which were great, and we had a great overlook of the wharf and Alcatraz’s winking lighthouse in the bay. Then it was time for the drive home, and packing to leave tomorrow!
12 January, 2014
Today we got up and organised relatively early, because we had an appointment with Alcatraz! We took the historic F line tram to the Embarcadero, and hopped straight on to our ferry. Once we got to the island, a docent told us about the events on Alcatraz for the day. We walked the Agave route towards the top of the hill, which is closed for nine months of the year for bird nesting, passed the parade grounds and some of the old officer’s quarters, before lining up at the door of the cellhouse for the audio guide, which was incredibly well done and informative. We saw cells set up as if they were lived in back when Alcatraz was opened, could go in to an isolation cell, and learned about the escape plans of several groups of inmates.
There was also quite a bit of time dedicated to the Battle of Alcatraz, a siege by six inmates trying to break out. When you walked out the front of the admin building, there were the most beautiful views of central San Fran and the Golden Gate bridge. Then it was time to go in to the dining room. It’s hard to imagine the hundreds of inmates eating in silence (as silence was a rule throughout the prison). In here, we found a talk being given about one of The Rock’s most famous residents – Al Capone.
We listened to most of it, learning that he died a free man (albeit not a very sane one – syphilis had ravaged his brain by the time of his release), before heading back down to the ferry and returning to the mainland. Clinton and I found it really interesting that Alcatraz has such a harsh reputation, because some of the facilities here seemed better than those at Fremantle Prison in WA, even though Freo closed as a gaol 27 years after Alcatraz!
We walked down Pier 39, which we saw last night, but this time we stayed in the centre and looked for some lunch. Bubba Gump was really tasty, and very apt, considering we’d seen most of the movie over two consecutive nights in Vegas last week. After lunch, we meandered along the pier, before catching a bus to Fort Mason and walking along the seafront, towards the Golden Gate bridge. We stopped just past the yacht club at a small beach and took in the bridge, which was looking spectacular.
Luckily we didn’t wait until after sunset to make it home, because we (again) had issues catching the bus home. After almost an hour, we made it back to the hotel, and had some down time before walking across the road to an Italian restaurant for dinner.
Picking up the rental car tomorrow…eep!
11 January, 2014
Today we had a bike tour, and the forecast was for rain – eeep! We made it to the starting shipping container office, before heading off into the cloudy morning. First stop was City Hall, where we were told by our guide Beebee about how the city burned to the ground in 1906 after a massive earthquake, including City Hall.
We then headed up into the Mission district, where the Spanish originally settled, and which now has bright, beautiful murals on the walls of many buildings.
Next was Castro, which is the centre of the LGBTQ movement in San Fran, and there were many rainbow flags hanging about.
Then it was time for us to take the Wiggle bike route with many other San Franciscan bikers. The Wiggle route is a low grade incline between the hills in SF, and this took us up to the panhandle of Golden Gate park, which we rode around for a while. It’s a huge park, much larger than I thought. Unfortunately, it was here that it started misting rain. We got started again, and headed downwards into the Haight, which is one of the hipper and hippier areas of SF, with quite a few medicinal pot houses. One of the last stops was Alamo Square, and some houses that I’ve seen many, many times in the theme tune of Full House – the famous seven painted ladies.
From this high vantage point, it was easy to see why it was so wet – the skyscrapers of the CBD had disappeared into the clouds and fog. Then, it was time to cruise down the hill and back to the container office. It was hard to believe that we had ridden all that way up! It was very satisfying.
Being a little wet, it was time for a warm lunch in Patxi’s, still in Hayes Valley. They had Chicago style, deep dish pizza, which was amazingly good! Then we took a bus to Clarion Alley to see a whole alley of beautiful murals.
It was still miserable wet weather, so we took a few photos, and then rushed back into the train station, to catch the train to the next stop, followed by a 10 min walk to Balmy Alley to see more murals. The rain seemed to be getting worse, so as it has many times before, the golden arches appeared out of the rain and we headed in for coffee and apple pies. We were still in the Mission, and it felt like the Buena Vista Social Club in there! By the time we left, we were very fortunate in that it had started to clear! The murals in Balmy Alley were absolutely beautiful, and very varied.
Next, we wanted to head to George Sterling Park for a sunset view of the Golden Gate bridge, seeing as it had cleared, but we had quite a few problems with buses, and once we finally got back into the CBD another bus that we needed to take didn’t run on the weekend. Feeling disappointed, we ended up taking a bus and going straight to Chinatown, ready for our night walking food tour. We were a little early so we headed in to Starbucks for a quick drink. We came out and met our tour guide, and again we were the only punters. We walked up the hill a little to a tea tasting, which we’d never done before. Like wine tasting, you start mild and work to full bodied. There were quite a few nice ones, but Clinton burned his tongue on the steaming brews.
Next, we headed to the fortune cookie factory, and after learning how it worked, we got to have some samples. Next, we walked back to have dim sum on the main street of Chinatown, and it was very different to all the foods we’ve eaten at dim sum previously. In a few blocks, we walked down Jack Kerouac Way, and all of a sudden we were in North Beach, the Italian district.
We wandered past the City Lights book store, a Beat Generation publisher and haunt, before moving down past Cafe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather. We wound up our tour, and our day, with a delicious Roman pizza and wine at Cinecitta`, a film themed Italian restaurant.
10 January, 2014
Our flight was due to leave at 9.18am, so it was an early morning. We saw sunrise over Vegas, before checking out of the Bellagio and attempting to make a quick trip to fill up the car with petrol. Again, we got lost in Vegas trying to return the car, before finally taking the shuttle bus to the airport. We dropped our bags, went through security (super high tech in Vegas – for the first time, we didn’t have to take our shoes off, or take liquids or laptops out of our bags!), and then hopped straight on to our plane. We ended up being delayed by about 30 mins due to heavy fog reducing visibility in San Francisco, so we both ended up catching up on some sleep.
The fog had cleared by the time we landed in San Fran, and then we took a train to the bottom of Powell Street and walked slightly up hill, three blocks to our hotel. We checked in, and headed out for lunch in the Macy’s around the corner. On the 6th floor there’s a burger bar, very originally called Burger Bar, which overlooks Union Square and the makeshift ice rink currently there. Everything was super tasty, even though the fried egg I ordered on my burger splattered all over me.
Then, it was time to hop on to a San Francisco institution – the cable car – eeep! It was really full, so we ended up standing up, hanging on to the sideboard. Hold on! Going up and down the steep hills and around corners was equal parts exciting and scary! We hopped off at the Fisherman’s Wharf terminus and walked down to the water. We could see Alcatraz just a couple of miles into the bay, but the fog had descended in so there was no Golden Gate Bridge to be seen. We walked up to the famous Pier 39 to see the pontoons of sea lions. I couldn’t believe how loud their barking was! They were also pretty smelly, but very funny and cute. Some were playing around, knocking each other into the water and mouthing each other, while others were swimming around in the water, and others were just lazing about on the pontoons, snuggling into each other.
Then it was time for us to walk back along the wharf and go on our night segway tour with our guide, Lindey. We were the only ones on the tour and, being fairly experienced, we didn’t have to go through the training and so we headed straight out and did a slightly more advanced tour. We segwayed along the Embarcadero, saw Boudin’s sourdough bakery, many famous seafood restaurants, and headed down a deserted pier to see the lights of SF. Heading back up into the city, we went to North Beach, the Italian district. We saw the St Peter and Paul Church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe ‘married’ (they actually got married at City Hall because DiMaggio was a divorcee, so they just had pictures here), before heading up to Coit Tower, named after Lillian Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy (albeit slightly crazy) heiress and widow, who left money to the city to create something beautiful in her memory. We headed back down the large hill, past the Levi’s international headquarters, and saw the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which has a temporary light installation on it. Then it was time to head back – it was getting very chilly! We had dinner just across the road in Fisherman’s Wharf, at Tarantino’s. I had the seared scallops, and they were amazing! After a tram ride home, it was off to bed after another big day.
9 January, 2014
Our only full day in Vegas started with one of the craziest buffets I’ve ever seen! The Bellagio Buffet has everything you’ve ever thought of for breakfast, plus a few you haven’t. Once we were ready, on the way out of the hotel, we had a quick look at the world’s largest chocolate fountain, at 8m tall, located inside the Bellagio.
A short drive down the Strip got us to the Luxor, the pyramid shaped hotel and casino. I was pretty shocked to know that most of the big hotel/casinos on the Strip are all owned by MGM, and we were able to put the entry fee for the Titanic exhibit at the Luxor on our room tab! Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photos in the exhibition, but it was almost like wandering on to the set of the film! There were corridors, staterooms, the staircase, the promenade, an iceberg, and lots and lots of actual items recovered from the wreckage zone, like tea sets, leather bags, papers, photos, jewellery, mirrors, and clothing. There was even a large piece of the ship, called the Big Piece (thanks, Captain Obvious), that has been recovered and preserved. When we entered, we were also given a boarding card for two real passengers from the voyage, and at the end we were able to check if they survived. Even though we both had first class passengers, one lived and one perished.
Next stop was an exciting one – Dig This, to revisit our childhoods. Essentially we were able to muck around in excavators, in a massive sandpit (after the serious business of signing waivers, a safety video and instructions). There was a big group of Asian electronics business people here just before us, and we were told they had made quite a mess! We donned headsets and high vis jackets, and jumped into the cab. It took a little practice – and remembering left from right! - but before long we were able to move the machine forwards and backwards, spin the cabin around, extend and retract the arm, scoop and release the bucket, and squeeze and release the ‘thumb’. We were constantly receiving instructions from Dave on our headsets, which was reassuring. We dug a big hole each, picked up tyres from a tyre stack and remade the stack at the other end of our area, and picked up basketballs and ‘dunked’ them into a tyre hole. It was loads of fun, and I left feeling very accomplished!
Our last stop for the afternoon was back across town, at the south end of the Strip – the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. We drove past it initially, missing the turn into the small parking area in the middle of the road, and after two quick u-turns, we made it back in. There isn’t any attendant here, but there are signs asking people to make an orderly line and wait their turn, and surprisingly, they do! There was an Australian couple and their two kids right behind us, and we helped each other out by taking each other’s pictures.
We headed back to the Bellagio and washed up, because it was a big event next. Clinton and I headed to the Graceland Wedding Chapel to have our vows renewed - by Elvis! We took a wrong turn on the way, and only got there just before our scheduled time. We got our flowers, met our photographer, and were able to request the songs Elvis was going to sing. Then, ‘Elvis’ came in, told us what would happen, and we got down to business! Elvis accompanied me in whilst singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, which we danced to at our wedding reception, and then we renewed our vows. Then, Elvis had us recite some ‘Elvis vows’, which heavily featured lines and titles from Elvis songs, and were cheesily funny. After our second song, “Viva Las Vegas”, we were done, and Elvis left the building.
Then it was time for our celebratory dinner at the Top of the World revolving restaurant, atop the Stratosphere casino and hotel. I’d told them that we were renewing our vows, and we got a really great table right by the window, giving us amazing views of Las Vegas. Again, the food was delicious, and we had a beautiful sparkling wine (Asti Martini) to go with it.
We drove the car back to the Bellagio, and decided that, on our last night in Vegas, we should go for a walk north along the Strip. We watched the Bellagio fountains from the front, saw the beautiful neons of the Flamingo, Casino Royale and Harrah’s, the new video screens of Linq, the largest golden arch of Maccas that I’ve seen, and watched the eruption of the volcano at the Mirage from the base of the Campanile of the Venetian. It was getting late, and we have an early morning flight tomorrow, so we caught the bus back to the Bellagio for our last sleep in our huge king bed. Phew! What a day!
8 January, 2014
Today we woke up as the sun was rising, and the light behind the monuments of Monument Valley were amazing!
After breakfast overlooking the sunrise at Gouldings, we started our big day of driving, heading back to Kayenta, Tuba City, and lunch at Burger King in Flagstaff, before continuing on through Kingman, and stopping at a ghost town called Chloride. It wasn’t as ‘ghosty’ as I thought it might be, but it was definitely very quiet! Established in the 1860s as a mining town, its population dwindled after the mining ended in 1944. Now there are 250 people who live around the town. After a few photos, and a drink and snack at the local establishment, we headed on our way.
Next stop was Hoover Dam. We got there fairly late in the afternoon (we’d spent 5.5 hrs just on driving!), so we went straight through the visitor centre, which explains how and why the dam was built, as well as how it works. Then it was time to look at the dam, and the bridge across from it, from the viewing platform. The sun was starting to set, and the colours in the sky looked amazing behind the bridge! Finally, it was time to walk over the dam wall, crossing from Nevada into Arizona again. The sunset was amazing from here! Like many things, the dam was built in the 30s, so it has many similar features to buildings we’ve already seen, like the Empire State Building.
The sun was gone and it was getting quite dark by the time we got back on the road. We went through Boulder City, the town originally created for the dam labourers, before we came up over a hill and saw the bright lights of Las Vegas. Clinton and I were both shocked at just how far it stretched! It was much, much bigger than just the strip, and lights twinkled almost as far as the eye could see. We found out very quickly that driving in Vegas is not so easy, after taking a couple of wrong turns, and getting stuck on a service road behind the Bellagio and not knowing how to get to the guest entrance! We found it, after a good four or five laps, and finally deciding to venture down part of the Strip.
We checked in to the Bellagio, and were really impressed by our massive room! We had a spa suite, and not only could we see the fountains, we had a great view of the Strip. We called the concierge to try and book in for dinner (as the Bellagio dining guide advised us to do), and our first two choices were entirely booked out. We went with Sensi, an Asian, American, Italian and seafood fusion restaurant. It ended up being a great choice, with everything being absolutely delicious. Clinton and I hit the roulette table, with a couple of wins, but overall we lost our $100. I was watching an episode of Mob Wives as I was getting organised for bed, and it was the episode when they went to Vegas and one of them lost $8000, which made me feel a lot better about our $100 loss!
7 January, 2014
We had a late start this morning, after a couple of early ones. After breakfast, checking out, and loading up the car, we headed back up to the South Rim for another look at the Grand Canyon. In the morning light, it looked really different to when we were there yesterday. It was fresh outside, but some people looked rugged up like it was Antarctica! There were people out walking their dogs at the canyon, and plenty more people out today than yesterday – some idiots who went rock hopping out beyond the paths, too…they’re very lucky there were no big gusts of wind!
After checking out the visitor centre and shop it was time to leave. We drove east towards Tuba City, stopping briefly at the Desert View and Watchtower viewpoint for our last view of the canyon. Lunch was KFC at Tuba City, which tasted exactly like KFC at home. We noticed, after sitting there for a while, that we were the only ‘white’ people there – everyone else seemed to be Native American! We got to the turn off to Monument Valley at Kayenta, and it was really odd to see, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert and not much else, the neon lights of McDonalds and Burger King. Ten minutes later, and the buttes of some of the outer lying monuments came in to view. They really are huge! It was a lovely drive out, especially that last half hour.
We checked in to our hotel, Gouldings Lodge, and lugged our suitcases up the stairs. Boy, was it worth it! We opened our curtain to a magnificent view of the sun setting on Monument Valley. We sat out on the balcony for half an hour, getting more and more cold as the sun disappeared.
After settling in, we headed up to dinner at the Stagecoach dining room. I had a Navajo taco on fry bread, which was really tasty but ridiculously large! I would have only eaten about a third of it, and was absolutely bursting!
It’s going to be a massive day of driving and visiting tomorrow as we head to Las Vegas. See you then!
6 January, 2014
Today was a big day! After checking out of our hotel in Phoenix, it was time to hit the interstates! It was a 3 and a bit hour drive to Grand Canyon, and we got motoring hard. On some of the roads, we were doing 80 mph (128km/h!), very comfortably, with others still passing us! We stopped at Sedona for lunch, to see some of the red rock formations, before heading out again.
When we got to Grand Canyon, we had to go directly to the airport for our 3pm booking for a helicopter tour over the canyon. We watched the safety video, and I started remembering that I’m not really a fan of helicopters. We were flying with 3 other people, and we were quickly ushered out with them onto the tarmac, popped into the helicopter, harnessed up and had our headsets on before I knew it. Then it was time for take off! It was a little bumpy once we got started, and I freaked myself out, thinking that if it was bumpy when we were so relatively close to the ground, it would be much worse when we were over the canyon. Fortunately, the opposite ended up being true, and once we went into the canyon it was really smooth. Aside from being happy that we were cruising nicely, suddenly being over the canyon was awesome. The afternoon colours and shadows were spectacular, and it looked almost unreal. We flew over two sections of the canyon, before flying back to the airport. Then we checked in to our hotel (free upgrade, yessss!), which has an arcade, a bowling alley (?!), a bar and a restaurant.
Our last stop for the day was to head out to the South Rim for sunset. As the colours changed, the canyon took on a life of its own. It really was a sight to behold, and we braved the cold for as long as we could before heading back to our hotel for dinner.
5th January, 2014
We could have a little sleep in this morning, before grabbing our last deli breakfast (farewell, cream cheese bagel and delicious coffee!), and checking out of our old mate, the Edison Hotel.
We’d seen reports that the weather was getting crappier by the moment, and it had been raining when I went out to get breakfast, with the street in front of our hotel a slushy river. We got ourselves a taxi, and the guy was insane. He was doing just over 70 mph (115km/h) on slick, icy roads, and I was packing my jocks a bit in the back! We got there, though, and we headed in to La Guardia, which looks like it’s seen better days. Our First Class experience started here, with a quick bag drop (albeit with very little instructions about what we were meant to be doing and where we were meant to be going). Security was quick, and then we were at the gate. Boarding time came and went, and we had no information. Only about 30mins after we were meant to board, did someone come over the loud speaker and tell us that the crew had been delayed and would be there shortly. The overall delay ended up being almost two hours before we could take off, as the flight also needed to be sprayed with antifreeze because there had been icy rain. We were pretty sure that this meant we would miss our connection in Charlotte, North Carolina, but we would wait and see.
Meanwhile, one of our fellow 1st classers was making trouble. We had just boarded when she wanted to get off and go to the toilet. She was told that she wasn’t allowed, but still wanted to go. She had to be forcefully told to take her seat, and even then, she was mumbling under her breath. Then, after we had been told to turn our mobiles on airplane mode, she kept texting – not once, not twice, but three times. The flight attendant, a middle aged, fiery looking New Yorker of mediterranean descent, caught her every time, and was almost at the point of throwing her off the plane. The lady was so disrespectful, and tried to bring others in to it, but I just ignored her (truth be told, I would have backed the flight attendant!).
It ended up being that we missed our flight in Charlotte by about 15 mins. We had to queue up to speak to someone (as always seems to be the case here!), and luckily we got a really nice guy who, instead of just trying to fix our Charlotte-Dallas leg, meaning that we wouldn’t get to Phoenix tonight, he found a direct flight to Phoenix, with seats in 1st! Finally, something was going right!
The flight from Charlotte to Phoenix was great, but there was lots of turbulence. The food was also great :) While I really enjoyed the experience of first class, I’m not sure I like being that close to the front of the plane!
We got in on time, collected our Volkswagen, and made our way through Phoenix. It was pretty deserted, being that it was 12.30am! We had to buzz the bell to get let in to our hotel, and finally, 16 hours of travelling later, we have arrived in Arizona! Driving off to the Grand Canyon tomorrow, so time for sleep!
4 January, 2014
We had to wake up quite early today, as per the Jetblue lady’s instructions, to call and try and get on a flight. After waiting on hold some 25mins, I finally got through and spoke to a lovely lady called Mary, who tried to do everything to get us on a flight, to no avail. Two days of stranded travellers were all trying to do the same thing – get out of New York – and there was nothing until Tuesday. Next stop was the internet, and there were several times we thought we had a booking, but by the time we’d go to pay, it was already taken. We saw a flight through American Airlines for tomorrow, which was first class, so very expensive, and would get us to Phoenix via Charlotte and Dallas, and from there we could drive where we needed to. We decided to do it, but when I tried to pay, this time it said there was an error. I frantically called up the web help service for AA, and I was told that I was putting in a postcode and I didn’t need to. After fixing that, it went through, and we had secured our exit from NYC! After that, the rest of my morning was spent adjusting our itinerary for Vegas and our drive around, to make the most out of our time. We were, thankfully, able to reschedule most of our bookings for times when we’ll actually be in those places now, and had to adjust some accommodation, too. Fingers crossed that will all go to plan tomorrow!
Reorganising done, it was time to spend our last afternoon in New York ticking some things of our unfinished list! We decided to head out to the Museum of Natural History, being that it was such a freezing cold day (-10 during the day!), and still very snowy. We caught the subway uptown, pretty much to the door of the museum. There was only a small queue to get in, and then we were off! We looked at all the important stuff first – dinosaurs! I was so excited to see the tyrannosaurus rex, and the exhibits were all really modern looking. There were even things you could touch, like the real skull of an ankylosaurus! You could also see modern animals, like horses and bears, and extinct ones, like the mammoth. On our way elsewhere, we caught sight of a massive tree cross section, which began growing in 550AD and was cut down in 1891. It must have been at least 5 or 6 metres in diametre! Last stop we had time for was the geology section, where they featured a rock that was more than 3 billion years old, that you could touch. There were also displays on types of gems formed, and what happens under the ground after an earthquake. It was closing time, so Ben Stiller and friends could muck around :)
Next, we debated whether we should or not – seeing as we were burned so badly last time – but we decided to do it. The Empire State Building would not conquer us! We took the subway downtown, and were shocked that we could walk straight in to the building without a queue. Not only that, we could get on the escalator upstairs straight away, too. And when we got up there, there was no line up until security. After that, with our citypass passes, we didn’t have to wait at all! We went up to the counter and got our audio guides, and then proceeded to the lifts. We were on the next one up to the 80th floor, where you hop out, walk around, and get into the next set of lifts. We had to wait here maybe 5 mins, but considering last time we waited more than two hours and only just passed security, I was so chuffed we decided to come back! Up the 6 more levels, and we hopped out at the top of the ESB. It was absolutely gorgeous, and again I was happy with the decision to come at night (as we had seen NYC from the Top of the Rock during the day). Then, we stepped out of the building and on to the deck – cold is an understatement. My hands were freezing through my gloves, and doing a dance to stay warm was mandatory. We abandoned the long winded audio tour, and walked our way around the rooftop, taking in the beauty of Manhattan and surrounds by night. This is clearly why we were meant to stay!
We had dinner at the base of the building, at a nice 30s style brewery. Then, it was time to head home, to pack for *fingers crossed* our flight out tomorrow!
I finally have a little time to catch up on the two days I didn’t blog because I was sick! Currently on the plane from Charlotte to Phoenix, which is a 4.5 hr flight, so here we go!
30 December, 2013
We were up early and I went out by myself to collect our clothes from the laundry, and when I got back, Clinton was ready to go. We were, however, running a little behind schedule, and decided to speed up by getting a taxi to the US Capitol building. I wasn’t too sure of what to expect from our tour, which I originally decided to do because a White House tour was way too much kerfuffle. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised! Because we had prebooked, we got to skip much of the ticket line (not the security line, however!), and got in quickly enough to have some time for breakfast. Then it was time for a video on how and why the Capitol exists – essentially, it’s a bit like Canberra, in that when the thirteen foundation states declared independence, they decided to create a new capital city, which was Washington DC. After the video, we headed in to a hallway, where we were lined up into three lines and given headsets, so we could hear our tour guide at all times. Ours was a bit of an awkward penguin, and was constantly asking if we could hear him. First stop was the rotunda, which was really beautiful. The frescoes jumped off the wall and ceiling, almost looking like 3D images. There were also statues in this room of some of the more prominent presidents, like Reagan, Johnson and Eisenhower. You can also see the star on the floor, where any deceased former presidents lie in state. The Hall of Statues was next, and this is where Congress used to sit. There were marks on the floor where presidents had sat, which was pretty cool. Overall the building is far more impressive from the inside than the outside, and that’s saying something.
Next, we caught a bus across town to Ford’s Theatre. On that fateful April night in 1865, John Wilkes Booth, an actor, left his horse out the back, walked in to Box number 8, and shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. There is a nice museum section underneath the theatre, which is still used today, and it gives you much of the lead up to the assassination. There are also his clothes from that day, and other artefacts from after the shooting, like a bloodied pillow. On the day we were there, they had the actual door open that Booth would have walked through, which is apparently quite special, and we were able to walk through it.
After scoffing down a quick lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, it was another taxi ride across town, to get to our next booking – our segway tour! We saw the admin buildings for the government (most people don’t actually work in the White House – just the President and his chief of staff), the White House, and much of downtown DC, including the Edgar J Hoover building (FBI headquarters), the Naval memorial, a news museum that had a copy of the Courier Mail on display (eeeeeeeeck!), and the Washington Monument, which is in the process of having its scaffolding removed after repairs. Another highlight was the Lincoln Memorial, where we could actually get off and warm up – by this point, what little sun there had been had almost disappeared, and it was frigid. Our guide was very impressed by Clinton and my segway skills, including several quick stops I had to make because we had some idiot young guys in our group.
We had booked in for dinner that night in a southern style restaurant, but by this point I started feeling quite sick, so we went home and had room service for dinner, which was really tasty (as it’s from the fancy restaurant downstairs). After that, it was definitely bed time.
31st December, 2013
We were up fairly early today to catch our return train to New York City. I had woken up feeling worse than when I went to bed, so we caught a taxi the couple of blocks to the train station, and hopped on the train. We were able to sleep for much of the train ride back, and I was feeling somewhat better when we got back in to Penn Station. Being that it was New Year’s Eve, we decided to taxi it to our hotel, because we didn’t know whether subway stations might be closed or not. It was only 5 or 6 blocks to our hotel, but some of the road closures had started, which meant that we had to skip around them. There were people everywhere in the lobby, and it was definitely a sign of things to come. The train trip, and lugging our bags about, had really taken it out of me, and when we got to our room, I slept for a solid four to five hours (despite having almost 12 hours the night before!).
Then, it was time to get organised to go out! The walk there was even a challenge, with people everywhere! We had to go through several checkpoints and show our tickets, and the several hundred dollars we paid was worth it just in how close we could get. We had booked VIP tickets at Dave & Busters, an amusement centre, that was just around the corner from the ball drop but that didn’t have a ‘ball drop view’. We had heard mixed reviews, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised to have our own VIP line (when we found it!) and got in from the cold in only 10 or so minutes, and we were then led upstairs to our table, right along the front of the building, that almost had a ball drop view! We were so close, that people from the VIP section were coming over all night and trying to see if we had a view! We did have a view of the street, and could see an ambulance turn up once during the night, and the mounted police go past several times. Clinton and I had bought the champagne package, and this meant that we had unlimited drinks all night, and there was a party food buffet, too. Being so sick, I decided I didn’t want to fight for, nor spend all my energy on, the arcade games, so we sat and enjoyed the music and the atmosphere. We were planning to go down onto the street near 12, and see the ball drop from the street, however we got concerned when the street started filling at 11pm. I didn’t think I’d be able to take the cold air in my lungs for that long, so we held off until 11.30pm, when Dave & Busters started looking a little like a ghost town, and headed down into the street.
It was sardine-tin stuff. We decided to walk away from the square, to where we could have a better view of the ball, and then we just couldn’t go any further. We spun on the spot, and saw that we could, in fact, see the ball, and here would have to do! Two guys behind us were Australian, from Perth, and we struck up a bit of a friendship with them. By the time we got to this point, there was only 10 mins until midnight, and despite it being freezing cold outside, I didn’t even have my gloves on because we were packed in so tightly that it started becoming warm! Cheers started going up periodically as we got close, and people let off streamers. Then, the ball started to drop. It looked like it only got half way down the stick, and then it stopped and the lights on it turned off. Several of us thought that it had malfunctioned, but it turned out that we had just seen in midnight. Because we were on a side street, we couldn’t see the countdown, and couldn’t hear the crowd counting. Party poppers went off, people yelled, more streamers floated in to the air. 2014 had started with a bit of an anticlimax!
Then, the fun of the walk home started. Once the crowd disbursed, it was cold, and we weren’t allowed to walk uptown yet – NYPD was directing all foot traffic downtown for at least half an hour, we were told. This was very annoying, but we were paitient, and in about 10m, we were able to start moving. In all, it took us 40mins to walk home a route that would normally take 10mins. I slept very well again that night!