Thursday, February 5, 2015

USA FOUR CORNERS 20 December 2014 - 10 January 2015

USA FOUR CORNERS
20 December 2014 - 10 January 2015



TRAVELABROOD

With three weeks break over the Australian summer holidays, we headed for the USA! This year it was just our immediate gang ie: two forty-somethings and two teenagers.

As per usual we had spent months putting together our itinerary and booking as much in advance as possible in order to get the best times, tickets, seats and restaurant reservations. Don't forget we were travelling over the Christmas/New Year period, so reservations needed to be made in advance as places are often closed for the holidays or booked out months in advance. Not to mention, the Australian Dollar was pretty good when we started booking this trip, but had gone down quite considerably by the time we departed. We were quietly thanking our lucky stars we had pre-paid as much as possible.

The trip from Perth, Western Australia to LA via Sydney is really, really long. All up we flew for around 19 hours with a two hour stop-over in Sydney. We managed to get seats on the upper level of the Qantas Airbus A380 and have to say that if you are planning a long-haul trip on an A380, the upper economy level is pretty good. You can even board the plane via the Business/First Class ramp!

Most think the upper level is reserved for business and first-class, however there are economy seats at the back and if you if are a family of four you can organise to sit two in front/two behind or four across the middle. I thought it was pretty cosy (well as cosy as economy could ever be on a long-haul) and what I do like about the A380 is that sections upstairs and downstairs are curtained off and serviced by a couple of staff allocated to your section. This helps you to try and forget that you are in a sardine can flying to a distant location.

TIPPING IN THE USA - HOW MUCH AND WHEN?

Basically add 15% to taxi fares and restaurant meals. If you use the concierge in a hotel for bookings, advice etc. then a tip of around $10-$15 is the norm when you leave the hotel. If you have a porter carry your bags, add $2-$3 per bag. If you have a room service meal tip the waiter 15% of the value and if you stay more than one night in a hotel then it is advised to tip the cleaning staff around $3/day and don't forget the door man when he hails you a cab.

Another catch in the USA is tax. Tax is added at the register, so the advertised/ticket price isn't necessarily the amount you will end up paying. Don't be caught out thinking something is well priced, until the tax is added!



LOS ANGELES

We arrived in LA the morning of the day we departed (go figure). We had booked The London West Hollywood Hotel for a couple of nights
http://www.thelondonwesthollywood.com/
and were really happy with its location and even better views over LA from the rooftop bar and pool. Although it was winter, the pool was warm enough to swim in, so after a dip, regroup and change we shrugged off our jet-lag and headed out.

I've mentioned in one of my previous blogs how good the hop-on-hop-off buses are. The London West Hollywood conveniently has a stop right outside, so what better way to start our holiday than join the red-route and visit Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive and hop off at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. http://www.starlinetours.com/



Hollywood Walk of Fame
The Walk of Fame just has to be done! It was recently I found out that celebrities actually pay for their star and pay extra to have it positioned in a prominent spot along the strip. A visit to Madam Tussauds
https://www.madametussauds.com/hollywood/ where my son could take selfies with Lady Gaga, Angelina and Taylor Swift (without touching their hair or face) and then back on the bus desperately trying to stay awake as we completed the red route up Sunset Boulevard and eventually back to the hotel.

Our first dinner was at Nonna of Italy
http://www.nonnaofitaly.com/ located close to the hotel along Sunset Boulevard. With its Venetian glass chandelier we were instantly transported to our 2013 Christmas in Venice. The food was great and the wine list very nice.

Waking up to a perfect winter Sunday we headed out to Runyon Canyon for some exercise and perhaps some celebrity spotting. Runyon Canyon http://www.lamountains.com/parks.asp?parkid=122
has a few different hiking trails and is great place to stretch your legs, walk your dog and see fabulous views of LA and the Hollywood sign. There are a couple of different trails and all give you a good workout, so wear good walking shoes and take a bottle of water.

Santa Monica Pier is easily reached on the hop-on-hop-off bus and as you cruise down Santa Monica Boulevard you learn the history of surfing in California. The pier is touristy and the beach welcoming (even in winter). There wasn't much surf and fortunately not too busy so we walked along the promenade towards Venice Beach. In summer the promenade is apparently packed with people and you not only struggle to find a car park, but a place on the sand to sit.

Venice Beach with Santa Monica Pier in the background
We had dinner at Boa Steakhouse, West Hollywood for one of the best steaks I've had in a long time.  http://www.innovativedining.com/restaurants/boa


HIGHWAY 1 - LA TO SAN FRANCISCO

Driving in a big city, on the wrong side of the road at peak hour is not for the faint hearted. We picked up our Dodge Caravan SUV and headed straight down Sunset Boulevard via Bel Air to Highway 1 which we would stay on all the way to San Francisco - well so we thought!

At Malibu we admired the coastline, beach and houses and totally missed the detour sign advising us that Highway 1 was closed. Following a couple of South Africans who had done the same, we wound our way up through the Santa Monica Mountains with spectacular views of the ocean on one side and the snow-capped peaks on the other until we hit Highway 101. This was a detour we didn't regret as it was breathtaking.

The highways are fast. Crazy drivers zig-zag across lanes, trucks roar up behind you and if you're not paying attention you can miss your exit very easily. One thing I did notice, was that there weren't a lot of advertising billboards along the highway which was really rather pleasant, but at the same time you don't know how far the next gas station or food stop is!

The trip from LA to Morro Bay is apparently the most tedious part of the Pacific Coast Drive (Highway 1). Once you hit Highway 101 at Ventura, you really don't see the coast again until Pismo Beach. Pack lots of snacks and settle in for a crazy ride, by the time you hit Morro Bay you are pretty frazzled.


Morro Bay is a really lovely little town and in hindsight I would like to have stayed there for the night and walked around the town some more. There is a small, but great Skateboard Museum http://www.mbskate.com/ down near the waterfront which has boards dating back to the 1950's and sports the second largest skateboard in the world. When we were there the local kids were showing the laid back shop owner some cool moves and for a small donation you can stay as long as you like.


Hearst Castle at San Simeons was built between 1919 and 1947 by William Hearst. http://hearstcastle.org/ There are a selection of tours available, however it is advised that you book online as this is a very popular tourist destination. The Castle has to be seen to be believed. It was frequented by Charlie Chaplan, famous actresses, politicians and alike. It even had its own zoo and still today Zebras can be seen from the highway.

Just down the road from Hearst is the Elephant Seal Rookery, where the fat marine mammals roll around in the sun.
Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeons

It's about 60 miles from the Seal Rookery to Big Sur. Along the way the Julia Pfieffer National Park is a popular place to stop for a walk.

Note: Highway 1 is a two lane coast road and I can only imagine that in the summer time it would be very busy. We were never caught in traffic, however there was a steady flow of cars travelling the windy road without many opportunities to pass. There are so many picturesque places along the way that some drivers just stop in the middle of the road to get a photo or park causing traffic jams in both direction. Add an extra hour (in winter) or two - three (in summer) to your planned driving day.

There aren't many places to stop for lunch along the highway. Nepanthe is popular and has amazing views, however we had booked a table at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn
http://www.postranchinn.com/dining/  The views over the ocean are endless and it beat lining up with all the other hungry travellers.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a really lovely place to spend a couple of days. Clint Eastwood was the Mayor here for many years and the village, beach and serenity of the area is really friendly and welcoming. Just before Carmel is Point Lobos. Unfortunately, we didn't get time to go for a walk around the point, however there is a Whalers Cabin and museum and various trails to wander.

The San Francisco City Pass
http://www.citypass.com/san-francisco includes various attraction entries (including the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium) and unlimited rides on the cable cars and buses around San Fran. From Carmel we stopped at the famous aquarium http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/, before heading up to San Francisco via Santa Cruz where we had lunch on the wharf and watched the surfers ride the long wave to shore.



SAN FRANCISCO

We had planned for all kinds of weather in San Fran, but scored the most perfect week. Beautiful clear skies, no fog and although it was windy, the endless sunshine took away the bitter cold - even the cabbies constantly commented on how good we'd got it.

We stayed in an apartment in Ghirardelli square overlooking the famous chocolate shop, bay and Alcatraz. http://www.fairmont.com/ghirardelli-san-francisco/
San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz

Arriving in time for dinner on Christmas Eve, we honored our booking at Ristorante Milano http://www.milanosf.com/ a quaint Italian restaurant, where the tables are close together and the food and atmosphere delicious and fun.

Waking up on Christmas morning we had a list of activities planned. Not being ones for sitting around and waiting for turkey and plum pudding, we headed out on foot.

Half way up Mason Street we hopped on the trolley with Santa and some joyous carollers, alighting at Union Square. Yum Cha/Dim Sum at arguably San Fran's best, the Yank Sing in the Rincon Centre http://www.yanksing.com/about-us/index.html and then up the 400 stairs to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill (perhaps we should have done this before Yum Cha?).

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
With our backs to the bay we walked down the hill again into Chinatown where we stopped at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. When you find it down a back lane, it's the funniest little factory, where even on Christmas Day the men/women churn out bubbles of wisdom.

The Fairmont Hotel is renowned for its Christmas Gingerbread House and it doesn't disappoint. The hotels lobby buzzes with guests and tourists eager to see the life-size creation with doors you can walk through all made of biscuit and stuck together with lollies and fondant. Signs request guests refrain from picking and licking, however smudge marks, indents and chips indicate that some just had to have a try!

Union Square was a buzz with people on Christmas night all vying for a spot on the temporary ice-rink. Book your session time before you go as the ticket queue is long and often the sessions booked out in advance. http://unionsquareicerink.com/

Fisherman's Wharf is a very touristy area with souvenir shops, bike rentals, the famous Boudin Sourdough Bakery and endless cafes/food stalls offering chowder in a Boudin bread bowl. The seagulls that frequent the area are enormous and further down at Pier 39 you can watch the fat lazy Seals sunning themselves on pontoons.

The Wharf is also home to the Antique Coin Operated Arcade Musee Mecanique, the USS Pampanito submarine and the Exploratorium science activity museum (fantastic as a rainy day activity and suitable for children young and old!).

Alcatraz - Watch out for this tourist trap! The number one rule here is to definitely pre-book your ticket and tour time (first tour of the day is advisable). The tours depart from Pier 33 and you really do feel like a prisoner lining up and waiting for your transfer to the notorious Penitentiary. Once there you follow the steady stream of visitors along with the audio tour.

The Cliff House http://www.cliffhouse.com/home/index.html is on the west coast overlooking Ocean Beach and the Sutro Baths ruins. There is a bistro on the top level where reservations are not accepted and then downstairs is Sutro's where reservations are highly recommended. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ocean and ruins with an award winning wine list and seasonally changing menu.

A good way to work off lunch is to walk the coast trail back towards the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a beautifully scenic walk with spectacular views.

Forever on the go, our next adventure had us hiring bikes from Blazing Saddles  http://www.blazingsaddles.com/ and biking the bridge over to Sausalito. Along the way be sure to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum http://www.waltdisney.org/  it is a little off the main cycle trail, however a real insight into the life of such an amazing man.

Cycling over the Golden Gate is exhilarating. One side of the bridge is dedicated to walkers and the other to cyclists, so make sure you follow the correct signs. Once off on the Sausalito side there is a steep hill down to the Bay Area Discovery Museum and then only one more hill and you are in Sausalito. Here we had a very nice lunch at Poggio Trattoria. http://www.poggiotrattoria.com/

The roads in the Golden Gate park are closed to traffic on Sunday's creating a fabulous opportunity for roller-blading/skating, cycling, skateboarding etc. There are free swing dance lessons and model boating enthusiasts all enjoying the outdoors. The park also boasts a herd of Bison.


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE

Travelling via the Amtrak train system is a really pleasant way to go. Our trip to South Lake Tahoe began with a train from Emmeryville (SF) to Sacramento and then a thru bus transfer to South Lake Tahoe.

South Lake Tahoe is on the border of California and Nevada, so on one side of the street there are low-rise buildings and on the other side, the multi-story casinos of Nevada are built right to the border.

We stayed at the recently renovated Landing Resort & Spa http://thelandingtahoe.com/ which was very nice. Not being skiers, I won't comment on the snow, but will say that the views from the top are stunning. It is crazy looking at the brown Nevada desert and Lake Tahoe on either side of the mountains.

We hired all our ski gear from Black Tie Ski Rentals https://www.blacktieskis.com/ who came to our hotel room and fitted us with boots, skis and clothes. The service was fantastic and I highly recommend them.


LAS VEGAS



If you've never had a desire to go to Las Vegas or if others have told you it's a waste of time, just go and experience it. Open your eyes, suck in the stale cigarette smoke, get lost trying to get out of your hotel, be amazed by its gaudiness, definitely see a show and then leave.

We arrived with everyone else on a Friday afternoon. I've never lined-up to check into a hotel, but in Las Vegas the queue snakes back and forth, however moves very quickly.

We stayed at the MGM Grand where we had booked to see David Copperfield in the David Copperfield Theatre. His show was incredible. He was comic, creative and mind boggling good at his art.

One of the reasons we were in Las Vegas was to see the Grand Canyon. We chose to take a helicopter sunset tour with Maverick
http://www.maverickhelicopter.com/. We were collected from our hotel and transferred to the airfield where we then flew over Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and landed in the Canyon for Champagne.

Catching the sunset on our return, we flew over The Strip and marvelled at its opulence against the desert surrounds.
Boulder City is about a 30 minute drive from Las Vegas. Boulder was created by the Government to house the workers on the Hoover Dam and since its creation, they haven't allowed more than 1% growth per annum.

Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon operate from Boulder City. http://www.flightlinezbootleg.com/  What a great way to spend a morning, ziplining over the canyon. With views back to Las Vegas, over Hoover Dam and Boulder City, we had so much fun. The staff were really friendly (albeit not very funny - although they tried to be) and professional.



LAS VEGAS TO PALM SPRINGS

The I-15 takes you from Las Vegas south to Palm Springs. Just before Barstow, follow the signs to Calico Ghost Town http://cms.sbcounty.gov/parks/Parks/CalicoGhostTown.aspx . Calico was once the greatest producer of silver in Southern California. Today, although it no longer produces silver, Calico is worth a visit. Some of the original buildings and mines still exist and others have been restored to house handcraft stores, sweet shops, clay pottery and alike.


The Joshua Tree National Park http://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm is east of Palm Springs. Following the signs from Yucca Valley we entered the west entrance station just as the sun started to move quickly towards setting. Having seen a Joshua Tree in the Grand Canyon, we questioned visiting the park, however am really glad we did. Add this park to your bucket list, the Joshua Trees are crazy but the boulders immense.

PALM SPRINGS

Sheltered by the San Bernardino Mountains, Palm Springs boasts a micro-climate that is well liked by retirees, golf enthusiasts and holiday makers. When we arrived it was a welcome 27 degrees during the day, but cool at night. We stayed at the Riviera Resort & Spa
 http://www.psriviera.com/ , a Palm Springs institution whose carpets have been well trodden by celebrities and alike over the years.

Things to do in Palm Springs (other than frequent one or more of the 100 golf courses in the area) are the Aerial Tramway http://www.pstramway.com/index.html , the Palm Springs Air Museum
 http://palmspringsairmuseum.org/ , Premium outlets have a centre of discount stores about 20 minutes drive away or just relax by the pool and visit the upmarket boutiques on North Indian Canyon Drive.



San Diego Zoo Safari Park Caravan Safari
SAN DIEGO

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park  http://sdzsafaripark.org/ is around 40 minutes east of San Diego at Escondido. Leaving Palm Springs early, it took us about 2 hours to reach via Highway 10. The Safari Park showcases all the African animals and all sorts of different tours are available. We chose the 2 hour Caravan Safari and took delight in feeding the giraffes. They are such an incredibly gentle animals with long greedy tongues and eyelashes to match.

In San Diego we headed straight to the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier http://www.midway.org/. I could have spent days exploring this well maintained museum, albeit we only had a couple of hours before they closed for the day. I will go back! The audio tour takes you below decks to the living quarters, brig, mess, officers quarters, dentist, barber, surgery and just when you think your coming to the end, you realise you haven't been on the flight deck.



In San Diego we stayed at the Hilton Gaslamp Quarter close to great restaurants and shops.
http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/california/hilton-san-diego-gaslamp-quarter-SANGQHF/index.html.

The Amtrak Surfliner returned us to Los Angeles where we stayed Downtown at the Ritz Carlton http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/LosAngeles/Default.htm. Chosen for its location to the Staples Centre, we had purchased tickets to an ice-hockey game between the LA Kings and NY Rangers on Stubhub. What a nail-biter of a game where the Kings were winning at half time only to have the Rangers score and claim victory in the final minutes.

iFly Indoor Skydiving at Universal Studios https://hollywood.iflyworld.com/ was our last hurrah in terms of things planned. Our final dinner at Drago Centro http://dragocentro.com/menus.php was a great way to wind up our three weeks and prepare ourselves for our long trip home.