Saturday, 25 January 2014

San Francisco Stories

Sorry to bombard you with blogs, but I'm trying to get myself caught up whilst on the very long flight to Hawaii! Driving to San Francisco was a bit of a drag- we had planned on taking the pacific coastal route which is meant to be one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Unfortunately we only had one day to complete the 400 mile journey and with hairpin bends and difficult driving conditions this route takes a lot longer than taking the motorway. Add to that the limited hours of daylight in January and it didn't seem like the most practical idea! The I-5 which we did take however was pretty much the most boring drive in the world with a seemingly endless straight road through miles and miles of identical, flat scenery! We were glad when we finally reached the bay bridge which leads into the city!!

I'd been completely excited for San Francisco and after hearing numerous people say it was one of their favourite cities in the world I was expecting a lot. Unfortunately, while it did like it, it didn't live up to the hype in my mind. Conversely, I loved LA much more than I had expected to based on some of the negative reviews I had heard. Basically it goes to show that travel is completely subjective and thre are always people who will like or dislike things when you feel completely the opposite! 

I'm not entirely sure why I didn't enjoy San Francisco as much as Vegas or LA. I generally just get impressions of places and these stick. I think there were three main reasons. Firstly, I think part of it was definitely to do with where we were staying. The house was lovely but it was a Victorian house at the very top of the city- very San Franciscan but also slightly too far away from the action meaning we were somewhat isolated and getting everywhere became a challenge not helped by the incredibly complex public transport system and the astronomical price of parking! On top of that, San Francisco seems to have a very high population of homeless people, a lot of them disabled, and I feel that American welfare is definitely lacking! Driving through the 'tenderloin' district was actually pretty shocking! Finally and I think the main factor in my preferring other American cities is that San Francisco has a reputation as a quirky, unusual, historic town (not like anywhere else in America) and that the people of the city very much strive to live up to this reputation. I couldn't help but feel that locals looked down on other parts of America and that they were so determined to uphold their image, parts of the 'kookiness' which San Franciscans kept telling me about was actually very contrived. If you compare this to most European cities which have layers and layers of history, it didn't feel genuine. Has anyone reading been to San Francisco? How did you find this?

Anyway, moving on, we still had an enjoyable few days and there are some great sights in the city. Some of my highlights are as follows:

1) Visiting Fisherman's Wharf, the second most popular attraction in California. We took a boat out over the bay and got great views of the San Francisco Skyline, went under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and saw Alcatraz, the famous prison, from a distance (more on this later)

At Fisherman's wharf, they also sold so much fresh seafood including the best clam chowder I have ever had and absolutely amazing crab cakes!!

2) Exploring Chinatown

San Francisco has the largest Chinese population of anywhere outside of Asia and the Chinatown in the city is so authentic I almost felt like I was back in Beijing. It was great to spend an hour looking around the multiple bazaars selling identical mass-produced Chinese souvenirs to those we found in Asia. Annoyingly sometimes they were actually cheaper!!

3) Learning some of the history of San Francisco

Perhaps I'm contradicting myself, but some of the history of San Francisco is really interesting, for example driving around and being able to clearly see where the effects of the huge earthquake of 1906 hit because of the different styles of architecture. Also did you know that in the mid-1800s a man arrived in SF, declared himself to be emporer of the USA and printed his own money which was accepted everywhere in the city? Don't believe me? Google Emperor Norton!

4) heading across to Alcatraz Island

This was definitely my favourite thing that we did in SF. Alcatraz has a pretty interesting history having been used as a military base, a prison (most famously) and a centre for Native American protests in the 1960s when they tried to claim the land for themselves. All this on what is essentially a big rock.

Some of its residents when it was a prison included Al 'Scarface' Capone and Robert Stroud or 'The Birdman of Alcatraz'. We took an audio tour around the cell block which was really well put together and narrated by former guards and prisoners. It really helped you envision the bleak lives that people had in the prison. It also documented all the escape attempts which had taken place which include the Battle of Alcatraz where 5 inmates and 2 prison guards died and the only successful attempt where three brothers dug out of their cells using spoons! While there, we even got to meet a former inmate who was there publicising his book which recounts his experiences. 

4) Climbing to the top of the city at Golden Gate Heights

One one few perks of staying right at the top of the city was the view which it offered over the 42 hills of San Francisco (some of them the steepest I think I've seen!) and right outside our house was a set of 300 steps which took you even further above the city and offered a 360 degree view over the whole peninsula. This was amazing and the view was definitely worth the climb!

If you look towards the back of the photo above, you can just make out the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

5) Heading North for a day trip to Wine Country

San Francisco is only about an hours drive away from Sonoma county which Napa Valley is part of. This is the largest wine producing area in California so we headed up to visit one of the many wineries there. On the way, we stopped at Old Faithful Geyser. A Geyser is a volcanic spring that erupts with steam and water due to seismic activity underneath it and this is one of only three 'old faithful' geysers in the world as it erupts so regularly. We got drenched but it was fun anyway!

We then headed to Sterling Vineyard and took a cable car ride over the ranch where the grapes are grown. We then got to try loads of different wines (any excuse for daytime drinking is fine by me) and learn about the wine making process- it's all gotten a bit more advanced than 'squid he some grapes with your feet' as I thought. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying San Francisco isn't a great city,but it's not one of my favourites and I don't really want to go back anytime soon. I feel I saw the highlights and some of them were great but part of what I enjoy about travelling is being able to compare and contrast different places and learn what you like best in a country, city or area! 

I'm currently on the flight across to Oahu, Hawaii and we have some really exciting things planned during the week we spend here! I'll update soon hopefully while lazing on a beach with a cocktail in hand...

Friday, 24 January 2014

Hollywood Highlights

Continuing on from our first exciting day in Los Angeles, we spent the next couple of days exploring the rest of the sights in the city and outlying areas. Los Angeles is a county which is made up of multiple districts and cities and we wanted to see Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Downtown Los Angeles, Fishermans village, Santa Monica and Venice Beach. With such a limited amount of time, we opted to use of of the many 'hop-on, hop-off' bus services available for tourists which circle the city and provide commentary. Usually I'm pretty happy to find my own way around but unless you drive (paying astronomical parking charges and navigating huge amounts of traffic) LA is not a city to explore yourself- it's public transport services are laughable given its size.

We walked up to Hollywood Boulevard making a quick stop outside of The Chinese Theatre where stars throughout the ages have marked their handprints and signatures in the cement outside- Marilyn Monroe, the cast of Star Trek and Tom Hanks to name a few. Continuing up the street we kept an eye out for stars representing some of the most recognisable names in the world.

We headed to the bus and took the Hollywood route first, passing some notable landmarks along the way including buildings featured in movies and places where stars had first got their big break for example the Comedy Store where Robin Williams and Jim Carrey were first discovered. 

We also passed the restaurant where Brad Pitt once worked dressed as a giant chicken!!

We got off the bus at Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to explore. This iconic street features in loads of films including the scene in Pretty Woman (great film) where Julia Roberts goes on a shopping spree. It's a great place to window shop although with labels like Herve Leger, Lanvin and Dior it's a little out of my price range. It was the Screen Actors Guild awards in Hollywood that night so I kept my eyes peeled hoping to spot someone collecting their awards night outfit but to no avail. 

Beverly Hills itself is beautiful with amazing mansions lining the wide, manicured boulevards and if you had the money, I'm sure it would be a beautiful place to live! 90210 doesn't do it justice!

Heading further along, we passed through other famous sights including the Sunset Strip which holds loads of famous clubs and bars, including the Viper Room where River Phoenix overdosed in the early 90s. We then headed along Melrose Avenue which has more of a unique vibe to it with plenty of vintage stores and independent boutiques.

We stopped for a quick lunch at The Farmers Market which is a great purpose built place with hundreds of stalls selling loads of different types of food along with a section dedicated to fresh produce and more unusual delicacies such as one shop dedicated to different chilli sauces and another to macaroons! Outside this was the Grove which was a great open air shopping mall with dancing fountains!

Completing the Hollywood and Beverly Hills route, we started towards Downtown LA. Downtown LA looks a lot more like New York with a high concentration of skyscrapers whereas the rest of the city is quite flat. Driving through it transports you back to the 1920's with loads of art-deco style architecture which is so nice. This area also houses Little Tokyo and Chinatown as LA has a high percentage of Asian immigrants making the area very diverse.

After getting a great overview of the city, we headed back to the house to get ready for dinner. We had booked a table at the Ivy- a Hollywood institution. We had a great meal with amazing service but unfortunately didn't spot anyone famous...

It's apparently so famous, they don't even have a sign hanging!

The next morning, we headed westward and away from the city to the beach area of LA. we went to see two cities while we were there- Venice and Santa Monica. Santa Monica is famous for it's old-fashioned pier and it's great beaches and it was very quaint and charming. The pier is a great backdrop with a large Ferris wheel and an old-fashioned carousel. It's a great place for people watching!

Walking along we saw loads of street performers including one girl, Lana, who had such an amazing voice I bought her self-recorded album from her. Hailing from St Louis, Illinois, I really hope she gets her big break in the music business- 

The Main Street also looked lovely with tiny boutiques and street caf├ęs littered along its length but we didn't have a huge amount of time to explore unfortunately! 

Waiting for the bus, we were treated to a rather 'interesting' display of Tai Chi from a local man which basically involved him kicking the air repeatedly and making some strange noises. Not really the traditional way I suspect. Following out proceeding trip to Venice Beach, I suspect he may have originated there as this was full of some very unusual characters.

Walking along the Venice Boardwalk was very surreal but amazing. It's renowned for it's role during activism in the 'summer of love' back in the sixties and it's still got an air of abandon and hippie was surrounding it. You can smell weed everywhere with one of the buildings 'an assessment centre, for medical marijuana with a 'guarantee' you will get a prescription. There was again a lot of street performers with steel bands, reggae and drums meaning there was dance, music and art everywhere.

There were signs everywhere about a Homelessness Bill which is currently passing through Government. California is traditionally viewed as a liberal state but apparently there are still a number of very conservative republicans in the countryside who are trying to criminalise homeless people for using things such as public restrooms. Hard to believe, but the protest we saw going on that day was very well populated.

All in all, the contrast between Venice Beach and Santa Monica was crazy given that they are only a mile apart but I preferred Venice as it was much more interesting and less contrived. It definitely had character. Also, we met this lady here...

Getting back on the bus, we headed along to Fisherman's Village which is an upmarket area in Marina Del Ray. It looks like a tiny fishing town with brightly painted clapperboard houses and lovely restaurants. The luxury yachts and seaside views make it incredibly pricey to live there though!!

We saw loads of LA in the three days we spent there but I still feel we only scratched the surface. I think it might be one of my favourite cities which I've visited so far and would definitely love to return one day! For now though we were once again on the road and heading along to San Francisco...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Los Angeles Living

After finally arriving in Los Angeles after a long drive through Nevada and California and encountering some spectacular scenery, we reached our home for the next four nights- a lovely detached house situated about a 10 minute walk away from Hollywood Boulevard (or the Walk of Fame). It was a great house and I love the freedom of not staying in a hotel- while it may initially cost a little more (although in a group it normally is about the same) you can save so much money not being forced to eat out for every meal! Also, when travelling (particularly with family in this case) it can be best for everyone to have their own space.

Rising bright and early, we headed to our first stop of the day and where better to start when in Hollywood than at a major film studio? Based on a recommendation, we headed to the Warner Bros studio. The only studio tour which offers you a glimpse at it's live workings, we weren't sure what we would see as each of its 2-hour tours is completely different based on it's filming schedule. Due to the time of year, with many of the TV shows filmed there being on a mid-season break, a lot of the lots were deserted meaning chances of spotting a star were slim! It was still very cool to wander around the different lots, including the back lot which is set out to look like a New York street and is where many shows and movies have been filmed including Friends, Annie and The Mask.

Strangely, most of the buildings are only facades and have no interior. It's very surreal standing in the midst of a set, tapping a 'wall' and realising it's made out of fibreglass or plastic rather than brick. Everything is done for appearances sake and as our guide explained, it gives the various directors the option to change everything cheaply and quickly! 

Driving further through the lot on a golf caddy type vehicle, we stopped at the 'property' department which contained all the props which are available to hire for filming. With everything from huge chandeliers to grand pianos, wardrobes to photo frames, anything and everything is available to breathe life into a film set and place the set in the correct era, geographical location and context. We saw props which had been used in the Matrix, Inception and Casablanca and saw how set designers and creative directors could browse this live catalogue picking things for the next big blockbuster!

At the back of the props department was a space dedicated to one of Warner Bros biggest TV hits- Friends. As a completely avid fan who can quote multiple episodes the whole way through (best episode has to be 'The one with Ross' tan' mostly for the cameo from Jennifer Coolidge- 'can you believe I've never had professional dance classes?') I was so excited to see the iconic set. Central Perk was there in it's former glory as a remnant of the cultural phenomenon and I even got to sit on the sofa!! 

After the excitement of that passed, we headed onto one of the sets of the currently running programme- Pretty Little Liars. I've never seen it but it was still cool to walk around a partially constructed set and be able to see the various processes which go into making a believable set for filming. Again, most of it is plasterboard or fibreglass so when you're stood on it you can see it's not real, but as our guide explained, it is real enough for the audience to then subliminally fill in the rest of the details using their imaginations! No cameras allowed on this set unfortunately!

The final two places we visited were the garage hosting some of the more famous cars from previous Warner Bros blockbusters, and the museum holding the costumes and props of current and past shows and movies. There was a great selection including One Tree Hill, Big Bang Theory, My Fair Lady, Christopher Nolan's Batman series, The Hangover, The Great Gatsby and Casablanca...

Upstairs was a whole floor dedicated to Harry Potter, the most successful film series ever and I (as a proud Potter geek) was in my element!!

That pretty much finished off the tour but it was a great experience and I would definitely recommend it!

After finishing at the studios and some great Mexican food (obviously being so close to Mexico with a huge number of Mexican immigrants there's a wide selection) we headed to one of the more natural areas of Los Angeles- Griffith Park. We drove up the steep hill within and parked at the top near Griffith Observatory which is one of the most visited places within LA. Stepping out of the car, we realised why. The view across LA was amazing and it was a fantastic place to catch our first glimpse of the famed Hollywood sign!

It was much smaller than expected, but it was still cool to see in real life after it's appearance in so many films- one of my favourites is where Justin Timberlake gets airlifted off it in 'Friends with Benefits'! The observatory itself is a beautiful building with a huge white dome and a stunning position at the top of the steep hill.

We caught one of the shows in the planetarium there which was surprisingly interesting about the science behind the Northern Lights, and the history of the Nordic and Viking legends which had surrounded them before the dawn of modern science. Coming out of this we went to watch the sunrise over LA and were in for a pleasant surprise as we spotted a celebrity (living the Hollywood stereotype I know)- Ed Westwick AKA Chuck Bass of Gossip Girl fame! Me and Adam (my brother) are massive fans of I the show so we stopped him and asked him for a photo which he kindly agreed to-

All in all, we had a perfect first day in the 'City of Angels' capped off with watching the sun set over Hollywood...

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The National Parks- The Grand Canyon and Death Valley

One of the things I was most excited for when planning a trip to Vegas was to make the short trip to Arizona (another state ticked off) to visit one of America's biggest, natural attractions- the Grand Canyon. For a hole in the ground, it's pretty famous and I really wanted to visit one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World whilst in such close proximity to it.

The original plan was to take the bus to the West Rim (the section owned and managed by the Hualapai American-Indian Tribespeople). When looking into this though, we realised it would entail getting up at 4am, spending 4 hours on a bus, having limited time at the Canyon and then spending another 4 hours on a bus- not the best way to spend a trip. Instead, we opted for a flight/ground tour which offered a short 30 minute flight from nearby Boulder City to the Grand Canyon airport and a longer amount of time at the canyon itself (if you're interested look at It only cost an extra £30 per person and it was well worth it...

The flight itself was amazing and worth the extra money alone! It was a tiny 19-seater, twin propellor plane with barely room to swing a cat when everyone was seated onboard. It was obviously designed for short scenic flights however as it had huge windows, was connected to speakers with informative commentary and cruised at a relatively low altitude offering spectacular views over the desert on the way to the Canyon. We also saw The Hoover Dam and the Colorado River from the air and it was a fantastic experience!

Landing safe and sound at Grand Canyon airport, we were escorted to a shuttle bus which would take us to the three different points around the canyon which offered the most to a discerning tourist. The first was a nod to the history of the region, with a mock Wild-West town set up complete with a saloon, a ranch and a few real-life cowboys!

After looking around the area and learning to lasoo (a skill I picked up surprisingly quickly considering my lack of hand-eye co-ordination)...

...we headed to the next stop which was the Eagle-point Lookout. This offered us the first up-close glimpse of the canyon and we could eat lunch about 50 feet away from the sheer drop at it's edge. Getting closer to the edge, we all experienced vertigo to some degree, thanks to the lack of any kind of barrier between us and a long, long fall into the basin of the canyon. Thankfully we all made it back to tell the tale, but it was a scary experience! 

After a quick browse at the Native American market at this point, we headed back to the bus and to the third and final stop-Guano point. The most spectacular of the three stop-offs, this is a pathway which has naturally formed into the canyon, meaning that when you stand on it, you feel as if you are surrounded 360degree by the canyon. The landscape is beautiful, with red and orange sandstone forming a steep climb to the top of the point.

We reached the summit of the area scrambling up the rocks, but it was 100% worth it as from here you were able to experience the best vantage point from which to view the whole landscape including the Colorado River snaking through the basin! It really was beautiful!

To finish off the day, we took the plane back to Vegas and got to experience the sun setting over the desert from above. The perfect end to the perfect day!

The Grand Canyon is amazing- looking into it's vast depths is an amazing experience, and I'm so glad we fitted this into our trip to Vegas! 

Contrary to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley isn't really somewhere I knew a whole lot about before this trip. I knew it was somewhere in the desert but that is about as far as my knowledge stretched. When planning our drive between Las Vegas and Los Angeles though, we realised that a far more scenic route than the more obvious freeway, would be to traverse Death Valley. Looking into it, I discovered that the route was renowned for it's stunning desert scenery along with notable points of interest including ruined buildings, various wildlife, flat salt plains and winding cliffside roads. We decided that it would be a shame to waste an opportunity to see another famous American National Park so we would drive through Death Valley.

First things first however, before making the drive, we had another full day in Vegas. After spending a good few hours at a Outlet Mall (one of the amazing things about the USA) and doing some major retail therapy, we spend the rest of the day checking out the rest of the strip. We also finally got around to doing some gambling (mostly because you can't come to Vegas and not place a bet)! Unfortunately we were largely unsuccessful and from the $60 we bet ($15 each was all we were prepared to lose) we ended up with a 10c voucher which we have kept as a souvenir to our failure! 

We also made a quick stop at Madame Tussaud's which was delightfully tacky and had a great selection of photo opportunities-

After an enjoyable last day, we rose bright and early the next morning ready for the 7 hours of driving that would need to be completed before arriving in LA. Driving through Death Valley, the scenery could have come straight out of a film.

We first reached an old Mill which was now largely ruins thanks to the harsh weather conditions in one of the least habitable places on earth! It was set in the middle of nowhere and the landscape around it was lovely. It was also one of the quietest places I have ever visited with barely the noise of a car heard in the several minutes we spent there! 

Moving further along the winding road, we reached a set of salt plains which were 800 feet below sea level, completely flat and almost other-worldly. They were also a great place to take photos with distorted dimensions like this-

After spending some time here, and enjoying a picnic lunch in the middle of nowhere, we continued along the scenic drive crossing some very treachorous roads, with some spectacular views to make up for it!

Heading out onto the straight (mostly boring) freeways which took us the rest of the way made me appreciate the interesting section of the drive we had completed. It made it clear why so many people refer to the 'Great American Roadtrip'! Overall, it was definitely worth taking the longer drive through a Death Valley to reach LA (which is where I am currently writing from) and seeing some more of the beautiful (although inhospitable) part of the country! Anyway, I'll update again in the next few days, but for now I'm off to bed so goodnight!