The Strip

Death Valley is around 100 miles away from Las Vegas. It looks closer on a map but everything in America looks closer on a map. Leaving Death Valley at sunset ensured that it quickly became pitch black on the drive towards Las Vegas. It was an eerie drive in the pitch black. Now and again you’d see a pair of headlights coming towards us that seemed close, but the roads are dead straight and go for miles so the lights deceive you an it takes a good while for you to cross your fellow driver on the road. Just knowing you’re driving in the middle of nowhere enhances your own vulnerability; knowing there isn’t a sole for miles. We began climbing, up, up as we’ve done often around eastern California and throughout Nevada – they’re both mountainous areas – until suddenly you can see a dim hue over the next rock on the horizon. All of a sudden you summit the mound you’re ascending and the lights come into view and then you’re all too well aware that you are not so lonely and there’s a party coming your way. 

The hue on the horizon is split by a thin powerful green laser shining directly out of its middle. It shoots into the sky like some sort of calling beacon to all those who want to go wild in Sin City, and can be seen for miles. The light is emanating from The Luxor hotel, which is shaped as a pyramid. Directly in front of it is a replica Sphinx. It reminded us a bit of Stockport’s pyramid. Apart from the former houses a huge casino and hotel, the latter houses The Co-operative Bank. 

We followed the lights an proceeded up The Strip, or Las Vegas Boulevard, to our hotel, The Flamingo. The Flamingo is, or was, one of the first hotels and casinos which was constructed in Vegas. This wasn’t our reason for picking it; it’s cheap and conveniently located. You can tell it was one of the first there. The walls are decorated with pictures of it from the 70s, when it was originally built. It’s no doubt had some enhancements since then – about 30 or so floors – but I think the carpets are still the originals and some of the Black Jack machines maybe too. 

After parking up we made our way to the lobby to check in noticing the smell of smoke (I’m not sure but I think Vegas remains one of the only places in the US where you’re allowed to smoke indoor still) and the array of lights from the dozens of slot machines. Quickly checking in with one of the 10 or so receptionists we warily made our way up to our room – we were pretty knackered after the long day’s drive and walking about – and threw our bags on the bed. As Milly grabbed a shower I noticed something on the side which must have been left by the room’s previous tenant…..See the pic below:

We went back downstairs with the evidence in hand and they apologetically changed our room and gave a slight refund for the inconvenience. To be fair we weren’t that bothered by it, but we tried blagging it slightly in the hope we could obtain an upgrade. They gave us a room with a better view but that was it. The room was probably a bit worse than some of the motels we’d stayed in; no coffee facilities and dated decor, but we weren’t moaning, we’d made it to our final stop, Vegas. 

Las Vegas translated from Spanish to The Meadow. The word ‘meadow’ generates images of lush pastures, butterflies, quaint water and birds singing. There is none of that in Vegas. What there is, is debauchery, alcohol, sex, loud music, lights, shopping, and gambling. Lots and lots of gambling. Even the medical centres have slot machines in them. 

The first evening there we decided to see what our own hotel had to offer. Each hotel along The Strip will have its own casino, club, multiple pools, restaurants and bars. Most also have some kind of show area or stage. The main one ours had was showcasing Donny and Marie Osmand in duet. Apparently it’s Vegas’s number one act! We didn’t bother paying to watch it though. 

We’d heard that as long as you’re betting you get free drinks. After all someone who’s pissed is likely to spend significantly more money gambling. But trying to get one out of some of the bar staff was a grind. I’m sure they only serve someone who’s likely to tip them. America on a whole, from what we’ve seen, has made tipping a virtual tax on your bill. Expect to pay upwards of 5% on top of any bill you accumulate, in tips. Unless you’re happy to be cold hearted and just walk away of course. 

We had enough drinks to make us feel tipsy and gave the casino a good walk around to get our bearings. I taught Milly how to play roulette (too which she eventually became a dab hand) and we threw some green backs into the cheap slots before calling it an evening. 

Day came and the sun rose in the cloudless sky. It wasn’t very warm, until midday when it hit about 18 degrees but it was pleasant nonetheless. We headed out down the strip to fathom our Vegas in its entirety (well, the rest of the strip anyway) so headed south. We grabbed a bit to eat in one of the shopping malls, a huge indoor centre which reminded me of the food court at The Trafford Centre; the ceiling painted like the sky. 

After brecky we ventured south down The Boulevard and were amazed by the place. They’re literally recreated a various different notable places from around the world and stuck them along one street. Each section, a large hotel and casino combined with retail outlets, restaurants and performing theatres. There was The Venetian , which was in the image of Venice, Ceasar’s Palace for Rome, New York New York as New York (this place included its own full size roller coaster), Paris – complete with a mini (but still large) Eiffel Tower, Excalibur which was an actual castle, The Luxor fashioned on Egypt and the Valley of the Phaeroes and just add to that the ones which didn’t seem to take on a specific genre but were still mightly impressive: The Bellagio, with its legendary fountain show, Our very own Flamingo (which had actual real life flamingos living on site), The MGM Grand (which hosts the biggest boxing fights in the world) and many, many more. 

Ceiling at The Venetian

It really is an amazing place – like something I’ve never seen. The streets are permanently rammed with people, day and even more so at night. Multiple people trying to give you pamphlets or taxi cards, or trying to sell you show tickets, or buskers doing magic, singing, dancing or some just dressed up (or even down) trying to get money off you for a picture. There really doesn’t seem to be any rules. We saw one police man the entire time we were there and he was nicking somebody for a driving offence. We walked our way through all of the chaos and down towards the famous ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign which was about 2.5 miles from our hotel. There was a large queue of people waiting to get their pics in front of it and as Milly was getting hungry by this time, we decided not to wait in line. Part of the line was some newly weds and their entourage. Again, seeing wedding parties about the place was just normal. 

We then made our way back up The Strip and found a little church where Elvis can marry you and at this point Milly was very insistent we get hitched. Sadly I had to turn her down and you should have seen the disappointment in her lovely little face. 

We made it back to HQ and got ourselves dressed up and ready for a night on the town, the final hurrah before making our way back home. 

We had a top night. Got really pissed and mooched all over the place, taking money and drinks off any casino we could. We probably broke even over the course of the evening, which was great considering we’d ended up fairly drunk (which was free in most part) and we’d entertained ourselves for a good 8 hours or so. We’d ventured out to see the lights, the fountains of the Bellagio were amazing and the Venetian Hotel is like something I’ve never witnessed in my life – there’s an actual canal going through it and you can buy a ride on a gondola and have an Italian bloke sing to you. Cesear’s Palace was just immaculate, they’ve certainly not scrimpt on the detail of the place. We also headed back to the indoor shopping mall we’d been to earlier as Milly had seen a strip club there earlier and she fancied giving it a go. Unfortunately it wasn’t open though and she left disappointed. 

We ended the night by fulfilling our dream of eating one of those large slices of pizza you see in any American sitcom and having a chat with a pissed up couple from Oregon. 

The next day was a none event. We spent a great deal of it sleeping, eating and packing bags. I wouldn’t say it was a fitting way to finish off the holiday, but it was worth it because the previous evening was a top laugh. 

Anyway, its with great sadness that we now sign off as the travelling is at an end. Thank you so much to everyone who has bothered to read this and the kind words you’ve fed back about it. Thank you to all those who we’ve met along the way and have made the trip so amazing. 

We’re now back and planning our next trip which we will of course blog about. 


The Valley of Death

Death Valley is quite simply stunning. 

If you’ve been following this blog then you will have seen some of the photos we’ve shared and hopefully 

that some of the landscapes are breathtaking, well this place tops them all. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s an utterly unique place which is steeped in ancient history and mystery. I do hope the pictures can do most of the talking. 

Here’s some stuff we’ve learned about the place:

– Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth. In 1913 it recorded a temperature of 56 degrees. The winter gets to an average of 18 degrees so not too hot!

– It gets this hot because of its unique landscape and the lack of cloud cover. The mountains which surround it prevent the air below cooling so the hot air gets trapped in the valley. You can go from the valley bottom (Badwater Basin) where it usually hits 40 degrees in the summer months, to the mountain tops, within minutes in the car, where it rarely gets above freezing

– It gets 2 inches of rain in a good year

– Badwater Basin is where the hottest temperature was recorded and its about 280 feet below sea level

– Rain doesn’t tend to reach it because it’s surrounded with numerous mountain ranges (Sierra Nevada & The Black Mountains) 

– The Valley used to contain a lake over 100 miles long

– It’s the largest National Park in the US spanning an astonishing 3.3 million acres

– There are a number of animals which call the place home. Rare mountain goats, snakes, pup fish to name just a few

– Its named Death Valley as many explorers used to die whilst trying to navigate it

We set off from Ridgecrest on the 2 hour drive to Death Valley. Long straight ‘lumpy’ roads through endless straights of desert mixed with some steep mountain ridge carriageways took you through a multitude of elevations. But the scenery continued to be brilliant. 

Just before entering the National Park we took a detour off the main highway to a ghost town called Ballarat. All around the Park are old mines. They estimate there are 10,000 disused mine shafts in the Park. Ballarat is an old mining town which has just been pretty much left. When we got there, there were a couple of new looking RVs and two dodgey looking guys just hanging about the place. As we didn’t look welcome we quickly took a couple of snaps and left. 

A little further (about 40 miles or so) up the road are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. This is about 2 square miles of sand dunes just plonked in the middle of nowhere. They’re not too sure how the sand got there, but it’s more than likely down to the erosion of rock when the place used to be filled with water. We got out the car and had a walk up some of the dunes. Milly also decided that she’d like to roll down one and got sand everywhere. I was not up for that given the likelihood of snakes hiding in the place. 

Central to Death Valley is a visitor centre, couple of shops and – rather randomly – a golf resort. This is all quite weird because you can drive for miles upon miles upon miles and see not a living soul, then bam, a golf course. It’s actually amazing they can find any water to supply the place. They must pump it for miles. We nipped into the visitors centre and had a look around (learning all the facts mentioned above) and then grabbed some lunch from the shop before heading off to see the Park’s other sights. 

We took the 17 mile drive to Badwater Basin. As mentioned above this place is the lowest place in the US at 280 feet below sea level. It used to be part of the huge Manly Lake but due to the heat which penetrates into the place, the Lake has long since dried up and left behind tons of salt deposits. We walked about a mile or so into the old lake basin and just admired the view as we walked over the salty terra firma, listening to it crack beneath our feet. We got so dry during the walk because the air is so dry – It’s not humid at all.

Driving back up north stopped just off road at a place called Natural Bridge. You have to understand that Manly Lake used to be a vast lake which was supplied by water from the mountains. All around the Valley is canyons which are former tributaries to the lake. Huge scars in the mountin side which you can walk up. The Natural Bridge is the result of millions of years of fast rushing water carving into the hillside which has created, well, a natural bridge. Take a look for yourself:

All along the canyon, it’s sides are carved in the memories of the water that used to flow through it. Extinct waterfalls are everywhere you look and rock overhangs you due to the way the current has worn down the lower parts of the stone. 

We headed back down the canyon and up another more colourful canyon. Rather than the orange, reddy rock of the Natural Bridge Canyon, this one was hosted a number of colourful rock arrangements and at its head was an enormous red cliff called Red Cathederal. 

The time was pressing on by this point and we’d had ideas of making our way to a high up view point for sunset; Dante’s View. About 5000 foot up, there was a plateau on the east side of the valley which looked out over Badwater Basin and onto the overlooking snowy mountains (we drove up, not walking this one). Despite it now being -1 degrees, the views we just unbelievable. 

To give you a sense of how big the place is, that is Badwater below and the short path walks about 1.5 miles into it. It’s where the previous pictures were taken from

Post sunset, it was time to make haste to our next and final destination, Las Vegas!

The Sierra Nevada

With the rain pouring down we headed east, back the way we came into San Fran over the San Fran – Oakland Bridge, through the MacArthur Maze (which is the name for the mental interchange on the eastern side of the bridge which splits traffic onto about 7 separate freeways) and on to the 205 Freeway towards Mariposa and Yosemite. 

The drive was long (3.5 hours) and uneventful. The rain followed us the entire way and only relented briefly whilst we went out to scavenge something to eat in Mariposa. Mariposa is a town about an hour’s drive from Yosemite National Park which actually makes it one of the closest and quite ‘country’. It’s an old gold town, has a few saloons and everybody more or less drives a pick-up truck. It’s fairly highly elevated and surrounded by nice scenery, which develops into very nice scenery the further you go towards Yosemite National Park. 

We had a couple of nights booked into The Miners Inn motel, which was conveniently situated on the main highway which took you into Yosemite Valley. The motel was ok, but as with almost all the motels we’ve stayed in, the decor is dated and walls are paper thin so you can hear everything going on in the place. The breakfast though was splendid and I enjoyed copious servings of waffles each day we were there.

Up bright and early we quickly nipped to the local gas station where the country bumpkin store clerk fleeced me for some tyre chains (sometimes in the National Parks, the wardens will demand that all vehicles at least have chains in their possession and failure to do so can get you a fine) and we headed east into Yosemite National Park. 

The Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and The Stanislaus, Inyo and Sequoia National Forests all make up the Sierra Nevada (which is Spanish for Snowy Mountains), which is a 500 mile or so long span of mountains, rivers, wildlife and forestry which runs down the east side of California bar a few stops on the east side of the mountain range separates California from Nevada. There is a really good documentary on Netflix (or at least there was) about rock climbing in Yosemite and the social communities which frequent the park during the summer months. This however is winter and I can only imagine how different the place is compared to the summer months. 

Rather disappointingly California is experiencing one of its worst winters in decades (you may have heard on the news about the large dam in Northern California which is in danger of breaching and 180,000 people have been evacuated) so a lot of the areas we would have liked to have visited were shut off.

We made our way along the wonderfully scenic drive which takes you to around 5000 foot up into the mountains and to the Visitors Centre which is based in the heart of Yosemite Valley. En route to The Village we quickly jumped out to experience the sights and sounds of El Capitan. One of the Park’s renowned climbing sites and viewing sights (see pics below) The Yosemite Valley Village is remote and isolated and half of it is shut down during the winter. The snow it gets with being so high up just makes it impossible to maintain adequate road conditions and can prove dangerous if they let people trek into the wilderness. If you want to do any of the hikes in the winter, and there’s a good cover of snow, you’re required to wear snow shoes. From what we could see in between the passing of the low lying fog, the scenery looks amazing. Cliffs just rise up all around The Valley; very sheer and dominating, with thunderous waterfalls launching down into the rivers below. There’s an uplifting fresh aroma which is provided by the many pine trees and enhanced by the cold, crisp air. It’s a place which shouts “Christmas!” at you very loud. 

We bobbed into the Visitors Centre to see what we could realistically do. Activity wise there was a very short, 5 minute walk to a large water cascade and we could also enjoy what the centre had to offer. It had a museum like place which was dedicated to the history of Yosemite, explaining why and when it became a National Park and provided a great number of artefacts which belonged to one of the indigenous Native American tribes which lived there. We got talking to Ranger Sheldon in the centre and his infectious attitude and smile made us feel much better about the dreary weather. We hopped over to the theatre which showed a movie (in which Ranger Sheldon actually featured) documenting the history and wildlife etc. 

After spending a few hours moseying about we jumped back in the car and sped along one of the roads which were open to see how high up we could get. By this point some of the fog had lifted so we got to see some wonderful views of the valley en route to a snow playing area. We got to about 6800 feet and jumped out of the car to throw some snowballs about, but as Milly didn’t really have any appropriate footwear, we couldn’t venture too far away from the car – and it would have been silly to do so anyway because we were in the back of beyond. You don’t want to get lost in -3 degree temperatures when there are bears knocking about. 

We conceded that the weather had got the better of us and made the journey back to the motel in Mariposa for the night. 

We had hoped that the weather might have improved for the following day so we could bob back into the Park to see if visibility had improved so we could go for a wander and see the Park’s main attraction, Half Dome. Half Dome if a dome shaped mountain (the Park’s largest) and from the photos we’ve seen (and the aforementioned documentary) the sight of it looks breathtaking. Unfortunately though, the sun wasn’t shining on us and we concluded that it would have been a wasted trip so we took to the road and worked our way southwards towards our next stop which was in a town called Three Rivers. 

Before getting to Three Rivers, we took a detour east into the Sierra Nevada towards The Kings Canyon National Park. Very similar settings to Yosemite, but less famous, there were a couple of things we could actually do in this park. One of them was visit one of its many giant Sequoia trees. These trees are the largest in the world and the one we went to visit was the 3rd largest. The Grant Tree it was named and it was massive. Take a look:

It was 40 foot in diameter, they estimated it to weigh around 1,250 tons and its 1,700 years old. There’s thousands of these trees all over the park – the next park we went to was actually called the Sequoia National Forest – and they’re all enormous. 

The only other thing which they’d let us do is visit a lake called Hume Lake. It was a good 10 miles or so from the visitors centre and took us over some dodgey summits, where the fog was so thick that you could barely see the road in front of you, but you eventually pulled through it and were given one of the most breathtaking sights of this trip of the Kings Canyon Valley. We made it to The Lake and we were the only people there. It was deafly quiet and resoundingly beautiful. The sun began to poke through some of the thick clouds and we had one of those moments (of which we’ve had a few) where we just looked and didn’t speak. 

After a bit of time exploring the lake we started to make our way back through the park entrance but were abruptly interrupted by some cheeky wild deer. Milly was nearly at the point of crying and I have to admit there was a small lump in my throat too…. quite an amazing sight to see in this picturesque wilderness. 

We then headed towards our destination for the evening, the voyage of which was elongated due to the main road out of the park being closed due to snow. We arrived though in the lovely town of Three Rivers which sits on the edge of the Sequoia National Park. We made our way to Casa Mendoza, a nice Mexican diner, which was advised to us by the motel clerk and we weren’t unhappy with the food, nice burritos and tacos.

Morning came and the weather was looking much more to our liking. We took the short, 15 mile drive, up towards The Sequoia National Park to see what activities could be available to us here. We got to the main gate and saw that the Park Rangers had raised the snow threat warning which meant snow chains were mandatory. Unfortunately, we had already returned our rental chains which we’d got in Yosemite (unused) and we didn’t fancy spending yet more cash on wretched things. We decided to turn back and leave the park behind. There was no guarantees that we’d be seeing anything new or even that anything was open up ahead. 

The Sequoia National Forest visitor centre lay not far from our route so we nipped into see what was available to us in the forest. There was a nice lady working there who was jolly but didn’t really have much knowledge about what we were asking. She also had a huge spot on her chin which I was aching to squeeze. 

We decided then to make a journey through The Sequoia National Forest through towards the next destination on the list, Ridgecrest. This was a long 5 hour drive as we decided on taking the more scenic route rather than the quicker route along the freeway. 

The route was mental. It tool you up even higher than we’d gone in Yosemite and it turned out that chains we mandatory here too. The weather was looking threatening and we entered some dark, dark clouds around 7000 foot up and prayed we’d be ok. There was snow and ice all over the road and with the temperature being -4 degrees and not seeing another car on the road for about an hour, you could understand us becoming worries. If we hadn’t had been in a 4×4 I doubt we would have got over the summit. Even The Beast was struggling at points with its 3.5 litre, V6 370, bhp engine.

Over the summit, we descended out of the clouds and the views that met us were stunning, yet again. We made a little stop in the township of Kernville, which was situated at the northern point of Lake Isabella then headed on past the lovely lake on highway 178 which took us out of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

Once out of the range the landscape changed with the click of your fingers. From large green pines surrounded by dark grey granite to small dry shrubs and cactus in a baron yellow desert landscape. It was a new landscape for us on this long holiday, one that we’ve yet to see but the lack of rain and cold was welcome. 

Also, from windy mountainous road which were shouldered with snow to long (very bloody long) straight roads, cutting through acres unused desolate desert, the change of driving conditions were also welcomed. So welcomed that Milly took the wheel for a while and put a few miles in to get us to Ridgecrest. 

Ridgecrest was a weird town. It’s a large town with too much space for its own good. It’s in the middle of the desert and it’s like because they have so much space available, they use it. Big spaces in between houses or shops. It’s probably got a population less than Marple but it’s spread out over miles of land; dry, desert land. Just getting to the supermarket was a 10-15 minute drive and this was supposed to be ‘around the corner’. 

The motel was proper dodgey. There were a bunch of rum looking fellas hanging about it downing cans and looking lairy and the bolt on the back of the door looked like it had been booted off. The owners were nice though, an Asian couple who clearly struggled with their English. The sign on the front door spelt: “Wel Come”. “Another note on it saying: For the Protacton of our gests…..”

Tired from a day of driving about, we had a chilled evening and read on about our next day which we hoped would bring us some better weather – in fact the weather was more of less guaranteed – as we were headed to one of the hottest places on Earth, Death Valley. 

Wham Bam Thank You San Fran

An incredibly jam packed day followed our night of a few ales – probably everything there is to see on a tourists to-do list was ticked off. The weather turned out to be ok even though it was forecast for showers again and this was a real brucey bonus considering the wet day we’d had previously. 

A few things which we’ve learned about San Fran in our time there which will hopefully paint a better picture of it for you:

– The architecture of the streets and houses on them is quite unique. Virtually every house is different, but they’re mainly ‘terraced’ houses. Different features, colours and heights, but the widths are usually similar and they’re all crammed in. Space on the peninsula city is limited and there isn’t much more room for building new houses, therefore rent is high.

Some of the pretty houses

– It’s hilly. As you’ve no doubt seen in the countless movies which have been shot in the City, you can’t go more then one block without going 45 degrees up or 45 degrees down. Good job we had a 4×4, God knows how some of the compact cars cope. It’s that hilly that it’s actually a law that you have to park with your wheels turned into the curb (so that your car stops if the brakes fail).

– Unlike LA, where there is always 3 lanes of traffic on each side of the road, in San Fran there is usually only one on each side, unless you’re on a main road where there’s 2. Suffice to say it’s significantly smaller that LA.

– Trams and cable cars run through certain districts of the City, so there are power cables (which some of the buses run off too) and tracks are littered about the place. 

We started off by picking up Russell and Mor from outside their apartment and we headed a couple of miles down the road to  a certain part of Lombard Street. It’s a mad little street that’s probably only 60 meters long but incredibly steep. The road winds down the short hill like a snake because it was too steep to just put it in from top to bottom. Although the houses on either side of the street we rather grand, I wouldn’t want to live on it because of the amount of tourists which are attracted to it. Honestly, I found it quite bizarre just how many people were walking up and down the steps which flank the street, taking pictures of it. I mean, yes, we did that too but we didn’t hang about. A lot of the guys there were staring at it in wonder; maybe it was because Milly and I were there that they decided to hang around. 

From Lombard Street we travelled a good 30 minutes across town to the Twin Peaks. The Twin Peaks are a couple of large hills overlooking the San Fran skyline. There’s a huge communication tower at the top which looks like a fun climbing frame. You can pretty much see it from wherever you are in the City – we thought it might be an art installation, it wouldn’t surprise us if it was given San Fran’s penchant for art. The view was, as you’d expect, pretty decent. 

The next stop on the list was The Painted Ladies. These little Edwardian beauts are 7 detached houses which are adjacent to each other near the Filmore District. I’m not massively sure why they get so much attention. There is certainly more attractive houses about San Fran. Some of the gaffs there are just beautiful – not massive or over exuberant, just wonderfully finished with funky colours and patterns. I think they’ve been shot in a few movies, in fact I know because I’ve Googled it. They’re in Mrs. Doubtfire and one called Full House and a bunch of others too. Here are the pics we got of them so you can decide for yourself. 

After our basketball experience of the prior evening we thought we’d be good at it and someone might be up for offering us a contract – out here you can actually pay to go for a trial with one of the NBA teams – so we headed to Russell and Mor’s gym near to the North Beach area of the City. Once there we bounced around the basketball court for a good hour or so and had a game of throwing the ball through the hoop. It’s much more difficult than the pros make it look. Milly couldn’t even reach the basket, with the ball, from the 3 point line and I got hit in the face with the ball on more than one occasion. Don’t think we’ll be getting a call for the All Star team anytime soon. 

Hungry after our first bit of exercise in a while, we set off from the gym, up, what seemed like, an endless number of steps, towards the City’s Italian Quarter, where we’d agreed that pizza would be the best medicine. En route to Little Italy we passed the Coit Tower. The Coit Tower is a large monument, which looks a bit like cylindrical sandstone tower and can be seen from most points of the City. It was dedicated to the City by some rich benefactor (as are quite a lot of the national monuments in California). Standing at the bottom of The Tower is a brass statute of Christopher Columbus (the guy that allegedly found The States). 

Using our noses to smell the lush Italian roast coffee we found our way to Little Italy and sat down to a feast of pizzas. Milly settled on a meaty number and I opted for a spinach and ricotta calzone. Yummy. 

The Italian Quarter was pretty cool. A huge church stood bang in the centre of the area and all around it were gelatto parlours, pizzerias and coffee houses. The Italian tricolour adorned all lampposts and terra cotta was a running theme. 

All full of cheese, tomato and baked dough, we meandered back to The Beast and took the short trip down to Pier 39 (where we’d been for lunch the previous afternoon) to have a wonder around. We perused the souvenir shops for a while but couldn’t resist going to the Pier’s main attraction, it’s seals!

Situated on one side of the pier are dozens upon (literally) dozens of seals. The majority of them were laid there sleeping and doing nowt, but there was a few playful characters taking turns to chuck each other in whilst bleating at the top of their voice. Apparently they don’t know what makes them congregate there – it’s probably the good supply of herring in the area, but it was mad to read that after an earthquake a good while ago, more of them descended on the area each day. At one point there was 1,700 chilling about the Pier. Although we were enjoying ourselves immensely, we had to get off because a seagull had shitted on Milly’s back and she wasn’t keen to hang around and be yet more target practice for the yellow beaked pests. 

We ended the evening with a film and sweeties at Russ and Mor’s apartment and before we’d left, we bid our lovely hosts thank you and goodbye.

We thought to start the next day as we did the last, by seeing as much of the city as possible. Following some breakfast, we headed down to the Marina district to have a perv over the Fine Art Museum. What an amazing structure; it reminded me of the Sept of Baylor from Game of Thrones. It was going to get demolished back in the 60s but there was a petition and they ended up enhancing it rather than knocking it down. All credit to them because it’s a wonderful structure. Unfortunatley we didn’t have time to admire its contents though. 

The rain had now started to come down heavily but there was one thing missing from our San Fran trip, a trip on a cable car. We popped down to a place near the pier called Ghiradelli Square. It’s pretty much a tourist shopping district; overpriced markets and coffee but there’s a cable car station there and it was cool to look around. Unfortunatley the rain saw to it that the cable cars weren’t running, but it was still a nice place to walk around, even if it was wet. Would be a nice place to go for a meal and drinks in the evening too we thought, but you’d need to remortgage your house to do so. 

Just before we shot off to our next destination we paid a trip to the Castro District. This area has a rich history and is like a gay mecca. It was home to Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist in the 70s who Sean Penn played in the brilliant portrayal of his life in the film, Milk. Like the Italian District had red, white and green badged everywhere, the Castro District had the classic rainbow flag draped from every object you could hang a flag from. Again, we didn’t have time to hang about too long and I’m sure you wouldn’t get the full flavour for the place unless you had a few beers there on a Friday evening, but it looked wicked and it’s good to see the place being idolised by straight and gay folk alike. 

This sort of art was all about the District

Rather sadly we then had to leave San Fran and make our way over to Yosemite (not that we were sad about going to Yosemite, just sad to leave San Fran) as we needed our country fix after spending so many days in the city. 

Through the Golden Gate

What an actioned packed few days in and around the San Francisco area, starting with Silicon Valley. 

Silicon Valley, where companies such as Uber, Facebook, Google and Apple all call home. A ‘valley’ which is home to more than 4 million residents. Put that into perspective; it’s virtually the population of Scotland. The traffic is horrendous and given it’s the technology hub of the world, you wouldn’t be stupid to think that it could do with racking some of the big brains that work there to make the place look, from the outside, a bit more ‘techie’. I’ve seen more advanced looking buildings in Salford. The place is just a huge, massive, ginormous industrial estate. Very plain and boring bricks, mortar and tarmac. Maybe it was just me that was expecting to see things of the future there: people travelling about on segweys, tall mirrored glass buildings with art-deco artictural designs created on 3D printers, offices with water slides coiling around the building, robots hovering about carrying luggage and providing valet services, leafy breakout areas where employees of the world’s dominant companies eat their lunch of California roll sushi. 

Outside The Google Store

We fought our way through the traffic and headed over to Google HQ – just finding the HQ is a task as they have over 40 buildings – thank god for Google Maps hey! You can’t actually go in the offices but you can go into the ‘gift shop’ where you can purchase pretty much anything you can think of but with ‘Google’ decorated all over it. One thing you can’t buy there though is a Google phone, which I found a bit ironic. Also, just to demonstrate the point made in the previous paragraph, the only toilets which you can use at Google are some rough port-a-loos which they’ve parked outside the building. 

Disappointedly (I was anyway, Mill wasn’t too bothered), we joined the line of traffic out of the valley and made the trip across the water to Oakland. This part of the world has some stunning bridges and the one connecting Palo Alto and Newark is just one of them. The water was so peaceful, it looked like a vast mirror. 

Oakland was quite less scenic. Apparently the area has made some significant improvements over the recent years as the overspill of people from San Francisco (which lies on the west side of The Bay) has increased the appeal of the place and brought swarms of younger, hipper people who can’t afford to live in San Fran. The place we stayed however was, for want of a better word, a shithole. The motel was just off the freeway, which was convenient, but it was heavily fortified and in an area which you could tell had some deprivation issues. The motel manager was rude, the room stunk of curry and there was a relentless humming which made the floor vibrate. Not to be prudes we didn’t complain and as we only had an evening in the place, it’s something we had to be prepared to put up with. 

We stayed in the area because we had booked to watch some basketball at the nearby Oracle Arena. We were watching The Golden State Warriors Vs the Sacramento Kings. The Oracle Arena is only a temporary home to the reigning NBA West League Champions as they have a new place being built in San Francisco and directly next door to The Arena is The Colosseum, home to the Oakland Raiders baseball team. 

I know virtually nothing about basketball but it turns out that is slightly more than Milly, but we did manage to muddle our way through the evening by either conjuring up rules as we went or by asking our neighbouring spectators. What I do know is that Golden State won quite convincingly and my best player was Klay Thompson. It was good fun because aside from the game, they make it a really fun event. Cash prizes, clothing giveaways, big screen camera shots of the fans, a DJ set and cheerleaders all play their part in entertaining an energetic crowd. It’s not a cheap affair, going to a game, $70 each for the cheap tickets and $40 for parking (we jumped an Uber) make it a rich mans sport to watch but for a one off it’s a must-do, especially when you’re watching top of the league play!

Morning came and as no brekky was on offer from the pootel, we joined the stack of traffic which was migrating across the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. Yet another stunning piece of architecture and civil engineering have created this 5 miles long bridge linking the two cities. The span of water which separates the two is home to a man made island called Treasure Island. It was build using trash and was home to a military base during the civil war. The island now contains a few villages and acts as a joint in the aforementioned bridge. 

We’d got wind that in Downtown San Fran a skyscraper which was under construction had come under some issues the previous evening, a strut supporting a concrete pump and crane about 50 odd floors up had failed and caused part of a retaining wall to lean. The authorities had cloaked off half the city in response to this, but luckily by the time we’d arrived it was back open. You could however see the crooked structure from the exit ramp of the freeway and it didn’t look in the best of shape! We successfully navigated our way around it though and headed over to Fisherman’s Wharf where our hostel for the next 3 nights was situated. 

Fort Mason

The hostel was a bit bizarre. It’s on an old military camp called Fort Mason. It’s a large hostel, possibly housing 100 people at a time. It’s in a great location 2/3 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and 1/2 miles from a host of other entertainment on the Pier. There’s a real eclectic mix of people in the hostel too. It’s not just young backpackers as you tend to get in hostels- certainly what you’d expect in San Fran – there’s families and older people here too. One guy who we made the acquaintance of during our stay was Scott. Scott was a unique character; wearing a foot protective boot because of an injury sustained whilst out dancing, he’s in the hostel for the foreseeable future due to a severe leak in his apartment. He was in our room for a couple of nights, but he doesn’t tend to sleep much as he stays he’s up all night working for one of his two jobs. One job is a store attendant at Macy’s and the other is in Corporate Finance. 

As soon as we’d chucked our bags onto our bunks we were off to explore this beautiful city. We set about walking down the coastline towards the Golden Gate Bridge and over it to a couple of lookout points on its Sausalito side. Before heading over The Bridge, we wandered to Fort Point which is an old fort which lives under The Bridge’s southern arch. The entire area is littered with forts, batteries, military lookout points and air fields because during the civil war the Unionists fortified the place, concluding it a strategically important site. 

We then headed over the giant red structure to the distant northern shore, stopping many times on route to gain sights of the City’s skyline. Wonderful stuff. Finally making it to the far side we took the opportunity to take yet more photos and walked up to Battery Spencer, another old military lookout point with some amazing views. Its crazy the amount of gun turrets which surround the bay – obviously the cannons aren’t there anymore but it must have been a formidable area back in the day. 

With the sun going down and our legs getting tired we headed back to Fort Mason to chill out for the evening. 

So we’d walked about 15km and were understandably pooped, so a good night’s sleep was very much needed. Unfortunately one of the other guests saw to it that this was not going to happen. She waddled into the dorm about 11pm, just as Milly and I were nodding off, totally out of breath and wheezing. The room wasn’t up any stairs or owt – she was just utterly unfit and she plonked herself down in the bunk next to ours. Well, it got to 2am and Milly had had enough – it was like trying to sleep next to a train station. We ended up leaving the dorm and ‘sleeping’ on the floor of the common room next door. 

Very sleepily we dragged ourselves over for breakfast early doors because we’d booked to take a trip across the water to Alcatraz. You’ve probably heard of Alcatraz or The Rock. It’s an island about a mile off the pier and on it is housed a derelict prison. The prison was notorious for housing Al Capone and Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud and also for having a number of convicts try and attempt escape from it. It was open from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. It ended up shutting because the salt water which surrounded it, twinned with the strong sea winds, corroded it at an exponential rate and the State couldn’t afford to maintain it. Ironically the rain and wind were hammering the place whilst we were there. It actually added to the theatre though. 

Before it became a prison it was a military prison (another military compound) then they turned it into a regular prison when there became less need for it to be a military prison. Following its closure a group of Native American’s squatted in it for nearly 2 years as a campaign against the persecution against their ancestors.

We learned all the information because after docking on the historic island we marched up to one of the old staff chambers and watched a cool movie performance which cronicalled The Rock’s history.

Following the film we mosied up to the cell house and took an audio tour around the entire prison. The audio tour was great although it over glamourised it massively. Some of the stories which it detailed have probably had similar situations happen at Strangeways but as this was at a place in the middle of the Bay and has been given a far more sinister narrative it obviously makes it more appealing to the tourist. 

There was an ex-con who was doing a book signing whilst we were there, it must be a mad feeling to see the old canteen being turned into a gift shop. 

We got back to the hostel after throwing back some lunch on Pier 39 (basically a large tourist market place with restaurants galore) and thankfully they changed our room for us so we didn’t have to suffer Darth Vader’s snoring for another night. By this time we were dead on our feet after not sleeping the previous evening so we decided to grab 40 winks before having a night out. 

Following an earlier blog post, a family friend, who I’ve not spoken to in years, got in touch to see if we were intending to make it to San Fran – we got in touch and arranged to meet up with him and his wife for an evening. Introducing Russell and Mor Wickens. They’ve just moved here a few months ago from Tel Aviv and it was brilliant to spend time with them during our short stay. We grabbed a couple of beers at the hostel cafe then headed Downtown and met a group of their friends for even more beers. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening but certainly didn’t enjoy the sore heads in the morning. 

Cali Coastline: Pismo Beach, Monterey, Carmel & The Big Sur

Happy Birthday to Milly! Feb 14th: coincidentally, the birth date of my beloved and St Valentines’ Day. Suffice to say that she didn’t get anything to open though, but she did get some of the most wonderful views on the whole trip. A glorious sunrise and an equally immense sunset. 

We start the day in Pismo Beach. We got to the motel quite late the previous evening so there was no exploring to be done then, apart from a brief walk to the local 7eleven for some grub. But we got up super early, like 5:30am super early, and took a two minute drive down to the shore to welcome in the Sun.

Not one for being mushy but it was fucking beautiful. There was a decent sized pier which a few of the locals were fishing off so we took a stroll along it and watched the early morning surfers more or less risk their lives in the rough surf until the current bun had shown its face. The pictures speak for themselves I think. Can’t think if we’ve watched the sunrise on the trip yet – probably not because Milly likes her sleep and I dare not disturb it – but we will be making the effort to do it again!

From there we headed back to the motel for our complimentery breakfast, which was this make-it-yourself waffle machine mix and iron, which was amazing (although I think I was more excited by the making process rather than the food itself). Milly was not happy with the sexist Motel Manager though; he insinuated (in jest) that I was bringing an animal to the motel with me and that it was Milly’s duty make me a coffee in the morning (he clearly hasn’t tasted Milly’s coffee has he?). 

Sick ass waffle machine. Gonna buy one back home

Pismo Beach has like a huge, deep stretch of beach (i’m going to say it’s like a mile deep), which you drive quads and buggies on. We found our way to a rental centre a few miles down the road to enquire about renting a tandem buggy so Mill could have a birthday treat. Unfortunately they had to cross a creek to get to the part of the beach where you can drive over the dunes and due to the recent rain they’ve had on the Central Coast, the creek was too big to ford, so we couldn’t have a go 😦 Significantly cheaper however was the ability to drive your own 4×4 on the beach before the creek and given we have a massive SUV with multiple 4×4 settings we thought it good to give it a go. 

Mill hasn’t been able drive in The States because she lost her driving licence in Thailand so she was super happy when I gave up the reigns and let her have a drive of The Beast on the beach. She was limited to a mile long stretch and 15mph, but she seems happy enough with that which was nice. 

After all the driving excitement we needed to calm down so we headed to The Cracked Crab, a wonderful crab restaurant in the centre of Pismo which was advised to us by The Botanical Gardens Manager back in Santa Barbara. The food was lovely (crab cake stack) and the service was loud and smiley, but it was a tad expensive for what you got; not as plentiful as I’ve come to expect from a US eatery! 

We then went for a walk around some of the local shops and purchased some sweets, salt water taffey, for the journey. There was a guy in the sweet shop who kept on pronouncing the work caramel as coromel  which was confusing but we managed to order some moreish chocolate and coconut haystack. We devoured our sugar laden goods at the local park called The Dinosaur Caves, which had some fun looking equipment and a very impressive coastline and view over the ocean. 

On the road again as we now had a good 2.5 hour drive north up to Monterey. Rather guttingly the coastal highway (Highway 1) which is supposed to be an amazing drive, with some of the best views in America, was closed a couple of miles north of Pismo Beach, due to mudslides. The road which we did take, the 101, was still quite scenic and we made good time getting to Monterey. 

I think you need a bit of money to live in Monterey as it was plush as polish. It’s a place with a great number of amazing views and scenic reserves, some of which I’ll tell you about. Firstly, we made it to the motel after a few wrong turns here and there (my co-pilot had gone on strike). It was a quaint motel in some lovely wooded area and the motel manager was nice and overly helpful – although I did note that they didn’t have a waffle iron like the place in Pismo Beach. 

We headed down to one of the local landmarks, 17 Mile Drive, which is a 17 Mile Drive along the coast and has a number of stop off points along the way where you can take photos, picnic stare at the amazing views across the Pacific abyss or admire the mansions belonging to the rich (and possibly famous) which sit a bit further back off the coast. After a few miles we pulled over and ate some dinner (meatballs and pasta salad) al fresco style and listened to the sea crash against the rocks. 

A bit further down are a couple of view points called Bird Rock and Seal Rock. Bird Rock because there’s flocks of gulls which call it home and Seal Rock because families of seals inhabit it, although to be honest it looked like the birds had overtaken the Seal one too. The place as a whole, the area covering 17 Mile Drive is a sort of privately owned estate which is owned and maintained by a company called Pebble Beach Company, a company owned by Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer. 

We followed the windy but awesome road around the cliffs and beaches and took in the sights of Ghost Tree (a old white tree) and Lone Cyprus (a sole Cyprus tree which juts out on a plinth of rock overlooking the ocean) and once we’d had our fill of Pacific Ocean coastal views we headed back to the motel to make our plans for forthcoming days. 

As I mentioned earlier, the drive up north along the coastal highway of Highway 1 from Pismo Beach to Monterey had been shut off due to mudslides. This was annoying because there are a number of national parks and monuments along the coast road, one of them being Big Sur. You could however get to it by traveling south down the coast road from Monterey. 

We set off after a satisfactory breakfast at the motel and headed down the quite stunning coast road, stopping off here and there to take in the views. Just past Carmel, which is the town after Monterey and one we visited on our way back up the coast, are a couple of magnificent bridges which straddle creeks in between the cliff faces. We managed to see a condor whilst we had pulled over – a huge black bird with a yellow bill which are common to the area. 

Further down the road we got to the Big Sur National Park where the warden told us the bad news that the entire area was more or less on lockdown and a no-go area. Rubbish! We still made the most of what we got to see and pulled over to get some more fantastic shots of the coast line. We even managed to see some whales off-shore playing about in the Pacific sunshine – this we were very giddy about and Milly almost brought on a bout of early incontinence in her excitement. 

Fearing the whales had now moved on, we too moved on, further north into the lavish town of Carmel. Apparently Clint Eastwood is like the mayor of the town or something and resides there. He also owns half of the place and a fancy ranch there which we pulled in at – it wasn’t that special in all honesty. We tried knocking on for him but alas he wasn’t able to play out. The small town itself is very upmarket; Milly was oogleing all the properties and I had to bring her back down to earth, reminding her that we live in a small terrace in rainy Marple.

A brief vid around Carmel

After grabbing a bite in Carmel, we jumped into The Beast (me driving this time) and said goodbye to the picturesque coast which had been our home for the past couple of days and headed up-state to Silicon Valley – home to some of the world’s biggest companies.

I luuurvvveee LA

So the plan was to leave LA on Saturday 11th to start the 400 or so mile drive up to San Francisco, however we just hadn’t done enough in LA so we persuaded each other another night we needed. 

We headed to Charlie and Tia’s local diner for a typical American breakfast (think eggs, pancakes and shit loads of coffee) and took some of their advice to check out the nearby ‘town’ (It’s a town but nearly as big as a city in the UK) of Pasadena. 

Pasadena is a lovely place – very vibrant and welcoming with a host of cool thrift and vintage shops to boot. We had a ponder around and did some window shopping. We also bought some frozen yogurt which was devine. The shop which you got it from was cool, you just poured your own Mr Whippy! Something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid. 

We came to a junction crossing and there was some well weird guy playing a flute whilst his car was stopped at the lights. I, rather stupidly, didn’t get a video, but he was proper going for it, head bobbing and shit. Had everyone who was waiting to cross in stitches. 

After we’d seen most of Pasadena we headed to downtown LA to take a look around and also to hopefully get into a modern art museum called The Broad. We got there and the despite it not shutting until 8pm, they wouldn’t let us join the queue at 6pm because the queues were so long. The guy told us to come back at 9am in the morning (even though it doesn’t open until 10am) because it’s that popular. Some people even waited 3 hours in line to get in! 

Rather disappointed, we took a stroll about and saw some of the downtown sights. The skyline was impressive and given it’s winter the temperature wasn’t too bad either at 16 degrees. We saw some impressive architecture – City Hall, The Walt Disney Concert Hall, Wells Fargo’s offices and The Broad building itself which is rather cool. 

We rather stupidly hadn’t sorted out any accommodation for the evening so we found the cheapest/most convenient place online and headed over to check it out. After taking a number of wrong directions (the freeways (motorways) and highways (A roads) can be difficult to navigate sometimes) we found the place, but it was rather scarily was slap bang in the middle of South Central LA – not the most secure of areas shall we say; about a mile away from Compton. Que Charlie to save us and offer us his (and Tia’s) place for the evening for a second night on the bounce! We got there after polishing off some very yummy sushi (Yakuza Sushi if you’re ever in town) and were introduced to their lovely friends Melanie and John, which was very helpful because Melanie was from Santa Barbara so gave us some tips about our next destination. 

Before we hit the road to Santa Barbara we decided to give The Broad another go, so we made the short journey Downtown to join the queue of people outside the bizarre but eye catching building where the art exhibits are housed. The building is designed on a sort of mesh, a bit like the bandages cyclists put over road rash – although I’m sure they didn’t have this in mind when they constructed it. The pavements nearby also have some funky bushes bursting out of them. 

We eventually made it in after a good hour of waiting in line and took a look around the critically acclaimed gallery. I have to admit that some modern art is lost on me. There were literally pictures of scribble. Can anyone explain the concept? Is it because the guys that created them were complex characters who smash back LSD like it’s going out of fashion and people believe this is them ‘expressing’ themselves? If so then fine, but as I didn’t know most of the artists I just thought some of it was shit. I mean, there was a gold plated urinal – that isn’t art mate. There was, however, a pretty clever infinity room exhibit which I’ve posted a vid of below. I’ve also posted a few of the other items which we saw:

Bit of Andy Warhol for ya

After being culture vultures for the morning we decided we’d now overstayed our welcome in LA and it was time to make tracks up the coast towards San Francisco, our first stop being Santa Barbara. 

Enroute we pulled over to check out a retail outlet and purchase Milly a birthday present, in Camarillo. It was like Cheshire Oaks on ‘roids: twice as big with much better shops and none of the stuff is seconds.

We eventually made it to Santa Barbara just before sunset and found our first ever motel. Despite motels seeming to be a tad seedy or insecure (which is undoubtably derived from many films which they feature in) this one was lovely. Clean, pleasant and the staff were lovely. We didn’t hang about there for too long as we wanted to see what eye pleasures there were before dark set in. Santa Barbara is a very, very nice area – god knows how much the house prices are but I would expect the average price to be at least in the seven figures. We danced up in the late afternoon sunshine to a local landmark – The Mission – which is an 18th century monastery which I believe did a whole world of good for the region during the civil war. You can go for a tour of the place but we only had about 24 hours in the area so decided against lining the pockets of the good monks. We noticed on the way back to the motel that Santa Barbara must be a heavily religious area as every block or two there is some synagogue, mosque, hall of Jehovas or church. We Googled it and there are 51 places of religious worship in the area which is a bit overkill considering the area is probably just as big as Altrinham. 

It grew darker so we returned to the motel via a 7eleven for some tea. 

The morning rose from the east and we arose from our motel bedroom and set about the day by first of all going for breakfast on the beach. We grabbed a pastry and headed to Stearns Wharf – a large pier protruding from a beautiful 35 metre deep golden sand beach. On the pier was a host of restaurants and a sea life museum. The latter we had a look around and touched some of the sea cucumbers, sea slugs, puffer sharks and star fish. The pier was also home to a flock of pelicans and the odd seal or two.  

A formation of pelicans

We wandered about the delightful little town and nipped into a record shop to grab some CDs for the journey. We really fancied some California type tune. Maybe some Dr Dre, 2pac, The Eagles or possibly some Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but alas they had none on CD so we left with the best we could find, Ludacris. After record shopping, Milly gained a craving for some fish and chips so we meandered back to the pier and went to the Moby Dick restaurant to get some. 

Post beach and pier we ventured over to The Botanical Gardens a little north of the town. The bloke at the gate mentioned there were some lovely views of the town and coast and we were delighted to see them. The gardens were made up of indigenous flora to California which is unusual because when the Europeans came over in the 1700s they infected the region with their own plants and flowers which reduced the indigenious plants significantly. We had an enjoyable stroll about and then took countless snaps of the landscape to conclude our time in Santa Barbara nicely. 

Back on the road north again over to Pismo Beach, but not before stopping a number of times to take in the wonderful California landscapes. This place can seriously give New Zealand a run for its money and that says something!