Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The long-awaited catch up blog: Fiji and California/Nevada/Arizona

Well, I'm writing this from my bed in a fantastic hostel in Seattle, having been recently reunited with my laptop. It has, obviously, been hideously long since my last entry. It's all for a good reason though and I've actually been trying the last 3 nights to write this entry here in Seattle. However, I've been roomed with an up and coming film director who insists on calling me Gigi, (Lulu Fries'dat - check out her film on voting participation in the USA - and a woman who grew up in a house 2 doors away from me yet who I've never met before. So basically, with such interesting people around, I've slowed down on the blog front for a brief period so as to not miss a beat on my travel adventures.

Ok, so I'm blatantly making excuses and haven't written for the obvious reason that Barney was here and we were tearing round everywhere at great speed and in general spending some time together, given we hadn't for 9 weeks. Now that I have my faithful laptop with me though, and wireless seems to be readily available everywhere in North America, I'll be much better on updating. Promise!

Anyway, I should do a catch up on things since I left New Zealand. I went to Fiji. And left Fiji. After 2 days. The weather on my arrival was shocking, and with no sign of improvement for the next few days, I decided to cut my trip short and got my flight to LA rescheduled a couple of days earlier. Sod's law, the next day things brightened up and I had a fair amount of time chilling by the pool with a book. However I couldn't count on the weather staying nice enough for me to book my trip off to the islands without risking wasting my money. Anyway, in the end I was quite happy with my decision to get away a couple of days earlier than planned as it gave me a while to get used to the time difference and nurse the wounds that COVERED my legs and feet after getting bitten alive by bugs in my short time in Nadi.

My flight to LA was fine and I was sat next to a Canadian guy and his wife who gave me some tips on Vancouver and Las Vegas, yet maintained the tricky balance of not being annoying and talking too much during the 11 hour flight. And on going through US security the hardest question I had was "So why did you want to study law?". The officer may have just been making conversation, or it could have been part of their interrogation process. Either way, despite having answered the same question about a hundred times on application forms last summer, I came up with the incredibly articulate response of "um, er... I don't know really". Nevertheless, they let me through with nothing more than a friendly smile and advice not to talk to strangers or drink the water - funny man.

In the couple of days on my own in a beautiful hostel in Santa Monica, I didn't do much other than drool at the windows of Abercrombia & Fitch on the promenade there. I did meet a couple of nice girls in my room though - one Aussie and one Columbian. We had a nice evening together lambasting the huge size of American fast food portions after feeling sick after a regular sized McDonalds.

Anyway, Barney arrived on the Saturday and after 9 weeks of not seeing him, I was obviously pretty damn excited waiting in the arrivals lounge of LAX. His flight was a bit late and after getting stroppy with the hordes of limo drivers who kept blocking my view of the passenger exit, Barney eventually arrived, albeit a bit late. We went and picked up the car in anticipation of our Californian roadtrip, and were pretty pleased with our lot. We had a silver-coloured convertible (oh yeah!) Chrysler Sebring, and aside from being a beast in size and not that powerful, it did the job beautifully for our poser needs. We then headed off to our hotel (the Hilton, you know how it is...) and were pretty pleased with our lot there too. Having shared a room with up to 7 other people and having to manoeuvre corridors in the dark with a torch to find the bathroom, a whole room for just me and Barney (and with it's OWN bathroom!) was a novelty that didn't wear off pretty much for the whole 2 weeks!

LA wasn't at all how I imagined it. For one thing it's so spread out and just in general so huge that you can't cover everything and have to be quite selective in what you see. On our first day we went for a drive to Beverley Hills and stared at the expensive shops on Rodeo Drive and people with their dogs (THE accessory in LA  as far as I could tell). Then we chilled out in Santa Monica for the afternoon/evening. Having both had pretty long flights within the last 48 hours we weren't game for hardcore 'squeeze absolutely everything in' sightseeing, which was actually quite nice. The next day however we hit Universal Studios as a compromise on my wanting to go to Disneyland and Barney being too cool for it. It was actually quite good fun - highlights included the Studio tour (driving down Wisteria Lane!!), the horror house (I screamed at everything), and the brand new Simpsons ride (don't mention it to Barney though). 

On our last day, before schlepping to Las Vegas, we spent the morning tracking down the Griffith Observatory which is apparently the best place to see the Hollywood sign. Signs with directions off the freeways are shocking though and it took us quite a while to get there. I'd like to say it was worth it, and I suppose I would have been gutted if we'd missed it, but honestly it's just SO small! Obviously we had to get a few pictures with it though...! We then did some shopping and Barney bought himself a flash new SLR camera which he was quite pleased with.

The drive to Vegas seemed to take ages, and I hadn't got the guts to get behind the wheel yet so for Barney who was doing all the driving, it must have seemed even longer. I do love driving (especially when a convertible's involved) but American driving is so different from the UK. Aside from the ridiculous things like 4-way stops (put a roundabout in silly people!), there are also rules like you're allowed to turn right on a red light, and there are no rules about lanes or undertaking on the freeways - mental. Still I eventually got used to it and it actually turns out to be quite a good system (except the 4-ways - they're still weird).

Anyway, we got to Vegas quite late and it being my first time there (Barney went a few years ago) we drove down the strip to get the 'Vegas at night' vibe. It was fantastic! I was worried I'd find it tacky or too garish, but not at all - I loved it! And our hotel for the first night wasn't bad either. The Sahara is quite a way north on the strip but was an absolute bargain and was perfect for what we needed considering how late we got there and how early we needed to leave the next day.

The next day we were off to the Grand Canyon, which was going to be another 5-6 hour journey. However this time we split the driving and what with stopping at a few vista points and in general playing stupid car games, we had a really fun drive. The scenery is of course stunning as well which helps big time. For the last few days we'd been worrying about what we were going to do about accommodation as the ones actually in the park are quite limited in numbers. However we'd got lucky with what must have been a cancellation and had booked a nice lodge in the Grand Canyon Village itself a couple of nights before. We arrived with enough time to go for a mini stroll and position ourselves for the sunset. I can't emphasise enough how beautiful it was. At first we'd tried to find a secluded spot of just us and our bottle of wine but soon realised everyone else had the same idea. It was quite a nice atmosphere though, all watching the sun go down perched on rocks along the rim of the Canyon, and we got some stunning photos. Definitely one of my travelling highlights so far.

The next day we made an early start and did a couple of miles stroll around the rim, again with amazing views. We then set off quite early after that and made our way back to Vegas via Lake Mead where we had lunch by the waterfront and Barney had a good time harassing the fish. For our proper break in Vegas (the night in the Sahara was just to break up the schlep to the Grand Canyon really), we were living it up a bit and staying in the MGM Grand. I wish we'd taken a picture of our room before we trashed it - it was so Vegas! I won't go through every detail but the main "how cool is this?!" features were a phone in the toilet and a TV in the bathroom mirror - I kid you not.

That night we had one of the best meals either of us have had at the top of the Stratosphere, where the restaurant revolves as you dine so you get to see all over Las Vegas. We had a fantastic table staring straight ahead to the view and the food was brilliant to boot - another highlight without a doubt.

The next day we took some well earned chill-out time after so much driving, and following a mammoth lie in we spent a few hours chilling by the pool with beverages, books and enormous hot dogs. For our evening entertainment, Barney had got us tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show on at our hotel - KÀ. It was AMAZING. I'd seen Cirque du Soleil at the Albert Hall in January before I left and it was obviously pretty good, but this show was phenomenal. The stunts they do and the visual effects have you entranced the whole time and with the MGM's purpose built theatre for it, with speakers in the headrests and special structures/stages, the show really comes to life.

After the show we then strolled down the strip, both of us getting snap-happy with the pretty lights, and stopped for a while outside the Bellagio hotel for their fantastic fountain display. It runs every 10 minutes or so and alternates between songs and corresponding performances but is consistently beautiful. Definitely something to entrance you for too long if you're not careful! After that we had a quick meal back at the hotel and then proceeded to lose money on the slot machines as both of us were too chicken to play with the big boys on the tables. Safe to say, gambling is not my thing!

We again set off quite early and after stopping at the Flamingo and Koval junction to get some photos of where Tupac was shot for Barney's housemate Osman (yes - really), we set off for the Joshua Tree National Park. We'd been torn between going there or driving through Death Valley en route to Santa Barbara (which is back towards the coast, about an hour north of LA), but decided on the Joshua Tree as it made for a better stopover. We were glad we did as we stayed in a beautiful little motel (where U2 stayed once apparently) and the night we arrived, quite by chance there was a stargazing party being held by the local astronomy club in the park itself. It was quite stunning and after some lessons with a laser pen, I feel quite confident I could point out most of the signs of the zodiac in the night sky... maybe. 

The next day we also did one of the nature trails through the park and were able to truly appreciate the weirdness of the trees - they really do look like something out of a Dr Zeuss book. Anyway, we set off back to LA and I had my first experience of LA freeway driving of which I'm now an expert (Barney: "can you please try to keep over to the left!!!").

We got to our motel in Santa Barbara which yet again was something a bit out of the ordinary and we had a very weird but very cool room. The town itself was lovely and one of the few places either of us could actually picture living in. It sits on a gorgeous beach with a lovely main street full of lovely Mediterranean-style architecture. The courthouse was the centrepiece of this style and was absolutely beautiful (see facebook photos!).

The next day we drove up the coast to Monterey (quite a schlep) via the famous Highway 1, which is one of the best scenic drives in the US. It curves around the coastline with stunning views and a seal colony en route. However it did take forever given that you can't speed around tight, winding, coastal roads. We eventually got there though and yet again had wangled ourselves quite a nice motel with a pool and a jacuzzi. We browsed around town and after Barney made friends with some twattish locals by almost running them over (they were asking for it I swear), we milled around and absorbed the seaside, fish-themed tourist tat on display. We then headed over to Carmel (where lots of famous people live) and strolled along the beach whilst the sun was still out. Then we drove down the (semi)famous 17-mile drive to Pebble beach, which winds around exclusive mansions and lots of trees and vistas over the coast.

We'd decided to do some horse-riding and signed up for a trek with the local Equestrian centre. Despite both being wusses and grabbing for the helmets after seeing the sizes of the horses we'd been paired with, we had a brilliant time and both really enjoyed it. I was on a (female) horse called Giorgio (stupid name) and Barney was on a very amusing horse called Hope, who would stop every few minutes to have a chomp on a nearby patch of grass. Anyway, definitely something I'll be doing again on my travels. That night we had a lovely meal on the pier in Monterey and followed it with a few mojitos at a jazz bar. The band were really good and I can't help but think that places like that in America just wipe the floor with our equivalents.

The next morning was the last major piece of driving we'd be doing, as we were heading up to San Francisco. However, before we could do that, Barney wanted to stop at the Monterey Bay Sky Diving centre... I know. What a copycat. However he claims he wanted to do it way before I did it... whatever.

The guys he did it with were really good actually, and despite my belief that it would be nowhere near as professional as the operations they have in New Zealand (given it's pretty much the adventure capital of the world!), they were actually really good. We had to hang around quite a bit, waiting for the other people in his group to turn up but it was totally worth it. He had amazing weather and a really good tandem guy and camera-woman. He even got to do some fancy spins! The film (as much as it kills me to say it) was way better than mine as well, as firstly you only have you on it, not the other people on your plane as well. And secondly, more impressive still, he got to pick his own music for both the build-up AND the freefall. Pretty cool I thought. Anyway, he had an awesome time and despite getting a bit sick from the bus ride back from the airfield afterwards, definitely enjoyed himself.

We then headed (slowly and with sick-bags at the ready) up the last stretch of highway to San Francisco. I've always wanted to visit the city but being the beginning of the end of our holiday together, it did have a bittersweet tinge to it as we drove into town. We did (yet again) have a lovely little motel, situated on Lombard Street in the Marina area. It had sweet little courtyards and even garages to park the car in and so we were suitably impressed. That night, (because I'm a cruel, cruel girlfriend), we went to see Sex & the City: The Movie. I have to say, despite obviously loving the film (will refrain from airing my few issues with the storyline so as to not spoil it for anyone), my first American cinema experience was very enjoyable! They do this very sweet thing of wooping at appropriate moments and some even clapped at the end - made me smile anyway.

The next day we went across to Alcatraz and wandered round. There was a fantastic audio tour with real-life inmates/guards narrating your time there, complete with appropriate 'clunking cell-door' noises as you went round. It was beautiful weather as well and the view across to the city was pretty good too. The next day, being our last, we took it easy and went to the Golden Gate Bridge, did a bit of shopping in Union Square, and then went home mid-afternoon to pack - boo. We'd changed motels at this point as rooms in San Francisco, though pretty hideously priced during the week, are astronomical at the weekend and we'd managed to bag a suite at a little B&B down the road from our other motel. The room was beautiful, with an oriental theme and jacuzzi - definitely a good way to end the holiday!

Anyway, that evening we had a lovely Italian meal in the local neighbourhood and said our goodbyes to San Francisco. The next morning we got to the airport ridiculously early as we're both paranoid about these things, and flitted between the domestic and international terminals, checking ourselves in. Won't go into details but obviously, having travelled as a couple for 2 weeks and with the prospect of going back to being a lone traveller, saying goodbye royally sucked. 

Anyway, I got my flight to Seattle, Barney his to London and we both got to our respective destinations ok. I'll leave it there as this is a substantially large entry that I'm sure most people haven't even followed through this far (apologies for the inane detail if you have made it all the way down). Anyway, will post again soon after my adventures in Seattle and Canada! Only just over 3 weeks until I come home - aaah!

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