Thursday, 21 October 2010

Viva Las Vegas Baby!

So heading to the bright lights through the desert is an interesting place to be. We stopped for "gas" on the way in, which we later realised was where "The Hangover" chaps stopped too.

I (Katy) was driving, so hitting Vegas was an eye opener indeed, as we’ve had the roads to ourselves for 100’s of miles and all of a sudden I’m on a 5-lane freeway with people coming at me from everywhere.
Most people are tourists in hire cars reading maps or looking at the buildings and only occasionally looking at the road, or they are chauffeurs from the big casinos. So thankfully for the GPS, we found our hotel, the Station Palace.

We walked through the lobby with our bags to check in, positively chilly after swapping the sweltering heat outside for the air conditioned casino and passing hundreds of slot machines with twinkly lights and pingy pongee noises, with the odd person slumped over feeding them with quarters with no winning going on from what we could see. Once we booked in we headed up to our room, which was massive with A/C and a view of the “strip”. We moved in, checked out the gym and the pool for later. We then went to walk to the strip, but after asking the concierge where to go he informed us that, “nobody walk to the strip”, mainly as there are no sidewalks from our hotel. Thankfully there was a courtesy bus.
Dropped off at one end of the strip we we’re taken aback by the heat, so hot and for those of you who have never been to Vegas it is impossible to walk in a straight line without being filtered through casinos after casino, which thankfully all have excellent A/C and some great people watching.

Now when in Vegas you have to take in a show and looking through our handy booklet that was in our room in the hotel we saw that the legend who is Mr Tom Jones was playing at the MGM Grand,
so we zig zagged our way to the other end of the strip to see if we could get tickets for the following night, as he was only playing for one week, thankfully they had tickets for us, so blowing our budget we bought 2 tickets, and with smiles on our faces we headed back down the strip taking in the Bellagio fountains, (just like in Oceans 11) the New York, New York roller Coaster and all the lights. At this end of the strip there are also many people asking if we wanted “ladies, ladies, ladies?!” “No, we’re good thank you”. We stopped at a great place, Serendipity (which is part of Caesar’s Palace Casino) for the most amazing burger,
great decor and people watching. The waiter also gave us a taster of the house special - frozen hot chocolate… delicious. Zig Zagging back, we hopped back on our bus, back to our hotel, by this time the casino down stairs was slightly more busy, what we did notice while cruising the casinos’ is that depending on where you go along the strip, you have younger and more attractive waitresses, who are there to entice you to gamble more money, so take the Bellagio, there waitress there are pretty, young and slim, our waitresses in the Station Palace we’re more, how can I put it, “used!” maybe they started on the main strip and ended up out at the Station Palace, and what was worst for them the uniform was mustard & beige and always two sizes too small. Honestly, that’s not going to look good on any one no matter what age you are. A great night’s sleep in a massive bed, which was bigger than Jezza, I got up early and headed for the gym, nice to be inside with A/C and some weights.

I met Tim later in the restaurant for our complimentary breakfast. The restaurant was a buffet style place where you can find anything you want to eat as the casino never sleeps and they cater for everyone’s body clock. I had fruit and cereal, Tim went for the big full breakfast, the man next to us was having a roast dinner, (it was 9am!) I mentioned to Tim as a joke that there was lemon meringue pie, and before I knew it he had gone and got himself a slice for breakfast…..although he didn’t eat it all, all I could hear through the mouthfuls was “I Love Vegas!” happy boy indeed.

Later, we headed back on the bus onto the strip to see all the casinos we had seen or heard about in books and movies, so much fun. We saw the embarrassed people going on the Gondolas in the Venetians while the gondolier sings at them in a shopping mall inside the casino… very loudly.
While being surrounded by a perfect blue sky with fluffy clouds painted on the ceilings. Then we went onto Caesars Palace to have a look, past Treasure Island and a huge boat which has wailing Sirens on the hour, in the evening, as you do! Headed back to the hotel I went and lay by the pool while Tim hit the black jack table, to win big! Although he didn’t win big, he didn’t lose big either, $7 in all, which won’t bankrupt us, well not just yet.

A quick change and back on the bus heading to see Mr Jones, so excited, especially as we had talked about seeing Barry Manilow, which although neither of us are fans, he does put on quite a show apparently, so we go to the MGM Grand, just missing the lions (they had been put away for the night), which was a shame. We went to grab a bite to eat, Tim was very adamant that Tom wouldn’t be on at 7.30pm, there was bound to be a warm up act, but I was nervous so popped over to the venue where people we already going in I asked the man on the door, if there was a warm up act, he replied no Maam, Mr Jones comes on at 7.30pm…….rushing back to where I had left Tim our food had arrived, I managed to get the waiter to bring our bill and put half of my sandwich in a box “to go” we headed over to the show, leaving my sandwich with the doorman (nice chap!) and ventured into to see the legend that is TOM JONES.

When we got into the show it was such a small area, Tom was in touching distance… nearly. We had a lovely Dutch couple next to us who we’re celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, they had had their courtship to Tom Jones music, ah bless. Tom came on and I got goose pimples, what a performer, what a voice…….well worth blowing the budget for the tickets, I tried to take a photo on the sly but unfortunately it didn’t really work, but we have the memories. After the show I picked up my sandwich, and we headed back down the strip, “ladies, ladies ladies?!” “No thank you!” we wandered to the Bellagio just in time for the musical fountains very cool indeed (this time Elvis - Viva Las Vegas).

Heading back for the bus, we took a short-cut through the fashion “mall “ which is huge – someone kindly gent held the door open for us. It was quite late and the mall was strangely deserted. It wasn’t until we we’re in the heart of it that we realized the man who had held the door open was actually leaving for the night and we we’re now trapped inside! Honestly, the security guards would have had such a laugh as we tried all the doors, thankfully after some manic rushing around we found an emergency exit; it opened, we legged it! And just in time for the bus.

Vegas? Check! A bizzarely wonderful place which we thought we would hate but ended up loving it!

On our last morning we raided the breakfast bar, filling our bag full of pastries and fruit to fuel us as we headed to yet another natural wonder of the world, Bryce Canyon.

Suits you Sur!

Leaving Yosemite we we’re excited to be heading to the coast (err, yes, back to the coast)! In true Travelling Marsh’s fashion we headed to Santa Cruz on a whim hoping to find a cheap campsite. Actually, any camp site would have been nice but after searching for somewhere to stay for a couple of hours and having no luck (all being full), we headed into the town-centre to a hostel; very nice but also full, but they did give us the number of a lovely B&B. Getting desperate and definitely tired we took a look. This one was going to blow the budget big time: a proper four- poster bed and the promise of a good breakfast! Our most expensive stop-over of the trip so far.
So after checking in and changing into some warm clothes (it gets chilly on the coast don’t you know?), we headed to the sea front which was only a block away; walked on the beach watching the harbour seals play and grabbed a pizza before heading to the “arcade” (much like Brighton but without the pier) where we watched a couple of very sweaty young men jumping around on the dance-mat game. Comedy gold. We exited along the boardwalk, where – after deciding not to steal Poncherello’s bike (ask your parents) - we found a band playing on a nearby stage…hang on – I recognize that song!
It was the Flock of Seagulls; famous from the early ‘80s but still rocking Santa Cruz. We stayed for a couple of tunes but being desperately tired and with the thought of a very inviting four-poster we headed back to starfish!
I woke up early for a run - one of my favorites so far - the early morning was drizzly and there was a triathlon about to begin in the sea (very jealous), lots of men in wet suits. I ran along the sea front for quite some time, passing a man playing the saxophone to the sea. I got back to the B&B in time for breakfast and it was delicious, lots of fruits for me and meat & egg stuff for Tim. The owners were Mexcian and we had a lovely chat (I think they were pleased that Tim poured on lots of their hot chilli sauce onto his eggs).
We packed our things and left for our Big Sur adventure. This one had been on the map in our lounge in Ruislip as a must (reinforced by many people we’d met along the way), so we were very excited indeed as we started the drive along the winding coastal roads, with the most amazing views of the sea around every corner. With a strict ‘no overnight parking’ policy along the coastal road, we hunted for campsites only to find most of them full again; we found one site with one available space for the bargain price of $55 (west coast = expensive!!).It was nice but not THAT nice! The following morning we got up early and headed along the Big Sur some more towards a State Park site to make sure we had a place for the night, all booked-in we could explore more. Driving along, we passed a car-park with a large number of people walking around; thinking it might be something interesting (and hoping it was free) we turned around to take a look. What we found was huge, noisy and a tad smelly… it was the Elephant Seal beach. Very vocal beasts indeed, but quite magnificent to see.
Up early the next morning I ran through woods that then went onto the beach, brilliant! Back to the van and Tim, we went into Cambria which is the only place we could get internet connection, and breakfast, so all fuelled up on tea and coffee and lovely muffins we went along to, which the lonely planet and Mrs Askew-Miller had highly recommended (thanks Em).
Sunshine had been a bit hit and miss along the coast but today skies were very blue and sun very hot and we were greeted by a magnificent building with the most beautiful pool and d├ęcor, obviously we came away wanting to build our own place when we get back - watch this space on that one!
From here we continued and soon arrived at 17mile drive, which is – unsurprisingly - 17 miles of winding roads that takes you into Pebble Beach Golf Course and into Carmel, (one time home to Clint Eastwood).
Pebble beach golf course was very neat as you might expect, with some difficult looking holes (eg, on top of giant rock formations by the sea). We went up to the club, to have a look around (and use the loo), pretty impressive; we think there was someone very famous there but Tim & I didn’t have a clue who it was as everyone seemed to be dressed the same, ie, lots of pastels and beige.

That was our first taste of West Coast life and very nice it was too. From hereon we started to head back inland again with the general plan of getting Vegas and the canyons beyond. Heading away from our 17 mile drive we got back onto the Big Sur and carried on along to our next site for the night, another KOA campsite, this time arriving very late, in the dark with nowhere for us to actually stay as the site we had booked was down a steep path to a campsite area, there was no where we could Jeremy down there so we ended up camping out in the car park. Being joined by a British family (now resident in Portland, Oregon), who had problems of their own; one of their kids tripped over a rock, hit their head on a water tap and sliced his head open. He was OK after some steri-strips and it provided some welcome entertainment for us.
The following day saw me doing some much needed laundry whilst Tim went hunting for our first major investment for the van – a new tyre. He’d started to wobble quite a lot (the van, not Tim) when we drive along as the heat had got to his winter tyres. Quite some time later (despite being in North America, no one in the tire-stores (sic) spoke English, only Spanish), Tim arrived back with Jezza and a new tyre… $70 out of pocket (ouch) but a much smoother ride.
More straight-road driving: zzzzzz. Another overnight in another KOA but this one had plenty of space for us and a pool, which was much needed as we were now on the edge of the Mojave Desert. With bizzarely good wifi, we booked a hotel in Vegas online for the following nights. I got up early for my hottest run so far, being warned of the rattle snakes and the scorpions I laced up my trainers and went in a straight line for miles and then back again. Hot but fun, a breakfast of free coffee for Tim, then on our way to the bright lights of Vegas…..once again thanking Jezza for AC.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Yosemite National Park

03-06 August 2010

As we were on the west coast, leaving San Francisco what would make more sense than carrying on down the coast? Heading back inland from where we’ve just come obviously. It was this thinking that found us heading the 175 miles to Yosemite National Park.

After the long motorway slog out of San Francisco, city gave way to town and finally to countryside as we started to hit the winding, climbing roads toward the mountains surrounding Yosemite. It was a gorgeously sunny day but not too hot which was a relief as we passed the signs telling us to turn-off our a/c to avoid it boiling over at altitude.

After spending the night in a cheap (but lovely and secluded) campsite on the outskirts we headed into Yosemite itself using our Inter-Park cards which had turned out to be a good investment saving us loads of money in entrance fees. We’ve seen so many beautiful places on our little jaunt that its easy to become jaded but this was yet another truly beautiful place: tall trees, massive mountains, wonderful waterfalls.

Similar to Yellowstone, Yosemite has a main loop road with long stretches of one way roads and other roads linking between. From here you can get to most points of interest and it works pretty well once you know where you’re going. The village centre though always seemed busy and it was here that we stated our search for somewhere to stay. The search didn’t take long; unfortunately this was because we were told straight off that we should’ve booked six months earlier and everywhere inside the park was full (six months earlier we weren’t even sure which continent we’d be in at this stage).

The one campsite that might have space was a forty minute drive up and over a different mountain but as it appeared to be our only ‘choice’ we headed up, only slight hindered by the obligatory road-works along the majority of the route. We eventually trundled up to the campsite entrance to find a ‘Full’ sign at the entrance; however being knowledgeable campers we ploughed on regardless which was a good move because they did have a few spaces but had forgotten to take down the sign. With great relief we picked the most secluded spot we could find (which was not very).

Back into Yosemite, we headed to the village centre. Busy, busy, busy. Got some ideas of where to go and what to do in the short time we had. Grabbed a spot of lunch (horrendously expensive place for our meager budget - I recommend the bowl of chilli for the cost conscious… free bread!). Afterward we walked to the nearby waterfalls. As we checked out the falls, some kid checked out Katy (the camera never lies).

But the camera does deceive… just out of shot there were over a hundred people at the bottom of our waterfall, climbing over rocks or paddling in the water (which was still freezing cold despite the baking hot sun). Too many people for us, so we documented the area and left. Back to the centre, we found an information booth and chatted with a volunteer lady who gave us some good advice / routes for walking; she was in her 70s (guess) but assured us she still did these walks every year so we figured how hard could it be? Her suggested route combined with an early start would mean missing or being shielded from the worst of the midday sun. But as it was by now late afternoon we headed back to camp, stopping off at a viewpoint for El Capitan, a landmark rock-face in Yosemite (I think I’m right in saying it is the home of rock climbing in America). Back at base, Katy cooked one of her legendary chicken risottos, made only slightly more tricky by having to constantly stir over a blisteringly hot and smoking barbeque. But at least we managed to cook and eat before nightfall (its so much more pleasant when you don’t have to eat by torch-light).

Up bright and breezy the next morning, we were at the start of the Glacier Point trail by 7:00am, so had the place almost to ourselves. Fresh breeze but bright blue skies suggesting it was going to be another scorcher. Flip flops off, walking boots on. Pleasant stroll became serious walk as we climbed the side of the mountain but we were rewarded by increasingly magnificent views. Several hundred feet more of vertical climb and we reached the top by mid-morning and joined up with the hordes of sensible people of who chose to arrive by bus.

With a sweltering sun but only a third of the way through we ploughed on (buoyed by the knowledge that the hardest climb was over). Dusty, root covered pathways led downhill to Nymph Falls; a beautiful setting with crystal clear but freezing cold water torrenting through the valley. We ate lunch on a flat rock dangling our feet in an eddy. Some French people arrived, we left. From here on my Achilles heel started to become increasingly painful and the serious walk became a painful hobble back uphill again… for seven miles. The one thing that kept me going was passing other people who I know had further to go than me in the opposite direction.

But we finally made it and caught the bus back to the village. Thirteen miles is quite a walk in its own right but when you include a couple of mountains it seems so much more. I would be asking for sympathy if Katy wasn’t as fresh as a daisy by the end of it (but she was so I’m not). And I kept on thinking to myself that the lady who advised us to do the walk would never have survived this. Would she? Still glad we it though; the views were amazing and I think we saw the best of the valley in the short time we had.

And that was pretty much the end of our time in Yosemite; you could easily stay for weeks discovering its many delights but we were forced to leave due to lack of camping space (ours being commandeered by a ranger). Right, I’m off to have a word with that volunteer…