USA ’17 – Day 9 – Yosemite

So after two thoroughly enjoyable and action packed days in San Francisco we headed off this morning on the next leg of our journey to Yosemite National Park. The drive took us out over the Bay Bridge which was five lanes of fast moving traffic. It was only when half way across that I realised that there wasn’t any traffic coming the other way and that it must be a double decker bridge with the other five lanes above us.

The landscape slowly changed over the four hour drive from the dry hills of San Francisco to something much grander and greener as we approached Yosemite. The problem with a driving holiday is that someone has to be behind the wheel, supposedly concentrating on the road rather than the scenery but that is very difficult to do when the vista is so amazing.

I have seen many images of Yosemite, particularly now that Apple have started to name their operating systems after features in the park. However, no picture can do justice to the sheer scale of the landscape here – everything is just huge. It is an incredibly beautiful place.

We had been advised to stay in the park which I am glad that we did for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the nearest accommodation outside the park is probably an hour away and while the drive in is stunning it is also slow. The second reason is that where we are staying, the Yosemite Valley Lodge, is just like Centreparcs only the view from our patio is a huge waterfall.

The lodge also provides useful advice on how to handle the local wildlife:

If a black bear attacks while you’re in Yosemite, fight back.

I’m hoping not to have to put that to the test.

We have a full day in the park tomorrow and so will be out and about.

USA ’17 – Day 8 – San Francisco, Sausalito & the Golden Gate Bridge

All over San Francisco there seem to be places that will hire you bikes. At first you would think you would need to be some kind of special masochist to want to cycle the steep roads. However, there is one route that does make sense commonly called “bike the bridge”. And that is exactly what we did today.

We picked up a couple of bikes just off Ghirardelli Square and set off along what, to begin with at least, is a flat cycle route that follows the coast towards the bridge. Today was a wonderfully clear day and so we got some great views of the bridge as we crawled ever nearer avoiding the Saturday strollers and runners.

As you get nearer the bridge it becomes clear that the deck is a lot higher off the ground than you and so some climbing is going to be necessary. Cars are given a nice long run up to the bridge but cyclists and walkers are expected to just get on with it. Once up you do get some great views over the bay and the bridge itself is a great thing – even if it could do with a lick of paint.

On reaching the other side of the bridge we then made our way towards the town of Sausalito. On the video we were shown when collecting the bikes we were told that it was a nice downhill run to Sausalito where we could take the ferry back to the city. Let’s just say that their idea of downhill and mine are very different!

Sausalito is another pretty little place. Helen has got it right though that a few too many of the towns we have visited just look at little too much like Seahaven – the fictitious town in The Truman Show.

From Sausalito we caught the ferry back to San Francisco before cycling back to return the bikes. This was a round trip of about nine miles and we exercising different muscles to those used when walking. I suspect we shall be reminded of our ride for the next few days every time we move our legs!

This evening we dined at a restaurant called The Stinking Rose where every dish has garlic in it. The slogan outside says “We season our garlic with food” and they were not wrong!

USA ’17 – Day 7 – San Francisco & Alcatraz

It has been about twelve years since I last visited San Francisco and I’d forgotten just how steep the roads are here – it’s come as a bit of a shock to my calves! I know what you are thinking – “he’s exaggerating. I bet it’s not that steep.” It is. Unfortunately the pictures just don’t do it justice.

Fortunately our first appointment was all downhill as we made our way to pier 33 to get a boat to take us the one and a quarter miles to Alcatraz island, home to the infamous prison. Access to the site is free which is very laudable until you realise that the reason nobody escaped was because of dangerous waters so you have to take the boat which isn’t free! There’s no such thing as a free trip round a disused prison it seems.

We are not normally guided tour type people but in this instance we made use of the self guided audio tour provided and it really was excellent. Narrated by ex-guards and inmates you really did get a sense of what it was like to be there. I was surprised to learn that it was a prison for only a relatively short period (29 years) but in that time it forged itself a formidable reputation.

A year before it was closed three prisoners escaped their cells but nobody knows if they actually made it off the island and they remain officially absconders. We, however, made it safely off having thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

We spent the rest of the day ticking off the list of things that one must do when in San Francisco including riding the cable car, Coit Tower and the zig-zag road.

These sites and the eclectic mix of buildings make San Francisco one of my favourite cities. Tomorrow is our last day here and apparently there is a bridge that’s worth seeing…

USA ’17 – Day 6 – Carmel & San Francisco

Today we learnt two things about the US – it can be both as frustrating and as boring as the UK when it really puts its mind to it.

Today we had intended to travel up via Highway One to the Big Sur and take in the views over the Pacific. Unfortunately the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge is being rebuilt and mud slides have closed other parts of the road making it impassable. This meant travelling along bigger freeways which were, quite frankly, pretty dull.

We also had to fill the fuel tank in the car for the first time today  and what a faf that was. When buying “gas” you have to either pay by credit card or go in and pre-pay to the cashier. This is presumably to prevent you driving off without paying. No trust here.

The credit card route never seems to work for us, mainly as it seems to need to be US registered so we have to go the pre-pay route. Problem with this is that you need to know how much fuel you need (in dollars) in order to be able to pre-pay.

This in means that you need to know how big the fuel tank is in your hire car (in gallons) and roughly how much is left in the tank. To help I have created the following formula that you can use to help work it out:

$required = (1 - amount left in tank) * capacity of tank * price per gallon

To make matters more interesting the colours of the hoses for diesel and unleaded are the reverse of what they are in the UK.

On the way to San Fran we stopped at Carmel-by-the-sea, best known for having Clint Eastwood as its mayor at one point. Again it was a very pretty and neat and tidy town full of up-market boutiques. How anyone that lives there does any day to day shopping I don’t know.

We arrived at San Francisco late afternoon and did a small walk away from our hotel to orient ourselves before the big sightseeing day tomorrow.

USA ’17 – Day 5 – Morro Bay and Cambria

Short day today in terms of miles to drive with there just being 137 miles to travel from Solvang to our next stop of Cambria. The obvious place to stop on this route is Hearst Castle but neither of us fancied a guided tour and so we elected to just take the day as it came.

It just so happened that we spotted a sign at the side of the road for a place called Morro Bay with a happy couple taking a selfie in front of a large rock. We took one look at and and thought “that’s for us!” It really was a great little place. We parked right on the waterfront and were able to look out over the water to the rock that sits in the middle of the bay. We were also treated to a display below us from both a seal and a sea otter, which was great.

Watch the seal below try and attract the attention of the fishermen above in an effort to get some easy fish. Unsuccessfully on this occasion but one suspects that’s not always the case.

We drove on from Morro Bay to a place just north of where we were staying for the night that had Elephant Seals resting on the beach. They are great big things that by and large didn’t do much but lay on the beach resting. Given that most of these are, apparently, pregnant females I can’t say that I blame them.

Finally, we came back to our hotel which overlooks Moonstone Beach. Unfortunately our room, unlike the hotel, overlooks the car park. We went for a walk along the beach and now I can say that I have paddled in both the Atlantic and the Pacific – I can confirm that both feel pretty much the same!

USA ’17 – Day 4 – Santa Monica, Santa Barbara & Solvang

When we planned this trip we gave ourselves a few nights in LA to help us get over any jet lag before heading out into the road trip itself. Today that started in earnest. We set out from our B&B and headed for Santa Monica. No paper maps for us but instead the trusty Google Maps and you really do have to trust it. In its efforts to avoid traffic it took us, once again, through some “interesting” areas of the city. It was beginning to make me think I was going to be in the staring role of a remake of The Bonfire of the Vanities!

It got us onto the freeway eventually and every other car seemed to be a Tesla. I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of Tesla’s is, a Coil maybe? Anyway, there were plenty of Model S’s but we also saw a Model X too. To be fair only one occupant of our Mitsubishi was excited by this sighting!

Santa Monica & Santa Barbara

As I said in the previous posts Hollywood is a bit of a dump but, thankfully, other areas of Los Angeles are much nicer and Santa Monica is lovely. There is a sandy beach with a funfair filled pier – you could think you were in the UK if it wasn’t for the 30 degree temperature. The streets leading up to the beach are attractive and clean.

A little further up the coast is Santa Barbara which is even prettier with the Mediterranean influenced buildings.

Solvang

Our stop for the night was at a place called Solvang and it is something of an anomaly. Founded in 1911 by some Danes it has been built to look like a Danish town – if Walt Disney been the project manager. As you can see from the pictures below all the town is built in a European style along with windmills and churches but the clean, wholesome nature of it all really did remind me of the stylised version of England that is in Epcot at Walt Disney World. It just doesn’t seem real somehow.

Solvang is in the middle of the wine valley here and there are plenty of places in the town to do some wine tasting. What there doesn’t seem to be, if our experience this evening is anything to go by, are facilities for those of us that don’t drink. In two places we went to this evening for a pre-dinner drink neither served any soft drinks. The second place was the hotel we were staying at and I was told I could go back to my room and take something out of the room fridge and bring it back to the bar! I can’t say that I felt like a welcomed guest.

Tomorrow we move further up the coast.

 

USA ’17 – Day 3 – Backlot Tour

The common view is that America isn’t geared up for walking and that you have to drive to get around. Yesterday Helen and I walked about 12 miles so it is certainly possible to get around on foot – it’s just that the Americans choose not to. The woman that owns the B&B we are staying in thought that we were mad for walking back from the Griffiths Observatory yesterday. She may have been right though given the temperature – an air conditioned car would have been more pleasant.

I mention the walking as today we had booked to go on movie studio backlot tour and had specially chosen to do the Paramount Pictures Studio Tour as we could walk to it. This took us through some “interesting” areas of Hollywood that aren’t covered in the the guide books!

The tour itself was two hours spent mostly being ferried around on the back of a golf cart, which was a relief after all the walking we have done over the last 24 hours. You are taken round in groups of seven accompanied by, if ours is anything to go by, a very knowledgeable guide.

What you see and what you are allowed to take pictures of is very much dictated by the number of shows that are being recorded on any given day. It just so happened that there was lots going on today which, ironically, meant that we were able to take less photos – no plot spoilers allowed here. That said we were treated to a good mixture of both the history of the studio (the first in Hollywood and that created the word “movie star”) and a look at the sets to two shows.

The two sound stage sets we were shown couldn’t have been more different. One was the interior of a house used in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. It was amazing. On the inside you wouldn’t have know that you weren’t in an upmarket California home. While on the outside it was basically untreated wood. The other was the set for a TV chat show called The Doctors which, apparently, people go on to discuss their ailments. So far so normal. However, in one corner of the set was an area where they – “carry out minor operations live on TV”! Only in America.

We were also shown a car park that doubles as a pool taking a day to fill. This is where Moses parted the waters in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. A feat that was achieved long before the invention of CGI and apparently took three months of editing to achieve.

We both thoroughly enjoyed our trip around Paramount and then went off and celebrated with a thick shake at the Ghirardelli chocolate shop!

USA ’17 – Day 2 – La La Land

Despite fearing that my body might insist on keeping me on UK time I actually slept pretty well last night. I was able to sleep through until 7am with only a couple of periods awake. The bed itself was typically American – big and very high off the ground, poor Helen needed a step ladder to reach it!

We set off and started our walk along Hollywood Boulevard, which is only a couple of minutes from the place we are staying. For all the glamour shown in the movies Hollywood is a dump and Hollywood Boulevard itself is incredibly tacky. That said it is great fun.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame, the iconic stars celebrating the famous from music, TV and film, is much, much longer than I had expected. It was good to walk along seeing how many we could recognise. I found my favourite though…

At Hollywood and Highland was a shopping centre which also had views across to the Hollywood sign so we stopped there for a look and a picture. However, what was more fascinating was the huge arch and elephants atop massive columns that surrounded a central area and fountain. Bonkers. Just a few yards further up the road was the famous Chinese Theatre and hand prints outside in the concrete.

What wasn’t so great about Hollywood Boulevard were the hawkers regularly dotted along the street pushing bus tours of the area. They were similar to those we encountered in Cambridge but much more aggressive and rude.

After lunch we took a cab up the steep and windy road to the Griffith Observatory which we had seen recently in the film La La Land. In the film Ryan Gosling drives Emma Stone up there and two of them spend a magical time dancing around the exhibits. It was just the same for Helen and I only without the dancing and with several thousand other people also there.

With the temperature nudging 30 Helen decided that it would be a swell(tering) idea to walk back down to bottom. To be fair it wasn’t very far but it was hot and so it was a relief when we finally made it back to base camp!

USA ’17 – Day 1 – In for the Long Haul

We’re off again and this time it’s a big one – the west coast of America. This is a trip that we had planned to take to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Given that this year was our 27th anniversary you can see we slipped a little. Over the next three weeks we will be visiting LA, San Francisco, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, San Diego and more. See the map below for the full route – all 1,624 miles of it.

I’m writing this from our B&B in Hollywood and we have been on the go now for just over 22 hours. In that time we have managed to fit in four meals starting with breakfast in Heathrow and ending with dinner just off the Hollywood Boulevard. As an aside I made a rookie error at dinner when I ordered chips to go with my sandwich and, of course, got crisps. I now know why the Americans don’t call them crisps as that would be a misnomer.

Unsurprisingly I’m beginning to flag a bit now. Despite this  it is almost guaranteed that my body clock will ensure I am wide awake at 07:00 BST – just two hours from now.

Saying that we are in Hollywood makes it all sound very glamorous when, in fact, this area of town is pretty run down and there are what seem to be a large number of people sleeping rough.  It will be interesting to see what it is like in the more touristy areas tomorrow as our big adventure properly begins.

Cambridge 2017 – Colleges and Books

Having made a brief stop off in the outskirts of Watford yesterday we then spent today in the city of Cambridge. Like the Harry Potter Tour we have been to Cambridge several times before. Despite that we managed to do plenty of things today that we have never managed on previous visits.

One reason for this was that rather than wandering aimlessly we followed a prepared route from the GPSmyCity app. This highlighted many of the colleges but also gave us some history and directions between the points, which was useful. The other great thing was that this weekend was “Open Cambridge” meaning that we had freer access to the colleges than we otherwise might have had.

We started the walk at the Great St. Mary’s church and went up it’s tower as you can’t beat the view from the top of a church tower. That said I wasn’t quite so pleased on the way up when I cracked my head on a low beam. The expletives were, however, drowned out by the bells that were peeling at the time. The view was good but limited – you really can’t see very far but what you can see is perfect.

Back down below we progressed on to our next stop trying not to look too much like tourists as Cambridge seems to be teeming with people wanting to sell you walking tours and punting trips. This seems to be peculiar to Cambridge as I don’t remember ever having such a problem in Oxford.

Finally we reached our ultimate destination – the Botanic Gardens. Now I don’t know if it is because of the person I am or I am just getting old but I do love a botanical garden. I’m not sure if it is the plant life, the peace and quiet or both but they are great places to be. Quite often oasis of calm in the middle of a busy city. This one was particularly good with an excellent restaurant too. Pity that the moment we sat down at the tables outside to eat that the heavens opened! Fortunately it was only a short shower which meant we were able to enjoy the gardens.

An Evening with Anthony Horowitz

Somewhat randomly, when we were planning what to do on this trip, a tweet appeared on my stream advertising an evening in conversation with Anthony Horowitz. I’ve made it sound like it was some intimate little tête-à-tête between us but, in fact, there was probably about 100 people there.

I’ve seen lots of Horowitz’s work but never heard him speak before and my first impression was just how posh he sounded! The second thing was just how much he talked, he was unstoppable. The interviewer, the author Elly Griffiths, had several attempts to reign him in but failed to do so. The discussion, including questions from the floor, went on for about an hour and was fascinating, although one wonders how many times he has repeated some of those stories.

I’m not sure that I should confess to this but I really like Horowitz’s new book. No, I don’t mean the words, I mean the actual book. I sat for most of the evening with the book on my lap stroking the front cover! It is one of the most beautifully tactile books I have ever felt and you should buy the hardback simply just to feel it for yourself. 

So all-in-all I enjoyed our weekend in Cambridge but if I’m honest I probably prefer Oxford. This could be because it is local to me. It could be because they don’t have the pestering tour guides. Or it simply could be because it is the home to Morse and the Radcliffe Camera.