A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Downtown Montreal......the only way is up.....

If Quebec is a province in two minds about whether it wants 'out' from the rest of Canada, then Montreal personifies the split personality of a city not certain if it is high rise or low rise. A city apparently proud of its layers but layers hidden from our view.

It’s always a challenge to find the heart of a city in a short stay: should we hit the museums, or watch the city from a coffee bar? Take the open top tour bus or pound the streets and follow our noses? We did both and we aren’t impressed.

The city has no centre and an uncomfortable mix of cultural collisions. We found it oddly shocking to hear French 3000 miles from its source, but of course no odder than hearing English in the US. Even odder is the yearning for Europe but with a hand out to America. It’s not brash but it isn’t refined either. A real puzzle for us, a puzzle we feel guilty we haven’t cracked.

The ride from the airport could have been downtown Poitier and just as ugly. In the city centre detail-less and shiny towers not only dominate the remnants of a rich 19th century building style, but stand shamelessly next to them leering down in a middle finger salute to the arrogance of the banks that built them.

On the plus side most of the coffee houses are independents and despite a curious method of making latte, the coffee has been good. We’re eating cheap for now, keeping our budget for the 59 eateries available in Stowe (Vermont) our next stop. We can tell you that the ‘Poutine’ a must try once, 'they' said, provincial dish is simply overcooked chips wet with gravy and covered in tasteless cheese. The other significant finding is that Canadian cars only have number plates on the back and the city drivers are polite and patient. It does seem though that Montreal is mostly on fire as the number of hooting, wailing and parping fire trucks going by is hard to count.

A shrine to Apple computers!

A shrine to Apple computers!

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

The Big Trip

This is the start of our big trip to the USA. Bags are almost packed for the three month trip - choosing what to take was mind boggling to say the least. So, providing the London traffic doesn't hamper the first leg of our journey we are soon to make our way to the airport.

It feels a little difficult getting into the head-space required to contemplate such a long holiday but no doubt we'll be saying 'have a nice day' and 'missing you already' like a native within a fortnight.

More to follow ........

Jean and Tony (Lancaster)

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

From Stowe to Provincetown

Just six days into our trip proper and we have seen extraordinary contrasts. Leaving Montreal we enter the USA with the wrong papers, but a kindly Homeland Defence Agent lets us in after just three days in a windowless room and some tough questions. The scenery changes quite suddenly and we are in Stowe, a tiny and perfect New England village in the mountains. It is overwhelmingly cute and pretty: the proportions and geometry of the clapboard houses in soft greys and greens seem at first suspiciously contrived but later we realise some of these houses are nearly 200 years old and are preserved out of pride and a well justified merit.

But as it is with travel it is the odd things that stay in the mind, and at Stowe it was watching a large tree, leaning a little too much towards a house, being cut down American style. Using a crane to support it the tree was cut through at ground level and lifted and fed straight into a chipper without touching the ground. From tree to sawdust in 20 minutes. We took in a show at the town hall, a very polished and beautifully sung Sweeney Todd, quite something for a community of a scant few thousand.

Reluctantly leaving the calm and green oasis and with paranoid triple checking our room to ensure nothing left behind we drive to Boston. And here we found a city very much to our liking. Our hotel was a re-cycled bank with grand public rooms and a trendy restaurant/bar that filled up at night with young folk as the oldsters went on their ways. Hotel number three and we start to notice the details that mater to us, and the differences between hotels. A mirror we can see to shave/apply make up in, a bath robe that is soft and generously cut. A safe seems a necessity and a turn down service a nuisance.

We loved Boston, another waters edge city, like Montreal, but this time with a sense of style and pace we 'got' immediately. Spacious and open with a very developed civic pride the planners put what was an apparently ugly flyover underground and built a narrow but seven mile long park on its grave. The same good sense kept the Italian quarter untouched and housed in the old dock buildings, and as thriving a community as you’d find anywhere. The stand and gawp factor here was Mike’s Pastry, a takeaway cake and gelato shop with queues around the block. The cakes didn’t seem very recognizably Italian to us, perhaps as they had all been super-sized to suit the American way. We witnessed our first cloud break, dry and humid one second and completely torrential the next. Oh my goodness it is time to pack again…..

We stopped briefly in Plymouth Harbour to see the ‘beginning’ of America and a rather doubtful rock, inscribed 1620, the landing place of the Pilgrims. With our post-colonial sense of shame we were more moved by a statue of a Native American and the plaque that said on Thanksgiving for them it is a day of mourning to mark the genocide of their people. And so to Cape Cod and right to the very tip of the peninsular to Provincetown. If we thought we’d seen New England pretty in Stowe, well we hadn’t. Provincetown is extraordinary, a seaside town with more nooks and crannies than a sumo wrestler. With the ocean on both sides and deep wild beaches with giant sand dunes, the town is one giant culture fest, more galleries, eateries, shops and boutiques than you can count and houses so beautiful, so different and with such a perfect scale we found ourselves wanting to settle down here and have dogs. (Kidding about the dogs)

Absurdly pretty

Absurdly pretty


House in Stowe

House in Stowe

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

From pretty Provincetown to amazing Washington

We imagine that our trip must seem an easy gig from the outside: 3 months of pleasing ourselves and adventures galore. Of course it is that but it is also hard work and not a little stressful at times. The stress comes from being in a more or less permanent state of re-adjustmen and culture shock. For example the bathroom might be in any direction from whatever side of the bed you're on that night and the chances of weeing in the wardrobe increase over time as does leaving something important behind which we managed on a one night stay in Newport. Our SatNav tends to be a little behind the curve and late instructions on a 7 lane Interstate have sent us spiralling on an unintended sight-seeing tour more than once. And then there's tourist anxiety syndrome.(TAS) This occurs after you have left one never to be returned to place and the first person you talk to at the next place says' Great place, did you see...' and we realise we didn't even know it was there. Bummer. But wait that's not all, stage two of TAS is guilt, this happens when you choose to have a coffee and cake instead of going to the museum. Or a one night place should clearly be a two night place, but you're too busy planning the next stop too see the place you are actually in. But despite these stresses we continue to be amazed.

We drove from Provincetown to Newport where the America Cup was on, which didn't interest us much but put pressure on finding a room. We fetched up at a slightly barmy early 19th century house turned Inn where we were encouraged to help ourselves to sherry in the sitting room kept company by about 600 toy rabbits covering every surface. Another town of wonderful clapboard architecture (factoid: we discovered this is pronounced clapurd) but the town is famous for Bellvue Avenue where the rich escapees from the hot-house south built their summer cottages in the mid 19th century, a curious term for properties the largest of which is a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. And these guys only used their cottages for 10 weeks a year.

Leaving too early from this fascinating town we take a long and busy drive to Lancaster City in Pennsylvania, the heartlands of the Dutch and German settlers and home of the Amish community. On route we drive through Brooklyn and the Yonkers and across the Hudson Bridge with tempting views of Manhattan, the one city we have deliberately excluded from our itinerary.

We hitch our wagon in and out of town hotel and take the easy option of the in-house restaurant. Next day we visit the Amish outlet stores where young ladies in bonnets and long plain clothes work with the young men with, if they can grow them, large beards but clean shaven upper lips. It's hard not to gawp as these gentle folk sell awful folk art to us the gawpers. It's a quick stop as we need to get to Washington but we buy a tiny book, probably never to be read, explaining the Amish way and Tony makes Jean promise never to grow facial hair like an Amish.

Along the miles we have noticed many strange and incongruous road signs as well as warnings that moose, bears or turtles might be crossing our path. The photo on this sign defeated us completely.

So far we have managed to avoid asking for the bathroom or restroom but are getting into the swing of having a nice day. We have resisted talking about coffee so far but it does feature largely in our day and will be the subject of a report later.

Washington is one beautiful city; the kind of place that you want to move to immediately and is by a very large margin the finest place we have visited so far. This was in truth in no small way due to the fabulous stay we had with Roy and Patty. Roy is a long ago colleague of Jean and Patty is his American wife. They have an extremely elegant 19th century home on Capital Hill, a beautiful and very leafy district close to Congress, the Federal part of Washington. Roy was an indefatigable tour leader and we walked for hours every day much entertained and awed by his in-depth historical and local knowledge. Patti his pin sharp, direct and very lovely wife endlessly fussed over us to ensure our comfort and had us in stitches as she and Roy clashed lovingly at every turn. As a bonus another long time since work mate of Jean - June - also now lives in Washington and had us round for dinner to meet her husband Bejoy and delightful children who are a perfect balance of confident and polite. The most important influence on the Washington skyline is the prohibition to build taller that the Capitol. This results in a low rise town that better than any city outside Paris has kept its 18/19th century buildings in tact. And what buildings they are, despite their relative modesty, most are terraced, the variation in style is incredible. We have never seen such a well kept area with enormous care taken in maintaining the houses and front gardens (which apparently and bizarrely belong to the Federal government!) The place is so tree lined it made taking pictures to prove this very difficult.

The perfect scale of the domestic architectures is contrasted by the Greek revival showiness of the government buildings and museums and a keen need to place a statue every person of importance on a pedestal or plinth.

If Capitol Hill was a marvel our eyes widened further when we visited George Town the oldest part. Here was chic on stilts and this time all the des res was detached. We have never seen so many houses all of which had multi-million $ price tags.

We could have very easily stayed another week or month in cosy friendly DC but to spare our kind hosts legs and the drain on their gin we set our sometimes trustworthy Garmin on route for Philadelphia. If you haven't been to Washington or you have to chose between DC and New York choose Washington.

Bird in Hand, Lancaster County

Bird in Hand, Lancaster County


Strange road sign

Strange road sign


Gorgeous little terrace

Gorgeous little terrace


A modest(by Georgetown standards) house

A modest(by Georgetown standards) house


Elegant terrace

Elegant terrace

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town

The taxi takes us to our new home for a week and looking up at the first street name we notice it is Wacker Drive, so appropriate for a speak-easy city where mobsters once both called and fired the shots and John Dillinger died in an alley. But our priority is laundry and the sightseeing waits while we master top loading machines and the necessity to gather fistfuls of quarters to make them work. Our little apartment is dated but it’s good enough and we eat in for a couple of nights to top up our veggie intake and to recover from our sleepless night on the train. It takes a while to visually settle into a high rise city. At first downtown Chicago seemed a mess, as if Heath Robinson tried to make a giant church organ from ugly scrap. But thanks to the bay-side setting on the lake and plenty of rivers it is possible to put space between yourself and the canyons and before you know it you are hooked on the towering beauty of all that high rise metal and glass. Chicago lays claim to the birth of the steel-framed skyscraper in 1869 and there are many fine art deco towers and also the tallest tower in the US, formerly in the world – the Willis, locked in a permanent face off with the Hancock Building that used to be the tallest in the world outside of New York. Downtown. Did you know that the Americans don’t agree on what downtown is? How come an uptown girl might live downtown which is upscale, how can two ends of a town 2 miles apart both be downtown? It doesn’t matter, Chicago is our kind of town and we wonder if we are going to have to break it gently to DC that our roving eye has been caught again. The high rise part of Chicago is not so very big and quickly gives ways to ‘neigborhoods’, too close to be suburbs but far enough away to be self-contained communities. We buy a condo in Old Town and one on the Gold Coast for when we need a lake view. And of course one on Michigan Avenue where the shopping is frenetic. This story could have started with Chuck, and maybe should have, for Chuck gave us such a good time and got us doing things very much against our instincts. Chuck is a long time, though never met colleague of Tony’s, though Jean met him in the 80’s. He’s one of Chicago’s own and drove us around for hours showing us his city his way, first this way and then that way. He did it by night, he did it by day and in between he took us for Pizza and then he took us for… steak. And damn it was delicious. We shared the meal with his welcoming young looking wife and their bubbly youngest daughter Erica – a lovely evening topped off by a strange happy birthday ritual performed by the waiters for Tony. Gathering in a group around us the waiters grunt-shouted an Haka-esque cocophony that we think started ‘Birthday, dude… and there after was unintelligible. Chuck’s other trick was to take us the top of the Willis (or Sears as most still call it) and encourage us to go on the sky deck – a glass bottomed view of the world 103 floors up and only an inch of glass between us and the pavement 1353 feet down. We were both very proud of ourselves and the video is here to prove it. Thanks Chuck for all your generosity and kindness. The thing about Chicago is that it is makes sense, it’s clean, it’s buzzy and cultured it’s interesting and its beautifully located. It’s discoverable and its friendly and everything you want from a city is here. We liked it and like leaving DC we are sorry to see it behind us but our journey must go. Tomorrow we leave for a long zig zag down to New Orleans, or Norleens as they say around here.

On top of the Willis tower

On top of the Willis tower


The Buckingham Fountain

The Buckingham Fountain


The Cloud...

The Cloud...


Navy pier

Navy pier

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Music Miles

The road trip from Chicago to new Orleans is underway, 900 miles as the crow flies but 2000 miles of zip-zag, getting our kicks on route 66 on route to heartbreak hotel. The whole map is a sound track and we check to make sure just how many hours we are from Tulsa. A coincidence out of x files cements it. We are listening to a download of Desert Island Discs and Bear Grylls is making his first selection. He chooses Jackson [we got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout] and as we look up, and this is gospel, the next exit says Jackson. Our first stop is St Louis and we learn all the letters are pronounced. By some good fortune we stay out of town at an antebellum house (no we didn't know either - it means before the civil war) the host greets us in tails and a bow tie and is more a curator of a museum than the owner of a b & b. There is a 24 hour chocolate bar and home made bath salts. In our room the top of the mattress is so far from the floor we need to use a pole vault. St Louis is nothing much, the city empty and ugly the perfect location for filming a post-apocalypse film: the type where there's nothing but tumbleweed blowing up the main drag. There is one astonishing thing. A giant metal arch designed by Eero Saarinen. Simple, graceful and beautiful, the tallest man made monument in the US. We take a claustrophobic ball shaped capsule too small to stand in up to the viewing deck, carried by a mechanism that is half escalator and half lift. Since the 1352 feet of the Sky deck we are blasé about its stunted 630 feet and the view is entirely without interest. We eat locally and hide in in our beautiful bedroom a little scared of the mattress de-mount but inevitably drawn to the buffet of chocolate on the floor below. With no regrets we drive on to Memphis where certain dues have to be paid to Mr Presley. Whilst Graceland is a tack-fest, it is undoubtedly moving. Probably everybody of our age was touched by the music or the man. The home is of course time-locked, rock-star gaudy but actually quite modest and located on an ugly road. The highlight was the Elvis cars - rude be-fined monsters so clearly giant purple penises or pink pudenda. We walked through his private jet and wanted one of our own. Later we visit Sun Studios and stand in the room where Elvis made his first records, as did Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Memphis has Beale Street as a music Mecca and in a couple of blocks a dozen or so joints are playing ear-splitting blues. It's Wednesday night and that means bike night and the street fills up with tons of chrome and rubber as the shiniest, showiest motor cycles drown out the music with their engine revs. Since we have moved from the East coast the history has changed from the War of Independence to the war fought because of slavery and the long and continuing fight for civil rights. We have seen cotton growing in the fields and later learn how the harvesting of that crop enslaved hundreds of thousands. We see the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated and in a depressing and deeply moving museum begin to understand the pain and terrors of the fight for civil rights of the African American in the 60s and 70s. The streets have clear evidence that many black people are still waiting. But it's a one trick pony kind of town and rather seedy and perhaps a little disillusioned we move on wondering if this musical theme will carry the weight of the impoverished towns and frankly uninspiring settings. Nashville is a notch up though we are again pleased to be staying outside the city as there really is not much reason to be there apart from Broadway where there is a street three times the size of Beale in Memphis but doing the same thing. All the music is free, although of course you can buy drinks and put money in the bins ever present near the muso's. Strangely, and we are not alone in this, the fact of the free-ness removes the urge to sit and really listen. There is always someone else playing just next door and the effect of this is a kind of listlessness. So we give in and shuffle from one bar to the next searching for the perfect band. We are cross that we can’t get a seat at the Grand Ole Opry for some serious Country music but visit a country stars ‘log cabin’. We hadn’t heard of Barbara Mandrell but she was rich enough to build a 47,000 square foot shack. The real pleasure was that there were no ropes or prohibitions and we poked in her closets and even used her loo. (damn near typed rest room - six weeks and we’re going native). We spend an over-night in Montgomery, deserted and essentially dull as all the other recent cities but the home of Rosa Parks, the black woman who first resisted the racial segregation on the buses and honoured as the mother of the freedom movement. We head south to the Gulf of Mexico and to Orange Beech for a few days of actively doing not much at all. The weather is perfect and the sand is fine and white. We struggle with both the southern accent and the food. Everything is fried, even the beer is fried. The annual Shrimp Festival is on and there we learn that anything you can catch and kill that comes from the water can be battered, fried and put on a stick. We are tempted by the alligator but having taken a trip to a bayou and seen dolphins we settle for something without legs or a smile. We need to learn a new menu language and discover poboys, grits, hushpuppies and biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Refreshed, a little tanned, we drive east over a six mile bridge to arrive in Nawlins – yes it actually says this on signs. Despite the promise of an upgrade our hotel room is small, smelly and very noisy. We make a fuss and get promised an upgrade to a junior suite with two bathrooms. Somewhat comforted we step into Bourbon Street to discover the quaint town of Jazz we are expecting is a titty bar beer fest and there are ten rock bands to the block. We did expect loud and proud but not lewd and crude. We duck back to our hotel where there is a jazz bar and sipping cocktails remind ourselves that expectations are there to be confounded. Despite little sleep we regroup and try again to enjoy our last city before we fly east. By day the beauty of the French Quarter is clear to see and in a parallel road to Bourbon we find galleries, antique shops and good coffee. Street musicians are everywhere from tap dancers, to saxophonists to classical violinists. Eventually we find Frenchmen Street, where save for a dead guy slumped on the pavement, with a policeman to mind him, the tone is calmer and full of Jazz and much less beer. In a city where there is a festival for almost any reason and with a penchant for Tarot and Voo Doo from its earlier immigrants we are amazed by the Halloween decorations. NOLA (yet another name for this city) is transformed into ghoul city and nearly every shop window and balcony has creative and amusing death themed decorations. We visit the areas most affected by Katrina and although there are still 10,000 deserted and decaying homes it is gradually recovering. Some of the tiny houses are called Shotgun houses – because the long and narrow houses have their doors all in a row and the theory is that if all the doors are open you can stand on the porch and fire your shotgun and kill a chicken in the yard! But whilst there was much devastation most of the greater city was spared. We visited an area of posh private schools and universities where the surrounding streets contained mile after mile of huge beautiful houses and we realised that wood sided houses are not just a part of New England style but a general style seen everywhere we have been so far. So in the end our expectation were indeed confounded and despite our rather, fuddy duddy shocked reaction to the raw pursuit of the carnal in Bourbon Street we loved New Orleans for its architectural beauty, its joie de vivre and its compulsion to party like its 1999.

Lovely iron work

Lovely iron work


The Mardi-gras passed this way

The Mardi-gras passed this way


Spooky

Spooky


Beautiful Orange beach

Beautiful Orange beach


These boots are made for walking

These boots are made for walking


47,000 square foot log 'cabin'

47,000 square foot log 'cabin'


Elvis' pink Cadillac

Elvis' pink Cadillac


The Pelvis final resting place

The Pelvis final resting place


Elvis TV room in Graceland

Elvis TV room in Graceland


Typical New orleans slum

Typical New orleans slum


Doing Haloween in style

Doing Haloween in style


The wrought iron 'galleries' of the French Quarter

The wrought iron 'galleries' of the French Quarter


Origianl Neon form Sun Studios

Origianl Neon form Sun Studios


Well that's a relief

Well that's a relief


The Saarinen Arch in St Louis

The Saarinen Arch in St Louis

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

River deep , mountain high

We leave San Francisco and drive over Golden Gate Bridge, which really is leaning as the picture shows. The flowers in our hair are looking a little wilted, as are we. We make a quick stop for lunch at Sausalito, a pretty bay and hillside town with views back to Fog City and in numerous galleries marvel some more at the beautiful blown glassware that seems so plentiful in the US. We purchased a lovely and large piece in Frisco and have no idea how we will get it home.

We are going to get some country air and see what else California has to offer. And offer it does. We find out that in a state roughly twice the size of GB and half the population there is an extraordinary range of vistas and experiences from the extraordinary and beautiful emptiness of Yosemite to the mind-boggling business of the Los Angeles freeways.

Our first few days are spent in the twin Napa Valleys that make up the wine areas of Northern California. There are more than 450 wineries along the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains and we were surprised that wine producing here goes back to the 1850s. All along the route stretched limos spill the eager tasters out for another slurp and guzzle. In truth we are there for the vibe and not really the wine, but we do a tour, essentially of racks of French oak barrels and taste a few wines. Such a difficult and artificial way to drink, and certainly no way to enjoy wine. The towns are pretty and the Spanish influence is everywhere in the names and in the buildings and the unceasing good weather, and bright blue skies make everything look sharp and inviting. We may not have drunk the wine but we filled our boots with lovely views instead. We decide not to buy a property here as even a modest winery would set us back $20m.

On route to the inland glories we spend a couple of nights in Sacramento, actually the State capital, and a fine if federal town. At one end of the town, divided by a freeway, is Old Sacramento, a somewhat contrived area of preserved and conserved 18th century buildings. But the history is very interesting and many fortunes were made when the gold rush started here in 1848. The city has a relaxed and pleasant feel and we mooch about happily in trendy mid-town in small awe of a street system that has letters for west to east and numbers north to south. Who wouldn't want to meet up at, say, 13th and N? There is baseball frenzy everywhere as the Bears are playing to win the 'World' series (actually not so much the world as the US, we are forced to remind one or two guys) and every bar and restaurant has multiple screens showing the action; all around us fans are shouting arcane instructions to the deaf ears of the players.

Next stop Lake Tahoe, where we slowly climb two miles above sea level with our ears popping and our eyes out on stalks at wonderful mountain views. We are surprised to see a little snow on the ground and have to stop to make sure it is real, and are made very aware of the altitude when a quite incidental incline literally takes our breath away. Lake Tahoe is simply glorious, despite the early snow it is still very warm and the light sparkles off the lake so improbably deep and clean. Entirely surrounded by mountains it is the perfect all year round get-away with beaches and skiing. Stupidly, that’s stupidly of Tony, we haven’t planned to stay long enough and only the prospect or more natural beauty to come gets him off the hook.

It’s a ying and yang world of course and the trip's most amazing scenery yet sees our nights spent in the worst accommodation. We vent our spleen on Trip Advisor and get on with gasping, again both OMG style and literally, as we crane our necks to see towering granite mountain faces of primeval splendor. Looking up at the 3000ft El Capitan we see about half way up some climbers on a ‘porta-ledge’ where they have apparently been living for a week trying to find new routes. To be clear a porta-ledge is a kind of suspended tent that is attached by string and blu-tack to the mountain so you can sleep as you dangle 1500 feet above the rest of us. And yes of course we climbed up to check it out. Kidding. It is awesome in a way that makes even the Godless amongst us tingle with the recognition of universal forces beyond imagining. The waterfalls are more or less dry this time of year, being entirely snow fed but the American Oaks and the pines look magnificent.

With our now painfully popping ears we prepare to take our leave of Yosemite but first we must go and see the giant Sequoia trees, themselves nearly as large and old as the mountains. In a small grove, one of only two on the planet, are trees of such girth and age that it is no wonder that for many years their existence was believed to be a hoax. The oldest tree here is nearly two thousand years old and it would take sixteen folk to encircle it. By a bizarre trick of nature the tree cones need fire to make then open and start to grow and all around was evidence of the burning from eons ago. It was one thing to stand next to mountain nearly as old as time but another feeling altogether to be near an ancient living thing that stands parallel in time to the all the history that we know most about. Some American cities have been marvels, others less so, but everything we have seen this past days has been the very best of what travel can bring.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley


Fun mural in Sacramento

Fun mural in Sacramento


Old Sacramento

Old Sacramento


Old Sacrameto

Old Sacrameto


Touching war memorial

Touching war memorial


Lake Tahoe coes into view

Lake Tahoe coes into view


The clear cold waters of Lake Tahoe

The clear cold waters of Lake Tahoe


Inspiration Point

Inspiration Point


El Capitan

El Capitan


Up ended Sequoia

Up ended Sequoia


Tree hugger alert

Tree hugger alert


A 'tunnelled' Sequoia

A 'tunnelled' Sequoia


Toffee apples

Toffee apples

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego

With our heads full of the mountains and giant trees in Yosemite we drive west towards the coast, passing dusty flatlands full of orange groves and pistachio orchards sustained incredibly it seems without any rain at all.

We are excited to begin the leg of the trip that will take us down the Pacific highway, through Big Sur and eventually to San Diego. We catch up with the coast at Monterey, an old canning town and the spiritual, literary and actual home of John Steinbeck. Cannery Row has been preserved at best it can with the sardines long depleted and the warehouses of no use. The town has a pier full of fish restaurants, all complete with 'barkers' trying to lure us in with tastings of clam chowder. The highlight of an otherwise poor meal is a group of Brits at the next table discussing the issues of the 'Fosse septique' at their French home. Happily the two following nights we find restaurants of exceptional quality and meet a lovely couple of Californian tech-workers and enjoy a lively chat about Google, Yahoo and if it is ever going to be possible to retire in the US if you are in your mid 50s.

From Monterey we start the drive south, visiting rich, twee Carmel where nearly every shop has a picture of Clint Eastwood with his arm around the store owner. Our next stop is San Simeon, a base we have chosen so we can visit Hearst Castle, the folly of a megalomaniac media baron. It's not a long drive but takes us an age as we have to stop every mile and marvel at the view. Beautiful mountains, inaccessible coves and cerulean seas leave us short of words but long on wonder. Our ocean front hotel has a lovely ritual where each night log fires are lit in a sort of beach side chiminea. As the sun sets colourfully the fires are lit and we meet Ian, a bit of a loner but on a road trip with his elderly dad. Ian turns out to be an interesting and informed young man and one of those chance encounters that left us better informed about the American mindset.

We make the trip to Hearst Castle moaning at the cost and the lack of joined up tours and find ourselves immediately falling back on our English snobbish 'You think this is cool/old/tasteful?' mindset. It is actually pure kitsch. It is though technically interesting and the huge endeavor took nearly 30 years to get to its still unfinished state. In the end the question is what kind of hubris would lead a man to want to build a fake bit of Spain atop a Californian hill?

Up the road from San Simeon is Cambria a town apparently designed to look like an English village. It doesn't but its hotch pot architecture and charm wins us over. Up on Nit Witt Ridge is the anti-Hearst Castle, a home built by the town's refuse collector over a 50 year period using found or recycled material. Now that is a proper castle.

Our Pacific route is interrupted as we arrive at Los Angeles where we are looking forward to meeting up with Hugh on his home turf. We have only ever met Hugh in London when he is there for business and he looks years younger not having to battle with jet lag. We hang out and Hugh drives us to Hollywood Boulevard and Santa Monica's Muscle Beach. Sadly the muscles are having a day off. We visit his office in Beverley Hills where he has a 360 degree view of LA and the Hollywood sign in the distance. LA is not an easy tourist town, but neither is it a town without culture, actually quiet the opposite - there are 841 museums, unless Wikipedia is kidding, and 21 theatrical openings every week. You need lots of dedicated time to discover it. Although if you live there you are doomed to spend your time driving its sprawl on the busiest, widest roads we have ever seen. The city has under 4 million inhabitants but apparently they are all on the road 24 hours a day.

Jean is rather broken with a dreadful hacking cough, so bad that at one point Tony thought medical intervention would be needed. It wasn't but the cough has worn her out and we are glad to be on a tourist bus doing nothing but sitting, looking and listening.

It is not a handsome city for the most part but it does have lovely mountains and cute coastal resorts at Santa Monica and Venice and you can, as we did, drive by the former homes of movie stars, and spot their names or hand prints on the pavements. We did get as close as you can these days to the Hollywood sign, a curious and compelling icon.

We say a farewell to Hugh, who in his typically generous manner offers to ship our glass object back to London. It remains to be seen whether it arrives in one piece. Next stop Laguna Beach where a coughing and spluttering Jean needs some sun and rest.

We check out a few hotels and settle for a room overlooking a tropical and pleasant courtyard. Jean is still rnot well but the weather is glorious and there is pool 3 feet from our room. Laguna Beach is a great resort, with loads of restaurants and galleries. We even find a coffee shop doing its own roasting and have an in depth chat about.... OK, OK if you're not interested...

The drive to San Diego is not quite so lovely but still pretty good and there seem to be plenty of small attractive resorts. We have a damn fine room in a grand and old hotel though are annoyed that the more expensive the hotel the more certain it is you will be charged for parking and wifi. You will not be surprised that we were surprised that San Diego was not as we expected. Not a quaint Mexican town, and not a pretty Spanish style resort. But instead a bustly and modern city with a few preserved bits, plenty of ugly high-rise and a huge number of homeless. But what to think when you see the homeless guy at the ATM? Or another with an iphone?

It has a Little Italy which was more a Tiny Italy but when we visited a nearby but unrelated weekend market had lovely fresh foods and delights. Best of all San Diego has the magnificent Balboa Park with fourteen museums and handsome Spanish, even Moorish, buildings and we spent a lovely and cultured day including listening to the world's largest outdoor organ. The recital began, oddly, with the English national anthem, normally not a tune we would stand up for but our national pride got the better of us. We visited La Jolla (pronounced it seems La Hoya) which is a resort close by the city which had a lovely cliff walk with seals and many kinds of birds but in particular herons in great abundance.

It has been a very special trip driving the coastal road sandwiched heavenly between the mountains and the ocean but we still have much to look forward to, not least the decadence of Vegas, our next stop.

Seals relaxing in Monterey marina

Seals relaxing in Monterey marina


The seas had incredible colours

The seas had incredible colours


Natural sculpture

Natural sculpture


Moody sunset at Luguna Beach

Moody sunset at Luguna Beach


Monterey Marina

Monterey Marina


Tea tree in Monterey

Tea tree in Monterey


Only in Carmel!

Only in Carmel!


One of a 1000 lovely views on the coastal road

One of a 1000 lovely views on the coastal road


more Pacific Coast road

more Pacific Coast road


Pacific Coast road

Pacific Coast road


San Simeon beach

San Simeon beach


San Simeon near Hearst Castle

San Simeon near Hearst Castle


Hearst Castle garden

Hearst Castle garden


Nitt Witt Mansion

Nitt Witt Mansion


Fluffy fronds

Fluffy fronds


San Simeon Pier

San Simeon Pier


Pebble Beach San Simeon

Pebble Beach San Simeon


Giant kelp on the beach

Giant kelp on the beach


Santa Barabara

Santa Barabara


Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara


Pelican

Pelican


Los Angeles from our friend Hugh's Hollywoodoffice

Los Angeles from our friend Hugh's Hollywoodoffice


Muscle beach Santa Monica

Muscle beach Santa Monica


Meagre muscles on the beach

Meagre muscles on the beach


Skate park Venice beach

Skate park Venice beach


Gulls can't read it seems

Gulls can't read it seems


The coffee conversation

The coffee conversation


Hill side homes at Luguna Beach

Hill side homes at Luguna Beach


Cliff walk La Jolla

Cliff walk La Jolla


La Jolla

La Jolla


Cliff walk La Jolla

Cliff walk La Jolla


Lifeguard

Lifeguard


Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara


La Jolla cliff walk

La Jolla cliff walk


La Jolla seals and marine birds

La Jolla seals and marine birds


Balboa Park San Diego

Balboa Park San Diego


The 'Spreckles' Organ Balboa park

The 'Spreckles' Organ Balboa park

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

From Palms Springs to Phoenix

Whoopee! We're off to Vegas through scrubby desert land with mile after mile of mountains flanking our route. We stop overnight in Palm Springs in a cute boutique b and b with quirky décor and only a few rooms all arranged around a pool. We’re welcomed with sweet treats and a cocktail. Palm Springs has it’s own strip and casinos and a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe, skirts a-blowing. We take a slightly scary and wobbly cable car a mile up a mountain and stare back at this improbable and probably unnecessary town in the dessert, set, rather counter intuitively, next to a giant windmill farm.

It’s a four hour drive to Vegas through more desert. Occasionally a town with no reason at all to be there crops up offering rooms for $30 and casinos. The Vegas sprawls eventually starts and we have to drive up the Strip to get to our hotel. And Vegas was what we were expecting, though, oddly, we were expecting it to be even more so. Actually the insanity is fairly under control – why wouldn’t there be a half size copy of the Eifel Tower? Who would question the need for a full size galleon that had firing canons and sinks to order? Our suite is gorgeous and not so very much smaller than the ground floor of our house. But the hotel itself is a tad beyond belief. The scale is one thing – a two story Ferrari showroom and two theatres not to mention the Rolex shop and umpteen restaurants and of course every kind of gambling involving cards, dice or revolving symbols and numbers. But it is the sheer quality and the creativity that surprises: beautiful mosaic floors, huge Murano glasss chandeliers and stunning flower displays. Everything seems to be bespoke and if it lapses into gaudy or kitsch then the unceasing energy and commitment carries us along. We see a couple of very good shows and shuffle up and down the strip, spending not a single dime in the ever present casinos. Latinos line the street handing out cards for 'Girls direct to you’. Although Vegas is huge the strip is probably only a mile long and nothing we saw outside (or inside it) would persuade to live there. But it seems to be harmless enough, (unless you loose your shirt) and in the end is a shrine to fun as much as money.

We don’t look back and head north for a great big dollop of natural beauty. The dessert gives way to mountains and we gradually climb to 8,500 feet. We have a few days in Bryce Canyon, which is not in fact a canyon as its extraordinary landscape is not carved by a river. It is impossible not to see things in the ‘hoodoos’ the bizarre orange pillars created by the endless freeze, thaw and fracturing of the relatively soft rock. Look… there’s a cathedral, there’s an Indian temple, there’s a bunch of meerkats. We walk down amongst them, squeezed and breathless with occasional glimpses of brilliant blue skies in perfect colour contrast to the oxidized rocks.

Only the thought of the Grand Canyon tears us away and we drive through hours of mountain and dessert. It is the country of cowboys and injuns, landscape we only ever saw in monochrome at Saturday morning cinema. The roads are lined with the trading stalls of the remaining native Americans selling pottery, baskets and reproductions of their ancient artifacts. Their houses are barely houses at all, and we wonder how their lives must be.

We stop for an impromptu tour of the immense Glen Canyon damn on the Colorado River. We are warned that we mustn’t say words like bomb or terrorists and take a lift 600 feet down to the base of the damn where 30 foot concrete walls hold back the water. As a result of the detour we arrive at the Canyon in the dark and a strange pink glow in the sky is all that tells us there is something out of the ordinary waiting to be seen. We are staying in an historic hotel, a giant and grand log cabin badly in need of a bit of updating but it doesn’t matter. When we wake up and go outside the canyon is quite literally incredible. It would be wise to stop with that word as anything else written here risks under-representing a landscape of such immense scale and grandeur. None of the pictures we take come close to capturing the truth. It really is a place you have to see for yourself. One of the joys of the State Parks is the Rangers. And here like every park there are talks and walks and enthusiastic staff who with deep knowledge help us to understand more of the geology, fauna and flora. A few facts must suffice to fuel the imagination for those who have not seen it. It is 227 miles long, more than a mile deep and 11 miles wide.

Utah and Arizona are huge and empty but by now we are comfortable with driving hour after hour through the beautiful mountains and desserts. Our final nature stop is Sedona a pleasant town surrounded by red/orange mountains. Many of the buildings, a bit like in the Eastwood movie ‘High Plains Drifter’, are painted a reddy brown or constructed from red stone and from high up the town is almost invisible. It is also a centre for mystical and other spiritual beliefs and conversations we either have or overhear leave us looking at each other with a carefully concealed but raised eyebrow. We have a very fine chat with Doug, a young and very bald guy (it says this on his card!) He is clever and politically knowledgeable with an interesting life. It’s these chance meetings that make such a valuable counter point to what we can discern for ourselves.

And, oh goodness, three months has gone and we must away to Phoenix to make our way home to the cold and the familiar. It is tempting to try to make a summary of our travels but we feel it is premature without a time for reflection.

We can say though that we have had a marvellous adventure, have seen astonishing natural beauty, visited some intriguing cities and have grasped a little of the American perspective. We have met some fascinating people, enjoyed meeting old friends on their own turfs and have found good coffee quite often. It could be the trip of our lifetimes but with luck there may be other trips to other places, as the old saw that says travel broadens the mind is so manifestly true.

Giant Marilyn

Giant Marilyn


C'est Paris!

C'est Paris!


Hard to believe hoodoo

Hard to believe hoodoo


View of Palm Springs from the top of the cable car

View of Palm Springs from the top of the cable car


Vegas silliness

Vegas silliness


Oh, its New York

Oh, its New York


A little bit of gambling at 9 am!

A little bit of gambling at 9 am!


Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon


Evidence of the canyon falling in

Evidence of the canyon falling in


Hoodoos

Hoodoos


Hoodoo arch

Hoodoo arch


Glen Canyon Damn

Glen Canyon Damn


Grand Canyon - Awesome but hard to photograph

Grand Canyon - Awesome but hard to photograph


More awesomeness

More awesomeness


Grand ain't it?

Grand ain't it?


Sedona

Sedona


Sedona

Sedona


Sagurao Cactus - At last Jean sees a proper cactus

Sagurao Cactus - At last Jean sees a proper cactus

Posted by Jean-and-Tony 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 9 of 9) Page [1]