Monday 29 December 2008
On Christmas Eve the stockings were hung in the restaurant and the boys happily went off to bed, awaiting with great excitement the arrival of Santa overnight. The letter to Santa had been quite detailed "Dear Santa, We are not in a town, we are living in our campervan between Cromwell and Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand" so there was no fear that he would not find us!
Christmas Eve took a rather bizarre twist when around twenty cows escaped from the nearby field and were running all over the main road. One was hit by a car... in a cow hit and run (the car ran not the cow) and as the farmer was away our friends Dean and Diana raced up to the road to round the cows up and back into their field. We elected to stay and look after the boys and watched from a distance as the cows were safely returned to their field. As all this happened in the dark I was a bit nervous for the rest of the evening when I heard moo-ing in case they had missed one!
In the morning I woke up just before seven to the sound of Peter jumping up and down on the bed, saying "oh yeah, oh yeah...presents, presents" to himself as he was eyeing the small pile of gifts beneath the tree in the motorhome. With Joseph and Luke stubbornly refusing to awaken Peter got increasing louder until they eventually opened their eyes.
We headed over to the restaurant and we were pleased to see big piles of presents all round. The top gifts were:
Peter - Ben Ten action figures/DVD/colouring book, a BeastQuest book and a Diablo
Joe - A train set (what was Santa thinking...we live in a motorhome!!) and a Ben Ten watch
Luke - A Mickey Mouse phone, a lawn mower and lots of Thomas the Tank Engine books.
Once the presents were opened, Dean and David headed into the kitchen and cooked up some very tasty bacon and egg rolls for breakfast. The rest of the morning was spent playing, reading and eating chocolate.
We had a lovely lunch of bread, cheese, prawns, crackers etc and then headed out for a walk to try to burn off some of the morning's chocolate. We burnt off slightly more than planned as we ended up running away from some very scary cows who were following us as we walked through their field. This might not have been too bad, except that they seemed to move really quickly and when we turned around they were just standing behind us...it was like a scene from a Japanese horror film!
We enjoyed the rest of our walk and returned ready to face the roast dinner which Dean had prepared (spending Christmas with a chef in a restaurant has definite advantages!). After a delicious dinner we were all happy, full and exhausted. A great day all round.
Saturday 20 December 2008
The restaurant received its final building consent on Thursday following the final inspection and to celebrate we decided to head into the wilderness for a night away with Dean, Diana and Jack (their first night off in several months). After filling up our fresh water tank, emptying the smelly-water tanks and stocking up the fridge we headed North to Wanaka and on towards the Matukituki. Just outside of Wanaka the rain clouds started to drop their contents, but the mood remained good as w enjoyed spectacular views of Lake Wanaka, the mountains and lots of waterfalls. Half-an-hour later the road ended as a narrow dirt track led us into the valley.
Our speed on the dirt track quickly fell away, ranging from 20kph up to 40kph depending on how rutted the road was and how many sheep were on the track. In the back of the van the boys really had their teeth rattled, but fortunately they were kept entertained waving out of the back window at Jack in the truck behind. The rain steadily grew heavier and as progress was slower than expected (due in part to a troublesome clutch on Dean's truck) we decided to make our dinner stop and park up for the night.
We found a place where a gate opened out onto a clearing beside a large river (no idea what river it is - but it feeds into Lake Wanaka eventually) and parked up. The rain eased off a little and we managed to eat dinner outside and cross into an island in the middle of the river for a walk and some stone throwing (a favourite pastime for boys young and old - the girls stayed at camp and chatted). After getting the kids down for the night surprisingly easily whilst Dean built us a lovely camp fire the adults sat out for the night, or so we thought. Eventually the rain picked up again and finally forced us in for the night.
Overnight it rained and rained and rained some more. By morning we woke to find the river had risen and was now a lot closer to camp than it had been when we arrived. The island we had walked on the previous night was less than half the size and the mountain tops were covered in a fresh layer of snow! It was agreed that the best plan of action would be to get back on the road ASAP and worry about getting dressed and fed later. Fortunately the ground we were on was slightly more firm than most of the area and both campervans managed to make it out without any spinning wheels or flying mud.
Back on slightly more solid ground we headed to a spot back on the road to Wanaka and stopped for a long breakfast of pancakes and bacon. We like to think that we had it tough camping out in the wilderness, but bringing along a chef definitely made it a bit nicer. A couple of cups of tea later the rain was still driving down and we decided to abandon our orignal plan of staying out another night and headed for home.
In the end it was a great experience, but given that the weather spoiled most of the views and we risked getting stuck in a field beside a rapidly rising river we might check the weather forecasts more carefully next time. Apparently it's going to be nice in four days time.
(photos to follow)
Sunday 14 December 2008
First thing this morning I went with Daddy to register for the race, I got my number written on my leg. I was number 161. Then I had to get my bike checked over, they tightened my brakes and pumped up my tyres.
I was in the second wave, so I watched the 5-6 year olds doing their race. When they were finished I had to go for my briefing, I was in the 7-8 year old race.
We all lined up at the start and when they said go we ran into the water. There was over 20 children in my age group and most of them were running in the water, not swimming. I thought the water was too cold to swim, I tried to swim a little bit but I ended up wading along with the other children as there was not very much space.
I got out the swim onto the bike, which was a bit hard. I was trying to overtake the person in front, but they kept wobbling about, so I could not get past them until I was in a field.
After the bike I was on to the run, which went from the transition area up to just past our campervan and back. I didn't get a stitch on the run and I only had two short stops to get my breath.
When I finished I was very proud of myself for finishing my first triathlon and Mum and Dad were really proud of me too.
Saturday 13 December 2008
We have been spending most evenings helping out with whatever needs to be completed before the next day. This week I have been painting the kitchen and the toilets and David has been tiling the staff shower. We have had a few late nights and our waistlines are expanding as we eat midnight snacks of cheese, crackers and wine (coke for David).
We have headed off for a few days as the movers are coming on Monday to move all the furniture and equipment from the old place and we thought it would be better for them if they didn't have three kids underfoot, so we are looking forward to seeing it again on Tuesday.
We got the van parked up at Lakeview Campsite which was five minutes walk from the town center, although the location was excellent the name of the site was slightly misleading, “Slight-glimpse-of-the-lake-if-you-are-standing-on-tiptoes-behind-the-shower-block Campsite” would have been more accurate. It was a “battery” campsite, with rows and rows of vans and minimal space per site, but luckily it was not too busy and we didn't intend spending much time there anyway.
We headed out to explore and firstly had a good look around the shops, which were mainly selling tourist tat (which is fine...we are tourists after all), extreme bungy/jet boat/sky dive/paraglide experiences or Lord of the Rings tours. David is debating the extreme sport options and will probably do something before we leave...I will be saving my money for shopping I think! Peter, Joe and Luke were less interested in bungy jumps and managed to spot the Golden Arches of McDonald's and so they had a junk food fix and were happy!
On Friday we headed up the Gondola to the top of the mountain. The Gondolas were quite small so we all got in one, while Luke's buggy followed in the one behind (much to his delight). At the top we took in the fantastic views over Queenstown and the lake and did a walk around the top. There is a Luge at the top, but we are saving going on that for when we visit with Dean and Diana (although David was itching to get some practice runs in so that he can beat Dean!).
On Saturday the boys played mini-golf while I hit the shops for some Christmas shopping, which did not feel right as it was too sunny! Then on Sunday we headed back to base, but came back the long way over the mountains and had some more amazing views and amazing roads up the mountains, before getting back to see what had been done on the restaurant while we were away!
Link to photos.
Thursday 4 December 2008
Cromwell is south of where we are staying and is the smaller of the two towns. It has a small town centre, a library and a swimming pool. We have joined the library as all the boys and I love our books and the library staff are starting to recognise us already! There is a weekly storytime where Joe and Luke can listen to stories then do a craft activity. We have also been swimming a couple of times, there are three pools, a 25m pool, a learners pool and a shallow toddlers pool and we can all have hot showers without refilling the van water tank!
Wanaka is to the North and is on Lake Wanaka. It is more picturesque than Cromwell and is slightly bigger. There is a playpark on the lakeside with a huge “Dinosaur slide” which has proved popular with the boys.
Just outside Wanaka is Puzzling World where there is a maze and illusion rooms along with a large selection of puzzles to try out. So far we are still working our way through the assortment of puzzle tables and it is fast becoming a favourite stop when we visit Wanaka.
The nearest big town is Queenstown and we are planning a visit before too long to do some Christmas shopping.
The locals assure us regularly that the good weather “will be here in four days” but despite hearing this for two weeks, it has not arrived yet. We have tried reading the weather forecasts, but find then unintelligible...fueling my belief of a giant conspiracy theory by the New Zealand Tourism Board.
Today we are sheltering in the van as torrential rain beats down on us, the weather forecast in the paper says “A trough of low pressure, preceded by a northwest flow, is approaching the South Island. Tomorrow, a front moves northeastwards over the South Island, then clears to the North Island on Friday followed by a ridge of high pressure. The ridge drifts east over the country during Saturday, while a northerly flow becomes established over New Zealand on Sunday”.
I think this means the good weather will be here in about four days....I will keep you updated!
Wednesday 3 December 2008
David has been a full time helper and I have been more of an evening assistant (as during the day I try to keep the boys out of the builders' way, away from power tools, off mud piles and out of holes...which is probably harder than doing the building work). Luke is a wannabe builder and spends all day "helping" David and Dean (who is his new hero) and his favorite activity is sitting on David's knee on the digger.
As we were a bit isolated out at the site (about 20km to Cromwell and Wanaka) I decided a needed a car to run about in. Dean had a friend who had something suitable at his garage and $600 later I have a rather battered 1989 Fiat Uno for speeding down to the shops in. Luke has a knack of naming cars and this one he christened "Sally-Car" (our motorhome is "Johnny Five" and Jack's car is "The Dog Ferry").
Dean and Diana also have a dog called Lazy (after whom the cafe and the Dog Ferry are named) and we were worried how Peter and I would cope with allergies. Thankfully we have been totally fine (although our grass allergies are another story) and we are all becoming rather fond of Lazy. Luke especially loves Lazy, but Lazy does all he can to escape as Luke's fingers are just at dog eye-level and Lazy is not taking any chances... in fact Lazy looks visibly happier when Luke is safely strapped into his buggy!
The restaurant is starting to take shape and David and I built the entrance path this weekend. We will have to get on wifi soon we can get the photos uploaded!
On the way down we spent a night at Lake Tekapo, a beautiful blue lake with a picturesque backdrop of mountains. The lake has mineral deposits in the water which gives it the beautiful colour. We had a great parking spot for the van with the view from our back windows. There was also a tiny church on the lakeside, The Church of the Good Shepard, which had windows inside looking out over the view of the lake and the mountains. It was all very beautiful and would have been peaceful if we had been able to leave the terrible trio in the van, but we enjoyed it despite the slight breach of the peace that comes from three small boys!
We reached Cromwell and phoned Dean for directions...they were pretty simple...turn right, drive 22km and you can't miss us. We did as instructed and we were soon at their new place. They currently run a restaurant (called the Lazy Dog) and are building a new place and are planning to open on Boxing Day. They have bought a large piece of land and when we arrived the exterior of the building was up, the roof was on and the windows were in. They have also planted an olive grove and vineyard.
We had not seen our friends for over four years, but it just felt like yesterday and Peter and Jack acted as though they had seen each other yesterday. We are going to be staying with them until January (parked up on their land, beside their motorhome) and it feels nice to have somewhere we can be a bit more settled for a while!
(photos to follow...can't upload from the library!)
Monday 1 December 2008
We are staying with our old friends Dean and Diana, who are in the middle of building a restaurant on a piece of land they recently bought. They are opening on Boxing Day and there is lots of work to be done, so it has been a bit like an episode of Grand Designs! David is loving using the tractor and the ride on mower and I getting better with the circular saw.
The only downside is that the location is very isolated and it was pretty impractical to drive the motorhome into town each day, so we have bought a little runaround for me and a bike for David. Now that we can get to town more easily we have joined the library and have been to the local swimming pool and playparks.
We are planning to stay here until early January and then head up to the North Island for four weeks.
Better go...the boys are rampaging around the library as I type...
Tuesday 18 November 2008
When David arrived back from picking it up, he was smiling and I was too once I had looked around. Inside it was spacious (a big concern we had was how cramped it might feel), in reasonable condition and felt really quite homely. The boys loved it and were keen to try everything out...including the toilet and shower!
The next thing we did was rush out to the nearest mall to kit ourselves out. After almost three months sharing five sets of cutlery, three plates and five bowls it was nice to go and get stocked up on some essentials.
While we were at the mall we spotted a Cash-Converters and so we headed in with our now-redundant camping gear and came out with $100, which took up much less space in the van! We were sad to part with our tent but we think we are going to love the motorhome even more...which could cause problems when it comes to time to leave!
Once we had sorted out essentials it was time to get the boys the bikes we had promised them. We headed to the nearest bike shop and within five minutes the boys had all picked bikes out and were happily cycling around the shop and car park (causing some degree of chaos, but luckily the shop was not too busy).
After getting the bikes the van was getting a bit full so we got parked up for the night at a site near Christchurch airport. We discovered that the fridge was not working, which took a while as it can run off mains, battery or gas, so we had to double check each to be sure. We also found that the CD player was not working (David almost got his favourite Norah Jones CD stuck inside it, so we continued to try to get it to play a free Mail on Sunday Christmas CD...which to be honest I have no idea why we brought with us...but with no luck).
Snagging aside we got unpacked and found we have plenty of room for all our belongings, although one of our holdalls is too long to be stored in any of the underseat stores, so it now lives in the bathroom. We all slept well on the first night and Luke slept until 7am, which is very unusual, so we even got a lie in.
This morning we headed back to the Motorhome dealer who tried to get the fridge working, before conceding defeat and arranging for a new one to be fitted tomorrow. He also changed the CD player while we were there...and we got a very strange look when the Christmas CD eventually popped out of the machine and I am not sure that he believed our hasty explanation that we didn't want to lose a good CD in the stereo.
Tomorrow we will hopefully get the fridge changed and will then be fully mobile. Our first stop is Central Otago, where we are going to visit Dean, Diana and Jack, our old friends from the early days on Guernsey who we cannot wait to see again!
Photos of our new home here.
Sunday 16 November 2008
Friday was our last day and it took most of the morning to break camp and get everything packed into the car. There was still some time for the boys to play on the beach where they had fun building a collection of sticks, coconuts and "eyeball-beards" (large round nuts which in pairs you can pretend are eyeballs, but if you get lots and hold them on your chin you can pretend to have a beard). The boys were keen to make sure that lots of the sticks, nuts and flotsam they had collected were packed with our belongings. We explained that taking these things into New Zealand would not be allowed because of their strict border controls (more of which later) but mainly because we just didn't have the space!
We headed back down the coastal drive which on the way up had been stressful, but with 12 hours 'till our flight we had more time to enjoy the scenery (it was also less cloudy than on our first day).
We made our one and only visit to Waikiki (in Honolulu) and the boys played for a while on a slightly busier beach. Later on in the day we met up with Alan (a Scotsman I worked with at BWCI who, like us, is a Heriot Watt Alumnus) and Nat who are on their own slightly quicker round the world trip (3 months) for a wander around the main streets and a meal at the International House of Pancakes.
Our Friday night flights took us first to Fiji, by which time we had crossed the International Date Line meant we landed Sunday Morning in Fiji having experienced only an hour or two of Saturday 15th November. Nicola has suffered significant confusion as a result of losing a day (especially a weekend day) and we discussed how fortunate it was that the IDL fell in a sparsely populated part of the world rather than in the middle of Europe, for example, and the interesting situations which might arise. In fact reading further about the history if the IDL (see wikipedia) it seems that there have been a few interesting situations when countries have moved from one side of the line to the other and in the case of Kiribati which at one time straddled the IDL.
We finally made it to New Zealand after a further flight out of Nadi and with just customs and baggage collection we were almost home and dry. We knew that because of strict controls on what can be brought into the country we would have to 'declare' our tent at customs. In fact although we had swept it out as well as we could and cleaned the tent pegs, we suspected that it would probably be confiscated, so we were prepared for that fate. However, after a thorough search of the tent bag I was led away with the tent to a "biohazard" facility where with the help of a customs official we attempted to hoover the bag and contents clean! The customs officer, however, thought when I said "tent" that we were talking about some small piece of kit (our rather large family tent is, it turns out, longer than the biohazard cleaning room in Christchurch airport). After calling for reinforcements the tent was moved back out to the customs hall and with the help of all of the on-duty customs officers it was soon cleared for entry. Nicola prudently decided it was best not to capture the moment on camera!
Having arrived in Christchurch on a Sunday we have to endure a wait until Monday morning before we can pick up the motorhome and find our just how little space we have. It is possible that the tent might not make it much further anyway!
I feel a bit sad to be leaving the USA as we have grown fond of it as over the last two months as we experienced a bit more of what it means to be American. We found the US people to be very friendly and helpful.
We followed the US election quite closely while we were in California and were delighted to watch live on TV as CNN announced an Obama win. It really felt like we were experiencing an important part of history and hopefully Obama will be able to bring his promised change to America.
For Peter, Joe and Luke America has hopefully meant more than theme parks and fast food. They have experienced driving through the desert, visiting the Grand Canyon and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Joe and Luke now have an avid interest in maps and pore over them together discussing where we are and where we are going. All the boys will leave the US with a slight American twang to their accents and a new love of Sponge Bob Squarepants.
As we have been on the road for two and a half months as well as reflecting on our time in the US, we have been thinking about our experiences on the whole of our trip.
For Luke it was hard to get him to articulate his feelings about the trip. He told me he liked the Horses (on the merry-go-round) in Disney, the sea lions and airports. When asked what he didn't like he said "Canada"...I am sure he didn't mean it!
Joe is also still a bit small to think back over everything we have done on the trip, but he names his high points as the sea-lions and the Santa Monica Ferris wheel. Joe doesn't like sleeping in the tent (too dark) and he didn't like the Tower of Terror at Disney (but he wanted to try it to see...which was very brave of him!).
For Peter the best bits so far have been Disney World, Muscle Beach and reading new books. His low point was watching us all be sick in San Diego and he was disappointed by the fog as we drove up the West Coast.
David enjoyed our chilled out week camping in Hawaii and another highlight for David was seeing his old university friend, Chris, in Ottawa. He shared Peter's low point of being ill and was also disapointed that we did not manage more camping in Canada and the US.
Lastly, my highlights have been the Grand Canyon, the Getty Museum and watching sunset at La Jolla. My birthday was the worst day of the trip so far and I also found being on the road and changing hotel every few nights really tiring.
Being together as a family was one of the main reasons for taking our year out. The time with the boys has been fantastic as we watch them grow (especially Luke) and enjoy the funny little things they say and do.
The things we have found harder through being with them every day for 24-7 are:
1) Listening to them chatter incessantly (there are some days they just talk, talk, talk ...mostly to us about things we don't have a clue about like a game they one played or a new toy they have seen advertised on TV).
2) Toilet stops, checking no-one needs the toilet, looking for toilets...there have been days where we have nearly torn our hair out in frustration as we seem to be on a world tour of public conveniences.
3) Lastly shoes...pairs of shoes...or not, as inevitably 50% of children's shoes vanish upon entering a hotel room, resulting in David and I spending too much time crawling under beds and looking in cupboards!
Joking aside, we are really enjoying the trip, there have been highs and lows but so far it has been a fantastic journey for all of us!
Wednesday 12 November 2008
We are staying at a rather unique campground, where chickens roam freely, cats run around, the toilets have no lights and the showers are outdoors. The campsite feels like a run-down hippy commune, so we feel quite at home! We even had some professional runners camping next to us, but unfortunately we didn't discover this until the day they were leaving...much to David's disappointment!
We are on the windward side of the island which can make the tent a bit noisy at night, with the noise of the wind and the sea keeping us awake some nights (the kids sleep fine!). During the days we have mainly had lovely sunny weather, with a few rain showers, but these tend to pass quickly and the temperature has stayed high.
Our tent is pitched about 40 meters from the beach and we have spent most of each day on the beach, coming back up to our tent for lunch and dinner. The boys are having a great time, splashing in the sea, getting buried in sand, building paddling pools, watching crabs and collecting driftwood and coconuts. Last night we had a campfire and roasted marshmallows, which was great fun. It gets dark here around 6pm and stays dark until 7am so the campfire also provides some light in the evening.
We have visited one of Hawaii's tourist attractions, The Dole Plantation where you can see pineapples growing and more importantly we visited the World's Largest Maze...a big hit with Maze mad Joseph! It took us about 75 minutes to do the maze...so we did not make the Top Five Times, which were all under ten minutes!
We have two more days of relaxing on the beach and recharging our batteries in Hawaii and then we are off to New Zealand.
Link to photos
Thursday 6 November 2008
We have been staying very central and close to the harbour in San Francisco. Pier 39 is nearby and is filled with shops and restaurants and home to the famous pier 39 Sea Lions. As soon as you get anywhere near the pier you can hear the barking of the Sea Lions as the jostle for position on the old wooden jetties which are reserved for them to sunbathe on. The food here has been some of the most enjoyable, much less fast food chains. The local specialty is Clam Bake served in a bread bowl which was delicious.
We have also taken a walk up the very steep Telegraph Hill to see the Coit Tower which stands at the top, taken a drive down the "most crooked street in the world" and ridden San Francisco's other icon, the cable car.
This city has been a real highlight of this part of the trip. In general we have not found the cities on our trip to be great places (Ottawa, a small city, excepted) but San Francisco has been really enjoyable. Even the busier parts (downtown, Chinatown and the business district) are very pleasant places to take a walk.
On our last day on mainland USA we visited one of the prime views of the city from Alamo square and had a good long play at the children's playground in the Golden Gate Park (the first public playpark in the USA). Our last night is in a hotel close to the airport where we will once again try to shoehorn our vast pile of booty into the available luggage.
On the drive out to the airport I noticed that there were a lot of road signs directing San Jose. This wasn't the first time I'd noticed it, it was very clearly signed on the way into the city on Monday too. It makes me wonder what the whole problem with finding San Jose was.
Full San-Fran photos here.
Wednesday 5 November 2008
Watching Obama speak Nicola and I agreed that he looks younger than his 47 years. Nicola commented "If I look like that when I'm 47 I'll be pleased" - now I do like Obama, but I'm not sure I entirely agree with that.
Tuesday 4 November 2008
We stopped on Saturday night in San Luis Obispo where we had an enjoyable belated celebratory meal for my birthday. Sunday was the scenic drive up through Big Sur, but the visibility was appalling, we saw neither the mountains or the ocean for most of the drive! We enjoyed the drive despite the weather and stopped off to see some elephant seals along the coast.
Sunday night was spent in Santa Cruz, famous for being "weird". However, we did not see much evidence of the thriving alternative community promised by the guidebook, it was more of a sad run-down seaside resort with a few homeless people begging on the pier. What we did find in Santa Cruz (that was not mentioned in the guidebook) was that the local sea lion colony like to sit on the wooden supports under the pier for an afternoon snooze...and a bit of a chat to each other. We all loved watching and listening to them!
Today we arrived in San Francisco and so did the fog! We managed a quick walk round and some lunch before the rain started and the fog rolled in, I think it is following us! We took a drive round some of the very scary steep streets and went to have a look at the Golden Gate bridge (which we could just see through the fog).
We are here for four nights (leaving on Friday morning) so hopefully we will get at least one day of sunshine and I just hope the fog does not follow us to Hawaii!
Link to photos
Sunday 2 November 2008
We rejoined the coast at a place called Redondo Beach and found a nice picnic spot for lunch (with the obligatory playpark). It seemed to be Kindergarten home-time and the park was busy with moms and kids playing and having lunch. It was refreshing to find ourselves amongst "local" people rather than groups of tourists for a change, this was the real suburban USA.
From Redondo beach the drive up to Santa Monica was fairly short, but our planned campground was a little further up, past Malibu. Having read about the campsite on the internet it sounded like an easy drive back into Santa Monica, but in reality the road was slow and the drive was a further 40 minutes (and the advertised 10 minute drive to the coast was more like 20 minutes). Having caught a glimpse of Santa Monica on the way past we decided we would prefer to stay down there so headed back and found a nice motel on Santa Monica Boulevard (the western end of the old Route 66).
For the first time since we were in Disneyworld we were less tied to the car, Santa Monica having a comprehensive and frequent bus service. Santa Monica Pier and the beach to the North provided plenty of entertainment for the kids (including a ride on the Pier's solar powered big-wheel). On one afternoon we headed to the beach on the South side of the Pier and strutted our stuff at the orginal Muscle Beach. Another day we took the bus down to Venice and took a stroll along the seafront to see the strange population which continues to promote CND, peace and love(man). It was a bit like being in the wrong decade.
On Thursday we headed in to Hollywood which was only a 10 mile drive from our hotel. The first glimpse of the Hollywood sign on the hill was fairly cool, but otherwise the first impression of Hollywood is that it is just another US city made up of a huge grid of streets. Hollywood Boulevard was similarly unimpressive as we joined it from the Eastern end. It was a bit like driving down any un-famous London street, but with stars on the pavement. Towards the Western end of the Hollywood Walk of Fame the street became a bit more impressive and we stopped to join the hordes of tourists staring at and photographing the pavement.
A quick drive out to Beverly Hills to see the homes of the rich and famous was fun - the homes were clearly pretty special, but the truth is you can't see much other than imposing walls, gates and hedges. Elvis Pressley's old place was getting a bit of a refit, seems the new owners obviously didn't like his taste in soft furnishings. Just along the street we saw the houses or former houses of Walt Disney, Barbra Streisand and George Harrison. We finished our tour at Rod Stewart's place, the only one star's house we saw sporting a presidential election poster (Obama/Biden). We needed to do a quick U-turn and were sure Rod wouldn't mind us turning in his drive, if he ran out to stop us we were going to shout "it's ok, we're Scottish".
On the afternoon of the Hollywood visit we stopped off at the Getty Centre. The Getty Centre is an enormous museum of art which was built in the 90s at a cost of $1bn for the buildings alone. The artwork collection is likely worth considerably more including original paintings, photos and sculptures including Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and loads of artists that cultured types might have heard of. To be honest there were a couple of pretty poor efforts that had sneaked in and I know I could have done better, but it's fair to say the overall standard was pretty high. It was amazing how close you could get to the famous paintings hanging on the walls, there was not barrier or screen to separate visitors from the art, all I could think of as I stood inches from Monet's "The Bridge over the Water Lilly Pond" was how easily I could have put my fist through it. You'll be glad to know I didn't.
Link to photos
Tuesday 28 October 2008
Yesterday we did our first drive up the California Coast, destination Laguna Beach. Our guide book described Laguna Beach as "drop dead gorgeous, and full of people who share the same attributes". However the weather was not on our side yesterday, Laguna Beach was shrouded in a thick sea fog and we couldn't see the ocean from the top of the beach, a lot of the shops and restaurants were closed and we saw more homeless people than gorgeous people, maybe the beautiful people stay at home when it is foggy!
We had been planning to stay a night here, but we decided to go in search of the sunshine and headed further up the coast to Newport Beach. The sun was shining here and we went for a stroll around Balboa Island, a beautiful little island with a main street full of little boutique shops and restaurants, while the rest of the island is home to some of the most expensive real estate in America. Where the waterfront houses have their own beach and pier, suddenly playing the lottery seemed a good idea!
We stayed in a motel near Newport and it was a quiet night for us all as we are still getting over our bug! Today we are heading up towards LA and are planning to camp near Santa Monica for a few nights before driving Route 1 at the weekend.
Monday 27 October 2008
We went along this morning expecting to perhaps see a few wheelchair athletes, but as soon as we started looking round the transition area it was clear that the amount of carbon fibre in the bikes was almost matched by that in the high-tech prosthetic limbs.
As the athletes emerged from the water it was amazing to watch a range of new techniques for getting from beach to bike. Very few athletes had both legs, many had none (mostly those athletes were carried by helpers from the beach up to transition, a few could run on the remaining parts of the legs, we saw one athlete crawl from the water to transition). At one point a girl stopped just beside where we were watching and asked the people beside us if they would mind passing her leg which she had left leaning against a nearby bench.
The commentator clearly knew most of these amazing athletes and was able to give some background stories - an athlete from Afganistan who lost both legs on land mines, and ex serviceman who lost most of the right side of his body, etc. The most amazing athletes we saw were a quadruple amputee (who did the swim as part of a relay team) and a 70 year old who had a leg amputated after being run over by a rubbish truck a few years ago.
It was really inspiring to watch as those taking part were making the most of what they had and were all clearly enjoying the experience. Sometimes it is the most unexpected things which leave a lasting impression and I think we will all remember watching the amazing athletes we saw competing this morning.
Saturday 25 October 2008
Our journey to Palm Springs was epic...by far the worst journey yet. The first hour involved losing the GPS (left in the hotel bathroom accidentally), a driving de-tour to see the Cowboy sign, stopping off at a garage to see if they could fix the front indicator, forgetting to get petrol until we were on th e road which resulted in another detour...an hour after leaving we could still see the hotel about half a mile away. I could have cried.
A further five hours, four toilet stops, twice through the Thomas the Tank engine DVD and once through the film Short Circuit, seeing a place called Zzyzx and after having three oranges confiscated at the California State line and we arrived at our hotel...which more than vaguely resembled a building site (although our room was fine).
The next morning began with a trip to Walmart for essentials then in the afternoon we went up the Palm Springs Tramway to the Mount Jacinto Park at the top of the mountain where we enjoyed the views and went for a short walk.
Luke then gave us the first "in-hotel vomiting" experience of he trip as he was struck down by a tummy bug. We got him settled eventually and decided in the morning to push on to San Diego first thing (which meant we did not really get much of a look round the shops etc in Palm Springs).
Our journey to San Diego was a lot less fraught and David and I even got to listen to some music. We arrived at lunchtime and had a picnic on the beach then found a hotel in La Jolla (a trendy suburb north of San Diego). Luke was still not feeling well and so it was a quiet day in the hotel. We opted to get a suite which was a bit more expensive, but it gave us some more space and a kitchenette.
In the evening we took a walk down to see the beach at the end of the road. It was spectacular, the sun had just gone down and the sky was beautiful, it was nice to be back by the ocean.
Luke continued to be sick on our first night in San Diego so our second day was another quiet one, the highlight of which was seeing some seals on a nearby beach. By the end of the second day things had taken a turn for the worse as David, Joe and I had also caught the vomiting bug.
So I am spending my thirtieth birthday feeling rotten in our hotel room, with Joe and David intermittently being sick...I thinkＩwill save my presents for tomorrow and hopefully my thirties can only improve from here!
Link to photos
Tuesday 21 October 2008
The dull view dramatically ended when we reached the South rim of Grand Canyon. Before heading to our hotel we stopped at Mather Point and gazed in awe at the view of the canyon. Despite reading up on it before going there it was still a surprise to look upon it and take in just how amazing it is. At an elevation of 8000ft on the rim the air was noticeably thinner than Las Vegas (only 2000ft above sea level), the view ended around 1 mile (5300ft) lower at the Colorado River.
Our hotel was a lodge run by the US National Parks Authority in Grand Canyon Village, a fairly spread out village which included a small store useful for essential items (according to our guidebook) - which turned out to be a supermarket about the size of Safeway and holding considerably more stock. Indeed we even managed to find a propane cylinder which fitted our obscure (in the US) European camping stove, so home cooking was back in business. Our original camping plans were shelved when we saw that overnight temperatures were forecast at around freezing (compared with about 14C on the Canyon floor).
We ventured out on a number of walks over the next three days including one down Bright Angel Trail which took us down into the canyon a little. With Peter and Joseph walking I carried Luke on my back - it was a bit nerve wracking as the drops are considerably further than the South coast cliffs back in Guernsey. We managed to also take in two sunsets and one sunrise on the Rim (despite the cold temperatures when the sun was tucked away).
Peter and Joe picked up "Junior Ranger" activity packs on the first day and spent most of the time looking out for wildlife so that they could complete enough activities to earn their badges. Wildlife spotted included Squirrels, Ravens, Chipmonk, Deer, Horned Sheep, Elk, Lizards and Mules. On one walk through the forest Peter almost stepped on a rather large and hairy spider which we took a photograph of - a park ranger later confirmed that it was a tarantula! Peter also claimed to see a California Condor (mum and dad weren't quick enough to confirm the sighting). After completing their tasks and attending a course on fossils (including finding real fossils on the rim) and a talk on Condors the boys took their Junior Ranger Oath and received their badges on the fourth and final morning.
Grand Canyon is one of the few places we've been on the trip where we didn't really feel ready to leave yet. There is so much more exploring we would have liked to have done and we plan to return (sans enfants) to hike across to the North Rim one day in the future.
From here we now head back to Las Vegas on route down to San Diego (with a couple of stops to pick up "lost & found" items on the way).
Link to photos, click here
Friday 17 October 2008
I was very excited about coming to Las Vegas and when I arrived I was very disappointed. Where was the exciting, vibrant fun filled, mad city I was expecting? The hotels are dark with soulless smoky casinos, where there was something sad about watching people chain smoking while sitting and feeding the slot machines. There were new hotels going up everywhere you looked and at times The Strip felt more like a building site. It was amazing to see the sheer spectacle that is Las Vegas and maybe it is not possible to experience true Las Vegas with children in tow but I was glad to get on the highway to Boulder City.
The next part of our trip was planned as a three day camping trip to the Grand Canyon...this was planned and booked in May with no proper research. While sitting in our hotel room in Vegas feeling rather cold on our second evening, I decided to check the overnight temperatures at the Grand Canyon for the forthcoming week... -2, 2, -1 were the forecast overnight temperatures on the nights we were booked!
A quick change of plan was required (not easily executed with three children running rings around you as you try to look for hotels on the internet and make phonecalls). However, by 11am the next morning we had new accommodation sorted at the Grand Canyon and a night booked on the way to break the journey up. This last minute change of plan was not the cheapest way to do things...I think there may be a lesson for us here somewhere...
We left Las Vegas heading to the Hoover Dam and onwards to the Grand Canyon. Our first stop of the day was Boulder City, which was constructed to house the workers who built the Hoover Dam and it has continued to exist as a small town. The first thing we saw when we drove into the town was a huge triathlon transition area being set up...seems there is no escape from triathlons wherever we go... we had a chat with one of the guys setting it up and found out there is a race on Saturday with 1500 entries (thankfully David does not have a bike with him!).
Boulder City was a quiet, clean little town and as we sat watching the boys play in the park we realised how glad we were to be away from the polluted air of Las Vegas. After our play park stop we headed to the Hoover Dam, where we parked up and had a walk and a picnic lunch, then took some photos of the Dam before getting back on the road again.
We had decided to break our journey to the Grand Canyon in Peach Springs on Route 66. Peach Springs served as the inspiration for the fictional town Radiator Springs in the movie Cars, as it was bypassed by the construction of Interstate 40. The boys liked the idea of staying in the real Radiator Springs and we liked the idea of driving at least a small part of Route 66.
Already we have been awestruck by the natural beauty of Nevada and Arizona and we are looking forward to the scenery 0f the Grand Canyon tomorrow.
Facebook photos link
Wednesday 15 October 2008
Atlanta doesn't really count as a place we visited. In fact we had no intention of even stopping there when we booked our Delta flights direct from Orlando to Las Vegas. What Delta failed to mention when we booked was that they didn't actually fly that route so when we went to confirm the flights a swift itinerary change was required. It was the shortest stop anywhere on the trip with just 50 minutes from landing to taking off again (due to the late arrival of our flight into Atlanta). It wouldn't have been too bad if we were staying on the same plane, unfortunately we had to change onto another plane at another terminal so it was a bit tight. The flight to Las Vegas was almost boarded when we arrived panting at the gate.
So we arrived in Las Vegas three and a half hours later than the time we left Orlando thanks to a three hour time-zone shift (Luke was definitely still on Eastern time for the next 24hrs!). We managed to wangle a free upgrade on our hire car to a people carrier. The boys love the DVD player in the back but I think they'll soon grow bored of it - if that happens we'll probably buy them a DVD to put in it.
Vegas is an amazing place. It's not a place which seems immediately obvious for bringing kids to (we keep expecting Peter to ask awkward questions about the men advertising "ladies brought to you in 20 minutes" for sale in the street), but there's plenty of activities less sinful than drinking, gambling and sex to fill our few days.
The hotels are just amazingly large and, bizarre as it may sound, we are spending most of our holiday here visiting other hotels. The hotels are packed with shops, casinos (obviously) and various other sights and attractions. Our hotel has a theme park on the second floor, a circus on the third (and a McDonalds), a small shopping mall and at least thee casinos. With only 3,800 rooms it is one of the smaller hotels on The Strip. The most impressive we have visited is the Venetian, which has a canal lined with designer shops marble bridges and a large piazza filled with cafes, restaurants and entertainers. The ceiling of this room is painted as a blue sky with fluffy white clouds and the lighting makes it feel like you are really outside.
More hotel visiting tomorrow and then we head out into the desert to see the Hoover Dam, Boulder City and the Grand Canyon (probably while the kids watch Toy Story in the back of the car).
Photos (including our favourite hotel shots).
Tuesday 14 October 2008
Our time in Florida has been a “holiday within a holiday” as the rest of the trip will hopefully be a bit more relaxed. We have had a manic three weeks here rushing around trying to squeeze as much as possible into each day, marching top speed around the parks, ticking off each ride from the map...hmm, sounds familiar!
Before Mum and Dad McQuillan left to head back to the freezing shores of Scotland we visited Seaworld, the highlight of which was watching a dolphin blow bubbles and then play with them underwater and the Dolphin and Bird show was a close second favourite. The only downside to this park was the small and often overcrowded tanks and enclosures which the animals were kept in, we all felt there was a bit more that this park could be doing for animal welfare.
For Peter's 7th birthday we visited the Kennedy Space Center, which is a great day out as there is loads to do...the boys however chose to spend most of the day playing in the kiddie play park (as I stressed out about everything we were missing while repeating to myself “I must be more chilled out”).
We were lucky enough to see two shuttles out on the launch pads at Cape Canaveral (which we were informed is pretty unusual). We had been hoping to see the launch of one of these shuttles, the Altantis STS-125, while we were in Florida. As we watched online for information on the launch the date had been creeping further and further forward, with the latest update being 14 October, the day after we left Florida. Then on the day we were at Kennedy the mission was put back until 2009. The shuttle had been going up to do some routine replacement work on the Hubble telescope, but the Hubble telescope has stopped working and efforts to reset it were not successful (this brought to my mind a picture of an astronaut poking an indented reset button with an earring, but I assume it is more hi-tech than this!). The purpose of the mission has now changed to repairing the telescope and the astronauts need to retrain for the new mission, which will now take place next year. Who would have thought that the Hubble telescope would have an impact on our holiday!
We all went out for dinner for Peter's birthday, we had tried to book the Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom, but had left it too late and could not get a reservation. Instead we decided to let Peter decide where he wanted to go... and he chose to go to McDonalds...a bit cheaper than we had budgeted for, but everyone seemed to enjoy it! Then it was back to the cabin for chocolate cake (and our last air-conditioned evening).
We spent our last ten days in Florida trying out some new parks, namely Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Aquatica (our ticket also gave us admission to Wet 'n' Wild but we ran out of time to do that one!). Quick run down on each park...
Universal Studios was a disappointment...it was very disorganised, with long queues and unimpressive rides..the main redeeming feature was a big water play area for the kids and a ball play zone (which has to be the coolest playzone I have ever been to...I had a great time... except I kept tripping over little kids as I ran about...). The Simpsons ride also earned a big thumbs up from Peter, Joe and David.
Islands of Adventure was great. It seemed like a smaller park and there was a good mix of rides, including three big rollercoasters, a Dr Seuss themed “island” full of kids rides and an awesome Spiderman ride! Another highlight was when Joe and Peter met Spiderman and he was very impressed by Joseph's odd crocs fashion statement (he wears one red and one blue shoe)...Spiderman thinks he might copy the idea, so watch closely next time you see him on TV!
Aquatica is a brand new waterpark operated by Seaworld. We enjoyed this park, but again found it to be a bit disorganised in comparison to the Disney waterparks.
We noticed in all the parks that there were loads of Scottish people, I guess it must be half term in some of the Scottish schools this week. It was very bizarre to be surrounded by so many familiar accents when we are so far from home. The most Scottish thing I heard said was from a lady who had been on the Simpsons ride, who commented “Aye, it was guid, but it was an affy hing aboot” (translated: “Yes, it was good, but it was a long queue”).
The weather turned a bit more stormy in early October and we had thunderstorms almost every day, but they passed quickly and the heat soon dried up the rain. We have become pretty good at judging how long we have until the downpour arrives, although had a couple of complete soakings while we were developing our skills!!
There is loads to do on our campsite, there are two pools, a few playparks, kids activities, a restaurant, two shops, bike/boat/canoe hire, a nightly campfire with a singalong followed by a Disney film...so we have not been short of activities when we are not in the theme parks. The boys have also made some friends and have built a Fort in the swamp, which is subject to a programme of continuous improvement as better sticks and twigs are found.
The campsite got really busy over the weekends with a lot of Americans coming for a couple of nights. Americans believe in luxury camping and arrive with mountains of stuff including TV's, spare cars and their own golf buggies to get around. Most of the tents and RV's are decorated with lights and our neighbours on the second weekend gave us a set of fairy lights for our tent, so that we fitted in a bit better and felt a bit more American!
The main challenge while camping has been cooking with limited utensils...think along the lines of Ray Mears meets Blue Peter! We had to be innovative and kept jars, tubs and cartons to re-use as sieves, serving dishes and tupperware.
The only other down side to camping is the insect bites...we are all suffering at the jaws of the bloodthirsty beasties of Florida, leaving us with itchy bite marks all over our ankles and legs...nice!!
Internet access was not good in Florida and hopefully this slightly longer than usual blog post will make up for a few weeks with not much of an update. Hopefully over on the West coast of the USA it will be easier to get online...California is the home of Silicon Valley, so surely wireless internet will not be too much of a problem...
Here's hoping the next post will be describing my big win on the slot machines...now where did I put my lucky cork..?