Tuesday 28 October 2008

On the way to LA

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

Another day, another triathlon

We saw a most amazing thing this morning. For the third time on our trip we found ourselves at the location of a major triathlon event, but this was a triathlon with a difference. The San Diego Triathlon Challenge is a half-ironman distance event raising money for the Challenged Athlete Foundation.

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

Palm Springs to San Diego

We have had a quiet few days since the Grand Canyon. We stopped off for a night in Las Vegas for to break the journey to Palm Springs.

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 thinkÔľ©will save my presents for tomorrow and hopefully my thirties can only improve from here!

Link to photos


Tuesday 21 October 2008

Grand Canyon

The drive from Radiator Springs to Grand Canyon was very straightforward. Turn right out of the hotel carpark, after 80 miles take a left, continue straight for 60 miles. In addition the roads were generally very straight (think Roman), quiet and fast. The terrain varied little, mainly flat empty desert (strangely, when you drive in the desert you need to keep your headlights on during the day, it is surprisingly hard to spot other cars on the ribbon of tarmac ahead without them).

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

Leaving Las Vegas...

Our last day in Vegas was spent mooching around Caesars Palace Hotel, we had planned to visit a couple of other hotels as well...but the impressive interior, fountains and shops in Caesars Palace kept us going for most of the day!

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

On to Atlanta and Vegas

We have finally moved on after our epic stay in Florida. The worst part was having to pack up all of our things and take the tent down - quite a thought after spending so long in one place. First job on the morning of departure was to get rid of some of the equipment we wouldn't have space to bring with us. In true Guernsey hedge-veg style we set up our wares by the side of the road and by the time we had packed up and left we had sold the fridge for $20 and given away a camping stove, lantern, football. The only additions to our luggage were the inflatable mattresses and pump which we thought it worth holding on to, although our luggage seemed to have grown more than that. I think that we lost the knack of packing tightly which we used when we were moving around more in Canada.

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

Leaving Florida and heading West

Florida...24 nights, 8 theme parks, 3 water parks, Kennedy Space Center, 4 and a half birthdays, only 4 visits to McDonalds...exhausted, I think we need a holiday to recover, Las Vegas here we come!

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..?