Thursday, 2 July 2009
We also passed by a place called 'Chinese Camp' (I presume this is where the Chinese gold rushers stayed) which mysteriously had a New Zealand flag flying outside the shop. However, I must say that the funniest thing by far we saw on the way was a building with this written on it 'Glory Hole Recreation Centre'. I now regret not stopping to take photos, but I'm sure there are already plenty of these somewhere on the internet...
The whole area was bone dry and boiling hot, so imagine our surprise when we arrived in San Francisco and found it to be put-your-jersey-on cold! But I'll save that for the next entry...
Once we arrived at Curry Village we were briefed on their bear policy, which was that no food, liquids, or scented items of any sort (including toiletries) could be kept in vehicles or inside the tents - instead, everyone was allocated bear-proof lockers for this purpose.
The tent cabins we stayed in were indeed pretty spartan compared to the hotels we'd been at previously, but it was comfortable enough - considering there weren't really any other accommodation options at the time given it was the peak family holiday season. Probably the most annoying thing were the shared shower facilities, sometimes there were queues of about 15-20 mins before you actually had your turn.
Food-wise, I wouldn't recommend the options at Curry Village itself, we were forced to dine there twice due to how late we got back to the valley for dinner, and on the second night when we had a hot dog each (as the pizza option would've meant a one hour wait, and it was already 10pm) was probably the worst dinner we've had on the entire trip... However, other places around the valley were not too bad, I enjoyed the (mc)muffin thing at Degnan's deli so much I went twice, James had a very nice pizza at Degnan's loft, and we both had a delicious lunch at the Yosemite Lodge 'foodcourt'.
Most excitingly, let me list the animals we saw while in the park! Of course there were copious squirrels as usual, especially one particularly bold fellow near Glacier Point who appeared when we broke out the Doritos, kept moving his nose like crazy, and even climbed onto James' camera bag looking for a tidbit. I have a video that I'll try to upload later. I also saw a marmot, which I at first thought was a very fat squirrel, but realised otherwise soon enough. At Curry Village where we had those infamous hot dogs under cover of darkness turns out there were raccoons scurrying around under all the tables looking for scraps. At both the Bridal Veil Falls and Glacier Point we saw deer wandering the carpark. And of course there were various birds, especially these blue things with a crown on its head... if I can be bothered I'll look up what it's called in my Yosemite brochures later.
Of course you must be wondering - did we see any bears? Well, I was about to give up hope when on our drive out of the valley on one of the days we saw a small bear cub climbing up a tree right by the side of the road! Of course we were driving by too fast so I didn't have a chance to take a photo, but at least I can say that I've seen a real live bear... even if it was only from the relative safety of a moving vehicle, and it was only small. =P
Can't really top that for excitement so I might as well end the post here, but just a quick mention that we covered most of the sights in the valley, including the giant sequoias near Wawona. Unfortunately we didn't end up doing Half Dome or in fact any of the strenuous hikes, but James is determined to return and conquer that in the future!
Before driving into Yosemite we spent most of the day around the attractions at Mammoth (just 'Mammoth', no 'Lakes', as the locals like to call it), such as taking a gondola ride to the top of the Mammoth Mountain, which gave us some beautiful views of the whole area and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We were quite surprised to see people still skiing, given it was late June! There was still some snow but very icy - I definitely wouldn't attempt it myself.
After that we went and saw 'The Devil's Postpile', a bunch of very interesting basalt rock formations which basically looked like honeycomb pillars pushed upwards from the earth. Look forward to some Flickr photos later when we've had time to properly sort and upload them...
Soon we were on our way to Yosemite via the very picturesque June Lake area, which was quite reminiscent of Queenstown - a nice aqua blue lake with snowy mountains in the background. Unfortunately I managed to have a freak encounter with a bee during our drive. Basically we were happily going along when BAM, I suddenly felt a burning, stinging sensation on my neck. James slowed down and pulled over, and just before the car came to a halt I saw a yellow and black thing 'stagger' (if flying insects could stagger) out the window... Obviously it'd got sucked into my window and when the first thing it hit was my bare neck, it panicked and dispensed its stinger.
Now, being the first time I can ever recall being stung by a bee, I was a bit paranoid for a while that it would turn out I was allergic, but apart from a persistent, painful stinging sensation which lasted for about half an hour, I didn't develop any breathing difficulties, so I guess it wasn't that bad after all. Overall, was relieved not to have had it worse, but also a bit annoyed that I got stung without having provoked the thing in any way... just bad luck I suppose!
One last thing we saw before heading into Yosemite were more different interesting rock formations, these things called 'tufa' by Lake Mono, which basically look like stalacmites but all around the edge of a lake.
Thursday, 25 June 2009
- Totally worth the fortune we paid for this flight/helicopter/boat/bus trip combo, my favourite part was probably being in the Cessna plane getting perfect views in all directions. James' favourite part was probably teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon and nearly giving me a heart attack!
- Speaking of which, I was really shocked that there are absolutely no barriers on the tourist lookout points at the canyon. Sure, it's not sensible to try and fence off the entire thing, but at Eagle Point (where the Skywalk is), there are busloads and busloads of tourists going to the edge to take photos, and the drop is about 1.2km down - one slip, and you're custard! As I said, James enjoyed going all the way to the very edge, so far as to sit with his feet over the edge, while I stayed a wimpy but safe distance away...
- Native American people look and sound just like tanned Chinese people - seriously, we got in the boat ride where we were supposed to have a Hualapai (the local tribe) guide, but I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the guy we had and a Malaysian Chinese - I say Malaysian because he was a lot more tanned than regular Chinese people. Their accent was a wee bit different to typical Chinese English, but still... Hm.
- Overall, totally awesome, and a bonus that this is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site! Unfortunately we couldn't find any UNESCO signs to take photos with but it still counts.
- Unfortunately neither of us did much research into the drive from Vegas through Death Valley, so we probably didn't take the route which included the US's lowest point, however we still got some pretty breathtaking scenery all the way.
- In the hottest part of the valley there was a constant dry heat which felt like being inside an oven in fan bake mode, thank goodness we had air conditioning...
- I felt a little bit cheated that we paid the park entrance fee of US$20/vehicle which was good for 7 days, but we basically just drove through a small part of it in a couple of hours... still, we should support their national park service, and compared with what we've had to spend on other things, it was totally worthwhile.
- During one of our photo stops we heard, then saw, what looked like an F16 doing practice runs over the area. Man, if you've never experienced a jet flyover before, you really don't know how LOUD it is! It was probably one of the highlights of today's drive actually, really cool.
Finally, arriving in Mammoth Lakes was a bit of a relief thanks to the cool mountain air and for James, being able to stop driving! I have to say he did a very admirable job for the first time handling a vehicle in the US and having to drive on the WRONG side of the road, though we're kind of used to it by now... For dinner tonight we had some awesome Mexican food, the portion sizes were insane and we even got a doggy bag for lunch tomorrow, I just hope I remember to take it out of the fridge when we check out, otherwise our next guest will get a nice surprise...
Tomorrow we'll explore the Mammoth Lakes area a bit before driving up to Lake Mono, and then through Tioga Pass into Yosemite, where we will be staying in unheated tent cabins in Curry Village that costs more than both our Washington and Vegas hotels... ah well, I'm sure that being right in the centre of the park will make it all worthwhile!
The next day was our Grand Canyon tour which I'll cover in a separate post, but we had plenty of time after we got back to have a look around. As you probably know most of the casinos are themed after a certain time/location, the most elaborate of which is probably the Venetian. Now, I've never been to Venice, but having gondola rides on bright blue 'canals' that reek of chlorine just seems to be an abomination... The pictures will speak for themselves there!
For dinner I got to fulfill my dream (well, kinda) of eating at a Vegas buffet, and we chose the relatively modest spread at Treasure Island. There was sushi, a carvery, salads, pastas, Mexican, Chinese, and of course a truly impressive array of desserts. I managed to tear myself away before I felt sick, but I think I still managed okay, and the food itself wasn't too bad at all. Next time when I'm super rich I'll indulge at the Wynn... or maybe one of those celebrity chef restaurants, definitely out of our budget this time around though!
After that we checked out the hotel's 'Sirens of TI' show, which basically was a 'battle' between some 'sirens' and 'pirates'. Being Vegas they don't do things by halves, and the moving ships, fireworks, singing, dancing, and HUGE fireballs were definitely very impressive. We were so close to the fireballs I thought I'd be roasted alive if they didn't stop after a few seconds!
However, I must say that probably my favourite 'free' Vegas show were the Bellagio fountains. I'd seen them in movies before, but nothing quite prepares you for how beautiful it is in real life, up close. I almost wish we had more time to stay and re-watch it a couple of times, but it was already getting super late and we had an early start the next day to drive to Mammoth Lakes.
Overall, I didn't think Vegas was that bad during the day, it was a lot cleaner than I expected, thoug they could've done without the guys on the street wearing the 'GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS' t-shirts trying to hand you business cards...
Probably the funniest thing that happened in Vegas (while I wasn't actually there) was when James was approached by a guy, who greeted him with a fistbump, and then asked if he liked to party, to which James replied (verbatim), 'Not especially?' and then made a run for it. Obviously that guy was trying to get him to go to his nightclub or something... I totally LOLed when I heard about it!
Okay, next post will be about the Grand Canyon, though we have a pretty packed schedule ahead so we may or may not have internet access again until San Fran... we'll see I guess!
Sunday, 21 June 2009
Last night when we arrived from New York it was already about 7pm, as soon as we got into the room it was a relief to see that the lack of space restriction meant we could actually walk around without tripping over ourselves! And finally some free in-room wifi too. Unfortunately laundry service prices were still astronomical (US$3 for a pair of socks, US$8 for one pair of pants) so this morning we had to find another laundromat, but that worked out okay.
Dinner was at a tapas bar called Jaleo which was packed, we had to wait for a table but it was worth it because everything was delicious! Afterwards we decided to take a look at some of the monuments in the dark, first we went up to Capitol Hill, and then all the way down to the Washington Monument, which was actually quite a walk... we also intended to have a look at the White House at night but it was so well hidden behind the trees (and we didn't really know at the time where to look) that we missed it entirely. By the time we got back to the hotel it was about midnight and we were exhausted, little did we know how much further we would walk the following day...
The following day (today) first thing we did was drop off the laundry, and also grab some breakfast - I tried cheese and grits for the first time, which to be honest was a bit bland by itself, but I'm still glad I got to try it... it was raining pretty miserably the entire time, so we headed into the Smithsonian's Air & Space museum. It was packed (especially with school groups) but still worth the visit, it was funny to see how they had hastily corrected all the Pluto references in the Solar System exhibition, everything was in need of a bit of an update really! But probably the coolest thing was seeing things like the actual propeller from the first Wright brothers' plane, actual things used by astronauts in the Apollo mission, and I also touched an actual rock from the moon (worn smooth by many visitors past)!
After we finished we were pleasantly surprised that it'd cleared up outside, and was actually quite balmy. It was time to collect our laundry so we did that, dropped it back off at the hotel, and then headed back out with better directions to find the White House. We managed to snap photos from both the rear and the front, and then went to look at the Lincoln, FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Jefferson Memorials.
Overall, I've been very impressed by how well the neo-classical architecture (as James informed me) has been executed in DC, the wide expanses and grand monuments are a complete contrast from NY, and reminds me a lot of Vienna. Also, it was cool to see the famous speeches from the various presidents carved into their monuments, even though we weren't American, a lot of it is still universally relevant, especially seeing FDR's quotes and today's wars and economic crisis.
Tomorrow we'll look at the Natural History part of the Smithsonian and probably just take it a bit easier, given how much we've already done in DC.
Friday, 19 June 2009
However, not to worry, we already got some great (clear) shots of the UNESCO site (another one ticked off the list!) from our Staten Island Ferry ride and the Circle Line cruise. Ironically it's still overcast but at least not raining today, but ah well.
At the moment we're just waiting in the hotel until closer to the time that our bus to Washington leaves from Penn Station, I'm using the 'public' free internet computer in the hotel's 'business centre' to post this entry, which also explains why we haven't had much of a chance to upload photos yet - this has a 30 min time limit and I inevitably have to relinquish this before I can organise the photos properly. Nevermind, the Washington hotel supposedly has free in-room wifi, so hopefully that's going to be able to cope with some uploads!
Some things I want to note down before I forget about our time in New York, in no particular order:
- Saw a rat in the subway tracks one time, but heaps smaller than the ginormous one we saw in Pondicherry, India!
- I managed to tick two of the three (?) NY food icons off my list - a pastrami sandwich at Katz's, a lox bagel at Barney Greengrass. The hour plus line at Grimaldi's kinda put me off waiting for that famous Brooklyn pizza though, maybe next time.
- If you ever come to New York for 3+ days, I'd definitely recommend getting some sort of New York Pass/multiple-attraction discount pass and also an equivalent period unlimited ride Metropass, which works on both the subway and the buses. The New York pass basically meant we got about a 50% discount off all the attractions we went to, not to mention help us avoid a few queues, too.
- Pedestrians and cars pay zero attention to each other, I was led to believe jaywalking was some sort of henious crime here, but everyone in NY does it pretty much at every crossing, and cars don't wait for you even if the pedestrian light is green - if they're trying to turn and they see a gap, they just go.
- Every single American tourist in New York can't go around without wearing the 'I *heart* NY' t-shirts. Once we even saw a group of about 30 people in the exact same one, it was a bit weird... We've managed to get through the entire trip without purchasing a single kitschy NY souvenir, which I'm pleased about. I was somewhat tempted by the personalised 'CLARA' items (fake NY license plates, keychains) since they usually never have my name on personalised items, but at US$6.99 for a small keychain I managed to resist.
Thursday, 18 June 2009
The night before last we went up the Empire State Building, the original plan was to go up at near-twilight and then stay for the sunset and also night view. Unfortunately, the crush of tourists (even at 8, 9pm) combined with the slow security check meant it was fully dark by the time we got up there. Nevermind, still a lovely view and we got some great photos. We went up Top of the Rock the following night and by contrast it was very spacious and relaxed, heaps less people, and much better views actually - a full vista of Central Park and also a great view of the Empire State Building itself. If you only had the chance to go up one of these in NY, I'd definitely recommend the latter.
Museum-wise we've now been to The Met(tropolitan Museum of Art) and also the Guggenheim, which was actually really interesting because they had a special exhibit on Frank Lloyd Wright himself. The Met had your usual array of Byzantium, Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian stuff, etc, so we didn't actually spend as long there. Also made our first foray into Central Park which was as massive as we'd expected. On the great lawn we witnessed some sort of bizzare version of American baseball played with a dodgeball and instead of swinging with a bat you kicked with your feet. Didn't seem that fun to play or to watch...
Food-wise I've finally achieved my goal of going to Katz's deli for a pastrami sandwich - at US$14.95 a sandwich it wasn't cheap, but James & I shared that between the two of us and it was as delicious as I expected, so I think it was worth the trip! For dinner last night we went to Sip Sak, a Turkish place, which was probably some of the best Turkish food we've both had, and tonight we had some empanadas and arepas at a place on 9th Ave, again, really good... Too bad I then nearly made myself sick on ice cream at the Cold Stone Creamery, but I guess I have yet to learn from my mistakes...
This morning we went to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which is basically an old aircraft carrier converted into a giant tourist attraction - really worth it, especially being able to go into a submarine! After that we took our 2 hour Circle Line cruise from the NY Pass, had a tour guide with an awesome NY accent and found out some interesting tidbits about the city.
Probably the most exciting thing today was NEARLY getting the chance to be in the audience of The Colbert Report, we were #7 & 8 on the standby list, but alas they only had one spare seat... Which is a shame since we spent probably two and a half hours in total around the studio, waiting, but... we weren't alone, that was for sure!
Well, I better let someone else use the computer now, tomorrow we're planning to go to the Statue of Liberty (finally) and also MoMA.
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
The NBC tour was by contrast extremely packed, there were quite a few school groups going through and the pages doing the guiding were obviously quite numb to the constant flow of visitors. We got taken to Brian William's news studio, the Football in America studio, and finally the Saturday Night Live studio. The highlight of the tour though was definitely being given a chance to see Jimmy Fallon rehearse his jokes for tonight's Late Night show! We even got to talk to him 'directly' because he asked if there were any visitors from outside America, when James said 'New Zild' he responded 'England?', then I had to correct him by loudly enounciating 'New ZEEland'. Anyway, he had quite a few jokes mostly revolving around the Iran election, LA Lakers, etc. Most of them were good, except for one that nobody laughed at, and then we all laughed because nobody laughed... We'll be sure to catch tonight's show to see what made the cut!
Monday, 15 June 2009
Afterwards we got on the subway and decided to get off at Brooklyn Bridge, on which probably 99% of the pedestrians were tourists... It was pretty cool walking across, the raised walk/cycleway is definitely a sensible approach but it's probably a bit late for Auckland to adopt that. On the other side we walked through some of the parks and and a cursory stroll in the leafy residential streets, before catching a bus back to Manhattan, getting off at Wall St.
Being a Sunday, Wall St was pretty quiet (except for tourists) and some roadworks, we took the obligatory photos by the big flag on the NYSE, and then walked towards Ground Zero. When we got there, as I expected we saw a huge hole with a couple of cranes in it and not much else. To be honest I can't say I had a huge emotional reaction, as there wasn't any proper memorial, and a lot of it was fenced and tarped off, but I guess I can say I've now been there.
After that we pretty much walked all the way down to Battery Park but decided to save the Statue of Liberty trip for another day - instead we hopped on the free Staten Island Ferry, of course there was absolutely nothing on the other side so we just hopped straight back, but you got a nice view of the statue and also Manhattan either way.
The last 'attraction' for the day for was the 'Bodies...' exhibition in South St Seaport, it was fascinating but also a bit disturbing, especially as it seemed all the 'specimens' were Asian males - did they buy them in bulk from China or something...? Though probably the most disturbing part for me was the ones with the baby fetuses in various stages of development. I definitely recommend it though!
Had dinner in the same area, and then headed home to find a laundromat, given the exorbitant fees of the hotel's laundry service (US$5 for washing ONE shirt!) We walked around the block and could see quite a few places, however they were all closed - will try again tomorrow, a place that's already looking quite promising only charges US$1 per pound of clothes, with a minimum of 6 pounds, which is how much I guesstimated our load to be, so that should be okay. Still, I was hoping there would be the coin-operated self-serve ones open 24hrs, but obviously not in our neighbourhood!
Sunday, 14 June 2009
We took the Lucky Star Bus (a shame they don't have 'gold' in their name) from Boston to NY Chinatown, it was super convenient and very cheap (only $15 per person). Am also very proud that we managed to get from Chinatown to our hotel using the subway, bags and all - apparently they haven't heard of lifts in these stations, or wide turnstiles for wheelchairs & people with baggage. I do miss HK in that respect... but I guess this system is a lot older than that!
I know I showed some people this hotel which we had originally booked, and it was going to be a spacious room with a fantastic view of Manhattan, etc. However, after looking at it on Google Maps and reconsidering the inconvenience of basically being ten blocks away from the closest subway station, I decided to change to this one instead, ended up being cheaper and much more conveniently located - only two blocks from the subway.
However. I guess there's a reason it's this cheap, as we ended up with a teensy-tiny room with a bona-fide anti-view... I gathered that the hotel is completely chocka-full at the moment, but am hoping that during the weekdays they might be able to move us somewhere else...
Still! It's definitely exciting to finally be here, we'll head out and grab our NY Pass now, and also some dinner, and get our teeth into the proper sightseeing tomorrow.
Saturday, 13 June 2009
Anyway, so we wandered off into the Hard Rock Cafe instead. That was also funny because we were told to go through to the bar (since we said we didn't want dinner), we went through and since there wasn't really space for all three of us to sit at the bar we sat down at a nearby table, and then a panicked waiter came over and started berating us for not getting seated by the proper person, and basically told us to get up... We ended up at the bar in the end, but not without some drama!
In the end, I guess the weird thing is how rule-conscious people seem to be here, and they freak out (loudly!) when you don't do what they expect... I guess we'll just have to pick it up as we go along!
Friday, 12 June 2009
But anywhere is better than being on a plane or stuck in an airport, as I have been for the past two days... Flight from Auckland to San Fran was a breeze, it even arrived earlier than expected, but if anything this worsened the pain of the ten hour plus wait that was to come before my connecting flight to Boston was to depart...
At SFO I whiled away the time by:
1) riding a complete loop of the AirTrain for no reason
2) window shopping everywhere, including the SFMOMA store
3) checking in my bags to my American Airlines Boston flight with a frustratingly unresponsive touch screen
4) managing to avoid the con artists at the 'free speech booth' trying to get 'donations' from you
5) having lunch at the San Francisco Soup Company in the foodcourt
6) later, having Cheetos and Snapple - Snapple was fine but Cheetos have a thing or two to learn from Twisties...
7) getting dinner from a sushi place, with some regret as three pieces were unexpectedly laced with chili - I managed to knock them back in quick succession and soothe my mouth with an avocado roll in the end
Things started to go wrong for my Boston flight when the plane itself arrived late at the terminal, so we were already half an hour delayed from the get go... not a biggie, until two hours in the captain announced we were to make a stop in Denver. The reason for this remained a mystery until after we'd landed and two medical personnel whisked the pilot himself away! Turns out he fell ill about an hour into the flight and decided landing was the safest option... What surprised me next was the reaction of my fellow passengers - mild annoyance and resignation. I suppose everyone is used to domestic flights being unreliable so expectations were already at rock bottom.
The only thing opened inside the airport at the time (and it was about 4am local time) was McD's, and queues quickly formed - I put my 'breakfast' off until closer to the rescheduled departure time of 7.30am local time, which was then they said they'd managed to get a replacement captain & crew. Ended up getting the Sausage & Egg McMuffin (of course), which was actually very delicious - sausage pattie almost as good as in HK (but not quite), but the egg was by far the best I'd ever had in a McMuffin. Next I suppose I'll have to try the McGriddle, but looks to me like the English Muffins have been replaced by blueberry pancakes, so... not too sure about that... The only frustration was my failure to get a cup of tea with my bfast combo, the server was either stymied by my accent or my request for a 'milk tea'. Whatever it was, ended up with a gigantic cup of black (filtered?) coffee about twice the size of your normal NZ cup, and only managed to scull it down after adding two creamers and three sugars. Yum!
When we FINALLY got to Boston it was a full six hours after our initial estimated arrival time. At least it was easy to get from the airport to Natick! Met James at the Logan Express bus stop, had a quick shower back at the hotel and then grabbed some lunch at the nearby mall. I'll be heading back there tomorrow to have a proper exploration of the shops while James finishes up the last of his work-related days.
Dinner was at TGI Fridays, which was not too bad except their barbeque sauce tasted mainly like tangy high-fructose corn syrup, but at least we got the smaller (i.e. normal) portion sizes. Tomorrow I'm looking forward to a proper New England Clam Chowder!