Thursday, 25 June 2009

Grand Canyon & Death Valley

Okay, just quickly before I don't have the chance to/forget:

Grand Canyon
  • 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.

Death Valley

  • 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!


Ah, Sin City. We gambled away a total of US$2 and of course lost everything, but no matter, we still had heaps of fun! On the first night we managed to grab some pretty well-discounted tickets to Penn & Teller's magic show at the Rio, which was really entertaining and worthwhile, I'd definitely recommend it. The only downside to the whole thing was underestimating how far the walk from Treasure Island and the Rio was... The magic itself was mindboggling, of course being Penn & Teller they showed you the 'secrets' of some of their tricks, but left plenty of others unexplained - all in all, I was very impressed. It was especially nice that they stayed behind to take photos and sign autographs for the audience afterwards - I got one with Teller.

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


We've only had one and a bit days in DC and already have walked a total of about 15 miles (or 24km) around the city! Unlike New York the subway system isn't as extensive or conveniently close to our hotel, so we've been deciding to just walk everywhere, with pretty tiring consequences... but it's all grist for the mill, especially as Yosemite isn't far away now.

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

New York Sum-up

As some of you may have seen on my Facebook, it's been unseasonally cold in the East Coast lately, in Boston it was as low as 12 degrees Celsius and overcast or raining interchangeably, same in New York. For most of our time it's been reasonably okay, but yesterday the skies let loose and it poured continuously for the entire day - really helpful when you're taking a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty... Basically we got out, took some photos as best I could under the umbrella (shielding us from the sideways-rain) and then hurried back to the ferry and the mainland.

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.
Right, someone else is waiting to use this computer now so I better go, watch out for some photos soon!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Two top views, museums, and Comedy Central shows...

Have been doing so much lately I can hardly keep track of when we did what! Let's see how well I can recall it without also looking through the photos at the same time...

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

Two tours and our first celeb sighting!

After dropping our laundry off at a place around the block, we made our way to Rockefeller Plaza where we did the Radio City Music Hall and NBC Studio tours back-t0-back. We had a pretty good guide and a relatively small group of eight for the Radio City one so it was pretty good, the Art Deco interiors and design were cool, and we even got to go on the stage and meet a 'Rockette', one of two hundred dancing girls who perform regularly there (and around the country), though the one we met seemed almost... robotic in the way she recited her spiel and then offered to take photos with us.

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

Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan

Turns out today was Puerto Rico Day (or something like that), apparently there was a parade on but we went out a bit too late to see it, however we did manage to enjoy the street market running parallel, starting pretty much right outside our hotel. There were plenty of food stalls selling things like gyros, grills, tacos, and even clam chowder - I ended up getting a chowder since I only had one in Boston (and it was a bit average) and this actually turned out to be pretty good! James had a taco, I had a bit of beef and I can definitely testify to its tastiness.

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

New York, New York

It's great to finally be in NYC! I say 'finally' even though I've only really been here for three days, but we've been planning this for ages after all.

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

All malled-out

Yesterday I managed to go through pretty much all the stores in Natick Mall and surrounding area and only spent about $2! There were all sorts of stores I'd heard of but never been to, including Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Sears, JCPennys, Gap, Nordstrom, Crate & Barrel, etc. Also, there were the specialty places like the Lego store, complete with candy-bin like dispensers of different coloured bricks, and of course a proper Apple store (not just a Magnum Mac).

Unfortunately I had more time to kill at the mall than I really needed, while I waited for James to finish his last day of work-related stuff, so... my first visit will probably also be my last - but I didn't come here for the shopping (definitely not why James agreed to take me along, anyway!).

By the time we got into our new hotel closer to town, we wandered around the Faneuil Hall Marketplace area before having dinner, which was not too bad - it was the after-dinner drinks that was interesting though... We were wandering around and ended up at an Irish pub, as soon as we walked it we could see it was a local joint, and the barwoman immediately asked for our IDs - even though we were 25, 26 and 44 (James' boss)! We pulled out our NZ driver's licenses but obviously she just wanted us to leave because she said it wasn't good enough...

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

Thirty-something hours later...

I'm finally in Boston! Well, Natick to be precise, about thirty minutes west, where the main feature seems to be the massive shopping centre (Sylvia Park or Westfield Albany ain't got nothin' on Natick Mall) surrounded by tech companies in an industrial park environment.

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!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

another trip, another blog

I've lost count of how many blogs I've started, and how many months (years?) since I last posted in any of them, but given my imminent three week trip to the States, now's as good a time as any to throw another one into the mix!