California

Oakland probably wouldn’t register on many people’s radars when it comes to must-see places in the USA, but we spent almost a week there, venturing across the bay into San Francisco twice. We were staying with my friend Robert, whom you may recall we met in New York several weeks ago. He grew up in the area and knows a great deal about the history of Oakland and the Bay area.
Robert took a couple of days off and we went on several excursions out of the city. The first one was to Muir Woods, a
well known patch of the giant redwood trees that California is famous for. The trees here weren’t the largest in the state
but they certainly looked big enough to us. We went for a walk and enjoyed the deep silence and tranquil atmosphere of the
forest. Although there were a few other groups about it was a week day so no hoards of tourists. The weather was also cold
enough for our snow jackets.

Towering trees!

After our walk we stopped in at a very cosy diner for a late lunch and I had my first chowder (turkey and vegetable) and
reflected on how nice the American dining experience can be. They seem to have a lot of these kind of places around –
where the comfort of an English pub is combined with the quality of food you’d get in a good restaurant but you can sit at
the bar or in one of the many booths. Sitting at a table with chairs is always an inferior experience to sitting in a
booth – and for people eating by themselves a bar seat is superior. It’s a real shame we just don’t have anything like
this at home. Plus they facilitate the consumption of cocktails with breakfast, which can’t be a bad thing.
During our driving on this day we were passing some lovely scenery and drove around a bend to see a cyote walking along
the side of the road. We passed it so quickly that we barely had time to register while it was still in sight. Robert said
that he’s never seen one by the side of the road before. Our animal-spotting luck from Africa continues, apparently.

Our second day excursion with Robert was a drive south towards Santa Cruz and another forest where we saw some even larger trees and walked through a forest famous for banana slugs. Apparently these slugs are quite long and neon yellow but we didn’t see any.

Robert and Luke in a redwood trunk. The tree was still alive.

The forest was very beautiful though, and so was the drive to Santa Cruz. We managed to get to the beach
just in time for sunset and a quick look through the rock pools. The sky was streaked with light clouds that turned orange
and pink in the fading light. We spotted dozens of large and small anemones in the pools and watched the waves crash
against the rocks.

Santa Cruz tide pools.

On the days when Robert dragged himself to work Luke and I went into San Francisco. A relatively fast bus ride (although a
little expensive at $4.20 each) across the bridge and then we used Uber cars to get around. Uber is a business whereby you
use their website to book and track cars who come and pick you up. You enter your credit card details once and then the
fare is calculated by the minute and then deducted from your card so there’s no need to carry cash. The drivers use their
own, unmarked cars and work whenever they want. Taxi drivers aren’t too impressed with this new system and Uber drivers operate in something of a grey area legally. We found them all very prompt and friendly – it’ll be interesting to see if
this takes off in Australia.
In San Fran we walked around the northern end of the city, checking out views of the bridge. We walked up Haight Street
which was, as promised, full of hippies. There were some great clothing stores – and definitely the best steam punk
clothing store I’ve seen in the US. We saw some Creatura clothing (an Australian label) and a lot of clothes that wouldn’t
be out of place at Rainbow Serpent Festival. It was nowhere near as good as Camden Markets in London – though the prices were better.

This shop had every kind of tie dye you could imagine. No photos allowed inside, unfortunately.

One of the nicest things about San Francisco is the architecture. The houses are mostly weatherboard and many are painted in a very detailed fashion. They look almost like wedding cakes.

These houses are known as ‘painted ladies’.

A corner in Haight-Ashbury.

Luke and I agreed that we hadn’t really seen everything San Francisco had to offer, but that just means more to see next time!

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Las Vegas

Even the shop displays are so very Vegas.

Limo from the airport!

We spent four nights in Las Vegas, three at the Monte Carlo and one at the Signature MGM Grand. Apart from a day tour to the Grand Canyon we didn’t really think too hard about what we were going to do there. The first night we checked out which tickets were available for different show and decided to see Zumanity, the Circe Du Soleil burlesque show.

View from the Monte Carlo. Not the strip but still not bad.

I’ve seen one Circe show in the past and the costumes and acrobatics in Zumanity weren’t as stunning but it was very entertaining and had quite a bit of comedy in it too.

We spent most of our time walking around the strip, which was a lot more exercise than I expected. Half the intersections have bridges, sometimes you have to go into malls rather than walk on the street – it can be a bit maze-like. ¬†And then there’s the hoards of people asking for money, trying to sell stuff, handing out cards for escorts or dressed in costume so you can have your picture taken with Elmo or a transformer or whatever.

My favourite things we did, since I’m not into gambling and I’ve had enough of drinking this year, was just watching the Bellagio fountains and the Mirage volcano – the volcano was especially good because it was so very, very cold when walking around. Even with our new hi-tech, super warm jackets.

Luke in front of the Bellagio. The fountains play to a different song every half hour or so.

Should’ve brought marshmallows.

We spent our last night wandering around the ‘real’ Las Vegas. Most people don’t realise that the new strip isn’t actually in the city of Las Vegas itself. We’d headed to the Neon Museum to see the old signs that had been retired from various casinos and businesses. The website makes it look really photogenic and interesting – unfortunately when we got there it was closed for a photoshoot – despite the website saying that it was fine to turn up to any of the tour times and buy a ticket. Rather annoying after a $30 cab ride. We walked to the nearby ‘old strip’, which was almost as shiny and bright as the new one. We took some photos and then had dinner and a couple of drinks in a bar.

The Flamingo lights are my favourite.

Christmas tree outside the Venetian.

Liberace’s diamante-encrusted car.

I can’t help thinking that Vegas would be more fun in party mode, but we’re a bit worn out in that respect and these days I like my early nights. It was certainly an interesting experience though and I loved the Grand Canyon. More on that next.

Arizona: Route 66

I’ve got lots to write about Vegas, but here’s just a picturesque half hour from our day trip to the Grand Canyon. We stopped at a tiny but significant town along Route 66 – the first highway to link the east and west of the USA and much celebrated in American history.

The town of Seligman is a couple of hours from Vegas and is home to a man named Angel, who campaigned long and hard to get Route 66 and it’s historical value recognised. Thanks to him many small towns, not just Seligman, survive thanks to tourism and an ethos of enjoying the journey – not just whizzing along the interstate from city to city.

Here’s some photos from the town that inspired the movie ‘Cars’.

Snow on the hood.

Note the background car.

The barber shop.

 

 

 

St Louis

So the reason we’ve trekked from New Orleans to St Louis wasn’t just to see a whole lot of American farmland that looked remarkably like farmland in Australia. The main reason was to meet up with Shannon, a lovely lady I’ve been friends with online since about 2001? Maybe 2002? A long, long time, anyhow. We met via other online friends and … well, it’s a long story, but essentially we’ve been in touch via the internet for a long time and I was very excited about catching up.

Luke and I arrived in St Louis on Friday evening and realised it was cold. Seriously cold. Literally freezing in fact. After dropping off the hire car and deciding that yes, taking a taxi four blocks was a worthwhile investment, we hid in our hotel room until the following morning.

Shannon arrived just before 11am with her husband, William, and son, Will. They live a couple of hours away in a very small town that Shannon assured me was nowhere near interesting enough for us to spend much time, so she offered to come to St Louis, where she’d lived for some time. We jumped in their car and made straight for the pride of St Louis, The Arch.

It’s a massive structure, built a long time ago … for… a reason I can’t remember. But it is known as the gateway to the west – St Louis was the mustering point for many expeditions by pioneers in the early stages of settlement. Within the arch is a lift system of tiny pods that take you up to the top – over 1000 steps in height.

Like the professional I am, I completely neglected to take a photo of The Arch itself.

The view from the top is great, even if the whole experience is a little cramped. Even the room at the top has quite a low roof and tiny windows. Well worth doing if you’re in the city though. Underground, where you enter the lift system, there’s a free museum as well. After the Arch we visited an interactive science centre that was also free and very hands-on. Will is a big animal fan and enjoyed all the exhibits. Luke and I stayed on to watch a movie about the international space station in the omnimax while Shannon and co went to check into their hotel and let Will have a rest.

Oh, I forgot to mention that during the day we went to White Castle, a take-away chain that sells the smallest hamburgers I’ve ever seen. They were a little like the ‘squishy burgers’ Luke and Lucas loved in Turkey. We ordered multiple burgers each… it was really odd!

Sorry about the mid-chew photo, Shannon;). Tiny burgers are called ‘sliders’ here.

In the afternoon Shannon came back to get us then kindly took us shopping to buy proper coats. We only had the coats that we’d had made in Vietnam, which were wool but nowhere near warm enough. I bought a thigh-length coat that had a layer of stuff that reflects body heat. It seemed quite thin but has worked pretty well. Luke got a smaller jacket without a hood but it’s puffy like a quilt and he says it’s warm. With our new clothing causing us to whine about the weather 50% less than before, we were prepared for spending a little time outdoors. So after dinner (we tried deep fried ravioli!) we drove to the Budweiser Brewery.

Budweiser puts on a huge display of lights over Christmas. I completely failed to capture this with my camera, but I do have a photo of Shannon, William and Will huddling under blankets in the back of the little train that drove us around.

They’ll tell you Will has one of those monster hats too but it’s just an excuse.

By this stage the temperature was about -10 celcius. Which is waaaaaay colder than Melbourne ever gets. The new coat helped, but only having lycra leggings on did not. My gloves also failed to keep out the cold. Inconceivable!

Shannon and William dropped us back at our hotel at about 9pm. I do like hanging out with families – I get to have an early bed time without having to make excuses ;-).

The next day we went to an amaaaaaazing place. Not that you’d guess from the name – the city museum. Sounds boring, huh? Well it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Built into (and out of) a big warehouse building, it had a very plain exterior from most sides, but it was incredible – you walk into a child’s wonderland.

Very reminiscent of Gaudi works in Barcelona. All those metal cages and swirls can be climbed through.

Caves to crawl through, trees to climb, animals to wiggle through and all kinds of metal tunnels and ladders. Adults are allowed too but some of the passages are definitely child-sized. There’s plenty of slides – one of them is 10 stories high!

So pretty! And nearly everything seemed to be made of repurposed materials.

All the detail!

The adventure playground section is two stories. Then there’s an archeological section, a hands-on art section (my favourite), a pinball arcade inside a room full of really weird stuff – including the world’s largest underpants (allegedly).

The art room. I bought two books of snowflake patterns – animals and dinosaurs.

One of my favourites.

There’s huge ball pits outside, a school bus lurching over the roof and a plane. They look like they’re in the middle of building a castle in the grounds too.

The pylons and floors are covered with mosaics and interesting objects.. the place is full of art and very hard to describe. There’s a model train village with a bigger train you can sit in that takes you through a UV landscape. And a circus with children performing acrobatics and juggling. There’s lots of little spots to eat and even a bar for adults. Shannon said that at night teenagers come in and hang out and climb all over everything too.

Colour everywhere.

I am completely jealous of St Louis – every town should have a place like this, where exploration and discovery and imagination are promoted.

The whole gang!

Thanks Shannon, William and Will, we had a brilliant time :-).

New York: Food

We were so busy when we were in New York that I’m going to have to keep coming back to it to cover all the things I want to remember.

We had some great food experiences in New York. I think that if you’re even slightly passionate about food (like most of the planet) and visiting places you may never, or only rarely, come back to, you need to put some thought into your eating plan. What kind of foods appeal most? What is in season? What is the area famous for? Then get recommendations from online, from friends, from tv shows, from cab drivers and work out how and where to spend your few precious meals.

If I was on a holiday for a couple of weeks I’d have breakfast, lunch, dinner and at least two snacks in between in order to try everything. But when you’re away for a long time, as we discovered with alcohol, you can’t live every day like it’s the weekend or things go pear-shaped. When I say ‘things’ I mean ‘my torso’. Everyone who comes to the states on holiday warns that weight gain is unavoidable – so many good things to eat and everything comes with fries and sides, drowned in dressing and deep fried.

New York definitely wasn’t like that.Healthy food was pretty easy to get. They have these great places there, a type of deli, where it’s a bit like a canteen with help-yourself bain maries and they charge by weight. Sure, some are mac and cheese or deep fried chicken, but you can also get a pile of steamed broccoli or fresh fruit and it’s not too expensive. This was a very appealing option when we needed a break from eating pizza and cooking for ourselves wasn’t an option.

Pizza is something you have to do in New York. Luke’s a big pizza fan and obviously I don’t mind it either because I have tastebuds. Luke read up on the subject and it seems people in New York take their pizza very seriously. The criteria for pizza here is different to home. The base is usually super thin, although most pizza places also offer Sicilian or ‘Grandma slice’ which have a thick base. Topping are scanty compared to home, the focus is on the crust, the sauce, and the cheese. People differ in what they think makes for the best pizza – so all you can do is get a few names and go out and compare for yourself.

Don’t forget to call it a pie.

Here’s a list of the places we tried, all were recommended as being among the top pizza places in New York – although about a hundred pizza places probably fill that bill so don’t think of this as definitive.

John’s Pizza on Bleecker St.

This place is old and looks it – people have carved their names into just about every surface. We got there at 6 and still had to wait a few minutes. Get there any later and you could wait quite a while, although the service is extremely fast. You can only buy whole pies here and they’re about $20 depending on toppings for a small. Small is still pretty big though and was enough for the two of us (although we’re not really big eaters). The pizza here was definitely good but I discovered that there’s about a five minute window between thin pizzas being the same temperature as the centre of the sun and the cheese congealing. You just have to bow to inevitability and cram it all into your mouth as quickly as possible.

Joe’s Pizza

Also in Greenwich, this take-away place was featured in one of the Spiderman movies – or so their advertising says. They sell pizza by the slice and whole. There’s a few stools to sit on but mainly people just stand around eating or take their pies away. We tried their Sicilian. Again, really good and the base was super fluffy and the very bottom had a great crunchiness to it. We had a slice of pepperoni as well, which was also good but I liked the thicker pizza better.

Arturo’s Pizza

Our last stop in Greenwich, I’m not sure if Arturo’s do take away, it’s a proper restaurant and has a piano and people singing in a kind of informal manner. The vibe is really nice and, despite being pretty crowded (we could hardly get into one of our chairs) I’m sure that if we hadn’t been sitting next to a table of shouters it wouldn’t have been too noisy. We ordered a cheese pie and arugula salad. I’ve been in love with rocket and pizza since forever and the salad here was perfect – small leaves dressed in olive oil with a little parmesan – perfect for piling on top of the pizza. Another place where it’s worth getting in early – a rule that pretty much stands for anywhere good in the city, although locals seem to prefer lining up rather than eating before 7.

Best Pizza.

This time in Williamsburg and on the same block as our accommodation, we couldn’t go past somewhere called ‘Best Pizza’. We actually ended up eating their pizza twice. The first time was on our ‘down’ day when we pretty much stayed in bed and gave our tired feet a rest. We got a whole pizza to take away – they only do one size, 20 inches. Which is huge. The box was the size of a small coffee table. Their pizza is super thin though, so really… it wasn’t *that* bad.

The next time we went was on our way home from a night out and we just bought a slice each and did some people watching. The cafe itself is interesting – patrons draw on paper plates and then the plates are stuck all over the walls and ceiling which makes for lots of things to look at while you wait for your pie.

We hid the box under the bed because it didn’t fit anywhere else.

Speaking of NY pizza terminology, the word ‘pizza’ is often used in signage and on menus, but when ordering you either want a whole pie, or a ‘slice’ – not a piece. White pie is pizza with sauce and white cheeses on it and usually nothing else. I asked for ‘a pepperoni pizza to take away’ when we were in Best Pizza. I should’ve asked for for ‘a pie with pepperoni to go’. ‘Pizza’ and ‘pie’ have the same roots as ‘pide’ and ‘pita’. They all essentially mean the same thing.

We didn’t just eat pizza in NYC though. We ate a few times at a place called The Olive Tree in Greenwich. It did great mac and cheese and there were always tables free. We ate hot dogs from street vendors (not bad.. not great) and we also tried some hip bbq food in Williamsburg on the recommendation of two friends.

Fette Sau

One of Williamsburg’s most hip restaurants, Fette Sau does bbq food – you buy as much meat as you want (by weight), it gets heaped on a tray with the sides you choose and you sit at a long bench table with strangers. A tv on one wall shows a fire… I think it’s supposed to be ironic.

Our pork belly, pulled pork, rolls and broccoli. The cornbread was a new experience – tasted a lot like cake so we ate it for dessert.

Katz’s Deli

If one eating experience shouts ‘New York’ louder than any other, it’s Katz’s deli. The scene from When Harry Met Sally – you know the one – was shot here. The walls are lined with photos of famous clients and there is a protocol here that can’t be denied. You get precisely two seconds, once you get to the front of the line, to shout your order ‘pastrami on rye’ (if you choose) to one of the extremely beefy guys behind the counter and they carve about a pound of meat and slap it between two pieces of bread. I got the pickles too, which made a nice crunchy accompaniment to the sandwich.

The pieces of bread aren’t out of the ordinary – it’s the meat that blows your mind.

A trip to Katz’s is a must do (for the non vegetarians, anyhow) but do not go right on meal times. They’re open 24 hours on the weekends so a late night trip would probably make the experience less hectic.

Luke looking fearfully at the decor.

So essentially, there’s a whole lot of great food to eat in New York. We ate lots of it and barely scratched the surface. If you’re reading this and you’ve been to New York I’d love to hear about your best dining experiences. Tell me!

 

 

New York: The Metropolitan Art Museum

If you pay the entry fee for your visit to The Cloisters (you can choose not to donate, but if you do I think it’s about $27) then you get free entry to the Met on the same day. So after catching the slow, slow bus from the stop outside The Cloisters (if you are reading this and thinking of doing the same thing I urge you to take the slightly longer walk back to the subway as the train is about 3 times faster) to Central Park, where the gallery is located. If you catch the train you get more time to see the gallery and also leave it before the closing time of 5:30, which is when twenty million people hit the streets of New York trying to get home. I recommend not trying to use the subway during peak hour unless you like being rammed up against strangers. Which probably does appeal to some people but they’re the ones making it even less appealing for the rest of us.

On arrival, the facade of the building is extremely impressive and imposing – very similar in some respects to the British National Gallery. Unlike the BNG though, there is a solid line of hot dog vendors right out the front.

The Met houses a huge and diverse collection of art. After looking at the map we (Sean, Luke and myself) agreed on a meeting time out the front and then wandered around, heading for the things that most interested us.

My strategy with galleries is generally to walk into each room, pick one or two works in each that catch my eye and spend a bit of time studying those, rather than trying to see every work in detail. If it coincides with the placement of a bench, all the better;).

Our first stop was the armoury. There were suits of armour, both dress and field, for people and several suits of horse armour. There were a few Japanese suits and even one Indian. Lots of swords, guns and other pieces made it a very interesting display.

My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father – prepare to die!

Next Luke and I wandered to the Japanese section. There we found my favourite single piece of the day, a taxidermied deer encased in clear glass spheres. It looked a little like a giant Christmas tree decoration, very light and ethereal. I don’t generally find Asian art very interesting (old art, I mean – new is a whole different story) and there were many examples of calligraphy, which are hard to appreciate without some sort of background knowledge. It was a shame there were no textiles displayed because I really love Asian fabric designs.

Don’t ask me what it means.

Next we moved onto the modern American artists and they were brilliant. I don’t remember the names of any of the artists but there were many stunning paintings in realist and impressionistic styles. The names of art periods in the US seem to vary from Europe so I’m not entirely sure what to call them but there were incredible portraits and landscapes that Luke and I both admired greatly. We had a bit of a chat with one of the guards about how the gallery moves paintings that are bigger than any of the doorways. I didn’t realise oil paintings rolled up so easily.

We walked quickly through the post modern and ancient art sections and the only other art that really sticks in my mind was a very large Tiffany window that was a rainbow of colours and depicted a fantasy landscape scene. The gallery had it mounted so it was back lit and very impressive… almost gaudy in fact.

By the end of the day my feet were absolutely killing me. There’s something about shuffling around galleries that makes my feet more tired than walking many more kilometres at a fast pace. In fact I’m finding New York has been harder on my feet that anywhere else we’ve been. My ankles, for the first time in my life, are starting to ache every day and I think it’s from rushing up and down all the concrete subway stairs. Then last night we were one of the last groups into a comedy show and had to stand for the whole thing – after being on our feet since lunch time. I think I spent about 10 hours on my feet that day. I used to do that at work nearly every day (I’m a teacher) but not having any carpet to soften the blow makes a huge difference. Anyway, we’ve lain in bed half the morning today. Hopefully that will help!