Canada and Alaska: Ketchikan

If Skagway had the best weather of the cruise, Ketchikan had the worst. Which was a shame because it did have a certain charm.

Mum and I went out for a quick walk first thing then back to the boat to dry off and regroup. I ended up taking off most of my clothes and going out in shorts and sandals with a light rain jacket, figuring it was better to be a bit cold and towel dry my skin rather than have to try to dry jeans and sneakers.

Ketchikan has a little ‘ye olde’ area called Creek Street, which was ok, boardwalks on stilts along a creek full of salmon. Better though, was a great book store called Parnassus Books, which was nearby. A great range and friendly staff. I recommend dropping in if you’re looking for some travel reading.

I don’t really have much to say about Ketchikan. It felt a lot like Juneau, obviously a town where people lived and worked outside of the tourism sector. Lots of people on our tour did plane and helicopter rides and could probably give a better impression of the place but we spent most of our time there on the ship. How sad! That’s what sideways rain does to you though.

Next: Glacier Bay.

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Universal Studios Hollywood (Luke)

Universal Studios was high on my to-do list ever since we decided we’d be going to the US. I’m a sucker for high-tech rides and coasters. Being a movie fan, though, I was keen to go on the studio tour, which is the reason the park opened in the first place.

We started off early by catching our hotel’s shuttle over to the bus depot, intending to get to the gates before they opened. Unfortunately the buses weren’t running when we got there, and weren’t due to start up for another half hour, so we used an Uber cab to get over there. It delayed us a little bit, but when we got there it was surprisingly quiet anyway, so we needn’t have worried.

Universal Studios Hollywood Park Map 2014

We studied the map beforehand to draw up our battle plans.

We purchased our tickets, opting not to go for the more expensive front-of-line tickets given the thin crowds. We’d read some guides on the best way to tackle all the rides and attractions, so first off we headed for the studio tour. We piled in to a four open-carriage tour bus and set off. The commentary of the tour guide is supplemented by humorous videos staring Jimmy Fallon. We were sitting in the front of the third carriage, and couldn’t really see the TV screen from where we were sitting – however it does give you a good view for everything else. The tour takes you through both the universal front and back lots. The front lots have all the production offices, and the back lots have all the stages and sets, which still get a lot of use. We even went past a crew shooting some TV commercial. I can understand why they still have their New York and European city sets still up – they seem to get a lot of use. But it’s a bit baffling as to why they still have a wild west back lot – I can’t imagine there’s much call for it anymore, and it looks extremely dated. Though it was used in a Community episode, so I guess it’s not completely useless.

Apart from current working sets, there are also some remnants of sets, including the crash scene out of War Of The Worlds, the Desperate Housewives street, and the Bates Hotel out of Psycho. I was a little disappointed that the Back To The Future clock tower no longer features on the tour.

King Kong 360 3D is an attraction coupled with the studio tour. It was designed by Peter Jackson and his WETA workshop to be a mixture of CGI, simulator and practical special effects. The tour carriages pull in to a darkened cave area with two huge IMAX screens curved around the tram displaying the lush vegetation of Skull Island, which is where King Kong was set. Before long though a few dinosaurs get interested in having a chomp on the tour guests, and Kong turns up just in time to stop them. Some prehistoric fisticuffs result, and the tour carriages are knocked around as the fight goes on. The 3D effects aren’t the most immersive, and there’s a lot of stuff going on so if you try to see everything you’ll end up taking in less than you would if you were just looking to one side, but overall it’s a great experience with some excellent effects. Check out this in-depth review for more details.

At the end of the studio tour you get a final video from Jimmy Fallon who busts out a guitar and sings a song for you, wishing for you to “Have a Tram-tastic day!“. Super catchy song which we ended up humming on our way off the tram. I’m surprised it hasn’t made more of an impact online.

Thanks Jimmy Fallon – we will!

Next up was The Simpsons ride, which is a simulated roller-coaster. As you wait to enter the ride, you watch a movie with Krusty explaining how we’re about to ride the new attraction at Krustyland, and the Simpsons are picked to be the first on the ride. However we also learn the murderous Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and is out for vengeance against both Krusty and the Simpsons. Bob manages to infiltrate Krustyland, takes control of the park and forces us to set off on the ride while he sets about destroying it, as well as everything else. What follows is a manic ride around Krustyland as our coaster cart is knocked all across the park, and then eventually through Springfield itself. Even though the simulator doesn’t actually fall, the visuals fool your brain in to feeling a strong sense of motion and vertigo as you hammer down a large drop or fly through the air. Check out the Simpson Ride Wiki page for more info.

The Simpsons ride was one of our favourites 🙂

After a bite to eat (definitely have breakfast before you arrive if you get the chance, park food is expensive and you can’t bring any food in with you other than fruit and baby food) we saw the Special Effects Stage Show, where they demonstrate a number of both practical (in-camera) and computer-generated effects. This was quite an entertaining show, with members of the audience brought on stage to pretend to rappel down buildings, or to stand in front of green screens to be terrorised by giant monsters.

After that we headed down to the lower part of the park. Seriously lower – you have to go down a series of three large escalators to get down there. On the way is an apparently often unappreciated feature of the park – amazing views over the San Fernando Valley.

Longest escalator ever!

The lower part of the park features three rides – Transformers, Jurassic Park, and The Revenge of the Mummy. Transformers: The Ride-3D (4D really, as it also employs water and fire effects) is another simulator ride based on the Michael Bay movies. While waiting in line you are told that the NEST base which houses an important relic called the ‘all-spark’ is under attack by the Decepticons. You team up with the Autobot ‘Evac’ (the simulator car you’ll be in) to get the all-spark out of the base and to safety. As you move out of the base and in to the city you come under heavy attack, with Decepticons trying to stop you at every turn. The simulator actually moves through tunnels which take you past a series of screens through which you view events unfolding. It’s a really freaking awesome ride which genuinely wowed me. By far my favourite – I ended up going on it about five times throughout the day!

Amanda was too hesitant to come on the Jurassic Park ride at first, so I went on by myself and discovered the joys of the “Single Rider” line. Skipped the queue and got on and off the ride within 10 minutes. The Jurassic Park ride is a water flume ride, and it’s fairly basic. Your boat takes you in to Jurassic Park, you see some relatively unimpressive animatronic dinos, something goes wrong, you get diverted up through an escape route, dinos “chase” you (i.e. pop out from the sides of the track or the roof above you), leading to what the entire ride is really all about – a mammoth 84 foot drop (!!) down to a splash pool at the end. I was riding at the back of the cart the first time, didn’t get very wet and the drop was thrilling but fun, so I got off and convinced Amanda she should come on the ride. We ended up in the front of the cart, which offered a very different experience. We got very wet, and the final drop was buttock-clenchingly scary. Definitely the most intense ride in the park. Lesson learned, we didn’t go on that ride again!

The angle of the exit makes the drop look way more gentle than it actually is. Very deceptive. The screams really should have clued me in.

While Amanda dried out in the sun, I hit the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster. I was fully expecting this one to be a thrill ride, but ultimately came away a little bit disappointed. After setting off and going through a few ‘spooky’ rooms almost like a ghost train ride, the persistently hard-to-kill Imhotep invites you to join him in everlasting life – but first you have to die. After this bombshell, the coaster rapidly accelerates (woo! Best bit of the ride) and shoots you in to a pitch black room with quick twists and turns, and a few UV-painted glow-in-the-dark monsters overhead. You reach a dead-end, come to a sudden stop, some scarabs attack you (vision of scarabs on screens around you while small brushes swish around your feet to freak you out) and after a few moments roll backwards quickly along the track (switching tracks in the process), slowing to a stop in the dark as a ghostly mist surrounds you. When it clears, you’re at the end of the ride. It was fun, but just not as thrilling as I was expecting. I read that the ride is the crippled version of the one at Orlando, which features an introductory video with the cast of the Mummy, and more footage during the ride. More info here.

Those were the best attractions at the park. Apart from them we went to see;

  • Shrek 4D, which was a 10 minute 3D Shrek movie with some practical effects (like water sprays and moving seats) and was far too loud for my liking (Amanda thought it was fine),
  • The fairly hammy WaterWorld stunt show in which we were very lucky to sit in seats that didn’t get completely soaked in water,
  • The Blues Brothers stage show, with a couple of convincing Jake and Elroy lookalikes who sang very well but failed to get the crowd going,
  • The House of Horrors, which Amanda passed on. Walk through a spooky house while actors jump out and scare you. Also has a few sets from famous horror films to add interest.

I decided to go on the Transformers ride a few more times (so awesome!) then because I managed to get through so quickly, take one more ride on the Mummy coaster. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake – just as I was next up to get in the coaster cart, the ride broke down, and everyone had to get off so the ride could be reset. Though I was first on when it eventually came back online, the whole wait was about 15 minutes. I would have happily skipped that wait to go on either Transformers or the Simpsons rides again. For my troubles I was given a voucher for front-of-line on all but the two best rides (which I discovered only after trying to redeem it at The Simpsons ride), and a free drink from one of the stores, but which stores you could redeem it from was ambiguous. After waiting at one to be told I couldn’t use it there, I was told to go to another, and ended up waiting there in line for ages. All for a small drink. It felt like my reward for all the waiting I did was more waiting. I would’ve been better off not even trying to use the voucher at all.

Universal also has a strip of shops next to the park called CityWalk, where we ended up going for dinner. It was damn near as bright and loud as Las Vegas, with a live band performing on stage, lots of neon signs, dancers, and large crowds. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, mainly for the novelty value. As I expected, it’s really not anything special.

Not Las Vegas

Universal Studios Hollywood only sports a few attractions and though they’re fun, they’re fairly tame. If you’re a thrill-seeker looking for lots of heart-pounding rides, you’re better off looking elsewhere. That said, as a movie buff, and someone who loves flashy and expensive rides that exist solely to entertain him, I highly enjoyed Universal Studios and would certainly recommend going if you ever get the chance. Though it does sound like Orlando would be a better pick over Los Angeles.

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!

The Grand Canyon

We booked a day trip to the Grand Canyon with Grand Adventures, a tour company that runs small vans rather than big buses. We were lucky enough to have a very competent, informative and charming driver named Chad. Luke and I were the first ones picked up and then there was another couple from Sydney, a young woman from Singapore and a couple from Canada. We left Vegas at 7am.

On the drive Chad filled us in on the history of Vegas, we all got to know each other and then we stopped at the Hoover Dam, not far out of town.

Apparently so much concrete was used in the dam that a two lane road could be built across America with it. We learned a bunch of other facts that I recall perfectly but won’t bore you with here.

Next stop was Seligman, a little town on Route 66. I’ve already posted about that so I won’t write any more here except to say that it was where we first saw snow. In fact two of the ladies on the bus had never seen snow before – but more about that later.

The Grand Canyon (south rim) is over 4 hours from Las Vegas. It was quite a drive but Chad kept us entertained when we weren’t talking to each other. Somehow we always end up in the tour groups that know how to keep a conversation going and Chad was most impressed with our immediate rapport. I believe he might’ve said we were the best group he’d ever had. Or maybe I said it. Either way, it was undoubtedly the truth.

Finally we reached the national park. It was much more low-key than I expected. Not much of a fanfare or flashiness, which was really nice. Just some great viewpoints and a dusting of snow. We bundled out of the warm van and tried to avoid patches of ice.

Amazing views.

Spot the Colorado – it’s about the width of two olympic sized swimming pools.

When we realised two of the crew hadn’t seen snow before the next step was obvious.

I’d never actually seen anyone do this before.

Angels!

Big smiles!

We all found the view spectacular… some might even say energising.

An heroic jump!

We had such a brilliant day. I thought I’d sleep in the van on the way back but I ended up talking to Chad about American schools and government and all kinds of things. I’d definitely recommend his company to anyone thinking of going – personal service, comfort and nice small groups.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Wisconsin: Waukesha

Recently we’ve been in Wisconsin, which is one of the more northerly states of the USA. We spent nearly a week visiting a friend of mine, Josh. Josh is another friend who I met online years ago and did not know in person until now. He foolishly signed up for a week of our company and even took the whole week off to show us around Milwaukee and his home town of Waukesha.

Josh met us at the train station and took us straight to a favourite watering hole where we tried the most popular cocktail in the state – the bloody mary. Now, you might think you’ve had a bloody mary before but not like this one!

They often drink out of ‘mason jars’ which you can put a lid on and take home!

Neither Luke nor I had tried one before and we didn’t really like the drink (too salty) but the slider (mini burger) and all the various things in the drink were great. In fact it was probably the best beef burger we’ve had yet on our trip!

Josh owns his own house and lives there by himself right now so there was plenty of room for us. Oh – and he has a dog. The largest Rottweiler I’ve ever seen. Poor Archer is afraid of climbing stairs after a few bad experiences so he stays on on ground floor and the bedrooms are upstairs and the theatre room is in the basement. Josh’s theatre room is really cool – proper theatre seats, a bar and a huuuuge screen. If I had the money I’d steal all his ideas for my rumpus room. He’s even planning a popcorn machine and cool theatre-style rope lights around the seats.

For our first outing Josh took us to the Discovery Centre, a place that housed a bunch of science stuff and an aquarium. Josh’s friend was working in the aquarium so we got to go behind the scenes and see the baby seahorses. They were fingernail sized!

Babies!

Looking over the top of the big tank, right before the food was thrown in and the feeding frenzy began. There’s a tunnel big enough to walk through in this tank, so it’s much larger than it looks in this picture.

The weather in Wisconsin was pretty cold when we were there – down to -12C at times, so doing outside stuff was not so appealing. We did visit a nearby landmark, Holy Hill, on which sat a church with a terrific view and beautiful stained glass windows.

We ate a a bunch of local places and enjoyed mac and cheese (one of my favourite American dishes by now), a traditional Wisconsin fish fry, some bbq ribs, Mexican and many other delicious things.

We ended up going out on the town twice. The first time with Josh’s friends Matt and Jackie, their friend Jenny and also Brenda, Josh’s wonderful girlfriend. We started out with a fancy steak dinner but the night took an unexpected turn when we walked through Milwaukee to see the Bronze Fonz (a life sized sculpture) and then went to a bar called The Safe House. To get in you had to know the secret phrase. No one warned Luke or I of this and so, of course, we didn’t know it. Jenny didn’t know it and Matt got it wrong so we had to dance around singing and basically acting like fools for the entertainment of the bar patrons who could watch us on CCTV. Once we got in we could watch other people doing similar thing. Oh, and the door to get in was a bookshelf that swung open.

The bar was full of spy memorabilia and funny trick things – for example, in the Ladies’ toilet there’s a picture of a nude male with a fig leaf. If you move the leaf a siren sounds and everyone knows you tried to look. There’s also doors that go nowhere, tubes for martini mixing that shoot drinks around the ceiling.. all kinds of things. It was quite a hilarious evening, and we discovered Jacqui and Matt will be in San Fran when we’re there so we may catch up with them.

Our last night out was to a bar called Kelly’s Bleachers, which Josh is always talking about on Facebook, so I was keen to experience it for myself. I could tell straight away that he wasn’t kidding about it being his favourite bar – everyone knew his name and the owner even gave me a couple of t-shirts when I expressed an interest in buying one. Everyone was super friendly and nice and there was a room out the back with a dj so we ended up dancing to cheesy music and having a great time. Matt joined us for a bit and there was much hilarity when he pulled out some glowsticks and they played ‘Sandstorm’ on the jukebox – video evidence was acquired but no photos, sadly.

We had such a brilliant time in Waukesha and I was particularly happy to meet Brenda and spend Thanksgiving with Josh’s family. Thanks for looking after us, Josh!

Typical Wisconsin men don’t put on long sleeves till it’s at least -10C outside ;-).