The Strip

Its 1am and we have just got in after the most amazing day. Nothing I could say could possibly do justice to Vegas and our photographs are hopelessly inadequate at capturing this truly spectacular city. Bearing all that in mind I can honestly say if anyone asked me which one city I would recommend to visit in the world it would be Vegas. We have just loved it, the crazy madness, the heat, the casinos – it really isn’t like anywhere else we’ve ever been or even dreamed of going in our wildest imagination.

We wake up fairly early but don’t go out until late morning; we have to sort out some laundry first. A very boring task but necessary as we’re all running out of underwear!
We take the car and park at The Venetian, the hotel is really beautiful. For anyone who hasn’t visited Las Vegas, the hotels are all basically huge casinos and have been built with increasingly grand architecture. My idea of Vegas as a nostalgic place with loads of Elvis impersonators running around actually couldn’t be farther from the truth. For a start it’s massive, bigger than I thought and ultra modern in many ways.

The Venetian is awesome, with a river and gondolas inside and beautiful Roman figurines and living statues, it’s in a great location and I would definitely think about staying here for a future visit. We spend the afternoon in one hotel after another, we manage to see loads, just too much to describe but my favourite hotels were the city themed ones. New York New York with the Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers and rollercoaster, Paris- So amazing, inside a whole stretch of French Boulevards with an artificial sky that even staged a storm with rain, thunder and lightening at one point. We also visited The Flamingo, a kitsch pink palace and Mirage complete with tigers and a dolphin park.

We do some shopping in the Miracle Mile and buy a few clothes for Maisie. We are all going to need a complete new wardrobe when we get home and I figure we may as well buy some gear here where it’s a bit cheaper than in the UK. The shop assistants are unbelievably helpful and shopping here is a real pleasure in comparison to in England where I always like the idea of it but end up finding it a fairly stressful experience.

In the evening we set off late (1030) to try and spot Britney, she is opening a new club LAX at The Luxor this evening but not a chance! The one thing I have really missed since being here is looking glam. In the evenings lots of people get dressed up in all their best threads and there’s no way that we are going anywhere near a new club with our year old traveller clothes and 2 kids in tow!!

We settle for dinner at Mandalay Bay, another huge casino/hotel. This one is a bit quieter though and we share 2 meals. We have realised that this is more than enough food for us four and although it’s relatively cheap, even with the 18-20% expected tip I don’t want to leave loads of food because we’ve over ordered.

Driving back along the strip we see a few people being arrested and stopped in their cars. Vegas feels like a very safe place, there are too many lights and people to feel unsafe here (On the strip anyway). Despite this though it isn’t really a family destination, primarily of course are the casinos and if we had been on our own we would have undoubtedly spent some time gambling. As it is, Ali and Maisie are exhausted and we decide after such a busy day that 1am is probably late enough.

Calico to Las Vegas

Simon and I both woke up at 4am this morning and lay there, so excited about driving to Vegas. It’s a bit like waking up early on Christmas morning! We pack up our gear and set off in the Mustang for the Ghost Town of Calico, as we leave we have our photo taken by the road sign. Barstow, where we spent last night is on the historic Route 66 and we see a few people as we travel along living out their dreams, cruising along on their Harleys.

Calico was once a silver mining town established in 1881 and we learn that $86 million worth of silver was mined here until the price of silver collapsed and the town eventually closed. We’re lucky, when we arrive there isn’t anyone else here and the place truly looks as deserted as we would hope and expect. We look around the saddlers, saloon, barbers and small museum before heading up the hill towards the ice creams. We put some Elvis on the Wurlitzer and enjoy a few moments of complete nostalgia.

Back on the road we drive for a couple of hours and suddenly sooner than we expect we have arrived in Vegas. Oh my god! How fantastic! Almost too much to take in we pass the famous casinos that we have read so much about -New York New York, Paris, The Venetian, Flamingo, Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace to name a few. The strip is just completely amazing, far bigger than I imagined and we gaze around drinking it all in, all talking at once as we each spy some new astonishing thing.

We check into Circus Circus where we have reserved two nights and are thrilled when we go to pay to find that Dad and Pauline have paid the remainder of our bill. Thank you so much- what a lovely surprise! Our room is great- quite luxurious and we chuck our gear in before heading downstairs to explore. This place is massive, the huge casino areas almost dwarfed by the Adventuredome and circus area. There are also loads of shops, boutiques, a wedding chapel and restaurants. I think we could probably spend all day in here and never even go anywhere else.

At 7pm we decide we are going to walk along the strip and set off in the still boiling heat. Its dark by now and the lights are nothing short of unreal. Blazing away, the millions of watts light the strip like an overloaded fairy grotto. Although the temperatures are almost unbearable I take my jumper as the air-conditioning in the hotels is fierce. We walk for what seems like miles, passing Treasure Island and MGM Grand as we want to see the famous fountains of Bellagio. Oh wow! It’s absolutely beautiful, the gorgeous fountain display is elegant, moving and really out of this world. Ali and Maisie love it and it makes me cry it’s so good.

We have dinner in the Harley Davidson Restaurant; the Harleys are moving all around the roof on a sort of pulley system- awesome! We get 3 meals between us but should have really only got 2 as they were so big and we didn’t eat everything even though we tried. We get a cab back to Circus Circus around midnight and although I didn’t feel tired we completely flake.

Road Trip

We got up early as we have a long drive today and want to get out of San Francisco and on our way. We have, with the help of Dad and Pauline a really good itinerary that will allow us to see something of the states of California, Nevada and Arizona but it does seem like we have planned too much. (As advised!) Still we’re happy enough to have one or two heavy days on the road, after all how bad can it be zipping along in our Mustang with the roof down and our music blasting out!

We leave around 9.30 and drive across the absolutely huge Bay Bridge, skipping Oakland and joining the 580 East towards Stockton. We stop for gas and food and then head inland slightly, driving south through the Central Valley of California. We drive for hours, the kids are so good and don’t complain about anything other than eventually the heat. We have to put the roof up on the car, it’s so so hot, a dry, crisping heat that seems to suck every bit of moisture from the air. I love it but its even way too hot for me and when we stop for lunch at Jack in a Box (More fast food) and I try to sit on the kerb outside, the ground literally burns my bum through my shorts. We have to have our aircon on full and even then the sun fries us through the windows.

After miles of flat, dry and brown land suddenly we reach the Tehachapi Mountains- wow! So beautiful and not even a well known American geological landmark (Not to us anyway), we drive straight through them before entering the Mojave Desert, a burning desolate area that I would love to stay and photograph. We have failed to make it to some (Relatively) close national parks including the famous Yosemite and Sequoia but as we have all fallen completely in love with America over the past few days we’re not too worried as we’ll definitely be back really soon.

We stop off at Walmart and buy some CD’s. We were divided and limited with our choice but eventually settled on James Brown, The Bee Gees, some 60′s compilation thing including The Monkees, The Drifters and Otis Redding and The Police Greatest Hits for good measure. We wanted to get some music to suit our drive and I love it. Especially the Bee Gees album. ( The sound of America I reckon !!!!)

423 miles and 9 hours later and we arrive at Barstow, it’s very close to the ghost town of Calico recommended by our friends Shirley and Ade and we plan to stop off there in the morning before driving the remaining 150 miles to Vegas. We book into a motel and me and the kids strip off and dive into the pool whilst Simon goes in search of a few beers. How fantastic! He returns with a few tinnies and a giant Corona! Yeh!

We make our way next door at 8pm and order some Chinese food. It makes a good change from the junk we have been eating since we arrived here and we wolf it down. We get back to our rooms and the kids go off to watch Mythbusters whilst we crash out. I’m feeling really excited about Vegas, everyone seems to love it and I reckon we’ll have the best time.

10pm just sat chatting together and I said its only 11 days until we go home. Usually it’s me complaining about having to return to the UK but Simon suddenly looks completely gutted. He mutters it feels like a sick joke- I know how he feels.

Alcatraz & Golden Gate Bridge

I woke up feeling very achy this morning something to do with the fact that I slipped over in the bathroom last night and now have a bruise the size of California on my arse. Simon goes off in search of coffee while I catch up on a few emails and gradually the kids come to life.

We go out for breakfast before getting the car and driving down to Pier 39. We have booked a 90 minute tour of the bay which includes a ride under the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. We get on the boat and as we’re first on make a run for the top deck. The first sight of this trip is the famous sea lion colony. These massive, big, fat beasts slob out in the sun and occasionally make a huge splash as they dive into the water. Just at the end of Pier 39, they are huge in comparison to their relatively small New Zealand cousins.

We head out to sea and towards the Golden Gate Bridge, exactly as we have seen it on the TV; we learn from the commentary that it is painted continuously in “International Orange”. When it was completed in 1937 it was the world’s longest suspension bride and has been described as “possible the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed bridge in the world”. Well its definitely one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, graceful and almost mystic looking with San Francisco’s famed mist swirling around it, its an awesome sight that even has the kids impressed. We spend ages taking photos and are pleased the information on the tour is so interesting and informative. Sadly I read later on the internet that one person every 15 days jumps from the bridge. Most successfully committing suicide.

Next stop is the infamous Alcatraz Prison. I always wanted to go here and although we couldn’t get any trip taking us onto the island we go close enough in the boat. As we near the island the wind picks up and within minutes it is really cold and chilly. Maisie cuddles close and says it’s scary and despite the bright sunshine it is an intimidating looking place.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary started life as a lighthouse before becoming first a military and then a federal prison. Because of its position in San Francisco bay and the surrounding freezing waters and strong currents “The Rock” came to the notice of the US government as an ideal location for holding criminals. The Great Depression and Prohibition gave rise to increasingly violent and organised crime and Alcatraz was the answer to the problem of where to house well armed gangsters terrorising the law enforcement agencies. The prison housed the nation’s most dangerous men and was genuinely feared by most of them.

We learn the names of some of the more notorious inmates, Al Capone, The Birdman (Robert Stroud) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. I find it fascinating and it’s a good if gruesome learning opportunity for Ali and Maisie who lap it up!

We’ve seen some crazy things here today- a homeless guy with a sign saying “dollars needed for penis extension”, some mad fool on a skateboard being dragged up one of the steepest hills by a car and some interesting and strange looking characters. Although I haven’t felt unsafe here I have been more safety conscious than in any other city we have visited on our trip.

We check out the area of Russian Hill and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge before getting an early dinner. More delicious Italian food and red wine, we spend the evening sorting ourselves out for tomorrow. We will be driving towards Las Vegas and had hoped to stop off at Sequoia National Park but have realised it will mean two days of about 6.5 -7 hours of driving each day. Too far for the kids (And us) so instead plan to not take that detour and just head straight to Vegas. Hardly an entirely bad thing I think!

San Francisco

Up until we booked our trip I never wanted to go America. The reason being that I knew once I got there I would fall in love with it and despite all my adventurous spirit might never go anywhere else. Having been here for 2 days I think it was definitely the right thing to do as we have been seduced by America in a way that hasn’t happened with anywhere else we’ve ever been and we have had the best day today.

We head north along HWY 101 for about 4 hours, stopping a few times for some lunch and to stretch our legs on the way. (I pinch some flowers out of the pot pourri in the restroom so Maisie and I can put them in our hair and we sing the song about going to San Francisco)We keep passing things that look so familiar and yet we’ve never been here, from small, tall thin windmills, to rusty “nodding donkey” oil pumps, to massive trucks that dominate the roads and completely dwarf us in our Mustang. The landscape is green and scrubby brown, it’s hot, with a dusty blue sky and we zip along with the roof down, my hair blowing everywhere.

As we come into San Francisco it looks exactly as I knew it would, the beautiful bay on our right and the busy narrow streets of “Little Saigon” as we head for Chinatown where we are staying. We check in the hotel, a decent enough Chinese run place (For 100 dollars) and park the car. A quick coffee and we head off out to buy a guide book. We reach the most amazing bookshop, full of arty titles and reading tables, its dark and trendy and we end up with The Rough Guide to USA. We wander all through Chinatown and then head towards Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s quite a long walk, up and down steep hills but so much to look at I don’t know where to start.

We pass through the Italian district of North Beach and gaze around at the numerous pavement cafes, the food looks just awesome and we decide we will eat here later. Past an emporium of American symbols and memorabilia , licence plates, Coca Cola stuff, a life-size Elvis, Harley badges, Route 66 anything’s ( Bottle openers, fridge magnets etc) its like stepping into America heaven!

At Fisherman’s Wharf we have a quick look at the boats before getting a drink next to the hawker food stalls, with a huge choice of seafood including clam chowder, fresh crab and shrimps it’s a lively, noisy area with crowds of people. We see a saxophonist playing jazz, the quintessential cable cars and horse and carriages.

We catch the cable car back up a few blocks and hang off the sides of it like in the movies! I wanted to just jump off but we had to tell the guy so he could stop and we make our way to a gorgeous Italian cafe where we have some amazing food. Ali and I had salmon with aubergine relish and Simon and I shared a bottle of red wine.

We walk back to the hotel, full of it; our guide book describes San Francisco as the gayest city in the world, once the literary capital of America, a city of hills where poetry meets porn. What a fantastic introduction to the US, today has been everything I dreamed it would be and better.

America

After all the excitement and worry of last night we ended up having a great flight. The plane was only about a third full and we had the space to completely lie down. I subsequently took a sleeping tablet and zonked out for the night only waking up about 6 hours later. We have our breakfast, I swap my hot stuff for yogurt and fresh fruit and before much longer we’re due to land. Coming in over LA I can’t believe how flat, brown, heavily populated and massive it looks. I start crying a bit with the relief and excitement of finally arriving here. It feels like a dream really.

We clear immigration and collect our gear before setting of on the free shuttle bus to Thrifty car rental. We have booked a salon type car but when we go towards the car park Simon steers us towards some big beast of a car. Oh my god – how cool!! I’m shrieking at this point! For the next 10 days we will be driving a Ford Mustang Convertible! It is awesome!

We head out kind of North West towards Santa Monica, on the way passing legends such as UCLA, The Getty Museum, Sunset Blvd and Beverley Hills. We will be spending some time in LA when we come back here prior to our flight to New York but for now our plan is to get out and drive up the coast towards San Francisco where we will be spending the next few days.

Its just awesome- driving along the freeway with the roof down and some hip hop music blasting out I feel like we’ve been thrown into a scene of a film and everything feels very familiar and comfortable. We drive for a about 3hours passing Ventura and Santa Barbara on the way. This is Californian Wine country and we are tempted to stop at one of the vineyards and buy a couple of bottles but keep going. Due to time restraints we know we will have some heavy driving ahead over the next few days and are going to have to concentrate on seeing the places we want to see the most.

We stop off at a Best Western Motel for the night and pay 115 dollars for a big room. Its luxury to have a bath and although we don’t want to watch any TV whilst we’re here the kids are pleased to see about a million different channels.

Well we’re fairly exhausted now its 11pm and we’ve so far managed to eat McDonalds and Taco Bell. Tomorrow we are going to be driving the rest of the way to San Francisco- about another 4 hours; we have booked accommodation there and also 2 nights at Circus Circus in Las Vegas later on in the week.

Last day in the Cook Islands

Today is our last day in the South Pacific Islands. What a different experience we have had in the two different island groups of Fiji and the Cooks Islands. Fiji was Ali and Maisie’s favourite destination of our whole trip so far. They just loved it and who could fail to fall in love with such a gorgeous place, the warmest friendliest people and for us at this time fantastic value for money. For anyone reading this who wants an amazing holiday on the cheap it has to be one of the best places to visit on the planet and we would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of whether you are looking for a party place or a quiet and peaceful retreat, Fiji really does seem to have it all.

On the other hand for us the Cook Islands have been a huge disappointment. The weather hasn’t been very good and it has rained on and off for the last two days, this has made it difficult and we seem to be one of a lot of families dragging bored looking children around. We had heard some very good reports prior to coming here and I wouldn’t want to put anyone else off as I’m sure if it had been sunny and dry we would have been happier here. Despite these thoughts though I wouldn’t come back, although the coastline is lovely its only as pretty as Fiji ( maybe not quite as good) and the islanders seem more jaded towards travellers. It is also quite expensive for what you get, the meal we had last night although ok cost 120 NZD and just wasn’t worth that.

We spend the day sorting out our rucksacks for what will probably be the last time. I get really nostalgic and I cry a bit when we leave half of our first aid kit stuff behind. We don’t want to carry needles and syringes to the US to avoid any awkwardness at immigration and thankfully haven’t needed any more than paracetamol, strepsils and one lot of antibiotics. I figure that if we need it now we are going to the country with the world’s best healthcare so no worries.

It’s so sad though, unavoidably today we have had to face the fact that we’ll be home in two weeks and the thought makes me feel sadder than I could have imagined. Although we always knew there was a time limit for us and we’re looking forward to seeing all our family and friends I can’t help wondering if we’ll ever experience again that total thrill of anticipation, excitement, nervousness and freedom that we felt when we left 9 and a half months ago.

On a much lighter note we have had an email from Dad and Pauline today and they have sent us a fantastic itinerary for America based on what we told them we wanted to do. So exciting! They have suggested some other places to see and visit that we hadn’t thought of and we can’t wait to get there and see it all for ourselves.

Our flight is at 11.50 tonight – just sat watching Dreamgirls and then off out for dinner before getting a taxi at 9pm. Next blog will be from LA – yeh !!

Midnight- oh my god what a nightmare experience we have just had and now I really have turned against the Cook Islands. Sod it – I wouldn’t recommend the place to anyone. At 9.30pm (half an hour late) our taxi arrived to take us to the airport. When Simon booked it at 6pm he waited by reception and asked the receptionist to ask the taxi company how much it would cost as a previous taxi to the airport (when we went to change our flight) ended up costing 30 dollars instead of the 15-20 we had been told and we need to ensure we have enough cash to pay.

The company relayed the information that the taxi would cost 20 dollars but when we get out and Simon hands over the money the woman says the cost will be 60 dollars. Oh my god- what a rip off that’s nearly 25 quid for a 4 minute taxi ride and I’m not surprised when Simon refuses to pay up.
The woman goes mad and stalks us around the airport, after telling the check in guy all about it she eventually reports us to the police who to our amazement and horror completely take her side and tells us we have to pay. A huge row ensues and once it starts to get really heated I back off with the kids leaving Simon to deal with it. I have to laugh when he virtually accuses the policeman of extortion but it gets a bit more worrying when the guy then appears to put his hand on his gun. In the end Simon pays an extra 10 dollars and just walks off – a scary experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat.

Tennis

Well I’m feeling really pissed off today and can’t seem to raise myself out of an evil mood. The weather is crap, really hot and humid but completely overcast and when we ring the Cultural village at 7.30 am apparently they won’t run the tour with less than 15 people so it’s not on. Oh my god – what are we going to find to do with our selves today.

Simon and Ali decide to get the bus to the town and go and get some money and in an effort to improve my miserable self I head to the gym with Maisie in tow. She’s completely contented sat reading her book and when I ask if she’s bored she tells me not at all. I cycle madly for 50 minutes and then we have a game of tennis. Simon and Ali have been playing every afternoon for a few hours but it’s as much as we can do the get the ball back over the net in this particular court!

When the fella’s come back we go and lie by the pool and Ali has some drumming and ukulele lessons from the entertainment chap. I satisfy my unhappy feeling self by writing a long and nasty email of complaint about the resort staff. (Didn’t send it) – but I might tomorrow with a few alterations.( In retrospect it did sound a bit harsh although true) Some of the staff here are really bad and the entertainment guys- Mr Hopeless and Mr Useless ( Their names they said) could also be known as Mr Arsehole and Mr Fuckwit amongst other things.

The day improves massively in the evening. Whilst out today Simon met a fella from Plymouth he knows who used to play rugby for OPO’s and arranged for us to meet him and his wife and children for dinner. Ian, Donna, Emily and Garen have been on holiday fro 6 weeks in Singapore, OZ and New Zealand and Ian tells us he is in the Navy. Coincidentally they also know the McCabe family we met in Fiji and Nick who we stayed with in Auckland. (A small world indeed!!).We have a lovely evening with them and for the first time since we left home I think it’s great to hear some English voices. I reckon I must be feeling a little nostalgic for home now as we’re so close to it.

Off to bed now and really looking forward to leaving for America.