Friday, July 30, 2010

Stuck inside of Mobile with the Alabama blues again

Thanks to the great song by Bob Dylan "Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" I seriously thought we were heading to Memphis not Alabama.

It was a real flying visit to this picturesque state where we spent one night in the lazy Mobile suburb of Daphne.

There's not too much to say, but Mobile seems to be a pretty neat city, with freeways winding over waterways and a high rise skyline showing the heart of the city it would be a nice place to live.

With the little time we had, and with much excitement on Nick's behalf, we stopped at the Battleship Memorial Park home to the USS Alabama and USS Drum.

The SS Alabama fought in the Pacific during WWII and Drum cruised Pearl Harbour and Japan.

Despite my initial reservations about a US Military Museum it was pretty darn cool to be able to walk the decks and climb down the man-hole of real life war machines.

With so many rooms and passageways to explore you could easily spend hours wandering the massive ship.

On the other hand, the submarine isn't for people who are afraid of small spaces. Even I had to stoop and squeeze through doorways, so anyone over 6 foot would struggle below deck.

I'm sure this isn't important, but it really stood out to me - everything was very shinny in the sub - the instruments, pipes, levers, dials they all sparkled. I wonder is some poor pleb had to spend each and every day polishing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Orleans: Voodoo and cooking

Rollin' down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Louisiana - home to swamps, voodoo, Cajun Cooking and wild music... oh and one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, but hey, who cares in this extremely wicked state.

On route to the Big Easy we spent the night in the picturesque Arcadian (Cajun is the shorten form of the word) town of Lafayette, voted one of the top places to live in in the USA.

Here in the deep south the weather is warm and the humidity high which makes it feel a whole lot hotter than it really is. Luckily the anticipated Hurricane Bonny passed Louisiana fairly quietly other than a few small showers.

The sun came out in New Orleans and so did the sweltering temperatures and late night thunderstorms.

As you drive into the city it's easy to tell the safe areas from the bad - run down buildings, graffiti and empty sidewalks give it away. Visitors are warned against touring the city's many cemeteries even during the day time.

But it's a whole different story in the French Quarter. Beautiful old buildings stand on cobbled streets lined with trees and balconies are decorated with streamers, mardi gras chains and flags.

The charm of the French Quarter is only interrupted by the over-the-top-ness of Bourbon Street.

Music literally blast from every second bar and the high quality bands entertain crowds made up of everyone from families to middle-aged dancers. However, I loved the street bands the most - like this one - that got the people moving in the middle of the street, in the middle of the rain.

Our first full day in the city was spent wandering around from air conditioned shop to sweaty sidewalk taking in all the sights and sounds.

I bought this little guy - my very own authentic Voodoo doll.

When in came to dinner time I tucked into the traditional Southern food of red bean and spicy sausage on rice -ummmm - with an extremely ummm green cocktail (I got two because the used the wrong sized glass for the first one - yes!).

As far as party cities go, I'd say New Orleans gives Vegas a good run for its money.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Texas: Houston, we have a problem

Houston may be able to launch a mission to the moon and create a pen that can write upside down, but they can't build an easy to use motorway system.

The endlessly wide city is connected by weaving maze of on-ramps, off-ramps, loops and split roads filled with insane Texan drivers. If you don't plan on visiting the downtown area I'd recommend staying just south of the city, close to two of the main Houston attractions; NASA and Galveston Island.

NASA is spread over several blocks like its own suburb and people can catch a glimpse of this famous world at the NASA Visitors’ Centre.

The Centre is part serious museum, part kids’ play land. Children run wild on rides while grown ups can take in tours and talks about NASA and its history and future space exploration.

First up we took a tour to the original Mission Control where teams controlled the Apollo 11 moon landing. Mission Control is right in the middle of the working NASA centre and to get there a guide takes you in a tram across several streets.

For the retro control centre scientists, engineers and astronauts managed to land a team on the moon with less computer technology than the average mobile phone has today.

Next we stopped by a hanger filled with the Apollo spaceship used for all the Apollo missions.

Back at the visitors’ centre more space artifacts are on display including the Gemini Space Capsule and a large collection of moon rocks.

From outer space the next day we journeyed further south to Galveston Island.

Connected to the mainland by the large freeway bridge Galveston is a sunny beach escape from the madness of Houston.

The island is a mix of lazy beachfront, high-rise waterfronts and historic inland homes and we spent the day sweating our way up and down the sand.

Parts of the island are still feeling the effects of 2008’s Hurricane Ike with a number of businesses, homes and hotels boarded up and awaiting repairs.

It wasn’t long until it was time to head to Scout Bar to see Nick’s all time favourite band - Filter.

Scout Bar is the Houston equivalent of Auckland’s King’s Arms and the signed guitars on the walls show that many famous bands have played at the bar.

After three pretty good up and coming bands, Filter took the stage and put on a strong show for the crowd.

The only down side to a great evening was the amount of people smoking inside - I don't know how you can sing with all the smoke in the room.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Texas: Politics & Music in Austin

Even the music capital of the world has a quiet night, and Monday might not be the best day to visit Austin Tx if you're keen to get a little bit crazy.

Home to SXSW, Austin features live music every night of the week (not so exciting on Monday's) in bars along 6th street.

Like San Antonio, the city stretches for miles. Shops, offices, bars and museums are each in their own special section of town and because of this it never feels too busy in the city.

Our first stop was the Museum of Texas, fittingly located in the state's capital.

The centre features fantastic museum displays tied together with educational videos - all very well done if you ask me. It traces the history of Texas from First Nation to Spanish, English and Mexican settlement and through to independence and finally as part of the USA.

To get into the downtown area we have to cross through the State Capital - a beautiful building separating the museum district from the CBD

By now the heat and humidity was high as we strolled down Congress St towards the legendary 6th St - so many bars so many musicians,but I think they tend to come out at night.

We grabbed some great Mexican and pomegranate margaritas from a bar called something Diablo for lunch. One tradition I love in the US is bars/restaurants bring you complimentary tortilla chips and salsa - and they keep on refilling!

By now our t-shirts were soaked with sweat so before heading out to see the cities other famous night dwellers - the Congress Bridge Bats - we freshened up and headed back to the city for nightfall.

But... it was one big letdown!

The bats are supposed to fly, en masse, east of the bridge just after sunset, but thanks to rain earlier in the week they merely came out in drips and drabs.

Bloody bats.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Texas: San Antonio & the crickets

Texas baby - the Lone Star State where everything is big and bold and the cities stretch on for miles.

After a full day of driving we finally pulled into San Antonio, Texas around 6:30pm. On the hunt for some eats we wondered into the city area and eventually found ourselves at the Mexican Marketplace.

The open air market sells a range of products and foods from south of the boarder. We managed to get a table at one of the three busy restaurants serving up traditional, hearty Mexican food.

Walking back to our hotel/motel around 10:30pm we had to watch out for the hundreds and thousands of crickets that come out after dark and make their homes under the dim light over footpaths and driveways.

Day two we got up reasonably early and walked to the tram stop. San Antonio has three historic tramlines that make their way around the city's main attractions from 9-9 every day and a 24hour pass costs only $4.

First stop... the Alamo.

I can't say I knew much about this historic site before coming to San Antonio other than it was a devastating Texan defeat at the hands of the Mexicans.

Oh, and when Peewee visits in Peewee's Big Adventure he finds out there is no basement in the Alamo.

So here are a few things I learned at the Alamo museum: Texas used to be pronounced "Te-has". Texas was once part of Mexico. When Texas finally won its independence it lead to Mexico losing several other states including California and Arizona - stink.

Despite a population of just over 1 million, San Antonio feels like a small city thanks to the urban sprawl.

Escaping the heat in a huge air conditioned mall, we took a stroll around the Riverwalk - a winding waterway lined with bars and restaurants.

Monday, July 19, 2010

New Mexico: White sand and Aliens

It's been a day of travelling around the state of New Mexico.

From the city of Las Cruces - the second largest in the state - we headed for the mysterious town of Roswell.

Las Cruces wasn't particularly interesting, it was hot and muggy with a very noisy train running through town. But the drive to Roswell was good fun.

As we got closer to the Mexican boarder security vehicles and officers become an increasingly common sight and at one check point we even had to show our passports.

Around half way through the trip we stopped at the White Sands National Monument a National Park of giant, white, rolling sand dunes.

The sand is white because of gypsum (whatever that is) and is home to many small animals and plants.

Entry is only $5 per person and thankfully it's not crawling with tourists like other National parks.

Now on to alien central.

Roswell is a weird, and surprisingly large, small town. The whole 1947 alien incident is largely ignored in town until you get to the block surrounding the International UFO and Research Centre. Here the street lights are shaped like glowing alien heads and stores sell tacky, stoner, little green men merchandise.

The museum costs $5 and is definitely worth the visit for it's mix of insanity and conspiracy.

The section dealing with the Roswell crash and cover up is detailed and includes fascinating eye-witness accounts.

However things enter crazy crazy land with displays on abuctions and close encounters. School-project-like displays describe so called transmitters and implants and describe alien operations.

Aliens are only a small part of the town and people seem to go about their business without much thought of otherworldly visitors.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tax and money, money and tax

Tax is so much fun and in America it's just that little bit more fun when in sneaks up on you and messes up the perfectly organised fist-full of coins and notes you've just organised.

The American equivalent of GST sits around 9 per cent, but unlike NZ tax it is often added at the register rather than on the store price tag.

Seriously, WHY!

What is the point, and would it really be that hard to have the before AND including tax price on the tag?

Hidden tax is everywhere. Disneyland, Burger King - where their advertised 89c ice cream cone leaps up to just under $1 - LIES!

Americans' like to have physical money. Lots of coins and lots of notes. The paper money is fine, but when you're in a hurry the coins become a problem. Quarters are the biggest - makes sense so far- but then 5c are larger than dimes (10c) which are the same size as pennys (1c) only the 1c is copper... phew.

And people like to spend money they don't have.

Television and radio stations are littered with ads offering credit when no one else will, lawyers who'll write off your debit or file bankruptcy and ways to get off paying a traffic fine.

At least the gas is cheap.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Arizona: Sweating in Phoenix & Cowboys in Tombstone

We've just arrived in New Mexico after staying in the nice, sweaty little city of Phoenix Arizona. We spent a lazy two nights and one day there recharging the batteries.

The temperatures here are scorching - in the 30s at night and in the mid-40s during the day. By midday the only safe place to be for more than a couple of minutes is indoors or underwater.

The city centre is fairly small and is made up of businesses and food stores - probably because it's too hot to shop or do anything other than move quickly from one building to the next.

Phoenix spreads far and wide, connected by a really pretty motorway decorated with cacti and paintings.

We stayed at the Radisson - the best part was the swimming pool and super friendly staff.

With the tempurates set to reach even higher we left this morning for Las Cruces, New Mexico via Tombstone Arizona - the historic western town home to Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.

Founded in 1879 as a silver mining town, Tombstone is famous as the site for the western gunfight battle gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Today, the town is an official historic site and makes its money on tourism.

There are a couple of museums, resturants and re-enactments, but since we were short on time we grabbed a bite to eat and looked through the cowboy and western shops.

This was my favourite store name, Big Nosed Kates:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Arizona: Grand Canyon

Yay, we made it to the Grand Canyon. We arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona on Sunday evening after driving from Vegas and stopping off at the Hoover Dam.

Everything changes from Nevada to Northern Arizona, the landscape is greener and the weather is not so insanely hot.

Flagstaff is a cool little university town that becomes a ski resort in the winter.

We didn't see much of it though as we spent Monday and Tuesday out on the Canyon's South Rim.

Pulling up to the park is similar to that other National Park, Yosemite. You pay $25 per car and get a ticket valid for seven days.

Once inside free shuttles run from before sunrise until after sunset running visitors to the far flung points of the park.

The Canyon is beyond words and it is easy to lose track just walking over tracks that take you remarkably close to the edge.

The park is Government run so it is void of chain shops and over the top prices. Nick shouted me lunch at a nice little lodge which was yum - especially for a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Despite the number of tourists you can still find a place to get away from the crowds making for some pretty sweet photos.

Many critters call the park home including coyotes, deer and squirrels. There are supposedly mountain lions, bears and snakes, but we managed to avoid them.

There are signs everywhere throughout the park saying "Don't Feed The Animals", but no one seems to listen when it comes to the squirrels.

These furry creatures around the visitors' centre have become quite brave. No sooner had we sat down for a snack then on little guy made best friends with Nick.

I'd love to hike down into the Canyon, but that will have to wait until next time and in the cooler months.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Vegas Baby (and Gatorade saved my life)

We have just left Vegas after four days on the Strip.

Hot, bright, cheesy and stylish - and not quiet how it is in the movies.

Being school holidays the place was crawling with families and small children, but there doesn't really seem to be a dominant demographic.

Our first port of call was Treasure Island (TI) right by the Mirage. The theme doesn't have to much to do with the interior, but comes with a pirate ship out the front. The room was amazing with view right up the Strip to the Bellagio fountain.

Our final two nights were spent in the slightly down-market, but family friendly, Circus Circus, again famous from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

What I originally thought was a sore throat seems to be a bit of a lung infection. The heat didn't help.

Speaking to a pharmacist at Walgreens she said any type of cold mixed with 100F plus heat will make you super dehydrated. Even though I was drinking bottles and bottles of water it wasn't doing anything and she said it was was time to bring in the big guns - Gatorade.

While I can't say I'd buy them if I wasn't sick they work instantly - supposedly it's the electrolytes.

Anyway, back to the city.

The heat never lets up and even after dark the temperature is still in the high 30cs.

Kids, parents and grandparents walk the streets until all hours and despite what you see in movies and on TV Vegas isn't as seedy as it seems.

Drinks aren't free, and while there are often specials to be had you have to tip for every drink.

Maybe if you're a high-roller you can get in on the free action, but for regular plebs like us it just isn't a reality.

Returning to our room late at night we didn't see any terribly drunk or comatose people nor were there any left roaming in the early hours of the morning.

The whole Strip is crazy with a half sized Eiffel Tower, a Roman Forum and a New York city skyline.

Other than the gambling, drinking and sightseeing, one thing to do while in Vegas is take in some shows.

You can get half price and discounted tickets from booths throughout the city. We got tickets to Peep Show at Planet Hollywood and Cirque du Soleil at TI.

I can't say which was best as they were both great examples of Las Vegas entertainment.

Until next time I'll be stocking up on the Gator and tossing back the Tussin (cough syrup).

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Barstow to Vegas and things are heating up

Barstow is a crossroad for trains, trucks and visitors to the City of Sin.

With the temperature well in to the 100sf (I believe that's just below 40c) it is a slow and run down town.

Trains run constantly through the station across from our motel, but thankfully the room remained quiet.

My only knowledge of this little place on Route 66 is the quote from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas "We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold" which means the character had an approximate two hour drive while wasted.

I've had a sore throat virus thing for a few days so used this sleepy place for a little RnR.

The next morning we were packed and ready to hit the road.

We stopped one of several large outlet malls just over the state line in Nevada where I picked up some bargin Old Navy jeans.

By now the temperature was around 110f as we rolled into Vegas.

We checked into our hotel, the massive Treasure Island. Our room on level 19 - where I'm typing this blog - is amazing with views right across the strip.

More on this city later.

California: Chowchilla (and Yosemite)

We're on the road to small-townsville - in this case Chowchilla, 1.5hours south of Yosemite National Park.

There isn't much to say about the place, it's small, hot and has everything you'd ever need. Our motel, the Days Inn, is nice, but used to be smoking and they haven't quite got rid of the smell yet.

The drive to Yosemite is almost as pretty as the park itself, travelling over yellow hills and dry landscapes.

We pulled up to Yosemite at the South Entrance. It's hard to describe just how big this place is, but I'll try.

Yosemite is like the Disneyland of forests - busy, full of tour buses and massive.

To truly see the park you'd have to stay in one of the expensive accommodation options in and around the park for at least a week.

Not having much time we stuck to a small section of the park and wandered around a sequoia forest and walked through bear and mountain lion territory to a little swing-bridge.

We kept our eyes open on the last walk after seeing bear-proof bins in the parking lot, but thankfully no man eaters were to be seen.

There were plenty of squirriels though, and they are too cute!

For more photos check out my online album here.

California: Fun times in San Francisco

Ahhh San Francisco, you greeted us with blue skies and sunshine and a temperature that was just right.

We're staying at the El Camino Inn in Daly City, 10mins from the CBD on BART (a fancy name for San Fran trains).

We walk one block to the train and head in to the city which is full of people this 4th of July Sunday.

With a map in hand we walk through the never ending China Town where teenagers try to sell you fireworks.

Jumping on one of the historic cars (not the cable cars, those come later) we headed to Fisherman's Wharf, last stop for Alcatraz.

But there was no trip to the legendary prison for us... the tours were fully booked until THURSDAY! So we settled on a windy cruise around the harbour. (Tip: Make sure you book your Alcatraz tickets in advance!)

It was so foggy on the harbour we struggled to see the Golden Gate Bridge until we were right underneath.

Back to the city we hope on the 71 bus to Haight Ashbury former home to the hippies and now a trendy hangout similar to Brunswick Street in Melbourne with huge, expensive houses.

The ride was more than a little interesting when a pack of uni students came aboard singing songs and shouting across the bus. One guy seemed to have had too much fun too early, and despite his friends' best efforts managed to throw up on the bus before 5pm.

We then spent a couple of hours walking up and down the ridiculously steep streets. As some especially smart kids pointed out - who would want a house on a hill like this.

Thanks to the cool air washing in off the sea, the city was freezing by 7pm so we hopped a cable car to carry us up and over the hills and back to the BART station.

Love you San Fran - wish we could stay longer!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

LA to San Francisco: Skittles are a good source of Vit C

Did you know that Skittles are a good source of vitamin C? Well, according to my packet of Tropical Skittles they are.

That was a random little detour for you in what was our longest day ever of driving.

On the road from 10am to 10:30pm with a few short stops in between we travelled the long way round from LA to San Francisco on the Pacific Highway 1.

But it was worth it. The scenery as you wind your way around the cliffs high above the foggy and churhing Pacific Ocean is stunning and worth the extra two or so hours it adds to your journey.

The road winds inland where the tempurature was high and the sky blue, but the closer to the sea you get the thick mists set in.

The lovely Nick deserves a giant "Ka Pai" for driving the whole way through tricky twists and turns.

Nick and his fancy pants camera.

Friday, July 2, 2010

California: Tar pits and freaks

Did you know LA has active (I don't know if that is the right word) tar pits filled with ancient mammal bones?

La Brea Tar pits are by the LA Art Gallery, just down from Hollywood and smell like a resealed road on a hot summer's day.

The pits are free to visit, but the information centre and museum is $7 and houses a massive collection of bones (Tip: Entry is half price if you go in the last half hour).

Nick says to point out that the correct name isn't tar, but asphalt and while they constantly bubble they aren't hot.

The coolest bones belong to the giant mammoth and the sabre tooth cat - not tiger!

Now, onto the freaks.

You can't say you've visited California until you been to the beaches so we hit Venice and Santa Monica.

The later is a classic family fun beach with a fun park on the pier and playground and workout area on the sand. Immaculate and clean, there are only mildly crazy crazies in this area.

Venice Beach is another story - I think seedy is the best word, but it definitely has character.

One standout crazy was strawberry man, who walked around chattering in a strawberry caftan switching from dancing to aggressive in a second.

Street hawkers want you to listen (eg buy) their CDs or visit their doctor for a medical marijuana prescription.

They say you can get one for any aliment - I wonder if that includes asthma?