Category Archives: USA 2013

Spotted on Streetview!

When I was visiting San Francisco last year, I caught a streetcar from Market Street to Pier 33 where the boat was leaving for the Alcatraz tour. While I was waiting at the stop, a Google Streetview car went past. I bookmarked my location, in the hopes of one day finding myself on Streetview. Well, today is that day!

Just jumped on Google Maps and there I am, waiting for the streetcar. There are two different views, here and here. I feel famous!

Waiting for the streetcar on Market St

Waiting for the streetcar on Market St

Venice Beach

Today was the last day of my holiday. My flight out of LAX was 11.30pm so I still had the full day to explore a bit more of Los Angeles. I packed up my bags and left them at the apartment, then sent a message to Molly to say I’d be back about 8.30pm to collect them. I still hadn’t seen either her or Josh since my first day. Fortunately their next guest wasn’t arriving until 10pm, so I could keep the key for the day and grab my bags later on.

I wasn’t in much of a hurry today because I wasn’t planning on going very far. Rather than wasting time travelling up north towards Downtown or Hollywood, I decided to visit Venice Beach and head to Marina del Rey if there was time. My Hop On Hop Off ticket was valid to there, so it was going to be easy to get to. I had breakfast in Santa Monica main street again, then walked down to the beach.

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Posted from Los Angeles, California, United States.

Hollywood

Day two in LA and I decided to get the Hop On Hop Off bus and tour up around Hollywood. I’d been considering a tour of one of the movie studios, but really needed to decide that the day before and get up earlier to make my way up to Hollywood. Going by public bus it’s about an hour and a half from Santa Monica up to Hollywood. Using the Hop On Hop Off bus it’s over 2 hours with all the stops. Given the limited time I had there, I just decided to stick with Hollywood and make the most of the places I could get to.

I had a nice sleep in, and when I woke up there was no-one in the apartment. The night before when I came home the lights in the living room were on, and no-one was around. I couldn’t tell if they were asleep or not home. I left the lights on at the time in case they were still out. This morning, all the same lights were on and nothing in the kitchen seemed to have moved. They could have still been in bed, but I’m not sure.

Anyway, I got ready for the day and walked down to the Main Street in search of breakfast. I found a nice looking cafe, ordered an omelette and sat down to read through my Lonely Planet and brochures about the tourist bus. I wasn’t sure where to buy a ticket, so found a tourist info place in Main Street and went there after breakfast. When I got there it was closed! There was a sign on the door saying the nearest was at the Pier so I walked there only to find they were out on a break for 30 minutes.

It was about 11am at this point and I was keen to get on the bus and start moving, so I just went to the bus stop and waited. About 10 minutes later the bus came, and I jumped on. Fortunately I was able to buy a ticket from the driver, and he could take credit card. I bought a two day pass, figuring it was a lot cheaper that way if I did end up using it the next day as well.

Cruising atop the Hop On Hop Off Bus

Cruising atop the Hop On Hop Off Bus

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Posted from Los Angeles, California, United States.

Santa Monica

Today was a travel day. My flight was at 1.30pm, so I had booked a shuttle bus for 11am. I’d packed most of my stuff the night before, so once I’d finished packing in the morning I went downstairs and joined the queue at the cafe for breakfast. Since my breaky was covered by a credit back to my room, I thought I should probably eat before checking out.

I think a lot of other people must have had the breakfast credit as well because the queue for the cafe was about 15 minutes long. It was tricky manoeuvring my suitcase with all the people, but I couldn’t be bothered dropping it off with the hotel staff then going back to collect it after breaky. I had an egg, bacon and cheese croissant today (they had two breakfast specialties – egg, bacon and cheese bagel or croissant).

After breaky, I went to the express checkout to avoid the crazy queues at the counter, then walked to the shuttle bus pick up. As with the Grand Canyon tour, for some reason the shuttle bus wasn’t able to get me from the front of the hotel. Instead I had to walk out the back past the pool, and around the corner where there was a small shelter and shuttle bus pickup / drop off area. There was a sign there saying that they were about to start a project to improve the area, so maybe the hotel just doesn’t have the facilities for that much traffic.

Waiting for the shuttle bus

Waiting for the shuttle bus

When I got there, I was the only person waiting at the shelter. I wasn’t sure if I had the right place, but the restaurant across the road was the one they had told me to wait near so I thought I must at least be close and would see the bus if it parked across the road or somewhere else nearby. After about 10 minutes another guy came sat next to me. He was waiting for a different shuttle company. Over the next 30 minutes, about 8 different vans arrived, three of which were my company. Unfortunatley, none of them were taking passengers, they were just doing drop offs. Continue reading

Posted from Santa Monica, California, United States.

The Vegas Strip

Today was my day to explore the Vegas Strip. Until now, I hadn’t really gone far from my hotel and there were plenty of places I wanted to check out. I had breakfast at the second cafe, where I got a coffee and a massive breakfast bagel filled with bacon, egg and cheese. I was wanting to buy tickets to a Vegas show that night, and there is a cheap ticket place just down the road from Planet Hollywood, so I started off that way and figured I’d stop in at the casinos on the way to check them out.

First stop along the way was Paris. A half size scale replica of the Eiffel Tower stands at out the front of the casino, with one of its legs going through the ceiling and down to the gaming floor. It’s an impressive structure, and there’s a lift that you can ride to the top to take in the views. It was really hot outside, and a I thought it was a bit pricey for what it was. I was quite content enjoying Vegas from the ground. Inside the casino, the ceiling was painted with a blue, cloudy sky and there were fountains and statues scattered throughout. One corner was decorated as a Parisian street at night with a cabaret stage, and as a clever play on words an area of pokies was named Seine City.

Seine City in the heart of Paris

Seine City in the heart of Paris

As I left the casino and continued down the strip, to the left was a replica of the Arc de Triomphe. It was strange to see these iconic Paris sights out in the hot Nevada desert. Next stop was Planet Hollywood which is just across the street from Paris. The vibe here was much more slick and modern, but it didn’t really have the same charm and character as Paris. Although, later in the day when I went further in I found it was actually quite interesting.

To cross the next street I had to go up the escalator and across the footbridge. On the way back down, on the corner was a cafe with a massive motor bike shooting out the front – the Harley Davidson Cafe.

Harley Davidson Cafe

Harley Davidson Cafe

Just past there I came to the Hawaiian Marketplace, an open area with a couple of small food stalls, some bars and a stage. There wasn’t any entertainment on while I was there, but there were still a lot of people around, enjoying a break from the sun.

The cheap ticket place, Tix4Tonight, was there so I went to check out prices for that night. There was a Cirque De Soleil show I was keen to see, but it wasn’t discounted – the ticket price was $180! There was no way I wanted to spend that much money, so I had a look at what else was on offer. I’d read about a David Copperfield show, but some of the reviews said that he was getting too old and his tricks were out dated so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to risk it. After reading lots of reviews about various shows I was getting confused, so I went back to the discounts board to and decided to see what was on sale and just do it. There was a show called Vegas, The Show for $50 and it sounded like fun (potentially tacky, but fun) so I went with it. They gave me a voucher, and explained I had to take it to the ticket booth before the show to exchange it for a ticket. The show was at Planet Hollywood, so that was on my way back to the hotel later in the day.

With my ticket safely stashed in my back pack I continued on my way. I was surprised to find a strip of very ordinary looking shops, with a Maccas on the corner. In amongst all the impressive, shiny buildings it was strange to see something so plain and simple.

A strip of shops and a Maccas

A strip of shops and a Maccas

Just past those shops were some other smaller shops, except they were more touristy. There was an M&M world (this one was 4 stories tall!) and a Coca Cola store. I skipped M&M world since I’d already visited the one in New York, but I took a little look at the Coca Cola store. It was filled with all sorts of Coke merchandise, from caps and backpacks, to mugs, cups, glasses and mini Coca Cola fridges. There were glass bottles with various patterns and designs, and a cafe upstairs serving Coke, frozen Coke and snacks. I’m quite amazed that they’re able to make an entire store out of something as simple as Coke or M&Ms.

A range of Coca Cola glass bottles

A range of Coca Cola glass bottles

I was starting to warm up outside, and was getting a bit hungry, so stopped in at MGM International next, where I had chicken strips at the Rainforest Cafe. The cafe was really cool, set in a fake rainforest. There were monkeys and birds in the trees (pretend of course…), and a mist was creeping out of the bushes. The base of the bar was a wall of water filled with bubbles, and just after I got there there was a thunder storm with lightning. It was a great place to stop for lunch, because there was so much to take in!

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Rainforest Cafe at the MGM International

After I’d finished lunch, I went up the escalator and crossed of the Strip to New York New York. Out the front is a big Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the hotel building itself is shaped like the New York skyline featuring landmarks such as the Empire State Building and Chrysler Centre. The whole complex is surrounded by a roller coaster.

New York New York

New York New York

Inside, the building is decorated with New York styled buildings, with fire escape stairs zig-zagging down the front of them. There are streets lined with actual cafes and an area called Times Square. Parts of it actually felt like little pieces of New York squashed into a casino.

Jelly Belly Statue of Liberty in New York New York

Jelly Belly Statue of Liberty in New York New York

I went to check out the pool there, but couldn’t go in without paying. I walked past the lifts and they had an outline of the Empire State Building engraved on them. It reminded me a lot of the pattern on the lifts in the actual Empire State Building.

Looking out towards the desert as I crossed from New York New York to Excalibur

Looking out towards the desert as I crossed from New York New York to Excalibur

After that I went back outside into the hot sun and crossed over to Excalibur. This casino is themed like a massive castle. It looked huge from the outside, but I only saw a small section on the inside. I think a lot of it is probably hotel because the gaming area didn’t seem too big.

Excalibur

Excalibur

I walked in down a dark, stoney passageway which opened into an entrance hall with artificial stained glass windows. It felt like an older casino, but it was still a pretty cool theme, looking just how I’d expect a medieval castle to look. I didn’t spend much time at Excalibur because apart from the gaming area there wasn’t a lot else to see, but I was glad to have checked it out.

Next door to Excalibur is the Luxor which is Egyptian themed. It’s a very impressive building! There’s a big, tinted glass pyramid and the entrance is through a huge sphinx. In front of that is an obelisk. Apart from the pyramid, I think most of it is purely decorative, but it was one of the more impressive themed casinos.

The Luxor

The Luxor

I walked around the inside as well where there are stone dog statues, carvings of mummies and a small moat. The gaming area was pretty standard, but the rest of the building was really cool.

Statues in front of the Luxor

Statues in front of the Luxor

After the Luxor I decided to start making my way back to my hotel. It was getting really hot, and my legs were getting tired. I considered catching the monorail back, but I didn’t want to miss out on seeing anything else on the way so I decided to walk. I went back past New York New York, and popped in briefly at Monte Carlo. They were don’t works out the front, so it was a bit tricky to find the entrance. Inside it seemed a lot like any other casino.

Statue of Liberty outside New York New York

Statue of Liberty outside New York New York

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in Vegas, making up for the wet weather when I visited Brooklyn in New York

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in Vegas, making up for the wet weather when I visited Brooklyn in New York

I wanted to go to Planet Hollywood to collect my ticket for the show, so went past the Cosmopolitan which I’d stopped in at the night before, then crossed over to Planet Hollywood. Planet Hollywood is massive, and I got a bit lost. There’s a big theatre in the centre of the complex and I thought that was where I had to collect my ticket. When I got there it was closed, so I went to buy a smoothie and figured I’d just have to come back a bit earlier than planned to get my tickets.

Then, as I was trying to find my way out I came across a smaller theatre and another ticket box (which was actually at the back of the complex and obviously not the way out…). It turned out that’s where I had to get my ticket, and that was where the show would be later on. The lady at the counter explained that my ticket was general admission, which was the back section of the theatre, and offered me an upgraded to set seating in the front section for an extra $25. I decided to just get there early and take my chances with general admission.

Discovering shops and bars while I was lost in Planet Hollywood

Discovering shops and bars while I was lost in Planet Hollywood

Ticket in hand, I made my way back to the hotel to cool off in the pool before going back out. It was 4pm so I had a bit of time. This time I decided to just stick with the family pool cos it was a bit quieter and I just wanted to relax and read a book in between dips in the pool. Just after 5pm I went back upstairs, showered and got dressed. Despite the heat, I decided on jeans and a shirt so I’d feel a bit less touristy. Initially I was regretting it, but later in the night once the sun had gone down it was ok.

Relaxing in the pool under the palm trees

Relaxing in the pool under the palm trees

The show didn’t start until 7pm, but I arrived at 6pm because the lady said the queue normally starts about an hour beforehand. There was a sign saying that only drinks purchased at a particular bar could be taken in to the theatre, so I went to ask where the bar was and how that worked. It turned out that I was able to sit at the bar, and then at 7pm they give bar patrons priority access over the normal queue! So I settled down at the bar, and waited in comfort for 7pm.

When it was time to go in we all gathered at the door and they showed us to our seats. It turned out that the theatre was only about half full, so rather than sitting us in the general admission area they used us to fill the spaces in the set seating section. Being by myself they were able to fit me in the fourth row from the front, right in the middle! I was really glad I hadn’t gone with the upgrade.

The show was great. It started off in a dusty room with old Vegas memorabilia covered in sheets. A cleaner walked across the stage, then said hello and told us he could take us on a journey through the history of Vegas. All the dusty signs lit up and the show was off. It featured a little bit of everything from Vegas, including an Elvis impersonator, showgirls wearing billowing feathered outfits, Broadway songs, tap dancers and random entertainment between acts, including an amazing pair of roller skaters spinning round and round on a small platform and swinging each other as they spun, a clumsy guy on a trampoline and a magician. It was a lot of fun, and very entertaining but I felt a bit sad towards the end because they played real footage of previous hotels being demolished to make way for newer hotels and casinos. I felt like the newer ones didn’t quite have the same charm as the older ones. Still, it was a great show, going for almost two hours and  well worth seeing!

After that I had a plan that took me up the strip, in the opposite direction I’d gone during the day. A few of the casinos have special shows at night, most of them hourly, and I had taken a look at the schedule and plotted a path down the road to see them all. The first was the Fall of Atlantas at Caesars Palace. I had a bit of trouble finding it in the casino, because it’s so big. I thought I was at the right spot, because I’d read that the statues came to life for the show and I had found some big statues around a fountain. It turned out to be further inside the casino so I missed the first 5 minutes. Still, the bit I saw was impressive with two gods fighting and shooting fireballs at each other.

Fall of Atlantas at Caesars Palace

Fall of Atlantas at Caesars Palace

After that I went to Treasure Island (TI) where two pirate ships do battle every hour and a half. I was 30 minutes early, and a small crowd had started to gather.By the time the show started the area was packed. There was a special elevated area set aside for guests of Treasure Island.

Either side of the entrance to the casino is water, with a big ship on the left and a smaller pirate ship on the right. The big ship was taken over by Sirens who had kidnapped a pirate. They lured the smaller pirate ship to come closer and rescue the kidnappee. The pirates came over and fired their canon, then the Sirens fought back and sunk the pirate ship. It was really exciting, with huge fireballs shooting out of the larger ship, and the pirate ship started to spurt water and actually sank!

There was a lot of effort in the show, with actual people involved. All up I think there were about 15 performers, which is probably why this show only happens every 90 minutes rather than hourly.

Sirens of TI

Sirens of TI

The next show was the hourly volcano eruption at the Mirage. Fortunately, all these places were next door to each other so I didn’t have far to go. The problem then, though, was that I got to each one pretty early so had a bit of waiting to do. I managed to get a really good spot for the volcano eruption though.

Waiting for the show at the Mirage

Waiting for the show at the Mirage

Out the front of the hotel is a big lake with a rocky island in the centre. On the hour the volcano erupts spurting lava and fireballs into the air. I was curious to see how they did the lava. It was well done, with jets of water shooting up, coloured by red lights within the volcano. There were gas jets in the water below, so as the lava ran down the volcano the rocks and water below caught on fire. I could really feel the heat coming off the fireballs! It was very impressive.

Volcanic eruption at the Mirage

Volcanic eruption at the Mirage

My final stop for the night was the Lake of Dreams at Wynn. To get there I went past the Venetia where the gondolas were tied up for the night.

Gondolas out the front of the Venetian

Gondolas out the front of the Venetian

Wynn was a really fancy casino. Out the front was a nice looking garden, with soft lights shining on the trees. Just inside the entrance the corridor was lined with expensive shops, leading to a sparkly indoor garden before the gaming area. There were a couple of nice bars inside as well.

Garden inside Wynn

Garden inside Wynn

The Lake of Dreams was a strange lake with a smooth rock waterfall in the centre. The lake is surrounded by a forest. There’s a bar upstairs looking out over the lake, and I sat there with a lemonade to watch the show. During the show an unusual video was projected onto the waterfall, and the lake covered with fog. It was an abstract animation with soothing background music. Some monkey-like puppets came down from the trees and danced in front of the screen, and other shapes and figures rose out of the lake. It only went for about 5 minutes, but it was an interesting show to watch.

Lake of Dreams at Wynn

Lake of Dreams at Wynn

By now it was 11.30pm and I hadn’t had dinner! I was super hungry, so stopped at the first place I could find – a yummy pizza place in Wynn. It was nice to stop and sit for a while after all the walking and standing I’d done that night. It was also really good to have some food!

After dinner I started to make my way back to the Flamingo, going via the casinos along the way. It was still really hot outside, so it was way better to keep inside with the air conditioning. I stopped inside the Venetian and watched roulette for a little while before deciding to play the big wheel. I exchanged $30 for chips but didn’t have much luck. It was $5 per game, and I only won a couple but lost the rest. It was fun to play though, and a bit scary to watch how much money some other people were playing with (and losing!).

As I walked along, no matter what time of day, there were people handing out brochures and business cards for strip clubs. Amazingly, a lot of the people handing out the cards were middle aged Latin-American women, wearing tshirts printed with GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS!!! They even tried giving cards to guys who were clearly holding hands with a girlfriend or wife. Some other people were giving out discount VIP entry to clubs.

There were also heaps of people with eskys selling iced water. “Waaater! Ice cold waaater!” could be heard everywhere, again generally being sold by Latin-Americans. Technically they weren’t actually selling it, but they were happy to take a donation of a dollar or two.

I stopped at Hurrahs after I left the Venetian. It looked bright and fun from the outside but was quite old and seedy on the inside. I kept moving and checked out the Flamingo one last time before heading to bed. The flamingos had their heads tucked under their wings trying to sleep, but it was really noisy so I’m not sure how they managed to.

It had been a super busy day with lots of walking, but I’d had a lot of fun exploring. I felt like I’d seen just about everything there was to see!

Posted from Paradise, Nevada, United States.

Grand Canyon

Today was a really exciting day. I had an early start, but it was worth it. I’d booked a day trip to the grand canyon, and was being picked up at the hotel at 7.40am. I got ready, then went downstairs for breaky. My accommodation included a $9 breakfast credit at the cafe downstairs, so I went there to check out what was on offer. They only had fruit, muffins and plain croissants so I was a bit disappointed in the choices. I got a fruit cup and apple muffin, then went around the corner to find somewhere to sit. Right next to the tables was another cafe by the same name – and this one did egg and bacon bagels! I made a note to remember that for the next two mornings, because I didn’t feel like three days of fruit and muffins!

For some reason the tour bus didn’t do pick ups from my hotel. Instead I had to walk to the hotel next door (which is actually across the road). I got there 10 minutes early, and it was already there and waiting for me! It was a small mini bus which took us to another hotel where we transferred to a big coach to head to Boulder City.

Boulder City is about a 40 minute drive from the Vegas Strip. There’s a small municipal airport there where we caught a light plane to the Grand Canyon. When we arrived at the airport we had to queue to check in for our flight. Since it’s such a small plane, they weighed us so they could allocate seats to balance the aircraft. We were given coloured stickers to group us into flights.

We had to wait for about 30 minutes at the airport for the plane to be ready. It was a small building, with seats for about 50 people in the waiting area and a gift shop and cafe off to the side. There were about 70 people waiting.

The light plane we flew in to the Grand Canyon

The light plane we flew in to the Grand Canyon

Once the plane was ready we were given our seat numbers, then made our across the tarmac to the waiting plane. The plane was tiny. It seated three people across, grouped into 2 and 1. There were about 20 passengers all up. The aisle down the middle was just wide enough to fit through while the seats were empty, but once people were seated there was barely a gap. We could see straight through the cock pit to the pilot and all their controls.

Inside the cabin

Inside the cabin

I was towards the back in a single seat on the left hand side. Directly behind me was the door, and looking at it I worried that it might swing open during our flight. Fortunately it didn’t, but it looked like someone could’ve just yanked it open mid-flight if they’d wanted to.

The wings were mounted at the top of the plane giving a great view out the large windows. This also meant that the propellers were just outside the window and I could watch them spinning as the plane tried to take off. It felt like it mightn’t lift of before reaching the end of the runway, but it did. Being such a small plane, it didn’t feel like take off was as effortless as it is on a big jet.

Watching the propeller out the window

Watching the propeller out the window

Everyone had a headset, and a recorded narration played as we flew telling us about landmarks we were flying over. In between the speaking there was background music that reminded me of the music from Jurassic park as they flew to the island.

As we flew over Boulder City it looked very small. It was strange to see a collection of green parks and backyards in the middle of the desert. There was a golf course as well, with bright green lawns, bordered by the dry, brown of the desert.

Not far from Boulder City, we flew over Hoover Dam. I had no idea what to expect, but it was massive! I can only imagine what it would look like from the ground. It reminded me of something out of a James Bond film. As we flew over, the audio guide provided some details on the dam. The dam was built in the 1930s, and Boulder City was actually established to provide the workers with somewhere to stay while working on the project. There’s more than 6.5 million tonnes of concrete in the construction! There are some other interesting stats on the US Bureau of Reclamation website.

Traffic used to drive over the actual dam wall, but the arching bridge was built recently due to concerns about potential terrorist threats from cars crossing over the dam wall.

Flying over the Hoover Dam

Flying over the Hoover Dam

From there we followed the Colorado River for a bit, and then crossed over Lake Mead. We were flying quite low, so low that the cabin wasn’t pressurised, and we could see down to the ground really clearly. It was an amazing view, and a really interesting landscape with rocky cliffs, flat plains with small shrubs and dense sections of forest.

Colorado River

Colorado River

The flight was about an hour, and towards the end it started to get rough. Just as I was starting to feel a bit sick in my tummy we started to land – great timing! I hadn’t even thought about motion sickness until then, but it wasn’t really an issue.

As soon as we landed at the Grand Canyon National Park airport we were put into smaller groups for our helicopter ride. We watched a safety video where they explained that the door may open during flight and it’s perfectly normal! Luckily ours didn’t, but we were quite firmly strapped in so I understand now how it still would’ve been quite safe. They gave us all life jackets, because apparently part of our flight would be over a body of water. During the flight the only water I saw was the Colorado river. Given it’s only a few metres wide, the chance of needing a life jacket seemed pretty slim. I parachute would have been way more useful! Fortunately we had a safe flight, so it didn’t matter anyway.

There were six of us in the helicopter, and again they allocated seat numbers based on our weight. Being smaller than the aeroplane it was even more important that we stick to our seats for the helicopter. One girl sat in the front with the pilot, and the rest of us sat in the back. I was facing backwards, and had a bit of a panic that I’d get motion sickness facing backwards. But the trip was really smooth and it wasn’t an issue. I think that because the helicopter flies lower than the plane, and I could see the ground moving below, motion sickness was less of an issue.

Our helicopter for a flight over the Grand Canyon

Our helicopter for a flight over the Grand Canyon

As we took off, it was hard to tell that we’d even left the ground – it was really smooth. The pilot warned us it might be a bit rough once we got out over the grand canyon, but it didn’t feel too bad to me. The first 5 minutes or so we were flying over trees, then we reached the canyon. As the ground dropped away below us it was a little bit scary looking straight down from the helicopter. The views were amazing and we flew pretty close to some of the cliffs.

Cruising in the helicopter

Cruising in the helicopter

Out of the 20 people on my tour, 11 of them were Portuguese. So, of the 6 in my helicopter, 5 of them were Portuguese! They spoke some English, but it made it a bit tricky to talk. Still, they were quite friendly and took a couple of photos for me. The view was so amazing though that it was enough to just smile across the seats at each other and we knew what everyone was thinking – “wow”!

Flying over the grand canyon

Flying over the grand canyon

For the most part the floor of the canyon is bare, but there are some trees and shrubs, particularly around the banks of the river. I could see some tracks as well that have either been made by cars or hikers. Down one of the cliffs there was a narrow zig zagging path which I think must be where the mules go. Our guide told us about them later in the trip, saying that you can travel down into the canyon on the back of a mule.

Flying near some rocky outcrops

Flying around a rocky outcrop

After about 10 minutes of flying there was a rocky ‘island’ in the middle of the canyon. We flew around it then started to make our way back towards the rim. The cliffs were amazing, showing various layers of rock in different colours and textures. The thought that over millions of years the river and winds have worn away the earth to create the canyon is just incredible.

Once we were safely back on the ground we all got back on the bus where our driver gave us a ‘box lunch’. It was literally a small cardboard box with a packed lunch, just like something you’d have at school. When I read the description of the tour I was worried that they might not feed us well enough, but I should have known better after 3 weeks of American sized portions. It was more than enough, filled with a ham, cheese and tomato croissant, cheese stick, water bottle, apple (healthy!), chips and muesli bar (the muesli bar was a handy snack on my flight to LA).

We ate on the bus as we drove to the south rim of the canyon. The road took us through national park where there is actually a small village. The village was built before the area was declared a national park. A railroad was built to transport metals that were mined in the area, and the village built up around that. Our guide explained that most of the buildings were designed by the same female architect, which was why everything seemed to go together well. The buildings are mostly timber, and fit in nicely with the natural surroundings.

We were dropped off in the village, just a couple of hundred metres from the rim. We had about 45 minutes to explore on our own, then we had to be back at the bus. It would’ve been good to have a bit longer, but I managed to soak up the view and take a lot of photos.

It was great flying over the canyon and getting a birds eye view, but it was equally impressive standing on the edge and looking out over it. There is an asphalt path that follows the rim, but it only had a knee high stone fence along the edge which was very easy to step over. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to leave the path, but I was able to walk right up to the edge of the cliff. Here’s a link to a photosphere I took on the edge – it gives some idea of how amazing the view was.

I walked along the path quite a way, stopping at different places to take in the view. I came across a man with a really big camera and he asked me to take a photo for him. He was pretty serious about his photos because he took a photo to show me what he wanted in the background and where he wanted to be in the photo, then positioned himself for me to take the photo. Then, we swapped and he took some really nice photos for me too! We crossed paths again a little way down the track and did the same thing again. He had a big flag with a map of the world and different timezones. He took a photo with his flag, then gave it to me for a photo too. His name was Alex, and it turns out he has a website, World Time Zone, where the flag is his site logo. I guess he wants pictures of his flag in different places around the world to put on the site.

Before I knew it the 45 minutes were almost up so I had to hurry back to the bus. I was the last one back to the bus, and the driver pulled out as soon as I was on board. It made me wonder what would have happened if I’d been any later back to the bus!

The bus took us back to the airport where we boarded the small plane again for the return flight to Boulder City. After the amazing views we’d had over the canyon, the return trip wasn’t quite as exciting as it had been on the way to the canyon. It took a bit longer on the way back because the we were flying into the wind. You could really feel the engines working hard.

Back at the airport I browsed the gift shop and bought a key ring, then went to the bookings desk to put my name on the list for the next bus back to Vegas. The bus came about 10 minutes later, and took us all back to a hotel in Vegas where we split up into smaller vans again, each covering two or three hotels.

I got back to the hotel about 5pm, an hour before the pool would close. I slipped into my boardshorts and made my way back downstairs to the pool. It was a really hot day, up around 37 C, so I was really looking forward to cooling off. There are two pools at the Flamingo – a family pool and an adults only pool. I went to the adults only pool, got a frozen mojito and settled down on a banana lounge. It was a pretty cool set up, with banana lounges all around the edge, and little gazebos with mattresses that could be reserved the day before.

People were sitting on the edge of the pool with drinks, and some people had even taken them in the pool with them! Everything was served in plastic or cans, so there was no risk of broken glass. They had loud music playing too. It was a nice way to relax after my big adventures of the day, but just before six the sun went behind the hotel and it was quite cool in the shade. Not sure if that’s the reason they close it at 6pm, but I was quite ready to leave at that point.

From there I went back to my room for a quick shower, then went to Margaritaville for dinner. It’s a restaurant that’s part of the Flamingo, and has a Caribbean / pirate theme to it. As the name suggests, they specialise in margaritas!

Margaritaville

Margaritaville

I took a seat at the bar, ordered a margarita and chicken fajitas and settled down to enjoy the scene. The decor was quite extravagant, with a volcano on top of the front bar, and a sea plane hanging above the tables. There was also a small stage, and halfway through dinner a couple of pirates came out and did a dance. At the end of the show, a girl appeared on the top of the volcano which erupted and she slid down a water slide into a big margarita glass. It was a bit strange…  Dinner was really good and the margaritas were great. As always it was a really big serve. The fajitas came in pieces (tortillas, chicken, beans, guacamole and sour cream) for me to put together myself. There were enough tortillas for four, but I could only get through three. After that I was ready to head out and do some night time exploring.

Pirate show during dinner

Pirate show during dinner

First stop was the Bellagio. I’d already seen the dancing fountains the night before, so I went inside to check out the casino. There’s an amazing ceiling just inside the lobby, covered in big glass flowers. It was beautiful.

Glass flowers on the ceiling of the Bellagio

Glass flowers on the ceiling of the Bellagio

Through the lobby is a really cool garden with hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling, kites floating above the trees, snails as tall as me made from flowers (the sign said it was made from 1500 cut flowers!), and garden beds filled with hydrangeas. I’m not sure how often they have to refresh the decorations, because I would’ve thought in the case of the snails the flowers wouldn’t last long indoors, but it was very impressive to see.

Indoor garden at the Bellagio

Indoor garden at the Bellagio

As I walked through the casino there was a bar where a man was playing a grand piano. I stopped there for a drink and to enjoy his music. It was nice to stop for a bit and watch all the people going past. There was an interesting mix of people wandering around in casual clothes, and others dressed up in suits. I felt like I fit in nicely as a tourist, with my shorts, bag and camera.

Dancing fountains outside the Bellagio

Dancing fountains outside the Bellagio

When I went back out the front the fountains were going off, so I stopped to watch. They were dancing to Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas which seemed very appropriate. You can see in this photo just how high they shoot! By this time I was started to feel pretty tired after my early start and big day visiting the Grand Canyon so I decided to go back to the hotel for a good night sleep ready to enjoy the next day.

Looking across at Paris from the Bellagio

Looking across at Paris from the Bellagio

Overall I think this was one of my favourite days (after visiting Hogwarts, of course). The Grand Canyon was amazing, and that combined with some night time exploring it was a very varied day.

Posted from GRAND CANYON, Arizona, United States.

Vegas, Baby!

Today was a travel day. Throughout my holiday most flights had been scheduled at night, but this was a morning flight. In future I think I’d try harder to have all my flights of an evening, because it seems to make much better use of the day.

My bags were mostly packed the night before, so when I got up there were only a couple of things to throw in my suitcase (including some socks I’d washed in the bathroom the night before…) I’d booked a shuttle bus to collect me at 10am for my 12pm flight, so I went downstairs with my suitcase at about 9am and left it with reception while I had breakfast. Not wanting to go too far from the hotel, I found a small bakery just around the corner. It didn’t have a great range, but was convenient. I had a ham and cheese croissant and a coffee, then wandered back to the hotel.

I was early at the hotel, but didn’t want to risk missing the bus. After about 15 minutes, and a great chat with the guy at the hotel, the bus arrived and I was on my way to the airport. Something that concerned me with a lot of the shuttle buses was that they didn’t always take payment over the phone. It made me wonder what sort of guarantee I had that they would actually come, since I hadn’t paid for their services yet.

Flying over snowy mountain peaks

Flying over snowy mountain peaks

There were two other groups to pick up in the city before we could go to the airport, but I got there with enough time for check in, security and even a Pinkberry frozen yoghurt! The flight was around an hour and a half long and I’d landed in Las Vegas by about 1.30pm. Walking towards baggage claim, I was surprised to see some pokies right next to the conveyer belt! There was a bit of a wait for the luggage (deliberate perhaps??), and while I was standing there a few people wandered over and started playing.

Pokies next to baggage claim at McCarran International Airport

Pokies next to baggage claim at McCarran International Airport

I gathered up my bags, and headed towards the taxi rank. I looked up a website that said it would only be about $16 in a taxi to my hotel, the Flamingo, so I figured rather than bothering with the extra travel time of a shared shuttle bus I’d just go with a cab. In the end it cost about $35 and took almost half an hour. I thought the website I’d read must have been out of date, but at the end of my stay the trip back to the airport only took 10 minutes (and that was in a shuttle bus!). I have a feeling the driver took the scenic route to drag out the trip and bump up the fare.

Anyway, I arrived at the hotel just before 3pm. Check-in time wasn’t officially until 4pm but I thought I’d try anyway. There was a queue of about 10-15 people at the check-in, but I noticed an empty queue for Total Rewards members. Just behind the check-in queue was the Total Rewards counter, so I went over there instead and signed up for their reward program. 5 minutes later I had a voucher for the pokies and was at the front of the check-in queue!

My room was ready, so I was able to check-in straight away. I hadn’t really had a proper lunch, so I was feeling pretty hungry. I changed into shorts (it was so much hotter than San Francisco!) and went back downstairs to explore the hotel and find something to eat.

In the hotel gardens there were flamingos and pelicans! There were also ducks and other birds, along with a pond filled with massive gold fish. I felt a bit sorry for the flamingos and pelicans, particularly at night when they were trying to sleep with people still out and about and a lot of noise. Still, they were very pretty.

They don't call it Hotel Flamingo for nothing - flamingoes in the hotel gardens

They don’t call it Hotel Flamingo for nothing – flamingoes in the hotel gardens

Just around the corner from the birds was a restaurant that did Mexican food. I sat down, ordered a frozen margarita (2 for 1!) and some tacos. By the time I’d finished ‘lunch’ it was a bit after 4pm, which was why I decided that day time flights waste time – it was 4pm and I’d hardly done anything!

Armed with a water bottle and my lonely planet I went to explore. Being in Vegas, I felt like I should gamble on my first day so I wasted a couple of dollars in one of the pokie machines then moved on to see what was outside. It was really hot outside, and I was a bit lost as to where everything was and what I should do. I spent about an hour  wandering around, but didn’t get very far and felt a bit overwhelmed. Deciding it was all too much, I found a bar outside the hotel serving $3 beers and decided to just sit there and watch the people going past. It was quite relaxing, and there was a constant flow of interesting people walking by, including a couple of guys dressed as cupid taking tips for photos.

Crazy cupids outside the hotel

Crazy cupids collecting tips outside the bar

I stayed there until it started to get dark, then went inside in search of food. There was a food court, so I had a hamburger and chips, then went back upstairs to drop off my backpack. Looking out my window I could see the lights outside, and was quite excited to try exploring again. With just my camera, I headed back out.

Fountains outside Caesar's Palace

Fountains outside Caesar’s Palace

Given it was now night time it had started to cool down a little bit, but even with the sun gone it was somewhere around the low 30s. I didn’t want to stay out too late because I had an early start the next day for a day trip to the Grand Canyon, so I just explored the casinos closest to the Flamingo. Just across the road was Ballys, where the bus was picking me up the next morning, so I went there first so I knew where to go in the morning.

Lights of Ballys and Paris

Lights of Ballys and Paris

Next door to Ballys is Paris where they have built a half scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. There’s an elevator up to the top, but I was happy to just look from the ground. Across the road from there is the Bellagio, where the fountains dance in sync with music every 15 minutes at night. I saw a couple of shows in the time I was in the area, and they were spectacular. The boom of the water as it shot up was quite loud, and it was impressive the way the water stayed in time with the music. Sometimes I think it went as high as the hotel roof!

At all of the major intersections the road is fenced off and there are escalators and stairs going up to a bridge walkway for pedestrians. I guess the purpose of that is to keep pedestrians off the road making it a bit safer, but I found it quite confusing at times and would go up the wrong stairs or forget completely and get to the road only to find my way blocked by the fence. During the days particularly, it was quite draining going up and down stairs in the heat of the sun.

It was getting towards 11pm so I decided to head back to the Flamingo and get a good sleep before the Grand Canyon in the morning. The bus was coming at 7.40am so I had to be up a bit before 7am to allow enough time. Although my visit to Vegas had started off a bit slow, by the end of the night I’d had a nice time exploring my little piece of the Strip and was looking forward to coming back the following night and going a bit further.

My home, the Flamingo

My temporary home, the Flamingo

Posted from Las Vegas, Nevada, United States.

Alcatraz

This afternoon I had a trip to Alcatraz booked for 2.30pm, which left me the morning to explore more of the city. It was a beautiful clear day which was a pleasant change after the rain the day before. I hadn’t spent much time in Downtown San Francisco, so I decided to go there in the morning. Also, it was on the way to Pier 33 where the ferry would leave so it made sense.

I left the hotel and walked a couple of blocks towards Downtown where I found a nice little cafe for breakfast. They had a great breakfast menu, and I had scrambled eggs and three cheese hash. It was soooo yum! The potato was amazing, and the coffee was really good too.

Scrambled eggs and hash for breaky

Scrambled eggs and hash for breaky

Full of energy to take on the day, I continued on to Downtown San Francisco. On the way I walked within a couple of blocks of City Hall. Although I’d been there the day before, I figured since I was so close, and it would be open today, I might as well stop in briefly. I had read that they have tours every two hours, but I was on the wrong hour so missed that. It didn’t really matter though because I don’t think I wanted to stay there for the full hour it would have taken to do the tour.

Inside City Hall

Inside City Hall

The inside of the building was beautiful. The main staircase was lovely, with a huge dome ceiling. There was a couple getting married while I was there and they were coming down the stairs. It reminded me a bit of the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast. I caught the lift up to the third floor where you can look down on the room and take a closer look at the ceiling. The detail was amazing, and it was very well maintained. I did a lap of the floor, but it was mostly offices. The main council chamber wasn’t open to the public because it was in use.

A sunny shot outside City Hall

A sunny shot outside City Hall

Not far from City Hall is the UN plaza. I had no idea what I’d find there, but it was on my way to the street car so I walked past. It’s really just a paved area with a couple of fountains and some bench seats. It just so happened that every Tuesday at 12pm they have a performance from a local art group so I stopped for a little while to watch them.

Band playing at UN plaza

Band playing at UN plaza

While I was waiting for them to start, a man in a wheelchair rolled up beside me and said “hello”. His name was Sam, and he proceeded to tell me how he’d just found his favourite brand of shampoo at a nearby CVS Pharmacy and bought six bottles so he could stock up. I didn’t really know what to say, except that I was happy for him. He continued to chat, asking about my holiday and telling me his favourite parts of San Francisco. He also told me about the shampoo he’d just found…several times. He was a bit strange, but seemed harmless. After 15 minutes of watching the band I said goodbye and continued on my way.

Food trucks along the edge of the UN plaza

Food trucks along the edge of the UN plaza

I walked towards the main CBD, aiming for a post office I’d seen on the map – I had a couple of postcards to post. When I got there, there was a massive queue. Being lunch time on a weekday in the CBD I guess that was to be expected. Rather than queuing, I went to the self serve machine and bought a couple of stamps. Either I bought the wrong stamps or put the cards in the wrong post box, but they haven’t arrived yet so I’m not sure if they’ll ever make it…

There was a street stall selling BBQ pork rolls around the corner, so I bought one for lunch and sat under a tree to eat it. It was quite warm in the sun, but cooler when the breeze picked up. It was way nicer than the day before!

After lunch it was getting close to 2pm so I caught the street car to Pier 33. I checked out the ferry terminal to see when I needed to queue, and I was about 20 minutes early so I went for a short walk to see what was around.

Exploring the area around Pier 33

Exploring the area around Pier 33

Back at the terminal, I joined the queue and got ready to board the ferry. As with just about every tourist attraction on my trip, I had to stop for a souvenir photo in front of a printed Alcatraz backdrop before getting on the ferry. They always print them out and have them waiting as you leave. It seems like such a waste, but they’re always way overpriced.

The ferry was quite large, split over two levels. I moved up to the top deck for a better view, quite excited to finally have a clear day looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry had solar panels on the roof and wind turbines on the back. It was also powered by a battery charged from mains power, with a TV screen on the lower deck showing the flow of electricity throughout the boat. It was quite interesting to see how it all came together.

It’s about a 20 minute ride out to Alcatraz Island and I took a lot of photos of the city and Golden Gate Bridge, not realising I’d have an even better opportunity once I was on the island. As we came closer there was a pealing sign on the edge of the island warning people against aiding prisoners from escaping the island. Given the distance from the mainland to the island, I imagine it would have been difficult for boats to sneak out to the island and help anyone escape.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

The ferry pulled up to the dock, and we waited for them to lower the gangway. Everyone gathered on the dock where one of the park employees welcomed us and gave a quick overview of the island, including how to get to the cellhouse.

Welcome to Alcatraz Island

Welcome to Alcatraz Island

I grabbed a map, and then made my way to the cinema room where they screen a 15 minute Discovery Channel documentary on Alcatraz island. It was a great intro to the island, where I learned that initially the island was developed as a fort to defend San Francisco Bay in the 1800’s. They never actually needed to use it as a fort though, and it soon became used as a military prison. In about 1930 its use turned to federal prison until the 1960’s when it became to expensive to run, and work was needed to maintain the buildings, so it was closed. At the start of the 70’s it was occupied briefly by a group of American Indians, but their occupation only lasted about 18 months before the few remaining people were removed from the island. Since 1972 it has been a National Park and a protected landmark.

Traces of the American Indian occupation can be seen across the island - in this case painted on the water tower

Traces of the American Indian occupation can be seen across the island – in this case painted on the water tower

The documentary is screened near the dock. From there you can make your way up the hill to the cell house, but along the way there are quite a few buildings to look at. First stop is the electric shop, then the Post Exchange and Officers’ Club. Interestingly, the families of some of the officers lived on the island too, with their children catching a ferry to San Francisco each day for school. Because of that, there are some facilities for social gatherings, such as the Officers’ Club, where they held dances, bowling nights and other events.

Further on is the Quartermaster building where supplies were kept, and the Powerhouse which generated electricity for the complex. Given the importance of electricity in running the prison, this was a well guarded building. Over the hill near the water is the Model Industries Building where inmates were sent to work during the day, mostly doing laundry.

IMG_2624

The Powerhouse

The views from the island were great, and the gardens were very pretty. Most of the plants were planted by families of officers working on the island, and later groups of prisoners were also allowed out to tend the gardens. Now, with the island declared a national park, these flowers grow wildly across the island.

After checking out the buildings on the lower section of the island, I made my way up the steep hill to the Cellhouse. Along the way I stopped to look at the morgue, a small concrete room on the side of the Dining Hall.

Watchtower looking out from above the Dining Hall

Watchtower looking out from above the Dining Hall

Around the top of the cell house was a fenced in walkway where guards would patrol, and at certain points there were well barred watchtowers looking out over the grounds. The thought of sitting up there for a shift isn’t very appealing – it would be so cold and windy! The path up to the cell house winds back and forth because the hill is so steep – somewhat reminiscent of my trek up the hill to Coit Tower the day before.

The cell house is a big rectangular building, several stories tall. Once inside, there were staff handing out audio tours. Everyone got their own headset and it then guided us through the building, pointing out interesting features and providing a history, along with stories of escape attempts, narrated by ex-wardens and inmates.

A standard cell at Alcatraz

A standard cell at Alcatraz

It started off going through the main cell block, providing a general introduction to the prison. There were a lot of people in the building which made it hard to keep up with the audio, but fortunately it had a pause button which was handy for taking a closer look before moving on. The audio tour is apparently 40 minutes long, but I think I spent about an hour and a half walking through – I made good use of the pause button!

There are four rows of cells in the Cellhouse. Rows A to C are the standard cells. The cells cover two levels down the sides of each row. The cells were very small – wide enough to fit a bed, toilet and some space to walk around. Later in the tour there were cells with paintings, carvings and other crafts – just a few examples of how prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour. After seeing the standard cells, the tour went through the prison library.

The Library

The Library

Just outside the library is Row D where the isolation cells, known as ‘The Hole’, can be found. These are smaller cells that don’t have any windows and are where prisoners were sent if they disobeyed the rules of the prison.

Around the outside wall of the Cellhouse, overlooking all the cells, is the gun gallery. This is where armed guards patrolled, keeping an eye on the prisoners. The gallery is separated from the cells by metal bars. For their own safetly, to prevent prisoners taking control of them, the guards patrolling the floor were not armed, although the guide mentioned that they often secretly carried sticks and tasers for protection. The idea was that the guards in the gun gallery would be able to shoot prisoners if necessary.

The tour told of an escape attempt where a prisoner had made a tool, known as a bar spreader, which he planned to use to gain entry into the gun gallery, steal weapons and take over the prison. He was successful in gaining access to the gallery and getting weapons, but the prisoners weren’t able to get out of the cellhouse because one of the guards had taken the key to the exercise yard and not returned it to where it was usually kept.

Several guards were taken hostage and locked in cells, and the escaping prisoners shot five of them. After that, Marines were sent in to recover the prison from the prisoners, by dropping grenades from the ceiling. You can still see marks on the concrete where the grenades exploded, and a hole in the ceiling where the Marines had positioned themselves.

After that interesting story, the tour went past some cells where we could see items the prisoners made, such as paintings, carvings and even crochet! Apparently one of the prisoners had learned to crochet from his grandma, and then taught other prisoners how to do it. It was interesting to see this side of prison life, although I think these sorts of privileges would’ve been reserved for very well behaved prisoners.

A cell with some prisoner hobbies on display

A cell with some prisoner hobbies on display

Next stop was the visitation area, where prisoners could have family members come visit. I think they were only allowed an hour a month, and all conversations were supervised and through glass which was a couple of inches thick. We were also able to walk through the officers area, past the armoury and prison control centre where officers did paper work and key communication equipment was set up.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Outside the tour went past the lighthouse and along the edge of the island where there were great views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge. The path went past some gardens and around to the exercise yard.

Exercise yard

Exercise yard

Back inside the cell house the next stop was a set of cells with the airvents removed from the back wall where you can see the hole has been widened. The prisoners chiselled away at the concrete wall to make it wide enough for them to fit through. The guards believe they used spoons to do this, because after their escape several worn down spoons were discovered in the prison.

Behind the cells is a small gap where pipes and cables run to provide the cells with water and electricity for lighting. The prisoners climbed up the pipes to gain access to the roof. They don’t know exactly what happened to the prisoners, but they were never found. It’s assumed they drowned on their way back to the mainland, but their bodies were never discovered.

Widened ventilation hole used by a prisoner to escape

Widened ventilation hole used by a prisoner to escape

The last stop before the end of the tour was the dining hall. It’s a really big room where the prisoners came together to eat. In the ceiling there are jets that look like fire sprinklers, but they actually squirt pepper spray. The idea was that if trouble ever broke out, it could be used to bring everyone back under control. A couple of guards would normally be in the dining hall with the prisoners, so I’m not sure how they would have survived something like that. The pepper spray was never used, but maybe the threat of it was enough to keep the prisoners under control.

The kitchen was behind bars, and where the knives hang on the wall they had painted it black where each knife should be so they would easily notice if a knife was missing. Above the kitchen they still have the menu of the final breakfast served on March 21, 1963 – assorted dry cereals, steamed wheat, scrambled eggs, fruit, toast, bread and butter.

Block

Row B ‘Broadway’ of the cell house

At the conclusion of the audio tour it was time to make my way back down to the dock. The last ferry leaves at 6.30pm and it was 6pm. I had time to stop in at the gift shop and buy a piece of concrete from a ruined building, then walk back down the hill to the dock. Again, there were some great views of the city from the ferry on the way back – definitely the clearest day of my visit!

Barbed wire around the cell block

Barbed wire around the cell block

Back on the mainland it was heading towards 7pm. Pier 39 is just down the road, a main tourist area on the piers. I hadn’t been there yet, so went to check it out. It was basically a big pier covered in souvenir shops, arcade halls and restaurants. It reminded me of Navy Pier back in Chicago, but bigger and busier. I wandered the shops for a bit, until I came to the end of the pier. The view out over the bay was awesome, and I was keen to watch the sunset.

There was a Japanese restaurant with tables overlooking the water, so I decided to go there for dinner. Wanting to make the most of the location, I had an entree and a main and was soooo full by the end. It was a lovely way to end the day and wrap up my visit to San Francisco.

Watching the sunset during dinner

Watching the sunset during dinner

Dinner finished and the sun gone, I walked the rest of the strip between Pier 39 and the cable car. This took me past more market-like shops and restaurants, where I’d had dinner on my second night. There was a bit of a wait for the cable car, and for some reason they had to leave in 20 minute intervals even though there was a queue of cars waiting to go. I think it had something to do with both directions sharing a stretch of track, so they had to time it so they didn’t get in each other’s way. This was my third ride on a cable car, so I definitely got good value from my three day ticket! It was really exciting riding at night, and I was standing on the platform again, right up the front.

Cable car ride home to my hotel

Cable car ride home to my hotel

I spent a little while walking around near Union Square and checking out the city by night, then jumped on the connecting street car back to the hotel to pack and get ready for the morning. I’d had a great few days in San Francisco, and although I’d seen a lot it had been a relaxing visit.

Posted from San Francisco, California, United States.

A quiet day in San Francisco

Today was Memorial Day across the US. In my mind this is something similar to Anzac Day in Australia, which means a lot of places are closed for the day. Earlier in my trip I had thought it would be a good day for Alcatraz, but unfortunately I left it too late to book and there weren’t any tickets left. Instead, I decided to check out a few places and just see what was open. It was an overcast morning which, combined with the public holiday, made for a quiet and sleepy day in San Francisco.

For breakfast I went back to Kate’s Kitchen, the cafe that had a wait the day before. I was hoping that, being a Monday, there would be no queue this morning. When I arrived there were a couple of people waiting out the front, but I added my name to the list anyway and about 5 minutes later I was seated. Something I found in general was that when you’re by yourself it’s a lot easier to get into places!

It was a cute little cafe, with quite a homey feel. I had a short stack of pancakes and a coffee, and was sooo full by the end that I was glad I didn’t get the tall stack! It was only two pancakes, but they covered the whole dinner plate and were super thick. They were covered in bananas, walnuts and maple syrup and while I was eating, the waitress came over and refilled my coffee as well, so I had more than enough to eat and drink.

A traffic box, painted to fit in with the scenery

After breaky, I wandered down to the Castro District. The day before, the lady in the hotel had asked if I’d been down there so I thought I should check it out. The Castro Theatre, a cinema built in the 1920s, is on the main street. It was closed when I was there so I couldn’t go in, but it was a beautiful old building from the outside. There are also a lot of shops and cafes and it was quite a pretty strip. If I hadn’t already had breaky, it would’ve been a good place to stop and eat. I spent a little while walking around, then made my way back to Market Street and caught the street car to Downtown.

Castro Theatre

Castro Theatre

I got off the street car near City Hall, wanting to check out the building. I had also read that there are free tours every couple of hours, so I was hoping to join one of them if I was there at the right time. Unfortunately when I got there it was closed because of the public holiday. I walked around the gardens, where there was a small group of people gathered seeking signatures for a petition.

City Hall

City Hall

From there I walked around the back of City Hall to the San Francisco Opera. Given City Hall was closed, I didn’t really expect to get in here either, but wanted to take a look since I was so close. As expected, the building was closed except for the ticket box. While I was there, I found a perfect place to take a photo – I cast iron gate with lots of places to hang a camera!

City Hall, taken from the gates of the Opera House

City Hall, taken from the gates of the Opera House

My next destination was Chinatown. I was a few blocks away from the street car, so I thought I’d just walk there. I started along Golden Gate Avenue, and as I walked there were more and more homeless people on the street, and places offering quick loans and housing support attracting some unsavoury looking people. I didn’t feel very safe, so turned the next corner back towards Market Street. Once there I decided to keep walking rather than waiting for the street car. It’s quite flat along there, so it wasn’t really a problem – until it started raining.

I went into the a shopping centre for shelter, and found a cafe where I stopped for a coffee until the rain started to clear. I had packed my umbrella, but didn’t really feel like walking in the rain.

Once it stopped raining, I walked up the main street through Union Square and on to Chinatown. As I went past the cable car stop I saw the queue was even longer than the day before. It made me realise that I had done really well to go to the stop further down the road to avoid the queue.

San Francisco has a strong Chinese past, with many Chinese migrants arriving in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush. As such, the Chinatown area is very large, the main strip stretching 5-6 blocks along Grant Avenue.

China Town gate

China Town gate

I walked through the gates, and browsed some of the shops. There were a lot of places selling wood and stone carvings – some were very small carvings, while others were larger statues and decorations. There was some amazing work, particularly the wood carvings. There were also a lot of souvenir shops selling postcards, key rings and cheap tshirts. I bought a couple of post cards, then continued onwards.

There was a short walking tour in Lonely Planet, so I was roughly following that and another walking tour from the Trip Advisor app on my phone. Between the two I found quite a few things to look at. I walked through Old St Mary’s Square where homeless people slept by the playground, and on to the Chinese Historical Society Museum…which is only open from 12-5pm Tuesday to Saturday.

Chinese lanterns hanging over the street

Chinese lanterns hanging over the street

Around the corner from there was Ross Alley which, according to Lonely Planet, featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom! I don’t really remember the laneway from the film, and should probably watch it again, but it was very narrow with balcony’s looking out from apartments. There were clothes hanging from windows and balcony railings, and kitchen noises and smells coming from restaurants backing onto the laneway.

As I walked along, a man came up to me and said “hello” then asked where I was from. I told him Australia, then he asked if I knew a few people. I hadn’t heard of any of them, and according to him they were Nobel Prize winners from Australia and other people he assumed, as an Australian, I should know. Apparently he used to be a teacher which was why he knew of these people. He asked if I’d been to the fortune cookie factory (I hadn’t, but that’s where I was heading) then told me there was a great bakery around the corner.

I thanked him for telling me about it, then he said, “I’ll take you there now.” I didn’t really know how to get rid of him, so figured I might as well follow him to the end of the laneway and see how far the bakery was. I felt quite safe because there were other people around, including a few other tourists. It turned out the bakery was only a couple of shops away, so I stopped in a bought a really yummy coconut bun. The lady gave me two for a dollar, so I gave the second to the man. After that I told him I was heading back to the fortune cookie shop, and we said good bye.

Back in the laneway I popped into the factory which is a narrow building with three or four workers making fortune cookies. There were bags of cookies for sale on the wall, and another man was giving free samples of wafers that hadn’t been folded into fortune cookies. It was really interesting to watch the lady folding the cookies as quickly as the  big rotating wafer press was baking the wafers. In the few minutes I was watching she probably folded a full tray of cookies. I took a sample, then continued on my way.

A worker folds hot wafers into fortune cookies

A worker folds hot wafers into fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory

It was time for lunch at that point, so I found a Vietnamese restaurant and had a really yummy beef ball pho. It was a typical good value family restaurant, and reminded me of some of the cheaper Asian restaurants back home. I was really happy with my choice!

A few blocks from Chinatown is the Cable Car Museum. It’s actually located in the powerhouse which powers all the cables across the city. The car barn is also next door, where the cable cars are stored when not in use.

It was a great little museum, with information about the history of cable cars and how they work. Apparently, before the cable car there were horse drawn carts which were used to transport people in San Francisco. One day, while going up one of the steep hills a carriage rolled backwards down the hill dragging the horses to their death. After witnessing this the inventor of the San Francisco cable car came up with the idea as an alternative to horse drawn carriages. There’s more information about it on the museum’s website, along with some details on how the cable cars work.

Cable car powerhouse

Massive pulleys power the San Francisco cable car network

Below the museum you can see the massive pulleys which power the cables. There are four different cable car routes in the city, and each of them has a set of wheels in the powerhouse to pull the cable. The cables run under the road between the cable car tracks, and the cable car operator uses a lever to grip onto the cable and pull the cars along. It was really fascinating to see how it all works, and very impressive to think there are hundreds of miles of cable under the ground powered by just these four sets of wheels pulling the 26 cars on the network.

After that I decided to catch the cable car from just around the corner to get up the hill to Lombard Street. Lombard Street is quite well known because it’s so steep that the road zig zags down to the bottom to lessen the incline. Unfortunately I had to wait almost 45 minutes for the next cable car. I think something had happened further up the line because they’re supposed to come through about every 10 minutes. There were a couple of people waiting at the stop, and a few left to find alternative transport. Just as I’d given up and decided to walk down to the street cars, the cable car came! I was at the next stop so just waited there for the car, then jumped on board.

I was really glad to get the cable car because there were some great views looking out over the hills towards the water (also, the street car would only have taken me closer to the hill, not to the top). At each intersection I could see between the buildings and get a glimpse of the ocean, or the bridge, or rolling hills covered with small town houses. It was a really good ride.

I got off at Lombard Street, along with almost everyone else on the cable car. At the top of the hill there were police directing traffic because there were so many people wanting to drive down the street! It was really quite funny because people were stopping halfway down to take photos, and the police were yelling down the hill for people to keep moving. Others had their cameras out filming their descent. The street is lined with houses, and I’m not sure how the residents manage the traffic and flow of people that no doubt continue all day every day.

At the top of Lombard Street

At the top of Lombard Street

Before heading down the hill, I walked around the corner to George Sterling Park, where Lonely Planet said there were great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Given the weather I wasn’t hoping for much, but wanted to check it out since I was so close. As I expected I couldn’t see out to the bridge, but I can see how it would be a great lookout on a clear day.

I went back to Lombard Street and made my way down the windy street. It’s really beautiful, with hydrangeas planted in each of the bends and a neat hedge lining the footpath. The houses are nice too, each 2-3 storeys with amazing views. At the bottom of the hill another group of police officers were directing traffic. It’s a one way street which helps to manage it, but with all the cars going down there’s a constant flow of traffic.

Looking back up Lombard Street

Looking back up Lombard Street

I made my wait to Coit Tower after that, stopping in briefly at the Art Institute along the way. There wasn’t a lot to see at the Art Institute, with a small local exhibit on display showing artwork produced by disadvantaged kids.

Coit Tower is on top of Telegraph Hill, which is very steep! There’s no street car so I had to walk it and towards the top there were about 50 narrow steps to get up to the tower. The tower is named after Lillian Coit who left some of her estate to San Francisco to beautify the city. The tower was built with her money.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

You can catch a lift to the top of the tower, but since it was so foggy and cloudy there wasn’t much point in buying a ticket. Inside the base of the tower are murals depicting San Francisco workers back in the 1930s, including office workers, construction workers and farmers. They were very interesting paintings stretching right around the walls.

View from Coit Tower

View from Coit Tower

I wasn’t far from the water, so I thought it could be worth heading to the pier for dinner before going back to the hotel. I looked up directions on my phone and followed the map, only to find that it was taking me down a really narrow path with lots of stairs along the back of what seemed like houses and apartments. It was really bushy and I worried that I’d end up in someone’s backyard or have to turn around and go all the way back. Fortunately after almost 10 minutes of stairs and downhill paths I came out at the end of a dead-end street behind some shops (probably not an ideal location, but definitely better that someone’s yard!).

The windy path from Coit Tower

The windy path from Coit Tower

At that point, it started to rain and it was about 6.30pm and beginning to get dark. Being a public holiday all the shops nearby were closed, and with the rain I didn’t want to walk over to the pier, especially since I’d have a chance to go there after Alcatraz the next day. Instead, I waited at the street car stop (I was back on Route F!) and went back to the hotel. I went upstairs to drop off my things, then went back out to find somewhere for dinner. I found a restaurant called Chaz Maman and got a seat at the bar where I ordered a delicious veal with creamy mushroom sauce. It was a really nice meal, and the barman was quite friendly, having a chat with me while I waited for my food.

After that I made my way back to the hotel, quite ready for bed. It had been a relaxing day, but there had been a lot of walking so I was pretty tired.

Posted from San Francisco, California, United States.

Exloring San Francisco

After an early night and a decent sleep in, I was feeling more energetic today. My throat was still a bit sore, and my nose a little snuffly, but not enough to stop me from going out and exploring San Francisco.

I started the day with breakfast back at the French patisserie. I had found somewhere else on Google Maps that looked really good, but after walking the few blocks (and very steep hills!) to get there, there was a 30 minute wait for a table so I just went back to the French patisserie. It was after tackling those hills that I decided it was worth getting the bus, even if it’s only a couple of blocks.

While I ate breakfast I browsed my Lonely Planet guide and flipped through the Events section for San Francisco. It just so happened that the weekend I was there is when they hold their annual Carnaval San Francisco celebration down in the Mission District. I’d wanted to explore that area during my stay, so it was good timing that the parade was also on that particular morning.

I actually didn’t get there until a bit after 11am, and thought that I’d missed the parade. About 8 blocks of road are closed off for Carnaval, and I came in at the northern end and slowly made my way down the road looking at the various stalls. There were a lot of food stalls, and various craft and general market stalls. There were quite a few small stages set up too, although there were only a couple of performers out at that stage and most of the stalls were still setting up. Overall the atmosphere was pretty quiet and it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was just about to head back and go somewhere else, when I came out at the other end of the street and stumbled across the parade!

This was much more like what I was expecting. I don’t know how many blocks the parade covered, but there were heaps of people lining the streets and the parade was slowly going past. Each float was pumping out lively music and was surrounded by a group of dancers in colourful costumes. Quite a few people in the crowd were getting into it and dancing as well, while others were clapping and cheering them on.

I stayed there for about an hour watching the parade, then the last float went past and everyone started heading back to the main strip. Then sun had come out and it was warming up to be a nice day. I was standing right next to the entrance of the Carnaval street to watch the parade, which meant I was right at the start of the queue to get through security – very handy because there were suddenly hundreds of people trying to get through!

Walking back past the stalls, it was much more lively now. All the market stalls were open, food was ready, and most of the stages had performers. People were sitting on the sides of the street to eat lunch, and some of the residents had pulled out tables and chairs and were enjoying the party. The whole strip had a fun and relaxed feel, with everyone out to have a good time. I grabbed some tacos from a truck, and sat on the footpath to eat and people watch for a bit. I moved on a bit then stopped to watch one or two bands before reaching the other end again.

There were a couple of sights I wanted to see in the Mission District. The first was the Mission San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Delores, which is the oldest building in San Francisco, dating back to 1776. From my experience in the morning, I decided it would be easier to get the bus rather than walk, and I was there in no time.

The white mission building stands on the corner of an intersection, and looked quite impressive against the bright blue sky. For a small fee you can take a self guided tour, so I went inside to see what it was like.

They gave me a brochure and map at the information desk, and it provided interesting information about the mission building, church, museum and graveyard, along with a brief history of the area at the time the mission was established.  While it only covers a small area, it was an interesting place to visit and worth stopping in.

Choir balcony in the Mission San Francisco de Asis church

Choir balcony in the church of the Mission San Francisco de Asis

Just around the corner from there is Clarion Alley, where the council allows artists to paint murals. I was keen to check them out, so I went there next. It’s quite a long alleyway running along the back of houses. All the fences and brick walls are covered with murals of all shapes and sizes, and there are also some artists with galleries along the alleyway selling there works. One of them was painting a wall as I went past, glueing paper shapes onto the wall like paper mache.

A mural in Clarion Alley

A mural in Clarion Alley

My plan for the afternoon was to hire a bike and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is to the north of San Francisco and I was right down south. The best way to get there was public transport, and since I’d already caught a couple of buses and street cars I decided I would be better off buying a 3 day pass.

I made my way to the nearest subway station, stopping for a massive slice of pizza on the way, and bought a single trip ticket to Union Square where I would be able to buy the 3 day pass. The pass is only for MUNI transport, which covers all buses, street cars, trams and cable cars, but not the subway. The subway tickets here were similar to DC, in that for a single trip the price was dependent on how far you’re travelling. The size of the network seems similar too, and there were only a couple of platforms at this station. The train came in a few minutes, and in a couple of stops I was at Union Square.

Unfortunately the ticket booth at Union Square didn’t sell the 3 day passes, so I walked down to Market Street and the Powell Street cable car terminal. I bought my pass, and had planned on getting the cable car up to the Golden Gate Bridge, but there was a massive queue waiting for the cable car.

A little bit disappointed, I made my way back up towards Union Square where I thought I’d get a street car instead. As I walked, I went past another cable car stop where people were waiting. I thought they would  be waiting a long time since all the cars that went past would be full from the start of the line, but when a car went past they stopped and took the next 4 passengers. It turns out, they saved enough space at the start of each trip to collect a couple of people at each stop along the way.

After realising that, I decided to get the cable car afterall, and in about 20 minutes I was on my way. When it pulled up the driver said there was only room to stand on the railing. I was really excited because that’s exactly where I wanted to be! And, even better, the front spot was free so I was able to stand right up the front!

Riding the cable car!

Riding the cable car!

It was really cool riding on the outside of the cable car, but a little bit scary when we went past cars and, sometimes, buses. I was on the right hand side, so cars and other traffic were going past on my side. When we passed another cable car, the driver called out for the people on the left to lean in so they wouldn’t bump into the people on the oncoming car. I was surprised they still let people ride on the outside for safety reasons, but I’m really glad they do.

The cable car doesn’t go particularly fast (9.5mph, 15.3 kph), and stopped at a lot of stops to begin with. As we got further from the downtown area it stopped less because there were less people getting on and off. Most people seemed to be riding it all the way to the end, and I’m pretty sure everyone was a tourist. It’s probably not the most efficient mode of transport, with all the street cars and buses that travel around the city, so the locals would be more likely to use them instead.

Riding the cable car and looking out towards the bay

Riding the cable car and looking out towards the bay

When we got to the end, the cable car stopped to let everyone off, then rolled onto the turntable where the two operators got off the car and manually turned it around. I was surprised it was such a manual activity, but I guess it’s mostly the original system that was built, dating back to over 100 years ago, so that make senses.

After that exciting trip, I made my way to the bike shop, keen to get a bike before it got too late. The bike shop is near Fisherman’s Wharf which is a very touristy area. There were lots of shops selling souvenirs, postcards and cheap t-shirts and hats. It had a real market feel to it. I found the bike shop and gave them my details. They quickly measured me up against a bike and I was ready to go. They provided me with a map, and a ticket I could use to catch a ferry back if I wanted to. After crossing the bridge, there were a few smaller towns they recommended riding to, but the last ferry at the end leaves at 8.20pm. It was about 5pm when I hired the bike, so I decided to just see how far I got and figure out when to turn back. The shop was open until 9pm, but they also had a secure garage where the bike could be dropped off after hours.

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Boats in the marina

Concerned by the cars on the road, I walked the bike the few blocks from the shop to the beach where there is a bike and pedestrian path that goes all the way to the bridge. I cruised along the path past Fort Mason and the marina and on to Fort Point which sits just below the bridge. Until now, the sky had been clear and it had been a nice day.

Fort Mason

Fort Mason

As I got closer to the Golden Gate Bridge, however, the wind picked up and a big cloud blew in, coming to rest right on top of the bridge! I almost considered taking the bike back and trying again the next day, but remembering that a friend had said that when she visited San Francisco the bridge was fogged over almost every day of her stay, I decided to just do it in case there wasn’t a clearer day. It turned out to be worth it once I got to the other side.

A cloudy, foggy view of the Golden Gate Bridge

A cloudy, foggy view of the Golden Gate Bridge

From Fort Point I had to double back a bit to get up the hill and onto the bridge. It was a really steep hill up from the beach, and I was stuck behind two cars which were behind two cyclists! The cars and I passed the other cyclists, and I made it to the top, puffing. The west side of the bridge is reserved for bikes, and the east side for pedestrians, so I followed the signs and found my way on to it.

Atop the Golden Gate Bridge

Atop the Golden Gate Bridge

It was super windy on the bridge, and when I stopped I was worried I might blow off! There were a lot of other casual cyclists crossing the bridge, and a few more serious riders who raced passed in the opposite direction. The cars kept flying past, making a loud noise on the bridge. It was a lot of fun, but with all the noise and wind it was a bit scary too. I managed to find some other riders who had stopped and got them to take a couple of photos for me, then I got back on my bike and kept riding, worried that if I stopped I might fly over the edge…

Once I got off on the other side the fog had cleared, and the bridge looked amazing. There was a nice view across the water of San Francisco, and a lookout towards national parks on my side of the bay. I spent some time there enjoying the view, and considering the ride towards the ferry. Since the sun had come out, I decided to ride back across the bridge and look out over the ocean without the fog. I was glad I chose to ride back because the view was really good. It also meant I would have time for a leisurely dinner, rather than racing to get to the ferry and eating really late.

Finally the fog had cleared!

Finally the fog had cleared!

I rode back slowly, stopping off at a few more places along the way. I could see out to Alcatraz, sitting in the bay, and saw some colourful town houses lining the beach. The wind had died down a bit, but as the sun was setting it started to get quite cool. I made it back to the bike shop at about 8pm, then decided it was time for dinner.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

I went to a place near the wharf called Lou’s Fish Shack, and had (surprise, surprise) fish and chips. I pulled out my Lonely Planet again and had a look to see what I might want to do the next day, then walked along the shops back to the street car to head to the hotel. I couldn’t be bothered with the queue for the cable car at that time of night, and I’d need to get the street car at the other end anyway.

I found that night that the Route F street car, which goes past my hotel, is a very popular route. It goes from the Fisherman’s Wharf, past the pier and ferry building, then down Market Street through downtown San Francisco and on to Castro. I got on at the start of the route and it was very full. After a couple of stops it was packed to the point that the driver didn’t stop to let any other passengers get on. I was just grateful I got on at the first stop and had a seat.

It was good to get a glimpse of the pier and downtown area, since I hadn’t been there yet and now had a rough idea what to expect. My plan for the next day was to come back and explore in more detail.

I got back to the hotel easily enough, then went upstairs to my room for ready to crash and have a good night’s sleep.

Posted from San Francisco, California, United States.