Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and Heather (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Beautiful British Columbia* – part one

Stanley Park, Vancouver

*In North America every province/state has a slogan of sorts and this is the B.C. one. And you might think it smacks of pride to the point of smugness… until you see the sign at the U.S./Canadian border we crossed where B.C. is declared “the best place on earth”…

So, finally we get back to a Canadian blog entry. We left the U.S.A. on 9th June and drove quietly into British Columbia. Mark had been to this province once before (when he was 19…) but for h and I it was all new territory. I had always heard about Vancouver in awed tones (a beautiful city, more than a hint of promised land) so I was interested to get to know it and its province and see what all the fuss was about.

First though we needed a rest – mainly because this was our first long stop in a place since New Jersey back in April. So once we got to Mark’s aunt and uncle’s place (in North Vancouver) we sat down and took a mighty load off (for the rest of the 9th June… and most of the 10th). These are very hospitable relatives, mind, so we were wined and dined (and well and truly spoilt) so all the sitting down was not wasted. H was relieved to finally get a room of her own again, I think, and did a lot of reading and internet surfing and such like. Auntie Juanita taught her a mean card trick later in the stay too!

By Saturday 11th June, however, it was time to get back on the tourist trail so we got ourselves into downtown Vancouver (via the magnificent Seabus that crosses the water between North Vancouver and its southern cousin). There we saw for ourselves the (ice) hockey fever that had a hold of the city thanks to the Stanley Cup. Ice-hockey is Canada’s national sport pretty much and Vancouver’s team, the Canucks, was several matches into a play-off set of finals against the Boston Bruins. We also saw an electric car fair down near the Science Centre, a lot of people on bikes and skates as well as the annual Dragonboats races out on False Creek (take a look at the map – Vancouver is surrounded by many different bodies of water). Mark saw straightaway that the city he remembered had grown somewhat (condos, condos, convention centres, giant hotels… a lot of work done for the Winter Olympics in 2010). And it looks like it’s still growing… plenty of cranes on the skyline.

After our first Vancouver city day we took more of the fine local public transport (including the Skytrain – a metro up high) back to North Van (as it’s called locally). There we met a batch of cousins (old and new) back at base for a lovely evening’s dinner and a movie. Our first set of Vancouver (and around) photos are here:

Arrival in B.C.

Sunday 12th June some of the cousins took us for a walk/hike to one of the many local areas of beauty (Seymour Valley). We wandered through trees and rocks, paddled in the icy river water and fought our way over the Lynn Canyon suspension bridge (there are several swinging bridges in the area including the rather more famous Capilano one). Then, after much playing for the younger members, it was off to the very pretty nearby Deep Cove for a Japanese meal (delicious – and not something we ever eat at home). Here on the Pacific coast, of course, Japanese food (along with most other Asian foods) is pretty much everyday fodder so it really was time we tried some more of it!

Monday 13th was the day of the penultimate hockey game (7 matches for one final, I ask you, talk about dragging it out…) so we did local stuff and got ready to watch (in the house – not out on the city streets). It was not a victorious night for Vancouver though so it was onto the last match on Wednesday (flags and towels at the ready…).

On Tuesday 14th June we went into Vancouver city again and enjoyed a day of much walking about (good job h likes walking too!). We’d done enough city bus tours by this point so though we took a few pictures of tourist buses we didn’t climb aboard any this time. Instead we walked along the Waterfront and Coal Harbour areas – looking at boats and seaplanes and houseboats and public art. Then we wandered into Stanley Park, visited the magnificent totem poles, wandered some more and then took a regular bus (driven by the most helpful driver – he waited for passengers!) back into the downtown area. There we perused the hugely expensive central art gallery (wacky old surrealism exhibition, interesting new work by a guy called Ken Lum), had a cup of tea and waited for a guide.

We met Andy Coupland in New Mexico (over breakfast, as it happens – he was on holiday and staying in the same hotel as us back in Taos). As we chatted over the Marmite back there he had mentioned that he did Architecture and Walking Tours of Vancouver and might we be interested (link to Andy’s tours and book here). We were interested so we got in touch once in the area and arranged to meet up. Andy (originally from England) showed us central Vancouver pretty much building by building (and gave us a great, descriptive history of the city’s early days when we were in ‘historic’ Gastown). We would highly recommend this way to see the city. A late night though for h – what with the meal out and the Seabus back. Good job all we had to do on Wednesday was go out to lovely Deep Cove again and then watch the (final) hockey final on TV…

You probably saw what happened during (and mostly after) the hockey final on the TV news (wherever you are) so I won’t go on about it here. It was a shame though after so much excitement and pride in the city to end up with a load of smashing windows and nicking stuff (nothing political about this demo from what we could see – just good old-fashioned breaking things). Of course anyone of English extraction is used to being associated with sports and bad behaviour (it’s not so long since we were the “shame of Europe” on a regular basis) but it is the kind of thing that gets sport a bad name (and of course the hockey players being so violent on the ice probably doesn’t help in that area…). In Vancouver hearts seemed particularly broken because the city prides itself so much on its positives (being greener in every sense as well as being prettier, friendlier, more integrated, more easy-going than other places) and the window-smashing certainly tarnishes that view temporarily. In all honesty I would say it is a city like all others (many good points, but its share of problems too... like one of the original Skid Rows... still keeping to its original character, from what we could see). Plus we all have our off days… even the best of us. It should be added though that many Vancouver locals were out the next day cleaning up the streets and keen to show the world that this was not all their city was about - not at all.

Our next set of Vancouver (and surrounding area) photos are here:

More Vancouver and surrounds

Next time Whistler (bears!) and Vancouver Island (eagles! whales!).

Thursday, 23 June 2011

U.S.A Observations

Photo above from roadside in Delaware.

So, we’ve been back in Canada for a couple of weeks now. We’ve been visiting with family and sightseeing in Vancouver and are currently holed up on Vancouver Island (it’s lovely!). Whilst the last post was our ‘last U.S. state’ post we thought we would finish the U.S. section of this trip (we were there for 3 whole months!) with a few observations on the state of the union, as it were.

We had a ball in the U.S.A. overall. Mark had been to a couple of states before but h and I had never set foot in the place and we only had movie and TV tips (and lots of British jokes about Americans) to go on. In fact it was not really what I expected from all of those… it wasn’t glossy or too loud or too noisy and no-one got shot. It was, instead, friendly, quite laid-back in many ways and more old-fashioned than I expected (the trains in Boston for a start – they made U.K. trains look like something out of “The Fifth Element”). I have to admit I liked the country in general much more than I expected to… I liked the size, the space, the food (especially in Louisiana!) and most of all, I think, I liked the variety (of countryside and accents and faces and… everything really). Britain, for all its good points (and h keeps reminding us of them all!), can feel claustrophobic at times and I can see why people like these big countries with their long, spacious roads and their endless places to hide (deserts, swamps, forests… they have it all!).

And the rest of the observations below are more specific and a bit of a mixed bag (and don’t take them all too seriously…):

The post
I remember ages ago reading snidey U.S. satirical right-winger P.J. O’Rourke on how terrible it is to have everything run by the government (because then everything is as badly organised and slow as the Post Office was his argument). Well, I’d have to say that if everything in life was as well run as the U.S. post office then the world would be a very happy place. As we travelled through the States (26 of them) we visited lots of post offices (in tiny places and in huge cities) and I was totally impressed by the reach of their post office, by all the local offices, by how smart and clean they were. In the UK we close more and more of our local post offices (making bigger and bigger queues in the ones that are left!) so it was nice to see so many P.O.s all over the place. Plus U.S. postal workers do things like collect mail that you want to send right from your house (imagine that! I couldn’t believe it). They’ll also just take letters from random strangers in the street and add them to the ‘to go’ bag. Amazing service!

British people never tire of laughing about how fat ‘Americans’ are but I’d have to say that overall we saw fewer obese bodies in the U.S.A. than we see at home. From what we saw a lot of the U.S. population is exercise-crazy (so many joggers!) and whilst we did see the big portions of food we also saw a lot of people taking some home to finish later. British people laugh no more – that distraction theory is not working…

On average I’d say U.S. drivers are better than U.K. ones (and better than Canadians too… ). US drivers keep to the speed limits most of the time and, most importantly, they keep their distance from other vehicles really well (of course they do have more distance to go round than us…). OK we didn’t travel in much rush hour traffic (and rush hours everywhere are crazy) but we did drive for miles and miles and miles and we didn’t get exasperated with some of the bad driving the way we do at home (though we were amazed by the number of pick-up trucks…). However we were also amazed that the driving is better because (a) everyone is on the phone ALL the time in the car (maybe that’s why they drive a bit more slowly – so they don’t drop the phone) and (b) indicator lights (turn signals, they call ‘em) are so rarely used that you wonder if most U.S. drivers know they exist.
p.s. Worst U.S. roads (in terms of condition, potholes etc.)– Michigan and California. Best roads…. maybe Ohio… and Oregon (of the ones we saw).

Extreme weather and disasters
It’s mad - no wonder they have more weather reports than you could possibly imagine. Tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, giant hailstones… I don’t know how they sleep at night. Maybe that’s why all the ads on TV are for pharmaceuticals (and they are) and there are more drugstores in one state than in the rest of Europe put together (OK, maybe I exaggerate just a little…).

There is a slight obsession with hygiene in the U.S. For example everything seems to come in a plastic wrapper (do individual plastic forks and knives really need an individual plastic wrapper each?). And that hand sanitiser stuff – it’s everywhere (not just in movies…).

Crazy Christians
We’d watched many a TV show that mocked some of the U.S. extreme (=stoopid) Christians (the title here is a quote from the TV show “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) but nothing had prepared us for the high level nonsense of Crazy Christian radio, DVDs of real, actual prophesies and so on. The whole business is funny on one level but on others it’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t help thinking Jesus would be scared (very, very scared) in some parts of, say, Tennessee where there seems to be nothing but houses and churches. C’mon guys, he’d say, let’s have a library or a bar or something at least. There is more than just that one book, you know…

Because of the voltage level in the U.S. simple household appliances work very, very slowly. I’ve never waited so long for a piece of toast before!

Sometimes there are so many ads on U.S. TV that you forget what programme you’re watching (and then the one time they don’t put any ads on is between separate shows… so you don’t get time to switch off before being hooked in to another show/episode). Also the female TV presenters (especially on breakfast TV) wear even more make-up than their counterparts in the U.K. (and that takes some beating). Finally they really should get their own U.S. royal family for the TV stations (or they can have ours). Please. The sucking up to the royals on show around the time of that wedding was just embarrassing.

British people are not brought up to tip (well, in restaurants maybe – but not all over the place). In fact mostly tipping makes us uncomfortable (“can’t you just be paid properly, don’t you have a union… it would be so much easier for everyone?”). We have done the tipping thing while we’re away (though we noticed some Americans did not – for tour guides and so on) but it feels weird.

People in the U.S. get hardly any holidays from work at all from what we understand (no wonder they used to go in for those whistle-stop tours of Europe - who has time for more than 5 hours in Paris when you only get a handful of days off a century?). When we said how long we were away to Brits or Canadians most of them know someone who’s done such a trip or are thinking about one themselves. When we mentioned it to most Americans they looked stunned (how would a person be off work that long?). From what we hear they get stinking maternity time too. So much for the free world…

Sure there’s a lot of big houses and giant cars (hummers - who needs a car that big!) but you can feel poverty striped right through the country too. A lot of old cars, a lot of pawn shops, a lot of areas “no-one” wants to go to (though some of that is just old racism burning on…). But none of this is news really.

Road signs
There is something truly magnificent about the confidence you see on many U.S. roadside ad hoardings (everything is the “best burger in the world”, the “happiest place on earth”, the “tallest tree ever” etc.). Nothing is EVER undersold, underhyped or underplayed. I kind of liked it. If nothing else some of the signs were just very, very funny.

Credit cards
If you listen to U.S. TV and radio you hear a lot of come-on-now-people-panic ads about I-D theft (mostly encouraging you to buy something to protect yourself). However if they do have an ID theft problem then I’m afraid the folks down there only have themselves to blame because security measures are very poor. For example every café/restaurant we went to in the U.S. expected us to hand over the plastic (debit/credit whichever) whereupon they took it off into the back (we never do this in the UK anymore), brought back a receipt to be signed and then proceeded to never once check that the signature matched the one on the card. You can sign Mickey Mouse, Barack Obama… no-one ever checks it. We were pleased to get back to Canada where (like at home) they bring the card machine to the table and don’t just disappear with your card!

We expected to meet a lot of right-wing nutters in the U.S.A. but in fact we only met one (a Californian… in Utah). He told us that Obama had cancelled all the U.S. space programs because he only wanted moslems in space. Anyone know anything about this? And are they there yet?

They say that one day Spanish will be the first language in the U.S.A (don’t they..?). Well, in many places the change has already happened (and in others the Chinese are making good ground). It’ll be interesting to see how the linguistic change pans out… (anyone taking bets for the first State of the Union in Spanish now..?). No language ever rules forever!

I’d read a lot about U.S. downtowns and their demise (thanks to the surburban malls and plazas) and it’s true that many what we would call small towns really have no downtown at all these days. Many cities (big and small) though are reversing the trend and filling their centres with life and culture and activity again. Someone somewhere has realised that places without centres are just that… a bit empty and lost (though of course you can always find a drugstore when you want one…).

I’m sure there’s lots more we could say about the U.S.A…. but for now this much will have to do as we have big old Canada to get back to. We leave the Vancouver area in a few days and start to work our way east (just a few miles then… though of course it’s kilometres again now). But if in trouble we can always remember this sign that made us both laugh back in Ohio:

Has anyone already done a book of amusing U.S. road signs? If not I may have to think about that…

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Washington – the last state (for us)

(above) Seattle

On Monday 6th June we left Oregon at about midday and entered our last U.S. state of this trip (Washington). This was our 26th state (not counting the other Washington – D.C. – because it’s only a district). Some total in 3 months!

We drove up Interstate 5 a little while – noticing straightaway that this state seemed a little less affluent than the last one (well, from what you can see from a highway anyway) and then we turned off east to take a little look at Mount St. Helens (the volcano that last erupted in only 1980). The scenery was dramatic (as you might expect) – snow-capped peaks, wide river valleys, lots of forest (some planted since the eruption – lots of information on that along the route). We were heading for the Forest Learning Center (the best of the crop of visitor centres so we read… and not too far out of our way as really we were heading north to Seattle for the night). Unfortunately it turned out that our information (for once) was not reliable and this visitor centre was still only open at weekends. It was a bit of a disappointment but the lady in the gift shop (yes, that was open – aren’t they always…) was delightful and thrust upon us many pamphlets and bits and pieces to make up for this blip in the itinerary. And then we went and just looked at the views… and did our best to imagine what this oh so peaceful scenery would look like in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

On our way back down the highway (most of it built specially since the eruption – the old road had been destroyed) we stopped for lunch in a friendly place with lovely riverside views and elk burgers on the menu. They hunted the elk themselves so I’m not sure you can get more local meat than that (sorry veggies). Mark ate the elk (after a slow start he is perhaps the most daring eater out of the three of us) and he said it was very tasty, not as heavy as beef. I didn’t try it (I’ve had venison several times in Scotland and always find it overrated – Mark says it was better than venison) and h, still not ready to eat Bambi or anything even remotely along those lines, had yet another grilled cheese (cheese toastie to those at home). Our entering Washington and close-to-Mount St. Helens photos are here:

Washington & Mnt St Helens

Then we left the countryside and headed north to Seattle. It’s not very far and we got there just before rush hour (just as well as their rush hour is pretty huge from what we saw later). We’d booked a place just out of the main downtown area alongside Lake Union (very pretty, lots of sailing boats) but partly because it was just a really good deal (free breakfast, free parking, free shuttle to downtown… all good for a city place). After a short settle-in however we went out into what was a lovely sunny evening and found the centre of downtown – Pike Place Market. There we soaked up some atmosphere (it seems a lively, watery, very good-humoured city) and got a great fishy dinner in the restaurant that’s right at the market. As we got back to our hotel the sun was setting over the various lakes and coasts that surround this city (cruise ships aplenty docked all around – many heading to Alaska, some to Canada) – it was really very attractive. If we stuck our head out of our hotel window we could even see the famous Space Needle landmark lit up for the night. Though none of the series was ever filmed in the city and there is absolutely zero Frasier-related tourism available we still felt we were close to the great man. Goodnight Seattle indeed.

On the 7th June we took the free shuttle along to the Seattle Centre (museums, the Space Needle, convention centres etc.). Mark headed straight to the “Battlestar Galactica” exhibition at the EMP/SFM (Experience Music Project & Science Fiction Museum – huge place aimed fiercely at the teens and evergreens). Meanwhile I took h to the Children’s Museum nearby. It was a small corner of the giant centre (and tiny and creaky compared to the fantastic Play Museum we visited back in Rochester, NY) but it was friendly and gentle and not too busy and she still enjoyed it very much. We learned quite a lot about life in Japan and the Philippines (all things Pacific feature heavily in Seattle) and h had fun playing in a kids’ theatre in one part of the museum with some of the other little visitors. They put on a quick production and she did a very convincing dying dog.

After that we joined Mark in the EMP for a soupy lunch and then a long look at the Nirvana (and all things even remotely related to Seattle, grunge and the local music scene) exhibit. There was also an “Avatar” section to the museum, a Jimi Hendrix section (he was born in Seattle), a giant movie screen showing all sorts of clips and then a really fun area where you could try your hand at guitars and electronic drums and recording in a studio and so on. We were in EMP pretty much till it closed at 5pm – lots to do and see. Noisy too.

From the Seattle Centre we took the monorail (transport of the future – very quick, pretty high, good views) into the centre of downtown and did a bit more wandering. We spent the last of our Starbucks card (thanks Jeanne Iris!) in their first ever store down by the market and then walked along the waterfront (cruise ships, hotels, a not very pretty stretch but still dramatic in its way). We looked at the Olympic Sculpture Park (mixed feelings – nothing very wow), got a not very special pasta meal and then went back to the hotel. We had not seen all of Seattle downtown by far (we didn’t get to the Pioneer Square area – sorry, Seattle) but this was our umpteenth US major city and I guess our tourist energy levels were running on reserve. Even so we had seen enough to know that we liked the city quite a lot – lots to do, effortlessly cool – and that was even taking into account the roads which were pretty bad (busy, mainly tied up in hefty roadworks). There were lots and lots of English people around (some on holiday, some residents) and we could definitely see the attraction. Our Seattle photos are here:


The visa clock was ticking louder now so on the morning of 8th June we set off north for our last night in the USA. We had thought we might drive by Microsoft for Mark (as we did by Apple and Google in California) but it is slightly east of where we were heading (in Redmond) and we just weren’t in the mood. Instead we headed straight up the (very busy) 5 and north. We stopped for lunch in little Mount Vernon (just a regular little town – nothing touristy) and had our last all-American lunch in an all-American kinda place (the sign said “Bill’s Diner – awesome food, friendly atmosphere” and it was right on both counts). It was quiet and late (on this trip we always seem to eat both breakfast and lunch some time later than our industrious US cousins…) and we chatted with yet another pretty, smiling waitress. It all reminded me of a Charles Bukowski poem I posted at my other blog just before we came away (it’s the second youtube poem “Nirvana” on here). Maybe we could just stay in this diner forever, I pondered… drinking coffee, eating French fries…

Well, no. We couldn’t. And I’m glad we didn’t because in fact we got back in the car and carried on north, stopped at Fairhaven (“historic Fairhaven” – part of the small city of Bellingham) and had a most splendid afternoon. The sun was shining and we found a haven (good name!) of great bookshops, lovely cafés (we were too full of diner of course to try these but they looked great), a farmers’ market (with music) and the friendliest, funniest people all around. Mark needed a haircut, for example, so we entered the local barbershop and there met Diane (and her dogs). I think we were in Diane’s place about 2 hours (and he doesn’t have that much hair!) but it was great fun – many stories, chatting locals, tales of Fairhaven’s nightlife and beyond. Many times on the trip we’ve asked ourselves “I wonder what it would be like to live here?” and I should think Fairhaven (and Bellingham) are as good as it gets. The city seemed packed with local businesses doing good things (a veggie drive-thru, co-ops all over the place) and they have the ocean and the greenery and possibly the relief of living in a forgotten little corner of a big country where you can kind of get on and just do your own thing. One of the locals said to me “people in the North West don’t realise how good they have it”. Maybe so. Maybe so. Our Bellingham/Fairhaven photos are here:

Bellingham and upstate Washington

After the time in Fairhaven we drove through Bellingham to our hotel on the north-eastern side of the small city (I think we would probably call it a town). We had our last US dinner in a nearby diner-type-place (pie mainly – gotta go out on a pie) and then we just went and slept. The next morning after breakfast we got ready for another slow border crossing (back into Canada) but it was not to be. As it was we were at the border within about 15 minutes and straight over and out of Washington before we could so much as say "see ya later”. It was weird after all this time (3 whole months) to just leave the state and the country so quickly and quietly like that. After so many adventures (the tornadoes! The deserts! The city after city!) I felt like there should be, at the very least, a large crowd to wave us off or something. But no…. no such drama. Just a Canadian border sign (once more with the bilingual signs…), a quick look at the passports and a there you are, back north once more. Bonjour Canada, au revoir Les États-Unis. It felt weird.

We’ll be back shortly with a “thoughts on the USA” post… and then, eventually, with our adventures in British Columbia (just don’t mention the ice hockey…). Phew.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Oregon – so much to see, so little time to write about it…

Powell's, Portland

On 1st June we drove into Oregon mid-afternoon. We stopped for the night at Grants Pass – a place where everything is about the river (the Rogue). We stayed two very peaceful nights there, ate two very good dinners and went for a lovely trip on the much-mentioned river (we saw bald eagles but only had the snapshot camera so couldn't get a decent picture). Grants Pass is surrounded by mountains – very striking – and we enjoyed the stop very much. Our photos from there are here:

Entering Oregon & Grants Pass

On 3rd June we headed north. Another beautiful day and we stopped for a picnic lunch alongside the Umpqua river. We were heading for the Oregon coast and in particular the Oregon Dunes area. When we got there we climbed giant sand dunes, took a walk through fascinating vegetation to the beautiful wide beach (much like an Angus beach from home!) and there was hardly a soul about (which made it even more like an Angus beach..). We moved north again after that and spent the night just north of Florence in a place on Heceta Beach with gorgeous sea views aplenty. Our pictures from this day on the coast are here:

Oregon coast

On 4th June we had a crazy busy day. We’d managed to get hold of a local we’d met back in Massachusetts and had arranged to meet up… but first we had to visit the Sea Lion Caves and the rock pools of the Oregon coast north of Florence! We managed it all (and grabbed a great sandwich from a fantastic hippy café in Waldport – Oregon does hippy well, leave your neckties at the border, so they say...) and then met our contact more or less on time… up by Mary’s Peak mountain (back inland). Our charming guide for the rest of the day showed us the mountains, his city (Corvallis) and even took us out for a lovely dinner by the Williamette river. And then we had to say a big good-bye (how quickly you can make the best friends!) and head to the hotel we’d booked in Portland for that night. It seemed a bit daunting (so late, so tired!) but it was a beautiful drive up to that city with a great sunset en route so we enjoyed that too. We got to the Portland Hotel (a totally groovy place in the, don’t laugh, Nob Hill district – also known as Northwest Portland) and then we pretty much collapsed. It was a packed day but a really good one – Oregon is so friendly and green and beautiful. Pics from this day are here:

Leaving the Oregon coast

We’d booked two nights in Portland and had a great time there too. We took the immaculate streetcar from next to the hotel into the centre and stopped first at the enormous Powell’s bookstore. This is possibly one of the best bookstores we’ve ever been in. I loved the mix of new and second-hand books on the shelves (a price for everyone) and it is clean and friendly and just perfect. It was Sunday brunchtime and I stayed mainly with h in the kids section - it was full of kids with parents and grandparents, all talking excitedly about books and related matters. I heard one girl say to her Dad proudly “Look 2 books and I’m still not up to $10!” I wish every town and city had a Powell’s (independent, successful, busy, inspiring) - it really is a marvellous place.

After time in Powell’s we walked through the old centre/Chinatown (pretty quiet as it was Sunday), got a sandwich in the excellent Peoples’ Sandwich of Portland (all Soviet style décor – very well done) and then reached the Waterfront (very busy with fairs and music and fountains and food – particularly busy as it was the Rose Festival). We soaked up some atmosphere (Mariachi band, bluegrass band, funfairs, a million cyclists etc.) and then walked up to the quieter area known as South Park Blocks. I visited the art gallery whilst h read some of her Powell’s booty and Mark… rested his eyes. Then it was back on the streetcar to the hotel and an excellent take-away curry in the room/suite. We really only spent this one day in Portland (visa time was ticking away so we moved into Washington state on 6th June) but it was enough to get an idea of what a busy, friendly, alternative city it is. Good food, good books, good public transport – the first of a trio of great North Western cities (we like Seattle and Vancouver too). But before we get to those two… here are our Portland and leaving-Oregon photos:

Portland, Oregon

So, one more US post and then on to Vancouver, B.C. (where we are now).

Friday, 10 June 2011

California part four –big screens, giant trees and hidden beaches

So where were we going that Saturday after San Francisco…?

Well, first we were heading for our second Concord (we went to Concord in Massachusetts back in March). And why? Because Concord, California has a drive-in movie theatre and we had promised h, the movie fan, that we’d try and find one to visit. Also we were pretty frazzled after all the San Francisco activity and Concord wasn’t too far away and it looked small and uncomplicated. Before the movie in the evening however we had something else to find… somewhere showing the European Cup/Champions League football/soccer final for Mark (ever the sports fan). He had found a place (‘British pub’) online in Concord and it looked hopeful but when we got to the address there was no ‘pub’ to be found (gone years ago according to locals… damn that internet and its promises…).So with the match pretty much underway at this point we had to find an alternative. And we were at the edge of Concord in Clayton (kind of quiet suburbia) … what would we do?

Over the parking lot I spied a sleepy-looking bowling alley (it was Saturday morning, Memorial Day weekend). I remembered that the bowling place in Barstow, CA had had a lot of screens for sports TV viewing so I suggested we take a look. It wasn’t quite the hi-tech place we’d visited in Barstow and to begin with it seemed hopeless… until just on my way out I saw a Budweiser sign and realised that there was a bar in the side of the bowling alley… almost behind a secret door. I went in and a very nice lady was putting on her make-up at the end of the bar (there was only one customer… it was very quiet). They had on the TV with car racing and I asked (in my best English lady voice) if they might possibly, if it wasn’t too much trouble, put on the soccer for the gentleman in our party? “Why sure, honey,” said the lovely lady as she changed the channel, switched it over to a huge screen and gave Mark free popcorn. It was a slightly odd way to watch a major cup final I think but he saw it anyway. And Man United lost (never a disaster for someone from Yorkshire). As Mark watched h and I had another go at bowling (not bad), ate fast food, ate free popcorn. It was all strange… but not unpleasant.

After this odd start to the day (first the San Francisco British shop, then the British pub incident) we went and found our place for the night in Concord and pretty much lay low for a few hours. The drive-in didn’t start till nearly 9pm so we needed to conserve some strength. H had picked ‘Kung-Fu Panda 2’ as her movie of choice and so at something between 7 and 8pm there we were…driving in. This drive-in place wasn’t like the old-style one we had passed in San Luis Obispo however – it seemed to be a fairly new operation with two separate screens and all part of a company that has quite a few sites around the States. We parked up (3 rows in – best place so we were told), perused the fast food and observed how others were tackling the event. We were interested to see that some people (with big hatchback boots/trunks in their cars/vans) had parked in backwards and their kids sat in the boot to watch (with the hatch open). Others had brought picnic chairs and were sitting out (it wasn’t that warm as it happened…). Some (like us) were just sitting in the car (though I let h have the front seat). In the quite long wait for the movie there was a good atmosphere – kids were playing all around, Dads were chewing the fat (some even smoking cigars…). We just sat and waited… our radio tuned in to the correct frequency for the movie sound (that’s the way they do it now – no more little speakers on the side of the car). Finally at something like 9pm when the sky was dark and patience wearing thin the movie started… and it was a lot of fun. H really enjoyed the experience and it was kind of amazing to see a screen surrounded by sky like that (I’ve seen outdoor movies before but this is kind of different somehow - Mark had been to a drive-in once in the past… he saw ‘Ghostbusters’ so that shows you how long ago it was…). H especially liked that you could see the movie on the other screen if you turned round and looked over the parking lot (it was the new ‘Pirates’ one… and it was a separate area but we could still make it out fairly clearly). The 9pm start did make it a fairly late night… but it was worth it. You really can’t beat the big screen.

On the Sunday (29th May) we left Concord and drove north towards the Napa Valley. One of h’s very favourite films is partly set in that area (the remake of “The Parent Trap”) and so, although she has no interest in wine as yet, she was keen to see that part of the world. We probably wouldn’t have driven hundreds of miles out of our way to get there just for that reason but as it was it was pretty much on our route north anyway. By this time, however, it was deep into Memorial Day weekend so we were not the only people heading into the Napa Valley on this sunny Sunday… but never mind, I guess you have to hit the crowds some time. It did make for the slightly surreal sight of a road pretty much filled with cars in the middle of a tranquil valley of vineyards… but somehow it still managed to be quite picturesque. We stopped, we tried wine (a tiny bit), we ate a meal on a pretty terrace… it was very pleasant.

After the main Napa Valley (which is pretty packed with vineyards, tasting rooms, tourists on bikes etc.) we turned slightly west and passed a sign for a “petrified forest” just near Calistoga (see here). We turned in and took the little hike around a whole load of redwood trees that had literally been turned to stone by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago. It doesn’t look much in the photos but it was fascinating. Robert Louis Stevenson was there (some time back) and there is a tree named after him! After this we drove north to Cloverdale on the 101 and had another quiet night – pizza, laundry… all the good stuff. Photos from 28th and 29th (not including pizza or laundry) are here:

Northern California days 1 & 2

On Monday 30th May (Memorial Day – but most things seemed to be open) we drove north along the 101 towards unpetrified redwood trees and the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We stopped first at the Chandelier ‘Drive-thru’ tree (it’s simple – you pay $5 and you drive your car through a very big tree…or a hole in the trunk of a very big tree… and then there’s a gift shop). We had a picnic (of sorts) once we’d been through the giant tree and then we moved on.

After this we stopped at various points along the highway (house made out of a huge felled tree trunk, house made in the trunk of a living redwood etc.) and then we drove along the Avenue of the Giants and looked at lots and lots of redwood trees (they really are amazing to look at… and just to be around). We looked at the lovely Eel river that runs through the park too (and a guy tried to sell us meterorites/rocks for $50… uh-huh). It was all just gorgeous – and pretty quiet too considering it was a national holiday. Guess everyone was still in the Napa valley…

We headed up to Arcata for our overnight stay and noticed changes all around (suddenly everything was about lumber, cars were older, places were smaller, more businesses looked local, lots of eco and organic and so on). In Arcata the weather turned a bit grey but we stayed in another of the original old town centre hotels (lovely old rooms… more like a French hotel than a typical American one) and we were only there for the evening anyway. The hotel was full of noisy hippies (“could you slam that door a bit louder as you go off to buy munchies, please?”) but then the town did seem to have its fair share of hippies (dreads, old Volvos, backpacks) so that was not surprising. And it was a holiday. We had a nice dinner in an old store that had been turned into various shops and restaurants – all in the old plaza – and went to get some sleep (or not) before another day of redwoods. Photos of Monday 30th are here:

Cloverdale to Arcata

On Tuesday 31st May we dipped slightly south to Eureka (not a place that really lives up to that giant name from what we saw…) to show h their small zoo. It was quite a contrast to the bigger zoos we’ve already seen this trip in Toronto and New Orleans (and it was raining) but she still enjoyed it. The ‘stars’ of the zoo (red pandas) didn’t come out of their huts… and she still enjoyed it. She loves anything even remotely connected with animals.

After Eureka Zoo (Sequoia Park Zoo) we drove up to Trinidad (a little place on the coast) to see its lighthouse (and the inside of one of its restaurants). The weather brightened up again and lucky for us because the sea views were pretty spectacular there. Then we went further north and entered the Redwood National Park, went to the visitor centre, looked at lots of lupins, looked at lots more redwoods (super misty views – apparently it’s like that a lot), went for a bit of a walk round redwoods, drove through the Hoopa Valley Reservation and then found our motel for the night (Motel Trees – opposite a redwoods attraction called “Trees of Mystery” on highway 101). From our window we could see a huge mythical lumberjack (Paul Bunyan) and his equally giant blue ox (Babe). That was all pretty unusual.

The lady at the motel desk said there was a ‘hidden beach’ just half a mile or so down a path that led off near the motel car park so, after a quick DIY sandwich dinner in the room, we set off down that path in search of a good beach. The path was more like a mile long but it was lovely (enchanted forest territory) and there was no-one about and eventually we did indeed come across a really fantastic hidden beach (called “Hidden Beach”). We looked and played and took photos (of course) and watched the sun set (wow, wow, wow!). Then we walked back along the enchanted forest path and went to bed in our suddenly very cold motel room (further north and my, how the temperature had dropped!). Photos of Tuesday 31st are here:

Arcata to Klamath

The next day we packed up and went over to visit the “Trees of Mystery” place (how can you sleep opposite a giant lumberjack and not go over to say “hello”? Especially when he talks back… and he does!). The “trail” they had was OK – certainly some redwoods to see (one they call the “Cathedral Tree” that apparently frequently serves as a wedding location) but there wasn’t really anything you couldn’t see for free in the state parks and they kept quoting the Joseph B. Strauss “Redwoods” poem that I… can live without. They do have a cable car (the “sky trail”) that takes you up to the top of the hill (and up to the treetops, as it were) and we did get in and ride. It was pretty high… I could hardly look out of the windows… but the ocean views from the hilltop were worth it.

Back on land we went along their Paul Bunyan story trail too (it has wooden sculptures and recorded pieces to listen to) but it went on a bit and I can’t say it really held our attention (even h who loves stories). They have a collection of Native American artefacts too and we did look at that (heaps of stuff from all over the continent) but you can see that part of the place for free (it’s only the trail that you pay for).

After this we headed north, got lunch at Crescent City and then took the 199 towards Oregon, crossing the dazzling Smith river as we went. The 199 was another super-bendy through-the-mountains road (a sign said ‘rocks’ and, as if by magic, one did hit the car from up above – luckily no damage) but it was beautiful, really beautiful. I think we’d probably agree that the whole Northern California stretch was brilliant (the redwoods, the beaches, the feel of some wildness). Our photos of the end of our California trail are here:

Klamath, CA to Oregon Border

And then there was Oregon… next time (we’ve got some blog catching up to do… we’re in Vancouver already in real time…).

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

California part three - San Francisco

On Wednesday 25th May we left Santa Cruz and pointed ourselves towards one of the cities that comes high on many a visit-wish-list – San Francisco. Would it live up to the expectations? Would it be a highlight or a low?

We’d been advised to take the 9 north from Santa Cruz and it was a very pretty green route through the hills (super bendy roads though… and in rain some of the time…). We passed places with Scottish names like Ben Lomond and then, down at the bottom of the hill, by contrast, vineyards aplenty (and the end of the rain). We’d decided to drive into San Francisco via some of Silicon Valley (what with Mark’s techie interests and so on) so we stopped first in Cupertino (home of Apple). It was pretty bland-looking all round so we grabbed a sandwich and moved on towards Mountain View (home of Google). At G-central there was a bit more to see – Google gets its own road sign (see photos) and their ‘campus’ is huge and fairly sprinkled with young thin men on Google multi-coloured bikes moving from building to building. We found what looked like a visitor centre (with giant sculptures of an éclair, a frozen yogurt (froyo), a gingerbread man and a honeycomb… to represent the various versions of the Android operating system… apparently) but there was nothing we could visit indoors any more (we think there used to be)… so we left. Or should that be 'logged out'...

After that we drove straight into San Francisco along the 101 and found our hotel in the SoMa district (South of Market – not the fanciest area but cheaper parking than other central places). The hotel had claims to being ‘green’ but it seemed a pretty standard mid-market hotel to us. They had a contraption in the bathroom for using the water twice in the toilet cistern (to wash your hands first before it’s used to flush) but it didn’t work terribly well, plus it was cold water of course. Apart from that we couldn’t see anything different about the place (though it was beautifully quiet at night – much more so than our place in Hollywood!).

Once we’d checked in it was a warm afternoon so we walked towards the central area to start to get our bearings. Straightaway we saw that much of central San Francisco had more than a hint of Venice Beach (lots of people begging, quite a few people looking damaged in one way or another). It wasn’t something we’d expected here particularly – don’t know why, perhaps we should have – but it was sad to see… especially in such numbers.

When we got to Union Square there were lots of people selling city bus tours and one of the offers was very cheap so we ended up on the top deck of an old London red bus (with the roof mostly cut off…). The bus took us past Chinatown, through North Beach/Little Italy and then we jumped off at Fisherman’s Wharf (along with Union Square that’s one of the main tourist centres). We wanted to check out the boat tours and such like but in the end we didn’t really bother with that (we’ve been on quite a lot of boats this trip and even though others recommended it none of us really fancied Alcatraz). Instead we wandered along the main drag a bit (souvenir shops aplenty) and then found ourselves in the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45. This place is a fantastic collection of coin-operated antique arcade games (mostly still working – some from our childhood, some from way, way before that) and it was so much fun (and all the machines took just quarters so it didn’t cost much either). We played old fortune telling machines, all kinds of musical contraptions, the arm wrestling machine featured in, of all things, ‘The Princess Diaries” (so h says), space invaders, Pong (the old tennis computer game) and much, much more. To be honest we probably could have stayed in that place for all of the 3 days… it was really entertaining.

After this time was getting on so we walked back towards Chinatown (always a bit of walk in San Francisco, what with the hills and so on…), stopping at City Lights bookstore in North Beach on the way (run by a poet, full of poetry and beat-related items and photos). In Chinatown we grabbed a meal and then headed back towards the hotel but as we left the area I heard something I recognised… it was Auld Lang Syne! There was an old guy playing the Burns Scottish favourite on an erhu! It was a bit like this… well, it was this (short clip):

And then we went to bed. Our Day One photos of San Francisco (and the road to it) are here:

San Francisco day 1

On Day Two we used the same recycled London bus tour operation to get from the centre out to Golden Gate Park on the west side of the city (via Japantown and a few other areas). It was a lovely sunny day and the park looked gorgeous – not that we saw all of it, far from it, it’s huge! We went into the Japanese Tea Garden (beautiful – lots of photos below), had lunch in the art museum café (expensive, fancy, not really what we were after, interesting people-watching though…), walked through the National AIDS Memorial Grove (heart-breaking but heavenly in its way) and then played at the children’s park before leaving the green and walking along Haight Street for the whole hippy history business. These days Haight Ashbury is just another shopping area really from what we could see – though quite a good one with huge music store, some nice cafés and so on – and we wandered a little. Before long though we caught another recycled London bus back into the centre (it was a great deal – 3 days of tourist bus all over the city for a very few dollars). The bus took us past the Seven Sisters houses on Alamo Square (not that outstanding – San Francisco, like parts of New Orleans, is just jam-packed with brightly-coloured, irresistible and no doubt very expensive houses). It also took us past the very striking City Hall. Towards the end of this tour the driver went off on one about beggars in the city and how we tourists mustn’t give any of them money because they’re all drug addicts (it wouldn’t take local knowledge to work that out – one guy at Fisherman’s Wharf was holding a sign that said ‘need money for ganja’…). The driver also said he lived in Oakland and that Oakland had a much higher crime rate than San Francisco but no beggars. I’m not quite sure what his point was there…

After this tour we had a quiet coffee break in one of the many fancy French-style cafés in the centre (it is a city of sharp contrasts – the highest end shops/restaurants one minute, cheapskate fare the next). As we’d only seen Chinatown in the evening the day before (when it’s fairly quiet) we decided to head up again in the daytime for the full experience (shops, local groceries/markets etc.). It really was very lively and interesting for h, I think, who’s quite a fan of all things Chinese. It’s really a very big area and though it does have a long row of tourist shops it has much more besides on the parallel streets. Proper bustling it was!

After this we headed to a plain looking restaurant in Little Italy that had been recommended to us the day before by a local (the locals were very friendly in San Francisco on the whole – possibly more than in any other city in the US). The food was really very good and then we went off to hunt down that other San Francisco tourist experience – the cable car ride! We got on the Powell/Mason line at the Bay Street starting point and rode the hills to the other end of the line by Market Street. It was GREAT fun… and a beautiful day so the views were perfect… none of the much-promised San Francisco rain or fog. We walked back to the hotel from Market St (just a few minutes walk) and saw ourselves all quite sunkissed in the mirror (or might that be red-nosed…). Photos from Day Two are here (and there's quite a few of them):

San Francisco day 2

On our last San Fran day (Friday) we took our final trip with cheapo city tours – to the Golden Gate Bridge. We had a little more time in the morning so we tried to visit one of the hidden-away local coffee shops recommended to us by our super-trendy young male receptionist (big fringe!). From what he said it was one of those new-fangled places where every individual cup of coffee is made with love, decaff is outlawed and so on. I say we ‘tried’ to visit it because when we got there there was a queue down the street! We gave up and got some fairly standard coffee in a Vietnamese café round the corner where there was no queue whatsoever. We busy tourists don’t have time to queue!

Cheapo tours only did a couple of trips a day out to the bridge so the bus, when we got it, was pretty rammed with the usual United Nations of tourism (lots of European tourists in San Francisco particularly and, as we’ve seen in many other places, lots and lots of visitors from India). The tour showed us Pacific Heights (vaguely – something about Leonardo Di Caprio’s Mum living there…) but once we got close to the bridge I was surprised how small the famous Golden Gate Bridge actually was. I’d have to say we have seen some much more impressive bridges on our travels (never mind at home) but it was surrounded with some of the atmospheric fog at least so it did look quite... foggy. We got off the bus on the other side (used the restrooms, took pictures) and then got back on the bus and went back over. It was an interesting phenomenon type experience. I suppose. Maybe we should try this with tourists in Montrose...

Back on the city side of the bridge we asked the driver to let us off near the Presidio as h had made a request to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum that was in that part of town. We needed lunch first and we found it in a very nice French ‘bistro’ (run by a lady from Haiti via New York) – it was full of locals and the atmosphere was really friendly and summery. Then we went into the Presidio area (it’s a park that used to all be military land and buildings) to find Walt’s museum. We had explained to h that it wasn’t a kids activity necessarily but she’s a wise old thing sometimes and she knows what she wants because she absolutely loved the museum. It had all the details about Walt’s early career and early movies and the successes and the failures. She learned some new things too of course (about unions and un American activities…) but really she was there (as always) for the magic and she managed to find plenty of that. We were there till it closed (not many photos - pics not allowed inside) and then found a cab back to the centre (no magic broomsticks were available – shame as the cab was driven as if we were in a scene from “Bullitt”).

We quickly visited the ‘crooked street’ – Lombard Street – and then meandered our way the fair distance back to our hotel (stopping for a very tired, last San Fran dinner in a fairly average diner-type thing – we didn’t want anything fancy… we were too worn out). It had ended up being another pretty much sunny day so we were very, very weary – sore feet, sleepy eyes, red noses… high-ho, high-ho...
On Saturday morning we packed up and left San Francisco – stopping a few blocks from the hotel to buy Marmite for h in the local ‘British shop’ (her supply from Niagara was nearly out). The shop was very bizarre (full of Elizabeth II tea towels and shortbread) and suitably enough for the San Fran experience there was a man lying on the pavement/sidewalk just outside – fast asleep, just in his clothes, flat-out in the hot sun with no shelter of any kind. On the other side of the road there was another guy cycling past wearing a crown and there was some graffiti nearby that just said ‘pray for me’. It’s a funny old town, that much for sure. Our photos from Day 3 (and the morning we left) are here:

San Francisco Day 3

We did enjoy our time in San Francisco (very much – especially the cable car, Musée Mécanique, the park, the friendliness, the beauty on every street… well, almost every street) but it is kind of a sad place too – trading very much on its glory days (whatever they were exactly) and drowning a little in places in all the tourists (and associated others) that this brings in. I’ve had friends live in San Fran and love it and I’m sure it is a city that is very, very lovable (if you can live with the threat of earthquakes!). It reminded me of New Orleans (and so many other places here) - exciting and fascinating but also living with the constant underlying threat of giant natural catastrophe. It’s a lot to live with…

Marmite, in hand (expensive and out-of-bloody-date Marmite I noticed several days later!) we drove over another bridge out of San Francisco (the Bay bridge) and headed east (temporarily). But where were we going..? And why..?

All that next time in the last Californian post. As it is we left Oregon today for our last US state this trip. Is it really 3 months since we entered the Union? It really does seem that it is.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

California part two – in between two cities

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We left the L.A. area on Saturday 21st May and drove north along the coast on highway 1. It was a lovely sunny day but I’m afraid we drove right through Santa Monica again (we can’t stop everywhere… shame though as it looked very nice… and in fact several older people in Venice said to us pointedly “Santa Monica is much more for families than Venice…”). After Santa Monica we went right past Malibu without stopping too (it didn’t look like we’d imagined somehow – it was a great long stretch of coastline, quite busy, lots of surfers getting changed by the side of the road, kind of messy). At one point just further north there were so many wet-suited surfers bobbing about on the waves that I thought they were a flock of birds of some kind! It was the weekend, I suppose – plenty of action on the water. After this we went past a military base, inland a little past the first signs of the great Californian agricultural industry (strawberries first, cabbages later!) and then whole towns that seemed more Mexican than anything else (they have been Mexican before of course… and it seems they’re on their way back… if they ever left).

We made our first stop for a break at Santa Barbara which is one of those picture-perfect little cities – super clean, quite small, lots of ‘interesting’ places to eat and shop (i.e. also quite expensive). It was very nice though (and evidently tolerant – I saw women holding hands openly in the street without anyone yelling at them – always a good sign). We had an ‘interesting’ cup of coffee and a little snack and then walked through the warm streets enjoying the flowers everywhere and the Spanish revival buildings (well, that’s what the guide book calls them). This was certainly one of the Californias outsiders know – quite wealthy, liberal, sunny, kids skateboarding down the street...

We were due somewhere further north for dinner so after the break we covered some more miles and went up the 101 as far as San Luis Obispo. There we stopped for another short break (and a few necessities… phone card, restrooms…) and saw another small, pleasant city (this one not quite as fancy as Santa Barbara – a few lively bars and students having a good time as we passed through though). Photos of this journey so far are here:

North from Venice, Ca

We noticed, on passing through, that San Luis Obispo had a drive-in movie place too – something we hoped to sample while in the U.S. but not tonight because we had to……visit people we hardly know! That’s right it was time to call in on a blogger friend – Chris from Enchanted Oak. I know Chris from poetry blogs (the Poetry Bus in particular) but I had never met her before, never even spoken on the phone… and yet somehow I knew we would get on fine (I’ve yet to meet a bad blogger). Chris had invited us all to stay and a little worn from all the hotels and motels we said a resounding ‘yes, please’. Even better Chris and her husband keep dogs so h was particularly keen.

We arrived at Chris’ on the Saturday evening, ate a lovely dinner with her and her husband, Joe, and had a relaxing, friendly evening all round – much asking of questions, much telling of stories. Chris had already told me that they were invited to a picnic with friends on the Sunday and would we like to come too and again we’d said ‘yes, please’ so that was what we all did the following day. Chris, because she’s very open about such things on her blog and elsewhere, had also told me that the picnic was for AA members like herself and their families (that’s AA as in Alcoholics Anonymous, British readers, not Automobile Association) and would we be OK with that. We said we absolutely would and I, for one, was fascinated to see what kind of an event it would be.

As it turned out the AA ‘picnic’ on the Sunday was one of the best parties we’ve been to in ages. It was at a lovely spot – deep in the Californian valleys and miles from any town – and there was stacks of food, loads of people (we’d imagined a small gathering of about 20… it was more like 100), a good band playing, lots of messing about in boats on the river (see great photo of h and a new friend in a kayak). There was such a mix of folk too – all ages and walks of life – and everyone was so friendly (and of course no-one was drunk and fighting or falling in the river or just being very dull). We can highly recommend AA picnics – a fantastic afternoon out.

After the party Chris and Joe wanted to show us more of the coast so they took us up to Cambria to walk on the pebbles and get blown about by the wind (just like home!). We all nosied about Cambria’s tourist shopping street too – had a coffee, looked in windows. Then they drove us back through the beautiful green rolling hills to their home just inland from there. A really lovely day all round. Our pics of this couple of days are here:
Central California

On Monday morning we said many warm good-byes (big hugs… especially for the dogs!) and set off north from Chris’ (armed with lots of Joe’s great baking, maps and books from Chris, pebbles from Cambria beach…). We drove north along the 101 because the famous coastal highway 1 to Big Sur was blocked due to a landslide just north of Cambria (and had been since April). Our plan was to get to Monterey and visit Big Sur from above, as it were, so we had booked a place in Monterey for Monday night.

We arrived in Monterey in time for an early check-in and a late lunch. It’s a pretty, sunny little place and we weren’t in the mood for a load more driving so we had a lazy afternoon and then a walk around and a look at the wharf/pier. Whilst walking on the wharf we heard a lot of barking. “Seals” said h straightaway and she was pretty much right as it was in fact a large group of Californian sea lions barking and posing and showing off right in the harbour there (great fun to watch and much cheaper than the aquarium - photo at head of post and in slideshow). After that it was back to the hotel for ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (humans, not sea lions - first part of the final). And just think – Mark gets a whole month or so free of it before the British version starts again in September when we get home… He’s so lucky.

On Tuesday we set off south down highway 1 to visit the much acclaimed Big Sur area (seemed odd to be going backwards!). The road was up in a few places and there were quite a few people about so it wasn’t quite the idyllic coast experience we’d imagined. Also we have seen more dramatic and more beautiful coast roads (some in Scotland for a start) but still, it was pretty and the sun was shining and we stopped at a beach here and a very nice café with views there (thanks Fi – lovely lunch at Café Kevah). Maybe it was the blocked highway that partly spoiled the full effect, maybe it was the reputation (it’s always hard to live up to these big build-ups – look at the poor old Grand Canyon) but we didn’t get quite the wow factor from Big Sur that we expected. Maybe it’s just that we live near a pretty amazing (and hardly visited) coastline ourselves. It could well be that.

After our down-and-back-up trip to Big Sur we stopped at Carmel for a little look around (pretty fancy, very busy). Someone drove into our bumper whilst trying to park by the beach but no-one was hurt and it wasn’t much of a drama. After Carmel we headed up to our last stop before San Francisco – Santa Cruz, another place by the ocean.

We’d booked a motel in Santa Cruz that someone online had said was near the beach. As it turned out it wasn’t that near the beach but luckily we like a walk and even better it was a really nice little place (friendly owner, great complimentary breakfast, warm courtyard pool, good laundry machine, great night’s sleep). Around about the motel there seemed to be quite a lot of people living in what looked like old rooms from motels now out-of-service. Quite a few kicked-in doors and such like too but the area was friendly and we walked about no problem.

Santa Cruz has quite a famous boardwalk so we headed down to that – once again in lovely sunshine. Things didn’t seem to have really opened for the season (Memorial Day was still a few days away) and most of the amusements were still closed but the beach had quite a few folk scattered on it and there were quite a few young ones (high school or college age) playing volleyball, rushing about, chatting on phones. I can imagine it is quite the place to be once summer comes – like Blackpool with slightly more reliable sunshine perhaps…

We had our dinner on the pier (it was great - restaurants here are so good!) and wandered back for the excitements that are doing some laundry and part two of the final of “Dancing with the Stars”. Then we went to sleep – next stop San Francisco. Photos of Monterey, Big Sur, Carmel and Santa Cruz are here:
Monterrey to Santa Cruz

We’re in Oregon right now with about a week left in the U.S. Still two more California posts to fit in some time though (San Francisco and then Redwood country!).