Monday, 23 July 2012

Viva, Viva Las Vegas!

So this is my last blog of our great American adventure. We are sitting in the airport unbelievably early - yes, really! - for our flight back to Gatwick. Number 3 is catching up on his cricket, rugby and golf news and number 4 has gone airport shopping. My beloved is editing the hundred or so photographs he has taken in that most eccentric city, Las Vegas.
The last three days have been a blast. This is a massive weekend destination for Americans and on Saturday, the pool area of our hotel was packed with stag and hen parties. The volume of the celebrations, coupled with music, made the pool a hot and noisy place to be. We hung out there till the heat and the noise got too much for us and then we headed out to explore.
The Bellagio has to be everyone's favourite. It's a surprisingly beautiful building and it manages to maintain its dignity despite having thousands of fruit machines in it. And the restaurants are superb which explains a lot why my beloved has such a fondness for the place.
At my insistence, we fight our way along the packed pavements to the Venetian which has, yes, proper canals and gondolas - and singing gondoliers. Lovely friends of ours stayed there when they got married earlier this year in the Elvis chapel so we had to go and check it out. All these hotels have huge shopping malls and I suppose the strange thing about this place is that actually you could come here for a week and never go outside. And I suspect that this is a reality for serious gamblers.
Amidst all the colours, sights and sounds of this brash city, we (my beloved and I - 3 and 4 being galleried out) went to the Monet exhibition in the Bellagio. Peace and extraordinary beauty by a painter who was a favourite of mine in my teens and twenties.
So our last forty eight hours have been spent relaxing by the pool, eating, drinking and taking in the sights and sounds of Vegas. For me, the high point is the amazing Bellagio fountain to which no video can ever do justice. We must have watched about five performances of the fountain - the last, appropriately Elvis singing Viva Las Vegas. So goodbye USA, now it's planes, trains and automobiles for the next 24 hours to get back to Blighty.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

In the desert you can remember your name

Three days in Dana Point and we're properly chilled. I've realised why I don't usually write a holiday blog (unless of course it's Kenya or Morocco or up the Nile, and those tend to be Granny holidays). Writing about going to the beach, lying by the pool and eating in lovely harbour restaurants looking at very nice boats probably doesn't make interesting reading. 
There has, however, been mother and son tennis - number 3 now beats me every time but I put up a tolerably good fight in the heat. And we did have plenty of Baywatch moments when the lifeguards rush into the sea like David Hasselhof in his prime which is probably why I burnt my back - clearly too much baywatching and not enough sun cream. Oh, and all the waiters sound like Freddie Prince Junior and say "awesome" when we tell them we come from England. 
On our last night in Dana Point we head up onto the cliffs above the resort to a restaurant called Cannons (absolutely nothing similar to the like-named gym) for dinner with a magnificent view of the harbour and yacht club - and a wedding which is taking place on the patio, one level below the dining room. Beautiful bride and a set of seven big bridesmaids dressed in red - and I mean big! Couldn't decide whether this was the bride's way of making sure the spotlight was on her but they were a buxom team of women squeezed into tight red dresses. Anyway this kept us entertained whilst my beloved took number 3 back to the hotel because he had a touch of sunstroke and couldn't eat - a cheap dinner for once but he needed to eat a lot the next day to catch up.
Then in the morning we leave lovely Dana Point and drive down the coast to La Jolla which is home to one of my beloved's favourite restaurants, George's, where we sit on the roof terrace and look across the bay. La Jolla is also home to a seal colony and loads of pelicans and we watch the seals play and relax on the rocks. Then back in the car for our last drive of the holiday - this time, along the coast to San Diego where we do a quick detour to Coronado Island so I can pay my respects to the Del Rey Hotel - scene of much of the action in probably my all-time favourite film "Some like it Hot" starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. I jump about on the sand in front of the hotel in roughly the spot where Tony Curtis does his shell routine with Marilyn Monroe, probably looking more like Jack Lemmon in drag than the other two.  With a bit more time, we'd have gone to the Top Gun bar as well but that might have to wait for another trip.
So it's goodbye to Gloria, the sat nav, and now we're airborne on our penultimate flight - to Las Vegas for our last three days on our big American adventure. 
Whoa! We come out of the airport in Las Vegas and it's like someone's switched a thousand hair dryers on full in our faces. It's over 100 degrees and it's eight o'clock at night. As we snake round the taxi line which is mercifully fast-moving, we are virtually dripping. 
The ride up The Strip is literally an assault on our senses or at least our optical one. After three Oceans films, you'd think the landscape would be familiar but nothing prepares you for the Pyramid, Eiffel Tower, Disney, Arc de Triomphe, Trump, Cosmopolitan, Cesar's Palace  and, of course, the Bellagio. All this in a desert. We pull up at the Vdara and my beloved goes to check in along with a queue of others. And the fun begins ...
Swipe key in hand we head up to our room on the 14th floor. The card works and we open the door. It stinks of cigarette smoke - like proper old pubs used to smell. The room has half-eaten food, rubbish, unmade bed, clothes - it looks like students are living there. Back down to the lobby and my beloved is having words. Apparently they are "dealing with it". A moment later and we are crossing the walkway to the Bellagio to another of my beloved's favourite restaurants, Sensi. 
Sometimes I feel that my beloved leads a double life - the one at home with me and 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the little house on the prairie, and this one. The restaurant is fabulous and the kitchen is inside the dining room but divided by glass walls so we can watch the chefs work. And our waiter is, well, a hilarious tall, thin version of Stamford from SATC who comes from England but has been here so long he sounds mid-Atlantic. He can't do enough for us and the food is fantastic. And then (and this is another reason for thinking the whole double life thing is going on), the restaurant manager comes over - not the maitre d' but someone way loftier and greets my other half like he's a regular and promises us a special dessert. 
It arrives - fifteen desserts in a tower that makes other diners stop and stare on their way past. We manage 12 - not bad after five starters and three main courses! Stamford loves it and appears genuinely proud of us for our efforts although obviously number 3 has done more than his share of the damage. 
Then we have to go to the Bellagio fountain. Through the unbelievable visual cacophony of the lobby - a million flowers of every colour, thousands of people of every nationality and age, beautiful, ugly, dressed to the nines or looking like hookers and street kids  - it's all here  - and out into the hair dryer night to watch the extraordinary musical drama of the fountain. And for the few minutes the drama takes to unfold, the rest of The Strip stops and watches. And it does this four times an hour. 
It's late when we get back to the Vdara and yes, we are promoted to a top floor suite. Job done and it's been a long old day since we got up this morning in Dana Point. Long but definitely unforgettable. Living the Vegas life! 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I was thinking to myself, this could be heaven...

Every holiday with my beloved involves 'a big drive'. Even in Portugal where the most beautiful beaches are on your doorstep, he will have found one on the internet/in the guidebook that is 'absolutely superb' and off we'll go, driving for an hour or two and, lo and behold, the beach is as amazing as billed and I can't be cross that we've spent so much time in the car.

So the next two days of our holiday is 'the big drive' and we set off with the hire car packed to the gunnels - the four of us and Gloria - the sat nav. My beloved has a love/hate relationship with sat navs and he refuses to have one in his own car although he navigates the length and breadth of Britain for work. Anyway, Gloria is undoubtedly a spikey blond, a little past her best but she's had some work done and is only slightly disappointed that this is a step down from the newsreader's job she was hoping for. In my beloved's world, she is Myrtle, the big black momma and he persists in calling her that. Anyway, Gloria/Myrtle is the most patient woman on the planet because regardless of the directions she gives, my beloved is going his own way down the Pacific Highway. She says "recalculating" every time he does his own thing at a junction and even after a dozen or so "recalculatings" she doesn't let any edge come into her voice. This woman is a saint!

We have planned to stop off in Monterey and Cartmel but it's "oops, we've missed Monterey" but instead we go to Pebble Beach because it is famous for its classic car auctions apparently. Actually it is one of the greatest golf courses in the world and the fledgling golfer in me is rather enjoying the moment. I look at the names on the roll of honour: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and ... CB. Ah well, a girl can dream. Can I buy some new golf shoes here? (I wear the ones number 3 had when he started playing aged 9) No, apparently as a golf cap costs nearly 50 dollars so shoes would break the bank.

Then we queue through Cartmel but that's a bit cutesy for me - I can only take so much mock Tudor and overpriced boutiques and then on to Pismo Beach with just one stop on the way for the elephant seals. Everyone is parked on the side of the road looking at these giant growling slugs who coolly flick sand and indulge in some occasional pretend fighting. The usual questions from number 4: Can I stroke one/have one for a pet? No. Also, this is where I attempt to get into the wrong SUV much to the amusement of my family.

Gloria takes us to the door of our hotel in Pismo Beach - genius Gloria - and gets some grudging approval from my beloved. Supper then bed for us with another big drive tomorrow. Gloria must be exhausted!

I have cunningly persuaded number 3 to convince his father that we should go direct to Dana Point which is the beach and sun bit of the holiday and he obliges. We have sorted the spotify out on my ipad and we cruise down the rest of the route including the outskirts of Los Angeles listening to some tracks I downloaded before we came out especially for some California driving. Some chuntering from my beloved at the lack of interesting detours but here we are in a rather swish hotel with pools, fitness suite, spa and yes, a tennis court. After two days in the car, I definitely need to burn off some calories. Big drive done and Gloria and I are doing some chillin'.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dude looks like a lady!

San Francisco this morning, the weather is warmer or at least clearer and we set out for breakfast in Washington Square. Sitting in the sun, it's easy to forget how cold it was yesterday.  Today's plan is to visit Lombard Street, described as 'the crookedest street in the world' where the road zigzags down this steep hill between gardens planted with purple and pink hydrangeas. We wisely start at the top (having walked up a parallel street) and walk down. So much of this city is a hill that there is always a climb involved somewhere.
And then, my treat - a cable car ride through the city to Market Street. It was just as I had imagined - like a roller coaster down the hills and all the clanking and bells. I was having a whole 'Meet me at St Louis' moment in completely the wrong city. Love that song, Judy! 
Market Street has the sort of shops that number 4 loves but it also contains the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art so three out of the four of us happy and the other one saying: "Not shops and art galleries again!" Anyway he survived. 
And then the must-do event for my Mrs Doubtfire-obsessed family - a visit to 2640 Steiner Street where Robin Williams' family live in the film. The taxi driver was bemused by our request but dropped us outside in the house in the middle of a quiet residential area. Two teenage girls were also taking pictures - the only other sign of Doubtfire worship and yes, they were English. Photographs taken, especially to send to number 2 child who can recite the whole film from memory and we set off to walk to Little Italy for supper. This is a great place for people watching, sitting on the pavement (or sidewalk since we're here) and watching the world go by with a glass of red wine and some great pasta and then the worst cappuccino in the world - ah well, you can't have everything! 
This is our last day in San Francisco and we're going to bike the bridge - or at least that was the plan until we got to the bike hire place where the little hippy guy/surfer dude said that there was a 4 hour wait for the ferry on the other side to come back. Anyway he gave us a great biking trail to follow instead and we biked across the city to the Presidio park where the view across the bay including the Golden Gate Bridge is wonderful. We stopped to admire the view and met some delightful New Zealanders with whom we shared cricket and rugby chat - excellent. 
Then at almost the furthest point from the bike hire place, disaster struck. Number 3 had a flat back tyre. Not just a minor flat that you can bike on, this was more the inner tube hanging out and having no option but to push. And push we did, to three other bike places who couldn't or wouldn't fix our tyre, for over two hours until we reached Citizen Chain which was a really proper bike place (as well as a great name) where the guy who fixed our tyre was totally in awe of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and the GB bike team and was an absolute hero to four weary bike-pushers. Anyway we biked back the rest of the way and the little hippy guy/surfer dude/bike hire man didn't charge us for one of the bikes so not such a bad result.
For our last night in San Francisco we went to my beloved's favourite restaurant which is like a little Italian canteen with fabulous food and a mercifully short distance from the Fairmont so only a stagger with very full bellies.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

It's cold and it's damp ...

Chicago's first stop today was the John Hancock Centre which is the second tallest building in the city with 360 degree views and a narration of all that you can see from the familiar voice of David Schwimmer - Ross Geller from Friends. As a Chicago resident himself, hearing him talk about Sue, the T-Rex makes you think he must have been a shoo-in for the part of the palaeontologist.  
The other sightseeing event was the Museum of Modern Art which was impressive and the theme of the current exhibition was skyscraper architecture as art with a number of poignant works devoted to 9/11. For me, the highlight was the Andy Warhol piece based on pictures of Jackie Kennedy taken by press photographers on the day of JFK's assassination. Very moving. 
Then number 3 was desperate to go back down to the beach for a last swim in Lake Michigan before we were loaded into a taxi by the large-than-life hotel porter, Carlos who, by the way he and my beloved were bonding, may be turning up at the little house on the prairie some time soon.
And finally, returning to the skin of our teeth travelling methods, once we were at the airport having been scanned, and in my case, patted down, I checked the departure gate whilst my beloved laced up his shoes, rethreaded his belt and so on. Foolishly, as it turned out, I had assumed we were flying to San Francisco so we trundled down to gate B20 and waited to board. At the head of the queue, we were told "You're boarding the wrong flight!" so back to the desk and a sprint back to gate B3 where we made it on to the flight to Oakland, San Francisco by, yes, the skin of our teeth and are scattered around the plane in the only available seats. Ring any bells?!   
We have checked into the Fairmont on the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco which is lovely especially when they checked us into a suite (which turned out to be a short-lived pleasure as they had overbooked and we are now in a normal room). Anyway, me with my time clock all wrong again and I was up with the lark at 6.30am and waiting for the rest to emerge from their shells like tortoises by 9.00. I'm not sure I'm very good at this time zone thing as I was wide awake at 1.00am last night too. If I fall asleep during the baseball tonight there will be trouble! 
Having fallen in love with the hot sidewalks of Chicago, San Francisco is going to have to be on a big charm offensive to make me love it as much. It's been a cool, foggy old day here so we walked down to Union Square and after grabbing a scrambler (note use of lingo - clever huh?) we bought tickets for the hop-on, hop-off bus to have a lightning tour of the sights. It may have been an error to sit upstairs on an open-topped bus to go across the Golden Gate Bridge on a day when it was damp, windy and chilly. By the time we reached the far shore we were, as we say in God's own county, nithered. The other thing which I always find stupidly amusing is how proud our hosts are about anything that's more than 100 years old. Crikey, if I lived here I'd nearly be an antique! 
The main event of the day was going to the ball game, as they call it here. My beloved had booked tickets to see the San Francisco Giants play the Houston Astros at the spectacular A T & T Park. As almost the only people not wearing orange (the team colour) we stood out somewhat until my beloved and 3 and 4 donned orange wigs (sorry, but I have limits) and we sat on the bleachers with the 50,000 or so crowd. 
Now the thing about baseball, from a British sport-watching perspective, is that more seems to go on off the field than on it. There is so much crowd entertainment - music, big screen, food - in unrelenting and unbelievable quantities and varieties - that the dozen or so guys wearing grey and orange on the far side of the pitch are almost incidental. The Americans want us to enjoy their very family-friendly sporting event. The man in front of us was one of three people who did their best to explain 'rounders for boys' as I see it, and we got the hang of the scoring - because there aren't many rules to this game. He also quoted Mark Twain to us which definitely summed up the weather: 
"The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."
Anyway the Giants won, everyone made their way back through the crowded streets with scarcely a policeman in sight and we learnt a bit more about this great American city.  

Friday, 13 July 2012

My Kind of Town

Our first full day in Chicago was to be spent without the company of my beloved as he left the hotel at 5am to get a flight to Pittsburg where he had a meeting. We got up early and headed out of the hotel to walk along the edge of lake Michigan. This city is so bike- and jogger-friendly and we were amazed at the number of people who were training round the lake and in it, come to that. Of course, watching all that activity made us hungry again and we found a brilliant breakfast place in Streeterville called Yolk with a breakfast menu that ran to eight pages. Full of eggs benedict and fruit and, in number 4's case, a pile of strawberry and chocolate pancakes accompanied by maple syrup and butter (only discovered when number 3 ate a spoonful because he thought it was ice cream) we walked for the next hour across town to the Field Museum - home of Sue.
Sue is the largest, most complete T-Rex in the world and is the star of the museum but there was a lot to see in addition to her, and her life-story in 3D. We shrank down to less than an inch in size and explored the soil, met Ghengis Khan (who knew that Kubla Khan was one of his four warring sons?) and sat in a Pawnee hut learning how they lived and much more. Our plan then was to go to the Aquarium but the queue in the now-baking sunshine was so long that we headed for the river taxi and chugged along the edge of Lake Michigan admiring the spectacular skyline from the water. 
Like Barcelona, this is a city with a beach - or rather lots of beaches and we headed under the underpass (like you do!) which runs beneath six lanes of traffic and on to the beach where 3 and 4 consumed shrimp and chips before I could lie on the sand in peace.
My beloved arrived back after a successful day in Pittsburg and we met him down town and ate dinner (huge portions again. Memo to self: no starters!) before arriving back at the hotel where mercifully our energetic and noisy neighbours appear to have checked out or died...whichever!   
Our second day in Chicago and the man who needs half as much sleep as I do was up and out early going for a walk whilst the rest of us snoozed on. Eventually we got ourselves fettled in time to grab a cab and head up to the Aquarium - the biggest in the USA and not to be missed if you come here. The advice we had received the previous day to come early was a good shout because within half an hour the whole place was full of little people. Not in the sense of dwarves but small children aged about eight dressed in matching t-shirts and ushered round by guides in similar t-shirts who attempted with varying degrees of success to control their small, shrieking charges. Absolutely amazing jellyfish, seahorses and a very good guide who explained, in front of a tank of sharks, that it wasn't the shark's fault if he couldn't tell the difference between a seal and a man on a surfboard from underneath. Makes perfect sense when you put it like that! 
One of the must-do things in Chicago is, by all accounts, to go on the original architectural boat cruise and very good it is too. For an hour and a half we cruised the Chicago river and the coast of lake Michigan learning about the history of the city and some of its extraordinary buildings. 

And so out for dinner and a great night in the really buzzing Luxbar on Rush before staggering back to our hotel - tomorrow we have just a day left in Chicago before catching the plane to San Francisco. 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

I Say a Little Prayer

Chicago is a really surprising city.  I don't know what I expected but amongst the various things I've read in the last few weeks is that Chicago is where skyscrapers were first built and the skyline here is amazing. Amongst the modern towers of all shapes are the older buildings like the Chicago Tribune building and these are reminiscent of Gotham City, which turned out to be rather appropriate as we later bumped into Batman and the Joker in Millennium Park. Not the real ones obviously, but students filming but they had the make-up perfectly for the late, great Heath Ledger as the Joker - definitely one of my favourite film actors of all time.

Despite the fact that we had eaten lunch (and a lot of other things) on the plane, as soon as we had checked into our lovely old-fashioned hotel (think Ghostbusters) we headed out to feed child 3 again. We've been to the Chicago Cheesecake Company before in Annapolis and so, in order to refuel the one who is always hungry we went there, just a block away under the John Hancock Tower which is one of the tallest buildings in the city. We all managed a main course (I always forget how gigantic the portions are here) and then child 3 made it his mission in life to eat the most enormous chocolate cheesecake. He has just told me it was a chocolate biscuit base with a chocolate mousse layer, vanilla mascarpone, with chocolate on the top and whipped cream and chocolate sauce - how's that for detail! He finished it, declared that he felt pregnant - like he'd know! - and we set off to explore the Magnificent Mile which is the massive shopping street with all the US and global brands - retail heaven for number 4.

I find myself entertained at how much we know - or think we do - about the USA from watching movies. We crossed the bridge where Julia Roberts had danced on the boat in My Best Friend's Wedding (the same film where Rupert Everett stole the show singing Dionne Warwick's I Say a Little Prayer) and walked up to Millennium Park where there was a free outdoor concert playing in a magnificent hall that looked like they had started to build the Sydney Opera House and built just one side. People just rocked up, biked up, skate boarded up, listened for a while to the band who started off sounding like the Shadows, and then moved off in the evening sun.

My beloved had got very excited about The Bean. This is a giant shiny metal kidney bean, designed by an Englishman, which he promised, incorrectly as it turned out, to be the size of Copgrove Hall. Actually it was probably not much bigger than the village hall but its shiny sides made curious reflections of us all and it's obviously a big draw here and rightly so. Its image appears all over the city and as the park only opened in 2004 it is very popular.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was 2.00am UK time and we were ready to crash. However we have now discovered the downside of this lovely, old-school hotel - thin walls! Lots of gymnastic and noisy activity on the other side of the wall which made it impossible for child 3 to hear Jeremy Clarkson in a very early episode of Top Gear. Cue my beloved banging on the wall with a shoe and some wag saying they must be old and fat because they stopped pretty soon after that!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

All gone to look for America

The last couple of weeks I've been playing in my head the Simon and Garfunkel song America as it sort of sums up how I feel about this trip to Chicago and the West Coast. It's going to be a bit of an adventure for my beloved, children 3 and 4 and me, of course, and as I can't take you along, I thought I'd blog my way round...

As I frequently point out to my children, travelling anywhere with their father is never dull. Already we have made the train at Knaresborough by the skin of our teeth and really only by virtue of the fact that our singing-dancing doctor drove us there. Then we managed to catch the wrong train from York to London - to clarify, the train was the earlier one but it arrived precisely at the time our slightly later train should have arrived had all trains not been temporarily derailed - time-wise rather than literally - by trespassers on the line at Durham.

We arrived at Kings Cross having been scattered through the carriage as our reservations were for the original train rather than the one we actually travelled on and - I can't believe I'm saying this - ate in the fabulous new concourse. Kings Cross station, so grim and grotty of old, sitting next to the very smart St Pancras, seems hardly to know itself and the new roof is really spectacular. I can't help thinking that there must be money to be  made if they lined up the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 and 3/4 and ran a daily excursion into the countryside but then HP is dear to my heart so perhaps I am not entirely rational where the works of JKR are concerned.

Finally outward bound on our Virgin flight, disappointingly not skippered by our pilot pal who works for the airline and regularly flies this route but nevertheless in comfort having made the flight by the skin of our teeth - this appears to be a recurring theme already. First, number 4 child thought 'someone else' was bringing her luggage down from the hotel room - that would be the unspecified someone other than the three of us presumably, and so had to go back to collect it. Then it took forever to check in though we were entertained to see the imposing rear (and front) end of Serena Williams' mother also checking on to our Chicago-bound flight. I have seen her and I wouldn't mess with her! Finally, number 4 (yes, again) had to go and look for magazines and disappeared for so long that the trek to gate 20 had to be done at speed - not easy for me as my beloved (who may in future be known as the man who does not travel light) had had overweight hand luggage and consequently all his books were now in my hand luggage. Anyway, we're safely on board and 3 and 4 are happily glued to the screen in front of them - just like being at home then! - and my beloved (TMWDNTL) is on his fourth drink and deciding what treats lie in store later in the trip.

To be continued...