USA 2004

 

 

What's covered?

 

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Introduction

This holiday stemmed from wanting to see the Grand Canyon. Grand as it is though, it's a bit of a trek from the UK without taking in a few other things! So started the inevitable pouring through of brochures, the "this holiday also goes to so and so" followed by "yes but it doesn't go to somewhere else" discussions. At this point a neighbour came to the rescue and pointed us in the direction of Mike Easton who runs Just America.

To put it simply, Mike converted our ideas into one of the best holidays we have had. He has been running Just America since about 1990 and before that he worked for Trek America. His knowledge of the States is as vast as the country, he knows the hotels he is recommending, he knows when to specify particular rooms for a view, he knows what will make a comfortable day's travelling and the order in which to visit things, he knows what you want to know! Oh and he's a real nice guy to deal with. Mike, thank you from my cousin Alan, Gill and myself.

San Francisco

5/9/04

Today saw us arrive in San Francisco and nearly lose all our luggage! When we arrived at The Sheraton, my wife and my cousin got out of the taxi while I paid the fare. As soon as I got out, the taxi drove off with the boot open and all our luggage inside. Cries from the hotel porters seemed to be unheard but one of the car valets had the presence of mind to jump in a car and charge after the taxi. We will never know whether it was a deliberate attempt to steal our luggage or the most stupid driver in San Francisco. Albert, the doorman, said he had never seen anything like it before but then again you cannot be unaware the boot is open and you would stop for that. After the flight we were just too tired to think to take the cab number so we had to let it rest there.

Wanting to stretch our legs, we took Albert's advice and walked down to The Franciscan, a waterside bar and restaurant. We went for a beer at about 4 p.m. and came out about 8 ish! The beer was good and the food looked excellent so we stayed for a meal. We all had fish and thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so we went back the next night which is as good a recommendation as you can give.

The barmaid is the girl I will employ if I ever open a bar. Boy did she work to keep up with the orders from bar and restaurant customers. A real trooper.

From outside The Franciscan looking to Alcatraz.

From Fisherman's Wharf. Alcatraz in the background.

The harbour.

That's it, don't mess about with stupid measures, just pour it!

Alcatraz at dusk.

No half measures here.

Alcatraz a little later.

 

6/9/04

No jet lag so an early start and a walk to a nearby cafe for breakfast. Then a stroll around before being collected for our pre-booked City Tour organised by Great Pacific Tours. Click the link to see what that takes in. We thought it was good value and the driver did a good job.

After lunch, the afternoon saw us shopping in Macey's, Levi's and Nordstrom, another department store with various franchises and outlets including The Write Style. I have always had a fascination for good old fashioned fountain pens and writing implements though sadly they are used less often nowadays.

In the evening, after our second meal at The Franciscan, we went on a boat tour of the bay.

There was a flyover here before the earthquake. Now it has finally been decided to clear the area and not rebuild it. This is just around the corner from the picture on the right.

This is across the road from the offices of Great Pacific Tours where there is a quick stop to make payment.

If you're going to San Francisco (sorry) you will discover this is not a typical view from Twin Peaks. There should be a haze and no view!

The view here was not really as hazy as it looks.

Gill and myself.

My cousin Alan.

I think you can guess these two!

 

After the tour we found ourselves in Maiden Lane which is just up from Union Square. Just after we sat down for a coffee and a sandwich, these guys arrived and entertained us.

 

Some street entertainment just opposite Nordstrom.

Another view of the harbour.

On our way past Alcatraz. Hope our taxi driver was in there!

Looking back at the financial district.

I think you can guess the rest.

 

 

 

7/9/04

Going on the cable cars in San Francisco is of course a must. In the morning we took the Powell and Hyde Cable Car from the terminus right into the city to pick up our hire car so that we had it ready for a prompt start tomorrow. The hills and the trams ability to cope with them are amazing and it really was great fun. We have many more pictures than shown here!

Sadly that was rather spoiled by our experience with picking up our car from Alamo. Picking up a car should not involve queuing for nearly two and a half hours! All the cars were pre-booked so Alamo cannot hide behind "an unexpected rush", it was just poor organisation and a totally inadequate number of staff. Mike Easton took this up with Alamo and they did acknowledge they had fallen short. Mike also assured us that of all the people he had sent to that location, only a very small number had suffered this experience and I do trust Mike on that. The tip we learned from someone else was to pick up your car at the airport depot rather than the city centre.

We quickly dumped the Chevy Blazer back at the hotel and got another tram out to the Castro area. This is a beautiful old area of San Francisco and well worth the journey out there. We visited City Hall on the way back.

In the evening, we ate at Cioppino's along Fisherman's Wharf and had another excellent meal. Eating out is much cheaper in the US and you get good food and service pretty much everywhere.

The queue!

The Castro area.

Castro's wonderful cinema.

The ticket booth.

City Hall.

Lombard Street. (Actually taken the next day on our way out of the city.)

Yosemite

8/9/04

We left San Francisco regretting that we had not planned to stay there for a week. There was so much we still had not seen but it was too late to change the itinerary so, with an exit via Oakland Bridge, we headed towards Yosemite where we arrived mid afternoon. I think it was about a five hour drive but the pace was relaxed and the roads are far less crowded than at home.

After checking into the Yosemite View Lodge, we drove up to Glacier Point and had a walk around this lovely park. We took Mike Easton's very good advice and bought a National Parks Pass. For US$50 you get admission for everyone in the car to all the US National Parks for one year. We got our money back and more!

El Capitan.

 

 

 

9/9/04

The next day it was off to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The oldest is 2,700years old and 209 feet high. We went reasonably early in the morning as the weather had been very warm and we wanted to avoid the midday heat. The trails were lovely and peaceful so we enjoyed a good walk.

After that it was on to Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows for a paddle. With some time left we looked to see what else we could cover and decided on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir which supplies water to San Francisco 150 miles away. Whilst the other areas were not overly busy, this was clearly a less visited area which is a shame as we enjoyed the drive to it.

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove

Along the way

Tenaya Lake (I think!)

 

Tuolumne Meadows

Trees destroyed by fire near Hetch Hetchy. They had a sort of artistic quality.

Hetch Hetchy - The Reservoir

Pacific Highway

10/9/04

This part of the holiday was something I had particularly wanted included, having seen too many films with drives along this wonderful coastline. En route we stopped off for a coffee and I ordered a muffin, I promise you the menu did not say "Family Size".

Our hotel was in Carmel which had been described to us as "rather twee" and you have to agree. On the one hand it is beautifully maintained but you can feel the regulation. I believe there is a rule stating the maximum and minimum length for a blade of grass in a lawn (well not really but it makes the point). That said, it is nice to see a town so well cared for no matter where you turn. Carmel is a wealthy area and the shops reflect that. There are also many art galleries.

Ater unpacking and having wandered around the town for a while, we headed off along the famous 17 mile drive which is really a road through a private residential area. Anyone can pay to go through during the day and I have a hunch the income pays for the maintenance of the road and the security. Smart move on the part of the residents!

At the far end of 17 mile drive is Monterey. Monterey is more natural than Carmel and had more of a buzz to it. We did a bit of shopping along Cannery Row and then dined in the Blue Moon Restaurant where we had an excellent fish dinner.

Beware of US portion sizes

The pool in our hotel, our room was just up the staircase on the right

An American muffin!

17 Mile Drive

17 Mile Drive

17 Mile Drive

17 Mile Drive

17 Mile Drive

17 Mile Drive

 

11/9/04

Saturday saw us heading off for my long awaited trip along the Pacific Highway. I learned that you have to be very lucky with the weather here. Instead of clear views with breathtaking scenery, for much of the journey the coastline was shrouded in mist. It was wonderfully atmospheric as the pictures suggest but it wasn't my dream. After travelling fifty miles or so and the time being well past midday, it was obvious the mist was not going to lift so we headed back to our hotel for a swim.

I wandered off to visit a rather nice pen shop after which we all decided that we quite fancied a second run along the 17 mile drive and then dinner in Monterey again. Dinner was at The Wharfside where I had the best calamari that I have had anywhere in the world, cooked to perfection. Just as we finished eating, a sea otter was spotted and my wife had wanted to photograph one. This one was playing with a seagull showing it a clam it had found and letting the seagull get close, then the sea otter would roll over, dissappear for a while and pop up somewhere else to start the game all over again.

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Pacific Highway

Monterey

The sea otter teasing the seagull.

The sea otter teasing the seagull.

Las Vegas

12/9/04

Today was back to San Francisco to return the hire car, fly down to Las Vegas and celebrate Alan's birthday. The return of the car was a much more efficient operation and from the depot we took the monorail to the airport. From the monorail to the check-in seemed such a long walk that we began to wonder if we were walking to Las Vegas! At check in we were told our baggage was way over the limit but we knew that could not be correct. The lady explained the limit on internal flights and would not accept our explanation that our documentation specifically indicated that as Europeans travelling internally the international allowance applied. Fortunately, before we had to start going through all the papers, a senior lady heard what was going on and intervened explaining that she had attended a briefing that morning that confirmed what we were saying.

The flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas goes over mountains and desert with a sort of moon surface appearance. As you come into Las Vegas you get the feeling you are going to land right in the centre, and it is not far off the reality.

After clearing customs we saw an Alamo desk with a short queue and quickly got in it. We were not due to pick up our hire car until the next day but decided to see if we could take it then and pay an extra days rental. It saved the problem of getting into town and hopefully avoided a repeat of the San Francisco collection. As with several others who joined the queue, the lady explained that if we had a pre-booked car we should get the bus to the depot unless there was a problem. As our car was not due for collection that day we stayed in the short queue and were soon dealt with. As well as bringing the rental forward we opted for a saloon car in the same price category. We were shown the categories and the lady would not accept our documentation showing that we were due a higher grade car than was being offered. In the end we took the pragmatic view that the car was OK for our needs and we could argue later. To be fair to Alamo, they did issue a refund when we got back to the UK. When we got to the collection point, we were very glad we had organised things from where we did. Not a San Francisco quality queue but long enough!

So off we went in our Pontiac Grand Prix to find the Monte Carlo hotel. Finding the hotel did not prove too difficult, it was finding our way in that was the challenge! If you haven't been to Las Vegas it's difficult to grasp the size of the hotels and the fact that there are numerous entrances and only one will take you straight into reception. Needless to say I found the entrance that took you into where all the slot machines were! You could live comfortably on the service contract for the machines in one hotel alone! Eventually you realise the answer is not to walk around inside but to drive around the different entrances until you find the right one. We were offered high level or low level rooms and needless to say we took the former. Some of the pictures below were from our respective rooms. The hotel has 3,000 rooms and the night before it had been full. This is our travel agent's own choice of hotel when he visits Las Vegas as it is a good balance of quality and price. Certainly we would use it again.

After dinner, we walked to the Mandelay Bay, New York New York, Luxor and Excalibur hotels, these were the ones south of our hotel along The Strip. At the Luxor we went to the Imax theatre to see "In Search of the Obelisk" and then visited the Tutankhamen's Tomb exhibition. The abiding memory is the sheer size of these hotels. They are bigger than some town centres!

Alan with the Chevy Blazer just before we returned it.

Flying into Las Vegas. The airport is the closest I have seen to a city centre.

Another shot as we landed.

Pictures from our rooms.

 

13/9/04

We decided that as we would be coming back to Las Vegas at the end of our holiday, we could visit the other main attractions then. So off we went to a discount shopping mall. The usual dollar pound rules applied (forget exchange rates, just change the pound sign for a dollar sign) so we got some very good buys. Had to go easy though because of flight weight limits.

In the early evening we went to the Mama Mia show at the Mandalay Bay. When we saw the price of tickets we wondered about going as it was no cheaper than London, even with discounts. But you cannot go to Las Vegas and not see a show! It was an excellent show and the overall experience made it worth going.

After that we rounded off the day with dinner at the Luxor.

 

The entrance to the Monte Carlo from The Strip

The Paris and The Eiffel Tower. More about that later in the story.

 

Grand Canyon

14/9/04

Most of today was spent travelling to the Grand Canyon via the Hoover Dam. We arrived late afternoon which gave us a chance to see just a little of the landscape. With the setting sun and its shadows, it was quite an introduction. On the far side of the Canyon, you will see the smoke from a forest fire. It was raging the whole time we were there. At night you could see the glow of the fire.

We stayed at the Yavapai East Lodge. The rooms were all in two storey wooden buildings and they were very comfortable; no problems with the accomodation. The restaurant though did not appeal so we went off to Tusayan and visited a local cowboy themed steakhouse!

15/9/04

Today it was up early for our prebooked flight over the Grand Canyon. The plane was a twenty seater specially designed for this sort of work so that everyone gets a good view. Part way through the flight, Gill's camera refused to load a new film so I was torn between seeing the spectacular views and fixing that camera while she continued with my digital camera. We were unsuccessfull and decided it was time to write off that camera; it had jammed once before and in a similar situation, an unrepeatable location.

After our flight we basically followed the tourist trail around the various viewing points where we took lots of photos, too many to publish here. At one of these points we saw a girl holding her camera at arms length trying to photograph herself. My cousin offered to use her camera to take the picture when she explained she had to have a picture of herself at the Grand Canyon to show everyone!

This area is not renowned for its gastronomic delights and we ended up in McDonalds! In fairness to them, their salads were not bad and overall it was better than we expected. Still not on my "favourites" list though.

Monument Valley

16/9/04

After the Grand Canyon, you might think that anything else would pale into insignificance but that proved to be far from the case. Quite apart from the history of the Navajo living in the area, the tale of Harry and Mike Goulding is quite something.

Harry Goulding visited the area as a young man and when he married his wife (Mike as she was known to everyone, they say Harry had trouble spelling Leone) they decided this was where they wanted to live. They set up a trading post and learned to speak the Navajo language, allegedly one of the most difficult to learn. They became a key part of the community and Harry was keen to bring more prosperity to the Navajos. He persuaded John Ford that Monument Valley was the "film set" he needed so if this scenery seems familiar, it's because you have seen it at the cinema. It did bring prosperity as the film industry needed the help of the local people. The story is fascinating and more can be found at this site, it's the best account I have found.

Time only permitted us to do the half day tour and I have seen several reviews saying the one day tour is well worth doing. Our guide was Don and he is photographed inside a Hogan where Lucy is showing her weaving, these names are of course for the tourists! Hogans are the traditional homes of the Navajo people, click here if you would like to learn more about them.

The Navajo played an important role in World War II. They were employed as "Code Talkers": The Navajo would talk to each other in their own language which the Japanese could not understand. Bribes were offered to anyone who could teach teach the Japanes the language. The code was never broken!

In the evening we ate at our hotel, Gouldings Lodge of course, and in accordance with Navajo custom, no alcohol is served.

With the benefit of hindsight, we would like to have spent another day here. Fascinating place.

The journey to Monument Valley.

The journey to Monument Valley.

Nearly there.

Panoramic view of the monuments.

The petrol (gas) station from the Lodge.

Don and Lucy in a hogan.

Lucy.

See the hogans in the centre of the picture.

East and West Mitten Buttes (The Mittens)

 

Elephant Butte

 

John Ford point

Alan at John Ford point

The Dragon

Gill and myself on the tour.

 

The Mittens at sunset

Lake Powell

17/9/04

Lake Powell is a tourist resort in its own right although the water level is diminishing at an alarming rate. For us it was more of a stopping point between Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon.

On the way we stopped off at a small town in the Navajo nation for a coffee. It was a bit off the main road so I don't suppose too many tourists visited it. We got chatting to Tom John, a Navajo who had moved back to the area after working away from it for many years. He was the truancy officer at a local school and a very interesting person. One of those people you meet in life and do not forget, for the right reasons.

We arrived in nearby Page around lunchtime so Brenda's Diner looked ideal. It was a small diner that had been moved from the famous Route 66 and rebuilt here. Tasty snacks that just did the job. Almost next door was the museum which is well worth a visit. It amused us that there is a museum in a town that is only about 40 years old but a lot of effort has gone into it and the staff are to be commended.

We wandered around Page for a while and then headed off to check into The Lake Powell Resort, formerly the Wahweap Lodge. This was a comfortable stop and it had ticks in all the boxes for the facilities you might want. The staff on reception were overstretched though so you couldn't just chat. I suppose what it lacked was atmosphere. Fine as a stopover though.

It was just as well that we phoned to check in for our trip on the Colorado River the next day. The schedule had been changed and our trip was not going to be until 11.15 rather than 7.30 as expected. It meant we didn't have to get up at the crack of dawn so no complaints there.

In the evening, we went back into Page for a meal. It was very busy but we managed to get into Strombolli's and had a very enjoyable meal.

 

18/9/04

We decided to go into Page for breakfast. It gave us the chance to eat in a smaller place with some atmosphere and then we wandered around the shops until it was time for our tour. Before today we had been worried that the sun on an unprotected raft might prove a bit much. However, as you can see from the pictures, it was a bit cloudy without being overly dull so it was perfect for the trip.

Our guide was Julie and she had a real enthusiasm for her work. She clearly loved the outdoor life and participated in it given half an opportunity. The journey down river is twelve miles but the return journey by coach was fifty miles, including a trip through a two mile long tunnel. Overall it was a journey we enjoyed a lot more than we had anticipated. Don't miss it.

 

Petroglyphs giving information to other travellers.

Back at Lake Powell.

 

Bryce Canyon

19/9/04

I have heard a number of people who have made a similar tour to ours say that they liked Bryce Canyon as much as Grand Canyon and in some ways more. Grand Canyon is about scale. Bryce Canyon has fantastic rock formations and the scale is more manageable. Put it this way, you have to go to Grand Canyon, but I suspect it is Bryce Canyon to which you would make a return visit.

On the way we stopped in Hatch for lunch at the Bryce Zion Midway Resort, which makes the place sound much bigger than it is. In the restaurant we had what has to qualify as the best burger ever. The meat had flavour and texture, the bun was just slightly crisp rather than the usual mushy thing designed for people with no teeth. The onions were caramelised, just. The salad was fresh. That was the burger to die for. The place was run by a husband and wife team with the wife serving and the husband cooking.

We checked into the Bryce Canyon Lodge which is within the park boundaries. The hotel has a long history accommodating tourists and there are pictures going back to the 1920s and 1930s. After checking in we decided some walking was in order and walked along part of the Queen's Garden Trail. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Our room was great and the whole experience was only marred by the restaurant in the evening, which in fairness embarrassed the hotel. We were served by a waitress who was under 21 so she was not allowed to take orders for alcohol. Despite four requests and getting through to the main course, no one had taken our order for drinks, never mind served them. When we started on the main course, Gill's salmon was raw apart from the outside and the carrots were the same, raw, not al dente. At this point I went to the restaurant entrance and explained to the manager that things were not going too well. He promised to come over within a couple of minutes and he did. We explained what was wrong and he immediately took charge of the situation making sure the staff knew what had to be done. He personally got our drinks and after a while fresh meals were brought to us. Many places in that situation offer free drinks or a free desert. We received a profuse apology and were told that there would be no charge whatever for the meal. I think we estimated the cost would have been around $80 so they were very generous. Sometimes you just catch a place on a bad night. It's what they do about it that is revealing.

Our Pontiac Grand Prix.

An American rig.

The route to Bryce Canyon.

The route to Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon.

 

 

20/9/04

For our second day here, Alan wanted to do something different from Gill and myself so we decided to go our separate ways and meet up mid afternoon. Alan walked along the Navajo Trail while we took the car for a wider tour of the area. No need to caption the photos today as we hit on the idea of photographing the name of each spot!

We decided to eat elsewhere in the evening, not because of the previous experience but we just felt like going somewhere smaller. We had been told about the Bryce Canyon Pines Motel which was several miles out of the park and decided to give it a try. It is a family run place started by a husband and wife in the early days of their marriage and now they have grown up children. He is a real character we wondered how often he is allowed out of the hospital to visit the family! Barking mad! This was a real American restaurant with large portions as standard, a great experience.

An annual car rally used the hotel for a break.

Kevin, you've been relocated.

 

These pictures were taken by Alan along the Navajo Trail

Zion National Park

21/9/04

Today was my birthday and it saw us heading off for Zion National Park. Shortly after leaving Bryce Canyon we came across a pretty amazing car scrapyard. My cousin and I have always been interested in cars so we just had to stop and photograph some of these classics.

Zion is smaller than the other parks that we had visited and is relatively closer to areas of large population. As a result it felt a bit more crowded. The authorities have banned cars from the main part of the park and you have to use the buses provided. Had they not done so, quite apart from pollution issues, I doubt anything would move.

Our overnight stay was at the Zion Park Inn where dinner proved to be more than adequate. See the pictures.

 

In my job I ought to know to study the wording of anything very carefully. "Baby Rack of Ribs?" Ah! The rib cage of a baby pig, plus a few onion rings. Made me feel like a big pig!

 

Las Vegas

22/9/04

So back to Las Vegas for one more night before the end of a wonderful holiday and our return to the U.K.

There is just so much to see! The highlight though had to be our wedding anniversary meal in the Eiffel Tower at The Paris. Our anniversary is actually on 23rd September but we would be flying then so we went for a meal an evening earlier. We asked if we could have a window table to celebrate; they didn't just give us a window table, they gave us the coveted corner table that usually needs to be booked way in advance. This provides a view across to The Bellagio fountains and both directions along The Strip. It was the sort of table you normally have to pay a backhander for. We were looked after wonderfully and then they topped it all off with the desserts. See below how they piped "Happy Anniversary" in chocolate all around the edge of the plate.

The Venetian

 

Wynn's Hotel

Treasure Island

Treasure Island

The Mirage

The Mirage

The Bellagio from the Eiffel Tower

The Bellagio Fountains

The Bellagio Fountains

The Bellagio Fountains

The Bellagio Fountains

The Strip from our table at the Eiffel Tower

The Bellagio Fountains from our table.

The Paris from our table

If you have been to Las Vegas you will know this is a trick photo. The Paris is in the opposite direction to the hotels you see. It is in fact a reflection in the window!

My dessert.

Meanwhile my cousin found this large scale replica Ferrari.

 

23/9/04

New York, New York

And then we leave Las Vegas for the long haul home.

Overall

The first thing that has to be said is that Mike Easton's knowledge of America was invaluable. For example, Lake Powell was a necessary overnight stop to break a long journey and not somewhere in itself that I would rush back to. However Mike suggested doing the Colarado River trip there and that made the stop worthwhile and is something I would recommend to others. The scenery was wonderful and it was so peaceful. On the accommodation that Mike organised, whilst we preferred some hotels to others, that is inevitable and it has to be said they were all very good. I would happily stay in any one of them again.

All our accommodation was room only and that is what I would do again in America. There are so many excellent restaurants and you are free to plan your day exactly as you want. I sometimes ate the wrong things, as you have seen, but lost five pounds weight because of all the exercise. My wife ate the right things having put a lot of effort into losing five stones over the previous two years and, as you can see, making herself quite slim. She put on five pounds and I haven't been forgiven!

Mike, thank you. Your knowledge and assistance made this is one of our best holidays ever! Only one problem arose, which was beyond Mike's control, and he took that up with Alamo to our satisfaction. What a travel agent does about things that go wrong is a good test and Mike passed. As I said at the beginning, I would not do another tour of America without going through Mike. That is not a glib statement, I really mean it.

One tip is to do what we did with Mike. Tell him all the places you want to go and how much time you can be away. Let him work out a plan and the cost. If the cost or time is a bit beyond your budget, you tell Mike at that point and he will suggest what to change. Not one tour went to all the places we wanted to. Mike planned an itinerary that gave us what we wanted for very little more than the cost of the tours, plus a few extra days holiday which compensated for that. None of the journeys was overly long and you could comfortably do the whole tour with just one driver. However, two is to be recommended so that everyone has a chance to see the magnificent scenery. Driving is generally much more relaxed than in the UK so don't have any worries about that.

Well I think that about covers it. See the feedback page if you have any questions or comments.