Hollywood, Los Angeles, London and Thrapston…

OK so the title was a bit of a headline grabber but it’s true!

So we arrive at our final day of our holiday, although this is not quite strictly true as we will be travelling from tonight through to tomorrow afternoon UK time so actually it officially finishes on Sunday.

I left Tina in bed as she didn’t get a good nights sleep and had a shave & shower. She soon woke up soon after. We went down for breakfast, which had a good selection, although as usual not much for gluten-free-ites. We returned to our rooms with coffee/tee (yes, very American as you don’t see many without a cup of something in their hands) and finished off packing. We are a bit worried out the amount of weight in our cases but once packed they do seem lighter than when we came over, how can that happen as we have the same amount of clothes?

We checked out of the hotel and agreed that we would return to Hollywood, where our road trip started, for one final look around.

We set off down the I5 towards Los Angeles and in particular Hollywood; the traffic was busy, in particular heading north out of the city, Americans on the way to their holiday weekend breaks no doubt.

We headed for the same area that we stayed at on our first night in California and soon found a car park costing $10 for the day. We then walked the short distance to the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood boulevard. We were surprised how busy the place was compared to last time we were there, although I guessed the Memorial weekend had brought more visitors out. We stopped for a Starbucks coffee and then walked around the shops for a while.

Lunch soon beckoned so we ordered two plates of nachos with the full works. Of course we should have realised by now that American portions are enormous and neither of us could finish the plate full of Mexican food. We then browsed a few more shops before finding a seat close to the water fountains where we sat for an hour or so, people watching. I was then asked by a couple of people whether would take their photos, which of course I obliged. What I should have done was to charge a dollar a time as did the lady at the Las Vegas sign last week. Missed opportunity or what…!

We then took a slow walk back to the car and set the sat nav for the Alamo car rental return depot, that’s close to the airport. Thirty minutes later we were unloading the cases and boarding the bus that would transport us to the terminal. Once in, we dropped our bags off before queuing to get through security. The process is really tight now, with all jewellery and anything metal having to be removed, including Tina’s birthday presents and placed in a tray. I wisely removed all my gadgets and unlike at Heathrow, got through without a bag search this time.

As soon as we were clear, we hit the duty free shop, buying the kids some smellies as prezzies and then grabbed a drink from Starbucks. Unfortunately there was no free wifi within the departure lounge so for the next few hours or so we were without Internet. As we had arrived a few hours before the flight we had wait until 8.30pm before boarding.

The flight boarded quickly and we took off shortly before 9.30 local time or 5.30 UK time and were immediately served dinner and drinks. The flight was a bit turbulent; in fact it was probably the bumpiest time I had in a plane and whilst I was OK with it Tina was in tears. After an hour or so it subsided although there were a few more rough areas during the rest of the flight.

As is normal on these type of planes, I find it very difficult to sleep and only managed to grab a few minutes during the nine hours we were airborne. Towards the end of the flight, we were served breakfast although I skipped it as it was not gluten-free.
After circling Heathrow for 15 minutes we finally touched down around 3.15pm about half an hour earlier than scheduled. We queued for Border Control before collecting our cases and going through customs. We then found the transfer bus to our car and soon were on our way around the M25 and M1. At Junction 14, we swapped drivers and Tina drove the remainder of the journey home.

Heading south towards LA and home (soon)…

Had a broken nights sleep, it was quiet enough but just kept waking up. Perhaps it had something to do with the half a bottle of wine I consumed. Tina said I was snoring so I must have been asleep some of the time. Eventually I gave up at 5.30am when my phone rang. I didn’t recognise the number and as it was still very early I didn’t think Tina would appreciate me speaking to anyone at that time.

I watched a couple of episodes of The Wire before it went off again, this time it was from a different number, but both were from the UK.

Again I let it ring off but this time rang the number back. It was bloody Carphone Warehouse! I know my phone is due for an upgrade so I guess they are trying to get me to sign up for another contract. That is something I will sort out when I return to the UK.

Once Tina was awake, we showered then went downstairs for our final breakfast the Hofsas Hotel before returning to pack and check out. As as happened in all the hotels we have stayed in the price I was quoted was lower than the actual room rate as they always add on tourist and local taxes. Although not a great deal extra it all adds up over the period of two weeks.

We drove down the road to fill the car with petrol before heading south towards Los Angeles. Tina said bye bye to Creepsville, I was pleased I visited but would probably not bother coming back again.

As we left the town, my mobile phone went again; the same number as before but this time I answered it but didn’t speak. They soon hung up. We initially drove the 68 and then joined the Highway 101 which was to take us half of the five hour journey. We stopped at King City to get some lunch and visit the restrooms, before continuing our road trip south, on the 46 and then the Interstate 5, stopping again just before joining for another toilet break at a McDonalds.

Just before we stopped we drove passed fields and fields of ‘donkey’s’ (not sure if that is the right term for them?) which are iconic structures and I believe are used to bring oil up to the surface. Anyhow, we saw loads and loads of them!

No sooner had we started off on the I5 when we suddenly hit a traffic jam, the first major one of the holiday, excepting the rush hour traffic in LA. The cause was the two-lane highway going down to one lane causing a twenty minute delay in getting through. Once we got passed that it was plain sailing from then on although the stops and traffic jam added an extra forty five minutes to our journey time. Just before we arrive my phone rang once more, again a call from the Carphone Warehouse. Persistent or what!

We quickly found our hotel, but for the first time this trip booking.com had let us down as the hotel were unaware of our reservation. A quick call to them sorted it out and we were soon in our room. I made a much needed jug of coffee from the room supplies whilst Tina began to empty the cases in preparation for packing them ready for our journey home tomorrow.

It didn’t take long to pack them both back up again, there seems more space in them yet we haven’t really discarded much during our stay. After a short rest we decided to go for some dinner. As it happens there was an Aussie Outlook restaurant right next door to the hotel, and although I had vowed we wouldn’t go back to another, we did!

Again, the food was excellent and really good value. I had the BBQ ribs with a salad whilst Tina had chicken. The restaurant was very crowded, we suspect many people stopping there on the way to their holiday destinations (it’s Memorial Day on Monday so this weekend, like ours is a holiday weekend).

We returned to the hotel where we watched some TV and planned what we were going to do on our last day in California tomorrow. The car has to be returned by 5pm so we have pretty much a whole day to spend in Los Angeles, although I have suggested we go visit Malibu Beach.

Just like Kent by wetter…

20110518-065419.jpg“Next year we are going abroad to somewhere warmer and drier” I was quoted last year when we left Kent following a week of wet weather.

Well that didn’t quite work out as I planned!

Day three of our Californian adventure and another day awoken by the sounds of rain outside. And heavy rain at that. Apparently the temperatures are around ten degrees lower than seasonal norm for this part of the country. Typical! Luckily the in depth weather forecast that you get in CBS news says it will get better later on in the week. Great.

Fortunately we were not exploring today, we were driving so it didn’t affect us too much.

We decided to take breakfast at the hotel today as it was included in the price. As expected, the offering was continental…croissants and coffee and orange juice. I took down some of my dried crackers hoping there would have been some butter or jam, but no such luck. I can understand why hotel offer it for free; it’s a token gesture and I guess at the price we paid I shouldn’t expect more.

20110518-065432.jpgOnce we had packed our cases we braved the rain to the car and then set the sat nav for the address of the next hotel, the third of the trip, The Bellagio in Las Vegas. Before leaving Long Beach we topped up the petrol tank, $25 dollars worth, which worked out at around 50p per litre. Well cheap.
We then joined the rush hour traffic, which was heavy due to the unusually wet conditions and headed north. Eventually the traffic thinned out as we left the built up areas but the rain continued to fall making driving difficult at times.

We soon joined the Interstate highway and made good progress, and eventually the rain stopped as we got closer to Nevada. As lunchtime approached we pulled over at Baker, a town approximately 100 miles from Las Vegas, where we re-fuelled and had a light lunch (french fries and soda’s) before continuing on towards the desert city.

20110518-065449.jpgAs we got to the edge of Las Vegas, we started to observe the famous skyline, but rather than heading along the strip, our sat nav lady told us to bypass Vegas and remain on the interstate highway. It turns out I had programmed in the wrong address and it was taking us to another place completely. After pulling the plug from the unit, we then drove by instinct, eventually locating the hotel from the huge sign outside.

OMG!

Unless you witness Vegas first hand you cannot comprehend how brazen and brash the place is. From a half size Eiffel Tower, huge buildings, a hotel shaped like a pyramid, it’s all here.
We parked our car aside the hotel and went in search of the lobby to check in. As with previous bookings we had made through booking.com, all was in order and we were soon taking our cases to our room. In order to get to the bedrooms you had to walk through part of the casino, an odd experience and not what I was expecting. 20110518-065510.jpgWe took the elevator to the 15th floor and settled in to our new home for the next three nights.

The room was very plush, with a huge bathroom and a view overlooking the hotel swimming pools. We quickly unpacked and then went on a walk to explore the hotel, the strip and shops.
Back to the room for a rest and get ready for a night out on the town, well in our case a meal and a quiet drink somewhere.

We walked out of the entrance of the hotel just to catch the end of the fountain show; a spectacular show of water fountains to music. We then searched for somewhere to eat, ending up at Outback Steakhouse, the same Aussie themed restaurant chain as we frequented yesterday in Long Beach. This time I was fully prepared to ask for the gluten free menu and was pleasantly surprised with the choice. 20110518-065630.jpgI plumped for baby ribs in BBQ sauce. Tina had chicken and we both polished off a bottle of wine between us. On chatting to the waiter about the weather he was pleased it had been cloudy all day and was looking forward to the rain that was expected. We were not!

Back to the front of the Bellagio to catch the water show fully before wandering around the casino watching others lose their money. There are hundreds of slot machines, craps and roulette tables and blackjack games, but to be honest I didn’t think it was that crowded, perhaps the recession has affected here too?

We soon retired to bed exhausted from another busy day.

Doing the touristy thing…

So we fly all the way to California, land of the sun only to be woken to the sounds of dripping on the window seals outside due to the fact that it was raining. OK I accept that May weather in Los Angeles can be unpredictable but come on, if we wanted rain we could have gone to Kent!.

Still it wasn’t long before the skies cleared and fortunately we didn’t get wet walking to find somewhere to have breakfast. Unfortunately we couldn’t find anything open in walking distance at 8am on a Sunday morning, so we got in the car and drove along Hollywood Boulevard until we found somewhere open.

The cafe provided me with some much needed nourishment; I hadn’t eaten a meal for some 18 hours so I was starting to wither away (I wish). The cheese and ham omelette went down a treat even though it came with a side order of toast, touching the egg. A quick wipe of the plate/omelette, removing the offending breadcrumbs made the food edible for me and it was all washed down with a strong cup of coffee. Tina also had the omelette and but instead asked for a cup of tea, but that was ignored; I guess the American’s just don’t get our love of the British cuppa.

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Back to our hotel for a quick brush up (teeth that is) before hitting the Hollywood tourist trail. As the famous Sid Graumann Chinese Theatre was only walking distance from our hotel we headed off towards this attraction, with the intention of booking a tourist bus ride to see the sites of Los Angeles. On the way we came across the Walk of the Stars, a number of granite plaques with names of famous show business people inlaid with a sign denoting the area that the were famous for. This row of names extends for the length of the boulevard on both sides of the road and covers pretty much anyone that has been well known in the celebrity stakes (I did notice that there we no so called ‘reality personalities’ to be found, perhaps Hollywood can spot those that wont be around for very long).

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Just before the Chinese Theatre is the famous Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are held each year. As we walked in there were a number of people taking photos of some stairs leading up to the entrance of the theatre. Not one for missing a photo opportunity I got Tina to stand on the bottom of the stairway and snapped away, oblivious as to why they were famous, having never watched the actual ceremony on TV. Maybe next year I will watch it just to see those stairs and to say…we were there!
At the top of the stairs there is a spot that has been created which is an ideal place to take a photo of the Hollywood sign that adorns the hills above the area. Unfortunately it was impossible to get anywhere near it as there was a bus load of Japanese tourists, each taking it in turn to be snapped with the sign in the background. Eventually I did manage to get some shots of Tina; again enduring my request for her to be my foreground interest.

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A quick coffee at the adjacent Starbucks before we made our way to the famous Chinese Theatre where you are immediately drawn to the cement paving slabs that have been adorned with movie stars hand and foot prints. This tradition goes back to the early 1930’s and there are still slabs being made nowadays, with film star Matt Damon being one of them.

20110516-035922.jpgWe then booked tickets for the tour bus which took us through Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Paramount before returning us back the start. The tour had a commentary running between stops which was informative explaining about the various areas and buildings we passed. Both Tina and I remarked on how different Beverly Hills was to Hollywood, clearly you can see why the rich and famous frequent in this part of LA. Rodeo Drive was particularly refined with many of the shops such as Versace and Prada out of our league; the tour guide kept saying that this is where the stars shop but we didn’t see any.

We passed the last remaining Hollywood film studios, Paramount which still produces blockbusters as well as hit TV shows, the rest having moved to other locations in Los Angeles.

On arriving back at the Chinese Theatre we grabbed some lunch before re-boarding the tour bus to hop a ride to the Farmers Market and The Grove, an upmarket shopping area. By this time we had got a bit sunburnt from the clear blue skies and cool breeze, the rain from this morning a distant memory.

We started to walk back towards the hotel but realised the distance was too great so we hopped back on the tour bus. Unfortunately we got on with the wrong bus company but managed to get away without having pay again. We headed back to the hotel room exhausted.

After a short siesta, we then drove around looking for somewhere to eat ending up back at the Farmers Market where we chose a small cafe diner called Marmalade, which I had spotted earlier in the day and that was very busy meaning it must have been good. We weren’t disappointed although choice was limited, especially for GF options. I plumped for chicken and mash, whilst Tina had tagliatelle, not before demolishing a plate of corn chips between us. The cost of the meal was quite reasonable too at $60 including the obligatory waitress tip. On leaving the car park we got stung for parking, not realising you had to buy something in the market to get the stay free. With no receipt for the meal we paid the $8 charge and drove back to the hotel where we fell into bed exhausted.

Over dinner we discussed what we’d seen during the day and whilst we were impressed by Beverly Hills, with it’s upmarket shops, manicured lawns and posh houses, Hollywood in comparison was the poor relation. It felt tired and unloved. Tomorrow we move south to Long Beach, not before driving over to Santa Monica and Venice beach.

So far so good…

We made it!

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So it’s 11pm local time, which means it must be around 7am in the UK which means my body is very confused.

I managed to get a few hours kip when we arrived at the hotel which is a small and cozy place and which doesn’t seem too noisy, despite being in the heart of Hollywood. We were greeted in a friendly manner by David at the check in desk who was surprised at the price of the room we were paying, a full $60 cheaper than current prices. Tip – book your hotel accommodation early through booking.com to get great deals.

The flight over was uneventful, if not very long; in fact that is the longest amount of time I’ve been in a plane. I can see why people upgrade to get more leg room. Virgin Atlantic looked after us well, although I must remember to pack some gluten free snacks next time as they only seem to worry about the main meal and on an eleven hour flight I did get a bit peckish towards the end.

Tina managed to get through the flight OK, not before shedding a few tears at take off and landing. She also was a bit ratty towards the end; quite normal when she doesn’t get much sleep.

US Immigration was as inefficient as usual; it took us about an hour to get through the fingerprint and retina scanning process; roll on when they get systems that automatically scan our biometrics as we transfer through the terminal from the plane. That would be far more effective if not a bit sci-fi.

We did get a chance to see a sniffer dog at work whilst we queued though. He wasn’t looking for drugs…no he was on the hunt for food and homed in on a bloke in front of us. It turned out he had a banana in his rucksack which is not allowed to be brought in from abroad. His customs card was duly marked but the offending fruit was not removed. I suspect he might have been pulled over later in the queue for a full fruit frisk down. (try saying that after a long flight).

Bag pickup was not too painful, our new bright red cases appeared right on time and we soon cleared customs. A short transfer to the car hire place to pick up the ‘standard SUV’, programme the sat nav in and off we went, making quick progress to the hotel.

On the way we saw our first glimpse of the Hollywood sign, confirming the fact we had arrived at the City of Angels. Shame we were too tired to take it all in. Still sightseeing will be left for another day.

So I guess it’s time to try & get some more sleep; body still says it should be waking up but my brain says ‘shut your eyes’.

And we’re off…

The cases are packed, the itinerary sorted, the dollars bought and the kids have their instructions written out, which means only one thing…USA is awaiting us!

It seems ages ago that I booked the flights and car hire, but at last the day before we leave has arrived and later on today we will be travelling down to Heathrow ready for the morning getaway.

I am really looking forward to the break; not only to explore places that I’ve never been before but also just to take a well-earned rest from work. I can feel that my batteries are drained and two weeks away from the hustle and bustle of employment will do me the world of good.

Hopefully we will be leaving the house in good hands; this trip will be the longest we’ve left the kids in charge but I’m sure they’ll cope. I guess the cash we leave them for shopping will help :).

We have left instructions as to what they should be doing whilst we’re away including when the bins need emptying. Abby finds this most amusing as apparently that is the thing we keep reminding her to make sure she does. Why are we so obsessed with getting the correct coloured bins out on the correct week?

Anyhow, I’m uncertain how much internet access we will come across whilst we’re in the States; if it’s anything like New York then we will be pretty isolated and I won’t be doing many updates. Still I will be keeping a diary for posterity, which hopefully I will be able to publish on our return.

But until then…byeee!

USA here we come…

At last I am going to fulfill a wish of a lifetime by visiting the western part of the USA when Tina and I take a fly drive to California next year. It was last year when I realised that going ‘independent’ in America is easy; when Matt and I went to see the Space Shuttle launch in Florida I just booked our flights, car hire and hotels over the internet. I loved the fact that we could see different parts of the state without being tied to one hotel and driving was so easy and comfortable.

And so my task over the next couple of months is to plan a route, do a bit of research on places to visit and sort out some hotels and a hire car. We firstly fly to Los Angeles, where we will spend a couple of days, before heading off to explore. I want to experience the splendour of the Grand Canyon, see for myself the ‘over-the-topness’ of Las Vegas, visit the Yosemite National Park before heading for San Francisco to finish off the trip.

It’s not going to be a relaxing two weeks; there’s a lot to pack in and a fair bit of driving to do, but it will be an unforgettable experience and I’m really looking forward to it.