May 172014

It was time to get on the road so we picked up a rental car in San Francisco. It always (twice now) takes an hour to do this in America. Everything was pre booked so you would expect to simply hand over the cash, sign your life away and be given the keys. Oh no. Throw in two bumbling rental agents and a handful of tourists who appeared not to have driven before, let alone rented a car, and you have Fawlty Towers Car Hire. “I didn’t come to America to drive a Korean piece of crap,” huffed the angry Jeremy Clarkson twin, “I have been waiting 45 minutes!” That’s because the Germans in front of you had to run every clause of the rental agreement past their solicitor before signing. Meanwhile agent 2 started pointing out the features of the tenth vehicle available to the younger couple he was also “helping.” Twin was then told his Kia wasn’t yet ready so he’d have to keep waiting. You can imagine his reaction to this news. Having sought legal advice, the Germans came back to the counter, signed the forms then proceeded to ask a multitude of questions relating to the operation of a motor vehicle. Some time later they were ready to go. “One more question,” he asked, holding a standard set of keys, “how does it turn on?”

We eventually were served and driving out of the parking lot within minutes.

We hit the road (on the wrong side), drove through the rolling hills that were currently very brown except for the pistachio and almond orchards, arriving at Poppy Hill B&B about 4pm. We relaxed before heading back to Mariposa for dinner at Savoury’s restaurant. We discovered in our time that all the “good” restaurants in the area must have updated their menu and decor in the early 90s and never looked back (or forwards). Still it was nice enough after a long day.

Anyway this was supposed to be a post about Yosemite National Park…

A glorious morning and we headed into Yosemite Valley to explore. It isn’t quite peak season but it was still very busy. The drive in is beautiful and the first sight of El Capitan granite cliff is awe inspiring.
We spent the morning on the Mist Trail up to Vernal Fall. The trail was wide and paved for much of the hike but quite steep and hard on the legs. Once you reached the rocks below the falls the path turned quite slippery and rocky so we didn’t make it all the way to the top.

El Capitan

El Capitan

After a picnic lunch we visited Mirror Lake (more of a pond really) and then drove out of the valley and all the way up to Glacier Point that not only has the most spectacular view of the surrounding mountains but also down to the valley. You could see the campgrounds between the pine trees and the river winding through the middle of the valley.
We were thoroughly exhausted that night!

We had an easier day the following day and visited the giant redwoods (sequoia) at Mariposa Grove.

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Alcatraz Island

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May 142014

The infamous prison island is a short ferry ride from SF pier. We lined up for the 10am departure, it was already hot – someone had fainted, with many other tourists. Remarkably the crowds seemed to disperse on the island even though hundreds more would arrive every half hour. From the ferry there were excellent views of the bay and bridges.

Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz

Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz

In brief, Alcatraz was originally a fort, built before the American civil war. It then became a military prison, with large numbers of inmates during the Spanish-American war. From 1934 until 1963 it was the federal prison for the worst of the worst.

Many of the ancillary buildings were destroyed in fires

Many of the ancillary buildings were destroyed in fires

In the main prison we listened to an audio tour, which detailed some of the elaborate escape attempts – while some escapees were never found, it is hard to see anyone surviving the cold waters and strong currents in the SF bay.

One of the cells. There are 3 levels. With some exceptions there was quite a bit of natural light in the prison cells.

One of the cells. There are 3 levels. With some exceptions there was quite a bit of natural light in the prison cells.

Beautiful gardens at Alcatraz

Beautiful gardens at Alcatraz

San Francisco

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May 132014

Arrived safe but tired after direct flight to LA then onto SF. A very warm welcome from Joe and Kate, who live in the Mission District, then amazing pizza for lunch(?) at Arizmendi Bakery.

On Tuesday we caught the BART to Embarcadero (the pier) where you could see the Bay Bridge. Nice warm day, high 20s, locals are complaining of heat wave. Tomorrow is predicted to reach 32!

Bay Bridge

Bay Bridge

Off then to ride a cable car, still manually operated up and down the steep streets since the 1870s. It took us to Fisherman’s Wharf where we got our first view of the Golden Gate Bridge. No fog today!

Cable cars!

Cable cars!

The architecture here is pretty diverse but there are lots of Victorian style houses. The Painted Ladies are across from Alamo Square – there are six but two are under restoration.

The painted ladies.

The painted ladies.

Narrow gaps between houses.

Narrow gaps between houses.

A walk in the woods

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Oct 092012

Although we did a lot of walking in NYC and Boston, we haven’t done much since then. A hike was definitely in order.

When we were planning this trip, part of our inspiration for the New England part of the trip came from our love of the Bill Bryson book “A Walk in the Woods.” If you aren’t familiar with it, Bill and a friend decide to walk (part of) the Appalachian Trail. It’s typical Bill Bryson exaggeration and hilarity.

The trail just happens to pass through the Green Mountains in Vermont, right near where we’re staying in Manchester. After a rather unhelpful (but friendly) discussion with the lady in the local Chamber of Commerce, we got some useful advice from the Ranger at the US Forestry Service.

So at around 11am we set out to do the Little Rock Pond/Green Mountain Loop.

The hike is a 6.5 mile loop, out to the lovely Little Rock Pond along a portion of the Appalachian trail, and then looping back on the other side of the mountains. It is classified as ‘moderate-difficult’ although the ranger seemed to think it was quite easy.

We’re not seasoned hikers, so we definitely found it to be at the more difficult end of the spectrum. To give you some perspective, here is a picture of one portion of the trail.

It was challenging, but definitely worth it – this is a beautiful part of the world.

More photos from Vermont.

Live Free or Die

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Oct 072012

Leaving the Cape we headed north, along with half the population of New England. It was Columbus Day long weekend and the good folks of America were heading to the mountains for a spot of leaf peeping. White Mountain is toward the north of the ultra-conservative state, New Hampshire. Here the folks take their ‘Live free or die’ motto quite literally, you don’t have to wear a seatbelt or a motorcycle helmet…

Anyhow back to the leaves. We stayed at Campton, West Campton in fact – I think there are just two addresses in West Campton. The Kancamagus Highway spans the White Mountain National Forest and is a most beautiful drive especially in the Fall. There are many places and walks to stop at along the way – if you can get a parking space!

You can peep at more photos here.

On the Cape

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Oct 052012

I don’t know about you, but I associate Cape Cod with mansions and celebrities and beach style. And those associations are all true – particularly when you go to a smaller town called Chatham – mansions and resorts galore.

However, the Cape is much bigger than Julian or I anticipated. We drove to the farthest tip (Provincetown) and it took us over an hour from Yarmouth Port (which is already halfway out on the Cape). It was almost sunny when we left, but right out on the tip it was foggy. We stopped at the National Seashore on the tip and gazed out at the view…all 2 metres of it that we could see. Doesn’t appear to deter the sunbathers however, they were out with the deck chairs, soaking up the…atmosphere?

We enjoyed dinner at the Old Yarmouth Inn one night, and Julian indulged in a whole lobster, stuffed with prawns (shrimp) and scallops. Amazingly, that only cost $42 for the whole thing!

We pulled over on the side of the road, and walked down to a cranberry farm. Cranberries are grown in a bog, which is then flooded and the fields agitated to harvest the cranberries. They simply float to the top of the water, you scoop them up, and empty the field.

We also arrived at the Fish Pier in Chatham just in time to see a boat clearing the decks before heading back out. Not so exciting you’d think, but the local sea lions are familiar with the routine, and swim around the boat waiting for scraps. They are enormous, not afraid to look right at you, and seem to spend a large portion of time floating on their backs with only their noses popping up for air occasionally.

Sandwich is a sweet little town, with gorgeous Cape Cod houses, a cute little boardwalk. It seems you can purchase naming rights for each plank of the boardwalk, and virtually all of them are carved with the names of couples, tributes to lost family members, and even what appeared to be business names.

I can certainly see the appeal of the Cape, particularly in warmer weather. Its big limitation is that there are essentially only two roads in – and everyone in the local area and nearby Boston goes to the Cape for summer holidays.


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Oct 032012

Harvard University, in Cambridge just west of Boston, is the oldest in the US, established in 1636. We joined a tour led by one of the students who gave us some insight into the history of Havard.

It was an enjoyable tour, we learnt much trivia (or campus legends?) including which famous graduates (past presidents, Tommy Lee Jones, Portman) or non-graduates (Damon, Zuckerberg) stayed in which dorms. Did you know the John Harvard (the University’s first benefactor) statue is not actually a likeness of him but rather of a 19th-century student?

Some more photos from Boston are here.

 Posted by at 4:28 pm

The Freedom Trail

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Oct 022012

The Freedom Trail in Boston is a walking trail that links 16 various historical landmarks and sights.
After a late start we caught the subway then a ferry to our first stop, the USS Constitution, built in Boston in 1797 and still in commission!

The Bunker Hill Monument commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, where in 1775 the American colonists faced the British (and lost).

After lunch at Figs, the rain started to fall lightly as we continued the trail through North End. The Burying grounds along the trail dated back to 1660 and are the final resting place of many of the patriots involved with the revolution.

 Posted by at 3:55 pm

New York

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Sep 282012

The US of A was never somewhere I thought of travelling to, it was always a ‘someday’ destination. But then the Australian dollar got to parity and it just seemed to make sense to take advantage of it while it lasted.
This is all a long introduction to the start of our latest adventure – a tour of parts of the East Coast – starting with 6 nights in the city that never sleeps.
This is our 5th night and we haven’t really stopped the entire time. Our feet are sore and every night we collapse into bed around midnight (late for us!) and sleep like the dead.
Every day there is something else to see, some new borough to visit and more food to try.

Here are some highlights so far…

A walking tour (self-guided) of Brooklyn

The Smorgasburgvfood festival in Williamsburg (the sweet smoked ribs were amazing!)

Broadway – The Lion King is spectacular and we’ve been unsuccessfully trying to win lottery tickets to Book of Morman.

Central Park – I’ve been for a run and we’ve walked through it but I wish we had more time to see more of it.

The Highline in Chelsea – this is a converted railway track taht is now a walkway and garden. New York is amazing in the way it creates public spaces that work with yet provide respite from the city. Nearby Chelsea markets were also great.

Fanciest dinner of our stay at Daniel on the Upper East Side – a shame we had to rush to get there on time!

More photos from NYC…here.

 Posted by at 10:14 pm
Jul 092010

Just home from a quick escape to South Australia. After hiring a car in Adelaide we spent a few days in two of the best wine regions, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. Good food was also on the agenda and we ate our fair share at 1918, Maggie Beer’s, the Barossa Farmers Markets and Magill’s Restaurant. Our B&B in Tanunda, Blickinstal, was excellent.

Our best cellar door experience was at Smallfry where Wayne sat down with us for about an hour and ran through the wines as well as his experiences as a winemaker. We also visited, but did not taste at, Jacob’s Creek (just to check out the massive visitor’s centre), Hugh Hamilton (quite busy) and Alpha Box & Dice (closed for renovations).

View Barossa 2010 in a larger map

Two Hands cellar door – brand new and very up-market with wine prices to match. Definately some great Shiraz but better value can be found elsewhere.

Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop stocks her full range of foodstuffs. We grabbed a picnic lunch by the dam before watching a quick cooking demonstration featuring (yes, you guessed it) verjuice. The demonstration was in the kitchen used in filming the television show, The Cook and The Chef.

Some sheep.