Phoenix, Arizona: MTBing in the desert

Last year I had an airport stopover in Phoenix, and was amazed by the magnificent desert visible from the airport terminal. So when Lindsay was visiting Phoenix for a work conference, we decided to go MTBing for the weekend in the Arizona desert.

South Mountain

As it was April, it was coming to the end of the mountain biking season. Soon it would be too hot to ride over the summer months, especially on the very hot days. Lindsay searched the web and settled on a guided tour with Cactus Adventures for a first day out at at South Mountain, a Phoenix city park. Tim was our guide and he knew the park well.

They asked us if we’re okay with a climb? The degree of the climb was no problem, it was low, but steady, but in the heat it would be easy to dehydrate. Multiple people asked if we had pre-hydrated and if we were carrying lots of water. Tim, our guide, had a house right next to the desert trail, and we heard (not from him) that he’d had to head out on multiple occasions to rescue a dehydrated trekker or rider, or found a parched explorer recovering on the park bench in the front courtyard of his home which sits on the edge of this park. So we rode out with plenty of water, but as important, we took frequent longish breaks. There was no place offering shade, so our guide often stopped and we realised later that it allowed us time to cool down a little.

The view from the desert out to the city of Phoenix.

Thousands of Cacti dot the desert, and if your there early in the morning who’ll be lucky to catch some with the beautiful blooms still in flower.

The ride out at the end of the day. It was a little more technical that I could get in these shots, lots of rock gardens to work your around and through.

Ancient stone carvings made by the indigenous peoples who left the area some 600-700yrs ago!

There are some other bike parks that we didn’t get a chance to check out, but would be keen to get back for a look at some of these.

Cactus Adventures

During the down season (which we caught the first weekend of), Cactus adventures runs their business from this permanent trailer parked within the grounds of the Grand Resort. During the peak season, they have a much larger operation up and running, with guided tours or simple bicycle hire. They were super helpful following our first day tour, they allowed the bikes to stay set up to our requirements, and we just straight hired them the following day to go exploring on our own.

Arizona Grand Resort

Arizona Grand Resort works in conjunction with Cactus Adventures where they share customers.  Therefore, riders with Cactus Adventures have access to some of the Resort’s services including their Spa where we got to have warm showers with towels, hair driers and other services provided. Made our Sunday ride simple so we were clean and fresh to fly home that afternoon.

The Grand Spa wet rooms where a weary cyclist could refresh, shower using fresh towels supplied by the resort, blow dry their hair and be ready to get on a plane within an hour of their ride.

Bohemian as it gets: Roosevelt Row

On the Saturday evening we decided to head out. Phoenix is a youngish city, mostly settled and developed in the early 20th century, and based on the grid like system of many American cities. I like to explore the more Bohemian parts of a city, and this was what I searched for. Every search took me to Roosevelt Row, which turned out really to be the hipster / art / craft brewery end of town. Most of the buildings are new, and lacked the architectural character of the older cities, but the area is attempting to make up for it with fabulous graffiti art and interesting galleries, bars and eateries.

A palm tree lined road through Phoenix, with a light rail running down the centre of the road

Lindsay mapping out Roosevelt Way, plotting our wee food & bar crawl along this strip

We had a fun Saturday eve chatting to a variety of friendly locals, and we even checked out the Pinewood Classic where they were raising miniature vehicles!
Id been told the Mexican food was fantastic as its just over the Mexican Border.  I don’t know if we found the best places in town but we enjoyed what we ordered, and I highly recommend the Blood Orange Margaritas!

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Riding Sideways in Reno – Blown Away

We wanted to head to Tahoe for a long weekend, but left things a little late. So we headed to Reno instead, via Tahoe. The forecast was pretty good, considering the time of year (late Winter), so we loaded the mountain bikes on the truck and headed out.

We stopped in a few places along the way, including Sacramento and Placerville, before going via Lake Tahoe to Reno.The weather was fairly warm and clear on the way over:

Placerville, CA: Where cowboys invite each other into gunfights, and a wary traveller can still grab a ride on the stagecoach.

 

Lindsay wouldn’t let me buy this tricycle for a momento. At $350+US dollars I felt that was fair enough! So so so cool though

South Lake Tahoe, CA: Heading over the pass from Tahoe, CA en route to Reno, NV! The cloud formations were mind blowing and the photo’s i captured could not really catch their magnificence.

Reno, NZ: Death & Taxes – On Cheney St – A lil street of the main Virginia St strip. A warm, welcoming cocktail far when the weather outside was freezing!

The dome of the Silver Legacy Resort. Looks a little tired by day, but at night it shines green.

Hmmm, the Wild Orchid. I was mostly amused by the lighting display, but not a bar we would visit – the hotel attached at the back seemed incredibly tired!!

It was cold but clear in the morning, with snow due by mid-afternoon. So we got going early, and took the bikes up Peavine Mountain. It was cold, very windy, but clear. Normally we’d be a bit nervous about heading out into remote areas with snow in the forecast, but in this case we were just up above the city, and we weren’t going to get lost in an open area like this.

‎⁨Toiyabe National Forest⁩, ⁨Reno⁩, NV: These photos’s can’t show – but the wind was so strong on these exposed hills, that at one time it seemed like it picked me up and moved me a meter/yard sideways! it was MTBing like I’d not experienced.

Come on Anna, that bit was easy, you can do it!

Mostly easy going, but you have to pay attention to the rocky parts

No Photoshop…the ray’s really were shining upon him…

Hiding on a sheltered part of the mountain whilst we grabbed a snack.

We timed our run pretty well, with the snow not starting until we go back to the hotel

The snow started to fall as we returned to Reno….it was coming down horizontally. When we looked out the window after a quick nap the city was blanketed in white.

Lindsay is decidedly less impressed with the snow than me

If you squint a bit, it looks like a European city in winter

Plenty of snow came down overnight, and the following day chains were required in the morning. We waited a while until restrictions were lifted, then headed out. There was still snow on the road, and it was a very slow trip. Hours of crawling along, truck covered in mud and grit.

At one point Google Maps suggested taking a detour off the freeway, avoiding the traffic. Google thinks it knows best. Google saw the country roads as being clear of traffic, unlike the freeway. Google thought that would be faster. Google is very wrong.

The reason there was no traffic on the side roads was because they weren’t plowed. And driving a 5.7L V8 truck that is only RWD, with no weight in the back…that’s pretty dangerous when there’s lots of snow on the road…we got through it with a bit of skidding, and back onto the freeway as soon as we could.

That’s in degrees Celsius, not Freedom Units

Heading back via the Donner Pass

Once we came over the Donner Pass, and down several thousand feet in altitude, the weather got much better, so we went mountain biking at Auburn. All was looking good, until we got a bit of light snow out on the trails. At that point there was no easy exit, so the best thing to do was to keep riding. It was actually a lot of fun – light snow in the forest, cold but still manageable.

Lindsay checking a gash in his tyre sidewall. Not great when the snow is coming

Might be time to get the leg warmers out Lindsay?

Riding the trails at Auburn

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Ah….Eureka!!!! MTBing Northern California.

San Francisco to Eureka

In New Zealand during Christmas, the country closes down. Everyone leaves the cities and head to the beach for at least a week of relaxation and downtime.  Although its winter at that time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, we decided we’d continue the tradition. In mid December we found a cabin in the coastal town of Eureka, 5hrs drive up Northern California.

Our Christmas holiday started well with our first stop being the infamous BurtoNZ Bakery. We purchased two Meat Pies wrapped in Filo Pastry, a New Zealand (and Australian) delicacy, and carried on our way.

We’re explorers and like to get off the main highway. Instead of taking the 101 all the way to Eureka, we turned off onto the old main road 1. At times a narrow winding road, working its way along the coastline, and through almost quaint seaside towns.

We stopped in Mendocino, an old logging town with a large river opening out to the Pacific Ocean. The scenery was spectacular but cold.

We made our way through stunning redwoods, with Pines that towed over our Fiat Pop (aka Poppy). Many tree trunks were wider than our little car!

 

After all the stopping and incredibly long and windy forest roads that we made it back to the 101. We finally made it to our destination in the dark of night, our journey taking a lot longer than initially planned.

We’d booked late, and didn’t get the wood burning fire we’d hoped for, but the heater was amazing, and our little AirBnB cabin, up a country road just outside Eureka was welcoming and cozy, and the hosts welcoming.

Once unpacked we headed into the little town of Eureka for a late evening explore, and to grab a bite.  Although mostly shut, the town looked old, cute and inviting. We found a Seafood restaurant serving another delicacy we miss from home, fish and chips!

A quaint old shopping mall decorated for Christmas. Found down an internal alley in one of the towns older buildings that surround the grassy town square.

MTB Lacks Creek

The next day was Christmas Eve. Using MTB Project Lindsay found us what would turn out to be a beautiful trail, but with frightening accessibility issues.Without another car in sight, we pushed the little Fiat as far as the entrance to the upper level car park, but turned back to the lower car park as the entrance was impassable for Poppy.

At the beginning of the trail from the upper level car park. We chose the intermediate route which turned out to be stunning, and fun.

The riding was stunning, although the climb from the lower car park was super tough as a starting point.  However the final climb was exhausting, so we were glad to do part of the climb first.

Snow covered parts of the ground at his elevation of about 3800ft/1100mtrs. We were lucky to miss the heavy snow that would have made this beautiful road impossible. The ride included easy deep drops that cut along the hills and through the forest. When finished we felt exhilarated, but tired.

Christmas Day

Christmas day started with a cooked breakfast done using traditional New Zealand Christmas cooking methods on the BBQ/Grill. At home it is almost compulsory to BBQ/grill barefoot, or at most in jandals/flip flops.

Our Christmas Entertainment was a trip to watch Star Wars, Rogue One whilst being served beer and snack in our seats at the local Eureka Theater!

 

 

 

 

MTB Arcata Community Forest

The area is blessed with a local community forest that has multiple walking and MTBing routes.  As the area is fairly wet, the forest has a lot more lush undergrowth, making it beautiful to spend time in.  There is a couple of easy fun rides through the forest and well worth a visit.

Exploring Eureka

Whilst in the area we explored some of the surrounding towns. We were absolutely astounded by the colourful intricate Victorian Homes on display.

The Carson mansion…One of the most recognizable and expensive Victorians in the US.

One of the many beautifully painted Victorians in this part of Eureka. It’s well worth exploring if you enjoy old homes such as these.

MTB The King Range

On our Journey back to San Francisco, we headed out to MTB the King Range. The access road was long and windy but has beautiful scenery and stunning views. Driving Poppy up through the King Range itself was precarious. At one point with the little fiat sliding sideways on the gravel. I swore then we’d be getting a larger vehicle that could handle the bikes better, and less likely to slip off roads.

At 4000ft/1250mtrs, we were riding above the clouds.

The ride itself was fun with well thought out uphill’s, making the ride scenic and not as difficult as dull steep roads. The downhill’s were at times sweeping and fun. This was my favourite day riding from our break, and well worth going out of way to get too.

The end of an awesome ride, and a wonderful holiday break doing what we love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seattle….The Centre of the Universe (apparently)!

After one day back in the U.S following our wee trip to the U.K, Lindsay had to man a booth for his company up in Seattle. So with me not working yet, we decided that I’d head up as well and check out this famous city that borders the Canadian coast. Famous for its rain, TV shows incl Greys Anatomy & Frasier, movies like Sleepless in Seattle, but most importantly the home of Grunge.

It feels so different to San Francisco where we are currently living. For starters the population seems older, and far more diverse than the Bay Area which is dominated by much younger tech/IT professionals. Fashion is broader, and it would seem that although the Hipster movement is strong, there are still influences of Grunge and Punk amongst others in this most curious and interesting City.

Being from a very lush green country and having spent much of the last year in California’s dry drought landscape, I fell in love. Such beautiful flora  – I took a LOT of photos…so I’m going to make this post about the photos and let them tell most the story. (This is but a selection of all my pictures – there’s a lot…sorry).

I got on to Trip Advisor to find some of the best places to visit. My first task of the day was to take Lindsay and the other guys a morning coffee…on my way I stumbled across this stunning building.

Museum of Pop Culture – I didn’t go in as I didn’t have time, but if I go back, Im definitely visiting it.

Museum of Pop Culture – view from the back

After dropping off coffee, I decided to walk to the boho/antique headquarters of Seattle which was apparently Fremont – taking a direct route I accidentally walked through the stunning suburb of Queen Anne. I have hundreds of photos, but here are a couple:

North Queen Anne – I wandered through this beautiful hilly suburb that had views over the city and surrounding areas…and found this peculiar and oh so interesting house!

North Queen Anne – This was the biggest Holly tree I have ever seen – it must be like Christmas all year round.

Finally I made it to Fremont. I loved this place and would move here in a heartbeat. I loved the one off shops, antique stores, and curiosities of Fremont which to all in Seattle is known as the centre of the universe. It is quite funny therefore to find a large Google campus here! Hmmmm……….

Fremont – The most gorgeous lil Coffee and Burrito store!

Fremont – the beautiful old Fremont draw bridge. In the background is the George Washington Memorial Bridge. It is an awesome piece of architecture which I was unable to capture in a photo due to its sheer size.

Fremont – Overlooking a portion of the Seattle Google campus.

Fremont – yup, they have their very own statue of Lenin, imported directly from Russia. I think they have because it was just lying around in Russia so someone imported to Fremont!

Fremont – this sign is proof Fremont is in fact the centre of the universe – though Im a little concerned that its a little faded and on a lean!

Fremont – the Fremont troll playing with his full size VW beetle! Swiped from the passing road.

Fremont – And of course, where there’s a troll, there’s the three billy goats! People say these are to find, but I searched and succeeded.

Fremont – Theo chocolate. It was bizarre to smell chocolate three large blocks away – this chocolate is stunning!

I stumbled upon more interesting sites on my walk home along Fremont Canal and the next day whilst exploring the city by foot.

The houseboat community – rather what looks like a street of houseboats. They were so quaint.

Central Seattle – this is one of my favourite shots with this gorgeous old functioning mechanics in the foreground, and the lit up Space Needle in the back ground.

Outside Key Arena – I’m just fascinated by the American school buses, especially when they are all lined up like this.

Seattle Central City – Constructing Amazon’s new Glass Domed Headquarters – these are amazing!

Lindsay and I stayed on in Seattle another 2 days after he finished at the conference. So together we explored further. First we explored by foot some of the waterfront, the city and the Pike Street markets, and then I took him up to Capitol Hill. I’d been around Capitol Hill the day before but thought it worthwhile taking him up there for a look around.

Pike Street Markets – This area has become the Tourist Mecca of Seattle. Its pitched to tourists and is a little to touristy and busy for Lindsay and I, but worth a potter through the markets.

Pine St on the way to Capitol Hill – “Starbucks Reserve”! Seattle is in the home of Starbucks. Therefore there’s a LOT of espresso shops other than Starbucks, which sell fantastic espresso coffee.

Capitol Hill – Where even the streets are paved with rainbows.

Capitol Hill – Making Lindsay smile for the camera can be a mission! He tells me a photo steals a bit of his soul with every shot!

Capitol Hill – A bar that practices acceptance. Awesome.

Capitol Hill – Jimi Hendrix

Volunteer Park – The Asian Art Museum surrounded by Spring tulips and other blooms. It was a lovely day to wander past this stunning old Art Deco building.

Later in the day we hired some bicycles for 24hrs so we could further explore. First we headed out to Gas Works park for a look around, and then took about an hour to cycle up Ballard in the evening. There are so many fantastic bars, restaurants and shops to look around. Well worth a visit and explore.

Gas Works Park – The old Gas Works have been left to explore.

Ballard – Cycling out to Ballard, the more recently gentrified area of Seattle, we passed this most curious business.

On our final day, we took the bikes out to Bainbridge Island. It was chilly and a little hilly, nothing we couldn’t handle. We rode around this fascinating place, only only accessible by Car Ferry, but that seems no hindrance for the daily commute. The main village close to the docks is full and vibrant with really good food on offer. I suspect it would cost a bit to buy property on this island, but it was peaceful and idyllic.

The amazing and prolific car ferries.

Bainbridge Island – Heading over to the island from the mainland!

Bainbridge Island – I love me a desolate ol chimney! This one might still work as there were the seats around it – though the sign does say…No Fires!!

Bainbridge Island – A gorgeous cottage like so many, surrounded by the lush green landscape. It was so refreshing.

Bainbridge Island – Lindsay and I and the hired bicycles.

Bainbridge Island – Looking out over the water towards Canada I think. With a view of the infamous Car Ferries that are everywhere, and fabulous snow capped mountains in the background.

Bainbridge Island – We were riding through a road surrounded only by forest. All of a sudden we popped out into this very expensive suburb, and found the DeLorean!!! with original mags and all. Freaky!

Bainbridge Island – If you look closely in front of the glass blocks on the right you can see a sculpture of a man hanging on to a rod with one hand. Most peculiar garden ornamentation!

Bainbridge Island – A gap in these very expensive waterfront homes that shows their view of Seattle and behind it, more snow covered mountains.

Bainbridge Island – This car has been waiting a while for its service

Bainbridge Island – Eating Paella.

Bainbridge Island – The local vegetarian restaurant was celebrating their birthday by selling Paella at a remarkably cheap price. And it tasted amazing!

Bainbridge Island – A lot of effort went into the shop frontage!

Well Done BA

I am somewhat of an airline snob, holding top-tier status with Air New Zealand, and generally avoiding non-Star Alliance carriers. Recently we had to fly British Airways, and had a problem with damaged luggage. But to their credit, even though I have no status with them, they dealt with the situation promptly, and turned around a bad experience. Well done British Airways.

Airline Snobbery

I have been Air New Zealand Gold or Elite for the last 5 years or so. This provides certain benefits when I travel with Air New Zealand – some free upgrades, discounted upgrades, extra baggage, free seat selection, priority boarding, etc. The most important things I get are priority check-in, priority baggage, lounge access, and often fast track security and immigration.

This means I am also Star Alliance Gold, so I get some benefits when flying on any other airline in the Star Alliance group. None of the on-board benefits like upgrades, but priority check-in, security, lounge access, etc still apply.

If you only take one flight a year, none of this really matters. If you fly a lot, this makes a big difference, and you get grumpy when you can’t get it. My company policy is economy class for the ‘little people’ like me. It makes shitty US airlines just a little bit more bearable when you get a few extra benefits.

As a result, I always look for Star Alliance options when flying, and will pay a moderate premium to do so. If there’s an Air New Zealand-operated direct flight, I probably won’t even look at other options.

What if There’s No Star Alliance Option?

Star Alliance is a big network, but they don’t fly everywhere. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and have to fly with one of the other networks. That’s what happened recently when I needed to find a flight from Edinburgh to London. The only options were British Airways, or the discount carriers like EasyJet and RyanAir.

This always makes me a bit uncomfortable. You start looking at weird routing options, to see if there’s any way around it. You dread the idea of getting stuck in monster queues at check-in or security. You wonder what the airport Wi-Fi will be like, and how much is it going to cost to get something to eat & drink when you’re stuck in the hell-hole that is the typical post-security ‘shopping and dining experience.’

Eventually you give in, accept that it’s just a short flight, and you’ll cope. So you book the flight, in this case with BA. BA has been getting some bad press recently, related to some of their cost-cutting measures. I wasn’t too worried about that: you don’t expect a full meal on a 1-hour flight.

In-Flight Experience: No Problems

Check-in was straightforward, with no delays. Security was fine, it was slow for everyone going through Edinburgh. I was a little bit lost when I got through security. Normally I head to the lounge, for some peace and quiet, but instead I had to hang around the gate. But it wasn’t too bad, and we got on the plane.

Flight was fine, no problems. Only annoyance was at Gatwick end where we had to take a bus from the plane to the terminal. This always adds annoying delays, but it’s not BA’s fault: It’s Gatwick’s design.

Luggage Damage

The problems occurred when we picked up our luggage. Anna couldn’t extend the handle on her suitcase. Makes it a bit difficult to wheel it along, and we had a fair bit of walking and changing modes of transport to get to our destination.

There were some marks on the outside of the bag, but it wasn’t until we unpacked it we saw what had happened:

The bag had taken a heavy blow, bending the handle and the tubes it slides in. Not the sort of thing that you could easily repair either. The tubing was crushed, making the bag a write-off.

You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

I was wondering what we should do about it. Make a claim on travel insurance? Complain to BA, and get sympathy but not much else? Or just write it off: It wasn’t a super-expensive suitcase.

On a whim, I thought I’d check out BA’s policies. Turns out they have an online form for making a claim about problems with a flight, including damaged luggage. We filled it in, not expecting much.

Surprise! They got back to us very promptly, and said “That sucks. How about we send you this Samsonite bag as a replacement?”

It’s not the top of the line bag, but it’s a more than reasonable replacement for our damaged bag. It was sent to us in San Francisco quickly, and is now in the closet, ready for our next trip.

Summary

I’m very pleased with this quick turnaround. It took something that could have been a bad experience, and turned it into a positive one. That’s a text-book example of how to treat your customers well.

In the short-term, I will probably still continue to fly Star Alliance flights, because United is my company’s ‘preferred’ airline, and Air New Zealand is my best option for flights back to New Zealand. But it’s good to see that you don’t have to be flying business, or hold top-tier status in order to get good treatment. I will be happy to fly them again in future for intra-Europe flights. Sadly US domestic options will continue to be mostly rubbish.

Four Cities and a Wedding.

I have been wanting to get back to the U.K for 15 yrs, so one year ago, before we left New Zealand, Lindsay told me about an invite he had received from a friend/colleague to his wedding! I was overjoyed.

As it turns out, between us we have numerous friends and some family that we both really wanted to catch up with. So this holiday became the adventure of the year as we worked our way to and from different groups in Sweden and throughout the U.K.

Sweden

Our first visit was to Stockholm to visit my brother Grant and his family. This includes my two fabulous nieces Bianca and Olivia, and Grants partner Kristina along with her two son’s Alexander and Carl whom Grant has become a kind of foster father to. My brother and family extended their hospitality to ensure Lindsay and I were very comfortably looked after and fed, and we totally enjoyed our stay.

However, it turns out the proof of Aunty and Uncle love, requested by all our nieces and nephews throughout the world, is the love that only lolly/candy/sweeties can show! And what is the most requested! Jolly Ranchers – requested from NZ to Sweden; they all want the old fashioned hard candy…YEK!

Carl, Bianca, Olivia and Alexander divvying up the kilo’s of American candy and New Zealand lollies that we were directed to deliver! You think they would look happier, but this is serious business…to make sure that no one gets any more or less than the next person!

Exploring the streets of Stockholm.

Exploring the streets of Stockholm.

Out in the centre of Stockholm for a restaurant meal. Getting a little after dinner exercise  From left is Olivia, Grant, Me, Lindsay and Bianca.

The outpouring of grief following the 7 April 2017 attack in central Stockholm when a hijacked truck was deliberately driven into crowds along Drottninggatan (Queen Street) before being crashed through a corner of an Åhléns department store. Five people & one dog were killed, and around 15 others were injured.

Kristina’s stunning home steeped in history.

Easter dinner at Kristina’s with all the family. Prepared from start to finish by the fabulous Carl who at 14yrs is a superb Spaghetti Bolognese chef! Best I’ve had.

The Wedding in Derby, England

After three nights in Stockholm we flew to Manchester where we hired a car and drove to Derby for a three night stay. We had a fabulous time at David & Natalie’s wedding, everything from the venue to the catering, and music was great. As was the company.

Just your average view of a castle on a hill as one drives through England.

Lindsay and I all cleaned up for the wedding.

Throwing confetti to celebrate the Newlyweds David and Natalie Gee.

David and Natalie dancing (kind of) along with other wedding gifts to a song from their youth. We couldn’t join in – didn’t know the moves!

Action Shot of Lindsay crashing into me with his dodgem on an evening out with the newlyweds and new friends.

Scotland

After Derby, Lindsay and I enjoyed a day worth of driving through the English countryside as we headed towards Edinburgh in Scotland where we were to spend 4 nights. Lindsay and I are both fans of getting of the main road and exploring the back roads, villages and out of the way sights.

Lindsay feeling the chill at Hadrian’s Wall close to the border of Scotland, in England.

Hadrian’s Wall close to the border of Scotland, in England.

We stayed with Scott (whose business also happens to host this website/blog). Scott’s an old kiwi friend of Lindsays whom he met watching an All Blacks game in a Scottish pub, back when Lindsay lived in Scotland. Scott’s generosity was incredible; he shared his home making his room available to us whilst he slept in the single bedroom. He fed us fabulous home made food, and gave us the grand tour of Edinburgh.  Although we had lived in Scotland before, we’d never really seen Edinburgh the way he showed us. Thank you Scott, it was awesome.

Lindsay, Scott and Myself exploring Old Edinburgh.

Lindsay and I both love Scotland. I suspect it’s because we both enjoyed great experiences with friend whilst we lived here; that and the Scots aren’t to different in humour and lifestyle to Kiwis.  We spent a bit of time driving around visiting friends in Kilmarnock, Glasgow, Tillicoultry, Dundee and Edinburgh. We both really enjoyed catching up on the changes in our lives and rekindling old friendships.  We’re both pretty keen to get back soon.

The old stone farm house I had the pleasure to live in 15yrs ago, in Tillicoultry, Scotland. The oldest parts of the house date back about 400yrs.

This fabulous school! found in Edinburgh. I suspect there would be some awesome haunting stories to be told.

Greyfriars Kirkyard. A very old and interesting graveyard in the centre of Edinburgh.

Century old homes reflecting on the night waters in Leith, Edinburgh.

The Fabulous Edinburgh Castle.

London

From Scotland we flew down to London for a final three nights where my fabulous little brother Sam and his lovely girlfriend Elle shared their awesome flat with us.  The day after we arrived Sam took the day off and together we explored central London upon my request, visiting Hyde Park first before heading up to Oxford St and then down to Soho. London was nothing like I remember.  Im pretty keen to head back however and do some more exploring at some stage. I still love it, though I don’t think I could live in London. In all honesty I think Im just over living in cities.

Myself, Sam and Lindsay in Hyde Park. Just before we heard the Canon Salute to mark Queen Elizabeth’s actual 91st birthday.

Lindsay favourite map shop in Central London.

Lindsay perusing the same map he purchased for his cycle tour. This one I think a map to guide him over the countries of the Silk Road.

The last of my friends still living in London, now with their own families. From left Bianca, Paula, Victoria, Lindsay, Anna and Anna(me).

Gypsy’s Clydesdale Horses grazing on the local green…much to the delight of the surrounding residents!

The Jetsetters

Turns out I’m not good at this jet setting business. As I don’t sleep well on planes, Lindsay paid to upgrade to Premium Economy (not too expensive as he’s a frequent flier and gets special pricing). Unfortunately we have discovered the only place I ever manage to sleep is in economy (usually from sheer exhaustion)!

DC New Years – Brrrrrrrrrrr

This post is a little late.  It’s now April which meant we were in DC just over 3 months ago.  And although the freshest memories have gone, I wanted to share a little of what we saw of this very different and pretty part of America.

We arrived in DC late in the evening, and after a small mix up we decided to take the Metro from the airport, which by the way was pure delight after travelling on San Francisco’s Muni/part underground whose stations can be quite dirty and unloved.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

We stayed with Blair a Kiwi friend, his American wife Tara, and their children. It was a delight to walk into a quintessential American home complete with a large Christmas Tree aglow, shining through the living room window to the dark street outside. Tara had even installed a little Christmas village complete with tiny lights and a working Thomas the Tank Engine train set – very cool.

We headed out the next day to check out the main tourist sites that DC is famous for including our picture with the Whitehouse in the background.  It reminds me of the time in 2003 when I visited Graceland in Memphis – both are just not as big as you imagine.  The Whitehouse is surrounded by hotels and buildings, and a short way from a busy road that runs in front of it.

The Whitehouse pictured as I expected it, with large sweeping lawns, sitting gloriously on its own.

A Trump owned hotel – a couple of buildings to the right of the Whitehouse! Its a popular destination with visiting dignitaries.

We had plans to do further exploring, but in late December even without snow, the wind whipped through the parks chilling us to the bone. We gave up on exploring  and headed into the Smithsonian National Museum of Modern History which included original Muppet characters, a transplant of Julia Child’s actual kitchen, really old cars, and a massive American Flag…the flag which in fact inspired the National Anthem the Star Spangled Banner. It was here that my understanding of American Culture, so different to many other western nations, really started to come together.  This discussion is long and meant to be had conversationally.

The rest of our exploring was done from the warmth of a car. I would really like to get back to this historic city to explore and view the monuments and buildings so entrenched and familiar in my memory from watching them on a screen, but never seen in real life.

The National Christmas tree – and it’s a large evergreen tree!!

Our final days were spent with Blair & Tara’s family. We had New Years to celebrate which turned out to be a quiet affair. We started with a raucous evening meal with our hosts and their friends before heading into town, only to discover bars set up to party, but patrons missing, probably due to the cold.  That’s okay – we found the free glasses of bubbles, and borrowed a few party hats and whistles and made our own fun!

The last day of our Christmas break saw Lindsay and I wandering around Gunners lake, close to Blair & Tara’s home.  It seems it would often freeze over in winter, but not this year, or at least not while we were visiting.  On our return Tara introduced us to Velveeta dip. I suspect it’s the stuff of American children’s birthday parties, or for consuming when watching a big AFL game.  Its a very yellow thick melted cheese, mixed with a simple tomato salsa, made for dipping nacho chips into. I feel its an acquired taste, that might stick your insides together if it had the opportunity to cool. However, some might find it a little addictive!

Playing with Blairs Christmas Present!! A Virtual Reality Headset…yup and looking over my shoulder as everyone in the room laughs at me 😉

From the Land of Fruuit & Nuuts! (Ruston, Louisiana)

See this picture where I look happy? Well I wasn’t! That’s me pretending to smile when waiting around at the rental car company for 6hrs whilst they found our pre-booked rental car – every customer was grumpy…and some a little shouty on this fairly warm and very muggy winter’s day!

We finally left New Orleans with me wanting to go back for more, and we headed to Ruston, Louisiana some 515kms/320miles away. Our drive out of New Orleans was memorable for the 70kms/43.5 miles we traveled on a suspended 2 lane (in each direction) highway over a Bayou (large marshy wetlands). Travelling for that long distance over water seems a little disconcerting, but I could imagine zooming around on an airboat like I’ve seen on TV shows set in the area…escaping the croc infested waters!

I was somewhat excited when looking at the map, as I thought in the immortal words of  Johnny Cash “I’m going to Jackson”. Unfortunately we turned off just before we got there and I didn’t get to check out this famous town.

We arrived in Ruston late in the eve to a lovely warm welcome from our hosts Matt (Lindsay’s friend and work buddy), Tara & their children Audrey & Sam.  That night Tara and Matt cooked us up a traditional southern meal including shrimp and large American steaks, cooked on an the amazing Green Egg charcoal grill that would make any of our meat adventuring friends, quite jealous!

Matt had a few items for us to do during our visit to Ruston. No. 1. A walk up Driskill Mountain, the highest point in all Louisiana at 163mtrs/535ft (a far cry from the 7000ft we cycled up a couple of months ago in Denver). But it was a lovely walk through a winter forest with Matt and his family, and a great photo opportunity at the very tip top of Louisiana for Lindsay and I.

No 2. on the agenda – a trip to the gun range!!!  When in Louisiana, one must do as the locals do.  Lindsay had previously told Matt that the all important ‘wifey stamp of approval’ would not be issued for such an outing but I like to keep him on his toes, so off we went.  This little trip gave us the opportunity to meet people we would not otherwise get the opportunity to converse with. So much to my delight, and Matt’s slight chagrin, we got chatting to a good ol’ southern conservative.  His two best lines included his excitement at the election of the new great president – “you just wait and see how things improve when he gets in”. And when asking where we were living, he told us in that slow southern drawl that “once I visited San Francisco. That’s the land of Fruuit & Nuts”, referring to the very different, liberal folk on the west coast!  Lindsay and I were in fits of laughter, and continue to tell the story.  I think we’re more the nuuts than the fruuit, but I’ll let you decide 😉


 

No.3.  A tour of Ruston.  Ruston is a small city, who’s main economics is built around the Louisiana Tech University. When semester is in full swing, the city almost doubles in size! Our hosts took us on a tour of the campus and I managed to get this great picture of them all…and Lindsay.

This holiday included a LOT of food.  And whilst in Ruston we got to sample to a wide variety of local fare including Po’Boys which are basically big meat sandwiches; Gumbo; Home made Monkey Bread; Biscuits which in America are savoury scones which include almond milk and sugar in their ingredients; and of course one breakfast with almost bottomless Mimosa’s – well we polished off two bottles of bubbles! Lindsay was also quite taken with the coffee we picked up at from the drive-through Starbucks. I didn’t think to get a photo of this phenomenon, which is merely a fact of life in the U.S.

 

After several days with our wonderful hosts it was unfortunately time to leave.  We have been invited back for some real adventuring, which we hope to take up the offer of one day in the future.

Our relaxed drive back to New Orleans, from where we would fly up to Washington DC, was through lands that seem typical of what I expected to see in America.  Big American flags; Cornfields stretching for miles without fences; extra large 4wd’s. And of course a drive over the impressively large and infamous Mississippi river that makes its way through all of North America.


Oh – and just one little addition for the ardent readers!! Lindsay has a bit a thing with world maps that don’t include NZ including a Reddit feed and the website World Maps Without NZ. Well much to our horror we found that Matt’s daughter Audrey, may also need some educating on this topic…………

Welcome Mr & Ms Hee-ill (New Orleans, Louisiana)

“Welcome Mr & Ms Hee-ill” was the first thing we heard when we arrived at the hotel Pontchartrain in New Orleans at about 11pm on Christmas night. Lindsay thought at first this man speaking with a Cajun/New Orleans accent was a bit exaggerated, but it turned out to be real. From now on Lindsay wants to be known by this pronunciation!

We took a 9 day trip on the 2016 Christmas holidays to New Orleans, then Ruston-both in Louisiana, and then to Maryland/Washing DC.  But I might split this little blog into 3 as each place was so interesting and diverse.

After our late arrival, we weren’t ready for sleep as the time East Coast time difference was 3hrs ahead of West Coast time, so we headed to the hotels roof top bar ‘Hot Tin’ for a cocktail (Unfortunately there was no cat to be found).  It being Christmas day, we thought we were lucky it was open. We weren’t expecting this bar, with sweeping views out to the Mississippi (well there would have been except for the low lying cloud and mist  – but we could see a big bridge), to be filled with party goers, with some even dressed in suits…on Christmas Day!! Lindsay tells a story of being overwhelmed for a moment when I went to the bar to order a second cocktail and he was set upon by three 20-something blonde southern bells on the hunt for some man flesh! Fortunately I returned to save him much to his relief, and my amusement.  After a genuinely warm conversation with these girls, they went off in hunt of some other single men.  Lindsays still recovering…and still telling the story!

Before heading to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) I had asked a few people if they could give us tips on where to stay and what to do.  Unfortunately some of it came in a little late (I hope they don’t mind, Ive added their tips at the end of this post for any other NOLA adventurers) but we got enough to set us on our way.  Our gorgeous hotel, which was reminiscent of a time gone by, was in the middle of the ‘Garden District’. Lindsay knows I love a characterful old home so after wondering along some of Magazine Street checking out the shopping (a little quiet on Dec 26), and popping into two of the many historic and fascinating cemeteries, he took me off exploring down side streets with all sorts of colourful, delectable, gorgeous old homes. From the stately antebellum mansions, to the old and rustic cottages…all colourful, and a feast for an old home junkie like me.


 
 

Later we headed to very central French Quarter which is now a tourist mecca.  It reminded  me of our time travelling around Cambodia particularly Siem Reap, both with a very strong French History. However it seems time halted in this area when in the early 19th century Napoleon sold Louisiana to U.S. The buildings have a strong French flavour but are far more  bright and colourful than anything I saw (in my short visit to Paris many years ago). I suspect the colour is due to the Spanish and Cajun influences. The buildings, pavement, everything seems as it would have been.  There are plenty of very expensive French influenced antique stores to shop in and lots of bars and restaurants, most pitching jazz and blues, and true southern delicacies.  However, Im not a fan of the heavy tourist pitch. Bourbon street specifically had a strong smell of vomit from the usual tourist fare with cheap drinks served in plastic yard glasses, and individuals attempting to peddle their restaurants fares. But the streets running parallel are definitely worth checking out, and smell quickly improves the further away from Bourbon St you get.

A friend had recommended getting away from tourist food and trying some of their haute cuisine. So Lindsay Yelped his way to Toups Meatery where we found some utterly divine, cajun influenced food and the most wonderful and friendly waitress who we for once were happy to tip.  As a side, I asked her what the large cat sized creature was, with a long think tail that had run across my path on our walk to the restaurant.  It was a Nutra Rat. I never want to see one of these again. Apparently they have nasty big teeth, equalled with a nasty big bite!

 

I’ve been told from many who have traveled to NZ, including the Aussies, that NZ does the best coffee in the world, and its available everywhere even in small towns. We’ve struggled in San Francisco to find great or even good espresso (Americans treasure their drip coffee above all else), but in NOLA it seemed there was a fairly abundant supply of good espresso coffee, though your out of luck if your after a flat white! On our final day (Actually after we’d travelled to the far side of Louisiana and back) we quickly popped out to Marigny area to see if the coffee was even better there. You see, the hipsters have discovered this area and now its an up and coming boho part of town. Where else would you expect to get good coffee? Unfortunately like San Francisco, it seems New Orleans doesn’t get going till late morning so no other shops were open, but we happened across this lovely coffee shop, where I got my morning expresso to set me up for the day.

Before leaving town we headed to the the Unites official WWII museum.  Unfortunately I was a little unwell, and we were short on time, but definitely worth a visit.

Nola tips:

Lindsay and Anna

  • Lunch – not very NOLA but very nice. La Casita, on the way if you walking  from the Garden to French Districts.  https://www.yelp.com/biz/la-casita-new-orleans?osq=mexican+food
  • Other links included in text

Linda

  • Freetoursbyfoot.com …we did French Quarter ghost tour (just ok) and the Garden District/Lafayette Cemetery tour (REALLY GOOD!…our guide was Sarah and she was great). Must reserve a space online. The organization offers free tours but asks for donations at the end.  pharmacymuseum.org -quite interesting. You can just look around, but I recommend taking the short guided tour. I think they only have a guide available for one tour per day.
  • Food: Jacques-Imos is really good and is a fun place out of the Quarter.   Coop’s is in the French Quarter. It used to be very good however the last two people I sent there said they didn’t care for it much. I don’t know if they’ve changed cooks or anything like that.  Acme oyster house is defintely packed with tourists but they are really good oysters.
  • Oh, Magazine Street in New Orleans…lots of fun shops and good food.

Charlotte – “NOLA is epic you will have an amazing time. We were there for a week and didn’t get around everything we wanted within the city limits”

  • Howlin’ Wolf Sunday night hot 8 brass band (they are in my top 3 so seeing them for $10 at their local was incredible. HW also holds comedy on a weeknight
  • Spotted Cat Club – this is a good start for music into her French quarter but most of the music clubs are quality so you just have to find what you like.
  • Gazebo Cafe in French Q. – Order the roast beef Po’ Boy
  • Whitney Plantation (we took Greys bus lines) if you book two greys bus tours you get a discount. This is the only plantation we toured. It was amazing and we were provided with a true account of the history by a historian who descends from the Israelite slaves. They provide umbrellas but they only have a few so hat and water. Probably cooler now than when we went
  • Airboat swamp tour – take sun protection and water. We went with Airboat Adventures and they were great
  • **you can get a one day plantation and a swamp tour deal, Whitney Plantation wasn’t included with a deal so we booked boat separately.
  • Buy a 1, 3 or 5 day jazzy pass for the street car up to the Garden district – wander around the mansions (they are something else)
  • Visit the Cemeterys – pay the $5tip at the gate for a tour worth it otherwise it’s just another cemetery (I was interested in the history).
  • Free walking tours in the French Q. (Pay a tip)
  • WWII museum. We aren’t really ‘military/war people. We expected to be a bit “meh” about it but ended up staying 5.5hours! Ammmmazing and a little expensive but amazing.
  • If you haven’t already download the TripAdvisor App. Save the places you want to go in the app prior to going and when you are close to one of your stored interest the app will alert you 🙂
  • The French quarter art market is nice (we spent waaaay to much money there!) as is the normal market.
  • Bourbon street is something you have to do even if only once. – buy a daiquiri and wander around the streets it’s nice because the drinking culture isn’t like oz or NZ people are more relaxed – dance! Find a night club and dance like no ones watching!

Sam

  • Once you get past the cheap local joints. Go for the nicer spots and be blown away. Catfish and crawdads are not what New Orleans are best at. Their haute cuisine is out of this world as is their jazz and blues
  • There’s gator tours and in the swamp (I didn’t do) and some good evening walking tours. Some voodoo shops are funny for their entertainment factor 🙂
  • Find good blue grass and jazz in the evenings, check out the 2 main cemeteries and surrounding plantation houses during the day
  • Food. Maybe 1 day of crawdads and po boys then get into the real diner side of south cuisine. TripAdvisor can help there

Denver, Colorado

I don’t want you to think that we spend all our time hanging out in liberal enclaves in California, or hipster gin bars in Polk St. Sometimes we venture further afield. Earlier this month we got away to Denver, Colorado for a weekend.

Arriving late at night, the drive to the hotel was pretty dull…flat lands, freeways, and monstrous stores…Anna was not impressed. But then the sun came up to a clear but bloody cold day, we went out to explore, and pretty soon we said: “You know, this looks like the sort of place we could live.”

Interesting neighborhoods, nice old homes, the city feeling busy but not overwhelming. Plenty of options for physical activity too. Bike paths everywhere, trails along the river, and the mountains nearby, offering plenty of options for mountain biking, snowboarding, etc.

Cold though:

We didn’t plan it, but the annual Denver Parade of Lights was on while we were in town. So we stuck around to watch it:

You can’t see it all that well, but these are “lowrider” cars. Hilarious to watch, but maybe not the most practical. Note the angles some are on:

On Sunday morning we went out mountain biking with Nick from Front Range Ride Guides. This turned out to be a fantastic choice. We could have just hired bikes, but going with a local guide made it a much better experience.

We met Nick just outside Denver, and then travelled with him to the trailhead. He provided top-quality full-suspension bikes. No crappy rental fleet, these were good bikes, like I would like to own.

It was still clear and cold, starting off below freezing, warming up to maybe 45°F/7°C. The rivers were half-frozen, and you can see a little snow lying on the ground. We were super-lucky with the weather – a couple of days later and the temperature dropped a further 20°. We were able to have a great day out biking:

Nick was great company, easy to ride with, super-knowledgable about the area. He was clearly a very experienced rider, but he had the ability to work with different levels of riders, and make you feel at ease. We needed it too – you can see from these shots that we were up in the mountains. Something like 7,000 feet, and we’d only just arrived in the area.

Riding along flat to gentle inclines was fine, but as soon as we started climbing the lungs started burning. Later we’d stop, and my legs would be jelly-like, as if we’d climbed much further.

The ride was nicely paced, with great opportunities to stop and check the view, with a nice long downhill trail followed by a gentle ride back down the dirt road to the trailhead. Well-balanced, and perfectly finished with a couple of beers back at the parking lot, enjoying what was really a superb day, considering it was 3 weeks from Christmas.

We could have hired bikes ourselves, and spent time researching trails, consulting maps, getting lost, etc. I’ve done that sort of thing plenty of times in the past. But I’m glad we did it this way. No hassle, just turn up and bikes are ready to go, you don’t have to worry about navigation, someone can advise on trail choices, etc.

The best thing about this particular setup was that it was totally customised to us. No large group tour thing. This was set at our pace and ability, with no pressure to keep up, or waiting for slower riders. We got to do exactly the sort of riding we wanted to do, with someone who knew exactly what they were up to. Highly recommended, and we’ll catch up with Nick again when we return to Denver.