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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Finding Coffee in the US: A Spotters Guide

New Zealanders and Australians have grown accustomed to a certain style of coffee. They hear about great coffee places in the USA, and assume they will have no trouble finding good coffee in America. They are wrong. Americans have grown accustomed to a different style of coffee. There is good coffee in America, but it can be hard to find. Here’s a guide for New Zealanders and Australians: How to find decent coffee in the US.

The Rules:

  • Assume nothing. Their expectations are different.
  • Food and coffee do not go together.
  • Yelp reviews: read with caution.
  • A mocha is not what you expect.
  • Chain stores: in general, avoid.

Let’s look at those in more detail:

Assume Nothing

New Zealanders and Australians have been spoiled over the last 20+ years with the quality of the average cafe. You can walk into almost any cafe in Melbourne, or any town in New Zealand, and there is a high likelihood you will get a decent espresso coffee.

It does not work this way in the US, even in places like San Francisco. You can find decent coffee, but it is not everywhere. Many places that describe themselves as “cafes” only have a pot of filter coffee. In major centers you need to do research to find good places. Outside major centers it gets much harder.

Here’s an example: a year ago we were driving through rural Louisiana. I knew that coffee would be hard to come by. Sadly the best option looked to be a McDonalds “McCafe.” We knew that when McCafes were introduced to New Zealand they had made a real effort on the coffee front.

The conversation went like this:

I’ll have a cappuccino please.

A cappa-what?

A cappuccino.

Dianne, get over here! These people say they want a – what was it – a capp – u – cheeno. You ever hear of such a crazy thing? What in the hell is that?

Yes, a place with “Cafe” featuring in the name had never heard of a cappuccino. Americans have different expectations about what food & drink a cafe should provide. Many Americans are quite happy to pay for a cheap cup of filter coffee and Half and half. They don’t all want to pay $4-$5 for a hand-crafted beverage. You might think “Why not make it yourself at home?” They don’t think that way. You can’t change this.

There are people that *like* this shit

Once you get your head around this, you won’t be sucked in by a sign promising “Coffee!” It could well mean a glass beaker of coffee brewed 4 hours ago. No-one cares about the taste, that’s why there’s 8 different types of packets of sweeteners.

Fear not. All is not lost. There are places that know what they’re doing. You need to know what to look for.

These people know what they’re doing

Good Food Does NOT Mean Good Coffee

In NZ/Aus, there is a high likelihood that great food places will serve great coffee. Planning a lunch meeting with friends? If a good food place doesn’t do great coffee, it’s probably a bar.

In the US, there is an INVERSE relationship. Great coffee places in the US focus on coffee. They will offer nice pastries and muffins, but not proper meals. Places that serve good breakfast/lunch meals only have basic coffee. If you see lots of people eating, don’t expect to get good coffee.

They are queuing for food. Do not be fooled.

Many of the best cafes here focus on coffee. Coffee is their main revenue source, with a small amount of cakes & pastries (usually good). If you see people drinking coffee, working on laptops, and not much food: it will be good.

Yelp Reviews: Treat with Caution

Everyone uses Yelp in the US. Most places have many reviews, making it far more useful than in other countries. It’s very tempting to read the reviews, look for a well-rated place, and head there.

But.

When reading the reviews, you need to treat them with caution. The reviewers are American, and as above, their tastes are different. So you have to interpret the reviews.

Here’s an example of a review I was reading:

OMG the regular coffee was only 12oz (355mL)! The smallest size should be at least 16oz (473mL)! Plus the coffee was way too strong and I couldn’t understand the French accent!

Bingo! This sounds like exactly the sort of place I want to visit. Small, strong coffee made by a European.

It is time-consuming to read & interpret reviews for lots of places. I have found a few shortcuts with Yelp: search for the phrases “Flat White,” “Cortado” and “Hipster.” Something in that list will usually turn up. The first two are always positive triggers, the last one needs to be read for context.

Hollow: So Hipster it Hurts

Also look for “Coffee Roasters” in Yelp, rather than Cafes. This is a separate category. Coffee Roasters with retail outlets are usually very good.

Mocha: Not What You Expect

In New Zealand a “mocha” (pronounced: mock-a) is short for mochaccino. This is a cappuccino with chocolate added. Very tasty.

In the US a “mocha” (pronounced: moak-a) is regular coffee with a spoonful of cocoa powder stirred in. Not tasty. Note: you will come across a tremendous variety in mocha flavors in the US. Peppermint, White Chocolate, Raspberry, etc. Avoid.

Note the laptops, and not much food

Chain Stores: In General, Avoid

Americans love franchises, and every strip mall has the same set of shops. It would make life far simpler if one of the nationwide cafe chains did decent coffee, but they are all rubbish. Locals will rave about Peets, Philz, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc. but as above: they have different expectations to you. Those chains are all crap. Their popularity remains a mystery.

Most definitely not a chain

There are some smaller chains with groups of stores in certain regions. Some of these are very, very good. Examples in the Bay Area include: Ritual, Blue Bottle, and Sightglass. If you find a chain you like in your area, consider yourself lucky.

Cafe Spotting

If you can’t find any conclusive Yelp reviews, and you’re wandering about looking for coffee, here’s a few more tips on spotting good places:

  • Queues. This may just be a San Francisco thing, but people love to queue. Be warned: they may be queuing for food. If so, the coffee is probably bad. Check that it is just a coffee place.
  • Espresso machine: it pains me to say this, but many ‘cafes’ do not have espresso machines. At least with these you can spot them from the window. Bonus marks if you also spot an array of coffee-making apparatus (Chemex, pour over, Bunsen burners, distilling units).
  • Cup sizes. If you see people walking out clutching dairy confections measured in quarts, run. Quality places will have small cups by default. I knew that I would like Red Rock when I saw that their Cappuccino had a single small size listed on the menu.
  • Hipster score. Sometimes a place looks “so hipster it hurts.” Say what you like about them, hipsters do know how to make good coffee (Photo of Hollow).

Looks promising

If all the above fail, find someone with gauged ears, and follow them to work.

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!

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.

That There is Real Bear Country

…but not a bear in site? We are still pondering which Bear of the brown and the black bears you run from, and which bear you freeze for? Fortunately we didn’t see a real live bear!! Lots of taxidermy though!
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So 6 Kiwis, an Irishman, An Aussie and one token American go for a weekend in the woods! Sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Our friend Sarah’s boss had kindly leant her his cabin in the woods and said she could take up a group of friends.  So on a Friday afternoon 9 people piled into two cars, and we traversed 243 km/150 miles from the centre of San Franciso to Arnold, California. Located within the massive 900,000 acre Stanislaus National Forest, adjacent with Yosemite National Park. We seemed to spend an hour driving uphill to the cabin which sat at 4000ft/1200mtrs above sea level!

The car Lindsay and I travelled in got there late in the evening. The first group that arrived earlier in the day had already organised supplies and offered me a refreshing beer when I walked in. Pity I have never learnt to enjoy the taste of beer, after many failed attempts!
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The next day we woke up and opened our curtains to a view of a pine tree forest.
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After some discussion about the days activities we took a short drive to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where Camp Leader Sarah took us for a tramp, oops I meant Hike, amongst the giant Sequoia trees. Before departing, some of the party went in search of water to ensure they didn’t dehydrate on the trek. Here, Kurt and Tim model their Water Bottle Bags. It seems their ability to grip with their hands didn’t appear to be working.
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Before leaving, we thought about joining the forest church, but the woman leading the singing was so out of tune, we couldn’t bare the noise.
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The trees in this part of the park are so large that our group of 9 could easily fit on this stump, appropriately named “Big Stump”. img_7579

These massive sequoias only germinate when they are scarred by fire and many had burn marks up the side.  Other trees were dead, stripped of their bark though still standing.  In the early 20th century one of the trees had its bark stripped in sections, and taken on a roadshow. The bark was reassembled over and again, to show the impressive girth and height of these amazing mammoths
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It’s pretty hot in this forest at this time of year, though in winter it snows, so we decided to head off to an alpine lake for a bit of a dip and a cool down. After agonisingly walking into the freezing water up to our knees, we decided to give up on the swim. However there were some fun sights to be seen including this paddle boat swan, which also had a tiny outboard motor.  Kurt and I were so intrigued, we got a photo with it.
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Finally at the end of the huge day, we headed back to the very large cabin and Clay aka Carl, the token American, prepared dinner marinating chicken and beef to be thrown on the grill(BBQ) later in the evening.  It was a fabulous meal, with a new group of friends. The evening was finished off with board games, with Lindsay and I tucking into bed a little earlier than the more youthful members of the group, who’s ability to drink later into the evening is still peaking.
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I think the best way to tie up this post is with this short clip. Out and about tripping in this amazing forest, singing along with the great Neil Diamond. Click on the following pic to watch and laugh….be warned, have your volume turned down:
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Thank you everyone for a fabulous weekend.
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