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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
If all the above fail, find someone with gauged ears, and follow them to work.
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:
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.
We timed our run pretty well, with the snow not starting until we go back to the hotel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Whilst in the area we explored some of the surrounding towns. We were absolutely astounded by the colourful intricate Victorian Homes on display.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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……….
I stumbled upon more interesting sites on my walk home along Fremont Canal and the next day whilst exploring the city by foot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.