Friday, October 16, 2009

Viva Las Vegas

Gosh it's warm here - by comparison to the last few weeks, anyway. Has averaged 28C for our 3 day stay.
Is there a patron saint of holiday-makers? If so, we must have had some special protection as the weather could not have been better if we had scripted it, from the warmth of the south of France to the brilliant autumn sunshine in England to the snow in Canada, and now balmy desert days in Las Vegas. It will probably be horrible when we get home just to get even!
We have a very comfortable room on the 22nd floor of the MGM Grand hotel on the strip, with a view all the way out to the mountains and directly opposite New York, New York and its roller coaster, Aria, Monte Carlo and a still under construction, Big V, for Vegas. It's easy to get caught up in the glitz of the casino strip and miss the Sierra Nevada just the other side of the hi-rise towers.
We started well with a win on the slot machines, and HUGE pizzas for dinner in one of the 14 restaurants (not counting several Starbucks and at least five other fast food outlets) in the hotel - it's so big and so diverse there would be no need to leave at all, as any need imaginable can be catered for on-site. But wander we did - a tour along the strip, with visits to Bally, Flamingo, Tropicana, Caesars Palace (oh dear, the roulette wheel! And brain-freezing 24 oz slurpies with a triple citron vodka).
Thursday was the day we came for - gambling aside, Vegas is the access point for the Grand Canyon. We were picked up by shuttle and driven to Boulder Airport for the first adventure of the day, a light aircraft flight over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead on our way to the canyon itself. 7000 feet above sea level is only around 3000 feet above the ground here and the view was spectacular. Lake Mead is enormous, over 110 miles long, although the water level has dropped 200 feet. The dam looks like leggo at this height but is still the largest man-made construction on earth, the scenery is wonderful and the flight over too soon as we land at the Hualapi Indian reservation that is the Western Rim home to the Grand Canyon. Our next leg was the helicopter flight over the canyon, and down 4000 feet to the canyon floor. Rich has been in a helicopter before, and whilst Sue loves the light aircraft experience, this is her first helicopter ride - "why didn't I do this before, it's magic!" Then a leisurely ride down the Colorado river looking UP at the canyon walls , and the vegetation and wildlife on the riverbanks, before the helicopter takes us back up to the rim. It's almost more scary on the way up, as the pilot hugs the canyon walls then crests a rise to reveal the sheer drop the other side. We spend the remainder of the day exploring the rim and the view across and down into the canyon (don't get so close to the edge!) before the return small plane flight when the shuttle returns us to the hotel.
In just 3 days we tour the strip by monorail during daylight, and again on foot at night to take in the fountain show at the Bellagio Hotel, see the Cirque du Soleil show 'Ka', and yet again eat ourselves stupid with a delicious teppanyaki dinner at the in-house Japanese, pasta and cab-sav to die for, and lovely Tom Yum. We saw the MGM's own lions but missed the picture opportunity on all 3 days, and everywhere you go there are slot machines and tables and opportunities to gamble including McCarran International airport that must have at least 300 slots!
So here we are at LAX waiting for our flight to Sydney. Such a long flight but both of us are now longing to be back in OZ despite all the wonderful experiences we have enjoyed on the trip, especially the love and friendship of Dennis and Barbara in Bosworth, the unbelievable Clive and Jean at Studland, the irrepressible Sue and her husband Roger in Woking, Tom and Mav in Calgary who were as warm as the weather was cold. Our loving and heartfelt thanks go out to all of them for making our overseas leg truly the trip of a lifetime.


Otherwise known as the Frozen North! Well, not really, it did snow on the trip home from the airport, but nothing could be warmer than the welcome from Tom & Mav.
Calgary looks and feels almost like Perth, it's a similar size and population (1.1 million), and far more home-like than New York. The climate is another matter. We were assured that the weather was unseasonably cold, but from a tourist perspective snow was the just the icing on the cake - visually as well as figuratively.
Tom and Mav had planned an overnight trip for us to Banff in the Rocky Mountains, and the day started clear and sunny, but as we sat down to lunch at Lake Louise Resort (table with a view of the lake & mountains beyond) the snow started to fall - and fell, and fell, and fell. We discovered later that the road we travelled had been closed for part of the afternoon due to ice and snow (46 cars slid off the icy roads), but we made it to Banff thanks to Tom, and a lovely room at The Rimrock. When we got up next morning it was -12C and icicles hung from the gutters, snow clung to the trees - it was as if someone turned on Christmas overnight. Needless to say, snowballs were thrown but not with any great enjoyment by the throwee because it was very, very COLD. We breakfasted at Banff Springs Resort, then made our way to the gondola up to Sulphur Mountain, where the mercury had made it to -20C. The view around the mountains was spectacular, and it didn't feel too bad in the sun, but the wind chill in the shade was frighteningly and shiveringly cold. We went down into the Banff township, which actually has a Christmas Store, and browsed around before heading back to Calgary. Wildlife count: several squirrels, 1 chipmunk (sooo cute), 3 elk, 2 mountain sheep, 1 coyote and a real live grizzly bear! Honest, it just ran across the road in front of us - must have missed the notice about hibernation dates. Would have loved a photo but didn't fancy getting out of the car.
Our week passed too quickly; meeting Tom & Mav's family - Chris, Greg & Stephanie, grandson Lucas - and friends; exploring Calgary and the surrounding countryside, not to mention the large white-tailed stag deer at the end of the street when we went to pick up the mail - until we woke to our last morning and a heavy snowfall overnight had blanketed the place in white. Sue couldn't let this pass, and nothing beats a walk in ankle-deep snow - for someone who hasn't seen the stuff for 25 years! (Rich was smart and stayed in the warm. None of our own clothes were competent to stand up to the was unimaginable.) Rubbish, just a bit chilly..............
Again, we were sad to leave as Tom and Mav had been such fabulous hosts, and Rich's turn to shed a tear as we said farewell. We rugged up for the trip to the airport and the flight to Las Vegas, where we immediately peeled off as many layers of clothing as we could get away with.


Sorry, friends
The blog has not turned out to be as functional as we thought. We had decided to do without the weight of a laptop on our travels, so are at the mercy of our (incredibly generous) hosts, or the vagaries, difficulties and expense of internet cafes. Sorry we haven't posted as frequently or as diligently as we had intended. The lack of photos will be addressed when we return - we could have a slide night! But we'll probably just do the Picassa thing.............

New York New York

On the weekend we packed a bag and took a 2-day trip to Niagara Falls - sounds a bit like the start of Gilligan's Island, but we did get home on time. The Falls are spectacular - everyone has seen pictures and movie footage, but it's something almost primal to travel on the 'Maid of the Mist' boat trip to the bottom of the falls and hear the roar of the water, feel the spray and the surge of the current at the bottom. 'Mist' nothing, we got SOAKED, despite the very attractive plastic rain poncho supplied. Almost at the bottom of the falls is a walkway called the 'Cave of Winds', described when the falls froze solid decades ago, creating ice bridges and sculpted formations people could walk through. Now it is a wooden walkway around the foot of the Bridal Falls, where I stood with the water cascading over my feet, looking straight up hundreds of feet into the waterfall as it spilled over the edge. I don't know how long I stood mesmerised, breathless (and soaked again) before making my way back to the top. (Sadly not available for those with heart conditions).
Unfortunately the tour was not well organised, leaving too little time at the Falls, and I won't bother mentioning the rest (Corning glass factory visit wasn't TOO bad).
The rest of our New York stay was a blur of sights, sounds and experiences. We did it all - or as much as we could jam in to the week. Times Square, 42nd St, 5th Ave, Empire State Building, the beautiful Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, and finally the Guggenheim (a Kandinsky exhibition not really our cup of tea, but plenty of Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Manet in the permanent display). We took the obligatory horse carriage ride in Central Park - looks so romantic in all those movies, but as Rich pointed out, you can't see anything and it smells like horse shit! Also must mention the New York deli lunch and the Reuben Sandwich with 1lb meat - that's it, nothing else, just bread & 1lb meat! Oh, and a pickle. Absolutely risible, ended up giving half of it to passing lady with small dog at the airport(which probably died trying to eat it). We found the Brill Building, where Gershwin, Arlen and many other greats knocked out their wonderful tunes; it's currently home to a music store selling everything from the latest CD to hard-to-get sheet music and tacky jewellery made from old vinyl records - so we had to buy a CD & some pins.
Of course the week ended and we had to get the luggage DOWN those appalling stairs and off to Calgary.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

So getting to the apartment in 'the Big Apple' was a bit of a strain, but once we were there - New York is sensory overload no matter what you do. Even that first night's grocery shopping seemed like an adventure.
We began our stay with a quick bus ride downtown to catch a 3-hour Circle Line boat tour of the island and bridges, taking in Statten Island, the Statue of Liberty, a mini Sydney Harbour Bridge called the Hellgate Bridge and many others. The boat cruise gave us wonderful views of many of the city buildings and landmarks, and sold really tasty hot dogs (one NY icon down and about a million to go). Back to the apartment for a quick shower & bite to eat before putting on the glad-rags and taking a big yellow cab to the Met where we saw 'The Marriage of Figaro'. The building is magnificent, and I had booked my favourite seats (front of the balcony) so we could truly appreciate the interior of the opera house whilst waiting for the curtain to go up. I am sure we should expect brilliant performances at the Met & certainly weren't disappointed. The signts and sounds danced through our heads on the way home and for days afterwards.
Thursday we decided on a walk through central park to the Guggenheim - around 2 miles - which was delightful, and almost assuaged our disappointment at finding the museum closed! A lovely Brazilian couple we met at the entrance were more disappointed as they were leaving that night, and gave us their tickets to use another day. Making the best of the day, we went down to the MoMA and had a lovely couple of hours wandering the paintings, and enjoyed a tasty lunch at the cafe inside. Another quick shower and change back at the apartment before tripping downtown to Dizzy Gillespie's 'Club CocaCola'. Glamour and style to the max in this lovely intimate room looking out onto Columbus Circle, the Manhatten skyline and a full moon - perfect setting for an evening of hot jazz. We stayed for 2 sets, firstly vocal diva Karrin Allyson, then an Aussie sax player Lisa Parrott and her ensemble. Good food and cocktails, and the company of a charming Michigan chap called Ted, whom we met in line, made this a faboulous night, and we wandered home around 1am.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

After our near month in England, we left Bosworth and Dennis and Barbara sadly and in Susan's case with tears. Den and Barb were wonderful hosts and friends. Liz stayed of course but seems to have decided to return to Australia before Christmas, perhaps. Anyway, we were off to NY via flying backwards to Zurich and then on to NY. The Fokker 100 jet was a bit squeezy but endurable for two hours and a bit but we looked forward to the eight plus hours flight to NY in the comparative luxury of the big Airbus. Sadly, Swissair did not quite live up to its once sterling reputation. Cabin crew varied from outstanding (a young man) to grumpy and surly (a 30ish woman). The food was just OK (just), don't ever bother with Swiss wines on a plane, and the whole entertainment system did not films, no TV, no music, no nothing! For eight and a half hours! Lucky for us we are both readers with good books and the seats were fine except that Susan's seat did not work and would only recline rather than move into the full bed position as mine did. I could not sleep for feeling guilty because she couldn't. When we told the stewardess, her responsive was "yes, I know. A lot of them don't work properly". And that was it. Never again will we fly Swissair.....luckily for us, we have a Qantas flight out of the US, and our first two legs were Qantas and Singapore Airlines.
Arrived very tired at JFK airport, having effectively travelled all night long and half the day and found a taxi driver who did not cheat us, well, not too much.....and he gave us a hand with the baggage which seems to have gotten heavier the more we have had to handle it, even though we sent seven kgs home.
When we arrived at our flat, I was fibrillating and feeling pretty ordinary and we were both horrified when we realised that our flat was first up ten steps to the lobby and then up 55 more steep steps to Apt. 7 on the top floor and no lift. Although I failed to see the humour at the time, once in the flat, the bedrooms were another 18 steps up a spiral staircase, so steep and curly that Cyn and Roel's spiral was a doddle by comparison. The flat itself was very good, plenty of space and with two bathrooms and toilets, one for each floor and we had a large deck as well.
The problem was the steps, especially because I was not well. It was all I could do to carry one small bag up and I nearly karked it doing that. Poor Susan insisted that she could manage the big cases and she managed, I don't know how, to lug each monstrous bag up all those flights and the rest of the "small" luggage as I had managed only one. I was wrecked and even she, brave girl, was looking more than slighly peaky by the time she had made her third trip up and down. When we both recovered some time later we took the time to enjoy the space and amenity of our new home before we descended for the start of many such trips to find a local supermarket for our first night's meal. The lessor was very mean and did not have a single thing for its guests, no salt/pepper/bread/eggs or milk for guests who had come thousands of miles to find empty fridges, no dishwasher powder, no detergent, no washing powder........but the flat was still nice.
Susan was an absolute Trojan and cooked a tasty scrambled egg dish for our supper. And thus ended an exhausting, eventful first day in the Big Apple.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Back to Bosworth

The drive back to Bosworth was uneventful because we have become quite expert at negotiating the motorways. However, we did inadvertently arrive at Bosworth when only 5 miles from it by an extremely circuitous route.....the only "failure" of my navigator. We kept seeing signs "Bosworth 2 miles" and after driving two miles saw another sign saying Bowsorth 3 miles and this was repeated at least about an endless road. Getting a little lost in this part of the world is no chore at all because the country lanes are so beautiful, it is hard not to just drive along for the sheer pleasure of it.
Den and Barb and Lizzie were overjoyed at our return and had lined up a series of lunches and dinners to catch up with their son, Steve and his beautiful fiancee, Deborah, their daughter Beverley and her husband, Graham. The evening with Steve and Deborah and our party of five was very pleasant and we drank two beautiful wines, a Puligny Montrachet and a St Emilion red...absolutely delicious. Our evening was a little marred by the next table of 20 who were celebrating a birthday very, very raucously and not a little drunkenly. No one was nasty but they were having a really good time and the noise eventually drove us out before coffee. We returned home for a lovel;y chat long into the night.
Bev and Graham have bought two Victorian workers' cottages on over an acre of land, complete with orchard and have spent the last several months turning these two into a lovely two storey home for has come up very well and is really lovely and rural. To cap it off they have bought four acres of pasture next door and intend to run a few sheep on it. Both are animal mad and have two lovely labradors, both huge, and four cats. The animals are like children to them as Graham's children have all long since left home and one of them has just had his own little girl.
We visited the historic site of the Battle of Bosworth where King Richard III met his demise and ended 331 years of Plantagenet rule. It was yet another beautiful day for our visit and the visitors centre was very entertaining and informative. There were locals there who were really archers who demonstrated all the old bows, the many different types of arrows, the genuine old swords and daggers as well as a mock fight between pikemen......all dressed up in replica costumes of the 15th century. Pictures will be posted when we get to Calgary. We tried on some armour and I nearly buckled under the weight of a chain mail vest!!!!
The rest of the week passed in ablur of lunches and dinners, the highlight of which for me was a lunch at a local pub that served a truly delicious shepherds' pie, peas and chips. Susan and I have gained twenty kilos between us and will use out time in New York to stem the fat flood!!