30 Jul

Las Vegas, NV, USA 26th to 30th July 2012

I've been to Paris, and Rome, and Venice and New York. You can go to them all in Vegas on a strip of neon in the desert, and all of them are LARGER, noisier, totally mercenary, and full of slot machines, shops and each one has 2-3 shows. I was sideswiped by Vegas, it knocked me for six, the artificial daylight in the recreated 'Venice' and 'Paris' gave me instant headaches, the heat and the walking took it out of my feet and body. Yet I won in the end. I saw most of it, I got to grips with what was where and what was what. I realised you only go out at night, [stay in your suite or relax by the rather excellent hotel pools], since then the neon is pretty and the heat is lower. You can ignore the gaming, you can't afford the shops, the shows are pretty damned good, there is food of varying quality at all levels of cost, so you can eat what you want at a price you're happy with. There is a pretty good bus service up and down the Strip and to and from Downtown. The older Fremont Street in Downtown is cheaper and more fun than the resorts. No-one is actually from here, and the suites you get in the hotels are enormous and very good value to money. Oh.. and don't stay longer than 3.75 days, which is the average stay.

From Las Vegas

We saw 3 great shows: a burlesque called Fantasy which was good for boobs and a great comedian; a show called Vegas! which was great for a musical and dance interpretation of Vegas from the beginning to the current day with some dancers, an excellent pratfall acrobat, two very talented tap dancers, a full band and a company of excellent singers who handled everything from the Rat Pack thru Elvis, Sonny and Cher, Tina Tuner and more; and we went to see Celine Dion in residency at Caesar's Palace which was good for Ann. [Could have done with more French songs for me.]

From Las Vegas

As for the rest? Well what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas..

26 Jul

Chicago, IL, USA 22nd to 26th July 2012

I mentioned to someone that we'd stayed in Chicago, and got the comment that that was one blog entry they'd not be bothered reading. I can understand that, Chicago has a reputation amongst as a big industrial/agricultural centre, elevated metro trains, railroads, stockyards, Cubs, Bears, White Sox and Mayor Daley.


Well folks, I am here to tell you that you're right, and yet so very wrong. Chicago is a bustling cosmopolitan city with a deep love of impressive public architecture in the form of impressive and appealing skyscrapers surrounded by open space to both allow viewing of the buildings, but also public art from Picasso statues to the Chicago "Bean". It is a city on a lake as big as a sea, with a great Navy Pier that hosts both that Chicago invention, the Ferris Wheel, but also one of the most beautiful collections of stained glass I have seen. It has the blues, the place where the electric guitar met the Delta blues of the migrating Southern negroes as they moved north for jobs, and populated the Southside, counterpoised to the German-Irish-Polish communities of NorthSide. It's still one of the most residentially segregated cities around, but boy are they proud of their local boy done good.. Abe Lincoln.. or I mean Barack Obama? [Both of course]. Chicago is the third biggest city in the US, and although they're very proud to be American, they have a quiet confidence and there's much more celebrating international culture than I found in other parts of North America so far.

From Chicago IL USA

We viewed the city from the excellent Hancock Tower which whilst not as tall as the Sears [now Willis] Tower, has better views – I've done both now – and a great multimedia iPod based guide from David Schwimmer. We took the trolley bus tour with a guide who resolutely avoided history and facts, and focused on fashion, theatre and his 'favourite' buildings, he was sweet and he does cabaret every Monday night should you want to go.. Lawrys steakhouse was a great discovery when we rolled up on Sunday night, a traditionally English Sunday roast dinner place, beef, yorkshire puddings and mash.. all served in 1930s uniforms in a wood panelled restaurant and yet explicitly affordable and understandable. One night we went to the famous House of the Blues and ate before watching a country-rock act fronted by Sonia Leigh, and we also just lolled in our suite at the Crowne Plaza and Ann watched Coronation Street over the proxy server to ITV Player. Navy Pier was hot, and fun, and the stained glass windows were lovely [I adore the Tiffany ones] and before that we had a great brunch at Yolk, that has 3 branches in the Windy City. Shopping happened along the truly Magnificent Mile. Great lunchtime specials at both the Cheesecake Factory (vast even as 'small dishes') and a very cool mini deep dish pizza at Gino's East were consumed.

From Chicago IL USA

So, Chicago. Got to say we loved it, and it's probably now beaten Manhattan and Boston as preferred US metropolis.. 

22 Jul

Niagara Falls, ON, Canada, 20-22 July 2012

The journey from Kingston had been long, passing along the Loyalist Parkway around Prince Edward County, a route along which I saw more Union Flags than ever before in my life, each one alternated with a Canadian Maple, and with numerous redcoat and royal images. They're very very proud subjects of the Queen in Ontario, and very proud of the War of 1812 when they repelled a US invasion and frankly beat the fledgling neighbour, before settling down to 200 years of peace and cooperation. If Britain ever became a republic, and now the Queen has become a Bond girl even I have my doubts about that, then there would be a welcoming and loyal home in Ontario. The area is very nice, full of winerys, and pretty well presented townships running alongside Lake Ontario. The ferry at Glenora, on the scenic and historic Loyalist Parkway (Hwy 33), connects Prince Edward County with the mainland and is great free value as a bit of tourism, and the Lake on the Mountain defies all known geographical and geological theory located nearly 62 metres above the Bay of Quinte. Cloaked in mystery and legend, the turquoise lake is a source of amazement and a beautiful setting for activities in the park.

We then had a long drive past Toronto (jeez what a traffic jam) all the way around to Niagara Falls along the QEW, Queen Elizabeth Way, and into a city that at first seems like an up market version of Blackpool. In some ways it is, but the key fact is: The Niagara Falls are amazing. Awe inspiring. I don't mean the town, I mean the Falls. We checked into the Embassy Suites, fought our way past the happy noisy kids (grrr) and settled down in our rather nice large suite and unpacked. Well, I unpacked. Ann just sat by the window and stared in awe at the Falls as they cascaded before us. Two hours later and one pizza, and she just started to pull herself away from the view. I have to say that I agreed with her, but I have seen the Falls before, admittedly in a fierce blizzard that meant I only saw 25% of them, but the endless flow of such enormous volumes of water is astounding. Then at night they light them gently changing colours with huge xeon lights, and at 10pm they capped it all with a great fireworks display.

The next day we explored and first of all we decided not to buy the $45 all in one ticket, but to watch the Horseshoe Falls from the edge, and then walk down to the American Falls, all of which is open and public. Then we paid for and went down 'Journey Behind the Falls', which allows you to view the water from behind (not so interesting) but also to watch the water from a viewing platform right next to the drop. This was definitely the best value way see the maximum and pay the least. The 'behind' tour is as good if not better than going on the famous boat, the Maid in the Mist.

We then drove to Niagara on the Lake, which is a very posh, very expensive and very nice township some 20 miles along the Niagara river, where it emerges into Lake Ontario. It's a very nice walk, and quite a contrast to the glitz and tat of Niagara iteslf, but frankly both are: a: done well and b: irrelevant compared to the glory of the Falls themselves. We had a fun experience on that drive, we almost ran out of gas, but fortunately we made it in time and were able to reward ourselves with the best part of Canada.. Tim Hortons!

20 Jul

Kingston, ON, Canada, 18-20th July

We left Montréal and after a slow cruise to the top of Mont Royal to take in the full breadth of the city, we crawled through the area of McGill University and then out on the QC20 towards Ontario and the town of Kingston, nestling at the end of the Thousand Islands stretch of the St. Lawrence and overlooking Lake Ontario. We were staying at a B&B called Green Woods Inn, which was an old house built in a sturdy and wood panelled style, and just above the Canadian Forces Base and separated from Kingston proper by a stretch of water. It's run with loving care by Tessa and Nigel, and is decorated in a lighter version of mid 20th century lace and frills, slightly retro and yet fresh and light and scrupulously clean and maintained. Nigel and Tessa provided us with 2 very well thought out and executed breakfasts, high on taste, quality and fruit, low on starch. Their approach is friendly, informative and welcoming. The B&B is well placed to stay over after driving along the Highway 401 (which is what the QC20 becomes over the provincial border). Many people stay for a night and drive off again, I am delighted to say that we stayed and explored the area with the help of our hosts.
The first thing we did, and we have been very lucky so far on this trip with serendipitous activities, was visit the Fort Henry Sunset Ceremony. This is an "historic interpretation" of drill, music and battle as a mid 19th century British soldier at the garrison at Fort Henry.

Fort Henry GuardFort Henry Guard

Fort Henry GuardGreenWoods Inn Kingston

"Crimson-draped Guard… called to order by the bugle, fife, and drum… the Thin Red Line. As solid as the limestone fortress that surrounds their unique performance stage. Eyes and bayonets fixed… the enemy dead ahead. Enfields afire and cannons ablaze! Smoking guns consume the parade square… the year is 1867. Fort Henry heats up Wednesday and Saturday evenings in July and August with the critically-acclaimed World Heritage Sunset Ceremonies! The Fort Henry Guard Drums, Drill Squad and Artillery Detachment will take you back in time with 1860’s military music, drill and artillery maneuvers. Performed entirely by college and university students, this performance invokes patriotism and pride and they demonstrate their passion and dedication for the craft."  Source: parks.on.ca

Ending with a fireworks display this brought a patriotic tear to my eye, which is odd given that I am a died in the wool Republican and I'd probably have sided with the US Revolutionaries..

The next day we drove to Rockport, and took the boat trip and stop over at Boldt Castle which is on the US side of the border, so we all flashed our passports. On the way we viewed the whole area from the Sky Deck on Hill Island, which was well worth the detour and the 10 dollars each.

Thousand Islands, ON, CA - 166Thousand Islands, ON, CA - 167

Boldt Castle is either a testament to a man's love for a woman, or to a man's appalling decadence and waste. Take your pick, but it does look quite spectacularly romantic, and is more than worth a visit.

If you haven’t seen Boldt Castle lately, you haven’t seen Boldt Castle.
Visit Heart Island, imagine the magnificence that might have been. Wander through Boldt Castle and let your thoughts take you into another world. This romantic Island provides the setting for the saddest love story ever told. Source http://www.boldtcastle.com/

We had a nice dinner at the Ivy Lea Club and then we were ready for the long drive to Niagara Falls!

18 Jul

Montreal, QC, Canada, 16-18 July 2012

Long, leisurely drive up and out of NH and into the Green Mountain State of Vermont then onwards and upwards into Canada. I was quite interested as the language changed to French with English second, and the road markings changed to metric, confirming we has chnged to a metric and bilingual country. The flag of Quebec County, with it's white cross on a blue background, four fleur-de-lys in each corner, reminded me so much of the pre revolutionary French flag. Arrive Montreal. Words cannot describe the hotel we were booked into. The only ones that fitted the situation were "Get me to the InterContinental and make it snappy!"
The Intercontinental was much better, although with a certain bohemian touch that you rarely see in such hotels. We were on the 25th floor and had an excellent view of, well, of a pretty grimy drab expanse of rooftops, a flour mill and some grey buildings. We went to explore. We were on the cusp of the Financial District and the Vieux Port, the original port area that like most city wharves are being revived as a trendy cultural area. The Financial District is full of tall grey buildings, but no surprise there. The Vieux Port is half way between cultured, quaint, colourful and just plain not finished yet. We had an explore in the humid night, had ice cream and beer and vodka and tonics and it mellowed. (Or we did.) Jacques Cartier Square is nice with pubs and restaurants on the square and in the side streets.
The next day we got up early and had a swim, I had a great sauna, and then we went to a truly excellent breakfast deli called Le Cartet, where I had a very healthy meal of yoghurt, poached egg, salad, cheese and figs. Ann had the "sucre" breakfast of pancakes and French toast etc. when the waitress brought it to the table she automatically gave the sugary one to me and the healthy one to Ann!

Montreal, QC, Canada - 151Montreal, QC, Canada - 154

Montreal, QC, Canada - 155Montreal, QC, Canada - 153

After that we went to the Centre d'histoire de Montréal, three floors of permanent and temporary exhibits offer a rich experience of the eventful and sometimes turbulent adventures of Canada's first metropolis. I have to say that the first floor, the story of Montreal, was interesting but oddly didn't address the key points of the city and region, the Anglo-French relationship. First the colony was French and then, with no explanation, it's British. It is said that one can only write of history when it ceases to be politics… The second floor was an excellent exhibition of the effect of 1950s and 60s top down town planning of mega projects and the communities that were destroyed with no consultation with or thought of the citizens that lived in them. the top floor was about the experiences of refugees and immigrants in Montreal, where 1 in 10 are immigrants and 1 in 2 are children of migrants.

Montreal, QC, Canada - 119Montreal, QC, Canada - 120

Montreal, QC, Canada - 147Montreal, QC, Canada - 156

Then we went along the streets to the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal, which is the 1829 cathedral built on the same spot as the first church by the Catholic missionaries that settled the original city. It is a spectacular church, both modern and richly Catholic in style at the same time. A wonderful piece of architecture that is spoilt by the fact that you have to pay to go in. No, not a donation or a suggested donation, just an entry fee We then called it a day on culture and took a taxi to the Downtown shopping district, had a nice sandwich at the Nickel diner and did some shopping in the underground city. We only saw the wider city when we went up Mont Royal on the last day and saw how vast it is, and then drive thru the McGill University area which is more upmarket.

Montreal, QC, Canada - 121Montreal, QC, Canada - 122

We never really gelled with Montreal and yet it may have been a combination of the poor quality hotel we first met, the poor weather, or the grey drabness. The city, especially near us, has been blighted by 60s concrete buildings of no merit, there are still empty buildings, vacant lots and other problems caused by failed town planning. On the other hand we found the Montrealers 100% friendly and welcoming, quite relaxed to use French or English as appropriate, and helpful at all times. The city is Francophone, and it is clear that effort has been made to enforce a "French first" approach, but I can see the reasons for that, and I have no problems with a community adopting bilingualism. We also heard some very negative comments about Francophone Quebecois from people, that they refused to speak English, and also that they didn't speak proper French but some obscure patois. I have a problem with that on two levels, first who is to say which is the correct 'French' [and don't say the Academie Francaise], and secondly, everyone we spoke to in Montreal spoke very canonical straightforward French. Ann spoke to people happily and even I, with my dreadful French, could understand a lot more than I let on. The Montreal flag is also interesting, in that it is clearly a mix of the English flag, the lily of France, the thistle of Scotland, the rose of England and the shamrock of Ireland. Even the Quebec motto 'Je me souviens", translated as "I remember" has a lovely ambiguity in that Quebec is a Francophone society, but one that had fought for the monarchy against the American invaders in 1812 and has prospered within the Empire and Commonwealth.


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16 Jul

White Mountains, NH, USA, July 14-16 2012

We left Boston in a HUGE SUV we picked up from the car rental place. We'd gone far too large, thinking we'd need the room for our suitcases, but really, these full sized SUVs are enormous. It's like driving a tank, a water tank! So, rathe nervously we drove north on the I93, using Ann's Samsung Galaxy and the Sygic satnav app. It uses TomTom maps and I have to say it's really rather good.
The drive north from Massachusets to New Hampshire isn't terribly interesting, save in as much as getting used to the North American road system, until you start to enter the White Mountains around the Visitor’s Centre at Lincoln, where the Kancamagus Highway heads east to Conway or you can continue north through the Franconia Notch State Park and then loop off east via Twin Mountains and Mount Wshington, coming down to Jackson via Crawford Notch and Bartlett. We went over and round the top route, then down thru' Bartlett to Jackson and then up to our B&B at Carter Notch Road. On the final day we did the Kancamagus Highway loop and then up the I93 through Littleton and on the I91 to Canada. Our route is here.

On our way round we stopped at the Flume, a gorge of fast flowing water. Very pretty, not sure it was worth the 30 bucks to see it.


The area is breathtakingly beautiful, with huge mountains and peaks covered in a deciduous and evergreen mix, with beautiful boulder strewn rivers and clear lakes. The peaks are granite with sparkling deposits of mica, and the roads whilst wending and sometimes steep are wide and easy to cruise. We were there in summer and the roads were full of tourists, parties of bikers on Harley Davidsons, and the campsites were full of people camping.  We stayed with Sally and Dick at Carter Notch Inn in Jackson. They are ex pat Brits who run a truly welcoming and lovely B&B in the truly lovely and delightful township of Jackson. We couldn't recommend the place more highly, which is down to their attitude as much as the great place, weather, humming birds and chipmunks! [I even liked Dudley the Old English sheepdog and I am not a dog lover.]

Our main day in the area was spent taking the Cog Railway to the top of Mount Washington, a railway that was mocked as the 'Railway to the Moon' when proposed, and yet running today 145 odd years after it started. It's impressive if a little scary, and the angle of ascent is quite disturbingly steep in places, but the cog and ratchet system keeps you safe. The top of the mountain, some 6288 feet high, is quite bleak and Arctic in feel. The views were rarher cloudy but I was impressed in that everwhere you look you see mountains, all but one named after US Presidents (hence the 'Presidential Range').

Cog Railway Loco Top of Mount Washington

The Auto Road, by which you can drive up the Mountain looked terrifying so I am pleased we took the train.. and that we then were able to stop off at the Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, where the IMF was formed post war, and have a nice afternoon tea. Lovely scones and darjeeling!

Mount Washington Resort

On the final day we took the Kancamagus Highway, and it is definitely the most scenic of the routes we took, lower lying but with more interesting views and places to stop and overview the hills. We had lunch in a diner in Littleton, and then we were off north to visit the colonies, next stop Canada! [Of course technically the USA was also a colony, so in fact maybe this was the first 'colonial' part of our world trip..]

Now, who was named after this place, or is it the other way around?

Josiah Bartlett

12 Jul

Boston, MA, USA, 12-14 July

So, we landed at Logan Airport about one thirty pm, and I have to say we then had the fastest clearance through Customs and Borde Protection in the USA I have ever experienced. They have also really improved their client approach over the years, the explanatory videos are great, and it's not the soul crushing grind it used to be. Admittedly it still take a lot of time so if there is a big queue..

We then took the fastest taxi ride ever, but then again Logan Airport is so close to Boston it's scary. The Marriott Renaissance we stayed at was new, with great big rooms, wonderfully furnished with a cracking Marriott bed (love them Marriott beds) and decor. the whole hotel is great. What is also not apparent, is that despite being in South Boston on the Waterfront, it's within easy walking distance of the centre of the city. A leisurely walk gets you into the centre of the city on the Greenway. This is the long strip of open park space that runs alongside the CBD of skyscrapers, and is where they used to have ugly vile elevated roads and trains before the BIG DIG when they spent 20 years and oodles of billions of dollars on reimaging the city. So now the city, already compact and with sidewalks, has a green artery looping around the waterfront and allowing instant walking access to the lovely centre.

Greenway, Boston, USA

We did Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, and then after some brown bagging food, we crashed out at about 8pm, or midnight on the body clock. The next day we rose silly early, had a swim and a hot tub, and then took a trolley bus tour. We took the Upper Deck company, but they're probably all fine, and had a great hop in hop off day.  We took in North End, a beautiful mix of colonial Boston, Paul Revere, and a vibrant American Italian community where we discovered what cannoli really is, and I suddenly realised I was exctly where one of HP Lovecraft's horror stories is set!

Old Ironsides

Then round the Charleston Naval Yard to see 'Old Ironsides', the oldest commissioned naval ship in the world, and then off round the rest of the city, stopping off at the Cheers bar, which was really the Bull&Finch until recently and was used for the exterior shots in the sitcom. That evening we took a sunset cruise out to Boston Light and then came back in about 8.30pm, just in time to walk up to North End for some gorgeous pasta in a great Italian. Then it was time to see the Holocaust Memorial and the Union Oyster House and back in time for bed.

Boston Light

Woke up at 6am! Fixed up a VPN service and Ann happily watch Coronation Street whilst I watched Jericho on Netflix and sorted out photos and blogs and all that. Off to collect SUV and head into White Mountains next.

See ya!

Pix here: https://picasaweb.google.com/114730141632765453015/BostonMAUSA2012?authuser=0&feat=directlink

12 Jul

12th July 2012: Somewhere over the Atlantic, BA0213, heading to Boston Logan Airport from Heathrow.

We really left packing until the last minute for this trip. I should say that I did, since Ann has had all her dresses and accompanying accessories on the upstairs spare room bed for at least a fortnight and maybe longer. My problem is that I travel so much that I am always packing or returning, even the week before our trip I was in Brussels most of the week. Ah well, less of my travel chores, and back to packing. We packed Tuesday, and ended up with one very large 32kg suitcase, two medium 22-27kg ones and then we packed the smaller into a larger one so we have a reserve suitcase. We were going to use two little backpacks for hand luggage but at the last minute we pulled a small cabin legal suitcase down from the loft and popped my camera bag, Ann's MacBook Air and her GHD hair straighteners in there. We have a few shoulder bags and collapsible holdalls in reserved in case we go shopping mad.

So what was packed? Well it's a challenge, to have enough and yet not have too much. We're not young backpackers, we're flying Business class after all, and yet we also don't want to be too encumbered. We've probably overpacked, but I think 7 weeks on the road does require 7 t-shirts, 7 shorts, 7 shirts, 4 trousers, 1 jacket, 3 jumpers, 10 socks, and gazillions of underpants! Ann's priorities were different, I packed one pair of shoes and one pair of sandals, Ann has four, but her dresses weigh so much less than mine. Then enough toiletries to keep going, duplicates in case of bag loss, and ditto for the scoops of medication we take, and it was time for the fun stuff…

I mean, of course, the tech. Nowadays that also incorporates media, written and visual, and photography. The Kindles are the bedrock of literature, both well loaded with SF, thrillers, detective fiction and fantasy, readable in any light, almost weightless and small enough to take anywhere. The iPad follows, I have it synced to Dropbox for all our travel paperwork and a variety of travel and mapping apps all installed, allowing our documentation to be acessible. In addition is provides a pool of movies and TV shows, from Walking Dead Season 2 to Father Ted, a few computer games (Majesty and Bards Tale), and is a very capable browser and editor (I am typing this on QuickOffice). I have a good collection of roleplaying games as pdf files on the ipad, since they work better on a tablet. Ann's MacBook Air is along for keyboard based computing and also for photo collection and editing. We have a TravelTalk sim for low cost roaming phone calls (free incoming in all our countries save for Japan and China), a Boingo account for roaming wifi, and a proxy server service in case we need to pretend to be in the UK, such as for BBC Iplayer.

I sold my Leica to switch to a digital compact system camera, and so my Panasonic Lumix GF1, a micro four/thirds camera, is along to provide photography with a 20mm f1.7 lens, a lovely retro styled Olympus 45mm f1.8 and a 14-45mm f4.5 zoom lens. With an electronic viewfinder and one hell of a flash gun, I have no excuse to take pictures. I am looking forward to that, I have had no time at all for photography at all this year.

So, I never took a gap year, and now I am doing the round the world in a very "executive" way. I make no apologies, it's how we want to do it and at our age, why the hell not? We've saved the money and the hotel reward points for years, and if we don't do it now, then mabe never, so Bon Voyage to us, and I hope one or two of us might enjoy reading our adventures as the blog goes global..

Tom and Ann

P.S. As usual I will be reviewing hotels and restaurants and stuff over on Trip Advisor, I may or may not copy here, or just add the links. My picture albums at Facebook and Picasaweb will be slowly topped up, and linked from here. Roleplaying nonsense will be posted here and to my BBS, The Tavern.

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