07 Oct

Day Two in Long Beach, the Day of Thens!

Well I had brekkie, porridge, poached eggs on a english muffin with bacon and sausage and blackberries.
Then 45 minutes in gym in shoes that the hotel lend you (plus a tee and shorts and a free pair of socks), 30 on treadmill and 15 on cross trainers, then little swim. hotel lends you trainers, shorts, tee shirt, all for $5, it's to promote the shoe brand I am sure, actually I didn't like them at all, too tight and broke my big toe nail, bastards.

Then in convertible with top down and drove to Santa Monica on the huge freeway for 30 minutes, and spent a pleasant 30 minutes with gamers in hobby shop before visiting Santa Monica Pier and Beach and cruising down along Ocean Drive.

Queen Mary Queen Mary

Then off and away back to Long Beach to another hobby shop, different location but same fat gamers playing Pathfinder and boxes and boxes of old games and dusty miniatures. After a scary drive through the scary part of Long Beach (about 8 blocks back from the expensive bit) I decided to go see the Queen Mary, and before I knew it I was exploring the sun deck and then had dinner in the Seafood and Chowder Lounge as the sun set. I had Maryland Crab Cakes with  grated cabbage and then grilled mahi-mahi with a small mound of rice and some broccoli. Queen Mary nice, see pictures, but not THAT great. Avoided dreadful sycophantic St. Diana of the Underpass exhibition and possibly better "Legends and Ghost Stories of the Queen Mary" which is clearly their Halloween fun fair come ghost story thing. It's also a hotel, and pleased to have gone. Came back and crashed at 9pm.

Long Beach - 394Long Beach - 395

06 Oct

Tom’s trip to Long Beach

Set off from Heaton at 10.30 in taxi, flight from Newcastle to London delayed 30 minutes but not a problem since loads of transfer time in terminal 5. Had salad and quiche at BA lounge, confirmed that my Silver card will last until the end of November, cried a little inside that I won't be Silver anymore and then settled down to my new book 1491: The Americas before Columbus

Our flight to LAX was delayed, until 17:05 and in satellite C. So I left lounge at 16:25 and HORROR, the transit trains stopped running for a security check. I stayed calm. But when I got to the plane at 16:55, I appeared to be the last.. I need not have worried, many more were even later. But it did mean that when they puzzled and tore up my ticket and gave me a new one I didn't even look at it until I was at the plane and realising I had been upgraded to Club World. Oh happy days!

The flight was fine. I read my new book, watched episode 1 of House of Cards (USA), devoured 8 episodes of 30 Rock, and had a 4 hour kip towards the end.
One of the episodes of 30 Rock was about when Liz and Chris  go to IKEA, very funny, couples exploding in rancour over chairs and tables, creepy pale attendants watching with ghoulish glee as romances die on the floor of planet IKEA. The food choice seemed hard but I kinda think I got it right, a salad with some ham, a fig and some bread at the start; then a big salad with roast vegetables and plain chicken, no carbs; then some blue cheese on ultra thin crackers; but did then eat a teeny tiny piece of chocolate.
Breakfast was a cream tea, oddly, so I had the goats cheese and olive salad rather than little white sandwiches; and then a tiny scone with cream, no jam. I ignored the plate of 4 ultra delicious petit fois, grrrrrr. Drank water the whole way.
An Airbus A380 is just so huge you don't even feel your're in an aeroplane, it's more like a small hotel that you stay in for 12 hours. Very nicely done but functionally the same as the previous planes we did Club World in. Whilst I read I listened to the soundtrack to Lawless, which I have to say I loved, reminded me how much I like EmmyLou Harris.
I got off the plane fast and was early to Immigration which went quite fast, just a chapter of my book waiting, and then to baggage reclaim which was slow, and then customs which was a nod through whilst all the Asians from Philippines and China has their entire luggage inspected and stripped of food, well actually just some of the food and the people manning the scanners and inspection desks knew their stuff and had some friendly banter going on, not like the Aussies on that awful customs programme that I keep turning off on the telly. Then bus to Alamo lot and no queues and OF COURSE, I upgraded to a convertible.
So, after I asked, in a terribly British way, how to actually get the top down, I drove the I-405 to Long Beach with my Garmin GPS and with not too much fuss checked in. Yes.. valet parking, just 3 dollars a day extra. The hotel is very tall, quite like a refined Vega scale thing but refined, I said REFINED! Nice room, good bed, usual silly tiny USA bath, reasonable wifi and a nice coffee machine that I have just made a cup of joe with.
So, now it's 7.45, I think I'll read some more of 1491, then down to the restaurant for a light breakfast (that'll be VERY hard) and then probably a quick gym before going off and exploring the marina, look at the Queen Mary and generally relax.
24 Aug

Hong Kong, 20th to 24th August 2012.

We arrived at Beijing airport to discover that despite explicitly asking British Airways and being assured that our baggage allowance stayed the same all round the world irrespective of airline, that our allowance on Cathay Pacific would plummet to 30kg each, and we had 97kg in total! After some outright blagging by Tom we managed to dodge the bullet. Cathay Pacific have a legendary rep for business class, but I have to say whilst it's very good on service (they have a lively multi-ethnic crew) the kit is showing it's age and needs an update. Still, their Cathay Delight mocktail is delightfully minty and we settled in.

We arrived and had no problems getting a taxi and a driver very happy to fit all our bags in the cab, with a bit of bungee holding the boot closed(ish) as we sped from the airport. Ann was able to see the Tsing Ma Bridge, over the Lantau crossing, a bridge that she worked on for a good while selling all the Hyclad stainless steel for it.

We were staying at a Crowne Plaza near to the Times Square shopping area, A very nice hotel indeed, with an Indian doorman, and we zoomed up to the top floor bar and drank cocktails with our old friend Mark Basford (also from the stainless steel days) and watched the flashing neon of the skyscrapers. The next day we found and joined the Big Bus Tour, which is our preferred way to acquaint ourselves with any city. It was a good example of the type and we got a good mix of history, architecture, culture and shopping fed to us in a very pleasant British voice. In the middle of the tour we stopped and took the Star Ferry around the main harbour. Whilst this was a very historical and appropriate tour, the voiceover was a curious mix of the official party line and what seemed to be extracts from developer's brochures. Well worth doing tho' and if we went again I might do it at night to see the sound and light show.

From Hong Kong China


We finished the tour and headed back to our very nice hotel room. [Did I mention that the hotel room was very nice?] Then we took a taxi up Victoria Peak, which is the hill that lies on Hong Kong island and overlooks the main bay. We watched the spectacular view of the vast array of skyscrapers as they pulsed with neon, the most spectacular night show we've seen on this trip, including Las Vegas. Then we ate with Mark and Kate Basford at the Peak Overlook restaurant, which was great, catching up and talking over life, kids and just what work is like in the post quiche world. Only odd thing was that there was no lighting on the table of any consequence, so we read the menus by torch!

The next day Ann was feeling a little fragile so she stayed in bed whilst I packed 18 kilos of dirty washing into a big cardboard box and the very nice conciere in our very nice hotel posted it all back the UK, hence reducing our luggage to 80 kilos in total. We then bought a new cabin bag to put 10 kilos in, and decided to use our small suitcase in the cabin (it's legal for cabin) therefore solving our baggage allowance problem. However, if you choose to book a round the world One World Traveller ticket, be very aware that your effective baggage allowance is that of the lowest allowance, making the vast British Airways allowance a it bloody pointless!

We explored the computer stall market that is 288 Hennessy Road and Tom resisted buying a zoom lens for his Panasonic, and also confirmed what we had seen all round the world, which is that the UK is usually cheaper or more competitive for electronics, and that nearly all souvenirs are made in China! We had a bite to eat in a local cafe, and we tried Hong Kong milk tea, which is basically very strong builders tea with condensed milk, Tom liked it and Ann didn't.

From Hong Kong China

The next day we flew to Thailand. I think. It's all a blur. We were fine on luggage allowance! We liked Hong Kong..

16 Aug

Seoul, South Korea, 12th to 16th August.

Flew in on Japan Airlines, I like JAL. Like Tokyo we got a limousine bus from the airport to the Holiday Inn in Seoungbuk, a rather nice part of Seoul, with plenty of neon, a PC bang, Korean BBQ, bakery in the hotel, little supermarket, Karaoke bang, eateries and one or two mobile phone shops, with huge soaring apartment blocks on all sides. Seould has a population of about 25 million people, and yet a smaller ground area than Beijing and loads of green areas, it's a very dense place, and yet not too oppressive.

We started off with a Korean BBQ. At each table is a hole in the centre of the wooden table and a brass extractor pipe overhead. A bowl of hot coals is placed into the centre of the hole with a grill over it, and you grill your own choice of meat. It's a great idea, and apart from the fact that everything else around the table was weird or known to be ultra spicy, it was good fun. Noticeably I ordered some rice and got a small bowl, Ann ordered noodles and got a bowl of cold soup with cold noodles in, so we shared the rice. As time went on I realised we were in Northern Asia and rice isn't that common or plentiful but noodles, being wheat based, are more common.

The next day we took a shuttle bus to catch a round the city hop on and hop off bus tour. It was air cinditioned, thank goodness, and we saw quite a good bit of town before stopping off at Itaewon which is a rather tourist area, clearly focused at the large number of US forces personnel in town. Some people are a bit iffy about it, but frankly I rather liked it, and we went to a tailors and started the process of having a bespoke suit made for me! Hoorah! [Ate at Outback, a rathe good Aussie steakhouse chain we've seen all along our travels.]

That evening we went to N.Seoul Tower, which is a ruddy great tower on the top of a ruddy great hill in the centre of Seoul. The city is very much a sea of neon and so we (along with about 300 people and many millions of screaming kids) watched the city change from grey to neon through dusk.It certainly is a great city to view from up there, late at night, and some of the buildings have great displays, not to mention the tall red crucifixes that rise up from the very many Christian churches (usually architectural monstrosities). At the end we took the cable car back down, which I rather enjoyed despite my dislike for heights.

http://flickr.com/photos/55048848@N00

Picture by Andrew Bell, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The next day we went to the DMZ. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel north. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. The Northern Limit Line, or NLL, is the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea and the coastline and islands on both sides of the NLL are also heavily militarized. [Previous paragraph, source Wikipedia, see page for licence details, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Demilitarized_Zone]

Frankly we did not have a great time. The guide was good, but the day consisted primarily of a very long coach trip, a very long wait in a very hot car park, then a near lethal walk down a very steep tunnel to a very low wet tunnel to look through a tiny hole at a another tiny tunnel, then a closed railway station, followed by a viewing platform where we look across opend land to North Korea. Ah well, bucket list and all that. On return we explored a rather nice small area of town called Insadong where we had a nice cup of coffee (good coffee is an expensive treat in Asia) and browsed some typical arts and crafts, tried a Korean doughnut (yummy), ate at Burger King (yummy) and staggered home in a taxi.

Cuteness even extends to the fuzz in South Korea!
The next day the skies opened and it rained. No, that really doesn't cover it. Someone threw a bucket of water thru a sieve over Seoul. I've been in a few tropical rainstorms in my time, but this was unbelievable. I was in a cagoule and I was drenched in about 15 minutes. Anyway, all part of the fun. We went and had a fitting for my suit and then zoomed off to Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we drowned as we squeezed from palace to palace. I kinda liked it, Ann was quite dispirited, and Steve Culy would NOT have been able to call it a 'clearing up shower', although truth be told, when it did clear up, the city was ruddy clean!

From Seoul, South Korea


We then visited the Hongdae area is a region in Seoul, South Korea near the Hongik University, after which it is named. It is known for its urban arts and indie music culture, clubs and entertainments.

We used a mixture of taxi and the metro in Seoul, and whilst taxis are simple and inexpensive, the congestion is unbearable and the driving quite aggressive and bad. The metro, on the other hand, is clean, fast, simple to understand, and uses a smart card payment system called T Money that makes life uncomplicated. I particularly liked the fact that you can get little mobile phone charms that act as smart cards for payment, rather than using a card, obviously there was a Hello Kitty one! We also found the fact that you can pay for your taxi ride with a T Money device as a great recognition of the true potential for integrated ticketing. We’d like to send out a big thank you to Canadian Andy, who we met in a B&B in California, who gave us some great advice on where to go in Seoul (not all of which we followed) and also her T Money card.

14 Aug

Tokyo, Japan 8th to 12th August 2012

This blog written by Ann, over to you Ann.

Greetings from Tokyo. Flight was good – 11 hours flew by (see what I did there…) although JAL's seats were not quite up to BA's flat bed standards. The food and the service, on the other hand, were superb. We seem to have handled the 16 hour time change rather well, so far. There are many excellent limousine bus services from Haneda aiport to the main hotels, at about 7000 yen single per person. They're very efficient and happy to deal with heavy bags. We actually got in just a little late for the last bus to our hotel so they advised us to go to the Hyatt and take a taxi to the Intercontinental, it all worked well. Japanese staff seem very service oriented, wouldn't accept a tip if offered (would be offended in fact) and are extremely willing to meet your needs. The best thing to do is immediately goto the customer information booth when you land, they're very very helpful.

How to describe Tokyo? Clean to the point of clinical. Affluent. Industrious. Expensive. Refined. Classy. Confident. Safe. Painfully polite. Geeky/ nerdy. Kinky. Cookie-cutter 'salarymen', girls as individual as the fashions they wear. Crazy high heeled shoe-wearing taken to whole new level (in all this humid heat and concrete – respect!) Brilliantly funny 'cartoonized' public messages. Clam-shells, not smart phones (!) Superb quality food (even sandwiches are world class). Do I like this city though? Not much.

First thing to report on, is the toilet situation. There are 2 kinds in Tokyo. First kind, you sit down on a heated seat and there are buttons to: a) jet-wash your 'posterior', b) activate the bidet function (sprays your front bits) c) blow dry the above mentioned, with jets of warm air. Second kind of toilet: squat pan in the floor. Now, I'm starting to rather like the first kind, in a slightly embarrassed kind of a way but, having narrowly missed selection for the Olympic gymnastics team, I'm struggling somewhat with the latter. Solution: double-dose Immodium for the next 4 days!

We visited the Imperial Palace Gardens, hot, empty and utterly uninteresting. Ginza, expensive and soul-less window on top end brand shopping. We went to Akihabara Electric Town, which is a declining PC and electrical goods area which has turned to 'otaku' fans of anime/manga and which is full of manga/anime shops, games arcades, 'maid cafes' and was frankly all quite weird even if you like anime or manga. We then went to the Edo-Tokyo museum which had some excellent models and some great exhibits but also strange omissions in the history, especially over the Imperial Japanese War in the Pacific, China etc.

Off to see what the crazy Tokyo teenagers get up to on a Saturday night in downtown Shibuya. The crossing there is the one you always see in films and news broadcasts and it boasts the busiest Starbucks in the world. Cup of coffee before we go then…

Shibuya was excellent and just the Japan we were looking for, neon, people, activity, mix of old and new. Right on the mark.


Just been in a Pachinko parlour. This is a kind of vertical pinball slot machine into which you pour a basketfull of small balls and then manipulate them, through the pins, into certain locations. Directly gambling

on pachinko is illegal in Japan, so balls won cannot be exchanged directly for money in the parlour, but are exchanged for tokens or prizes, which are then taken outside and exchanged for cash at a nominally separate place.
The Japanese government estimates the annual revenues of the pachinko industry to be in the region of ¥29 trillion (US$378 billion) – approximately four times the total annual profit of WORLD-WIDE legal casino gambling!!!!!!!
Quite apart from the damage to the pocket, the NOISE level in these places (which are on every street corner) is deafening.

So, Tokyo, very expensive, only way to live is to eat the excellent white rice balls or white sandwiches with the crusts cut off from the 7-11 or Lawsons convenience store. It's not a very tourist friendly city, not least because it's so expensive (and I checked Japanese salaries and it's expensive for them, our salaries in real terms are very similar) but also it's not at all geared up for foreigners. Ironic eh? One of the world's key suppliers of tourists, from a place that's not at all interesting!

Ah well, it's ticked off the bucket list.

07 Aug

California, 29 July to 7th August 2012.

We flew into Los Angeles from Chicago and, quite efficiently, made it from the airport to the Avis office to collect the car, only to have to queue forever; sigh. Then the ‘Medium – Premium’ car turned out to be the reason the US car industry almost died: a Ford Crown Victoria, a relic from the 1960s, partially upgraded into the 1980s and then allowed to lumber on like some dinosaur. After a while I nicknamed it the BOAT due it’s oil tanker like steering and size. Still, all part of the great American experience, eh?  We stopped off in La Brea to buy a window mount for my phone so we could use the rather good SYGIC satnav system, or as Ann puts it, the totally crap SYGIC satnav system, take your pick.

We didn’t want to get too bogged down in LA but we had to see Hollywood, and boy is it a freaking dive? The guidebooks say it is in a process of redevelopment and renewal, I can only assume it used to have dead junkies and hookers lying in sewerage on the streets before they started. We saw the sign and left as quickly as the BOAT would let us, north to Santa Barbara. This is a lovely town, carefully controlled by building and planning codes to be a low rise, Spanish Mission style town of bohemian seasideness with a touch of pier, pelicans and some young folk skateboarding and enjoying the summer. Loved it and the delightful Holiday Inn Express, ate at Joe’s café and had the best blueberry pie EVAH, before we had to steer ourselves up the US 101 and onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

Santa Barbara CA USA

Let Ann take up the tale: “Late afternoon went to Hearst Castle, the former home of William Randolph Hearst. If we thought Boldt Castle was worth seeing, this was in a totally different league. It's a 6-mile coach trip up the drive to the place that sits atop a mountain. UNbeLIEVEable. Three times the breath was knocked out of me as I entered a room. The 50-seat cinema was probably the most awesome of all. The whole place is stuffed full of priceless antiques and was frequented by Hollywood stars; Charlie Chaplin; Winston Churchill; to drop but a few names. It, like Boldt, remains unfinished, but only because he and his architect would never have tired of continuing to build it. You'd give your eyeteeth just for one of the guesthouses in the grounds. The cost estimate, at today's value, is something like $400,000,000.

Hearst Castle CA USA


We spent last night at the Inn at Morro Bay in the deep fog that bedevils the Central Coast region of California in the summer. Our room was literally on the edge of the ocean but we couldn’t see a thing. After a wonderful dinner, we woke this morning to dozens of seals frolicking just in front of our window. We had a great day, driving the PCH. Totally unbelievable scenery, quite breathtaking. Early on we were thwarted by the sea fog, but as it burned off it was "wow", in spades.


We stopped off and saw a beach full of elephant seals. The whole thing was just spectacular and we had many great stops including one at the wonderfully typical Pfeiffer Beach. Then we stayed in (another) great Holiday Inn Express at Monterey. Tom had a sauna, I did the laundry and ironing…”

We then made a long, smooth drive across the Central Valley, passing endless farms and places like 'Castroville, artichoke Capital of the world‘ (really!) and Gilroy, Garlic Capital of the World’ (stinky as hell!) and bought and ate loads of huge, delicious cherries and strawberries before reaching the foothills of the High Sierras at Ahwahnee, and the Natures’ Inn B&B, a very sturdy log cabin in the woods. A nice hot tub and sleep later we set off into Yosemite. Back to Ann: Bloody great day in Yosemite. Redwoods fascinating at Mariposa Grove although oddly not quite as big as we’d expected (go figure). Glacier point awesome but terrifying for Tom and his vertigo. Yosemite Valley and Touolumne Meadows fascinating and beautiful – at elevations far greater than little old Mount Washington! After a particularly scary run down a steep sided valley, we eventually got into June Lake on the other side, with Tom soon in bed with full-blown migraine from the stress! I had done most of driving, while he just panicked about going over the edge. Then he drove the last bit, downhill, on the widest roads of the day and totally freaked out! Big girl's blouse!”

Yosemite CA USA
The motel at June Lake was a total shit-tip and if it hadn't been for a) the migraine and b) the fact we'd pre-paid, we would almost certainly have bailed. Next day, we visited Mono Lake, a truly silent and fascinating alkaline saline lake with a very simple chemistry and ecosystem that supports hundreds of thousands of California and international birds. The lake has been systematically allowed to evaporate away since 1941, due to the demands of Los Angeles for water diverting the streams that supply it This had been gradually destroying the ecosystem and putting at risk vast numbers of wildlife. An agreement was reached in the 90s to restore the levels to a mid way point, and the lake is slowly recovering. It’s an eerie, silent and strange place with calcium carbonate tufas that rise out of the lake; brine shrimp and swarms of alkali flies that number millions. Ann and I were quite touched by the silence and strangeness.

Mono Lake, CA, USA


We then stayed at the Silver Maple Inn, in Bridgeport, a place where almost everyone was a fisherman and no-one was from there, even the staff. It’s some 7000 feet high, and it clearly has fierce winters. The Inn was a very well turned out motel, sadly with crap Wi-Fi. Our tour of US pie cuisine continued, but none matched the blueberry at Santa Barbara.

Then, next day, a hard drive north to Lake Tahoe, avoiding the 11,500 feet pass we’d originally planned (for Tom’s nerves), and stopped for lunch at Lake Tahoe with all the holidaymakers, right on the Nevada/ California border. It was a continuous downhill drive, riding the brakes for ever, as we went from about 8000 feet back to sea level.  By evening we were in a nice corner suite,  looking up at Nob Hill, in the City by the Bay.

San Francisco CA USA

Ann says: “Cable car museum was good. Went to Fisherman's wharf, hanging off a cable car, then afterwards took a streetcar to Castro – the 'gaybourhood'. Men walking around stark bollock naked! Was desperate to take a photo, but too scared to ask! Other than Castro, which I thought was great, I can't say I have taken to SF very much. Alcatraz tomorrow though.”

“Enjoyed 'The Rock' today. Quite thought-provoking/ emotional, but a great day out. We were very lucky travellers again with the weather – no fog at all today. Needed the jacket though – bloody windy on there! “

“Am now thoroughly sick of 'The City' though; would not want to come back here. It's too difficult to get about for a start. Walking anywhere is a nightmare ‘cos of all the hills; there's plenty of public transport, which we have used extensively – cable cars, streetcars and buses – but it's all so SLOW, not to mention crowded as hell. The people are either very abrupt, or down right rude, depending on your point of view. Fisherman's wharf is OK for a bit, but it's so crowded all the time. It reminds me of Blackpool but without the fun bits.“

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!

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.

 

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.