Category: USA

Posts from the States

Housesitting in Melbourne and other travel plans

Housesitting is the lifestyle plan for me and Phil, my husband, going forward

Eventually we will sign up with an agency, probably Trusted Housesitters. We have not needed to as yet as we were fortunate enough to land our first housesitting assignment through a uni friend.

I hadn’t seen my old uni friend for over 20 years and as part of the round the world trip Phil and I  did in 2011/2 the plan was to go visit her in Melbourne. Our dates clashed with her planned visit to England, which was disappointing as I was looking forward to seeing her again. Then she mentioned that all they needed to organise was a house and dog sitter and I proposed that we could be those sitters. Surprisingly she said yes, having only met my husband at our wedding. I had never met hers. However they entrusted us to look after Mac and Poppy while they were away.

And so it was in November 2011 we got to Melbourne and panicked when questioned by passport control about where we were staying in Melbourne.

‘I don’t know.’

Having since watched Border Control I now realise this was not a good answer to give.

‘My friend is meeting us’

I had realised by then to say ‘a friend I have not seen in over 25 years and just recently got back in touch with through Facebook’ would not have been a good idea.

‘Do you have a phone number for her?’

‘No, I don’t and I don’t have a phone that will work in this country yet.’

‘What if she doesn’t meet you?’

‘She will.’

I don’t think they checked if we were met, but I guess they could see that we had a flight booked out of the country so we reckoned they did not consider there was a big risk of us overstaying our visa. We were let into Australia. Also as it was incredibly busy in the arrivals hall, I think they just needed to get us out of there.

My friend was there at the gate.

And I got to spend two weeks with her as she had to change her dates due to some big music awards thing (Aria is pretty big) she had to attend. It was great because it gave us the opportunity to reconnect, and she and her husband got to show off their city. And we got to see Dolly Parton in concert, for free.

The next time we went in 2015 I had the addresses, emails, phone numbers all ready if I got questioned. Although we had no idea where we were staying in Sydney.  As one of our hosts was a barrister I reckoned she would get us out of the airport if detained.

‘Don’t mention housesitting, I have heard they have a dim view on housesitting.’

I must have said this to Phil a dozen times.

The arrivals hall was empty and we were made to use the retina recognition machines (always a challenge to those of us who wear specs) and sailed through border control in a matter of minutes.

Up until that moment I was convinced we would get the same questions, especially as I had a different visa than I had in 2011. But that is another story. I really must stop watching Border Control.

And now Phil and I are going back for the third housesit at the same house with the same dogs and I am getting all panicky about the visas again. This time it is because we will be in Australia for just under 3 months, the maximum time the e visa allows us to stay.

The reason for the longer stay is that we have two house sits booked now, both in Melbourne, with a gap between them.

Travel plans

The plan was to zoom in, get over jet lag, dump excess luggage in Melbourne and then fly to Darwin, travel over land to Alice and see Uluru. In 2 days, since beginning to write this post, plans have changed. We will now be arriving in Melbourne the day before the sit begins.

This is because Carole King is playing in Hyde Park, London. To make the most of the three-month visa restriction I have had to change our plans. Do you see how complicated and random my life is? Fortunately nothing was booked.

I have three itineraries in front of me and numerous tabs open on the desktop.  Australian Border Control, Viator, Tripadvisor,  tour companies to help decide on tours we can make in-between and after sits. I want to use an Australian based company to tour with, not some big multinational company based in Canada. It is hard to tell with some of them and if you book via Viator I have yet to find out if you can see who the tour operator is.

There are other things to consider.

Do we drive from Sydney to Brisbane? Wait, didn’t I just say we were going to Darwin, Uluru and Alice? Yes I did. That is still the plan between house sits.

We have to go to Sydney as Yum Cha is a must with our friends there.  I wanted to go to Tassie to but no time to fit it in and it will be cold in August. Darwin and Brisbane will be warmer, although the tour operators warn that temperatures drop at night in the NT. I am taking thermals.

So far the itinerary looks like this

10 July Birmingham to Melbourne via Dubai

13 July arrive Melbourne

14 July house sit until  22 August

23 August fly to Darwin

24 August 10 day Kakadu to Uluru tour

3 September fly from Alice Springs to Melbourne

4 to 21 September house sit in Melbourne

22 September fly to Sydney

22 to 25 stay at Rocks YHA Sydney – may do a Bridge climb, will go for Yum Cha

26 September drive to Brisbane using this itinerary

1 or 5 October  Five day Fraser and Lady Musgrave Island tour (dates to be confirmed by operator) the trip gets great reviews although it is expensive

11 October fly Brisbane to New Zealand (tbk) or home or……..

With just two days left on the visa.

I am panicking that something will go wrong and we will overstay the visa and be banned from entering Australia for 3 years (Border Control again).

The other issue I have is packing. What to pack and what in? I still have my back pack but my back is not good. On tours you need to take minimum, yet in Melbourne we will be city slickers and need at least one good outfit. My Dubarry boots with a dress sufficed for Melbourne casual dining but those boots will not be suitable for hiking around Uluru and scuba diving at Lady Musgrave Island. They will not fit in a back pack.

And if we go to New Zealand, do we get a camper van again? We had a love hate relationship with our camper in 2011. Do we fly into Christchurch and see more of the South Island? Will it be too cold? It is often cheaper to hire cars and campers in Christchurch if going to Auckland as the companies want the main stock on the North Island.

After New Zealand I would quite like to visit The Cook Islands. Those Dubarry boots will be of no use there either. Men don’t have these problems.

Oh, did I mention we have a friend working in LA ? We would like to go see him too, and maybe drive to Las Vegas, maybe San Francisco and we always said we wished we had spent more time in Pismo Beach.

Maybe one big road trip across America?

Decisions, decisions.

And then there is the insurance to sort out….. our annual policy will not suffice. The to do list is getting longer.

Where do you think we could go?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Los Angeles by public transport – The Griffith Observatory

The only way to see America is by car, right?

The car is king in America. Everyone knows that. It is the land of Route 66 and road trips and in LA everyone drives everywhere. IMG_2552

Don’t hire a car

Phil and I hired a car at SF airport and both in San Francisco and Los Angeles it remained parked up in while we were there. I would never hire a car while staying in either of those cities again. To drive the Big Sur? Yes. To explore the city? Never. I really do not think you need a car to enjoy either of these cities. Wasted cash on car hire for 6 days.

Use the Tourist Bus

In both cities we used the Tourist Bus to see the city and get our bearings. I used to think that these were a waste of time and money and just too touristy. Having used them in Europe, in Madrid and Barcelona whilst on a mini break with a friend, I changed my mind. They are a great way to see a new city, and when you tire of walking, just hop on a bus for a rest.

Explore using public transport

We then got bold and used public transport for the remaining days we were ‘stranded’ in LA visiting Union Station, Little Tokyo, Carnaval and the Griffith Observatory.

Brian, the helpful receptionist at The Coral Sands Motel, gave precise instructions how to get to the Observatory.  While Phil volunteered to man the phone to call Qantas every 5 minutes in the hope to get our flights to Auckland, I set off from Hollywood and Western to Vermont Station. The stop for the  Dash Observatory Shuttle is right outside the station. The fare is 50c each way or 35c if you have a TAP prepayment card. The shuttle only operates at weekends.

The Griffith Observatory

Located on the south slope of Mount Hollywood, it is worth visiting The Griffith Observatory for the views of LA and the Hollywood sign alone.

It is free to visit, the only charge is for the Samuel Oschin Planetarium which at $7 is very good value. There is also a Leonard Nimoy Theatre and entrance to events here are also free. The geek in me loved that there is theatre named for the man who played Spock.

It opened in 1935, funded by a bequest left by Griffith J Griffith, a Welsh man who made his fortune in Mexican silver mines.  and was extensively renovated and expanded  over 4 years from 2002 to ensure the citizens of and visitors to Los Angeles.

The architecture, inside and out is just stunning.

There are numerous exhibitions, many hands on, and you can even find out what you would weigh on other planets.

Of course using public transportation is not the only way to get to the observatory, there is some limited free parking and it is on one of the many hiking trails in the park. More information can be found here.

I would highly recommend it as a place to visit, great for families with young children as there is so much to keep them interested.

There are free public star parties with access to the telescopes. So when you tire of the Walk of Stars, and the wannabe stars on Hollywood Boulevard, head over to The Griffith Observatory, to see some real stars.Naturally, because this is Hollywood, the observatory has been used for film locations.  I prefered the golden age of Hollywood when stars were stars and not everyone who is in a soap on the telly is now a celebrity, so I was delighted to see the Rebel Without a Cause monument. Now James Dean, he was a proper star.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Los Angeles by public transport – Little Tokyo

Would you ever consider using the Los Angeles public transport network?

After we had exhausted all the touristy things to do (open top bus, Universal Studios, holding the Hollywood sign) using the three day pass we had chosen to make the most of our 3 days in LA, we unexpectedly had another 3 days to fill due to the Qantas dispute in November 2011. The wonderful guys (Brian and Bon) at our motel gave us some suggestions and so we decided that yes we could use the public transport in this city.

It was Halloween and we had been told not to miss Carnaval that evening. During the day however we we decided to visit Union Station and see a bit more of the city.

After Union Station we didn’t have a plan where to go, but wanting to get a train from the station we saw a local train on the Gold metro route going to Little Tokyo.

While not as exciting as climbing on a huge AMTRAK train and travelling alongside the Pacific Ocean, this would have to suffice. That said if we had gotten on the metro travelling the other direction we could have gone to Pasadena on our one day $5 pass.

Little Tokyo

We first called into the Little Tokyo Community Council a non profit organisation supporting the Japanese American community and the wider Downtown Los Angeles community.IMG_3179

The very helpful man there, who clearly loved his neighbourhood, gave us a potted history of the area and told us to visit the Japanese Gardens at the Kyoto Grand Hotel.This Is not a main tourist area, and I don’t think many English visitors come by his community centre. You can see how quiet it was here, no traffic on 1st Street. No traffic in the car city that is LA! This is what happens when you throw away your guidebook and just take a train on a whim, you meet the real people of Los Angeles, not another wannabe actor, and visit places where real people live.

Kyoto Grand Hotel – Japanese Gardens

We would never have known about these gardens if not for the man at the community centre. They are open to the public but are accessed via the lifts in the hotel lobby. The hotel has since changed its name to the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Los Angeles Downtown but the gardens are still there. Definitely worth a visit. Some websites say you need to book to see them but we walked into the lobby, used their loos and got in the lift, and behaved as though we were guests there. Used the same technique when visiting the loo with the view at the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne. Blagging it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Weller Court

Below the gardens is Weller court, a shopping centre, with some interesting places to eat,

and this prayer/wishing tree…

and then we find this.

The monument to Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American astronaut who flew into space on The Discovery. He died in the explosion that destroyed the Challenger in 1986.

Los Angeles is made up of pockets of communities of different ethnicities. Where we were staying on Hollywood and Western, in one direction it we had Thai Town, with great inexpensive food and in the other direction there was a Mexican community.

It was Halloween and we had to get back to go to Carnaval – again using our trusty $5 pass to catch the No 2 Metro bus to Santa Monica Boulevard. On the way home we stopped by a family run Mexican café and their children, who had been trick or treating, joined us.

Getting off the tourist trail, using the buses and trains, enabled us to see the real Los Angeles away from Hollywood Boulevard. Meeting the people who work and live here in this big city. As with any big city you need to be sensible and alert, and there are areas to avoid. If it hadn’t been for the Qantas dispute Phil and I would only have had ticked the boxes of the touristic Los Angeles. As it was, we got to see much more and look forward to returning one day to see more.

 

Exploring Los Angeles by public transport – Union Station, a step back to a bygone era of travel

Do you use public transport? Would you use it in LA?

Bill Bryson is one of my favorite travel writers. In his current book The Road to Little Dribbling, he is once more travelling around Britain. He, like me, is a big fan of using public transport, and when I read about the railway system and how stations and lines disappeared in the 60’s (and that Beeching was not really the main man responsible for this) I got thinking of train journeys I would like to make and then I remembered Union Station in Los Angeles.

You see, I am a bit of a train and  railway station geek. Not normal commuter stations nor commuting so much, full of angry people rushing everywhere, more the ones of a bygone age of steam and the big trains that cross America and Australia.

I have visited a village made famous by a poem about its station, Adlestrop (that no longer has a railway station) and got to see a working old fashioned signal box in Wales. So yes, I like trains and stations. The anticipation of travel without the hassle of the airport and more leg room. Indeed I am hoping to do a lot more train travel – I never did the interrail thing that all students are supposed to do so perhaps that could be the plan for the semi retirement. Sagarail (does that exist)?

Grounded in Los Angeles

Getting stranded in LA in November 2011 had its bonuses. Phil and I saw so much more of the city by exploring the city by public transport. We once shared a bus with Marilyn and Elvis on our way to Carnival.

The motel we were staying in, The Coral Sands, was a block away from Hollywood Western subway station. Brian and Bon on reception who looked after us so well during the unplanned extended stay, provided a list of things to do and see in LA that had not been on our list.

We had, after all, only planned to be there for 3 nights and so bought a tourist bus pass to see all the famous sites and visit Universal studios. This was our ‘be safe plan’ as I was convinced that LA was a dangerous place and everyone would carry guns. We now had 3 extra days (or more we really didn’t not know how long the Qantas dispute would last at the time) to see more of LA. As it turned out LA, in our experience, was not dangerous at all and we experienced some amazing acts of kindness and hospitality during our stay there.

I have just watched too many action movies I guess.

Union Station

Back to the list. Go visit Union Station they said. so we did. 

We caught the very clean and safe subway from Hollywood and Western to Union Station .Hollywood and Western station

The subway station is unmanned but the ticket machines work and the maps are very clear. Announcements are made at every stop. An all day Metro Pass in 2011 was $5. According  to the Metro Page the cost is $7 for a one day TAP pass and the TAP card (a prepaid card like an Oyster card) is $1.

It was Halloween so staff were, of course, dressed up.

This is LA. Everyone is an actor.

The subway station is pretty much like most commuter stations.  As you make your way to the main station  along a long corridor with platforms off you can hear the trains, and then you come upon this.

Union Station was built in the 1930’s and was placed on the National Register Of Historic Places in 1980.

Much of it is now closed to the public including the original ticket lobby and a restaurant. If you are a movie fan you may recognise this station as it is regularly used as a movie location.

The detail of the architecture is stunning.

It has a outdoor patio area with a water feature.

Comfortable seating, water fountains and restaurants with proper table cloths selling decent food.

So beautiful I don’t think I would mind if my train was delayed.

It represents travel of a bygone era. It made me want to book a train and go somewhere, any where.

We went up to the platforms and looked at the trains. Great big double decker trains.

The names of the trains sounded so Hollywood and glamorous. Who wouldn’t want to climb aboard the Coast Starlight to Seattle,  the Southwest Chief to New Orleans?

Or the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego, with views of the ocean along the way? I do.

 

If you find yourself in Los Angeles, I urge you to go visit Union Station. Take a seat and people watch. And think what it would have looked like back in the thirties….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun on the Pumpkin Farm

Farmer John's Pumpkin FarmTravelling south from San Francisco with my husband, back in October 2011, we stopped off for some fun at a pumpkin farm.

Farmer John's shed

Halloween never used to be a big thing in the UK. And although it is more commercial now, as at this time of year there are pumpkins and fancy dress costumes in supermarkets, we still have nothing on the USA.

Pumpkins galore

It was a real family outing, families out choosing pumpkins of all shapes and sizes to decorate their homes with.

Pumpkins

I wonder who bought this one?

rude food

Cute little carts for the kids and the pumpkins.

Family fun

Teepees and straw houses to play in. Even for the big kids.

Teepee

Straw house

Silly photo opportunities.

I'll take this one

Some help here

Cute pumpkins.

Mushroom pumpkin

Odd pumpkins.

Ugly pumpkin

Pumpkins of all shapes and sizes.

Pumpkins everywhere

If you are thinking of a Californian road trip, I highly recommend that you go in late October. Seeing California getting ready for Halloween was really interesting for us Brits, as to be honest Halloween is a bit tacky in Britain. In California it was fun and had a real holiday feel to it. And the weather at that time of year was really good.

 

 

California Dreaming – San Francisco

I left my heart in San Francisco.

I left my heart in San Francisco
I left my heart in San Francisco

San Francisco was the first place I visited on the Round the World trip with my husband in 2011. We just fell in love and didn’t want to leave.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We loved the trams.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We loved the cars. The San Remo Hotel had its own special car that it uses to meet people from the airport. (Would so book this next time).

Then there is Lombard Street.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The quirky San Francisco.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The darker side of Alcatraz. I would recommend you go as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And the food, oh the food.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Golden Gate. Yes the weather is that changeable. Hot and sunny one day and cold and misty the next. And they say Melbourne has four seasons in one day.

The food. Did I mention the food?

IMG_1267

And naan and curry to make us feel at home. San Francisco. I love you.

California Dreaming – Happy Birthday John Steinbeck

As we headed south toward Monterey on our Californian road trip, we noticed how the landscape seemed to suddenly change. We were driving across a vast dark, almost menacing plain, which was such a contrast to the colourful pumpkin patch,

Pumpkin Patch
Pumpkin Patch

rolling hills and vales we had driven through earlier that day. 

Fields around Salinas
Fields around Salinas

Once settled in Monterey we sifted through the leaflets in the motel reception for ideas of what to do in the surrounding area. We thought we would only be staying one night and move on south after visiting Carmel (Phil was convinced we would bump into Clint) but that was not to be. There was so much to do in the area.

I discovered we were not far from where Steinbeck was born and raised and, having recently read Of Mice and Men with my Make Friends with a Book group, I was keen to visit.

We headed back to Salinas, a town surrounded by the dark and never-ending fertile plains we had driven across the day before.IMG_1741

And immediately I understood how this landscape would have influenced Steinbeck’s writing. There were people still toiling in the fields and digging up vegetables by hand just as George and Lennie had. This was a farming system that seemed very labour intensive.

Steinbeck was no stranger to such work himself, he worked on the farms in his summer holidays. I am sure he met people then who would become the basis of some of his characters.

I cannot say I liked Salinas. It was a featureless town built on a grid. The car park was full of big station wagons with number plates like this. IMG_1696It was a gritty place with gritty people. A real contrast after San Francisco with its hills and Bay Area. Yet near to the National Steinbeck Center art was fighting back.

And I discovered that in addition to the gritty novels that he wrote Steinbeck was famous for, he was also a traveller. He had lived in England for a while and had also been on his own road trip of America, documented in the book Travels with Charley. IMG_1710He had a pretty cool vehicle to travel in.

We had lunch in his former home, which I wrote about in this post Lunch with Steinbeck Dinner with Forrest.

The National Steinbeck Center is definitely worth a visit. I just wished I could share the experience with my friends at Bleakhouse Library who I had shared Of Mice and Men with in my Make Friends with a Book group.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And I definitely agree with this.IMG_1703

Happy birthday John Steinbeck. 112 on February 23rd 2014.

I have just discovered that in two days time it is your birthday, whilst looking up the links for this post. Synchronicity, perhaps?  The Celestine Prophesy, which helped me understand this concept is also about travelling. And it has just occurred to me that I will be looking at camper vans on your birthday. Not planned, only because I have won free tickets to the Caravan and Camping Show. Perhaps it is meant to be? So, that like you, I can go on another road trip. 

California Dreaming – sunshine, seals and death in Santa Cruz

IMG_1677We were searching for the motel we had booked in Santa Cruz and were totally lost. It was called The Bay Front InnIMG_1623which ought to have been clue but we couldn’t find the bay. We were in the middle of residential housing, no map, no Sat Nav just a name of the motel. That is how we pretty much planned our road trip in California.

Then I saw this.

If you are lost ask an librarian
If you are lost ask a librarian

Ask a librarian!

What a lovely guy, not only did he give me directions to the motel, being a friendly Californian (is there any other type?) he also recommended somewhere to eat too.

Santa Cruz pier
Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf

The restaurant he had told us about Oliatas was on the wharf and the food was amazing.

There were lots of birdsIMG_1605and a great vantage point to view Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz boardwalk
Santa Cruz boardwalk

We noticed people staring down under the pier and, being curious, went to see what they all found so fascinating.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A dorm for seals.

The next day, we took a walk along the cliffs where there were some pretty amazing houses, including this one. I am not quite sure if having a replica of your house, in your house, isn’t a bit spooky though.

Then we saw this.

I have written about meeting the guy who drives around Santa Cruz before in Life Begins after Normal. I wished we could have stuck around longer and got to know him better, as he was a fascinating person. But other events took over the day.

While we were chatting to campervan man a woman ran over and screamed at us to help her. She had returned from her run to find her partner slumped in the drivers seat and apparently unconscious. Campervan man was the calmest there, made the phone call to the emergency services, organised people to get the man out of the car while another guy did CPR. We were helpless except to comfort the poor lady. Of course he was dead, I think we all knew that.

I am sure and hope it was quick and painless. And this was the last thing he saw.IMG_1662

Once the emergency services arrived we went around the surf museum and we spoke with another couple who had also been involved there and had been the last to see him alive. We were all a bit shocked about everything we had seen. To say that we were subdued is a understatement and I don’t really remember much about the museum except that it was in a lighthouse. IMG_1658

Before we left Santa Cruz we went down to a beach side cafe for lunch, reflected on what had happened and realised how lucky we were, and that life is indeed short. Which is why we were making this trip.

Campervan man drove past and honked his horn and we waved.

He says he wants to be president one day. I would love to see that! Mind you right now, I reckon he needs to come over to the UK and take over our government. Life may be a bit more fun then!

Have you been to Santa Cruz and have you met the campervan man?

California Dreaming – Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach, another great town we discovered driving to LA.

Sums up the laid back Pismo Beach vibe for me
Sums up the laid back Pismo Beach vibe for me

Again somewhere I had never heard of. Yet it seems to be mentioned in quite a lot in Hollywood films.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

According to this article

The city has received a substantial number of mentions in popular culture, including the films The Big Lebowski and Clueless and the animated series FuturamaRobot Chicken, and The Critic.

In Ali Baba BunnyBugs Bunny and his traveling companion Daffy Duck emerge from a burrow, believing they have arrived at Pismo Beach “and all the clams we can eat”.

In the 1969 TV movie Dragnet 1966, Bill Gannon retires to Pismo Beach due to poor health. After eight months and three weeks of eating Pismo Beach clam chowder, Bill’s health returns, his teeth stop falling out and he is able to be reinstated with the LAPD. Explaining to Joe Friday the reason for his restored health he states, “The clams, Joe. The clams.”

Bugs Bunny also loves the clams and longs to get to Pismo Beach in the film Ali Baba Bunny.

 

Cute Houses
Handed down generation to generation these houses are so tiny

While we were taking photos of the cutest houses we got chatting to a lovely lady who lived there (the Californians love chatting to any one with an English accent). She recommended us to have lunch at the famous Splash Cafe. Apparently the stars flock there. We didn’t see any though. Like Bugs Bunny I want to go there and taste the clam chowder again.

Always a queue at Splash Cafe
Always a queue at Splash Cafe

California Dreaming – Morro Bay

Wished we had been able to spend longer in Morro Bay. It was a quirky little town that I had never heard of, yet guessing from the number of motels this is a buzzing place in the summer.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From our room we had a view of Morro Rock. The bay is home to so much wild life and there are so many cool vintage cars here. And the people seemd so very friendly too.

Yes, like many places on the route from San Francisco, I wish we had lingered longer.