Flight to San Francisco from Australia was uneventful although we experienced quite a bit of turbulence. Arrived around midday (still Saturday) and caught a taxi to our hotel - The Chelsea Motor Inn in the Marina District.
We actually had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from our room.
Beautiful day - walked down to Fishermans Wharf area and everyone was taking advantage of the warm weather.
Purchased the CityPass which gave us unlimited rides on public transport as well as a 1 hour cruise under the bridge and around Alcatraz Island and we managed to catch that.
Had a clam chowder in a sourdough bowl at the Boudin bakery although Toby opted for the chlli
Finished the day by catching a cable car then walking back to our motel.
Motel a little noisy with traffic and the little pub / bar across the road whose patrons were quite vocal until the early hours of the morning.
We explored the Fishermans Wharf area until we went on the Alcatraz tour.
Spent at least 3 hours at Alcatraz and found it very interesting. Did some souvenir shopping before returning to the motel.
Another perfect day weather wise - great for our bike ride. Picked up the bikes (2 singles and 1 tandem) for our 'Bike the Bridge'. We were going to ride to the Academy of Science but it was too far so we just headed towards the bridge. Brad took a billion photos - it was a good ride over the bridge and down to Sausilito where we caught the ferry back.
After our bike ride we caught a bus to the Academy of Science which was quite interesting except we couldn't see the Planetarium as all the tickets had already been given out.
Brad decided he had to have a crab meal before we left San Francisco so we went to Joe's Crab Shack which is 'quite an institution'. Food was great!
Picked up our rental car from O'Farrell Street - a nice blue Ford Escape. Spent the next 5 minutes trying to familiarise ourselves with the vehicle then getting ourselves out of there. Had to drive down Lombard Street and the to the 'Painted Ladies' houses in Alamo Square. Then drove to the Academy of Sciences so that Brad and Toby could see the planetarium that they missed out on yesterday.
So, using the TomTom (our GPS) we navigated our way out of the city over the Bay Bridge which is similar to the Golden Gate but about 3 times longer. Made it out of the city and on towards Yosemite. Once we got off the Interstate the roads were very quiet. Ended up driving into northern end of Yosemite National Park just on dark - saw our first snow. Arrived at Yosemite View Lodge around 6pm. Good quality room with kitchenette. The kids had a swim in the indoor heated pool.
Today was a full day exploring Yosemite Valley. The weather was fine although overcast. What can I say about Yosemite but WOW!
The scenic vistas are so spectacular they almost take your breath away. We caught the YARTS bus in and took advantage of the free shuttle buses which took you to different areas of the park. Each stop was absolutely picture postcard spectacular. Even more beautiful was the snow on the ground. Brad gave the camera a good workout again. The only thing that could have been better was if the sky was clear and blue.
Luke went to get a drink from the vending machine and came back quickly because he was confronted by a racoon that was climbing the stairs - he was afraid to go past him because he may 'maul me'. Naturally we got pics and the racoon is so cute.
Left Yosemite in fog and rain. Lucky we did the park yesterday because today we would not have seen a thing. Drove out through Yosemite to Fresno where we bought tyre cables (just in case) plus a disposable phone from Walmart ($30 for the phone which include 300 minutes including international calls). From there we headed towards Sequoia National Park. An incredibly winding road with twists and turns through the mountains (elevation 8000ft). Saw the worlds largest tree - General Sherman - not the tallest or fattest but the largest in volume. Unfortunately it was lightly raining most of the time.
The kids were not impressed about the mountain roads and started whinging about it, but Brad and I thought it was great. We don't see terrain like this in Australia.
We didn't get to Bakersfield until 8pm - out hotel was the Holiday Inn Express - much the same as all the other hotels however this was the first one where breakfast was complimentary and it was good.
Had a good breakfast (hot) and headed towards Las Vegas, stopping at Calico Ghost Town on the way. Interesting tourist stop in a desolate landscape. Bought a wooden puzzle box which intrigued me.
Continued to Las Vegas and arrived around 5pm. Can't believe how fast some people drive around here. I'm sure many were doing over 100 mph. Las Vegas is an extraordinary sight. Loud and bright and gaudy.
The hotel - Desert Rose Resort - is very nice. A 1 bedroom suite with full kitchen and it included breakfast too. It is located just a block away from MGM / Tropicana / Excalibur / New York New York. Spent the evening walking around this area.
Got up early and drove to Boulder (about 30 minutes) for our tour of the Grand Canyon, due to leave at 5:30am. Turned out the tour was cancelled due to poor weather in the Canyon. Booked us in for next day at 11am.
Decided to go to Hoover Dam and do a tour there. Quite a remarkable engineering feat. Returned to Las Vegas and walked halfway up the strip and back. Had a 2 for 1 buffet at Excalibur then returned to the hotel for a rest as our feet were killing us.
Went out again later and rode the roller coaster at NYNY - pretty scary. Bought a 24 hour bus pass for the Deuce which takes you up the strip. Went to the Stratosphere where Brad and the kids rode the X-Scream which drops you out over the edge while suspended 100's feet in the air. I was too scared. Went back to Circus Circus where the kids went into the Adventuredome for more rides and rollercoasters etc. while Brad and I went to the casino.
Picked up from the hotel at 10am for the Grand Canyon Tour. Boarded a small Twin Otter plane with about 20 other people. We were told the helicopter and boat portion of our tour may not be operating because of the wind. The flight was a little bumpy with the wind but it was a great view.
Grand Canyon (West) is spectacular and the helicopters were able to take us down to the base of the canyon for our trip on the boat. It was surprisingly warm down on the valley floor - an awesome experience. Toby even had a go at driving the boat much to his delight.
Flew back to the top and we travelled by bus to Guano Point for lunch - shredded BBQ beef, hot potato salad, beans and hot apple pie. Very cold but the scenery was spectacular.
Boarded our little plane again for the flight back to Boulder but we could not land because of high winds so had to land at Henderson. A great day.
That night we caught the bus up to Fremont Street to see the light show, then back to the Bellagio for the fountains - I love the fountains.
Another late night - had planned to go to Death Valley but decided not to go.
Had a bit of a rest day today. Did some laundry and Luke tried to send some emails however the hotel internet had a glitch and he lost all that he had written - he was very annoyed.
Walked through Cesars Palace and the Bellagio - the kids went to Gameworks.
Bought some T-shirts etc. and came back about 9pm. We were all fairly tired and while Las Vegas is an interesting experience, we will be happy to leave.
Left Las Vegas and headed towards Bryce Canyon. We cannot believe the complete towns up near Cedar City that are completely covered in snow. Arrived at Bryce Canyon with enough time to drive to Sunset Point. This place is breathtakingly beautiful (as well as absolutely freezing).
Had our evening meal at the Ruby's Inn Restaurant. Brad and I had the Portabello Mushrooms as a starter and they were absolutely delicious. The rest of the meal was great too but as usual portion sizes are huge. Luke managed to get his emails sent including some photos without any dramas. I like the hotels that offer free internet.
Bryce Canyon is such an unusual yet beautiful landscape. We did a small amount of sightseeing before the bitter cold got ot us and we decided to head off to Monument Valley. The contrasts in landscapes in this part of the country is incredible. At one stage the rock formations etc. on the way to Page reminded me of areas of Northern Australia such as Katherine Gorge.
It was quite a long drive however it was still daylight when we reached our accommodation at The View Hotel in Monument Valley - and boy what a view it was. The sun was hitting one of the mittens and the glowing colour was beautiful.
The Hotel was very nice - comfortable and modern. I liked the fact that the towels we large, soft and fluffy. We had a meal in the restaurant which was quite satisfactory.
We spent the morning on a self drive tour around Monument Valley - bought a cheap turquoise necklace from one of the native american stalls that they have set up around the drive.
Had to head towards the Grand Canyon because we needed to check in for our mule ride which we were going on tomorrow. We arrived about 4:50pm and caught the late afternoon scenery of the sun setting over the Grand Canyon - beautiful sight!
We checked in for our mule ride - signed disclaimers and weighed in. Not sure how many of us were looking forward to this little adventure. It looked an awful long way on a steep narrow track out to Plateau Point.
Made our way to the accommodation at Best Western Grand Squire Inn (which I had booked through Papillon at a much cheaper rate). This hotel was very classy - luxurious lobby and very comfortable rooms. It even has a bowling alley which the kids had a go at.
Had an early night because it was an early start next morning for the mule ride.
After a good breakfast at the hotel, we headed off to the corral to meet our mules. After a warning speech from the head cowboy we mounted our charges. Toby had the smallest one called Peanut, Luke's was an ugly gorilla like mule called TC, Brad had the prettiest mule called Bonnie and mine was an attractive?!? mule called Marci.
The worst part is the first part of the track. It is slippery with ice and snow and the mules footing did slide a bit but once you got used to it, it was not really scary. After about 2 1/2 to 3 hours we had our first rest stop at Indian Springs (or Wells - can't remember the name). At this point you have discovered muscles that you forgot had existed but after a couple of minutes walking around, the circulation slowly returns. Then our band of eight adventurers remounted and rode a further hour to Plateau Point which was our lunch break.
The ride back takes quite a bit longer because after the rest stop at Indian Springs you have to keep going with brief rest breaks for the mules every 10 minutes or so. After about 3 hours in a saddle climbing back to the top of the Grand Canyon we finally made it back.
The legs are hurting so badly that I think people make a point of watching everyone dismount as it is a source of entertainment. Still, it really is an experience and if you do get a chance and are fit and able (and weigh less than 200lb / 91kg), then put it on your to do list.
After a few more photos of the Grand Canyon, we set out for Benson (our stopover close to Tombstone). As it was kinda on the way (about an hour detour each way) we decided to check out the meteor crater between Flagstaff and Winslow, AZ. We thought it would be just a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere that we could have a quick look at and then be on our way again. We were quite surprised to see quite a complex set up which charged quite and exorbitant amount of money to look at this 'hole in the ground'. Granted, they had some good displays set up but it really wasn't worth the time or money to view. That was our opinion anyway. Guess I should have investigated that one a little more thoroughly beforehand.
Arrived at Benson without any hassle - Quail Hollow Inn - typical Best Western - they are all starting to look the same.
Tombstone is the town that refused to die and I must admit, I didn't know quite what to expect. It is only about half and hour drive from Benson and we really enjoyed it. The whole town is a tourist destination and all the business owners and shopkeepers where dressed in typical western garb of the late 1800's. It is worthwhile buying a combo pass and catching all the shows they have from a gunfight re-enactment at the OK Corral to an animal wild west show and a comedy wild west act.
We also checked out the infamous 'Boot Hill Cemetery" before heading back to Gila Bend for the night. On the way out of Tombstone we met our first border control checkpoint - just as well we had all our passports on us because they were checked to make sure we were not illegal aliens.
Gila Bend is a town between Tucson and Yuma. We stayed at the Best Western Space Age Lodge which was a rather odd 1950's style hotel with a 50's diner next door. It was unusual but I liked it. We ate at the diner and the food was good.
Just another travelling day from Gila Bend to San Diego. Went through a couple more border checkpoints and we were quite fascinated to see the elaborate border fence which looks extremely expensive. I was surprised to see an area (I think near the border of CA and AZ) were there was a proper desert with absolutely no vegetation and rolling sand dunes. Unfortunately we had our first mark on the rental car - a stone chip in the windscreen. Fortunately we took out extra insurance cover for situations such as this.
Anyway, arrived at San Diego and settled into the Pacific Shores Inn - a neat hotel and our room actually had an ocean view. The hotel was a very short walk to the ocean and not far from the pier which we could not go out on because it was being renovated.
Made our way to Seaworld and bought the Southern California CityPass which included entry into Seaworld, San Diego Zoo, Universal Studios and 3 day park hopper at Disneyland. Seaworld was good - went on all the rides and saw all the attractions - the highlight of course being Shamu.
However we also enjoyed the show with the domestic animals - I understand how dogs can be trained - but how you can get cats to perform is beyond me.
The San Diego Tour bus company picked us up from our accommodation and took us on a tour around the main areas of San Diego including the Gaslight area, Balboa Park and La Jolla. We then had an hour cruise on the harbour before setting off to Tijuana, Mexico.
Tijuana is an experience!! I can't say I really enjoyed it because I don't like being accosted every two steps to come an check out what they have in their shops. Everything was chaotic and we were glad to return (Brad did manage to buy a genuine [not] Rolex watch and a few T-shirts to show 'been there,done that")
We had an option to visit the San Diego Zoo or Wild Animal Park. We chose the Zoo and it was a pleasant day.
Had a nice meal at a small Thai Restaurant just down the road from our hotel - nothing fancy but the food was good.
Unfortunately it was raining but that did help keep the crowds down. Several years ago we had been to Disneyworld and to us Disneyland was almost the same as Fantasyland including the rides and layout. We enjoyed all the rides - how can you not love Disneyland!!
Ate at the very popular "Blue Bayou" restaurant which looks onto the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The food was excellent.
Once again it is raining (on and off). No crowds and most of the rides are almost walk on. Tried California Soaring which is a sort of IMax theatre experience - very realistic. Tried the very popular Toy Story Mania and that was great fun although I nearly always came last.
Also did the Hollywood Tower of Terror - which Brad is very scared of. Quite funny really. But without a doubt the best ride there is the California Screaming Roller Coaster. Such a buzz - we had to do it as often as possible. Watched the Toy Story parade and that was great. Also had a go at cartoon drawing with one of the cartoonists. We all drew Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and I really enjoyed that.
Spent half a day at each park with our park hopper ticket. Stayed back and watched the light show at Disneyland "Fantasmic" and it was!
(Today was the day we found out about the horrendous bushfires back in Victoria, Australia - over 200 people died and small towns virtually destroyed. Cannot believe it....such a disaster)
Thanks to the Candy Cane Inn, they organised a taxi to our hotel in LA. At $95 it was probably the best option as we were considering catching a shuttle (but that only went to the airport - then we would have to get a taxi/shuttle anyway). I guess it is possible to travel by public transport but with all our luggage it just seemed too awkward. At least this way we could be dropped straight to the door. Incidently the taxi seemed very up-market so we felt we were travelling in luxury.
Our hotel - The Hollywood Orchid Suites - is located right behind the Hollywood Walk of Fame / Kodak Theatre area. An older style hotel but very spacious and quiet too. The Walk of Fame was not what I expected - just some stars set into the footpath - nothing fancy - and the shops beside are just the usual souvenir shops. Outside the Chinese Theatre it was a little more interesting with the footprints and signatures of the Hollywood famous and plenty of other characters around such as Captain Jack Sparrow, Darth Vader, Spiderman etc.
Well, this part of our journey which should have been routine became quite an adventure (an unwanted adventure)
Caught a shuttle to the airport and had to hang around there for hours because the flight did not leave until 11pm. We passed the time playing cards as there really was not anything else we could do. LA airport I am afraid is very disappointing compared to many we have been through. Anyway, finally we board our flight to Sydney with a 2 hour stopover in Fiji.
About an hour and a half into the flight, the pilot comes over the speaker to inform us that they had a mechanical problem with the fuel transfer pumps - they both were not working - and he had no choice but to turn back to LA. But because we were still too heavy with fuel and it could not be dumped because of the fuel transfer pumps malfunction, we had to circle for about 4 hours before landing. The pilot put the plane down hard, slamming on the brakes - there were fire engines there just in case. We found out later that the tyres had burst on landing and the brakes were burnt out. . We were informed that the next flight would be 24 hours later. The airline put us up in hotels near the airport with meal vouchers etc.
Another long day waiting.. finally took off on the same plane with new tyres all round and brake pads etc. and made it to Fiji OK!. Then it was another nightmare as we had to pass through security again and get boarding passes - it took hours. Still, we got chatting to lots of nice people.
Arrived in Sydney and then it was another drama to reschedule our connection flights to the Gold Coast. We ended up having to buy 2 seats for the boys ($500) and it looks like the travel insurance company are not going to honour our claim - something in the fine print so they say.
Anyway, we are glad to be back home - eventually. It was such a pity I had to return to work the next day.
Just thought I would add a couple of notes that others may find useful.
1. If you are driving, make sure you invest or hire a GPS. Our TomTom was a lifesaver and made navigating a breeze.
2. We found the $30 'disposable' phone from Walmart a great idea because it included 300 minutes of calls including international. To put our own mobile phones on international roving I believe is quite expensive.
3. When hiring a car, take out the extra insurance to cover windscreen and tyre damage - it may not be needed but if your windscreen gets broken (or chipped as ours did) then you are not hit with an extra expense.
4. Take a laptop for emails etc. We didn't have one but next time we travel we certainly will.
5. Choose hotels that offer a complimentary breakfast (preferably more than coffee and a doughnut). A good breakfast means you do not have to be spending as much on other meals. Also, American meal portions are usually a lot larger than we have in Australia so be careful not to over-order.