Monday, 25 July 2011

The Hoover Dam

It's the penultimate day of our Stateside sojourn and we still have one more major landmark to visit.

The Hoover Dam is around 25 miles from Las Vegas near the border between Nevada and Arizona. It was built in the early 1930's to combat heavy flooding in the western United States and to provide irrigated water and hydroelectric power. Today it helps service large parts of Nevada, Arizona and California, though interestingly not Las Vegas.

On the short journey we are able to take in the spectacular sites of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. Lake Mead is situated very close to the Colorado River and from the freeway up to the Hoover Dam you can't help but be captivated by it's bright blue splendour. We make a note to visit should we ever find ourselves back in this part of the world one day. For now though, we press on to the Hoover Dam in all it's giant, concrete glory.

There's a little confusion in parking the car. After an uncomfortably brief security check - think Checkpoint Charlie without the threat of being shot - or even searched - or bothered at all in any way come to think of it - no, just think of a white hut - we are pointed in the general direction of a myriad car parks. We somehow manage to miss several of these and end up having to drive right around the whole Dam complex. Or the whole damn complex, if you prefer. Anyway, eventually we make a ludicrously sharp right turn and manage to find a space somewhere in Arizona. A kindly parking attendant advises us that if we move on a little bit further we can get a bit closer to the Dam and the Visitor's Centre. Center. Whatever. Those responsible for naming American tourist attractions cannot bring themselves to come up with any better term than Visitor's Centre (Center) for anything remotely resembling a place where information can be gleaned.

We decline this kind offer, mostly out of sheer can't-be-arsed-ness, and instead move out into the Nevada mid-afternoon heat. It is utterly stifling, but the good news is that it's all downhill to the Dam and the Visitor's Centre. I'm not offering you the alternative spelling this time, Dam you. Oh, I've done that gag before, too. You'll have to forgive me, I'm not myself at the moment. Well, I am. Maybe that's the trouble.

So anyway, we follow the steady flow of tourists to the bottom of the slope. There are clocks on each side of the road, one of which shows the time in Arizona while the other shows the time in Nevada. This is because the state line runs somewhere through the middle of the Hoover Dam site, but is rendered slightly pretentious and unnecessary in my view by the fact that it is exactly the same time in Arizona as it is in Nevada. It all put me in mind of Homer Simpson hopping in and out of the American Embassy in Australia. Technically accurate, but somehow cretinous.

In truth the views of the Dam on the way down to the Visitor's Centre are not the best if you happen to be a wheelchair user. The walls are very high and there is a rail on top of the wall also. At certain points you can just make out the vast concrete surrounding you and get an idea of it's sheer depth, but you might find it more interesting to ignore the Dam at this point and focus on the water flowing around it. It's an incredibly scenic view. Honest.

As you might expect (except perhaps at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles) there are organised tours of the Dam available. However we choose to explore at our own pace. It's cheaper and you don't have anyone barking information at you, nor do you have to worry about whether every nook and cranny in the bowels of the place will be wheelchair accessible. Does one have nooks and crannies in one's bowels? Anyway.....

It proves to be a good decision. The Visitors Centre is a most marvellous place, full of interesting exhibits charting the history of the Dam from it's inception under the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (although it was the brainchild of Herbert Hoover, the then Secretary of Commerce and future President, hence the name), to it's completion and opening in September 1935, to it's present form. Hoover had to fight to convince his government colleagues and other influential politicians of the time that the Dam was necessary. Most of the flooding had taken place in the west of the country, causing the eastern-based politicans in New York and Philadelphia and the like to adopt a stance that was distinctly 'I'm alright, Jack.' They viewed the flooding and other issues associated with the Colorado River as a 'Western problem', and did not consider it in the national interest to spend so much money on addressing it.

It was left to Franklin Roosevelt to carry out the grand opening, but it is the more human stories which really grab the attention. With a workforce of some 5,000 men and on site accommodation for only 480, the large majority were left to find shelter for themelves and their families elsewhere. The plan had been to house the men in the newly built Boulder City, Nevada, but that was before the Presidential order came to begin construction of the Dam before completion of the new city.

Sadly, 96 men lost their lives during the construction of the Dam, while another 16 deaths are associated with the building of the Dam. They include surveyor J.G.Tierney, who drowned while looking for a site for the Dam well before work got under way. Horrifically, many of the bereaved families never saw a cent of life insurance money as the deaths were attributed to pneumonia and other conditions caused by spending so much time on the construction site. If you fell off some scaffolding or were hit with falling debris well.......maybe your wife and children would see some form of compensation. Maybe. If not, not.

From the top floor viewing area I get a real sense of the vastness of the place. It's an awful long way down. Seven hundred and twenty six feet, in fact. It doesn't compare to the Grand Canyon but then being man made it never could. Yet looking out from behind the glass at that sort of height is still a pretty awe-inspiring experience.

We finish with a rather disappointing lights show which aims to display exactly the broad range of land now serviced by the Dam and the ways in which it helps provide power and water. However, the small theatre, dull-as-death voice over and Kindergarten model design are all a bit underwhelming if truth be told. It is perhaps for the best that we did not visit that theatre first or we may very well have given up on the whole thing and decided just to go back to Vegas to get lashed in some more casinos. You can get vodka and orange for free, you know?

I'm glad we didn't.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Grand Canyon

I have to tell you, I haven't been looking forward to writing this piece.

It's all but impossible to describe to you the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Not only that but I'm under a great deal of pressure. I'm told that the ending to my last piece was crap, on top of which I am not feeling at my best today. A weekend of heavy drinking has not helped my already fragile state of mind. I'm not exactly focused, here. If only I were a tortured genius this sort of thing would come naturally. Alas, I'm not. I'm just a balloon with nothing else better to do on a Sunday evening. Sting once said that writing was it's own reward. Sting's a tosser.

So anyway, if you are still there I'll have a go at it. Since the Grand Canyon is situated in Arizona, some 290 miles from Las Vegas, we were on the road early. Our trusty sat nav estimated that the journey would take around four and a half hours. Double that for the return journey, add on any further delays (meals, our leaky bladders etc...) and it is easy to see why we had to be away early. This was going to be an all-dayer, in the non-alcoholic, lots of driving around sense of the term.

We had been told by the rude concierge that the South Rim would offer the best tourist experience. On the West Rim you can find the famous Skywalk, a glass bridge suspended 4,000 feet above the Canyon. Now those of you familiar with my lame attempts at wordsmithery (sorry, I really do detest myself today so you are just going to have to put up with this) will know that I once experienced the glass floor in the Jorvik Viking Centre in York. That is placed some three feet or so above a miniature display of the ancient Viking digs, yet this was enough to make me feel slightly woozy whenever I ventured on to it. So, can you really imagine me pushing around on a glass brige 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon? I really wanted to, but I was utterly convinced that I would get there, pay my $30 or whatever to get on the Skywalk, and then find that I couldn't actually do it.

We chose the South Rim.

The roads between Las Vegas, Nevada and Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona are fairly benign, uneventful territory. There was very little of the winding, mountainous terrain we had to endure on the way to Palm Desert, so let's skip four and a half hours to the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park, where we parked up and had lunch at the McDonalds there. McDonald's get everywhere. We were lucky to get any food whatsoever after Emma ordered our meals, then promptly forgot what ticket number she had been given.

"I gave the receipt to you." she said, incorrectly. Some eight hours later the receipt turned up in her handbag. Who'd have thought it? Anyway, just a few minutes along the road from McDonald is the IMAX cinema, which shows a 34-minute 'presentation' (pronounced pre-zentation) charting the history of the Canyon from the original Native American inhabitants some 4,000 years ago, to the madcap antics of Major John Wesley Powell who began battling the Colorado River to explore the Canyon back in 1869. The actual boat in which he and his crew made their epic journey is on view in the Visitor's Centre just outside the IMAX theatre.

The film leaves you in no doubt as to how treacherous the River was for those trying to explore the Canyon in the middle of the 19th century, and leaves you with more fairground thrills as it takes you on board a modern day white-water raft. In between times there is a fair smattering of death, disappearance and ugly wildlife on view as every aspect of man's relationship with this natural phenomenon is crammed into such a short space of time.

And so to the Canyon itself. Just when you think you are there, you are not. You have to buy your car park passes from the Visitors Centre and drive on another couple of miles to the proper viewing areas. We parked at Yavapai Point, but knew from the map that there was good, fully accessible viewing at Mather Point. Despite the sun beating down on us the whole day, it can get quite windy when you are 6,000 feet above the Canyon. I actually put my jacket back on. Well anyway, sunscreen is such a ballache. We turned on to the main pathway at the edge of the Canyon and Emma stepped over the rocks and dirt to get a closer look and some photographs. I was sat around 20feet back at this point but I could still see the ludicrous majesty of the thing. It would get more eye-opening as we walked along.

It is 1.7 kilometres from Yavapai Point to Mather Point and we took the walk slowly, taking in the breathtaking views along the way. Some strange individuals had seen fit to step out on to the very edge of the Canyon, dangling their legs over the edge as they just sat there, enjoying the spellbinding glory of the place. Like the Skywalk, their endeavours are something that I can only look back upon and wish that I had the brass balls to be able to do. And the wheelchair access, obviously. The IMAX film had led us to believe that we might encounter the odd snake, but instead visible wildlife was restricted to some reasonably sized lizards and great condors, soaring above the rock in the most matter-of-fact manner.

Finally we reached Mather Point, and I got to take my first real close-up look at the Canyon. I can describe it as nothing other than dizzying. And I mean that in both a good and a bad way. At first it fills you with awe, but within a minute or so of looking out over the sheer, vast open-ness of the whole thing I was starting to feel a little bit odd. I got to the point where I wanted my stomach back and actually had to take a push back. I went back for more at regular intervals and I have to tell you that at no point did it get any less bewilderingly beautiful.

We walked just a few kilometres and only stayed on the Canyon for a couple of hours, yet if you are travelling from somewhere a little closer you could easily spend all day there. The Canyon is 277 miles long and 18 miles wide, offering plenty of opportunity for walking, hiking, and general exploration of it's magnificence. It really, really has to be seen to be believed.

We got back to Yavapai Point and the car, ready for the long, arduous journey back to Vegas but knowing full well that it had been completely worthwhile.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Road To Mandalay - Via A Rude Concierge

We're up early again on Wednesday. It would turn out to be the last full day we had available for doing nothing except getting drunk at casinos. Something to make the most of, I'm sure you'll agree.

Before we leave the Fitzgerald we have a trip to plan. We have set aside Thursday for the trip to the Grand Canyon, and Friday for a visit to the Hoover Dam. The latter is much simpler. It's only around half an hour to 45 minutes drive from Las Vegas and, according to the literature, can probably be done in an afternoon. The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is over in Arizona, fully 300 miles from Las Vegas!

Understandably, Emma's a little concerned about the drive. On the way into Palm Desert from San Diego she had to negotiate some pretty scary roads. Tiny, winding, narrow roads which cut through the mountains around the Coachella Valley. The views from there are both breathtaking and terrifying all at once. To my continued dismay, Emma kept pulling into the specially designated rest areas designed to allow slower drivers to allow the nutcases to pass. Given the lofty location of the Grand Canyon, the drive was going to be tricky.

So we explore the possibility of letting someone else drive. We thought it logical that the hotel would run some kind of excursion. We expected that the biggest barrier to getting on such an excursion would be access. Holiday excursions are almost always taken using highly inacessible coaches and we have been very lucky indeed on the odd occasion whenever we have found one equipped with anything resembling a lift. Yet on this occasion access was not the biggest problem. In fact, it wasn't the problem at all.

The problem was money. We approached a very rude female concierge who informed us that a ticket for the Fitzgerald's Grand Canyon excursion would set us back $170. Each. The rude concierge did not seem to think this should be a problem for us, and began dismantling any alternative to this that we might have been able to come up with. We had literature from several other places along the strip which advertised the Grand Canyon trip at as little as $75-80. Not cheap, but not $170. Each.

"Oh, they tell you that's the price, but it really isn't." began the rude concierge, shoving another copy of the Fitzgerald's Grand Canyon excursion leaflet into Emma's face;

"See, what happens with those ones you have there is you pay that lower price right there, but your place is not guaranteed. They'll bump y'all off if they find someone who'll pay more." she added, pointing and nodding for America.

So, if we were not to take the car (and we were still seriously considering that option at this point) we would either have to pay $170 (yes, you know, each.....) or else pay around half this but risk turning up at some ungodly hour of the morning to find that our places have been given away to the highest bidder. Despite the rudeness of the concierge, we had to at least pay some respect to the notion that she might actually know what is talking about. It's her job to know these things, but on the other hand it is also her job to be pushy and rude, and to try and sell us the Fitzgerald's own trip at all costs. At $170 actually. Each.

In retrospect we mulled over this for far longer than I am now comfortable with. But then that's because I have been home for two months and I know that it worked out ok in the end. The deliberations dealt with, we decided to pass on the Fitzgerald's excursion and look out for a better deal. Worst case scenario, we take the car. Either way a trip to the Grand Canyon was going to be a 13-hour job including all of the travelling. But reason has it that you do not fly 8,000 miles from home to falter 300 from one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the known world.

Much of the rest of Wednesday is a blur. We went into almost every hotel on the strip once again, played as much free electronic poker as the time allowed, drank as much criminally cheap alcohol as our bodies could stand and generally had a right good old time of it. We walked all the way down to the end of the strip at Mandalay Bay, just because we wanted to be able to say that we had been in most if not all of the famous hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard. We got lost in MGM Grand, also visiting Excalibur, New York New York, Paris, Treasure Island (again), Caesar's Palace (again), Mirage (again) and so on.....

At Mandalay Bay we happened upon the House Of Blues, the hotel's theatre and music venue. They were selling tickets to see The Script on Saturday. They were $34 each. About five times less than we could have been paying to get on that bus to the Grand Canyon in the morning. Staggered at being able to buy tickets to see a band that we had heard of for less than $150 (we've seen Elton John anyway and I'd take the bullet over Celine Dion, frankly) we coughed up straight away. I remember being slightly disturbed by the salesman repeatedly informing us of the procedure should the gig be cancelled for any reason. Set-backs like we had endured on our trip so far teach you to be suspicious. It didn't quite affect Emma in the same way. She was delighted.

I'm afraid I can't remember much thereafter of that Wednesday. We never did find an alternative excursion to the Grand Canyon, so resigned ourselves to travelling there by car early in the morning. Though we headed back on to the Deuce before 8.30 pm, we had still managed to put a good eight or nine hours drinking and gambling time behind us that day.

Under such circumstances, the memory gets a bit hazy.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Return To Vegas

So go on admit it, this is what you have all been waiting for? You don't give a rat's arse about California. About tense bus journeys, buses that think they are boats, expensive steak houses or any of that crap. You want me to talk about Las Vegas, don't you?

I'm going to whether you like it or not. It's Tuesday morning and we are due back in Vegas today. We have five nights booked at the Fitzgerald Hotel on Freemont Street. What is more, we have tickets for a show tonight at the Imperial Palace Hotel on the strip. It's a Motown-themed show, but essentially it is four lads from Australia singing on a stage. It worked for the Temptations, although they almost certainly were not Australian.

We have a leisurely breakfast at the Best Western, listening to some well-travelled old timer vent his spleen about the price of fish in Paris. Or something. I wondered at that moment whether he had ever been to Ruth Chris's. I notice a tip jar on the breakfast counter. Like many Americans who prepare your food for you, the chef wants paying twice for doing his job once. We decline and move on.

Freemont Street is a couple of miles off the strip. Despite this, you are still fully aware that you are in Las Vegas when you amble along it towards the many hotels to which it is home. Just like the famous strip at Las Vegas Boulevard, Freemont is all bright lights and casinos. It is here that you will find the famous Vegas Vic, the neon sign resembling a cowboy which was originally built outside the Pioneer Club in 1951. In the interests of equality, there's a Vegas Vicki too.

We pull into the Fitzgerald and stop to ask the Valet to impart his wisdom to us on the subject of parking. He advises us that we can park just around the corner, but that if we so wish we can stop the car in the valet lane for now so that we can register our arrival. Provided someone waits in the car. Probably best to choose the someone who doesn't need to lug a wheelchair out of the boot to go inside and register, so I wait. And I wait. And I wait.

It's probably about 15 minutes later but feels like 10 times that when Emma finally emerges from the hotel, all registered up. There is just time to go to the wrong room (having read the number as 420 instead of 620) before we get a quick change and are back out on to Freemont. Thankfully we never make it into room 420, and nobody seems overly disturbed by our repeated efforts to break in to their room using entirely the wrong key.

The in-room literature had advised us that there would be a bus leaving from the corner of Freemont regularly to take passengers back down to the strip. Emma has forgotten something from the room so while she makes the journey back to pick it up I go off investigating bus stop locations. I meet her back outside the Fitzgerald soon after and report that I have found the stop. The 'Deuce' travels right the way down to Las Vegas Boulevard from this corner of Freemont around every 15 minutes. It would turn out to be vital to the second part of our stay in Vegas.

It's incredibly busy. It seems that almost everyone staying on Freemont has decided that they're only going to be there to sleep, and that the main action is back down on the strip. We reach the Deuce before anyone else has boarded, which is handy because there is only space enough for one wheelchair user close to the front of the bus. There's a seat-belt which the driver insists on fastening around my chair. He also insists on knowing whereabouts on the strip we want to be dropped off. He obviously needs as much notice as possible for the arduous task of pressing a button to make the lift flip out from the doorway.

It takes longer than we had expected to reach the strip. The Deuce leaves Freemont at around 3.30 pm but it is after 4.00 by the time we disembark just outside The Mirage. The show starts at 7.30, but the doors open an hour earlier than that and we have been advised to get there in plenty of time. We cross the strip towards the Imperial Palace where we play a few games of electronic poker and enjoy a bit of liquid refreshment. We have chips and burger in a sports-themed fast food joint somewhere in the massive bowels of the place.

We make our way to the theatre level and are met by a burly usher. He says something to me and I shoot something back matter-of-factly, just making tedious small talk in that polite way that people have;

"Oh, you're from New York?" he says.

"I'm from England." I answer curtly, and he laughs in my face. I seem to have had the misfortune to happen upon the only American who not only appreciates irony, but is a formidable exponent of it. Never before in the history of mankind has a Lancastrian been duped by the ironic wit of an American. It is indeed a landmark event.

He shows us to our seats, which are placed at a table close to the front of the stage. That's all very well, the only sticking point is that the seats face across the theatre rather than to the front towards the stage. Either we will have to spend the entire evening twisting to face the front, or we will be watching the walls instead. He lets us take our alcohol in with us, which at first I consider to be a bonus. It is only later that I realise how costly it would turn out to be.

There's still around half an hour before the show starts, and a waitress comes over to offer us drinks. It's table service, there being no visible bar accessible to customers. We still have the drinks that we brought in with us, and we're not speedy drinkers anyway. Drinking is a marathon, not a sprint;

'Would you like some drinks, sir?" asks the waitress.

"No thanks, we're ok for now." I answer, gesturing to the half full bottle in my hand. She nods politely and flashes me an exaggerated smile. The kind of smile you can only get in America. She wanders off to enquire as to the drinking needs of someone at another table. I take a swig of my beer and think nothing of it, but it will be the last I see of a drinks waitress that evening.

All of which makes it all the more fortunate that the entertainment is of a high quality. Human Nature might just be four lads from Australia belting out Motown classics, but they are top drawer at what they do. I say lads, they are actually slightly advancing in years. The leader, Phil, looks to have made it way into his 40's despite his attempts to stay youthful via the gift of hairspray. Brothers Andrew and Mike are much more like what you would expect from what is essentially a boy band, but the fourth member, Toby, is something else entirely.

It's not overly cruel to suggest that he does not have boy band looks. His nose puts me in mind of someone who might earn their living in the front row for Saints but, to give him his due, his singing talents are extroardinary. He's the bass, and he reaches notes that are so low that Rolf Harris would struggle to replicate them on his Didgeridoo. That's a musical instrument, you know?

Pretty soon they are in full flow, belting out all the classics from 'Reach Out (I'll Be There)' to 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' to 'My Girl'. The latter rendition sees one poor audience member (possibly planted but that is an overly cynical view, and this column does nothing but what it says on the tin) dragged up on stage to sing along with Andrew. The plant notion is only backed up by the fact that, while she's no Diana Ross, the unfortunate audience member is not as truly terrible as you might expect someone plucked from the audience against their will to be.

Yet even that effort is outshone by Toby's ritual humiliation of one woman in the audience. He begins talking to 'June' between songs and somewhere along the line he comes over all Theopolis P Wildebeast. He's touching himself inappropriately, singing and speaking in an absurdly low tone, and generally behaving in a manner which might be deemed sleazy were it not so comical;

'Who is this fella with you?" asks Toby as he threatens to jump into the audience;

"My ex-husband." quips June, either playing along with brilliant comic timing or so taken with the perfectly resistable Toby that she is about to ditch her other half before the flight home;

'Can you shut your eyes for this bit, sir." Toby asks the man accompanying June, to howls of laughter, most of it just a preferable alternative to the mortifying embarrassment that most of us feel at that moment. Throughout the rest of the show Toby makes several more references to June, all of which are met with more laughter. The audience are writing their own jokes by now but thankfully the standard of the singing never drops.

By the end the four of them are in the audience shaking hands and trying to make blatantly reluctant people dance with them. I can't see Emma at this point, as she is hiding behind some kind of metaphorical sofa. She hates anything like this and all I am thinking at a time like this is how awful it will be if one of these goons drags her up on stage and makes a public spectacle of her. She'll never forgive me for existing. That's how these things work, isn't it chaps?

Human Nature are in the casino straight after the show for a meet and greet, but we can't take the excitement. We're still relatively sober because at no point during the show does another waitress come over to our table and enquire about whether we might like any more drinks. We have one or two more in the casino, get back on the Deuce and turn it in for the night, with attention turned to tomorrow, and trying to find a way to organise a trip to the Grand Canyon.....

Palm Desert

I was quite surprised to end up in Palm Desert. We booked this holiday three months in advance and all along, right up until the moment that Emma typed the postcode (zip code? feck off, postcode) into the sat nav (GPS? feck off.....) I had thought we were going to Palm Springs.

In actual fact Palm Desert is a city close to Palm Springs. Palm Springs is a little more famous and has more places to visit but Palm Desert is a little more upscale. That is the exact definition of the difference given by Yahoo Answers. Except that I put the word 'visit' in instead of their word, which was 'go'.

Anyway it mattered not. We were only there because it was the nicest looking place we could find somewhere between San Diego and Las Vegas ahead of our return to the gamblers paradise. We just wanted somewhere we could spend a day doing nothing much of anything. The previous week spent getting lost, running out of petrol and arguing with irate commuters had taken it's toll. There was a point when I thought we might not make it and should just head straight over to Vegas. The sat nav mysteriously directed us on to what, on the face of it, appeared to be a random, rather grand looking ranch. Thankfully, after finding itself at a dead end the sat nav took hold of it's senses, spun us around and miraculously righted itself. There wasn't much point trying to spend too long trying to figure it out. We were just glad to be on the right track once more.

Palm Desert is everything I expected Palm Springs to be. Hot, peaceful, idyllic. We arrived at our Best Western hotel (right next door to a Holiday Inn, proving once and for all that they do exist in California) early afternoon, and after a quick lunch at John's cafe (Mexican, believe it or not, although a cheese and ham toastie is pretty much a cheese and ham toastie wherever you are) were relaxing by the pool. Doing nothing. Mission accomplished.

We must have got cocky. As we got to early evening we decided to DO SOMETHING. Yes, I know, fraught with danger but there it was. We had decided and there was no going back. All I had done that afternoon was plough through the larger part of a John Grisham novel but now I was ready to go back out there into the big wide world. Well, the big wide California anyway. A place where things go wrong as a matter of course. It would not let us down.

On arriving earlier we had noticed a steak house across the road by the name of Ruth Chris's. No 'and' there, you'll notice. That is not my grammatical duncery at work, that is exactly what it was called. I can't imagine why. All I can come up with is that Ruth and Chris had some kind of Lennon & McCartney type row about whose name should come before the ampisand. Maybe things got a bit tasty and Ruth won a points decision to have her name placed first. Chris had perhaps scored a late blow and managed to negotiate the removal altogether of the ampisand.

We had considered that it might be a little more classy than the places we had eaten at up to this point. With that in mind Emma wore the most beautiful long, turquoise dress (she says it's green) while I even put a proper shirt on. We weren't playing games. This wasn't a Sunday tea-time drive to McDonalds near the petrol station. We strolled over to Ruth Chris's, a task made more difficult by some bizarre pedestrian crossing arrangements and a strong wind. But it would be worth the effort, right?

Wrong! Ruth Chris's was beautiful inside, improbably grand in it's layout and decor and for a fleeting moment we thought we might be in for a highly agreeable evening. We sat down and waited for the complimentary waters. Soon after our waitress arrived with the menus. Oh the menus. Damn those menus. Now, I am not a tight person by any stretch of the imagination. I can often be seen trying to throw my money away on everyone else's beer. However, if I told you it was $23 for a piece of chicken you might start to get an idea of what the entire bill would have totalled.

It was an a la carte menu from which everything had to be ordered individually. No set meals here, which just made it even more awkward for an un-cultured oik such as myself. Want mash potatoes with your chicken? That'll be another $8 then. Or anything else for that matter, mashed or otherwise. Salad? French fries? Sweet potatoes? Spinach? Asparagus? Broccoli Au Gratin? Broccoli Au What? Whatever. Eight dollars apiece, at least. The wine is always the most important part of any meal that Emma and I enjoy, and a bottle of house red here would have taken the bill well over the $150 mark.

A brief and frankly painstaking discussion ensued. The negotiations were highly prejudiced by the fact that there was a Domino's Pizza outlet just over the road, a short distance from the Best Western we were going to have to return to at some point in any case. Excruciatingly, we opened up the debate to our waitress, whose only advice was that there was a cheaper steak house a few minutes drive from here. Suddenly there was no discussion to be had. We gulped down the waters, and the cokes we had also ordered during a more optimistic time. The waitress must have thought we had no money at all because she insisted on giving those away for free along with the water. We left quickly, trying not to laugh at our ludicrous predicament. It was a futile endeavour.

As I waited in the lobby for the Domino's man to arrive with our pizza I did something odd. And just plain.....wrong!! I'd already decided I was going to pass the time by browsing the internet in the lobby, but I couldn't just be happy with that. Ladies and gentleman, look away now if you cannot stand to learn that I..........CHECKED MY WORK EMAIL. I can't explain why, my best guess being some kind of wild paranoia that my taking more than a day off from work at any one time will doubtless result in the complete undoing of anything I have achieved to that point, resulting in my having to totally rebuild every spreadsheet, database and word document I have ever caught sight of.

There were no dramas. I breathed out and resolved that I would never again check my work email while in a nice hotel 8,000 miles from Liverpool.

There was too much salt in the crust in the Domino's pizza. But it was reasonably priced.

Friday, 8 July 2011

San Diego: Top Gun, A Seal And The Gaslamp

Sunday in sunny San Diego, California. The threatened continuation of storms from earier in the week has failed to materialise. It's not exactly baking hot, but it's t-shirt weather. We opt for a stroll down the harbour.

San Diego is a seaport city founded by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and was part of Mexico until 1850. It is famous for it's U.S. Navy association and it is here that you can see the oldest active ship in the world, the Star Of India which is thought to have circumnavigated the planet no less than 21 times. That's like from where you are now to Barrow-In-Furness.

Which putrid geekery leads us to the San Diego Maritime Museum, and the possibility of taking a tour by sea. We find the tour salespeople every bit as pushy as those in Los Angeles, but these people are fortunate enough to be armed with accessible tours that might actually be of some use to us. Within minutes we have agreed to buy tickets for the SEAL, a large bus which at certain times of the day is convinced it is a boat and has the bollocks to prove it.

First though it was on to the Kansas City BBQ, an otherwise little known bar which is notable only for the fact that it was the setting for scenes filmed for Top Gun. Legend has it that director Tony Scott was absent mindedly cruising around San Diego looking for possible filming locations for the 1986 Tom Cruise cheese-fest, when he happened upon this unremarkable establishment and asked if they would be interested in closing down for a couple of days to allow filming. Disappointingly, this is not the bar in which they filmed Cruise's much mocked and painful rendition of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling', but some other schmalzy nonsense which Emma did explain to me when I was not really listening. She lost me at 'hello'. No wait, I'm butchering some other Tom Cruise film there.

Regardless, Emma is under strict instructions from her Dad not only to visit this bar but to pick up the obligatory souvenirs. As we enter I'm disappointed to note that it is not really a bar as such, but more of a cafe. I suppose the name Kansas City BBQ implies as much, but then I was prepared to believe that if it wasn't in Kansas City then there was every chance that it wouldn't just be a place where you could buy barbecued chicken. I was wrong. Neither of us are hungry and so we sit at an outside table and just order drinks. The server looks at us as if we have just ordered two plates of boiled dog, but wanders off to get the drinks anyway. I wait at the table while Emma goes inside for the goods.

Before she even sits back down I can tell the mission has not been altogether successful. It's one of the things about being with someone for so long, I suppose. You can just tell. Well before she has opened her mouth I know that this place has failed to meet expectations. There are no fridge magnets. Imagine. There are t-shirts, caps and all manner of other junk, but no fridge magnets. Emma's dad used to collect fridge magnets as I recall but I think he must have stopped because she doesn't dwell on it as much as I had expected. Perhaps she can still surprise me now and again.

She hasn't taken any photos either. The juke box is not one of the old fashioned ones like you see in the film, but a much more modern, digitised piece of kit. As such it is just like any other juke box in Western civilisation and unworthy of photographic posterity. The words 'damp' and 'squib' are springing to mind, although since I have never liked Top Gun anyway my fall is somewhat softer. All that need for speed puke is just puerlile macho posturing to my mind. In terms of quality, you could squeeze what Will Self would call an anorexic cigarette paper between Top Gun and something like........Days Of Thunder. Cruise has much to answer for. I attempt to use the toilet and am met with doorways the width of Maria Sharapova's tricep. The bemused server from earlier seems to notice this and is suddenly taken by guilt. She refuses to take any money for the drinks, and we leave with only a short, token argument on the matter.

It's time to get on board the SEAL. It's big, painted blue and designed vaguely in the shape of a seal. Yet that's not why it is called the SEAL. It's called the SEAL because it travels over SEA and Land. Or should that be SEa And Land? Either way, you get the idea. It's another miracle in the field of wheelchair access as the 'captain' and his 'first mate' lug this enormous, allegedly portable lift over to the port-side of the vehicle. See, it's called the port-side. It must be a boat. The enormous lift uses a pulley system, and is operated by the captain winding a handle like an ancient grammaphone. Some days later we get to the seating area and I bail out of my wheelchair. There's something not quite right about sitting in my wheelchair while travelling at sea. I don't know what, but I don't like it. As you know, I'm not normal.

The first mate is called Tyler. And Tyler can talk for America. He's like Robin Williams on amphetamines. From the moment the other passengers board (some time after me as it happens, reminding me of a Virgin Atlantic flight) to the moment we disembark some two hours later his mouth is moving at a rate of......well.....knots frankly. He's often amusing and entertaining, but Emma doesn't like him because he picks on her at one point. He makes a gag and she laughs, and he proceeds to announce that from that point onward every time he makes a bad joke it is Emma's fault for laughing at the first one. I should have predicted this. She laughs at all of my bad jokes. It is probably the principle reason why we are both here today. I can't think of another reason that she would choose this madness. There really is no accounting for tastes.

Anyway, Tyler is offering everyone a blanket now. San Diego is a fairly breezy place and it's only going to get worse when we get out to sea. He even reminds us to keep all valued possessions inside the window-less vehicle, lest we risk seeing them blow down the coast to Los Angeles. I resolve that no part of my being, be it attached to me physically or sentimentally, is going anywhere near Los Angeles ever again. I keep my valued posessions inside the window-less vehicle.

The on-land part of the tour is mostly accompanied by a deluge of information about San Diego's association with the U.S. Navy. Some of it interesting, some of it not. Tyler tells a story about dolphins being used to detect and violently embarrass rogue swimmers in restricted areas which Emma's brother, a member of our own Royal Navy, later tells her is a myth. True or not, it's entertaining. At sea we cruise around an area occupied exclusively by sea lions. Some of these are sleeping, but others are flapping around and yelping a little, and the very adventurous among them are swimming alongside the SEAL. Tyler informs us that we might see dolphins in the area too, presuming they are not busy capturing rogue swimmers. Emma sees a dorsal fin but I'm distracted and miss it. Never mind, I saw lots of dolphins in Salou two years ago and my main memory of that is of 75% of the passengers throwing up over their complimentary sandwiches.

The blankets are coming in handy now as we take a left and Tyler points out the coast of Mexico. I'm rubbish at geography for which I make no excuses, but I always thought it was further south than San Diego. It is not. From where we are it's just a lump of land, even less iconic than staring at the white cliffs of Dover if you have ever been on a ferry back to England from France, but the thought of being so close to it is somehow exotic. It's more interesting than say..........Old Swan.......which I could very easily be travelling through were I not out here. Instead I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean looking at Sea Lions and Mexico, and being told that no building in San Diego can be taller than 500 feet because of the close proximity to the airport. For the geeks, the Manchester Hyatt hotel is the tallest building in the city at 495 feet. A passenger airliner swoops in just above it moments later, one of a continuous stream jetting into San Diego International.

Later, we catch the tram to the Gaslamp area, San Diego's main hive of social activity. We partake in a few beverages in bars which, as is the norm in the States, persist in the ritual of displaying large screens showing baseball games. Frighteningly I'm developing an interest so we move on to another large-screened, baseball-showing bar. We think about having food in one such place, but are disturbed by a man interrupting our conversation to inform us that the bar over the road used to be a brothel. Correction, a gambling hall (winks). What's more it was a 'gambling hall' owned by Wyatt Earp. Yee-frigging-hah!

Eventually we get hungry enough so that Emma orders a pretzel. It's a sparsely populated bar and it seems like the catering staff are intent on off-loading all of their stock to us. This is the biggest bloody pretzel I have ever seen in my life. Far bigger than anything which might have choked Dubya. I feel compelled to make an effort at sharing but I don't get very far. Pretzels really aren't my thing any more than they are Dubya's, so I just nibble on a few chips and Emma has the offending product bagged up for later.

We move on to an Irish bar where a couple of lads are playing live music in the corner. Again there are not many people in this Sunday night, but the duo are pressing on gamely, offering us their best shot at reprising something by Green Day.

"Hi guys...." the singer shouts over, hopefully;

"What would you guys like us to play for you tonight?"

"Do you know any Take That?" I ask, in the manner of Brian Potter asking one of the Phoenix's prospective live acts if they can dance. He doesn't. He's not booked. We go through a whole range of distinctly British and Irish bands, the only one of which he can bring to mind is The Script (Emma's choice). He's heard of them, but he doesn't play anything by them. He continues on his Green Day theme, and it is enjoyable for a while but one obscure Avril Lavigne tune later the pair are at the bar taking a break. We leave.

We are informed that we have missed the last tram back to Little Italy, although on the walk back I am almost certain that I see one still in service. We stroll back, bladdered but somehow satisfied with what we have seen from San Diego. The morning brings another three-hour trip, this time to Palm Desert for an overnight stay before we head back to Las Vegas for the finale.

Friday, 1 July 2011

San Diego - A Good Story

I had lunch with some friends the other day.

In fact, let's be frank. I had lunch with pretty much the entire readership of this blog. I mention this because the general consensus among said readership was that this tortuous tale of my travels in America has been too horrific to this point. I'm causing people stress with my tales of running out of petrol on freeways, involvement in major transport staffing issues and forlorn attempts to find anything interesting in Los Angeles beyond Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider.

So, as much as I argued that bad news makes for better comedy, I found myself agreeing to write something a little more uplifting this time around. Fortunately, that will not prove as difficult as you might imagine as we move on to the San Diego leg of this manic, stateside mayhem.

San Diego is a wonderful, wonderful place and I always knew that it would be. A few years back I had a regular Saturday night slot on the radio in San Diego. I never moved beyond the back bedroom of our modest bungalow in Thatto Heath, yet via the gift of telecommunications I became a regular contributor to a show called Inside Soccer (pronounced Sacker, naturally). All of which came in to being as a result of some pre-get-a-proper-job ramblings I used to write for a very fine footballing website called Squarefootball. I believe you can, if you are so inclined, still find some of my pompous pontification on all things round ball at

Which shameless plugging has taken me off track slightly. Back to San Diego. It's Saturday morning and we have planned a trip to the zoo. San Diego zoo has a reputation as one of the best zoos in the world, and it did not disappoint. Just a few hundred yards on from the Pacific Inn we managed to get on an accessible bus to take us the short distance to the zoo. This after failing miserably to find any 'hat' tea in Wendy's or an instantly forgettable cafe a few doors down. After passing the obligatory beggar (this one was reading a novel and barely acknowledging any passer-by, half-hearted at best) we ate breakfast at the instantly forgettable cafe before heading back out to the bus stop.

The number seven bus drops you off right outside San Diego zoo. You do not have to get off while the driver has a 20-minute break, and you do not have to listen to a mad person phoning the bus company to complain about her two dollars. You just sit there and take in the beauty of San Diego for around eight minutes, and then you get off, totally without incident. Well, we did that day.

I have to have one complaint, so here it is. After queuing for quite a few minutes outside the zoo we were eventually informed by the woman at the kiosk that we had to pay for one ticket now, and then go over to another desk to acquire our free 'carers' ticket. Yes I object to Emma being referred to as a carer but yes I also want to get into the zoo as cheaply as possible and some time in the next Millennium, so I let it go. We trundled over to the other desk, had to queue again for as much if not more time than we had originally, before finally getting the goods.

San Diego zoo is utterly massive. There are maps all over the place but it is still something of a maze. It might have looked quite daunting to some, but we had just spent three days wandering aimlessly around Los Angeles. This was child's play by comparison. Now, I can appreciate that not everyone is completely taken with animals so I shall not be going through the whole 'and then we saw some giraffe, and then we saw some elephants, and then we saw some lions' thing at this point. Let's just stick to the highlights. The things you can't see at just any old zoo. Koalas, polar bears, giant pandas, macaques pulling poo out of each other's bottoms, strangely wild mountain dwelling cats, huge wild dogs that howl when some joker outside the pen starts thinking he's Teen Wolf.

Truth be told, most of these animals do little but eat and sleep, but I remain fascinated by them. Koalas are especially adept at eating, barely regarding visitors as they munch their way through tons and tons of ucalyptus. One stirred briefly when a zoo-keeper had the audacity to enter it's pen and start liberally squirting water all over the food supplies. His eyes followed her with deep suspicion for a while, before he decided just to get back to the eating. As for the pandas, so popular are they that you have to join a lengthy queue to be able to see them, and are then promptly walked through, conveyer belt-style. We were there long enough to note that they don't seem to mind sleeping with their arses in three feet of water.

We got lost several times but spent a spectacularly pleasant day watching these aswell as a whole host of other animals doing not very much of anything. Lions, tigers, elephants, giraffe, rhinos, exotic birds, reptiles, apes, monkeys, zebras, deer, camels. I'm doing that list thing I said I wouldn't do but you get the idea. There is so much to see, so much ground to cover, and a day goes by almost in an instant.

Back at base we ventured out for dinner at a place called Mimo's in a region called Little Italy. The hotel receptionist, Pete, had told us that there was a variety of restaurants in Little Italy but as we had suspected, most of them seemed distinctly Italian to us. Not that this detracted from a superbly agreeable evening gorging on cheese lasagne and chocolate cake (and the obligatory wine). We sat in a heated area outside and watched the good people of Litttle Italy, San Diego go about their Saturday night business.

It was a GOOD, NICE day all around.