Thursday, December 27, 2012

Day 311 - 312: Los Angeles, Part One

The Walt Disney Concert Hall was the first item on our LA agenda. It was built by famed architect Frank Gehry and is a shiny, curvy bank of metal which, for better or worse, can genuinely be considered a "modern" building. The metal used for the plating was originally so reflective that on intensely sunny days it set fire to opposite buildings in the neighbourhood simply by bouncing beams of light through their windows. The panels had to be coated in a matte finish to counteract the effect, and ensure that half of LA didn't go up in smoke.






The interior is similarly modern, with the design focused on acoustics. The main concert hall has an organ with 3,164 pipes, most of which are hidden. There is also a performance area which has walls padded out with specially designed tiles to best reflect sound.



The building is free to visit, and you can get an audioguide narrated by John Lithgow included which takes about an hour and a half to complete. The gardens are equally nice, have a number of performance areas and apparently make a good venue for both wedding photos and odd-looking pigeons which appear as though they may claw your face off when you least expect it.





We'd worked up an appetite, so headed over to Grand Central Market for lunch. As close to an Asian hawker market as you're likely to find, it has a wide range of different stalls selling food of every ethnicity. I got a bento box from Bento Ya, whilst Gilly chose a tostada from Ana Maria's Mexican Food.


The portion sizes were, as you'd expect, huge.

Just opposite the market is the Angels Flight Railway - the world's shortest railway. After taking the world's steepest railway in the Blue Mountains in Australia, we couldn't pass up the chance to board the shortest. Plus, it saved us climbing all the way back up the hill we'd come down. And at a mere 50 cents, it is approximately 2850% cheaper than the ride in Oz (this is an estimate).




Just up the road (well, by US standards) is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). It had what looked like the remnants of several Transformers welded together outside.


Like many contemporary art museums it was hit and miss, but did have some funky carpet to walk on, which was one of the exhibits. The ticket included entrance to the Geffen Contemporary museum too, so we trundled down past the LAPD headquarters and through Chinatown in the blazing heat which showed no remorse.






The Geffen was mainly focused on hydrology and geology and wasn't really my cup of tea, but it did have some excellent videos of several firework displays made by a pyrotechnic artist. One of his displays was in Bath, but his attempt to set it off was postponed for weeks thanks to the fantastic English weather.

It was getting close to sunset so we took a drive up to the Hollywood hills to try and capture the iconic sign. Here's a tip: go at sunrise. The evening sun is in exactly the wrong place to get the best photos, and despite our efforts they came out either too dark, or hazy and washed out.






In the evening, Santa Monica's famed pedestrian area - the 3rd Street Promenade - comes to life. Street performers, live music, dancing lessons, monkeys who shake your hand for a dollar - you can find it all here.


The restaurants in the area are slightly more expensive than normal, but there are dozens of them crowding the promenade so you're bound to find something to fit your budget. We went to Johnny Rocket's, a decent enough hamburger place which also does a mean pasta.

It had been a packed day, so we decided to scale back the itinerary for the next day, and took a leisurely stroll around the California Science Centre for a good few hours. Like every other science centre we'd visited, it had more than enough interesting and unique exhibits and things to play with to keep us entertained for the day.


They had an extensive space section which housed some of the pods which various animals and people were sent up to space in.


To my delight, there was also a live mini-lecture given by a resident ex-teacher on light and sound. I love stuff like this. I find it engages me far more as an adult than it ever did in school. We got to learn about tuning forks, and how telephones work. Brilliant.


Amongst other things that made you feel like a kid again, there were infra-red walls, a hands-on aquarium where you could stroke starfish, the chance to create your own slime, and another aquarium filled with luminescent jellyfish and leopard sharks.







I topped off the day by using my immense strength to lift a pick-up truck fully off the ground, completely unaided. Science is great.


We stopped off at a supermarket on the way back and picked up some wine and veg to accompany the simply fantastic chicken wings that Bill had prepared. He could probably sell his secret recipe to KFC and retire comfortably.

We had two more days left in the area, and plenty more to pack in.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Day 310: Santa Monica

Williams is situated on the (in)famous Route 66, so it seemed daft not to take advantage of a touristy photo opp before we left, especially since the sign was just around the corner from the laundrette I'd dropped our clothes off at in the morning.


The day had a hazy heat which made the tarmac look like water, and the drive was long. We stopped off at Panda Express on the way, which we hadn't realised was a chain (our first experience had been in Vegas) and it felt ever-so-slightly more healthy than other fast food places. It helped break up the 6.5 hour drive somewhat (automatic cars encourage laziness and having so little to do on uninteresting roads is awful), but thanks to a borrowed audio jack from Paul and Fi and a selection of audiobooks on my MP3 player, we managed to keep our sanity without resorting to I-Spy.

Research had already shown us that LA accommodation was expensive. Since we'd been unsure where to stay - erring on the side of caution and keeping out of the ghettos costs a small fortune - I'd fired off some CouchSurfing requests, and at the last minute we got lucky and found Bill, a host who was willing to take us in for the night. He lived in Santa Monica with his 91 year old mother Mary-Jane and advised us to bring some chocolate as that would make us instant hits with her. He wasn't wrong! We got to their place in the early evening, and were immediately treated like family. MJ (as she was known) was hard of hearing but was still sharp as a tack, and able to hold her own. You didn't want to mess with her, or hold out on the chocolate for that matter. We had eschewed the god-awful cardboard that passes for chocolate under the banner of "Hershey's" in favour of good old English (well, it used to be) Cadbury. This was the right decision; it vanished within five minutes. They also have a very cute dog called Herby, who loves to cuddle up to you when you're on the couch.




We were all hungry so Bill decided we should go out for pizza. Great idea! What we weren't expecting was his next suggestion of travelling to pick up the pizza on bikes. It is well known to those who know it well that I do not get on great with bikes. I managed, just about, in Kep, mainly because there were no cars on the road. Hell, there was only one road. Santa Monica - being a mere 20 minutes from LA - is somewhat different. There are cars, and lots of them. There are roads, and lots of them. In truth, this was the first time I'd ever been on a bike on a road with traffic and it was utterly terrifying. I decided to put a brave face on it and give it a go, and it didn't turn out too badly in the end. Gilly got the rough end of it; her bike was slightly bigger than mine and it was tougher for her to come to a a traffic light she ended up falling into the car to the side of her. The guy driving was startled but then relieved when he realised she wasn't a tramp trying to get into his car.

Pizza in hand, we biked back without further incident, and afterwards Bill decided to take us for a walk down to Santa Monica Pier. It's a testament to every permanent funfair you can think of, and has been featured in many TV shows and films. Night-time is definitely the best time to see it, lit up in all its garish glory.






We strolled under the pier, and along the beach (miraculously, I managed not to get my shoes soaked - that award went to Bill on this occasion), before cutting back past the Fairmont Miramar Hotel.


The hotel grounds are home to a magnificent Morton Bay fig tree from the late 1800s, which was declared an historic landmark in 1976. At 80 feet tall, it's also the second biggest in California:


It was getting on for midnight, and we were all ready for sleep. We must have made a good impression on Bill: he was originally only going to be able to host us for 1 night, but kindly offered to let us stay for as long as we wanted! The generosity of CouchSurfing hosts has never been anything less than fantastic. Since we wanted to explore LA, we decided to take Bill up on his offer and use Santa Monica as a base for the next few days.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Day 309: The Grand Canyon (via the Hoover Dam)

It's cheesy, it's touristy, and everyone goes there. That was my verdict of the Grand Canyon before we set off at 8am, an hour later than planned. Whilst some part of that is true, it was not even close to the crowded hub of Bermuda shirt-wearing overweight Yanks I was expecting.

The drive to the canyon was fun. Not far from the Vegas Strip is the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the US with 247 square miles of surface, and 500 feet in depth.




The stop was brief (we had 4.5 hours to cover), and the photos fail to convey the size of the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (the famous arched bridge in the background which is usually the first thing people associate with the Dam). I suspect this will be a recurring theme throughout the States - everything isn't just big, but big.

After a fuel/Subway stop in Kingman, we got to the Canyon in the early afternoon. We'd opted to visit the South Rim, which was supposedly less popular than the West Rim - mainly due to the distance from Vegas - and which was also meant to afford better views.

We parked up in the South Rim Village, and jumped on board one of the many free shuttle buses which take you on a loop of the Canyon. There are nine stops on the loop with various viewpoints at each, although you're arguably looking at the same thing from nine different angles. But what a thing to look at! Whilst you can get your first glimpse of the Canyon from the Village itself, I ensured we avoided that. I didn't want our first image of one of nature's greatest spectacles to be tarnished by a group of schoolkids blocking our view and jostling for position. So when we got off at the first stop - Trailview Overlook - we were unprepared for the sight.





My word, but it was stunning. Even the heat and the haze couldn't detract from the immensity of Scene? Icon? Whichever word you use seems inadequate.

If that wasn't enough, we were also lucky to see one of the world's rarest birds - the Californian Condor. Outside of captivity, there are only - as of May 2012 - 226 of these condors left in the world. We chatted to some conservationists who were tracking the birds in the area; they were using radio equipment to try and track the birds' movement and pin down the numbers. The summer months are a great time to spot them at the South Rim.


Back on the trail, as it was less than a mile we decided to walk from the second stop (Maricopa Point) through to the fourth stop (Hopi Point), passing Powell Point on the way. The heat was tough, but it was surprisingly cooler than Vegas - I suspect that high winds and lower pollution may have been a factor there.  






As we went on, we got to see - well, squint at - the Colorado River snaking its way through the Canyon. You can just about pick it out in the below photo, and it looks fairly placid from that distance:


Zooming in told a different story:


It's no surprise that whitewater rafting is so popular on the river.


At the last stop on the circuit before you return, there's a welcome refreshment stand at Hermits Rest. Apostrophes are outlawed here.



They sell drinks and ice creams, and since it's America and we're talking about junk food, you can bet that it's cheap. I think our ice cream sandwich - which was so big I actually felt a little sick after finishing it - cost about 50p.

Still, we took a nice air-conditioned ride back to the South Rim Village and picked up the car. It was getting towards late afternoon, but we weren't done with the Canyon yet.

To the east of the village is a winding road, appropriately named Desert View Drive, which takes you along the Canyon's rim, but a little too far inland for you to see much. That is, until you get to the Desert View Watchtower:



The inside of the tower is no great shakes; smeary windows, dimly-lit exhibitions, and so on. The view from the top of the watchtower is something else entirely. Since we were almost at sunset, the sky and shadows highlighted the contours of the Canyon perfectly:




Then, if things couldn't get any more atmospheric, those grey clouds turned out to be storm clouds. And damn, if they didn't pack a punch. We rushed outside to get a better look, and also take in the flat top of Cedar Mountain:







There was lightning, and plenty of it, but too far away and too fast for my camera to capture. With darkness slowly settling, we decided to make a move. I'd booked a room in the Grand Canyon Hotel in Williams, about an hour's drive south of the Rim. That hour was an event in itself, as we were caught in a torrential rainstorm, courtesy of the clouds we'd been photographing only minutes earlier. It's bizarre, driving through a desert and feeling the hot dry wind, yet watching helplessly as you get pummelled by sheets of rain and hearing bolts of lightning crash frighteningly close (or at least, loud enough to seem that close). Fortunately there were no incidents, very little traffic, and it had subsided by the time we got to Williams.

If ever you imagined a wild west town, possibly something out of Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman, Williams would likely be it. Optimistically titled a city, Williams has kitsch hotels, odd shops, and bears sitting in chairs on the pavement.


Kitsch is the right word for the Grand Canyon Hotel. It has soft toys in each room (usually bears), and various mining and "olde worlde" paraphernalia adorning the walls, tables and any spare space remaining. It's like a greatest hits tribute to your grandmother's house, with a wild west twist.




We checked in, hid our disappointment at being given a twin room despite booking a double, and hit the street to find the Red Raven restaurant which had been recommended by our hosts. It was literally two doors down, and it was brilliant:


Gilly tucked into a salad and felt healthier than she had done since arriving in the States, whilst I had some amazing lamb and couldn't care less about the calorie content.

The night was topped off when we were walking back to the hotel. Hearing some clanking on the other side of the road behind us, we turned and saw a goddamn cowboy walking along. He had the full gear on; stetson, boots, and yes, spurs. He wasn't even riding a horse. There was no horse around. Perhaps he's parked it somewhere. I didn't even consider that; can you park a horse? Do you have horse bays? Can they get parking tickets? Regardless, he stopped into a bar and vanished from sight. There wasn't a costume party happening, this was actually how he dressed. It shows how even the smallest thing can make you do a double-take. Of course people dress like that. We're just used to being shown caricatures and pastiches on TV and in film. But they're based on something and that something, it turns out, is places like Williams.