Trip Start Feb 11, 2008
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See - we told you the next update wouldn't be too far away!
We last left you at the end of our two weeks in New York, on the eve of flying to the West Coast.
As we mentioned, we had a slight hiccup with our original flight to Seattle on January 5 with American Airlines. We had arrived at JFK with plenty of time to spare - lucky considering the huge lines at check in. However, with our departure time drawing closer, we asked a rather uptight AA staff member whether we should perhaps move to the front of the line. Treating us with the same ferociousness we had earlier seen her use on other customers, she told us baggage boarding had closed and we wouldn't be allowed on the flight. "How could that be," we asked, "why wasn't there an announcement." But this woman was a real piece of work. She yelled at us saying she had moved everyone out of the line who needed to check in immediately and it was our fault for not listening. Turns out though, we weren't the only ones who "hadn't listened". Other people who had missed their flight were starting to emerge and soon there was a near riot at the check in counter.
Tempers reached boiling point and there was much screaming and name-calling (mostly from this out-of-control AA woman who simply wouldn't accept she was an incompetent git with bad hair). At one point she threatened to call the "Port Authority" on Caroline after a particularly heated exchange ("Do you think I'm scared of you," the woman bellowed at her). We complained to her manager but it was no use, we had missed our flight - as had others - and we were forced to spend the night in a dodgy airport hotel.
We were rebooked on the first available flight the next day, one that went via San Francisco, and in a last-minute decision, we decided to skip Seattle and disembark in San Fran, rationalising we could do a quick hop across the border and see Seattle when we are settled in Canada later this year.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO SAN FRANCISCO...
We arrived in San Fran on January 6 and spent four nights checking out the sights. There isn't a heap to do in San Fran, but it really is a very lovely city and after New York, the weather was divine.
We caught a cable car from downtown up the tremendous hill and down the other side to Pier 39, where we watched the sea lions play on the jetty.
We had proper clam chowder (and Caroline narrowly escaped an eye-gouging from an albatross that landed on her head - what is it with her and wild animals?) at Fisherman's Wharf.
We caught the bus out to the lookout at Fort Point for the picture-postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge...
... and we inspected Lombard Street, the "world's crookedest street" (interesting enough but, as Chris put it, "still just a street").
We went to the Castro area, the gay capital of America and perhaps the world.
It was also the setting of the new Harvey Milk biopic, Milk.
Milk is the story of the first openly gay man elected to public office in San Francisco, played by Sean Penn, who was murdered along with the mayor in 1978.
The film was actually shot in the Castro last year and we happened to come across an antique store, run by a gay couple, who actually appeared in the film.
Having already been to San Francisco twice before, Chris skipped the tour of Alcatraz, sitting and drinking beer while Caroline took the ferry across the harbour to the former island prison and one-time home of hard crims like Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.
Used a jail between 1933-1963, "The Rock" was meant to be escape-proof as, although the island is only 2.4km from shore, the water is freezing and there are huge currents and the occasional shark.
However, in 1962, four prisoners literally dug their way out of prison with spoons, putting fake heads in the beds to confuse the wardens . They sailed away on a home-made raft and were never seen again. The feat was immortalised in the Clint Eastwood flick, Escape From Alcatraz.
After the prison was shut in 1963, it was forgotten about for six years when the Native Indians tried to claim it as their own stating a law that says any indigenous land that isn't being used can be claimed. The government fought the claim, saying that a lighthouse on the island was still in use.
But perhaps our most enjoyable time in San Francisco was spent in the hippified Haight-Ashbury area - the scene of the 1967 Summer of Love. Up to 100,000 hippies would gather in the streets every day for two years, playing music, smoking whacky tabaccy and "peacing out".
These days the streets are lined with great vintage clothing stores, record shops and authorised smoke shops (which sell all sorts of drug smoking paraphernalia, yet the staff always look horrified if anyone should ask them where they could buy some weed).
And at the centre of it all is Golden Gate Park. The huge green space is where 70-year-old hippies gather daily to dance topless and have bongo jam sessions in an effort to continue spreading the love. Sitting with them on the grassy hill as they swayed and chanted and pranced about, we had no doubt that many of them still think they are living in the 60s. What a trip!
We spent much of our time in Haight-Ashbury, taking in the chilled-out ambience and perusing the funky shops.
One day we stopped by Amoeba Music - a virtual airplane hanger lined with row upon row of CDs, records and DVDs. It was like JB HiFi on speed. If heaven were a music store, this would be it.
We also browsed the many vintage stores, so unlike the jumble sale thrift stores back in Australia - these places were like works of art, beautifully decorated and selling some of the most exquisite clothes we had ever seen.
We were on the hunt for Vegas Outfits, something we could have a bit of fun with when we headed to Sin City in a few days time.
After much searching - debating whether 'denim-on-denim Florida retiree' or the 'jilted bride and womanising cowboy' look would go down best - we stumbled across a great store, run by a stunning ageing hippy and her little bowler-hat-and-waistcoat-wearing stylist. We spent hours in the store, playing dress ups with their clothes and being styled for the perfect Vegas outfit.
In the end we spent way more than we could afford on a couple of outfits each. Chris picked up two excellent retro shirts and a pair of cowboy boots, while Caroline managed two dresses (one psychedelic, one leopard skin), a leopard-skin beret, a cream swing-coat and cream Saks Fifth Avenue vintage heels.
As the ageing hippy bagged up our purchases, she told us stories about the Summer of Love when she was only a teenager and was hanging out with Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix would play free gigs in the pub around the corner.
Oh, to have been there.
And then it was time to leave,
On January 10 we caught an overnight but south to Los Angeles where we picked up our hire car for out roadtrip to Vegas, baby, yeah!
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
We were only in LA for a few hours to collect our hire car and snacks and supplies for our five-hour roadtrip across state lines into the Nevada Desert.
It was about 8pm when we arrived in Sin City and for Caroline, who had never been before, it was a quick initiation into the most bizarre place on the planet.
What greeted us as we cruised down The Strip was a world of dazzling neon and the ultimate in tackiness.
A life-size Eiffel Tower protectively guarding the entrance to the Paris casino...
...alongside a stunning Arc de Triomphe.
A realistic Rialto Bridge welcoming visitors to the beautiful Venetian...
...and the towering turrets of the fairytale Exaclibur.
A breathtaking fountain display dazzling spectators in front of the enormous Bellagio...
...and the huge pyramid-shaped Luxor and the glowing green of the famous MGM Grand.
And then we stopped in front of the casino we had booked into for five nights (a relative steal as we were visiting Sunday through to Thursday) - the New York, New York.
The massive casino directly opposite the MGM Grand was built to resemble the Manhattan skyline.
It had the Empire State and Chrysler buildings and a giant Statue of Liberty...
...a well as a rollercoaster that twisted through - and even into - the buildings.
And inside, past the pokie machines, were realistic New York streets with cafes, bars and shops.
We quickly settled into our hotel hideaway and prepared for the five-day party to follow. We had an awesome time in Vegas - mainly walking The Strip, sipping frozen daiquiris from giant cups shaped like the Eiffel Tower and exploring the whacky world of the casinos.
Like, the lions in the MGM Grand, pacing a glass enclosure just metres from where cashed-up pensioners were dropping coins into slots.
The replica Venice in the Venetian - complete with a café-lined Piazza San Marco...
...its trademark bridges...
...and real canals you could float down on a gondola.
The spectacular Volcano show at the Mirage that almost had us thinking we were at a tribal council onSurvivor.
Frozen daiquiri bars with lethal concoctions.
The quaint streets of 'Paris'.
The Romanesque interiors of stunning Caesar's Palace...
...where the sky changes from day to night to day again over the course of an hour...
...and a spiral elevator winds it's way through the shopping area.
The classic casinos of yesteryear...
...and modern-day mammoths like the Bellagio.
Things you would only see in Vegas...
...and all sorts of unusual characters.
It was quite bizarre seeing all these tacky duplicates having seen the real things in the flesh in the past 12 months.
But it was loads of fun to travel through this mini-world and see just how much money is pumped into these casinos.
We dressed up in our fancy vintage Vegas Outfits and hovered over the high-rollers tables...
...before sneaking off for a quick flutter of our own on something that was more in our fiscal sphere.
We slept late, played all day and stayed up all night drinking cocktails and watching cable TV.
We rarely saw daylight, never once opening our heavy hotel curtains and using The Strip's set of purpose built tunnels and walkways to transport ourselves from casino to casino.
And we ate. Oh god, did we eat.
The truth is, we only had three meals in five days, but they were some pretty hefty meals thanks to Vegas' second-biggest drawcard - the buffets.
And when we say buffets, we don't mean a few wilted salads and some dried-out prawns. No, the buffets at Vegas are food heaven, ginormous, all-you-can-eat, smorgas-mic-boards of culinary delights.
Imagine the best food court in the world - with everything from Mexican, to Italian, Japanese, Chinese, seafood, made-to-order burgers and hot dogs, spit roasts and deserts to die-for - and then make it the size of an average football field, and then you can start to picture the Vegas buffet.
We were like pigs in the proverbial...well...let's just say it was really, really good.
On our final night in Vegas, we scored tickets to the Cirque del Soleil show, Love, which is set to the music of The Beatles.
Needless to say, it was excellent - a surreal acrobatics performance, with trippy costumes that felt very much like being on our own Magical Mystery Tour.
(And just to reassure our parents, no, we weren't married in a Vegas chapel by Elvis ).
All in all, it was quite the debaucherous adventure. But hey, what else would you expect?
It was, after all, Vegas, baby, yeah!
And then on January 16, it was time to knock back a couple of Asprin, adjust the sunglasses and head back through the desert to LA.
We'd given ourselves six nights to see LA, a sprawling city linked by a complex system of intertwining highways, basing ourselves in the trendy beachside town of Santa Monica.
For anyone that has never been to LA, we should begin by saying that the whole "Hollywood" thing is a bit of an illusion. Sure, there are studios, but they're about as glamorous as Fox Studios in Sydney.
And yes, it's home to lots of celebs, but they live in the hills in houses surrounded by massive fences that you can't see past. Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard and Melrose Avenue are all just normal streets.
And the famous "Hollywood" sign? Well, you're not allowed anywhere near it so from a distance, it actually looks tiny. In saying all that, we had a great time playing the quintessential tourists, checking out all the holiday-maker haunts and, of course, trying to spot a celeb or two.
After the freezing temperatures of New York, the sunshine, blue skies and warm days that LA turned out were a welcome surprise and we had to keep reminding ourselves that it was still Winter in America.
Making the most of the glorious weather, we spent our first full day in LA walking the famous boulevard between Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
The beach itself is a vast expanse of sand, stretching from the boulevard about 500m to the flat North Pacific Ocean, but the real treat is the excellent show of freaks and oddities that cruise past on every kind of wheeled device.
Peroxide blonde girls with orange-tinted skin roller-skating in bikinis, men with obscenely bulging muscles roller-blading in nothing but super-tight shorts, a gold necklace and a pair of Ray Bans, kids manoeuvring all sorts of pimped-out billycarts and entire posses of wanna-be gangsters on low-rider bikes with thumping boomboxes strapped to the handlebars.
Oh yes, this was LA.
Sharing the boulevard with the circus, it took us an hour to get to Venice Beach, where even more outrageous specimens of the human race were gathered.
There's steroid crew pumping iron on Muscle Beach - the outdoor gym where you can literally watch men's muscles grow bigger by the minute.
The white boys doing their best to keep up with their black counterparts on the basketball courts and the ageing hippies selling everything from crystals to aura reading.
And then there were the marijuana 'doctors' - hawking on the street and handing out flyers for their services. For $90 you could have a "real, practising doctor" write you a prescription for medical marijuana. We supposed the man dancing in just his underpants outside one "surgery" was advertising as to how good the "treatment" really was.
We had a picnic in the park, listened to random jam sessions on the beach and watched the most magnificent sunset we'd ever seen - before scurrying home to avoid the bag-snatchers and crack dealers that roam the boulevard after dark.
Another day we took our hire can out and explored Hollywood and the surrounding hills.
We cruised down Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard (once a dusty road that linked the movie studios to the star's homes).
We stopped to get the obligatory photos outside the Chateau Marmont (no sign of Lindsay) and the Viper Room.
Next up was Hollywood Boulevard, where we strolled the Walk of Fame and checked out the stars (including Cate Blanchet's which had been added not long before we arrived).
We visited the Kodak Theatre, home of the Oscars, and saw the handprints out the front of Grumman's Theatre.
We also spied Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Superman chatting over lunch and a couple of Batman's comparing notes.
Then it was off for a drive through Hollywood Hills - supposedly home to stars like Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and David Hassellhoff.
Unfortunately we saw no one famous, but we did catch a good view of the Hollywood sign as we cruised down Mullholland Drive.
At night, we drank at Chez Jay, a famous little seaside bar frequented by celebs like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson (Chris was in heaven).
The late owner, Jay, started the tradition of handing out free peanuts to customers to nibble with their drinks. Once, astronaut Alan Shepherd stopped by the bar and ended up taking a peanut with him on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 1971. Another time, James Cameron visited just before he started filming Titanic and there's now a peanut in a little glass box in the wreck of the real-life ship.
One of the highlights during our stay in LA was the inauguration of new US President, Barrack Obama. Ever since we arrived in New York, we realised how big a deal Obama's election had been to the American people. There were posters in the windows of homes coast-to-coast and people everywhere wore t-shirts and badges declaring their support.
In the days leading up to the swearing in, our hostel in Santa Monica turned into Inauguration HQ, with political speakers, inauguration breakfasts and red, white and blue adorning every available surface. The 24-hour CNN telecast was broadcast on the TV for three days straight, answering the big questions like, "What would Obama say in his opening speech?" and "What will Obama do about the war in Iraq?" and "What will Mrs Obama be wearing on Inauguration Day?"
We woke early on the morning of the Inauguration, being telecast live from Washington, and sat in a packed TV room watching the newest US President give what we thought was a very honest and impassioned speech.
The other travellers, most of whom were American, clapped and cheered and cried. It was strange to see such a response to the election of a new leader. Like, c'mon, hands up who shed a tear when King Kevin took the throne? Sure, you might have been thrilled he got in there - hell, some of you may even own a Kevin '07 t-shirt, but most of us Aussies were just happy we had a Prime Minister called Kev who bears a striking resemblance to Tintin.
So yes, it was great we were n the US for the Inauguration (we even bought a badge to prove it!)
And that was our time in LA.
So did we spot any celebs? You betcha. Aside from Chris spying Roseanne Barr driving her Mustang on Santa Monica Boulevard, we managed to see, in all his moustached flesh, Dr Phil - when we went to the taping of one of his shows.
We'd been given free tickets by a guy down at Venice Beach who ensured us we'd have no trouble getting in because "they often have to pay homeless people to fill the audience." So, on our last full day in town, we arrived at Paramount Studios...and were shocked to see a throng of middle-aged people in line before us.
The assistant director of the show came out and said there was an "unusually large amount of people" wanting to be in the studio audience (no homeless people need apply) and "probably the last 12 people won't get in". We were last in line. So we waited, and waited as everyone before us filed in. Then it came down to the final 12. Some extra seats were found. The final eight. Then the final six. The assistant director came back out. There were four final seats left. Caroline almost started crying.
And then a miracle.
We had been waiting for so long one couple had to go and we were the last two let in. Hurrah!
We took our seats and found out the topic of the show was "Crazy Teen Trends" - all about teenagers doing really crazy things like sending 45,000 text messages a month, punching each other in the face for fun Jackass-style or "sexting" (yes, a new word for us too), which apparently involves sending lewd messages or pictures to each others. See? Totally crazy.
So then Dr Phil came out and it was awesome. He grilled little kids and yelled at parents. One dad started crying as Dr Phil asked in his southern drawl "Now what the heck?" Brilliant.
And that was the perfect end to our time in the US.
On January 22, we were up at 3am to drop the hire car off and check in for our early flight to Mexico. We had made the last-minute decision to head to Cuba and three flights and one overnight stay in a Mexican airport later and we were landing in Havana. That story up next.
Chris and Caroline xx
The dates and lineup have been announced for the Coachella Music Festival in California in April this year. We've already been in touch with those of you who have expressed interest in joining us so, for anyone thinking about it, you have until April 17 to save your pennies! Come play with us!!!!
Our Fear and Loathing week in Vegas, baby, yeah!
Hanging with the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco.
Seeing Dr Phil. 'Nuf said.
Watching the most brilliant sunset over Venice Beach.
People watching in Santa Monica.
Cruising down the LA freeways with 'Californication' by the Red Hot Chili Peppers blaring on the radio.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN...CALIFORNIA:
We'll never, ever fly with America Airlines ever again.
They say Disneyland is the "most magical place on earth". We reckon, without a doubt, it's Vegas.
There are more homeless people in San Francisco than we've seen anywhere else in the world.
Everybody in LA looks the same - a kind of mix between Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson pre-nose job. Men included.
There is a heaven, and it is the Vegas buffet.