Qantas Club, Sydney Airport

 

Kids on Plane

 

Welcome to USA - LAX

 

Los Angeles

 

We started our trip in LA, flying in from Sydney on 26/3/04.  We spent 7 nights there, staying
at the Cadillac Hotel at Venice Beach.  The Cadillac is an old art-deco place, and is certainly
not the newest or most luxurious hotel in LA, but we loved it there.  It was clean and the staff were
friendly.  Eddie was the manager and he was really helpful. He lent us boogie boards for the
kids to take to the beach and provided us with lots of help with things like maps and directions
to the various attractions in the LA area. 
 
The Cadillac is probably not to everyone's taste and certainly gets mixed reviews on sites such as
tripadvisor.com but as I say we enjoyed it. It is right on the beach at Venice Beach.
 
Venice Beach has a real California feel to it, with outdoor gyms, basketball and volleyball courts
and a range of market stalls and various colorful characters. You've probably seen on TV the
roller-skaters and skateboarders.  There is a long bike path that runs for miles along the beach to
Santa Monica.  You can rent bikes and boogie boards too, I believe.  It is a bohemian type of place,
and on weekends lots of people come there for the markets, street theatre etc.
 
Anyway, I would encourage people to consider staying in the Venice Beach or Santa Monica part
of LA.  Especially if you have a rental car.  While in LA and later in the trip, we met lots of Aussies
who did not like LA, but most of them had stayed in Anaheim or in the downtown area, which is not
all that nice. Maybe this made sense for them, as a lot are not willing to drive on the 'wrong' side of the
road or are on package tours, but I think we were right to choose to stay in the Santa Monica/Venice area.
They have the famous Santa Monica pier there, which you may have seen on TV or movies. It has a
mini-amusement park where there are Ferris wheels, a small roller coaster and other fairground style
attractions for the kids.  This section of LA is also close to Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Just about
10 miles or so on Santa Monica Boulevard or the Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10) to Hollywood.
 
While in LA, we drove to Disneyland at Anaheim and also Universal Studios, which is north of 
Hollywood near the San Fernando Valley. I must admit our kids were not all that impressed with
Disneyland.  I think maybe they are a bit too old to be interested in the characters like Mickey Mouse
etc, and probably wanted more rides and roller coasters.  Disneyland has some of these, but the
things they do really well are the 3D rides which are a bit like a flight simulator. It is amazing how
realistic they seem - you probably move only a few metres on the whole ride but the special effects
make you think you are falling off a cliff, about to smash into a tall building etc.  The kids liked
Autopia, the Big Thunder Railroad, also Splash Mountain.
 
You should also take the kids to those 3D movies they have at Disneyland and other theme parks
where you sit in a large cinema.  These have really cool effects. For example, there may be a scene
where someone sneezes, and tiny droplets of water will fall from the ceiling at the right moment.
Or, rats run towards you on the screen, and suddenly you feel something brushing past your ankles!
 
We did not go to the Disney California Adventure park which is right next door to the original
Disneyland so I cannot comment on it.
 
The kids loved Universal Studios and so did we.  Probably their favorite theme parks were the 
water parks we visited later on, such as Wet And Wild and Disney's Blizzard Beach, both in Orlando.
If you're looking for roller coasters etc in Cali then places like Magic Mountain, Knott's Berry Farm
and Six Flags are supposed to be the places to go.
 
We visited Hollywood and spent half a day just looking around at the various shops, the stars on
the sidewalk, the famous Chinese Theatre etc.  A lot of people say it is dirty, and I believe it does become
rather sleazy at night. However we found it to be OK - it didn't seem any more dirty than the cinema
and fast-food strip in Sydney, which is my hometown.
 
You will notice a lot of homeless people in LA, including at the beachside suburbs, but from what we
can tell they seem to be fairly harmless.  The police patrol along the beachfront constantly, and also
cruise the beach itself in their 4WD vehicles. You will probably see even more homeless in San Francisco. 
Again, this is a bit sad but they do not seem to represent a threat to the tourists.  I think they gravitate
to the coastal areas of California from other, colder parts of the USA.  Also, California is more liberal
and tolerant than many parts of the country, so I think they probably do tend to be concentrated there.
We did not see them much at all in the smaller cities we visited later in our trip.

 

Narrelle & Kids, Cadillac Hotel - Venice Beach

 

Dom & Zac, Cadillac Hotel

 

Venice Beach, CA

 

 

Our first rental car (Jeep Grand Cherokee)  – At La Brea Tar Pits (LA)

 

La Brea Tar Pits

 

Hollywood 1

 

Hollywood 2

 

Kids at Universal Studios

 

Movie set, Universal

 

'Jaws' Shark on the attack! - Universal

 

Disneyland 1

 

Disney 2

 

Disney 3

 

Disney 4

 

Pacific Coast Highway – LA to San Francisco

 

After LA we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco.  It is a beautiful drive.
We stayed one night at the Madonna Inn (San Luis Obispo), and another at Monterey.  On
the way, Santa Barbara was lovely.  We stopped there for a few hours, and also toured the
Hearst Castle at San Simeon, which was very impressive. We also stopped at Santa Cruz
after Monterey and spent a few hours at the amusement park they have on the boardwalk. 

 

 

 

Pacific Coast Highway, Cali

 

Pacific Coast Hwy II

 

Why Lie - Need Beer! - Santa Barbara CA

 

Sea Lions, Pacific Coast Hwy

 

Dom & Narrelle, Pac Coast Hwy, Cali

 

This is the room we had at the Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo (The Jungle Rock Room)

 

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

 

More Hearst Castle

 

With Steinbeck, Monterey, CA

 

Monterey Bay

 

San Francisco:

 

We really liked San Francisco.  We stayed at a hotel called the Best Western Americania,
located in the SOMA (South of Market) district. It's on 7th, just south of Market St.  We
enjoyed this hotel. It had a pool and was very convenient. We could walk a block or two 
and get the 'F Train' - basically a tram than runs up Market and round to Fisherman's Wharf.
Very cheap and convenient. 
 
We did the Alcatraz Tour with Blue and Gold ferries (I think).  We really enjoyed the Alcatraz tour,
even the kids. Plus you get some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline from
the boat.  You MUST book ahead. When we were there, they were telling people at the ticket office
that if you did not already have a ticket, the next available boat was several days later. And we were
there early April.  Presumably things would be much busier once the American summer vacation
season starts.
 
We walked through Chinatown, and on a later day also got the cable-car up to Lombard St
('the crookedest street in the world')  We walked down the hills and through North Beach
(an Italian area) then back to Union Square, which is very near our hotel.  On our last day we
drove across the Golden Gate bridge and got some good photos from a lookout on the
Northern side of the bridge.  This is in Marin County, and we went to dinner in a nice place
called Sausalito, which is an attractive bayside suburb with lots of boats in a big marina.
 
Union Square has lots of good shopping.  We found that most stores are open until 9PM or so.
 
Don't forget to take a light jacket or sweater when you go out in SF, even in summer. When we
were there it was very windy and the place is well known for its changeable weather.  Much different
climate to Southern California.

 

 

The Boys - Lombard St (San Francisco)

 

Lombard St

 

View from Cable Car, SF

 

San Fran from Lombard St

 

Golden Gate from Alcatraz

 

 

NLK at Golden Gate

 

NLK, Kids at Golden Gate

 

San Fran to Las Vegas:

 

We left SF to drive to Vegas.  We drove across the Oakland Bay Bridge, through Sacramento and then 
into Nevada at South Lake Tahoe.  There was lovely scenery along the way.  We crossed the
Sierra Nevada Mountains where the road was about 7,000 feet above sea-level.  At that time (early April, 2004)
there was still lots of snow on the mountains; very spectacular. 
 
We were unable to get into Yosemite as we had planned, as it was closed due to heavy snow
(it was only early spring then). We stayed at a little town called Lone Pine, California. Not much there,
but a nice enough place, right near Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the 'Lower 48' (i.e. the USA 
excluding Alaska and Hawaii).  Then we headed to Las Vegas through Death Valley. Quite a contrast – 
from 7,000 feet above sea level to 200 feet below sea level, all in a few hours.
 
We enjoyed Las Vegas – it’s in questionable taste of course, but still quite an amazing creation.
The kids liked it too – all those casinos that are replicas of Paris, or Venice, or New York etc.  I must admit
it is cleverly done.  We stayed at the MGM Grand - a huge place with about 5 pools. The kids spent most 
of one day just floating down the ' lazy river' on a rubber tube while we went shopping.
 
Speaking of shopping, Vegas has some great factory outlet stores. These are mostly located a few miles to
the south of the city, off Las Vegas Boulevard. You can get Levis 501s for $25, for example, and we really
stocked up!  All sorts of clothing, shoes or whatever available at very good prices.  It is interesting to walk 
up and down the 'Strip' looking at all the hotels.  They all have some gimmick, such as the Pirate Show
at Treasure Island, or the dancing fountains at Bellagio.
 
On our second stay in Vegas (after the Grand Canyon) we stayed at Circus Circus.  This is a bit older than
some other casino/hotels, but has its own indoor theme park, complete with roller-coasters and water rides.
The kids loved this – you can buy a day ticket for maybe $15. Circus Circus also has shows with acrobats
and circus performers regularly through the evening.
 
When you set out to walk up the Strip, just be aware that it is much longer than you might think.  To walk
up the whole strip on one side of the road then back on the other side would be many miles and would 
take hours.  You can buy a ticket for a shuttle bus that you can get off and on as often as you like, I think.
From memory, about $5 per person.

 

 

Sierra Nevada Mountains

 

More Sierra Nevada

 

Family & Sierra Nevada, on the way to Vegas

 

Death Valley – We went from 7000 ft above sea-level to 200 ft below in a few hours

 

Crossing from Cali to Nevada on the way to Vegas

 

 

 

‘Area 51’ sign, on the way to Las Vegas.  Area 51 is a top-secret air force facility where

the US military supposedly keeps and test flies captured UFOs, hence the ‘alien’ face on

the sign.  The locals have decided to milk this for all it’s worth as a tourist attraction.

There is even a stretch of Nevada State  Highway 375 officially dubbed by the Nevada

Governor as the ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’.

 

 

Only in Nevada!  Pokies/Slot Machines in Gas Station

 

 

Harley-Davidson Cafe, Vegas

 

 

Paris Casino, Las Vegas

 

 

Can’t remember which casino this is…

 

 

Caesar's Palace (I think)

 

Kids at pool - MGM Grand Las Vegas

 

 

Stretch Limo, MGM Grand, Las Vegas

 

Grand Canyon, etc:

 

After Vegas, we drove to Williams, Arizona. We stopped at the Hoover Dam on the way
(just outside Las Vegas), and took the tour of the dam.  Be aware that there is high security there,
which means the crossing from Nevada into Arizona (the dam is on the border) can take quite
a while. There is a security checkpoint, and they check some cars at random, and others if they
think you look suspicious.  They just waved us through, but it still took a while to reach the
checkpoint.  Probably worse in summer.  You should allow some extra time because of this.
 
We had already booked with the Grand Canyon Railroad. The package included a stay at the
nice Fray Marcos Hotel in Williams AZ the night we arrived, followed by a ''Wild West show” 
the next morning, just prior to our train ride to the Canyon itself.  They use steam trains in summer, 
I think, although ours was a diesel.  Anyway it's an old train and takes about two hours. They have
guys in cowboy outfits singing and playing guitar to entertain the passengers.
 
We stayed at the Maswick Lodge on the South Rim.  On the first day we explored the place ourselves,
using the free 'red' and 'blue' shuttle buses to travel east and then west along the south rim.  We
enjoyed the Canyon – very spectacular, as expected. The second day we did a bus tour that we had
paid for as part of our package.  The guide was an older guy from Colorado who was very
knowledgeable and entertaining and showed us many interesting things, including an old Indian site
and the condors that have now been reintroduced to the area after almost becoming extinct.
 
Another reason for getting the railway from Williams is to avoid the parking hassles, which are
apparently very bad in the peak summer months. The package included the Wild West show as well
as a mock-robbery where the train is ‘stopped' by 'bandits' who 'rob' the passengers.  Actually, in a
sense you could say you really are being robbed, as they go through the train and it is expected that
the guests will tip them a dollar or two!  We didn't mind - it was good fun.
 

Kids at Arizona-Nevada State Line- Hoover Dam

 

Dom at Hoover Dam – Judging by the water level, it’s not only Australia that’s had a

drought recently!

 

A remaining piece of the old Route 66 – Williams, Arizona

 

 

It's a stick-up! - Grand Canyon Railroad

 

The Girls - Grand Canyon

 

Mesa at Grand Canyon

 

Dom and Narrelle, Grand Canyon

 

'The Watchtower', Grand Canyon

 

More Grand Canyon  (These digital shots don’t really do it justice!)

 
After the Canyon we drove to Flagstaff, Arizona to see the giant Meteor Crater nearby. That was good,
and the kids enjoyed the informative material at the guest center there.  After that we returned to Vegas for
our second stay, this time at Circus Circus.
 
From Vegas, we drove back to LA along Interstate 15, through San Bernardino.  This runs through the
Mojave Desert.  That was the end of our first West Coast trip, as we then flew from LAX to Orlando to begin
the Southern leg of our USA adventure.