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my big fat Californian Road Trip

Author: stuart & Julie Weir
Date of Trip: August 2008

My Big Fat Californian Trip (August 22nd- September 5th 2008)By Julie Weir, Chatham, Kent, England.

In December this year we will have been married for 25yrs, quite an achievement considering all our friends are divorced, and something to be celebrated in some way. We could have a massive house party, which would take loads of planning and would involve me catering for England, getting horribly drunk, my husband Stuart forcing everyone to sing tuneless karaoke, annoying the neighbors, not really relaxing because the hostess never does and then guiltily clearing up the beer carnage at 4am when everyone else has collapsed in a heap. Or we could hire a hall, book a disco and a local band to play and get caterers / bar staff. But hall parties always feel a bit sterile, you worry if people don’t fill the dance floor and they always finish way too early. So when Stuart said to me “let me take you away on a special weekend trip New York to celebrate our anniversary” you would think, dear reader, that I would be all over that as the Americans say. Sure, it seemed exciting as we have never ventured across the pond before and it would be romantic, but I turned him down. ‘How have you managed to keep him for so long, you ungrateful so & so?’ I hear you say, but before you condemn me as a heartless woman, let’s look at the evidence for my negative response.

Mid December in The Big Apple is brrrrrrr degrees C, not very lovely if you have to join a long queue for the attractions, plus the shows on Broadway are not so very different to those you could get 30miles up the road in old London town. It is also busy with Christmas shoppers, which I enjoy, but I have recent memories of Stuart (who is an A-B shopper) complaining (in apparent surprise) about all the packed pubs and crowds in Oxford and Regent Street during a visit to London to see ‘The sound of Music’ in mid December ’07! Lastly, a weekend flits by before you know it and before you can recover from the outward flight, you are thinking about packing up and coming home. So rather than jeopardizing our sweet 25yr relationship, I told him what a romantic gesture it was for him to make and in a very tactful way, I pointed out the pros and cons of such a trip. Again, he hadn’t really considered the freezing temperatures or the festive crowds and so we decided to have a rethink. Thailand was mentioned, India or the Maldives was a possibility perhaps, but not wishing to dismiss America out of hand, slowly the idea of a big American Road Trip started to form, tempted by the lure of the $2 to the £1 exchange rate and before long it was a case of ‘California, here we come’….but in the summer time, not December ….oh yeah and for 2weeks not a long weekend!

Day 1- Chatham to Downtown Los Angeles courtesy of Air France. After a relatively stress free though somewhat cramped 11hr flight we landed in LA at about 21:00, clutching our visa waiver/entry cards. I had heard scary things about immigration control in the US , but entry processing was relatively smooth, although there was a slight delay due to the computer system that deals with photo recognition and finger-printing deciding to crash. Also, I did notice that Asian entrants seemed to get more grilling than White Europeans-whatever their country of residence .

Anyway, we soon made our way out front to pick up the shuttle bus to take us to Fox car rentals. We hired a very roomy automatic Chrysler 300, with only 3miles on the clock, electric everything, and powerful air-con for about $350 + insurance and a full tank for the 2weeks.

Then out onto the busy LA freeway system and a 16mile drive to our first billet. We chose two nights in a very cosy and traditional hi-spec B&B in the Downtown area of LA, called ‘The inn at 657’. This ‘home from home’ setting in a quiet residential street was ideal for us as we were not really interested in doing the whole Hollywood thing, but rather just wanted to re-charge our batteries and recover from jet-lag before setting out into the big wide yonder. The owner, Patsy, was very welcoming and all the positive reviews on Trip Advisor about her B&B and home cooking were pretty accurate. We had a lovely en-suite with a big four poster bed, antique furniture and the essential air-con. We didn’t do much that first night….just collapsed in bed and caught up on some zzzzeds.

Day 2- LA and around. Los Angeles is no real friend to the pedestrian, you do really need a car if you want to explore it properly. It is spread out over a wide area into several neighborhoods and bisected by the perennially busy network of freeways. This wasn’t too much of a problem for us and we chose instead to ride the ‘Dash’ bus downtown and at 25cents per single journey it can take you to the bustling Hispanic Downtown, including Chinatown, Bunker Hill, Pershing Square, Financial district, Fashion District, the sights and smells of grand Central Market. After pounding the streets of Downtown and me dissuading Stuart from buying a Mexican trumpet (he doesn’t even play the trumpet) we were hoping to dine at the famous ‘Original Pantry’ (877 S. Figueroa St) www.pantrycafe.com where you get heaps of great American nosh at cheap prices, but they were queuing round the block to get in, so we found solace from the searing LA heat in the Irish bar, Roirdens, next door. The food there was a bit pricey and wasn’t all that, but they served quite a good pint of Guinness. After recovering for a while back at 657, we decided to drive to Santa Monica and dip our toes into the Pacific Ocean. You could try Venice beach or Redonda if you prefer, they are all quite easy to get to by car. Santa Monica has a laid back feeling to it and it was nice to stroll on the pier and relax on the beach. It was a bit breezy on the coast and although Stuart braved the choppy waters, I was a bit of a woos and just paddled! If you’re into seafood you might want to try ‘Bubba Gumps’ shrimp house (derived from the film Forest Gump ).

Back at 657 we were a bit cranky from the flight, the heat and the LA traffic and after a nap we did intend to go and seek out some beer action, but in the end couldn’t be arsed. If you’re looking for pubs and nightlife you will probably struggle to find anything in this part of town. We did think about driving out to find some of the LA hotspots but then you’ve got the hassle of deciding who will be the nominated driver. I would normally win this privilege, but I was a bit nervy about driving in LA so I am ashamed to admit that instead we got (massive and cheap) takeout pizzas and ate them in bed washed down with Diet Coke…. god we’re getting old!

Day 3- LA to Morro Bay (215 miles). After another of Patsy’s leisurely home-cooked weekend breakfasts, where we met some friendly fellow travellers from Texas, we set off up the scenic coast highway on route 101, heading for a one night stopover in Morro Bay. The distance is only 215 miles, but the journey time can vary wildly in summer. We were lucky and it only took us about 3hours. We hadn’t made reservations in Morro Bay as our travel guide book had indicated that there it was well served with hotels, motels and B&Bs. When we arrived we had a scout around and settled on the Breakers Motel www.morrobaybreakers.com , simply because it was near the sea with a good view of the coastline and it had a pool, Jacuzzi and free Wi-fi connection- which is handy if like us you have a lap-top and want to make forward reservations or book tickets to attractions, check emails, listen to BBc radio stations etc. The town itself is clustered around Main Street up the hill from the harbor, where there are more motels, diners and a few bars. The locals are friendly and they serve decent draught Guinness at $4 a pint (£2) (try Legends or Happy Jack’s Saloon), which pleased Stuart no end! I can firmly recommend Kitty’s Kitchen on Main St (where we ate before heading off to Carmel) for a huge selection of set-you-up-for-the-whole day breakfasts with the typically American bewildering choice of menu including how you want your eggs fried (over medium was perfect for us) what sort of toast..white, wholewheat, sourdough etc etc. ,but it was all scrummy! The waiter asked us why we Brits were thrown by such choice and seemed genuinely surprised when we told him that back home in Blighty you don’t get choices, you just get fried, boiled or scrambled egg with white sliced, like it or lump it! The room had everything we needed- air con, hairdryer, fridge, tea and coffee facilities etc, all for $70 (£35). Top tip though, if you are a tea drinker you might struggle to stomach the gnats pee that the Americans like to call tea and the hotels don’t provide kettles (you have to use to coffee percolator as a kettle), teaspoons, milk sachets ( powdered Coffee Mate) or proper cups. So if like me you can’t get going in the morning without a nice cup of PG tips, then take some teabags, a cup and nick some of those little cartons of milk from the airport before your flight!

Anyway, I digress, as is my want. Morro bay is a typical little seaside town and activity is centered around the harbor, which is lined with touristy shops, a selection of casual dining licensed restaurants and seafood bars and all manner of salty type fellas offering boat trips, kayaking, whale watching and sea fishing. There is also a meagre aquarium, but you can see sealions, seals and sea (don’t try to say that if you’ve just got a new top set!!) otters up close and personal for free as they loll around the harbor. Stuart nearly had a fright when we went to Morro rock (which you can drive out to or take the trolley bus tour for just 25cents) as he thought the place was swarming with rats (he has a bit of a rat phobia, poor dear)…..which turned out to be friendly ground squirrels that live in amongst the rocks beside the water.

We didn’t get to go swimming whilst we were there as it was a bit breezy and foggy. This is common along this stretch of the central coast as the heat coming from inland mixes with the cold of the ocean. That evening we had a fairly good meal in a restaurant called The Galley www.galleymorrobay.com but they don’t seem to go in lateys there, so we were tucked up in bed before midnight.

Day 4- Morro Bay to Carmel by the Sea (120 miles) . I had read very good reviews about the pretty seaside town of Carmel, famous for its quirky town rules such as no street numbers allowed, permits required to wear high heels etc. and also as the home of Clint Eastwood. It is only 120 miles from Morro Bay (although it takes about 2.5.hrs if you take the scenic route) and 122 miles from San-Francisco, which made it a natural stop on our trip. The views and sights along this stretch of the CA-1 N Scenic Highway are dramatic and spectacular and it takes you on a very twisty turny route as it hugs craggy mountain road through the National park of Big Sur and close to Hearst Castle (see pics), which we visited.

There are a choice of different length tour experiences, but I recommend that you book your tickets in advance, we did so online, as the tour slots get taken very quickly and you can’t just wander up there on your own (as it is way up in the hills), you have to use the free shuttle bus. Once there, a well informed tour guide shepherds you around. When we visited there was a party of weird, Christian-culty type teenage schoolgirls in our group who kept asking really dopey questions-makes you glad that you don’t have God on your side if that’s what it does to you. Anyway the house is interesting but not a patch on our stately homes or castles and it is a pastiche of Andalucian palaces such as the Alhambra and Real Alcázar, but well worth a detour.

We arrived in Carmel late afternoon and stayed at the Best Western Carmel’s Town House Lodge. We had made reservations here before leaving the UK as we had heard the rooms in central Carmel can be very pricey and hard to come by in the summer. We chose this as it was the best price ($139 per night) we could manage to find through our extensive www search. It was very nicely finished, had (essential) free parking, swimming pool, internet access, HBO etc and it was slap bang in the middle of town.

With regards to things to do in Carmel, it is jam-packed with art galleries (which is totally my thing), restaurants, diners and quaint coffee shops and all sorts of gift shops and shops selling exclusive apparel (as the Americans would say). There are a few good bars- we liked the late and casual approach of Jack London’s and Brophey’s Irish bar, where we put the world to rights with the locals and I got horribly drunk and talked to the big white telephone all night long – but again we got the impression that Carmel wasn’t the sort of place for late, late nights. The restaurateurs must be paying a fortune for their business properties but most (apart from Brophey’s) were firmly closed up for the night by about 10:30. This is a contrast to our usual holiday dining experience and I imagine it must be quite a culture shock for Mediterranean visitors who are used to eating very late and leisurely dinners.

The main beach in Carmel is very pretty (see pics) but it is not really safe for swimming there as the waves are a bit fierce and the water was quite chilly. A better bet for gentle sea-bathing is one of the beaches further along….we went to Monterey, which is lovely and a bit more lively than Carmel. Another top tip is to dress in layers as the temperature can fluctuate quite a lot throughout the day, we had temperatures of 62-80 deg F in one day.

Day 6- Carmel to San-Francisco (122miles). After another bumper breakfast at Friar Tucks friartucksrestaurant.com? (there goes the last of my waistline) and a stroll around the lovely little boutique mall (photos taken at The Cheese Shop) we set off for San-Francisco, having made a two night reservation the night before at the Bay Bridge Motel baybridgeinn.com? (Harrison St, off 5th St) . If you want a central, swanky pad in San Francisco it doesn’t come cheap and the Bay Bridge is neither of these things. We found this place in one of the free ‘Room Saver ‘ magazines that you can pick up at shops and news-stands, and we chose it simply on price @ $150 for two nights and it was easy to get to from the 180 Freeway. The little Indian fella at the front desk was very helpful with top tips, where to go, what to see etc and it had free wi-fi and air-con. As it turned out it wasn’t too far from the hub-hub of things, probably about a 15min walk to Market St where you can buy a three day travel pass at the City visitor information center. Priced at $18, this is very good value for money as it allows you to hop on and off all the trolley buses, streetcars, and trains (excluding the BART). The center is also jam-packed with info and booking opportunities for shows, exhibitions, excursions to Alcatraz etc. (which you need to book ahead the day before as the tickets sell fast) The good thing about San-Francisco is that although it is a big city, it feels quite compact, unlike LA, and by using your travel pass you can easily explore and get to all the top spots day or night. We used it to get a general tour around the city sights in order to get our bearings, which is easy as the driver shouts out all the places of interest along the way, and the we just hopped of when we saw something that interested us.

Everybody sooner or later will head to Fishermans Wharf, which is one of the terminus points for the streetcar, and once there you can dine, drink, browse, go on boat trips or get your trip to Alcatraz (pier 39). We didn’t realize this and so didn’t get it sorted in time, so instead we took a boat tour around the bay (Chucky’s Pride) @$15 each. The guide took us out to the Golden Gate Bridge explaining all the sights along the way and gave us a good potted history of the City. Then we sailed right around Alcatraz Island and he told us all about that too, so although I would have like to have visited the island, this kind of made up for it a bit.

I have to say that San Francisco was one of my favorite ports of call during this trip, I found it quite easy to function there. The food was good and reasonably priced- Mel’s Diner is well worth a visit and we found the food in the Indian restaurants to be very authentic fare and when we weren’t stuffing our faces I loved the vibrancy of the place, with its lively nightlife/ pub and music scene-just like home! While were there we went to …..bar where they have live music every night and we also explored Grant St area, up near China Town where you can see Jazz, Salsa, Reggae, Rock Punk and Blues. We also tried to visit the famous ‘Jazz at Pearls’ club on ……St but unfortunately it has now shut down.

We would have like to stay for another night but we cocked up a bit with our planning as we thought ‘Labor Day’ was due to fall on the same day as our UK August Bank Holiday but in fact it was coming up on the weekend we had planned to go to Yosemite. This meant that rooms were hard to come by in San-Francisco and it seemed that the world and his American wife were planning a long weekend break in Yosemite National park, so everything was booked up within the park and hotels and motels within a 20mile radius were either fully booked or charging silly money. We did some exhaustive www searching and phoning and finally found somewhere, but only for one night when ideally we wanted two nights, so we adjusted our plans and prepared to leave our hearts in San-Francisco!

Day 8- San Francisco to El Portal at Yosemite (189miles) Do you know the way to San Jose?…..We do now that we travelled through it (temp of 110deg F in San Jose) on our 3 ½ hour journey to El Portal! We made an early start and got out of the city without too much traffic and stopped a couple of times along the way for breaks. The tourist information center in Mariposa is excellent and the lady there gave us loads of free maps and information about things to do and see in Yosemite in a one day visit and places to visit and stay on the other side of the park, including Death Valley (which was one of our planned destinations). The views and scenery on the route up to Mariposa and on to the very posh and expensive ( $264 per night) ‘Yosemite View Lodge’ in the one- horse town of El Portal were wild and stunning….lots of Kodak moments, and the temperature at 5pm in El Portal was 106deg F……I had packed hoodies and cardies for this leg of the trip…..which definitely stayed packed in the boot of the car. El Portal is the closest town outside of the park and it is about 12 miles to Yosemite from there. The hotel has four swimming pools and Jacuzzis, a shop and several restaurants and bars, which is good because there is really not a lot else in El Portal except nature! Our room was luxurious compared to the standard we had had so far on the trip. It had a very comfy King sized bed, giant Spa bath, double shower, kitchen, massive flat screen TV and a fireplace (not used on this occasion). Also it had its own balcony terrace which faced out onto the lovely Merced river and mountain view with a gushing stream full of fish. We had a lovely meal in the restaurant that night before strolling back to our room under a sparkling starry sky and after figuring out how the spa bath worked, had a wonderful sleep, disturbed only by the distant animal sounds of the night and the sound of the gushing stream below us. I rose early the next morning and as I sat on the balcony writing my latest instalment of this journal, a tiny humming-bird hovered right in front of me, fish jumped up in the stream and iridescent dragonflies darted to and fro- idyllic indeed.

Day 9 (Saturday)- Yosemite and then on to Bishop (133miles) As we could not find any accommodation for another nights stay anywhere in the Yosemite area we decided to have a full day in Yosemite Park before billeting in Bishop, much further on, via the Tioga Pass. On arrival at Yosemite, we paid our $20 entry pass fee (which lasts for 7days) and set about exploring. Yosemite was a complete awe inspiring Kodak moment. It seemed that most of America had decided to visit on that day, but because of its vast size it never felt crowded and the rangers have it so well organized that even if you only have time for a short visit and are not equipped with the exploring skills of Sir Edmund Hilary, the scenic highlights are made very accessible with free eco shuttle-buses between various trek starting points and places of interest. You are given free maps with suggested walking trails ranging from easy to extreme and if that’s not your thing then you can hire bicycles or go pony trekking, whatever floats your boat……oh yeah they even have kayaks. We had Lunch and a good look round and then chose to go on a moderate difficulty trail of 4miles up to ……Equipped with plenty of water, a trail map and comfortable walking shoes we set off with high hopes of reaching our destination and completing the trail, but we under-estimated the difficulty of negotiating the inclines in 100deg F. temps. and over-estimated our own levels of fitness! We admitted defeat after I started overheating and getting dizzy spells and Stuart said he didn’t fancy the embarrassment and the effort of having to carry me all the way back to the ranger station. It was embarrassing to be overtaken by mums with pushchairs and elderly folk with walking sticks!!! Nonetheless it was a brilliant place and I would say it is a must see destination of California.

After paddling in the icy cold crystal clear pools in the forest to cool down, we reluctantly set off to find our next place to sleep for the night. We planned a route that would take us out through the Eastern entrance to the park, via the very scenic and mountainous Tioga Pass. This road is only open during the summer months as from about September onwards can become blocked with thick snow and thus too treacherous for motorists. On a recent tour, a friend of mine set off on a fine, crisp, mid-September autumnal day down in Yosemite valley, only to be turned backed by rangers at Tioga pass, and on enquiring when the road will be re-opened (thinking perhaps later that day or tomorrow) she was told that it would probably be the following March or possibly April before the road was likely to be passable! The road climbs about 8000ft through hairpin bends right up through the mountains and then down a similarly winding narrow route cut into the mountain-side, affording stunning views and after about 60miles you pass nearby to the huge Mono Lake and gradually the scenery starts to change from heavily wooded to craggy and sparse as you pass through the Mammoth Lakes region on the way to the small western rootin-tootin town of Bishop, Inyo. W e had been given a list of motels and contact numbers by the kind lady in Mariposa tourist information center and headed for ‘America’s best value inn’ just off Main St in Bishop, lured by the low rates, swimming pool and launder-mat (as our clothes were a bit whiffy by this time). Considering its size, Bishop is very well served by motels and places to eat. I think this is partly due to its relative proximity to Yosemite but mostly due to the fine fishing and other outdoor related activities to be had in the nearby Mammoth lakes area- many of the motels even offer fish cleaning services. On the day we arrived the town was hosting its very popular tri county fair and rodeo and I think that the entire town turned out that evening to take part, we felt odd man out because we didn’t wear Stetsons and cowboy boots! We stood out even further as complete tourists as we took in the local atmosphere in Rusty’s Saloon, where men are men and burly blokes who looked at least 27 were asked to prove their ID by an even burlier tattooed, mustachioed muscle-bound barman before getting served, Stuart was most disappointed that he wasn’t asked to prove his age! They had all kinds of music on the juke-box….country and western and chaps were happy to dosey-do their pardners! I don’t know why they are so hot on under-age drinking there because I tasted the local beers and I have to say I have tasted stronger Shandy-Bass before. I think that the famous Monty Python assessment is possibly true and that American beer is like making love in a boat…close to water! We stayed two nights in laid-back Bishop, just recharging our batteries, shopping for bargains at K-mart and getting our washing done, before heading for our next destination…..Death Valley.

Day 11 (Monday)- Bishop to Beatty Nevada, via Lone Pine & Death Valley (176 miles). People had warned us about Death Valley, about the searing temperatures, its inhospitable desert environment, about the number of dead tourists etc so we just had to include it in our tour. We travelled the straight and lonely highway 190 through Paiute reservations and one horse towns of the Eastern Sierra such as Independence, Lone Pine and Big Pine. We stopped for Brunch in the quirky little town of Lone Pine. It doesn’t look much when you are driving through, but if you take time to stop you will be pleasantly surprised about what it has to offer. It is situated in the shadow of Mount Whitmore and its biggest claim to fame is its Hollywood film industry links. Now, you may think (as we did) ‘Lone Pine? …Never heard of it’, but it is likely that you have seen those famous John Wayne westerns or as a child you went to Saturday morning pictures and saw the Lone Ranger. Or perhaps you remember the Kevin Bacon film, Tremors or Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Well, all of these films were shot wholly or in part in the area around Lone Pine and if you are interested in films, the Lone Pine film museum is well worth a visit.

After our short sojourn in Lone Pine we travelled 104 miles along the scenic and empty highway 190 to reach the center of Death Valley national park. It is strange to go from the green lushness of Yosemite to the absolute barren desert landscape of Death Valley, but it is stunning in its own way.

We went from West to East, stopping for drinks at Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells, before heading to Furnace Creek and Zabrinski’s point for some great photo opportunities. I really wanted to take the trail off to Artists Drive /Artists Palette and also to see the strange shifting rocks of ‘The Racetrack’, up the top end of the valley, but Stuart was a bit worried whether the car could cope with this type of terrain, so reluctantly we didn’t risk it. Also, if I had more time I would have liked to take the trip up to Scotty’s Castle, (about 45miles from Stovepipe Wells) but by this time Stuart was dreaming of the luxuries awaiting us in Las Vegas, so we followed the 190 and turned off Death Valley Junction, then travelled on highway 120 to the one mule town of Beatty. Taking this route so we could visit Zabrinski’s point added another 90 miles on to our journey, but it was well worth it.

We drove into Beatty where huge roadside signs promised the best fresh jerky for miles around and checked in for a one night stopover at the Exchange Motel ($47). The rooms were basic and clean and much better than I expected, and best of all it was situated just across the street from the Sourdough Saloon, (pics) which reminds me of something out Tarantino’s Dusk ’til Dawn! We had an OK meal up the road in the Exchange Casino Hotel and then moseyed on over to the Sourdough, where we got in to a Pool match with some Japanese engineers and shared our tales of adventures with some young lads from Ipswich. Quite a good night was had and we didn’t get eaten by vampires, but the locals must have felt a bit bemused and outnumbered as at one point there were five Brits, two Germans, two Japanese and one Korean sat up at the bar, trying to get some satisfaction from their $5 pitcher jugs of Coors.

Day 12 .Beatty to Las Vegas (about 115miles) We set off late morning heading for Las Vegas on Highway 95, where we had reservations for three nights at the MGM Grand, courtesy of a great on-line deal from Travel-Zoo ($69/ night). There is a whole lot of nothing between Beatty & Las Vegas, but as you get closer to Las Vegas, the landscape changes gradually and you start seeing road-signs offering various tawdry delights to be had on the strip. They say that it is quite a spectacle to enter Las Vegas from the desert at night as you can see the bright lights from afar, but we did the typical English thing of arriving at the hottest part of the day. The traffic there is a non-stop and a bit manic so we were grateful for our sat-nav (though even he got a bit confused at one point).

We self-parked (parking is all free in the casino hotels) and made our way to check-in via covered canopies that spray slightly perfumed fine mist down on to you to keep you cool in the searing heat. The MGM Grand hotel is mahoosive, rising like a giant green, shimmering glass crucifix-shaped Lego block – 5000 rooms, five swimming pools, spas, super-casino, shops, a dazzling array of restaurants, bars and nightclubs and it even has its own lion’s den with a whole pride of lions! It took 15minutes to walk from the hotel entrance to our hotel room on the 25th floor (even with a super fast lift), it is considered to be quite an achievement to find your way out! The room was very high spec with a giant king sized bed that enveloped us completely and made us reluctant to leave its snugly comforting cocoon, but we knew that eventually we must……and so Vegas here we come.

The casino ploy is to offer cheap room rates and top facilities with perfect ambience, that cater to your every whim, (it is rumored that they pump oxygen through the ventilation system to keep you feeling fresh and awake) so that you get in the mood to loosen your purse-strings. We’re not into gambling and were not drawn to the slot machines, black-jack tables or roulette wheels, but it is fascinating to witness the sheer scale of Vegas and to experience the total fakeness of the place. There is gambling at every corner, with little old ladies main-lining the slots with their prepaid cards permanently plugged into the machine or playing keno and young fellas on stag dos throwing their money away on the turn of a card, a roll of a dice or on the chance that the roulette wheel will spin in their favor. Whatever time of the day or night you step onto the casino floor you will find someone gambling and then there are the private high roller suites where fortunes are won and lost.

If you are a true culture vulture you will be hard pressed to find any in this town, but if you don’t mind imitations then you will be bowled over by their attempts to re-create pastiches of Paris, Venice and New-York. We mostly used the mono-rail that runs directly from the hotel and has stops along the Strip at each of the main casino-hotels and got off at different points to explore the delights of each. We loved the live music in the Nine Good Irishmen bar at New York, New York and were serenaded by an Italian American Gondolier on a gondola ride at the Venetian, where the fake indoor sky is always blue and the architecture and ceiling frescos of Renaissance Italy has been lovingly re-created. When we were there the Cirque du Soliel was the big thing but we didn’t fancy that so we each chose a show that we wanted to see- there are so many on the go at any one time – Stuart chose the Platters, the Coasters and the Marvelettes at the Sahara and I chose the interactive Sopranos Last Supper at the Riviera. Both were good fun and it seems that you are expected to search out discount ticket deals which are available in the hotels or in the discount ticket booths, which you have to buy on the day of the show. One downside was that the most of the shows seemed to start quite early and they wanted you there by ½ 6 for a 7:30 show. I suppose it is to their advantage to get you wined, dined and entertained by about 10pm so you have still got time for a spot of gambling before bed-time bears.

We did toy with the idea of taking a helicopter or plane ride to the Grand Canyon, but by this time funds were disappearing and $300 a pop was just a bit too much for us. We could have driven there but we were a bit travel weary and apparently it is best to experience it by air. If I had the chance again to go there I would probably book ahead on-line. I thought you would probably get better deals once you were in Vegas, but I actually found little difference in price and also by booking on-line you can choose exactly when you want to go, as the tickets available in the ticket booths sell out pretty fast and you have to book two days in advance anyway.

Day 14- Las Vegas to Los Angeles After a bit of Vegas souvenir tat shopping, we checked out and set out on the final 250 mile leg of our epic journal back to Los Angeles. We took a leisurely plod through the barren landscapes of Nevada and kept on driving until we saw a sign for ‘Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner’ at Yermo in the middle of nowhere, peggysuesdiner.com and stopped off for a last taste of American home cooking- yum, yum indeed!

Our flight was at 20:30 and we had to check in three hours before take-off, so we timed it so as not to get stuck in LA rush hour traffic and we had to get the car back to the car-hire firm and get the shuttle bus to the airport. LA airport is a bit dull with not many eating or shopping diversions for the weary waiting traveller. Anyway, that marked the end of our big trip and all that was left to look forward to was the 11hr flight back to London. I tried to avoid jet-lag by just snoozing briefly during the flight and we landed at 1440. Once home, I stayed up until about midnight and slept quite peacefully with no signs of the dreaded jet-lag, whereas Stuart who had slept soundly during much of the flight was all over the place with his sleep patterns for about a week after.

So that was our big fat American road trip, I loved it and would do it again given half a chance, although I would probably want to go for 3weeks and spend more time in each place, especially Carmel, San-Francisco and Yosemite and if I went to LA again I would probably stay on the coast, nearer to some nightlife. So there are some regrets about the places we didn’t go to and things we didn’t get to see, but you can’t do everything and it’s not worth trying to cram it all in at the expense of your overall enjoyment of the experience. Now we’re back home and it all seems like a bit of a distant memory and I probably will still end up having a party for our 25th anniversary in December……vol-au-vent anyone?…….

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