Friday, 13 March 2009

Spoilt For Choice In LA LA Land

We've arrived in "The Land Of The Free" and after filling in Visa forms (despite having obtained visas over the internet weeks ago) and being electronically fingerprinted and questioned, we were allowed in. Hurrah!

We're staying at the Hollywood Bed And Breakfast which is on Hollywood Boulevard (on the crossroads with Orange Grove Avenue - where they filmed Halloween - yikes!). It's a fantastic place which has been adorned in a Gaudi-esque manner by it's owners Nina and William - we're already wishing we were staying longer.

We've got used to our breakfasts in Fiji which were a choice of Cornflakes or Rice Crispies, followed by white toast with an option of marmalade (this was fine, by the way, it just didn't require much in the way of early morning decision making). Well the breakfasts here are a stark contrast and as we filled out our request forms last night we were overwhelmed by the range of breads on offer (I went for soda-bread with olives, Jus favoured the cinnamon and raisin rye option). This morning at the table we counted 12 different types of jam - too many decisions.

On the subject of food choices, last night we ate at a New York style deli on Sunset Boulevard (just a few minutes walk away). Now on films when they go "I'll have a pastrami on rye with a double helping of eggs over easy and french toasted dressing on the side with a flappucino" they may as well be speaking in german - I don't understand a word. So we sit down in a little booth and I'm quite pleased with myself when I decide I'll have a turkey sandwich and a bowl of Matzoball Soup (I'd already looked this up on the net because I didn't know what it was - I suggest you do the same). The waitress arrived and I was floored when she asked "what bread would I like". I don't know! What bread exists? We went for a rye thing. Then she asks what else I wanted on top... again, what is there? She was really helpful and patient with this English idiot who had clearly never ordered food before. "How about roasted red bell peppers?" she suggested. Mmmm that sounds good, we'll go for that. "Would you like lettuce?", sure, why not. "What about tomato?", oh yes, I quite like tomato... can you see where this is going. I ended up with a sandwich which was taller than it was wide and contained most of the menu. It was very good though, as was the double chocolate fudge cake and pecan pie which we finished with. Just not sure I've got room for this last piece of olive rye cinnamon bagel toast this morning!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Back To The Future

We're leaving Fiji tonight and flying to LA - when we arrive it will be yesterday. This concept confuses me greatly and Justine keeps having to explain about crossing the International Dateline (which I always thought was something you could use to chat up girls from other countries). Now as some of you may know, science isn't my strongest area of expertise, but I've been doing some research and I'm going to explain how all this works.

Essentially, it's all down to the speed of light. As you probably know, light travels very very fast (much faster than a car for example), at a speed of approximately 160 miles per hour. But, as Einstein pointed out in his most famous book, Alice In Wonderland, if you could travel faster than that then it may be possible to go back in time. I think that some of this is to do with quantum physics (which is too complex to discuss here - if you're interested, look into Schrodinger's experiments in which he observed that if you open a box containing a cat, it will almost certainly be licking itself).

Anyway, back to the speed of light. Now aeroplanes can travel much faster than light (500 mph or more) so every time you take a flight you go back in time a bit. Regular air travellers (international businessmen or David Beckham, for example) not only build up lots of frequent flyer points, but actually start to get younger. The only reason people don't take this to extremes is due to the dangerous paradoxes which might occur (you could bump into yourself coming out of the toilets), and obviously if you go too far you'd be too young to be allowed to purchase duty free tobacco or alcohol.

So hopefully, you've learned something there - the bottom line is that you're probably reading this post before I've written it, and if any of this makes sense, I suggest you seek help.


Our last night in Fiji and after dinner we found ourselves taking part in a "pub quiz". We joined a couple from Germany (Agnes and Martin) who had been driving round New Zealand in a camper van and were here to chill out before heading back home. Inevitably, their English was as good as ours, whereas my German is almost non-existent (I did Latin rather than German at school, and it's never come in as handy as the teachers suggested it would).

The prize for the winning quiz team was a jug of "Jungle Juice", which looked like they'd added a selection of otherwise hard to shift spirits from the bar to a couple of large cartons of Um-Bongo! So it was probably for the best that our team "A United Europe" came second rather than first. We made wild guesses for a couple of our answers (for example that the first person to appear on the cover of Playboy was Marilyn Monroe - this was apparently correct).

After the quiz, a bonfire was lit on the beach and we sat round it, joined by some young people who'd turned up on the 'party bus' (which our fellow quiz team-mates had a funny, but unprintable, name for), contemplating the mysteries of the universe (and wondering how many more insect bites we were likely to suffer). Then an acoustic guitar was produced, and a couple of tunes were knocked out by one of the guys from the resort, before it was offered round the circle. Agnes played a cool version of the Smashing Pumpkins 'Disarm' which it seemed only we knew - honestly, the young backpacker-types these days don't seem to know any of my generation's music (it's probably all just bleeps and mobile phone downloads these days).

Then I managed to bring the whole evening down by 'performing' an old Mancunian folk song (Wonderwall), a few bits of stuff I could half remember, and finished with Radiohead's uplifting party tune 'Creep'. After this, nearly everyone else went to bed - listening to that sort of intensely beautiful performance can be emotionally draining I'd imagine!

Despite Jus and I being the oldest guests in the resort (by far), we stayed up for a while longer, then left the guitar with its (sleeping) owner and called it a night.

Bula! From Fiji

On landing at Fiji's main airport, we were greeted by three men playing guitars and singing songs of the Pacific. No-one actually hung garlands of flowers round our necks, but it was that kind of vibe.

We're staying in one of the cheapest (but still nice) places Jus was able to find (cheap for Fiji, not cheap!) When we arrived late into the evening there was a disco in full swing just yards away and we were glad we'd packed earplugs. Slightly dazed after the flight and a long drive from the airport, and unable to judge the resort in the darkness, I began to fear that we'd arrived in Magaluf (not that there's anything wrong with that, you understand, but I was looking forward to a bit of a relax).

But the next morning it became clear that this was a very small, very quiet place (the disco must have been a one-off and there's been no need for earplugs since). It's set on a little bay with its own coral reef and is the perfect place to chill out for a few days after travelling half way round the world. Our little hut looks out onto the bay and everything we need is a short walk away. We're not blessed with a view of oil tankers or chemical works, but I guess you can't have everything.

The view from our beach hut

I've done very little so far other than read, listen to music and the odd bit of snorkeling (parts of which have been up to the Barrier Reef's standard).

We had a thunderstorm during our first full day here which lasted for hours and at times must have been immediately above us - the hut shook very noticably on a number of occasions.

After the storm

The only problems we've encountered are with the wildlife. In the evenings we're having to walk around with a torch, scanning the ground to ensure we don't step on one of the thousands of frogs or hermit crabs which appear after dark. No one else seems to be going to this much trouble - I suppose we're just odd.

Then there are the little flying biting things (I'm trying not to use my actual description here - it's a family blog after all). We're both covered in itchy red bites and new ones appear all the time. So if you're sitting at work reading this, take heart - although we're on a tropical island paradise, at least you don't look and feel like you've got smallpox! So Travel Tip No 4 - if you're coming to Fiji, bring lots of mossie repellant with you. Still, watching the sun go down, the itching seems bearable...

Our Parting Thoughts On Sydney (For What They're Worth)

Long before we arrived I had imagined Sydney to be some kind of perfect city where the sun always shines, everyone's happy and every corner provides a new perspective from which to view stunning man-made wonders of the world. I expected to arrive there and never want to leave. We did have a great time, but it wasn't the Utopia I had created in my head.

Architecturally, it was a bit disappoinitng. Other than the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, we felt that the rest of the city could just have looked so much better. There were signs of fantistic old (relatively speaking) buildings but most seemed run-down or had been swallowed up by newer uglier stuff. Even the Circular Quay area which should be the city's jewel in it's crown had the least inspiring construction you could imagine along one side (housing restaurants and bars) and the renovated warehouses on the opposite (The Rocks) could have been so much better. Then on the third side of the quay a huge elevated expressway had been allowed to spoil the view - although the view had already been spoiled by tower blocks which somehow didn't seem to look spectacular or interesting like the ones we'd seen in Singapore.

To be fair, there were really nice bits, the Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park, and the Queen Victoria Arcade spring to mind and every city will have it's share of unattractive buildings. But it did seem that huge commercial expansion had been carried out by people who didn't think (or care) about the visual effect it would have.

But it was probably the rush hour traffic which finally convinced me that leaving Sydney wouldn't be the wrench I'd expected it to be. If you fancy sitting on a bus in a bus lane which is in a state of gridlock, largely because of the huge number of other (mostly empty) buses, then go to Sydney. We wondered if we were just unlucky and we'd hit an unusually bad jam, but it became clear from the mutterings of our fellow passengers that this was quite normal. It was tempting to get off and walk, but even walking around the city can seem to take ages - as a pedestrian you keep thinking "why do the crossings seem to be weighted so heavily in favour of cars?". But when your bus has just moved two feet and then stopped again, you think "how come the pedestrians get so many opportunities to cross". The truth is, no-one seemed to be getting anywhere very quickly and I'm not sure I could have put up with that on a regular basis.

I don't want to sound too negative, we really enjoyed our visit, but if we had to choose a place to live in Australia, we'd definitely choose Cairns over Sydney.

A Night At The Opera House

On the last night of our stay in Sydney we'd booked tickets to see a concert at the Opera House. Rolf Harris is, unfortunately, not touring at the moment, so we had to settle for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ashkenazy (who's probably famous if your musical education went beyond the NME and Q magazine).

We had great seats somewhere around the centre of the auditorium and far enough back to be able to appreciate the scale but still be able to see the musicians clearly. The room itself is a little like being inside a whale which has been clad with wooden panelling. The seats were very funky - curved ply backs and contemporary bright pink cushions which wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the cool harbourside bars we'd passed on the way. And they were comfy too which might explain why I nearly dozed off in a quiet bit just before the interval.

Judging by the length and volume of the applause at the end ('Ash' returned to the stage numerous times to ovation after ovation) the concert was very good. I enjoyed it, but don't think I understand enough about classical music to say more than that. We both agreed that it was well worth seeing a performance inside this world famous venue, my only slight disappointment, no sign at all of a 'wobble board'.

Luna Mission

One of the sights I particularly wanted to see in Sydney was Luna Park - a fairground built a stone's throw from the far end of the Harbour Bridge (in fact this was the builder's yard used during the construction of the bridge - when they'd finished they built a theme park on top of it. I'd seen pictures in a book at our B&B of the demonic face which lights up at night and forms the entrance to the park. I wanted to take some photographs of an old fashioned multicoloured fairground at night.

So we studied the ferry timetables and at around 7:30pm, chugged out into the harbour, under the bridge (giving me yet another angle to take far too many photos which to the untrained eye will look identical) and drew up at the little jetty, beyond which was the serial-killer smile of Luna Park's entrance.

As we walked up to the gate we were confronted with a sign which informed us that the fairground was closed (it seems that it only opens on certain days of the week). Disappointed only for a brief moment, we realised that we could still walk in through the psychotic man's mouth and have a bit of a look around. We'd both fired off numerous "interesting" shots from our cameras when we were approached by a burly looking lady with a US Marines crew-cut dressed in a dangerous looking blazer who told us in no uncertain terms that we couldn't take photographs of the park. I wasn't going to argue with her (she was a big lad, not tall, but stocky... think "Wayne Rooney in a skirt"... but not as pretty). We muttered pretend apologies (we'd taken as many as we wanted anyway) and headed back towards the jetty.

As we waited for the next ferry to take us away from the unimaginable delights of a closed fairground we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by young ladies from the top cricket playing nations (and England) some of whom looked as if they may have indulged in one more Babycham than you would expect of an elite sportswoman. Then we noticed a sign and realised that we'd gatecrashed the ICC Womens World Cup welcome party and press conference (the tournament kicks off here in a couple of days). Given the events in Pakistan which we'd read about yesterday, you'd have expected security to be tight, but other than Wayne (the photo-preventer) there were just a couple of local police officers and they obviously didn't consider us to be a great threat to the safety of the teams.

The evening's event had obviously just finished and the teams were milling about on the jetty waiting for their private boat to pick them up. Everyone was dressed in team suits (some better fitting than others). We recognised the girls from the England team in their dark blue blazers with their "three lion" badges, and it has to be said that if the outcome of this tournament is decided by quality of tailoring and sartorial elegance then the trophy is as good as ours... if it's down to sporting prowess, then I guess the Aussies will probably win, as usual, but we'll still be able to take the fashion high-ground!

Feeling Manly?

Take a ferry from Sydney's Circular Quay, out past the opera House and away from the bridge and twenty minutes later you arrive at Manly. In the 1920's this became a popular seaside resort and many of the buildings still retain the feeling of that era.

We took the advice of our B&B owner, Penny, and on leaving the ferry, turned right and headed around the bay to Shelly Beach. This was a very pleasant spot and Jus took to the crystal clear water to look at fish while I crouched next to a rock in the shade (like some large, pale hermit crab) for fear of getting sunburnt. We walked back round the promenade to the main beach and watched the surfers doing their thing. I did start to feel a yearning to slip on a wetsuit, grab a plank, and get out there and join them (how hard could it be?) but the mention of food quickly overpowered the surf-dude in my head.

After a long search (we didn't want to eat out on the main road, which was where most of the restaurants seemed to be), we stumbled across the Harbour Hotel. Here we sat on the deck, looked out over the water, tucked in to huge plates of fish and chips and I was able to sample the various ales on offer. Victoria Bitter (which tasted very much like lager - not unpleasant, but still, definitely lager), Coopers Pale (lager again), and some other one whose name escapes me but which sounded interesting (also lager). Not that I didn't like the beers in Oz - a bar in Darling Harbour had a great range of local brews none of which were "just lager", but I guess it's fair enough that if the temperatures are in the 30s most people want something cold and fizzy.

Conspicuous by their absence were Fosters and Castlemaine XXXX. I'd been led to believe (by years of amusing adverts depicting the lives of typical antipodeans) that after a hard day wrestling crocodiles, sledging 'Pommie' batsmen or attending the opera, the Aussies liked nothing more than a nice pint of the 'Amber Nectar' or the one in the yellow can with the warning crosses on the side. Nothing could be further from the truth it would seem - Fosters, in particular, appears to be nothing short of an elaborate hoax, designed to persuade young lads in Bradford that it's OK to wear swimming shorts and flip-flops in the pub. It certainly doesn't seem like you'd persuade Australians to drink it!

As seaside resorts go we liked Manly (it reminded me a little of Abersoch but maybe the heat had got to me). We could imagine working in the Central Business District, knocking off work. jumping on to a ferry and half an hour later riding the waves. Perhaps no one actually does this as they're working every hour god sends to pay their rent, but it's a nice idea.

Before we set off back to Sydney, Justine (with my earlier, surf-hunk delusions in mind) tried to persuade me to buy an item which had caught her eye in a nearby shop. A pair of blue, figure-hugging, Speedo-type swimming trunks with the word "Manly" boldy splashed across the 'bottom'. I took a moment to imagine how I might look wearing this particular item of beachwear (and also the comments which a photo posted here might trigger), then politely declined and we boarded the ferry.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Hello, Hello - We're At A Place Called Vertigo

Second (after spiders) on Justine's list of "things I don't like" is heights. So you'll have to ask her why, that afternoon, we were booked in to climb to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge! We arrived near the foot of one of the four pillars (which are purely there for aesthetic effect, by the way, and don't actually support the bridge) feeling both excited and apprehensive.

Once inside we filled in the usual "it's not our fault if you fall off and drown" forms and were then breathalysed (which is why we couldn't risk a quick drink on the bike tour). They obviously don't want some half-cut Englishman (i.e. me) running up their bridge and stealing the flags for a joke. In fact, health and safety issues were, unsurprisingly, taken very seriously. It took a lot of persuasion and assurances from the guy who set up the Bridge Climb company before the Australian government would allow anyone to clamber up the bridge. They don't want anyone or anything to fall off during a climb (not just for the safety of climbers, but also for the pedestrians, cyclists, trains and 6 lanes of cars - this is the busiest highway in Australia). So having passed the breath test, we had to remove anything which could possibly fall off (Jus even had to take out her hairgrips) and place all our personal items in lockers. We were given fetching blue and grey jumpsuits to wear and ushered through a metal detector (did I mention just how seriously they take this).

Around our waists went climbing harnesses with lots of buckles and hooks. To these, we attached what looked like medieval instruments of war, a mace or some-such thing, which cleverly would keep us attached to safety lines throughout the climb. Then we were furnished with radios and headsets so that we would be able to hear the guide. It was all incredibly well organised and efficient - everything clipped securely onto some part of our suits and was checked and double-checked. Finally, we were given handkerchiefs (in case we became emotional, or needed to sneeze) and even these were designed to be securely clipped to the cuffs of our suits. We went through a door back out onto the street and took the short walk up to the tower, which gave Sydney-siders who happened to be passing by a chance to point and laugh at us. With all our gear on we looked like the Ghostbusters.

Despite Justine's fear of heights she did brilliantly, helped out by our guide, and we climbed stairs and ladders, walked across maintenance gantries high above the street and eventually emerged onto the top arch. The view was spectacular and the clouds which obscured the sky earlier had all but disappeared, allowing us to see a fabulous sunset as we reached the summit. Official photos were taken and we had plenty of time to watch as buildings across the city and the boats in the harbour began to light up. We descended the opposite side in darkness and at the bottom all our gear was removed in the same slick manner. The whole experience wasn't cheap, but we're unlikely to ever get the opportunity to do something like this again and we're very glad we took it. Oh, and hopefully, Justine's fear of climbing the s tairs at IBM's Leeds office will be a thing of the past!

The Pie's The Limit

Our bike ride had given us a hearty appetite so picking up on a hint from Bonza Nick, we headed off to Harry's Cafe De Wheels - a Pie Emporium which proudly displays its photos of the rich and famous (Pamela Anderson amongst them) eating pie and peas. Here's one they can add to their gallery!

We ordered two steak pies, one with mash and ketchup (a traditional favourite), and the second with mushy peas*, gravy and a dash of mint sauce, and to be honest, Pammy's a pretty good judge of pies - they were excellent.

*These really should be referred to as processed peas as the (always well informed) Mr Mike Vickerman will tell you - if you're daft enough to ask.

I Want To Ride My Bicycle.....

Sydney was the next destination on our whistle-stop world tour and, as usual, we had lots to fit in. First off we were off on a city tour to get ourselves oriented. No open-topped double decker buses for us - it was pedal power all the way.

Jus had booked us onto the Bonza Bike Tour (with a name like that you'd be silly to miss it) and we were kitted out with helmets and bikes. Our guide, Nick, was from the UK and had been over in Sydney for about four years. He'd obviously been around a bit and told us about the time he was a scuba instructor in Thailand, part way through a dive, when the infamous Tsunami came through. No-one was lost from his party, or even the island they were on, but you could tell that he realised he was lucky to be alive.

Anyway, back to bikes - this is a fantastic way to see a new city. You get to cover lots more ground than on foot but you can still easily stop for a few minutes whenever there's something worth looking at. We started off in The Rocks (on the opposite bank of the harbour to the Opera House), rode across the Harbour Bridge, visited Hyde Park, the Botanic Gardens, Chinatown and Darling Harbour to name but a few. We even had time to visit a pub half way through (although we were unable to enjoy a pint with our fellow cyclists for reasons I'll come on to later). We were lucky with the weather too - it was fairly overcast and therefore cooler than it might have been. All in all, highly recommended.

Team GB's cyclists claim another gold in Sydney. Cycle-wear kindly provided by Parker's of Baildon.

The Sounds Of Silence

The third and final trip of our brief stay at Uluru was the Sounds of Silence dinner. We were picked up from our hotel and taken to a little hill about 20 minutes away, affording us a view of Uluru on one side and, turning 180 degrees, Kata Tjuta. Here, aided by champagne, canapes and a digeridoo player, we (and our good friends the flies) watched the sun go down - and very nice it was too.

Once darkness had descended (and the flies disappeared) we made our way to the dinner tables and sat down at what turned out to be the best table by a country mile. On the one side we had a pair of charming Americans with accents straight from the deep south (all the American people we've bumped into on this trip seem really nice - my short=sighted, stereotyped view - based mainly on George W Bush - may need revising). On the other side we had a lovely Scottish couple with very strong Glaswegian accents. I provided a translation service for the Scottish man's anecdotes for the evening - it was an interesting experience.

With the wine flowing, some decent food (Crocodile Caesar Salad anyone?) and great company, we had a night to remember. Part of the evening consisted of a talk about the stars of the southern hemisphere which was fascinating (although due to the cloud cover we were unable to see all of them - on a clear night, so far from major population centres, I suspect that you could see an incredible number). We also got most excited about seeing Saturn's rings through a telescope which they had set up - I took a moment to locate it in the eyepiece, then having done so yelped "wow you can really see it" and insisted immediately that a total stranger standing next to me had a look.

All too soon the bus arrived to take us back to our hotel - we were the last to get on it. The next day, Jus overheard someone talking about a the dinner last night and of a particularly rowdy table which seemed to be having a great time and we're almost reluctant to get on the bus home - that'll be us then!