Day 1 – Auckland (1/2)

The adventure begins. We had a lie in and a leisurely breakfast, finished the packing and took a Taxi to Heathrow at 11am.

We had a delicious lunch at Heston’s The Perfectionist Cafe, a glass of champagne to celebrate and off to board the plane.

We flew Air New Zealand Economy to Auckland via LA. The first leg of the flight was 14 hours to LA and seemed to pass by quickly. A movie and food but mostly trying to sleep. I bought some Bose noise cancelling headphones at Heathrow duty free which made an amazing difference to comfort levels on a long haul flight.

In LA everyone had to get off and we were treated to a 3 hour immigration queue – even though the plane was flying onto Auckland. LA had the busiest and most disorganised immigration we’ve ever had the pleasure of passing through. It consisted of one monster queue which snaked back and forth around the whole immigration hall with everyone mixed together and more than half of the automatic machines out of action. The signs were all ignored and no one, including the staff knew what was going on. Once we’d walked quite literally a mile and navigated the immigrations queue we exited arrivals and were spat out into ground-side departures to then queue back through security! – The US transit immigration system really is something to be avoided. We arrived back at the gate just as the flight was boarding without time to do anything else. Our passage through however turned out to be relatively smooth compared to others as we then spent an hour sitting on the tarmac waiting for the remaining passengers to get back on the flight. On the positive side though we did get to stretch our legs, which was welcome.

We finally got going again on the next leg and another 14 hours in the air. Everything went smoothly as we had the same seats again and we’d already figured out the best sleeping arrangements. The kids lay down over 3 seats, I sat upright and Diana slept on the floor, which apparently was quite comfortable. Plane food, a few movies and breakfast later we arrived in Auckland close to 7am and welcomed by an immigration queue with about 10 people in it!

Auckland arrival

After declaring our hiking boots at customs which resulted in them being cleaned to remove anything that could potentially contaminate, we took an Uber into the city centre with a very friendly driver who was great with the kids and told us about the city.

We arrived at the apartment hotel around 9am and as we’d been anticipating, our room wasn’t ready yet and there wasn’t a possibility of an early check in. We left our luggage in the luggage room, quickly changed and freshened up in the bathroom and went out to explore.

We took a nice walk down hill to the harbour, followed by drinks on the waterfront overlooking the marina.

After drinks it was time to set off for lunch at the Orbit 360° restaurant at the Sky tower. We arrived for an early lunch at 11:30am and started with taking in a panoramic view of the city from the viewing platform. The lift and viewing platform had glass plates to look straight down, so we all had fun gingerly walking over them while looking down. Lunch was a relaxed affair slowing spinning around looking out at the city. A few minutes after sitting down we watched someone do a controlled jump from the platform right outside the window, which looked terrifying and exciting at the same time. We decided straight after lunch probably wasn’t a good idea.

After lunch we walked back to the apartment to check in, shower and to take a nap.

I woke up around 6pm and while the family slept I went for a walk around the Sky Tower and central shopping area of Queen street. Cherries seem popular this time of year so bought some from the “Christmas” market next to the Sky Tower.

A long first “day” and we’re all excited to get exploring after a good nights sleep.

West Coast USA – Day 9 – Last Day

Breakfast in the hotel again of bagels and coffee. Mad French-Canadian woman is still there chatting away in ‘French’ to strangers.

We checkout and drive along Haight Street to the park and try to drive through the park. It’s mostly closed because of the women’s marathon today and so we head down to the water front but that’s closed off too! We drive back up the park and cross over it on the main road and down the other side. This time we still can’t get right up to the front but we can drive south next to the sea which is the direction we want to head.

After finding a parking space we cross the path of the runners and walk along the promenade. The beach looks like there’s been an oil spill or something as it’s very dark and doesn’t look very nice. Not how I remember it. Decide to walk on the promenade instead of the beach itself.

After the walk we drive down to West Portal, as I used to go there when I was studying over here, for some lunch. We find a nice pizza place and order a mini and a small plus salads to start. The small pizza is huge and we see a whole family order just one between them! We soldier on and finish as much as we can.

After lunch we drive to the airport and drop the car off with plenty of time. Once we check it we take a beer while writing post cards. Ordering the beer turns into a complete saga as the bar maid is deaf! I feel very sorry for her as it’s obviously difficult for her, but at the same time just want a beer! In the end I resort to writing down the order on a post-it pad.

It’s been a superb if not intensive holiday and we’ve enjoyed it immensely. Hopefully we’ll come back again at some point and spend some more time at the Evergreen Lodge.

The total scores are:
Days : 9
Distance : 1671.8 Miles
Gas bill : $365.50 (£244.70)

West Coast USA – Day 8 – Golden Gate

Breakfast in the hotel of bagels and coffee. Strange French-Canadian woman lurking about and talking to people in French. (Except Di tells me, that her French is terrible, so no idea what’s going on there…)

Over breakfast we decide to walk into downtown as it;s only 10 blocks away. We end up walking and talking for 10 blocks in the wrong direction! Thankfully it’s a nice day so we turn around and had 20 blocks in the other direction.

Waiting for the tram

When we finally get downtown we join the long queue for the cable car from Market Street. I purchase tickets and a MUNI map from the ticket booth and after 30 minutes or so waiting we ride the PH line to Fisherman’s wharf.

We walk along the front and stop to buy the mandatory fridge magnet and head towards the seafood restaurants for lunch. Decide on Alioto’s as it looks nice and is apparently quite famous. We have both have clam chowder to start with, Di has the New York style (tomato based) and I have the New England style (cream based). We agree that the New York style chowder is the best. Afterwards Di has a Creole scallop dish with rice while I have crab ciotto which was crab legs, muscles, clams and shrimps in a delicious tomato sauce.

On the bike ride

After lunch we take a walk to see the seals and check out boat tours. We end up hiring two mountain bikes and ride them along the sea front and over the golden gate bridge! Once we get to the other side we decide not to take the ferry back and to ride instead. Di is a lot faster on her bike and makes it look effortless, I can’t keep up!

On the bike ride

We get back to Fisherman’s Wharf around 5pm and stop into a lot bar for pints of Bud Light and a fried calamari snack. On the way to the bus stop we drop into a Walgreens to buy stamps and Twinkies (For Spencer) and take the 47 bus back to the hotel.

Once back at the hotel we make a reservation at Alfred’s (a famous steak house), shower and change and head out to catch another bus.

We arrive slightly early at Alfred’s to be seated in a plush red booth. We share a bottle of local red with our steaks. Di has steak and shrimp I have the Fillet Mignon with garlic mash, which is delicious.

Afterwards it’s another bus ride back to the hotel and to bed.

West Coast USA – Day 7 – Hetch Hetchy Valley

wake up at 8.30am, pack and take photos outside the cabin, locking ourselves out of the cabin in the process. The girl at reception gives me another key to let us back in. (Guess they are used to it as the doors are very easy to accidentally lock)

Walk down to the main lodge for breakfast. Di has smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel with fresh fruit and I have poached eggs on English muffin with fresh fruit. Both delicious so we share.

After breakfast we pack up the car and check out and drive down the road to the entrance to Yosemite national park.

Hetch Hetchy Valley

We head down to the Hetch Hetchy Valley entrance to the park which is 1 mile away from the lodge. The cash register isn’t working at the gate so we avoid paying again!

Hetch Hetchy Valley

Once we’ve parked up we take a nice walk to Yapama falls (2.5 miles). The route is along the side of the reservoir which supplies San Francisco with water and hydro-electric power. The falls are pretty dry at this time of year but it’s a nice walk anyway. The weather quickly changes from a cold morning into a hot sunny day. I remove the legs from my walking trousers to Di’s amusement.

Removing my trouser legs

We get back to the car around lunch time and head back to the lodge to get some lunch. We eat very nice burgers, Di has a bison burger, with coleslaw (Tom’s treat) and ice tea in the tavern.

Us on the walk

After lunch we drive the 4 hours to SF, stopping along the way at Baskin Robbins for an ice cream break. We arrive into SF over the bay bridge while it’s still light. We’re getting pretty low on gas and we need to fill up before we return the car. We keep checking the satnav to see where the last gas station is so we don’t need to fill up in the morning. Unfortunately we keep trying for the next gas station and run out. Thankfully find one in the city on the way to the hotel.

We abandon the car in the hotel’s car park and check in. The hotel and room is eccentric Victorian style, lots of velvet, old furniture and kitsch. It’s nice enough though and the room has two fireplaces.

Shower and change and take a walk through Japan town. We can’t find a Japanese place we like for dinner so we settle for a trendy American kitchen. We share a delicious Pinot Noir from Monterey over the meal.

After dinner it’s a short walk back to the hotel where we fall asleep watching TV, exhausted!

I have to rescue Di from a spider in the bathroom in the middle of the night, which runs into the electrical socket when I try and catch it. The power stays on, so guess it didn’t get electrocuted!

West Coast USA – Day 6 – Yosemite

Get up around 8am and head for the breakfast buffet with our luggage after completing the automated checkout.

After breakfast we pick up the car from the self park garage and head for Death Valley, driving through the mountains constantly trying to find a radio station that lasts more than 5 minutes.

Photo stop in Death Valley

We arrive at Death Valley and take photos of us with the car next to sand dunes and then stop a bit further in at Stovepipe Wells for soda, souvenirs (obligatory fridge magnet) and a rest stop.

Pushing on to Yosemite we top off the tank everywhere we can just in case we can’t find fuel further on. At Bishop we stop for a late lunch at a Mexican cantina. I have a massive beef burrito which I can’t manage to finish, but delicious all the same.

Just inside Yosemite on the Tioga pass

Another hours drive later and we are at Tioga Pass just before dusk. It’s too late to pay the fee at the gate (free entry, hurray!) so we keep driving so we can see as much of the park as possible before it gets dark. Stopping several times to take photos of the spectacular scenery. On one of the stops when it’s nearly dark we see a wolf trotting past, unfortunately it’s too dark to get a photo.

It’s pitch black before we leave the park and end up getting stuck behind a caravan for the last section of the park. Arrive around 8pm to the Evergreen Lodge after a long drive (well it seemed so at the time) into the middle of nowhere surrounded by forest and check into our cabin. We buy beers and souvenirs (another fridge magnet!) from the general store and settle in.

We drink our beers out on the deck of the cabin wondering about bears and if they’re interested enough in our snacks to jump the hand rails. The cabin is very nice, it’s set back from the main grounds a little in the woods and the Lodge is a woodland paradise, very peaceful with lots of activities on offer and surrounded by beautiful scenery. We resolve to come back again and stay longer at some point in the future.

Enjoying a beer at the cabin

After the beers we stay up a little longer inside the cabin reading and listening to the satellite radio for a while and then get to bed in preparation for our day of walking tomorrow.

West Coast USA – Day 5 – Vegas

Have a lie in and miss the buffet breakfast so eat in the Luxor cafe. Have a proper American breakfast of Bacon, Eggs over easy, short stack of pancakes all covered in syrup. Di has the ‘Healthy Option’ omelette with egg whites and lots of vegetables (and thinks I’m very strange pouring syrup over my eggs and bacon). $50 bill which we think is a bit steep for breakfast – welcome to Vegas!

After breakfast we start walking through the casinos and buy a few souvenirs for people back home. Also do a little handbag shopping (not for me!). The shop assistants are very persistent (annoying), obviously on commission.

Stop at a nice Japanese restaurant for lunch, share two different sashimi salads with Japanese beer. Continue walking the casinos until 5pm and decide to take a taxi back to the hotel to shower and change as we’re running out of time. We’d booked Ka (Cirque du soleil) before the trip and are really looking forward to it.

We get ready for the show and take another taxi to MGM Grand. Walking through MGM we see a nice restaurant which turns out to be a Joël Robuchon with a Michelin star. We decide to splash out and book a table for after the show.

We have our photo taken together before the show, which turns out to be very good. Ka is amazing, the costumes and stage are stunning. I can’t imagine the costs involved in making the stage as it is a huge hydraulic affair which spins, transforms and moves into the air. We can’t really work out the story line but they get reunited at the end. Have a wonderful time.

We go to “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon” after the show and take seats at the bar. I have Jamón ibérico to start which is delicious as always. The plate is huge and we find it hard to eat everything. For the main I have the pork ‘special’ which I’m not sure exactly what it is. Turns out to be quite complex and tasty but is too rich for me (obviously clean the plate anyway). Overall the food was good, the wine was superb and we enjoyed it a lot but we weren’t convinced that it was worthy of the Michelin star. (At least not compared to the Michelin star restaurants we’ve sampled in Paris)

After dinner we take a walk around the casino floor and decide it’s time to try our hand at Roulette. We eventually find a table with a $10 limit (lowest we could find) and with two available places and take our seats. We exchange $50 worth of chips each and start to play. Neither of us are having much luck and after a few rounds we’ve not won anything. Di eventually wins on a corner but I don’t win at all. Once we’re out of chips (a depressingly short 15 minutes) we decide gambling isn’t for us and so leave them to it. We weren’t even at the table long enough to get a free drink!

We attempt to get a G&T in the casino bar, but it takes too long and we decide to call it a night and take a taxi home.