Saturday, December 13, 2008

Last day

We got up early-ish, and got our bags packed. It took a bit of pushing and pulling, but we managed to get everything put away and the bags closed.

After a quick breakfast, we checked out of the hotel. As we weren't being picked up until after 3, we left our luggage with the hotel, and went back to Disneyland. We went through Sleeping Beauty's castle, before heading to Frontierland, on our way to New Orleans Square. The Mark Twain Riverboat -- a classic paddleboat -- was about to leave, so we got on-board and took a cruise around Tom Sawyer Island.

Once at New Orleans Square, we joined the queue for Pirates of the Caribbean. The movies were inspired by the ride, which has subsequently been updated to accommodate the movies. Despite being a boat ride, you don't get too wet, although there are times when you think you're about to get a soaking: when you float through the battle between a pirate ship and a fort (with "cannonballs" causing showers of water), and a smoke "waterfall" with Davy Jones' face projected on it. Apart from two small drops -- nowhere near as large as Jurassic Park or Splash Mountain -- the ride is straightforward, and very well done.

After that, we wandered through some of the shops, and saw several nice items, but managed to restrain ourselves -- after all, the bags were already packed! Juliette tried a churro -- tastes like a doughnut, but is just a stick with a star-shaped cross-section. We then went on the Haunted Mansion Holiday, which is based on Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. Not particularly scary, but it was okay.

We went back to Critter Country to try the Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh ride, but it had just broken down, so we had to give it a miss. We headed down to Adventureland and walked through Tarzan's Treehouse, before joining the queue for the Indiana Jones Adventure, which was fantastic. You pile into roller coaster cars done up to look like over-sized jeeps, which then barrel down a track -- including an encounter with a large boulder...

After a brief stop in the Adventureland Bazaar -- where we failed to restrain ourselves -- we took the Jungle Cruise, which is another boat ride. Plenty of animatronic animals, and a number of places where you think you're going to get wet, but the best part (I thought) was the guide's monologue -- probably because the humour was much like mine!

It was getting close to 1:30 by now, so we stopped at the Rancho del Zocalo for lunch -- very nice. We strolled back to Main Street, having a look in a couple of places. I wanted to have a look in The First 50 Magical Years, which I thought was a museum, but turned out to be a show, and the next one didn't start until after we had to be back at the hotel for the shuttle.

There wasn't much to do after that, so we left Disneyland behind and went back to the hotel. We managed to get the stuff we picked up in Adventureland packed away -- amazingly -- and the shuttle turned up 15 minutes early, so by 3:05 we were on our way to the airport. We got to LAX about 4, and checked in. We were a bit concerned about the weight of our luggage -- we were just 3kgs under our weight limit at Heathrow, so we were sure we were well over our weight limit. Turned out that we were 8kgs over, but since this averaged out to 2kgs per bag, Air New Zealand didn't seem too worried about it. We wandered through, got a bite to eat. Found that my laptop had about 10 minutes of battery time left, and I had cleverly packed the charger away in my checked luggage, so we couldn't take advantage of the free wifi to update the blog.

We started boarding the plane about 6:45. The plane was pretty much full, but fortunately the person sitting next to me in our row didn't have any carry-on luggage, so we could fit all our carry-on into the same overhead locker. The flight departed on time, just after 7:30pm, and was scheduled to take 12.5 hours. I only watched one movie -- The Great Escape -- before getting some sleep, but economy class seats are not the most comfortable, so I didn't much in the way of restful sleep. I watched a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, and started watching Toy Story but kept nodding off, so I gave up.

We had some good tailwinds, and arrived at Auckland 15 minutes early. We took our time going through duty-free, picking up the stuff we'd bought four weeks ago, as well as a bottle of sherry (which Joy had given Juliette a taste for!) and port, and we got a good deal on a Sony Handycam video camera (which came with a free Cybershot still camera). By the time we got to the luggage carousel, there was only a couple of other bags apart from our own going around. We got through customs and immigration quickly, and got our luggage checked through the domestic transfer desk. (Juliette psyched herself up for an argument with the clerk over the weight, but there wasn't any problem.)

We walked over to the domestic terminal. We could have taken the free shuttle, but after being couped up in a plane for over twelve hours, it was a good way to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. While waiting for the flight to Wellington to start boarding, we finally had a problem with our luggage. One of the Air NZ staff wandered over, and told us our hand luggage was too big to go in the cabin (a load of nonsense, we've never had a problem fitting our bags in the overhead lockers of a 737) and insisted that they had to go in the hold along with checked luggage. We weren't too happy about that, but in retrospect, given the amount of duty free we were lugging, it wasn't a bad idea.

Flight left Auckland on time, and we had good tailwinds again, landing in Wellington 10 minutes early. We grabbed our luggage, found our shuttle, and were back home in Porirua by 10:30. We unpacked our bags (discovering that we had somehow acquired 17 stuffed toys in our travels), and went out to pick up the cats from the cattery. They seemed a little stressed, and after a sniff around, all three of them went and hid under the bed in the spare room.

We left again, heading up to Levin to pick up the dogs. It was nice to be driving a proper sized car, on the correct side of the road, on roads that had proper road markings and rules. After the M25, we barely noticed the delays trying to get through Friday afternoon rush hour, and got to the kennels just before 7pm. The dogs were ecstatic to see us -- Merlin tried jumping over a gate -- and haven't really left us alone since.

Managed to get a good night's sleep last night. While we enjoyed ourselves, it's nice to be home and in familiar surroundings.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Disneyland!


Today was our big day at Disneyland. We had planned to get there at 7am -- the park normally opens at 8am, but our tickets let us in an hour earlier -- but didn't quite make it; we got there at 7:15.

We headed straight for Tomorrowland, which is the futuristic section of the park (obviously). As we came round the corner, we spotted a building with the Star Wars logo on it, so that was obviously going to be our first stop. It turned out to be another hydraulic ride -- like the Simpsons ride at Universal -- this time 'simulating' an abortive journey through space to Endor.

After wobbling out from this ride, we went into Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, which is a more sedate affair. You ride in these two-seater cars which trundle around a track. You have a joystick mounted in the dash which allows you to rotate the chair, but otherwise, all you have to do is shoot targets with the laser blasters, in an attempt to help Buzz Lightyear defeat the evil Emperor Zurg (which probably only makes sense to people who've seen the Toy Story movies). It was a lot of fun (Juliette scored just under 10,000 points; I got 45,300).

After that, we headed to the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, took a ride on the Monorail, visited the Innoventions futuristic home, and the Honey, I Shrunk The Audience 3D show (which still made us both jump with the 3D effects).

We then headed for Autopia, where you get to drive small cars around a miniature highway. The controls are rudimentary -- just a steering wheel and an accelerator pedal -- and you don't have that much control over where you're going (there's a raised concrete section that running down the track that keeps the cars on course), but it was still a lot of fun. Juliette especially liked the fact that she was behind me, and bumped me a couple of times.

By now, we were done with Tomorrowland, so we got on the Disneyland Railway, which runs all the way around the boundary of the park, and got off in Mickey's Toontown. There wasn't a lot we wanted to see here, but it meant we were close to Fantasyland.

We then took a ride through the It's A Small World attraction, which is a leisurely boat cruise through animatronics in different national costumes alterating between singing It's A Small World After All and Jingle Bells (even included a Maori doll dancing with two kiwis).

Next stop was the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a proper roller coaster ride set inside a fake mountain. The worst part was the first section, when the bobsleds rattle along at high speed and in complete darkness. Once you get some light, it's a lot more fun.

We had goes on the Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan's Flight rides which were fun (although the Peter Pan ride was a bit of an anticlimax -- 30 minutes of queuing for a 2 minute ride).

We got back on the Disneyland Railroad, and rode it round to New Orleans Square, then walked through to Critter Country, where the Splash Mountain roller coaster is. The signs at the beginning say "You may get wet", but I hadn't seen any people looking damp, so we didn't put on the vinyl ponchos that we'd picked up at Universal Studios (although Juliette thought it might be a good idea). Of course, with a 50-foot plunge ending in a big splash, we did get wet -- in fact, Juliette got saturated.

We decided to go back to the hotel to get changed and get some lunch, and ended up staying for a nap. We went back to Downtown Disney (the shopping precinct), and watched the fireworks display from Main Street, before returning to the hotel for dinner.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Universal Studios Hollywood (Monday 8 December, 10pm)

We got up nice and early, had breakfast, and were waiting for the bus about twenty minutes early. There were quite a few people waiting, and when the bus finally arrived, we found there were more people than seats. As Universal Studios is about an hour's drive away from Anaheim, we weren't too thrilled at the prospect of having to stand the whole way, especially as we had paid US$30 each for the bus tickets. Fortunately, I only had to stand for about five minutes (someone carried their child in their lap, so Juliette could sit down): the bus took us to the Grayline depot, where the passengers got put onto different buses, depending on where they were going.

Our bus driver, Juan, was great. He talked the whole way to Hollywood, and when he started with, "Okay, we'll be in Mexico in about two hours," I knew it was going to be entertaining. Because of traffic on the freeways, he took us through downtown Los Angeles, pointing out various landmarks and new buildings (we got to see the Hollywood sign, but because of the backup camera's limitations, I couldn't get a good photo).

Getting to Universal Studios, our CityPass meant we didn't have to wait in line for tickets, though we did have to wait to get through the turnstiles into the park itself. While waiting, I had an epiphany about why there are always roped lanes funneling people towards attractions and gates: people here have no idea about how to queue. Get a group of people here waiting to enter something, and if there aren't any ropes, they'll form a mass with people pushing their way forwards, with no thoughts of politely waiting their turn. (Grizzle mode off....)

Once we got in, we went straight to The Simpsons ride, where you sit in a 8-seat carriage, which is mounted on an hydraulic platform. It's quite amazing how much a little bit of movement in the right direction combined with the right visuals fools your body. All through the ride, I knew that the platform wasn't going anywhere, but my senses were screaming that I was falling hundreds of feet. Not for the faint of heart!

After lurching away from that ride, we went to the Universal's Animal Actors show, with trained dogs, cats, birds, rats, a pig, a monkey, and an orang-utan putting on a really good show (along with their trainers). Outside, they had another trainer with some dogs, so we also got our dog-petting fix :-)

We went down to the Lower Lot and on to the Jurassic Park ride. This is a pretty sedate affair, taking you along a short river ride past animatronic dinosaurs. Then things start to "go wrong", and you get shaken a little, menaced by a T-rex and other dinosaurs (including being squirted by Dilophosaurs), culminating in an 84-foot vertical drop. No fooled senses here: the carriage tips over and you're looking straight down, before arriving at the bottom in a large splash of water.

By this point, I was feeling distinctly whoozy, but Juliette enjoyed the Jurassic Park ride so much, she went round again!

We went through the gift shop, and got t-shirts (like SeaWorld, every attraction has its own related gift shop near by). Around the corner, there was a facepainting stall, and Juliette got her face painted. Next to that was the Universal Experience, which is a static display about the history of Universal studios, with memorabilia from some of Universal's highest grossing movies.

By now it was 1pm, so we joined the queue for the Special Effects Stages. Here, you're taken through three stages, each relating to a different area of special effects. This was very entertaining, but is apparently being removed next year (along with the Backdraft ride) to make way for a Transformers ride.

Back up to the Upper Lot, we meandered around the various stores and restaurants. Juliette got some popcorn, which was served coated in sugar (much to Juliette's disgust). Americans seem to like sweet things a lot, something we noticed at breakfast: heavily sweetened orange juice and chocolate donuts were amongst the buffet selections.

Our bus driver had recommended the WaterWorld show, but the next one wasn't until 4pm, so we went on the Studio Tour. You get loaded into a tram, and driven around the studio backlots. Again, very entertaining. There were several moments where we had to stop and be quiet because of filming on a nearby set (three breaks for Desperate Housewives and one for something else). Didn't get to see any stars, though.

And just because this was a tour of the backlots didn't mean we has escaped theme park rides: we went across a rickety bridge, which "fell apart" as we crossed; got squirted by Dilophosaurs (again!); shaken in a simulated earthquake; attacked by Bruce from Jaws; "cursed" by Imotep from The Mummy movies; and menaced by Norman Bates (from Hitchcock's Psycho). My favourite part of this ride was the crashed 747 set from Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake: apparently, they had taken an actual 747 airliner and dismantled it for the set. (It was only as we were driving away from the set that I remembered that we are going to be on a 747 in a couple of days!)

By the time the Studio Tour finished, it was 3:45, so we dashed to the other side of the park to the WaterWorld show. Juan had warned us that sitting in the front rows means you'll almost certainly get wet, so we carefully chose seats outside the soak zone. The show is an abbreviated re-telling of the movie, with lots of pyrotechnics and stunts by the performers (no Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, or Dennis Hopper).

After the show, we stopped by a couple more gift shops, before heading to the Shrek 4D show. This was a short film, set between the first and second movie, and involved the ghost of Farquad attempting to get his revenge. The 3D effects were very well done. The seats also lurch around according to the action on the screen, with air jets and water squirters completing the effects (particularly unnerving in the scene with the spiders!). The movie also included a very funny scene that parodied the trench run from Star Wars.

We got out of the theatre, and it was 5:15. On the bus ride in, Juan had told us three numbers: 65775 (the number of the bus), 530 (the time the bus would leave, at 5:30); and 9550 (the approximate taxi fare from Universal to Anaheim, $95.50). So we had a mad dash to the exit and around the bus park, to find the right bus and get on it. We were obviously the last passengers our bus was waiting for, as he shut the door and moved off as soon as we were aboard.

The bus ride back wasn't anything special -- it was dark, and traffic was heavy -- but we at least got dropped off a couple of doors down from our hotel, around 7:15. We were pretty tired so we had a nap, before I got up to have a bite to eat and write this blog entry. The internet connection's a bit up and down, so not sure when this will actually get posted.

Disneyland tomorrow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Disneyland....well, sort of!

Today we went to Disneyland, not into the park(s) proper but into the Downtown Disney shopping area. We soon discovered that the special prices I had seen online DID NOT relate to the shop in the resort and the Disney Store itself was a seperate retail outlet. Now, we had a lot of things we wanted to get (well okay, I had a lot of things I wanted to get) and no way was I paying the resort prices when I knew I could get them cheaper! So, much to Crispin's disgust, we left the park and went back to the hotel to figure out how to get to the nearest Disney store. On the way back to our room we stopped at reception and booked our transport to Universal Studios for tomorrow -- given on Tuesday we can get into Disneyland 1 hour earlier than most people due to our special ticket and on Wednesday we are being picked up to go to the airport in the early afternoon -- tomorrow is the only day we have for Universal Studios.

Luckily it turned out that the nearest Disney store was not that far away (well, over an hour if walking but there was a OCTA bus that stopped very close to our hotel) and we located the store in Westfields in Santa Ana without *too* much trouble. The bus driver was lovely and gave us a courtesy ride there (as you needed correct change and he recognised we were not locals) and we ended up with the same driver going back! The store was great, much cheaper than at the resort especially for the stuffed toys that Crispin so desperately wanted (it was Crispin, honest). We managed to get t-shirts for only USD5 and I got a Tinkerbell PJ set :o) I also took the opportunity to have a manicure and my nails painted while we were at Westfields.

We did have to go back to the resort to get a Mickey Mouse toy (as the store had run out) but by then it was 4pm and we both had sore feet so we decided not to go into the park proper today.

We got back to our room just after 6pm and Crispin went up to check the pool for me (it is quite small and only takes 30 people at maximum capacity). The pool was empty so we high-tailed it up there and had it all to ourselves for about 45 minutes before I got cold and so we got out...yes people, Crispin was quite happy to stay in the pool and I wanted to get out....miracles never cease!!

Back to the room for a hot shower -- the pool is heated so was lovely and warm but once you got out you really noticed the much colder air -- then dinner (macaroni cheese, I should have known better but Crispin enjoyed his) and finally to pack up our purchases from today. I am pleased to be able to report that I managed to get everything into the suitcases....the only question now is how much over our weight we are, and how much it will cost, I guess we will find out in a few days time. And of course now I am sitting down and writing this blog entry.

I have been pleasantly suprised by the US, just about everyone has been really friendly and helpful and I have not felt unsafe once. The only complaint I do have is all the people along South Harbor Boulevard (the street we are staying on) trying to get you to go to a timeshare presentation by offering Disneyland coupons...of course we aren't interested and it's only open to US citizens so we've taken to saying "we're not US citizens" everytime one of them approaches us. Seriously they are outside just about every hotel, and as South Harbor Boulevard is just opposite Disneyland you can imagine how many hotels there are!!

Crispin is already fast asleep and I am not far of it myself, looking forward to the next few days of fun (and trying not to shop - as we are reaching critical capacity lol) but also really looking forward to coming home and spending the weekend with the animals...I miss them terribly, we both do...not that we aren't enjoying ourselves but there is nothing like snuggling up with a purring kitty or fluffy triever...I think I miss Merlin the most, with his cheeky and playful attitude - he's just a overgrown puppy really, even at 4 :o)

Back in Los Angeles

Got all packed up yesterday , and the Lux Bus picked us up at 11:15am. Bus was bigger than last time -- a proper mini-bus, and took us up the I-5 to Anaheim. The place we're staying at -- Carousel Inn & Suites -- has a driveway that's too small for the bus, so we got dropped off at the inn and suites next door, and the driver helped us drag our bags around to the Carousel. Our room wasn't ready, so they put our bags in a secure room, and we had lunch at a nearby Quiznos (sort of like an Italian Subway), then went walkabout.

The road we're on is lined with hotels, and as we walked down the street, just about every driveway had people who tried to sell us timeshares (right up until they found out we weren't US citizens). We're just around the corner from the Anaheim Garden Walk shopping centre (where we briefly stopped on Thursday morning), but this time, everyone was open. Quite a few boutique shops, and Juliette found a few items she liked in one called Fresh Produce.

We got back to the hotel about 4pm, and took our bags up to our room. After the Catamaran, this hotel is a little disappointing. The wifi wasn't working, they don't provide cutlery or crockery in the room, the microwave didn't have a platter, and I had to go back down to reception to get the key to the room safe. Once again, we have a double bed each, and the swimming pool isn't that big -- not really big enough for a swim. But it is just across the road from Disneyland -- we just have to walk up the road to the pedestrian crossing -- sorry, crosswalk -- and we're there.

We went back out after getting settled, and got some supplies from a 7-11. About 9pm, a fireworks display opened up. We couldn't see them directly (though we could see the reflection in another building's windows), but we could definitely hear them.

Weather here is cooler than San Diego (thank goodness!). Today we're going to Disneyland after breakfast. The wifi seems to have been repaired (though it's still intermittant), so we'll be able to keep the blog updated.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

SeaWorld

I had forgotten that we had also brought our small video camera (an el cheapo 3.1 megapixel one) that could also do still images. The quality's nowhere near as good as my CyberShot's, but it works and is better than nothing.

After this morning's shenanigans, we didn't get away to SeaWorld until much later than planned, but we got there about 1:00.

We wandered around for a bit, including a visit to the underwater viewing platform for the killer whales, which were as curious about the spectators as we were of them.

We really came for the Believe show, but the next one wasn't for another 90 minutes, so we kept going and visited some of the nearby attractions (California Tide Pool, World of the Sea Aquarium, Aquarium de la Mer). Nearly every attraction or exhibit seems to have a gift shop attached, and we seem to have a low resistance to souvenirs -- we've added five more soft toys to the collection (Shamu, a manatee, an eagle, a polar bear, and a dolphin).

By now, it was nearly time for the show, so we made our way to the stadium. Even at 2:30 on a non-holiday Friday, the arena was packed, but we got our seats in around row 20 (outside the "soak zone").

The show was spectacular. It was only 30 minutes long, but from the first moment a killer whale leaps out of the water, everyone's rapt. And anyone sitting in rows 1 to 16 gets wet. No ifs, buts, or maybes: the trainers and the whales make sure you get wet if you're in the soak zone.

After the show, everything else seemed a bit of an anticlimax. We went through the Turtle enclosure, Flamingo Cove, Freshwater Aquarium, Shark Encounter, the Manatee Rescue, Penguin Encounter, and Wild Arctic, and all of them would been good on their own, if I still wasn't thinking about the whales...

We finished at 4:30, and met Carina and Denny at the gates. We went into San Diego proper, and had dinner at Anthony's Fish Grotto, which had a great view of the harbour (including the aircraft carrier in the background). Alex joined us, along with Hayley (his partner) and Eden (their two-month-old daughter. And yes, Juliette got clucky.

Once again, another evening of great food and better company. Alex got some pics of us all together (since the backup camera doesn't have a flash), before Carina and Denny took us off to Wal-mart to look for suitcases to replace our failing one.

Tomorrow, it's back to LA. The Lux Bus is picking us up at 10:45, and taking us to the Carousel Inn & Suites in Anaheim... just across the road from Disneyland.

Blimmin' Murphy strikes again!

Had to happen. Opened the curtains this morning, and the view across Sail Bay was amazing. Hardly a cloud in the sky, brilliant sunshine. So I pulled out my camera to take a photo.

"No Memory Card".

Odd. Opened the camera, and its memory card had been partially ejected. Strange, it's never done that before. I pushed the card back into place.

"Memory Card Error".

Nuts. It's my 1GB card. Oh well, have to revert to a smaller one.

"Memory Card Error".

Uh-oh. Two memory cards, but the same error suggests a problem with camera itself. Tried formatting the card, tried resetting the camera. Same error message.

Called Sony technical support. Got through real quick, but the only things they could suggest that I could do myself involved formatting the card and resetting the camera. No dice. Only way to fix this problem now is to take it in for servicing. Which takes 7-10 working days. From the day that it's received by the actual servicer. By which time, we'll be back in New Zealand.

Juliette's teasing me by saying that it's my way of getting a new camera, but I'm really annoyed. Hopefully we'll be able to get some sort of temporary replacement like a disposable camera, but they're unlikely to be digital.

Anyway, we popped out to the local laundrette (the hotel's laundry service charge per item, and I'll be darned before I pay $3 for a pair of socks). While waiting for the machine to finish, we went down the road to the Mission and had pancakes for breakfast (and what pancakes! easily a half-inch thick!). I'm currently sitting back in the laundrette, waiting for the drying to finish, and using the laundrette's free wifi to post this.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Later...

Denny and Carina arrived around 1pm, and took us to the Old Town Mexican Cafe for lunch. I had the Gordo Burrito, which was an absolutely huge burrito packed with beef, beans, lettuce, and guacamole -- so large, I couldn't finish it. To wash it down, I had a margarita, something I've never tried before: very different, but very nice.

Afterwards, we ended up at the Fashion Valley Mall. As expected, Bloomingdale's was horrifically expensive, and we didn't dare look into places like Saks Fifth Avenue or Herm├ęs. They also had stalls set up along the main thoroughfare, and we picked up a number of items before getting to JC Penny's at the other end.

Afterwards, we headed out to another mall, and stumbled across a Petco -- think Animates writ large. We found some neat toys for the pets (Juliette insisted that they had to have toys from each country we visited), but by now I was feeling very, very sleepy.

Tomorrow, we'll go to Sea World, then meet Denny, Carina and Alex (my other cousin) for dinner. But now, I'm going to collapse into bed.

San Diego

Well, I didn't get back to sleep after the last entry, so lay awake until 5:30 before deciding to get up, have a shower and get dressed.

Lugged all the bags down to the reception, checked-out and got to the front doors a couple of minutes before the bus arrived to take us to San Diego. It's a long road trip -- about two-and-a-half hours -- but we did get a chance to get out and stretch our legs at Anaheim (wandered around a shopping mall looking for somewhere to get something to drink, but everything was closed).

We got the Catamaran Resort Hotel on 10am, and checked in. There was a message from Auntie Denny to call her on Carina's (my cousin's) cellphone. We've got a nice view, and the room is pleasant (though I'm not sure why we're in a room with two double beds, instead of one queen or king-size). We're meeting Denny and Carina for lunch soon -- Denny mentioned something about going into San Diego's Old Town.

In America (Thursday, 4 December, 4:30 am)

I must still be on London time. It's 4:30am in LA, but just after midday in London, and I can't sleep :-/

Flight was long, and there wasn't much to see once we left UK airspace. The flight went over Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, Canada before coming over the Midwest into LAX. Since the plane started pushing back from the gate around 4pm, it was already getting dark as we lifted off, and we couldn't see anything out the window by the time we got over the Midlands. The only real highlight in terms of views out the window was when we flew directly over Las Vegas -- even from 30,000 feet, you could clearly see the main drag and its casinos all lit up.

Landed at LAX about 6:50pm local time, and I started tensing up again because of all the stories people had told me about how horrible customs and immigration at LA were. Nothing could be further from the truth -- all the staff were helpful, courteous, and got us through with the minimum of fuss. Fast, too -- we were waiting for the courtesy bus by 7:30.

The bus came about 10 minutes later, and the driver was really helpful: insisting we go and sit on the bus while he loaded our luggage. The trip to the airport was slow, because he had to stop every so often to see if someone else needed picking up, but we were at the Hilton LAX hotel by 8.

We got all checked in, and called the bus company for the bus to San Diego later this morning (pick-up about 7:30). They brought our bags to our room, and we had our first encounter with the tipping culture in America. We then picked up the menu for room service, and got a bit of a shock: not only were the prices steep (US$21.00 for a burger and beer), but they add a $3 room service charge, and advise that a 17% service fee is due to the person who brings your food up! In the end, we went down to the foyer and had dinner in one of the eating places there.

We managed to get a power adapter from the hotel's gift shop (and I got a Hollywood pen with a movie camera on top!), then went back to our room to collapse into bed. Juliette didn't seem to have any problems sleeping, but I've been awake since 2am. I'll probably adjust to the time difference just in time to come home. :-(

Thursday, December 4, 2008

At Heathrow

In the end, we decided against visiting the Tower of London, which in the end was for the best. We didn't have much time to get organised, and since today was also the State Opening of Parliament, the Crown Jewels were 'in use' anyway!

The shuttle was booked to pick us up between 11:35 and 11:45, so we got down to the foyer with our luggage by 11:15. Of course, he promptly turned up about 11:20! He blatted through London at hair-raising speed, and got us to Terminal 2. But our ticket said we were supposed to be dropped at Terminal 3. A quick dash around to Terminal 3, and we got ourselves all unloaded and the bags onto trolleys. Naturally, as soon as he'd gone is when we saw the sign saying Air New Zealand now operated from Terminal 1!

Nothing for it but to walk. Fortunately, the terminals are well signposted, and there are lifts and travelators through the subway system, so we got to Terminal 1 without too much trouble. Had to walk almost the whole length of the terminal to get to Zone R where Air New Zealand check-in is. The queue was quite long, and it was another 20 minutes before we got to the front. No problems checking in, although our luggage was only about 3kgs under the weight limit! Have to be careful in LA with souvenirs.

We've cleared security, and are now sitting in departures. We're about 20 minutes away from finding out which gate we'll be boarding at, and it'll be 90 minutes later that the flight is scheduled to depart.

Zoiks!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Last night in London

Well, the wifi on the bus wasn't working, though I shouldn't have been surprised. For the four times we've been on the X90, the wifi's only worked once. So the last entry was added to the blog while sitting in the hotel lobby.

The journey to London wasn't much: the taxi was right on time, we got to Oxford about 9:30, in time to catch the 9:40 coach. It's a two hour journey to London, so we both nodded off on the trip in. We got off at Marble Arch, and then had to lug five suitcases (three large, one medium, and one small) half a mile to the hotel, at Two Hyde Park Square. Hard enough in the best of circumstances, but one of the suitcases' extendable handle had broken, so I was having to drag it with a baggage strap (not comfortable!).

We got here though, and the doorman, Victor, was brilliant. The room wasn't going to be ready for another couple of hours, so our luggage was stashed to one side, and he got us settled in the lobby where we could have a bite to eat. He also asked about our arrangements to get to Heathrow tomorrow morning, and helped us organise a bus to take us straight from the hotel to Terminal 3.

Well, we had a few hours to kill, so we decided to visit the Natural History Museum, a quick 30 minute walk through Hyde Park and into Kensington.

The Museum was terrific. Admission is free, although you have to submit to a search when you go in! They go through your bags, looking for anything sharp -- I guess they're worried about people damaging the displays.

We started in the 'Red Zone', which is about the Earth and the forces that shape it. Lots of stuff about volcanoes and earthquakes -- all very interesting, but slightly old hat to someone from New Zealand! So we shot through that quickly, and got to what I'd really come to see: the dinosaurs in the 'Blue Zone'.

You have to go through the Central Hall to get to the dinosaur exhibits, which is a beautiful vaulted room, with pride of place given to 'Dippy', the replica Diplodicus skeleton. Then you walk into the hall where you're greeted by a Brachiosaurus. They had skeletons of all types, including my favourite, Triceratops, and a life-size animated teenage Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Afterwards, we went through the dinosaur gift shop (where I caved and bought a Triceratops soft toy), Darwin Exhibition gift shop, and the Earth gift shop.

We had hoped that we might be able to hop on one of the tour buses, but by now it was after 4pm, so darkness was closing in. We got on a bus, then got off about five minutes later to have a look in a luggage shop that was having a sale (we wanted to see if they had affordable suitcases to replace the broken one).

After that, we wandered just down the road to Harrods, which was all lit up for Christmas. We went into the Food Halls (Juliette was looking for some Russian fudge), and bought some spiced Christmas coffee. On the way out, Juliette spotted some key rings in the shape of purses, but baulked at the GBP110.00 price tag. Of course, this was because (a) we were in Harrods and (b) there was a Gucci sign directly overhead!

Then it was back across the road to grab coffees from Starbucks, then back on the bus. We got off the bus at Hyde Park Corner Station, which was, unfortunately, the wrong place to get off -- we still had all of Hyde Park between us and the hotel -- so we took a long walk up Park Lane (it's a bit like walking around a Monopoly board when you're in London) to Oxford Street, where we picked up some London souvenirs, then along Bayswater Road to Hyde Park Street, then up to Hyde Park Square.

We found that Victor had moved all our luggage up to our room, so he fully deserved his GBP10 tip! And the room is wonderful, much better than the (more expensive) Grosvenor Hotel that we stayed in nearly three weeks ago. It's bigger, the carpet's nicer, it has its own kitchenette, and the bathroom is cleaner. We wish we'd stayed here the first night we spent in London.

Now we're settled in, had dinner, repacked the suitcases, and are ready for our flight to LA tomorrow. We might get a chance to visit the Tower of London, but the bus is coming to pick us up at 11:30, so the window of opportunity is very small!

Dinner & Breakfast (2 December, 8:10 am)

Got to Oxford okay, and the taxi was waiting for us, so we got all the bags in and were in Abingdon by 5pm. We got ourselves settled into the B&B, and then left for the restaurant around 6. We met Joy and Fred outside the Bella Napoli about 6:15 and sat down for dinner.

If you're ever in Abingdon, and have a hankering for Italian, I thoroughly recommend Bella Napoli. The food is delicious, and reasonably priced; the restaurant itself is cosy; and the hosts are the type of wonderfully boisterous Italians that run really good restaurants. Over the course of the next three and a half hours, we had great food and great conversation. It was terrific seeing Joy and Fred again -- there's something special about being thousands of miles from home, and being with family and friends (that goes for Cassandra & Sianon, and Rachelle & Lee as well): friendly faces in the midst of unfamiliarity.

We got back to the B&B about 10:30, and settled in for the night. I miss the campervan, but sleeping in a proper bed after two weeks on the campervan's bed is divine.

Got up this morning about 7, got all packed up and off to breakfast at 7:30 -- just as delicious as last time. It's now 8:15, and Juliette's hurried off to the nearby Waitrose supermarket to try and find the soup she likes for dinner tonight. The taxi's picking us up again at 9 to take us back to Oxford, so we can catch the X90 back to London. (The buses have wifi, and if it's working, that's when I'll add this update to the blog.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What a to-do!

Okay, we got all packed last night, so all we had to do this morning was get up at 6, breakfasted, washed, have the last bits of the campervan squared away (loo and waste water emptied, etc.), and get on the road when the gates for the campsite opened at 8.

If you've been following this blog, then you'll know that our plans rarely survive daybreak. We got up at 6:45, took our time getting ready, and were on the road by 9:45.

Then Betty decided the fastest way to go north of London was to take the A2 south, and lead us onto a toll road for Dover and the Channel Tunnel! We quickly got off the toll road (at the last exit before the tolls were charged), and told Betty to calculate the route back to the Just Go depot in Flamstead. This time, she asked us if we wanted to avoid toll roads (a resounding "Yes!"), and sent us back north on the A2 (going past the exit we originally joined the A2!), with an ETA about 20 minutes after the hand in time of 11am.

To avoid a GBP75.00 fee, we emptied the chemical toilet before we left, and just used the camp site's toilets. Of course, halfway through the trip, I heard the call of nature, and desperately started looking for a public loo. When a sign appeared saying that the next services were 16 miles away, I had to pull onto the hard shoulder and use the on-board loo. No worries, we thought. We have to fill up on diesel before we hand the van back; we'll empty the loo into the petrol station's toilet.

Murphy strikes again. After much mucking about trying to get into the petrol station, there's no public toilet we can use. By now I was resigned to having to pay the GBP75 (much to Juliette's disgust), but Just Go were fine about it (they let us empty it into their toilet), and they weren't worried about the late return either (so no GBP100/hour late fine).

After a quick inspection of the van (just the smashed light, and they already knew about that), and they dropped us back at Luton airport, where we caught the bus for London Victoria. Currently, we're on the X90 back to Oxford (should get there about 4:30), where Phil the taxi will take us to Abingdon. We've got one night at the same B&B as last time, and out to dinner with Joy & Fred (Italian, apparently -- yum!), before heading back into London tomorrow morning.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Planes, planes, planes, and more planes!

Today was my long-awaited trip to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, North London.

Thanks to yesterday's dramas with traveling (including Juliette taking us to the underground when we needed to catch an overground train), getting to the museum was easy: catch a SouthEastern train from Abbey Wood to Waterloo, then switch the the Tube's Northern line up to Colindale station. From there, a ten minute walk to the museum (all up, the journey took about 90 minutes).

What can I say about the museum? It was great -- several large buildings filled to overflowing with things-with-wings. I was very camera-happy: 311 photos in three hours!

The highlight for me, I think, was the Bomber Hall. Filled with numerous types (from a World War I Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.12 to World War II types like the Lancaster, B-17 Flying Fortress, and B-24 Liberator), the room was dominated by a Vulcan bomber, one of the most purposeful-looking aircraft ever to enter operational service -- looking like a bat out of hell!

Afterwards, I wandered into the Historic Hangars which was filled with jets and helicopters (and a few prop planes). Nestled amongst these were two of my all-time favourite aircraft, an FGR.2 Phantom and a Tornado in the livery of 617 Squadron (the famous Dambusters).

In all, I spent about three hours at the museum, and I still didn't get to the Battle of Britain Hall or the Grahame-White Factory. I went into the gift shop, which was a little disappointing: the T-shirts were too small, the die-cast models weren't terribly well made, and the posters were exorbitantly priced. But I did get myself a Dambusters mousepad, Vulcan bookmark, and a copy of Black Hawk Down.

I left about 3pm, and reversed my journey back to Abbey Wood. Took slightly longer, and it was almost 5 by the time I got to the campsite.

And where was Juliette in all this? Knowing she'd be bored stiff within 30 seconds of arriving, she decided to stay back at the campsite.

Tomorrow, we take the campervan back to Just Go. Despite all the trials and tribulations of driving around England and Scotland, I'm going to miss it. When not being pressured by narrow roads, ridiculous intersections, or other traffic, the van's nice to drive, and it's been our home for the past two weeks, and I've gotten a bit fond of it. Might be a bit teary-eyed when I hand the keys over :-(