Archive for March, 2011

I blame those frisky young whippersnappers, David Crosby and Graham Nash, but neither Janet nor I were ready to rock too early today after the excesses of the previous evening.  Eventually, we set off on the 74 mile drive to Santa Cruz, joining the Skyline Boulevard at the top of Fulton at Ocean Beach.

Despite the clear blue sky and slowly warming sun, waves crashed onto the beach in swift succession as we passed the Sunset district with its attractive multi-coloured houses that reminded me of Burano in the Venetian lagoon, San Francisco Zoo and Fort Funston as we hit Highway 1.

As we drove through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and Pescadaero State Beach, increasing numbers of surfers could be seen preparing their boards, ironically to ride waves significantly less turbulent than those we had left back at Ocean Beach.  The Cabrillo Highway, which is the acknowledged name of this stretch of Highway 1, is a lovely road with wonderful shoreline vistas, but it is not conducive to speed, particularly if you get stuck behind a slow truck or Winnebago or, as we did, spend lengthy waits at a number of roadworks  created by the Devil’s Slide Tunnels Project.  This, combined with the warm sunshine, had a distinctly somnolent effect on both driver and passenger.

The most poignant sights on the journey were the signs denoting the “Tsunami Evacuation Route”, a reminder of the damage that had been caused to this part of the coast in the aftermath of the recent Japanese earthquake.

As we entered the Santa Cruz city limit lunch was foremost in our minds, so we headed straight for the famous Boardwalk  –  mistake!  The unseasonable weather had fooled us into thinking that the world renowned seaside complex would be throbbing with action, but, of course, it was still off season.  A total of two gift shops, one amusement arcade and a couple of fast food outlets were the only establishments open to the public, and many of the rides were subject to undergoing maintenance work.  The beach. like many others in the immediate area, contained a lot of wooden debris, further evidence of the recent high waters.

We decided, therefore, to head for downtown Santa Cruz.  In fact, we spent nearly four hours there, enjoying the friendly, laid-back atmosphere pervading the clean, tree-lined main street that contained some fine shops, including an outstanding independent bookstore.  Street musicians and artists were prevalent, as was the occasional beggar – even they were “smarter than the average” San Franciscan panhandler.  We had lunch at the Chocolate cafe – warm chicken sandwich with pesto, mozzarella and peppers for me and sesame chicken salad for Janet.  The food was  delicious and service was prompt and pleasant.  Moreover, the seats outside were a real suntrap.

My San Francisco Giants / Gratefiul Dead t-shirt, only purchased in Haight-Ashbury on Sunday,  excited a great deal of admiration in this bastion of the counterculture, including several “nice shirt”  comments and a couple of slightly dopey smiles in my direction.  I managed to buy another Dead t-shirt here, with the American Beauty logo, as well as the one CD that I had been coveting for some time, entitled Crimson, White and Indigo, a three CD plus DVD package of a concert in Philadelphia in 1989.  With tax I paid $42 instead of the near $70 being quoted even on Amazon in the UK.  The cashier, who was sporting a Dead t-shirt, was thrilled that I had bought it, saying that he had been waiting for someone to buy it as it was ” awesome”.  A conversation about the Dead’s visits to the UK ensued.

The most disheartening part of the trip was the imminent demise of Border’s Books, yet another branch in the chain set to close.  It was pitiful to witness the first floor (the second was completely closed) with its vasy empty spaces and pleas for customers to not only buy its products but also the fixtures and fittings.  There was one silver lining however – it was possible to stock up for your winter fuel with a bulk purchase of Sarah Palin‘s America At Heart book at a 60% discount.

We headed back north as late afternoon clouds took over momentary custody of the skies.  Surfers were more evident than they had been this morning.  We decided to stop for a drink at Half Moon Bay, but, given that it was turned 6pm by the time we got there, it too was virtually closed.  However, we did manage a coffee at the friendly San Benito House saloon and restaurant.   

The final leg of our journey home was a little more interesting than we had expected or planned.  Thinking we would rejoin the coast road back to Ocean Beach we found ourselves hurtling along Highway 1 in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Resolving to avoid that embarassing detour I decided that we should try a even more embarassing detour by turning right off the road.  Darkness had descended which added to the sense of being lost and panic stricken, although I was convinced (sic) that we would eventually veer back towards the city.  My confidence was sorely tested as we passed unfamiliar names like Sloat and Portola, but once we had brushed Twin Peaks on our left, it started to return.  As we turned down the hill the view of the City was a new and astonishing one, which made the anxiety of the past ten minutes almost bearable.   

The sight of the enormous rainbow flag at Harvey Milk Plaza on Castro Street brought mutual relief, and we cut off Market and returned to the apartment to gratefully consume the pizzas we had bought at Half Moon Bay.

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I’m going to break with tradition by starting with an account of the evening.  We witnessed an astonishing show by David Crosby and Graham Nash at the legendary Warfield Theater on Market Street.   My already sore throat took a fearful battering at 11pm belting out the encore numbers Teach You Children and Chicago from their Crosby, Still, Nash and Young (CSNY) days. 

How those guys, who are ten years older than me, must feel this morning after some serious hard rocking for almost three hours does not bear thinking about.  It helps to have a hot band, of course, which included not only Crosby’s multi-talented son but also the former bass player for Jackson Browne and erstwhile lead guitarist for Steely Dan.

The two sets encompassed the whole career of both performers, getting off to a steaming start with The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, introduced by Nash as “this one’s for San Francisco” – hmm, I wonder why!  This was followed by Long Time Gone and Marrakesh Express.  Given his serious health problems over the years Crosby’s voice is still a remarkably powerful and expressive one, most evident on Almost Cut My Hair, Camera and Wooden Ships.  Nash led on a number of other songs that he had penned such as I Used to be a King and Military Madness and the singalong Our House.  Their harmonies on Guinevere and more recent songs such as Don’t Dig Here and Lay Me Down were as good as ever.

We could not have had better seats – although we were in the back row in the stalls we were raised above everyone else so had an uninterrupted view of the stage.  Apart from the bovine perfume of the mens’ restroom (at least I think it was the smell of the cow), the Warfield is an incredibly evocative venue.  There are numerous bars and cheap food is available  (Janet and I had a large plate of nachos with sour cream, cheese and guacamole for just $6, although between us we succeeded in spraying my brand new trousers at least twice with the over-full paper plate it was precariously balanced on.

The only drawback was the two middle aged women, both recently made single (I can hardly think why) sat next to us who persisted in a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ throughout the show as if they were groupies from the early seventies when Crosby and Nash first performed together.  The one next to Janet kept leaning across her to grab my arm as if there was some secret code between us about certain songs.  When I asked her if she knew for whom Graham Nash had written I Used to be a King about, she nodded at me maniacally several times before reverting to a single sad shake of her head to denote she really had no idea (it was Joni Mitchell by the way).

A great concert in a historic, characterful venue but we nearly didn’t make it.  I had bought the tickets through Ticketmaster on the internet which meant we had to collect them at the box office before the show started.  We left our apartment at 6.15pm in the expectation that we would get to the theater by 7.00pm.  Twenty five  minutes later we were still waiting for the bus whilst five had gone in the other direction.  We resolved, therefore, to hail the first available cab that passed.

On getting into the cab I asked for the Warfield Theater.  The taxi driver, who was admittedly very pleasant, asked if there was an event there tonight and what time we needed to be there.  After I had explained this he suddenly asked ” Warfield – is that on Van Ness or Sutter”?  “Market” I replied.  If this were not bad enough he then threw us around in the back of the cab as he mounted the kerb on a right turn, and then spent the remainder of the journey sneezing violently, further causing the cab to lurch in every direction.  Although there was an argument that HE should have paid US for the fare I was so relieved to have arrived at the Warfield alive that I tipped him even better than I usually do.

In the morning we had driven over the Bay Bridge to the former naval base at Treasure Island.  We had only been there once before on our first visit in 1995 and that was at night to take photos of the stunning view back towards the city and the bridge.  To be frank, whilst we wandered around for an hour or so, we didn’t find much of interest (we did not visit the winery that has been established there).  It did, however, give us the opportunity to see the new east span of the bridge close up.

One restaurant that we had been planning to visit in San Francisco but never managed it is Green’s at Fort Mason, one of the most celebrated vegetarian eateries in the U.S.  It is ironic that we should finally visit it after we have, following more than twenty years as vegetarians, recently resolved to eat seafood and chicken.  Unfortunately, we picked the day when they were not serving lunch.  However, the takeaway (“to go”) counter was open, and we were allowed to sit in the restaurant to eat our sandwiches and salads, affording us fantastic views across the Marina to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Prior to returning to “our house” to prepare for our evening out we strolled along the Marina, even on a Monday afternoon a hive of activity with joggers, cyclists (many of whom were en route to “biking the bridge”) and assorted ball games, the most intriguing of which was what appeared to be a mini Spring Training baseball camp for teenage boys, involving separate hitting, catching and pitching practice sessions. 

We took the plunge (but only after the seemingly perilous climb!) of driving on Fillmore as a short cut back to the apartment.  After a glass of wine at a local cafe on Baker and Fulton we began our preparations for our eventful evening.

Which brings us back to where we began.

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We had planned to take the advice of the Small Faces today and spend a “lazy Sunday afternoon” in the neighbourhood.  The only thing we really had to do was some food shopping for the next few days.  Otherwise, we would take it easy, have a traditional English roast dinner in the apartment and then settle down for the latest instalment of Celebrity Apprentice on NBC later in the evening.  And, of course, there was the blog to write.

A slow morning began with my following my soccer team, Gillingham, on live text commentary on the internet as they attempted to enhance their promotion aspirations at Cheltenham.  The 3pm kick off time back home meant that, with the additional hour from last night’s change to British Summer Time, that we were now 8 hours behind.  Last night’s excesses prevented me from making the start at 7am, but I was ready an hour later to follow the second half (in bed with the laptop!).  Gillingham had gone a goal down in the third minute, and that remained the likely outcome until four minutes before the end when they equalised.  Even more remarkably, they scored again in the very last minute to secure a 2-1 win, a great start to the day.

After a leisurely breakfast in the apartment we wandered down to Grove and Divisadero to look at the Farmer’s Market.  As we were planning to stay out for some time, doing our shopping at the Lucky supermarket on our way back to the house, we decided not to purchase anything at this stage.

I thought I had struck lucky when, as we sauntered along Divisadero to the intersection with Haight, a gorgeous young woman (ok, a sixty something harridan) rushed up to me to say how lovely my red hair was (yes, I do have  some red colour in the naturally dark brown)!  Taken aback by the complement I should have realised that this was the opening gambit to ask for money (our first beggar of the day).  I advised her – mistakenly – that we hadn’t any cash at present and were actually on our way to an ATM, at which she reeled off the locations of all those in the immediate vicinity!  Fortunately, she found someone more obliging and we managed to lose her by Page.  

Turning up Haight we walked through Buena Vista Park with its fine views of the city  and back onto the main street in the area.  I have been disappointed with Haight-Ashbury on our last few visits, particularly those shops, for example Positively Haight Street and Haight-Ashbury T-Shirts, which focused primarily on retro sixties hippie culture.  They seemed to have moved away from that era somewhat, providing more of a balance between freak and mainstream clothing and accessories.  Indeed, today I felt that they had undergone a makeover even since this time last year  – perhaps they were just cleaner and tidier now, which, in a sense, is out of keeping with the original design.

That aside, what struck me today was how many shops, including new ones, were open, and seemingly thriving. Since the onset of the recession it has been difficult to walk down any street in any town or city in either the UK or US without seeing a significant number of boarded up shops.  This was frankly surprisngly not the case today on Haight Street, where I counted only two closed retail outletsYes, many had sales and there were the customary groups of residual “heads” hanging out on the sidewalks. It may have been the early spring sunshine and the fact that it was Sunday, but there seemed to be a renewed energy and optimism that I hadn’t witnessed in recent years and which was, especially, for this ageing hippie, very heartening.

The fact that Janet and I spent longer – around three hours – on the street today than we have for many years seemed to reinforce this feeling.  I had seen some baseball fans during the 2010 postseason wearing Giants t-shirts with the Grateful Dead “steal your face” logo on, so was pleased to pick up one today.  I managed also, seven years after first having the band recommended to me by a photographer on the slopes of Heavenly ski resort, to purchase a couple of live albums by String Cheese Incident at Ameoba Records. 

Lunch was taken at the Blue Front Cafe, a middle eastern eatery serving up wholesome and tasty wraps, bagels etc. and strong coffee, and the warm afternoon sunshine later persuaded us to succumb to the ultimate modern day Haight-Ashbury tourist activity of indulging in a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at the famous street intersection.  I also made a fellow Englishman’s day by taking a photograph with his own camera of him posing outside 710 Ashbury, the fabled early home of the Grateful Dead.

Our extended and enjoyable sojourn in the Haight delayed our planned shopping expedition to the Lucky supermarket just 100 yards from our apartment.  After several sun-kissed hours wallowing in sixties West Coast nostalgia, we turned our San Francisco home into an English enclave by having our customary Sunday dinner of roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, peas, chicken stuffing, apple sauce and chicken gravy, washed down, of course, with a Californian sauvignon blanc.

The lazy Sunday theme was restored with a night spent watching America’s Next Great Restaurant (I don’t think so!) and Celebrity Apprentice (Dionne Warwick is still a “heartbreaker”!) on TV.

All in all, a lovely San Francisco Sunday with an English twist.

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Our first full day in San Francisco – and it was a good one.  After a comfortable night’s sleep (another plus point for the apartment) we woke to steady rain that had left large pools at the bottom of the wooden steps leading down from the kitchen to the back garden.  The forecast was for it to clear later in the morning to leave a cloudy but dry afternoon and evening.

Tradition dictates that our first morning be spent at the Cliff House at Ocean Beach for brunch.  This was just a 10-15 minute drive straight along Fulton until we reached the Pacific Ocean.  For the majority of the journey we passed an especially verdant Golden Gate Park on our left, whilst from the passenger side of the car, we caught occasional and tantalising glimpses of the towers of the glorious Golden Gate Bridge looming over the equally healthy trees of the Presidio.

We parked a few hundred yards short of the Cliff House to enable us to take in the bracing appetite enhancing air for a few minutes before we entered the bistro.  The ocean presented what was, for us, an unprecedentedly turbulent picture with a swift succession of high rolling waves chasing away anyone brave or foolhardy enough to venture too close to it.

The scene was a busy one – joggers passing in either direction and at varying speeds,  people , like us, strolling contentedly in a wind induced state of dishevelment – but most of all, dogs everywhere enjoying the freedom and excitement of exploring the endless expanse of beach.  We must have seen twenty species, from caped miniature poodles and chihuahuas and striking, enigmatic huskies to imposing rottweilers.  We felt as if we were committing an act of animal cruelty by not having one of our own to exercise.  Momentarily, I contemplated hiring one for the week, because, after all, this is San Francisco and I’m sure it is possible.  I don’t think, however, pets are allowed in the apartment – ah well! (And just as I typed this I’ve spotted a very cute dog in the back garden – think it belongs to upstairs!).

We had a twenty minute wait for our table, giving us the opportunity to check on coming events (Wednesday prix fixe menu and jazz evenings) and look in the gift shop.  We both ordered, tradition again, Eggs San Francisco (two poached eggs and crab on toasted sourdough bread with roasted potatoes and fruit) – delicious.  Feeling replete we took another longer walk in the burgeoning sunshine along the beach towards the south, exploring the bonfire pits on the way.  Crossing the Great Highway for the return to our car, we called in at the Beach Chalet to look at the fabulous murals depicting everyday scenes of San Francisco history.

We abandoned our planned food shopping trip as we needed time to get ready for the evening (and for me to finish my blog).  The mild, partly cloudy late afternoon weather encouraged us to take the long walk from our North of the Panhandle (NOPA) hangout to Club Fugazi in North Beach for the early evening performance of Beach Blanket Babylon.  The near hour and a half  journey took in some of the less salubrious parts of the city (Fillmore and Civic Center) before turning off Market Street to snake through Grant in the heart of Chinatown

Inevitably and sadly, there were no shortage of vagrants in the Civic Center vicinity, though we witnessed no intimidating panhandling.  I did purchase a copy of Street Sheet from a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she dresses as a witch and tempts Snow White with a poisoned apple.  He even had the hunch back and hood.  But he was very friendly and  appreciative of my $2 donation. 

For the unitiated, the Street Sheet is a magazine that has been published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989, and is designed to provide information and support programmes for homeless people.  The philosophy is not dissimilar from that of The Big Issue in the UK, whereby it enables its extremely poor vendors the opportunity to earn money for food, shelter and other necessities.

We joined an already lengthy line outside Club Fugazi around 50 minutes before showtime.  I collected our tickets from the box office and took my place in the line.  We were surrounded by around a dozen boisterous and slightly drunk ladies of a certain age taking in the show as part of a bachelorette party.  Whilst we didn’t begrudge them their fun we did hope that their seats were in a different part of the auditorium.  Our prayers were answered as they lurched off to the area close to the stage on the ground floor whilst we were escorted to our seats in the center balcony – having been five times now this is our preferred area to watch the show.  Arming ourselves with a bottle of Woodbridge White Zinfandel and a large packet of pretzels we were ready to cheer Snow White on her worldwide search for a prince.

Once again, Beach Blanket Babylon delivered.  Although we had only been this time last year there was still a lot of new content along with the familiar old staples.  The highlight for me was when San Francisco Giants baseball stars Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson (no, not the real ones) burst onto the stage holding the World Series trophy and singing We Are the Champions. The Queen‘s appalled putdown of the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was hilarious and a typical Beach Blanket Babylon satirical slant on a subject that is all too often treated too reverently.

We had decided that we would try the North Beach Restaurant for dinner for the first time, provided we could get in (we hadn’t booked).  The restaurant looked very busy, but on presenting ourselves at the front desk, we were whisked to the only free table, for two, adjacent to the kitchen.  That may not sound the most appealing location but Janet found it fascinating, catching regular momentary glimpses of the frenzied behind the scenes action as the front of house staff went swiftly went about their work.

But what of the food and service?  This was traditional Italian fine dining at its best.  My linguine with porcini mushrooms and scallops was outstanding, as was Janet’s seafood risotto – both surpassing the excellent meals we had enjoyed at the Riva Grill in South Lake Tahoe.  And our waiter was suave, attentive and witty.  We would thoroughly recommend this establishment and certainly intend to dine there again.

I had wanted to visit The Beat Museum on Broadway for some time, so as the night was still young (10pm), we called in.  Although the museum itself had already closed for the day, we spent some time perusing the bookshelves and other fascinating memorabilia, and I bought a couple of books I had not seen before, one the 700 page Hippie Dictionary –  A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s by John Bassett McCleary and The Beats – A Graphic History.  On leaving we strolled around the fleshpots and nightclubs of Broadway before fleeing back into civilisation at Vesuvio’s bar on Jack Kerouac Boulevard.   Again, we were fortunate in claiming what must have been the only two seats available, at the bar.  After a couple of drinks we walked down Montgomery through the Financial District before boarding a number 5 MUNI bus at Market to transport us back to the apartment.     

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For the second day running I feel I need to preface my account of the day with a statement.  A number of people have expressed sympathy and regret about the disappointing nature of both the Tahoe, and particularly Vegas, legs of our trip.  I am grateful for that, but they really should not worry.  I hope that by the tone of my reports, they detect a certain measure of irony and gallows humour, and, after all, this blog would have been very boring if everything went smoothly wouldn’t it? And, on occasions, I have exaggerated a little for dramatic effect, which I think is defensible.

As my “fellow Californians” would say – it’s all good.

We met Janet’s parents for breakfast in the hotel before bidding them adieu and heading off to McCarran Airport for our 1.05 Virgin America flight to San Francisco.

After checking in at around 11.30am, and paying $25 each for our two large cases, we proceeded to security (Janet had to endure the screening booth whilst I breezed through the traditional barrier!) to the gate.  There were a handful of delays, though all – bar one – did quote an estimated time.  Yes, the one exception was ours, “possible weather delay”, later described by the captain as “one small cloud in the Bay Area”.  It was rather like waiting for a Southeastern train back home –  no information whatsoever until an announcement to say we were boarding.  Anyway, we left exactly an hour late, around a quarter of which we recouped on the journey.  

Although, as regulars on Virgin Atlantic, we were disappointed with the pre-flight service of its American cousin, the in-flight service was better than that we had experienced with Southwest (though there was not a lot wrong with that) between Reno Tahoe and Vegas.  The flight was a little more relaxed with seating that was more comfortable.  Furthermore, there was a decent,mini version of the Virgin in-flight  entertainment system. 

A day couldn’t pass at present, howver, without some minoir catastrophe befalling one of us.  On arriving at SFO we were directed to bagage claim number 9 which appeared to be nothing more than a locked cupboard.  After around a quarter of an hour a Virgin representative breathlessly rushed onto the scene, profusely apologising for the delay, and opening the cupboard to reveal a small baggage claim area.  In the excitement, and seeing our bags about to escape my grasp and begin yet another lap of the carousel, I lunged for them only to slam my shin against a solid metal block sticking out of the conveyor belt.  Whilst it was very painful at the time, and exposed a bloody gash, I thought no more of it until I was changing my trousers at the apartment a couple of hours later, when I discovered that it was not only badly bruised but had blown up to the size of an adam’s apple.  Fortunately, as I write this, virtually 24 hours later, antiseptic cream, plasters and rest have reduced the swelling dramatically, and I experience only mild discomfort rather than any pain.

I am trying to keep my rants to a minimum today, but collecting the hire car we had booked and already paid for was the usual battle to hold on to our money against a concerted attack to prise it from us.  Every time we travel to Tahoe we are urged to upgrade to a four wheel drive because an alleged storm is on its way, even when the forecast, in the past, has been for fine weather.  Today, we were pressed to upgrade the compact car, despite explaining that we had purposely booked a small vehicle because the garage space at the apartment could accommodate nothing bigger.  Equally, it was suggested that we buy personal items and passenger insurances, despite the fact we had already had them.

We found the apartment easily enough at 5.30pm and had no difficulties gaining entry and parking the car.  We had expected, from both the written details and photographs, a spacious and fully equipped home, but it immediately surpassed even those expectations.  I will write much more in subsequent days about its features and facilities, but surpass to say that we are already thrilled.  By the time we had gone to bed I had carried out our first shopping expedition to the local Lucky supermarket, which I was also pleasantly surprised by, completed the previous day’s blog on the PC supplied by the owners and “cooked” our dinner of lobster ravioli with roasted garlic sauce (plus two bottles of wine, of course).  Janet had done all the washing that had acccumulated in Tahoe and Vegas (we could be clean once again!), and we had watched three episodes of Celebrity Apprentice on the 40 inch digital TV.  

The rants are / may / should (delete as applicacble) be over – San Francisco has opened up its Golden Gate and returned our hearts!  And after a wet weekend, the sunshine is going to arrive with a vengeance!

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Before I start today’s diary I feel I need to apologise in advance to any of my American readers who might be offended by comments I make in it.  I have great affection and respect for the American people but this was just one of those days where everything that annoys me about the country happened, fittingly when the “word of the day”, as you will discover was “dam” (without the “n”).

Our second and final full day in Vegas was largely taken up with an organised tour of the Hoover Dam and luxury cruise on Lake Mead.  We boarded the feeder bus from our hotel at 8.30am and proceeded to the Grand Canyon Airport in Boulder City where, before we were let off the bus, a tour guide tried to sell us a cut-price helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon as an add-on to our pre-booked activities.  Only in America can someone try to sell you something else before you have even started to take advantage of the thin for which you have already paid.  Admittedly, it was a good price though we declined as we had done it before.

Check-in was efficient and friendly, but it was a full forty minutes before the tour finally began, not least because we were directed to the gift shop first (another brazen money making ploy).  Have you noticed also how every ride in an American theme park ends in the gift shop?  And I shouldn’t forget the obligatory group photo, yet another opportunity to rip you off.  To be fair, we have occasionally bought the photo package (usually an assortment of different size prints and key rings), but we resisted it twice today – at the airport and Lake Mead – as well as at the shows on the previous evenings.

Eventually, two hours after we had boarded the first coach, we were on the way to the Hoover Dam, each passenger proudly displaying a coloured  (blue, red or yellow) sticker on their chest denoting which tour they were on and, therefore, how much they had paid.  Our driver for the day was extremely knowledgable, a cynic might say a know all, but his constant use of the word “dam”, witty at first, grated after the fiftieth time.  We had 2 hours 20 minutes at the Dam, most of which was taken up with an escorted group tour which I for one, not being remotely engineeringly minded, found rather tedious if undeniably awe inspiring.  The highlight of our stay came when we were set free to wander around with our cameras taking photos of the Dam and the highest road bridge in the United States.    

The coachload was then separated into its respective coloured groupings for lunch.  Whilst the majority were treated to casino fare, we began our “luxury” cruise on Lake Mead with a sumptuous repast of ham or turkey roll, chips or potato salad and an apple or orange, washed down by a non-alcoholic drink.  It only seemed appropriate in the circumstances that I should decide to pay an extra six dollars for a pre-prepared pina colada (which was actually quite refreshing). 

The cruise, which lasted an hour and a half and took us as close as we were permitted to the Hoover Dam, was very relaxing, though the biting wind rendered trips up on deck to take photos short and challenging.  Disappointingly, the position of the sun at the time also scuppered shots of the Dam itself.  Nonetheless, it was generally enjoyable, though I still can’t get the picture of the mother on the table next to us checking her young son’s hair for nits whilst we were partaking of our banquet, or of the young girl who devoured two enormous burgers, out of my mind.   

The final part of the tour was a brief visit to Ethel M’s Chocolate Factory and tour of the adjacent cactus garden.  We returned to our hotel at 6pm.

Ever since we first visited it in March 2008 we have made Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Harrah’s Las Vegas is one of our essential things to do in Vegas, irrespective of the length of our stay.  Good, wholesome southern style food is served in the restaurant and the adjacent bar is lively and good natured.  The house DJ plays the latest country tunes during the breaks in the performance of the nightly live bands, and numerous TV screens showing country music videos, many by Keith himself, are located throughout the establishment. 

After a 45 minute wait for our table the meal was as enjoyable as ever (Janet had chicken and I had catfish), the Whisky Girl cocktails which seem to contain around half a dozen measures of Jack Daniel’s, were equally typically potent and delicious, and the service by the “hottie” waitress was excellent.

But apart from that, the atmosphere was very different to what we had enjoyed on our previous visits.  The DJ played very few recognisably country tunes (Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl?), the periodic free shots dispensing interludes were accompanied by what sounded like a rap version of The Birdie Song rather than I Love This Bar, the band played competent southern, country tinged, rock and the TV screens, rather than celebfrating the country theme, were showing wall to wall college basketball – like thousands of others around town!

And finally, revellers who were only drinking were continually sitting at restaurant tables whilst others, including ourselves, were expected to wait for those same tables.  And some of those were asked to leave whilst others weren’t.  A very depressing experience, and one that convinced me finally that it was time to have a rest from Vegas for a few years (though that’s not to deny that we enjoyed the vast majority of our stay).

The irritations of the day didn’t end there.  On returning to our hotel at midnight my  room key wouldn’t work! This necessitated our traipsing down to reception where we were lectured by a female robot at reception that we shouldn’t keep the close next to  credit cards and mobile phones (which we hadn’t) before being given a replacement.  And, to cap the evening’s entertainment, as I walked away she droned “have a great day”!!!!!!

And, believe it or not, I will be so glad to get away from those damn slot machines and return to civilisation (California Here I Come)!!!!!

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At last, undiluted sunshine as we woke on our first full day in Vegas, although the deaths of movie icon Elizabeth Taylor and English cricketer Fred Titmus cast a cloud over the morning.  

This was our third trip to Vegas in the past 16 months and fourth in 3 years, so, with a show booked for this evening and a full day tour tomorrow, we decided just to spend the day strolling the Strip.  Required to collect our Cirque de Soleil “Viva Elvis” show tickets from the Aria box office at midday we had a late breakfast there whilst we waited.  We walked as far as Tropicana Avenue, returning on the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard.

We stopped for a beer outside Planet Hollywood where, at Pink’s, I also partook of a veggie hot dog with cheese (why are they, on the rare occasions you can find them, so much smaller than the “meat” ones?).  By this time, around 2.30pm, the sun was at its most powerful.  Although we were in the same state as the one we had left the previous day, we could have been on another continent and in a different hemisphere.

With spring break still in full swing the sidewalks were full, not just with tourists and people trying to thrust in your hands cards advertising call girls and adult shows, but with numerous celebrities, including around a dozen assorted Elvises, ranging from the ages of 25 and 60 and weighing between 140 and 250 pounds.  In addition, we could have had our photograph taken with such diverse characters as the Fantastic Four, Elmo, Freddy Kruger, Marilyn Monroe and Spiderman.  We also passed beggars with placards inscribed with several variations on the “homeless and hungry” theme, the most interesting of which was “we’re not in Oregon anymore Toto”.

Meeting Janet’s parents at 5pm we had dinner in Treasure Island before getting a taxi to the Aria for the show.  Sad to report but neither of our cabbies this evening had opinions on any subject other than other road users – they were plain nice guys, nothing more.

The show was terrific, more, understandably, given the subject matter, a variety show with exuberant, high energy dance routines than the gymnastic extravaganza of other Cirque de Soleil shows that we have seen, although the athletic performances were no less spectacular for that.   The merging of big screen clips from Elvis’s life  and performances with the excellent singers, musicians and dancers in the company worked very well.  If you’re in Vegas or the show visits your town I would unhestitatingly recommend it.

Following drinks and another break even session on the penny slots, we returned to our room where I intended to complete the previous day’s blog.  The same issue with accessing the wireless network that I had experienced before resurfaced, but my frustration was mollified by the excellent IT support person in the hotel fixing the problem.  I went to sleep satisfied that I had avoided missing my deadline for the first time on the vacation.

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Hardly a “bluebird day”as the locals call a blue sky and sunny prospect, but the weather augured better for a great day’s skiing (another 3-4 inches of snow overnight),but we were leaving town for warmer climes. The benign conditions meant there  were no delays on our outward journey up the lake and through the Carson Valley to Reno Tahoe Airport.  Arriving on time, and nearly three and a half hours before our Southwest flight to Vegas, we enquired whether we might be able to get an earlier flight.  However, we decided to relax and have lunch at the airport on learning that transfer to the 12.25pm flight would cost us $91 each. We weren’t that desperate to get to Sin City! 

This gave me the opportunity to write the previous day’s blog over a coffee –  a bonus as I had doubted whether, once in Vegas and with a show booked for tonight, it might prove beyond me.  But 1,000 words and less than an hour later, it was foisted on an unsuspecting world.

We had lunch at Brew Brothers – another tradition on these trips, though there wasn’t anywhere else to have a full meal – Janet had a chicken and apple salad whilst I had a veggie burger with mushrooms and fries, plus wine of course.

We proceeded through security and took our seats on the 2.05pm flight. I never cease to be amazed by internal US flights – the matter of fact but organised security and boarding arrangements, the desultory safety demonstration once on board and the sheer energy of the three person cabin crew in carrying out all their duties on the 75 minute flight, taking refreshment orders, preparing and serving them and then clearing them away for 137 passengers.

Janet and I were almost the last people to board the plane, so were inevitably separated.  Janet ended up on the front row, enabling her to disembark first, but not until she had had to endure a journey squashed by the two 20 plus stone and fragrantly challenged women next to her.  By contrast, four rows back I was able to start my blog and enjoy great views of both Red Rock Canyon and the Las Vegas Strip, the latter so dreary by day but dazzling by night.

The captain was a wisecracker, though when he proclaimed “Go Phillies” as we landed, I could not resist calling out above the laughter ” Giants – Champions”! And they still let me off the plane!

Collecting our baggage and walking straight away into a taxi – a clear indication of how slow business is in Vegas at present –  meant we were checking in at Treasure Island a mere 35 minutes after we had touched down, and that was despite the cab driver taking us on a tour of Southern Nevada before dropping us off.  We secured a strip room, and although I had initial difficulties connecting with the hotel’s wireless network, we were “good to go”.

We met Janet’s parents, who had arrived the day before on a ten day vacation to celebrate her father’s eightieth birthday (they are veterans of American travel), and had dinner at Kahunaville in the hotel before taking a taxi to the Rio All-Star Suites and Casino for the Penn and Teller show.

Now they are hugely talented guys and deliver some amazing tricks.  However, and I am being deliberately provocative here, there was something unsatisfying and irritating about the show.  It may have been Penn’s rapid, and sometimes incomprehensible, patter or his repeated protestations about how their act is more honest and decent than others in their field, notably professed psychics whom they dismiss as frauds.  But, as I said, I am probably being too picky here, and there is no doubting that Teller is a great clown in the mute tradition.

It is commonly felt that, with the only possible exception of London cabbies, New York taxi drivers are the most opinionated on the planet.  Now, if you put one in charge of a cab in Vegas, the effect is likely to be explosive.  Yes, we had the doubtful privilege of being escorted back to our hotel by the craziest New York Italian taxi driver imaginable.  

After he had asked me which part of Australia I came from he launched into a scattergun tirade on a variety of subjects such as Middle East politics, the glory of Tony Blair compared to the catastrophic presidency of Bill Clinton, who had (apparently) spent his entire period in office engaging in extra curricular activities, and his affection for the former New York Giants baseball team.  Keeping his eye on the road was secondary, as the number of pedestrians hurling themselves out of his way and the exasperation expressed by other road users demonstrated.     

Finally, yes you guessed it, the penny slots – initial success followed by setbacks, but a break even session overall.  The theory still holds – just.

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A series of mishaps delayed our skiing on another cloudy, snow-filled morning.  Firstly, having plodded from the hotel in our buckled-up boots to the brink of the gondola, climbing over foot high piles of snow deposited by the ubiquitous snow ploughs (which we also had to dodge at regular intervals), we discovered that we had left our ski passes in our room.  So no prizes for who had to trudge back to the room, clambering over those twelve inch snow stashes and swerving out of the way of those pesky but heroic snow dispersal vehicles.

As it was our last day, and we would have to return all of our ski equipment, including the boots, later today, we had our moon boots with us which we intended to place in a locker whilst we were out skiing.  Whilst I had been wending my weary way back and forth from the hotel room, Janet had been attempting to deposit the moon boots in the locker, but finding that the magnetic strips on both her cheque and credit cards would not be read (the machines did not take cash).  However, not for the first time in the morning, she was the recipient of an act of real kindness – a young American couple passing by paid the $6 for her.

Skis and poles collected, we made our way up the gondola to get an early start on the mountain, only for Janet to reveal, on the gruelling uphill walk to the Tamarack chairlift, that she had lost her backpack, complete with phone, cheque and credit cards, and, most alarmingly, her driving licence.  

We could only think that she had inadvertently taken it off whilst we were sat in the gondola being distracted by a Grizzly Adams lookalike quizzing us on the virtues of the British National Health Service.  It transpired also that this fifty / sixty something hulk who lived locally had just taken his first ever trip to Vegas (he hadn’t been impressed because there’s nothing else to do there but gamble – we begged to disagree).

Anyway, I digress outrageously – you are desperate to know what happened to Janet’s backpack aren’t you?. I left her distraught whilst I trudged / plodded / yomped back (again) to the gondola to report the loss.  The guy at the top of the gondola contacted his compadres at the bottom, asking them to look out for it, and the long wait started.  Now the gondola ride is around 15 minutes, so it would take some time before we would know the outcome of their investigations.  Well, despite my faith in the inherent goodness of both the skiing community and the American people, I will confess that I felt it was a goner, so long was the resulting vigil.

Eventually, after around an hour, the message came from the bottom that it had been retrieved and was being held in Guest Services in the village.  Thank you to the resort staff and to whoever handed it in, my faith was duly returned.

At last, we could begin our final day skiing, but that hardly went to plan either.  Now I’ll own up that we are both fair weather skiers – which is why we always ski in March when the snow has given way to the sun – yeah right.  By the time we were ready to go the weather had closed in again and whilst the snow conditions underneath were awesome – to lapse into the Californian vernacular – the dull visibility and bitter swirling wind cutting into our cheeks like needles, was not much fun. In addition, despite repeated reminders that I should have invested in light rather than dark goggles, I just could not see in front of me – at eye or feet level.

So we retired early to the magnificent new Tamarack Lodge for a couple of beers whilst we watched for the weather to improve – which it did, and then didn’t, then did again and didn’t again, all at five minute intervals – well, that’s the way in the mountains.  The upper lifts then went on to wind hold, which finished us off.

It’s at this point that I have a confession to make – I fell over.  However, nobody, including Janet, saw me, so I would be grateful, dear reader, if you kept that to yourself.

Returning to the village, collecting Janet’s backpack and (finally) returning our skis, boots and poles, we took solace in a late lunch at the American River Café in Harrah’s (another two egg all day American breakfast for me!). The remainder of the afternoon was taken up shopping, packing, blogging and watching that great documentary on the Giants’ World Series win again.

Our final evening meal was at our favourite South Lake Tahoe restaurant, the Riva Grill on Ski Run Marina.  It didn’t disappoint – my shrimp and lobster bisque and seared diver scallops were divine, whilst Janet enjoyed steamed clams in a white wine and pepper sauce, followed by Seafood Tagliarini.  A bottle of Charles Krug sauvignon blanc from the Napa Valley was a great complement to the food.

There was one final mild misadventure on our return from the restaurant.  We.had decided to walk there and back – around a half hour trek each way.  We thought we could take a short cut through the car park of the Tahoe Vacation Resort which we would save us a couple of hundred yards.  However, at the end of the car park was a steep – well, steep enough – wall of snow that we had to climb over to get back on the roadside path. Janet managed to negotiate it with her dignity intact, but having planted my left foot on what I thought was a solid block of snow, I sunk into the snow almost up to my unmentionables.  Worse still, only my foot emerged, leaving my moon boot embedded in the snow.  Whilst I dangled my sodden, frozen leg in the air Janet dug the boot out of the snow, no easy task, and foot and boot were reunited.  A deeply uncomfortable walk back to town ensued.

Finally, yes, my favourite subject – the penny slots.  Mindful of an early start, we did not tarry long at our favourite machines, but long enough to turn a $20 stake in to $30 – high rollers or what?

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As predicted, heavy overnight snow and fierce wind speeds on the upper levels of the mountain severely restricted skiing and riding opportunities on the first day of spring (sic).  On the basis of that forecast we had already resolved to take the day off.

Our first tasks were to reserve our seats on the South Tahoe Express bus to take us to Reno airport on Tuesday for the flight to Vegas, and for Janet to book a deep tissue massage in the Harrah’s spa for later in the afternoon.   Breakfast was taken at the Driftwood Cafe, a firm favourite of ours since our first trip twelve years ago.  It was well worth the lengthy wait for a table (we clearly weren’t the only people giving the mountain a miss today). 

And the snow went on falling.

Digestion was aided by a knee deep trudge through the snow piled high on the side of Highway 50, reaching Ski Run Marina in around three quarters of an hour where we bought some Christmas decorations and handmade soaps in the gift shops, and warmed up with coffee at the Wildman cafe.  The beach beside the lake was obscured by around nine inches of snow. 

And the snow went on falling.

The yomp back to the village alongside the main road was even more challenging,  and arguably as much of a strain on the knees and ankles as skiing would have been.  On returning to the hotel Janet retired to her massage, sauna, steam room and jacuzzi appointment whilst I powered up the laptop for the daily blog.

And the snow went on falling.

Out trips to Tahoe always take in a movie at either the Heavenly Cinema or the Horizon Stadiums Cinema.  Last year we saw the fabulous Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges at the latter.  We had intended to see Rango this time but plumped for Limitless instead with Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish and Robert de Niro.  It was enjoyable and entertaining with some great New York city locations, though it is unlikely to figure at the next awards season.

And the snow went on falling.

Dinner was taken at a surprisingly quiet Cabo Wabo Cantina in Harvey’s casino. And, of course, we had to test the gambling theory I posited yesterday – that the penny slots always gave a guaranteed return on your investment.  Well, $20 in, $43 out – I rest my case.    

Oh yes, and the snow went on falling – tiddley pom.

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