Sunday, 29 October 2017

AMERICAAA, F*CK YEAH: Los Angeles and a four-state road trip to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park

During the summer of 2015, I was best man at the wedding of Nick and Bee. They moved to America shortly afterwards. "Yeah, I'll come visit you soon," I said...

Fast forward two years and had I visited yet? No, I had not. Well this was the trip to rectify that and also my first visit to the USA of legal American drinking age (I went to New York when I was 18). The ability to buy a drink was going to be needed because part of the holiday would include a night in Las Vegas. Having been there now, I can safely say no one should ever visit Vegas sober.

My hosts, Nick and Bee (and their dog Buttercup) live in Culver City so the plan was to explore LA for a few days when I first arrived, then Nick and I would rent a car and head to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. That's four states - California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah - and even a second time zone when we entered Utah.

It also meant a lot of driving, albeit through some incredible big open American country scenery of  mountains and never-ending cloudless skies. Luckily, petrol is really cheap in America and it needs to be because most cars out there are big gas-guzzling bastards. I'm sure there's plenty of dodgy reasons why American petrol has been kept so cheap over the years, but let's not get into that – this is a travel blog, not a foreign policy and world economics essay...

However, attention spans in the internet age grow ever-shorter so let's dive straight into the photos. First half is LA and Vegas, second half is more nature-based in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.

Day one: Around LA

If you've seen the TV show Westworld, you've seen this church before, on the outskirts of LA.

Day two: Santa Monica Beach and Venice

Piano intro... "Some people stand in the daaaarkness, afraid to step into the light..."

A skater at Venice Beach doing his skating thing.

A mural for the film White Men Can't Jump, which was shot in Venice.

Day three: The Getty Centre

The Getty had some interesting South American art exhibitions and a bit of David Hockney when I visited. It's a great place to spend half a day just wandering round and checking out art and architecture.

Day four: Hollywood and the Griffith Observatory

I wasn't going to visit LA without a pilgrimage to Arnie's star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Hollywood was exactly as tacky as everyone warned me it would be.

Me below the Hollywood sign in the distance. It has been remarked (by my brother) that my hair is looking a bit hipster in this photo but I'd been wearing a hat all day so if I had hipster hair, so be it.

Day five: Leaving LA and heading to Vegas

Mine and Nick's road trip began with lunch at Peggy Sue's 50's Diner. Our waitress had been working there since 1989. It was a pretty glorious place with a cabinet full of many pies.

Nick bonds with a giant metal ape.

We arrived in Vegas around 4pm, where we checked into the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, just off Fremont Street. It's the older, and in my opinion way more interesting, part of Las Vegas. Just has a lot more character than the mega-casinos of the Strip.

Anyone who weighs over 350lbs (about 25 stone) gets to eat in the Heart Attack Grill for free! Me and Nick combined didn't even tip 350 so you'd need to have some serious dedication to all things artery clogging to get there.

VIDEO: One of my favourite things on Las Vegas Strip, The Bellagio Fountains.

The swimming pool at the Golden Nugget has a shark tank next to it, with a water slide that shoots you right through the middle of the shark tank and out into the pool. And why not? 

Very illuminated shot of the old town in Vegas.

Day six: On our way to the Grand Canyon with a stop-off at Bedrock City, a low budget (like, really low) Flinstones theme park 

Fred's had better days.

Day seven: Time to hike the Grand Canyon

We started our hike at 6.30am in warm clothes because it was pretty chilly until the sun came up. But within an hour or so it warmed up and it was time to get the legs out on our way down the South Kaibab Trail.

Sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Oh how fresh our legs felt at this stage as we strolled casually down towards the Colorado River.

A mule train takes supplies down to the Phantom Ranch near the Colorado River. This is still the only way to get supplies in and out of the canyon except helicopter and the national parks don't have the budget for that, so it mules all the way.

More epic Grand Canyon scenery. Sights like this really helped when we were both finding it hard going towards the end of the day's hiking.

Made it down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Half an hour for lunch and we were on our way back up again. The way down took about three hours and the way back up about 5.5 hours. The climb was tough going and there were other hikers looking like they'd seriously underestimated how much effort it was going to be.

Pretty amazing natural archway caused by a tree curving over the path back up the Bright Angel Trail.

After sunset on the rim of the canyon. The day's hike was 17 miles over nine hours and was tough but absolutely worth it.

Day eight - onwards to Zion!

As soon as you enter Zion National Park by car you are overwhelmed by incredible scenery such as this. And it's like this all the way through. Really took me by surprise.

We walked a short way along The Narrows, but had neither the waterproof gear or the energy in our legs to go further after the previous day's hike.

Picking my way through the river. The water was pretty damn cold, which is why you need the proper river-walking gear.

The Narrows goes on for miles but we just went far enough in to get a sense of it and take some pretty photos.

Sun setting over the Utah mountains as we drove to St George and our motel for the night.

The Dixie Motel, in St George, Utah. I really wanted to stay in an American roadside motel and this place fitted the bill perfectly. 

Day nine: Four states in one day, plus the Hoover Dam, as we head home from Utah through Arizona and Nevada into California
I just liked the Arizona sign and wanted to take a photo of it, as we made our way home through American highways that stretch out for miles in front of you and disappear over the horizon.

The Hoover Dam. I wasn't aware of how many people died making this thing in the early 1930s but it was at least 112, and almost certainly more because of the number that were recorded as pneumonia to avoid paying compensation claims to the workers families.

Coming to the end of our road trip, we worked out we has covered something like 1,200 miles in four days. I saw a good chunk of America. I also feel like it'll take more than a orange fascist like Trump to ruin a country this vast, diverse and full of kind people.

Thanks to my hosts in LA, Nick, Bee and Buttercup (under the table). On my final night we went for cocktails at the Culver Hotel, which makes a damn fine pomegranate Mojito.

Day 10: Manhattan Beach and flying home

 On my last day I had a choice between downtown LA or the beach. You can see what my choice was. Manhattan Beach was really picturesque and it was something like 35C outside so downtown LA seemed like a bad idea.


Leaving Los Angeles. Seeing the city from the window of the plane really gives you a sense of how frickin huge it is. It's way more spread out than London, which for the record was oppressively grey for about three days when I got home.

If you've got the Instagram, you can see a few more of my photos from the trip here:

Monday, 22 May 2017

Havana great time in Cuba... it was a Che-me to leave

First off, I'll apologise for not just one but two terrible puns in the title of this blog post, it's just unacceptable. It's the kind of thing that happens when you let me loose without an editor.

Dodgy headline writing aside, Cuba was brilliant. Such a colourful, noisy, vibrant, sunny place with much better food than I'd been expecting and some damn fine mojitos too. We started in Havana, went up to Viñales, down to Cienfuegos, a bit further down to Trinidad and then back up to Havana. All in about 12 days.

Cuba is a destination that gives you a lot to think about. They're so proud of the revolution all these years later and they know they achieved something great and lasting during those five years of conflict that ended in January 1959. Despite not being the richest country in the world, the Cuban state really looks after people; they have brilliant hospitals and some of the highest literacy rates in the world.

It's a country and socialist ethos that seems to work for the most part, which is not necessarily how Cuba is always represented to the rest of the world. That's not to say it's perfect. The roads outside of the big towns and cities have some formidable potholes and there are a lot of crumbling buildings in need of serious repair. 

Then there's the bizarre two-currency system, which seems to be creating a two-tiered society. Basically, if you're Cuban you pay for everything with Cuban Pesos (CUP). They're worth 1/25 of a Convertible Peso (CUC), which is what tourists use to pay for everything. So if you work in the tourist industry you have a way of making way more money than your regular Cuban. There are doctors driving taxis in the evening because otherwise they earn maybe US$25-30 a month. So hey, Cuba's not perfect but where is? 

The internet hasn't really reached Cuban society in any big way yet either, which is nice for a tourist like me wanting to disconnect for a couple of weeks but probably quite frustrating for Cubans. You can get the internet on your phone by buying a card for an hour's wi-fi time, but then you've got to find a public wi-fi spot by looking out for a street corner or square where everybody is on their phone. Basically it's a faff and so we decided not to bother and have a couple of weeks internet free.

Having learned a bit of Spanish came in very handy, I'll tell you that for nada. Without it, we would have struggled to talk to the owners of the casas we stayed in about basic things like breakfast and how much rooms cost. My Spanish is very basic but if you can hold a conversation I reckon you could really venture off the beaten track in Cuba and go the places not many tourists get to.

All in all, Cuba was superb and I'd really recommend it to anyone. Some places are changing pretty quickly though (since Fidel handed over power to his younger brother Raul about six years ago), so go sooner rather than later!

Now I've bored the arse off you trying to prove I paid attention in Cuba, revive yourself with some photos.

First night in Havana. After landing in Cuba we managed a half hour walk round the old town of Havana before tiredness from a day's flying set in. We did have our first mojito, although I was so tired I nearly fell off a bar stool. Classy.

Street art in Havana's old town.

I like to know I'm being watched over by Jesus at all times and a massive statue helps to reassure me of that point. This guy's called the Christ of Havana and he looks out over the bay.

View of Havana from the fort over the other side of the bay. Every night at 9pm they have a military ceremony which ends with firing a huge canon. It was LOUD. And there's a hell of a lot of build up with drums and guys marching in 19th century military uniforms with flaming torches for about an hour before they actually fire the damn thing. Stop marching about and get on with it!

Waxwork re-enactment of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos arriving in Cuba at the beginning of the revolution. In the Museum of the Revolution.

Rincon de los cretinos translates as Cretins Corner. From left to right: Fulgencio Batista (the overthrown ex-Cuban President); Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior; and little Georgey W. The plaque next to each says "thank you cretin" for their parts in the revolution or the rise of socialism in Cuba. It's safe to say some of the more meddlesome American presidents aren't that popular in Cuba, especially after they tried (and failed) to assassinate Fidel so many times.

Brightly coloured buildings next to the Cuban Art Museum in central Havana. Cubans do like a splash of colour here and there.

Behind me is a statue of a naked woman riding a giant chicken while holding a huge dinner fork. There was no plaque explaining it but a bit of internet research tells me it was by a Cuban artist called Roberto Fabelo, who includes naked women and large birds in a lot of his art. So that clears that up, then.

How many cats can you spot among this scaffolding in Havana?

Tiny pineapples in a very cool botanical garden in Viñales.

Dusty red road leading to a ranch in Viñales (in northern Cuba), where the soil is very fertile and they do a lot of farming.

The Santo Tomas Caves, Viñales. Massive network of caves that we went on a tour around. The second biggest cave network in the Americas, so fairly vast. Tourists are only allowed to explore levels 6 and 7 because they close off levels 1-5 for conservation.

A cool old Chevrolet just off the main high street in Viñales, near our casa. You can stay in 'casa particulares' all through Cuba, they're a bit like B&Bs. The quality varies but the good ones are really comfy and homely and much better value than staying in hotels, many of which are (apparently) very basic compared to the casas.

Tobacco drying in a tobacco farm just outside Viñales. They have to give 90 per cent of what they grow to the state. Imagine being a farmer in the UK and getting taxed 90 per cent of what you grow and getting to keep the rest. But that's how Cuba works. Plus, the farmer can make a bit extra by selling his cigars to gullible tourists like us who think we're getting a good deal.

Said tobacco farmer, rolling a cigar and easing gently into his sales pitch. We did buy some cigars, obviously, but there are occasional moments in Cuba where you feel like you're being given the hard sell and this was one of them.

Horse riding near Viñales. The town itself was an odd place because tourists outnumbered Cubans. There's so much to see and do in the areas surrounding Viñales (like horse riding), that what was a small town has kind of grown into a hub of tourism over the last five years. In another five years I don't know what that place will look like but I hope it doesn't embrace tourism so completely that it loses the charm that drew people there in the first place.

The Best Mojitos In Cuba. Hands down. From Casa del Mojito in Viñales. Just thinking about them now makes me want to drink about five. These were mango and papaya variants of the classic mojito.

To break up the journey from Viñales to Trinidad, we stopped for a day in Cienfuegos. I'd say Lonely Planet exaggerates quite how much amazing architecture there is in Cienfuegos but I still enjoyed having a look round. When we were having dinner, there was a bicycle-taxi guy who kept going past and playing Nothing Compares To You by Sinead O'Connor on his bike speakers, which became slightly surreal.

Cienfuegos' own version of the French Arc de Triomphe, called similarly, the Arco de Triunfo.

From Cienfuegos it was on to Trinidad, which was probably my favourite bit of the trip along with Havana. Trinidad is pretty photogenic whichever way you look and the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Inside Trinidad's big town square at night. Pretty sure I had a mojito on the go at this moment in time.

Cuban pottery shop. Trinidad is well known for its ceramic pottery. Bought a couple of things myself. I think Harriet was surprised/impressed by my sudden, unexpected interest in ceramic pottery. I'm a man of many surprises.

Window-bars like these in Trinidad open at night and serve drinks out of a window to a busy square of thirsty people. Bar on the right says 'Best mojitos in Cuba'. Bar on the left says 'Best mojitos in the world'. We tested both to see which was best and I'd say the best in Cuba won.

We spent a couple of days on a beach called Playa Ancon, near Trinidad. On the first day, the sun made this circular rainbow thing which I'd never seen before. Probably what made me forget to put on sufficient sun cream and get a good British sunburn going.

When you're laying on the beach, locals come around offering various food and drink, including gert huge coconuts to drink out of. Then, when we were finished drinking the coconut water, the fella chopped it in half with a machete so we could eat the pulp.

Went snorkelling and got this photo of some coral. I thought I'd got loads of photos of brightly coloured fish too, but my underwater photography skills are a bit rubbish, it turns out. 

This is the open top, double decker bus that takes you from Trinidad to Playa Ancon. Only problem is that most of the streets in Trinidad have telephone and electrical wires criss-crossing the streets at a height barely high enough for a double decker bus to pass under. I'm surprised no one has been decapitated yet. The lingering threat of electrocution gives a bus journey an added edge though.

Some locals who may have been at the start of a big night out, judging by the mini party going on inside their car as they cruised along. Seeing these kind of cars all over Cuba never gets boring.

We had a cracking sunset on our last night in Trinidad, as I think you'll agree.

Cathedral on the corner of Plaza del Cristo, back in Havana. We had a couple of days in Havana at the end of the trip before flying home so we made a beeline for a bar near this cathedral, called El Dandy. (Top mojitos, very lemony lemonade and good sweet potato fries.) We were introduced to it by none other than regular guest of this blog Alastair (aka The Notorious IGT). He was at the end of two weeks in Cuba when we were at the start and our trips overlapped by a day.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana. A cool old 16th century fort with a moat. Also a museum inside but was closed when we got there or we didn't have time to go in, I forget which.

Che Guevara lit up and 50 feet high on the side of a building next to the Plaza de la Revolucion. This trip to Cuba only reinforced my previous belief that he was a really f*cking cool guy who died way before his time. (He was shot by firing squad aged 39.)

Trying to be arty, getting a shot of Harriet enjoying the view as we went all touristy and paid for a drive around Havana at sunset in a big old American car. It was well worth it though, we saw loads of the city as the sun went down.

A short film of Havana from the back of a big old American car. You can even see our reflection in the rear-view mirror.

You can't see much in this photo but I like the colour and the sunset feeling it has as we rolled along on our tour of Havana.

Our driver and his ride. Not sure what type of car it was, might have been another Chevy.

Gran Teatro de La Habana lit up at night. It's something to behold by day but is even more beholdier at night.

Band playing in a bar called Cafe Taberna, which always had live music every time we walked past, day or night. So we thought we should go in and check it out. They know how to bash out a tune, the Cubans.

A cracked mausoleum in the Necropolis, Havana's sprawling cemetery. I guess the two bits of the archway are just leaning against each other at this point. There were a lot of graves and mausoleums in need of some repair work in the cemetery but then there's a lot of all kinds of buildings in need of repair all over Cuba. When you don't have much money, it takes a while to get round to these things, I guess.

Street art showing Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Cienfuegos is always shown smiling or laughing - apparently Guevara was a more serious man but they spent a lot of time together like a revolutionary double-act.

Me imitating art.

Last photo I took before we had to head off to the airport. Local kids playing football in Plaza Vieja. I'd say football and baseball were about level pegging in popularity in Cuba.

The next installment will probably be my trip to LA, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in October but if anything exciting and travely happens before then I'll blog it, you can be sure of that.