LA, CA – Las Vegas, NV
I was on the brand new Dreamliner ex Auckland flying American Airlines direct to LA. Everything was great. I flew economy which I found quite comfortable with great staff, although I was lucky my neighbours didn’t mind me getting up and down to the toilet and stretching my legs every hour or so. There was a huge selection of new release movies, older movies, TV Shows, music channels or the standard flight guide. I felt the entertainment was as good as any other long haul flight I had taken. The food was excellent. Shortly after take-off we were given warm towels and a small bag of pretzels. An hour or so later we were served dinner with a wide selection of beverages. The lights were dimmed after dinner in time for a snooze. A few hours later we were given another snack and ice cream and just before landing breakfast was served.
A key point to note is that the flight left at mid-day which made sleeping very difficult. I normally don’t have any problems at all sleeping on a flight (I know, lucky me) but I only got about 2 hours sleep during the flight. Initially this doesn’t seem like a problem, until you realise that the flight arrives into LAX at 6am, making the whole day very long. On the up side arriving into LA airport at 6am means that everything was quiet and quick. Having experienced LA airport when I was much younger I know it isn’t a great airport to fly in and out of, however this experience was really good. Duty free was not open so early so it was straight to collect bags and clear customs. The system is all self-service, it took 30 minutes from when I landed to when I was standing outside the airport which was great.
Upon exiting the airport the rental car buses are directly outside, I had pre booked with Alamo so jumped on the Alamo bus and they took me on a short 5 minute ride to the depot. The staff were great to deal with and everything was very easy. I had originally book a small car but when the lady realised the amount of ground we were intending to cover she offered an upgrade. I knew we would need a GPS so she gave us a great deal and it really only cost us an extra $30USD per day which included the built in GPS and an upgrade to a limited edition Jeep Cherokee. It was well worth the upgrade, even if only for the higher view. I was a bit worried about the extra costs of gas going to a bigger car but to give you an idea on petrol costs we covered about 600 km per tank, which cost us $35-40USD to fill.
I jumped in my new beast and headed to the hotel which I managed to find without too much bother and got a shower which was great. And then the holiday begins. I’m not much of a relaxer and I love to make the most of every minute while on holiday. You will see that the next 14 days are jam packed with activities and day one was no different.
We headed straight to Santa Barbara beach for a look around. From the airport to the beach is about a 20 minute drive according to the GPS, unfortunately we hit the morning rush hour traffic so our trip took about an hour and a half! Parking was only $1 right on the beach. This beach is huge, it must be 200-300 meters back from the water of pure white sand so finding a spot to park up and relax for the day would be no problem at all. There is a great board walk with lots of souvenir shops, restaurants, artists, bums and even a wee carnival. I can definitely recommend spending a day here just taking it all in. Santa Barbara beach is also the end of the road for route 66.
We then headed to Universal Studios, this was one of my must dos as I’m a bit of a Potter head. It was about a 45 minute drive from Santa Barbara to Universal Studios. We had pre purchased tickets (about $150 NZD pp) which allowed us to jump the queue which is worthwhile as it saved a lot of time. Universal Studios has a huge shopping area with high street fashion and heaps of eateries. If you don’t want to pay to enter Universal Studios for the rides you can still go out to experience the free attractions in the mini village. Parking is pretty expensive here, $25 for the day, on top of the ticket price.
Universal Studios was great. I have been to Disney Hong Kong and Universal Singapore and this was my favorite by far. Great for kids and adults. They have Minion attractions, the Simpsons, Transformers and of course Harry Potter world to name a few. As you can imagine it gets pretty hot in LA and Universal has fans all over which spray out litter water droplets. We didn’t find it too hot on the day. However in the peak of summer when you have to queue for a long time they would be a god send. We were there on a Thursday in October so the longest we spent in a queue was about 15 minutes. If your are travelling in peak season or school holidays it would be worthwhile getting the fast track tickets to avoid the queues as this could make or break the experience. We spent about 5 hours at Universal and it wasn’t enough. If you have the time a 2 day pass would be the way to go.
We finished up at Universal and headed into Hollywood and walked the walk of fame. To be honest Hollywood is not a great part of LA. It is pretty dirty with lots of homeless and no glitz and glam like I imagined. We didn’t stay here long, just long enough to take some pictures of the stars in the footpath and drive the famous boulevards and then we gunned it for the Hollywood sign. The GPS took us on a pretty spectacular tiki tour of the famous Hollywood hills with lots of tight turns and some lovely homes. We got our token pictures of the sign and then headed to Las Vegas which was where we were spending our first night.
The drive for LA to Vegas should take about 4 hours, again we hit rush hour so we spent 2 hours in traffic before we even got out of LA. The roads are excellent and there are options galore to pull off to the side for a rest or gas or for fast food. We found this to be the case over the whole trip with options to stop every half hour or so. The traffic flows really well with most highways having between 2-5 lanes. Speeding seemed to be no problem and most people seem to sit about 10-15 miles over the speed limit. Merging does seem to be a bit of an issue with traffic jams caused at almost every merging point which gets a bit frustrating.
At about midnight we rolled into Las Vegas with the tunes blaring. Partly because we were so excited and partly to keep me awake as I had been up for 2 days straight. This was my second trip to Vegas and it was just as amazing as the first. We did a lap of the strip and then checked into our hotel. We stayed 2 nights at Excalibur hotel and resort which was really good. Check in was easy and we had a package waiting for us from ATI (American Tours International) which is who we booked most of our stuff through. Included in the package was a sweet orange and blue backpack, all of our vouchers for the next 2 weeks, a very comprehensive book of maps, which would have come in handy had we not left if in the hotel… and an excellent book full or sightseeing recommendations and history on each place we passed through. This was really invaluable and anyone who are DIY driving through the US should consider using them simply for the information provided. There was information on tipping, driving, power points places to stop at, food to eat, detours to make and many more amazing tips. We can book them and I can’t stress enough how great their ‘guide book’ was. We used it every single day and we learnt a lot of information that we would have otherwise missed out on.
At Excalibur we had a basic room with 2 double beds and was all clean and tidy. I found Excalibur to be very good value for money. It is located at the airport end of the strip, right next to New York New York so it is one of the last hotels on the strip. There are pros and cons about being at the end of the strip. Pros are we got to see all of the hotels which we may not have walked to if we were more in the thick of it. It is also one of the cheapest and biggest hotels on the strip and very family friendly. Cons is that it’s not in the hustle and bustle part of the strip so it is further to walk if you don’t have a car, but this also means it is quieter. To give you an idea it is about 3 kms from one end to the other.
Las Vegas, NV
We were up bright and early to check out the sights of Vegas. We literally spent the next 7 hours in and out of the hotels and casinos along the strip. Each hotel has been forced to establish individual identities to attract different clientele. They range from Caesars Palace with its Roman themes, Paris with the Eiffel tower and Arc De Triomph, Circus Circus with all of its kids attraction, the Venation which is just like a mini Venice, gondola rides and all and the original Flamingos which was the first hotel/casino on the Strip. There is a hotel to suit every person and every budget. Las Vegas is one of the most amazing places I have ever been to. The glitz and glam is overwhelming, the sheer scale in each casino with the hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables is just amazing. Many of them have full gardens which are changed with each season. Even if gambling isn’t your thing it can be just as much fun for the spectator as the participant. People watching here is some of the best in the world. There are girls, girls, girls everywhere! They are out in their bikinis and feathers and some are just out in paint. Alan from the hangover is after your $$’s for a picture. Elvis is on every street corner happy to marry you or offering a perfect photo op. It really is an amazing experience. There are limousines constantly tripping up and down the strip carrying a wide array of people and there are expensive cars at every turn. During the day we gambled and shopped and took a gondola ride at the Venation.
This night we went to a show called Absinthe. I’m not too sure where to start on this one. Absinthe was a very politically incorrect twist on a Cirque du Soleil show. It was amazing but go with a very open mind. Look it up on You Tube to get an idea before going.
After the show we watched the free volcano lighting show at the Mirage, which goes at 8 pm and 9 pm for 10 minutes (also at 10 pm on Friday and Saturday nights). We then watched the dancing fountains at the Bellagio which is another free show that goes every half hour until 8 pm and then every 15 minutes. The fountains dance to a different song each time and is well worth making time for.
Las Vegas, NV – Grand Canyon, NV
Today we had a really easy self-service check out which seems to be the way things are going over in the States. We drove out to the ‘Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas’ sign for some tourist pics and then drove around old Las Vegas and Fremont St. If you have a few nights in Las Vegas it is worth spending a night at Fremont St, it’s not as flashy as the strip but has some casinos and fun attractions all the same.
We then began our roadie to the Grand Canyon crossing over the Hoover Dam. We didn’t tour the dam as it didn’t really interest us that much but was cool to see the scale of it. A little point : the Nevada side charges $10 for parking, but if you cross the dam you can park on the Arizona side for free.
After a quick stop here we were back on the road to make it to the Grand Canyon for our sunset helicopter flight. Again we had pre booked this with Papillon Helicopters. Pre booking is essential as there were several people who just turned up and they couldn’t fit them in, and it wasn’t even peak season.
This was one of the highlights of the whole trip. I have been to the Grand Canyon before at the Western rim on the glass lookout which was great, but this was something else. The colours are spectacular and with it being sunset they were constantly changing. You begin the flight by flying over forest for a few minutes and then you have one of those genuine ‘Oh My God’ moments when your helicopter fly’s over the drop off over the canyon. We got a good 50 minute flight over and around the canyon with a great explanation from our pilot and also a pre-recorded audio which is available in multiple languages. We were lucky enough to get the front seats so we had an amazing view the whole time. I have no hesitation in recommending a helicopter flight, its money very well spent. After our flight we drove 10 minutes to the Grand Canyon and hung out for another hour or so which allowed us to see the Grand canyon in a different light again.
We stayed the night at the Best Western in Tusayan, which was a 5 minute drive to the Grand Canyon national park, pretty much the closest accommodation you can get to the Grand Canyon. It was a really small town, I would guess a population of 1500 and I had the best steak I’ve ever had. Portion sizes were huge as you can imagine and the food was so yum.
Grand Canyon, NV – Durango, CO
We were supposed to wake up early and see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon but our alarm wasn’t set properly so we ended up seeing the canyon in the day time which was a different view again. We drove alongside the canyon for an hour or so stopping at various sites and a cool watch tower. The drive took us though lots of Indian villages and ‘the Painted Desert’ which are hillsides with strange wave colourings. We stopped at the ‘Cameron Trading Post’ because our book told us we should, and had traditional Indian tacos, as recommended. This is somewhere we would have bypassed if the book hadn’t told us to stop there and the tacos were huge. We actually only ordered one between us and we couldn’t even finish that, best $12 we spent! Another great wee tip from the book.
The afternoon was a bit of a stuff up… we were supposed to see Monument Valley… but when we got to the town before Monument Valley we kept going straight, instead of turning off. A few hours later we realised our mistake, by which time it was too late to turn back as it would have been dark by the time we got there. This is when we found out how specific we had to be with the GPS, as we had in fact driven through ‘Monument Valley’ like the GPS directed us and we did see monuments, but we had not entered the official national park, oops. Things went for bad to worse when we arrived at the ‘Four Corners’ monument, which is the only place in the states where 4 different states connect…. This monument is on New Mexico time, which is 1 hour ahead of Nevada where we had come from. So we missed opening hours by 3 minutes. Safe to say I couldn’t take it and the water works were free flowing. Lesson learnt to double check these things… or just take a tour!.
Durango, CO – Albuquerque, NM
Today was really just a scenic driving day though the Rocky Mountains which was pretty spectacular. We passed a lot of ranches which all look awesome, I would have loved to have a night on a ranch somewhere, maybe next time. We drove through Santa Fe which is the capitol of New Mexico. We walked around the old city centre which was a nice way to break the drive. We found Santa Fe to have a lot of art galleries, churches, chillies and a real ‘Mexican’ feel to it.
We jumped onto route 66 for another hour to Albuquerque where we spent the night at the Best Western which was in a great location and a really nice clean hotel just off the freeway, so easy to find as well. In the evening we explored the old town here which was similar to Santa Fe and also had a bit of time for some retail therapy.
Albuquerque, NM – Amarillo, TX
Today was a really fun day. We had a 4 hour drive ahead of us and we followed Route 66 the whole way. The main highway runs alongside route 66 so you can jump on and off as you please, depending on how fast you want to drive. We went to a shooting range where there were hundreds of guns for sale and rent. We both shot a pistol and an automatic machine gun which was pretty interesting. I still can’t get over how easy it is to get guns in America, you can even go into Walmart (similar to the Warehouse) and buy a gun. We had lunch at Joseph’s Diner, in Santa Rosa which is a genuine American diner on Route 66, still decked out from the 60’s. Again the book told us to stop here and we were not disappointed, it would have been very easy to miss, in fact we did miss it and had to double back. Our next stop was Cadillac Ranch where there are a whole lot of old Cadillacs erected in the ground and you can climb all over them and spray-paint them if you want. We then carried onto Amarillo and got our first taste of Texas, where everything is bigger and better!
We went to ‘The Big Texan’ steak house where if you are up for the challenge you can order a 72oz steak and if you finish it in an hour you eat for free. The steak is so big it could feed a family of 5 for a week I reckon!
Amarillo, TX- Dallas TX
We headed to a street in Amarillo which is a replica of how Route 66 would have looked in its heyday. There were heaps of second hand stores and garages and token souvenir shops and it was a great stop off (another recommendation from the book). We then hit the road where we passed windmill farms for a couple of hours straight and also a lot of cotton plantations which was really interesting to see. We had been warned of keeping the speed down in Texas… unfortunately even 3 miles over was too much and the local authorities pulled me over. Lucky for me I got let off with a warning but do not speed in Texas!
In Dallas we stayed with friends which was great to get a locals view… it was also a week before the elections so there was some pretty interesting dinner talk. Texas is very much pro guns, which means they are pro Trump which was different! In Dallas we went to the Fort Worth Stock yards, which was great, definitely recommend this, especially for younger families. Also in Dallas we went to the ‘JFK 6th Floor Museum’ which is a self-guided audio tour around the building where JFK was assassinated from. I really enjoyed this, but I’m also a history nerd. Road works in Dallas were terrible, even the GPS had no idea where to send us.
Dallas, TX – Memphis, TN
The drive today was pretty boring. The highlight for me was the stop in Little Rock, Arkansas where in 1957 9 African American students tried to register to attend school at ‘Little Rock Central High School’. They were denied entry due to the racially segregated south. They prevailed and eventually gained the right to study and was a significant turning point in the Black Civil rights movement and paved the way for all African American students to be able to gain an equal education.
The night was spent in Memphis
We had pre booked tickets to Graceland which was great. We went straight to the front of the queue on arrival and got out vouchers for each attraction. We jumped straight onto the mini bus that took everyone across the road the Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland. We had an audio tour of Elvis home which allowed entry into almost every part of Graceland which still remains the same as when Elvis lived there. This was very cool and you could almost feel his presence there. Many of his awards are on display as are some of his car collection and his private jets and many of his personal items.
In the afternoon we went for a stroll along the Mississippi, which isn’t actually very nice and then we went to Beale Street, the home of the blues. Beale Street is quite dirty and a bit rough with a lot of homeless people and not really that nice. We did have lunch and dinner here and there was live music in almost every bar which was awesome but there was a definite ‘seedy’ feel to the place. At 5 pm we went to the Peabody Hotel, where at 11 am, 5 ducks arrive by elevator and spend the day in the water fountain in the hotel and at 5pm the ‘duck master’ rounds them up and they walk the red carpet back into the lift where they head away for the night. It’s a quirky little thing to do and another great insider point to remember.
Memphis, TN – New Orleans LO
This is a pretty long day even if you take the highway. We wanted to drive along the Mississippi which made it even longer. We ended up driving half way on the highway and half way along the Mississippi which was a good compromise. We drove past many ‘antebellum’ homes which are the huge plantation homes. This area was very wealthy pre civil war with free slave labour and almost a monopoly on sugar plantations. The civil war changed this and many homes were simply abandoned. We stopped off at a lovely home which had been restored to original décor complete with a guide in traditional dress who told us stories about the many families who had lived there at one time or another. We spent the night in New Orleans. This was another huge highlight. What a crazy place. We had pre booked a walking tour of the French Quarter, as it happened it was just the two of us so our guide gave us a private tour. He was a real music nut and spent the next 2 hours flat tack telling us about various musicians who had grown up in New Orleans or where they had been recorded or discovered. Unfortunately we didn’t quite share in his passion of Jazz music and had no idea who he was talking about the entire time but his enthusiasm was undeniable. Definitely worth recommending for music fanatics. It did give us a good look around the French Quarter which was great as again we would not have seen a lot of things if we hadn’t done this tour.
So we were in New Orleans for Halloween… besides Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve, this is the 3rd biggest night of the year and boy was it amazing. There were thousands of people dressed in fancy dress and it was epic. There were people of all ages, shapes and sizes, colours and religions. I think anyone at all could have appreciated this place. New Orleans is a must see destination and you could confidently recommend it to anyone. We didn’t see and signs of Cyclone Katrina although I’m sure there is still damage if you know where to look.
New Orleans, LO
We had a pre booked plantation tour booked for today and we went to an amazing plantation home. Like many homes this one had also been abandoned and a man purchased it a few years ago and has made an amazing job at restoring it, he also lives in it although you wouldn’t know. I think he was born in the wrong century as his bedroom looks like it could be 300 years old. This tour was amazing, although if you have a car you could easily do it yourself. These houses are quite magnificent and a long drive but if people have a car they are very easy to get to. The afternoon we spent in and out of pubs and people watching which was pretty hilarious. There are some real crazies in New Orleans, harmless, but crazy. Recommend customers have at least 3 nights here as there is so much to do.
New Orleans, LO – San Francisco, CA
I did a cemetery tour today which sounds a bit strange but the cemeteries are quite different here, and being Halloween I figured, why not. New Orleans and southern Louisiana have been established on swamp land which means they had big problems when burying people and the coffins would rise whenever there was flooding and bodies would bounce around with the different water levels creating a ‘knocking’ in the ground. So what they had to do was build mini tombs above ground which makes for very interesting cemeteries. There are also mass graves for different nationalities that couldn’t afford individual family tombs so there are large ‘Italian’ tombs, ‘French tombs’ etc. I would recommend a cemetery tour if you are in New Orleans, you must do a tour and you cannot wander around on your own, they are about $20 for an hour tour. We then had some time for a bit more retail therapy before dropping our wee beast off (which was very easy to find and within walking distance to the airport) and then we waited for our flight to San Fran… We waited quite a while because the flight (via Houston) was delayed… in the end we had about 6 minutes up our sleeve between flights, but we made it. We flew with UA and they were ok… Not amazing, not terrible. There was no food or movies included on the flight but available for purchase.
On arrival into San Fran we intended to take the BART train into town, however it closes at midnight so plan B was a bus. We bumped into another guy who was trying to catch the BART and he came to the bus station with us. After waiting there for about 30 minutes we realised the bus wasn’t coming so we opted to share a taxi into the city. We were staying at the King George Union Square, the taxi ride from the airport was $45, split between us it was cheap as chips. The hotel was an excellent location, pretty cheap for San Fran.
We had pre purchased tickets to Alcatraz which came in combination with the Hop On Hop Off bus so we set off straight to pick up our tickets. A point to note, you need to go to the main office for the Hop On Hop Off bus to collect their Alcatraz tickets. It’s near Fisherman’s Wharf and very easy to find. We were allocated a slot at 1.30 so we jumped back on the Hop On Hop Off bus and did a 2 hour route (there are 4 separate bus routes around the city) and then spent some time around Pier 39. Pier 39 is home to the San Francisco seals where they relax and bathe all day, it’s quite the tourist attraction. We had the world famous clam chowder for lunch at the pier, which definitely lives up to its reputation. The pier has many different restaurants, souvenir shops, a merry go round and general tourist things with locals busking for any spare dollars you might wish to donate. We were also lucky enough to have a beautiful clear day with zero fog in sight so we got amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge. I found Alcatraz to be a bit of a disappointment, having been to Freemantle prison where the prisoners had life very tough the prisoners at Alcatraz were relatively well looked after. There are a lot of structural works taking place around the island and most attractions, other than the main prison were actually closed while they were being improved. It was worth a trip over for a couple of hours although it’s a pretty hefty price when you pre book. Tickets vary, but you cannot just purchase a ticket for Alcatraz, it has to be in conjunction with something else (hence our Hop On Hop Off bus ticket) so pricing is around $180 pp. When you get there and realise the value of the Alcatraz ticket is $33 pp it seems pretty steep. In saying that there is no way to pre purchase an Alcatraz ticket so if you desperately want to go to Alcatraz you do need to spend more to guarantee the entry.
Today was the last day of our trip. We went back to the Golden Gate Bridge and crossed over to Sausalito for a look around. Definitely recommend clients take a look out here as it is a lovely part of San Francisco. We wondered around Fisherman’s Wharf and walked to Lombard Street which is the steep zig zagging street and then went back to Union Square and walked through China town which was also worth a stroll. Mid-afternoon we went back to the hotel where they had held our bags free of charge and caught a shuttle to the airport which was $14pp. San Francisco airport is really nice and user friendly. We had a short flight to LA on AA who provided snacks and on-board entertainment. LA is huge and you do need to work out pretty quickly where you need to get to as between gates can be a long walk. I would suggest that you first find their gate and then go back and wander around the shops.
The flight home was great again, lots of food and the service was good so no complaints at all.
We had such an amazing trip but it was very busy. We definitely made the most of the time we had.