San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, USA

Santa Monica BoulevardWe spent a month staying with my Mum in the San Francisco Bay Area and travelling in and around California. We did trips to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles. We spent a bit of time in San Francisco getting a bit of a taste of one USA’s more interesting cities.

Day 65 – 69, San Francisco Bay Area

Meg and I arrived at San Francisco airport on January 30 after spending the part of a day flying over the Pacific from Hong Kong. It was our first arrival in the Americas. My Mum was waiting there and greeted us both warmly. It had been six years since we’d last caught up in person, and it was the first time my mother met Meg (though they had spoken on the phone previously). Just as well they got on like a house on fire – sometimes a little too well (when you get that feeling that people are bonding by siding against you – all in good fun though).

The first couple of days we did some touristy stuff like drive over the Golden Gate Bridge (“but it’s orange not golden!” – because the harbour is known as “The Golden Gate” and not the bridge), visit Golden Gate Park, have a big meal (as they all are) at the Cheesecake Factory and stop by Chinatown for our first little taste of San Francisco.

In this time we also unpacked our backpacks and were made to feel at home at my Mum’s house. It was good to just go down to the local shops and the library to borrow a book on San Francisco (Frommer’s Irreverant Guide to San Francisco) and a USA guide book (Let’s Go USA) as well as make plenty of use of the free Internet there (thanks to the Milpitas branch of the Santa Clara County Library).

California and the USA in general is quite similar to home but super-sized. It’s hard to get around on foot because the roads and blocks are really large and spread out. People generally like this because driving is fairly pleasant with a minimum of traffic, but you have to have a car. Walking around is really slow, walking three blocks in the San-Francisco Bay Area (the suburbs) will take you half an hour. Luckily I got my hands on an old 10-speed bicycle for a while there, which made things a bit easier.

Day 70 – 76, Las Vegas – Sin City

Las Vegas is a giant theme park for adults. “The Strip” is the heart of everything that is spectacular, grandiose, extravagant and opulent about the USA. Ridiculous, tacky and sleazy but a heap of fun too.

We were all invited to my cousin Sheila’s birthday a few days after we arrived, over in Las Vegas, so that was the next chapter in our trip. It was great to go and meet a whole part of my family that I didn’t even know about, and they were all great folks. Very warm and hospitable, and we had an awesome time. We had a BBQ with great gourmet food to break the ice before heading out for gambling fever.

We were lucky that my other cousin, Sharon, and her husband Steve, were kind enough to put us up at Flamingo Casino hotel for a couple of days. A great way for us to get to know the strip. We stayed up till dawn going from place to place checking out the different casinos (my mother sure had developed some staying power since the last time we went out together) and making a bit of money on our game of choice – Roulette. Afterwards we stayed at my other cousin Sheila’s house. She lives in the residential area on the outskirts of the city. Very handy and hospitality much appreciated.

This was indeed a crazy town, like a giant theme park for adults. Las Vegas Boulevard (“The Strip”) is the heart of everything that is spectacular, grandiose, extravagant and opulent about the USA. The place was at once ridiculous, tacky and sleazy but a heap of fun too. Walking down the strip you would be greeted by groups of Mexicans handing you fliers and business cards of strippers, ready and willing to come to your hotel suite or home for a night of private entertainment. Massive brightly lit signs for shows abounded, shows such as The Producers starring David Hasselhoff (?!), Foreigner, Jubilee at Ballys, Celine Dion, Cirque Du Soleil’s “O” and Zumanity, Prince, Star Trek: the Exhibition and Penn & Teller. I didn’t see any of those. There’s no way I could have afforded any of those big Vegas shows (some priced at over US$300), though Penn & Teller would have been great and Prince would have no doubt put on a spectacular show, as he did at half-time at the Superbowl, which we watched from Sheila’s. Prince played favourites 1999 and Purple Rain – in the rain no less, providing an unexpected moment of poignance. While visiting The Strip we checked out a bunch of casinos including Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, Paris, New York New York and Luxor. They were all very swanky themed places that smelt of money (you can pretty much figure out their themes by their names). We also headed down to “Old Vegas”, the original area during the 50s and 60s. It really had that vibe of sleaze but in an enjoyable kitsch kind of way, and you could almost feel Elvis walking around the place. We learnt roulette down there, at Binion’s Horseshoe, where we both did quite well, walking away a few hundred bucks ahead between the two of us.

We did manage to catch the Mac King Show. Mac King is the old man of comedy magic. He probably invented the genre, he’s been doing it at Vegas for so long, and didn’t fail to keep the audience laughing and wondering how he does it.

Other than that, we enjoyed a bit of home karaoke (as common in a Filipino house as rice) and some Dance Dance Revolution on the Playstation at Sheila’s. My consistently low scores on both were a disaster, but of course, that never stopped me. Got into a lot of Texas Hold ‘Em at this time too. Lots of it on cable TV, plus my Mum’s man Eddie is some sort of poker god and made for a good teacher.

On our way to Vegas
Road trip to Vegas
The Flamingo
The Flamingo
The Strip
The Strip
Las Vegas
Old Las Vegas

Day 76 – 79, The Grand Canyon

From Las Vegas, we hired an RV and drove to the Grand Canyon. At around US $100 per day (including insurance and extra equipment) it’s not exactly cheap, but it is a really enjoyable way to see America. It took us about 6 hours to drive there from Vegas and we camped at the RV park with hookups there. It cost about $27 to stay, again, not cheap but worthwhile to stay right there on the South Rim of the canyon. Much cheaper than the lodges there (although along with the cost of the RV hire, probably not that much cheaper).

On the way back to Las Vegas we stopped for a night at the Valley of Fire, a site near the Moapa Reservation an hour out from Las Vegas. We’d been there the week before and decided to come back and camp there for a night. We got up early to check out all the great red volcanic rock formations.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon.

Our RV, at Hoover Dam, on the way to the Grand Canyon.

Valley of Fire
Valley of Fire.

Day 79 – 97, San Francisco, the Bay Area and Sequoia National Park

We returned the RV and hung out at Sheila’s for another night before returning to California. From here, Meg and I visited San Francisco a little more, just the two of us. We were there for Chinese New Year, but the day we went, there weren’t any major parades or celebrations. Just lots of tourists. It was interesting to see though, being the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. We had a few beers and the odd martini at neat place on the corner of Jack Kerouac Lane before taking the BART subway over to Mission Street and checking out a bit of the nightlife on Valencia. We returned another day and toured around downtown a bit before going over to Haight Street and seeing the old bohemian centre. Nintendo pin puzzlesLots of boutiques and cafés but just a ghost town compared to how it would have been thirty years ago. Still, a cool place to visit. We stopped in to Giant Robot San Francisco, a little comics/art/design boutique and must have spent an hour or two in there, they have oodles of really cool stuff, like books, prints, mags, toys and this cool Super Mario thing I sent to Mr Speaker.

Giant Robot, San Franciso
Giant Robot, San Franciso.

Giant Robot, San Franciso
Inside Giant Robot.

HP DV9000Back at my Mum’s, the beautiful (but ill-fated) 17″ display, 240GB Hard Disk with 2GB RAM Hewlett-Packard lappy I bought finally arrived… While free internet at the library was okay, I needed my own machine to take care of all our blogging, Flickr’ing,’ing and Skyping needs. The ever reliable Anton took the time to pack up the lappy and accompanying crumpler bag and post it over to my Mum’s.

Said laptop accompanied us on another road trip up to Sequoia National Park to see the old Redwoods. We got up as far as snow and turned back because we didn’t have chains, but we stayed at the very charming Sierra Lodge, Three Rivers, where Ozzie and Eva took great care of us at a nice price. Definitely recommend it if you’re in the Sequoias. Free WiFi in the lobby there too…

Day 97 – 102, LA, Modesto and Napa

On the 1st of March we hired a car and drove down to LA and stayed at USA Hostels Hollywood for a few days. Not a hell of a lot to do in that town unless you’re really into celebrity spotting or you’re trying to crack into Hollywood – some locals that we were talking to late at night at a pizza joint told us so. But we did enjoy visiting the Getty Centre which is an art museum with beautiful modern architecture.

The Getty Center
The Getty Center, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Meg

Getty Center, Los Angeles
Meg at the Getty Center, Los Angeles.

Getty Center, Los Angeles
The Getty Center, Los Angeles.

Later we drove down to Long Beach to take a peek and enjoy the sunset there. That night we checked out the shops and carnival at Santa Monica Pier. I was very interested to see they had about a 3 square metre space allocated for smokers and the rest was non-smoking. This on an open air pier. Not that it bothered me, I haven’t smoked for four years but I couldn’t help but feel for the few smokers left in L.A. We had dinner at the very tacky Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant. Nice enough service and the food was average, but unsurprisingly overpriced and the Forrest Gump theme brought back the feeling of being in an amusement park.

Santa Monica Boulevard, LA
Santa Monica Boulevard, LA.

The next night we checked out Hollywood Boulevarde. There were some celebrity impersonators doing their rounds such as Jimi Hendrix, Spiderman and Chucky (the crazy doll from the Child’s Play thrillers). I also watched a live action scene out of “Cops” as I saw some DUI party girls getting arrested.

I took some photos of the stars on the boulevarde that I found interesting as well as a couple of other things from that night:

Spike Jones Star on Hollywood Boulevard
Spike Jones Star on Hollywood Boulevard. That’s the crazy 40’s cartoon music guy, not the ‘Being John Malkovich’ guy.

Orson Welles Mural on Hollywood Boulevard
Orson Welles Mural on Hollywood Boulevard. Orson and Meg ponder eachother…

Jimi at Hollywood Boulevard
Jimi at Hollywood Boulevard.

More stars and things at my Hollywood Boulevard set at Flickr.

L.A reminded me of Sydney but on a bigger scale. It’s a big city with probably the warmest weather out of California’s cities but the traffic stinks and you pretty much can’t do anything without a car. And you can’t find anywhere to park. Like Sydney. We got two parking tickets while we were there, and they’re not cheap.

California pretty much has it all – beaches, lakes, mountains, great towns and cities

On the way back we drove up via Highway 1 along the Pacific coast for most of the way. A beautiful scenic drive passing green hills, beaches, small towns and great ocean views. We went straight from there back up north to Modesto, home of George Lucas so I’m told, to visit my cousin Sharon. At this time I caught quite a severe flu which had me floored for a few days with headaches, an aching body and a high fever. I still managed to down a few pills and head out with Meg and Sharon’s family to Napa and do some wine tasting at the V. Sattui Winery. A fine-looking old establishment with a great deli and of course a cellar door. I tried some wines and got chatting with the wine guy. Turned out he was good buddies with Max Goldman who is the developer behind the humorous time-waster, The conversation mainly revolved around how filthy rich Max is now from advertising revenue on the site. After a couple of wines I went outside and enjoyed the good weather by having a little snooze.

This month was a good chance to relax and unpack and feel at home again. It was great to meet up with family and spend time with my Mum and Eddie as well as my cousins and their kids. Everyone was so hospitable and we saw some pretty cool stuff. California pretty much has it all – beaches, lakes, mountains, great towns and cities. But we had the itch to get moving again, as it felt a little too much like being at home. Our next stop would mean catching up with some friends of Megan, Carter and Jade in Dallas, Texas for a day and then moving on to Austin for the SXSW festival. That’s next post

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  1. Hello,
    Fantastic post Hank. Awesome reading all the details to fill in the sketchy pictures I had made in my mind. Looking forward to more and more.

  2. Thanks mate!

    Once I get broadband in the flat I’ve got 2 more posts coming, including Mexico City which was lots of fun.