Postcard from the West Coast

A cunning plan

So there I was, looking forward to the 2018 GP Brewery Bash – hotel and brewery tour booked, ready to rock and roll.  Then up pops my son with his RAF leave dates for the summer.  We had always promised each other a father/son holiday and this year was our last chance as he is completing his training in the UK before spending the next few years/decades being stationed who knows where so I had to prioritise and the GP massive came second (more my loss than yours, trust me).

The next task was to decide where to go.  We both fancied the USA and we had done Florida when he was younger, so West Coast it was.  After a lot of thinking and planning we settled on a frantic week of Las Vegas, Grand Canyon and San Francisco.  We looked at Yosemite and other options but the logistics just didn’t work (America is a big place!).  Flights, hotels and activities were booked in short order, ESTAs were sorted out and then off we went.

I’ve spent far too many nights away from home with work but the upside is that I have a lot of Hilton loyalty points (to my perpetual annoyance their scheme is branded “Hhonors” – wrong on so many levels) so we booked all of our hotels bar one for “free”.  Our flights were with Thomas Cook Airlines and we flew out from Manchester to Vegas then had an internal flight to San Fran and return from San Fran to Manchester.

Vegas baby!

We were offered an upgrade to Premium Economy at the airport but that seemed to give you about three inches more legroom and  a hundred more TV channels for a couple of hundred quid each so that was a “no”.

After landing in Vegas we had a very efficient transition through customs, picked up our bags and grabbed a cab.  Here began the fun.  The cabbie was possibly the most “woke” person I’ve ever come across. On picking up our accents he immediately launched into a rant about Brexit and how the EU was trying to screw us over – he gave it the full “you’ve got all these Muslims breeding away and taking you over” rant.  He conveniently pointed out the site of the mass shooting in Vegas – the hotel is a very long way away from the concert site and he was very much of the “that wasn’t a single shooter” school of thought.

Having survived the journey we settled into our hotel.  We had a great view from our room and it really helped us to realise that Vegas is basically a theme park for grown-ups.

Las Vegas is an interesting place to plan a few days for when you have a son who is under 21 and, therefore, is not allowed to drink or gamble.  You are allowed to explore the casinos but you can’t “loiter” so you basically get to see everything without the option to lose a load of money.  Given the heat (this was August) we elected to snooze during the hottest part of the day then explore Vegas by night, which is the only way to do it really.

One thing that struck us, given the RAF connection, was the attitude towards the military.  They really do go out of their way to acknowledge those who have served.  This was the sign on the way in to the nearest shopping Mall:

Northern Man, Going Postal

Vegas is a great place for simply people watching and you get to see it all, from “showgirls” wandering around in skimpy nothingnesses to make a couple of bucks having photos taken with tourists to outrageous stag and hen parties (many with British accents).  While we were there we spent half a day racing dune buggies in the desert (110 degrees but you don’t notice when you are flying over dunes and doughnutting in sand pits)

Northern Man, Going Postal

We also spent a manic twenty minutes firing a range of weapons (the sniper rifle was my personal favourite) at one of the many ranges.  If money is no object you can even drive a tank over a car or fire a mini-gun from a helicopter.

The Grand Canyon

Our next stop was the Grand Canyon.  I hired a Mustang for a couple of days (may as well do it in style) and we set off early in the morning.  The plan was to visit the Hoover Dam and we had booked a raft trip to take us near to the base of the dam.

The dam is a short drive out from Las Vegas.  We got there early so we dropped down to Lake Mead Marina for breakfast.  This turned out to be one of our highlights – it was tranquil and beautiful, with a stonking brekkie to boot (my son had steak and eggs for breakfast, which he had always wanted to do – simple pleasures).

Northern Man, Going Postal

On to the Hoover Dam, which I found fascinating.  We had a drive down to the launch point, where the guide pointed out that the dam has the same security classification as the White House (with good reason).  Our guide was full of interesting information, particularly about the process of building the dam.  This was in the days before the JCB and the amount of manual labour involved was mind boggling.   The dam is basically a big stack of concrete bricks, poured on site.  As concrete is exothermic (it gives off heat as it sets) each block was cooled with hosepipes before being positioned.  If the whole dam had been made in a single pour of concrete (not possible by the way) it would have taken over 100 years to cool.

Some more fun facts – the dam was built in five years (two years ahead of schedule) by a consortium of private companies.  It took almost as long to drill the tunnels which diverted the Colorado river around the site of the dam as it did to build the dam itself and once the dam was finished it took six years for Lake Mead to fill up.

Northern Man, Going Postal

From the dam we drove out to the Grand Canyon.  A long drive on incredibly straight roads.  The weather turned and a storm came in.  To my immeasurable delight we had actual tumbleweeds blowing across the road so I was just looking out for Wile E. Coyote.  One thing that struck me was how law abiding American drivers are.  The speed limit has been raised to 65 from 55 but we had the same car behind us (and a decent distance behind) for at least 50 miles even though they could have easily overtaken us.

We got to the Grand Canyon just in time for the end of sunset – I regret that we weren’t there earlier but the storm had delayed us.  We got up at 05:00 the next morning to be there for sunrise and we weren’t disappointed.   The Grand Canyon is just ridiculously stupendous.  Photos don’t do it justice.  We walked along the rim and every bend in the path offered new views.

Northern Man, Going Postal

After we’d had a wander around the Canyon I sprang my surprise – I’d booked us a helicopter trip around the canyon.  As I was getting the hotels for free I decided to splash out on this as a “once in a lifetime” experience and it was worth it.  You can pay extra to get the front seats (there are two rows in the helicopter) and it’s worth it.  I’d never been in a helicopter and I’m not that keen on heights but I loved every minute of it.  From the heliport you fly up to the rim and then over – at that point you are a mile above the canyon floor.  The pilot pointed out lots of interesting things but you really don’t need a commentary.

Northern Man, Going Postal

We were actually quite lucky – flights earlier in the week had been cancelled due to the smoke from the California forest fires (you may see that my photos are a bit hazy).

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the Grand Canyon but I do hope I get the chance.

Let’s go to San Francisco

I must admit to some trepidation about going to San Francisco given some of the comments I had seen on here about how far it has fallen.  Luckily I was firmly in the tourist bubble so insulated from reality.  Our hotel was near Union Square so we were at a terminus for one of the cable car routes.  My top tip for the cable cars is either be early or be lucky – the prime spots are on the outside and at the front.  The first time we boarded a car everyone was heading for one side so we just ducked around the back and got the two primo spots on the other side.  We also hadn’t bought tickets in advance and the conductor never came our way so that ride was a freebie.

It’s hard to get the steepness of San Francisco roads in an image but this one might help.

Northern Man, Going Postal

Our destination was Pier 33 for a trip to Alcatraz.  If you are ever in San Francisco then you have to do this trip.  It is a popular trip so I’d recommend booking in advance.  The island is about a mile offshore so a short boat ride to get there.  There is a very brief intro chat from a park ranger and then you are left to your own devices (you can spend as long on the island as you want to).  You have to do the audio tour – you get an audio player and set of headphones so you can wander around at your own pace rather than being herded as part of a group.

You really do get an inkling of how the prisoners must have felt being there.  It was a hard environment but it was, by all accounts, fair.  There were 14 escape attempts in 29 years, ranging from the impromptu (a prisoner tried to climb over the wall to dive into the sea and got shot dead for his troubles) to the well-organised (the elaborate escape of three prisoners in a plan which included making dummy heads out of soap to fool the guards – to this day nobody knows if they lived or drowned).

There was one attempt by prisoners to take control of the jail, which ended in the deaths of two guards and five inmates (three at the time and two executed for their role after the event).  You can still see the craters in the concrete inside one of the cell blocks where the Marines dropped grenades through the roof (they didn’t mess around in those days).

Our final treat was a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Sausalito.  There are a few steepish hills along the way but it’s well worth it, though we didn’t exactly have a classic view of the bridge – thanks to the fog my photos make it look like it is still under construction.

Northern Man, Going Postal

So there you have it – a whistlestop tour, all of which I would happily do again.  My final top travel tip for the uninitiated – in the US the green coloured petrol pump nozzle is the diesel, not the unleaded.  Thank goodness the nozzles are different sizes.

© Northern Man 2018

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