For those who read Part One, you know I’m well and truly back in Australia. But I’m hanging on to this title because I like to pretend I’m still over in the U.S. – lapping up that glorious sunshine instead of shivering Down Under in grey old Melbourne.
We left off in Part One after a whirlwind tour of the Grand Canyon. Time now for more of those travel tips.
TRAVEL TIP ONE: Stay with friends when you can
After leaving Las Vegas, we flew to Reno, Yes, many people have said – ‘Why Reno?’ Well, we have a close friend who lives there that I bet you’d all like to adopt.
Andrew, better known as Roo, not only invited our family to stay in his house (he moved out to live with a friend) he lent us his four-wheel drive for exploring AND picked us up and dropped us back at Reno Airport.
He’d also told us about some pretty cool outdoorsy stuff you can do with kids in the area, so proved a fountain of tourist knowledge and tips. Overall, this meant huge savings on hotel and hire car bills, plus he’s damn fine company and showed us around like our own personal tour guide.
Yep, I bet you all want a friend like Roo.
TRAVEL TIP TWO: Go kayaking on Lake Tahoe
On Roo’s advice, we drove his roomy four-wheel drive down to Lake Tahoe after booking a kayaking session with Pat from Great Basin Sports. The booking was made through Travel Zoo at www.travelzoo.com and cost $25 (US) per person. I’d been told Lake Tahoe was one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, and it didn’t disappoint. Crystal clear aquamarine waters lapping at pine-tree edged sandy shores on a sunny day equals picture-postcard perfect.
Kayaking can, however, be hazardous with hormonal teenage children. There we were, happily rowing over still waters and remarking on how lucky we were with the weather, when they decided a kayaking race was in order. Hard to draw a finish line on a rippling lake, so before I could say ‘Yogi Bear’, the fighting began. Pat, our kayaking instructor had just been saying, ‘What a lovely family you have,’ when the thrashing and bashing of oars began. Aimed at each other’s heads.
Ah, those moments when you’re proud to be a parent… Somehow we managed to stay afloat and no one was killed. Phew.
Maybe it was being out ‘in-the-wild’ that brought out their feral streak, but whatever the reason, we decided drastic action was required to bring them closer together. An experience where they might really feel their lives were in danger and value each other. Hence Travel Tip Number Three.
TRAVEL TIP THREE: Take a Hot Air Balloon ride over the Prosser Dam (or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt)
Fletch and I had already taken a hot air balloon trip in Egypt two years earlier. The basket, carrying about twenty tourists was sturdy, wide and high. I felt completely safe and the experience, sailing over the Valley of the Kings at dawn, along with about a dozen other balloons – was nothing short of magnificent.
Which is really why we booked a second try at hot air ballooning – as well as wanting the kids to enjoy the adrenalin rush and incredible views.
So I guess I was expecting a similar experience with Wild Sierra Adventures just out of Reno. We arrived at dawn (after waking at 4am) and the setting was indeed picturesque, with fog gently rising from the Prosser Dam surface.
But instead of a dozen balloons and an army of officials as there were in Egypt, we found only a small collection of people working on firing up a single balloon. I looked at the tiny basket lying on its side on the ground and shot a look of concern at Fletch.
‘We’re not going up in that tiny thing, are we?’
Yes, we were.
I was alarmed to say the least. I tried to hide my reservations in front of the kids, masking concern with heightened, fake enthusiasm. Fletch seemed unperturbed. When five of us crammed into the basket, there was barely room to turn around and the top of the basket was only just above waist-height, meaning the likelihood of falling out felt like a very real possibility.
But once we were up in the air, floating in a noiseless clear sky, I managed to relax and take in the scenery. A couple of other balloons also popped up out of nowhere, which for whatever reason, reassured me that all was okay.
It’s not cheap – $299 per person – but we figured this was our ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip with the kids, and was an experience that would be remembered forever.
I hope that’s how they feel about it too.
The only other point of difference to our Egypt experience – once you land, you’re expected to help the team pack up the balloon. We had another important date in San Francisco so wished this had been explained to us earlier. Although in terms of learning about ballooning, it did help to make the experience all the more authentic.
TRAVL TIP FOUR: Do go to a baseball game in San Francisco
This wasn’t really my idea of fun, but the boys were adamant it was an experience not to be missed. It meant taking a three-hour drive from Reno to San Francisco after the balloon ride, staying one night and then heading home the next afternoon. Still, it also meant seeing the beautiful city of San Francisco, which we hadn’t visited for more than fifteen years, so I agreed.
The AT & T Stadium, or as others call it ‘Pac Bell Park’ or ‘The Phone Booth’ is a sight indeed. Set in the South Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco, it boasts stunning views.
We were there for a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Cincinatti Reds. I have to say it – the Americans know how to put on a show.
There was more entertainment from shenanigans between the crowd and sports presenters on the big screen, than there was between players on the field. The AFL should take note – more music, more free giveaways, more entertainment. Half the time I had no idea what was going on, but the vibe was exciting and there was plenty of action. I still don’t know who won. More importantly, Tom (who I’m betting is a future sports presenter) quietly loved the entire experience. And spending time with his new buddy, Roo’s son, Luke.
TRAVEL TIP FIVE: Wear a neck brace when flying economy
When I become a multi-squillionaire, I will always fly first-class. Or at least business. But for now, I’m a cattle girl and on long-haul flights, that’s a test of physical endurance. A few times I’ve been lucky enough to score an upgrade and that is complete heaven. In fact, flight attendants have had to forcibly eject me from my seat on landing because I could happily stay forever. Movies, French champagne, no interruptions from phones or emails, no kids…. (huge sigh)
Travelling with the family meant OF COURSE we were flying economy. Weeks beforehand, I had somehow developed a neck problem – probably from falling asleep on the couch after too many wines with my head bent up my armpit. A diet of anti-inflammatories and pain killers kept me afloat, but my doctor also suggested a neck brace for the many plane trips ahead.
Yup, it ain’t a pretty look. I really should have invested in some sequins and craft glue, but hey – next time. But the truth of the matter – this ugly device is MUCH better than the regular neck cushions sold in airport travel shops. It only costs around $12 and is sold at most chemists. To be honest, my neck was pretty much recovered about a week into our trip. But I hung on to the neck brace because I learnt on the way over how brilliant it was to ensure a comfortable few hours sleep. You can drop your chin forward and be completely supported. Fantastic! An added bonus is the extra care and attention from sympathetic flight attendants. (Thank you Virgin Australia – you were amazing)
TRAVEL TIP SIX: Do Visit the Bahamas – but not the Atlantis water park
Sounnds awfully posh, doesn’t it?
‘Yes, dahhhling, we thought we might jet off to the Bahamas.’
You can just picture the lady in that Imperial soap ad, soaking in a bubble bath and buzzing her husband on the phone ‘George, the Bahamas look nice.’ (I know – it was really Tahiti, but you get it)
That’s not the reason we chose the Bahamas. In fact, our first option was Hawaii as a ‘rest’ point in the holiday on the way home. But the price of tickets was so steep it was ridiculous, so we asked our travel agent, the super efficient Tina Millington, for an alternative. And guess what? The Bahamas are CHEAPER to visit (once in the U.S.) than Hawaii.
At this stage in booking our trip, we’d already spent what we considered a small fortune, so more budget-friendly accommodation was a necessity. I had hoped to stay at the Atlantis resort, and I think we may even have had a minor marital dispute when Fletch insisted this was too expensive. He settled on a place called Sunrise Villas in Nassau and from what I had seen on the website, I was less than enthusiastic about what lay in store for us. (I was wrong)
Sunrise Villas was fabulous! I’d have to describe the rooms, with an art deco feel, as comfortable rather than glamorous, but the spaciousness is a huge bonus – plus the fact you even get a tiny laundry. I also loved the fact that you only have to walk up one flight of stairs to be in your apartment instead of queuing in a major hotel for ten minutes each time you need to get up to Floor 35. Much better. Plus the staff were extremely friendly and helpful.
Sunrise Villas also back on to a stunning beach. Again, waters so crystal clear you’d think I’d photo-shopped this picture. (I didn’t!!)
There’s also a great little bar and restaurant – Viola’s – which attracts many of the locals, and provides entertainment on most nights of the week – whether it be karaoke or a live band.
The compromise for NOT staying at the imperious looking Atlantis Resort, was to at least buy a day pass so the kids could enjoy the water park and slides.
What a waste of money! The day ended up costing close to $500 and by lunchtime, Tom was bored.
The queues for the rides were lengthy, not to mention adults fighting over deckchairs. We found it to be a crass commercial venture which charged guests for every amenity at any point they could, in return for little joy. I was so relieved we hadn’t ended up staying there. (Yeah, yeah, Fletch was right.)
A far better option for a family outing was to take a trip with Powerboat Adventures, roaring 38 nautical miles over the sea to Ship Canal Cay. As you approach the island, two boats do a dare-devil criss-cross manoeuvre at high-speed to music blaring out the James Bond theme. Cute.
Strolling around the island with the kids in the shallows by the white sand, just soaking up the sun, was my simple idea of paradise.
Others preferred a more adventurous meeting with a bunch of reef sharks…
And then there was the scuba diving. Various groups were taken out on different sessions. Ronnie and I did it once each – the boys, probably three or four.
The tour company also sell underwater cameras so you can capture the marine life for yourself.
TRAVEL TIP SEVEN: Pack lots of chargers and converter plugs
It’s a guilty parental admission, but true. I-phones and electronic games help pass the time and prevent sibling rows when in long queues at airports or trips in the car. If you’re going to rely on them, make sure you pack plenty of charging devices and converter plugs. This will prevent many arguments over who has charging priority and ensure a much more peaceful journey.
TRAVEL TIP EIGHT: Only spend ONE day at a theme park
After the Bahamas, we headed to Orlando. A major reason – to visit a theme park with the kids. Originally we’d thought we would take them to Disneyland when they were ten and twelve, but time slipped by and it never happened. That’s the funny thing about kids – they grow so damn quickly. So now, being 14 and 17, priorities had changed.
Veronica is a devoted Harry Potter fan and was especially keen to visit ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ at Universal Studios, so the choice about which theme park was easy. We even splashed out to buy ‘V.I.P tickets’ which means by-passing most of the long queues. A great decision and well-worth the money.
Wanting to make the most out of our ‘one day’, we arrived at about 7.45am. First stop – Harry Potter World.
Ronnie was in seventh heaven – did all the rides, met a Hogwarts train conductor and couldn’t wait to sample a pint of Butter Beer. (non-alcoholic of course)
I was a brave Mumma and went on all the scary rides, including the Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster AND the Fear Fall drop!!!
The most disappointing ride was the ET experience. It was so lame, it left Tom in fits of laughter. I was mortified my director hero, Steven Spielberg, had videoed a personal welcome to the ride. Maybe that was a decade ago? He needs to take another look at how much this has dated and what a waste of time it is. Such a special film deserves a better tribute. I really felt for the families who were queueing for forty minutes.
At the day’s end, we’d covered a vast amount of ground, walking from one ‘land’ to another. We’d done every ride on our list and overall, had a fantastic fun and laughter-packed day. By this stage it was nearly 7pm. We’d been there for ELEVEN HOURS. I was beat. Delerious, more like it. At the end of our marathon stint, I practically needed to be carried home. So I promise you, you will only want to do ONE DAY at a theme park.
TRAVEL TIP NINE: Do not stay at the Enclave Hotel in Orlando
We only had one truly bad experience when it came to hotels on our trip. And this was it. The Enclave Hotel looks okay on the website, but once inside your room, the cracks are pretty obvious.
We knew it was a budget hotel, but thought, as we’d be spending most of our time in the theme park, that it wouldn’t really matter. But it did. I felt like I was staying in a toilet.
It wasn’t only the look of the place that was revolting. Every time the guest next door flushed their toilet, it felt like an earthquake was ripping through the plumbing. That, combined with the noise from a train-engine-clanking air conditioning system, meant sleep was out of the question without chemical assistance.
Oh, and the ‘complimentary’ breakfast that came with the deal? Completely inedible.
Two words. NEVER AGAIN.
TRAVEL TIP TEN: Play Paddle Tennis at Venice Beach
From Orlando to Hollywood, we had four nights in Los Angeles to wrap up our U.S.A trip. A visit to Venice beach is an entertaining must. There’s ‘Muscle Beach’ where Arnold Schwarzanegger was discovered, and many a decent set of biceps is on display, belonging to someone hoping to likewise be ‘discovered.’
The passing parade of eccentrics, musicians, skate-boarders and touts makes for a fascinating spectacle. But the thing that caught our sport-loving son’s eye was not the Medical Marijuana Doctor passing out his business card, (relieved sigh) but the games of ‘Paddle Tennis’ being played on mini-courts. We didn’t have the right footwear, but opted to give it a shot anyway – barefoot.
Tom beat all three of us, but by the time he was done, even he – with his addiction to ball sports – had had enough.
TRAVEL TIP ELEVEN: Do take your photo in front of the Hollywood sign
I know, it’s corny, but ya gotta do it. And look, it even made Ronnie smile!
Yep, we’d all got along pretty well for three weeks, but right at the end, the siblings started to rile each other just a tad. On our second last day, Tom decided to film Ronnie for a 24-hour period to show her exactly how grumpy she was. And there’s nothing guaranteed to make anyone MORE grumpy than they already are, than having a camera shoved up their nose 24-7.
But despite those clashes, I’d have to say overall, it was a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime trip. In hindsight, I don’t think I’d even change our hectic schedule. But I probably would agree with this sign we spotted as we passed out the gates at Universal Studios.