Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rocky Mountains National Park

After a late arrival in Denver, we picked up our hire car and crashed at a nearby motel. The next morning we packed up early and headed to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We stopped off for a quick bite in Boulder on the way which was a nice sleepy town (all the students were away).

We had a wander round Estes Park, the resort town where we were staying before heading into the National park for the remainder of the afternoon. We strolled around Bear and Sprague lakes which are both stunning. We caught our first glimpses of park wildlife at Bear lake, I thought it was a chipmunk but it turned out to be a ground squirrel. We did see chipmunks at Sprague Lake though! On the way back out of the park around sunset we added a pair of coyotes to our wildlife spotting tally.

The next morning we were up early to drive along the Trail ridge road, the highest paved continuous highway in the United States. The road peaks at over 3900m and took us over 2 hours to drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake including stops at the Alpine Visitor centre and other viewing points along the way, including one where we could climb on a small snow field.

On the way back we stopped at 'Rock Cut' for a picnic lunch. There were several yellow bellied Marmots lazily grazing just by the road side. Their more sprightly friends the picas were also abundant at this spot. After taking tons of photos we continued back down to catch up on some chores in Estes Park. We decided to head back into the park for sunset again this time entering by a different route. We didn't get to see any Bighorn Sheep, but as we were trundling along we spotted a group of cars pulled up and people with cameras everywhere, always a good sign of wildlife nearby. Lo and behold there was a large herd of Elk grazing right at the edge of the road, not at all concerned by the traffic jam they were causing!

This morning after a quick final tour and a small walk up to Nymph lake we reluctantly drove back to Denver, stopping again at Boulder for lunch. Ready now to go to Texas to see Dave and family.


Syracuse and Upstate New York

My old friend Matt met us at Syracuse airport on Tuesday last week. We stayed at his and his wife Jen's place the first two nights as Jen's parents were looking after Caleb (Matt and Jen's 8 mth old son) and Maggie (their dog) so they could show us round Syracuse (including a tour of the Uni campus where Matt works). Tuesday evening the four of us went into town to Dinosaur's BBQ, a biker bar and excellent BBQ food we all had ribs and various side orders. There was so much food we were still eating the ribs the next evening!.

On the Wednesday Matt and Jen drove us up to Niagra Falls which is about a 2 hour drive from their place. It has to be said that photos don't do the place justice, the falls are amazing, I've never seen anything like them before. We crossed over to the Canadian side to get a stamp in our passports and a much better view than the American side. The weather was better in Canada too!!!

The following morning we headed off early to Lake Bonaparte, where Jen's folks have a house right on the lake shore. We spent the next couple of days chilling out, swimming, drinking Bud-Light Limes, making banoffee pie and generally larking about. Great fun, Jen's parents spoilt us silly. We didn't seem to stop eating or drinking the whole time! It was great spending time with Matt, Jen and their family, especially Caleb who even at such a young age is seriously entertaining. We were very sorry to have to leave so soon. Next time we will have to stay a lot longer!


Saturday, July 26, 2008

New York, New York

It was steaming hot when we arrived at JFK airport. Used to Singapore efficiency as we are, we were surprised at the lack of it at one of the worlds largest airports. There were queues everywhere, we had to walk outside in the scorching sun with our bags just to get to the 'Skytrain' which is hyped as the link to public transport into Manhattan. However we wanted to get a bus to the '3' subway line as it made more sense to use that as it passed right by our hostel and according to wiki-travel was the cheapest way of getting away from the airport. As independent travelers this can often be our biggest expense, thanks to poor public transport links and expensive shuttle/taxi options....

We tried desperately to get hold of Metro-cards in the airport as these can be used on trains and buses throughout New York. However, thanks to some pretty piss poor planning you can't buy them in the terminals! So, we went to get the bus anyway and found the stop fairly easily, we knew by now that we'd need exact change so we had $4 in notes (the correct fare for both of us) and managed to just catch the driver's attention before they pulled away. We'd all but boarded when we were foiled; we were not aware that we needed the rare as rocking-horse poo 'one-dollar-coins', we'd never heard of these before and no information had prepared us. Hot sweaty and seriously fed up with a convoluted system, we eventually managed to get hold of some fabled $1 coins thanks to a nice woman in the money changer's office.

So back we trudged to the bus stop to wait another 20 mins for the next bus in the stinking heat. We squeezed on with the rest of the crowd, conspicuous amongst all the local workers for the 45 min plus un-airconditioned journey (Wiki-travel said it took 20, lies.). Once off the bus the journey on the subway was better, at least it was air-conditioned, although we were traveling through some rather shady areas, thankfully it was still mid-afternoon by this point!

We stayed at the Continental Hostel on W95th, near Broadway, and by the state of the temperature pretty close to 'Hell's Kitchen'. Before arriving we had envisaged a rat infested dungeon, as it was cheap and the reviews poor. We were pleasantly surprised by the recently renovated decor, clean rooms and bathrooms, no signs of rats and a cool underground basement chill out area with free wifi.

Our time in New York flew by, our first evening was spent at the 'Top of the Rock', watching the sun go down over the Empire State Building and the familiar Manhattan skyline. The next morning we were up early to catch the ferry to Staten Island and back for free, then wandered up to the Brooklyn bridge via Wall Street and many other familiar named roads. The afternoon passed with us sweatily wandering round China Town and Little Italy. We finished off with a quick photo stop in Grand Central station before an early night as we were both shattered. The next morning we did a spot of shopping on Broadway followed by a picnic lunch in Central park and a lazy stroll around the lakes and promenades. For dinner we went to Gray's Papaya, a famous NYC hotdog shop where we got 2 hotdogs and a drink for $3.50. Bargain! We then headed to Times Square to take obligatory photos at night and run before being mugged or conned into seeing some rubbish comedy show!

We had to be up silly early the last day as we needed to get back to the airport. We bit the bullet in the end and used the 'approved' method of getting there on public transport. To be fair it was much better than our way in, even if it did cost a little bit more


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hema's Wedding (Trinidad and Tobago)

We arrived in Tobago in the middle of a tropical downpour which never really stopped during our week long stay. We did get the occasional respite which meant we managed to squeeze in a couple of trips to the beach in between showers. We were staying at "Kia's across from the Beach" which is really across from the bank and down the road from the beach. Karen, the owner was very warm and friendly and made sure our stay was as comfortable as possible. We hired a nice Mazda 3 (zoom zoom zoom) and took a drive round the island on the only full day of sunshine we had. We visited a few nice beaches including Englishman's bay and Speyside. We were able to snorkel off the beach at Englishman's bay which was a bonus.

Hema and Patrick's wedding celebrations were our main reason for coming to Tobago so the poor weather didn't really bother us. They threw a welcome BBQ on the Sunday after we arrived which was a lot of fun. The Caribbeans really know how to party. One of Patrick's uncles is a dab hand at rum punches, needless to say there were a few sore heads the next morning! The wedding itself was spread over two days of Hindi blessings and the ceremony itself. Neither of us had attended a Hindi wedding before so it was a great experience being part of their big day. The second day was a mixture of Hindi and western/Caribbean styles, the party continued late into the night. We were well oiled with rum punches and the odd forced shot of sambuca (Hema's idea to liven up the already lively event). There were drummers and a steel pan band making it a very tropical affair!

Yesterday afternoon, still very hung over, we left Tobago for the 20 min flight to Trinidad. We saw the happy couple at the airport on the way to their honeymoon, they didn't look as bad as we felt! The flight over was so efficient we had landed before we were due to take off! We stayed at a small B&B in Trinidad where a local couple took great care of us in their lovely home. A perfect start to the second leg of our trip.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Flo's Wedding

Last Thursday we travelled to the south of France to a small village not far from St. Maxime. We flew into Nice from Liverpool and were met by Richard's (the Groom's) sister; Christine. She was also collecting an old colleague; Toni and another friend of Flo (the Bride); Irina. As the flight was a late one and the village was a good hour's drive from the airport we didn't arrive at Plan de la Tour until after 11.30pm. By the time we'd dropped the others at their very tasty guest house it was gone midnight. We were camping and I was anxious to put up the tent by this point. However, we couldn't find the site in the dark! So we ended up in Richard's parent's garden in a huge Moroccan tent that was like something out of a Lawrence Olivier film!

The Mistral decided to blow in around 2am and as the tent had no door we got little sleep before Flo and Richard kindly helped us to find the campsite the next morning. Some of Richard's Canadian relatives were staying in a nearby villa. We bumped into two of them; Cathy and her daughter Amanda on our way the campsite office. They took pity on us and kindly took us to St. Maxime's market in the morning, and then to a supermarket to stock up on essentials! We'd met most of the other Canadians in the market so we were all acquainted by the evening when we joined them all at the pizzeria attached to our campsite. The wine and conversation flowed late into the night. Cathy's brother Steve and his girlfriend Kim have convinced us to visit if not emigrate to Canada! They have been warned we will accept their hospitality!!!

The day of the wedding we woke with minor hangovers and parched beyond belief, the tent quickly became a sauna in the Mediterranean sun so we dozed in the shade during the morning. The civil ceremony took place in a cramped sweatbox of a room in the town hall of Plan de la Tour. It was all in French, my rusty ability only just kept up with the quick pace of the mayor's patter. Flo and Richard both looked amazing, in white and cream outfits. You can see from the photos how happy they both were. There were more than a few damp eyes in the room as Flo declared not only did she agree to take Richard as her husband but that she 'absolutely' did!!

With the photos outside over, 'Les Anglo-phones' headed for the nearest cafe to toast the newly-weds. A few of us piled in Andy's soft-top to go for a little picnic in between ceremony and reception. Luckily we did as dinner didn't start until well after 9pm. There were canapes and aperitifs when we arrived at Richard's parent's place again though. When we eventually sat down for dinner there was the usual confusion with wine as to whether there was one per course and if so which went with which. Being all Brits on our table we resorted to drinking what we liked! I enjoyed the red, Anna went for the Rose with Andy and Liz, before we all finished the white and the Champagne later on!

We'd forgotten how the French love to stretch their meals out, unlike us unsophisticated Brits. Even by French standards the wedding meal took longer than any of us expected. We were still enjoying our deserts as the clock struck one in the morning! The food was exquisite and was enjoyed by all at our table. There were various distractions during the cheese course, a presentation by Richard's friends Nicolas and Yves, the main purpose to show old embarrassing pics of Richard, set to sound effects, quite professionally!

There was also a quick game of Mr and Mrs, most of the questions were answered correctly by the newly-weds. Before we knew it was time to leave though and we sadly took our leave of the Bride and Groom and all the new friends we'd made. Steve and Kim gave us a lift back to the campsite which was great as we would never have found it in the dark!

Andy and Liz picked us up bright and early the next morning with the top down for the run back to Nice. We slapped on the sunsreen surrounded by our luggage and were back in the captial of the Cote D'Azure before lunch. We got in some quick sightseeing before visiting a small creperie for dinner. Surprisingly a lot of places were open, which shows times are changing in France. When i lived there it was almost impossible to do anything on a Sunday!



We've spent the last few weeks manically dashing around the UK with a side trip to France to boot! (blog entry to follow). On our arrival we were stunned by prices that have risen considerably since our last visit to our native land only 6 months earlier. The papers were and still are full of headlines regarding the inflation of food, petrol and just about every consumer item one can imagine, including lemons of all things!

Our first encounter was at the airport where we attempted to buy a bottle of water priced just under £2 with a £10 note only to be told the shop had no change. At the airport? We complain about other countries lack of customer focus... A girl in the shop next door restored our faith for a bit with a nice tip about getting free water with a newspaper purchase. Our regained faith was then shattered by the prices of public transport, £3 for the two of us on the transit bus to the nearest train station and another £8 to get back to Anna's Mum's house the other side of Liverpool. Crazy. We were then stung by the price of petrol, then 113.9p a litre, now 115.9p, Britain it seems is heading for a serious bit of financial difficulty, thankfully we leave it tomorrow for the next 4 months!

Since our initial shocks we've continued to become accustomed to being poor, and decided to purchase a tent to keep down the costs when visiting the Lake District and my parents place down south. This has been the best purchase of our time in the UK as we've used it loads. On its maiden outing we made sure it was up to high winds and rain in the Lakes thankfully the weather was very accommodating. Another windy night followed a week later at the farm.

We had a day in London on the way down south which was nice. Anna's brother and Lorraine had arranged for us to see 'The 39 Steps' in Piccadilly which was great. We had a slap up meal nearby at an Italian he'd found on toptable,com. Very reasonable on our meagre budget! All the big museums are free now too, so we spent a bit of time in the Science and Natural History Museums before a wander through Hyde Park and a nice catch up meal with my cousin on Southbank.

Whilst down south in between catching up with my family we squeezed in visits to Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton. Time flew and before we'd managed half of what we'd intended we were back on the dreaded six and a bit hour drive back up North.

With our side trip to France out of the way we've spent the last few days panicking about what we've forgotten to pack or book already. We thought we'd have had time to think more about what we intend to do in NZ and Oz but it just hasn't happened. With ten days on a Caribbean Island coming up we hope we'll find time between all the snorkeling and cocktails to do some planning!!!