Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wine Country

Friday was my winery tour day. The small bus picked me up at the hostel and seven other guests from nearby hotels, including two Scots! They were both living in the USA but they sounded like they had just arrived even though that wasn’t the case. The other five were Americans from Boston and Texas and the small group were friendly and easy to talk to. We started our tour in Sonoma and our first stop the Viansa winery which has beautiful grounds but I was underwhelmed once inside the winery. The tour had not been cheap and I questioned the value of it during the first tasting. At the bar I was pointed to a wine list much like you would find in any restaurant as opposed to the detailed descriptions I received at the vineyards in Virginia. The staff behind the bar were very pleasant and helpful to the American tasters but mush less so with myself. I felt that since I was unable to purchase repeated cases I was just a nuisance which, considering there was a while shop behind me with merchandise and that I was part of a tour was rather short sighted. I was slightly more impressed with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting they were also running, the staff there were more helpful and my sunnier mood of earlier quickly returned. I did contemplate purchasing some unusual oils but decided to wait and see what the other places had on offer. I will admit that the desert wine was one of the few I’ve tasted which I felt I could drink more of but the whites were too sweet and the reds had too much of a tannin aftertaste for my liking. The next winery was called Cline located across the road from our first stop. At Cline we had a private session where the basics of of wine tasting were explained to us and we were given 4 wines to taste initially then asked if there were any other on their menu that we particularly wanted to try. As each wine was poured we learned a little about it and our guide was helpful and friendly, nicely refreshing after my first experience. I was even able to take a photograph of my highland cow with my favourite wine from the tasting. Again I found the reds had that tannin aftertaste but they were a definite improvement on the first tasting and I was pleasantly intrigued by their red Zinfandel wines. However it was the Viognier that really appealed to me; if I ever moved to the states I would be sure to look it out and I will keep a lookout for it on any future travels. The Cline grounds were beautiful and this winery had the added attraction of housing models of each of the twenty one missions built along El Camino Real (The Royal Road) which starts in San Diego and ends in Sonoma where the town square now stands. Our morning tastings over we were taken to the home of the twenty first mission for lunch and a wander around the town square that it is now part of. It may be small but Sonoma has an interesting variety of shops so it was easy to fill in the time there after lunch before we headed to Napa Valley.

In Napa we only had one stop to make but what a stop. We were given a brief tour of the Domain Chandon winery and our guide explained how they make sparkling wines. The guide was pleasant and entertaining and after the tour he took us to a private area for some tasting. Well I say tasting but in reality we were given more than the usual tastes worth, the advantage of being in a small group I assume. I learnt amongst other things that champagne and sparkling wines are made using the same three varieties of grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier) and that in California only wines that at contain more than 70% of a grape are allowed to use the name of that grape on the bottle. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try their sparkling red wine during our tasting and I felt a little too tipsy to purchase a taste at their public tasting area. We were able to taste their Brut Classic, Blanc De Niors, Pinot Nior Brut and Extra-Dry Riche and surprised myself by enjoying the sweeter taste of the extra-dry riche having always preferred the brut classics in the past.

And so ended my day of tasting (but not drinking) wine. On the way from San Francisco our bus driver had kept us entertained with some facts along the way but on the way home he was less of a guide and more chatty asking us all various questions including a fair few about various types of whiskey. I think he was vaguely amused with my idea of opening a Scottish whiskey shop in the middle of wine country.

Back at the hostel I decided to try the internet and found one of my new friends from the Thanksgiving meal already there. Our timing was superb as not long after I arrived so did a hostel employee with cheese and wine. I have just about sobered up but a wee glass of red soon had me happy again! We got chatting with another traveller who turned out to be my newest roommate and the three of us, along with my Canadian friend from Alcatraz, ended up going for pizza before trying out the Gold Dust lounge on the street parallel to our hostel. The music was pretty good and the melon ball cocktail very tasty but after a long day of wine drinking it was another fairly early night for me. Still, it was a good end to a fun and informative day; I have even more wines to add to my ever growing ‘preferred’ list.

Monday, 29 November 2010

So much to do, so little time

So much to do, so little time has been the recurring theme on my mini tour. There isn't one place I have been that wouldn't have been happy to spend 'just one more day' and that I wouldn't love to revisit and San Francisco was no different. 

On the Wednesady I visited Alcartraz and the “Crookedest street” as these were the top two things that came up in the suggestions by folks back home after my requests for things to do in San Francisco. Alcartraz was fabulous. I took the audio tour and it was really interesting to hear the inmates and wardens recollections as I wandered around the cell block. The views outside were stunning and I wish I would have loved to have taken the time to really play with my camera and capture them but I fear it was beyond both my camera and my own capabilities. I did get some great shots on the island though. The cell blocks were the perfect setting for some black and white shots and outside it was great to return to colour in an attempt to showcase the plant and animal sanctuary that the rock has become. Just to be different I stopped to view the introductory video at the end of our visit and so ended with a potted history of the island. I also made a new friend, a Canadian this time, on the ferry over so there are some photos of me on the Rock as well as Zack.

Back on the main land my Canadian friend and I headed to Pier 23 for some lunch at a diner that had been on the TV program he had see. My fresh monkfish served on ratatouille with sourdough bread in was very tasty, it was an excellent recommendation. We considered visiting the home of the Mythbusters but decided that as we were unlikely to actually see them and time was getting on to give it a miss, I am sure my Canadian friend will make the time during his visit to go see them though and I hope he finds them in. Instead we headed to Lombard Street to view the road the takes eight turns in one block. The road itself was at the top of a steep hill which we walked up having gotten on the lower cable car. I’m didn’t really get the attraction of the twisty street (sorry folks) but I did love the views and once more gave my camera a work out. I even managed to get a few of Zack before the upper cable car came along to take us back to the downtown area.

Now in the different cities I have visited I have bought art, jewellery, a book of play scripts, a cd and more so in San Francisco I of course went to Macy’s and bought jeans, and very reasonable they were to. Necessary shopping trip over it was on to Chinatown for a meal in the Cathy House which I am happy to say was much tastier than the local Cathy Cuisine restaurant back home. We took the time to enjoy a quick hot chocolate on our way back to our respective hotels but didn't linger long in Chinatown as my friend had an early start the next day. Back at the hostel I managed to stay online all evening and was happy to catch up with folks back home once more and less happy to start sorting through my many photos from the day, I really must learn some camera restraint.

Thursday was Thanksgiving. I had a lazy morning then invited myself to travel to the hostels thanksgiving lunch with some fellow backpackers as it was being held at a sister hostel and they seemed to know where they were going and how to get there. The food was actually rather tasty and I can safely say I approve of Happy Turkey Day. I ate far more that I should have and had one and a half deserts including a very cinnamony pumpkin pie. Stuffed full it was time to catch a cable car back to the hostel and go our separate ways for a while to recover from our turkey feast. In the evening we met up and for a few drinks in an Irish bar across the street from our hostel. The drinks we ok and the bar was crowded but for me it was worth the visit as the fries they served were actually ‘proper’ chips and cooked to perfection. Not overly impressed with the bar itself we decided to pick up a few drinks and head back to the hostel to end our evening with random chat and in my case some Californian wine and yet more picture taking. My evening ended with me finally posting on facebook something I was thankful for: my pink toothbrush as given to me by my LA friend to replace the one I had to throw out in New Orleans. Which goes to prove you can have Happy Turkey Day and enjoy it no matter what nationality you are.


Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Why Does It Always Rain On Me?

Maybe it’s because I am Scottish, it might be because we’re approaching a holiday over here or it could just be that it’s November whatever the reason I woke up to rain this morning. Not gentle refreshing light raindrops but bouncing off the pavement soaks you in a heartbeat rain. Thankfully it soon eased off and I was able to head out with my trusty umbrella (as if I would travel without one) in search of an internet cafe. Yup folks once again the hostel internet had let me down. I suppose though I should back up a bit as by this time I had been in the city for over 12 hours.

I arrived after a quicker than expected Grayhound ride due to being moved to the express bus as mine was full which sounds good until you learn that it left LA two and a half hours later than my original bus. I got in to San Francisco a whole 20 minutes earlier than expected. The journey itself was much the same as previous trips though it was nice to not have to change buses and I was kept entertained by a slightly off the wall American who thought the fact I was Scottish was cool, yes he did ask about haggis because they always do. For the first time had to call a cab to get me to the hostel, well it was 8:20pm so that was expected at least. On arrival I was impressed with the hostel. It’s in a cool old hotel building, the location is excellent, the rooms are clean and I have no hesitation about using the bedding provided. My room sleeps four and there were two other people there when I booked in. The lady who was in the bunk below me was very nice and I never the met the girl in the other bunk and she had left by the time I returned this evening.  Having made my bed and introduced myself I went in search of food and found a funky diner close by where I could get some pretty simple but tasty food. It was once I arrived back at the hostel that I found I was unable to log on to the internet. I hate not being able to get online when I get to a new place it makes me feel all lost and disconnected but technology will misbehave no matter where we are or what we do. Which leads me nicely back to my first morning.

Still offline in the hostel there was nothing for it but to search out a local internet cafe, before I could get online though I stumbled upon tourist information. Here I found out where the hop on hop off tours boarded and got a seven day passport for the public transport system and wonders of wonders a map, yay! On my way to the tour bus stop I had a midmorning snack at Starbucks and I was able to send my e-mails back home in an attempt to arrange my social life for December, one has to think ahead you know. By now the rain had stopped and by the time the bus arrived the seats upstairs were dry enough to sit on for those of use brave (i.e. stupid) enough to risk the weather. During the tour I was able to take some photos though I fear they will not be up to my usual standard due to the fact my hands were freezing and the camera was a bit more shaky than usual: note to self remember gloves tomorrow. It was interesting to hear some of the history and I got some great view but it was so cold that when we pulled up at the California Academy of Sciences I decided to visit it to get some warmth and I am glad I did. At first I thought it was just another museum but I soon realised it was much more. Inside they had a rainforest habitat, a planetarium, an aquarium and some other cool exhibits including an innovative living roof; my only complaint was the number of children there. I have been spoilt in other cities by visiting at quiet times but I guess with Thanksgiving coming up the schools are all treating the kids to educational days out. After a couple of hours of dodging kids I headed back to the bus and on the Golden Gate Bridge. Here is a handy tip for you: Do Not ride over the bridge on the top of an open top tour bus in November. It was rather windy and I have no idea what the commentary was saying. I have resolved to do the complete loop tomorrow afternoon after my visit to Alcatraz so I can hear it all from the comfort of the enclosed lower level of the bus. Having seen and been on the bridge we headed to Fishermans Wharf where I headed straight to Boudin’s for a rather tasty club sandwich accompanied by some Californian wine, well it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? After a quick look at the nearby shops it was back on the bus which handily stops just down from my hostel.

It was on returning to the hostel and its working internet I realised that maybe a not working internet is a good thing. I have now booked myself tickets to an art exhibition at the de Young museum on Saturday at midday and a comedy night at the Purple Onion on Saturday night. Well I figured it beat sitting around the hostel fighting with the internet. Add these to my visit to Alcatraz tomorrow followed by my bus tour and my Napa wine tour on Friday and it’s shaping up to be another busy city.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Westwood to Hollywood

Well technically Calderwood to Washington to Charlottesville to Nashville to New Orleans to LA to Hollywood but that doesn’t sound quiet so snappy. My first day in LA was lovely and relaxing. We had lunch at a 50’s style diner where we were served by a friend of my friend and it was at this point I discovered that there are an awful lot of English people here! It must be the weather. In the afternoon I caught up online having been denied reliable internet for over a week. In the evening I went with my friend to her work in Malibu. She looks after two lovely kids, a quiet little boy and a very chatty little girl who decided asking me lots of questions was an excellent way to avoid her homework. Whilst there I booked some tickets for us to see the Getty Villa in Malibu on Friday and a ticket for myself to see Alcatraz the following week.

Friday was a much busier day, in the morning I had to do some laundry but despite that we were soon on our way out. We headed straight to Hollywood Boulevard to have a quick look at some of the stars on the walk of fame and the Grauman's Chinese Theatre to see the celebrity handprints, footprints, and autographs. My travelling cowpanion Zack enjoyed having his photo taken on some of the stars and slabs until someone selling tours stepped on him! He survived the experience but we soon decided to head to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. Once there it was a different experience for Zack as he was introduced to our waiter who shook his paw which made Zack feel much better, especially after being stepped on. Lunch was very tasty and it was fun to look at the celebrity memorabilia. After lunch it was back to the car so we could head to the hills. After a long and twisty drive upwards we found an excellent view point overlooking Hollywood and under the Hollywood sign. Many photographs later and we headed back down the hill to Rodeo Drive, a place where every shop was out of my league but ever so pretty to look at. Our day of playing tourist successfully completed it was back home for a wee rest before heading out to Wokcano in Santa Monica for their happy hour, cheap but tasty Japanese bites and a nice glass of chardonnay. With my body still two hours ahead we didn’t stay long but my friend was kind enough to stop on the way home so we could get some frozen yogurt, I will miss the frozen yogurt when I go home!

Saturday was a lazy morning including a late breakfast at a local cafe where I had some lovely French toast and fruit. After a quick trip to the local post office it was on to the Getty Villa for some art. The villa itself was actually pretty impressive. J.P. Getty wanted the artefacts he acquired to be shown in the setting they were designed for. The artefacts themselves were interesting enough but there are only so many jugs and statues of gods that I can look at as they really aren’t my thing. The villa and the gardens were good though and I am glad we went as it was interesting to hear the story behind the collection. I also realised how attached I have become to my camera. I forgot it and borrowed my friend’s which was pretty good but I missed my own which I have spent the last three weeks getting to know. Thankfully when we returned home her extremely cute dog provided me with some excellent opportunities to play with my own camera once more. Our evening ended with some pizza, wine and a sing-a-long with Grease on the TV, who says widows don’t know how to have fun?!

Sunday we went to Universal Studios, it was awesome fun. We went on all the rides, saw Shrek in 4-D and some of the animal actors in their own stage show and took a studio tour. Even on the tour we weren’t safe as it seemed at every turn they were shooting water at us from somewhere! It was quite simply a day of fun and I think all Mallrats fans will appreciate my humour at seeing Jaws pop out of the water during the tour. It was pretty neat to see the outdoor facades which are used in films and series such as CSI, NCIS and Quantum Leap and some famous vehicles, including one of the crafts used in my favourite film Serenity. I even managed to get my photo taken with Sponge Bob and the Doc from the Back to the Future.  It was an action packed day and a fabulous end to my LA visit.

I really enjoy travelling on my own and meeting random people but it has been great fun to spend a few days with a friend doing some tourist things during the day and chilling out at night with good company in front of the TV.




Friday, 19 November 2010

Thoughts on a Plane (slightly less scary than snakes and hopefully more entertaining)

I read somewhere that New Orleans is a third world city and I could tell that life could be hard there. It wasn’t easy before Katrina and it’s only become harder since but I was overwhelmed by the variety and quality of the shops in the French Quarter. All I had heard about New Orelans was the struggles since Katrina and the craziness of Bourbon Street. I was pleasantly surprised to find amazing art, beautiful jewellery, all different kinds of clothes, the Mardi Gras masks of course and so much more. If you want it I would challenge you not to find it in the French Quarter of New Orleans, they even had a large sprinkling if the obligatory tourist shops with t-shirts, shot glasses, postcards etc. It was too easy to spend money there yet I don’t regret a single purchase, especially as the dreaded Christmas shopping is almost complete.

I didn’t just buy for other people though, I found a fair few things I couldn’t resist including some prints from the Craig Tracy, Painted Alive Bodypainting Gallery. There are many different galleries in New Orleans all showcasing different kinds of art but it was this one in particular that I was drawn to. As I walked through the gallery I admired the artists work but when I saw Inferno I froze. It spoke to me, plain and simple. The gallery owner saw me and came over to talk with me and ended up showing me the larger prints of Inferno. I liked the prints but I wanted to own that painting, however common sense did prevail and in the end I decided to purchase three smaller prints that I believed would complement another instead.

On leaving the gallery I did wonder if I had been taken advantage of, the chances of me actually buying the painting were small (though probably not as small as they should have been considering I am unemployed) and it made sense to sell me a print there and then rather than let me walk out. Since I arrived in America I have been doing pretty well, no tears and only a few melancholy moments but when discussing the prints I uttered the words “I lost someone” and for the first time I wanted to actually cry. Not perhaps the best state of mind to make a purchase but on reflection I have decided that anything that made me react that strongly was worth owning, not to mention that they will last longer than a t-shirt or keyring.

Art aside I fell in love with New Orleans. From the first moment I stepped off of Bourbon Street I felt at home and I left regretting that my time there had come to an end so quickly. During my time there I felt like me, it’s the only way I can explain it. New Orleans is a city that has known more pain and suffering than I could ever imagine yet the people there are living their lives and rebuilding their city one day at a time. The symbol of New Orleans is the Fleur de Lis as a sign of rebirth, of hope and recovery and I cannot think of anything more appropriate. To me New Orleans is a city of music; a city of art; a city with a rich history and culture. It is a city with a soul and now a little bit of my heart, hopefully one day I will be able to return to be reunited with it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Lead me not in to Temptation...

For I can find the way there all by myself. Left to my own devices for the second day in a row my morning was taken up by a tour of the city. It was interesting to see the above ground graveyards and the different types of architecture around the city and to have the reason behind them explained. We saw shotgun houses in the French Quarter before moving on to ground zero of Katrina. The devastation caused by the flood walls breaking is still very much in evidence but the rebuilding work is also starting to make itself known. There were some really interesting new buildings going up which are not only on higher stilts and more securely anchored they are also designed to float! Then it was on to higher ground where the houses are a lot bigger and a fair few are now owned by famous people, Nicholas Cage in particular got quite a few mentions during the tour. In general it was an interesting tour but I would like to have heard more of the older history of the city explained. After the tour I headed back to the French Quarter, this time walking down Royal instead of Bourbon Street which I am afraid was my undoing. There are a multitude of jewellery, art, antique and other interesting shops so how was a girl to resist? I am the proud owner of: yet more jewellery, not all for me honest; some perfume, which was completely necessary as security at the Captiol in DC stole mine at the beginning of my trip; some prints, which is actually a good thing because I did want to buy a painting which was $1200 so really I was saving myself lots of money; and finally some water and granola bars. Not a bad day considering most other tourist seemed to have been scared off by the rain.

Not deterred by the weather my latest new friend and I headed back downtown in the evening to Frenchman’s street where the emphasis is more on the music and less on the drinking. We visited two bars, The Spotted Cat and the D.B.A. bar: both had good bands but the highlight for me was the Spotted Cat’s second band whose oldest member was 82 years old. Their music was good and their voices had that distinctive jazz sound that you feel can only be achieved after many years singing in smoky bars late into the night.

On Tuesday we had planned to take a plantation tour but there was a little mix up which resulted in it being re-scheduled for Wednesday and my friend taking her Wednesday planned tour instead. We went with Grey Line and they were helpful and more than happy to help us sort out the mix-up. Once again left to my own devices I decided to take a trolley to City Park and the Museum of Art on the basis that I would be less likely to spend money. The Museum was closed but the sculpture garden was open. With the weather much improved and some interesting sculptures at my disposal I set about playing with the different settings on my camera. I also had a second opportunity to have one of the park cafe’s excellent muffins (which I knew about as the tour had stopped there briefly the day before) and to see the park without the rain. After taking many, many, photos is was back downtown to meet my friend and spend a little bit more money before heading back to the hostel before heading uptown for dinner. We went to Jacques-Imo's Cafe on Oka Street for some Creole food and then moved on to the Maple Leaf where we heard a local band made good called Rebirth play. The food was good but the band were better, it wasn’t classical jazz it was more upbeat but not pop or rock like, it was hard to explain but worth listening to and I’d recommend checking them out on You Tube.

Wednesday and the plantation tour was on. Before we headed out though I headed into town early with the intention of visiting the Voodoo Museum but instead ended up getting a croissant then having my tarot and palm read. It was good fun and the palm reading was interestingly accurate, I especially liked the part where she told me I had a little bitch line going on. Fortunes told I head to the bus for the tour. Our driver was amusing, imparting random information from Hurricane Katrina facts to the ball game statistics of the local teams. Once at the Oak Alley Plantation we were shown around by a lady in period costume and told the history of the plantation including how it came to be restored by the previous owners who created a non-profit foundation to maintain the plantation so that the house would remain open to the public after they had died. On the drive back our driver was still on top form this time throwing in some stories about his daughter as well. Having had a late lunch at the plantation we headed to Cafe du Monde at the French market to try their Beignet and in my friends case their coffee but in mine their hot chocolate, the Beignet and hot chocolate were very tasty but even diluted with chicory and half milk I still did not like the coffee. From there we headed away from the river to the Museum of Southern Art to see two of a series of six plays by Carolyn Woosley on Louisiana Women as part of the New Orleans fringe festival that we we totally ignorant about. We were treated to Clememtine & Clyde: though Clementine was interesting Clyde really drew me in and I thought the actress was superb, she made we want to really know Clyde, so much so that I wanted to jump right up there and talk to her! The real shame of the evening was that so few people attended. With New Orleans being known for music I guess the other arts sometimes struggle. We only found out about the fringe festival by accident as we were eating at the same place as some girls involved with the plays we saw. My advice if you are heading to New Orleans is to check out the arts listing as well as the general and music listings. Since it was my last night and my cab for the next morning was booked for 5 am it was back to the hostel via the Cheesecake Bistro where they served some excellent chicken and fairly decent wine. Then it really was time to pack my bags (again!  Really, why would someone who hates packing go backpacking?!) and get an early night so as not to sleep through my cab pick-up and LA flight, I really didn’t fancy that greyhound trip!