brave enough to start

family of five who can, should and definitely will, see more of the world

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Days 83 – 86 Rarotonga

With the exception of a few rainy days in the Pacific northwest, the weather throughout our time in the US had been very kind to us indeed. Even so, the temperatures had been dropping with the onset of winter and we looked forward to some sunshine before Christmas.

Rarotonga was the answer. The largest and most populated of the Cook Islands in the middle of the south Pacific, it is still tiny by most standards with only one main road which circles the island. Avoiding the resorts and hotels, we chose to rent a beachside house in Matavera with a full kitchen and laundry facilities, essential for the travelling family.

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The beautiful Matangi Moana beachside villa under the night sky

We spent the first morning searching for our swimwear before eventually realising that I’d left it in the wardrobe of the apartment we rented in Mammoth (don’t ask me why I unpacked swimwear in a ski resort…) so Alex ended up exploring the beach in pyjamas and ski boots!

Later we caught the island ring road bus to the supermarket. With one bus an hour in each direction we had plenty of time to get our groceries before the next scheduled bus. So far, so good.

As we waited for the next bus outside the supermarket a car pulled up. A friendly looking chap wound down the window and offered us a lift. Sure, what could possibly go wrong? With bags of shopping weighing us down and our ice cream melting I wasn’t keen to wait any longer and ignored Nick’s looks of hesitation, deciding that most people aren’t the terrifying axe murderers that the likes of Fox News would have us believe, so in we got.

Our driver, let’s call him Bob, was indeed an affable fellow. Driving barefoot and looking relaxed in his shorts and shirt it was a surprise to discover he was the local lawyer. I gave Nick a look that said “See – not an axe murderer” and he gave me a raised eyebrow that said “the bus was 5 minutes away.”

Bob asked us where we were going, something we probably ought to have established before we got in the car.  You see, we had little to no idea! Having been collected at the airport that morning by our host’s daughter and driven straight to the house without really paying attention to the roads or address, all I had after a long flight was “Well, we are staying in a red house, owned by a guy called Kelvin with a pink shop at the end of the driveway.” Nick was in no mood to help.

By this time Bob had established that we were travelling around the world and I could see that, even with his relaxed view of things, he was wondering how on earth we had managed to get this far. Eventually he worked out that we needed to get to the other side of the island and sadly he would only be going another few miles up the road, so he would drop us at the next bus stop.

No harm done.

As we got out, the bus behind us pulled out to overtake and as we raised our hands, I swear the driver gave us a friendly wave as he drove off. I couldn’t look at Nick.

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Waiting for the bus (again!)

Ever the optimist, I decided we could walk and we set off. The heat was stifling so it was slow going and pretty soon the ice cream was liquid but about an hour later the bus came by again and this time stopped to pick us up. Eventually we spotted the little pink shop at the end of the driveway and jumped off the bus. That night we decided we needed a car!

Fully mobile again, we spent the following day driving around the island, replacing our swimwear and enjoying the beaches. They are simply breathtaking.

We absolutely fell in love with the place. A friendly local offered the boys her kayak and we swam and snorkelled in crystal clear water almost every day.

Compared to so many of the cities we’ve spent time in recently, one of the stand out features of Rarotonga is the sense of equality, by which I mean we saw little evidence of either obscene wealth nor abject poverty here – it feels like people are more level and we really like that.

 

 

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Days 82 – 83 Final days in California

With just 2 days left before it was time to leave the USA we couldn’t possibly do San Diego and Los Angeles justice – we could have done with another month or two.

In the end, we decided to use up the City Passes we had bought at Disney for a day at SeaWorld, San Diego and then head to LA for our final day.  SeaWorld have received a lot of criticism in recent years for keeping orcas in captivity and this year have announced an end to their captive breeding program, with a commitment to ending their orca shows altogether with the current generation. During our visit we noticed the huge PR efforts to explain the research being done to better understand the species and the support given to orcas in the wild as a result of SeaWorld’s research and funding. Nonetheless, it was too easy for us to make comparisons with the amazement and awe that we felt watching humpback whales frolic on the Stellwagen Bank; it is clear that the orcas belong in the wild and thankfully that is the direction the park is moving in.

Orcas aside, there is still a great deal to do and to learn at SeaWorld and we enjoyed our day meeting rays, learning about the California Sea Lions and laughing at the adorable penguins. The boys also enjoyed some of the rides at the park and Teddy summoned up the courage to follow John onto Manta – his first real rollercoaster and the beginning of his love affair with white knuckle rides.

That evening we packed up and sorted our winter clothes ready to donate to a charity shop the following morning – for the next 3 months we’d be in the southern hemisphere and back in the summer.

With an evening flight scheduled we had time to stop at the California Science Centre on the way to the airport; the big attraction here being the Space Shuttle Endeavour.  Having seen Discovery in Washington DC and Enterprise in New York, Nick was keen to tick off a third. Unlike the pristine Enterprise, Endeavour shows signs of wear following her 25 missions in space.

There is a short film about how she was moved from Florida to California by Boeing 747 and then through the streets of LA to the Science Center – moving a shuttle almost 60 feet tall and as long as two buses through the centre of a city is no easy task!

Elsewhere, the boys were drawn to the grotesquely named “Rot Room” where you can enjoy maggots feasting on a piece of meat!  We experienced an earthquake in a simulator and then learned how structures are built to withstand tremors. Not put off by the risk of falling, Teddy then scaled a sheer rock face in record time.

As we drove to the airport we reflected on the many incredible experiences we’d been fortunate enough to have over the last three months. In total we drove over 9000 miles, saw 18 US states and 6 Canadian provinces, passed through 35 cities and explored 7 national parks.

Not a bad start but now it was time for the next chapter.

 

 

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Days 77 – 81 Death Valley and skiing with the Kardashians

To my shame I knew nothing about Death Valley before we visited, aside from the fact that in the summer the temperatures are some of the highest on the planet. Consequently I expected a barren desert; lifeless and uninteresting. Boy, was I wrong.

What we found was some of the most mind blowing landscapes we’d ever seen, it was like a Hollywood set for another planet, except it is real. A little over two hours from Vegas we reached Death Valley Junction and the road straight to Zabriskie Point. This lunar like landscape is Tatooine, just as we all remember it:

Wow!

Southwest from here is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 85.5 metres below sea level. Although storms do flood the area from time to time, it’s so hot that the water is quickly evaporated, leaving a salty floor that looks like frosted sand. We walked out into the plains as far as we could and marvelled at the scale of the place; this is what awe inspiring means.

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North again to the Visitor Centre where the boys collected their Junior Ranger booklets before we continued to the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat.

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December is the ideal time to visit and I regret that we didn’t have more time. It would have been incredible to have stayed overnight in the park and enjoyed the night sky with no light pollution. We have been asked many times already which places we have enjoyed the most on our travels; an almost impossible question to answer, but I will say this, Death Valley was the biggest surprise and I am determined to get back there and spend the time it deserves.

Heading west out of the park the road rises and dips for more than 20 miles in the delightful way that has your stomach playing catch up seconds later. We laughed so hard we cried as we sailed over the rise and fall on the road, better than any rollercoaster we’ve ever tried and with some of the prettiest skies that California has to offer.

Late that evening we arrived in Mammoth ready for a few days of skiing, our first time on real snow. Little did I know that I’d be crying with laughter again a lot sooner than I thought. We booked lessons at the main lodge and I was paired with the ever patient Mel Seator, a wonderful instructor who worked her magic to get me safely up the slopes and back down again. The older boys were full of confidence and came flying past me on numerous occasions and by lunchtime Alex was doing the same, with his instructor Gregory skiing backwards in front of him calling “Red light, red light!” in an effort to slow him down.

That afternoon a film crew from Keeping up with the Kardashians arrived to record footage of Caitlyn Jenner on the slopes. News spread pretty quickly on the mountain and as I came downhill to rejoin the queue for the ski lift I was distracted by all the cameras, forgot my pizza deceleration and ploughed, head over heels straight into the guide ropes, tumbling with all the grace of a drunk hippo onto my backside. I laughed so hard I was worried for my pelvic floor; it was both hideous and glorious at the same time and I have vowed never to watch Keeping up with the Kardashians just in case my sorry butt made it through the cutting room! Having barely seen any of my family throughout the day, they were of course immediately there to witness my spectacular crash and join in the laughter. Good times!

After 3 wonderful days at Mammoth it was time to go, next stop: San Diego.

 

 

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Days 72 – 76 Fabulous Las Vegas, time travelling at the Hoover Dam, Route 66 and the Grand Canyon

Not known for its family friendly qualities, Vegas wasn’t on the original shortlist when we planned our route but not wanting to miss the Grand Canyon it seemed like the best place to break the journey.  As it turned out, Las Vegas is a lot of fun for all ages and I’m so glad we went. The Desert Rose hotel is a great choice for those travelling with children; without an onsite casino there is no risk that the kids will accidentally wander off limits and even in December the weather is hot enough to use the outdoor pool. In fact the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is low season so we got a bargain room upgrade and had the pool to ourselves.

We enjoyed taking in the iconic landmarks and booked tickets for the Blue Man Group. I have to admit that I’d never heard of them and was expecting the Smurfs but what we got was an outstanding mixture of live music, illusions, wacky science, paint-balling and toilet paper ticker tape! It was right up the kids’ street and we left on a high.

The following morning we drove out to the Hoover Dam. We hoped this would be an opportunity for the boys to appreciate a true feat of engineering but having read Teddy’s journal I don’t think it was the dam that made the biggest impression:

“The best thing about the Hoover Dam is that John and I were able to stand in different states (Nevada and Arizona) and in different time zones but I could still punch him even though he was one hour ahead of me”.

Right then.

Onward to the Grand Canyon. Perhaps the boys would appreciate the work of mother nature if not that of human engineers. We visited the South Rim and the boys enrolled in the Junior Ranger Program which proved to be an excellent way to help them engage with their surroundings.  They chose a geology talk by one of the park rangers to learn about the formation of the canyon, designed a new park logo, wrote a poem inspired by the view and searched for animals living in area – all in exchange for a Junior Ranger badge. The great thing about the program is that the tasks are divided into different categories for different age groups so that children as young as Alex can engage in the program, whilst those as old as John aren’t bored by activities they’d consider too easy.  I learned a great deal too – definitely more than if I’d visited without kids and had simply stood and admired the view, amazing though it is.

We stayed for 2 nights at one of the lodges so that we could see the sunset and sunrise over the canyon but, when it came to it, only Nick managed to drag himself out of bed for sunrise whilst the rest of us enjoyed it a couple of hours later via his photographs!

The drive back to Las Vegas took us along historic Route 66 and we stopped for lunch in Williams – a real life Radiator Springs, where we swapped stories of our mutual travels with the staff of Jessica’s Family Restaurant. It’s one of those nostalgic places where you feel that time has stood still in a good way.

Back in Vegas we took the boys to the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay which involves a walk through some of the casino floors.  Children are allowed to pass through the casinos to get to other parts of the hotel but should not stop or go anywhere near the gaming tables or machines. I think it was a bit of a thrill for the older two, knowing they shouldn’t really be there as they peeked at all the games on their way past!

Being Nick’s third visit to Sin City, he decided it was time he put a couple of quarters into the slot machines. I’d love to say he won the jackpot but sadly no – not so much as a nudge. Danny Ocean he is not!

 

 

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Days 68 – 71 Celebrating Alex’s birthday at Disneyland

Our youngest son has been a huge Lightning McQueen fan since he was 2 years old and as his 5th birthday approached there was only one place on the planet that he wanted to be – Radiator Springs! As luck would have it Cars Land can be found in Disney’s California Adventure Park; just 400 miles away from Oakland which, by our new road tripping standards, was barely a Sunday afternoon drive in the country.

Nick and I pride ourselves on our bargain hunting; we really hate paying full price for anything and devote hours to scouring the internet to ensure we are getting the best deals available. It was therefore very frustrating when the world wide web insisted that there really weren’t many options for a low cost trip to Disneyland. A day ticket feels like the worst value ever and Google was adamant that, unlike it’s Florida counterpart, California’s Disneyland never has a quiet time so avoiding long queues by going in low season doesn’t happen.

In the end, the best value seemed to be a Southern California City Pass which includes a 3 days hopper ticket at the Disneyland Parks with one early morning entry, a day at Legoland and another at San Diego’s Sea World.  That’s a lot of theme parks for a travelling family on a budget and it wasn’t an easy decision but we took the plunge and Alex had the time of his life.

He met his hero Lightning who wished him a happy birthday, along with his best friend Mater. Swapping parks during our first afternoon we ran into a family going the other way with fastpasses for Radiator Springs Racers that they weren’t going to use. They offered them to us as a gift. This ride is relatively new, costing more than $200 million and using the latest technology, it is awesome and was a dream come true for Alex.

In fairness we all had a great time and as much as we’d like to think that we are “proper travellers” whatever that is, we love Disney as much as the next family.

 

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Days 64 -67 San Francisco, Thanksgiving in Oakland, Kayaking in Monterey Bay and Alcatraz at night.

The British don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I suppose the closest we have is our harvest festival and I’m not sure you could call it a celebration as such. Anyone with primary school children in the UK has probably been asked to donate a can of beans or perhaps some tea to be distributed to local good causes while the children themselves participate in a school assembly but that seems to be the extent of it for a lot of people.  So we were excited to experience our first Thanksgiving in the US.

A good friend from our university days is currently living in Oakland and we planned to spend the day together, cooking the obligatory turkey and stuffing ourselves as if it were Christmas. As we drove up from Yosemite we found a large Costco and along with thousands of others, filled a trolley the size of a minivan with as much as we could cram into the car.  Later, we found a Wholefoods store and repeated the exercise. With enough food to feed a battalion all I had to worry about was how to operate the oven in the next Airbnb.

We spent Wednesday enjoying San Francisco; mooching around Fisherman’s wharf, eating ice creams on the beach and watching the sun go down over the Golden Gate Bridge followed by the most spectacular moon rise we’ve ever seen. We should have been trying to build up an appetite for the onslaught the following day but instead we enjoyed dinner out and got into the party mood with the rest of the city.

 

I might have been a little giddy as I prepared the turkey brine that evening but I tend to find preparing a feast is much easier after a glass or two of wine. All things considered, I’d say that our first American Thanksgiving was a triumph! The oven did it’s job, although being British and paranoid about undercooking the turkey meant I sent it back twice just to be sure.  We drank too much, ate too much and enjoyed the company of our old friend who gets to live by the bay permanently – lucky fellow!  Above all, we all felt very thankful indeed for all that we have been able to do this year and all that was still to come. Perfect.

Now whilst we don’t have Thanksgiving at home, Black Friday has caught on and after the insanity of 2014 about which I have blogged previously, Nick and I decided to avoid all the shops and do something completely different.  We spent the morning in Monterey Bay kayaking with sea otters followed by a night tour of Alcatraz.

Late November in Monterey is cold, albeit the skies were clear and the sun was out so the first challenge was to don a wetsuit each; easier said than done early on a fragile morning. Then in tandem kayaks, Nick with Alex, John and I together and Teddy and our guide, we paddled out in search of marine mammals. Irritatingly, Nick was very good at this whilst John and I looked more like Laurel and Hardy trying to co-ordinate on the water. Eventually our other guide took pity on us and attached a tow rope to our kayak. Soon the sea otters, harbour seals and sea lions joined us for a magical morning.

Having extricated ourselves from our straitjackets wetsuits we were on a clock to get to Alcatraz for our night tour. I have no idea how we made it given the entire population of California seemed to be on the road and out to stop us but with minutes to spare we got to the boat. Phew!

Night tours are really popular – there is something a bit spooky about Alcatraz in the dark and the guides take advantage of the mysterious atmosphere by telling stories of the inmates and their escape attempts. We heard all about the Anglin brothers who escaped in 1962 and are still on wanted lists – not presumed dead until they would have been 99, Marshals are still looking for them.  We shared conspiracy theories – did they move to Brazil, or did they drown in their attempt to swim to shore?

It was a great evening and I recommend it if you are in the Bay area. The Alcatraz tour was operated by Hornblower cruises who also provide the boats to the Statue of Liberty and the Niagara Falls cruise that we enjoyed – as far as hits go, they are 3 for 3!

 

 

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Days 58 -63 The Lost Coast, Avenue of the Giants and Yosemite

Having survived our epic drive via Crater Lake down to Fortuna we were keen to get back on the road and make our way to the Redwoods. We had a couple of options here – inland on the more direct US – 101 south, or via the scenic route otherwise known as the Lost Coast. Undeveloped because of the costly nature of trying to build roads through the steep, mountainous landscape, this is California’s most remote area of coastline and it is spectacular. When you add to that the fact that the Mattole Road section makes it on to a number of “most dangerous roads” lists, there was no question that our resident petrol head wanted to make the detour.

It was mesmerising.

Before this trip I wouldn’t have described myself as a tree person particularly but having enjoyed the fall foliage in New England I was keen to see what all the fuss is about with the giant Redwoods. Many of these trees are over 1000 years old, and in terms of scale they are so big that you can drive a car through some of them. The road is special in that even if the car is not going through a tree trunk, the road squeezes and winds between trees spaced barely a bus width apart.

Having seen Return of the Jedi, the boys loved walking through the Forests of Endor and watching for a passing landspeeder.

Day 59 saw us back in the car for another 400 miles through California to Yosemite and it was here that illness first struck our family.  Poor Alex woke in the early hours of our first night in the lodge to present us with his dinner the night before and about 36 hours later John joined the party.

Fortunately we had 4 nights booked at Yosemite so we took a day off for everyone to sleep and recuperate before enjoying some of the magnificent trails that the park has to offer.  I can only apologise to the staff at the lodge for the number of replacement sheets and blankets we got through.

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