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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Full report of a visit to the South Western USA. Ideal for your first acquaintence of America!


Fifteen years ago I took Pam (my wife) for her first trip to the USA and for those visiting for the first time, I can recommend the South West as the people are so friendly there.
I have lifted this out of my personal family website in case you are contemplating a holiday in the South West.
Ampers.
Now read on...

Abstainer. A weak man who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914, American Author

The South Western USA


When Andrew and Pam took a fortnight's holiday in the US, Andrew kept a full journal on his Psion netbook and, as a result, we can share our experiences with our friends and hope they learn from some of the mistakes we made on our trip. The South Western States certainly seem to generate a race of extremely laid back and friendly Americans.

1st Saturday: London to San Diego

We arrived at Heathrow on Saturday, at 8:15am, and it was bedlam. Our flight was at 10:40am and after huge queues in the American Airlines section, we finally made it to the departure lounge. We bought our duty frees, and Pam insisted we made our way to the departure gate straight away, even though there seemed plenty of time!
We walked miles and miles, or so it seemed, before arriving at the gate with only minutes to spare. If we'd stopped for a coffee we would certainly have missed our flight.
Our seats were by the bulkhead, our noses almost touching the in-flight movie screen. No windows to look out of, the only real benefit was more legroom than the other seats. We took off, or at least, the aircraft started moving on time, but by the time our pilot reached the start of the runway, it seemed as if he had "driven" to Gatwick! We took off at around eleven o'clock.
The flight started off immediately with pre-lunch drinks and lunch. There was a choice of steak, salmon and some Italian vegetarian dish for lunch. We both chose salmon, declined the wine to avoid too much jetlag dehydration, and sipped water throughout the journey. The movie was "Harriet the Spy" which was a disaster as far as we were concerned. American Airlines certainly tried hard to be excellent, and almost succeeded. No extra charge for liquor or headsets and all the staff were really charming, but our seats were atrocious being right on top of the bulkheads that ruined our first impressions of this airline.
After nearly eight and a half-hours of flying we landed in Chicago. What a difference to Heathrow! It was quieter and a damned sight less people milling about. The immigration and Customs were terrific and we soon made our way to the departure lounge for our ongoing flight to San Diego.
There was a hairy moment when the girl on the flight desk announced that the flight was overbooked. But after announcing that they would pay $300.00 to any passenger who elected to travel on the later flight, we soon proceeded to the plane.
This time we had two seats by a window but, alas, by then we were too tired to look out of it! Although between naps Pam did see some amazing views of snow-capped mountains through clouds floating in a hazy golden sunlight.
We arrived in San Diego at around 5:00pm local time and we were glad we had changed our car hire booking until the following day; we were not in a fit state to drive. We had been travelling just under fifteen hours.
Pam with her rose, clutching a glass of champagne
On arriving at our hotel bedroom, I noticed that the hotel had obeyed my instructions to the letter. There was a bottle of French Champagne on ice and Pam burst into tears when she saw the red rose resting on our pillow (she was over-tired from the flight). After our champagne, we both had a bath and went out to supper. However, our clocks were haywire and we woke up around 4:00am the following morning; in fact, on each morning for days afterwards.

1st Sunday: San Diego

After a leisurely breakfast in the hotel's Red Hen Restaurant, we got the hotel shuttle back to the airport and then the Avis shuttle to their premises.
We were treated in a very cavalier fashion. They informed us that we couldn't reduce our hire contract by a couple of days and increase the size of the car to compensate. I had, however, received a fax from Avis in San Diego saying I could! I got rather annoyed at this! I told them how disgusted I was and, meaning it, that I would never use Avis again. They then bumped up our car a few levels and apologised. An apology which, at the time, I accepted. When we got in the car we could not find a manual. Andrew asked someone and was told people were always losing manuals so none of the cars now has one. We had never been in this car (Oldsmobile) before, had never seen cruise control in our lives, and the air conditioning had all sorts of weird knobs! Avis evidently do not cater for British drivers who don't use these facilities at home.
Showing the empty demonstration pools at Sea World
Our first excursion was to Sea World, which really was something else. We saw a display of otters and sea lions. Then this guy came out and said "We will now talk about the American otter". At this moment, a little otter came out and sat by his feet. The trainer then said "The otter can walk on land". At this, the otter walked round in a perfect circle and sat by his feet again. Then the trainer said "The otter can also swim in water". At this the otter dived into the water, swam a circle and returned to our host's feet. The trainer then said "That's enough about the American otter". At this, the otter looked up at the man, gave a hurt look, turned around, and walked dejectedly back to its cave. Fantastic training.
The little otter after his amazing session
Then they enacted a sketch, which went on for half-an- hour with two sea lions who were also fantastically trained and did exactly what the trainers asked of them. There was also a walrus, which Pam thought looked rather obscene. It was all unbelievable! When the compere waved goodbye to us, the walrus turned on its side and waved a flipper.
The walrus waving his flipper at the audience
We then went to the Dolphin show that was much shorter but equally fantastic. One girl member of staff "rode" a dolphin around the lake travelling at what seemed around 60 miles an hour - it was dangerously fast and very exciting! There were other shows but we were tired and decided to go back to the hotel.
A girl's sixty mile an hour journey on the back of a dolphin
The journey there took ten minutes, but going back it took an hour. We ended up inside an Army camp and the marine on the gate thought it hilariously funny when he heard where we had come from and where we should have been going!
All the people were so friendly - we stood on a street corner when a guy came up and said: "Howya doin'?" When he heard our British accents he really put himself out to help us. His job? He was the local street cleaner! The one thing I noticed was that whilst a Brit doing a servile job often acts truculently, as if he actually feels servile, the South Westerners throw themselves into the job with a determination and passion to do it to the best of their ability. However, when they talk to you, it is as an equal, even if you are driving a Ferrari and wearing Savile Row suits, which I wasn't!
In the evening we had a drink at the hotel bar, 'manned' by a terrific, slim coloured girl with white-blonde hair. She was really friendly to us both, as had been everybody at the hotel.

1st Monday: San Diego

We took a cab to Seaport Village; the taxi driver was Mexican and very pleasant to us, especially when he found out we came from London. He had spent some time in London and I guess the people there were nicer to him. The one sad thing here is that Mexicans are treated as second class citizens and in reality they seem really nice people, if seeming a little lazy sometimes. Anyway, he stopped his cab at our destination, took our money, turned off his meter, and produced all sorts of maps and booklets for us. One had the feeling that Americans weren't treated to so much helpfulness!
We then walked to the Downtown area and visited a huge semi-open shopping mall where I bought a superb leather cabin size travel bag, and Pam got the top of the range Nike Trainers. We came back to the hotel and then drove to La Jolla, a nice local resort where we had a lovely Italian lunch.
After looking around La Jolla we returned to San Diego and had our first evening drink on the sea front in a pleasant bar/café.
Pam playing 'hard to get' whilst waiting for her drink.
Then back to the hotel for a drink in their bar! We were still tired so we went to bed and set the alarm for 9:00pm when we were going to go out for supper. But we were too bushed so phoned for room service and had food brought up to the room.

1st Tuesday: San Diego

Today we went to Coronado, driving over a magnificent long bridge, on stilts, high above the bay. The bridge, built in 1969, is two miles long and hailed as one of the most beautiful bridges in the USA.
We visited a beautiful and very famous old hotel where Edison played with his bulbs and Mrs Simpson with Prince Edward's! Also, the Monroe film "Some Like It Hot" was filmed there and fourteen US Presidents had stayed there. The most impressive, of course was that an episode of Baywatch was filmed there! 
It is a really lovely building, all wood panelled, mostly in redwood. We had morning coffee and went for a stroll on the huge sandy beach, it was really warm and anything more than T-shirts would have had us sweating. And this was November!
Afterwards we went into the town and had a lovely lunch in a local restaurant. It was a beautiful modern but very tastefully decorated large room. The proprietor came and discussed his wines with us in person, it must have been because of our British accents as I still wasn't wearing the Savile Row suit!
Pam fell in love with a four wheel cycle in Coronado's High Street
We went to the old ferry station where there was a market in progress. Then we returned to Seaport Village where we looked at everything on offer in the shops and stalls. Sadly it was all tourist gear! Ah well, not everything can be perfect. Back to the hotel to clean up, and then to "Rainwater's on Kettner" for supper.
This was probably one of the finer restaurants in San Diego. We were delighted to get away with just a hundred dollars for two two-course meals, one glass of wine and two coffees! We had king-size shrimps for the first course followed by salmon. Not bad, but give me fresh Scottish salmon any time.
We came back to the hotel and looked in at the bar where they had a karaoke evening. And withdrew rapidly. The country and western singer would have been shot if he ever went near Nashville! Well, our last night in San Diego and we retired to our room at half past nine. But we did have a bottle of duty-free Chivers and a choice of three different "third litre" bottles of 'Leapfrog' (Laphroaig)!



1st Wednesday: San Diego to Palm Springs

An early start next morning. We packed, breakfasted and, by 8:30am were away, calling at the garage to top up with petrol. It was then that we realised that Avis had not given us a full tank of petrol, which we had paid for! Anyway, after a few choice cusswords, we were on our journey to the mountains and Palm Springs.
The interesting point here was that we got there, roughly on time, without even taking a wrong turn! We arrived at our hotel around 1:00pm, booked in and unpacked. The hotel was fantastic, a sort of Edwardian English, very plush and very posh, totally different from the Holiday Inn in San Diego. But our bedroom was not quite as well appointed. No iron, hairdryer, bar, and the king-size bed was a little narrower than the King Size Special we had before. One strange thing was there were two phone extensions in the room, one by the bed, and one by the settee. As there was a desk in the room, I couldn't understand why the second phone wasn't on the desk! But that wasn't a problem for us, we were on holiday, not business!
The Wyndham Hotel in Palm Springs - excuse poor amalgamation of two separate photographs.
After unpacking, we walked into the town centre and, after looking around, we shared a mixed hors d'oeuvre at a lovely Greek cafe. The temperature was in the eighties and it was really lovely sitting outside, sipping Greek beer and wine. In the evening we had a drink in a nice, almost English pub, and went to a small cafe for our evening meal. The lady who owned the cafe chatted to us and then brought Andrew a beer that she had made up to her specifications. It was great, a sort of darker Newcastle Brown Ale.
Old theatre building in the Palm Springs High Street

1st Thursday: Palm Springs

In the morning Pam took the wheel and drove for the first time and wondered why she had hesitated before. After a drive in the country we drove into the mountains to the aerial cable car. On arriving at the base station, the car blew up all its water. We left it there and phoned Avis who told us to leave it there till we got back down the mountain, fill it up with water and bring it to their nearest office at the Airport.
We travelled 6000 feet up the mountains in a cable car, which could hold up to eighty people. The 12,000-ft cable journey took fourteen minutes and on the way up, the operator said they would be stopping twice. It seemed that today was the weekly maintenance day where they oiled the towers. They picked up two men on the second tower who sat on the bit that runs on the cables, till they got to the third tower where the men got off! Rather them than me! It was hairy and scary just to see them perched up there!
A view of the Cable Structure
We had lunch at the top, after taking lots of photographs, and came down again. Filled the radiator up and headed to Avis at the airport.
A very sympathetic lady took full details and arranged another car. But it was inferior to our previous car. When we mentioned this to Jim Slama, who we presumed to be the Manager, he snottily implied that we should be grateful as the car we had been driving was four grades higher. He may not have had the intelligence to work out that there might have been a good reason why we were upgraded in the first place! We offered to wait whilst they checked out the original car but feel he lied to us when he said it would have to go to the dealership and would take a week to be returned. We say lied, we might be wrong, but we couldn't imagine a big company like Avis putting up with such delays. And we didn't quite believe him when he said he didn't have a comparable car as we are sure we saw one or two in the Avis parking lot. My advice to my readers is not to hire from Avis. The head office might suggest that they try harder, but believe me, that message has yet to reach the San Diego Airport office and the Palm Springs Airport office! Most Americans in this area were intelligent, pleasant and very friendly. I guess there is always one rotten tomato in the barrel. He was so unpleasant that we did not have the heart to argue, so we put up with the replacement car and departed.
We went back to the hotel and Pam took off with the camera to photograph local scenes to paint, whilst Andrew sat and brought the travel journal up to date in his Psion.
In the evening we went to the Palm Springs weekly festival which was on a scale not seen by us in England. They had sealed off half a dozen blocks with stalls of food, local artistry, music and even the Palm Springs Police Department. We were originally going for an up market Mexican supper but the restaurant was so hot, we left, and had a kebab and hot-dog at the Festival. We spent the money we had saved on a Police Department T-shirt, a CD of beautiful Red Indian style music, and a CD of a sax player who was playing his sax whilst his CD was playing on the stall's hi-fi. A novel idea that netted them a roaring trade in sales. We also bought a tortoise made in the hardest wood in the world called Ironwood, found in the deserts of California, Arizona and Mexico. All in all, a splendid finish to our stay in Palm Springs, whose tourist season starts in October and ends in May! Yes, there is no winter there!
We retired to the hotel at around 8:30pm to get ready for our long journey to Las Vegas the following day. Well, we still had the Laphroag and some Chivers left!

1st Friday: Palm Springs to Las Vegas.

We got up early for our journey to Las Vegas, or "Lost Wages" as many Americans refer to it. After a lovely breakfast of Corn beef Hash at a local patisserie, and a long queue to book out, we drove off to Las Vegas, with Andrew driving and Pam doing an excellent job of navigating the complex route there.
We stopped for morning coffee and refuelled in the middle of nowhere where Andrew got talking to a very smart Highway Patrol Officer who had been shot down over Beirut when a helicopter pilot in the army. He was married with a young child and doing well, with a disability pension from the army, an income for being in the National Guard reserve, and his police pay. He kindly brought his patrol car around for inspection and was duly photographed, both alone and within his ve-he-cal! Interestingly enough, his gun was a point 40, a calibre which was not known in Andrew's younger days when he was connected with firearms, or even when in the army for that matter!
A Friendly State Trooper chats to Andrew
We arrived in Las Vegas around 2:30pm and checked in at the Las Vegas Hilton. It was all very well organised. Our luggage was whisked away, as was our car, and two tickets were given to us. We checked in and the lady on the desk took a liking to us and tried to bump up our room, but the big fight (Tyson) was on the next day and all she could offer us was a suite which was not a non-smoking one. Because of Andrew's asthma, we reluctantly turned it down and took our original non-smoking room, which turned out to be quite nice, even if very near the fast lifts! On arrival in our room, we rang down to the porter, gave him the luggage ticket number, and our room number. Our luggage arrived in minutes!
After we'd unpacked, we both went down to explore the hotel, and this was something else! Shopping parades, nearly a dozen restaurants, and slot machines everywhere. Baccarat, Craps, and Blackjack tables abound, a sports betting shop and goodness knows what else.
On the third floor balcony, there was an open air swimming pool, an open air Jacuzzi, two full size tennis courts, other courts, a nine hole putting green and a "his and hers" health club with saunas, steam baths, Jacuzzis and lots of exercise machines. Yes, I did say this was all on the third floor balcony. In actual fact, it was on the roof of the lower section where the functions rooms and ballrooms are situated. Yes, I did say ballrooms!
Showing the hotel towering above the swimming pool
In the evening, we walked down the Strip, passing the "Treasure Island" hotel. There were two full size 18th century clipper ships, the British frigate Britannia, and the pirate ship Hispaniola enacting a battle (five times a day) on the Treasure Island hotel's man-made lagoon, between the street and the beginning of the hotel, complete with sound effects and terrifically loud fireworks simulating cannon fire. Pam was "awed" but there was more.
The clipper ship firing at the enemy at night
We passed the Mirage hotel just as their volcano erupted (every quarter of an hour, on the quarter of the hour) and fire shot out of it, and spread down the sides and all over the lake surrounding the hotel, once again, huge thunderflashes kept up the illusion. Pam was awed! But there was more!
The Volcano erupting outside the Mirage Hotel
We then went into Caesar's Palace and, amongst the slots and tables, we found a gourmet buffet where we had a superb feast. We then went to their shopping mall - a replica of the ancient streets of Rome, this was something else! Although covered over, they had built a very natural looking synthetic sky, the mall was huge, with waterfalls, statues of ancient Greeks and what have you. Pam was awed!
By then we were exhausted, so got a taxi and went back to the Hilton. The taxi driver took us a long way round, but we forgave him. After all, he had confessed that he was a New Yorker! Andrew put one quarter into a slot machine on the way to bed and won ten!

2nd Saturday. Las Vegas.

Today we retrieved our car with the second ticket (given to us the day before when we booked in) and drove to the outskirts to a lovely shopping mall. We got there early so had breakfast before the main stores opened.
First we purchased a very large Samsonite suitcase on wheels to hold all the presents we were going to buy, then we went to a Cowboy outfitters. Pam hissed: "You are not going to buy anything here!"
The Manageress was a lovely lady a few years younger than Pam and we got on very well with her. Andrew bought a Western Belt, a Rodeo T-shirt and a cowboy shirt. Pam then reluctantly allowed herself to be sold a Western shirt and Jeans. Then she actually went back to buy a pair of cowboy boots!!! But she does look fantastic in them!
After buying some fast 1000 ASA film, and odds and ends, we returned to the Hilton and had a champagne brunch. In the afternoon we went down to the pool where Andrew sunbathed and Pam went for a nice swim. We were both feeling exhausted so we had a quiet night in. We watched an old film with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara called McLintock (1963) and, as we had such a huge lunch, supped on a hot-dog each and some chips downstairs in the sports room.. Andrew put a couple of quarters into a slot machine and won ten more! Feeling lucky, he played a quarter a go blackjack machine and, although the machine paid for quite a few wins, it won in the end, leaving Andrew a dollar in hand for the two days.

2nd Sunday. Las Vegas.

Had a nice small breakfast, for a change, of a croissant and coffee - the croissant, surprisingly, very much like true French baking.
We then went down to the large swimming pool on the third floor balcony, where Pam swam and Andrew watched a couple of tennis games. After an hour we had absorbed approximately the equivalent amount of sun of an entire English summer. The sun was really hot; if you went for a dip and came out, you could completely dry in minutes, costume and all! And this was in November!
About eleven o'clock we caught the Strip shuttle and headed towards the Luxor Hotel. The Luxor, once again, was something else! It was shaped completely like a pyramid, all totally in black and black glass on the outside. At the front was a giant Spynx in gold leaf, and a light, shining out of the top which is said to be powerful enough for someone ten miles up in space to be able to read a newspaper from it. Pam was awed! But there was more!
We had a huge buffet lunch there for five bucks apiece. A huge plate of salad each, followed by a huge plate of prepared fruit. We could hardly move afterwards and couldn't drink our soft drinks. We took a look at their magnificent pool, with little islands scattered about with miniature trees on them. 50 cent airmail postage stamps cost 75p each in stamp machines all over Las Vegas. The Post Office was a few miles from the centre and I was beginning to be resigned to paying over the odds for the twenty cards I needed to post, but more about this later. After the Luxor we went to the largest hotel in Vegas, the MGM Grand. This was, once again, something else! The casino must have had several thousand slot machines, at least 100 gaming tables, a sports centre and goodness knows what else. It was awesome! We were awed! But not impressed!
By then, it was getting late, and we were getting a smidge tired, so we caught the shuttle back to the hotel to spend a little time by the poolside before the sun went down. Once the sun starts dropping, it goes down really fast.
At the Hilton main desk, there is a mail section, so I inquired about them stamping my postcards. The lady there looked through each card, very carefully, putting aside some. I asked what she was doing and she told me that there would be no charge for any postcard that either showed the Hilton, or at least the Hilton logo, which was on top of the main tower. Three had the logo so were posted free, and the rest went for the face value of the stamps, 50 cents, which pleased me immensely, I can tell you. And, if I had known about the Hilton logo business, guess what... ?
In the evening we took the trolley to the Fashion Show Mall but it was closed, so we walked the short distance to the Treasure Island Hotel. Once inside we learned it was part of the Mirage group so we took the driverless train between the two hotels. That was hairy as it ran high above the roadway, and was just rails, no sides to the track whatsoever! The Mirage was a surprise. One of the most expensive hotels in Las Vegas but the souvenir shop sold articles much lower than anywhere else. I avoid the word "cheaper" as this is not a "good" word in the US. They tend to prefer less expensive. We had a couple of hot dogs as we had a huge lunch, and returned to our hotel for an early night as we were leaving at 7:00am to drive up to the Hoover Dam.

2nd Monday. Las Vegas (Hoover Dam).

We left, very early, for the Hoover Dam, not quite expecting the day we actually got! Sorry to be boring, but the Hoover Dam was something else!!!
A close-up view of the outside of the Hoover Dam
We got there around 9:00am and went on the grand tour, where we actually went inside the dam. We were awed! It was awesome!
The Dam is not only the largest in the US but is the highest in the world. President Hoover mooted the idea back in the twenties. The building work began in 1931, and finished two and a half years in advance of schedule in 1935. We have the official film with original footage on a PAL video in case anyone would like to see it. It is 726.4 feet high, at the bottom it is 660 foot thick, tapering to the top at 45 feet thick.
Inside at the heart of the Hoover Dam
Lake Mead, feeding the dam, carries 35.2 billion cubic metres of water and has a depth of 500 feet. It covers 157,900 acres. The seventeen large generators are being uprated; the old capacity is 1.92 million kilowatts. The new visitors centre (opened in 1995) stands over 700 feet above the river and attracts over 700,000 visitors a year. It offers terrific views of the Dam itself and Lake Mead (America's largest man-made lake).
Lake view and Andrew by an old vintage car
We had a coffee in the restaurant and bought the above-mentioned video. Fortunately the girl on the desk was brighter than us, recognised our accents and asked us if we wanted a PAL version for the UK. We also bought a beautiful coloured photo-journal book of the Dam and another of the Grand Canyon, which we were shortly to visit.
On the way back to the hotel, we got lost once again, but only travelled a few miles out of our way. Andrew's asthma was getting worse and worse and had developed into bronchial asthma. Something not too unusual in the South West, where it can take a year or two to get used to the air. Usually then, allergies disappear totally, but we couldn't wait that long. So Andrew went to the Hogan Clinic on South Industrial Road, where he was put on a breathing machine and given two sets of pills to take daily. We came off relatively lightly because the doctor took a liking to him, and didn't charge for both sets of pills as he found some drug company samples. Still, the bill came to $112.00, but then the receptionist also took a very small liking to him, 'cause she shaved off the two dollars and charged a round $110.00!!!
By then it was nearly seven o'clock so we had a small supper in the hotel and went to bed around 8:30pm.

2nd Tuesday. Las Vegas (Red Rock Canyon).

We got up later this morning, Andrew feeling refreshed, but Pam wasn't so bright as she hadn't slept so well.
Around ten o'clock we set off for the Toiyabe Forest and the Red Rock Canyon. We got most of the way into the non-existent forest when we were warned there were no gas (petrol) stations for a long while. As we were fairly low we turned around, with the feeling we weren't missing very much.
We filled up and then headed to the Red Rock Canyon, which, in familiar words, was something else again! We called in at the Visitors Centre, then took the 13 mile scenic route with set parking areas where the vistas were absolutely fantastic. Andrew got through film as if there were no tomorrows!





Various rock formations in the Red River Valley
A typical scene in the Red River Valley
After the round route, we headed down between the mountains to Bonnie Springs where we had lunch amongst some pretty exotic birds, including white crested ducks, which were like ordinary ducks but with a pom-pom growing out of the back of their heads. There were other ducks, Canadian Geese, swans and even a Peacock.
Andrew ordered a beef chilli and it came in a huge bun, which had had the centre taken out to make room for the chilli. There were wild west scenes there as well, including a miniature old American railroad, and cowboys shooting off real guns, but with blanks in them.
Pam's made her day - between two real live gun-slingers


Andrew about to get run over by a miniture Old West train
We returned via a shopping mall where Andrew actually bought his very first pair of Nike trainers! He also replenished his stock of 1000 ASA film. Andrew uses such a fast film, on holiday, for a good reason. During the day when it is incredibly bright, a 4x neutral density filter brings the 1000 ASA speed down to a more manageable speed of 250 ASA. If you then use a small aperture and fast speed, great pictures can be taken. At night, in the brightly-lit hotels, without the filter, excellent results can be obtained without having to saddle oneself with a flash unit..
After supper at the hotel, taken in their superb Mexican restaurant with a waiter who was an extrovert deluxe, Andrew changed a $20 bill into quarters. He played the one-arm bandits, winning as he went. We played for an hour and a half before the money supply came to an end. It is strange really, but British pubs are not allowed by law to offer a 95% return on their slot machines, the publicans have to take a much larger percentage. But the Las Vegas Hotels take 5% only, and it became apparent that these machines paid out much more than the English ones. Andrew was now $18 down though!

2nd Wednesday. Las Vegas to Grand Canyon.

We got up around seven o'clock and started packing, as today we book out of the Hilton and fly to the Grand Canyon. We are both looking forward to this. The lady at the company that is flying us there said it gets very cold on the rim at night and mentioned a figure in the 20° (Fahrenheit) which we find hard to believe. We both hope that she has got it wrong as that is pretty damn cold. She hadn't, it was!
During the morning we took the trolley down to Fashion Show Mall and found a terrific shop called Southwest Spirit. It was full of native American products (Red Indian to us, only we can't mention that there) and we will definitely return to buy some Christmas presents there when we return from the Grand Canyon. We also saw a shop selling puzzles and games, and bought the game "Snake Eyes", where you throw dice and turn over numbers 1 to 12 according to what you throw. We returned to the Hilton to await the Scenic Airlines shuttle.
We made it to the airport on time and had the best two seats on the nineteen seater aircraft, up front, and we both had window seats. The vista was awesome, the flight lasted an hour and a quarter and we saw scenery that set our hearts on fire. Andrew went through film on the plane like a hot knife through butter, but air shots are not so great so he only kept the best of them. The scenery was magnificent, from the second we took off till the second we arrived on the South Rim of the Canyon. The pilots' cockpit didn't have a door so we also had a view of what was happening there.
A view of the cockpit (from our front seat) in the light aircraft
On arrival we were driven to a theatre (film) where they had installed IMAX. For those who don't know about IMAX, the screen was seven stories high by about 80 feet wide. It had six large sensory Dolby surround speakers and showed the history and scenes of the Grand Canyon, including white water rafting. It was absolutely incredible, and dare I say it, something else indeed!
View of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon from our light aircraft.
We were driven to the Grand Canyon hotel village afterwards, where we were told our morning tour started at 6:30am, and the temperature would be around 23 degrees Fahrenheit. That is cold! The room was OK. Unfortunately I had forgotten to ask for a non-smoking room and it did reek of tobacco.
We went to the cafeteria and had a reasonable meal, but the bar was so smoky we came back to our room. We had to be up at 5:30am for the Sunrise Coach Tour so going to bed at 9:30pm wasn't so painful. Our room was a couple of hundred yards down the complex and there was absolutely no lighting. We got lost and returned to our room and they sent out a porter to guide us to the cafe. We got lost on the way back as well, after being given funny instructions by the girl on the desk, so we got the guided tour back again!

2nd Thursday. Grand Canyon to Las Vegas.

Up before the crack of dawn, we managed to grab a cup of coffee before the coach departed for two of the best viewing spots at 6:15am onwards.
At 1:00am and 3:30am we got nasty obscene phone calls. Andrew took the receiver off the hook but it started clicking, so he stuffed the receiver under the mattress. During the coach journey Andrew ascertained that more than a dozen people on the trip received the obscene phone calls and the coach driver said she would report this to the local rangers. It turned out that it happened once before, last year, so maybe that will help to pin down the person responsible
Too dark and too much mist for many photographs, even using 1,000 ASA film. The views were awe-inspiring though and we managed to get a couple of photographs which showed some of the beauty of the morning.
Sun rays turning the far rim of the Grand Canyon into solid gold
We returned to the hotel around 7:30am, had breakfast and bought some souvenirs. We were running very short of money, down to our last $250 so we began to use our American Express card.
After breakfast, with an hour to go for our coach pickup to the local airport, we returned to our cabin for a well-deserved rest! At 9:30am we boarded our coach for the South Rim airport and our flight back to Vegas. After another spectacular flight, we returned to Las Vegas, picked up a large photograph which we had posed for with the other passengers and crew on the way out, and caught the shuttle back to the Hilton with all our luggage.
We then picked up our car, loaded up, and drove off to the Mirage where we were to spend our last two nights in Las Vegas. Once we checked in, which was once again effortless, we unpacked and had a huge buffet "lunch". As much as you can eat for under ten bucks. Andrew went mad on the smoked salmon - nothing changes!
We then walked to Fashion Show Mall and bought some more 'pressies' at the Native American gift shop, 'Southwest Spirit'. We walked back to the Treasure Island and caught the tram back to our hotel where we went to bed; we had been up since 5:30am and were exhausted.
We got up at 8:00pm for another session - we were gluttons for punishment and wanted to get our money's worth! After we had a bite to eat Andrew began playing a nickel (five cent) draw poker machine; he lost $20 but worked out how to play the finer moves of the game. After a couple of hours playing the slot machines, and Pam having three Chivas Regals, free on the house for players, she went to bed! Andrew continued playing till around 2:00am and came to bed after winning two hundred and forty dollars. He was now $202.00 ahead.

2nd Friday. Las Vegas.

We got up late and breakfasted in our bedroom. Then took the Avis car back so we wouldn't have a rush on Saturday morning.
We went to the Flamingo Hilton and saw the flamingos and some small penguins. We met a beautiful Russian girl with the most incredible sexy (James Bond film type) Russian accent. Her husband was the tough silent type - we weren't too sure what he did for a living!
Pam with a Russian couple we befriended
Whilst Pam visited the loo, Andrew had another quick flutter on the 'slots' and won another twenty dollars. Now $222 ahead. We then returned to Fashion Show Shopping Mall and spent some of Andrew's ill-gotten gains on souvenirs.
During the afternoon, we visited the dolphinarium and mini zoo at our hotel where we saw a killer whale and numerous dolphins including a recently born baby. The hotels here in Vegas don't do things by halves! We didn't see the black panther as it stayed in its shelter. But we did see ordinary tigers, four snow tigers, and an Asian Elephant,
One of the white snow tigers at the Mirage Hotel zoo
Plus, or course, the attraction of the decade, five white lions from the Timbavati game reserve in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had given the hotel two of these lions which, since then, had given birth to three more.
Andrew had acquired a photo book on the white lions way back in 1977 and was dying to see them in the flesh. One of the lions was wandering around with a huge tuft of grass in his mouth. The others were trying to take it away from him. I said to Pam, in a loud voice, "Hey, that must be pretty good grass he has there". The Americans around all just collapsed at that! (For the more innocent amongst our readers, 'grass' is an American word for Cannabis.
Two of the "White Lions of Timbervati".
We had a late lunch and Pam had a "little lie down" whilst Andrew had another go at the slots, winning a net amount of $150.00. This made Andrew's total winnings, to date, to about $372.00. About six o'clock, we went downstairs for our final session of the holiday, having to leave our rooms the following morning at 7:45am. We had a drink in the Lagoon Lounge, and listened to a nice Latin American three piece combo before hitting the tables again.
This time Pam joined in but it wasn't a winning session, and we lost $80 in quarters, making our net winnings for the holiday, $292.00. We had eaten so much over the last week that we skipped supper in favour of a minute packet of savoury biscuits each and went to bed shortly before 11:00 pm.
Andrew's asthma, severely aggravated by the Las Vegas dust, was active again and sleep was difficult. We have both had a fantastic two weeks but are ready to come home again, so the journey home is anticipated without the usual twinges of sadness.

3rd Saturday. Las Vegas to London.

Andrew's asthma resulted in a five o'clock awakening, so we got up, showered and went down for breakfast around 6:30am. This was our last oversize meal, with Andrew having a huge smoked salmon scrambled eggs and Pam, an overlarge tomato and mushroom omelette.
We got to the airport effortlessly and our plane took off at 8:40am Pacific Time.
On the first leg of the journey, we had seats apart, but it wasn't all bad. Pam had a window seat, and Andrew was one row behind with an aisle seat, playing his new draw poker machine to while away the time. After all, he was an expert now!
We arrived in Chicago at 3:00pm Central time. It was a joy not to have to grab our luggage as, supposedly, it was being transferred automatically to our London flight! We were aghast at the duty-free prices at this airport! Never again will Andrew mutter darkly at Heathrow prices. A bottle of Black Bush was approximately the same price as Harrods! We booked in at the American Airlines desk, learned that we would be sitting together with both a window seat and an aisle seat, and went off to grab a huge coffee. My, we will be really glad to get back to the mean miserly portions in British cafes and restaurants!

3rd Sunday Heathrow


Our journey home to London was uneventful and quiet, at least until Andrew said he had packed our English money somewhere, and he didn't know in which case.
Fortunately, our minicab driver, who took us to the airport said he would collect us and we had some money at home. But the worry that he wouldn't make it was there. Fortunately he did turn up so all way well!



Observations

1. The Americans in the South West of the US are genuinely friendly and when they say "Have a nice day" they really do mean it.
2. The Americans in the South West of the US are much more laid back than we British, or indeed, anywhere else in the US. Whenever we made a mess of things driving, the other drivers would just pull back until we had sorted things out. No impatience, no hooting, and a friendly wave sometimes as they drove past.
3. The cost of things, although marginally lower in many areas, are just that, marginally. Since Andrew was last in Las Vegas in 1989, prices have almost doubled and it is not the inexpensive haven of yesteryear.
4. Las Vegas is growing so rapidly that dust is permanently in the air and every tourist we spoke to who had an allergy, had had it increased whilst in Las Vegas. Andrew's asthma got considerably worse and Pam had lots of irritation of the skin and tightness in the chest. If you blink an eye, another hotel has gone up! If you do have a breathing allergy, do try and get there, it really has to be seen to be believed. Ask your doctor whether it will be alright to go, even if only for a couple of days!
5. Whilst not the most luxurious, the best-appointed room we stayed in was in San Diego. Andrew thought he had booked us into the larger, more plush 'Holiday Inn on the Bay', but the travel agent booked us in a similar named 'Holiday Inn - Bayside' which is most confusing, especially when they turned out to be in the same road!
The most luxurious room was at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The most imposing hotel from a British point of view (quiet dignity) was the Wyndham in Palm Springs. Not to be left out, the Hilton in Las Vegas had the best third floor balcony!!!
6. It's not always a good idea to book and pay for your hire car in the UK. Although it is cheaper from the UK, it is not always so flexible when you get to the US. For example, if you want to change anything you may find some US companies are unable to alter contracts made with their UK agents.
7. If you book your hotel through an agency in the UK, your hotel won't be sent details of your arrival, by the agency, until a week or so before you are due to book in. They do make the bookings, but don't send any names. This is probably in case you cancel your booking. This way they have a chance to sell your booking to another customer. If you want to arrange things well in advance this can be awkward though.
8. Once you book your air tickets, immediately phone up the airline to get good seats. The later you leave things, the less chance you have of getting a window or isle seat, or avoid the bulkheads, or even sitting with your accompanying partner!
9. When you purchase gas (petrol) at a filling station in the South West, they won't turn on the pump unless you leave a twenty-dollar bill or register your credit card with them.




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