Saturday, 27 August 2011

Hollywood in a Hurry!

Los Angeles would be the last stop of our trip to the US and Canada before heading back to Japan. Having arrived at Union Station at night, we were keen to see what ‘The City of Angels’ might actually look like in the clear light of day. Well, we couldn’t actually see too much really as a thick smoggy haze sat over the city, despite a fine sunny day being forecast. This is apparently how it is in LA as the car culture rules and air pollution appears to be just a way of life. Jules had booked us into a nice Art Deco hotel just off Hollywood Boulevard and with only a couple of days to spare, we were keen to cover as much ground as possible. Of course to this end, the popular open top buses seemed the most sensible way to go. However, by the end of our touring, we both compared it to sitting in a garage with the car running…choked up and gritty! As we weaved around the city streets, we commented on how the outlook contrasted dramatically from suburb to suburb. While neighbourhoods like Beverley Hills, Brentwood and Hancock Park were beautifully manicured to match their elite suburb status, there was also plenty of other less notable areas that were just down right tacky and dirty. It seems that if you have money in ‘Tinsel Town’ you can find your own little oasis, but it generally came at a pretty hefty price. From an architectural point of view, both the city and suburbs provided some interesting historical examples of Art Deco styles as well as some early high-rise structures. I particularly liked seeing many of the classic cinemas and theatres that dominated the Broadway and Hollywood districts, although many are now rundown, closed or being re-used in some other capacity. It really must have been an exciting experience going to a show in the early 20’s and 30’s when many of these entertainment palaces were built. Eventually we made our way over to the many film and television studios that dominate the economy of this city and from which many fortunes are gained. These days there are plenty of studios that are prepared to open their doors for a price to allow tourists to gain an insight into the production process. We chose the highly regarded Warner Brothers tour, which allowed us to access the famous film back lots and the sound stages of many popular television programs. Jules enjoyed standing on the set of ‘Friends’, (which is still kept for posterity despite the show finishing years ago) and also the ‘Ellen DeGeneres Show’, while I particularly enjoyed seeing the sets from some classic movies like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘East of Eden’. Of course no tour of Hollywood would be complete without visiting the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with its famous collection of hand and foot prints by movie stars, both past and present. It now sits alongside the more recently constructed Kodak Theatre, which is now the permanent home of the Academy Award ceremony. Jules and I walked the red carpet path and into the theatre itself for a tour, providing us with an insight into the backstage operations of the big night. When we visited, they were putting the final touches to the new Cirque du Soleil show ‘Iris’, which will run in the theatre for next ten years, except for the month of February, when they prepare to hand out the annual ‘Oscars’ of course. With all of our running around, our two days in Los Angeles passed quickly and to be honest that was quite enough for us. While we appreciated its silver screen history, our stay confirmed that it wasn’t really our kind of town. I guess we’re not looking to be in the movies, we’re certainly not wealthy enough and we just like to breath clean air!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Trekking Down the West Coast by Rail

When Jules was planning our big trip to the US and Canada, she asked me how I would feel about undertaking a long train trip from Seattle down to Los Angeles. We have always enjoyed a good train journey, but this one would be a thirty-four hour run so she just needed to check whether I was up for it. We both agreed that after five weeks of serious travelling, a long relaxing train trip might be timely. So early one morning we boarded what they call the ‘Coast Starlight’ and settled in for the long ride south, which was made even easier with the complimentary champagne that was provided upon boarding. We initially made our way through to familiar territory in and around Portland, but eventually we began our gradual ascent into the Cascade Mountains. Slowly, civilisation began to be left behind and our attention was locked to our window as the beauty of the Oregon pine forest and stunning mountain views captivated our attention. We were directed over the PA to specific areas to view by the often humorous conductors and more particularly by a very friendly gentleman named Gareth who was running the ‘Parlour Lounge’ where we ate as the sun began to slowly set. In the morning we woke to a very different landscape and in our sleepy daze we thought that we might be back in Australia. We had actually crossed into California and the lush green mountains were now long gone, being replaced by dry open plains. From the comfort of our sleeper cabin, we could see wheat fields, gum trees and grape vines that looked all too familiar. The only difference was when we would come across the occasional collection of oil wells that looked like a scene straight out of the James Dean movie ‘Giant’. We passed through San Jose before eventually hitting the coast for what we were told would be the most picturesque part of the journey and the sunny day would ensure that the Pacific Ocean would indeed look its best. As described, this stretch was quite amazing as the tracks hugged a rugged coastline that again looked very Australian. Back in the Parlour Car, Gareth was again providing his chirpy comments on the passing scenery, based upon his twenty-two years of experience running up and down the line. Being the height of summer, areas like Santa Barbara were bustling and the increased action suggested that Los Angeles was not far away. The truth was however, that we still had two hours to go and as the sun set, we eventually saw the lights of the big city and slowly pulled into Union Station. Our rail journey was over and to our surprise it had gone very quickly. Gareth had kept us entertained and made sure that we were looked after with a steady supply of meals and the odd glass of red wine. There certainly was no need to visit the on-board cinema, everything we needed to see was right outside the window.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Vancouver Island by Seaplane

There are some strange anomalies when it comes to aeroplanes. Everyone has a strange fascination for watching them take off and land, but few people actually want to live near an airport. However there is a unique exception to that rule when it comes to seaplanes. It seems that the added attraction of water brings with it a whole new dimension to flying and indeed watching take offs and landings. This certainly appeared to be true in Vancouver and even more so in Victoria, where most of the most expensive hotels, restaurants and apartments sit right alongside the harbour where the seaplanes regularly take off and land. I must admit that there is a certain romance in watching these small planes skip along the water that somehow resurrects images of a bygone era. Living in the days of big global airlines, it’s nice to see the small plane rule the skies and indeed the waves in this part of the world. My enthusiasm for this mode of transport is probably heightened due to lack of exposure to them in most parts of Australia, but in these parts it appeared to be the transport of choice for longer distance travel. After days of watching the tiny planes come and go, I decided to surprise Jules by booking a trip on one for a scenic flight around Vancouver Island. So on a perfect sunny evening, we hopped on board our De Havilland DHC-3 Seaplane and made our way slowly across the water to the runway point. As we motored along, we could see people on the shore taking photos, once again confirming my thoughts on their popularity. Once in the centre of the harbour and facing out to sea, the pilot pushed forward on the throttle and we were skipping across the water before quickly making our ascent. Staying at a reasonably low flying level, the views around Vancouver Island were wonderful, highlighted by many inaccessible coastal inlets that you wouldn’t normally see unless by boat. Soon we were back and making a graceful touchdown, much like a pelican might when it hits the water. Our seaplane adventure was over, but it had been quite a memorable experience and certainly a very different way to see the scenic beauty of Vancouver Island.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Victoria BC …the perfect mix!

Vancouver Island and in particular the town of Victoria was a highly recommended destination during our trip to Canada. As Jules and I made our way over by ferry on a fine sunny day, we could begin to see why it was such a popular destination, as we viewed some stunningly beautiful coastal inlets. Upon arrival, the town was larger and busier than we had expected. After all, it was the height of tourist season and judging by the various accents, there were plenty of visitors in town enjoying what it had to offer. While there are a host of natural and scenic attractions, it was the considerable amount of eateries and microbreweries that had also grabbed our attention. In fact, Victoria boasts the second largest amount of restaurants per capita in North America and over the next few days we were going try plenty. As we walked down to the harbour, we were struck by the obvious European influence in the architecture with a couple of particularly grand buildings (the Empress Hotel and the Legislative Building) looking as if they had stepped straight out of aristocratic France. In the harbour area there were several impressive English style pubs that were located in streets lined with an abundance of hanging baskets each filled with brightly coloured flowers in bloom. There was certainly no shortage of stunning harbour views, which we enjoyed from no less from six different locations while dining during our stay. Every time we looked out, we could see a myriad of activities on the water front with boats heading out to sea for whale watching trips, high speed jet boats full of thrill seekers, giant cruise ships coming and going and water taxis scooting around as sea planes dodged them while coming into land. During our stay there was even a large three-masted Russian sailing ship that further added to the colour on the harbour. Along the docks, craft stalls regularly take up position and buskers enthusiastically entertain the passing crowd. Victoria is definitely a terrific holiday spot, but over the years it has also attracted its fair share of retirees, as we found out when we ventured out to leafy Oak Bay, which boasts some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. Yes, Victoria is a pretty good place to live or just visit for that matter. With the perfect combination of scenic beauty and sophisticated lifestyle and appreciation for good food, it simply has it all!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Rocky Mountain Magic

It wasn’t too long before we were lured by the call of the Canadian mountains and fortunately they weren’t too far away from central Vancouver. An easy trip was the run to Capilano, which is just across the harbour and sits just outside the edge of a residential area. Although when you are actually there it feels very much as if you’re in the wilderness. However, the down side is that its close proximity does bring a lot of tourists. The big attraction of Capilano is the initial walk across the suspension bridge that crosses a rocky stream many metres below. Although the swaying bridge is a little like walking on a boat on choppy seas, it’s worth it for the spectacular view. Once you reach the other side there are plenty of smaller tree-top walks where you can experience the dense pine forest as it must have been before the old logging days.
On another day we ventured slightly further afield to Grouse Mountain, which on a clear day, can be seen quite easily from Vancouver itself. On the day we went, there was a great deal of cloud and we thought that the viewing might be quite limited. We boarded the Swiss- style aerial tramway that took us upward through the clouds to reveal a beautiful vista drenched in sunlight. While there was plenty of ice still left over from the winter, the temperature was quite warm and although we couldn’t see the view downward due to the cloud, our vision of the neighbouring mountain ranges was very clear. It was truly rugged and spectacular. Jules and I spoke in admiration of those adventurous folk who originally made it to the top and of those who continued to do so in search of good skiing long before the cable car was built. As we made our way to the summit, in the distance we could see a wild bear feeding in one of the clearings, which reminded us that this still remains essentially a wilderness area. You can certainly see spectacular photos of this region in glossy coffee table books but as we discovered, it doesn’t come close to matching the experience of seeing it in person. Vancouver is certainly fortunate that such scenic beauty is literally on its doorstep.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Vancouver’s Celebration of Light

Like most people, Jules and I are suckers for a good fireworks display and we were fortunate that our visit to Vancouver coincided with the annual ‘Celebration of Light’ festivities. This is a popular event that has been running over the summer holidays since 1990, inviting selected countries from throughout the world to display and be judged upon their pyrotechnic skills. Following an all too familiar format, each country selects an appropriate theme and music for a dazzling display of fireworks. During our stay it was the ‘Battle of the Champions’ with China, Spain and Canada competing for national pride. As is the case each year, there would be well over a million spectators over the three nights cheering each country on. By 9pm on the big nights we could see the crowds make their way from the city toward the waters edge. There, a flotilla of boats was already in position in the harbour, much as they are for Sydney’s New Years Eve fireworks celebrations. By 10pm the fuses were lit and the show was off and running as the sky lit up with fireworks accompanied by a sound track of classics and covers. Each show lasts for about half an hour so that’s a lot of fireworks thrown into the air, all leading toward an explosive crescendo. Now, Jules and I often debate the value of such events and the financial costs involved and how the funds could possibly be used for more worthy causes. In the end I guess it could be argued that there is considerable tourist revenue generated from such events, but you certainly can’t underestimate the value of such sky shows in bringing the local community together. We could definitely sense the positive mood as mostly Vancouverites sat on their picnic blankets by the banks of the harbour enjoying the summer evening. In the end the display was quite spectacular. If you’re wondering who won the event, the 2011 winner was …(drum roll) China! Not that anyone was too concerned, they all went over with a bang!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Vibrant Vancouver

It only took a four-hour train trip from Seattle before Jules and I had slipped over the border into Canada. Arriving in Vancouver created an immediate positive impression on us as the sun shined over this bustling city. Making our way to our apartment, several people stopped to help us with directions and we felt genuinely welcomed. The city has a very modern feel with a plethora of newly constructed high-rise buildings that are nicely softened by the many city trees and water features. On the streets themselves there is a very multicultural flavour, an impression that is further reinforced by the wide variety of restaurants and eateries covering most of the world’s culinary styles. In many ways it reminded us of some of the capital cities of Australia. However, it has one distinct difference and that is the beautiful Canadian mountains that could be seen in the distance across the harbour. In fact, Vancouver is ideally positioned to view some terrific scenery in all directions and with water on three sides, Jules maintains that it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph. With its stable economic outlook, the city continues to grow while it’s rating as one of the world’s most liveable cities attracts both migrants and tourists alike. We learnt that over the years the city developed into a number of distinct areas, each with it’s own character and all within easy walking distance of each other. As well as exploring the modern downtown area, we eventually made our way over to nearby Gastown (the oldest area) to find it going through the process of rejuvenation with new restaurants and shops taking over the old dockland buildings. We also wandered through the old warehouse area of Yaletown, which has now become a very trendy commercial and residential spot following its transformation for Expo 86. There we sat on a converted loading dock and enjoyed a beer from one of the local microbrewies. With Jules’ love of fresh produce, the nearby Granville Island Farmers Market was also a must see. We crossed the bridge to the island to stock up on some fresh produce and sat at the waters edge looking back toward the city, while enjoying a delicious Salmon Burger before taking the water taxi back to town. We spent a whole day exploring one of the cities greatest assets, Stanley Park, which sits at the tip of the mainland and provides some terrific seaside views. Being larger than New York’s Central Park, it has some wonderful walking/cycling tracks that criss-cross through lush forests. However we decided to walk the beautiful 8km coastal route that caught a cooling sea breeze. There is no doubt that the city of Vancouver is a vibrant place that has plenty to offer the visitor, but as we looked toward mountains beyond, we just knew that we would have to explore some of the regions natural attractions over the next few days.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Sampling Pike Place Market

With Jules’ passion for good food and produce, it was inevitable that we would end up spending some time at famous Pike Place Market during our stay in Seattle. Being the longest continually running farmers market in the United States (104 years), it remains somewhat of an institution that attracts visitors from around the world. Ideally positioned between the business district and the harbour docks, it has become a hub for those looking for the freshest in fruit, vegetables and seafood. Yet like all such places, it offers so much more as over the years it has become a magnet for a wide range of merchants, craftspeople and restaurateurs. Not surprisingly we found strong similarities between Pike Place and our own Central Market in Adelaide (although we still biasly think ours is better). There is certainly a unique atmosphere here with the famous fish mongers entertaining the tourists by throwing fish around as they yell catch-phrases in unison while fruit shop owners entice you with freshly cut samples of fruit as you walk by. It was here that we found the original Starbucks Coffee Shop, a surprisingly small establishment that went on to conquer the world. The place is a labyrinth of passages and laneways that have simply evolved over the market’s history, offering a unique shopping experience. I particularly liked ‘The Paper Company’ where you can find old original posters, advertisements and magazines from a bygone era, while Jules enjoyed ‘Piroshky Piroshky’ the Russian bakery where you could view freshly baked apple and cinnamon rolls coming straight out of the oven…she couldn’t resist a sample. Eventually we settled down to some ‘Pike Place Clam Chowder’, a highly recommended soup that has won numerous awards and comes to you in a variety of flavours, (most of which we sampled). As we sat in the summer sun, dipping bread into our chowder and enjoying the music from a nearby busker, we couldn’t ask for much more from a market experience. It’s not surprising that the Pike Place Market remains Seattle’s number one tourist attraction.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Taking in a View of the Rainy City

Leaving Portland, Jules and I have our first Amtrak railway experience heading northward toward Seattle. The four-hour trip was comfortable and passed quickly, but as we approached there were signs of rain. This was not at all surprising as people had warned us about the dodgy weather in Seattle, even in the height of summer and it was living up to its original nickname of the ‘Rainy City’. When we arrived it was drizzling, but we could hear the sound of seagulls, hinting of its close proximity to the shoreline. We were immediately surprised by the steepness of the streets that led down to the harbour, with some we estimated to be a forty-five degree angle (they certainly felt like it anyway). Early into our visit we decided to learn more about the city’s history, so we signed up for the popular underground tour. It takes you underneath the city through a series of tunnels that were created after it’s forefathers decided to build up the ground level in the mid 1800’s. We were told that this major engineering project was undertaken as a means of improving the poor sanitation system of the time and there definitely appeared to be an ongoing fixation with toilets. In fact we found Seattle toilets to have one of the most violently flushing systems that we‘ve ever encountered! As we walked through the tunnels, we were actually looking at the ground floor of many of the original 1800’s buildings that had been the setting for a range of colourful activities including gambling and bootlegging. Back on the surface, we found that Seattle had developed into a typical modern American metropolis. Sadly, many homeless people and beggars frequent the streets providing evidence of recent hard times in the US. In contrast, skyscrapers continue to be built and multi-lane freeways weave in and out of the business districts, creating an ever-present traffic echo, while trams also move throughout town as well as a monorail running overhead. This mode of transport was actually built for the 1962 Worlds Fair and leads to the city’s most iconic landmark, The Space Needle. Looking like something straight out of ‘The Jetsons’, it stands sixty storeys tall and still attracts visitors from all over the world to take in the view. The recently built ‘Experimental Music Project’ designed by Frank Gehrey, that stands close by, has further assisted its popularity. Jules and I chose to avoid the queues and head back down town to the less popular, but far more elegant ‘Smith Tower’. One of the original high rise built at the turn of the century, it still has the original Art Deco brass elevators that take you upward to the grand Chinese Room, from where we managed to take in a rare sunny view of the city and harbour from the open air balcony. As we looked out toward the harbour, we could see snow peaked mountains that reminded us that this was our most northerly US pit stop and our gateway to Canada.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Art On Four Wheels

During our travels I always try to make a point of visiting the local art gallery. Even if it’s one of the lesser known ones, you never know what you might find either as part of their permanent collection or part of a touring show. So while in town I decided to visit the Portland Art Museum to see what I might discover. It was my good fortune that they were currently displaying a touring exhibition called ‘The Allure of the Automobile’ which was displaying 16 amazing cars from between 1930 and 1960. The collection consisted of some of the most rare and probably some of the most expensive cars currently in private ownership. In fact, I would doubt whether you could view a collection of this quality anywhere in the world, so I was quite fortunate to catch it. Now, many might argue the case for whether a motorcar can actually be classified as art, but after viewing this exhibition there is no debate. The vehicles on show were truly magnificent sculptural forms on wheels that could be appreciated for their unique design, whether you are into motorcars or not. Case in point was my favourite, the 1937 Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza, an absolute one-off that has all the hallmarks of a space ship rather that an automobile. This must have been an exciting age for car design that held such promise for the future. I’m not quite sure what happened along the way that so many mediocre designs emerged in the years that followed. Nonetheless, through such exhibitions we can now appreciate some of the more innovative designers such as Porsche, Jaguar and Bentley. One vehicle that was on display that didn’t quite make it commercially was the ‘Tucker Torpedo’ designed by Preston Tucker (as depicted by Jeff Bridges in the 1988 film ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream’). This innovative 1948 car had many interesting design features (including a futuristic ‘cyclops eye’ headlight), but in the end there were only ever 51 manufactured. The cars on display in the Portland Art Museum were certainly unique and the precursor of the concept cars of today. Like all forms of high art, they were eloquent in their styling and very much to be admired. However, then and now these cars would always remain very much out of reach of the average person.