Monday, June 23, 2014

Stuff I learned and observed on my USA road trip - California

Two months ago, I went for my longest vacation on my own. I spent seventeen days in Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, with part of the journey driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. I'm not going to write a typical holiday blog, showing where I've been and sharing photos. Ever the practical person, I'm going to write about what I've learned and observed on this trip. For this entry I'm going to write about California

The San Diego Zoo is better value than SeaWorld San Diego
Let's just go on price alone - a day pass at San Diego Zoo will cost you US$51 while SeaWorld San Diego is $84. Even if they were the same price, San Diego Zoo is more worthwhile. San Diego Zoo has more to see, with more exhibits and animals. I went there for six hours and I didn't get to see all of the animals.

SeaWorld, however, has more interaction. They have more shows and more activity where you can get up close to the animals. If you have kids, it will probably be better to go to SeaWorld. Also the carpark at SeaWorld is US$15 for the whole day, while it is free at San Diego Zoo. If you are a little bit older and like nature, San Diego Zoo is more appropriate to you.

Downtown Los Angeles really needs some redevelopment
It is a pity how rundown the downtown area of Los Angeles is. In normal cities the downtown area is a vibrant place at the centre of all activity. In Los Angeles, it's full of cheap stores and deteriorating buildings. There is potential there, especially in the Broadway theatre district. They have a number of old theatres, which have great architectural merit to them. If only they had a number of wealthy people in that area to help fund an upgrade.

Good other places to visit in California - Santa Monica Pier, the elephant seals at San Simeon, Yosemite National Park, Pier 39 in San Francisco, the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
For those who love piers (and I should know having lived in Brighton with its famous Palace Pier), the Santa Monica Pier will not disappoint. It is a traditional pier, with lots with fairground games, a small theme park with rides, food stalls selling lots of goodies and your traditional souvenir shops. It's a nice day out and very different from the hectic bustle of Los Angeles.

Just near Hearst Castle in California is a beach full of elephant seals. Not just one or two, not just in double figures either - literally hundreds of them. Most of them are just lying down, catching the Californian sun for a nice tan. Occasionally you see two of them fighting, arguing who has that bathing spot.

The Yosemite National Park is a great place if you want to discover nature. There are many activities you can do: hiking, cycling, autotouring, etc. There are variety of hiking trails, from the novice to the ambitious, giving you spectacular views of lakes and mountains. The only problem with the park is that takes ages to drive into the centre - about 1.5 hours. If you are going to Yosemite for a few days, try to camp or stay in one of the lodges to cut down on your travelling time.

Pier 39 in San Francisco has the traditional shops but has a great site where sea lions just sunbathe. It's a nice sight to see but it can get smelly and loud quite quickly.

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is quite impressive in its own right, with a good display about earthquakes. The most outstanding feature is the Steinhart Aquarium in the basement. Most aquariums are small and poorly lit. The Steinhart Aquarium is very extensive and well displayed.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stuff I learned and observed on my USA road trip - driving in USA & road trip

Two months ago, I went for my longest vacation on my own. I spent seventeen days in Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, with part of the journey driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. I'm not going to write a typical holiday blog, showing where I've been and sharing photos. Ever the practical person, I'm going to write about what I've learned and observed on this trip. For this entry, I'll sharing what it is like to drive in USA

There must be some forgetful drivers in USA if they require all cars to automatically turn on their headlights when you start your vehicle
I already find automatic headlights annoying in cars in Hong Kong. They suppose to only turn on when the brightness level goes below a certain point but they turn on when it is still bright. You see a few cars having their lights on in broad daylight and the driver is none the wiser.

In the US it is even more of a nightmare. The headlights automatically turn on when you start the car, even if it is the sunniest day on record. You have to turn the headlight switch to off to make sure your lights are not dazzling the car in front. It was bloody annoying have to do that every time I had to start the car, since most of my driving was during the day. The only way to explain this situation is there must be enough forgetful drivers in the US who don't switch on their headlights to cause enough accidents that car manufacturers have to install this function in.

I'm surprised there are not more traffic accidents in USA
My mother still worries about me, even though I'm thirty three years old. She was worried since it would be my first time driving in a foreign country and driving on the right side of the road. I didn't get into any accidents while driving in USA. Driving on the right side of the road was easy-peasy but it did take some time getting use to the gear shift and the handbrake being on the right hand side and the seat belt being on the left. I was constantly clutching at thin air, trying to grasp the seat belt when I was setting off.

What my mother should have worried about are other drivers on the road. I thought Hong Kong drivers were bad until I drove on the freeways in California. US drivers use indicators and yield to other motorists less than drivers in Hong Kong. I had to be on constant alert and checking my mirrors whenever I wanted to cross lanes.

What is even more confusing are traffic lights. I knew you could turn right on a red light as long as you yield to other traffic and pedestrians. What I didn't know is that when turning left at traffic lights at cross junctions, the opposite direction could be green as well and you had to yield to the traffic coming towards you. It makes traffic more efficient as there are less stoppages for cars. However your are more likely to have traffic accidents. Yet the system seems to work since I didn't see one traffic accident while I was driving. I would thought roundabouts would be a more efficient way to sort out this traffic conundrum. Yet I only found one roundabout in the whole of my trip in USA and I'm sure it boggles US road users.

If you are going for a long road trip, get a good car
I learnt this the hard way. I was driving for eight days, from Las Vegas to San Francisco, via San Diego, Los Angeles and Yosemite. I thought a cheap car would do, so I got a Chevy Sonic. It's a small compact car with good fuel economy.

However it was shit to drive. The handling was awful, as it didn't respond very well to the steering wheel and the balance was not quite right at high speeds. The car was so small that when there was a strong wind you could feel the car being pushed to the side. I honestly felt I was going to tip over at two points during my journey. The footbrake was very bad, especially when stopping suddenly at high speeds. I expected the acceleration to be very poor but I didn't expect I had to put my foot down all the way to get some decent speed. The Chevy Sonic would be OK for 1-2 days for city driving but a whole week drove me crazy.

Next time I do a road trip (which I plan to do in Eastern USA or Western Europe in a few years time), I'm definitely getting a sports car. At least it would be decent drive and I get a sunroof to enjoy the light.

If you are going on a long road trip, take somebody with you
Driving for long stretches is a knackering ordeal. You might not expect that, being constantly sitting own. Yet you have to be vigilant all the time and I did find myself nodding off, having to pull over and take a rest. I planned to drive for one hour and then rest. However, with my time constraints and having difficulty finding somewhere to stop, I had to stop every two hours instead.

It would be good if I brought somebody along (even though I wanted this trip to be some alone time for me). At least the other person could share in the driving. Even if the other person couldn't drive, at least he/she could keep you awake by talking to you. Blasting your iPhone or radio at full volume doesn't keep you eyes open.

The other reason you should bring somebody along is to take photos. I knew I shouldn't be operating my cameraphone while driving and I highly DO NOT recommend this practice. I only did it when I knew I didn't have any cars around me, driving on a straight bit of road and driving at low speeds. I didn't take my eyes off the road either. I just basically pointed the camera and shot photos blind. With somebody else, they could take decent photos and not blurred photos of other cars.

If you are going to take the Pacific Coast Highway road trip, go from Monterey to San Luis Obispo
The Pacific Coast Highway, or California State Highway, starts in Monterey in the north to San Clemente in the south. For most of the journey, the road goes through some towns with a lot of traffic lights, so it was quite annoying having to start and stop all the time. I started off in San Clemente and by the time I reached Huntington Beach, I was so bloody annoyed. I said to myself, "Sod this!" and used the freeway to get to Santa Monica.

From Santa Monica to Arroyo Grande (where I was staying for one night), there are a few nice beaches and views. However the best part of the trip was from San Luis Obispo to Monterey. That section of the Pacific Coast Highway is free of any traffic lights. It is a long winding road and if I had a sports car, I would have enjoyed driving along it. The views are great with big mountains, large stretches of ocean and dense forests to take photos of.

It would be better to drive from north to south than from south to north as the ocean is on your right hand side and it would be easier to stop off and take pictures. I was driving with the mountain to my right and the ocean to my left. This meant if I wanted to take decent photos of the ocean, I would have to stop off and cross the road or cut across oncoming traffic.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Stuff I learned and observed on my USA road trip - Las Vegas

Two months ago, I went for my longest vacation on my own. I spent seventeen days in Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, with part of the journey driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. I'm not going to write a typical holiday blog, showing where I've been and sharing photos. Ever the practical person, I'm going to write about what I've learned and observed on this trip. In this entry, I'll be talking mainly about Las Vegas.

If you think you can gamble yourself a fortune in Vegas - think again
The whole of Las Vegas casinos are designed for you to stay in the casinos and lose money. There are no exit signs in the casino floors and there are no windows so you don't realize how long you've been gambling. I remember reading a statistic that the odds of you winning are stacked against your by about 2.5 to 3.0 to 1.

I gambled away about US$50 while I was in Vegas, mainly playing video poker and blackjack. Your most probably way of winning in the casinos is to play blackjack at the tables. Even with that, you need a good memory to count the cards, a stack of cash and a lot of time on your hands.

If you want to visit Las Vegas but don't like gambling, a good choice is the Vdara Hotel and Resort
There are a few hotels on the Las Vegas Strip that don't have casinos: Mandarin Oriental, Trump International, The Signature at MGM Grand and Vdara. If you don't gamble or fancy a more quieter hotel, you should pick these a hotel without a casino

I picked Vdara for a variety of reasons. It was about HK$700-800 per night cheaper than Mandarin Oriental, despite the latter having better reviews. Also the floor space of the Vdara hotel room was larger than the Mandarin Oriental. The most important thing was the location. The Signature at MGM Grand is at the southern point of The Strip while Trump International is a little bit off The Strip at the northern point. Vdara was right in the middle of The Strip, so it was convenient to walk to any other hotels/casinos for food or gambling. The service and facilities were very good at Vdara, so I highly recommend it. Also they have a few cute ladies at reception / concierge and also one good looking bloke, so that's always an incentive to annoy the staff.

If you are going to visit the Grand Canyon, splash out and pay for a helicopter/plane ride
The cost of a road trip to the Grand Canyon is certainly cheaper by half. Yet the whole trip will take about 14 hours, most of which will be spent in the vehicle, and you only get the view from the ground.

A helicopter ride will cost about HK$3700, depending on which package you pick. It only takes about 4 hours, from pick up from your hotel to drop off at your hotel. The view is great from the air, as you can also see other places such as Henderson, Boulder, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and Meadville.

I haven't been on a road trip to the Grand Canyon but other people on my helicopter trip have been on both and they have said that the helicopter trip is worth the money.

Good shows to see in Vegas are Penn & Teller and Terry Fator
Everybody knows Penn & Teller for their magic tricks. They swap things around so the show is fresh. Unfortunately they don't allow videos/photos to be taken during the show. This is made up by the performers as they stay in the lobby after each show to take photos with the audience and sign stuff.

Terry Fator was the first winner of "America's Got Talent". He's a ventriloquist, comedian, songwriter and singer. The range of voices and dummies he has performing is quite impressive. It's a good show for the family as well. He's also a very lucky guy since his gorgeous looking on-stage assistant Taylor Makakoa is also his wife.

I have more respect for people who use guns in their jobs
I did got to a shooting range while I was in Vegas. Firing guns takes a lot of upper body strength. I think the most surprising thing about shooting guns is the recoil, which can be very significant. The range master said I was OK since I got my shots on the target (not on target) since some people will miss the target completely.

I think movies and media make it seem so easy to fire guns and get them on target. Now I know better. Still it is still no justification for carrying machine guns for leisure (Yeah, I have a gripe with the Second Amendment).