Dubai – our introduction to the Middle East

After an extremely long sixteen hour flight from Los Angeles we arrived at Dubai. We had heard that Dubai was a relatively liberal city compared to the rest of the Middle East but still strictly abides by Islamic law so we were anxious about visiting there.

It was an interesting experience riding in the taxi to our hotel, all the sandy coloured buildings, Arabic writings and mosques.

Our first night we had our first taste of Arabic cuisine, with dishes of lamb, hummus, chickpeas and olives.

Day 1 – Desert Safari

The next morning we where introduced to another Arabic culture, the dawn Islamic Prayer (Fajr), which is signalled via a ‘call to prayer’ (adhān) via loudspeakers. It also didn’t help that the mosque was directly outside our window.

We had booked a desert safari in afternoon which gave us the morning to start exploring Dubai. We walked along Dubai Creek towards the Gold and Spice Souks in the Deira district. We spent all morning looking for a clock tower which was somewhat of a disappointment on arrival.

The desert safari we booked with Oasis Palm Tourism via our hotel. The tour included dune bashing and more ‘traditional’ activities including a meal at a camp for 270 Dirham per head. The activities all gave us some pretty unique photos. The dune bashing, which was a convoy of SUVs driving up and down the dunes at ridiculous speeds, was a blast.  Many times I was concerned the car would roll, fortunately it didn’t. I don’t think any of the drivers got bogged once. At one spot we were given a chance to ‘sandboard’ which was literally a five second affair sliding down a dune.

On arriving at the camp which was reminiscent of a Bedouin camp, we were greeted by two camels who we could ride, this gave us some nice photos. Inside the very large camp were many areas for eating on the outskirts of a larger performance area for belly dancing, and also an area to try the tradition Arabic clothes (the male thawb and female jilaabah),  Henna painting, which Sonya later found out she would be displaying for a month and Shisha smoking of apple flavoured tobacco.

Dinner was a selection of barbeque meats, salads and breads.

Travis at dinner with a complimentary saladSonya at dinner with a variety of Arabic dishesSonya at the north side of Dubai Creek
Outside the Dubai fish marketsDeira clock towerTravis on a sand dune
Sonya and some sandSonya and with the Oasis Palm desert safari vehicleConvoy of vehicles
Many vehicles dune bashingTravis attempts sand-boardingA remote camel farm
CamelsSonya and a camelDunes at dusk
Sonya and Travis riding a camelSonya and Travis in the traditional Arabic clothesSonya getting Henna painted
Sonya's HennaBedouin esque campTravis smoking a Shisha

Day 2 – Downtown Dubai and Burj Khalifa

This day we spent exploring Downtown Dubai which includes the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall and Dubai Fountain.

On arrival to the over-towing Burj our first thoughts were ‘wow, it’s big’. Out of pure luck we happened to be in Dubai a few days after the official opening and managed to go all the way up to the observation deck. The views on the observation deck were amazing, and it was a very surreal feeling overlooking all the other skyscrapers.

For the rest of the day we browsed the adjacent Dubai Mall, one of the largest malls in the world. The mall had a multi-storey indoor aquarium, waterfalls and even an ice-rink. The mall had all the western shops including luxury brands. We finished the day off with another visit to the gold, spice and perfume souks, before our flight back to Perth, which sadly concluding our holidays.

Dubai Creek with the skyline in the backgroundSonya and the BurjSonya and Travis and the Burj
Burj KhalifaBurj KhalifaSonya and the Burj in the background
Hotels surrounding Dubai FountainLuxury chocolatereExtravagant lobby
From the earth to the skySonya at the Burj observation deckTravis at the Burj observation deck
Looking down at the rest of Dubai's skyscrapersTravis with models of the construction stagesBurj escalator
Hotels surrounding Dubai FountainSonya and the Dubai MuseumSpices at the Spice Souk

Las Vegas the home of Nightlife! Plus some canyon to the north.

On our third day in Los Angeles we decided to start our journey to Las Vegas. A road trip through Nevada’s deserts through to Las Vegas, I was sure it would be just like Fear and Loathing (minus the bats). Well, it wasn’t. It was just one long concrete highway with nothing to see or do along the way.

In Australia, if you drive anywhere far, you could easily find something interesting to stop at, a big kangaroo, an old town or some random sign pointing to places you have never heard off. America is different, the large population has turned everything into efficient multilane highways.

On exiting Los Angeles we were presented with the San Bernardino Mountains through which the highway winds around, presenting some amazing views. On the high peaks in the distance you could even see snow. Three hundred kilometres north east of Los Angeles we come across an unusual road sign Zzyzx Rd, apparently this is the alphabetically last place name in the world.

In four hours, we arrived in the evening at Flamingo Hotel, Sonya recommended Flamingo hotel as she had stayed there when younger, and it was also fairly inexpensive at $70 per night. Stepping out of the hotel we were greeted with the famous bright and overly excessive lights of Las Vegas.

Whilst I didn’t see a point in gambling, we both agreed that we should see at least one show, and we thought there was no better choice than experiencing Cirque du Soleil. Cirque du Soleil has a total of seven shows at various hotels is Las Vegas, we chose Mystère which was $72 each for reasonable seated tickets. The show was great, a lot of elaborate costumes and all the acts I had not experienced before. The clown during the audience’s seating at the start was also very funny.

After the show Sonya insisted we try Serendipity 3 for an evening sugar hit, we ordered a ‘Can’t Say No Sundae’ and their famous signature ‘Frrrozen Hot chocolate’. The Frrrozen Hot chocolate was a let down, essentially a cold chocolate drink, but the sundae was fun. The sundae mimicked those you see in the movies, huge, with bananas, cream, nuts and a cherry on the top. Sadly, we couldn’t finish it.

For the rest of the night we decided to checkout The Venetian, one of the most extravagant hotels which with a Venice theme featuring indoor canals and huge Italian Renaissance murals.

San Bernardino Mountains Zzyzx Rd the alphabetically last place name in the world.Travis with the Flamingo hotel in the background
Ballys and Paris hotels as nightSerendipity 3 Cant Say No SundaeSonya and the Paris hotel

Day Two – The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon South Rim is roughly four hundred kilometres from Las Vegas or just over a five hour drive. From what I had read, the South Rim offers the most spectacular views, so I wanted to try and get there. Unfortunately, we woke up a little too late and by the time we got passed Hoover Dam and the addition of the slight time difference I calculated we would have arrived very close to sunset. So Sonya convinced me to drive to the Grand Canyon West Rim, two hundred kilometres from Las Vegas or a little under four hours. Sonya made the right call.

A little bit from Las Vegas we reached Hoover Dam, what an engineering marvel. A huge mass of water on one side and a huge drop on the other. There was construction of a new bridge over the river which I thought was also very impressive. Hoover Dam also marks the crossing from Nevada to Arizona.

Sonya at Hoover Dam with bypass construction in the backgroundTravis at Hoover DamTravis look at the intake towers
Travis with the Colorado River in the backgroundLooking upstream of the Colorado RiverConstruction of the Hoover Dam bypass
Concave side of the Hoover DamHoover Dam Visitors CentreWelcome to Arizona

Even though the South Rim dominates then West Rim, it still offers amazing views. Another drawback of the West Rim is it has been highly commercialised especially with the creation of The Skywalk. The Skywalk is a glass bottom platform that extends a little over twenty metres from the Grand Canyon wall all one thousand and four hundred meters up. The whole experience is fairly expensive at $71 per head, but is worth it if you are short of time, like us. Now, I say this a lot, but I have never seen Sonya so scared when walking over the glass bottomed Skywalk, having to hold onto the handrail the whole time. After the Skywalk the tour bus takes you to Eagle Point, which offers-breath taking views and isn’t so crowded. We started our drive back to Las Vegas as the sun was setting, not bad for a day trip.

That night Sonya introduced me to In-N-Out Burgers, for six dollars you can buy burgers, fries and drink to feed two, the best value I had seen on the trip.

Travis and the Grand Canyon West RimSonya and the Grand Canyon West RimSonya and the Grand Canyon West Rim
Sonya and Travis at the Grand Canyon West RimTravis on the Grand Canyon SkywalkTravis on the Grand Canyon Skywalk
Grand Canyon West RimTravis and the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle PointSonya and the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle Point
Travis and the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle PointSonya and the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle PointSonya and Travis at the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle Point
Sonya and Travis at the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle PointSonya and Travis at the Grand Canyon West Rim Eagle PointTravis with the Grand Canyon West certificate

Day Three – Mexico

Yes, we drove into Mexico. We had a whole day to drive back from Las Vegas to Los Angeles with an afternoon flight the next day, for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to drive into Mexico for a little bit, like I have said, I like to cram as much as I can into my holidays. The Mexican city Tijuana is situated on the America-Mexico border, and located roughly four hundred kilometres from Las Vegas, or a five hour drive.

The Mexico border was just like the movies, plenty of cars and people walking across, what I didn’t realise was how easy it was to cross and get into Mexico. Now call me naive, but I had this image that Tijuana would be a transition between America and Mexico, I did not expect that as soon as you crossed the border you would be hit with the poverty and dirtiness of Mexico. This combined with the GPS map finishing as soon as we entered made me very uneasy. Through luck, we managed to find a place that had a very basic map, and then found a shopping centre. After browsing the supper market, in my opinion one of the most interesting things to do in a foreign country, we had some Mexican food at the food court and then made our way back to the border. As expected, the border crossing into America wasn’t as easy, with passport checks and even confiscation of some of our food. We were glad to be back.

Mexico border crossingObligatory shot of cheap Coronas 37 Pesos equals 3 DollarsMexican sweets, I think, I really just needed a filler photo

We reached Los Angeles late at night and checked in a budget hotel. In the morning we made our way to the airport and departed America on a sixteen hour flight to Dubai.

Hollywood – not quite the home of glitz and glamour

If we were going to do the whole America thing, how could we not do Hollywood California. We decided to spend one day wondering Hollywood and one day visiting Universal Studio. This worked out to be all that we needed, with the third day starting our drive to Las Vegas.

We booked a rental car for the whole period, which made things so much easier and enjoyable. From the airport the GPS navigated us all the way to our accommodation; Motel 6, which we were pleased to find was just walking distance from Hollywood Boulevard.

It was night time when we arrived at our hotel; we walked down Hollywood Boulevard, enjoying our first view of the Walk of Stars and a quick burger at Johnny Rockets, now about my tenth burger on the whole trip. We decided that we may as well do the infamous Genius World Records to end the night, with the VIP ticket including Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the Hollywood Wax Museum costing total $27 per person. Guinness World of Records was worn and out dated (they still don’t have the Burj Khalifa in their tallest structures section), not even worth the $9 entry.

Guinness World of Records tallest buildings (missing the Burj)A bit of Perth Western Australia stardomTravis and Mario (the highlight of the Guinness World of Records)

Day 1 – Universal Studios
We woke up early for Universal Studios, this was a fun day. Having now visited two Disney theme parks, it was good to get a change of characters. Plus Universal Studios is a full functioning movie studio, housing many current movie studios, sound stages, sets, backdrops and even office buildings. On entering we were greeted with Betelgeuse from Beetlejuice, Marilyn Monroe, Shrek and Frankenstein all who we naturally took photos with. Sonya then recommended we first go on the famous Studio Tour.

The tour started at Stage 25 and passed the office bungalows (as Universal Studios calls them). Passed through some street sets including Courthouse Square which was famously used in the Back to the Future series, but now for Ghost Whisperer. It was cool seeing a whole street and then rounding the corner and finding it was literally just a large painted wall. Toward the Fast and the Furious set (merely two cars on individual robotic arms) was a large collection of movie cars, including the Jurassic Park Jeep and Back to the Future Delorean

We past the Jaws Encounter, Desperate Housewives Wisteria Lane, Whoville from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Norman hiding another body at the Bates Motel and the latest set form War of the Worlds featuring an actual Boeing 747 chopped up into pieces.

After the tour we headed to the Simpsons Ride, the ride which was just a simulation, distracted me from the stunning visuals. Though they did a really good turning it all into a working Krustyland theme park and it was neat seeing a life size Kwik-E-Mart.

A series of escalators took us to the Universal Studios Lower Lot, were we visited Jurassic Park, the ride was very close to that in the actual movie, with a large T-rex at the conclusion. Other highlights were the WaterWorld show, where we both got drenched (yes, the soaked warnings on the benches are accurate), House of Horrors where real actors do there best to scare you (it worked well) and Terminator 2: 3D (a combination 3D and live action show).

Sonya and Universal CityWalkSonya and the famous Universal Studios globeTravis and Marilyn Monroe
Sonya and Travis and ShrekSonya and FrankensteinCourthouse Square
Back to the Future movie carsSSS Venture approaching Skull IslandJaws near Amity Island
One of the houses from Desperate Housewives Wisteria LaneSet form War of the WorldsSonya and Jaws
Travis at the Kwik-E-MartTravis at the entrance to Jurassic ParkBrontosaurus in Jurassic Park
Travis on the Tonight Show with Conan OBrienSonya and telephone boothSonya and the Universal Studios sign

After leaving Universal Studio we visited Los Angeles Chinatown for dinner and then the Hollywood Wax Museum. The Wax Museum was very impressive, with amazing details on all the wax sculptures. My only gripe is Angelina could have been improved so I didn’t look like I was standing next to a cross-dresser.

Travis and the characters of The Wizard of OzTom Hanks in Castaway with WilsonSonya and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean
Charlie ChaplinSonya as a croupier with the James BondsTravis and Angelina Jolie
Sonya with the Charlie's AngelsTravis and the JokerHollywood Wax Museum sign

We finished the night with a drive down Doheny Drive which climbed up Hollywood Hills, the way down offered amazing view of the city.

Day 2 – Hollywood Sign, Santa Monica and Pasadena
We started this day driving to Mount Hollywood which has a good view (though a little far) of the famous Hollywood sign. Griffith Observatory also sits on the city facing slope and offers amazing views of Los Angeles, we even went back at night.

The famous Hollywood SignSonya and the famous Hollywood SignTravis and Griffith Observatory

From the Hollywood sign we drove south-west along Mulholland Drive to Santa Monica and the famous Santa Monica Pier which has a small amusement park and restaurants. After a picnic lunch we headed to Pasadena. Pasadena is roughly sixteen kilometres north east of Los Angeles or forty kilometres north east from Santa Monica. We walked around City Hall and through its amazing courtyards, from there we walked south to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium‎.

Santa Monica PierSonya and the amusement park in the backgroundPasadena City Hall
All Saints Episcopal ChurchTravis and Plaza Las FuentesSonya trying to turn a frog into a prince
Sonya and Pasadena City HallPasadena is know as the City of Roses, Roses mosaic outside Paseo ColoradoPasadena Civic Auditorium

Back in Hollywood, we finished the night with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Which was only a little better than the Guinness World of Records, and then a night time view from Mount Hollywood, spectacular.

The Walt Disney Concert HallView of Los Angeles at nightGriffith Observatory at night

Day 3 – Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and then on to Las Vegas
The morning of our last day in Hollywood, we decided to stop by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre which is famous for its numerous handprints, footprints and autographs set in the concrete in the forecourt. We took the obligatory photos of our hands in the celebrities’ handprints.

Graumans Chinese Theatre handprints, footprints and autographs Travis with the prints of James StewartSonya and the prints of Cary Grant

Let me just say, Hollywood itself isn’t great. The first things you notice when walking down Hollywood Boulevard are the countless adult, tattoo and drug paraphernalia shops lining the streets. But this with the griminess of the streets, the poor costumes of the street performers and the randoms trying to sell you a ‘star’s home’ tour all work together nicely. I don’t think we would be visiting Hollywood again for a very long time (perhaps never) but it was good to have visited it once.

The Walk of FameTravis and Walt Disney starSonya and Alfred Hitchcock star

New York – Round II

After three days in sunny Florida we headed back to New York City. Aside from the weather, the cultural contrast was immediately apparent. New York is like any big city really – plenty of people from all different cultures, many different spoken languages, foods etc. Florida was probably a more concise representation of ‘America’ in it’s many typically American fast food eateries and lifestyle.

30th December

We arrived back at M’s apartment midday and headed to the MoMA where we were meeting Mandi. She had managed to get free tickets for us from a friend so we decided to spend the afternoon there perusing what we had missed the previous weeks. Quite a bit, we realised. The whole Picasso-Cubist era and the French impressionists such as Monet.. as well as the beautiful architecture and design sections. And of course, plenty of abstract art such as the white empty shoebox, and the four yoghurt lids. Highlights would have been Monet’s waterlilies, Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (so tiny!) and taking creative photo’s of M looking ‘aggressive’ next to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup work (she works in advertising for Progresso Soup!!).

That evening we went to a little bar in the West Village. It was so warm and cosy inside and it felt like being at someone’s house. Travis unknowingly ordered a girl’s drink, the apple cider. HAHA.

Love on the StreetDrama at MoMaLove heart chain
Broken crockery lightM looking aggressive next to Warhols Campbells SoupOutside the Comedy Cellar

New Year’s Eve

The following day Travis and I headed for towards the Upper East Side, and dropped by the UN building and then over to the MeT. It was NYE and the subways were extremely busy. We headed back in the early evening to Mandi’s apartment as we were meeting a bunch of Mandi’s New Yorker friends for dinner that night. Dinner was in Chelsea at a trendy, modern Thai restaurant where I had a green curry chicken and a glass of shiraz. The tables were long and had benches on either side which made it difficult to get in and out of your seat. Another surprise was my trip to the toilet, by which I came across a guy… unisex toilets, very Ally McBeal. After dinner, and after agreeing we would catch up with some of M’s friend’s later at a house party, we went to a bar in St Mark’s, near Sing Sing where we had entertained ourselves with Karaoke a week earlier. Had a blast there (how could one not, with 5 shots at $10!), meeting up with a few of Mandi’s other friends. Ended up staying there for the count down, then heading to another club for some dancing. It was a bit of a crazy night, but definitely memorable – that’s for sure. And we didn’t quite make it to the house party.

Grand Central Station's ceilingTravis and the Grand Central StationSonya and the Grand Central Station

New Year’s Day

The following day we had a lazy morning, before heading to Chinatown for some greasy dim sum to satisfy the uneasy stomachs. Tasty, but definitely not quite comparable to Perth standards (or maybe we’re biased?) On our way home we stopped by some Chinese grocery stores to pick up snacks for our quiet night in. We also stopped by Magnolia Bakery, only just across the road from M’s apartment, a place that is perennially busy with cupcake lovers. We bought the red velvet and a chocolate buttermilk cupcake as well a yummy gooey banana concoction that looked deadly. Given we had already chosen to splurge upon the point of no return we also bought a tub of Ben and Jerry’s – some exotic combination of flavours we couldn’t dream of finding in Perth.

2nd January

So thus, that indulgent night concluded the New York chapter of our trip. The following morning we packed our bags, took a walk along the Hudson River in West Village and had breakfast at a intimate little diner, where the quirky waiter mumbled to himself about world politics between orders.

Outside the beautiful brownstone apartment, we said our teary goodbyes, Mandi hailed us a cab and we were off on the next part of our American adventure.