USA Trip Notes – June 2012

Some time back, there was a draft email headed up “Italia 2012“. That was before the European Debt Crisis and seeing what had happened in Greece. Europe as a whole is not yet out of the mire and as I had neglected to brush up on my Italian sufficiently to avoid being robbed, some new destinations were in order. This took a little bit of thinking but I’ve always wanted to visit the Boeing Factory in Seattle. And having successfully navigated a milestone birthday, it seemed like a good time to go there.

**Warning: This narrative is very long. You may wish to limit consumption to two letters per day or get your popcorn in now if you insist on reading the whole thing through**

A is for Anniversaries : Plenty of these around the place

– the San Francisco Symphony is in the middle of its 100th season;

– the Golden Gate Bridge is 75 years old this year;

– the Space Needle in Seattle is 50 years old this year (apparently, it has the same birthdate as I do);

– it’s 25 years since the platforms at Pier 39 were set up in San Francisco for the sealions

– the Doonesbury cartoon (by GB Trudeau is 40 years young this year)

– Queen Elizabeth II has her Diamond Jubilee this year (and the US networks are keen to cover anything that has pomp and circumstance !)

B is for Boeing : The old adage “If it ain’t Boeing, I’m not going !” might not ring as true as it once did but for a long time it was a fair summation of how well-regarded Boeing’s commercial aircraft were perceived. The 747 in all of its iterations was the Queen of the Skies until the arrival of the A380 and even today, there is more than a fair chance that your long-haul international flight will be on a 777.  Soon enough, it will likely be on a 787. Aside from the Dreamliner, the only Boeing aircraft types I’ve not flown on are the 707 and the 717 (the revamped MD90 or modernised DC-9 if you prefer) and I’ve always thought that their aircraft flew better than the competition. So visiting the Everett Factory was always one of those things to be done. Getting out there is about a forty minute drive up the main freeway – so rather than risk it, I went with Show Me Seattle tours which are a family-run outfit which run city tours as well as Boeing tours. They get you to the Future of Flight facility which is pretty much a holding pen with gift shop – you go and see a short movie on how important planes are especially Boeing ones and then board buses to go to the factory proper. The building itself is the largest such structure in the world, it seemingly goes on for miles. On the way out, we saw a B2 flight (jargon for first test flight after completion of manufacture) of a 747-8 freighter as well as the very full flightline packed with 787s mainly for lead customer All Nippon Airways. The factory tour lasts about 90 minutes – you get to see the 747 line first and the sections that assemble the various body parts – these are then hoisted by crane to the joining areas where the whole aircraft is finally put together with its landing gear and engines and becomes what we fly in it. Being a Sunday, the cranes and indeed the production lines weren’t operating but that was fine. The assembly lines for the 777 are different again – you start to assemble at the front of the building, work your way to the back at which point you complete join assemble and then work your way forward again to final assembly. A KLM 77W was about to go out the door and the business class seats in a Thai Airways 77W were on the side waiting to be installed. The 787 line is just a straight line channel – on the (assumed) basis that as the parts get flown in, all you have to do is put them together and send the completed jigsaw puzzle out the door for painting. Obviously that is an oversimplification but that was essentially the original aim – the three-year plus delay in getting the first one to a customer didn’t help things and the problems with outsourcing that were anticipated by some did come to light. But it should nonetheless be a fantastic aircraft and, so far at least, appears to be delivering the expected cost savings as promised.

At the end of the tour, they bus you back and you exit through the gift shop – knowing that I didn’t have a lot of time before getting the tour bus back, I had sneaked a look prior to the start of the tour. But still managed to buy more than I had anticipated !

There are, however, two other Boeing facilities in Seattle – the main alternate is the factory at Renton which handles the final assembly of 737s from where they then hop to Boeing Field for final delivery preparations. If you are lucky (I was not) you might be able to see the boxcars transporting the fuselages from Wichita, Kansas which is quite a sight, I am told. They don’t do tours of the Renton plant but you can get a view of the Boeing Field buildings from the Museum of Flight, a privately run facility which offers a nice view of BFI and the factory. There are a number of reasons for going to the Museum as well – three in particular are to see the first 747 ever built (the “City of Everett” which is still is flyable condition and was used as a 777 engine testbed in recent memory), to see a Concorde (sadly not flyable but preserved in all other respects from when it was retired from line service) and finally a static SR-71 Blackbird which has to rank as one of the most remarkable aircraft ever produced. 

C is for Concerts: San Francisco has a great symphony orchestra lead by its music director Michael Tilson Thomas, more commonly known as MTT. Over more than a decade and a half in charge, he has built up a good orchestra into one of the best in the States to rival the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic. Luckily, I was able to hear MTT in a very good program of Faure’s “Pavane” and the Sibelius 3rd Symphony. The young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang was soloist in Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, (yes, the Rach 3). You’ll find my more detailed review here:

Davies Symphony Hall (or rather the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall – she was the largest contributor to its construction) was built in 1908 to give the SFS a permanent home away from the War Memorial Opera House. It seats 2743 people and has a great acoustic.

Seattle has a good symphony as well which is undergoing a bit of a refresh with a new music director in Frenchman Ludovic Morlot who succeeded the rather long-in-tooth Gerard Schwarz. It’s home is Benaroya Hall, named for its most significant (and actually the first donor) the late Jack Benaroya, occupies a whole city block. By all accounts (including several mentions in the New York Times), Morlot has shaken up the Seattle artistic scene and provided some much-needed enthusiasm back in to it. Soloist in the concert was Stephen Hough, one of the world’s best pianists currently (and coming to New Zealand later this year to perform with the NZSO by the way) and his recordings of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with conductor Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony have been highly acclaimed. I’ve heard him before and he is brilliant. You’ll find my more detailed review here:

D is for Dining Out (fine):One particular highlight of note

The Bazaar @ SLS Hotel Beverly Hills : Jose Andres is a name well known to American fine diners but may not be so well known outside of the US.  Trained at the legendary el Bulli under Ferran Adria, Andres is credited with raising tapas and small plates generally to a high art form.  With signature restaurants in Washington DC and Las Vegas, he has written a number of books, appears on television and is a guest consultant to a number of various interests.  In LA, The Bazaar at the (swanky) SLS Hotel is his signature place and I was lucky enough to be able to sample some of the dishes here. Highlights included the ‘liquid olives’ (molecular gastronomy, of course), the braised wagyu beef cheeks and the sautéed shrimp. Unfortunately, my memory of the courses after that is a bit too hazy…….but it was good.

Unfortunately, I did not partake of any of the restaurants in Vegas – the weather was more conducive to drinking as much water as physically possible, not eating.

E is for Eating Out (cheaply) : Excuse the rather mish-mash list. Obviously when meeting up with people, one goes out. But when solo, one tends not to. Hence this rather odd list which goes from the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous. Bear with me, folks – there is indeed method to the madness.

Bristol Farms : Eyebrows will be raised here – why on earth mention a supermarket ? Partly because it is excellent for those wanting something on the go pre-prepared (the one in San Francisco is in the Westfield Center) and partly because it delivers the stereotypes you expect to see. Brown Rice Sushi Rolls were on offer (they were quite good, actually) together with good dim sum, New York cheesecake, all sorts of salads, the list goes on. Considering some of the junk on restaurant / room service menus, it just made more sense to stock up from here. You simply can’t go wrong.

Pearl’s Burgers (San Francisco): When I was there in 2009, I’m ashamed to say that I got a bit lost when looking for this place and basically gave up – rather hard to do considering it was a block or two away from where I was staying. Not this time, thanks for a dry run using Google Maps – in fact, I went to the one at the corner of 6th and Market on the way to Symphony Hall. Put simply, this was the best cheeseburger I have had in…..well, I think ever. You could get seriously addicted to them like Elvis presumably did. And the fries that went with them were perfect, the beer-batter type, crispy / crunchy and golden. Fantastic.

Magnolia Bakery: (Los Angeles) They started the cupcake craze – fans of Sex In The City, The Devil Wears Prada and a few other series might be familiar with the name. I had a vanilla one with chocolate icing and a hummingbird one on your behalf. Pretty good, but not something that would necessarily blow your mind.

And for those of you who follow the Economist’s “Big Mac” index: current Macca’s pricing (from what I could see), is roughly the same in number terms in NZ as it is in the US. Scary.


F is for Flights : Once again, a happy mixture of airlines. Virgin Australia (which now incorporates what was Pacific Blue and V Australia as well as Virgin Blue) from Auckland, Sydney and then to Los Angeles. Virgin America from LAX to San Francisco and then on to Seattle. Alaska Airlines from SEA-TAC to Vegas and United from Vegas back to LAX. Then back via Melbourne on Virgin Australia and then through to Auckland.

Virgin Australia short-haul : Wouldn’t have a bloody clue – they managed to cancel both of my flights to SYD and back from MEL. And caused me annoyance and distress by saying that Air NZ (who they reboooked me on) would be able to tag my bags through to LAX. Not true. I had to recheck in at SYD. Not impressed at all. Have sent them a long, no-holds-barred complaint email. Let’s see how they respond.

Virgin Australia long-haul: I flew VA to LA and back last time in Economy (to LAX) and Premium Y (from LAX) and was impressed. Not only by the relative comfort compared to some other airlines but also in terms of price differential. This time, it was Premium Y all the way and it did not disappoint. Despite having the unrefurbished seats on the way back, there is space, the food is pretty good, the wines are fine (but the selection might be a bit thin) and the amenity kit acceptable (but I see you get less now, oh well). While it is not as luxurious as the equivalent Qantas product, you do get priority tagged baggage, priority check in but no lounge access (except trans-Tasman).

Virgin America : I like VX a lot. The aircraft are modern (A320s), the check-in in not too complicated, the service is generally pretty good and they have in-flight entertainment which is a derivation of the Virgin Australia long-haul system.  Your Captain makes the point of getting out of the flight deck and speaking to you prior to departure – I like that. And their network is expanding as well.

Alaska Airlines: AS has maintained a pretty good record over the years as a safe, efficient and cost-effective carrier. Not easy when you consider that a lot of US airlines have either gone broke or close to it. If the JD Power Customer Satisfaction surveys are any guide, AS was top of the list for domestic airlines in 2011 and it has maintained that ranking for the last four years – not bad. Although the name suggests that its headquarters might be in Anchorage, in fact AS uses SEA-TAC airport as its main hub of operations and now runs a fleet of Boeing 737s. They were, in fact, the launch customer for the 737-900 and this was one reason for wanting to give them a go. Unfortunately, due to a late change to flight scheduling, I had to settle for a 737-800. It would have been nice to get an email when the change was made rather than find out when rechecking the booking on the off-chance ! To be fair, the interiors of the planes are pretty ordinary, much like US Airways or any other carrier. But their service is prompt and on their website, they also promise that you get your bags within 20 minutes. I was sceptical. But they got there before me – impressive.

United: With US Airways no longer flying LAS-LAX, the choice of airlines suddenly diminished. Essentially, you can pick from UA, American or Southwest. That’s not great all things considering. So why UA ? Because they (originally) had a 757 running on this route and my plane-spotting / nerd instincts took over. Plus it was cheap – only NZD 80 for the flight (but not the additional bag fee, of course) which is fine by me. Unfortunately, due to a late change to flight scheduling, I had to settle for an A320. It would have been nice to get an email when the change was made rather than find out when rechecking the booking on the off-chance ! No matter, Economy Plus (I upgraded myself for an extra USD15) was worth it – near the front of the plane and no issues with bags that were very heavy !

Air New Zealand: Kudos to the national carrier for taking on Virgin Australia’s disrupt pax such as myself. Considering the lack of attention to detail at VA’s end, the efforts, particularly of the Melbourne Koru Lounge staff, were greatly appreciated – nothing was a bother.  Well done. 

G is for Golden Gate Bridge : Is 75 years old this year and looking robustly healthy.

Being a suspension bridge, the weight of the roadway is hung from two cables that pass through the two main towers and are fixed in concrete at each end. The cables themselves are made of 27,572 strands of wire which means there are 80,000 miles (129,000 km) of wire in the main cables.  Apparently, the bridge has approximately 1,200,000 rivets in total.  Interestingly enough, previous significant anniversaries have involved ‘uncontrolled’ pedestrian access to the bridge i.e. traffic has been stopped and you could walk over it – not this time. On previous occasions, such ‘uncontrolled’ access has often led to trouble, even riots. So the organisers nixed that one this time around. There’s a new visitor’s centre on the San Francisco side of the bridge now which is pretty good – they offer walking tours and I can definitely recommend them. However, for some reason, the Center is quite distant to the gift shop / cafe. Not sure why.

H is for Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon (West Rim): A piece of ‘unfinished business’ as a kind friend reminded me when I was planning this. I remember as a kid watching some American tv programme about the Hoover Dam as magnificent piece of engineering towering above something or other. Of course our own Clyde Dam isn’t bad too but given that it will always remain under the spectre of the Muldoon ‘Think Big’ programme, its value to the nation is somewhat lessened, methinks. Some interesting factoids about the Dam:

–Known as the Boulder Dam (between 1933 and 1947)

–It bisects two states, Nevada and Arizona – there are clocks on the penstock towers on either side of the divide (necessary as Arizona does not observe daylight saving)

–Approximately 2.48 million cubic metres of concrete were poured in to make the Dam. Put another way,

there is enough concrete in the dam to pave a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York. And it was not done in a single pour, mind – the reason being that concrete heats and expands on setting and if the entire dam was done as a single pour, it would take about 125 years to cool.

–Most of power generated goes to California (the biggest user is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California). Nevada only gets about 25% of the total power generated and Arizona about 19%.

I would have liked to tour it, actually but this was a sideshow en route to the Grand Canyon West Rim. And what of GCW ? Having read a few of the accident reports (and hating Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters as well), I elected not to take a chopper ride of the place (they are frequent though). But I did hand over money to try the new ‘Skywalk’ despite some critical feedback from many that it might be a waste of time – it is in the sense you can’t take cameras on it (because they take photos of you which they sell to you at usurious prices). But considering that you are about 1,450 metres above the Colorado River (yes, you can see directly down that far), it’s an impressive piece of engineering. Apparently, the foundations (this is technically a cantilevered bridge although it is a horseshoe shaped thing) could support something like 70 Boeing 747 aircraft or an 8.0 magnitude earthquake – that’s impressive. The Skywalk is part of Eagle Point – so called because there is clearly an eagle-shaped formation in the rocks opposite the point which is considered sacred to the local Indian tribe (the Hualapai).  The other attraction in GCW is Guano Point, so called because the bat cave that was discovered here was mined for the guano (that’s droppings to you and me) in order to make fertiliser, explosives and even cosmetics (yes, it’s true). An engineer estimated that the cave contained about 100,000 tons of guano and the US Guano Corporation bought the rights to mine the cave in 1957. Unfortunately, the engineer was way off the mark – the actual yield was only about 1000 tons (at about $100 a ton) so the corporation’s multi million dollar investment in building a cable car set up to hoist and transport the guano across the river (yes, it was built), was completely worthless and mining ceased in 1960. “Guano’s Folly” might therefore be a better name for the point. There are two small hills which are worth climbing (despite the heat) to get a better view of the surrounding area – if you want half-decent photographs, it’s a must. GCW (in shorthand) is Hualapai Indian Reservation land – their tickets make the point that they are a ‘sovereign nation’ (not sure how that works in practice but there it is).  Travel tip: the food is better at Guano Point than Eagle Point. Ok, you have little say in exactly what you get (chicken or beef with sides) but it’s better. Remember, you only get one shot at getting lunch. And you can’t revisit any of the places unless you pay the admission fees again !

Footnote: Grand Canyon South is where the national park is as well as the Grand Canyon Village.  If you are wanting to see Lookout Studio, El Tovar Hotel and Buckey O’Neill’s cabin, you need to come here – it’s an entirely separate trip altogether. 

I is for “it’s the economy / election, stupid : Except for the excellent “Daily Show” and the McLaughlin Group, for the politico-masochists like myself, you can forget watching the news as it is dominated by domestic politics. It’s a month or two until the Party Conventions but you do get the feeling that the election is pretty much in full swing. While the tv ads were not as noticeable in LA, San Francisco or Seattle, turn on the tv in Nevada (Las Vegas) and you get it in your face pretty much immediately. It’s ugly, frankly and makes me feel rather relieved that this sort of campaigning is not the norm in New Zealand. Yet.

J is for jpegs (i.e. pictures taken with the digital camera): 4214 in total and about 100 various movie files, the bulk of which were taken at the Fountains of Bellagio.

K is for kakorrhaphiophobia: “the fear of failure“. As someone along the way was kind enough to mention that I suffer from this (and I do), I just thought I should highlight it.

L is for Los Angeles : City of Angels it may not be but a large sprawling metropolis. Regular readers will have been slightly bored to tears at previous accounts about the city. So I will keep it short:

Getty Center : Fantastic museum / gallery – for those of you who tire of the tackiness of the Hollywood tourists and the theme parks out Anaheim way, the Getty Center offers an oasis of calm and cultural stimulation like few other places.  If the 18th Century French furniture rooms don’t impress you, surely the vast art collection including van Gogh’s “Irises” will. Those going before August should also have a look at the Herb Ritts exhibition now on – Ritts was a photographer who did work for many of the fashion magazine and Conde Nast publications and there are pictures of Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford and others which are fantastic to look at. 

Melrose Place : not the tv one, the real one (West Hollywood) has a Farmer’s Market which has some very good fruit as well as some quirky bits and pieces such as a stall selling interesting lemonades (the cucumber one stuck in the memory).  Makes a welcome from the unreality world of television. 

M is for Municipal Transport : Four cities, four different approaches to getting people around.

San Francisco has an interesting mix of buses, tram / light rail (collectively the MUNI) and rapid train (BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit). However the BART is separate to the MUNI. That doesn’t matter much as the MUNI is more useful as it also includes the cable cars. Of course, the famed cable cars continue to provide good service for the tourists in the main but unless you want to go from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf (via Lombard Street) more or less, that’s all it is good for. The vintage trolleycars on the “F Market & Wharves” light rail line are another thing altogether – they come from all over the USA and if you are particularly lucky, you might be able to get on a Melbourne tram or a Milan tram as well which are all part of the heritage collection. I particularly like the PCC Streetcars which originate from the 1950s and are in very good condition. They are quicker than the Cable Cars if you want to get from the Union Square area to Fisherman’s Wharf / Pier 39.

Seattle offered the best system in more ways than one. For a start, light rail (Sounder Transit) from SEA-TAC into the city costs very little ($2.75 a journey) and it is very good. Don’t bother getting a cab or shuttle – you are far better off getting into the city and then arranging another form of transport from Westlake or Pioneer Square. The fleet of buses is an interesting mix. The local sort of joke that King County Metro (the equivalent of NZ Bus or Sydney Transit) acquires new buses in the same quantity as Southwest Airlines buys 737s – and that’s a lot. Although it will be scrapped later this year as a result of budget cuts, the ‘free ride area‘ around the CBD is an excellent way of getting people to use the bus system – the buses themselves are an odd-seeming mix of electric trolley buses so it feels like Wellington and diesel buses so it feels like Auckland. Their pre-pay transport card (known as ORCA) works fine across the whole network and a number of different operators (King County Metro / Sounder Transit). Why our Snapper cards don’t remains a mystery.  Seattle is not without some goofs, however. A new light rail system is in development but only one line has opened to date with the next stage scheduled to open in 2013. It’s nickname from an unofficial name of ‘South Lake Union Trolley‘ pretty much sums up what the locals think of it. They had a first go along the waterfront between 1982 to 2005 also running heritage streetcars but it got canned partly to make room for a sculpture park in the area. Many of the platforms and lines still remain and no-one really knows whether it will be brought back in to service in the future. Many of the streetcars are in fact ex-Melbourne trams which are lying idle in a depot – it’s quite sad.

Vegas has improved its bus system a little bit – the popular ‘Deuce‘ double decker bus has been supplemented by another service (single decker) known as the Strip & Downtown Express (SDX) which runs up and down the Strip as far as the Premium Outlet Malls (North and South) – but, and this is the trap for young players, does not stop at all the major casino hotels. Because I’d worked this out prior, this proved quite handy. Both the Deuce and the SDX stop at the MGM Grand (on the way up north, but not on the way back south). Combined with a walk, these are the best ways to get around Sin City.

LA is pretty hopeless without a cab, car or organised tour or someone to drive you around. The Metro system comprises of about five subway lines (a new one has recently opened and work is apparently happening on further extensions towards West Hollywood proper, they say). I think in my last LA report, I made the comment that those with money travel above ground while those without use the underground – sadly, it is true. But if you know where you are going, you should be fine in daylight hours.

N is for Networking : I’m lucky to have some friends and acquaintances who live in LA and San Francisco. And even though they might not be there, they have been generous with some travel advice. Of those I did catch up with, they were mostly in LA (they know who they are !) and it was good to either finally meet in person or catch up once again. Thank you for your very generous hospitality ! 

O is for Opera : Regular readers will know that I am not a huge opera fan, but I have my favourite works and I am trying to learn a little bit more each year. The West Coast is known for three major opera companies being LA Opera (Placido Domingo is the artistic director there), San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera. While LA usually takes a lot of the summer off, San Francisco continues and its 2011/2012 season included Verdi’s ‘Attila‘, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and John Adams’ “Nixon in China” – a work they have been trying to stage for over twenty-five years (it was a question of obtaining the rights, not the limitations of the stage). I went to the performances of ‘Attila‘ and “The Magic Flute” on consecutive nights.

As the name suggests, Verdi’s ‘Attilais about Attila, King of the Huns. It is not one of Verdi’s most performed works having been premiered in 1846 and then almost forgotten for a century before a revival in Venice in 1951 but seems to be undergoing a bit of a re-revival now with recent productions (in the US) at The Met (New York), Washington Concert Opera and in Seattle also. This was in fact Opening Night for this production and it was very well received. You can find my review of the performance here:

The Magic Flute has to be one of the most popular and well-known operas in the repertory and a complete contrast to the previous night. A new production (and again an Opening Night – maybe I should have brought my tails ?) designed by Japanese-born artist/ceramicist Jun Kaneko. This was also sung / spoken in English – updated with a few jokes for the modern San Francisco audience. Some of it was funny, some of it I didn’t get. Overall, a visually captivating production that hopefully won’t be restricted to this opera house. My review is here:

The venue, the War Memorial Opera House, is very good, even from the cheap(er) seats. There’s a lot of history within these walls that relates to diplomacy and not music also – the United Nations had its first conference and in fact the UN Charter was drafted and signed here and in the Herbst Theater next door. In 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco between Japan and the Allied Powers was also signed here in 1952.

Unfortunately, I was out of season for both Seattle Opera and LA Opera. The former is about to embark of a “Ring” cycle (which I have no interest in whoever is doing it) and the latter generally has a summer break before recommencing its new season in the Fall.

P is for Pike Place Market (Seattle) : A must-visit place when in Seattle. I wasn’t able to make any of the tours that they have for the markets so had to self-guide myself around. I’m sure I missed a few things but I saw pretty much what I wanted / needed to see. Some highlights: Under the main neon sign (compulsory photo stop) resides the market ‘mascot’ Rachel the Pig. She is in fact a bronze piggy bank and weighs about 250 kilos. Last year, some stupid taxi driver somehow managed to smash in to poor old Rachel. Luckily she has fully recovered and looks no worse for wear. The original Starbucks store is around here as well. Actually, the purists will tell you that this was actually the second store (the original was someplace else and long gone, I think) – it seems to have a permanent queue outside of it from about 9.00am in the morning until closing time, at least that is how it seemed to me. Suited me fine, I don’t like their coffee and I don’t want them asking for my name as likely I will have to spell it out for them. Pike Place Fish is definitely worth a visit, more so if you are able to catch them tossing fish. This tradition, apparently started out of a touch of laziness i.e. someone didn’t want to walk back and forth every time, has become world famous and indeed the philosophies behind the actual business have been turned into a best-selling book, DVD and management training course. Enlightenment can indeed be found through fish and its tossing. But not without a touch of controversy. A few years ago, PETA activists dressed up as fish and took up position lying down near the store. Given that there are no live fish for sale, this seems to me to be a complete waste of time. One suggestion for an inexpensive souvenir from here – buy an even number of oyster shooters. Not only are the shooters themselves delicious, but the shot glasses are not made from cheap glass, they are heavy, substantial pieces which also hold a nice amount of your favourite spirit alcohol. Beecher’s Handmade Cheese is another place which draws a crowd, one key reason being that it has apparently the best macaroni and cheese in the country (if you believe Oprah Winfrey). They make cheese on the premises and from the samples I was able to taste, it’s pretty good. Their “Flagship” cheese looks and feels like cheddar but they don’t call it that because they have been mixing and matching cultures used to make other types of cheeses such as Gruyere and Emmental in order to make it. They also offer various seasonal cheeses and the range on offer when I was there appeared to be leaning to softer brie / camembert types. The look and feel of the operation is similar to our Kapiti cheeses but arguably Beechers have taken artisanal (albeit now large-scale artisanal) cheeses to a new level in the United States.

Q is for Quizzical Rhetorical Questions : Once more, I have bitten my tongue and limited it to the top 5.

Why is it that in the US (perhaps only in California, but maybe elsewhere, I don’t know) that legitimate dinner table conversation can include talking about your current medication ? And (supplemental) who came up with the term psychopharmacologist‘ ?

Why is it so important to find out what your high school classmates are doing post-school / college ? (background: at a concert, prior to commencement and then during the interval and then afterwards, the two people sitting next to me more or less went through their entire high school yearbook – ‘do you remember X ?’, ‘what’s A doing now ?’, ‘have you seen D lately ?’. On the positive side, there seems little wrong with their memory).

Why would you advertise Gordon Ramsay and his new restaurant plastered in full, star relief on the replica of the Arc de Triomphe ? Do the owners of Paris Las Vegas know that he is British ?

Why would you take (holiday) pictures with an iPad ? Surely it is more efficient to use an iPhone !

When will Jim Cramer be found to be either clinically hyperactive or on the cusp of insanity ? (one viewing of ‘Mad Money’ on CNBC was more than enough for me !)


R is for Room Only : I’m not rich so I still travel on a relatively tight budget. So I do look out for a good deal on my accommodation as I’m sure most of you do. No different on this trip and I gave a try. Well, I like their tv commercials and their deals aren’t bad.

Sheraton Gateway LAX : Why stay at an airport hotel, you might be thinking ? Why not just head straight up to your first destination without mucking around somewhere ? Well, the original plan was to decamp, head out to the In ‘N Out burger joint on Sepulveda and watch planes land as you enjoy your cheeseburger and fries. Only that there wasn’t any need to do that – a club room on the top floor parallel to one main runway was available and that was more than enough entertainment for me !

Prescott Hotel San Francisco (Kimpton) : As well as getting a decent deal on the rate, this hotel was a tad closer to Union Square than the Hilton which I stayed at last time. Kimpton is the dominant chain in San Francisco (their flagship is the Sir Francis Drake hotel in Union Square) and this boutique hotel fits nicely against some of the larger properties that they have here. In the US, ’boutique’ is often code for a hotel with fewer than normal rooms or smaller rooms than the norm.  It’s true that the Prescott fits both definitions but to say that those matters should determine what sort of service to expect would be wrong. The Prescott is located in Post Street and within easy walking distance to Macys and other shopping areas in and around Union Square and a bit more removed from the homeless and vagrants who tend to hang around these blocks. The have free wine between 5pm and 7pm in the Library (and if you are lucky pizza as well) – granted it’s likely to be basic stuff but a glass of a light, fruity chenin blanc on a hot day is very welcome !

The Arctic Club, a Doubletree Property by Hilton (Seattle): The name might suggest some gathering of walruses or polar bears and indeed one feature of this historic and recently refurbished building are the terracotta walrus heads that are on the third floor of the external façade. You can also buy a toy walrus from the gift shop or, if you are lucky, there might be one in the minibar. The building itself was built in 1916 for the Club (which sadly is no more, having been dissolved in 1971) which was established in 1908 as a social community for Seattle businessmen with ties to Alaska, former residents of Alaska and adventurers, miners and wealthy eccentrics who returned to Seattle and brought with them the riches of the Arctic. And no, I don’t mean fish, I mean gold from the Yukon. One feature of the building / hotel is the Dome Room ballroom, which is apparently the largest facility of its type in the Northwest. I did have the chance to have a quick look as it was being prepared to host a wedding – it’s a beautiful room ideal for that sort of thing. BTW, Doubletree have a nice way of greeting you (although maybe not so if you suffer from a particular allergy or diabetes, perhaps) – they give you a warm, chocolate cookie on arrival (not good if you are gluten or nut intolerant but I am neither). One point of difference which I thought was great – a fully stocked desk stationery drawer – it is true, their loss rate for these items would be very high but I thought it was great.

MGM Grand Las Vegas: Yes, I stayed here last time. Yes, it was not an adventurous choice. Yes, for a little bit extra, I could have stayed at the Skylofts or the Signature Suites. So why settle for just a King Room ? Because it was USD 200 for three nights (taxes and ‘resort fee’ excluded), that’s why. Most of the rooms have undergone a ‘grand renovation’ although, as one might expect, this has been limited to the room and not the bathroom for logistical reasons. Rather fortunately, I got a room the “West Wing”. It does mean that you are in the extreme western arm of the hotel, thus necessitating a bit of a hike from the lift lobby but once you work out that in fact it has easier access to the Strip and New York New York etc, it is actually very handy. I liked the minimalist nature of the room – easy on the eye, few moving parts to worry about and more space to spread out. I’d be more than happy with the same again should I ever return to Vegas (which I doubt).

The Orlando Hotel (West Hollywood): Because of something happening Downtown causing each and every hotel to offer room rates of USD 320 plus (believe me, I checked), a stay in West Hollywood was necessitated – the Sofitel LA and SLS Beverly Hills being a little too expensive (possibly for the same / similar reason), a small boutique property was needed and this is as good as you will find anywhere. The rooms are nicely sized, well maintained and its location very near the Beverly Center and 3rd Street generally means that a good place to eat / drink is not far away at all. And a few attractive girls in bikinis suntanning around the small pool area was an additional bonus. I’d happily stay here again.

S is for Seattle: I don’t know about you but when I think of Seattle, I think of Boeing (see above), Frasier (the tv comedy series) and Starbucks. But the area is home to many IT giants and associated industries – indeed, Microsoft’s Global HQ is located in Redmond which is near Bellevue to east of the main CBD which itself is home to and RealNetworks amongst others.  The Seattle Metropolitan area is therefore made up of three main areas being Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue which explains why the local international airport is commonly known as SEA-TAC (Seattle / Tacoma). Seattle, indeed much of Washington State, is relatively young in terms of colonisation and settlement (first white settlements were from about the 1850s, the Native Americans having lived in the area for approximately 4000 years)  and the area has an interesting boom-bust history most notably in the early part of the 1900s through to the 1920s. Being the gateway to the Arctic and Alaska, when the Klondike gold rush occurred, Seattle quickly boomed not as a city of wealth but as a port and as a supply ‘factory’ to those heading to and from Alaska.  A shipbuilding boom followed on soon after which was quickly quelled by the Seattle General Strike in 1919, the first of its kind in the US.  Labour issues meant that the city was hit hard in the Great Depression, picking itself up just before World War 2 as the Boeing factory started making military aircraft in the region. The 1960s and early 1970s were not good times as well and it was during this time that two local real estate agents put up an infamous billboard reading “Will the last person leaving Seattle Turn out the lights“. Since the 1980s, things have not been that bad although to be fair, not as tumultuous since the end of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. It’s still ranked relatively highly as a good place to live and work on the major world surveys (despite it being the source / home to grunge music).  The name “Seattle” is an anglicisation of the name of the dominant Native American (Duwamish) chief at the time of first white settlement – his name would likely be correctly spelled as “Si’ahl” or “Seathl” depending on where you went to school. Under his leadership, the Duwamish tribes in the area were very helpful to the settlers and worked hard to manage a friendly and peaceful co-existence with them.  However, in a parallel to New Zealand, promises made in terms of land access rights and so forth weren’t kept and even now there are some underlying grievances. From a weather standpoint, the city is not noted for sunny days – for the statistical nerds, between May and September (mostly), the city enjoys about 71 sunny days a year. I am reliably told that between October and May, you can be almost guaranteed six cloudy or mostly cloudy days a week. It’s also on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’ so it is earthquake-prone, the last major shake happening in 2001. 

Best place for pictures of the city skyline: personal opinion, go to Kerry Park. A lot of people might say go to the Space Needle but I wouldn’t bother.

T is for TSA and airport security: Surely the worst thing about travelling in the US (apart from surly service on their domestic airlines and that damned baggage fee) is going through airport security. Actually ‘going’ is complete the wrong word – it is more like being herded. If someone is not shouting out instructions, then someone is holding up the line or doing something too slowly or wrong. Of course, you must always take your shoes off and gentlemen, your belts as well. Remember that you will need two of those plastic bins to put all your gear into, one is not enough. Two and a bit years since the last trip and you have to learn a new position for the new scanning machine they have – stand to the side, arms up, cross your hands, wait for the scan to sweep past. They are pretty sensitive to all metal however small or light –  This is not done to everyone (it depends – some airports, everyone goes through it, at others, the older ‘gate’ scanners are the other option. You just have to grin and bear it. Horrid.

U is for Utilisation of disposable cash (i.e. shopping) : How could you not given the exchange rate ?

In San Francisco: I got in just as Macys was starting its half-yearly sale. This was particularly convenient as I needed an extra bag. I won’t go into the details as top how long it took to get it, but the end result was buying something, getting a completely different free bag (which was better than the one I would have originally got) and a free leftover gift just for good measure. A half-price Tommy Hilfiger billfold wallet was an added bonus. A note / nod to my friends who suggested I should look in at Gumps on Post Street – yes, this is a lovely store of expensive home furnishing, other related items and things you probably had no idea you wanted but when you see them you think ‘why not’ ? Knowing my baggage limitations, I did not indulge, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pay them a visit again – you’ll find them at 135 Post Street.

In Seattle: Most of the loot was spent at the Boeing Shop. This was good and bad. Good because I now have models of the 777-300ER, the 747-8, the 787-8 and the Dreamlifter which is a converted 747 freighter specifically designed to transport 787 parts from all over the world. Bad because I blew the budget and I now need display space for the aforementioned models. Which means I will need to dispose of something or create something that isn’t there. What a dilemma. Seattle is home to Nordstrom and coincidentally, they too were matching Macy’s sale. That said, the smarter, cannier crowd do a once-over and then head to Nordstrom Rack – now it would be true that outside of sale time, their prices are sharp. If you had been with me, you would have seen my brow furrow and tongue clicking and muttering ‘not sharp enough’. If your standard mainline sale is at least 30% off, you’d expect the discount line to be a little sharper. Not this time – and not only in Seattle  at the LA equivalent as well.

In Vegas:   The “Strip & Downtown Express” connects the outlets malls North and South, and this is a good thing. Now, the ‘high-falutin’ of you will have goggled in wonderment as to why I should subject myself to outlet shopping when the casinos themselves offer some of the best shopping in the world (supposedly), You forget, dear Reader, that I have been to Vegas before. I know how kitsch meets tacky meets iconoclastic classlessness and find new iterations and depths seemingly every day. One should not indulge in the same things mindlessly and repeatedly if only for one’s good mental health.  If you know what you want, the shopping here can be quite productive although I will say that in terms of gear from adidas and Nike, Melbourne offers a better shopping experience (no kidding). You can also find Chinese tourists having a blazing row with sales staff – at least that is what I encountered at the TUMI Outlet store.  Their translator appeared to be saying that the important gentleman wanted the black bag in the larger size but not the one on display and the sales attendant was repeatedly indicating that one had been sourced and was on the way. The relief on his face when I got to the counter and started speaking English with a smile was palpable.

In LA: If you know about Loehmann’s just smile, nod sagely and give me credit where credit is due. If you don’t know about Loehmanns, let’s just say that if you want designer fashion (particularly women’s but the men’s range is pretty good), this should be your first port of call – the discounts from the retail prices are substantial and if you are in the right place at the right time, the items on offer are better than Nordstrom Rack or the Macy’s sale. I’m not telling you what I got – it wasn’t much. But I will tell you that I did get one item I definitely wanted and the discount from retail was more than 50% with an additional 25% discount because it was clear-out time. The other one was about 40% off retail and a 40% discount off that which was very welcome. Don’t tell me I don’t know how / where to shop !  Had I room for another book (I didn’t – I made the most of free shipping in the States from Amazon), I would have liked to have got the Herb Ritts exhibition book from the Getty Center. But I will need three or four frames (and will need to work out where to put them as well) for small prints from the collection including the van Gogh’s Irises. 

V is for Vegas 2.0: Back again and relatively soon – what’s changed ? Some things but not others. The glam properties are still glam, the new players are there but not as many, the older ‘institutions’ are losing their place in the sun and the bare bones of broken dreams remain in the sun, waiting for something to happen. Pretty typical Vegas, I guess.

With a view to profit / position preservation, refurbishments are the order of the day and the current list is quite extensive:

The MGM Grand is pretty much through a $160-million room renovation in February, which includes the property’s 3,570 rooms and 642 suites in the main tower.

–Las Vegas Sands will renovate approximately a thousand rooms in The Venetian

–The Riviera Hotel & Casino will undergo a $20 million to $30 million refurbishment to all of the public areas within the casino.

–The 2,568 rooms in The Bellagio’s main tower underwent a $70-million renovation, which was completed in January.

–The Golden Gate Casino & Hotel in downtown Las Vegas is undergoing a $12-million expansion.

–Caesars Palace also is in the midst of a two-year revitalization that began in March 2011, which encompasses new entertainment offerings, the addition of two new restaurants and two new hotel towers

One of the newest properties there is The Cosmopolitan which is located south of the Bellagio. It has good room rates on offer, one key reason for that is because it is currently owned by Deutsche Bank (yes, they foreclosed on the property !). That says a lot about what has been happening in the last few years – just like everywhere else, ambitious projects have not survived the global financial crisis intact although this one did manage to get completed (eventually). It is also associated (i.e. marketed by but not actually part of) both the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton chains – it seems a bit chaotic and I suppose it is but the property itself is almost brand new and feels very modern and does not lack for luxury. The more things change, the more they stay the same !

W is for Wine : Having seen vineyards in France (Reims / Epernay), South Australia (Barossa / McLaren Vale), NSW (Hunter Valley), Victoria (Yarra Valley) and parts of NZ, I was keen to visit a new place and see what it was like. But I have to say my expectations were not that high – my first encounter with premium US Wine was not a happy experience. Three bottles of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon (I don’t remember which year) which my brother was pleased as punch to acquire. Until he opened the first one. We all had a taste and agreed unanimously that it was corked. Lather, rinse and repeat for bottle 2. We didn’t risk bottle 3. One good experience, although not outstanding, was with Roederer Estate and their non-vintage sparkler. So is all US wine this bad ? Well, if you based it (unfairly) on the three that I got to see, then probably yes.

Nicholson Ranch Winery (Sonoma): Owned by a Greek-American family (the Nikoulopoulos clan), this small boutique winery is from the Sonoma Valley – it’s a pretty little property with enough space for a wedding or a medium-sized soiree / party.  They produce Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah – we tried all three. To be blunt, my New World / Australasian palate was disappointed. The wines weren’t corked or badly made, they just lacked depth and character. The chardonnay seemed almost diluted, the pinot rather thin, the merlot was ok and the syrah not particularly vibrant in terms of the palate.

Madonna Estate, Mt. St. John (Napa): The building that you go seems unremarkable – it’s like a 1950’s house, I guess and not that attractive. But the back of house area including the barrel hall is impressive. Owned by the Bartolucci family, Madonna Estate prides itself on being organic – all fine. The range of wines on offer at the tasting room was also substantial but just lacked any sort of distinctive character – their flagship wine was a reserve 2005 cabernet. An extra $5 charge for a sample of that one. But again, for a seven year old cabernet, you would be looking for complexities from cellaring and bottle age – a fuller, mouthfilling, wine. This was good, but not as good as a Barossa cab or even a cab sav.

Lunch in Yountville at V Marketplace (Yountville): We stopped here for lunch after the two wineries. Yountville is best known as the location of one of the best restaurants in the world, the French Laundry (three Michelin stars, of course). Unfortunately, we only drove past it at some speed. So, without a reservation for that place or for Bouchon (one Michelin star, you should know). But Bouchon has a bakery and a tuna salad roll and a coconut macaroon were pretty good, I have to say. A post-lunch wander to some local shops was fruitful – I now have the design layout and the furniture for the wine room / dining room for my dream house. I can’t describe it too you, but I have a picture of it.  The room is pretty spartan, the amount of wine cases is not. You get the idea.

Sutter Home (Napa): Established in the late 1800s, Sutter Home has become a household name for its creation of White Zinfandel in the early 1970s. It has become the second largest, independent family-run winery in the United States – so for New Zealand audiences, think something like Nobilo in terms of variety and volume.  The ‘retro’ (i.e. old style labels) pinot grigio was ok – not too dry, but not that sweet either, a pleasant wine you might serve with a good salad, maybe. The retro zinfandel was better and had more sweet / spicy characteristics but had no depth on the back palate (Australian zins do – they are fantastic to drink, but I suppose that is what you come to expect !). It’s hard to describe their white zinfandel – an accidental creature to be sure but light and slightly sweet, rather like a grenache. Pleasant enough as a summer aperitif but I think I will stick to champagne.

Notwithstanding the above, I will say this – Ms. K and I had a few glasses of an excellent Californian organic syrah – that was very good !

X is the Roman Numeral for 10 – The Top 10 highlights were:

Visiting the Boeing Factory: (even though they didn’t allow pictures) If you love aircraft, you have to come here.

Visiting the Museum of Flight at Seattle and seeing the Concorde, the first 747 and 737 and the SR71 Blackbird. Just in the same room as those planes was a fantastic experience for me

Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam – The Grand Canyon was definitely something worth seeing – Guano Point offers a fantastic view of the West Rim.

San Francisco Symphony: A great pleasure to hear one of the best orchestras in the world.

Stephen Hough and the Seattle Symphony: a bravura, tour de force of dynamic pianism by one of the best concert pianists in the world today.

San Francisco Opera: Such a pleasure to go to two opening night performances which were excellent.

Getty Center: This is a great place to visit and special thanks to my good friend Ms. K for taking me out there. Highlights not only included van Gogh’s “Irises” which is one outstanding piece of the art collection, but the rooms exhibiting French furniture and furnishings from the period of Louis XIV onwards which are sumptuous and magnificent. A photography exhibition of Herb Ritts’ work was also on and I wish I had space to bring back the exhibition book – maybe I’ll order it.

Catching up with several friends and meeting new ones: thanks to all for their generous hospitality.

The cheeseburger and fries from Pearl’s Burgers in San Francisco – see above.

The upgrade to Business Class from Melbourne back to Auckland: An unexpected and welcome surprise considering that Virgin Australia had managed to cancel my flight without any prior warning. Kudos to the Air New Zealand Melbourne staff (see above).


Y is for YMMV (Your Mileage Might Vary) or “you have to be kidding”: What is really annoying about US pricing (and all websites, it seems) is the fact that all prices are advertised as tax exclusive. Rates vary depending on the state you visit. For example, California’s basic sales tax is 7.25% but could be as much in the end as 9.75% after other local taxes are added. Arizona’s sales tax is likely to be (because it depends) 6.6%. Washington State’s (i.e. Seattle’s) accommodation tax (for properties with 60 plus rooms)  is 15.65% which explains why the room rates are artificially high. It also has a tax on parking garages which works out to be 22% which, somewhat ironically, is used to partially fund public transport. Nevada (or rather Clark County, I should say) also has an accommodation tax of 12% and a general sales tax of 6.85% – don’t forget the additional taxes specific to Clark County being 0.25% for flood control, 0.50% for mass transit, 0.25% to fund the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and 0.25% for the addition of police officers. As you can see, there is absolutely no point in trying to precisely calculate what the final price will be. Take a breath, add roughly 10% to the advertised list price and you should get change.

Z is for zelotypia: If, dear Reader, you are getting unusually intense feelings of jealousy after reading all this nonsense, please be reminded that you too can travel to the USA and experience all of the above at your own leisure (except I have no intention of lending you my friends).

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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