USA May 2006
After selling my London flat I had some time on my hands before I moved into my new home, so I took a trip to the US. I decided on this trip to add a few more states to my list.
I started by flying to Amarillo to see Laurie and her brother Jerry. It was good to just relax and enjoy a nice family time watching DVDs, chatting and meeting some of Laurie's friends for dinner at the Big Texan steak house. I have to say, the people in Amarillo are very friendly.
Laurie also had a soon to expire voucher for the Boots and Jeans store. On a previous trip I'd been lucky enough to pick up some great cowboy boots in exotic skins from their bargain rack and hoped for some more.
Unfortunately there were very few bargains this trip and none in my size. The regular priced black snakeskin boots I liked were also not in my size, but I found a rich brown pair that looked smart.
From Amarillo I flew all the way to Hawaii, to the island of Oahu. Famous for Hawaii 5-0 (being remade as a movie), Waikiki beach, Honolulu and Pearl Harbour.
Unfortunately I didn't enjoy Oahu as much as I had hoped. With most of the 'authentic' Hawaiian goods being made in China, and an economy that relies totally on tourism now that the sugar and pineapple industries are going or gone, it had a slightly tacky image that didn't sit well with me.
Not that there isn't plenty to do. If you fancy an evening luau I suggest choosing carefully, Germaine's luau started well, but the food was mediocre and in the spirit of giving you your money's worth the entertainment dragged on and on.
If you can get away from the main tourist sites, and venture to some of the quieter beaches, there are some beautiful sights and peaceful moments. My suggestion is if you are planning a trip of more than a couple of days, do yourself a favour and see the other islands, particularly Hawaii - the Big Island - with it's flowing lava from Kilauea that is said to be the world's most active volcano. Otherwise avoid the more manufactured entertainments and enjoy what nature has to offer, be it the beaches, rainforest and waterfalls, or the cultural history of the island.
Another hint. Don't fly with Southwest Airlines / ATA to Hawaii! The service is dreadful. You get what you pay for so choose a respectable airline. You'll get better service, decent food, and a better standard of comfort. I only chose Southwest because they flew out of Amarillo, but having experienced the airline now I'd only choose them in an emergency and for a short flight.
I flew out of Hawaii on ATA, an airline where you seat yourself on a first come first served basis. Fortunately I was on the plane fairly early as it was full and many people couldn't stow their carry on bags. I'm not surprised; why do some Americans feel that they have to take a huge and heavy bag as carry on? UK airlines have strict size and weight guidelines for carry on bags; people follow the rules and everyone gets to find a place for them.
Even though flying from Hawaii is a fairly long overnight flight, they don't offer pillows on ATA so take your own! Also you might want to take your own food. The snack pack they offer contains sugar filled granola bars, sugar filled cookies, sugar enriched strawberry flavoured dried cranberries... I'm still trying to figure out what was so bad about the taste of a cranberry that they had to add strawberry flavour and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. Just imagine a plane full of passengers having a full on sugar rush and the after effects when the blood sugar levels drop. Scary!
I survived the flight and after a change of plane I arrived in Salt Lake City. No time to stop though, I had a date with Yellowstone National Park. A little over 6 hours driving time later I arrived in West Yellowstone. Of course, I had to stay at the Three Bear Lodge!
Travelling to Yellowstone also gave me an opportunity to visit three more US states, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
I'd wanted to visit Yellowstone for some time, but the visit was more obviously urgent after reading books like Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' and seeing the BBCs 'Supervolcano'.
Yellowstone National Park sits on top of one of the worlds largest volcanoes. Some say that Yellowstone shows no signs of eruption and the probability of an eruption in the next few thousand years is extremely low. Others claim the Yellowstone volcano erupts every 600,000 years and that the last eruption was 640,000 years ago - meaning we're overdue for an eruption. Of course, when you're talking about timescales of half a million years, even if I lived to be 100 or more the chances of being around for an eruption are slight. Sometimes it pays to be cautious though! I had the time and the money and I've seen Yellowstone now, so if it erupts I'll be able to say I remember Yellowstone before the Western half of the United States was covered in volcanic ash and the world was plunged into freezing darkness.
After that depressing thought it's time to take a more upbeat approach and look at what half a million years of nature can do after a Yellowstone eruption. Who better to show me than SeeYellowstone Park Tours.
My first full day was a tour of the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole.
Yellowstone is full of wildlife. Eagles, bison, elk, moose, deer and bear, coyotes and wolves, you never know what you might see next!
After a long drive south we arrived at Grand Teton National Park, home to the Teton range and Jackson Lake. There are three Tetons, the South, Middle and the Grand Teton itself at 13,770 feet high. Also from Jackson Lake you can see great views of Mount Moran.
Jackson Lake is quite stunning, at around 15 miles long and 7 miles wide, although even in summer the temperature of the water can be cool.
Near Jackson Lake is Signal Mountain, and as you drive up there are perfect views of the Tetons, Jackson Lake and the 'Jackson Hole' area. The town of Jackson, Jackson Lake and Jackson Hole were named after David Jackson, an extremely successful fur trapper. The valley surrounded by mountains gives rise to the name 'Hole'.
After a stop south of the National Park at the town of Jackson, we headed back to West Yellowstone to spend a quiet evening taking in the scenery, enjoying a good meal and chatting to some of the friendly store owners.
My next full day trip was the 'lower loop tour', including Old Faithful, geysers, sulphur pits and waterfalls.
Leaving West Yellowstone we travelled east into the park and then south to Firehole Falls. A lovely spot with 40ft falls and a pleasant rainbow from the spray over the falls, this was a great start to the day.
Old Faithful is one of Yellowstone's main attractions, the name coming from the predictability of it's eruptions. Eruptions at Old Faithful last anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes. Water and steam sprays up to 184 ft vertically. The average interval of Old Faithful was every 76 minutes. In the winter of 1998 an earthquake effected the time interval of Old Faithful. Eruptions now occur approximately every 80 minutes.
Contrary to popular belief Old Faithful is not the largest geyser, but it is the most predictable and erupts most frequently.
Between the Upper Geyser Basin where Old Faithful can be found and the West Thumb Geyser Basin you drive through Craig Pass. Here you will see the sign for the Continental Divide, a ridge of mountains marking the divide where water either drains west to the Pacific Ocean, or north and south east to the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico.
At West Thumb there are some of the most amazing pools. The Abyss pool has a temperature of over 170° F, with rich colour and microbial mats. Other pools include the black pool, blue funnel spring, surging spring, and the west thumb paint pots, hot mud springs that bubble and froth constantly.
The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone river are also sights worth seeing. The lower falls are the tallest waterfall in Yellowstone at 308ft just east of Canyon Village. Inspiration Point and Lookout Point are great places to view the lower falls.
From Yellowstone my next stop was to San Francisco. I hadn't been for a while and wanted to drop in and see what was new. I spent a pleasant couple of days, but soon I was ready for my next adventure, Yosemite.
Unfortunately as I approached Yosemite the weather worsened and the photos are not as great as I would have wanted. So I am determined to visit again and see Yosemite in a better light.
Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada mountains and covers around 12000 square miles. Yosemite has amazing waterfalls, including the 2425 ft Yosemite Falls that flows from winter through to early summer. Other tall falls include Ribbon Fall at 1612 ft and Staircase Falls at 1300 ft.
Yosemite Valley at around 3000 ft deep is home to unique rock formations. Half Dome rises 4000 ft above the valley and some fools rock climb to the top. Another favourite of rock climbers is El Capitan. At 3000 ft high it is the largest granite monolith in the world.
There are also groves of giant sequoia trees, the tallest longest lived trees in the world. Next time I visit Yosemite I plan to stay the night there and take my time to explore the amazing beauty of the place.
Driving on from Yosemite I stayed the night in Fresno before driving down to Palm Springs for a week or so spent relaxing.
There is nothing better than spending time in the hot tub or the pool with friends, enjoying a cocktail, watching the sun go down behind the mountains and seeing the stars come out.
But unfortunately time flies when you're relaxing in Palm Springs, and before I knew it my return flight was approaching. I tried to change the flight to stay just a little longer, but the airlines love to say no. On the way to the airport I decided to take in the J Paul Getty Museum and see the architecture, art and gardens.
The Museum, thanks to Getty, has a treasure of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities; drawings, paintings, sculptures and more recent items including photographs. There are also exhibitions of loaned works.
The Museum and the gardens are worth the visit for themselves too.