Thoughts on a two-week holiday in California

It’s my first day back at work today after two weeks spent visiting and travelling up the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Before it all gets lost in the mists of time I want to capture my thoughts to look back on.

  • Virgin Atlantic’s ‘automated’ check-in process at Heathrow is abysmal. It felt like a flashback to the early days of self-service checkouts in supermarkets, albeit in a much more stressful time-sensitive situation. The ‘job to be done’ of a check-in assistant isn’t just to review your passport and tag your bags, it is also to resolve any situations that come up such as overweight luggage and relieve the tension of the airport a little bit. Replacing this with machines is a bad idea, but I am sure there is no going back. The staff that were on hand weren’t too happy about it either.
Checking in, all by yourself

Checking in, all by yourself

  • The exchange rate is terrible. With credit card fees taken into account it wasn’t too much of a stretch to just change the $ sign to a £ and be roughly correct. Great for mental conversions between the two currencies, not so great on the wallet. Despite our plane tickets being mostly paid for by airline points it was still on balance the most expensive holiday we’ve ever had. We joked that each meal consistently cost us around £50-60 for two adults and two children, unless we went out for something special in which case it was more.
  • There’s not much point in going to upmarket restaurants when travelling with young children. It’s not worth trading a slightly better dinner and larger expense for battling over trying something new. I know I was much worse than my own children when I was their age (they at least eat vegetables, which I am not sure I did!), I just have a newfound appreciation of it now.
  • Never underestimate how much the kids love a swimming pool of any kind, and how many hours of joy it will bring them.
  • I am so grateful that in the UK our retailers have to advertise an ‘all in’ price for consumers. It was horrible to think you were paying X but then finding out at the checkout you were actually paying X + Y% in tax and sometimes with multiple additional taxes, expecially in hotels. Blazing Saddles in San Francisco added a 4% ‘convenience charge’ for using a credit/debit card, “kind of a tax” as the lady told us. How convenient!
  • There is zero consistency in paying for stuff. Tap your card here, key your pin in there, swipe for this one and sign this screen/bit of paper. Occasionally, do more than one of those things. Sometimes you get an automated detailed email of your transaction and other times you don’t.
  • The California coast is exceptionally beautiful and surprisingly sparsely populated. We tried to travel up State Route 1, along the coast, as much as we could and were consistently treated to gorgeous scenery and wildlife. We really got a feel for just how big the state and the country must be.
  • Criticism of Americans for not having passports and travelling internationally is unfair. There is so much to see in their own country that there is much less of a reason to go travelling abroad. We were sweltering in 30C heat in Los Angeles and this dropped by 10 degrees when we travelled a little north. We were marvelling at how we could need hoodies in the evening whereas a couple of hundred miles to the east of us in Death Valley they had temperatures of 51C.
  • Cambria was a personal favourite for me. Deserted beaches, wild, crashing waves, elephant seals, a quaint town and a wonderful boardwalk. We saw Emilio Estevez there too, who happened to be holidaying in the same hotel.
  • Hearst Castle had the best outdoor swimming pool I have ever seen. Apparently it is still used by the Hearst family, but closed to the public. We were itching to take a dip.
The outdoor pool at Hearst Castle

The outdoor pool at Hearst Castle

  • Disneyland is so much fun, even with older children. I was very glad that we paid the $15 each on top of our ticket prices so that we could book our place in the speedy queue for the next ride. Hyperspace Mountain (formerly Space Mountain, now rebranded to be more Star Wars) was punch-the-air awesome and there are loads more great rides to go on. The Star Wars land was incredibly well done, with even the cafes and toilets fitting in with the theme. We started walking home down Main Street USA when the evening finale started and it was a great spot to watch the amazing show; fireworks, acrobatics, lasers, fake snow — it was contrived but it was still breathtaking.
Star Wars land

Star Wars land

Star Wars canteen

Star Wars canteen

More Star Wars canteen

More Star Wars canteen

  • Universal Studios was great, but for me it wasn’t quite as good as Disneyland and definitely not worth the eye-watering admission price. I was lucky enough to visit as a small boy in the 1980s and some of it hadn’t changed — the Jaws and ‘subway station in an earthquake’ sequences on the tram studio tour was just as I remembered and it was cool to have them scare my kids just like it scared me back in the day. The War of the Worlds set with the destroyed jumbo jet on the tram tour was incredible, as was the 3D glasses Fast and Furious sequence. With the notable exceptions of the Jurassic Park-themed gigantic flume ride and The Mummy-themed rollercoaster, all of the other rides were simulator-based which got a little tedious towards the end of the day.
A crashed plane from _War Of The Worlds_

A crashed plane from _War Of The Worlds_

Krustyland

Krustyland

  • The Harry Potter-themed land at Universal Studios was unbelievable in its size and scope. You felt as though you could enter many of the little shops and houses, and with a lot of them you could. The snow-covered rooftops didn’t fool us in the hot weather but we were grateful that the park had fans with water misters littered everywhere to cool us off.
Hogwarts, I presume

Hogwarts, I presume

  • Breakdowns on the rides and shows seemed to be surprisingly common. We started to get a little used to audio notices that the ride was being held and would restart shortly.
  • For such historical places as the Universal Studios lot and Disneyland there was a surprising lack of history that you could go and find out about. Universal Studios didn’t have a book store, although the person I asked said there used to be one, which is probably a sad take on how peoples’ interests have changed over time.
  • I get car envy every time I travel abroad. Our car is so dated and low-spec whereas our rental cars seem to come with all mod cons. The Nissan Pathfinder we rented had some amazing features such as indicator lights near the wing mirrors to let you know that someone is in your blind spot, and an overhead parking camera that I still for the life of me cannot work out how it functioned.
  • Americans really know how to do ice cream. We fell in love with McConnell’s in Santa Barbara and progressed from there. It’s going to be tough to break the ice cream-a-day habit.
McConnell's marvellous menu

McConnell’s marvellous menu

  • The drive along Big Sur is just as stunning as everyone says. We had to stop ourselves from parking up every few minutes to take pictures.
  • Monterey was probably my favourite place of the whole trip. Big enough to have a good selection of paces to eat, tons of wildlife on the doorstep — we saw humpback whales and kayaked with seals and sea-lions — and a beautiful place to wander around in.
  • Neighbouring Carmel was gorgeous but we just stopped there for lunch; if we had more time I would have liked to have spent it there. Monterey’s car week had attracted tons of people to the area and it was by sheer luck that we managed to park there.
A car in Carmel

A car in Carmel

More cars in Carmel

More cars in Carmel

...and more

…and more

Beautiful old Porsche in Carmel

Beautiful old Porsche in Carmel

The most disgustingly-decorated BMW I've ever seen

The most disgustingly-decorated BMW I’ve ever seen

  • I could never get used to the warnings that I was in a Tsunami Hazard Zone.
Tsunami Hazard Zone in Monterey

Tsunami Hazard Zone in Monterey

  • Monterey, Carmel and Salinas are well aware of their heritage with regards to John Steinbeck. Reminders of him are everywhere you look. I was in my element. The highlight of the National Steinbeck Center’s exhibits is the original Rocinante which Steinbeck had built for his journey across America with his dog, Charley. It was wonderful to see it.
Inscription in the Carmel Bakery

Inscription in the Carmel Bakery

Mural on a wall across the street from the National Steinbeck Center

Mural on a wall across the street from the National Steinbeck Center

Steinbeck's _Rocinante_

Steinbeck’s _Rocinante_

  • San Francisco was much less ‘techy’ than I thought it would be. We saw more artisanal sandwich bars than evidence of technology companies. From reading articles on the Internet you would expect not to be able to move on the pavements/sidewalks for scooters and other forms of personal transport. Yes, we saw them, but they weren’t any more ubiquitous than the ‘park anywhere’ bikes in London. I also hadn’t appreciated just how far away Cupertino and Mountain View are from the city; we drove past them on our way there and they are completely separate places. The city felt like New York with more hills and slightly less people.
A typical San Francisco street scene

A typical San Francisco street scene

  • We’d been told about the amount of homeless people to expect in San Francisco but it was still shocking to see. So many people seemed to have complex mental health issues too. I’ve not knowingly walked past human faeces before but did so multiple times as we wandered around the city.
  • San Francisco smells a lot like Amsterdam did when I visited 20 years ago. The sweet smell of cannabis wafts past you on a regular basis as you walk around. What we didn’t see was many places selling it, whereas in Amsterdam it seemed to be for sale everywhere.
  • Alcatraz was worth seeing and the audio tour was fantastic, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by it. Maybe its reputation is so big that it would always disappoint. There was a lot of history revealed on the tour but I clamoured for more. There were teasing bits of information about some of the inmates and what they had done to be put there, and some sideways mentions of the amount of people incarcerated in the US and what that might mean today, but short of buying a book there wasn’t a way of digging deeper. I remember visiting Ellis Island in the early 2000s and being fascinated by the searchable database kiosks where you can look up details of immigrants to the US. Something along the same lines on Alcatraz would allow you to explore things more deeply, but there wasn’t anything outside of the book selection in the gift shops.
  • San Francisco really know how to do recycling. Everything seemed to be compostable and they went to great lengths to get waste sorted at the point of disposal. Really impressive.
Compostable plastic cup, which felt more solid than most that I've used in the past

Compostable plastic cup, which felt more solid than most that I’ve used in the past

Typical recycling in a restaurant

Typical recycling in a restaurant

  • Getting an extra seat on the way home was a massive blessing. It wasn’t a great night’s sleep for anyone, but it was a lot better than it otherwise would have been.
Sleepy time

Sleepy time

A wonderful holiday with lots of great memories made. Despite the miles we covered it still felt as though we had scratched the surface. You could probably holiday in California for years and not visit the same place twice. One day we may be back.

Not Quite Paradise

I picked up the audio version of this book after returning from our recent holiday in Sri Lanka. I had so many lingering thoughts about the country and I wanted to get another perspective before it all faded out of my memory.

This is very different to Elephant Complex, a book that I started before we departed and had accompanied me on my journey. Not Quite Paradise takes a much more personal approach. The book is narrated by the author who moved from Arizona, USA to Sri Lanka with her 15-year old son soon after 9/11. The first part of the book serves as a pretty straightforward travel diary. I had seen a review on Goodreads which said that the book was “a so-so travelogue by another author whose observations are rather standard” but for me it was lovely to indulge a little bit in hearing someone talk first hand about places that we ourselves had recently visited and and to understand what it had felt like for her. However, as another reviewer notes, she “never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka” and this remains a mystery. It must have been a great upheaval for her teenage son; they eventually decide that he will return home while she stays on for a little longer. Nothing very dramatic happens throughout this part of the book, but the pleasure is in the small details of life and interactions that she has with the people, her house and the landscape.

The second half is quite different. It starts during Christmas 2004 where she hears the awful news of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which brought devastation and death to the island. She is almost immediately compelled to return there to…I’m not quite sure what. See it first-hand? Report on the damage? Complete the book? She doesn’t give too much away about why she wanted to make the journey, but make it she did, and her writing covers a much broader scope of the island and its recent history as she travels around in this part of the book. Some of the accounts of the tsunami are devastating, even more so as they are weaved together with details and evidence of the long Sri Lankan Civil War. The book was a useful compliment to the topics covered in Elephant Complex and I was grateful to it filling in quite a few gaps in my knowledge and clearing up my misunderstandings from the other, denser, book. The timeline covered stops short of the brutal end of the civil war and felt slightly unfinished because of it.

I don’t think this will ever be held up as one of the greatest travelogues of all time but I did find it a very pleasant read — just what I was looking for after my own Sri Lankan journey.

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

Read this book before and during my holiday in Sri Lanka. Gives an excellent overview of the country and its history which reveals itself to the reader gradually, culminating in an account of the end of the civil war. The chapters are sequenced and themed in a general anti-clockwise journey around the island starting in Colombo/Negombo.

On my travels I met a scientist from England who said that he found this book quite dense; I was grateful to find that it wasn’t just me who felt this! I think that the subject matter is so complex (as per the title) that it couldn’t be anything but.

A very worthwhile read if you are visiting or have been to the island. A fascinating book about a unique country.

More to follow about our amazing holiday when I get the chance to write up my notes.

Barriers, forms and looking after your customers

I pay London Midland nearly £4,500 for my annual season ticket. On Monday morning after arriving in London, bleary-eyed and limping along from my weekend's cycling, I discovered that I had left my ticket in the wrong wallet. Due to Berkhamsted station not having any ticket barriers and my train rolling up to a platform at Euston that was also devoid of ticket readers I only realised my predicament when I descended to the tube for leg two of my commute. Tube journeys aren't that expensive if you use a contactless card so I just sighed at my dozyness, resigned myself to having to pay for a couple of tube trips, waved my credit card at the yellow reader and figured I'd deal with it when I got back to Euston.

On the way home I was in a rush to catch my train in order to get to a school governors' meeting. There is always an attendant at the barriers at Euston and I thought that just perhaps there would be a chance that I would be able to let him or her know what had happened and he would wave me through. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I have discovered that the process you have to go through is as follows:

  1. Get directed to the customer service window, usually staffed by only one person with a queue of people in front of it. On this occasion it meant that I missed my train.
  2. Explain your predicament to the customer service agent.
  3. Buy a ticket home (£14.40 off-peak from Euston to Berkhamsted!)
  4. Start your journey but remember not to put your ticket in any barrier at your destination as you need to hold onto it.
  5. At a later point, when you have your season ticket with you—probably in peak hours if this is when you usually travel—speak to another customer service agent and get a pink 1970s-style (actually revised in 1996!) carbon-copy form to fill out with your details. These details include your full credit card number and expiry date for all to see.
  6. Hand the form over along with the ticket to be refunded, your season ticket, your photocard and wait about ten minutes for the form to be added to and stamped.
  7. Be given the carbon copy of the form (see below) and be told that “they will call you if there are any questions, otherwise the money will be refunded in about ten days or so.”

At first it seemed bizarre to me that a company would treat its season-ticket buying customers like this, making them jump through hoops when there is a simple error. Then it dawned on me that there is probably no incentive to change—the process is such a pain that there is automatically a barrier to people pursuing refunds, resulting in more money for the company. They also have a monopoly—there is no other way of going from Berkhamsted to Euston on the train—and so it isn't that I can go to another train operator that makes a point of having better customer service than their peers.

To give the firm a little credit, they have made some things easier over recent times such as giving us the ability to log a 'Delay Repay' claim using their iPhone app. Perhaps this could be the next area to look at. I know that the company couldn't replace the outdated paper ticket system on their own, but having something on my phone that proves I am a gold-card holder would make life much easier.

 

St Albans clock tower

We recently had a lovely picnic in St Albans with a couple of our good friends who live there. I’ve always loved the town and it’s a great place to visit whether you’re a shopper or a tourist. The central part of the high street is pretty with a beautiful clock tower right in the centre, apparently the only medieval clock tower in the country.

One of our friends mentioned that you can climb the tower and I jumped at the chance. After giving the lovely old ladies 80p for a ticket at the entrance I heard the bell strike for three o’clock. They told me I was lucky I was on the ground floor and it was only after I got up to the belfry that I realised what they meant – the bell is BIG and you get to stand within an arm’s length of it. Being next to it and thinking that it could be struck at any time scared the wits out of me – I had visions of jumping at the sound and tumbling down the spiral staircase back to the entrance – so I legged it up to the rooftop.

The view from the top is fantastic – you get to see the cathedral as well as a lot of the town and surrounding countryside. On top of this, the masonry was covered with grafitti going back to the 1800s which completely fascinated me. I had the same spooky feeling I get when I see a photo of somewhere I know that was taken decades ago and can’t help thinking about the people that have stood in the same place years before. I took some pictures on my Blackberry but the camera is pretty crappy:

Old graffiti

If you want to see more, take a look at the set I’ve uploaded to Flickr.

If you visit St Albans, have 30 minutes to spare, are happy to climb an extremely narrow spiral staircase and want to chance your luck with the giant bell, it’s worth a visit!

Turning 30 on New Year’s Eve

New Year's EveI just had to get this post in before January was over!

I turned 30 on New Year’s Eve and to mark the occasion we had hired The Old Neptune, a wonderful 15th century house in the centre of Ipswich. My wife had arranged everything (wonderful as she is); in order to secure the house over the New Year period we had to get a committed bunch of friends together and book it up in early 2005, which we managed to do. Although at first glance it seemed quite expensive, when divided up between 24 people and paid for in stages it didn’t seem that much.

The place looked amazing on the website and the rooms looked gorgeous. In order to make sure that everyone got a fair chance of bagging one of the bigger/ older rooms, a couple of weeks before we went we put everyone’s name into a bag and made a video of a ‘live’ draw which we then posted on YouTube for all to see.

In reality the place was even better than it had looked on the website. To be able to enjoy the gorgeous front room and fire, lovely big kitchen and the wonderful dining room with so many good friends was just great.

A few of us had organised a quiz for the first night and we had karaoke and dancing on the second (which degenerated into a bizarre hatfest) – it was only by the third evening that I went to bed even vaguely sober!

For my 30th my wife made me a wonderful book with photos from my very early years all the way up to present day – a really great gift.

In the daytime we headed off to some of the lovely surrounding villages for some winter walks and pub lunches – Felixstowe was lovely (cheese and pineapple toasties, anyone?), we had a bite to eat at the King’s Head in Woodbridge and an enjoyable wander around the pretty village of Aldeburgh.

Thanks to everyone for making my 30th such a fun and special one. More photos in the Flickr group.

Not flying short haul

TrainAs the months and years roll by I find myself questioning more and more things that I do. I’ve been asked to go to Zürich for some meetings in a couple of weeks; a little while ago I would have been looking forward to a business class flight and eating out on expenses for a few nights but now the first thing that pops into my head is how bad the trip will be for the environment. There are stories appearing every day about the Siberian permafrost melting and revealing loads of woolly mammoth tusks as it does so (if that doesn’t mean much then take a look at the definition of permafrost) and the polar ice dramatically disappearing. I don’t really want to contribute to that more than I do already.

Yes, I know that I can carbon offset my flights but what good does that really do? The Carbon Trust aren’t a charity and to quote Rob Newman I can’t see them funding a project to put Bangladesh on stilts any time soon. Who they are, where they come from, who regulates them and how they came up with their pricing scheme is a bit of a mystery.

So, I’ve taken the step of looking into how to get from London to Zürich by rail. As soon as I did so I came across a splendid website which not only explains exactly how to do it but much more besides. If you’re off to Europe and enjoy travelling or simply hate flying then I seriously suggest you check it out. There are suggested routes, tips on how to get the best fares and information and pictures on the different types of carriage you can expect to encounter. The site also makes the point that a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted from a plane does 2.7 times the damage of it being emitted at ground level.

Basically, a trip to Zürich via Paris will take the best part of a day. I figured I could probably travel on a Monday and then get a sleeper service back to Paris through Friday night/ Saturday morning. I raised the thought with a few people at work today and can report that 80% think I’m nuts to even consider it. For example, when I called the travel desk to enquire whether they handled train bookings and said that I wanted to go to Zürich I was asked “Why on earth would you want to do that?” I lamely responded “Green reasons…” and started to feel a little bit nuts myself – hopefully she didn’t think that I had an obsessive colour preference or some kind of nasal condition. My boss called me “Swampy.” More seriously, he made the point that the time wouldn’t be as productive as time spent in the office – this is true, but during the whole office/ airport/ queue for security/ departure lounge/ short haul flight with food/ passport control-taxi rigmarole there is no opportunity to get a lot done whereas on a train I could at least work offline for a few hours. I might even catch up with all the emails and documents I’ve been meaning to read and get one or two of my own written.

In terms of cost, there isn’t that much of a difference between a first-class train fare and return business class flights; the train fares just seem a bit more random depending on what website, currency and method you choose to buy them.

I must admit that I do have utopian dreams of setting an example that the whole company begins to follow but in reality I know that I’d just be doing it because I believe it’s right. Plus, it would be great to see a bit of where I’m travelling to on the way.

What do you think? Have I lost the plot or am I right to be pursuing this?

Hotel reviews

Raheem ResidencyI had my first hotel review published on tripadvisor.com this week. If you haven’t been there, tripadvisor is a great website that hosts zillions of reviews of hotels all over the world. It’s great when you’re booking a last minute break and the travel agent website tells you what a fabulous hotel they have on offer – you can look it up on tripadvisor to see if it’s really a stinker.

The Raheem Residency didn’t have a single review and we had such a wonderful time there that I thought I’d give something back.

Once upon a time. not too long ago…

Entrance to The Lowry, Manchester…took a day out in Manchester, as the song goes. Well, it was a weekend out actually – Katie and I recently went up to Manchester for a birthday party and decided to make a weekend of it. I’d only been to Manchester once before and that was for a whistlestop trip when my brother was ill in hospital quite a few years ago. I was really pleasantly surprised by the place. We stayed at a good hotel and did quite a bit of sightseeing and shopping and all the time it felt a bit like a smaller version of central London but without the crowds of people everywhere.

The architecture in central Manchester is gorgeous and they’ve done a great job of blending new things like the G-Mex centre and the area around The Lowry with the older features. If you’re a city lover like me it’s definitely worth a trip.

Photo set now on Flickr.

The loudest tears on the way home

On my journey home on the train last night a young child in my carriage was having the loudest crying fit that I’ve heard for quite some time. You know something is loud and out-of-the-ordinary when people on the train actually start looking at each other – yes, acknowledging each other’s presence – and smiling in a “can you believe how loud that is?” sort of way. I can’t believe what a state children can get themselves worked up into! You just want to ask them what really could be so bad. Like these things do, it stopped almost as abruptly as it started and left an eerie silence on the carriage.

As I was busy sorting a few emails out on my PDA at the time and found that I couldn’t concentrate I quickly hit the record button with the intention of posting it here, but, listening to it now out of context, it just sounds harrowing and horrible. Consider yourself spared.

Sliding into a cold swimming pool

I’ve been going back through my collection of Flickr photos and renaming them so that they make a little more sense when stumbled across. Currently most of them are called something like ‘DSC000236’ which isn’t that descriptive. I came across one from our holiday in Turkey last year where I was trying to get into the pool without actually touching the water and it reminded me of a video we took; I’ve uploaded it here for your enjoyment. There’s more where that came from so watch this space! :o)

Holiday in Kerala

We’ve just got back today from an amazing two-week holiday in Kerala, India. For both of us it was our second visit to the country – Katie went to northern India a few years ago and I spent a week last year in Pune with work – so we knew a little about what to expect. It turned out to be even better than we had hoped it would be. Kerala is a gorgeous place, both in its scenery and in the people living there. From the old fort town of Kochi to the rolling tea-plantations of Munnar, the wildlife sanctuary at Periyar and the backwaters of Alappuzha, we had an amazing time.

Together we took some 700 photos over the past two weeks, a lot of which we hope to get on Flickr very soon. I’ll try and write a few smaller postings about our trip instead of one big one to make it a little more managable to read (as well as write!)