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We went to see the Hoover Dam on the second day of our holiday. We drove from Vegas and it was a very easy and straightforward drive. Parking was pretty easy as there was a large multi story car park just before the dam itself. We arrived early so there were plenty of spaces, but when we left the car park was near full, so it pays to get there early. You can do one of two things. You can just wander around the site, into the gift shops, café, museum and across the actual dam for free, or you can go on the tour. We chose the tour, after all, we had come all the way from the UK and would probably never come baker here again. There are several types of ticket, some including photo, some hard had souvenir, some both, all include the tour. You should know, that whichever ticket price you pay, you will get exactly the same tour. The tour starts off in the theatre where you can see a narrated slide show on the history of the dam. This is very interesting and gives lots of facts and figures as well as some amusing information. You have to remember that this was built back in the 1930?s where they didn?t have all the fancy machinery we have now and took nearly five years to complete. Boulder City nearby was built solely to accommodate the 3-5 thousand workers and their families. People came from all over the USA to work on the dam as the work was guaranteed and paid very well as it was essentially very dangerous. Around 100 people died during it?s construction, although we were assured none were buried in the cement. After the film show we were then greeted by a guide and led to a lift shaft and taken 500 feet down to the generators. You have to walk along underground tunnels, which worryingly almost constantly seep water. You then come to the huge generators, which actually generate the power, there are some on the Nevada side and more on the Arizona side. (The dam is built directly on the state line). After the generators you ar
e left to your own devices to visit the exhibits, which include pictures and narrations etc. You can then go to the Overlook from which you have great views of the dam, the Colorado River and Lake Mead. Along the actual road way you can wander the length of the dam and cross the state line. There are still many things to see including the Winged Figures of the Republic, huge bronze statues and built as a symbol of man?s achievements. They are quite stunning. The café is a welcome retreat, get an ice cream and sit by the window overlooking the dam & Lake Mead. We visited in July and the temperature was 116 degrees, so take a hat, sun cream etc. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
We visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in July 03. As we only had a day to explore we decided to take the cape Royal Drive in order to see as much as possible in the time we had. Cape Royal Drive is an excellent drive to take when visiting the North Rim. The drive is approximately 23 miles each way, and it is not a loop. You can either drive down and take each view point as it comes or drive straight to the end and then stop off on the way back, we chose the former. Our first stop was Point Imperial which is located at the end of a three mile spur road. Point Imperial is the highest point on the North Rim at 8,803 feet and overlooks the northeast side of the park. There are picnic areas and toilets located near the parking area. From the car park you walk to a railed overlook, which offers truly outstanding views. From here you can see the Vermillion Cliffs and Echo Cliffs which are way off into the distance. Look down and you can see straight down to the bottom of the canyon, awesome. If you can tear yourself away from this view you can then travel back down the spur to Vista Encantadora where again there are picnic tables, but no toilets. Again you will see magnificent views. The next stop on the drive is Roosevelt Point, which is one of the few places you can see the Colorado River running through the canyon. This vista has even more fantastic views where you can really see the vastness of the canyon itself. The next stop, Walhalla Overlook, is quite a ways down the trail, but in my view offered some of the best views of all. Don?t be fooled and stay near the parking area where there are good views, but walk along to the end of the parking section and there is a pathway to another railed overview. Here you can see for miles. It is truly breathtaking. If you can pull yourself away travel a little bit further and you come to Cape Royal. There is a large car park here with toilets and picnic areas. There are sever
al options you can take here. You can take the Angel?s Window trail which leads you to stunning views--yes, more. Here the view takes its name from a triangular hole in the cliffs through which you can see the Colorado River snaking through the canyon. It is beautiful. The other option is to take the trail which takes you above Angel?s Window and give some of the best views the canyon has to offer. You have travelled 23 miles to get here, but believe me it would be worthwhile driving 200 miles for this view. It is spectacular. All the trails on this drive are short and easily walked. We went at the beginning of July and didn?t encounter any queues. In fact at most of the stops we were the only people there. Not sure if it is always like this at this time, or we were very lucky.
Bryce Canyon defies words, it is truly the most spectacular natural wonder I have ever seen. That includes the Grand Canyon, which although vast and spectacular is not nearly as beautiful and visually stunning as Bryce. You can either use your own car or use the shuttles which cover most of the major sites. There are lots of trails in the park ranging from moderate to very strenuous. Make sure you look at the information given to you on entering the park as these give you a good idea of which ones you want to tackle. Having already spent the previous few days walking round both the Grand Canyon and Zion Canyon, we wanted to take things a little easier here. We chose to walk part of the Rim Trail which runs along the edge of the canyon and affords spectacular views from almost every point and is not too strenuous. We started our walk at Sunset Point. Sunset is high above the main Bryce Amphitheatre, the views here are breathtakingly spectacular. It is one of those places where you just have to stand and stare. You dare not blink in case the magic goes away. The Amphitheatre is made up of what they call hoodoos. These are the rock formations which were created millions of years ago when water flowed through, carving spectacular shapes from the sandstone rock. The colours are amazing ranging from the deepest red to white. The heart of the Amphitheatre is completely made up of hoodoos of all sizes making a fantastic landscape. As you make your way along the Rim Trail towards Inspiration Point and onto Bryce Point you just have to look to your left to see the landscape unfolding before your eyes. Each view is more spectacular than the one before. You cannot fail to be stunned at what you see it is amazing. After walking the Rim Trail, which looks over the canyon, we decided to walk a trail which took us in amongst the hoodoos on the ground. We chose the trail from Sunrise Point which then turns into the Queen?s Garden. Here you can wal
k amongst the hoodoos and see them close up. The trail is quite hard, especially in the heat, but it is worth the effort. I feel as though I am rambling, but believe me if you have been here, you know what I am saying. If you haven?t been here you really should. They say that you should see the Grand Canyon before you die, but I would say if you are at the Grand Canyon, take a detour and visit Bryce, I promise you will not be disappointed.
Whist visiting Yellowstone we stayed in Teton Village, about 60 miles south of the south entrance and a few miles from Jackson Hole. We stayed in a place called Snake River Lodge & Spa. The lobby area of the hotel is very quaint, with all the furniture etc made of wood, featuring animals, such as racoons and baby bears. We had a Deluxe King room which had a very comfortable bed, strewn with cushions. There was also a small table, a couple of chairs and a large wardrobe and dresser. There was also a TV with pay per view movies, coffee maker, alarm clock and a mini bar. They provided fluffy white dressing gowns too, although we never used them, as it was too warm. Another nice, though expensive feature was the basket of souvenirs. These included items such as Yellowstone teddy bears (these were cheaper in the actual park), sweets, biscuits etc. The bathroom was beautifully decorated with slate tiles on the floors and walls, large vanity area, bath and shower. The hotel provides a turn down service, so whenever we got back at night, our bed was turned down, music put on and lights turned down low. Our room overlooked the hotel pool, which as you can see from the picture below was very pretty and beautifully landscaped. The outdoor pool ran into another indoor pool. The hotel also has a spa for which some items are free to guests, others chargeable. We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant every morning, which consisted of an extensive buffet with the usual items such as fruit, yoghurt, bacon, sausage, hash browns, eggs, muffins etc. We had pretty good service throughout our stay, but did see some other guests who had complaints about different things. I?m not sure whether they had genuine reasons to complain, or they just wanted to make a fuss. We certainly didn?t have anything to moan about. Parking for the hotel was located in the large car park area at the front of the hotel, which accommodated the whole
village. We never had any problem parking though and it was free. You can choose to have valet parking, but they only park the car in the same car park, so not worth the payment really, unless you are really lazy. I would recommend this hotel, although if I was planning to visit Yellowstone again I would make sure I had my accommodation either inside the park, or to the East or West entrances. We had to travel 60 miles to get to the southern most point of the park and then you still have to travel the park itself to see the sights. By locating yourself on either side of the park, you could cut down on wasted travelling time and more easily travel both the north and south loops.
Zion is a photographer's dream. It is very mountainous, with huge, high red mountains. As the light catches them during different parts of the day, their looks change dramatically. If you can stay for sunset, they are truly magnificent. There are shuttle buses which run regularly throughout the park and stop off at all the main views and trails. The lodge is a good place to note, as it has a café where you can get drinks, food, ice cream, etc. There is also an adjoining gift shop. There are many trails to walk, ranging from easy to very hard and from short to ?will this ever end.? Some of the shorter ones include Court of the Patriarchs, which is only 100 yards or so on a paved, steep trail that leads you to great views of the mountains. Another short and easy trail is Weeping Rock, which leads to a dainty waterfall where light water spray going over the trail is very refreshing. Another good trail is the Emerald Pools Trail near Zion Lodge. You walk along a trail which encompasses lots of views and types such as trees, waterfalls, hanging gardens and water pools full of huge tadpoles. You can walk as far as the lower emerald pools, or carry on to the middle emerald pool, which is a bit steeper. If you are feeling really good, you can go on to the upper emerald pools, which is a bit of a hike, but well worth the effort due to the views and waterfalls you encounter. The full length of the trail is about 2 miles. Near the Weeping Rock Trail is a diversion to Hidden Canyon Trail. This is described as moderate to strenuous; the latter is more accurate. This trail is 2 miles long (each way) and climbs nearly 900 feet in less than half a mile. A lot of the time, you are walking on very steep, rocky ground ? we met a snake en route, which was a bit worrying. Once you get towards the top, you are walking on trails which are literally cut out of the mountain and are very narrow, so much so that many parts have chains secured to the rock
to help you pull yourself up with. This can be very scary, and we came across many people who decided to turn back. We didn?t and carried on--why, I will never know! Once at the top of the trail, the views are great. The only problem is that you then have to go back down. This was extremely hard on the legs, and I could barely walk by the time we had finished. In fact, I suffered for several days after, as did my husband. If you want something less strenuous, try the Riverside Walk. This is a lovely, easy walk which follows the river for about 2 miles each way on flat, paved ground. Very pretty views and lots of squirrels.
The Desert Pearl Inn is located in Springdale, which is the entrance town to Zion National Park. I had done a lot of research on the web before booking this hotel. Their website promised beautiful, large rooms with great views; we were not disappointed. We arrived late afternoon and were greeted pleasantly at reception and allocated our room ($115 prpm). I had paid a little extra for a king with river view. You can also choose a pool view or a queen room. The rooms are located in two storey blocks with parking outside, but don?t think this sounds like a motel, it is very much more than a motel. Our room was very large with a king bed, kitchen area with microwave, fridge, sink, coffee maker and plastic cutlery provided. There was a sofa, coffee table and dining table & chairs. Another huge bonus was the large wooden balcony. We overlooked a large lawn with a beautiful river, surrounded by trees, with squirrels running round. Beyond the river the mountains of Zion were stunning. Lower floor rooms have a patio area. This is definitely the most stunning view I have ever had from a hotel room. The bathroom was also large, with a separate vanity area and then through to a room with bath, shower, toilet and bidet. On the lower level rooms, the floor is wood laminate, but the second floor rooms have half carpets to cut down on noise. They are very clean and spacious, with a modern look. My only minor criticism would be the limited wardrobe & drawer space, but this flaw is more than compensated by everything else. There is a TV and VCR in the room - you can borrow videos from reception, free of charge. There is a huge catalogue of titles to choose from. Other hotel amenities included the swimming pool, which has allocated ?adult only hours? at the start and end of each day. There is also a Jacuzzi near a waterfall next to the pool. Next to reception you can find the coffee shop, which adjoins the gift shop. The only thing the
hotel lacks is a restaurant, but this is not a problem as there are lots of restaurants, cafes and shops within walking distance. The complimentary shuttle bus to Zion National Park stops right outside the hotel, so you do not need to use your car. I would not hesitate to recommend this hotel, it definitely more than lived up to our expectations
I found a site called My Monopoly www.mymonopoly.com from which you can order a customised Monopoly board. This means you can name all the streets yourself and on the stations you can change the names and the symbols. This means you can change them to pubs, hotels, sporting events etc. The choice is yours. All this comes in a nice presentation tin with all you need for a game of Personal Monopoly. Each board is priced at £100 inc p&p. Which although expensive, is not bad for such a unique item. The perfect personal gift to give to that person who has everything. As I am responsible for all purchases relating to incentives, promotions etc in my company, I thought this would be a great gift to give to our best customers. So I went onto the site and used their contact email to ask if there could be a better price negotiated for large orders. I was looking to purchase anything between 200 and 500 sets. I didn?t think this was too much to request, and after all they could have either given a discount or said no, the price stays the same. But?.they never got back to me, so giving them the benefit of the doubt, I emailed the request again, and again no answer. In total I have tried to contact this company on four occasions, via various means and have never received a reply. For a company to advertise its services not only on the web, but just lately in every promotions, incentives, web magazine going and not even bother to answer a customer request is beyond ridiculous. Especially baring In mind, my order could have been worth an awful lot of money. Well needless to say, however good I think the product is, I will not be buying even one for my own use. My Monopoly sounds an excellent idea, but their lack of customer services lets them down big time.
This resort really is paradise. It is located on an island a mile or so north of Seaworld. You access it via a road bridge and then turn into the resort itself. The first thing you notice is the greenery, there are trees, plants and flowers everywhere. You have to keep your eyes open for the signs to the lobby for check-in because it is so well camouflaged that you could miss it. The lobby is large and spacious, with a great feel about it. There are plants inside and trees and shrubs surrounding the outside, blending it into the surroundings. The staff are very friendly and helpful and on check-in you are given a map of the resort so you can find your way around – you will need it! The receptionist allocates you a man in a trolley cart to escort you to your room. If you have a car you just follow him, otherwise you hop on his cart and he takes you personally. There are several levels of accommodation here, you can have a normal room which has the usual bed, en-suite, TV etc all nicely decorated and located in the centre of the resort, or as we did a suite. The suites (bungalows) are located either in the garden area of on the edge of the island with a beach view. You can go one better and get a Presidential Suite, but these are amazingly expensive. Our suite was located in a beautiful area, with gardens to the rear and beach to the front. It had a huge king size bed with wardrobe, dresser, sofa, chairs, coffee table, dining table & chairs and a TV with cable, movies etc. We also had a fridge, coffee maker, iron and ironing board. The bathroom was lovely with a separate vanity area with two basins, large mirror, marble surfaces and hairdryer. The bathroom was very large with bath, shower and of course a toilet. We had the biggest, fluffiest white towels we had ever had in a hotel room and little things like supplying cotton wool balls, cotton buds and body gel etc made it even better. We also had a small private patio area outside
with table & chairs and by walking across the grass in front of the bungalow, we were on the beach – beautiful. The resort has many facilities including restaurants – Baleen, a beautiful restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. We ate breakfast here every morning and there was plenty of choice and the staff were lovely. We paid approx $35 for two. If you eat here in the evening you are expected to be slightly more formal and dress accordingly, but at breakfast anything goes. The other restaurant on site is the Barefoot Bar & Grill which is much less formal and offers a variety of menus for all tastes. You can of course also have room service, which on the couple of occasions when we used it was prompt and delicious, if a little expensive. There is a spa, which not having used I cannot comment on, but it looked very nice. There are several swimming pools, both for kids and adults located throughout the resort, the main one located near the lobby. One of the other great features of the place is that there is lots of wildlife about, they have many ponds and lakes which are inhabited by lots of ducks and other birds etc. The whole place has a very tropical feel, with the abundance of trees, plants etc. There are lots of beautiful flowers everywhere and all the buildings are surrounded by them. It is a very beautiful resort. The other thing of course, being an island is it is surrounded by water and therefore has about 2 miles of private beach. It is lovely clean, white sand and you can also hire boats etc at the private marina and go sailing in the bay. There is nothing I can fault about this resort, the rooms are beautiful, facilities are fabulous, food is great, location is wonderful, it really is paradise!
Santa Maria is located about half way between San Francisco and San Diego. We chose to stay here as a mid way point between the two. You can get to it from the two main roads which run down the coast, Highways 1 and 101. I will give a quick overview of the town and the immediate area and the hotel we stayed in. Santa Maria itself is about 250 miles south of San Francisco and about 150 miles north of LA. It is located in the heart of wine county and there are many vineyards you can visit within the area, 37 in total covering 20,000 acres. It has several museums to visit such as a motorcycle, flight, historical and history museums. It also has many art galleries and theatres. There are county parks, picnic areas and nature reserves to visit. Although Santa Maria itself is inland, the coast is only a few miles away with many state beaches including Pismo, Avila, Shell and Guadalupe. If shopping is your thing then the only real option is Santa Maria Town Centre which is an indoor shopping centre. The building is quite new and when we visited quite a few of the shops had yet to be opened, but there were still quite a few to visit. If you are expecting to spend lots of money here though, you my want to travel further such as Santa Barbara or even LA. There are quite a few hotels and restaurants to choose from ranging in comfort and price. We stayed at the Historic Santa Maria Inn which offers 164 guest rooms and suites. The hotel is split into two main areas, the historic side an the tower side. The tower was added some years ago to increase the size of the hotel. The tower is, I think, 6 floors tall so it is not too imposing. The rooms here are a little larger than the ones in the historic part, but have less character. The suites are located on the top floor. The lower floor of the tower has a selection of small shops and a beauty parlour. We has a deluxe room in the historic part which although not a huge room, was perfectl
y adequate and nicely decorated. We had a large queen bed, table & chairs, wardrobe and dresser. The TV had satellite connection so we had loads of channels and could have pay per view movies etc. The bathroom was clean and they supplied shampoo, body lotion, shaving foam etc in dispensers in the bath/shower and the basin. Breakfast can be taken either in your room (from the room service menu) or in the dining room. We chose the dining room as this offered a buffet arrangement. They offered cereal, fruit, yoghurt, bacon, sausage, eggs etc with fresh juices, tea and coffee etc. We paid approx $20 (£14) per day for two for breakfasts, which wasn’t too bad as you could have as much as you wanted. I would definitely recommend the hotel. Rooms cost from $85 to $200 for a large suite per night. Breakfast is extra, although they do offer specials on their website www.santamariainn.com from time to time. We found a restaurant in the Town Centre Shopping Centre called Red Robin which is basically a glorified burger joint. They offer, chicken, fish, pasta, meat and of course burger dishes. They also have a good range of cocktails including non-alcohol. I had one which was lemonade, kiwi and strawberry, but is came in a glass that was about 18 inches tall and my husband had a good laugh watching me drink it. It was lovely though! If you just want a no frills, good food restaurant then Red Robin is fine. Hearst Castle is approx 100 miles to the north, but is a very easy drive an worth doing. Santa Barbara is also about 100 miles to the south and again is worth a visit.
Hearst Castle is located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles at San Simeon and is well worth a visit if you are in the area or travelling down the Pacific Coast Highway. The castle itself is located high up on a hillside overlooking the pacific coast. You get to it by driving along a narrow road just off Highway 1 until you reach a car park area. Once parked you go into the Hearst Castle National Geographic Centre. Here you can buy tickets, food, gifts etc. You would be advised to pre-book tickets a few days before you want to visit as tours get booked very quickly. There are 5 tours you can do, we chose Experience Tour1 as it was recommended for first time visitors. Each tour takes approx 1hr 45 mins and includes a bus journey to the actual castle. Prices range from $10-20 per adult. Ours was $14 each. The Experience Tour takes in some of the grounds, main house, guest house and Neptune pool. Other tours take in some of these and/or other sections of the castle. Their website www.heastcastle.org explains more. The tour we took also included a 40min film called Building the Dream. This is shown every 45 mins in the National Geographic Theatre. It is well worth watching this film, preferably before you take the tour as it gives you the background to the man who had the castle built - William Randolph Hearst and details of how it was built and why. The theatre has a huge screen and seating is very comfortable, some of the film includes footage taken from the air and you actually feel like you are twisting and turning with the plane. The film is very informative and covers the life of William Hearst, how he became interested as a young boy in the arts and architecture etc. It follows his career, love life and eventually his dream to build the castle. He employed a female architect Julia Morgan which at the time was unheard of (1919) and it took 28 years to complete. The story is fascinating and provides a great background w
hen you see the castle in the flesh during the tour. Each tour is timed, so you need to be a the departure point on time, you have the obligatory photo taken in front of a picture of the castle and then the coach takes you in the journey up the hill to the castle (approx 20 mins). Remember to use the toilet at the centre as there are none after boarding the bus! When you get to the castle you are met by your tour guide. We were given all the do’s & don’ts such as no chewing gum, no flash photography etc. On the tour you go through beautiful gardens with magnificent statues. The Guesthouse is huge and very ornate. Rooms are covered in huge carvings, spectacular ceilings, wall hangings and superb furniture. The bedrooms had indoor bathrooms with showers and toilets which at this time in history was still a luxury. The main house is even more fantastic, especially the indoor Roman Pool which is covered in mosaics both inside the pool and the room itself from floor to ceiling. The room took seven years to build and lay the tiny 1” mosaic tiles which are blue and gold. The ceiling looks like a night sky with stars. I personally found the pool to be very tacky looking but very impressive all the same. The pool has changing rooms, a diving board and lots of statues. My favourite part of the tour and the part of the house I found most impressive was the Neptune Pool. This is a huge outdoor pool which has the most magnificent views possible. This pool took ten years to build and was built, pulled down and re-built three times as Mr Hearst kept changing his mind on what he wanted. The pool is 104ft long and 95ft wide and holds 345,000 gallons of water. The floor of the pool is beautiful blue tiles which reflect the blue out of the water onto the white colonnades and statues surrounding it. You cannot put into words just how breathtaking this pool is. It is what you would image Greek Gods would bathe in. This perhaps sounds melodramatic, but
unless you have seen it you cannot understand its magnificence and beauty. When your tour ends you are met by a bus and transported back to the main tourist building. On your return you have the option to buy the photograph that was taken of you. If you do you get two large photos and a rather large key ring. We felt that we would have liked to go on another of the tours to see other parts of the house, but none were available. Unfortunately when you first visit you cannot know that you may want to do other tours. You may want to give yourself the option to go back the following day if you cannot book an additional tour on your first visit. If you decide you don’t want to return there are plenty of other things in the area to do. I am really glad we visited Hearst Castle and even if you are not into visiting stately homes etc you cannot fail to be impressed by this place. Definitely recommended.
The Rainforest Café is located at Fisherman’s Wharf and on entering from the street you walk straight into their shop. Here they sell all sorts of things, such as clothing, stationary, souvenirs and other general bits and pieces. Most of it with their logo on it. If you are lucky, whilst you are in the shop you may experience a tropical storm which consists of thunder clapping in the background, lightening flashing etc although you are spared the rain. A couple of kids who were in the shop when we were ran out crying! When you go upstairs to the restaurant you are basically entering a rainforest. There are trees and shrubbery everywhere, a huge waterfall in the centre and many animals dotted about the place such as elephants, tigers, gorillas etc. Needless to say these are not real but do come to life with the use of robotics and sound effects. It was very amusing watching kids go up to the elephants and suddenly the elephants coming to life shaking their heads, raising their trunks and roaring. Many a child and indeed adult was taken a little aback by this, (perhaps this was just my sick sense of humour). There are also quite a few marine and tropical fish tanks to view. All the tables and chairs were made to look like bamboo etc to give a tropical feel. The menu is extensive ranging from burgers, pasta, Caribbean, fish etc. I had a pasta dish that was both huge and extremely tasty. My husband had a jambalaya which he said was really nice too. The desserts are huge too. I ordered a slice of chocolate cake and the dish that turned up looked as if I have the entire cake to myself - it was absolutely delicious. Neither of us could fault the food and the ambience of the restaurant is certainly different. When you go to places like the Hard Rock, you are deafened by music etc, but at the Rainforest Café, you hear jungle noises, animals and the sound of huge waterfall – very nice. You also have the afore mentioned tropical
storm every so often. We paid $65 for one three course and one two course meal with drinks which is about £45 which we thought was good value considering the quantity and quality of the food and atmosphere. If you are in San Francisco it is definitely a place to experience, especially if you have kids. Most of the kids in the restaurant could hardly keep their eyes on the food as they were fascinated by all that was going on around them.
When we decided to return to San Francisco I made sure we pre-booked tickets to Alcatraz before we left the UK. Last time we visited in 2000, we hadn’t realised how popular the trip was and never anticipated not being able to book whilst there. That time we had to make do with a boat trip around the bay, this time I booked two months in advance via the website www.blueandgoldfleet.com. It only cost $31 for two, a bargain as it turned out. You board a boat at Pier 41 for the short ride across to the island itself. From the city, you do not realise how high the island really is and how elevated some of the buildings actually are. When you disembark you are led to a large concrete area where a tour guide greets you and explains the routes to take and what to expect etc. There is quite a lot of walking up stairs and hills, so for those with disabilities etc there is a trolley bus to take you to the top. We started off by going into the “theatre” to watch a film about the history of the Rock which was very interesting. It outlined the various uses the place has had over the years by the Army and of course the prison and of the Indian occupation in the late 1960’s and how the place has been turned into the tourist attraction it now is. It is now one of the Golden Gate National Recreation Parks. After getting the background of the Island we walked the steep but interesting climb to the actual prison. The island is now a home to thousands of birds and small animals. We visited in June and this was the breeding season for the seagulls, so we saw many baby chicks in nests and wandering around pestering their parents. They are very messy, so watch where you tread and lean against. When you get to the prison, your ticket includes a self-guided tour where you are given a tape recorder and set of headphones. A marker on the floor tells you when to switch the tape to play and you then have a narrator to walk
you through the prison. Obviously you an stop, rewind etc at any point, but it is best to let it run to get the best effect. The tape is extremely impressive, with superb stereo sound that makes you feel like you are experiencing all the things you hear on the tape. You are told of the conditions the prisoners were kept in and hear the echoes of the doors banging shut and the screaming of the inmates etc. You are told to go to different cells and are told stories such as how the marks on the door relate to a failed escape attempt or that Al Capone was thought to have been in this particular cell etc. The voices change on the tape to people who actually experienced Alcatraz, either as a prison guard or an actual prisoner. There are stories of riots, escapes and you see cell mock-ups of how some of the prisoners tried to escape by digging out of the back of their cells and leaving hand made heads in the beds to fools the guards. How Robert Stroud famous as being the Birdman of Alcatraz, never actually kept birds whilst on the island. He earned his Birdman nickname as a result of keeping canaries at his previous prison Leavenworth. Al Capone was kept here, but no-one seems to know exactly which sell he was kept in. The cells are very small and consist of just a narrow bed, basin and toilet with open bar doors. None have windows although the tour includes the canteen, where prisoners had great views of the bay and city – so near and yet so far! Apparently the inmates were given good food in order to keep them from rioting and given hot rather than cold showers to stop them from becoming acclimatised to cold water in-case they were tempted to take a swim. There were a few attempts at escape, none of which were said to be successful, although three men are unaccounted for during the escape depicted in the film The Great Escape. There was no evidence of their survival, but equally no bodies were found – so who knows?
When the tour ends you just had back you headphones etc and a free to wander the island. Boats leave every half an hour so you can stay for as long as you want. The tour itself takes about one hour, so you really need to allow yourself a minimum for two, so that you can wander at leisure and visit the shops etc. There are gift shops, restrooms and information points around the island and the views are magnificent on a clear day. Remember to take a camera a plenty of film (you are allowed to take pictures inside the prison too). This really is the must visit location in San Francisco. I cannot tell you how fascinating the tour is or how good the narration and background sounds etc really are. You an buy a copy of the tape in the gift shop, but to be honest you cannot possibly get the same effect as when you are actually inside the prison. Without doubt this was the highlight of our trip and something I will never forget.
Before visiting San Francisco I took a look at the web to see if there were any worthwhile tours to take and came across www.goldengatejeeptours.com. They offered escorted tours of San Francisco in a jeep which sounded like fun. The site offered many tours, from one hour around the city, to three hours and more to more fully see the city or to extend into surrounding areas. They even offered day trip to places further a field such as Hearst castle. The prices were very reasonable and as a couple we would have the jeep and driver to ourselves. I Gave them a ring one evening and booked a 3 hour deluxe tour of SF for $68 each. For this they would pick us up and drop us off at a location of our choice. Although they took details of my credit card, they said they would not take payment until after the tour. On the morning of our tour we stood in anticipation outside the hotel and sure enough exactly at the time arranged (9.30am) a racing green jeep pulled up. Our tour guide/driver introduced himself as Hank Davis who owned the company and he installed us into his jeep. He asked us if we had visited before, we said we had but only for a day so hadn’t seen as much as we would have liked. We booked our tour for our second day, so that if we went anywhere that we wanted to return to we still had a few days left. Hank said he would take us to all the tourist areas as well as the historical and landmark areas. He also said he would take us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. The virtues of a jeep tour soon became apparent as many of the streets we went down had signs up stating that tour buses etc were banned. Being in the jeep we were able to visit many places we would not have been able to see on a “normal” guided tour. We visited many areas including Nob Hill, Coit Memorial Tower, The Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio, Fort Point, Telegraph Hill, Chinatown and we travelled down Lombard Street – the croo
kedest street in the world. We were able to stop at many of the locations for photo opportunities etc. The trip across the Golden Gate Bridge was great (if a little windy) and on the other side we entered the town of Sausalito. The temperature on this side of the bridge was about ten degrees higher than in SF. This town is very different to SF with very expensive houses set in to the cliff side overlooking the bay. Hank explained that a derelict house we passed which basically resembled a just about standing pile of wood recently sold for nearly a million dollars. It is very expensive here. There were lots of boats and yachts which again stank of $$. After the return trip across the bridge we travelled along the coast and viewed Ocean Beach, then went through Golden Gate Park and back into the city through Pacific Heights and eventually back to our hotel. Hank was a brilliant host, explaining areas that needed explaining, but keeping quite when nothing needed to be said (Americans sometimes forget you can do this). When we got back to the hotel, 3 hours later to the second he helped us plan our last couple of days in SF suggesting we included a trip to Muir Woods (which we did) and even going as far as helping with directions for our trip down to coast and suggesting a couple of places to visit on route including Monterey Bay and Hearst Castle. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and found many interesting places we later returned to such as Chinatown. The tour was very relaxed, we never felt rushed and if we wanted to stop anywhere for whatever reason, then Hank was ever obliging. I cannot recommend Golden Gate Jeep Tours enough. They made a lovely trip to SF even more pleasurable and we now feel that we have truly seen most of the city. At about £100 for both of us for three hours, I consider this to be excellent value for money. Long may Hank reign.
Just before we left for San Francisco, we found out that it was Gay Pride month (June) and on Sunday 30th it would be the Gay Pride Parade down Market Street, so with nothing planned for that day, we decided to take a look. On the news the night before we saw pictures of thousands of people in the street celebrating and over a million people were expected to attend the parade, so true to British form, we arrived in Market Street 1.5 hours early and the street was bare! Hardly anyone was around, so again being British we picked a spot and sat and waited. Within 20 minutes of the start time, throngs of people started to arrive, suddenly we were surrounded by people, some openly gay/lesbian, others, like us just along for the ride. The parade started with what they call Dykes on Bikes. Hundreds of lesbians riding huge motorbikes down the street, there must have been over 400 bikes and half again as many women, some dressed, some not, some in biking leathers, some just in leather!! Then followed the rest of the parade with floats, cyclists, walkers etc, the usual carnival stuff. Many of the people taking part were protesting quietly about gay and lesbian rights, such as the right to marry etc. Some were dressed normally, some in drag, many dressed outrageously and many not dressed in much at all! There were women who used to be men, men who used to be women, some showing off their surgery i.e. mastectomy scars and boob enhancements etc. There were transvestites and also celebrities such as Sharon Gless (ex Cagney & Lacey), Nancy Sinatra, Sir Ian McKellan and various Mayors and dignitaries etc. We left the parade after 2.5 hours as it was getting very hot, but it was still going strong, so I’m not sure how long it went on for in total. Apparently there was a party planned for after too. All in all it was a very entertaining experience. Some of the sights were a little shocking and many downright hilarious, but it was a
fun day and one I am glad to have seen. It is a shame that much of it was political, but if that is the only way to get your point across then so be it.
It is very difficult to rate this hotel as there are as many good things about it as bad. Perhaps if I start with the good and work down. Location. This hotel is situated in Fisherman’s Wharf, which is one of the main tourist areas in SF. It is a two minute walk to many of the local attractions such as Pier 39 where you can find the sea lions and get Alcatraz and bay tours. Pop across the road to the Cannary and then up the road to Ghiradelli Square, both of which has shops, restaurants etc. It is a stones throw from the cable car turnaround, so you can get to pretty much anywhere from here. All in all location could not be much better. The rooms are large and you either get a king or two double beds with the usual dresser, drawers, TV, coffee maker and large bathroom. We also had an iron & ironing board. There are several options for eating, one of the hotel buildings has a Denny’s which serve breakfasts, dinners etc 24 hours a day. We chose to have breakfast at the main hotel restaurant Bristol Bar & Grill which serves a buffet. Here you can get fruit, cereal, yoghurt, eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausages, potatoes, toast, bagels, pastries etc the list goes on. We paid approx $30 for two breakfasts and tea/coffee/juice which I didn’t think was too bad as you can easily fill yourself up and not eat again until evening. There are also lots of bars and restaurants within walking distance. The hotel also has an outside pool, concierge service, gift shop, coffee bar and guest laundry. Now for the downside – we found the hotel to be exceptionally noisy. The rooms were not double glazed so all the street noise came straight into the room – all through the night, both traffic and people. It is definitely the noisiest hotel we have ever stayed in. We were in a room on the opposite side from the Wharf and asked if we could move to a quieter room. We were told we were already in one of the quietest rooms!
Also the room, although large had wall paper peeling off the wall, which didn’t look very nice and the curtains didn’t meet in the middle, so shafts of light came into the room at dawn. We had to prop lamps and cases around the curtains to combat this. Another problem we encountered was that the vending machines were often empty, forcing you to go to the hotel coffee shop to buy coke, water etc at a higher cost. If you plan to go to SF, I would not really recommend this hotel, however I would recommend the breakfast at the Bristol Bar & Grill.