20 August, 2008

New Zealand Wrap Up

That wraps up our holiday in New Zealand. The map shows where we went, really only covering half of the North Island despite having over two weeks to travel. Even on that relaxed basis, we felt that we could have spent more time in the Coromandel (delightful because it was so quiet), the Bay of Islands (so much more to explore), the Bay of Plenty (which we just rushed too much), and all of the geothermal territory around Taupo and Rotorua (fascinating, but too commercial).

It was a great decision to rent a Peugeot diesel for our trip. This little car was so economical, aided immeasurably by diesel being cheaper than petrol in NZ, yet it was a great performer with ample power for passing slower vehicles on those few occasions the roads allowed it with safety. We enjoyed many refined features in this French car which are absent in our Subaru - such as automatic lights, automatic wipers (how do they work?), separate climate control for driver and passenger, and wing mirrors which retract when the doors are locked. The digital radio received NZ Radio National almost anywhere we were - what a great radio station!

In the car, we travelled 3449km, and the cost of fuel was $NZ12.48/100km.

We find that updating the blog is great therapy. It helps one to think about what we've seen and done. Internet connectivity was pretty good in New Zealand, but varied in its implementation. Only one place we stayed had no connectivity, and that was the B&B we used on arrival in Auckland. In anticipation of having to use internet cafes to post the blogs, we purchased $20 worth of credit on CafeNet. This was wasted - we never came across a CafeNet hotspot (even though we visit a coffee shop in almost every town), and never had to use one anyway because all motels we used had some form of internet access or other. Some had free WiFi (this is good, of course, but the free WiFi services were almost always problematic due to weak signal, confusion over WEP codes, and no technical support). Others had paid WiFi (some $10/hour which we thought to be expensive) which generally worked well. A couple had paid LAN in the room. One one occasion, we couldn't make this work and got our $5 back. One small motel had only dialup available, which we ignored, mainly because my Telstra iPass software overwhelms resourses on our geriatric notebook, and worse, changes PC settings without permission.

There's plenty we have not done or seen on the North Island, but sadly at this stage, it's not in our plans to return to New Zealand.

16 August, 2008

Back to Karekare

After being pretty well washed out in Rotorua, the next day dawned somewhat better, although, during the day, we still managed to be caught in the open during a heavy squall. The whole of the North Island that we have seen has been so boggy underfoot, that we now understand how the All Blacks are good at playing in the mud, and how the comic strip Footrot Flats came to be.

The road from Rotorua to Auckland is much better than the average country road that we've been on the last two weeks, and we were able to maintain very good speeds much of the way. A hail storm provided some entertainment. The passage through Hamilton and suburbs is, however, long, devious and slow, and reminded us of Albury before the bypass was opened. But the rest of the journey was very speedy and pleasant. A very cute frog-themed cafe on the (flooded) Waikato River somewhere along this journey gave us a refreshing break.

We arrived near Auckland early, and decided to have another go at Karekare Beach. This place, where a famous scene in The Piano was filmed, had eluded us on a previous visit. Today, we made it. The beach is about a kilometer from the closest car access, and we found our way there on a boggy, sandy, ill-defined track. The weather was overcast and squally, and a gale was blowing, so we did get a bit wet, but the beach was starkly beautiful, making it worth the effort of getting there. Vast areas of black sand, rough seas and leaden skies contribute to the rough beauty of this place.

It's a popular spot, and there were about 20 other visitors there enjoying this windswept land and seascape. It must be very crowded at Karekare Beach in summer - indeed it must be a different place altogether, because there is a surf club at the beach. You'd be suicidal to swim at this beach in conditions like there were today.

15 August, 2008

Wet and Steamy in Rotorua

Over the years we have travelled all over the world, and have never seen anything quite like Rotorua. We've been to hot springs towns in the Rockies, and in Alaska and elsewhere in New Zealand on other trips, but nowhere is the geothermal activity so extensive and obvious as it is here.

In many places on the drive in from Taupo, steamy vapours are seen to issue from rivers and cavities, and as you approach Rotorua, they become much more numerous. In Rotorua itself, the whole city seems to be a bubbling cauldron, with countless little patches of water giving off steam, some even bubbling away.

Geothermal watching is a very commercial activity in Rotorua. It costs $50 for admission to Te Puia, a Maori theme park with the best access to the Pohutu Geyser. Everywhere else is cheaper, but the locals know how to make a dollar from their great natural resource. Having said that, there are many places in town where these amazing sights can be seen, and sulphurous odours can be smelled for free.

After over two weeks of squally weather in New Zealand, the rain has now set in seriously and pretty well continuously. This limited our getting around a bit, and to keep dry during the steadiest of rain, we visited the Rotorua Museum, a magnificent Tudor style mansion, constructed in 1908 (opened 100 years ago today, as it happens) as a bathhouse. The building was never fully completed, but as a centenary project, it is now undergoing extensions to fulfil the architect's original design. The bathhouse was used for the rehab of injured soldiers after the first world war. The Museum is well worth a visit without needing rain as an excuse. The preserved bathhouse rooms are particularly interesting, as are the exhibits and the basement areas.

A cinema room shows a movie with the history of the district. This is fascinating, and extemely well produced. The New Zealanders involved had a wicked sense of humour, and did not take the movie project too seriously, making it very entertaining as a result. It is notable that the Maoris of the 19th Century discovered the value of money and how they could make it easily by charging the tourists to view the attractions. That fine tradition carries on today, as mentioned. It was a great surprise (for we did not know it was coming) when the seats "rattled and rolled" during the earthquake / volcano scenes.

To improve our spirits during the miserable weather, we spent a few hours at the Polynesian Spa. This is not a cultural experience, and we suspect it is not local Maoris making money out of this particular enterprise! The Spa is listed by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the "Top 10", and its adult pools and private pools are geothermal mineral water of various temperatures with great views over Lake Rotorua and its wildlife (mostly seagulls). This place is, unsurprsingly, really popular with Japanese tourists who arrive in busloads.Luckily the Spa is big enough to absorb them all comfortably.

14 August, 2008

Art Deco Heaven

Leaving Gisborne, there followed a long day of driving, a long winding road, thru hills and dales and across some gorges to Napier. Hawkes Bay is a beautiful, sweeping bay, with Napier nestled in it.

The Art Deco in Napier is really worth seeing, so we took a walking tour, with a volunteer guide, and spent a nice morning admiring the buildings there. After the devastating earthquake on 1931, the town was rebuilt in the style of the times, Art Deco. It was only in the 1980's that the town's people rallied and made moves to preserve the style from the ravages of developers. It was little too late for a few buildings, but Art Deco in the CBD area is mostly intact and is now a major contributor to Napier's prosperity. It now attracts crowds of visitors, with a big jazz festival, in the summer each year. The first photo shows a detail of the pavillion on Hawke Bay, and the second is the old fire station, damaged by the earthquake, restored in Art Deco style, and now the Art Deco centre of Napier.

Whilst in Napier, we met up and had coffee at Ujazi with a local author who is researching a book on a Napier actress from the 1920's who happened to marry a distant relative of Mike's. The author had rung us a month or two ago having found our family name in the Sydney phonebook. What a coincidence that we were going to be in his hometown so soon after the telephone call!

12 August, 2008

Wet and Dry

Coromandel Town is a most delightful place to stay, and also possibly the quietest we've ever seen, especially at night. Sadly, the time had come to leave the Coromandel Peninsula. We crossed it and came down the east coast. We planned to use the ferry at Whitianga to shortcut the road to Hot Water Beach, but discovered that it's a passenger ferry only. We also discovered that Whitianga is an exceptionally pretty town on Mercury Bay, and was worth more than the fleeting visit we gave it.

We went the long way round into Hot Water Beach. This has to be one of the most attractive ocean side beaches we have found. The sand is yellow, rather than the black characteristic of many New Zealand beaches (predominantly, the ones facing west?), and the water was most appealing, but still way too cold for a dip. The surf was very calm, but we have read this is one of the most dangerous beaches in the country.

The beach gets its name from two very specific locations along it where you can dig a hole in the sand, and sit in a pool of warm water, heated apparently from 5km down. The hot springs are under seawater most of the time, but become exposed only within 2 hours of low tide. The photo is of a poster at the beach, and shows just how close the low tide seawater is to the spring.

Hot Water Beach looks as though it gets very popular in summer, but even now, in winter, it would be a very pleasant place to spend a few days. There are some upmarket establishments there that look very comfortable, and the coffee shop was very pretty (and they rent out shovels for digging down to the hot water!).

But we had decided to put some kilometers under our belt today, and pushed on into and around the Bay of Plenty, eventually stopping at Opotiki as darkness approached, bypassing many places which clearly deserve more of our attention, but in two weeks you can't stop everywhere interesting. We had lunch in an old gold mining town, Waihi, and got lost following the main road through Whakatane. Obviously locals all know the way without the benefit of signage.

Approaching and passing through the Tauranga area we realised why we liked the Coromandel area so much. It was so quiet up there, but around the Bay of Plenty, we rediscovered traffic, and, on New Zealand roads, that's not pleasant. There are very few passing opportunities, and if you're behind someone slow, then, if they don't pull over, you just have to be patient.

The weather forecast was right, and the next day it was bucketing down rain. We had planned to do the trip to Gisborne the scenic long way round on State Highway 35, the coast road around near East Cape, as far east as you can get in New Zealand before Chile. This road had only just been opened after being closed by road slips from storms, and, in heavy rain, we thought "what the hell", let's go that way anyway!

It was well worth it. The rain came in squalls, and some of them were so intense we had to almost stop due to sheeting rain and almost no visibility. But the sheeting was fleeting, and mostly we were able to enjoy the scenery, and under leaden skies and with rough seas and black sands the rocky coastline looked most spectacular. The photo of Clare is on the gloriously beautiful, heavily driftwood strewn beach at Hawai on the west side of the East Cape peninsula. You can see the weather is being kind! The church in the last photo is near Waihau Bay, and contrasts starkly with the dark sea and sky, sitting on its own little point into the Bay of Plenty.

As we reached the east side, the beach sands followed what we now think of as a general rule, and turned from black to white. We went through numerous small towns on this long southerly leg to Gisborne, starting with the rather depressed-looking little village of Te Araroa. Other than the towns, which are located on very pretty bays, the road on this side avoids the coast, and passes through the ubiquitous hilly farmland.

The Lonely Planet guide advises travellers on a limited timeframe to avoid this road - nowhere to pass the "plethora of milk trucks, logging trucks and (unregisterable) ancient cars". Lonely Planet writers must only travel in summer because we encountered almost no vehicles at all, except in the towns, and cruised around the whole distance quite effortlessly.

We spent the night at Wainui Beach, a suburb of Gisborne, at a very luxurious motel. The beach here reminds us of Belongil Spit at Byron Bay. It is very heavily eroded by storms, and attempts to shore up accessways and properties look as though they are being successfully undermined by mother nature.

10 August, 2008

The Tip of Coromandel

The upper northern tip of the Cormandel Peninsula is all dirt roads but today we haved proved that it is worth the effort to drive them!

The day dawned frostily, but absolutely perfectly and stayed that way all day, a delightful change from previous days, and, according to the weather forecast, not what we can expect in days to come. It was very cold but 100% sunny.

With this good weather, we told our motel that we would stay another night, and set out. Frankly, this coastline is stunning, and photographs cannot do it justice. Rocky beaches are spaced by jutting headlands and backed with rolling hills populated by sheep (mostly) and cows. The animals rightly think they own these roads, and it took us some time to get by a few herds of both varieties.

Apart from a tiny general store at Colville, the top of the peninsula is devoid of any sources of sustenance, and at the motel we were warned to buy a sticky bun in Coromandel Town before leaving for the day. Instead, we took some leftovers from last night's dinner, and they served us very well.

We lunched at the very northern tip of the peninsula, a prominent hill called Mt. Moehau (photo of us). From there we also did an hour on the Coromandel Walkway. It was very scenic but very boggy, and our boots needed some attention on return. And Mike attempted a swim on the totally deserted rocky beach there, but the water was just too cold and he chickened out before full immersion.

The drive from Colville up to Mt Moehau is 66km return, and we saw only one other vehicle in this whole sector, amazingly for a Sunday. We think the dirt roads are discouraging for many New Zealanders, but of course Aussies think little of them. These roads are narrow, very twisty and steep with sheer dropoffs, but mostly good surface, but sometimes very rocky. There are hundreds of washouts from recent storms adding to the thrill of the drive.

We came back to Coromandel Town via the "scenic" route, by crossing the peninsula and coming down the eastern, ocean side. Still all dirt roads, but there are a few small townships here, not big enough for shops, and still no traffic. The Pacific coast scenery rewarded the extra distance, although the surf was very mild, and the view coming over the ridge into Coromandel Town was one of the best (photo).

09 August, 2008

To the Coromandel

After spending the night in Dargaville, we set off in the wrong direction for 20km. Eventually, we realised the error and turned back, to have a look at the Kauri Museum, at Matakohe, which was strongly recommended by Lonely Planet, and was excellent. Lots of displays of the logging and saw mill industries of the past, as well as the life style of 100 years ago. The re-creations using mannequins and old salvaged equipment were truly stunning, and this, together with furniture, old photos, clothing etc., made for a very interesting morning at the museum.

It was a showery day with bursts of sunshine. Then, anxious to have a fine afternoon, we set sail on the "Auckland bypass" to the west of the city, through farmland and Helensville. Signposting out of Helensville was very poor, but eventually we found our way onto the Scenic Drive, through beautiful rain forest, to have a look at Piha and Karekare Beaches. Piha was very scenic, ruggedly beautiful with its pitch black sand and windblown appearance. We climbed the hill on the beach (called Lion Rock) to meet the Mauri Princess, who looks out over the ocean there, it was indeed a wonderful place.

We were keen to have a look at Karekare Beach which featured in the movie The Piano. Who could forget the scene where the long boat is launched thru the surf, with the piano balanced over it? Not to be! The road down to the beach was closed due to land slips, after the severe storms which had lashed the North Island the week before we arrived. We had to make do with glimpses of it. We went 10km down Lone Kauri Road which was signposted to be an alternate route into Karekare, certainly did not appear on our map, but it was so slow and twisty that it was dark by the time we made it to the beach, which was not Karekare but some particularly beautiful unnnamed lost world further down the coast.

It had begun to rain seriously by this, so we headed into Aukland to spend the night. The rest of the Scenic Drive shows fanstastic glimpses of the city as it comes in from the south west.

A Thai meal was enjoyed for dinner on the Parnell Road cafe strip, and then, the next day, we set off for the Coromandel Peninsula. It was drizzling, but that subsided as we cruised along the beautiful coastline. We traced the road around the edge of Tamaki Strait, finding a cute coffee shop in a delightful little town of Maraetai, with a very friendly waitress. Amazing scenery, lots of inlets, with driftwood piles to explore kept us entertained for most of the day. We had a bite of lunch in Thames, and overnighted in Coromandel Town, very quiet and cold. The population swells in the summer, it is obviously a good fishing spot! We warmed up with a drink in the Star and Garter Hotel (1873), very nicely restored (the warning icons say no smoking, no dogs and no stilleto heels). This pub has a pot belly stove, and internet cafe, good coffee and cookies, and gets the local cafes to deliver food to the patrons. What a good business model!

08 August, 2008

The Far North

As we left The Bay of Islands, the thick fog which had blanketed the bay lifted to a breautiful day. The drive up the coast to Mangonui was along a lovely coastline, which was very quiet. The town of Mangonui, fabled for its fish and chips and architecture from the whaling days, was a charming harbour village. We were too early for the fish and chips, but enjoyed great coffee there.

Mangonui Harbour is an arm of Doubtless Bay which was stunningly beautiful, and from there we drove up a long skinny peninsula to Cape Reinga, at the most northerly tip of NZ. We saw a lot of Azure Kingfishers on this road.

On the way we stopped at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom at Awanui, where there is a staircase carved from an ancient Kauri Tree, and a display of furniture and carvings. The Cape Reinga lighthouse is solar powered, only 50w according to the sign, the only solar powered lighthouse we have ever seen. How a light of that power can be effective is amazing, but the sign there said that it can be seen for 19 miles. It stands where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. We saw it on a gloriously calm day, but we imagine the weather can be frightful in this totally exposed location. It's also unusual in that you approach the lighthouse from above it! (See photo.)

Massive landscaping was being undertaken at the Cape. There must be a lot of visitors here in Summer!

The west side of the peninsula leading up to Cape Reinga is Ninety Mile Beach. Vehicles are allowed on this beach but we didn't see any, and we note that that the speed limit is posted at 100km/hr. Reports are that many vehicles come to grief on this beach, and we could see why. At high tide it would be impassable, and at low tides, just plain dangerous due to soft sand and extreme isolation. Franky, we are not supporters of vehicles being allowed to drive along pristine beaches.

Near the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach, we had a look at one of the few road accesses to this beach, at Waipapakauri. This access point was seriously degraded and impassable except for high clearance 4WDs. Most of the damage here was probably done by recent storms.

After this trip, we stayed the night at Kaitaia, then set out heading south though the Kauri forests. The highlight of the day's driving was the ferry trip across Hokianga Harbour from Kohukohu to Rawene (photo), both very picturesque towns, which although small, appear to be thriving. The town of Oponomi is also beautiful, being
set at the heads of Hokianga Harbour and characterised by spectacular sand dunes. It was very quiet there with only locals about.

The road was twisty and slow as we passed through the Waipoua Forest, where the oldest known living Kauri tree is to be found (photo).

Beyond the forests, we had a good walk along Bayley's Beach, which was wild and windy, as our last call for the day. The town here is cute and funky, but we noticed a massive development taking place on the headland which will not help this particular ambience.

The West Coast, down which we are travelling, is not on the tourist trail, so it's very quiet and enjoyable, especially at this time of year. The tiny towns along the beach are replete with shacks and huts with only the occasional well built house. Locals obviously make good use of this coastline, and are probably grateful that it
is not too popular with tourists. Serious erosion of the dunes is a problem everywhere, a problem which is seemingly made worse by beach shacks being built too close to the edge.

We pulled in for the night at Dargaville.

05 August, 2008

Bay of Islands

The weather has improved in New Zealand's North Island. It's now mostly sunny, but frequently there are brief squalls of wind and rain, which are enough to keep everything wet, and requires us to keep our coats handy.

We managed a driving tour of the Devonport Peninsula, going up Mt Victoria and North Head, as well as along Cheltenham Beach, Narrow Neck Beach, Bayswater Marina and Stanley Point. The first photo shows the view from Bayswater across the marina to the Auckland Harbour Bridge. (They do bungy jumping from that bridge!) At North Head and Mt Victoria there are remnants of old forts first built to protect Auckland from the Russian attacks (which never happened). An impressive short DVD movie shows in a visitors' centre at North Head showing the history of the forts on this peninsula.

At Stanley Point, the city has only managed to preserve a single, tiny wedge of access and view to the harbour from private development. This is now the Cyril Bassett Lookout, in honour on New Zealand's only Victoria Cross in the Gallipoli Campaign. Bassett lived very close by, and no doubt used to look at the harbour from this precious spot.

We have now driven north out of Auckland to the Bay of Islands. A highlight of this trip was a diversion along the very spectacular Tutukaka coast (second photo), and we had a nice sandwich lunch in the little marina at Tutukaka township. We also enjoyed Whangarei Falls (third photo) which are extremely photogenic, and are running very well given the heavy recent rains.

We have stayed a couple of nights in Paihia (for the benefit of Australian's this is pronounced "pie here"), the main town on the legendary Bay of Islands. We took a commercial cruise of the bay, but the Fullers boat frankly had too many people on board for comfortable viewing and photography. This is not to say that it was overloaded, rather that it was too crowded to be described as a spacious sightseeing vessel. We would recommend trying another provider which has smaller vessels and appears to be less popular with bus trips, for only $2 more.

The cruise itself was excellent. The rain mostly held off, with only one squall, although it was cold and windy. The islands are truly spectacular, many are occupied with occasional holiday homes (some looked magnificent), so this Bay and its surrounds are obviously not protected by being a National Park as we would think it should be. There's lots of history in this bay, mostly involving unfortunate interactions between the Maoris and invading Europeans, mainly French.

The last photo was taken from a hill on Urupukapuka Island where we stopped for an hour or so, mainly, we think, to refuel the crew with lunch. We had fish and chips. This island includes a resort named after the American author Zane Grey (who liked the Bay of Islands for fishing and maybe writing), and the views from on top of the hills are splendid. It is very enjoyable walking up and down well grassed but a bit boggy sheep paddocks, climbing over the occasional stile.

We spent a pleasant hour in the historic and pretty town of Russell, originally a fortified Maori settlement with a name that meant "sweet penguin", but the victorious Europeans changed it to something they thought more pronounceable. In its early days it was a whaling town. It's most readily accessible by ferry from Paihia.

One night in Paihia we dined at Lips Beef and Reef Restaurant. This place is worth a mention because the food was "the best she's had in New Zealand" according to Clare. It was a totally unpretentious place, one we just chose walking by from the menu on the wall, and the wait staff that we met were extremely friendly. Such a pleasant eating experience leaves a very good impression of a town.

03 August, 2008

New Zealand Bound

On 1 August, we set out for two and a half weeks in New Zealand, coinciding (naturally, for those who know us), with a clogging weekend (the NZ national convention) to be held in Auckland. We had decided to spend three nights in Devonport, because it is close to the clogging location, Glenfield, and also has a ferry to Auckland downtown, so Mike could easily visit the city.

Our flight over was on Air Tahiti Nui and left at the ungodly hour of 07:10 (well, it was meant to anyway, it's actual departure was almost an hour late). We discovered that for such early flights there is no point following the official recommendation of checking in "at least two hours early". At 5am, the airport is virtually deserted, and the Customs and Immigration people don't start until 6am anyway, so you just have to wait. Clare enjoyed a coffee (damn the paper cup!) at Starbucks, pretty well the only retail shop open that early.

And the flight turned out to be operated by Qantas on a codeshare basis. So we tried our luck at the Qantas Club. We were told that we weren't strictly eligible to use the lounge because we were flying Tahiti Nui and "Qantas don't get any money from our ticket", but they let us in anyway.

The flight was uneventful. Our part of the cabin was mostly populated by well behaved footy players from the Newtown Jets. On arrival, the slowest part (as usual in New Zealand) was the passage through "biosecurity" which Aussies would call quarantine. New Zealand is really careful on this topic, and we suppose you can't blame them.

For this stay, knowing diesel is cheaper here than petrol, and to be different, we rented a diesel Peugeot. It's a delightful little vehicle, so great to get in a French car again with all its refinements. The drive to Devonport was predicted at 32 minutes by www.wises.co.nz but it took well over twice that long. The road in from the airport is pretty poor, and even modest traffic bogs it right down to a miserable crawl. Even on the North Shore, the trip along Lake Road into Devonport is a funeral procession.

We're staying at a little one room B&B we found on the internet in Buchanan Road. Our room is a very little standalone cottage at the back of the owners' house. It's just a bit on the shabby side of quaint, but lovingly cared for by the owners, who gave us a very friendly reception, and looked after us very well. The cottage is just that bit too small for people like us who travel with much too much luggage!

The clogging is at Glenfield, not to far from Devonport, but requiring another drive back up Lake Road, a few k on the motorway, and then a windy, hilly trip through the backblocks. Again, a little traffic completely clogs these roads, making the trips back and forth to the Glenfield Community Centre very slow. (At midnight, coming home, it's much faster.)

Auckland, and indeed all of New Zealand have endured over a week of very heavy storms from a confluence of low pressure zones over the Tasman Sea. There has been flooding, washaways, houses falling off cliffs etc., with the top part of the North Island copping the worst of it, and even the Pacific Sun cruise liner had to limp back into the harbour after scaring the wits out of its passengers (and injuring a few) in "huge waves and high winds". The liner is sitting in Auckland now getting all its crockery and other loose fittings replaced. This is just preliminary to saying that it's extremely soggy and pretty miserable in the city at the moment.

On Saturday, Mike caught the ferry into downtown. The winds had dropped, but the occasional mild rain squall passed by, making umbrellas and raincoats necessary for any outing. Mike had an enjoyable walk around the city, and through Albert Park and Auckland University, dodging between the drizzle patches and managing to stay pretty dry. Lots of Australians were evident in the city, identifiable by their "Wallabies" jerseys, getting ready for the Bledisloe Club rugby match at Eden Park.

28 February, 2008

Homeward Bound

28 February 2008 marks the end of our fabulous 3 month round the world trip, highlighted by a full month spent in Paris (covering Christmas, New Year and wedding anniversary), and a wonderful driving trip up and down the east coast of the USA.

We flew from New York to Los Angeles, and spent 4 days there just hanging out, relaxing, and cruising around. Our hotel was in our favourite suburb, Redondo Beach, where there's plenty of good eating and walking nearby. We rented a Ford Mustang so we could really fit into the LA lifestyle, and we really did nothing much else but cruise around in it. The Mustang was barely big enough to take our luggage, but it sure did look and feel good, and was fun to drive.

This completes our blog of this trip. We'll start up again when we go on another travel escapade.

27 February, 2008

Postscript from New York

Our last day in New York dawned brilliantly clear and blueskied, with a fresh covering of snow underfoot, so we decided to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge with all the other tourists and local joggers and bike riders. What a great day it was! The view from the bridge is fantastic, you can see far and wide, including the Statue of Liberty, and the next door bridge, the Manhattan Bridge. There are lots of helicopters buzzing around, as there is a helipad below the bridge, and the structure of the bridge causes the wooden footpath to vibrate with the traffic flow. Looking back to Manhattan, the skyline of New York City is a lovely spectacle. The ugly Verizon building makes it very difficult to get a clear photo of the Brooklyn Bridge looking back into Manhattan [photo].

Brooklyn Heights is a very cute suburb, with lots of up market housing. The shopping village had lots of trendy shops, markets and cafes. Some of the houses have a great view over the East River, and have had balconies added to enhance them.

On our last morning we headed out by subway to Harlem, but found it rather run down, and weary. Maybe if we spent more time there, we would have found some treasures, but all we had was a brief walk before heading back to get our bags and walk to the bus station, for a ride to JFK. We had a good flight on Qantas, to LA, and were glad we were not continuing on to Sydney that night, but having a few days to chill out before the long flight home.

The photo shows the 1 Train subway bridge as it traverses Harlem.

24 February, 2008

New York, New York

Our New York hotel is well placed, right near Grand Central Station, which is a marvellous structure. It is clean and warm, and has a vast array of food shops, including supermarkets and a fresh food hall which is really good. The trains are pretty well hidden from view (unlike Paris stations), which is probably another good idea. From our hotel window we can see the Empire State Building, lit up at night in silver. On the weekend it was lit in red, white and blue for the President's Day holiday [photo]. Right next door is a great place for breakfast, and they have good wraps and salads. A short walk takes you right to Times Square, and we are adjacent to the well known streets, Lexington Ave, Park Ave, Madison Ave, and 5th Ave. New York is great city for walking!

Our week in New York has been very interesting, it certainly is a different city, and the people watching here is most interesting. Foreigners abound - the city is packed with tourists. The decline in the US Dollar seems to bring Europeans here en masses, and they seem to be buying up brand name luggage in bulk, maybe to sell on their return. English visitors swagger around as if they own the place, and maybe they do, what with over two dollars to the pound!

The weather has been below freezing every day, some days have been bright and sunny, and we have also seen the snow fall, which has been great. Just like home the fashions in the stores are all summer, even though it is snowing outside and every one is wearing big coats, and it will be some time before the little flimsy numbers will be able to be worn.

We have done the touristy things, and just walked as we usually do, gazing upwards as the buildings here are so interesting, especially the tops of them. The photo shows an interesting brick building in Soho, incredibly intricate detail at the top levels, and those amazing NY fire escapes. There were trips to Macy's and Bloomingdales, and Century 21 the great discount store. In fairly dismal weather, we walked thru some of the "village" precincts of NYC, looking at the quirky shops and cafes.

We're big walkers, but NYC is also very big, so we use the Subway to move uptown and downtown in big hops. There is a convenient 1 week Metrocard which gives you unlimited travel for about $25, very good value. For some reason, we were able to buy the first one on a credit card, but had to use cash to buy the second Metrocard. The underground trains are clean, frequent, crowded and feel safe. The sounds of live music and buskers permeate the system. The network structure is not as straightforward as it is in Paris and London, but you get the hang of it quickly.

In perfect sunshine, we took the Staten Island Ferry, and gazed back at the familiar skyline of the NY skyscrapers, a sad sight now of course, and passed by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where the early immigrants were processed. We took a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, mostly because Clare, as a little girl, remembers her Nana going there. It was crowded and freezing at the top, but the visibility was perfect. It's amazing to realise this building is 1931 vintage.

The Frick collection is very interesting, thanks Elaine for that tip, and the Guggenheim Museum in that wonderful building, although now covered in scaffolding for a massive external renovation, was amazing to see. Unfortunately on the day we went there, a new and very popular exhibition was opening, and it was also snowing heavily, therefore the cloackroom was suffering a huge overload and we decided not to stand in line to check our coats, but instead we spent the day over 5th Ave in Central Park.

This was a good decision, as it was very beautiful, covered in snow, with lots of cross country skiers, and children with sleds having a great time. All the wonderful buildings around the park had snow on the tops of them, and there were no cars in the park. The fresh snow in the park gives it a wonderful aspect [photo]

On a sunny day, we visited September 11's Ground Zero. It was very moving, we thought of the terrible events of that day, and looked up into the sky where the buildings used to be. It's really just a hole in the ground now. The design seems to be settled, and new foundations are well under way, and the streets around are full of construction workers and cement trucks. The pedestrians are very forgiving, and everyone gives way to the trucks as they turn and weave in the street. Noone can be offended by the minor inconveniences in moving around this place. We also looked at the sculpture, now temporarily housed in Battery Park, which once sat in the plaza of the World Trade Centre. It is badly bruised and battered, but is a fitting memorial to that terrible day [photo].

22 February, 2008

Return to New York

The day to return the Subaru Outback arrived quickly, and we scarpered out of Vermont and through New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut rather more quickly than we would have preferred. The scenery through these states was great, but we didn't have much time to stop and enjoy it. We especially liked the frozen lakes with people wandering around on them, presumably safely.

We had specifically booked a Subaru from Avis, because that would guarantee "all wheel drive" which is highly desirable on the snowy roads we expected. This was after our experience in the Rockies two years ago when we discovered (several states too late) that, in the USA, SUV does not mean 4-wheel drive!

In the 40 days we had the Outback, it performed without a hitch. We travelled 5880 miles (9408km) through 16 states. Petrol (gas) prices were between $US2.90 and $3.20 per US Gallon, which translates to $A0.89 to $0.93 per litre, so they haven't got much to complain about, have they?

On the driving trip, we followed our usual US travel procedure and did not book hotels ahead. In the jargon of the trade, we were "walk-ins", and this lets you get good deals and make use of those discount coupon books you get from state welcome centres and McDonalds stores. We deviated from this strategy only twice, in Key West FL (where, worried about limited options in high-season, only Cuba, we rang 2 hours ahead, and just as well, because the town was full when we got there) and in Alexandria VA (where we had to tell a friend where we were going to be staying). We almost had a wheel fall off once, in Rutland VT, a ski resort town on the Presidents Day long weekend, but we managed to pay more and avoid having to sleep in the car.

Depending on opportunities, we stayed at Days Inn, Best Western, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn, Quality Inn, Comfort Suites, Fairfield Marriott, La Quinta and one independent as well as two friends, of course. We like these chain hotels, because they not only provide the essentials and decent comfort, but also complimentary broadband (for this blog!) and breakfast. Three hotels let us down in the breakfast stakes, but we managed to avoid starvation.

Our reseach is anecdotal, of course, but we noted that, within any chain, the quality of the accommodation can vary widely. As someone said to us, look for recent construction or renovation! Our award for the most consistenly good hotels on this segment of our trip goes to Holiday Inn Express.

19 February, 2008

Covered Bridges of Vermont

We stayed in Kingston NY with a vague plan to drive through the Catskills Mountains the next day, but then we looked at much time we had left before we had to return the Subaru, so in the morning, we set sail for Vermont, so we could look at some the 100 covered bridges supposedly in the state.

Vermont is a picture post card state, fresh snow fell as we drove into the state, and the temperatures were very cold. We saw a few ski areas, and the whole area was very busy as it was President's Day Weekend. The first town of major size we came into was Rutland, and we turned back from passing this town when it was getting late and snow was covering the road. We then decided to hunker down overnight. A bit of a scare there, as we got the last room, in town after trying many hotels. A very nice lady at the Best Western rang around for us, explaining that it was a big skiing weekend.

The next day dawned clear and bright, but extremely cold, about -10C. It was a perfect day to see the covered bridges whech we had come to see, so we set off, on well cleared roads. There are many beautiful little towns, the first stop for us was Woodstock, where we got the daily coffee and had a walk on the frozen footpaths. Around Woodstock there were 4 bridges of note very close to the route we were on. The first of these was the Lincoln Bridge, built in 1877, then came the Middle Bridge [photo], and they were most picturesque. We saw Taftsville Bridge, built 1836, near the very pretty Taftsville General Store, and the most beautiful of all, Quechee Covered Bridge, over the Quechee River, at a spot where there was an old mill. This was now converted to a glass blowing centre, where they made their own hydroelectric power, using an old generator which had been brought back to life. The river there was mostly frozen, as you can see in the pic. All 4 of these bridges are still in use by motor traffic.

Also on this road was the Quechee Gorge Bridge, uncovered, which we risked life and limb, walking on to see the gorge [photo], whilst traffic roared by. There was no footpath, as it was covered in snow, thrown there by the road clearing.

16 February, 2008

Will More Guns Reduce Gun Crime?

Tragically, the USA has seen a spate of gun rampages in schools and universities, the latest causing 6 deaths, including the gunman himself, just out of Chicago. Not surprisingly, these outrages have been headline news, but what surprises us, as Australians, is the response of some of the "shock-jocks" on talk back radio.

As we are driving around, we spend a lot of time listening to the car radio. The music stations are usually boring (although we found a lot of great bluegrass music when we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway), and we gravitate to the talk stations on the AM band. On the day after the lastest rampage, we were listening to some guy called Al (we rarely know their last names). For two hours he assailed his listeners with his belief that the answer to these multiple gun crimes is for everyone to carry guns. We find this an extraordinary approach. In US schools, it is apparently forbidden/illegal to carry weapons, even if you have a permit, and Al says this makes them soft targets, and the victims, who can't shoot back, are no better than sheep at slaughter. He would have his audience believe that if teachers and students carried guns, then the perpetrators of these crimes would realise that they could face resistance and would think twice. The fact is that most of the gunmen in these situations are killed by police or themselves in the end. This would be known to the gunmen which means they are prepared to die in the process and thus would not be afraid of "resistance". This fact seems to escape Al, and indeed most of the people who call into his program and are of a like mind. We suppose that more rational people do not listen to Al's program.

It would be a fallacy to argue that supporting the right to carry guns into school is restricted to fanatical sections of the media. On the same day as the above radio broadcast, USA Today (a national newspaper that we regard as reasonably balanced because it usually gives both sides of an argument) reported that 12 US states, following the previous campus massacre, are currently considering laws which will prevent the prohibition on carrying guns at universities.

To use the common parlance, there is an "elephant in the room" on this topic. It is never discussed. It must be a taboo to debate the role of the second amendment to the US Constitution, viz: the right to bear arms, or to acknowledge the possible contribution of the ready availability of firearms to the occurrence of gun crime. We believe that if guns were much more difficult to obtain (you can buy them at Wal-Mart!), then the frequency of gun crime would be reduced, and that this would be a better solution than to have everyone carrying guns, as Al proposes. Al's listeners arguments include some memorable statements like "if guns are outlawed, then only the outlaws will have guns" and "if deer could shoot back, there would be less hunters". These are cute expressions, and both are no doubt true, but they are not the point. These gun massacres at schools are not being carried out by outlaws: they are being carried out by deranged people who, for whatever reason, have ready access to guns and ammunition.

The second amendment is sacred territory in the USA and cannot be discussed, it seems, no matter what atrocities are perpetrated because of it. Several weeks ago, we recall, another right-wing talk back radio host was inviting his audience to discuss which was the most important of the freedoms guaranteed in the US Bill of Rights. Was it religious freedom, or free speech? No, most listeners argued, it was the right to bear arms!

Australians and others know only too well (e.g. Port Arthur) that tougher gun laws are no guarantee against gun crime, but surely they help. The suggestion that everyone should carry guns to discourage anyone from using them is absurd. The fear of death won't stop the lunatic: they are of the same mind as suicide bombers.

15 February, 2008

There is a Bear Out There!!!

After 8000km of driving, we finally saw a bear! Just after stopping for a picnic lunch by the Delaware River a few km north of Bushkill NY, Mike happened to notice a black bear cub in the field. He was grazing on some maize stalks, but took off when he saw us. Mananged to get a photo, not close enough of course! This was the highlight of our day after peering into forests for a bear for all this time!

Prior to this, after surviving the ice storm in Washington, we headed north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. We called into the snow-covered Gettysburg battlefields (which surround the town), and did a road tour. These battlefields were the bloodiest in the Civil War and, apparently, Union victories there turned the tide against the Confederates. The fields are immense, and are peppered with hundreds of memorials and markers to various armies, regiments, positions and soldiers. Unfortunately the Visitor Centre was closed when we got there, "due to inclement weather" the rough notice on the door said, so we missed out on the ineveitable, very informative interpretive exhibits and movies. This is the only time we have felt let down by the management of the battlefields - there was no justification for the closure. We talked to a school teacher who had arrived there with a bus full of students, to meet a guide for the day. She was not impressed!

Gettysburg township itself is old and very pretty. The historical buildings are in very good condition, not doubt funded by the myriad of visitors to the battlefields in summer. But in winter now, the town was quiet (although many trucks seem to drive through), and we found a nice place to have cappucino and hot chocolate. We stayed overnight in Harrisburg.

The next day dawned perfectly fine but extremely cold, as predicted accurately by the Weather Channel, but the residues of the ice storm made for lots of black ice in car parks and sidewalks, and piles of snow, having been rained on and then frozen, were as hard as concrete. This made walking hazardous all day, especially morning and night, so we had to be very careful not to slip.

We called into Bethlehem PA to find a cappucino. The historic district of this town is very close to the now defunct steelworks, and it's quite sad to see this city, the birthplace of Galvalume, in a depressed state, a real rust-belt town [photo]. We passed through Pennsylvania into New York State. The landscape of fields and hills, was snow covered, and calm, with glimpses of the Catskills in the distance as we moved into NY. The town of Port Jervis on the NY side of the border was quaint, and provided us with an afternoon hot chocolate to help combat the cold.

13 February, 2008

Sunshine and Ice Storms in DC

We've spent 3 nights in Alexandria VA, needing a few days to see Washington DC just over the bridge. The weather has been very cold, about -6C in Aussie terms, so the extreme weather clothing has been out again. One day was sunny, and brilliantly clear, but with a biting wind, and the other very grey, finishing off in the afternoon with an ice storm, freezing rain which made the footpaths dangerously slippery and quite hazardous for pedestrians, namely ourselves, after we caught the metro home. The ice storm has caused chaos in the traffic in Virginia, DC and Maryland, and even caused the presidential primaries voting today (Tuesday) to be extended to a later hour. Later on the TV news, there were complaints about sidewalks not being salted.

We met up with friends of our good friend Jack, Mike and Janell. Mike was kind enough to spend the entire first day with us, driving us around to some of the well known sites, as well as others which we would have missed had we been on our own. We also had two delightful dinners with Mike and Janell - thank you for spending the time with us!

We saw most of the presidents' memorials. Roosevelt's, extraordinary granite ediface which sprawls along the Potomac River, complete with waterfalls and fountains, and some of FDR'S great statements cut into the walls. Lincoln's memorial is in pride of place and so impressive, lined up with the Washington Momument and the Capitol Building on the hill in the distance at the end of the Mall.

A new and spectacular memorial to Air Force pilots soars into the air above the Pentagon, made from shining stainless steel. Perhaps the most moving memorials are the war memorials. These included the World War I and II memorials, and the Korean War memorial. The Vietnam Veterans' memorial incorporates the names of all soldiers lost engraved into the grey marble (heart-wrenching like the roll of honour at the Australian War Memorial) [photo]. It is a very modern memorial, which created a lot of controvesy when it was designed and erected, but has now become very popular.

The Library of Congress is a most beautiful building, marble columns and colorful frescoes [photo is of lobby, no photographs allowed in the reading room]. We peeked into the glorious reading room directly under the dome, with about 200 wooden desks and individual reading lights arranged in a large circle around the librarians' desk.

We had a very pleasant walk through the conservatory at the National Botanic Garden (after all, it's warm inside). This building, recently restored, reminded us of the petit palace in Paris, and contains what must be the best and most artistic implementation of a garden conservatory we have ever seen. The orchids were in bloom, so the colours were fantastic. In the rare and endanged section, there is a Wollemi Pine from Sydney.

Of course, there is the Smithsonian Museum. It is not to be missed but we could only skim the surface. The Museum of American History is closed at the moment for several years of refurbishment, so we missed that, but we spent good time in the Museum of Flight and Space, the US Postal Museum, the American Portrait Gallery (with its fabulous exhibit of US Presidents), and the US Archives (to look at precious originals or early copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first 14 amendments). Both days we had lunch in the Sculpture Garden, a delightful, comfortable and warm cafe beside the National Gallery of Art. This Garden features what looks like a permanent oval-shaped ice skating rink, and the cafe is of a Parisian theme, complete with a faux Metro station entry.

A walk around the Capitol Building was all we could manage. It is hard to get a tour through this building, even at this quiet time of year. The Supreme Court, the White House (so close to the road), so many significant buildings to see. Washington is set out very nicely, no high rise nearby, and all the buildings, modern and traditional fit together so well. Looking at the layout, and the architecture of the Federal Reserve and other government buildings lining the Mall, we were reminded of Walter Burley-Griffin who was, we think, an American, and must have used Washington as a model when he designed Canberra.

The Metro (the partly underground rail network which serves the DC area, running into Virginia and Maryland) has some lessons for Sydney. For one thing, our day passes cost $8 each, about 70% of the cost of a single ride from Central to Sydney airport! Signs at stations listed all stations where elevators were out of action (and apparently shuttle buses were available from other stations). The carraiges were mostly modern and clean and we did not see any graffiti. The underground stations were strangely dark.

As we post this, while the ice storm continues, Barak Obama appears to have whipped Hilary Clinton in today's local Democrat Primaries, while John McCain has more narrowly beaten Mike Huckabee on the Republican side. While we didn't get to vote, we are now "experts" on how the main parties choose their candidates for the Presidential election! It's impossible to miss.

11 February, 2008

The Civil War

The Civil War, which took place in the 1860's, was fought in many battlefields up and down the eastern half of the US - we may have read that there were 400 sites! We restricted our "study" of this terrible conflict to the state of Virginia (where "more blood was spilt" than anywhere else). The battlefields themselves are interesting, fascinating indeed, but we were particularly interested in the background to and the reasons for the war.

The numerous battlefield exhibits and visitors centres deal with how the war went in that locality, but our more strategic question was answered perfectly at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. Richmond is the state capital and, we learned, it was also the capital of the Confederated States of America, a country which had seceeded from the "Union" in 1861 and had its own President, Jefferson Davis. The USA must have viewed his behaviour as treacherous, but he is nevertheless honoured in modern day America, with the main coastal north-south road, US1, being named after him for much of its length.

The Civil War Museum is a new facility, and it structures its displays ingeniously by clearly dividing itself into the points of view of the three major stakeholders, the North (defending the "Union"), the South (defending state rights, which the museum called "Home") and the negro population ("Freedom" from slavery). The displays emphasise that while the seeds for the war were being sown effectively from the War of Independence about 80-90 years previously, and the causes were complex, they basically got down to slavery. The South was determined to defend its source of cheap labour which allowed them the accumulation of great wealth. The North was concerned about the morality of slavery, certainly, but they were just as opposed to the burgeoning economic strength of the South as slave populations grew. The South's political strength grew with this population too, because despite slaves being traded as property, a rule of "three fifths" was applied to their numbers. The geographic expansion of the USA (the acquisition of the "middle" by the Louisiana purchase from France in 1803; and Calfornia, New Mexico and Texas from the Mexican war in 1848) aggravated the balance between north and south achieved by the Union's consitution. When the southern states seceeded, the North's argument became more philosophical (the defence of the Constitution) and tactical (refusal to allow important ports and resources to be taken over by a foreign power). With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, he called for armed retaliation to the secession, and seeking freedom for slaves was obviously not the major part of the motivation. We found this museum to be most interesting and informative, and it dealt with what we wanted to know perfectly.

Next door to the Museum is the Civil War Visitor Centre, run by the National Park Service. We were puzzled that the National Parks are the custodians of many Civil War sites and battlefields, but they take on this task with great effectiveness. Just as we commented when touring the Rocky Mountains two years ago, US National Parks are fanastically well organised and managed, and any natural or historical features under their care are in very good hands indeed. The Civil War sites are excellent and indeed awesome examples of this.

The main Richmond visitor centre has particular interest because of its location in the Tredegar Iron Works which manufactured cannons and other war machines for the Confederate army. Today, the works are partly ruins, but they have been stabilised and modified into a magnificent venue for the centre [photo].

At all the visitor centres we visited, there is a movie or some form of audio-visual presentation to describe the progress of the war in that particular locality. These are always very professional, very interesting and highly informative. The battlefields themselves (or at least those which survived and a now under National Park care) are laid out with walking trails, driving tours and numerous exhibits to described exactly what happened at this particular spot. In some places there are open fields or forests with few remnants of the war, but in others there are stunning artifacts and reminders, sometimes by reconstruction [photo], of how the war was conducted at that spot. To visit these places is very moving, and we were appalled at the horrendous loss of life which took place under our feet. It is notable that the use of metal detectors is specifically prohibited at all these sites.

At the Cold Harbour battlefield, near Richmond, we learned the extent to which this war involved "earthworks", the creation of protective barriers and trenches. No doubt these tactics and techniques were studied and adopted by European generals in the first world war, 50 years later.

At Petersburg, not that far south of Richmond, we were able to understand the battles which turned the war in favour of the North, and led to Confederate General Robert E Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S Grant only a week later. At this battlefield took place the "Battle of the Crater" where the two front lines were amazingly close together, and coal miner Union soldiers from Pennsylvania dug a tunnel 500ft from behind their lines to under a Confederate fort and blew it up with explosives. The Union troops were so amazed at the crater thus created, they actually lost the fight there, despite the damage and carnage suffered by the other side in the explosion.

At Fredericksburg, north of Richmond, we learned and saw how Union troops were repeatedly unable to capture a hill just out of town, and suffered horrendous losses, because the hill overlooked an open plain (now a suburb) and was easily protected by a rock wall, a "sunken road" and elevated gun emplacements. The Union army eventually won the hill by coming in from behind. The photo shows a portion of the rock wall, and a house, still riddled with bullets, that was in the way of the fighting. There is a huge cemetery here, full of mostly unidentified Union soldiers, buried on the very hill they died trying to capture [photo].

The towns we saw on these battlefield visits are worth a mention. Richmond is a large and modern city with a beautiful skyline as you drive in. It is undergoing great renewal in the CBD. We saw a huge modern edifice with Philip Morris emblazoned on it. Possibly it is the global headquarters of this company whose products must have killed more people than it is possible to imagine.

We didn't see much of Petersburg town, but Fredericksburg, just away from its battlefield, has a delightful and quaint historical district, full of life (University of Margaret Washington very close) and cafes, buildings in the English style (and one French, that we saw, right at the battlefield), and street names like Princess Anne, Prince Edward, George, Charles and William. A guide at the battlefield visitor centre told us of the Hyperion Cafe for cappucino, and we went there twice in two days (a record for us), so good was the coffee (ceramic cups!) and so cosy was the ambience [photo].

Thanks to excellent displays and short movies at visitor centres, informative exhibits at the actual war sites, and very clever reconstructions, we feel we know a lot more about the Civil War than we did before. We don't know that this sort of on-site historical representation of war battlefields is available in such volume anywhere else in the world - maybe the American treatment of its Civil War memory is quite unique?

As a final word, no matter what the war, no matter what the cause, the politicians are always to blame, and the tragic waste is always a deplorable testament to their failure!

09 February, 2008

Three Treats

The Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park is the northern extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we did this stretch on a fine, sunny day, although it was partly overcast while we were up in the mountains. It's strange that these two roads are managed separately, although both by the National Park Service. The Skyline Drive even has a "toll", strictly a park entry fee, while the Parkway is free.

The views of the Shenandoah River valley on the west side of the ridge are panoramic, although a little bit hazy due to pollution even during winter. There was even less private traffic (virtually none) on the Skyline Drive than there was on the Parkway, possibly because it's through a wider National Park and does not have private property either side of the road, although we did see a number of service vehicles.

We took a side trip to New Market (lots of Civil War battlefields here) to visit another of Virginia's covered bridges. This one you can still drive over! It was called Meem's Bottom, after a landowning family nearby. It's quite a photogenic bridge and its inside structure
(single span Burr arch truss) is fascinating [photo]. The current bridge is a reconstruction, having been burned by vandals in 1976, and like other covered bridges, it now sits on concrete piers and steel beams. The Meem's bridge predecessors were burned in 1862 in the Civil War by the Confederate Army, and its replacement was washed away in a flood.

After the excursion to the Shenandoah valley, we raced back to Charlottesville to visit the home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, hence the writer of those famous words "all men are created equal" and have a right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". He obviously did not practice what he preached, because he operated the surrounding tobacco plantation using slave labour. Even though he condemned slavery, he participated in it.

Jefferson was a great philosopher but also a self taught architect, and he designed his home, "Monticello". We did a tour of the building [photo]. It's unfortunate that no photographs are allowed inside, because the house features magnificent European design, and some extraordinary innovations. Jefferson was not an inventor, but he freely adopted others' ideas to great effect in his house. The house has some skylights, double glazing, a fascinating built-in pendulum clock that he designed himself (the weights have to pass through a hole in the floor), dumb waiters for wine bottles built into the side of fireplaces, a turntable servery for food coming into the dining room, so that doors do not have to be opened (letting a draught in), double doors linked with underfloor bicycle chains etc. Possible the greatest innovation is a device used by Jefferson to make copies of all his writing (something like a pantograph?) - the first copying machine?

Jefferson's wife died in childbirth at a young age. He had one daughter with his wife, but it had long been rumoured that he fathered several children with one of his slaves. Jefferson never acknowledged this, but it has apparently been recently been confirmed using DNA analysis, and we note that photos of these children at Monticello are now accorded the surname "Jefferson".

07 February, 2008

Cool Music on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Our previous blogpost mentioned our first frustrating day on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) when, due to road closures we regarded as unnecessary, we managed to only drive about 10 miles on the Parkway in the whole day (between Linville Falls and Blowing Rock). Since then, we have spent two more much more successful days driving the BRP, after getting back on it at Deep Gap near Boone. We had spent the night in this town, named after Daniel, the famous explorer and good all round mountain man, and we ate at Troy's, a classic American diner.

After two days, we arrived at Charlottesville VA at the northern end of the BRP, having done several hundred beautiful miles on it. The road closures in North Carolina persisted, and we hap to skip parts of the Parkway, but the posted closures in Virginia seem to have evaporated. The closed stretches may have been opened in the last day or so, and frankly, we could see no reason for the closures anyway, no ice, no snow and no signs of grading.

The first day was a sunny day, so we had beautiful views over the blue ridges of the mountains [photo]. The road is so peaceful at this time of year, we had it to ourselves, hardly seeing another vehicle, and no commercial vehicles are allowed on it, so no trucks. It is an absolute delight to drive, and the scenery, numerous overlooks, wildlife, and side trips are a real bonus. This road is so attractive, that it increases our distress at the inexplicable closures. After a night in Roanoke/Salem VA, the second day started clear but we had some rain and at the end there was a heavy fog, which only enhanced the beauty of the mountains, but didn't do anything for the long distance views! Banks of fog swept down from the peaks into the valleys.

Our enjoyment was enhanced by the very cool bluegrass music which was being transmitted around the Blue Ridge. A pleasant change from the rantings of shock-jocks on talk radio about the Presidential primaries!

The interesting thing is the "public" roads running near the BRP have villages and cabins as well as the traffic on them, and you can see them quite clearly from many places on the BRP. It is easy to pop off to see things and pop back on again.

The forest is made up of maple trees and firs, and there are rhododendrons growing freely, they must be a beautful sight in the spring when they are in flower. We made a few excursions on the walking tracks which are well marked and obviously well used in the summer when the parkway is heavily used. There are plenty of white tailed deer to see [photo] and we saw turkeys and birds, but no bears unfortunately.

One of the most interesting things along the way is the extremely photogenic Mabry Mill [photo], and a village set out in the style of the mountain people who lived in the area, in the early 1900's.

We made a detour into Floyd, to visit the General Store there: it is a place where music and dancing happens every Friday night. Although it was only Tuesday, we thought we would have a look in, but it is only open 4 days a week in winter, and we were out of luck. The best we could do was peer in the window, and look at the entertainment list for next Friday. Lots of Bluegrass music!

Another detour took us to see 3 covered bridges. There are only a handful in Virginia, and the 3 we saw (one from a distance, it's on private property) are well preserved and registered by the Historical Society, we were pleased to see [photo].

Another side trip took us into Buena Vista, a small town which looks as though it has fallen on very hard times. We had a nice chat to the lady in the cafe there, over lunch. She has entertainment in the cafe every 3rd Friday night. Live bands of course, and a variety of music. The purpose of this visit was to see the Country Store there, but to our dismay it had closed some time ago. The lady from the cafe said she hoped someone would get it going again someday, she seems to be thinking about it herself. This seemed very sad, we hope the town manages a comeback, it certainly is on the bluegrass trail and could do with an injection of visitors. We also met the policeman of this small town, just as he closed the road back to the Parkway because of a truck accident. He was very friendly and he told us of a secret alternative way back up the ridge which saved us many miles. The secret way was very steep and windy, but paved all the way - luckily no trucks use this road. Our Subaru handled it with aplomb.

Again we had cause to be disappointed with the commercial appropriation of natural scenic attractions. We didn't even bother to make the detour to Natural Bridge after reading that a stiff entry fee is charged, and realising that it would probably be closed and locked up anyway for winter.

Why are the attractions on this road closed in winter? Maybe it's because the road itself is not kept open reliably. There's a destructive circular argument in here somewhere - the attractions are closed because the road is not maintained because the attractions don't have enough visitors? Anyway, we were disappointed that the Linville Falls visitors centres, the Blue Ridge Music Centre, the Mabry Mill shop (although the site was still accessible), Virginia's Explore Centre (and the historical exhibits were behind locked gates), the Peaks of Otter visitors centre were all closed. No doubt others were closed too, but we didn't go in to find out. We feel there is enough winter traffic on the BRP to encourage more openings, and that this traffic would increase if they maintained the road. That said, we did thoroughly enjoy the relative solitude on the road! Luckily the Folk Art Centre visitors centre near Asheville NC was open, because this is where we got our best map of the Parkway.