29 January, 2008

Up the Middle of Florida

In the spirit of trying to avoid Interstates as much as possible, we followed US27 North from Miami up to Gainesville Florida. This route proved to be interesting, although not terribly photogenic. US27 is an excellent road all the way, and was very quiet down south, but progressively got busier and busier.

For the first several hours, US27 looked to be going through the Everglades, with swamps and canals the main thing in view. The swamps gave way to massive development work to drain them and clear them, and then we saw massive sugar farms, and a lot of turf (lawn) growing as well. For a while, much of the traffic on the US27 was very large sugar trucks and machines which look like cane cutters. Full sugar trucks were headed towards occasional large sugar mills, with empty ones going in the opposite direction.

The Lake Okeechobee region and the busy town of Clewiston (where we stayed) seemed to be the centre of the sugar industry. US27 through Clewiston is called the Sugarland Highway, and the town proclaims itself as the "sweetest in America". There was a fishing tournament going on in Clewiston, banners welcoming the participants, and the town was full of enthusiastic boaters. The RV parks were full, but it was pretty quiet in the town's hotels.

Clewiston is rather "off the beaten track" (meaning any town not very close to an Interstate!) and as such, should not have to put up with intolerant and demanding city slickers like ourselves. We walked out of one restaurant which was so overwhelmed with its clientele that night that no waiter came to attend to us (it had just opened a few days earlier, and everyone in town was trying it out, we think). The next restaurant we tried had already been recommended to us as "excellent", but the food was nothing special, the service was charming but naive, and the billing system was primitive. The truth is, legendary American efficiency does not always extend far outside the cities, and it doesn't in Australia either, so we shouldn't be so critical!

Lake Okeechobee is a large natural lake, about 40km square, which once flooded causing massive loss of life and property, so it has since been surrounded by a large levy bank and intensive water management (which gets blamed for water shortages in the Everglades downstream). The lake is only 14ft above sea level, quite amazing given that it drains to the Everglades and is nowhere near the sea. The levy bank itself provides great recreational opportunities (biking, picnicing etc), and incorporates many boat launching facilities to accommodate the fishermen. The lake is strange in that inside the levy is an artificial channel of deep water, and inside that is a lot of shallow or marshy areas, and then inside that, the lake proper, linked to the outer channel by radial channels [photo].

North of Okeechobee along the US27, the sugar industry gives way to oranges (we passed a town with a massive juicing factory), and the countryside becomes what could be called "the Lakes District". The road passes literally dozens of small to large lakes (including Lake Placid), many of which are mostly built up around the edges by holiday homes and boat sheds. Many of these look charming and are very picturesque. The towns around these lakes are obviously very popular with recreational boaters and RV campers. We have never seen so many large and exquisite RVs and fifth-wheeler caravans as we have in this part of Florida, and the state is particularly popular with Harley Davidson riders too, who patrol around usually in small to medium groups, mostly grey power, some couples.

The photo shows a cooperative specimen of local fauna (species unknown to us) which met us in the grounds of a very quiet Visitors' Centre near Leesburg.

From the lakes district north, as the US27 bypasses Orlando to the west, the path of this highway is almost 100% built up and urbanised. The towns look to be not so significant on the map, but on the ground they seem to link together to become a huge (or long) suburban sprawl. In some areas, the development is very new and affluent, other parts look to be older and maybe a little bit jaded. We are impressed that the new developments appear to incorporate excellent roads and to gain their commercial infrastructure at the same time as if not before the bulk of the residential development. This forward planning does not seem to occur in Australia. We are not so sure about public transport, trains or buses. The planning paradigm in the USA seems to revolve around motor vehicles, and often even sidewalks (footpaths) are overlooked. We see very few pedestrians except in very poor areas, or "retirement" suburbs, or along beach paths. We normally wish to walk to restaurants at night if they are within a kilometer or so, but often we cannot due to lack of sidewalks or lights.

By the time the US27 arrived in Gainesville, the weather was again cool but sunny, and we realised that it was now looking like what we remember of Georgia, especially Savannah, lots of very large trees with Spanish Moss hanging in them. We have at last left the swamps of the Everglades!

Gainesville itself is a delightful university town (University of Florida), leafy and low rise. Most streets have marked cycleways, and although these are not safely separated from cars, their very presence shows a refreshingly different planning attitude prevailing in this town. We looked at an intriguing geographic feature known as the Devil's Millhopper, a very large sinkhole which supposedly resembles a mill hopper. This deep hole is traversed with walking trails where we took the photo.

27 January, 2008

The Florida Keys

We made the long trip south west from Miami to the Florida Keys, and to the very end at Key West. It was worth the effort, even though you have to come back exactly the same way, something which we are normally philosophically opposed to. The Keys are unbelievably beautiful, although possibly developed beyond their capacity. They consist of 700 islands, according to the guide books, many of which are linked together by the southermost part of Route US1 (a pretty good road) and dozens of bridges, many large, and one seven miles long.

As you pass down US1, the major towns are Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and then Key West, with plenty of lesser towns in between. You can see the Gulf of Mexico on the right, and the Atlantic Ocean on the left. Lots of the Keys are reserved as State Parks, thank heavens, but where developed, there are whole suburbs of beautiful waterfront houses, and many very cute marinas. The crystal blue water on both sides is a haven for all forms of recreation, boating, sailing, fishing, kayaking and diving. It's just like paradise, but maybe a bit too crowded. US1 is just a two lane road much of the way, and it's steady heavy traffic in both directions.

Stunningly, the Atlantic coast of the Keys was quite calm during our visit, and judging from the look of buildings and seawalls etc, it is calm most of the time. Maybe it is protected by some offshore reef, but we were quite surprised to see a total lack of surf on this ocean side.

The "African Queen", the boat which starred in the movie of the same name, is in the marina at Key Largo. It seems to be available for cruises, but it doesn't look very seaworthy to us.

Key West itself is a very pleasant town which effectively fills up its island. There are streets and streets of historic and beautiful old wooden houses, some very grand (such as Ernest Hemingway's old house, and the "little White House" used by quite a string of US Presidents). There are also some very beautiful public buildings, such as the old Customs House [photo].

Key West proves to be the epitome with Florida's contact with the Cuba and the West Indies. The town seems to have a lot of Caribbean people and culture, voodoo and the works! We ate one night at Kelly's, a very nice restaurant (in Pan Am's original offices, apparently) which supposedly specialises in exotic islander tastes (but not that much on the menu reflecting this, and our waiter didn't know much about it either, he came from Argentina).

Key West is only 90 miles from Cuba, and is the southermost point in the continental USA (even though it's actually not on the mainland). A marker to this effect is a popular tourist attraction [photo]. Key West developed and grew at least partly because of the profits from "wrecking", the salvage of valuables from the numerous shipwrecks in the area: there an excellent sculpture commemorating this.

During our visit, Key West was hosting a major sail race week, so the town is full of yachties who seem to know how to enjoy themselves in the bars and restaurants in the evening. Luckily, a sponsor of this event was a Barbados rum company, so cheap Caribbean cocktails were available all over town.

The port area of Key West is very beautiful, being next door to the little White House area, and enjoying a marvellous redevelopment by a resort hotel, and an interesting market area. While we were there, there were two cruise liners disgorging their guests into the town for a day visit. We noted an exquisite luxury yacht from the George Town in the Cayman Islands, "Meteor", moored in the marina. The older part of the marina is more down to earth, and features many rustic restaurants and bars. The last photo shows a developed island off Key West, as seen through the ropes of a moored cruise ship.

25 January, 2008

The Florida Coast and Everglades

Our southerly journey through Florida was down State Route A1A wherever that was possible. This is the road which follows the Atlantic Coast all the way to Key West. The road is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal waterway, all the way. (North-south highways on the eastern side of Florida are firstly the Interstate 95, used by anyone needing to get anywhere, then, mostly closer to the coast, US1 which was the main road before the interstates were invented, then A1A, which follows the very coast as much as possible.)

The weather began to get hotter as we came further south, so now we have exchanged our winter uniform for the Floridian clothing of shorts and t-shirt.

Most of the road is built up on either side by a variety of holiday housing. It seems like hundreds of miles of holiday houses. As we neared Fort Lauderdale and Miami, we began to see some very palatial houses, complete with gate house, studios, and pool houses, which allowed no access to the beach at all for the public. In fact most of the actual coast, especially outside the towns, has very limited public areas, and it is very hard to actually get to the beach, and when you do, there may be nowhere to park. Trying to find the beach, we detoured into a couple of little areas, of modest looking houses and trailer parks, they were a rabbit warren of tiny streets, and looked as though they had just popped up there. Still no parking in these areas, we parked illegally to have a quick walk onto the sand.

As you approach major towns and cities, the upmarket houses on the Atlantic beachfront give way to rows and rows of high rise buildings, some of them still under construction, about 50 stories high, which were amazing. On the other side of the road, the intracoastal is often there, and alongside it there were lovely islands of houses, some gated, many with big boats parked in the water, and complete with pools and sometimes beaches [photo]. In what you might call the "village centre", most Cities have provided for public parking and public access to the beach. Maybe the best example of this was Fort Lauderdale which, while it had its full compliment of high rise with private beach access, also had extensive areas of public parking and beach access.

The Florida experience has certainly has been an eye opener for us, and it has put us in a place which is very busy, unlike most of the places when we visit them. For example, the Outer Banks were almost closed when we were there, but now we are in peak season in Florida (and the hotel prices reflect this too!).

We visited Naples to visit some old friends, Ange and Lucia, who hosted us overnight, and we are very grateful for their generous hospitality.

We made two passes through the Everglades, once on the I75, and once on Route 41. The Everglades are a threatened area (too much housing development and golf courses), and a long drought, are taking a toll. Even the water supply to the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, has been largely cut off by the construction of a levy around the lake. Nevertheless we were amazed to see lots of alligators, sunning themselves on the banks of the swampy waterways. The bird life is really plentiful, quite stunning, but extremely difficult to photograph, and we saw lots of different species of egrets, other water birds, many banded kingfishers, rare ruby spoonbills [photo], and pelicans. Lots of people take advantage of the several viewing areas along the sides of these roads.

A ride on one of the Everglades air boats was a must for us. We took a private boat and we sped through the grasses, just like in the movies [photo of our "captain"]. Many of our wildlife observations were during this ride. We had an excellent guide, a native of Argentina, who gave us good descriptions of the flora and fauna of the beautiful Everglades, and even showed us an alligators' nest.

We didn't see many other critters which inhabit the swamp. These include black bears, deer, snakes and a rare species of panther, with a tawny coat. The Florida Panther is highly endangered - there are thought to be less than 100 left, and unfortunately, quite a few of these get killed by traffic despite "Panther Crossing" signs, and specially reduced speed limits, which most drivers seem to ignore. Breeding programs in a refuge have been successful, but nevertheless the future for this precious species must be most precarious indeed.

23 January, 2008

Kennedy Space Centre

We spent two most fascinating days at the NASA base at Cape Canaveral Florida, specifically at the Kennedy Space Centre and the Astronauts Hall of Fame. This sounds like a long visit for two baby boomer adults, but it is a most awesome place, and it is very moving to be at and view the actual site of most of the action of the space age. The most advanced technology in the world is developed and employed here, and for technologist Mike, Cape Canaveral is thus a holy place.

Visits to the NASA facilities are managed from the Kennedy Space Centre, and the whole place has the touch and feel of a theme park (which is unfortunate but probably the best way of managing the crowds of visitors), and as one bus driver put it, Cape Canaveral is not a theme park, it is the real thing!

Buses are used to move visitors around the huge NASA base - these are driven and hosted by enthusiastic and knowledgable guides, at least some of whom were previously engineers or technicians at the site. You can get off the buses at several locations and then get back on any following bus at your leisure. This process works quite well, but the queues and waits to get on the buses are quite irritating, and take up a lot of time.

We took a stop at a visitors gantry where we could see the gigantic building (the tallest single story building in the world?) where the rockets and shuttles are assembled before being moved on huge crawlers (along dirt roads) to the launch pad. We saw the shuttle Atlantis at the launchpad being readied for its next launch on 7 February [photo].

Possibly the highlight of the bus tour was the stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Centre (well, they spell it "center") which includes a visit to the actual control room used for Apollo missions to the moon, and there is a stunning simulation of a launch in this very room. In an adjacent huge hangar type building, we got a very close look at the one complete spare Saturn V rocket left over from this project. Everyone is gobsmacked at this, it is so, so big [photo].The NASA people have done a fantastic job with this display.

Looking at this rocket close up, and the examples of various Apollo, Gemini, Mercury etc modules etc which proliferate at the Kennedy Space Centre makes you realise what a tremendous undertaking these missions were, how complicated and vulnerable everything looks. It made us truly appreciate the miracle that these things worked at all - what a testament to the skills and persistence of everyone involved, and a tribute to the bravery of the astronauts who put their faith and their lives in the hands of everyone who worked in these projects.

A lower key visit on the bus tour is a visit to the facility where assembly of the International Space Station takes place. We could see, through double glazing, the clean area where the various bits and pieces are assembled and tested.

The Kennedy Space Centre itself, where these bus trips start from, really is just a theme park, with activities for children, rides (simulators), and junk food on sale. But there is interesting stuff there, such as the "rocket garden" [photo], and whole buildings devoted to early space exploration, and how robots pave the way for manned missions to Mars. At the Imax theatre, we saw a 3D movie actually taken at the International Space Centre, and it was just fantastic to see those scientists and engineers working and playing in genuine zero gravity.

While the whole place is undeniably upbeat, the planners here did not shy away from the highlighting the risks of space travel and the tragedies which have occurred. There are sombre reminders and memorials to the astronauts who have died in space travel accidents.

The Astronaut's Hall of Fame was particularly interesting but despite the theme being to honour those people who have gone into space, we found it disappointing that Yuri Gargarin, the first man into space (but not an American), was omitted. If there was any reference to him in the Hall of Fame, it's pretty subtle and we missed it. American patriotism is justifiable and understandable, but we really felt that this was an omission in the Hall of Fame. The role of the Russians in the early days of the space race is however covered in the historical exhibits elsewhere, and the role of other countries in the International Space Station is also recognised.

At the end of our visit to the Kennedy Space Centre, we sat in the shade (it was cold on our first day's visit, and hot on the next) consuming hot dogs and coffee, and we looked at all the young people visiting with their parents. We realised that all the space race and the moon landing program is ancient history to them, often having taken place before they were born. The visit to the Space Centre cannot mean the same to these people as it does to us. We have lived through this most exciting period of history - we remember peering in the sky at the Sputnik as it circled overhead, and (at a local shopping centre once lunchtime) we watched grainy black and white TV images of Neil Armstrong taking that step onto the moon live, as he actually did it; we held our breath with the rest of the world as Apollo 13 (not actually commanded by Tom Hanks) limped back to earth.

We earnestly hope that younger generations have and take the same opportunities to marvel and be excited if not enthralled at the advances in space exploration that the International Space Station, the renewed moon program and proposed future missions to Mars promise.

During our visit to Cape Canaveral, it was particularly gratifying to realise that the whole NASA installation is in the middle of a giant wildlife refuge, and to see this celebrated at the Centre. We saw numerous alligators as we drove to and from the Centre, and also had the chance to glimpse at a bald eagle guarding its nest.

21 January, 2008

Into Florida

Leaving Georgia, we have now ventured further south into Florida. Having followed the coast down the intriguingly numbered route A1A, our first stopping place was Saint Augustine, said to be the oldest permanent settlement in the USA, a community having been established there in the 1600's by the Spanish. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but the town has (since the 1800's) reinvented itself by foresighted citizens building and maintaining the Spanish style [photo] and the old town has turned itself into a neat and popular theme park exploiting the Spanish history.

Then to Daytona Beach, passing the famous speedway, thankfully quiet at this time, or we would have never found accommodation! We stayed at a beachfront hotel and splurged on a full oceanside room. We had a delightful walk along the beach, but you have to dodge the traffic which is allowed to drive along the beach here [photo]. During dinner, the heavens opened, and we got quite wet getting home. The TV then issued "tornado warnings" for our area - this didn't eventuate but there was a spectacular thunderstorm, and, later, very strong winds which persisted until about 10am. These winds blew up such a surf that Mike could not jog along the beach in the morning as he was looking forward to (the previous day it rained, preventing the same activity).

We visited the Ponce Inlet Light Station [photo] which is at the very southern end of the spit that is Daytona Beach. This very pretty terra cotta painted lighthouse is the tallest in Florida, and the 2nd tallest in the USA.

So far, a pleasant first few days in Florida, but it's been bitingly cold here, and it's apparent that neither the locals nor the tourists are expecting or prepared for it. Many people are inappropriately dressed, and are obviously uncomfortable. We're lucky, we are travelling with Paddy Pallin's warmest clothing, and can get well rugged up.

19 January, 2008

A Tale of Three Islands

Driving down the Georgia coast (on the I95 mostly), we sidetracked to three offshore islands, separated from the mainland by the so called "intracoastal waterway" (which runs virtually the full length of the east coast), and all connected by bridges.

The first was Tybee Island, directly east of Savannah. The Atlantic side of this island was pure surfie seediness. The town was sun-blistered, last painted some time ago, and wind blown. The shops (mostly closed for the season) were cheap and many were dim looking bars. The people in the street were friendly, and always asked us what we thought about the surf that day (the surf was grotty, but we were polite). One guy realised we were Australian (at first he thought we were from New Jersey, based on our car's plates), and when we knew who Kelly Slater was, became very friendly indeed - "Aussies are so in touch with the ocean". There is no where to park on Tybee Island without having to feed parking meters a quarter for 15 minutes, not at the lighthouse, not on the beach, not at the shops. You can't blame the City for trying to make money from day trippers, but this process was very annoying.

Tybee Island "downtown" has an interesting pavillion and fishing pier which runs well out into the ocean. We realised that there are hundreds of piers like this on both the east and west coasts of the USA, but we can't think of a single example in Australia, a pier which runs out into the unprotected ocean, not in a bay or inlet.

The second island was Saint Simon Island, east of Brunswick. It was like a different world to Tybee, much tidier and more upmarket. It's quite a big island with lots of residential development, and very pretty indeed, yet another beautiful Atlantic lighthouse. In the village area we were able to buy a cappucino and sit outside in the warmish sun to enjoy it (!!!). Plenty of free parking here. Guided by a free map we'd picked up in the village, we explored the island and drove onto the adjacent Sea Island (a long spit of sand criss crossed by 56 streets running to the beach) only to find the entire island is a private, gated community, and we were on the outside!

The third island was Jekyll Island, quite petite, and really just south of St Simon, but you have to go back into Brunswick to get around to it, crossing Saint Simon Sound on one of this coast's many magnificent bridges. This island was totally different again - it used to be a private club for the extremely wealthy up until the 1940's, and even though it has now been opened up to the public, it very well preserves its elegance, and many of the original club buildings are now preserved as a glamorous hotel and shops etc. Jekyll has a magnificent beach along the full length of its Atlantic coast, and development has been very well managed here. We had a good meal at Blackbeard's Restaurant (a well known pirate who once plied these seas), one of the few places we have found with excellent views of the ocean.

17 January, 2008

The Deep South

Reluctantly we turned the Subaru from the Outer Banks on a brilliantly sunny morning, after a huge downpour the night before, and headed south. We had decided not to risk the North Carolina ferry system which, by our investigations, seemed to be in disarray during the off-season due to maintenance, and providing an unpredictable service. Therefore we headed inland. Maybe the Outer Banks saved its best for last for us! We popped into the most beautiful village of Manteo as we left for a coffee and a last look over the sound. [Photo shows some buildings in Manteo's harbour area.]

It was a long day of driving via very flat back roads through farm towns, they grow cotton here in summer, heading for Wilmington NC for a stop overnight. Still plenty of water here in the low lands, alligators and bears aplenty here, although we did not see any. The inland waterways, which criss-cross everywhere, are crossed by huge bridges, unremarkable here, but they would be famous if in Australia. The main interest on this drive was a campaign called "No OLF" to resist the military building a new landing field which would destroy a large area of cotton land. Due to a road closure in Wilmington, it took us an hour to get through the suburbs, and in retrospect, we could have bypassed Wilmington altogether and headed for Myrtle Beach SC.

That mistake endured, we stayed in a delightful hotel over looking the Cape Fear River, in the Wilmington historical district, which is being saved and restored. A big picture window in our room allowed us to watch the barges and fishermen as dark fell [photo], and again as dawn broke. We enjoyed dinner in a nearby Irish Pub. The next morning Mike planned to run along the riverside boardwalk, but it was icy and way too slippery to be safe, so he settled on the hotel gym.

We are now well into "y'all" country. As soon as we had entered the Carolina's, we noted that accents take on the southern drawl, and it is just that little bit more difficult for us to be understood. Waiters, shopkeepers easily recognise that we are not from around here, but they never guess that we are speaking with Australian accents until we tell them.

It took us another big driving day to get to Charleston SC, where we saw the first of the southern style of cities. Charleston has been rebuilt many times, after a big earthquake in
1886, several fires and storms, and devastating cyclone Hugo in 1986. Of course it was badly burned in the civil war, where the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, just out in the harbour. On the way, soon after we crossed the border into South Carolina, we saw Myrtle Beach, and Murrells Inlet, both lovely, nice and quiet. We fear they are the "holiday ghettos" in the summer, but Myrtle Beach in particular is a beautiful long beach blighted by too much development.

At last we crossed into Georgia, to enter Savannah GA, a city we had looked forward to visiting very much, since 10 years ago seeing the film directed by Clint Eastwood, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". The weather here is unusually cool, we see the people are not dressed for cold weather, and they are all complaining. It is snowing in Atlanta in upstate Georgia. Fearing rain, we straight away headed out on a walking tour of the historic district. What a beautiful place, just as we pictured it! Cobbled streets, lots of small squares [photo] with trees adorned with spanish moss, and statues and informative plaques. The statues commemorate war of independence victories, confederate generals and Indian chieftans. The squares are surrounded by beautiful period buildings. Everywhere the streets are lined with beautiful magnolia trees. The old town area is magnificently preserved and all the parks and squares seem to be so "unAmerican", meaning so unlike most cities we have seen. So much history here from the American Revolution, as well as the Civil War, and Civil Rights issues. Architecture is wonderful, much is preserved, and the old houses are magnificent. The city surrendered to the North, so was unburned by the troops, when they arrived. The riverfront area is in the progress of restoration - they've still got a way to go. The rain set in as we walked but we managed to get a lovely taste of Savannah.

14 January, 2008

The Amazing Outer Banks

What an interesting place the Outer Banks are in North Carolina: even having read about the area, we did not expect what it was, and we have really never seen anything like it. These narrow barrier islands stretch for 100 miles south, joined together by bridges or ferries. For much of the drive, you can see the ocean on one side, and the sound on the other, so narrow is this ultralong spit. The banks are very quiet for the months from October to March, and there are miles of empty beach houses which are rented for the summer, including some very up-market ones, which we assume are family beach houses, and not rented out.

Most of these houses however are huge, 4 times the size of our modest terrace in Sydney. It is quite strange to see almost all of these houses empty! Collectively, they resemble an alien landscape, especially where sand seems to be engulfing them as they sit neglected over winter (photo). Driveways and even whole streets have been taken over by blowing sand dunes. With a strong wind blowing, and a decent Altantic surf raging very close to the houses, the whole area looks very vulnerable. They must worry about global warming here!

Most of the shops and restaurants are closed, but we don't think we would like it here in the peak season, it must be wall to wall people and cars.

We spent a lot of time at the Wright Brothers memorial at Kitty Hawk (actually at Kill Devil Hills), the exact spot where the brothers Orville and Wilbur, first flew their aircraft, in the early 1900s. As usual in the USA, the memorial was really well done, you can see the markers where the 4 successful flights took off and landed. There is also a great National Monument there to honor early aviators. Photo shows a sculpture representing the take off of the first flight. Our camera is balanced on the photographer's shoulder!

We looked at two of the significant lighthouses of the North Carolina Atlantic Coast, Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras. The latter was actually moved in 1999 a distance of about a quarter of a mile, on rails, as it was in danger of being washed away by the encroaching seas. Quite a feat! (Photo shows original and current sites.) This coast is all beach and sand dunes and no rocky cliffs, so the lighthouses had to be built on quite insecure foundations.

To get to the Outer Banks from our previous destination, we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a marvel of engineering, consisting of a bridges, two tunnels under the water (to allow heavy shipping through), 4 islands and a series of causeways. It goes for 20 miles, and was finished in the early 1960's. As we came over from Chincoteague, we passed through pretty towns like Onancock, then over the bridge to Virginia Beach, which gets bad press as a holiday ghetto, but as it was quiet it more resembled a ghost town or a movie set, and we thought it ok. There is a fantastic, very long, boardwalk (concrete actually) with separate pedestrian and bicycle strips along the ocean. It must be a nightmare in summer when all those cars arrive!

12 January, 2008

Paris to USA

Charles de Gaulle airport proved to be no better going out than coming in, with only misleading signs pointing the way to incorrect queues for security and immigration checks. Snooty officials then tell you where to go. However, the American Airlines flight from Paris to New York JFK was, despite Mike's poor expectations, excellent, with a new aircraft, comfortable seats, good food, and best of all, very friendly cabin crew. The flight was over an hour late however due to (that classic unacceptable excuse), "late arrival of the incoming aircraft". The simplest way into New York City from JFK is on a shuttle bus which dropped us at Grand Central Terminal (only 100m from our hotel) along pretty terrible roads and freeways. This only cost $30 for the two of us. It's a comment on the state of the US Dollar, that this far amounts to less than half the fare for the same trip between Paris and the airport, the latter being maybe half the distance.

We spent a night in NYC before picking up our car, surprisingly exactly what we had booked, a Subaru (Legacy) and heading south as quickly as possible. We exited NYC via the Lincoln Tunnel and I95 south, and it's truly amazing how bad these very old roads are. They must be amongst the earliest "freeways" built under Eisenhower's post war plan, and they haven't been updated an iota ever since. It's a shame that America's premier city has such poor road infrastructure on its boundaries.

We left NY via New Jersey, without stopping as most of it was industrial, and soon reached the next state, Delaware. Rehoboth Beach, where we spent the night, was a delightful seaside town, and was very quiet at this time of year. We could tell by the myriads of beach houses, restaurants, and tourist facilities, that in the summer this place bursts at the seams. At Outback Steakhouse where we had dinner, we looked with interest at the other diners, including the young man who was eating his big steak absolutely raw! The next morning we headed off into Maryland and the town of Ocean City, much high rise here, and we do mean high rise, blocks and blocks of it like the Gold Coast. Obviously a very popular place to spend the summer, many people from Washington DC come here for a vacation. The interesting thing were the many canals on the west (non-ocean) side of the road, a huge inland waterway. Houses here all have a bit of water at their back yard.

Afternoon saw us arrive in Virginia, and the interesting town of Chincoteague. The whole area on this Atlantic Coast, has magnificent beaches and lots of low lying marshy areas, filled with bird life and deer. We noted with interest the sign outside the motel, "Hunters Welcome", and thought no more of it until we saw several pickup truck loads of them with lots of "dead things" in bags. Apparently it is hunting season here now, even in the State Park where we spent the afternoon, a little nervously, and saw some birds and lovely white-tailed dear. The coastline here is magnificent, and although it was not too cold, the weather pattern is still very mild for the time of year, it was windy, so a lovely salt mist spread along the coast. A highlight of this area is the Assateague Lighthouse which shines out over the Atlantic Ocean - we can see this lighthouse flashing from our motel in Chincoteague.

09 January, 2008

Velibs and Dogs

Our friends at the City of Sydney are interested in the Paris City's "Velib" system which is infrastructure allowing easy rental of and depositing of bicycles, for getting around the city.

There are Velib depots in the streets everywhere, and more are being built as we speak. Each depot has maybe 20 spots for a rented bike to be picked up or returned. There is a central control panel where you select the bike you want, pay for it, and release it. When you have ridden where you want, you park the bike at the nearest depot and use the control panel to terminate your rental and finalise the payment.

This whole system looks quite new, and the bikes are clean and in good condition, and have bright head and tail lights on when you are riding them. Parisians (and the odd tourists) using the system seem to spend a lot of time working out the instructions at the high-tech depots, so we guess they are still familiarising themselves with the whole deal. We didn't rent any Velibs (we are walkers!), but did study the instructions, and they are quite confusing. Velibs seem expensive too! Our reading is 7E for two hours. That said, Velibs look to be quite popular, and you get the most well dressed ladies and gentlemen hopping on and riding away. Of course, not having to wear crash hats (noone does) simplifies this whole system a lot.

We have observed what seems to be one major hiccough with Velibs. Some depots are full, and renters can't return their bikes. You see them standing around waiting, hoping for someone to show up and rent a bike. Other depots are empty, particularly those at the tops of hills (e.g. Montmartre) - we guess people prefer to ride down Paris's gentle hills than up them. You see Velib service wagons towing dozens of Velibs around, presumably to even up this situation - it may be just a teething problem. You also see JC Decaux contractors doing maintenance on the bikes. Decaux bus stops are as big an obstruction in Paris as they are in Sydney.

Thanks to the wonders of live streaming over the internet, we heard Lord Mayor Clover Moore talking about new dog rules in Sydney parks. Clover mentioned Paris as one of her models of her proposals to allow dogs off leashes at more Sydney parks (she did emphasise that dogs must still be under the control of their owners). What we didn't hear her mention is that many if not most parks in Paris have gates on them and ban dogs altogether. Many people, especially families, take advantage of these open spaces in Paris where you can safely relax, walk, and children can safely play, without being contaminated by the leftovers of irresponsible dog owners. We think Clover's proposals for increased freedom for dogs should be balanced by more dog free domains for people who don't want to be in contact with these furry friends. Clover has always been a strong supporter of responsible dog ownership, but sadly, a large proportion of Sydney dog owners do not know what this means!

08 January, 2008

Paris Favourites

Our time in Paris is coming to a close, and we head off for the USA in a couple of days.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our apartment here in the Marais. It's been warm (once we worked out how to use the heating system), perfectly comfortable, very well appointed with everything short term stayers like us would want - hot plates, microwave oven, dishwasher, refrigerator, washing machine (no dryer) and all the kitchen utensils needed, and broadband. The bathroom was excellent, large, bright and airy. Being fresh juice squeezers, we were delighted to see an electric squeezer, but we wrecked it within a day or two, so we bought a new one from BHV (Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville), but it too only lasted a week (just long enough for us to have thrown away the packaging and receipts). Obviously French juicers are not up to Australian juicing behaviour.

A real bonus with this apartment has been the "entertainment" visible from our windows which overlook both Rue Vielle du Temple and Rue Marche des Blancs Manteaux. The crowds i the streets, and the cafes and shops we can peer into, are enough, but we can also see into the local community hall, l'Espace d'Animation des Blancs Manteaux. In an upstairs room of that hall, we can watch pilates, yoga, dance and fencing classes close up (see photo), and in the downstairs main room, we've enjoyed a popular two week exhibition of artistic treatments applied to industrial materials, and before Xmas there was a Xmas market, with arts and crafts.

At our apartment, we have to pay for the electricity we use, but we can and do monitor it every day quite easily. The average cost for our power is about 7EUR / day.

In our time here, we have gravitated to certain shops which best fill our daily requirements. We have found our favourite boulangerie for our daily baguette (Saveurs de Pains), and Clare's favourite coffee shop (Columbus), and a favourite fromagerie for our cheese. Most notable is our favourite corner store where we buy milk, daily fruit and alcohol (Les Vergers du Prince de Sicile) where we've become quite friendly with the owner (see photo); his English is about as good as our French. For serious shopping, there are 3 Supermarkets (G20 and Franprix) within a very short walk, and for real fun with the language, there are the street markets for specialised fresh produce.

Possibly the most spectacular architecture (gothic in this case) we have come across is the pretty well unheralded Sainte-Chapelle, a church built by the Louis IX in the 1200's to house treasures from the holy lands, most notably the Crown of Thorns. No photographs can do this masterpiece justice (modest attempt attached), and no description can convey how beautiful the inside of this building is, particular the upper chapel which seems to be all stained glass and no walls.

Our thanks to friend Anthony for recommending the visit to Ste Chapelle. We would probably not have gone there if not for him.

And the most beautiful and pleasant park has been that of the Palais Royal. Obviously this opinion is based on weather at the time of our visit, but so be it. This garden has ambience, a fountain which was working, chairs to sit on, interesting artwork, real grass etc etc. So it wins our prize, and because the sun was out and people were lazing around to take the sun, we were able to take our coats and gloves off, and hats too(Ben!), for the photo.

By the way (message here for Telstra), Paris is replete with free WiFi hotspots. As a visitor, we notice them mainly in parks, where you see people logging on with their Macs and PC notebooks. We wonder how long Australians will have to wait for free wireless broadband access across the Sydney CBD and elsewhere?

06 January, 2008

The Good, the Bad and The Ugly

Today was like some many other days for us: a very late start, breakfast involving coffee and a fresh croissant, a very long walk somewhere in the city, a drink at a bar [the Cafe Benjamin on Rue de Rivoli today], back home to scrub up, then out for dinner at a restaurant which has caught our eye, tonight the Cave de Vin on the Ile de la Cite.

So much is good about Paris, much of which has been dealt with in earlier posts to this blog, but here are some additional comments . . .

The city barely misses a beat over Christmas and New Year. Whereas Australia virtually closes down for a week if not two weeks, this city bustles every day during that period. It's true that major department stores and government offices close on the two public holidays, but this hardly makes a dent in the buzz of Paris.

Paris has a long and turbulent history, not all of it to be proud of, but there doesn't seem to be any attempt to hide it or rewrite it. It makes us mad to be reminded of cowardly Sydney politicians who would not retain the even slightly unsavory but historically significant name "Hungry Mile" for a reurbanisation project, while the suburb we are living in in Paris is most unglamorously called "The Swamp".

One glorious little cultural institution we came across (and were invited to participate in) was an apparently singing get-together in the park over Les Halles. There were three muso's, some ladies handing out song books, some "vin chaud" to wet your whistle, and everyone sings together selections from the book. The songs seems to be ancient and old Parisian folk songs. One we sang was about the Paris metro. You hand your book back at the end, so we don't really know who really ran this delightful community activity, but it was a lot of fun on a Saturday afternoon. How great is that? [see photo]

The health media is often preoccupied with how Parisians, with their love of pastries and cheeses, manage to stay so thin, so fit and healthy looking. We have discovered the answer to this. Firstly, it is true - the average Parisian of either gender, and of any age, looks trim, taut and terrific. We think they do it by walking everywhere - they love to stroll. They walk for fun and for exercise, they do it to browse in the shops, they do it to check out the restaurant menus, they do it to see and be seen. There are really not so many taxis cruising about, and it's obvious that the locals are more than happy to walk from one location to the next. Bicycles are very popular, and you see a lot of very well dressed people cycling the streets. Of course, if you really have to go a long way, there are taxis, buses and the incredible metro.

Paris is unaccountably filthy, not with or from air pollution, because vehicles are fed with very clean fuels, and dirty industry is either elsewhere or well controlled. No, it's litter in the streets! Garbage bins are everywhere: they are all clear plastic in this post September 11 age, and there are numerous City workers emptying them, as well as sweeping the streets, but it's a neverending task. Parisians don't use the bins, or not enough of them do anyway. It's common to be walking behind someone and to see them throw a tissue or a lolly-paper down on the ground. This can happen anywhere in the world, of course, but it's so common here, and so sad. There are obviously no anti-littering laws, or no enforcement of them.

The street litter is made much worse by the advertising leafets which are left en masse under car windscreens, then totally ignored by the car owners who drive away, and the leaflets flutter away.

The streets are also blessed with dog droppings. These are very bad, and frankly you've got to be very careful walking around. Parisians seem to have a special radar to help them avoid these messy spots. The truth is, the frequency of dog droppings is not as bad as we feared. There are plenty of dogs being walked or carried, but maybe they've trained owners to be responsible - there are signs all around with pictures of dogs being walked saying "I love my arrondissement, I clean up!".

And then there's the cigarette butts. These never quite get cleaned up because they accumulate in the cast iron grills which are installed around trees. The poor trees must have to adapt to a steady diet of dissolved nicotine. This source of uglyness in Paris will probably get worse before it gets better now that the no smoking rules have come into force in cafes and bars.

We have been very pleasantly surprised to see how easily these new rules seem to have settled in. On New Year's Eve, Paris's bars and cafes seemed choked with very determined heavy smokers. From the very next day, the same places are still packed, but no-one is smoking. You can actually breathe inside, and see rather than feel your way to the toilets. Many places are actually marketing the benefits of a smoke free environment, usually using humourous cartoons (e.g. Now I can see and taste what I'm eating!), but they've all got new no smoking signs up. Regardless, it's now a pleasure to call in for a drink or a meal in Paris. If you want to smoke, you now have to sit in the open air "terraces". The terraces are not so crowded in winter, but in summer, we'd expect a lot of competition for these outdoor people-watching and sun-catching locations.

Paris' public toilets are the stuff of legends, but they really have no idea with them. We can grumble in Sydney, but it's really a public loo paradise compared to Paris. There are some high-tech free access toilets in the streets, but they are not very appealing, and not often used by our observation. Mike used one once, but they seem to be dirty, dark and not vey comforting at all. You would always be on edge that the door would swing open at any time and flush you out into the street in the cleaning cycle.

There are no toilets in the Metro (amazing), some at the major railway stations (but you've got to pay to use them). Toilets in some places (such as Department Stores, in the gardens at Versailles, near the Place de la Concorde) are proof that French architects all skipped classes on bathroom design. They are cramped, illogical, and are never, ever big enough.

The best bet if you need to go in Paris, is to call into a bar for a coffee or a drink. We've not found one which didn't have a loo, but sometimes you have to go up or down a very scary and maybe dark set of stairs. And as for the variety of loos themselves in cafes, this could be the topic of a PhD thesis. Some even charge half a Euro, but most are free. Points can be allocated on the state of the urinals (for the guys), and whether there are separate cubicles for ladies and gents, toilet paper, a toilet seat, a toilet seat cover, a lock on the door, a door at all, a wash basin, soap, and anything to dry your hands on. Most cafes would score low, some actually score very well, but at least they have the loo.

Parisian Bon Mots...

  • Black is the new black.
  • Magnificent fashions, boots and coats.
  • The wonderful bridges over the Seine.
  • Water frozen in the fountains.
  • The fountains, but most of them are off for the winter.
  • The Louvre.
  • The bread.
  • If you don't eat meat, you must eat cheese!
  • The fur coats, no paint throwing here.
  • The grates in the church floors, from which hot air rises. The metro? the furnace? or a deeper place?
  • The churches themselves.
  • Narrow, winding, cobbled streets (lucky to have escaped the boulevard-making process inflicted by Baron Haussmann) [in the photo, compare the quiet Rue Quincampoix with the bustling Rue des Rosiers in an earlier post]
  • The patisseries, and fruit and veg shops, all the speciality shops.
  • The music, buskers in the metro.
  • The buildings and their marvellous rooftops.
  • The politeness of the French.
  • Gauffres (waffles) and chocolat (which is really Nutella).
  • La Tour Eiffel, and its beautiful lights.
  • The ice skating rink at the Hotel De Ville.
  • The policemen patrolling on roller blades.

03 January, 2008

La Tour Eiffel

The Eiffel Tower is the definitive icon of Paris, and is absolutely irresistable, even apart from a great application of steel construction! We have visited the tower a couple of times this stay, and have photographed it repeatedly from numerous vantage points around the city. On one daytime visit, we approached it from the Place du Trocadero where we paused for coffee, having found one of the very few places you are able to sit in the feeble Winter sun in all of the city. Inside this restaurant was very crowded, but we sat outside where there were very few people, and enjoyed, not only the sun, but also a unique view of the steel tower through the buildings of the Trocadero, apparently one of the few cafes with a good view of the tower (see 1st photo).

The golden statues outside the museums which separate the Place du Trocadero from the Eiffel Tower were as glorious as we remembered them from 1980, although this beautiful space is somewhat blighted by the numerous sellers of miniature towers for EUR1, also as it was then. They seem to be quite offended when you let them know that you don't want to buy one!

The tower itself is not quite as tall as you expect it to be. The base is crowded by tourists queuing up to ride the lifts to the first, second or top levels. The queue was hours long on both our visits, so we didn't bother, and it's amazing that only one of the four pillars has its lifts going in the presence of such crowds. On our second visit, they had more pillars going, but the queues were just too long.

The Parc du Champs de Mars, the long and beautiful park between the Tower and what is presumably Napoleon's military school, is a very pleasant walk, and is full of tourists positioning themselves for photographs of the tower on top of the heads etc. Something new (to us) at the end of the Parc in Place Joffre is an attractive and modern peace memorial (2nd photo), rather interestingly situated directly in front of the Ecole Militaire!

We made our second visit to the Tower at dusk. The 3rd photo is taken from the Pont de Bir Hakeim. It looks cold, and it was! By observing the temperatures showing on TV, and the current temperatures which appear on some City info signs and pharmacy signs, it varies between 4 & 7 here. Whether we actually think it's cold seems unrelated to these values with several obvious potential explanations. But when it feels cold, it's really really shivering weather!

We wanted to wait to 6:00pm for the nightly "on-the-hour" sparkling to start up, but we were so cold that we retreated to the nearby Hilton Hotel for two excellent hot chocolates, not to mention a well needed toilet stop. The sparkling display is shown, rather inedequately, in the 4th photo in this post. The human eye has a longer retention time than our camera shutter, so it seems like the Tower is densely covered in sparkles, but the camera reveals that not so many are on at any one time.

02 January, 2008

New Year in Paris

Having watched the Sydney midnight fireworks live and in full on Sky News here at 2:00pm Paris time, we walked along the banks of the Seine on NYE, satrting at about 10pm, to the Place de la Concorde, along with many Parisians and other tourists. We had previously identified this a good spot to watch from, and it avoided the areas said to be very popular, the Champs Elysees, and the Parc du Mars. We didn't want to encounter Sydney like crowds. It was a good spot, but big numbers of Parisians and tourists thought so too, and it was very crowded with both pedestrians and motorists. Paris doesn't close its streets for NYE! We actually sat on the railings of the adjacent bridge, the pont de la Concorde.

At midnight the Tour Eiffel put on a beautiful dancing display of gold and silver, but it does this every hour every night for 10 minutes, anyway. We did a hand held video of this display - trust us, it's at midnight on NYE. So Paris did nothing for New Years Eve. There were no fire works from the tower, but we did hear (on German TV) that the government had banned fireworks "due to security concerns". The City took notice of its own ban, but not the people who had brought their own fireworks which they let off in the street for the hours before and after midnight, so they were showering us as we watched. Frankly, what security concerns could be allowed to interfere with the City's own fireworks eludes us, and it really sounds like a defeatist concession to terrorism rather than a justified precaution. A city with equal or greater issues with terrorism these days is London, and their fireworks went ahead an hour later, focusing on the London Eye, and looking fantastic. That all said, everyone was in a festive mood, lots of champagne was being drunk, and groups of friends were clustered together. It looks like this is what happens here at New Years, and the people watching and the traffic watching was extremely entertaining, as was the walk back to le Marais - we didn't brave the Metro, and the walk was invigorating. Approaching midnight, and afterwards, the cacophony from car horns was deafening. We were interested to see huge numbers of motor home type vehicles parked on a large area to the side of the Place de la Concord. It seems that this is a very popular spot for motor campers in France on New Year's eve. On New Year's day, after a slow start we headed into the city centre, via the ice skating rink at Hotel de Ville, which is always popular, and had many skaters on it. We passed by the Place St Martin (photo is of the memorial to the liberation of Paris during WW2. We learned from Ben's Christmas present book on Paris that the French have a lot to regret about WW2, but they can be rightly proud of this liberation with General de Gaulle ignoring the US Army and marching his own army on Paris to take it back) and walked in the St. Germain des Pres area, which has some lovely boutiques, unfortunately, or maybe not, most were closed , so it was window shopping only. Stopped for a coffee on Bvd St Germain, which was the most expensive one yet, about $12, and we were't even at le Deux Magots or Cafe Flore! There were many ladies passing by, in very nice fur coats, the most we have seen, although they are very popular everywhere in Paris. As usual we spotted a huge church, St Sulpice, and detoured in to have a look. A huge building, having quite a big renovation on the outside, but needing lots of money spent inside as well. It was very cold today, about the same as it was when we first arrived in Paris, took us a bit by surprise, as you cannot tell from our apartment windows, and it has been much milder the last week.

Note: Have removed the Video - it doesn't seem to work!