Friday, January 21, 2011

2002 London trip---April 16-24, with Carolyn

This was a last minute trip for me. My sister was suppose to be going here with my brother-in-law to visit his Aunt and Uncle, but he died a couple months before they were suppose to go. Instead of cancelling the trip, she asked me if I would like to go with her. After thinking about it for a minute, I said YES! So she left from Portland, Oregon, and I left from St. Louis, and we met up at the Gatwick airport. There to meet us was her Uncle-in-law, Don Arnold.

One of the things that I found interesting right from the start were the variable speed limit signs on the highway. In England, they actually work! Here in St. Louis, they are ignored and traffic backs up like normal.

It was really nice having a home base in the house of relatives---maybe they weren't my relatives, but they treated me like I was. We spent much of the week "visiting"and getting to see how the Brits live. They even had the USA flag flying when we pulled up in their driveway in honor of their visitors.

One of our host's, Barbara's, hobbies is floral arrangements. She was even in a floral club. The day we arrived was one of her meetings. Having been a florist for a couple years, I was excited to go with her to the meeting. She really excelled in her arrangements.

Our hosts, Don and Barbara, are old enough to be our parents, and they were very active and fun to be around. While Barbara prepared most of our dinners, Don took us out of her hair and off to see the sites in the area. They didn't actually live in London, but in a northern suburb.

ONe of the first places he took us to was Runnymede. It is where the Magna Carta was signed, and is also the site of a lot of memorials.

One of the memorials is even for our USA president, John F. Kennedy.

Our rides also took us by Anne Hathaway's cottage, the former childhood home of Anne Hathaway (the wife of William Shakespeare). Located in Shottery, Warwickshire, it is about a mile from Stratford-upon-Avon. This large farm house is a great example of Tudor style architecture. Another of it's memorable features is it's thick thatched roof. We weren't able to tour it, but even seeing it from the outside was pretty impressive.

Don also took us to Warwick Castle. This medieval castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 as a fort. In the 17th century it was converted to a country house.

In 1978, Warwick Castle was sold to Tussauds, a large visitor attraction operator. Tussauds performed extensive restorations to the castle and grounds in addition to opening its gates to the public. The State Rooms are enhanced with waxworks from Tussaud's and beautifully illustrate the spirit of a bygone age. The furniture is ornate and intricately detailed. In 2001, Warwick Castle was named one of Britain's "Top 10 historic houses and monuments" by the British Tourist Authority. Seasonal attractions include "Flight of the Eagles'" (a bird show, featuring bald eagles, vultures, and sea eagles), archery displays, Jousting,"The Trebuchet Show" and "The Sword In The Stone Show". This fellow doing the archery display was outstanding!

On another day we went to Hampton Court with one of Don and Barbara's daughters and granddaughter. It was every bit as impressive this time as it was when I went there in 1997 with Tim and Angie. Here I am in front of the castle with my sister.

Unfortunately photos aren't allowed inside the castle. But with their extensive gardens on every side of the castle, I was still able to take lots of pictures. This is looking out to the "back yard" from the 2nd level of the castle where King Henry VIII and the queen's bedrooms are.

The castle even has a little restaurant within it. Hear we are devouring a tasty lunch.

Back outside the castle, we wandered around the many gardens. This one was along one side of the castle.

Looking out at the side garden from the side of the castle.

On another day Carolyn and I took the train into London for a little shopping at Harrods and then on to Bath. This time we made sure we got into the bath houses.
The city was first established as a spa resort by the Romans in 43 AD. They built baths and a temple on the surrounding hills of Bath in the valley of the River Avon around hot springs, which are the only ones naturally occurring in the United Kingdom. The City of Bath was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Shown in the back of this picture is the gothic Bath Abbey. It is still used for religious services, civic ceremonies, concerts and lectures.

The temple was constructed in 60–70 AD and the bathing complex was gradually built up over the next 300 years. After the Roman withdrawal in the first decade of the 5th century, the baths fell into disrepair and were eventually lost due to silting up. The Roman Baths themselves are below the modern street level. There are four main features: the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the Museum holding finds from Roman Bath.
All significant stages of the history of England are represented within the city. Several companies offer open-top bus tours around the city. We took one of those tours and were treated to many views like this.

Back north of London, while Barbara cooked another of her wonderful dinners, Don took us out for some more sight seeing. Here we walked around St Martin's Church in Bladon near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. It is best known for the grave of Sir Winston Churchill.

Another night they treated us to real english fish and chips. I forget the name of the place they got them from, but they were great. Here we were enjoying our fish and chips in their kitchen. We even got Don and Barbara to serenade us during dinner.

One of our last days there, Barbara cooked a huge Sunday afternoon meal and invited their 2 daughters and grandchildren over. It was a very traditional english meal with bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, toad in the hole, yorkshire pudding, and I forget what all else. It was by far the best meal I've had in England!  She even went all out setting the table.

After dining, we retreated to the back yard where we visited for quite awhile.
Here's 2 of the grand daughters setting up the lawn tennis. (They do take their tennis seriously there! I even attempted playing against Don and Barbara's daughter, Karen, one day and Barbara came to watch. I hadn't played in quite awhile, but did quite well for as long as it's been. I think I gave Karen a run for her money. She did beat me, but not without a fight. I was surprised how mad she got when I did actually win a few games.) Back here at their house is the first place I've ever played lawn tennis. It was a fun way to close out our visit.
I would love to see them all again. We use to exchange emails, but I haven't heard from any of them in years now. Hope they're all doing well.  I'll always have very fond memories of my time with them.

1997 London

Being a military (Airforce!! brat), I was actually born outside of London. But we moved by the time I was a year old and it took about 40 years for me to finally get back for a vacation. It was well worth the wait! London is an incredible city! So big, but so easy to get around in. And so much history!!

London is where we (Tim, Angie and their Aunt Carolyn) spent the first 3 nights of a whirlwind 8 night/9 day trip. It definately had it's trying moments, but was worth it in the end.
It's a great place to visit with family. So much to do. Although we had only 3 nights there so did hardly anything---this time. But we now know the lay out for next time!

Our nights in London were spent in Landward Apartments. We rented a 2 bedroom apartment there. In 1997 we paid $220/night american dollars. I don't think that was too bad for downtown London.Unique Qualities: It came with a little washer and dryer as well as 2 bathrooms, cable tv, full kitchen. Took us a couple days to realize that they have switches on the wall to turn the electricity on to the sockets! The location was great. It was a couple blocks up Edgeware Rd. from Hyde park and over a block on 1 Harrowby Rd . This is Marylebone----W1H5HB. It's also very close to a Safeway food store on Edgeware road---good prices there. Only draw back to the place was the bar accross the street. There was loud music late into the night on the weekend.

One thing we found out quickly---don't try to cross the streets of London! Drivers won't slow down for you. They will just give you dirty looks! After attempting this a couple of times, we found out that there are underground pedestrian crosswalks all over London! What a great idea! Although they can be rather elaborate! Gotta have a good sense of direction. This picture shows typical London traffic and why you don't want to try and cross the streets!

Within London, I highly recommend subway and bus passes. Their public mass transit system is VERY good! I wish we were as developed here in the USA! Here is a picture of the Underground subway routes. It looks like a big challenge for first timers, but it's color coded well and we managed to not get too lost. .

The double decker bus is another fun way to get around London. Their mass transit system is great! Just don't try to ride it all the way around it's route---you might think you could ride it until it got back to the place you got on it. Wrong!!! The route has an ending spot and you have to get off that bus and rebourd another one to continue on your way.

I also highly recommend getting a Brit-rail pass if you plan on leaving London and seeing any of the wonderful countryside. We used it to travel all over England and Scotland. With only 8 days there, we even took the sleeper train twice and it was really nice. It was somewhat confusing when we first arrived, but didn't take long to figure out. There are several train stations in London. King's Cross station is the one we got off at when we first arrived in London from the Gatwick airport (about a 25 minute ride by trian). The building with the tall spires in the picture is the King's Cross train station. There were 3 types of trains: the fast and fancy intercity trains; the sleeper trains; and the smaller commuter type trains. The intercity trains even had some benches facing each other with a table between them. The sleeper had a really nice lounge car and well as the double berth sleeper cabins. The smaller trains reminded me of a large monorail type of thing. Some even had someone come through selling refeshments from a cart similar to service on an airplane. With the pass, we didn't have to get boarding passes or anything. Just jump on the train and they checked our passes on board. I really enjoyed riding in the trains.

Just riding the busses we saw lots of fascinating things of London. The London Wall was one of them. Many parts of it still exist. It had been built around the city to protect it from invasion back in medieval times. Here's a picture of some of the wall ruins near the Tower of London. I found it interesting that these ancient structures were just there and new structures were built right up to them.

Although we didn't have time to go in and tour the Tower of London this trip, we did take a bus there and wonder around the outside of it. It is quite an impressive site! It was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror in 1078, and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was used as a prison since at least 1100. In 1988, the Tower of London was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. It's still the headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and houses a museum with the Crown Jewels.

Harrods is a high-end department store located on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London.
At 5-acres and over one million square feet, it is the 2nd largest shop in the UK. With it's notariety, we had to check it out. One really memorable moment comes from there---to use the restroom there cost a pound!

While we were in Harrods, we found a little buffet-style tea and danish/sandwich bar. Not easy to find. Not downstairs by all the other food shops. But I've forgotten the name of it. But we enjoyed an afternoon snack there.

Obviously the theatre district of Soho is the place to be at night. Unfortunately, we were only there 3 nights and too exhausted to go to the theatre. But we did hit a couple of the restaurants there. I was surprised to see that all the stores in London close around 5:30! Except for one night, and I don't remember which night that was. So for nightlife, Soho was the place to be. It's theatres and restaurants and bars were open and lively all night.

But don't party too much or you may end up like this bloke!

Trafalgar square is a square in central London, England. With its position in the heart of London, it is a tourist attraction, and one of the most famous squares in the United Kingdom. We only saw it from the bus, but it was pretty grand.
I wish we had taken one of the tour bus rides through the city the first day we got there. Instead, we did it on our last day. We didn't realize you could actually get off and on the bus in the many fascinating places. But, alas, we were pressed for time and had to stay on for the whole tour. It was VERY MUCH worth the 12 pounds (or US dollars, I can't remember now) we paid for it. Our guide was very interesting and full of humor. The tour we took was with The Big Bus Company. The picture is of our guide. Sorry for the blur, but the bus ride was rather bumpy.

An impressive, and HUGE, cathedral is St. Paul's Cathedral in London. I understand the USA capital building is copied after it.

We didn't go here on this trip, either, but heard that the London Dungeon was an interesting place to find out about methods of torture way back in the day. Amazing to think people can be so brutal!

When walking around, you'll probably come across Piccadilly Circus. It's an interesting 'circus' with lots of color. In this context, a circus, from the Latin word meaning "circle", is a round open space at a street junction. Located in London's West End in the City of Westminster, it was built in 1819 to connect Regent Street with the major shopping street of Piccadilly.

THis picture was taken in Hyde Park. That is my daughter trying to blend in with the statues. There are LOTS of statues in London. I read that if you could pay to have one put in, it was done---at least until they got so many that they changed that.There are also lots of parks in London. It's a very pretty city.

We were fascinated by the differences in McDonald's in England from the USA. Who would have thought you could get a beer with your Value Meal?! Or should it be called a Happy Meal!? Anyway, this McDonald's by the Tower of London was particularly interesting in that it sort of resembled a medieval building. Look closely, you'll see a low stone building just up from the walkway---it's a McDonald's.

We also enjoyed going to the original Hard Rock CAfe. It was themed with lots of Beatles memorabilia. I was surprised to see how small they were.
For an easy day trip from London, we took the train to Hampton Court. Not only was the palace spectacular, but so were the gardens around it.
The palace was originally built for Cardinal Wolsey, a favorite of King Henry VIII in 1529. As Wolsey fell from favour, the palace was passed to the King, who enlarged it. Today, the palace is open to the public, and is a major tourist attraction.

Here is one of the courtyards Wolsey built. The Base Court contained forty-four lodgings reserved for guests. The second court (today, Clock Court) contained the best rooms which were reserved for the King and his family.

Soon we were heading off to catch a sleeper train for our journey to Scotland. But we did make it back to London a few days later to change trains on our way from Scotland to Bath. Unfortunately, we had the misfortune of having the paramedics being called to the train station then for Angie (17 years old at the time). Going down the steps, her knee dislocated and she was in great pain. I was amazed at how quickly help was on the way! Guards had the steps closed off in a minute or 2. One must have been trained in relocating dislocated knees because he asked her permission to move her leg. Very gently and quickly he worked it into place. By then, the paramedics were there. I asked about insurance and was told I didn't need it---which really surprised me! I thought it was free for them, but I didn't think they'd treat foriegners for free (although I did have our insurance stuff with me). The paramedic assessed her knee and said the hospital couldn't do anymore for it but wrap it and she could get that done at the first aid station in the train station. So we took her there --- in a wheel chair that they had easily accessable. Unlike if this happened at home, no crowds gathered to see what happened. The guards kept everything moving. The medical care was efficient and quick. Everyone involved really seemed genuinely concerned. I was extremely impressed with how everything was handled----and it was Good Friday!
THus ended my first trip back to London since I was a child. We continued on to Bath and Dover for a couple days, then it was time for our long flight home on Easter morning.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oregon---Willamette Valley

Since we've been vacationing in Oregon for over 35 years, I decided to break up my Oregon blog into sections. Not only do we still vacation here (mostly to visit my family), but I lived here for about 7 years as a child. Most of our vacations, though, are during their fabulous July or August months. Can't beat those nearly 90 degree days with low humidity and almost constant sunshine. This blog is of the area I lived in---the Willamette Valley. Most of our vacations were based out of Dallas, Oregon, about 12 miles west of Salem.

First a little education about the area. The Willamette Valley is a fertile plain on either side of the Willamette River in the northwest area of Oregon. It is bound on the west by the Oregon Coast Range and on the east by the Cascade Range. The Missoula Floods some 13,000-15,000 years ago contributed to the agricultural richness of the valley. The majority of the state's population lives within the basin.
The climate in the Willamette Valley is usually cool wet winters and moderate dry summers. Most valley precipitation arrives as rain, about half of which falls between December and February. Growing seasons are long, averaging 150 to 180 days per year in the lowlands with an average of 40" of rain. Temperatures rarely get below 0 in the winter and only above 90 5-15 days per year in the summer.

A fantastic way to see the Willamette Valley is by Amtrak train on the Coast Starlight. It is widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes. It starts in LA and ends in Seattle. It goes through Oregon in the Willamette Valley. The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is beautiful. We boarded it a couple times here at the Amtrak station in Salem and rode it to Seattle.


We loved sitting in the 2nd level Sightseer Lounge car that has floor-to-ceiling windows for watching the passing scenery go by. There are other trains along this route, too, but none with this impressive viewing car of the Coast Starlight.

Located in the center of the Willamette Valley alongside the Willamette River is the capital of Oregon, Salem. A 2009 estimate placed the metropolitan population at 396,103, the state's second largest metropolitan area, first being Portland by far.

This is the third and current Oregon State Capitol building which was completed in 1938 and is the fourth-newest capitol in the United States. It is adorned by a gold leaf Oregon Pioneer statue atop the capitol dome. The capitol grounds cover three city blocks and include Willson and Capitol parks. Although we've never been in the capital building we've driven by it hundreds of times.

Oregon State Capitol building

Monday, January 10, 2011

Las Vegas

In our early days of vacationing as a couple without the kids (the late 90's), we discovered the trick of going to time share presentations and getting certificates for a free trip to Vegas, or Orlando. With those certificates, we took 3 free trips to Vegas (or nearly free---on 2 of the trips we upgraded for $100/person, that included our airfare from the Midwest and accommodations in a large casino on the strip.)

Seeing Vegas by night was as exciting as seeing it by day. I love all the neon lights.

Most of the casinos had unique attractions to draw customers to them. The downtown casinos had the Fremont Experience. It's a fantastic light show on a canopy that is about 4 blocks long and a block wide---really is neat!

In Circus Circus there are circus acts done about every half hour or so. We saw an act with 2 guys doing acrobatics high in the air on ropes---not trapeze, but more like gymnastics. They were very good! I understand there are several different kinds of acts, but this is the only one we managed to catch. I believe the last performance is around 12:30 am.

These big statues are of Siegfreid and Roy and one of their tiger that's in their act. I understand there are 4 known white tigers and they have 3 of them. Since our trips to Vegas, I believe the show was cancelled after one of the performers got mauled by one of their tigers.

Another brightly lit casino on the Strip--the Riviera.

Monte Carlo casino by night.

The Bellegio water show is another impressive free show. It'll also be a cool place to be on a very hot day since all the water flying around cools off the surrounding area by about 5 degrees. Also, way inside the Bellagio is an impressive floral display, complete with gazebo. The ceiling in that area is made to look like different colored flower petals---colored stained glass.

Here is New York New York. For roller coaster enthusiasts, note the coaster in front of the building. I understand it was fashioned after the old Coney Island coaster--except that this one isn't wooden.

We had a couple favorite restaurants, the first one is the buffet at the Mirage. It was recommended to us by some gamblers who heard us trying to decide where to eat on our first trip. It was so good, we've been back there twice. I love the lush tropical forest design inside the Mirage, too.I asked for the recipe of the macaroons and the server actually went and got it for me!

Another favorite dinner/lunch buffet is in the Luxor. Interesting decor---like in a pyramid, or at an archeological dig.

We went to the brunch buffet at the Sahara a couple of times and have been very impressed. It's nicely set out. Nothing fancy, but plentifull and good. It is also just about as cheap as ordering breakfast in a diner. Cost was only about $6.95@.

On our 3rd promotional 'free' trip, we ended up upgrading again for a small fee (couldn't cheaply change the flight times on the airline--United-- this time) and they put us in Circus, Circus. It was very family friendly with carnival booths and rides for kids. But not bad for adults, either. THe room we stayed in was very nice----large and nicely furnished. This is one of the cheapest casinos on the strip, a good value for the money.

Would have been nice to take a gondola ride at the Venitian. The gondolas inside run along a shopping area made to look like a Venice shopping area. It's really neat. Even if you don't ride the gondolas, you'll be able to hear the gondola 'driver' seranading the riders. The ones we heard sang very well. I believe the ride is about 10 minutes long and cost about $15 per person (when we were there in 2000).

At Caesars Palace there was a performance in the forum shops area with large animatronic figures. In the performance, siblings were battling it out over who will take their father's place (the King). The audience even got to determine who won. Also in the center of the forum shops was a huge aquarium. A very tranquil place to rest up!

Located far inside Ceasars are the Forum Shops. Shopping in Vegas is pretty nice, too.

THere's even an M and M world along the Strip.

The first time we took the 'free trip', we did upgrade for a couple hundred dollars and stayed at the Stratosphere. They gave us a complimentary upgrade to a room with a fridge and microwave and seating area with couch, chair, and coffee table. It was very nice.I had checked on the prices for our next trip and could have gotten a room for $49/night---including a buffet meal for 2 and ride up to the lookout for 2.

Top of the Tower has a great view of the city lights. There's also a couple rides up there---a rollercoaster that goes in circles and a straight up ride called the Big Shot. It was storming when we were up there, so only the inside observation deck was open.

Stratosphere show--- Superstars. The actors and actresses in this show were VERY good. I especially liked the fiddler impersonator of Charlie Daniels, he played the violin superbly! Even the chorus line dancers were very well choreographed. Some of the other superstars impersonated were Elvis, Ricky Martin, and Michael Jackson.

Here is the relatively new Desert Inn. I recently heard that they actually put on lightening and thunderstorm inside the shopping area, complete with rain. Although I believe the rain falls into a lake and not on the walkways. Sounds really neat. If I'd known about this before we went, we might have gone to check it out. Maybe next time.

Not on one of our trips, but my mother-in-law even got married in one of the little chapels in Vegas.

When we got tired of all the lights and hustle and bustle, we took a tour of Hoover Dam? It was really awesome.

Another easy day trip from Vegas is Red Rock Canyon. I would have loved to spend more time wandering around the area, but it was really hot when we were there so we mainly stayed in the air conditioned rental car.

Since those days, we started vacationing to our various timeshares that we've picked up since then. I would love to get back to Vegas and stay in some of the resorts we "own" in there. But convincing Ken we should go back hasn't happened yet. Maybe I'll try and convince Angie and Faith we should do a girls trip there sometime!