Sunday, 12 April 2015

Days 92-94 - Thursday 9th April - Saturday 11th April - Train/ New York

Days 92-94 - Thursday 9th April - Saturday 11th April - Train/ New York

So we set off from Chicago on Wednesday night, and didn't sleep well - we thought the train was going to derail at several points! On Thursday we had another day of scenery watching, although sadly the scenery was not quite as exciting as the previous two train journeys. We had passed by the Great Lakes overnight, although we did see some smaller lakes and rivers, many with large chunks of ice in, as well as hills with snow on top and piles of snow by the tracks. For the last part of the journey we travelled alongside the Hudson River, then over the Harlem River and into Manhattan. I got my camera out ready for some skyscraper pictures... and then the train went underground and stayed there until we reached Penn Station at 6.30pm! We had to wait a while at the station to collect our luggage, and then as it was still light and relatively warm and dry, we walked the 15 minutes to our hotel rather than getting a taxi as planned. After checking in we had dinner at the Italian restaurant next door, then collapsed for an early night.

On Friday morning we got up early, had breakfast at the hotel, and walked to the Metro station where we bought our Metrocards for the next couple of days. We got a train downtown which was going well until the train in front of us broke down, so we got out and walked the last ten minutes to Battery Park where we collected our pre-booked tickets for the Statue of Liberty trip. We rushed through security and boarded our ferry with a few minutes to spare then looked out to see the statue... to discover it was so foggy we couldn't see Liberty Island at all! As the ferry pulled out I took one quick photo of the Manhattan skyline before that also disappeared into the fog! Luckily the statue itself was worth the trip - we had bought tickets to the crown, so embarked upon the 300+ stairs to the top - the first part via a normal staircase, and the last part within the bowels of the statue, a dark narrow spiral staircase which was more than a little freaky! We got to the top and peeked out of the windows around her crown, saw the mouldings on the inside of her face, and talked to the ranger in attendance who told us that it gets up to 120 degrees up there in the summer - SO glad it was only April! We then made our way back down via a (different, thankfully) spiral staircase, then enjoyed the (foggy) views round the pedestal and finally looked round the fascinating museum about the history of the statue. 

The ferry then took us to Ellis Island, site of the historical immigration centre. We did an audio tour here which taught us lots about how the process used to work - it sounded terrifying! We then caught another ferry back to Battery Park. I grabbed a bit to eat and then we went to explore the Museum of the American Indian, which has lots of interesting displays about the life and culture of many different Native American tribes from different parts of the continent. 

We then walked up Broadway, past Trinity Church, to Saint Paul's Chapel, which has a very moving exhibition about the time when it was used as a support centre during the 9/11 tragedy. From here we went to the newly built 9/11 memorial and saw the new enormous World Trade Centre One which has been built, and the start of the next tower. We then got a bus northbound up to Bryant Park, where JL was very excited to see that they had a pétanque piste! After chatting to the attendants there for a while, and taking some pictures of the park and the New York Library next door and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings nearby, we walked down the street to Grand Central Station. We admired the beautiful ceiling, and then headed to JL's most anticipated destination - the Oyster Bar! He stuffed himself with seafood while I ate some potatoes and bread, and then we walked to Times Square, which was packed with people! We pushed our way through the crowds and found the Disney Store (of course!), looked round a few other shops, and then settled down for a cup of tea while we waited for the main event of the evening - seeing Disney's Aladdin show on Broadway! I was very excited by this!! Both the theatre and the show were incredible - there were a few new songs and a very funny genie. And super souvenirs to buy! :-) We got the metro back to the hotel and collapsed again!

On Saturday morning we got up, packed everything up to be flight ready, checked out, stored our bags at the hotel and got the metro to Central Park. We walked through the park for about an hour, seeing Strawberry Fields with its John Lennon memorial, and then to the Boat House restaurant where we were having brunch. We had a table in the long conservatory area, near where they sit in When Harry Met Sally (and numerous other films). The food was amazing - I had some scrummy French toast with Grand Marnier and banana compote and fresh fruits (including strawberries!) and JL had some eggs Benedict and smoked salmon which he loved. From there we took a walk past the Hans Christian Anderson statue (where we met a tour group whose guide was leading them in a singalong of Under the Sea from the Little Mermaid!), then Alice in Wonderland (where same tour guide recited the Jabberwocky poem!), and then finally to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We bought our tickets and then went to find the Derain painting Boats in Collioure so JL could see the original after seeing so many reproductions in France (and in our living room!). We looked round a few more sections, and then got the bus to The Cloisters which our ticket also granted us entry to. The bus ride was LONG! But at least we got to see a bit more of New York out of the window! We then spent an hour or so looking round the exhibitions and artefacts there, including many from the South of France, and the beautiful unicorn tapestries. We decided to get the metro back rather than the bus, and in a fraction of the time we were back in Central Park. This time we walked around the very southern part of the park, which was full of New Yorkers and tourists enjoying the sunshine (yesterday's fog had well and truly disappeared). Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, collected our bags, and got the metro and then the AirTrain (very quick and easy) to JFK airport to await our flight. 

I had wondered throughout the trip how I would feel at the very end of it and now I know - super excited to be going home and seeing my lovely family and friends very very soon!!!! We have had an absolute dream of an adventure, and I have loved every minute of it, but it's true what Dorothy said - "There's no place like home!" See you all soon! :-)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Days 89-91 - Monday 6th April - Wednesday 8th April - Train/ Chicago

Days 89-91 - Monday 6th April - Wednesday 8th April - Train/ Chicago

Most of Monday and Tuesday were taken up with the train journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. We discovered that sleeping on a train is not quite as comfortable as sleeping on a cruise ship, and did not get a huge amount of rest the first night! Luckily the views made up for it - we had passed very close to the Grand Canyon overnight, and awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the desert. We decided to get an early breakfast on the Monday morning, so after braving the shower, made our way to the dining car. Breakfast was lovely (French toast with strawberries for me, omelette for JL) and after eating we settled down in the observation car to enjoy the scenery. It was amazing - red hills and jagged peaks all around, caverns and streams in the ground, and no sign of civilisation anywhere. I spent the morning trying to take decent pictures from the moving train. Around midday we stopped at Albuquerque, where the train spent an hour and a half. The local vendors made the most of this by setting up a full market on the platform! We had a wander round, then came back on board for lunch - some nice salads. 

In the afternoon we settled down for more scenery watching. The red hills were turning into mountains and the area was getting greener. There were lots of little pueblos (which looked just like the hotel Santa Fe at Disneyland Paris!). We saw lots of churches, and growing numbers of pine trees. We travelled round a huge S bend in the track where we could see our train ahead of us. We also had great views of a hill called Starvation peak in the distance which apparently has a story attached to it... As the day went on we saw more and more green hills, and mountains with snow on top. We passed by a number of small streams, and lots of Wild West type towns. We ate dinner in the dining car as the sun set, but shock horror they had run out of veggie burgers!!! They got me a veggie couscous instead which was interesting shall we say...! Shortly afterwards we retreated to bed, and had a better night's sleep (I think mainly due to pure exhaustion!).

On Tuesday we woke up in Kansas City excited about more beautiful scenery watching. Over breakfast (yummy omelettes!) we saw lots of fields with small farms scattered around. And this is pretty much all we saw for the whole morning! The highlights were passing some pretty fields of purple heather, crossing the Missouri River, the Des Moines River, and the Mississippi River (on a double decker bridge - the top level for cars and the bottom level for trains. We also passed a huge wind farm. But other than that it was pretty much fields until we entered the outskirts of Chicago in the middle of the afternoon. 

We left the train, wrapped up warm, and walked to our Chicago hotel. We had purposely picked relatively basic hotels on this trip as we knew we would not be spending much time in them, and most of them have not even been worth taking a photo of, but this one (The Congress Plaza hotel) was incredible! I walked into the lobby and just stared at the beautiful ceiling and mosaic walls! Our room was on the eleventh floor, and once I'd got over the horror of having to use the lift (the entrance to which looked remarkably like the Tower of Terror entrance...!), I was very glad it was up there as we had an incredible view over Grant Park and Lake Michigan. After we had unpacked a few things and I had a cup of tea, we headed out again for a brisk walk through the park and to the lake. We passed lots of sculptures, the Buckingham Fountain (which had no water in it due to the freezing temperatures!), views of the skyline (somewhat obscured due to the fog which was coming in!), the ducks bobbing up and down on the lake, and some signs of spring - crocuses, daffodils and tulips beginning to bloom, and a couple of rabbits! I got very excited by this after all our hot places visited the past few months - I even enjoyed wearing my scarf and gloves again! 

We went back to the room for a bit where we made the most of the free wifi, and then went to the hotel's restaurant for dinner (as we were too cold and tired to investigate anywhere further afield!). I had a burger-less burger (the bun and salad but no burger in it!!) and some yummy carrot cake. We then had an early night, excited to be in a proper bed after two noisy wobbly nights on the train!)

On Wednesday I got up early to Skype my parents, and then looked out of the window to discover that most of Chicago, including the lake and the park in front of the hotel, had disappeared under a thick fog! Hoping it would improve later, we checked out and went and had a cooked breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We waited outside the hotel to be collected for our Grand Half Day Chicago tour. This spent two hours exploring the north of the city by coach, and then two hours exploring the south. There were only three of us on the tour, with a full size coach! On the North side tour we saw many different historic buildings as we drove around, as well as theatres (including the one showing The Book of Mormon), pieces of modern art (including one by Picasso in the middle of a square), some interesting modern skyscrapers (including two round towers which are car parks in their bottom halves and apartments in their top halves), statues of various historical figures, the famous Trump building and Sears Tower (mainly obscured by fog at the start of the tour!), the river, several cathedrals, the Cubs baseball stadium, and some beaches alongside the lake. We made a stop at the Lincoln Park Conservatory which is a large complex of greenhouses with a selection of beautiful plants from different climates, and then at the Lincoln Park Zoo (which is free to enter) where we saw some sea lions, macaques and big cats. 

We then started the south side tour, viewing lots of impressive houses (including that of President Obama, surrounded by road blocks and secret service employees even though he was not there!), the Whitesox baseball stadium, one of the unique river bridges which open up, the enormous art museum, some more sculptures (including one by a Polish artist of lots of legs, which is said to symbolise her memories of the Nazis arriving in Poland when she was a little girl), the recording studio where the Rolling Stones recorded "Satisfaction", Chinatown (the third biggest in the USA), a Mosque and some Synagogues, and then arrived at the campus of the University of Chicago where we got off the bus for a short walk around. We looked in a large church with magnificent architecture and an enormous bell tower and organ, and were fascinated by the cat who lives there (called Modo, short for Quasimodo!). Back on the coach we saw the Field Museum, the Bears football stadium, the Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. We stopped here for views back to the city - luckily the thick fog had cleared a bit so we were able to see the tops of the buildings! We also had a look at the outdoor art exhibition by the same artist who created the art exhibit we saw in Alcatraz - this time it was sculptures of each of the Chinese zodiac animals. On the way back into the city we saw a fascinating house which was built on the roof of a tall block of flats - it was built for Elizabeth Taylor - to provide excellent views over the lake.

The tour dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel and we had a leisurely walk back, first walking through Millennium Park to see the amazing mirrored jellybean sculpture, then back past the Symphony hall, the signs indicating the end of Route 66 (the other end of which we had seen on Santa Monica pier in LA a week ago!), and the famous L trains going overhead many of the roads.

We collected our luggage from the hotel and then made our way back to the station where we checked in our suitcase, had some food, and relaxed in the special lounge for sleeper car passengers. At around 8.30pm we were able to board our train, and watched the city all lit up as we pulled out of the station. This train is slightly different from the first two - this one is only on one level rather than double decker, and our roomette is marginally bigger - so much so that I was brave enough to sleep on the top bunk! Well, TRY to sleep, as the train is just as bumpy and noisy as the last one!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Days 84-88 - Wednesday 1st April - Sunday 5th April - Los Angeles

Days 84-88 - Wednesday 1st April - Sunday 5th April - Los Angeles

Apologies to anyone who has been eagerly awaiting another blog entry - we have been SO busy these last few days that there was no time to write one. Will do my best to summarise everything here now...

Wednesday was spent mainly on the train. We got a taxi from our San Francisco hotel to the Oakland Amtrak station (30 minutes outside of the city, over the Bay Bridge, to the suburb that our driver described as the crime capital of the world!). The station was tiny we were surprised to see, so we checked in our suitcase and went across the road to get some scrambled eggs at the cafe there. It was soon time to board, and we were very pleasantly surprised with the large amount of space/ legroom we got around our two seats. We settled down for a relaxing day of eating and drinking (the train had a cafe which miraculously had a veggie burger which I liked!) and scenery watching - mountains, farms (we went through the lettuce capital of the world, the artichoke capital of the world, and the garlic capital of the world!), oil fields, lots of Spanish missions along El Camino Real, two enormous prisons, lots of horse shoe bends round the hillsides, viaducts, rivers (with very little water), and tunnels. Then in the mid afternoon we emerged onto the Pacific coastline and spent several hours travelling alongside it, watching the waves, the surfers, the beautiful beaches, and the little seaside resorts. Shortly after sunset we turned back inland, and started dropping people off in the outskirts of LA, before arriving into Union Station in the city itself. We walked across the road to our hotel where we had an early night.

On the Thursday we had an excursion booked - LA City, Hollywood, Movie Stars' Homes and Beach tour. So basically trying to cram all the most famous parts of Los Angeles into 6 hours! We got collected from our hotel (where we left our growing pile of luggage) and taken to the headquarters of the Starline Tours company who were operating the tour. We had a brief orientation tour of the area of Hollywood we were in and then some time to explore and take photos - the Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame where I searched out many of the Disney related stars(!), the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars takes place, the Roosevelt hotel where the very first Oscars were given out, the El Capitan theatre where Disney film premieres happen, and views of the Hollywood sign in the distance. 

Next we took a minibus drive through the city, seeing the Sunset Strip and Mulholland Drive, the Jim Henson studio, Hollywood's Rockwalk which has handprints of many famous rock singers, and then into Beverly Hills with the Viper Room club, the Civic Centre, Rodeo Drive (including the shop where Julia Roberts goes in Pretty Woman!), and the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel (also of Pretty Woman fame!). We then embarked upon a tour of one of the poshest areas, where our guide showed us some of the most exclusive properties in LA. We saw the house from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the house where Michael Jackson lived, among others. 

The next part of the tour took us to the sea - first to Venice Beach including the Muscle beach area full of outdoor exercise equipment and fit people, and then to Santa Monica where we walked along the pier, saw the funfair, and had a bit of lunch while looking at the people playing in the sea (which was cold!). The final destination was Downtown LA where we saw some basketball, baseball and ice hockey stadiums, lots of shiny office blocks, and (most exciting for me!) the impressive Walt Disney Concert Hall. We got dropped off in the historic Olvera Street area where we saw the pretty Mexican style market, the Our Lady Cathedral, and the square where for Easter they will have the Blessing of the Animals! Our hotel was right round the corner  so we left the tour here rather than going back to Hollywood on the bus.

We collected our luggage and caught the 3.30 Metrolink local train from Union Station to Anaheim and then got in a taxi. JL said to me "now no screaming from you, we're in public!" - it was very hard to restrain myself as I caught my first glimpses of roads with Disney names, and then the Tower of Terror and Space Mountain looming up alongside the road! We checked into our hotel, the Tropicana Inn and Suites, and then I finally got to scream - "We're going to Disneyland!!!!!!!" Although I have been to the Florida and Paris Disney parks many times, and even the Hong Kong one, this was my first trip to the original park, and I was more than a little excited! Our park tickets were not valid until the following morning, so we unpacked our things and then walked just across the street to the entrance to the resort complex to explore the one part you don't need a ticket for - the Downtown Disney shopping area! I decided to buy all my souvenirs now so that I could spend every minute in the parks enjoying the attractions. And I think I was very restrained with my shopping! I tried very hard to only buy small things (which was great until they wrapped one of them up in about 2 metres of bubble wrap to protect it!) I also bought an extra bag as our suitcase is starting to bulge rather dangerously... Shopping done, we went to the Rainforest Cafe for dinner where I got a yummy veggie burger, and then back to the hotel to get ready for tomorrow. 

The alarm went off at 6am on Friday and I jumped out of bed!  [JL- I crawled out...].  We had a quick breakfast at the hotel, then went across the street to collect our tickets, then joined the queue to enter Disneyland the moment it opened at 8am. And then came 14 hours of pure heaven! :-) I will not go into detail here about all the rides we went on (JL was very brave and attempted them all!), and all the differences and similarities between this park and the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland Paris, as I know the Disney fans amongst you will have that conversation with me in person! Suffice to say it was amazing - I managed to do all of the rides on my list (there is no way you could do everything there in a day so I selected the best ones), and even did Big Thunder Mountain and the Indiana Jones rides twice. I ate lots of strawberries dipped in chocolate and had my obligatory Mickey Mouse ice cream. We also had dinner at the Blue Bayou restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which included foam cushions and reserved seating for the Fantasmic lights/ sound/ water/ firework show that evening (thanks dad and mum for booking it for me!). The park was open until midnight, but JL headed back after the show and I dragged myself away a little later at 10.30pm, to try and get some sleep before another jam packed day tomorrow!

We set the alarm a little later on Saturday but still made it to the park before opening! This time we were visiting the second park - Disney's California Adventure, which as you can probably guess is themed on various California places (many of which we have recently visited or will be passing through on the train), and has lots of links to Pixar films. There are not as many attractions as in the main Disneyland park, so by the early afternoon we had done all the roller coasters/ big rides (including two goes on California Screamin', Radiator Springs Racers, and the Tower of Terror!) and seen the Frozen singalong show (JL refused to sing!). We had our lunch and got our ticket for reserved seating for that evening's show (thanks again mum and dad!), and then JL decided to go back to the hotel for a few hours while I watched the parade and did some of the smaller attractions. We met again at 6.00 so we could go and see the Aladdin show in the huge theme park theatre which was absolutely incredible - there was a full size elephant walking down the aisles and the flying carpet flew over the whole audience! We did one last ride, bought JL a T-shirt, got a cup of tea (as the temperature had dropped significantly since the sun went down!) and took up our places for the World of Colour night time show, which was incredible. And then the most depressing moment of the last three months arrived - it was time to go :-( I took one last longing look at the park entrances and then we went back to our hotel and collapsed into bed.

On Sunday morning we got a taxi back to Anaheim station and then caught our train to LA (which arrived 40 minutes late, and we were starting to panic, but in the end got into LA pretty much on time!). We then met our driver for the next 3 hours - from a private car company who would be taking us on my self-created Walt Disney pilgrimage! He drove us to the old houses where Walt lived, the sites of the former and current Disney Studios, the Tam O'Shanter restaurant that Walt and other Disney artists liked to eat at, the barn where Walt built his model trains, and even to his grave. On the journey we had super views over the Hollywood hills and back to downtown LA in the distance. Our final stop was due to be the carousel in Griffith Park where Walt would sit watching his daughters ride and where he dreamt up the concept of Disneyland. Unfortunately as it was Easter Sunday, the entire population of Los Angeles also seemed to be making their way to Griffith Park, and the traffic was ridiculous. We tried several different routes, and were so nearly there when the police closed the road we needed to go down! At this point we gave up and went back to Union station. Despite this, it was an amazing morning for a Disney fanatic like myself - the driver even said he had learnt a lot and been to some places he had never been before!

We had a few hours to wait at Union Station before our train, so we went to the special lounge for sleeper car passengers, where there were free drinks and snacks. At around 5.30 we made our way to the platform and boarded our home for the next two days! We are on the Southwest Chief train from Los Angeles to Chicago, and have a small 'roomette' with 2 large chairs which convert into a bed, and another bed which pulls down from the ceiling to make bunk beds! I was a bit worried about falling out during the night in the wobbly train, but luckily there is a safety net to hold you in!!! JL bravely volunteered to sleep on the top bunk. We managed to find space in all the nooks and crannies of the room for our stuff, and then went to the dining car for dinner (which is free for us) - they even had a veggie burger! Our sleeping car attendant put our beds down for us and it was not long after this that we settled down for the night, rather suspicious about how much sleep we were going to get as the train was stopping several times during the night...!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Day 82-83 - Monday 30th March - Tuesday 31st March - San Francisco

Day 82-83 - Monday 30th March - Tuesday 31st March - San Francisco

Everything went very smoothly as far as disembarking the ship was concerned - we had a lovely last evening on the ship and said our goodbyes to all the wonderful crew who had looked after us so well. I set the alarm for 5.30 the following morning, and emerged on deck just in time to see the ship sail under the Golden Gate Bridge at 6am. I then stayed there, wrapped up in my coat and scarf, enjoying the nighttime views of the city and watching dawn break. (JL stayed in bed!) After watching the sun rise behind the Bay Bridge from our balcony, we said a sad goodbye to our cabin and made our way down to the main restaurant for a yummy cooked breakfast, then went to wait in one of the lounges until we were called at precisely 10.00 as stated to disembark. We collected our suitcase from the terminal and waved goodbye to our home for the past 3 months :-(.

We picked up a taxi to our hotel, only a mile or so away but up lots of hills, luckily our room was available even though it was only 11am, so we dropped off our bags, and then set off straight away. We walked west towards the Presidio park, just next to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a pleasant walk, talking about 45minutes, with a few stops on the way for me to stock up on food for the next few days (I'm not counting on being able to find many full meals that are Emma-friendly, so will be doing a lot of snacking I think!). We strolled through the park, enjoying the sunshine and the views of the bridge, until we arrived at somewhere I have wanted to go for years since I first heard about it - the Walt Disney Family Museum! I warned JL that I would probably want to spend quite a while inside, and we went in. I spent the next three and a half hours in heaven!!! (JL on the other hand...!) The museum traced Walt Disney's life from before he was born, through his childhood, the early years of film making, the success of his first full length animated feature films, the growth of the studio, the planning and building of Disneyland (where we will be in 2 days!!!!!), right up until his death. There were informative texts, interviews, videos, audio tracks, models and authentic exhibits. It was amazing. I saw the special Oscar with 7 miniature ones that he got for the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, I saw the miniature steam train that he had running round his garden (which the one that goes round my Christmas tree is modelled on), one of the benches which he sat on in Griffith Park in Los Angeles (which we will be visiting in 3 days time!) as he dreamed up the idea of Disneyland, one of the original multi plane cameras that produced the very first 3D effects back in the thirties, lots of original drawings from early films, and lots of photos of the old studios (which we will also be visiting soon!). I got to electronically move a Tiki bird from the Disneyland attraction! And I even learnt a few things about Disney that I didn't already know (I was as surprised as you are!). It was a Disney geek's dream!!! :-) And a great start to the final weeks of our trip which are essentially a Disney pilgrimage! I will let JL add his own comments on the museum...  [As I sat outside for two hours pondering the rest of my life after drawing up the divorce papers, Emma finally emerged with a huge smile on her face.  What was I to do? ]

When we left the museum we walked back along the coast, firstly heading for an impressive looking building we had seen which turned out to be the Palace of Fine Arts, an amazing Greek style round building with lots of columns set by a lovely lake with fountains and swans. We then walked past some very beautiful, very expensive houses, down to a small beach (extremely windy!) for great views back to the Golden Gate bridge, past lots of sailing boats, through a park with fabulous views of Alcatraz in the bay and our (ex-)ship in the distance (sniff sniff!), until we finally arrived at the Fishermans Wharf area. We walked along Pier 39, where a colony of sea lions live (who I had heard but not seen during the sail in that morning). We then found a restaurant where JL got some oysters and prawns and I ate lots of chips! We watched the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge with seagulls flying all round. We then set off for the relatively short but surprisingly hilly and cold walk back to the hotel! It felt very weird not having any entertainment to go to that evening, and no chocolate on the pillow, and a bed which didn't move as you slept... :-(

The second day we had a tour booked, so we got up early for our 8.30 pickup. We were excited to go and get our complimentary breakfast, but were less excited when we saw what little there was! Still, it filled a hole! Soon the pickup shuttle bus arrived and took us to meet the main bus for the tour - Muir Woods, Sausalito and Alcatraz. We were given tickets to the various places we would be visiting, and had been assigned a ferry to Alcatraz for 11am. The driver told us that there would be no point going to either of the other places first as there would not be time, so instead he took us on a bonus city tour! We drove through Little Italy, and then Chinatown (the biggest outside China!), through the brilliantly named Nob Hill, past some lovely cathedrals, eventually stopping at the magnificent City Hall for a photo stop. From there we drove back past Union Square with all its fancy shops (and a Body Shop and a Lush!), and along the coast on the Embarcadero, stopping at the pier for the Alcatraz ferries, where we had to join a very long queue to board ours. We had a pleasant 15 minute journey across the bay to the island, passing the Aurora on the way out (the ship is in SF for two days) for our last close up look at her :-(  We had lovely views around the harbour, for luckily the infamous San Francisco fog was not around today, and we saw an old fashioned sailing ship making its way under the Golden Gate Bridge. We arrived at the island to the bizarre sign saying "United States Penitentiary - Indians Welcome"! We watched the introductory film which was being shown and found out why: after being used as a maximum security prison from 1934 to 1963, it was then claimed as Indian land by Native Americans because they believed it belonged to them. After years of occupation they were removed by the authorities, but the signs remain. We also heard a fascinating story from one of the guards about an inmate who spent 10 years planning his escape by fabricating a soldier's uniform and, right under the watchtower, walking onto the boat going back to the city... Except he discovered it was the wrong boat and took him to nearby Angel Island, where he was caught and returned! We then made our way up to the top of the island where the main cell house is located. Here we took a fantastic audio tour, narrated by former guards and inmates, which showed us the tiny cells with their small bed/toilet/sink, photos of famous former inmates such as Al Capone, Robert 'Birdman' Stroud, and Machine Gun Kelly, and the isolation cells for particularly dangerous or disobedient criminals which were in complete darkness much of the time.  We learnt about some of the things the well behaved prisoners could do in their small amount of recreation time, such as dominoes, baseball, and even crochet! We saw the cells of the three inmates who may possibly have escaped successfully from the island (their bodies were never found in the chilly San Francisco Bay) who spent years chipping away at the air vents in their cells with a spoon and making plaster models of their heads which they hid in their beds as they escaped through the vent, up the utility pipes, over the roof, and into the water! We also had incredible views back to the city, which the inmates were deprived of - they could just hear the sounds of daily life floating across the bay. Finally, we saw a recently installed art exhibition by a Chinese prisoner of conscience, which was a little bizarre but a good idea! 

We got a ferry back to the city where our driver was waiting for us to take us on the Muir Woods and Sausalito part of the tour. On the way there we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then our driver took a short detour to an amazing view point/ photo stop. We opted to go to Sausalito first, because we were all starving by this point and the pretty seaside town has lots of restaurants. We found one which did me scrambled eggs, toast, fried potatoes and pineapple (yes, all on the same plate!) which was yummy, and JL some seafood pasta. We then had a bit of time left to stroll along the seafront, see the lovely fountain in the centre, and smile at the Christmas shop! As we drove out of the town we saw the busy harbour full of yachts, as we listened to the song "Sitting by the Dock of the Bay" which was written in Sausalito, and then the area full of quaint houseboats (which have now become a small village in themselves). There were even a few seaplanes parked nearby!

The next stop was Muir woods, named after the naturalist John Muir who was instrumental in establishing the National Park system. This protected area is 560 acres in total, with lots of hiking paths. We had an hour there to explore part of it, and see all the giant (up to 252 feet!) Coast Redwood trees. They were absolutely breathtaking, and I got a very sore neck from craning it to look up at the canopy! The was a pretty creek running through the woodland, which we followed for a mile or so before coming back along a different route. We saw a wide range of trees, including families with one large tree and several smaller ones growing out of its roots, all merged into one plant. We saw all sorts of weird knobbly formations, trees leaning at strange angles, and giant burls growing up the trunks looking like huge bees nests but in fact part of the reproductive process. My favourite part was called Cathedral Grove - you were asked to be completely quiet in this area amongst some of the tallest and most densely packed trees, which lead to a spine tingling feeling :-) I could have spent all day there, but sadly it was soon time to leave. On the way back, we stopped for a bonus photo stop at a lookout point where we could view Muir beach (where people supposedly swim despite the chilly waters year round), and incredible views out to the Pacific. A fantastic end to a fantastic day trip!

The coach dropped us back at Pier 39 where we stopped at a crêpe cafe which I had spotted and I had a gorgeous strawberry filled pancake! We then took one last look at the Aurora, waved goodbye, and had a leisurely walk back to the hotel (luckily finding a somewhat flatter route than the day before!). We booked our taxi for the following morning, spent a while enjoying the hotel's free wifi (such a luxury!) and had an early night ready for the next stage of our journey.