Monday, 29 October 2012

London and Paris... A drive by

We arrived into London Heathrow feeling refreshed after our luxurious premium economy upgrade (a little treat we added for ourselves when we booked our flights) and excited for the start of the European leg of our journey. Whilst our time in London was only short, it essentially served to split our holiday into two parts. The most obvious reason for splitting our trip like this is to work off the uncomfortable jet lag that would inevitably rear it's ugly head as a result of going backwards in time from America to England (If I'm completely honest we were still feeling the effects of the Australia to America flight as well). Aside from the necessity of recovering in a place that was comfortable and familiar, we used our time in London to be normal... This involved a night on the town with friends, several aimless wanderings through the city, a visit to the cinema and some shopping. I find that this simple act of normalcy (by which I mean "not being a tourist") serves to re-calibrate your senses giving you renewed vigor with which to take on the next leg of your journey. On top of all this our stop over afforded us the luxury of dumping a combined 15kg of luggage weight on my dear friend Daniel (Thaaaaaaaanks Daniel!)

In order to stagger the train journey to our next major destination (Spain), we decided that we would include another short stopover in Paris. Now I am the first person to preach positive thinking and the old "give it a red hot go" philosophy when it comes to visiting a new city, but I am also the first to tell people that Paris is not always the beautiful city of love that every one makes it out to be. Paris is the sort of city that can sometimes take a few tries to get right... After two visits, I myself am still trying... But I have faith that I will have Paris down to a fine art by the time I return!

The beautiful Pont de l'Archevêché adorned with hundreds of thousands of "Love Locks" declaring undying commitment between lovers. One of the growing (albeit slowly) collection of things I like about Paris.

Shanwah's tasty tip: I am cheating a little here because I discovered this tasty tip during my last visit to the city of lights with Jade and Ross. On our first adventure to Paris, we stayed in a teeny tiny apartment in the very centre of The city. This fantastic location afforded us the ability to wander to many a tourist destination with ease and get to the Louvre early enough to avoid the lines... It was also next door to a quant little Chinese restaurant. The "Palais Royal Hong Kong" seemed the logical choice when we couldn't be bothered to walk to a traditional French restaurant (it was also a great place to eat while waiting for the laundry as there was a laundromat next door) and the price was definitely right for the money conscious travelers that we were. The French/Oriental gem served up some fantastic Chinese specialties full of flavor and much needed greenery...not to mention that the service had us tipping generously!

Monday, 8 October 2012

A note tourist traps...

I want to take this opportunity to talk about the controversial topic of tourist traps. There is an unavoidable downside to discussing your holiday plans with someone else, it seems that as soon as you mention travel they instantly become an expert on the destination at hand. The self righteous ones will tell you to avoid all the tourist traps and popular destinations because a "real" traveler should seek out a unique experience at every possible chance! At the same time your easily entertained friends will spend all their time trying to convince you to ensure you see every attraction mentioned in the Lonely Planet top ten. My advice (because I am obviously the final word in travel *sarcasm*) is to do a comfortable mixture. Tourist traps are necessary and there is no way around it! Your first trip to Paris would be a bust if you didn't see the Eiffel tower, but that doesn't mean you have to visit it every time you go to Paris. The biggest downside to tourist traps is the crowds of people trying to do exactly the same thing as you. I think that the two most successful ways to ensure you don't get frustrated with the crowds and have the entire experience ruin the whole city for you (don't even talk to me about Pisa) is firstly lower your expectations. The Statue of Liberty is much smaller than you think and Hollywood is a lot less glamourous so if you hype it up you will most probably be disappointed (I sound like a killjoy but it is human nature to try and make things look better than they actually are so if you arrive with lower expectations you will appreciate things more). Secondly, you need to research! It really makes a difference if you research things like; the best time to visit, the best place to buy tickets (avoiding queues always makes me happier), your favourite way to deal with rude people (I always enjoy doing a little dance to amuse myself while waiting for Mr Tubby McLinecutter to finish taking up my space) and the best way to have your own unique experience because essentially these sights are what you make them. Now go forth and unashamedly be a massive tourist, you can even take tacky perspective photos... I know I do.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Has anyone seen my heart? I seem to have left it somewhere...

Exhausted! That is how we felt upon arrival in San Francisco. New York had left us drained and we lacked the enthusiasm needed to tackle the initial arrival. Keep in mind that we had just said goodbye to some close friends and spent the last few hours dealing with JFK International Airport and a flight that sent us backwards in time. Mix this with the joyous realisation that your hotel is a 20 minute walk from the nearest BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and you are in one of the hilliest city centres in the world... Needless to say, the sight of our hotel as we rounded the last corner was sweet indeed. Our hotel was old school fancy with a big bathroom and two double beds (one for suitcases and one for sleeping) so once we were showered, rehydrated and rested we began to get excited!

Alcatraz was quite literally our first port of call as I had booked our tickets for the very same day we arrived. We had decided on the night time tour for the extra creepiness and this meant that there was plenty of time for a tasty dinner by the pier before we set sail. The tour included a 20 minute introduction to the island by one of the local guides and a little booklet with some handy information (and a valuable map as well). From there you can do as you please! There is an Audioguide tour, several unique presentations at various locations around the island, unique areas of the prison (not available to the day trippers) are opened especially for the night tour and there are
information boards all over the place if you just want to wander aimlessly. We took in the Audioguide tour and caught a fascinating presentation about the daily life in the prison as well as the events that took place during the great escape and the battle of Alcatraz. After this we wandered around while the rest of the tour was watching a short documentary. This wandering afforded us the opportunity to get a real sense of the despair that the prisoners must have felt by being so close to the city but so very far away. San Francisco itself is really very visible from the island and we learnt that inmates could hear the sounds of revelers and party goers on quiet nights and especially on festive New Years Eve.

Alcatraz has the uncanny ability to look scary, lonely, beautiful, exciting and depressing all at the same time.

Handy Shanwah Hint: Ensure you book tickets to Alcatraz in advance. The official (and best) tour fills very quickly and will quite often be sold out weeks in advance during the high seasons. If you go with "Alcatraz Cruises" You get several worthy options of tours that offer different experiences. I highly suggest doing one of the more inclusive (and yes, more expensive) tours because there really is so much to see and this place really is super unique! Second to this I recommend that you get to the pier a bit early if you want a seat on the ferry as it is first in best dressed and the line fills up quickly. My final piece of Alcatraz advice is to visit the gift shop on the island, there are some fantastically unique gifts and souvenirs here.

Now maybe it's because I grew up in the beautiful city of Melbourne, which boasts the largest tram network in the world, but I was incredibly taken by the streetcars (trams) of San Francisco! The city has a very hodge podge collection of public transport options (overground train, underground train, cable cars, streetcars, buses, trolley buses and ferries) and as such there isn't a very extensive streetcar network. Despite not being very extensive, the streetcar network is certainly beautiful! The fleet consists of over 45 vehicles taken from 30 cities around the world (including two bad boys from Australia) and painted in their original livery! This means that almost every streetcar you see is different to the last and it is like a whole new experience every time you ride!... Okay so I realise that I have a small amount of fanaticism when it comes to trams and that it may not be as exciting for everyone else as it is for me... but it is definitely a great way to see the city because these streetcars hit most of the best tourist destinations!

My little tribute to the San Fransisco Streetcar! These little gems carried me on some fantastic journeys around the city and look fantastic at the same time!

tasty tip: So I am going to unapologetically spend the next paragraph recommending another American chain restaurant called "The Cheesecake Factory". I realise that most people think that chain restaurants are a mortal sin and I have had my share of arrogant ranting travellers telling me... "you should be sampling the unique local cuisine at every possible opportunity!". But considering the amount of time you spend sightseeing and wandering the city, I think it is just as valuable (if not more so) to recommend places that will be easily available wherever you are... This way you can avoid eating McDonald's every time you need a quick meal. Now that I have justified my actions, lets talk about the Cheesecake Factory! Ross and I didn't discover this US culinary gem until San Francisco offered us one perched atop Macy's with fabulous views over Union Square. For me the decision was made purely for the photographic value and food was a happy byproduct. Upon arrival we were seated next to the railing under some sun umbrellas with heat lamps (a necessary, if odd, combination in sunny/foggy San Francisco) and, as promised, the views had me snapping away. The surprise came when we were handed our lunch menus... And when I say 'menu', I actually mean 20 page tome... Full to the brim with a massive array of starters, drinks, salads, soups, steaks, and desserts In as many combinations as you could ever want. The prices are reasonable (if anything they are a touch higher than general American prices) but the meal sizes are grand! Ross and I both ordered salads that I swear involved an entire lettuce and chicken each. The staff are attentive and the cheesecake is amazing (if you are a sweet tooth then dessert will be the hardest decision you will make all week). The drinks are mixed by proper bar staff and come in more varieties than you need. I suppose the point I am trying to push here is variety... The Cheesecake Factory is by far the most well stocked good value food chain that I have come across that doesn't compromise on taste (a risk you take when dining at a restaurant that is a jack of all trades and master of none).

On one of our hop on hop off tours, we learnt about some Japanese Gardens that where located in the golden gate park. Both the park and the gardens piqued Ross' interest so we paid a visit to the park hoping that we could enjoy the greenery and also fulfill a year long desire to ride a Segway. Unfortunately the Segway hire store was impossible to find and we had since learnt that you couldn't take the Segway into the Japanese gardens... Who knew?... Regardless we had no choice but to walk around the park like chumps! This aside, the park is quite nice! It lacks the structure and maintenance of Central Park but the flip side to this is that it comes off more natural. The Japanese Gardens themselves are beautiful and I can see that it would be easy to spend hours just relaxing, sipping tea and enjoying the structured zen that that is prolific in this type of environment. Stunning Japanese structures sit comfortably amongst meticulously cared for shrubbery and trickling streams with stepping stones that transport you from element to element. Koi inhabit the streams while squirrels scuttle around the shrubs and trees looking adorable. Despite the relatively large size of the gardens, the area was very crowded and I feel we would have had a much more enjoyable experience if we had visited at a quieter time. My advice here would be to drop in off peak and spend some time really relaxing... If this isn't possible then drop in anyway, it is pretty enough to warrant your time.

The Japanese Tea Gardens in all their beauty! The buildings and statues really become part of the landscape rather than fighting it for attention.

When one talks about San Fransisco it is hard not to mention the fantastic architecture that the city is famous for! The city is absolutely swimming in beautiful Victorian and Edwardian townhouses that line the streets like rows of colourful dresses in a shop window. These "painted ladies", as they are known locally, not only make for extremely pleasant viewing when you are attempting to scale one of the city's many... many hills, but they also offer a beautiful window into San Francisco's past.

A few examples of the "painted ladies" that fill the city with beautiful colour! These beauties are a photographers dream!

Handy Shanwah hint: Keep an eye on the San Franciscan weather and bring along those trusty blue jeans. San Francisco is famous for many things, however the most noticeable to the summer traveller will be the bitterly cold fog that engulfs the city at seemingly sporadic times of the day. Unlike its other west coast counterparts further south where summer means lots of sun, San Francisco has the unique position of being surrounded on three sides by water meaning that its temperature is heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean. When the warmer Pacific Ocean winds hit the cold California Current BOOM... we have fog... Science aside, this essentially this means that during summer months San Fransisco is actually at its foggiest. So just keep in mind that whilst you may have spent an entire week in LA clad in nought but shorts and a tee, you will definitely need jeans and a long sleeve handy when you drop into San Fran.

On our last day in foggy San Francisco we treated ourselves to a much needed sleep in and then proceeded to spend the afternoon casually strolling around Fisherman's Wharf taking in the sights, sounds, people and places of this beautiful city. Nestled amongst the wharfs and fish mongers is the amazing Musee Mecanique. This place is a fantastic way to waste some money! The museum is essentially a fully operational gaming arcade full of old and new game machines left over from the days of carnivals and video arcades. All the machines are operational and most only need a quarter to keep you entertained. Here you can get your fortune read by Zoltar, arm wrestle with a Mexican wrestler (the same one used by Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in the movie "The Princess Diaries"), watch an old school flip scene, test your sex appeal and love compatibility or play some classic pinball. For me the most exciting part was at the gift shop (essentially a vending machine) which contained a flip book that features a copy of all the photo strips that have been left behind by visitors during the last 20 or so years. A very unique souvenir from a very unique museum in a very unique city!

A girl watching a tawdry antique flip show, Ross and I testing our love personalities and Ross getting his palm read (this doubled as a lovely hand massage) all at Musee Mecanique!

The words of that cheesy Tony Bennett song now best describe my feelings for this beautiful city...

...The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
I'm going home to my city by the Bay

I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care

My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco
Your golden sun will shine for me...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Concrete Jungle

Leaving Las Vegas (teehee) saw us leaving behind some fantastic members of our group of awesomeness (sad face) but we did get to keep the irreplaceable Bridget and on top of that we were joined in New York by the beautiful Olivia... And so our adventure continues.

New York, New York... The city that never sleeps... The Big Apple... Concrete jungle where dreams are made... What other clichés can I mention? Well it is all justified! New Yorkers definitely walk to a different beat... A much faster, grumpier beat. A week in New York was not even close to enough time to see much at all, Obviously we managed to see the big hitters, but there is so much more to see in NYC than the chick with the book and torch!

Our time in New York consisted of (but was not limited to) visiting the following... Deep breath now... Grand Central, Times Square, M&M World, Olive Garden, 9/11 Memorial, Brooklyn, Broadway, The Met, The Guggenheim, Tiffany's, Trump Tower, Fifth avenue, Rockefeller Centre, Flatiron building, Staten Island ferry, Statue of Liberty, Wall street, Greenwich village, Washington Square park, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller centre, Empire State Building observation deck, Central park, Brooklyn Flea Market, Brooklyn Bridge, Supreme court , Madison Square Garden and Macy's... So as you can see we were quite busy little tourists and all this action left us absolutely wrecked by 3pm every day! A valuable lesson was learnt here...

Handy Shanwah Hint: Pace yourself! What is the point in visiting these amazing sights if you don't have the energy to enjoy them? I would suggest that you set yourself a limit of maybe two or three major tourist destinations every day and mix them up so that you have some high excitement activities next to the more reserved ones (a lesson Jade and I learnt in Berlin when we decided that it would be a good idea to visit every Museum on Museum lsland in one day... By the end we were on the verge of being kicked out because we were delirious and pretending to be elks and lions...)

On our second big day of sightseeing we braved the elements and took a trip to see the former site of the World Trade Centers, current home to the 9/11 memorial. The weather was miserable but we were very keen to pay our respects and learn a bit about the events that occurred there almost eleven years ago. The best advice I can give you here is that you need to prepare yourself. To gain entry to the memorial you are required to pick up tickets at a nearby museum (for a voluntary donation) and you are offered entry into the small museum along with this. The museum is small but there is so much emotion packed into such a tiny space that you need to be prepared to take it all in. You will be standing in front of statue of liberty miniature that has been absolutely covered in photographs, prayers and dedications whilst people around you cry and a documentary is playing behind you recounting the stories of the victims' families. I don't pretend that I am an overly strong person emotionally but I actually had to leave to stop myself from sobbing. The next thing you need to prepare yourself for is the walk. The area is still very much a huge construction site, the Freedom Tower is half built and the rest of the buildings are also in varying degrees of completion. From the ticket collection point you are required to walk around this construction site to get to the entrance of the memorial... Quite a trek if it is raining/blisteringly hot. Next comes the long line and security check but if you have done any other sight seeing in America you should be used to this by now. After all this you are granted entry into the memorial... And you will be amazed... Firstly by the size of the memorials, two great fountains sitting exactly where the towers once stood that have been inscribed with the names of all those who lost their lives during the September eleven attacks. Secondly by the sheer size of the empty space in the middle of the New York financial district. The memorial itself is still under construction but the two fountains are complete and the survivor tree (a tree that was in the gardens of the original World trade centers and survived the devastation) has also been replanted. This place has definitely got an aura of quiet reflection and mourning about it without being too showey or touristy, I definitely recommend this place over most of the other big hitters.

Memorial ribbons tied to the survivor tree inscribed with prayers and messages of remembrance, A temporary expression of love from a stranger written in the raindrops, flowers over the name of lost loved one, a view of the fountain basin.

A visit to the big apple is definitely not complete without a visit to the famous Central Park! This oasis in the heart of a bustling metropolis is definitely sizable, so I would suggest allowing a good amount of time to take in the sights and sounds of famous Central Park. During your time amongst the trees you might want to wile away your day sailing miniature ships on one of the smaller lakes, hire a boat and row around the big lake, feed the ducks, get a hand drawn portrait made up, ride a bike, watch some Shakespeare, listen to some buskers play some classical music, have a picnic, walk, jog or run... The list is actually ridiculously long! We spent hours just strolling, hired a boat and had Ross gallantly row us around for some amazing views of the park (it is a whole different experience from on the water) and finished up with a picnic on the grass. You wont actually achieve much while you are here and your photographs (if you take any) will look much the same as any other major parkland, but the key here is relaxation... After a few days trying to keep up with the New Yorkers! You will need it!

A sign in the right direction (I definitely recommend renting a boat), the view over one of the lakes, some of the many ducks that are an integral part of the Central Park experience, an example of the grade separation that makes Central Park so comfortable to navigate.

I'd heard whispers that Washington Park was a place worth visiting if you happened by the neighbourhood and, as it turns out, those whispers were true! Although it is only a small park with very little to do, I certainly recommend a quick bout of people watching on your way through Manhattan. While you are at it, visit Greenwich village and amble around the streets! The restaurants and boutique designer stores dotted around the place are substantially quieter than their shopping mall siblings and the staff are nicer! Quick Tip: if you are a Marc Jacobs fan I suggest a trip to Bookmarc... It is a super trendy Marc Jacobs boutique and bookstore!

We had the good fortune to know a NY local (thanks Eileen) who recommended we visit the Brooklyn flea market for a handmade bargain and secondhand treasure or two. The market (located in the beautiful Fort Greene area of the hip Brooklyn borough) is run every Saturday from 10am to 5pm (for more details visit and consists of countless stalls selling secondhand bric-a-brac, local art, tasty food, unique fashion and even some hand made Australian beauty products! The beautiful thing about this market is that it is not so big that you get lost or end up seeing the same thing over and over again, but it still has a fantastic variety of products to oooohh and aaaah over. In my opinion, this is the perfect place to pic up a unique souvenir of your time in New York (I know I did), do some people watching and support some local creative types. You can top this off by taking a casual stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. The bridge affords you fantastic views of both Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as some much needed exercise and open sky (rare in New York). This brings me to my second handy hint for this post... Here it comes...

Handy Shanwah hint: Try living like a local! There is an absolute gold mine of local attractions, restaurants and boutiques in every neighborhood that are waiting to impress you. If you have the good fortune to know a local then grill them for information! These things are always more exciting than the tourist traps.

Some views of the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge that you might not normally see.

One of the last points on our long list of things to do in New York was to take in the view from the "Top of the Rock" (the observation deck of the Rockefeller Centre). The Rock is said to have amazing views of both the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, but after failing to get last minute tickets (sold out on account of the Bieber fever fans filling in time while they waited overnight for the Biebs to perform the next morning) we trekked to the Empire State to see if we would have more luck there. As it turns out, the Empire State Building is cheaper by a few bucks and we could get tickets. I am sure there is a quicker way to get to the top but if you are going last minute then you have to do your time and wait line for a while, so if you want to do this I suggest you look into advanced bookings or the like. Once you are up it is a fantastic view over New York (we did it at night) and the lights are just fantastic! It was amazing to see Times Square lighting up like it was its own miniature city and the roads cutting through Manhattan like little rivers.

The gang looking like the Brady bunch on the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and on the lake in Central Park.

Shanwah's tasty tip: New York is a restaurant city! And you can pretty much luck onto some amazing places to eat no matter where you go... BUT... We are not all able to enjoy a gourmet dinner every night so I will tell you about my new favorite restaurant chain in America... Olive Garden! You have probably already heard of Olive Garden but for the conscientious traveller who still wants to eat good food, this place is a must! The salad is fresh and endless (but be warned, they will not bring out mains until you are finished with your salad) and if you order soup... That is endless too! There is complimentary garlic bread, a good selection of mains to choose from, and not only is the figure on your bill a surprise, it comes with chocolates too! There are at least two in Manhattan and many more around America.

My first trip to New York was jam packed and exhausting, But I feel it is almost a right of passage to overdo yourself in NYC... Just don't try and struggle against the city, it will win every time.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Make it rain!!!

Wow... What can I say about Vegas?...

Coming into Vegas I had conjured up many different (sometimes contradicting) images of what it would be like and what to expect when we arrived. I can tell you now that this is a direct result of too many nights spent whiling away the hours in front of CSI re-runs and bad romantic comedies (plus that Friends episode). For the main part I thought of Vegas as a typical big city with the small exception of an intense strip of casinos clogging up the centre, dotted here and there with petite wedding chapels and drenched in bright light... Other (more nostalgic) times I envisaged a small American town with a sparkling neon strip of colour running down its heart, full of excitement and chance. What we got when we arrived was a pleasant mixture of both, an extra dash of tackiness and a blustery 40 degree heat.

Our very first call to action was to stomp the strip (Las Vegas Blvd) and explore this unique urban melting pot! Our hotel (The Hilton Grand) stands behind Planet Hollywood and this meant that the safest and most direct route to the strip was via The Miracle Mile shopping mall. A healthy 2hrs later (after ducking into a few stores, watching two fountain shows grabbing a quick bite at La Salsa Cantina and an irresistible photo opportunity with the giant stripper statue) we were on the famous Las Vegas Blvd!

The atmosphere on the strip is utterly indescribable! You are surrounded by loud and obnoxious drunks with a vocally unashamed desire to gamble, drink and drool over strippers... And yet somehow you feel incredibly safe... We were handed nudie cards on every corner and promised endless nights of fun, frivolity and free drinks by nightclub reps... Countless bars and street vendors selling a wide array of alcoholic combinations in weird and wonderful vessels (I chose the giant, sparkly champagne bottle filled with Red Bull and vodka) and advertisements absolutely EVERYWHERE!

The street art of Las Vegas! A very small sampling of the fantastic neon that lights up the strip at night and makes you feel both glamorous and tacky at the same time.

After a day of settling in, we hit the outlet malls. Shopping in Vegas outlet malls is AMAZING! I parted with a measly $500 and walked away with a healthy amount of designer clothing, shoes and accessories from Burberry, Hillfiger, Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Calvin Klein and Vans. I highly recommend you spend the money on a cab ride to these outlets (they are not on or near the strip) as it is well worth the dollars you will save if you are planning on shopping... If you don't plan on any shopping I suggest you scrap your original plan and go shopping.

Shopping aside, my favorite thing about Vegas is easily the showbiz. Every single major casino on the strip has at least one in-house show or gimmick of some description... In fact most have three or four! Examples are... Treasure Island with their Siren show that includes fireworks and dancing wenches, the famous Bellagio fountains choreographed to music, The gondola rides in the Venetian and the roller coasters of New York, New York. On top of this there is a very wide selection of musicians, magicians, comedians and theater shows, as well as several of the famous Cirque Du Soleil shows. Because of our limited time in Vegas we could only see a few shows (much to my dismay) so we chose Cirque du Soleil's "O" (performed in and on an incredible stage that turned into a massive indoor lake) and Holly Madison's "Peep Show". Both shows were outstanding! We were front row centre for "O" (the splash zone) and sat wide eyed throughout every jaw dropping act, clapping feverently as often as we could. Ross was pulled onto the stage for a dance with a clown and the crowd went wild! I left the theatre knowing I had seen something that I will never forget. We were also fortunate enough to have VIP seats for "Peep Show" which included exclusive tables by the stage. A fantastic group of performers dazzled us with their... unique talents... Holly Madison ruffled Ross' hair and I got a wink... All in all, a great night!

During our time in the great state of Nevada we decided that we should take some time to visit something more... culturally substantial... (if that isn't subjective then I don't know what is...). This cultural redemption took form in another luxury bus ride (this one was... less luxurious than the last) to the inspirational Hoover Dam. After watching an episode of some engineering documentary back in Australia (I am making it sound as though I get all my travel ideas from tv) I decided that I should probably take some time away from booze and strippers to appreciate the achievements of Man. Having paid for the deluxe tour we were rewarded with a $10 gift card and a classy book full of facts and figures about the dam. The book (written quite a few years ago) has become a treasure of mine because of the snaps of happy tourists in high waisted... acid wash... double denim... scrunchies and white runners. Upon arrival we where herded into a small cinema to watch a new age propaganda movie about the amazingness of America and the amazingness of what Americans could achieve and how amazing and forward thinking Americans were... You can see where this is going... Finally the good stuff came and we were taken underground and stood on top of one of the water bypass tunnels. This is where the water flies around the side of the dam and squeezes through huge pipes fitted with turbines that generate A LOT of power. This really was an amazing experience, you can literally hear and feel thousands and thousands of gallons of water surging under the floor beneath you (thankfully you can't see the thousands of gallons of water). This was followed up by the equally as impressive power generators themselves. Once again you could literally hear and see the electricity being generated by the tremendous force of the mighty Colorado River (geez now I sound like the propaganda documentary). Finally we toured the top half of the dam and I must say we were suitably impressed by that too. A great trifecta of awe inspiring engineering, man power and the force of nature made the Hoover Dam one of my favourite things about America... Oh also I got to stand in Nevada and Arizona at the same time... I cannot recommend this place highly enough!

The mighty Hoover Dam! Intake towers that look like something from a SciFi movie, One of four huge pipes that allows water to bypass the dam and generate a proverbial ton of power in the process, and the tunnels we used to see all this... Yep it felt like we were in a mine too...

Handy Shanwah hint: Stay longer! We booked a three night stay in a fantastic hotel suite and did not stop the entire time we were there. There is so much more to do in Vegas than drinking and gambling and three full days wasn't even close to enough time there. I would suggest at least a week, especially if you plan on visiting Hoover dam and the Grand Canyon

My final thoughts on Vegas... Both underrated and overrated. For a city with such a massive focus on alcohol and gambling it sure packs a cultural punch.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Mango, Mango, Mango (sorry, in-joke)

Four faces of Bridget Howell... A visual poem that speaks of laughter, joy and... photo bombing...

Please note: No Bridgets were harmed in the making of this collage...

Hello America, Hello Hollywood

After an arduous flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles (featuring an awkwardly long stop over in Auckland) Ross and I gracefully landed in the grand old US of A!

We arrived in the morning and successfully survived our first day by wandering aimlessly along Hollywood Blvd with caffeinated beverages in hand. We were good boys and managed to get to bed at a reasonable hour after a tasty first American meal at "California Pizza Kitchen". The hotel we stayed at is located near the intersection of Hollywood Blvd and Highland Avenue, meaning it was only a short stroll to a fantastic open air shopping complex and fabulous views of the Hollywood sign!

I will tell you now that yes, Hollywood is unclean and scary and tacky and amazing all at once... Everyone told us that we would hate LA and that it was dirty and unsafe, people scoffed at how long we were planning on spending in its glitz and grime... Well I can tell you now that we absolutely loved LA! The city is abuzz with action and excitement, it is quintessential America from all your favourite movies and tv shows, there are memorable experiences around every star studded street corner... And there is ALWAYS a restaurant or burger joint selling the delicious food you know you shouldn't be eating. Our advice here is to simply give it a go without any prejudice and see what you make of it.

Tragic tourist tip: Take one of the tacky tours of the "Stars' Homes"! A good tour will take you about two hours and generally includes a rest stop with a good view of the Hollywood sign for your photo album. The aim here is not necessarily to see a celebrity (although it does happen quite a bit), or to marvel at their pretty houses (some are genuine stunners) but to see how close the rich and famous actually live to the main drag... Makes them seem more human really.

Probably one of our more unexpected moments of awe whilst in LA was our "Hop on Hop off" tour of the downtown area. When seeing a foreign city for the first time, I find that these tours are a fantastic way to orient yourself, see a good amount of the city and learn a few fun facts without breaking the bank. This being said I highly recommend you choose the method you are most comfortable with (be it public transport, taxi or tour bus) to see the sights in downtown LA. The buildings downtown are things of beauty and there is greenery covering a surprising amount of the area. The pre recorded commentary whilst on board gave us an understanding of what we were looking at and gave us the confidence to explore the city independently. Wide streets, fantastic views and some incredible people-watching made our daytime downtown experience well worth it!

Just a tiny selection of some of the beautiful buildings dotted all over Downtown LA

Whilst downtown, we decided that the Walt Disney Concert Hall was something that we wanted to have a look at (mainly because I saw it in a movie once and thought it looked cool). We took the chance and hopped off our tour bus... We were handsomely rewarded for our efforts... The building itself is absolutely beautiful and the free audio tour (with commentary by John Lithgow) is well worth the time as the building has a lot to say and, let's be honest, unless you are an architect you would probably never notice or appreciate the buildings many subtle nuances. This aside, our favorite part of the building by far was the gardens. These little alcoves of flowers and fountains provide a brief interlude amid the hustle and bustle of LA's central business district. The flowering trees and trickling fountains are not only beautiful, but attract butterflies and hummingbirds! I think this is astounding considering the concert halls location! Definitely my LA highlight.

A few angles of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The ruby red flowers attract all sorts of wildlife and the rose fountain is made from thousands of pieces of broken porcelain.

If you are finding your LA experience a little bit too adult and serious... I highly recommend Universal Studios. A whole day at Universal Studios definitely satisfied my inner child and fed the movie geek inside me. I will tell you now that if you plan on visiting Universal Studios for just one day then you NEED a front of line pass! We managed to get in all the big rides, shows and attractions without waiting more than 10 minutes in a queue and still had time for food and carnival games!

How many iconic signs does Universal studios need! Me proudly protecting my first carnival win for the day! Please note the amazing front of line pass that made the day so much easier.

Rounding out our time in LA was a delightful three night stay in sunny Santa Monica. Here we were joined by some fantastic friends from home (Santa Monica was the connecting location for five different groups on five very different holidays). I can recommend no better way to unwind after the hustle of Hollywood than by spending a few nights sunning, shopping and swimming in Santa Monica. Not only is it great for the beach, promenade and famous pier, but the neighborhood is safe, quiet, happy and healthy.

This is what happens when best friends get together on Santa Monica Beach and discover some unattended life guard chairs.

Handy Shanwah hint: Make up your own mind about LA. I only ask that you give LA a genuine go. Most people hate it based on face value, yes it is dirty, dangerous, tacky and touristy... But behind all that there are some amazing things to see! Don't let other peoples opinions prevent you from having what could be a life changing experience.

The City of Angels is definitely more than just silver screen gloss and violent grit, if you give it a chance you will find yourself enjoying a whole lot more than you expected.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

A note on saying goodbye...

Whether you are going on a two month holiday or a two year overseas experience, make sure you leave enough time to say your goodbyes. The last few weeks get busy really quickly and working up until the day you leave sounds like a good idea but make sure you know what this means for the people you love.

Packing... It's not as simple as it sounds!

During our Europe trip Jade and I quickly realised how annoying, time consuming and painful it was to pack, unpack and repack your suitcase. Nothing ever fits in the same way and you always have more stuff than last time. During that trip we were traveling during the painful winter months, this meant that we had to lug around heavy jackets and bulky knits to keep from freezing to death. By comparison summer should be much easier right?

The problem with this logic is that it tends to mean that because we think our summer stuff is smaller an d lighter, we over pack because we have more space. My favourite strategy is the old rule of thirds... Pack everything you want/need/think you need... Then cut out at least a third. This way you don't end up taking that red number that you thought might look good if you ended up being invited to a semi formal, 50's themed party on a warm night with a slight north easterly breeze...

Handy Shanwah hint: no matter what type of accommodation you are staying in, pack something to keep your dirty laundry in and something to take your laundry to the laundromat (preferably the same "something" to save space). In Europe Jade and I found ourselves confusing our clean and dirty laundry (resulting in the uncomfortable sniff test) and arriving at the laundromat with an odd assortment of awkwardly sized bags to the bemusement of locals. While I'm on the subject, it is a great idea to locate the closest laundromat to your accommodation BEFORE you arrive because you can waste entire days trying to find one.

Once you have cut out the useless and unnecessary, then comes the packing... Everyone has their own style and preference when it comes to packing... rolling, folding, stuffing, layering, space bags, pack cells, suitcase dividers and the age old second suitcase technique (employed by Jade after she purchased too many handbags to fit in her already full suitcase). Use the way that works for you because even though that travel blog said you should roll everything in tight little balls, it is you who has to pack your suitcase and then repack it over and over again... Trust me, even If you start out with a brilliant strategy, it eventually gets to the point where you just cram everything in anywhere it will fit.

A brief photoessay on the crap that I managed to take with me...

One final thing to remember... It's not just your suitcase you need to stuff! It is just as important to pack your MP3 player full of tunes. A well stocked iPod will serve you well on your cross country train trips (you tend to run out of conversation topics a few hours in) I have three songs that I never fail to remind me of riding the train through sunny Italian countryside. This time I have spent a good 3hrs sorting through my iPod to ensure I have all the music I will need... Some chill out tunes for afternoons spent lying in Hyde Park, a range of up beat pop tracks for keeping the long train rides eventful, some classic rock and funked up indie for use while you wait for the laundry and a couple of urban beats for playing in the hotel bathroom before a big night out. I can't stress how important this is... I mean think about it, these songs will inevitably becomes the soundtrack to your holiday.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

It's harder than you think to stop living in the past

Okay so maybe I am still caught up in the holidays of yesteryear... But why shouldn't I be? People reminisce about their first kiss, their favorite pet, a great Simpsons quite or a lame Internet meme all the time and with furor. Indulge me a moment longer in my flashbacks as I talk about the people that made those trips special.

Kate enjoying a cocktail in the pool, Christine, Janet and Michelle striking a pose on the grand cruise liner staircase, Ross and Jade enjoying the English winter.

Kate. Intelligent, British, hilarious, strong willed and classy.
After coincidentally having three out of four classes together during my Uni years we decided it was fate. Our friendship blossomed over gossip, procrastination sessions, copious amounts of junk food and the Malaysian island of Lankawi. Kate is the type of friend who I might not see for years and then when we do meet it is like we have never been apart.

Jade. Quick witted, hilarious, romantic, honest and a massive bookworm
Jade and I met at the debilitating din that was my employment at a certain (unnamed) cinema chain. Form our first "date" seeing Memoirs of a Geisha together, we steadily became good friends until we decided that we should travel together for 2 months... Worrying at first (considering our stubborn attitudes and Jade's dislike of positivity) but we are better friends for it (best friends even) ... And better people too.

Ross. Lovable, kind, tall, informative and protective
What can I say about Ross... We have been together for almost Three years and he is definitely one of my rocks in the turbulent ocean that is life... That is, of course, when he isn't being the turbulent ocean.

Michelle. Bubbly, genuine, happy, positive and ambitious
I Have known Michelle for over twelve years now I can safely say she is one of my Best friends. We trudged our way through high school together, worked together, went to Uni together and traveled the high seas together (It seems she's a keeper). I can always count on michelle for honesty (generally quite bluntly) and a chipper outlook on life.

Janet. Sensible, sorted, intellectual, confident and witty
Being Michelle's sister has meant that Janet has seen me grow from an awkward teen to an awkward adult. Always handy with a fiery comeback, Janet is a strong, independent woman and we have a shared passion for fitness and money (although she is much better at making, spending and saving hers than I am).

Christine. Quotable, easy going, fiery, giggly and definitely marriage material
I found a great friend in Christine as we paired up on our Pacific cruise. Christine and I shared many beautiful moments together as husband and wife. Romantic mud baths, exhilarating speed boat rides, shell collecting on the beach, ice-cream in the sun, duty free shopping and many (many) sophisticated cocktails.

These amazing people have shared their traveling experiences with me and I am forever grateful for it. I often look back at holiday happy snaps and vacation videos and I suddenly find myself full of joy. Our shared experiences are some of the happiest moments of my life. My friends. My family. My fellow journeymen.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Stop living in the past!

Before we talk about what is yet to come, I think it is best to describe what has already been. As has been so deftly established in my previous rant, I am no longer a first time traveler. This honour was bestowed upon the resort island of Langkawi, Malaysia in July of 2009.

Known as the Jewel of Kedah, Langkawi (henceforth known as Langkawawi to Kate, our wonderful travel agent Lou Lou and I) saw me riding elephants through the jungle, sipping piña Coladas by the pool, jet skiing in tropical oceans and navigating through night markets in the city centre. My Uni friend Kate and I enthusiastically jumped into the watered down resort culture of the island with gusto! Spending our Ringit on as much batik, massage, ear candling (I know, right?!) sugar water and Thai food (yes Thai food) that we could. We followed this up with a long layover in Kuala Lumpur that saw me continue to shop and I came home in substantial debt as a consequence.

The view over Langkawi from the Gunung Mat Cincang Cable Car, One of the lovely hotel bar staff delivering our Piña Coladas, Sweaty Shanwah sipping sugar syrup at the Kuah night markets.

My second jaunt was substantially more involved. After realising just how easy it was to travel, I decided that I could save, plan and explore the world on my own. I spent just over 2 months in the European winter of 2010 to 2011, I navigated a plethora of cities in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, Monaco, Ireland, Scotland and England. I was accompanied on this voyage by one of my best friends (the undeniably honest, trustworthy and hilarious Ms Jade) and later on, with my partner Ross (tall, Scottish and full of information). We threw money into every fountain we saw, touched every lucky statue, and got involved in almost every tourist trap we could find (except for the Moulin Rouge... It was sold out).

The Eiffel Tower all a-glitter, A sparkly Christmas tree in front of the Duomo in Florence, The bright neon for one of our shows in London's West End.

Upon returning to Australia ruined for the country (don't worry I do still call Australia home), I hastily (possibly a little too hastily) agreed to participate in a pacific island cruise... I know, I know... A cruise?! Really Shannon?! I was holiday bluesing with the best of them and it was cheap okay! My long time high school bestie Michelle, her sister Janet and Janet's work friend Christine (later referred to a my holiday wife) graciously allowed me to join their cabin and as soon as it hit June in 2011 we set sail for the pacific Islands of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji. After two days of vomiting we arrived into calmer waters and the shore excursions began. Whilst the beginning of the trip was an unmitigated disaster, The rest of the holiday was an absolute blast! We spent our days swimming, sun baking and exploring the islands, while at night we lounged (with cocktails of course), danced, quizzed and went to the theatre.

Cruisers sunning themselves on a sea day, the Pacific Jewel moored at port in Suva, Fiji, the most amazing Fijian beach on Dravuni Island (my happy place).

The cruise was last June for crying out loud! Stop living in the past Shanwah!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A Bold Beginning

I am your average twenty something guy from Melbourne, Australia and I am about to make the biggest move of my life...!

After a cultural awakening in Malaysia, a jaunty saunter through European winter and a sun soaked Pacific island getaway... I have realised that my one true, everlasting passion in life (besides family, friends and lovers) is travel...

The epiphany came when I returned from Europe a mopey mess. I missed the sights, the sounds, the smells (most of them anyway) and above, all the impossibly unique sensation of euphoria and wonderment that only comes from being thrust face first into a whole new culture.

To be completely honest, I never knew something as simple (and cliche) as a sunset could look so different around the world.

The sun setting over Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh (funnily enough), The sun setting over the French Alps in Chamonix, the sun setting over Vittoriano in Rome.

Why pay two thousand bucks a pop to visit the northern hemisphere for a maximum of four weeks a year? Why struggle all year till my next hit? Why not just move there?

So I am...

What follows is the possibly naive, all together nonsensical and definitely unnecessary blogging of a boy addicted to the world.

Enjoy... I dare you...