Saturday, 28 April 2007

Air Force One

Earlier this year, through a mutual friend, I became friends with a rather cute guy called Mike in the US Air Force. It was decided that he and his friends would show me a good time in San Fran and that I'd be more than welcome to stay on the base. Talk about an adventure! I was met at the airport by two of his friends, welcomed to the base and settled in my apartment-like room before I knew it. There was Mexican food for dinner, a nanna nap and then drinking in the dorms till about 4.30am!

Mike arrived the next day and in true gentlemanly tour guide form showed me the sights and scenery around San Fran. I was in awe of the massive Golden Gate Bridge and when I first saw it I'm sure I squealed like a girl. We took a boat cruise that went under the bridge, which also gave us a bird's eye view of Alcatraz, the renowned prison island. Home to Scarface and also Al Capone during its working years, we were sadly unable to do the tour as they sell out quickly. However, our boat was so close that we could see people walking around, see the old mouldy buildings and read the sign that warns against procuring the escape of any inmate. A pesky group of seagulls were following the boat the entire way and had all of us on the back deck in fear of getting pooed on. They swooped overhead and squawked and made a great racket. We pulled back into the dock, passing a group of merry barking seals, all basking in the sunshine and frolicking in the frigid water.

Pier 39 is certainly the tourist spot! Majorly amped up for tourist value, it had all sorts of shops and restaurants and attractions. There was a shop dedicated entirely to fridge magnets, much to my delight. We're all aware of my love of magnets, but the only one I liked I didn't buy. Shaped like a breast cancer ribbon, it was pink and said 'support shopping'. It seemed a bit flaky but now I wish I'd bought it. We did a cable car tour and headed up and down some of the steepest streets in San Fran, home to scenes from many a movie. I tell you what, I wish I'd had a few days staying in the actual San Fran area, as the shopping is AMAZING. Chinatown had so many little shops crammed with paper lanterns, cute little slippers and all sorts of goodies. The real shopping district boasted many famous labels, had its own Tiffany & Co. (always a winner!) and was brimming with people looking for the perfect purchase.

San Fran is a beautiful city. Flooded with light, reflecting from the white buildings, it seems like the perfect summery place to be. It was absolutely freezing cold with the bay breeze, but in the summertime it'd be teeming with people and the atmosphere would be outrageously fun! We couldn't resist a drive down the world's most crooked street, Lombard Street. It has 8 turns in it, all within a very short distance! The hill Lombard St was built on was too steep for driving straight down, so was designed this way to reduce speed. The result? A massive $3 million for a home on the street, heaps of traffic all wanting to drive down it and a need to have your foot stomped on the brakes the entire time to prevent scratching the paint off your bumpers!

Heading home that afternoon, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and as usual, when in the presence of a major landmark, I was in awe. The bridge is MASSIVE, and while not as large as the multi-level Bay Bridge across the bay, it is a construction to behold. Each year, 5000 litres of 'county orange' paint are used and similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it's constantly being painted. At the end of the bridge, there's a viewing park and we got out and took some great shots . We were up high, had a bird's eye view of the bay, the bridge and Alcatraz.

An afternoon trip the next day to Napa Valley was gorgeous, and just as picturesque as I'd imagined. The afternoon light made the leaves glow, the mountains had a romantic feel about them and the whole area seemed like the perfect little sleepy country town to set up house in. We went to Rubicon Estate, formerly known as Coppola's. Owned by Francis Ford Coppola, it has a great display of his Academy Awards, and also costumes from some of his movies. Sadly, these items aren't available for viewing anymore, as Mr Coppola wants his patrons to visit the winery for the wine, not his accomplishments. Have a look at the website to read up on the history and see how gorgeous it is.

The winery is beautiful. Set down a long driveway with row upon row of trees stretching away on either side, the building is grand and covered in vines and climbing leaves. We were greeted at the foot of the red carpet, handed passports, and directed down the carpet and inside. The fountains out the front give it a regal air and the wines for tasting were superb. After the tasting, we sat outside with a glass of delicious Zinfandel and enjoyed the slight afternoon breeze and rustling of the leaves. I didn't realise how large Napa Valley actually is, and was amazed that there were so many little vineyards dotted all over the place. With a few bottles of the delicious grape juice in my possession, we headed back to the base.

Having no idea what a real air force base is like, I was surprised by the sheer size of it. Set out like a town, it has everything anyone could need: massive grocery store, bottle shop, dorms, housing, gym, church, aircraft simulators, museum, cinema and even a bowling alley. We bowled a few games and then some more drinking took place. I was surprised at how normal it felt to be on the base, like being in a suburb at home - minus the massive jets taking off overhead every few minutes, people wandering around in uniform and the sleep interrupting renditions of the Star Spangled Banner at something like 4.30am each morning! There were large stretches of the greenest grass I've ever seen, flowering rose bushes, stray cats and bbq's outside the dorms.

One of my favourite parts of my trip was being allowed into the simulator and getting to refuel some jets. The simulator I was in is the one that is used to train real air force crew and is just like a video game! There are seats for the instructor and trainee and there are buttons, handles, something like a joystick and also a huge viewing window where the jets needing fuel appear. I got to have a go at the following: F-15 F-16 B-52 C-130 F-22 and KC-10. It all seemed fairly easy, but that's in the sim, not at night or in the wind or with turbulence and my complete lack of knowledge of what all the buttons, handles and other gadgets actually do!

While it all seems like fun and games, and when I fly it's all about the destination and gobbling lobster and pavlova up the front, there's a far more serious side to the job of these men and women and an incredible amount of skill is involved. For some great pictures and videos, take a look at Mike's website

My room boasted a view of the running track and the back of the gym and while there weren't groups of chanting men running in formation in white shirts and sweats and gleaming dog tags (like in my hopeful imagination), I feel motivated to visit our gym more regularly. California is home to the JELLY BELLY - those delicious little jelly beans of many yummy flavours and I was amused to find little packets of them on my pillow when I checked in, instead of the obligatory hotel chocolate. We had a funny jelly belly experience, but will leave it at that.

On my last day, I visited the museum on the base and was able to get up close and personal with some very ancient looking aircraft. There were B52's and many others that I can't remember, including what has to have been the ugliest aircraft EVER - it had an oddly rounded shaped tail and almost looked like it had a nose on its pilot end!

All in all, it was a fantastic trip - perhaps my best leave trip yet. California has lots to offer - fantastic wine, spectacular vineyards, beaches (didn't see any), clam chowder (didn't try any!), sunny days and sexy men in uniform.

What could beat that?

Friday, 27 April 2007

New York - take 2

Well, what a week it's been! I managed to tear myself away from the couch and hoot to the airport, where the ground staff were surprisingly friendly and relatively optimistic about my chances of getting on the flight. I had a nail biting 2.5 hour wait and was finally handed a boarding pass at 25 minutes before take-off. There was another girl on standby, so we made our way to the gate together, jostling with slow walking passengers and arrived at the gate with plenty of time to spare. I'd forgotten how ridiculously long the screening process is for New York bound passengers and was put through a painful bag search. One of the less-than-clever guards rooted around in my bag and clearly found what he was after, hefting a tampon for all to see and demanding 'vat is dis?' like it was some sort of weapon. What a dick.

I arrived in New York feeling very weary, as I was seated near a charming child who screamed and squealed like a stuck pig for the entire journey. By the 13th hour I was ready to lean over and yank his naughty little tail. His parents clearly didn't care that he was making such noise and just let him run riot. I passed the time by watching more movies than I can remember and was feeling like I'd been locked in a box by the time I arrived. I was disconcerted to feel how cold it was when I disembarked and realised that the flimsy little coat I had over my arm wasn't going to cut it against the oddly cold weather. Out of season snow was expected that day, but luckily didn't fall.

I spent two days wandering around New York, not doing the people watching in Central Park that I'd hoped to. It was just way too cold to venture in there. I sought shopping refuge in Abercrombie & Fitch but was perplexed by a few things: 1. they weren't selling sweaters, it was all short shorts and singlets and 2. one of the male models had pecs larger than my breasts. I ventured into Tiffany's, but avoided the engagement ring floor this time, as the rings have mind-altering effects and I didn't think I could take the dazzling sparkles.

Ladies, I have discovered the pick up place of New York. It is .... the perfume department of Saks on 5th Avenue. Clearly a marketing ploy, but if you're up for an ego stroke, head straight there.

I spent a few hours in New York's public library, marveling at the beautiful old books and rooms full of maps and the old brass studded doors. From there, it was onto the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and was amazed by the fantastic collection they have. I was of course on the hunt for Van Gogh's gorgeous Starry Night but must confess I was unaware that one of my other all time favourite paintings is also housed there: Monet's Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond. I also had no idea how HUGE it is! I rounded a corner, still looking for Starry Night and nearly fell over when I saw that the lily pond spanned an entire wall! I sat mesmerised, taking in all the colours and shapes and observed it from afar and close up. I tore myself away and located Starry Night, which was just as magnificant as I'd imagined.

Larger than Mona Lisa (who was a little disappointing up close, all lonely and hidden behind glass and roped off), Starry Night's colours were vibrant and the trees almost seemed as though they were moving. The paint strokes are fluid and enticing - I got very close and was saddened to see that there are tiny fracture-like cracks in the paint around the moon. I heard someone talking and saying that it was because he didn't prime the canvas. Not being an art buff, I'm not sure if that's the reason, but it seemed a shame that such a gorgeous painting is showing such signs of age.

I also saw some lovely Picasso's, Warhol's, Klimt's and Matisse's. While there was no touching or flash photography of the artworks inside the museum, I got in trouble for touching an outdoor sculpture! I couldn't believe it - they were large sheets of some kind of scungy, rusty metal outside in the sculpture garden that are open to wind, rain, hail and snow, but my fingertips weren't allowed to touch the rusty looking stuff?

Finally the time came to head west toward California. At this point, I must make a plug for a little known (to me anyway) company in New York: The Super Shuttle. The shuttle will pick you up and also drop you off to any destination in New York City for the bargain price of $17. While the subway would have been cheaper, it was ideal, as I really didn't know where I was going and didn't want to run the risk of getting off the subway in the wrong area or having to tackle the steps alone like last time. The drivers are friendly, know where they're going and if you're lucky they'll put your bags in the van for you.

I navigated the massive 9 terminal JFK airport, checked in and was relieved to find that my suitcase fit within the limits and I was off. With a short transit in Salt Lake City, I marvelled at the scenery surrounding the airport. It appeared that we were in a basin surrounded by snow capped mountains which were truly beautiful. I was off again and this time landed in Sacramento Airport.

It's been what feels like the longest day in the world. Flying from Sacramento to New York, connecting within a few hours and then direct back to Dubai = something like 24 hours. Lucky for me the flight out of New York was pretty well empty and I scored 4 seats to myself and stretched out like a cat and napped for a large part of the flight.

I'll report back tomorrow with part 2 of the holiday!

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Too Scared to Move

Thanks to all who commented on my last post: I've now got some new ideas for what to do in San Fran and who to bribe at the airport!

Sadly, I don't think a pilot would give up his seat on a 14 hour sector to st in the cockpit for little old me.

I'm embarrassed to say that after having checked the loads for the flights today and tomorrow and seeing that they are PITIFUL, I'm sitting here, rooted to the couch. Too scared to move. It's 10.10pm and check-in opens at 11pm. I should go, but I'm too scared that when I get there they'll say 'sorry toots, too full for you' and send me with my carefully packed, weighed and measured (yes I'm serious, measured) bags home, with my tail between my legs.

I discovered to my horror last night while faffing around and packing with Freya that Delta, a dinky little US airline, have rather strict baggage restrictions. Well, that sent me into a total spin and I still haven't recovered. I think I'll either fly just under the radar or have to fork over $100 for a suitcase that is a few inches too long. For god's sake - if they saw some of the 'bags' that our passengers think constitute carry on luggage, all would be forgotten. Never mind checked in luggage.

My movie of the month, year, decade and possibly favourite of my 24.5 years is The Notebook. I hope to have my own notebook ending sometime in the future and having watched it last night with Freya in preparation of my holiday, I've now watched a ripper of a clip on youtube for the last time before leaving the apartment.

I will now switch off the laptop and leave it in my bedroom - I'm already suffering terrible withdrawals. It is my constant companion and I'm rather addicted. Completely sad, I know. Get a hobby.

Ok, I'll check in with those of you who will be mortified if I don't reveal if I've managed to slip onto a flight to New York and then onwards to San Fran. Mum, you're the worst offender, but I love you. I hope I don't need those tickets Delta sent to Brissie!

Ooopps......bit late now!

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Holiday time again........

Having decided to change my annual leave ticket from good old Brissie to a standby ticket to super fantabulous New York, with domestic connections onwards to San Francisco, I'm starting to think I've gone a little mad.

My ticket to Brissie was confirmed 200%, but the one to New York......well I'm worth less than cargo and if I don't get on any of the 6 flights I've got up my sleeve then my holiday will be a whole lot of nothing.

Not a girl to be discouraged by slim odds, I'm eagerly doing my washing and mentally preparing myself for the grueling 24 hours of travel to get there. I've decided to spend two nights in New York to break it up a bit and also to allow time to connect domestically. I completely understand why some of our passengers (ok, most) are complete basket cases by the time they actually make it onto the plane! I spent a whole day agonising over which airline to fly with domestically, what time connections to make, how will I get to San Fran after landing in Sacramento and so much more. My eyes were weary after nearly 12 hours of staring at this screen and not even a glass of baileys made them feel better!

Besides super excitement at visiting a new place, I'm thrilled at the amount of thing San Fran has to offer. I had a 'sign' the other day that convinced me to change my plans - I was daydreaming (as usual) and my eye was caught by a magazine claiming to have info on "25 reasons to go to San Francisco RIGHT NOW". Well, while I might not be discouraged by slim odds, I'm certainly influenced by the media. I snapped it up quick smart, went home and announced my change in travel plans to everyone who would listen to me.

I have grand plans for San Fran - the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Valley, Alcatraz and meeting some air force boys ....... should be a good trip!

New York a second time around, in less freezing weather should be just lovely. I'm planning on spending some time lounging around Central Park with a good book as cover for some serious people watching on the great lawn. Then I'll head to the Museum of Modern Art (which I missed out on last time) for a glimpse of one of my favourite paintings: Starry Night by Van Gogh.

Perhaps a trip to Tiffany & Co ....... can I afford to even LOOK in there? I was dazzled by the rocks on the engagement ring floor last time - I must venture in for another look.

So, I ask you all to cross your fingers & toes & all other crossable extremities - luck will be on my side and I'll brave it through standby travel chances and have a ripper of a holiday and have some beautiful memories to share.

If all goes well, I'll be due back on the 28th of April, right in time for a trip to Zurich xxx

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Buffets and Bubbles

I think I've found a new calling: the connoissuer of THE BUFFET.

In the last 6 weeks, the girls and I have been to four buffets, but the most memorable has to be the Easter Sunday champagne buffet at Yalumba.

We bounced into Yalumba at about 1pm and proceeded to order just about everything from a la carte menu and marvelled at the free flowing bottles of bubbly. The tables were set beautifully, with huge chocolate roosters as centrepieces. Needless to say, once under the influence of some fabulous bubbles, we refered to them as something else.

We started with the requisite Arabic mezze and hommous and quickly moved on to the cold buffet, the hot buffet and dessert. In my opinion, the winners of the day were the hot cheesy, creamy potato bake (my Mum's is better, but this WAS good), and then entire dessert selection - which could have been called a buffet in itself.

We loaded up on little shot glasses full of liquid chocolate and fruit fillings, chocolates, fruit, pastries, brownies and many more delicious little treats. In my bubble filled haze, I forgot I was allergic to nuts (cashews and pistachios being frequent offenders) and munched into a delicious chocolate brownie. Within the minute, I was starting to feel itchy and was scratching (in a very ladylike manner) at my neck and was drinking lots of water and bubbles to combat the constricting feeling I was having in my throat. I was yabbering about brownies and nuts and it took me a few sentences to get the right words together that there were nuts IN the brownies.

Anyway, we all started giggling and going through the procedure for the epipen (medication on board for anaphylactic shock) and then laughed harder when we realised we didn't have it WITH us. Luckily I don't go into serious shock when I eat cashews and pistachios, I just have to stop eating them.

We were delighted to hear that there was going to be an Easter egg hunt. So, with the youngest of us at 23 and the oldest at 28, the 5 of us scampered off to all corners of the restaurant and dug around in pot plants and got down on the floor and looked under tables and in dark corners for all the eggs we could find. The eggs were real chicken eggs, but hard boiled and painted in bright colours. At one stage, Ash and Jena 'cheersed' with the eggs and smashed them together, with bits of eggshell flying about.

When the time was up, we headed back to our base table to pool our loot and count our eggs. We had 52 in total (one of them an unboiled egg lifted from the kitchen), and our ever so attentive waiter BONG (I kid you not, that was his name) quietly whispered to us that we would win with that many eggs. We were joined by a young Irish lad named Connell who had decided to donate his 2 eggs to our 52. Quiet lovely of him, but we knew our acceptance would mean sharing the prize, whatever that was!

Representatives from each table were required to take their bags of eggs forth for counting. So, off went a few of the girls and stood at least two feet higher than all the children in the game. We were told off by a table of two older floozies for being 'too big' for the game but we just smiled benignly and ignored them. We knew we had it in the bag when the kids were producing bags of 7 or so eggs. As expected, we won by a mile and our prize was a beautiful bottle of Bollinger champagne. Now it was lucky we entered - what would children have done with such a prize?

We were disappointed to hear that we couldn't take the bottle home with us, even though most of us were licensed to drink and posses alcohol in our homes. Yes, I am a women licensed to drink. What a ridiculous notion, but then again, this is Dubai.

We protested but knew we wouldn't win, so cracked it open and raised our skinny flutes in a toast.

I secured a few bunches of helium balloons and headed for the taxi rank and were off into the afternoon to Barasti Bar. I don't remember, and I also wasn't carrying my own balloons, but have been told that they almost caused a major accident on the motorway as we were hooning along in the warm afternoon sun. Having the longest legs, I was nominated to sit in the front seat, and in return thrust my balloons at Jena and made her hold them. I've been told I'll be holding my own balloons in future.

We made it to Barasti in one piece, and after a short roadside stroll in our heels & me still toting the balloons (complete with toots from massive trucks) we found a lovely seat in the beach side bar and proceeded to drink more.

It was a lovely way to celebrate Baby Jesus - having suffered the Catholic school upbringing, I was well aware it wasn't his birthday we were celebrating, but a few of the others weren't!

Tsk, tsk, tsk. What WOULD Sister Mary say to that?