44. Yosemite & Death Valley, USA

Hot Buzz

Normally, a $35 entrance fee and three hour detour isn’t your idea of enjoyment when you already have a six-hour drive to get to your evening lodgings, but that’s exactly what I was treated to at Yosemite National Park, and in this case, it was more than worth it.

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If you’re going to embark on a several thousand mile journey across one of the largest nations on this planet, then stunning rock formations, incredibly tall waterfalls, and beautiful landscapes aren’t a bad way to kick things off. Yosemite has all of these things in abundance, and if you enjoy long walks, jam-packed car parks, and children shouting “Bumble Bee!” at your car*, then you’re in for a treat.

*you’ll probably need a car similar to mine to receive the full benefit of the last thing. Yes, I’m showing off, yes I’m a child, no I don’t care.

Now I’m not one for having regrets, but not staying here for more than a few short hours is definitely going to be one of them. There are dozens of options for rambling amongst the diverse wildlife, including walks so long you’ll need a tent, at least two packets of wotsits, and a serious pair of shoes. Whilst lying in a very warm tent hoping to not be eaten by bears isn’t my idea of a jolly good time, I would have parked up and had a meander for a few hours if I had more time (and could find a damn parking space).

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What’s that I hear you say? You’re not interested in lush green scenery? You’d rather traverse large, open spaces of nothing but sand, rocks, and heat that will melt your private areas? Well have no fear, because just to the East of Yosemite is the rather aptly named Death Valley.

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Aptly named because nothing lives here, and it’s a valley, Death Valley has been one of those curiosities I’ve always wanted to say “I’ve been there”. There’s not much to say about it, other than the scenery can get surprisingly spectacular despite the complete absence of anything living other than like-minded tourists.

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Also, if you go in the summer time, it’s rather hot. According to my car’s computer screen, the temperature peaked at 115F, which for those of us living in the 21st century is a mind-melting 46C. That’s quite uncomfortably the hottest temperature I’ve ever been exposed to (not counting sitting in a sauna or telling Mrs Brown I hadn’t finished my English summer project on time), and required a careful balancing act whenever I foolishly chose to get out of my air-conditioned car to take a snap or three. Walk too slow and you’re exposed to the heat long enough that your sunglasses hurt, walk too fast, and by the time you get back to the car, you’re producing enough sweat to drown a cactus.

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As you know, travelling for me (and most people) is all about new experiences, and saying “I’ve been there/done that”, and now I can say I’ve been to Furnace Creek, the appropriately-named section of Death Valley that boasts the hottest temperature ever recorded. But half a day is enough, and on the other side of the valley lies a fairly well known town that has sat completely uncontested at the top of my to-do list since my travel plans began.

Vegas.

 

 

43. San Francisco, USA

Wood, balls and helmets.

I’ve already made it clear that I’m starting to become disillusioned by big cities. Unless it has something special about it that entices me, there is very little appeal for me to stay for more than a fleeting visit, and would much rather be out and about exploring a big tree, or a nice hill.

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The good thing about San Francisco is that not only does it have more than enough about it to keep me entertained, but it also provides both the aforementioned desirable outer-city features.

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Now, normally I wouldn’t be a fan of a city that has more ups and downs than Donald Trump’s toupee in a light breeze. However, the Chevvy I’m hiring allowed me to enjoy these undulations without having to concern my calves with exercise, and I had plenty of opportunities to be childish between traffic lights, which was nice.

(Obviously I obeyed all traffic laws at all times, Mum.)

My Airbnb in San Francisco wasn’t actually in San Francisco, but the across-the-bay town of Vallejo. On the down side that meant subjecting myself to traffic jams and toll booths whenever I wanted to cruise in or out of the city.

The upside, however, was my ability to explore the surrounding countryside, which provided some interesting memories.

One such memory saw me completely accidentally stumble across one of America’s most famous racing circuits – Sonoma. As a NASCAR fan I was able to finally say I’ve been to one of the tracks they race on (it even has right hand turns!), and as a fan of motorsports in general, the historic cars weekend that was being held during my visit helped whet my appetite for being completely deafened by cars older than I am.

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Then, after a very brief foray onto Stinson “Bugger This It’s Far Too Windy” Beach, I found myself face-to-trunk with the most enormous trees you’ve ever seen. Everyone knows Redwoods are tall, but I promise you, until you actually stand at the bottom of one and look up, you simply cannot fathom just how high they go.

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Having successfully avoided making an inappropriate pun or three in the last paragraph, my mettle is tested even further by my next activity.

It’s always been a dream of mine to watch an American sports game, preferably one of each major sport, and in SF I was lucky enough to fulfill one-quarter of that dream with a trip to the AT&T Stadium to watch the San Francisco Giants compete with the Philadelphia Phillies to see who can run round the most diamonds in nine innings.

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It was a thoroughly entertaining affair, boosted by a 6-1 victory, and a seal with arms and legs (don’t ask), and capped off a very pleasant few days that was made exponentially more so by the presence of one of my minions, who had flown over to meet one of her other partners (and me, obviously).

But perhaps the most important attribute of San Francisco is none of the above, but that it marks the start point of my West-to-East journey across this great/not great (delete as per your opnion) nation.

So it’s goodbye Pacific Ocean, hello flight home over the Atlantic.

Eventually.

42. The Pacific Coast Highway, USA

Inside No. 9

Allow me, for a moment, to indulge in a spot of hypocrisy.

Within my last rambling, I explained how I disliked the attitude of people spending money on themselves, and completely overlooking the epidemic of homeless people that litter the streets of LA.

My subsequent action was to head to a car rental garage and spend more money than is sensible on a make of car I didn’t really need, to drive across America towards the finish line for this entire world trip in New York.

Do I have an excuse for this blatant double standard? Not really, and I will admit to more than a smidgen of guilt at doing what I have done. The problem is, there are simply too many people that need help, and trying to help them all would put me in a position similar to theirs in a frighteningly short space of time.

However, that aside, let’s get down to the crux of the matter here. Ever since I was yay high I’ve dreamt of hiring a convertible and driving right through the middle of the USA, from one side to the other. The vast, open roads, punctuated by desirable cities and landmarks have always held a great appeal to me. Now, thanks to my complete disregard towards the health of my wallet, and the determination I possess to fulfill an ambition once it gets into my head, I have the opportunity to live that dream.

And we’re not talking any ol’ rustbucket convertible here. As followers of my social feed have already been shown on several occasions, the car I have is, well, this one.

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When you ask anyone what the happiest moments of their life are, you’ll typically get the same predictable marriage/kids/first house responses. Having not done any of those (don’t get any ideas, ladies), my list is somewhat different, and the moment I pulled out of the car rental garage and started cruising the streets of LA with the top down in this beast is easily an addition to it.

That lasted for about 10 minutes, before I got stuck in one of LA’s legendary traffic jams, and realised that it’s far too warm and sunny, and I have far too few baseball caps and bottles of suncream to be able to survive much of this, so up went the roof, and on went a very frustrating hour or so trying to work out what resembles lane discipline in this country.

My target was San Francisco, using the world famous Pacific Coast Highway as the main method of transportation. It took me two days to get there (don’t worry, that included sleep), but suffice to say the drive was able to live up to the expectation. The problem is, the level of enjoyment of the drive was influenced by several factors that were nothing to do with the drive itself.

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Part of the road included driving through, and over, clouds. Clouds!

For an easy starter, there’s the car. I’ve already explained how excited I was to rent it, so the first couple of days were going to be awesome whether I was driving through beautiful Californian countryside, or on the A34 just outside Stoke. On the flip side to this, is the fact that I’ve just spent several weeks on what is officially the most beautiful country in the world – New Zealand – and so whatever came next had such big shoes to fill it was always destined to fall short.

Then there’s the road itself, which I didn’t actually drive all the way up. Partly because some of it was closed, and partly because I get all distracted by enticing looking signposts and end up completely lost in a place nowhere near where I’m supposed to be.

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The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca

Despite all of that, I saw some amazing views and drove (part of) an immensely enjoyable, windy coastal road for two days, before ending up in one of my favourite cities in the world. So I can wholeheartedly recommend coming here.

Did I mention travelling was awesome?

41. Los Angeles, USA

City of No Angels

What a difference a week makes.

Having completed my drive to Auckland, and my flight out of New Zealand, I now find myself in very different surroundings. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood is a far cry from the tranquil beauty of New Zealand’s countryside, but that’s what travelling is all about – having different experiences.

LA is a trifle unconventional in that it’s the first location on this leg of my travels that I’ve been to before. In 2007 I lapped America, starting and finishing in New York, and this was one of the destinations on my itinerary. The problem was, I spent all of my six days there either too ill or too engrossed in my newfound love of poker to actually get out of the hotel room and see the city itself.

Eleven years later, I’m finally willing and able to explore this most famous of metropolis’, and I can honestly say it wasn’t worth the wait.

People who think of LA often picture the stars of Hollywood, or the lavishness of Rodeo Drive, or traffic jams. Whilst all three of those things are most certainly present, what you don’t often consider – usually because you don’t appreciate how much of an issue it is – is poverty and homelessness.

In London, people living on the streets is a problem. You don’t often get to walk the corridors of a tube station or the length of a city-centre pavement without crossing paths with at least one person unfortunate enough to not have somewhere to live. In LA, people living on the streets is a defining feature of anywhere in the city that isn’t where the rich people live (and sometimes where they do). Homeless people are everywhere here, and serve as a constant, harrowing reminder of how much poverty lies within this city’s boundaries.

I don’t like LA. Not because so many homeless people exist, but because of the apparent attitude towards them. Not once did I see someone give a homeless person any money, food, or even acknowledged their existence, and believe me there were plenty of opportunities in the four days I spent here.

Hollywood is the worst culprit, a place where rich people congratulate other rich people whilst poor people search the bins for something to survive on, right under their noses. Yes, I’m aware that LA isn’t the only city with a poverty/homeless problem, and yes, there are cities in the world that have far more people with even bigger problems than they do here. But it’s the enormity of the divide between the top and bottom of the ladder here, and the attitude of most of it’s citizens that stinks more than the city itself.

The best part of LA? It marks the starting point of my cross-country adventure, an adventure I’ve been waiting the best part of 25 years to undertake, and an adventure that I’m unfathomably grateful I’m in a position to go on.

40. Southward Car Museum, Paraparaumu, New Zealand

Crash, glam, b******s

Any day that involves laying eyes on the first car ever made, the fastest car ever made, and the most beautiful car ever made, is a day worth writing about. Happily, I was able to do just that – sort of.

I’ve never been so surprised by so much metal.

The day didn’t start off on the best of notes. Following a substantial miscalculation, my attempts to avoid laundry costs ended up with a bag full of wet clothes to check out with, and despite the most satisfying bath I’ve ever had (sorry for that image), the previous night’s sleep wasn’t anything to shout about either.

You can imagine how much you wouldn’t have wanted to be in the passenger seat as I left the hotel, tired, hungry, stressed and grumpy, and with several hours of driving ahead of me as I marched up the North Island to be in Auckland in time for my flight to LA. Getting lost in the easily-mispronouncable town of Paraparaumu didn’t help matters either.

Then, just as I was about to join the motorway, I spotted the Southward Car Museum. An opportunity, I thought whilst still wearing yesterday’s pants (sorry again), to cheer myself up with a ham sandwich and a handful of vehicles to view.

How wrong I was.

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I wasn’t wrong about being cheered up, but that “handful” of vehicles turned out to be the most impressive collection of cars, bikes, and various other motoring oddities I’ve ever seen, spread across two floors of a building that, from the outside, looks like a 1970’s TV studio.

With an emphasis on the historic, there were countless numbers of vintage cars from all across the world. Mercedes-Benzs, Pontiacs, Ferraris, Nissans, even Minis, all nations seemed to be represented in one nostalgic form or another.

Nestled in amongst this impressive array were some real gems. Gems such as the 1895 Benz Velo, the first standardised car ever produced, three different specifications of the Ford Model T, and a Stutz racing car that actually competed in the 1915 Indianapolis 500.

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However, there was no doubting who won Best In Show, an impressive accolade given the number and variety of specimens.

When you walk around a museum of old cars, you do so at a slow, yet methodical pace, appreciating whatever you happen to come across on your path. But when that thing you come across happens to be a 1965 Jaguar E-Type, you have no choice but to stop and stare at its unspeakable beauty and magnificence.

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I’m relatively sure I’ve never seen in the flesh what Enzo Ferrari himself described as the most beautiful car ever made, and after the amount of time I spent objectifying this pristine example, I know I’ll always be able to remember that I have.

From the beautiful to the bizarre, including a half-finished 1920’s Aston Martin prototype, a Jeep that’s been so heavily modified it now looks like a circus on wheels, and what’s left of a specially modified Porsche 911 Turbo.

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This one-off Porsche was conceived in 1996 with the ambition of breaking the then world land speed record for a production car of 220mph. After a first run of just over 210mph – a new national record in New Zealand – a rear tyre blew during Owen Evans’ second attempt, spearing him into what should have been a fatal crash, yet somehow, it wasn’t.

I love when my travels throw up unexpected detours, and I’m very glad I got lost trying to leave this town, or I would have missed the museum. I’m definitely in a happier mood now, and ready to tackle the day.

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Speaking of tackle, I do still need to change my pants…

39. Highway 6, New Zealand

Stretch limo

When I talk to people about travelling, I usually end up on the receiving end of the same clutch of questions, with the undisputed number one of this repetitive-yet-enjoyable list being “what’s your favourite place you’ve ever been to?”. Well, what follows is the answer, so I never have to actually answer that question ever again. Probably.

If you haven’t sussed it out by now from my previous entries, or you’re still working on your internet stalker scout badge, I’ve fallen in love with New Zealand’s unbelievable countryside. My expectations for this other-worldly land had been driven ridiculously high thanks to a cocktail of recommendations by other people/sources, and a twenty-odd-year wait to finally come here.

But whilst higher expectations usually mean a greater chance of disappointment, New Zealand boasts a road that epitomises its success in living up to the hype, and is quite comfortably the stand out location(s) of this standout nation.

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Running along the Western side of the South Island, from its Southern tip in Invarcargill, right up to the ferry port of Picton, Highway 6 manages to pack in so many jaw-dropping, exclamation-encouraging, nearly-had-a-crash-because-I-was-staring-at-a-glacier inducing moments, that you end up wondering why anywhere else in the world bothers to exist. From the drama and uniqueness of Mount Cook and its neighbouring glaciers, to the calming sounds of the waves guiding me to sleep in my beachside hostel in Punakaiki, Highway 6 has treated me to a range of memories that I’ll be sharing enthusiastically with anyone who unwittingly asks for years and years to come.

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One such memory involved an extremely tall Dutch man, who I picked up at the Blue Pools. “Stretch” (probably not his birth name) is most definitely what you would call an outdoors person. Having spent the last few years as a mountain guide in the French Alps, he’s since been travelling the world, for much longer than I’m daring to. When we crossed paths he needed a lift to Fox Glacier, a few hours North and along my route, where he was hoping to work as a guide there to help continue funding his adventures.

Despite making me feel woefully inadequate at doing anything involving being outdoors, Stretch was a thoroughly charming fellow to be around who was more than happy to share in my spontaneous detours and warning-free right hand turns into picturesque lookouts. We shared travel stories, we ridiculed my musical tastes when I was foolish enough to put Spotify on random, and we worked together to help a family who’d driven their car off the road and into a nearby hedge (they were all okay, if a tad shaken up). It was all very bromantical, and an enjoyable interlude to my otherwise solitary adventures.

That’s not to say I haven’t been enjoying travelling solo. Given the choice I would always prefer to do that than take a plus one for anything longer than a few days, partly so I selfishly don’t have to worry about what they want to do and if they’re enjoying themselves, and partly so I can sit peacefully atop mountains or in the middle of forests, with nobody else knowing where I am, and, well, just be.

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Back to the subject matter, other highlights of this magical road included walking along a dried up river bed wider than Wales, my first “I’m definitely going to fall off and die” experience on a wobbly suspension bridge (I didn’t), and watching some serious waves crash into rocks that looked like a stack of pancakes.

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If you’re looking for a driving holiday, and you can’t work out where to go, then you’ll be hard pressed to do better than Highway 6 in New Zealand. I only ask one thing, when you’re driving at half the speed limit because you’re either very distracted and/or very old, and you come across a slow vehicle lane, please use it. Otherwise you might end up with a pair of frustrated Europeans up your trumpet.

Still, more time to enjoy the scenery I suppose.

Oh, Canada

I’m coming home! Eventually.

I have good news and bad news, and more good news, and even more good news.

The good news is that, due to spending an unfathomable amount of time gawping at mountains and/or having afternoon naps, you guys are in for a multi-episodic blogging bonanza as I catch up sharing my musings on what is officially the most beautiful part of the world (that’s an actual fact).

The bad news comes as a result of some careful consideration and calendar coordination. To summarise, I’m not going to Canada this year.

When considering how to traverse from LA to NY, I had two main options. Either head up the West Coast, across Canada, and hurtle down the East Coast to the finish line, or skip the land of big farms and jolly hockey sticks entirely by travelling right through the middle of the US of A.

Both options have their perks. Going across Canada would give me the opportunity to explore a country that I’ve only scratched the surface of thus far, whilst popping in and saying hello to a branch of my family that I only found out the existence of last year thanks to this very blog. However, a road trip across the US has been on my bucket list since I figured out that bucket lists weren’t actually lists of buckets, and there are plenty of people and places that I want to see/see again along the way.

On balance, and taking my time frame into account, I’ve decided to fulfill my boyhood dream of cruising along great American highways in a ’50s convertible with a girl I picked up in Vegas for company*

*in a ’90s Ford Fiesta or similar with an extended overdraft I picked up in Vegas for necessity.

I’m the kind of guy that never says never (except when it comes to brussel sprouts), so this doesn’t mean I won’t have another opportunity to sample maple leaves and moose in the future, but for this year at least, the highest North I’ll be venturing is Chicago.

The more good news is that I’ve just spent a handsome sum of money in order to satisfy a man in a uniform. Yes, that’s right, I’ve just booked my flight home, so that US Customs are happy to let me in on the basis that I will be buggering off again at some point. Touch-down is due to take place at 11am on the 3rd of July, with the reality shock and itchiness to get back on the road again occurring at approximately 11:06.

So get the sausage rolls and party hats ready, because I’m coming home, eventually.

The even more good news is that I have a much better idea of what I want my life to look like once this mid-life crisis is done and dusted. However, since the word count in the bottom corner of this page is fast approaching my average across the site, I think I’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to bore you all with extra-long posts now, do I.