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.

38. Queenstown, New Zealand

Here comes the new view, same as the old view

In my last entry I talked about how I like to spend a wee bit more money than your typical traveller, with the view that in most cases it’s worth it. In keeping with this mantra, I booked a hotel room in Queenstown that was big enough for a ferry to do a nine-point turn in, and which boasted one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen.

Yes, I know I’m going on about excellent scenery again. But this is New Zealand, this is what it does best, and does better than just about anywhere else that I’ve been to. It’s why I’ve wanted to visit this faraway land for longer than I can remember, and trust me, if you ever come here, you’ll see what I mean.

Queenstown was pointed out to me by more than one source as the city to visit in NZ. Its promise of quirky eateries and stunning backdrops was enough to convince me to stick a virtual pin in it. It didn’t disappoint.

Eating a bowl of cucumber, peanuts and anchovies (amongst other things) to a landscape that takes your breath and refuses to give it back is certainly an experience to remember. As is the drive along Lake Wakatipu towards the village of Glenorchy. Driving back was fun, too, primarily because of the hitchhiker I picked up along the way – the poor girl had to endure my chatting all the way back to town as I spoke more words in the space of an hour than I have in the previous two months.

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But the standout moment of this standout location has to be the view from the hotel restaurant (featured pic). The fish and chips may have left a trifle to be desired, but being able to look out the window at that view, more than made up for it (and the price tag). Throw in a log fire, some calming music, and the complete absence of any other diners, and I may as well catch the next flight home because there’s no way it can get any better than this.

Having said that, finishing my meal and heading up to my obnoxiously large room with its obnoxiously large bed was a similarly joyous experience, on the back of several cheap, busy, bunk-bed-infused hostels and motel rooms. Having to decide whether to have a bath or a shower is certainly a step up from having to choose the shower cubicle with the least amount of mould in it.

Unless I win an obscene amount of money in Las Vegas (which I am planning on doing), then I can’t continue this life of evening luxuries for long, so I’m making the most of it. Luckily for me, I have the surroundings to do just that, and then some.

37. Akaroa, New Zealand

Ooh la la.

When you think about people who travel, you’ve probably got a picture of a friendly person hitchhiking their way around the world with a sociable demeanour and questionable levels of personal hygiene. In a lot of cases, you wouldn’t be far off the mark, but that’s not me. I prefer to spend a bit more money going my own way using my own method of transport, and even though it costs more, in my opinion, it’s more than worth it.

There are few examples that demonstrate the value of freedom and independence as comprehensively as my decision to explore a weird-shaped area of land jutting off to the East of Christchurch.

It was never in my plans to do this, indeed I didn’t even know this beautiful little corner of the world existed until I woke up in the morning and decided what to do with my day. The objective was to drive from Christchurch to Timaru, a journey that would take a few hours as the llama walks, but which looked like it wouldn’t necessarily explore the most picturesque parts of this incredible country.

A detour then, to Akaroa. I didn’t know what I’d find there, or if it would be worth the couple-of-hour-detour, but looking at the lumps, bumps, greens and blues on Google maps, I was confident I would at least be treated to a nice spot for some lunch and a semi-decent picture or three.

What transpired was a leg-twitchingly beautiful drive that compared to Tasmania in terms of underestimated, undiscovered stunning scenery.

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As is often the way in these cases, it was the journey itself, rather than the destination, that was the highlight of the experience. That doesn’t mean to say that Akaroa isn’t a town worth visiting. It is. Furthermore, failure to do any research on the matter will allow you the same surprising experience I got when I arrived there – the French.

According to the typically-Kiwi-friendly shop assistant who sold me my lunchtime baguette (obviously), the French settled here around 150 years ago, and the town has been dining off it ever since. French flags, french road names, french shops and accommodation, heck even some of the road signs were in French, and only in French.

One might argue that “Le Mini Golf” is taking this notion a tad too far, but hey, it’s their thing, and who am I to judge.

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Aside from the unusually continental feel to the place, Akaroa sits on a bay, and thus treats you to views of tranquil waters amongst a backdrop of dramatic mountain ranges. Perhaps the best part though – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – is when you’re done there and realise that you have to drive back through this selfishly glorious corner of the world in order to rejoin more traditional civilisations.

Here’s a hint though, don’t take the main road, take the Tourist Drive. Trust me, it’s even better, which is quite the impressive feat.

I love hiring a car to go travelling. Yes it’s more expensive, and I don’t get the exhilarating, seat-of-your-pants, no idea where you’ll end up rush of hitching, but it allows me to look at a map and say “that looks nice, maybe I’ll go there”, and do it. It doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but sometimes (quite often, actually, in New Zealand) it throws up experiences that you’ll be hard pressed to forget. Ever.

36. Cape Palliser, New Zealand

Road to nowhere

So far, in my short time here in New Zealand, the scenery has not disappointed. I’ve seen lakes, beaches, mountains and forests that are already showing why this country has a reputation as being one of the most beautiful in the world. In this regard, Cape Palliser has to top the lot – so far.

There aren’t many reasons one would intentionally drive over 40km down a dead-end road, only to have to turn around and come all the way back again. One could argue that the promise of a lighthouse that boasts impressive scenic views, and the likely spotting of wild seals chilling out on the beach are two such reasons – and one would be absolutely correct.

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Let’s start things off by talking about the drawbacks. The road, whilst mostly paved and child-bottom smooth, does have a habit of suddenly turning into a pothole-infested gravel track that my ten-year-old Nissan Tiida (yes it’s as bad as it sounds) wasn’t best pleased with having to traverse. Persevere with these pockets of nonconsensual offroading, and you’ll eventually arrive at the lighthouse at the very end, at which point you’ll say exactly the same thing everyone else* says when they see it – “well roger me sideways that’s a lot of steps”.

*probably just me

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252 to be precise, and they only get steeper as the ascent progresses. My general lack of fitness has been well documented on this blog, so it won’t be a surprise to anyone to find out that by the time I reached the top, I was very glad I’d brought my spare bottle of water.

I was also glad I’d brought my camera, because the view that greeted me was more than worth the panting that I was still having to do ten minutes later. To my left, the South Pacific Ocean, lapping semi-calmly against the rocks and sand. To my right, the Aorangi Forest Park, with its dramatic rises and falls that you wouldn’t expect to find so close to the sea. And in the middle, the road I’ve just come down, and will have to go back up again when I’m done here. Only I’m not done here, not just yet.

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If climbing up enough steps to make even Rocky wince isn’t your thing, or you’ve done that and are eager to see what else this magical corner of the world can offer, then keep your eyes peeled on those beaches. Find the right spot, at the right time of day, and you’ll be treated to a bob of seals (that’s the actual phrase, I looked it up and everything) enjoying a well-earned rest, or looking after their young ‘uns.

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These lovable blobs must be used to enthusiastic tourists taking snaps of their tomfoolery, as they seemed fairly unperturbed by my presence, as long as I stayed more than a couple of feet away from them. This allowed me to get a handful of snaps that Attenborough would be proud of (in my head), and spend some time hanging out with seals in the wild, which is novel.

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As if the journey hadn’t thrown up enough weird and wonderful moments, it wasn’t long before I found myself stuck in the middle of some sheep being transported along the road from one field to the other. And when I say some sheep, what I mean is I had enough time to stop, review the photos I’d just taken, write a blog post, watch all three Lord Of The Rings films, have a bath, and invent an entirely new language before they’d all passed me.

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Cape Palliser then, is just like the first spoonful of a tub of ice cream. Surprisingly hard to get to, but utterly wonderful and satisfying, and the best bit is, thanks to the layout, you get to do it all over again.

You’d have thought with all that time I had amongst the sheep that I could have come up with a better simile than that. Sorry.