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See the hot spots of Los Angeles as a pampered tourist and trip out into the desert to see Las Vegas for Real! Don't forget the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Monument Valley. Yee Ha!
This is not your average tour guide. We have lots to tell and nothing to sell, so sit back and enjoy our personal relationships with the people and places we have all heard so much about in the Grand Wild West of USA. I will also link you up to some great articles at Infobarrel where you can get more details, facts and figures about these places as we go along. But this is our story. We have now been there, done it, got the badge and taken these pictures. Afterwards you can sit back and enjoy our short movie of the wonderful scenes and activities that are unique to Western America.
From the heart of Hollywood and tinsel town
to the awesome canyons and deserts - this place rocks!
America here we come! After an epic flight over the North Pole we touched down at the LAX Airport where our tour of the Western Landscapes of the USA began and ended 14 days later. We wanted to see for ourselves what makes Americans tick and were pleasantly surprised to meet such friendly, down to earth people. It seems we all get carried away by the movies and then judge the average American by Hollywood standards. Sure, a visit to Los Angeles and a buzz around the habitats of the rich and famous is an eye opener but it does not really reflect the way normal Americans look and behave.
Greater Los Angeles has an average population of 20 million people and from the air it looks like a giant sprawling mosaic edged by the blue ocean. It was great to see it from above - from a distance like God coming down to look at what goes on behind the tinsel and the star dust. We have seen it all in the movies, so now we can go and experience it for real. Our trip to the USA also included locations like Monument Valley where famous Westerns are still made, but more about that later. To cut a long story short - most of the footage was shot at Universal Studios in Hollywood. We will also be visiting Las Vegas and the Universal Studios in Orlando at a later stage of our holiday. There you will see more of Planet Hollywood including Mickey Mouse, Shrek, the Mignon's, Harry Potter and Spiderman.
In Hollywood we walked down the famous terratzo streets studded with stars and touched the paving stones that bear the hand and foot prints of the great movie stars including those of Clarke Gabel, Fred Astaire, Ester Williams and Marilyn Munroe from the good old days. All that glamour and here we were, in a rather ordinary looking street. A road, pavements, movie houses and nothing too spectacular unless you were adequately geared up for the great moment. Then you would know why the streets were teeming with starry-eyed tourists like ourselves, trying to take photographs and videos from every angle of the pavements.
We also drove through the Beverly Hills area and tried to take a few blurry photos from the grimy windows of the moving bus. I got lucky with this one to give you the basic idea.
After Sunset Boulevard we took a look at the Rodeo Road shopping centre where the celebrities do their shopping. It is opulent enough but not too different from any other upmarket shopping centre. We didn't get to see any live celebrities. Nobody really does these days. I bet they go out in disguise or make use of online shopping to stay away from the paparazzi and all the fans. There were plenty of curios for sale at the Hollywood shops, even plastic Oscars to take home. Everything has a price, but Elvis Presley's blue vintage Cadillac was only for looking at and admiring. His huge winged gas guzzler was one of many such famous American cars we saw on our trip. Motorbikes too, were a feast for the eyes of Harley Davidson fans. Our last stop was a fitting end - Santa Monica the end of Route 66.
Santa Monica Pier - the end of the epic Route 66
At Santa Monica we spent a pleasant afternoon strolling along the pier and the beautiful clean beach. An extra little tour up to the giant Hollywood letters was on offer but we just wanted to chill out by ourselves for a while. Sharing a giant luxury coach with 45 other tourists takes a while to adjust to. But overall, we had a wonderful time and made a lot of friends. Our friendly bus driver and chirpy tour guide were very attentive and their devotion to their flock of tourists was above reproach. We enjoyed all the pampering.
The round trip of what they call the Western Landscapes took us 11 days and we visited the highlights and hotspots of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah over a distance of nearly 5000 km in a luxury coach. No driving, no planning for once. No backpacks or missed flights.
As part of the Los Angeles tour we drove through the Beverly Hills area, down Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Road shopping centre where the celebrities do their shopping. We were taken to the famous streets of Hollywood and had a quick visit to the Universal Studios. There was so much more to d and see, but we had to complete the round trip within 11 days.
Palm Springs, an oasis in the Desert
We headed down the 10 lane freeway the next day to experience the desert for real. After a few hours of rocky wastelands we arrived at the oasis town of Palm Springs that earned itself the reputation of being the hideout of movie stars from the good old days. The underground water was used for a number of golf courses, parks and sumptuous lawns. But now, after nearly a decade of drought there is also a scarcity of water in Palm Springs. We were in time to see a motorbike rally and festival hitting the main street. a load of old Baby Boomers in black leather were still clinging to their traditions. The long grey beards, walking sticks and Zimmer frames gave away their age as did the Rock Band that belted out their favourite music.
Sedona sets the vibe and is a popular New Age woo woo spot
We drove off again and were soon in a verdant valley surrounded by rocky mountains with ruddy cliffs and gnarled edifices. Sedona is said to facilitate certain brainwaves associated with relaxation and meditation. Our chatty guide said it had something to do with the composition of the rocks that contain iron, manganese, magnesite and of all things - salt. Some people move out of Sedona after a few months because they feel restless. Others come to stay and find it peaceful. They set up art and music festivals and tell fortunes, give meditation classes and do yoga perched on the red rocks. Naked or whatever. We enjoyed our lunch break in the small town that is beautifully laid out to harmonize with the environment. The buildings are in the traditional Adobe style and painted in colours that blend in with the natural rocks. We found it to be a peaceful and very beautiful spot, regardless of its eerie reputation and strange encounters of the second attention. Perhaps it depends on how many peyote buttons and magic mushrooms one consumes.
Travel tips for Tourists: Camera back up and applications
- Don't rely on only one camera for the whole trip. I used my faithful old Sony Cybershot on every shoot. I backed up with my I-pad because it is a boon for sending on the spot pictures back home. (Makes them jealous, but too bad!)
- Jim used a video camera exclusively although only 60% of the material was usable. We shot out of the bus windows with the Samsung mobile phone - it seemed to be best at handling the passing shots. (Often a case of shoot it or lose it.) A flat battery can be seriously disastrous. A lot of tourists now use an Apple I phone 6 almost exclusively - but you need to watch that battery! The pictures are HI-resolution and take a long time to send and download. You do need to check and delete the boo-boo shots but it takes power, so don't fiddle if your battery is low. Just shoot selectively.
- Also take along a normal pocket Cybershot or something reliable with extra memory sticks and a fully charged spare battery. I'm so glad I did. the extreme shutterbug will not feel comfortable without a backpack full of equipment. But one needs a lot of time to fiddle around and on a bus - forget it! These days small is beautiful - little camera, high-resolution and an image stabilizer!
- Some pictures have blurry or light damaged patches. If the scene is a once off, you can still make a reasonable clip by using cropping tools afterwards. This is especially useful when you take pictures from a moving vehicle so you can cut away the blurry foreground. window reflections and shafts of bright light.
The Grand Canyon in Arizona - the greatest of them all
We approached the Grand Canyon via the South Rim, in Arizona and everybody was silent as they stood before its vastness. For a closer encounter people can walk along the paths up and down the rim or take a short hike down into the canon if you have the time. We had a couple of hours before sunset and headed downwards to experience the canyon, to touch the rocks and feel the chilly wind. To hear the tourists puffing and panting up the hill to catch the bus. The high altitude as well as the views seemed to take their breath away. It is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and attracts over 4.5 million tourists a year. Here are the details.
The Grand Canyon Village provides a lot of accommodation and we stayed in a comfortable wood cabin. There are plenty of restaurants and a supermarket for snacks and food to take for picnic lunches. The next morning we drove along to the other side of the ridge where there is an interesting viewing tower, built-in the traditional Hopi Red Indian Style. Our guide told us it was the dreamchild of a lady architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and built in 1932. Some of the tourists went for a helicopter ride to get the greatest views. Down at the bottom of the Canyon, the Creat Colorado River winds its way along what is one of the natural border lines of the United States, with Utah looking across from the opposite side. People can spend a few days wandering around and are advised to drink plenty of water in the hot weather. This place has been millions of years in the making and is awe-inspiring. This picture tells a thousand words. We watched the sun go down silently and all of this disappeared into the black velvet.
How small we are in comparison to all of this.
Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell and the town of Page
From the comfort of our bus the next day we were told about our visit to the lake Powell district. We spent the night in Page, a very ordinary town that once accommodated the construction workers who built the Glen Canyon Dam wall and power station. The water mark of Lake Powell has receded, leaving white edges to mark where the dam levels once reached. 40% less water than a few years ago and evidence of the severe drought that affects this area.
Page is a popular stopover for the thousands of tourists who come to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley and there are plenty of restaurants to enjoy local as well as Chinese and Indian meals. The Glen Canyon dam wall is so-so, but the natural canyon or what one would call a deep ravine is spectacular.
I am biased towards any area that has a rich geomorphological history. I am in awe of the way rocks erode and reshape themselves and oh - the colours and textures. This area is well known by geologists because it portrays a diversity of cross sections through mountains and valleys across eons of history. There is evidence of volcanic and glacial activity as well as floods and wind erosion. We drove past colourful bands of different coloured rocks and shale. Each one more spectacular, some even looking like cappuccino and chocolate truffles with a coating of meringue and a hint of saffron.
Denny's Wigwam is a museum as well as a super store for tourists
We then reached the rugged Western desert landscape where a lot of Westerns were and still are being filmed. In the good old days the movie industry needed food supplies, general provisions, movie props and costumes as well as temporary accommodation. What is now a booming tourist oasis was once a lowly wigwam. It all began with Denny's little wigwam, out in the middle of the desert and he made a fortune out of the movie industry. This shop is one of the highlights - a living museum and a very well stocked curio shop with authentic and synthetic versions of Cowboy memorabilia. We enjoyed its uniqueness and bought some cactus seeds. Our SA budget could not stretch as far as alligator Cowboy boots, leather hats and Route 66 babibs diapers for the young ones back home. So we bought a packet of cactus seeds.
Monument Valley Yee Hah!
We have all seen the cowboy movies with the awesome rocky monoliths in the background. Now we were staring at them for real. We were driven around the site in an open bus, driven by a local Red Indian. He gave us an entertaining account of the movies and because it was Jim's birthday he sang us a special song on the way back. If you would like to know more about places to visit in Arizona you can find out more from one of our local experts at Info Barrel.
This is one of the most famous movie scapes and we all had to take a postcard picture! John Wayne was one of the best known movie stars to made his mark here in vintage Western films including Stage Coach. In the curio shop in the heart of Monument Valley there is still plenty of evidence of his fame. Unfortunately a lot of the merchandise is from other parts of the world, where we see trashy Chinese jewellery and trinkets masquerading as authentic Red Indian craftsmanship. The genuine article is available - at ten times the price.
The Navajo Indians still live in this area but are no longer so fond of their original desert dwellings, the Hogans. These structures were made out of readily available materials such as juniper wood, rocks, sand and mud. They are built in two basic shapes - male and female. The female Hogan is big and round, like a womb and in the centre, there is a stove to provide warmth and to cook food. The male structure resembles a man sitting on the ground, hugging his knees - in burial fashion.
Myrtle trees grow in the desert and provide short pieces of timber for the construction of houses and also for firewood. The berries are used to keep evil spirits away. They are woven into necklaces and dreamcatchers. Nobody I spoke to, including local tribesmen knew anything about the medicinal properties of juniper berries. Not even for making "evil spirits" like gin! Modern Indians consume rather a lot of alcohol and their children like to live in towns where there is better wi-fi coverage. In the picture above you can see the female Hogan on the right, partnered by the narrower male version next to it.
A Cowboy evening said it all : YEEEEEEEEEE HA!
All too soon it was time to move on to the next leg of our trip. You will be able to join us on Part 2 of this series. Now you can watch the 15 minute show. Enjoy!
Hop on our bus to see Hollywood, Palm springs, Sedona, Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.
We share our experiences with you - enjoy the easy ride with us.
Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023, USA