Thursday 28 January 2010

RTW planning - USA

Our departure on our RTW is coalescing around the realisation that if we want to hike the Grand Canyon (check), camp in Yosemite (check) and in Yellowstone (check!), we will have to start thinking about bookings soon. Horror of horrors. What if we're not ready by spring 2011?

Well, at the very least, we will be committed to a holiday in the American south west. But I'm going to assume we will be ready. I've even started doing some tentative planning. My initial idea of driving across the US has morphed into something that's more wrapped around the climate and those three major bottleneck bookings. I also realised, to my great indignation (ha, ha) , that I will need to apply for a US tourist visa that lasts a maximum of 6 months. Given the laid back approach we want to take, and the fact that Mike will need to continue working this probably won't be enough for the full USA. We're in the east pretty often, so I thought we would stick to the west for most of this trip. Actually, I could avoid the tourist visa and go straight for an unlimited visa as spouse of a US citizen visa, but also, in a way, 6 months seems like quite enough.

After talking back and forth, we've also pretty much decided that our budget and desire for flexibility will be best served by going the campervan route. It was a tough call, given the tiny space and Mike's working needs, but I am totally excited about knowing that I've got somewhere to sleep, and that I don't have to plan ahead. We probably will check in to hotels from time to time, and maybe even some vacation homes, but it will depend on Mike's work needs and the money his work adds to the budget. I am so happy that I can just think about where it might be fun to go, as opposed to where we can afford to sleep that's likely to be tolerable.

The very generic itinerary (subject to loads of future changes) is as follows:

March - deserts of the south west, California, Arizona, New Mexico
April - the Pacific Coast, from bottom to top
May - will be wrapped around bookings for Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon with anything we can fit in on the way.
June - definitely the Black Hill areas of South Dakota, probably bits of Utah and Colorado on the way
July - slowly wend camper back to San Francisco, take the California Zephyr out to Chicago
August - take a car from Chicago to the Upper Michigan peninsula, train back to the east coast to see family and friends, sail home on the Queen Mary II (no harm in thinking big!)

Sunday 24 January 2010

Magical Mystery Birthday Adventure

Mike enjoyed his little secret about our weekend destination, but it had to become obvious sooner or later where he was taking me. If you have skis, you need mountains with snow on, and detours to the gas station or to pick up a friend can only delay the inevitable realisation of which mountain is chosen. By the time we started driving upwards, I knew we were going to my favourite cross-country ski station, Autrans. Given that we had backpacks full of equipment, I suspected where we were sleeping: the refuge of Geve, beautifully isolated at the end of a plateau, surrounded by conifers and ski trails.

There is plenty of snow this year, and I was really excited about climbing the full 7 km from the village to the refuge on skis. I was a bit worried about Antonia making it, considering that she is not an experienced cross-country skier, and that we set out finally at 3pm, after lunch and shuffling with passes and car parking. I was probably right to be a bit concerned. It took her until halfway up to realise that she was wearing nordic skis instead of downhill skis. Maybe you know what happens if you try to ski down a slope in nordic skis as though they were downhills? Your heels lift up and topple you face forwards into the snow! Also, if you want to get uphill, you have to master the duck walk and dig those edges in! There was a certain amount of whining in this first half of our ascent, and the lady managing the halfway cabin was keen to orient us towards the shuttle bus to the top. I'm glad we held out, because after the halfway point, Antonia suddenly started skiing like a pro. It was quite surprising, because the light was starting to fail, it was getting colder, and the snow was becoming crisp and harder to manage. I was quite relieved to reach the refuge before it was really dark, and even more relieved that the 'bouncers' who've previously kicked me off Autrans slopes at closing time didn't seem to be around.

The refuge where we were staying has dormitory accommodation, but Mike had booked us into a chalet. It's a tiny log cabin with four beds downstairs and three more mattresses on the mezzanine, so we had plenty of sleeping space. All the facilities are in the main lodge. But the highlight of the stay is the wood-fired outdoor hot tub! It was really lovely to sit in there with snow all around and stars overhead, doing a bit of constellation spotting. Personally, I did not think it was so lovely getting out, but Mike and Julia felt that rolling themselves in the snow intermittently was the right thing to do. Antonia was keen on this idea, but I didn't want to let her.

Or maybe the highlight is the food, which is no-nonsense regional mountain cuisine, but particularly well done. Or perhaps it is the view of the sky at 4.00 am, when Antonia and I walked across to the main building to use the bathroom, with our breath freezing inside our nostrils. Or waking up in the morning to freshly groomed trails (we did hear the machines go round in the very early hours), and nobody but us to use them. An annual ski race takes place in Autrans on the weekend we were there, but somehow we always managed to be wherever and whenever it was not. The result was that the race drew most of the people and left everywhere else surprisingly empty for a Saturday. Did I mention that the weather was fabulous?

When we finished skiing back down to town, we discovered that they had filled the streets with snow so that the race could pass through. That was all over, but I had the pleasure of skiing down the middle of the main road, along with a few locals who were out for a fun evening.

I had a great birthday, and Mike had not finished with me yet. Back at some friends house we had a little party with a lot of fondue, at which I am forced to admit I drank rather too much wine. I think it will take me a few days to recover from all that.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Adventure coming up!

I will be forty in 1 hour, but I'm not sure if I'm staying up to see it in. For one thing, Mike is taking me on a magical mystery birthday adventure tomorrow. I am really excited, because that is just about a first! He usually hates planning things. Wait... maybe he hasn't planned it, and will be making it up as he goes along???!! I have had to prepare my cross-country ski gear, my swimsuit and my pyjamas, so those are my only clues as to what we're going to be doing.

Besides that, I am excited about the next decade, which is definitely earmarked for travel and adventure. I had intended to do such things in my twenties, but, well, what with one thing and another, it didn't happen. Then I spent my thirties bringing up a kiddie. She is definitely adventure-ready now, so I think I've done an OK job. It might take a few months to a year to get everything lined up, but then we are off!

Monday 18 January 2010

In praise of Stratford (on-Lea!)

Our new London house is in Stratford in East London. It is not quite like Stratford-on-Avon, in that it is on the river Lea, not the river Avon. And a few other minor details. Virtually all the housing there is distinctly working class, of various periods, but mostly a lot of it is easier on the eye and perhaps more comfortable to live in than working class housing in other parts of the city. Our particular house was built expressly for railway workers in the mid-nineteenth century, and we think it's one of the cutest, as well as one of the oldest.

I doubt if Stratford is used to being given the 'tourist treatment', but I'm not about to let that put me off! For one thing, it will be very much in the public eye soon, due to being the site of the 2012 Olympics. For another, I like the place!

The first thing you notice about Stratford centre, compared to other London centres, is that it has large, open spaces and wide roads. There is a very large and impressive church right in the middle of these. My parents and I went inside and discovered an apparently complete and very nice Victorian Gothic style interior. I liked the stained glass sunset in the crucifixion scene over the altar, the pseudo-early Renaissance gilded paintings and the carved rood screen.

Opposite the church is a pub called the King Edward VII, or King Eddie, which I am pretty convinced is currently the best place to eat in town. I would go back there just for the devilled whitebait, but their risotto was also fabulous (and risotto is a dish I'm usually indifferent to). This pub is also worth visiting just for the architecture and interior. In fact a lot of pubs in this area are gorgeous to look at, though some of them are a bit on the rough side. One estate agent told me that a pub we passed was the inspiration for the pub in the Eastenders soap opera, but I forget which one.

My parents and I looked at one other little phenomenon in Stratford centre: the old town hall with adjoining fire station. I think both of these are now used for social functions. If you slip through the fire station gate, you find yourself in a courtyard with picnic tables, a disused fire drill tower and a couple of really lovely sculptures. I do not know why the best sculptures in town are hidden away back here, but so it goes. The town hall is a bit like the church, it's Victorian 'something', though perhaps not Gothic. It's nice inside, though I doubt the staff are used to people walking in just to look at it! It contains a prominently displayed bust of Keir Hardie, a Scottish socialist and founder of the Labour party in the late 19th to early 20th century. This, incidentally, is not something I would have known, myself, but I had my Dad with me. I not sure that Keir Hardie has any connection with Stratford beyond the fact that, as my Dad says, the local government is assuredly left wing. Apart from this, Stratford centre has the run-of-the-mill British high street shops. You can tell my parents live somewhere pretty provincial because my Dad got all excited when he saw Maplins (an electronic gadget store).

A final cool thing about Stratford is the Greenway, an incredibly long walking/cycling track that runs over the top of a Victorian sewer pipe line all the way to the Thames. This Greenway connects with a series of walking tracks that form a circle all around Greater London. The pipe is mostly raised and is so enormous that when I first encountered it, in a place where it crosses a road, I assumed it was a railway bridge. We walked along the top for several miles, even though the weather was foul. It's a bit over-graffitied in places, but still a nice thing to have. I'm looking forward to doing the whole London Circular walk some day.

Apart from that, Stratford is one of the friendliest places in London I've ever lived. Within a couple of weeks, we knew a fair proportion of the neighbours, and every single person we met was really nice. I'm just hoping any changes will be for the better, because right now, I'm really looking forward to living there when we get back from our travels.

The next phase of planning

We just got back from the UK, where we have been working hard making our London house ready for tenants, and finding tenants to put in it. Now, we've handed the house off to an agency. They'll charge us a percentage of course, but given our situation, it's a necessary expense. It should mean that our house will produce reasonably reliable income to pay for our RTW trip whilst we ignore it. The next job is to do the same with the French house. The French house was pretty much a wreck when we bought it, and although it is now modern and comfortable, we have been slack when it comes to finishing off the decorating. There is a lot to do before we can exchange or rent it, and that will be our main project for the next six months or so.

At the same time, we have started to stick pins on the map for places we would like to go. I have been using Google maps, but I haven't made my map publically accessible yet. I was actually just fooling around, then Mike asked me to share the map with him, so he could add stuff too. If he does, it will be something of a first. I will see what I think of Google maps as a planning tool when I've used it a bit. For now, it sometimes works for me and sometimes does strange and unexpected things.