The pros and cons of holiday cruises

Until last weekend, I had never been on a cruise. The closest was probably the overnight ferry from Newcastle to Esbjerg which opened more than one Inter-Rail holiday as a student, and which counted as a cruise to about the same degree Aileen Wuornos qualified as an escort. They just didn’t appeal; my interest was much more in the destination, not the journey there, which should be as quick and painless as possible. But when Chris’s company picked her to go on the last pre-opening sailing of Royal Caribbean‘s newest mega-liner, Anthem of the Seas, it would have seemed churlish to refuse, even before the words “all expenses paid” and “yes, that includes all your drinks” were heard around TC Towers. For Chris, it was a “familiarization trip,” an experience which would allow her better to sell the company’s cruises to customers. For me… Did I mention the free drinks?

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Going Home: A Temporary Return to Scotland

They say you can’t go back. And for a long while, I didn’t. I hadn’t been back to Britain, since we were married in July 2002. It was a combination of factors: kids, jobs, exchange rates, etc. I hadn’t seen my parents either: I had explained to them that planes fly West as well as East, but they preferred to spend their holidays in Sri Lanka and Thailand, rather than Arizona. [I reckon they are actually senior citizen agents for MI6, because wherever they go somewhere, internal turmoil seems to follow] But 2010 was their 50th wedding anniversary, and when we got the invite, filial loyalty kicked in: time off work was booked, plane and train tickets booked and arrangements made to handle dogs, kids and mother-in-law left behind.

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Hooray for Hollywood

Los Angeles may be the ultimate American city: sprawling, polluted, ceaselessly bustling, capitalism distilled to its highest degree. Unlike Las Vegas, which is fun to visit, but you’re always grateful to leave, Los Angeles is a chore, but a strangely seductive one. The cause this time was ScreamFest, a horror movie festival in which Cradle of Fear was screening – we (in our role as American ambassadors) were there to flagwave, pick up the print afterward, and hopefully sell the theatrical rights to Miramax for $3 million.

Step one on arriving at LAX is always: hire a car. Los Angeles has a public transport system befitting its role as the quintessential American metropolis, i.e. it sucks. On a previous trip, we naively tried using it to get from the airport to Hollywood Boulevard. This is not a mistake we will repeat, after a tortuous, lengthy, tense journey through some highly scenic parts of South Central LA, during which this poor, transparent-skinned Scot (a veteran of 10 years on London Transport) felt particularly touristy.

While waiting for your courtesy bus to the car hire place, you can admire the ‘Theme Building’, an unimaginative name for a bizarre architectural feature which dominates the centre of the airport. Rising on spidery buttresses 135 feet off the ground, it resembles something out of Thunderbirds, or perhaps the lair of some Bondian supervillain, cunningly hidden in plain sight at an international hub – there being no dormant volcanoes to hand. No surprise the architect’s brother was art director on War of the Worlds; it’s now a space-themed restaurant.

Once automobiled, you then have to cope with LA’s notorious traffic, and you begin to see why…well, why you can’t see, the Hollywood sign being invisible from downtown due to a haze of smog. Even the carpool lanes are choked more often than not, and at times the traffic approaches London standards of sloth. Which is akin to blasphemy in a city – and indeed, nation – dedicated to cars with such zealous ferocity, that our daughter believes it is her constitutional right to be given a car on her 16th birthday. You could kill the time by listening to the radio, but LA radio is about one-tenth as diverse as here in Phoenix, unless you’re a devotee of thirty different flavours of Mariachi music.

We spend most of our time up near Hollywood, as that’s where most of the stuff we’re there for (concerts, film festivals, etc.) takes place. Accommodation-wise, there are two kinds of hotels to be found up there: extortionate, and recently condemned. The latter are perhaps more fun: not to occupy, heaven forbid, just to poke your head round the door for a look-see. There are places which look like the DEA will be storming in any second now. There are places which look like the DEA just left, and didn’t bother to tidy up after themselves. Others aren’t so well-kept.

Shining out like a beacon among all this is the oddly-named Farmer’s Daughter – which made more sense when we realised it’s beside the Farmer’s Market. We never actually stay in any hotel much – what’s the point of travelling if that’s all you’re going to do? So the Daughter has everything we need in a hotel room – a bathroom (for Chris), a TV (for me) and a bed (for both of us) – without requiring co-funding from three major film studios to stay there.

It also had the advantage of being just down the road from the ScreamFest theatre. Though we didn’t spend much time there either; despite the fact we had paid out of our own pockets to have the Cradle of Fear tape FedEx’d there, the reaction we got was of the “air-conditioning on full” version. We were grudgingly added to the guest list…for our own movie. Whoopee. Took a program, to see if there was anything we wanted to pay them $10 to see, but it was entirely devoid of information on the actual films. The organiser did devote half a page to her own biography, however, which probably says more about things than we should. The movies we had heard of, were either elderly (The Hills Have Eyes) or sucked (Kolobos – a film which had already been stinking up Blockbuster shelves for a year before the festival showed it!).

Fortunately, what ScreamFest lacks in friendliness, information and good movies, the rest of Hollywood has in abundance. Well, except for the friendliness bit, perhaps. Phoenix may be the sixth-largest city in America, but there are maybe a dozen screens that aren’t devoted to Hollywood blockbusters. Everything plays in Los Angeles – even if it’s only for a week. Where else can you get to see bizarre Japanese horror-musicals on the big screen? Pick up one of the free papers, such as LA Weekly for full details, and to mop up the drool.

Certainly, as cinemas go, the Cinerama complex on Sunset Boulevard is impressive, albeit one of the most expensive – $14 for a Sunday lunchtime screening! Seen in the pic as it was in its heyday in the 1960’s (it opened with the premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), it’s now the focus of an arthouse multiplex, where you get the feeling they take the “art” part Very Seriously – it’s one of the very few cinemas I’ve been to in America which has assigned seating. Over-loud confectionery crunchers are likely taken outside and summarily shot, but you’ve gotta love a place which warned us sternly that if we were five minutes late for the movie, we wouldn’t get in.

Between screenings, we like to spend our time in Amoeba Music, a cavernous second-hand media store on Sunset Boulevard. Particularly fine is the upstairs selection of DVDs, though you have to watch your shins. Bin after bin of sub-$10 discs lurk on the floor, and you must gingerly pick your way past the other browsing shoppers sprawled down there. Better yet, join them…

Mommmmm…Helllllllllpppp…

Also worth a visit are the La Brea Tar Pits, still sucking in local fauna (and getting a nod in Ice Age). If, like us, you’re a fan of Miracle Mile, you’ll probably just want to meander around the area, sobbing gently to yourself about diamonds. The diner from the movie is nearby, on Fairfax, but is no longer open – one of my treasured possessions is a menu from when it was still functioning, albeit without a phone booth outside.

Man cannot live by film alone, however. Getting sustenance can be a time-consuming task, with one place quoting us a ninety-minute wait for a table. Even the Bar-B-Q establishment next door quoted us 45 minutes, but that was nothing a couple of alcoholic beverages couldn’t handle. One rule we liked was that all restaurants must post their health inspection scores in the window: A, B, etc. Keep an eye out, see if you can spot any D’s…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 4: On a Swiss roll

Previously: The Hills are Alive…

The journey from Munich to Zurich was phenomenal. Never, in my wildest dreams, had I ever imagined a train with seat-back televisions showing “in-flight” movies. Der Deutsche Bundesbahn rules! I have, however, grown horribly used to this first-class travel thing, and am extremely glad I now longer have to deal with Thameslink on a daily basis. Or, indeed, any basis.

The train sneaks around the edge of a lake, and pops its head into Austria, meaning that a) we needn’t have bother going to Salzburg to tick that country off, and b) in the space of 30 minutes, we’ve been in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Chris is impressed, coming from a land where you can drive for six hours and still be in the same state.

We arrive in Zurich and for the first time since leaving home, have to change money, since the gnomes aren’t part of economic union. Though Switzerland being Switzerland, they would probably accept any form of currency: diamonds, unwanted kidneys, gold teeth pried from the heads of Holocaust victims, etc. They have a refreshingly up-front approach to capitalism, and wandering down Bahnhofstrasse, the main street, we notice there are probably as many banks as department stores.

We also notice in the supermarket, that prices are significantly higher than the rest of Europe. I recall that in my backpacker days, I largely survived visiting Switzerland on a subsistence diet of bread and chocolate. Thankfully, the budget is not so restricted on this trip, but anyone planning to stay any length of time in the country should bring a big bank-roll.

There isn’t actually that much to do in Zurich, though we are impressed by the massive underground shopping complex by the train station. The only place we’ve seen anything similar is Montreal, presumably serving a similar purpose, saving consumers from having to brave the winter snows. We relax on a boat cruise round the lake, which is remarkably cheap and passes the time nicely. I have another flashback to backpacker days, having to consume rapidly a box of chocolate wafer things, in order to prevent serious meltage. All I needed to complete the picture was a bottle of Orangina and I’d have been right back there in 1986.

Our hotel is at one end of the Niederdorfstrasse which is, effectively, Zurich’s nightlife. Bars, restaurants, strip-clubs, cinemas, discos and venues of uncertain but likely highly-dubious purpose line the pedestrianised street for about half-a-mile on both sides. We settle on a Swiss restaurant, and discover the national cuisine doesn’t stop at fondue. There’s also raclette – though this also involves cheese and a similar do-it-yourself approach to cooking. You get a little grill on your table, for you to melt your own cheese, then chuck it on top of potatoes or other vegetables. With a diet apparently consisting of dairy products, quite how the Swiss have half the heart-disease rate the British do, escapes me. Must be all that yodelling.

Having more or less exhausted the entertainment potential of Zurich, we opt to spend the next day – the last “proper” one of the holiday – in Bern, capital of Switzerland, and home of the famous bear-pits. Readers of a certain age may, like me, fondly remember the Mary Plain books from their youth, about a bear who lived there. The reality is slightly different – they don’t talk, for starters – but they’re still undeniably cute, nonetheless.

You can buy bags of fruit to lob at them, and these large, slow-moving creatures are remarkably adept at plucking them out of the air, like furry goalkeepers. Beside the pits is a gift-shop selling plush versions in every conceivable size and pose. More interestingly to us, there is also a micro-brewery in an old tram garage. Despite what seems to me an obvious opportunity, it is not called the Beer Pit. 🙂

Swaying slightly, we make our way back through town. It is a very pretty place, with a lot of 16th century, etc. buildings and most of the pavements are covered galleries – presumably a medieval version of Zurich’s underground malls. We are particularly grateful for this, when it starts to chuck it down with the sort of intense work-ethic you only find in Swiss precipitation.

One lowlight is the clock near the town square, built up by the guidebooks as a major attraction and masterpiece of mechanised art. Come the hour, and the streets are thronged with tourists and you can hardly hear for the whirring of camcorders. A ring of small statues circles briefly, and a figure at the top rings a bell. The crowd wait excitedly for the main event. And wait. And wait. You can hear “Was that it?” in twelve different languages. Ten minutes later, the more optimistic tourists are still hanging round. It may have been cutting-edge stuff in the 16th century, but that was when stoning lepers was the main competition as far as entertainment goes.

On the up side, the city does have a fabulous range of statues dotted around, depicting various figures of myth, legend and history. Our favourite was the Kindlifresserbrunnen, an ogre shown stuffing a baby in its mouth as a light snack, with further courses dangling from its belt. Whatever the story is behind that one, it is unlikely to be turned into a Disney cartoon anytime soon.

We return to Zurich for a final meal, sitting outdoors at a quite superb Italian restaurant. It’s a somewhat nomadic existence, as we refuse to surrender to the pouring rain which begins almost immediately we sit down. It’s a constant battle involving umbrellas, canopies and our occupying four different tables over two courses, but nothing can spoil the mood. The waitress probably thought we were utterly mad, as we giggled hysterically and built dams of napkins to direct the water away from our plates.

But it’s time to go home. We take the night-train to Paris, and kill a few hours there – emphasis on “kill”, as that’s what the 384 steps at the Arc De Triomphe almost do to us. The views from the top are quite magnificent, however. Once the pink mist has cleared from our eyes, anyway. Then, it’s back to London and (after one last British curry!) a flight back to Phoenix. On the way across, we’d been upgraded to Club World after “subtly” mentioning we were getting married [I think wearing “Jim + Chris – The Wedding Tour” T-shirts may have helped here]. No such luck on the way back; crammed into “World Traveller” with the rest of the economy scum, really brought home that the holiday was over…

The honeymoon, on the other hand, is only just beginning…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 3: The Hills Are Alive…

Previously: Drowning in Berlin

We may not appreciate the finer point of Munich at 7am on a Saturday morning, after about four hours of sleep – hey, they give us a sleeping car with all mod cons, we’re going to take the time to use them. This is way before our friendly tourist information hotel reservation office opens, but we find a hotel virtually across the street. We crash out there, catching up on what we missed on the train. The hotel seems to be full of Japanese tourists. Indeed, most of Europe seems to be this summer.

It is also next door to a Beate Uhse sex shop – one of three on the main street. Uhse herself, who flew the last plane out of Berlin in the final days of WW2, was something of a German institution until her death last year. Her name is still known to 98% of the population, and the company is in the top hundred public German companies, with a turnover 5 times that of Ann Summers (whose founder was inspired by Uhse). It’s listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange, and the initial offering was 63 times oversubscribed. Sex sells – even shares.

Unlike Berlin, Munich is compact enough that we don’t feel the need for a bus tour, and just saunter around town looking at stuff. We find another branch of World of Music. Our rucksacks become even heavier. The center, around Marienplatz, has a lot of old buildings, including some nice tall ones which provide decent viewing platforms – but there are equally many modern shops, which gives the place a sense of being a living town, rather than just a museum for tourists.

We find ourselves in the Englischer Garten, a beautifully-kept series of gardens, pathways and architecture – there’s apparently also nude sunbathing in some areas, but we don’t see anything untoward. By the duck-pond, I talk Chris into a photo opportunity with a swan – I snap the photo at left, and urge her to get closer. When she does, the swan is distinctly unimpressed, and emits a sound somewhere between an amphetamine-crazed kettle and a punctured balloon. I remember that, allegedly, swans can break your arm with their wing, but Chris is saved by the timely arrival of a small yappy dog which draws the swan’s ire. The insurance company would never have believed us.

When good swans…go bad

To recover, we head to the Hofbrauhaus, one of the most famous pubs in the world. Hard to see why; presumably because it caters to tourists and doesn’t need repeat business, the service sucks. Though we don’t discover till later, it was one of Hitler’s favourite hangouts, too. We were much more impressed by the Augustiner Grossgaststatten, which had great food, excellent waiters, and was so good we ate there two nights in a row. There’s definitely a knack to drinking out of those huge glasses though – I vow to practice more. My only regret is I don’t get to order any Black Forest Gateau here, simply because “Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte” is my all-time favourite German phrase.

We eventually roll back to our room, and watch Euro MTV for a a bit. There’s been a gradual decrease in the number of TV channels available to us on the trip; in Belgium, you could still watch the BBC, and in Amsterdam, there was an English-language Euronews channel, but now, it’s MTV or nothing. The most disturbing thing is the volume of techno cover versions; occasionally, the results aren’t bad, e.g. Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, but they really should have left Patti Smith’s Because the Night alone. There are some things with which mankind was not meant to meddle.

The next day, we opt to hop across the border and do Salzburg, ticking Austria off the list. If Munich is a living city, Salzburg (or at least the center of it) is a tourist slut, peddling herself relentlessly and lacking in personality. Everything is packaged with either Mozart (born there) or The Sound of Music, which was filmed around the area. Chocolates, music-boxes, little plastic busts, you name it, you can get it with Wolfgang Amadeus on it.

Despite this, Salzburg is very beautiful, with fabulous gardens (the Do-Re-Mi sequence was shot in one), a broad river running through the centre of town, any number of statues and fountains, old buildings, narrow streets, busking string quartets (playing WAM, natch!) – you get the picture. Or rather, the set of picture postcards, with Mozart emblazoned on the corner of each one.

Chris is feeling horny

The Hohensalzburg Castle dominates the city from its rocky perch in the centre of town. There’s a meandering path up to the fortress, but being lazy tourists, we opt for the funicular: the views from the top are spectacular. Started by the local archbishops in 1077, it was never successfully stormed, and thus is largely in pristine condition – though one pillar, pointed out on the tour, has a nasty chunk taken out of it by a cannonball – an interesting experience for anyone in the room at the time.

In the castle, was a stall offering you three shots with a crossbow for 2 Euro; I nail the first one, briefly contemplate a career as a professional crossbower, then get steadily worse, despite humming the Buffy theme. Grrr. Aargh. It does drive the selections from Sound of Music out of my head, at least temporarily, before we head back across the border to Munich, where it is chucking it down. Can’t complain, however, this having been the first rain seen since the morning of the wedding, more than two weeks previously. We bid a fond farewell to Germany, even if it might be a while till we can face sausages again, and prepare to head into the land of banks, gnomes, cuckoo-clocks and chocolate…

Next: On a Swiss Roll