Posts Tagged ‘road trip’

Balboa Island

Usually on the second stop of a holiday, Lorna lowers the pace of the holiday and we stop at a beach or a lake. This time, she has chosen an island off Newport Beach called Balboa Island.


Balboa Island is a high density, low rise community of cute houses. The harbour is crammed full of boats and the streets full of cake shops and ice cream/frozen banana parlours. It’s extremely kid-friendly, with hundreds of kids riding bikes and attending Junior Lifeguard camp dressed in a uniform of yellow tops and red shorts.

Lorna wants to retire here. From what, I don’t know. In any case, I’m not sure she has yet appreciated the price of houses here (just a shade below those of Lower Manhattan). The truth is that we would need a big lottery win to afford anything.

So what have we done? Tilly has spent beach time with two different friends from camp. The beaches here are as good as elsewhere on the California coast. We went surfing yesterday, but the surf was strong and broke too close to the shore. Instead we watched five big guys play in the surf and soon developed the game of human ten pin bowling to see how many would be left standing after the wave hit them. It was usually none. Often, the wave would knock them all over, they would stand up and then the undertow would knock them over again on the way back.

The island has a ferry over to the beach-fringed Balboa peninsula. $2 per car and $1 per human or bicycle.


We also went sailing in the harbour area with Tilly mainly at helm yesterday. Again there were shoals of summer camp children in pico sailing boats darting in and out of much larger (and more expensive) vessels

Every night the kids cycle to the town centre and we have an ice cream at one of the many ice cream and frozen banana parlours (NB Arrested Development is set on the island). The lines are long but the customers happy



Southern California

LA is often depicted as the home to movies, celebrities and beaches. I apologise in advance, but you won’t get a different viewpoint from this blog.


It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that we have been to plenty of movies since we’ve arrived in California. We now only have the very long Man of Steel unseen, and it will have to be a very wet day before this happens.

Every region of the world “goes to the movies” in a slightly different way. In Hong Kong, the main attraction starts exactly on time; therefore, unlike the UK, you shouldn’t stroll in 30 minutes after the advertised time expecting to catch the beginning … unless it’s a Michael Bay film (when it won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of the narrative). They sell very different food in HK too (puff balls, marinated meat on sticks). In North Africa, there is a kind of audience participation with the silver screen and food sellers patrol the aisles. Not the place to watch a sensitive exploration of Alzheimer’s, but would likely improve a Christopher Columbus film. In the UK, there are often many advertisements for nearby Indian restaurants. And somewhere else that I can no longer remember, they always had a break in the movie to allow people to buy food. This break happened at a predetermined time which could be in the middle of an action scene, emotional piece of dialogue or even joke.

The main difference in LA is that the movie audience stays for the credits at the end and they leap into applause or exultation when the name of someone they know appears on screen. With 125,000 people employed directly in the cinema and TV business at any one time and hundreds of thousands of others aspiring to work in the business, I guess it’s not surprising that you want to see exactly who was Best Boy Grip or Second Assistant Director.

We also took a Warner Brothers VIP studio tour. There wasn’t much VIP about the tour as they seemed to let you attend provided that you paid them the requisite amount of money. Almost all movies are now filmed on location, but it was great to see the backdrops for so many of my favourite films. The studio lot is now used predominantly for TV shows, and the sound stages were set up for all sorts of current TV programmes. We saw Ellen, Suburgatory and Big Bang Theory. Typically, there are 3 main sets and a number of side sets that they bring in for occasional use. So, for Big Bang Theory, the three main sets are Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, the Elevator space and Penny’s apartment and these are set up in line with each other. As the show has become more established, they have brought in side sets for Walowitz’s house, Cheesecake Factory and University. Comedies are invariably filmed in front of a live audience to improve the performance of the actors, and jokes that don’t work are hastily rewritten until they do.



We did a very half-hearted self-drive tour of Stars’ houses in LA. We had bought a map from a vending machine that showed who lives/lived where and we drove through some of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills. It’s quite a good way of seeing different neighbourhoods, but your chance of seeing a star is extremely low as all the houses with stars in them have very high walls and gates. Large numbers of buses tour the area and an even larger number of passengers eagerly take pictures of Stars’ gates. When they get home and are showing slides of their recent trip to friends and neighbours, I very much doubt whether they will be able to distinguish Michael Jackson’s gate from Aaron Spelling’s.

It is said that you are more likely to see a celebrity in a movie line or at a restaurant. This may be true, but my ability to recognise stars out of context is about on a par with, say, Lorna’s ability to spot an error in a single particle, non-relativistic Schrödinger equation.


My favourite part of LA and environs are the beaches. As Tilly pointed out (and Mr Wilson and Mr Love before her), the girls here are different from elsewhere on the planet. Long sun-bleached hair on stick like brown as berry bodies. We couldn’t go to all of the beaches, but here is a summary of those beaches we did visit:

Paradise Cove, Malibu. Best reason to come here was the restaurant on the beach (excellent). Nancy and I jumped the waves for a couple of hours while Lorna and Tilly perfected their tans. For older readers, Paradise Cove is where Rockford Files was filmed. Also filmed here were Lethal Weapon 4, American Pie 2, Charlie’s Angels, Indecent Proposal, Baywatch, Happy Days and thousands of other productions.


I strongly suggest that you watch the parking charges. It costs $40 for four hours’ parking unless you eat at the restaurant (which you need to book beforehand).

Manhattan Beach. Home to business men and athletes, lots here are almost twice the price of Bel Air (half an acre of land on the Strand will set you back about $35m). It’s a very long and deep beach with a factory at either end. It has a great pier and has outstanding surfing and beach volleyball. We all went boogie boarding in the fairly strong surf. Manhattan Beach has featured in 2012, Against All Odds, CSI, Hannah Montana, Jerry Maguire, The O.C, Point Break and 90210.


Venice beach. This was Nancy’s favourite. A cooler crowd hang out here: skateboarders, tattooists, in-line skaters, cyclists, politically activists, body builders, yoga enthusiasts, and macro-biotic vegetarians. Beach is very deep and perfect. There’s also homelessness and strong signs of drug culture. But if you are homeless, why would you live in a crappy area of town? Films set here include Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Double Indemnity, Falling Down, Fletch, Grease, The Net, Sea Biscuit amongst hundreds of others.

Santa Monica. We walked along Venice beach to Santa Monica pier. While the kids did the roller coasters, Lorna and I went on the big wheel and surveyed the whole area from up high. Movies filmed here include: Heathers, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, 17 Again, Species, Get Shorty, Ocean’s Eleven, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Sting, Ruthless People, Beverly Hills Cop III, Forrest Gump, Iron Man and Speed.

In case you want culture, the Getty Centre and Getty Villa are relatively nearby. Both free, except for $15 parking fee.


Los Angeles

The only way to do Southern California is in a convertible with the Beach Boys singing their melodies. Unfortunately, they would only squabble in the back seat of our small rented Mustang and so we are making do with their music on the stereo.

Our girls weren’t too impressed with the open top experience. It plays havoc with their hair and they have to sit on any loose paper in more cramped conditions than usual. Most importantly, Lorna and I have selected image and coolness in exchange for practicalities, and that – unquestionably – is the teenager’s role in society.

After years of underinvestment in their infrastructure, California’s, or at least LA’s, roads are in very poor condition. Cracks and holes are everywhere, and one wonders if a 4×4 might have been more appropriate. I can hear former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, driving in our rental car and amending his catchphrase to say “Oh my back”

On the first evening, we took the girls to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I hadn’t been to LA since the early 90s, and so had missed Mann’s bankruptcy in 2000 and the later purchase of the naming rights this year by Chinese electronics corporation TCL. This area seemed pretty squalid to us in 1993, and the arrival of Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s “Believe it or not” has not conspicuously brought it up market. Nevertheless, we had a fairly decent Chinese meal.

Some people are highly dismissive of the City of Angels: pollution; the traffic; and the way that some of its residents think differently from the rest of the planet. But I love cinema (or movies as I now need to call them), so I can forgive it a lot.

There’s much to like too:-
– Palm trees everywhere against the backdrop of an always blue sky
– The evocative feeling that one gets when one is driving on LA roads: Sunset Boulevard, Mullholland Drive; Santa Monica Boulevard, Avenue of the Stars
– Low rise buildings, many of Spanish influence in hues of terracotta and off-white
– Beaches. Hundreds of them
– Great food and thousands of restaurants
– Some pretty cool things to see and do (Getty Museum, Santa Monica pier, Venice Beach, Disney, Film Studios, Beverly Hills….)

I was a little dubious when Lorna said that we would stay in a Best Western. I’ve stayed in a few in my travels and their “independently owned and operated franchise” model has meant that the quality can vary somewhat. But Lorna found a gem of hotel. Right on Sunset Boulevard, it’s actually really quiet and our room backs onto the swimming pool and courtyard.


Day 1 & 2 – Yaremche, Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine

Lorna elected for the €50 GPS extra on the car hire at Ivano-Frankivs’ka. She told me previously that the road to Yaremche was straight and that we couldn’t go wrong, but – at near midnight in country we had never been to before – she lost her nerve. Never mind that for €50, we could have bought a new one that covered Ukraine and its neighbour Kazakstan as well.

The car hire guy spent a suspiciously long time instructing us about how to change the wheel on the VW Polo and the best way to bribe a police officer. The children fell asleep quickly after two delayed flights, and the regular jolts along the pot-hole-pocked road in the pouring rain were never going to wake them.

It was the foundation day for Yaremche. All the residents were out in the streets in their raincoats under umbrellas at 1am. The streets were lined with stalls and food sellers. Everyone had a smile on their faces.

We met the owner of the house we were renting at the bus station. He led us out of the town south and climbed into the mountains. Elsewhere in the world, they would have been called road hazards. Here – in the National Park – they were called roads.

Somewhat relieved to have got there with no punctures and no interjection from Ukrainian law authorities, we had arrived at our home for the next few days. Tired with no food or water, we were very happy with our first night of accommodation.

There are no curtains on the window, so I woke up with the sun. The views (like those in first the picture) were terrific. The only sound I could hear (apart from Lorna’s snoring – she still has a cold) was that of a nearby waterfall.


The others woke up late and hungry. We drove down those same treacherous roads, pleased that we were driving a rental car.

Yaramche is not a modern place. Ladas – a make of car I haven’t seen in the UK since my friend Ernie had one in the 1980s – are the vehicle of choice here. They were so poorly regarded in the 1980s that they spawned many jokes, viz:

1. A man goes into a service-station and asks “Can I have a windscreen-wiper for my Lada?”
“Okay” replied the man in the garage, “it seems a fair swap”.

2. How do you double the value of a Lada?
– Fill the petrol tank.

3. How do two Lada drivers recognise each other?
– They already met at the garage this morning.

4. What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill?
– A miracle.

5. What’s the difference between a Lada and a sheep?
– It’s less embarrassing being caught getting out the back of a sheep.

6. Why do Ladas have heated rear windows?
– To keep your hands warm whilst pushing them.

Anyway, I digress. We were hunting for breakfast. We weren’t looking for a hypermarket but we did want a shop that could accommodate the four of us simultaneously. This proved more difficult than you might imagine. Shopping was not very fruitful. We had bread, cheese, bananas, coke, juices, spaghetti, some local biscuit type things, and some sweets….[As my friend Bob Puglielli says “I have only one rule”*, we have one rule about purchase of sweets when we are travelling: you have to buy sweets that are not available in your home country.]

You may not believe me (but it is true), but we were bemused to see that the lady in one of the shops we went to used an abacus to tot up our groceries. We have no idea whether she correctly calculated the total cost, but it has to be said: Ukraine is very cheap.

After several shops, we returned home (for what was then, frankly, lunch).

In the afternoon, we went hiking in the mountains. I’ll write a separate blog on this; it was so entertaining!

In the evening, uninspired by the groceries at our disposal, we elected to go to a restaurant in town. Most appeared to be closed. Nancy yearned for a menu with pictures. An eating establishment called Restaurant Tourist would seem to give a better than average chance of providing this. No such luck. There 20 pages of menu (never a sign of a great restaurant), all in Ukrainian in Cyrillic script.

This place isn’t used to English tourists. We haven’t yet come across anyone who speaks English. Luckily, Lorna speaks (some) Russian. Indeed, she is intending to offer it as a voluntary option at the school in which she teaches next year. I would like to say that I had high hopes for our ability to communicate, but

a) I’ve travelled in other countries where she has “some of the language”. She has all the confidence of those people who don’t make it past the first episode of Britain’s/America’s Got Talent, and (typically) about the same ability

b) I’d been shopping with her this morning

Lorna ordered the children a simple chicken dish with chips. She ordered herself the best local specialty (something Lorna described as a meatball thing) and she ordered me something vegetarian, no tomato. Initially, I was happiest with my choice; they had forgotten to bring it. There was also a remarkable similarity between what she had ordered for herself and what the children had.

When the waitress enquired at the end of the meal in her one word of English “good?”, three polite english people said “yes, very good. Thank you”. Nancy then observed tersely that she didn’t know that it was Opposite Day.



*You can read more about this in his book “7,638 rules about raising children”

Day 26 – Room with a view

I started the day off with that “room with a view” moment when Lucy opens the shutters to the view over Florence. The sun sped through the windows and transformed instantly the shuttered darkness of our rooms to reveal the city landscape against a completely blue sky. In the film, it was a shocking and memorable image. This was every bit as good a view. The first 3 pictures below are the view from the room (albeit on earlier day when the weather was poorer). You have to imagine them side by side. The fourth picture is view over the Arno.

I think however that Forster was broadly right when he wrote that women prefer views to men. On my own, I would elect for a larger room or a better TV, but Lorna would go for the view every time. On this trip – after years of education from Lorna – I have been careful to go for views and balconies in our accommodation wherever possible. The long balcony and views over Parisian roof tops; the three huge balconies and fantastic mountain views of Bavaria; the views over Istria from our garden; view over Florence (see below); and tomorrow morning the view of Mont Blanc and other mountains from two balconies in Chamonix.

We drove again today, longer than planned owing to our detour to Florence. The dial shows that we have travelled just a shade under 3,000 miles thus far. The car is starting to show the first signs of wear; there’s a drone from the outside (that only appears when Lorna is driving!) and the ventilation won’t turn off!

About half the drive today seemed to be through tunnels; Sat Nav Susie sent us via the coastal routes, better than those Northern Italy routes dominated by lorry drivers. The longest tunnel was through Mont Blanc between Italy and France. Since the tragedy there many years ago, every safety measures that could have been introduced has been brought in. This means that the cost of the 12km journey is now €35 and there’s a long delay in getting into the tunnel.

Despite this, we got to a very cold Chamonix exactly on time. The girls all complained that they did not have the clothes for the temperatures – 36 degree Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) this afternoon. This is because I had advised them that they need only bring one thin jumper for the road trip. To be fair, this is very unseasonal weather for Chamonix and apparently, it will be 70 degrees tomorrow. Nevertheless, I bought Tilly and Nancy a fleece each. Lorna is always “educating” me about the importance of layers; she can put this into practice herself now. Chamonix is really pretty. I saw a party of Japanese with the biggest smiles on their faces as they enjoyed the almost flawless buildings of Chamonix against the canvass of some seriously big mountains.

This apartment has Sky TV. Lorna and I watched normal Monday night fare: University Challenge; some (over-fabricated) documentary on retracing Hannibal’s journey by bikes; and genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are. I even had time to watch the analysis of the Man Utd v Newcastle game, as I stayed up to put another load of washing in the machine.

Oh yes, Tilly lost another of her milk molars. She will no doubt find that the French tooth fairy has left €5 under her pillow tomorrow. I think Nancy lost a canine tooth at the beginning of our trip, but it seems a long time ago.

Day 5 – Verdun

Long driving day today. We stopped at Verdun, the site of the 10 month long WW1 battle between the Germans and the French in 1916. 40 million shells were fired and there were over 700,000 casualties. We went to see the Douaumont ossuary. Soldiers weren’t typically tagged at the time and the ossuary houses the bones of around 130,000 soldiers. More bones are added each year as farmers plough their fields and find the remains from almost 100 years ago.

We are now at Rust near the Black Forest in Germany. Tomorrow, we are visiting Europa Park. This is apparently the best amusement park in Europe. We can see and hear the screams from the roller coasters from our hotel room.

PS we’ve now driven for 650 miles. Lorna and I listened to Danny Baker podcasts while the kids watched DVDs. Nancy sick once!


Day 4 – Tour de France

One of the reasons we are in Paris today is that I wanted to see a stage of the Tour de France. For the last two weeks, I have been indoctrinating Tilly and Nancy on the ITV3 highlights of the Tour so that they too would want to see it.

Initially, we were at the finish on the Champs Elysee and we could see what was happening earlier in the stage on the big screen there. I love the way they sip champagne on the road to Paris for instance. It got too crowded for the children so we moved to the Tuilleries gardens above the Seine and had a much better view of the six laps in Paris. Of course, there was another Cavendish win (and to think they doubted him earlier in the Tour).

We also went to the Bois de Boulogne and watched new version of The Italian Job (7/10). Tomorrow we leave Paris for a new destination.

Location:Rue Saint-Placide,Paris,France