Time To Go Home

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I’ve been quiet on here for the past week while in Orlando – not because Irma has destroyed the power where I’ve been, but mainly because anything I’ve been doing can be found on the many MANY Disney blogs out there – we haven’t been doing anything particularly groundbreaking!

However, I suppose my fans (all three of them) are looking for my perspective on things, and it seems the trend to rank and rate things these day, so here are my top 3s!

My Top 3 Disney Restaurants

3 – Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Animal Kingdom Lodge is a dream of a hotel, complete with actual wild African animals roaming the grounds, and Boma is a fantastic buffet which, while we were there, was serving up prime steak, chicken on the bone, salmon and a multitude of soups, sides and accompaniments. This would have possibly moved into the number 2 spot, apart from the fact that I attempted to eat all 10 desserts, leaving my final memories of Boma being uncomfortably full and slightly nauseous.

2 – ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort. Although the service and atmosphere were slightly lacking compared to previous visits here, the quality of the food is undeniable. Another ‘all you care to eat’ restaurant, the concept mirrors popular Brazilian eateries which bring round skewers of meat, alongside accompaniments of noodles, salads, dumplings and chicken wings. My visit was slightly disturbed by the onset of a killer headache, but there is no denying the quality of this place – just a bit better service next time Disney!

1 – Coral Reef Restaurant. A rather controversial number one, and probably not mirrored by my dining partners, but my salmon, goats cheese risotto and vegetables, followed by chocolate lava cake was completely delicious. The fact that we were able to overlook a giant aquarium while we ate – the icing on the (chocolate) cake!

Notable Mention – Tiffins at Animal Kingdom. Newly opened, and potentially still finding its feet (I overhead that the menu had already had an overhaul after only being opened a few months), the restaurant is a Disney signature dining experience that is clearly full of quality, but potentially lacking in quantity. Saying that, I came away fully satisfied with my three courses, I think I was just looking for a bit more in accompaniments (some bread to start, or some more vegetables with the main?)

Other Top 3s:

Fireworks

Theme Parks

Fireworks

Travel

My Top 3 Evening Shows

3 – Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. As one of the few people who hasn’t actually ever watched any of the original Star Wars films, most of the actual content of this show was lost on me, but the best parts – the fireworks to music, flames in the sky so hot you could feel them 80m back, and the strobes all across Hollywood Studios were pretty epic.

=1st – Happily Ever After at Magic Kingdom and IllumiNations at Epcot. Yes, I’ve copped out from making a decision on my favourite, and just chosen both. Epcot has probably more volume of fireworks, but the light projections and soundtrack accompanying Happily Ever After are also pretty special (though dare I say I still think I prefer the original ‘Wishes’ fireworks show??)

(Note – pretty ropey pictures below are mine, links to videos above are not)

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Theme Parks

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Disneyworld is a mammoth sized resort which encompasses four theme parks and two water parks (alongside a huge shopping and dining complex, a load of hotels/camping grounds/villas, golf courses – the place is simply huge).

Here’s a round up of my top 3:

3 – Hollywood Studios. Although there aren’t many rides at this relatively small theme park, I just love walking down the 1920s themed Hollywood streets, and sitting down to the shows that take place. Frozen, Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Indiana Jones – all excellent live productions in their own right. Coming back in the evening to watch the Star Wars fireworks and light show was a real treat.

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2 – Magic Kingdom

The flagship park of Disneyworld is basically every Disney fairy tale all thrown into one space and jumbled about a bit. We got here early on the day we visited, starting the day with breakfast at the Beast’s castle at 8am, before moving onto the rides. It’s a place which is just fun to walk around, but we still managed to fit in the classic rides – Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion and Runaway Mine Train.

 

1 – Animal Kingdom

My all time favourite – the theming, the animals, the rides, all are brilliant! Where else can you go on great rollercoasters, followed by safari, followed by a tiger walk! The inclusion of Pandora from Avatar makes this park stand out by a country mile.

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We made it to Florida!

Travel

Well, what a nuisance that nasty hurricane Irma proved to be. Our original plan was to fly into Miami on Tuesday, spend two nights in Miami and travel down to the Keys before driving back up to Orlando, breaking up the journey in Fort Lauderdale on the way up. We’d already changed our flight from the Tuesday to Thursday (hence the extra few days in New Orleans), but woke up early Wednesday morning to find that our flight into Miami had been rearranged yet again, and we would be stuck in New Orleans until Sunday. Now, considering we’d spent a small fortune on being in DisneyWorld from Saturday, (not to mention the car hire and hotel in Fort Lauderdale) that simply wasn’t an option! So, after some very early morning calls (4am down in the hotel lobby), I managed to get us on a flight to Miami, via Dallas, Texas, for the Thursday morning.

We’d be getting the 5am bus on Thursday morning to the airport, and with only a 40 minute connection time in Dallas, I didn’t want to risk losing our bags en route. Fortunately we had come prepared for this eventuality, and although originally only bringing hand luggage to avoid paying any hold baggage fees on internal flights, it now had another use – keeping all our belongings with us as we changed planes.

I had three items of toiletries that were over the designated 100ml for hand luggage – sun tan lotion, cocoa butter moisturiser and fake tan. Not one to waste items, I moisturised heavily on the last 2 days, and applied two coats of fake tan the night before we left. As I sit writing this, my skin is a shade of brown just off mahogany, and smells like gone off biscuits mixed with vanilla chocolate. But it’s also very well moisturised! I was considering a hefty application of sun tan lotion before that hit the bin too, but I think my skin is now so well covered with fake tan and cocoa butter, that it is completely impenetrable to UV rays!

In conclusion – we did make it to Miami airport, we did pick up our hire car, and we are now sitting in a hotel room about an hour and half north of Miami, ready to drive on to Orlando tomorrow. Our hotel in Key West has been in touch to let us know they are all safe and they didn’t receive too much damage, but the roads are still closed to tourists. Driving through Miami has shown us a very minor snapshot of the effect of the hurricane – phone cables down, trees brushed to the side of highways, petrol stations still closed, people’s fences blown in – and we witnessed two car accidents in the first 20 minutes of driving.

Although part of our dream holiday has been ruined, it could have been a lot, lot worse, and we will now spend the next couple of days preparing to act like very silly children with Mickey, Minnie, Daffy and co. Next stop Orlando!

Two Days in New Orleans (and then two more)

Travel

We’d decided on our way down the Pacific Coast that we would avoid flying into Florida for a few days, and extend our stay in New Orleans for two extra nights, making our total time in the city four nights. In the end, the decision would have been taken out of our hands anyway, as Miami airport had not reached full working capacity by the time we were supposed to fly in, and our original flight went on to be cancelled.

The upside to this was that we could explore New Orleans at a more leisurely pace, which considering we had been rushing around from place to place, was actually well needed. However, we’re approaching our third night in New Orleans, and have so far watched some live jazz, explored the City Park, eaten two fantastic meals (and one not so fantastic), checked into two different hotels, walked around the Garden District, had a drink at a revolving bar and squeezed in a gym session….so maybe not all that relaxing!!

Highlights so far have been visiting the expansive New Orleans City Park, which is a 20 minute street car ride away from the tourist-centred French Quarter, which is probably what makes it such a peaceful and relaxing space. It features the New Orleans Modern Art museum, which was unfortunately closed on the day we visited, but we did get to walk around the Sculpture Garden before Gareth managed to find and run around both of the athletics tracks within the city park’s boundaries.

This afternoon featured a further two highlights, when we walked around the picturesque Garden District after a meal where the service blew our minds a little! The Garden District is an out of town neighbourhood where houses were built on land where a Plantation originally stood. Built by Americans with ‘new’ money in the 1840s, the mansions look like they’re straight out of film sets, with manicured gardens to match.

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And the restaurant I talked about? Lunch at the Commander’s Palace (apparently a New Orleans ‘institution’) where we were greeted by three people at reception, walked through the open kitchen, were then greeted by a further 12 waiters, with four people waiting on our table alone! After almost every sip of water, our glass was topped up (and the full glass replaced halfway through the meal!), and fortunately the quality of the meal matched up to the attentiveness of the wait staff.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get in touch with either our hotel in Miami or Key West, and we have had to change our plans even more – meaning we’ll head north from Miami airport and arrive in Orlando a day early, if our flight can even get into Miami. Watch this space!

A drive down the Pacific Coast

Travel

An excellent driving effort from Gareth saw him sat behind the wheel for almost ten hours over two days as we left Yosemite on Friday morning, passing the considerably bigger queue to get in the park than we had encountered two days previously. Weekends at Yosemite should probably be avoided!

We took a diagonal south west route through California, only stopping for petrol once, until we reached San Luis Obispo. It’s a cute little town where I had reserved a table at Luna Red, a popular tapas restaurant which on that evening had a band playing next door in a small park. The food was outstanding, some of the best I’d ever eaten, and it’s not surprising that this whole town has a reputation for excellent fresh food and farmers markets.

We went onto stay in Santa Maria (where the rooms were cheaper than San Luis Obispo…and the local area definitely not as inviting), stopping just before touristy Pismo Beach to get some lovely sunset shots. In the morning we were back on the road, driving down the Pacific Highway and stopping at Santa Barbara for lunch (at the Lucky Penny, a pizza restaurant decorated with 160,000 pennies) before a paddle in the sea just before Malibu.

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Our hotel was based in upmarket Manhattan Beach, and the Best Western Manhattan Beach was considerably nicer than the Travelodge the night before. We headed down to the beach to watch our last California sunset, and to get an early night before our 4.30am (!) start to New Orleans from Los Angeles airport in the morning.

California, you’ve been amazing – we’ll be back!!

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Yosemite

Travel

Well, what a couple of days in Yosemite?! I’ve been to some pretty staggeringly beautiful places, so when I’d heard from others that this was their favourite place on the planet, I was a little sceptical – the Grand Canyon would be hard to top in terms of take your breath away scenery.

And so the scepticism continued as we drove into the park, with little to no visibility. We’d woken to ash falling from the skies at our hotel an hour south of Yosemite Valley, and it seemed like the ash had followed us the whole way to the park. We spent the early afternoon hiking through the trees to Mirror Lake, with the views when we got there pretty uninspiring (as in, we couldn’t really see anything!). But, come the afternoon, the smoke had lifted, and the magic really started to happen. An easy trail walk to the Lower Falls was the start of some fantastic photo opportunities, and the views never really stopped coming.

After a peaceful night’s sleep in Yosemite’s Upper Pines campground, we woke to clear blue skies and were looking forward to our planned hike with friends who coincidentally had planned to be in Yosemite at the same (and yes, one is my boss, who luckily I’m on great terms with!)

We hiked (I feel I can confidentially use that term rather than ‘walk’ after today’s exploits) to the top of the Vernal Falls, and back via Clark Point, a 2.5 mile hike with an elevation gain of 1500ft/450m. There was an option to continue to Nevada Falls (an extra 2 miles and 500ft), or even to attempt the Half Dome summit (an extra 11 miles and 3000ft elevation), but these sprinting legs are not designed for long distance, and the stunning sights we saw on our way to Vernal Falls more than satisfied this traveller!

I’m still not sure Yosemite has the single one ‘wow’ moment that the Grand Canyon’s vastness creates, but in terms of never ending beauty, nothing can quite compare with Yosemite’s rocks, waterfalls, meadows and sheer magic.

A few pictures from our time in the Park:

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Day 4 – On our way to Yosemite

Travel

Morning today was foolishly spent in the gym again, and I suffered for the rest of the day – moaning that I was tired when saving money by walking the 25 minutes to the Ferry Building for breakfast instead of getting the bus, and struggling to get out the car when muscle soreness kicked in later in the day.

However, a few things made up for the pain – including the foodie heaven that is the Ferry Building, where I could have easily spent hundreds of pounds on tasty treats, but restrained myself to organic mozzarella and tomato bruschetta from Frog Hollow Farm.

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Returning to Oakland airport to pick up our hire car on the BART was considerably easier than travelling from the airport into the city when we arrived, with no replacement buses required, and air conditioning actually working! Public transport, you have redeemed yourself!

The afternoon was spent picking up the aforementioned hire car and trying not to kill ourselves on the 8 lane highway heading out of Oakland. We split up our journey to the outskirts of Yosemite where we’d be staying for a night, by stopping at a Walmart in Modesto to pick up essential camping equipment. The minute we got out the car the heat hit us like we’d walked into a sauna, with the temperature sitting at around the mid to high 30s. Tomorrow’s planned hike around Yosemite Valley is going to be a warm one!

After just under 4 hours in the car we reached our destination of the Best Western Yosemite Gateway Inn, our last bit of luxury before camping for two nights. With forest fires blocking off our main route into the Valley, views once we get into the Park may not be perfect due to the smoke, but hopefully we’ll have some stunning pictures to share when we next have wifi!

Day 3 – Hippies, the Bridge and NoPa

Travel

“I’m glad we stayed in that hotel for the past 2 nights, it was nice to see another part of San Francisco”, said Gareth shortly after we moved into our new hotel room this morning, “but it’s nice to have a bit of luxury for a change”. It’s amazing how having your own bathroom and not having to prop open your bedroom door to get a bit of cool air in suddenly seems like luxury!! I had a load of Virgin airmiles to use that I had collected about 4 years ago and had done nothing with, so chose the San Francisco Marriot Marquis to redeem a free night on our last night of our flying tour around the city.

Compared to our 20 room quaint San Remo Hotel in North Beach, the vast Marriot Marquis just off Union Square was a bit of a shock to the system, but we quickly got used to both the working air conditioning and the well equipped gym.

Weights session over (3 weeks of eating in USA = gym time a necessity!) we headed out to lunch in the hippy neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury (at the super tasty Street Taco), before attempting to navigate the relatively new city bike system of San Fran. It’s become a bit of a tradition to utilise city bikes wherever we go in the world and have so far biked around Paris, Dubai, Miami, Bordeaux, Ljubljana, New York and Brisbane. For anyone who has utilised this system, you’ll know it’s not the easiest. It usually involves whacking a massive hold on your credit card as a deposit, trying to interpret the various user manuals, and cycling around on these ridiculously heavy non-user friendly bikes, panicking about where you’ll drop yours off next, as you are charged a fee whenever you go past the 30 minute usage mark. But, as mentioned before, it’s now become tradition, and we thought we’d have a nice cycle around the Golden Gate Park, using the bikes, swapping them every 30 minutes at the changeover stops all around the park, just like we had done in New York at Christmas. Apart from the fact that, because the system is so new, there aren’t any stops near the park. So our relaxed cycle ride became a frantic time trial of getting into the park, cycling around for 3 minutes, then cycling back along the park’s ‘pan handle’ to drop off our bikes from where we picked them up. I’d say we’ll never city bike again, but I’m only fooling myself, and I’m obviously devastated New Orleans’s bike scheme won’t be up and running until after we’ve left!

The afternoon was spent admiring the Golden Gate Bridge (or ‘that big red bridge in my computer game’ as my training partner Mica calls it), before the obligatory nap in the hotel before dinner.

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And what a dinner it was. I’d heard amazing things about the restaurant NoPa, and it deserves every plaudit it has going. Awesome service, outstanding food, (expensive prices!), made it a last evening in SF not to forget.

And now, before I head to bed (almost 11pm over here, check me out with the late night), if you’re reading this it means you very likely, a) use the internet and b) have some spare time on your hands. So, to mark the start of the organ donation week back in the UK, please spend a couple of minutes either signing up to the organ donor register list (if you haven’t already), or more importantly telling your friends and families about your wish to be an organ donor when you die. Talking about death isn’t the most pleasant of subjects, but potentially saving a life is the most selfless and amazing thing you could ever do. I wouldn’t be out here having the time of my life without an organ donor’s liver, so please make time today to have the ‘donation conversation’.

Tomorrow – a morning at the Ferry Building before picking up our hire car and heading out to Yosemite where bears, bushfires and my boss (??!?!) await!

GBTAOT – Day 2

Travel

The second day of GB Transplant Athlete on Tour (GBTAOT – see what I did there?) started a little earlier for one of us than the other. Yes Mr ‘Jetlag doesn’t affect me’ Wiltshire, I’m looking at you! While Gareth was up and watching Netflix from about 2.30am, I managed a rather sweaty sleep until around 6.30am. With shared bathrooms in our hotel, mornings resembled a university’s hall of residence  – though I don’t know if it was entirely necessary for one man from another room to be stumbling around the corridors in just his pants!

We had tickets for the first crossing over to Alcatraz at 8.45am, and though originally were going to miss out this classic San Fran tourist attraction when still back at the planning stage, I’m glad we didn’t, and found the tour of the prisoner’s cells fascinating and harrowing in equal measure. The audio tour kept the crowds flowing along nicely, and we were done, dusted, and back on the boat to the mainland by 11am.

 

Once back at Pier 33, we walked around Fisherman’s Wharf to Pier 39, which resembled Cardiff Bay on steroids…with sea lions thrown in for good measure. Although pretty peckish by this time, we avoided the tourist trap restaurants and after walking around the pier for about half an hour, headed to eight AM – a small brunch spot just down from Fisherman’s Wharf that I’d seen recommended online. Although hot and stuffy inside the restaurant (a repeating theme of our first 24 hours in the city), our omelette was super tasty, and one portion was more than enough for us both to share.

 

Walking back to our hotel for a mid afternoon nap, we diverted to Lombard Street to ogle at the windy road that snakes down from Hyde Street to Leavenworth Street. We weren’t alone, and this surprising tourist attraction requires 4 traffic officers (2 at the bottom and 2 at the top) to keep traffic flowing and photo-taking pedestrians safe from cars.

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Dinner was at The Progress, where courses were brought out in random order and designed for sharing. One of the city’s best rated restaurants didn’t disappoint, and we sampled cucumber and trout salad, quail egg roti, chickpea dumplings and chicken meatballs.

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Still persevering with public transport, and with our outbound bus tickets still (apparently) good for the return leg back to our hotel, we contemplated heading out to a bar for all of 10 seconds. Before deciding that although jet lag has not quite beaten us, it’s probably time for bed. Because 8.30pm is definitely bed time. Nothing to do with jet lag. What jet lag? zzzzzzzzz………