Saturday, 30 April 2016

Day 5 - Anaheim Disneyland



[Being Written] Wow if we thought that  Californian Adventure looked beautiful then Disneyland itself is looking ethereal. Cherry Blossom, Apple Blossom, Hyacinths, Violas, Delphiniums, Verbascum, Foxgloves etc etc. Its like someone took a crash course in English cottage gardens and implemented it to perfection. Spring is definitely the time to visit this park.

 
As you can see from the top (rope drop) picture the park was nice and quite first thing in the morning. The only things that were not a 10min  walk on were anything in Fantasyland, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (short queues but its loading times are so slow) and Space Mountain whose re themed for Star Wars additions were the latest draw. When Indiana Jones is practically a walk on all morning you can tell how much impact the redesigning of California Adventure has had. We have early entry tomorrow morning so decide to skip all of Fantasyland and leave it until then and head straight onto Space Mountain to grab fast passes and then take it easy (well as far as being shaken to death on Indiana Jones can qualify as taking it easy).


We were already fully aware before we set off that a lot of this park would be closed off though to be honest it didn't spoil our experience one bit - the only thing we truly missed was not seeing Fantasmic here again as its so much better than the Florida version with its tin tug finale :) and its so long since we have seen it here. If a ride is closed  the cast members for that ride base themselves at the entrance to provide information and some form of entertainment.  On some attractions this works better than others. Jungle cruise had a "We tell jokes" stall which worked when the public interacted well but had most people running past thinking "Don't make eye contact - Dont make eye contact"


The train crews though had a great set up. At the various railroad stations the locomotives had been parked as stationary museums - Fred Gurley (the oldest built in 1894 for sugar cane transportation in Louisiana went into service at Disneyland March 28, 1958 after a full reconstruction ) was based at the Frontierland station and that morning we had her all to ourselves. The conductor and engineer took us on the footplate and then showed us a reconstruction of its oil fired engine which allows you to blow off the whistle.


We spent the rest of the morning riding all the old faves and making comparisons. Big Thunder has had some great new effects added since we last rode it. The mine section now has the dynamite fuse flickering and following you up the track along with a nice explosion effect.
From the top of BTM you get a good view of how the far side of the  lake has been damned up and drained to accomodate the construction on the new Start Wars land.


Haunted Mansion is such a gorgeous building here (though again its a bit deja vu - are we back in New Orleans) and I love that here you enter (as in Paris) through the front door.


For lunch today we left the park and had it in the Grand Californian at the Storytellers Cafe. Again we ordered a variety of starters (and again we could have fed an army). Ribs, Flatbread, a lovely  soup and some excellent crab cakes. I'm always  slightly baffled why these places are always so quiet at lunch time. Why people want to wander around with a luminous turkey leg in there hand when you can be sat sipping wine and relaxing  has always mystified me. 


After lunch we returned to California Adventure. Soarin had reopened though not with the new film yet, just the new projectors (it did make a nice change to experience it a) in focus and b) dust and scratch free but the new film cant come soon enough (I think its June).



After a full afternoon riding things we missed, things we had forgotten about (Monsters inc is still a fun little ride - we rode it last when it was 90% finished on a soft opening) and things we normally pass on when the parks busy (Goofys Sky School - a wild mouse type ride that scared the living daylight out of us and the Silly swings symphony carousel is just fun) we headed out to and grabbed a nice dinner at the restaurant side of La Brea in Downtown Disney.

Then back into Disneyland for the night parade and the fireworks - impressive as usual but I'm now stuck with "Let it Go"  running round and round my head. AAARRGGH

Click for day 6 

Friday, 29 April 2016

Day 4 - Anaheim Disneys California Adventure



Its been several years since we have been to Disneyland CA. Last time we were in California we gave it a miss as we were stopping in Laguna but with the addition of Cars Land we just had to visit this time.

We decided to stop at the Castle Inn across the road from the park. This is something I really like about Disney California - you can get up in the morning and stroll across the road into the park - no waiting for the Disney Bus to take you on a trek around the swamps.
 

So first things first we head over to see what's new in California Adventure park. Wow what a transformation. Granted we are spoiled by Californian's perfect springtime weather; the park is looking absolutely fantastic. I swear not a spare inch of ground has been left unplanted; even if its  a tiny space between a queuing area. I don't think I have ever seen any Disney park anywhere look this good - in fact it makes Florida's flower and garden festival in EPCOT look pretty lame. Here everything is very natural with Delphiniums and Foxgloves in cottage garden schemes.
 

In the new Cars Land area real cacti are blooming with flowers  again matching the overall desert theming of this area. Its impossible to walk-around without  stopping to take a picture. The weather is glorious and clear. Last night our cab driver from Orange County Airport (who incidentally looked like The Dude from The Big Lebowski - I kept expecting The Credence to play) had explained to us it had been cool and wet for the last couple of days. The huge benefit of this though was that LA was smog free and super clear. From the top of California Screaming (coaster) the snow topped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance looked absolutely glorious.


We were in the park before the rope drop and after  this takes place we follow the crowd and first grab fast passes before joining the normal queue and are on and riding Cars within 10 minutes. (Thank goodness California still uses the old Fast Pass system that actually rewards people who make the effort rather than the hugely flawed bracelet system that Florida has adopted)
 

We spend the morning stacking up fast passes all over the park and riding single riders (as usual we often end up in the same car/coaster). I don't think we queued all day for more than 10 minutes on any ride the only exception (as usual) being Midway Mania though to be fair the park was reasonably quiet this being the week before the Spring Break started.
 

Lunch was pre booked at Carthay Circle. After a cocktail downstairs we were shown to our table upstairs. Its an elegant and well designed building though the menu in my opinion was rather limited and even by Disney standards overpriced. But its an escape from the park for an hour or two in lovely luxurious  surroundings without having to leave the park. Eating here also gives us VIP placing for the World of Colour show around the lake this evening. Another first for us, it's Disney's new 'fireworks/ projections on water sprays show'. We can't wait - but lets ride Tower of Terror a few times first :)


Before that show we nipped out and back to the hotel to change and grabbed a quick dinner at Denny's.


Disney has turned up the wow factor to boom for its World of Color spectacular. It more than makes up for the temporary loss of Fantasmic! (which we adored for 20 years+) The show spans the length of the California Adventure park, using the rides as backdrop. Still photos or even video really don't capture its power, emotion and force. Its design means it can incorporate any film or theme, on our night it being STARWARS' launch, just amazing.  One other thing I did like was the fact it is a tribute as well to Walt which seems very fitting here in California.


We left that evening smiling like two happy bunnies. The park looks lovely at night though its odd seeing the NO trolley when we were only riding the real thing the day before.


And again what a joy to walk out of the park, cross the road and jump into bed. The Castle Inn hotel itself was excellent. Quiet, big large rooms, and clean and tidy - there's also a handy little supermarket shop to grab any extras.

Day 3 Memphis to New Orleans

After taking the free shuttle back into Memphis we found somewhere for lunch on Beale St, settling on the Jerry Lee Lewis Bar. Everywhere you go (inside or out) has live music playing - its a great atmosphere and with Blue Moon Beer on draft in 2 pint glasses Dan was a happy chappy.

Jerry Lee Lewis Bar - Beale St- Memphis
We  shared a couple of starters of fried fish and ribs, though as usual the portions were enough to feed a small country. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the bands and street entertainers.

We then walked back to the hotel and changed for dinner at a place we had prebooked when planning the trip. The restaurant is called "Flight" and the concept is based on the "flight" concept you often see in American restaurants where a different (or flight of) wine is served to compliment each course of your meal. Here though it's taken one step further where instead of ordering a single main course you order a flight of meals - basically you get a smaller portion of any main course on the menu. Have to agree with one of the comments on trip advisor - this place is an absolute find and would not be out of place in New York - Los Angeles - Paris or London. To put it simply one of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of eating in.

Flight Restaurant - Memphis
We get a good nights sleep until 6am when the whole of Memphis is awoken by the blaring horn of the arriving Amtrak train. (I presume as a local you just become immune to it). The train sits in Memphis station for 2 hours so we have plenty of time to get ready and walk back to the station. A very full day in Memphis completed though it feels like we have been here a week.

All Aboard - Memphis
We're all aboard by 8.00am and are shown to our room (for this leg we have booked another bedroom as its a long trip and it will be nice to have some peace and quiet. This room also has the advantage of using the entire width of the carriage so you get windows on both sides of the room) .Our coach manager advises us that breakfast is now being served in the dining car and as we sit down for breakfast the train slowly pulls out and begins its 8 hour run down to New Orleans. The train has an observation lounge but unfortunately my plan of passing the day sipping a cool glass of Sierra Nevada IPA has a flaw. Its Sunday and because the train passes through several "Dry Counties" anything with alcohol is off the menu - just need Richie Sambora to sit in the corner and play the guitar solo.

Observation Car - Memphis to NO
The scenery is quite flat as we pass through Mississippi changing from corn fields (with crop dusting planes flying over like a scene from North by Northwest) to strawberry fields as we get further South.. Then slowly it changes to swamp lands and submerged Cypress trees covered in Spanish Moss. The time passes quite quickly broken up by a few stops in one horse towns where you can get out and stretch your legs and lunch in the dining car.

Jack stretches her legs in Grenwood MS
New Orleans is a much busier and much larger city than Memphis. A short taxi ride takes us from the station to our apartment for the night. Then its straight out to explore (The beauty of traveling by train is you arrive bright and refreshed and in the heart of the city). Once again we have chosen and pre booked ourselves into a restaurant after researching before the trip (This turned out to be a good policy as both restaurants were fully booked on the nights we ate and we would have been really disappointed to find this out had we just turned up with no reservation).

Fins restaurant - New Orleans
The restaurant in question is called "Fins" a seafood lovers Xanadu. Jackie orders the house specialty "Scalibut" - its a fillet of Halibut baked in the oven with a coating of sliced scallops laid (like fish scales ) on top and served with a lobster risotto.. It looks as good as it tastes. I have the Bluefin Tuna with a veal jus - its melt in the mouth stuff despite being served so rare it could swim off the plate. Another truly exceptional restaurant. Our waiter also gives us some great tips on where to go to get the best of New Orleans at night. The most well known area is of course Bourbon Street but its become over touristy with cheap bars - poor music - and no soul whatsoever. Its worth a look just to see how mad it is. We head further north where the  the music is one step beyond cover bands and karaoke.

Bourbon Street NO

Its a late night but at least we don't have an early train to catch tomorrow, our plane doesn't leave till tomorrow evening.

Garden District - New Orleans
In the morning we catch one of the old Trolley buses out to the garden district. A pretty area of New Orleans filled with Southern style Mansions set on tree lined roads. You can travel around all day on the trolleys on one ticket so its ideal. We then take another trolley to the Cemetery and then one down to the waterfront and from there walk back to the French Quarter passing the Cathedral.

St Louis Cathedral - French Quarter - NO
We also stop for a lovely lunch at the excellent Kingfisher restaurant in the French Quarter; ordering from the small plate menu - gumbo for Dan and crawfish and artichoke gratin for Jack (which is so good we order another). The French Quarter is really pretty during the day with all the wrought iron balconies adorned with flowering baskets. Then its a short cab ride to the airport to take a flight to Anaheim California.


We decided to fly directly to Orange County rather than LAX as its so much closer to our hotel in Anaheim and after a 4 hour flight to John Wayne Airport we are in a cab and heading to Disneyland.
Click to continue 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Day 2 - Memphis

A tap at the cabin door and the volume of the horn tells us we are slowing and arriving into Memphis. We're on time at 6.00am. Fortunately despite the horn interrupted sleep we both feel quite awake. Our bedroom has its own bathroom but its quite a small thing so we both use the downstairs shower rooms - nobody else is up or has used them - the only people getting off in Memphis must be either in Coach or in the next sleeper carriage. The showers are big, clean and work well (though its a challenge to keep upright when the train rocks about) - you have a private changing area in the shower stocked with sealed fresh towels. 

We leave the train and thank Ryan, our carriage attendant then head through the station - the train sits here in Memphis for two hours so luckily we don't have to be back until 8.00am in the next morning. The sun is just starting to rise and there's hardly a cloud in the sky.

Central Station Memphis

Memphis is a really nice place. Its low slung and unassuming - the few high rise buildings are in the Central Business District and there's just one key road that leads from the station towards this area - which is where our apartment for the night is. Old style trolley ( street car) lines run up and down this and we know from our little map that if we follow these we will arrive at the intersection for the hotel. The station's in the historical district and is another impressive station  building, the largest in this area. The rest is made up mainly of one storey shops and restaurants and at this time of the morning is quiet and deserted. In fact if a tumble-weed ball rolled across the street it would not look out of place.


The trolleys don't actually start running until 8.00am and the breakfast diner we had spotted across from the station opens at 7.00am so we decide to set off walking into town. It probably takes about 30mins but certainly gets rid off any remaining sleepiness. We pass a deserted Beale Street on the way (this is the main Music district of Memphis) jammed full of bars - and restaurants - and lots of live music.


 I had emailed the hotels front desk previously to inform them we would be arriving early and would they at least be able to store our bags - so its a delight when they say they actually have a room ready for us. We stayed at The Exchange Suites on 9 North 2nd Street and its more an apartment block than hotel with some available for holiday rentals. So after finding our room for the  night - which consists of kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom - we are back outside looking for breakfast - which turns out to be "The Arcade" - our initially planned spot, as its now open.


The Arcade claims to be the oldest diner in Memphis having occupied the site next to the railway station since 1919. We indulge in blueberry pancakes, eggs, bacon, ham, country potatoes, French toast and coffee - I cant see us requiring lunch!

Its still only 9:0am and the first place we want to head to "Sun Studios" doesn't actually open  until 10:30 so what better way to walk off breakfast than to follow the street from the restaurant west until we hit the Mississippi River. There's a joggers track alongside it to walk along  so we follow this until we are back parallel with our hotel.

Panorama shot of the Mississippi River- vast, powerful - difficult to visualise but the bridges are 2 miles apart!

 We then take the trolley from our hotel to the nearest point to Sun Studios; its cheap as chips to buy a day ticket  and the driver tells us where to get out and points out a short cut through a lane we can take. It takes about 10 minutes to reach the small iconic building. We manage to get on the next available tour for the studios so spend the time choosing T Shirts. Its a tiny museum consisting of the shop, a museum and the studio itself but the tours are so well done its fascinating and worth every cent - You're taken around in small groups and with some nice low tech clips and samples your host   ( Kat) really does manage to transport you back to the studio's golden age and bring its fascinating history to life.


Eventually you arrive at the hallowed ground: the Studio itself. The interior walls are still tiled with the white washed soundproof cork from the days when Elvis walked in and paid to record some ballads for his mother.The entire place remains unchanged til the days U2 laid down some of the tracks for Rattle and Hum, Larry Mullen Jr's drum kit still sits in the corner even now.


The story, quickly, is one of chance and luck. A boy from a shotgun shack on the boundaries of Memphis heard that Sam Philips had set up a recording studio in town. He had already become the first in the family to graduate and wanted to better himself.  In "O brother where out thou style" he walked in and paid to press a couple of ballads for his mother as a present. 


Sam's secretary Marion Keisker loved his voice on those early private recordings but Sam was hearing and recording the music on Beale Street (Black, Blues and Rock) - and started releasing this new form of music on vinyl - Rock n Roll - by accident the first distorted guitar was even recorded  due to a torn woofer.

So when Marion pestered Sam to hear Elvis; he eventually gave in. His reaction was simple 'the future is not in sloppy ballads'.

Finally, a band Sam really liked was brought in to make a single - yet in the studio he realised whilst the music was great the  singer was not. Long story short, Marion steps in: 'why not try that Elvis guy at the front of a blues/rock n roll band'. And there you have it.



At the end of the Sun Studio tour a free bus is outside to drive you across to Graceland - its all very well timed and organised. Graceland itself is about 20mins drive from Sun Studio and the bus runs on a constant circuit picking up from Beale Street - Sun Studios - and Graceland.

Graceland itself is now a huge operation involving audio and visual guides in the form of a tablet and headphones. It works well - the amount of info is good and you can get extra details for each room at the push of the button.. You actually prepare for your visit at a complex on the other side of the road from where you are bussed across to the front door of Graceland.


The tour takes you from the hallway into the living room, the dining room, his parents' downstairs bedroom and the kitchen before leading you down to the basement to the media room and pool room. You then re climb into the jungle room before exiting into the grounds which comprised of offices Elvis and Col.Tom Parker used. 


Lounge & Music Room beyond ( right of front door) used every day by the family,

Media Room ( Boys Room!) with bar just out of sight to the right.


You also get to see the racket ball building (Squash Court) with its bar and lounge - the stables, paddocks and gardens. Then its a journey through more converted stables which display endless corridors of gold/platinum awards and Grammys.


  I  have to be honest; I thought Graceland would be a bit tacky but it isn't. Its moving and very well presented and I'm not even an Elvis devotee. They are trying to get this whole area of Memphis back to how it was - buying up car dealerships and cheap burger bars so it can look like it did 50 years ago: open countryside and watching the horses run around in the paddock in front one can only wish them success. We finish the tour by wandering around Elvis' car and plane collection.


 Its so easy to forget we only arrived in Memphis on the train at 6am this morning but we have ticked off the two things we really wanted to do by 1pm. Now its time to head back into town and have a look at what's happening on Beale St. (click here to continue)