Hearst Castle

Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway lies a European castle.  In the middle of nowhere along the coast you arrive at sign for Hearst Castle.  Tired from driving you pull off the highway to see what it is about.  Passing row upon row of parking you arrive at an unimpressive building.  Saddened by what is the worst castle you have ever seen your gaze slowly drifts above this building and onto a large structure towering on a hill far in the distance.  Now that looks promising.  Further investigation reveals that your current location is only the visitors center.IMG_1187.JPG

Entering the front doors you are reminded of a bus terminal.  Walking past a small cafe to your left and a gift shop and restaurant on your right you arrive at the ticket counter.  Here you are presented with an array of tours.  The ticket agents(employees, park rangers, team members?), I’m not sure of their title, are more than happy to take the time to explain the differences to you and steer you to what you want.  Not only do you have to pick which tour you wish to join you also need to pick a time.  Do not be fooled into just picking the soonest slot as there are quite a few activities in the visitors center.  There are the aforementioned shops, a cinema showing the history of the castle and owner, a nice outdoor sitting area(though the birds are extremely aggressive), and I believe some other things.  When your scheduled time gets near you must line up at the proper gate near the ticket desk as buses take you up to the castle and different tours depart on different buses.  I guess the building gives the impression of a bus terminal for a good reason.IMG_1192.JPG

After queuing inside you take a short walk to a concrete shelter outside where you wait until called by the bus driver.  After this you queue again..just kidding.  Once you get a seat on the bus you can relax and enjoy the curving and elevating ride up to the castle.  The views and stunning and the buses audio fills your ears with information about the trip.  Explaining why there are animals on the hills near the road that have no natural business in California.  Such as that Zebra staring right at you.  IMG_1196.JPG

Most people would believe that a castle on the ocean would be right on the sea, but you would be mistaken.  This castle is far back from the sea high up on a hill.  Actually on the top of a hill with a commanding panoramic view and the ocean a tiny blue streak in the background.  You are taking all this in as your bus twists back and forth up this steep, meandering hill.IMG_1198.JPG

Once you reach the top you are ushered off the bus and assigned a tour guide and your journey begins.  Quite a bit of walking is involved as this is a large structure, as the name castle should have hinted to you.  Also there are quite a few stairs, again as the being on a hill should have been a giveaway.  The tour follows along the lines of most other tours.  If you have been to any other castles the format will be familiar to you.  Some interesting architecture, interesting rooms with interesting stories, a garden, a pool, so on and so on.  All very expensive and extravagant of course.  There is quite a bit of truly interesting information about the owner and castle so pay attention to your guide(or get the tour book at the gift shop, $19.95).  IMG_1199.JPG

Hearst Castle is a rest stop for those driving the Pacific Coast Highway.  Out in the middle of nowhere it is not worth a trip in itself, but it is absolutely worth a few hours of your time as a break from driving.  Enjoy this little piece of European aristocracy transplanted to the center of California.  IMG_1202.JPG

Morro Bay, California

The jewel of Morro Bay does not exist.  Like many, my first and only knowledge of Morro Bay came from the wonderful film Finding Dory.  The aquarium and area looked fantastic in the movie so we decided to spend a night here on our Pacific Coast journey.  Pulling into town we were somewhat disappointed.  It looked like any other small coastal town.  Little did we know then how severely disappointed we would be when walking along the coast looking for the aquarium. IMG_1167

We drove through the town to get to our hotel.  One of the drawbacks to traveling in the off season is that tourist towns look depressing, especially coastal tourist towns, and Morro Bay is no exception.  Our hearts sank driving the bland main street with its plain concrete strips of shops.  Not ones to give up we started bouncing funny and cute Dory quotes off each other to raise our spirits.  When we pulled up to our hotel we were quite a bit happier.  It had some nice flowers in the front and out towards the sea we had a view of Morro rock, which was looming large, quite beautiful and impressive. IMG_1171

Leaving the hotel we avoided the main street and instead directed our steps straight towards the ocean.  Walking down quite a steep hill we passed an RV park and a few hotels and hit a bay.  To our right was Morro Hill and a giant power station and to our left a road lined with shops.  To the left we went, passing shops that may have been open but without a customer to be seen.  The road was much the same.  A ghost town.  IMG_1184

From the start we were not satisfied.  The shops blocked any view of bay.  To see anything one had to use special sightseeing openings that took you behind the buildings to a dock.  It was quite annoying.  After looking out upon the bay for a while and taking some pictures with the rock in the background we headed for the aquarium, quite surprised that such a nice place as seen in the film would be located in this small town.  To our surprise(though we shouldn’t really have been surprised), the aquarium was nothing like in the movie.  It was a tiny little shack on the water.  We were bemused.  We shook our heads and passed on by, using what we think was the only Mexican restaurant in town to lift our spirits.  Unsurprisingly we were the only guests.  Here was the best part of our stay.  The food and drinks were good and our table overlooked the bay where we got to watch otters play in the water.  It was a much needed pick me up.  After dinner we went to our room and slept until leaving the next morning.IMG_1182

As always, Hollywood has exaggerated.  This time outdoing themselves.  There is nothing even remotely resembling the Morro Bay of Finding Dory fame.  Especially not a jewel.  The closest you will find is the excellent though bloody expensive Monterey Bay Aquarium about three hours North.  Plus that city is fantastic.  Do not waste a night in Morro Bay.  Stopping by for a few hours is more than enough.  Move along, nothing to see here.

Kingston-New Zealand

Contrary to the name, Kingston is the minor spouse of Queenstown.  It is a tiny town on the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, about forty seven kilometers from Queenstown.  It has none of the recognition of its Queen nor anything to do besides a tourist train.

The Kingston Flyer, as the train is known, is all the town is associated with.  It is a tourist trap that doesn’t really go anywhere.  My tour bus stopped here on its way to Milford Sound for what reason I could not deduce beyond the owner of the Kingston Flyer paying them to.   Kingston Flyer 1.JPG

Having a coffee, looking out over the clear blue lake, and watching the steam train slowly pull out of the fake station was how I spent our hour or two here.  Afterwards we continued our journey without me having walked more than fifty meters from where I stepped off the bus.  Kingston Flyer 4.JPG

Kingston would be great for a nice quiet picnic but it offers very little to tourists, unless you are a fan of trains.  Stick with Queenstown on the North of the lake and make Kingston a rest stop on your drive south and all will be well.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is probably the best carrier in the USA, full stop.  I have heard good things about JetBlue but have never flown on them.  Though it is considered a low-cost carrier it beats the pants off of the major American airlines.  It is incredible how bad the major American airlines are.  It is difficult for me to say that as my father retired as a pilot from United Airlines.

Let us begin with Southwest’s best perk, two free checked bags.  All airlines now charge for checked bags on domestic flights, except for Southwest.  Not just one checked bag, but two heavy checked bags.  It is incredible.  Fares are reasonable and they have sales often.  Then there is their route network.  It covers the country quite well and as long as you are just flying domestic there is no reason to fly any other airline.  The employees are usually quite friendly and fun(especially in comparison to the ancient and bitter national carriers cabin crews).  The seats are comfortable enough except when you have two whales sandwiching you in, as happened on my last flight, and actually happens quite often in the USA.

The only disagreeable thing I have found is the boarding process.  It is a bit of a mess.  But then again since people on all flights always crowd the jetway and ignore their boarding zone there really isn’t much of a difference.  Their fleet is all Boeing 737’s which is a very old plane, but they take good care of them and are updating with the newer versions.  It is true their pilots are young and aggressive but I have never had an uncomfortable or scary ride.  Just fast taxiing and landings.  So I truly have nothing bad to say about flying on Southwest.

My father hated them when he was flying but that was back in the golden age when there was a difference between major carriers and low-cost carriers.  Now that they are on the same level of service I have no qualms about being a fan of this airline.

 

Saudia Airlines

Saudia most likely will not be on your radar of flight options if you are not a Muslim.  This is simply because Saudi Arabia is not a big tourist destination for non-Muslims and there are much better and more convenient connecting flights through Istanbul, Dubai,  and other Middle East gateways. But if you are a Muslim or contract worker there is a good chance you will fly on Saudia.

Their fleet consists of small Airbuses for domestic routes and Boeing 747s and Airbus A330s for long haul.  They have also received new 787 Dreamliners.  Domestic flights are quite disgusting.  The planes are beat up with broken arm rests and tray tables,  disgusting carpet, filth everywhere, and no entertainment system. The cabin crews are excellent foreign workers but appear burned out as most of the customers do not listen to them.  So on some flights they just hang out in the galley chatting with each other.  I don’t blame them.

Food is good but only if you like rice and chicken.  I believe I have gotten the same chicken and rice every single time.  Orange drink is in unlimited supplies and is what most people have.  Not orange juice mind you, orange drink. Juices are also available.

I detest mobile phones for many reasons but in public spaces and especially the confined space of an airplane cabin I hate how people share everything they do.  Headphones are a rarity on these flights and phones only have one volume, maximum.  So you will have to listen to everybody’s conversations, Youtube videos, and children playing games.  Noise cancelling headphones are a life saver on these flights.

If you are a male traveling alone be prepared to move from you assigned seat if a Muslim woman has a seat in the same row.  A Non-Muslim is not allowed to be close to a Muslim women.  This might mean losing your nice window seat and instead settling into a middle seat between two big sweaty blokes.

The larger aircraft are slightly better.  They are just a faction cleaner and in better repair plus they include an entertainment system.  Be warned that any films you watch will be shortened quite a bit as the Saudis censor very liberally.  Anything that hints of sex is gone.  Violence is fine, but not sex.  So enjoy John Wick but not any women being anything less than fully clothed.  Kissing and touching are also out.

I have gotten to fly the new Dreamliner a few times and it is fabulous.  Clean and perfect.  I do not expect this to last much longer though.

Saudia does have one benefit over other airlines and that is its baggage allowance.  Two large heavy bags for International flights and sometimes three.  This is because Saudis shop like mad on vacation and bring back luggage stuffed to the point of blowing off a zipper.  So the airline does have one thing going for it.

But here we end with the biggest reason to not fly Saudia.  No alcohol.  Not a drop on any flight anywhere.  So if you enjoy a twelve hour flight without even a glass of wine with your dinner go right ahead.  But if you enjoy a little taste on your flights stay well back.

 

 

WizzAir

WizzAir is my favorite low cost carrier in the world.  I fly out of Budapest, Hungary quite often and since the folding of Hungary’s state airline, Malev, many years ago WizzAir has taken over and made it one of its bases.

WizzAir, like all low cost carriers sticks with one type of aircraft to save on maintenance and training costs.  So you will be flying on an A320 or the newer and lengthened A321neo.  The planes are easy to spot as they are a colorful pink and purple.  They carry this theme inside as well and the crew are equally colorful.

Attention to detail begins while searching for your ticket on their website.  They have many levels of tickets and options.  There are two different clubs to join for discounts, Wizz Discount Club and Wizz Flex.  They offer different discounts so read about them to see if either helps you.  They are only worth it if you will fly on WizzAir more than a few times in the year.

Once you find your flight you must decide if you want the Basic, Wizz Go, or Wizz Plus ticket.  Again you must read the description to see what works best for you.  A free 23kg bag, larger size carry-on, seat selection and so on.  I cannot stress enough to do your research.  WizzAir has two sizes of cabin bags.  Bring one too big and they will charge you a fortune at the gate.  Make any mistakes and you will incur a big fee at the airport.  Plan your flight out correctly and it will be beautiful and low stress.

On your departure date be sure to print out your boarding pass before heading to the airport.  This is a requirement.  They do not look your ticket up by your identification like the major carriers do.  The line will probably be an unorganized mess or it might be orderly.  This depends more on the airport than on WizzAir.  Everything will go smoothly if you have everything in order.  Don’t blame the ticket agents for mistakes you made.  Everything you chose and paid for will be listed right on your boarding pass.

After checking in you will go the waiting area.  I don’t believe I have ever had a gate with WizzAir.  Expect a bus to your flight or as is the case in Budapest, a walk.  Boarding is a free for all affair unless you paid for an upgraded seat.  You still get an unassigned seat but you get to board first and pick from specially marked rows.

All the planes I have been on have been well kept and clean.  The crews are young, efficient, and friendly.  They even clean the toilets in-flight.  You do have to pay for food and drinks but the prices are fair.  One euro for a soda and four for a beer or wine.  Again they have discounts for buying certain combinations.  The pilots are also outstanding.  All my flights have been smooth and without incident.  WizzAir runs a tight ship as they refund the ticket price to Wizz Plus ticket holders if their flight is delayed too long.  I have always been on-time or just a few minutes late.

I cannot recommend WizzAir enough.  If they fly the route you are taking give them a look.  If you have had a bad experience with them, which I’m sure some have as nobody is perfect, please comment and let me know about it.  I enjoy all stories and want to know how my luck has been.

Poznan, Poland

Poznan is a Polish city located midway between Warsaw and Berlin.  For most of the year 2009 I called this place home.  Not for work or school but just because I wanted to try a different Polish area after living in Warsaw.  L1040212.JPG

Usually I hate flat areas but I fell in love with Poznan straight away, and it is perfectly flat.  The highest point is a man made ski hill by lake Malta which is about 15 meters high.  Speaking of artificial places, Lake Malta is a man made rowing lake.  So two of Poznan’s “natural” attractions are man made.  L1040182.JPG

Most of my days were spent walking around the city.  Back streets, front streets, side streets.  I probably covered every square meter of the city by the time I left.  My favorite area, as is everybody’s, was the rynek.  Rynek is Polish for main square.  Dozens of pubs, discos, cafes and restaurants crowding for space.  I would stop here for a lovely Polish beer every once in a while.  Tyskie I highly recommend.  If you are of the fairer sex or dislike the taste of beer you can order one with raspberry juice which completely changes the taste to uber delicious and sweet.  Uber is a carryover from German since we are close to the border.  Old Town Center 1.JPG

Now I would only stop at the rynek for a drink every few days.  Then I met an Irishman and everything changed.  I suddenly started spending more time in the rynek than at home.  It would always start as let’s just meet for a cheeky pint outside under the sun.  Then one more please(jedno piwo prosze), and one more, and one more.  Then we would say we really had to go and walk away.  After three blocks I would turn around and right as I’m stepping back into the rynek I see the Irishman coming from the opposite corner.  We throw back a few more and then seeing as we had nothing going on for the night continue into the pub and then perhaps the disco.  Polish discos are the only discos I like in the world.  They are the same as anywhere else but I always enjoyed everything in Poland more.  L1040204.JPG

The Irishman being gay took me to an underground gay disco which was also fantastic.  The girls were friendly since all the guys weren’t trying to grope or take them home and all the guys were a hoot, even after I told them I wasn’t gay.  Sadly I found out that night that Poland is not friendly to all people as the disco had a bolted gate that the bouncers would only open for people they knew.  A stain on this otherwise beautiful country.

When not being kept busy with the Irishman I would continue my walks.  Cytadela Park was one of my favorite locations.  A beautiful and large park with a soldiers cemetery(Russian and Polish) and a military museum.  In the summer people come and lay out or have a picnic on the large grass fields.  I spent many a days walking those paths. I also went to an Easter Mass here with friends where tens of thousands of people filled the fields echoing an archbishop as he spoke.  Scariest day of my life. Grass field in the park.JPG

Stary Browar is the old brewery turned into a fantastic mall.  The most beautiful mall I have ever seen.  It was just a five minute walk from my flat so I spent quite some hours just admiring the building.  Inside the mall is split into two separate areas which they decorate beautifully for holidays.  A must see while in the city.  Stary Browar 1.JPG

Out by Lake Malta is the zoo.  This is a fantastic place thanks to the EU.  Whoever was in change spent the money well.  This might be the nicest zoo I have ever been to.  It feels like a park with superb and large enclosures for the animals.  The entry price is also extremely low for the quality of it.  It is a very long walk to the entrance from the nearest tram stop but there is a zoo train.  It is actually a mini train that goes from the tram stop to the zoo entrance.  An extra cost but worth it as it goes along the edge of Lake Malta so the views are nice. You will probably catch some rowers practicing on the lake .PoznanZoo36.jpg

I could talk about Poznan for hours as it is one of my favorite places but I will leave it off with a picture of Willa Wonkas factory.  I loved walking past this place as it felt so creepy and reminded me of the movie.  I never could decide if it was abandoned or not.  WillyWonkaGate2.JPG