Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Picture Perfect

It's quite challenging to get around the vast LA metropolis, so we decided to hire a car for the day in order to get our cultural fix. We drove to the Getty Museum, which houses the amazing artworks of J. Paul Getty, oil tycoon and erstwhile LA playboy. The Getty Centre was opened in 1997 to house his collection, which includes paintings by Van Gogh, Reuben, Titian and Monet.

We caught a tram up to the hilltop museum where we were astounded by the amazing architecture. The four buildings in the complex are a combination of sleek curves and dramatic travertine stone walls, with very modern water features between exhibition halls. We were thoroughly impressed with the extraordinary architecture.

There are also striking gardens around the complex, with zigzagging paths, wrought-iron bridges, and layers of garden features all blending seamlessly.

J. Paul Getty's artwork also includes a collection of Classical antiquities which are housed in the Getty Villa. This is a reconstruction of the Villa dei Papyrii, an ancient Roman villa on the slopes of Vesuvius. It took its inspirations from other Pompeian villas and features as well, even down to the cobbled-stone driveway. The kitchen garden only had plants and herbs grown in Roman times, and the attention to detail in the atrium, indoor and outdoor peristyles was a real treat!

We ended off a great day with a drive up the beautiful Malibu coast. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and we were on a proper holiday. What a luxury!

Livin' LA vida loca!

LA boasts a 75-mile long coastline and has some of the best beaches in America. We stayed in the Marina Del Rey, one of the largest man-made small boat harbors in the world. The view over the fancy yachts was quite a treat to wake up to each morning, and is definitely something we could get used to!

A short walk up the coast from us lies Venice Beach, famous for its chilled, hippy vibe and boardwalk along the beach. Here we encountered 'kush' doctors, guitar-playing Moors on roller skates, weight-lifters from the 1980s and rather posh hobos. It was a bit flea-markety, and tattoos and dreadlocks seemed to be the order of the day, but it was quite fun and very beachy!

A trip to Venice Beach is not complete without some cycling, so we rented bikes and headed down the coast to Santa Monica. This is a more upmarket area, and is strongly characterised by its great pier, complete with theme park and the famous Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

Another typical LA activity is skating along the Venice Boardwalk, so we also hired roller blades and weaved our way through the runners and bikers. I took the stereotype to the next level when I ordered a soft serve ice cream. What a great day at the beach :)

Venice does have some less hippy areas, such as the 2.5 million dollar homes along its canals. We cycled along the narrow paths of the canals, quite taken with the peaceful kitsh and charm of the place...

City of Angels

Daniel's company held its first quarterly board meeting of the year in Los Angeles. Although some of his colleagues may have held some reservations about the distance to be traveled, Daniel and I had no second thoughts about extending his stay and booking me a ticket to accompany him! We spent a glorious week in the second largest city in America, where we wore summer clothes, drove with the air-con on, and even got slightly pink noses!

LA is made up of a lot of city and a lot of beach. The city is typically big, jungle-like and dirty, but not without its own peculiar charm. The suburb of Beverley Hills was a highlight for us, as the stars' sprawling mansions were quite magnificent. And Rodeo Drive was just like in Pretty Woman!

Hollywood was a bit disappointing as it was basically a tacky tourist trap. We managed to forego a souvenir Oscar statue and a photo with a dress-up Spiderman. The Walk of Fame, with its many stars, accounted for lots of bumping around, and the Hollywood sign, although 120 feet long and 15 feet high, is actually quite uninspiring at a distance.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) neither of us was "spotted" in LA, so we were free to explore the cultural and beachy side of the city for the rest of the week.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Salty Dawg Saloon

Salty Dawg Saloon is an institution in Homer, so we had to pay a visit. As the door creaked open and we stepped inside, we were greeted by the dark glares of twelve bearded fishermen seated around the bar. In the ensuing silence, we were sized up and dismissed as ... *gasp* ... tourists! Fortunately we aren't from the 'Lower 48' and we didn't visit during the busy summer season, so we were served (bottles, no glasses).

The walls of the saloon are covered with one-dollar bills, all signed by the various patrons, so we added our 100 cents' worth to the wall.

We enjoyed our beers in the gloomy fishermen's den, but we soon left for the brighter, less fishy pasture of the wine-tasting course.

A Seaside Getaway

On our trip to Homer we stayed at the Land's End Resort, which has been described as the best-located hotel in Alaska. It is right at the end of a long, narrow spit in Kachemak Bay, and is surrounded on three sides by sea. We stayed in a loft suite so we enjoyed quite a special view of the bay.

Unfortunately we couldn't sneak out onto our balcony to appreciate it...

On Saturday afternoon we decided to walk off our lunch and wine with a stroll along the beach. We braved a howling sea breeze and close to -20 temperatures to do it, and it was worth it. We even stuck our fingers into the sea! Brrrr!

We loved the picturesque drive along the spit road, and we were spoilt for kodak moments. Here is one of our favorites.

We were amazed to see so much wildlife around Homer, and we added some more moose and a couple of sea otters to our list. We also saw hundreds of Bald Eagles, which was awesome! These magnificent birds of prey are endangered in the States, but they abound like scavengers around the fishing ports.

The scenery on the way to Homer was typically exceptional, and once again we were treated to spectacular mountain views. We also drove alongside the beautiful Kenai River, which is a rafting destination in summer. All in all, it was another great weekend in Alaska.

Hi Honey, I'm Homer...

... and it's Caesar Salad for dinner!

We drove down to Homer, a popular seaside town about 240 miles south-east of Anchorage, for a long weekend. The hanger was a cooking and wine-tasting course put on by Van Hale, a top chef in Anchorage. He is famous for his Caesar Salads, and we learnt how best to toss romaine in his delicious (now-not-so-) secret dressing.

During the course we had tasting sessions of varieties of the individual ingredients: ten different balsamic vinegars, ten olive oils, ten parmesan cheeses, six types of anchovies, and four kinds of croutons. It was very cleverly arranged and we learnt a lot about how to combine ingredients.

The weekend also included welcome appetizers on Friday night, a four-course dinner on Saturday night, and Sunday brunch. The best part of the weekend was the fabulous wine-tasting. We sampled eleven different wines from Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, France and America, and we came away laden with a few bottles and many happy memories.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


A friend of ours has a condo up at Big Lake, about an hour north of Anchorage, and she invited us up for a day of snow-machining (snow-mobiling to the rest of the world). Wearing three layers of trousers, five layers of vests, jerseys and jackets, thick socks with toe-warmers, balaclavas, and hand-warmers in our gloves, we set off for an epic day of snow-machining. Daniel rode his own machine, and I hopped around from person to person and rode double.

We literally climbed onto the machines in the driveway at the house and set off over lakes and roads and through trails and woods. The more experienced members of our party reached speeds of 80 or 90 miles per hour over the lakes!
We stopped frequently to rest and to admire the beautiful Alaskan wild, and of course, to share a few beers! Our longest stop was along the Iditarod trail where we watched the mushers coming past after the official re-start in Willow. It was quite fun to send them off on their two-week adventure with loud cheers from the sidelines.
Snow-maching is a deceptively physical sport, and the trails are very bumpy. Daniel and I had a couple of close calls, but fortunately the machines are pretty robust. We did manage to veer off the path into some trees at one stage, and had a real challenge pulling the machine out while thigh-deep in snow!

It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day to be out, and we got to see some truly amazing Alaskan scenery on our ride. We felt again just what a privilege it is to be here. The Alaskans are so generous and friendly and they really want to show off their state. We were tired and aching at the end of our nine-hour ride, but we enjoyed every single second!

Sunday, March 7, 2010


This is an extract from the official Iditarod website (www.iditarod.com):

The Last Great Race on Earth.

A race over 1150 miles of the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer. She throws jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams. Add to that temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod. A race extraordinaire, a race only possible in Alaska.

There are two official starts to the Iditarod: the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage and the actual start in Willow. The finish is in Nome.

Teams from all over the world (i.e. Alaska and Canada) come to participate in the Iditarod, and this year's contestants include a Scot, a Belgian and a Jamaican!

We watched the mushers and their teams of sixteen dogs set off from the city centre, and then raced to the airstrip where the ceremonial route ends. We cheered the mushers in while snowflakes danced all around us. It was quite surreal, and we felt thoroughly Alaskan!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Snow Golf Challenge

Some crazy Alaskan decided to start a Fur Rondy golf day, and Daniel spent Friday afternoon "on a course" with the Anglo team. The layout was like a mashie course, but the venue was a frozen lake. The snow around the tee boxes and putting 'whites' had been flattened, but the three-balls had to carry around with them a piece of astroturf to hit the ball from.

Armed with five woods and an iron, the Anglo Albatrosses and two faithful caddies/ groupies set off through the slush to the first hole. Daniel teed off first and coped beautifully with the pressure.

We soon discovered the challenges of locating bright blue golf balls in deep snow, and of keeping the mat from slipping on the ice during every shot. The holes were inflatable green tubes with a flag in the middle, and just hitting the ring constituted holing the ball.

Two of the holes posed an extra challenge as the golfers had to putt "native-style". At hole three they were obliged to wear 'snow goggles' when they reached the green, and at hole seven it was a pair of seal-fur gloves... This just added to the fun, but since the golf was hard enough already, it didn't really seem to affect their game!

The Anglo Albatrosses went round in an honest and admirable 21, but still lost out to some ringers who shot 18...!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Snow Sculptures

Fur Rondy is the forum for a lot of wacky events and competitions, among them the GCI Snow Sculpting Contest. Have a look at some of this year's entries (including a 'real' snow angel).

Running with the Reindeer

This great Fur Rondy event is Alaska's answer to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, only it's a lot more stupid! All the locals dressed up in ridiculous and skimpy costumes as they hustled their goose-bumped flesh down fourth avenue.

We were too chicken to remove our parkas in the -10 degree chill, but I tied a South African flag around me like a cape.

Unfortunately I had a twisted ankle, so our run with the reindeer was more of a hobble with lots of squealing as the reindeer raced by.