Our 25th anniversary in California & Nevada

California & Nevada, USA (April/May 2017)
The Valley of Fire, Nevada (May 2017)

After seeing an airfare sale we decided at short notice to take a trip to the USA to mark our 25th anniversary of being together (we left our children at home with their grandparents since it was during school term).

We have been to the USA a few times so planned our itinerary with a combination of places we have been before which we enjoyed (like Universal Studios and Venice Beach in L.A.) and also added in some new places we wanted to experience for the first time around Las Vegas and Palm Springs. We had a really enjoyable time and fortunately everything went smoothly, thanks to some good planning and resources such as the TripHobo app.

People travelling: Two (me and Steve)

Trip duration: 12 days / 11 nights

Total cost A$5,250 (Flights, accommodation & rental car) plus spending money

Destination 1 – Los Angeles (Venice Beach, Universal Studios, Santa Monica)

Thursday April 27th (Day 1)

One of the great things about flying from Australia to the USA is that due to the time difference you gain a day. (Unfortunately you lose it at the end when you’re returning home.) Our flight departed Sydney at 9.54am and after 13 ½ hours of flying we landed at LAX on time at 6.30am on the same date. We passed through customs and immigration relatively quickly, didn’t have to wait long for our bags and before we knew it, our taxi had delivered us to our accommodation at the Cadillac Hotel on Venice Beach just before 8am. Of course check in time is not until 3pm so we had a lot of time to kill. After dropping our luggage at reception and a light breakfast across the alleyway at the Candle Café, we took a stroll down the Oceanfront boardwalk. Being early, it was still fairly quiet, with only some people jogging & walking and a few homeless people pottering around. Jet lag setting in, we were glad when our hotel room was ready early and we spent the rest of the day relaxing around the hotel and walking along the Venice beach promenade. There was a bit more life about in the afternoon. We browsed in some of the stores and stalls, enjoying the fresh air and mild April weather. We ended our very long day with dinner back at the Candle Café, opposite our hotel and watched the sun setting over the Pacific.

Venice Beach (April 2017)
Friday April 28th (Day 2)
View from Ocean front room (April 2017)

We awoke to a gorgeous view from our room, overlooking the beach. After a quick breakfast back at the Candle Cafe, we took a town car to Universal Studios. Once we arrived, our first stop was the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter (amazing how true to the movie this section is, with rides and stores).

Hogwarts Castle, Universal Studios (April 2017)

We spent the next couple of hours wandering around the rest of Universal Studios and enjoying the rides, although felt a little guilty to be having fun here without our children. There’s lots of choice for lunch inside the park, however we decided to head out to City Walk to the Hard Rock Café.  After stuffing ourselves on their huge portions (note to self – share next time!) we went back inside Universal Studios to catch a late afternoon back lot tour. Then we headed back to our hotel for the night, just in time to catch another sunset on Venice Beach. After a rest we walked up to Lincoln Blvd to La Cabana for a late Mexican meal around 11pm (apparently they are open very late, until 2am).

Saturday April 29th (Day 3)

After a lie in, we walked up to Main Street for some breakfast at The Firehouse (corner of Rose & Main). We’ve visited this diner plenty of times on our holidays to L.A. over 20 years and it never disappoints us. Afterwards, we caught a blue bus to Santa Monica, where we browsed the malls and looked around the shops for a few hours. We skipped the Santa Monica Pier this time having been there many times before. We headed back to Venice beach for dinner on the Oceanfront boardwalk and another lovely Pacific sunset.

Venice Beach (April 2017)
Sunday April 30th (Day 4)

We spent most of the morning walking southbound along Venice Beach’s Oceanfront Boardwalk. We stopped for a while to watch some skaters performing tricks at the skate park, then headed over to Abbot Kinney for a look around their trendy boutiques. We stumbled upon Abbot’s Habit café and were pleased to find they knew how to make a great Latte … sadly have heard this café has since closed down. After so much walking, we decided to head back to our hotel room to relax for a while, listening to the live music from the boardwalk below, which was really good.

The original Muscle Beach area (Feb 2017)

Then, revived, I went for another walk along the boardwalk in the opposite direction, heading north this time, all the way to Santa Monica where I watched some acrobats practicing their moves and some people playing beach volleyball.

The Sidewalk Cafe, Venice Beach (April 2017)


After a long day with lots of walking we enjoyed dinner at the Sidewalk Café, followed by another gorgeous sunset and the Electric Light Parade (bicycles all lit up) which happens every Sunday night at dusk. As we walked back to our hotel we were sad to see the famous Freak Show closing its doors for the last time as they took down their signs.

For more ideas on things to do around Venice Beach: read here

Destination 2: Las Vegas, Death Valley, The Valley of Fire

Monday May 1st (Day 5)
Baker (May 2017)

We checked out of our hotel, caught a taxi over to LAX to pick up our rental car at Dollar Car Rental, then set off for Las Vegas. Having driven this route a few times in the past, we knew to stop at Barstow’s Premium Outlets for some shopping and lunch, then refuelled at Baker where we checked the huge thermometer (unbelievable how many quirky drinks and snacks they had for sale in their shop – they even sold bacon flavoured toothpaste).

We arrived in Vegas around 6pm, checked into Treasure Island for 3 nights and settled in for the evening, finding the café in our hotel a great option for a late dinner and cocktails.

Treasure Island Casino & Resort, Las Vegas
Tuesday May 2nd (Day 6)

We left our hotel around 7.30am for a self drive tour of Death Valley. We had a full day of driving and sight-seeing. We didn’t do a lot of walking around or hiking, there simply wasn’t enough time for everything we wanted to see in one day, plus it was too hot, even for early May. Refer to this  link for our itinerary & some ideas of sights you can see around Death Valley in one day.

Dante’s View (May 2017)

After a long day we finally got back to Vegas around 9pm, then headed across to the gorgeous Venetian Casino for a late dinner at Grand Lux Café. The food was really delicious; portions are huge in Vegas!

Wednesday May 3rd (Day 7)
Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas (May 2017)

We had a 10am booking for the Neon Boneyard Museum, then afterwards drove over to the Mob Museum. Despite having been to Vegas a few times this was our first visit to these museums. Both were fantastic, very informative and interesting, well worth the visit (The Neon Boneyard can get a bit hot though, being outdoors).

After we were ‘museumed out’ we went across to the Fremont Street Experience and enjoyed a late buffet lunch at the Golden Nugget Casino, followed by a walk around the precinct.

The Valley of FIre, Nevada (May 2017)

Around 3pm we left for the Valley of Fire, not a long drive, only about an hour north of Vegas. The Valley of Fire was beautiful and we drove around for a couple of hours admiring the colourful scenery and stopping to take lots of photos, before finding a place to hang out waiting for the sunset. We found a couple of hours driving around was plenty of time if you don’t plan on hiking and just want to go for a drive.

The Valley of Fire, Nevada (May 2017)

After sunset we drove back to Vegas and I plucked up the courage to go on the Big Apple rollercoaster at New York New York Casino (OMG – so scary I was shaking when I got off!) Afterwards, my adrenalin still going, we went to Caesars Palace for a look around, admiring the painted ceilings and Italian styled decor. We couldn’t decide where to eat and eventually went back to Treasure Island’s café which was open late, for cocktails and a late dinner.

Destination 3: Palm Springs, Coachella Valley

Thursday May 4th (Day 8)

On our way out of Vegas, we had a quick stop at the Vegas South Premium Outlets for a coffee and some brief shopping, before driving on towards Palm Springs. We had lunch and refuelled at Barstow then drove on to Palm Springs, arriving at around 5.30pm. We checked in at 7 Springs Hotel for 3 nights. Steve went to World Gym in Palm Springs for a work out and I drove back to the Skechers Outlet 35 minutes away in Moreno Valley (a massive store with lots of choice and sooo inexpensive compared to prices in Australia).

Later back in Palm Springs, Steve and I wandered up to Village Fest (a street market, on every Thursday night) followed by a late, delicious dinner at Kaiser Grille.

Village Fest, Palm Springs
Friday May 5th (Day 9)
Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway

We enjoyed a late breakfast at the trendy and popular Lulu’s. Then had a lazy few hours around the hotel where Steve did some washing in the hotel’s guest laundry room. In the afternoon I decided at short notice to head over to Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway for a tour. I also drove by the house Marilyn Monroe used to live in for a while which was around the corner.

In the evening, we found our favourite downtown bar (Alibi’s Azul Bar) and had cocktails, then had a delicious steak for dinner at a restaurant across the road “360 North” with some really good live music played by a couple of old crooners (Frankie Sinatra style) as a bonus.

Saturday May 6th (Day 10)

As we planned to drive over to Coachella for a look around, we thought we’d stop off at Sonic Drive-In at Cathedral City on the way for brunch since we kept seeing it advertised on TV – the actual look of the place was pretty cool, reminiscent of 1950’s drive-in diners and I almost expected to see a waitress on roller-skates delivering food to our car. Though the food was unfortunately very disappointing – microwaved and soggy hotdog and toasted sandwich.

Coachella Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve was worth the short drive. Thankfully the weather was more bearable than our past few days of extreme heat. We basked in the slight breeze, as we walked around in the shade of the huge unkempt palm trees. The stream and oasis was full of beautifully coloured dragon flies and some small fish – it seemed oddly out of place in the middle of the desert.

Thousand Palms Oasis (May 2017)

Later in the afternoon, the skies looked stormy and wind got up, something we haven’t experienced in Palm Springs on any previous visits. It wasn’t raining though, so we ventured out for dinner and discovered Riccio’s for a lovely Italian meal, virtually having the restaurant to ourselves due to the weather. We noticed lots of hen’s parties wandering around, apparently Palm Springs is a safe option for groups of women. There were also a lot of groups of men walking around wearing white (we discovered the ‘White Party’ was on that weekend).

There are plenty of other things to see and do in Palm Springs, but as this was our third visit we skipped some of the obvious destinations, such as the Aerial Tramway. For more ideas and reasons to visit Palm Springs: read here

Destination 4: Los Angeles (Santa Monica, Malibu)

Sunday May 7th (Day 11)
Palm Springs Vintage Market (May 2017)

After checking out of our hotel, we went to the Palm Springs vintage market. This is only on once a month on a Sunday and was our first time our visit had coincided with it being open. We paid the small entry fee, then browsed the stalls and found they had amazing array of items for sale. It was a shame we couldn’t fit anything in our luggage. It was time to leave Palm Springs for our drive back to LA, although I insisted on another stop off at the Cabazon Premium Outlets just outside Palm Springs for some last minute shopping. About half way to L.A. we were hit with a hail/sleet storm, and the temperature dropped massively, from 25 degrees (Celsius) to 3 degrees. It was a little scary driving on the freeway when this happened but we actually couldn’t pull over in the busy traffic, due to the poor visibility it was too dangerous to try changing lanes. It was safer to continue in our lane at the slow speed we were driving.

Santa Monica (May 2017)

Finally, we came out of the storm and drove the last leg of the freeway, to arrive safely at Santa Monica beach, where checked in to the Hotel California for our last night (it’s since changed its name to Sea Blue Hotel). This was a quirky boutique motel, in fantastic location. We walked up towards Santa Monica mall, took some photos of the sunset from the cliff tops on the way, then looked for somewhere for dinner & found a nice Italian restaurant. After dinner we decided to catch a late movie (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2) in one of the lovely art deco cinemas, with comfortable recliner seats. We ended the evening on our last night in the USA by going for some late night drinks at Chez Jay, a famous little bar opposite our hotel known for being frequented by the rat pack in its day.

Monday May 8th (Day 12)

We walked up a couple of blocks to Jinky’s for breakfast, then visited the Santa Monica Camera Obscure on the way back to the hotel. After we checked out, we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to El Matador State Beach, admiring the coastline and scenery along the way.

El Matador State Beach, Malibu (May 2017)

El Matador beach is a great photography spot, often used for film shoots due to its beautiful scenery, with its rocks amongst the waves on the beach. Though, it was very windy and there are lots of stairs to descend to get down to the beach. We didn’t stay long before driving back to Paradise Cove Beach café, a great spot for lunch on the beach (and if you spend a certain amount in the restaurant, parking is substantially discounted). It was now early afternoon and we still had a few hours to kill before our flight so we drove back Santa Monica for a wander around the mall and a coffee. A couple of hours later, we finally drove back to LAX, returned our rental car and checked in for our late flight back to Sydney, which left at 11.15pm & arrived 6.50am on Wednesday 2 days later.

Travel tips for USA:
  • Pre-book tickets online for Universal Studios in L.A.; Neon Boneyard and Mob Museum in Las Vegas
  • Tipping can be daunting for foreigners who aren’t used to it – fortunately most restaurants and taxi cabs give guides on the bill on what percentage to pay; for bags at hotels, usually $1 per bag; in bars, usually $1 per drink)
  • Rental cars for foreign visitors are challenging when you stop for fuel. You must pre-pay and since the pumps wont take overseas credit cards if you don’t have a local postcode, you must pre-pay at the counter inside. This becomes even more challenging if you aren’t familiar with the tank size and are unsure how much it costs to top it up. If you overpay when you prepay they tell you they will adjust and process the correct amount your card. Alternatively you can ask to leave your credit card behind the counter while you fill up (I have reservations on this due to increased risks of credit card fraud).
Experience using TripHobo:

Great for planning an itinerary, especially for planning road trips – it gives you a guide on how long it takes to get from one place to another and how long to spend at each tourist attraction. I found this iPhone app quite helpful.

Why you should visit Palm Springs

Palm Springs, California
Palm Springs at dusk (July 2015)

The first time we visited Palm Springs was July 2015. Our first impression couldn’t have been better. We arrived on a Wednesday evening, a little tired after driving from San Diego and a day at Legoland with our two children, then aged 11 and 8. After checking in at our accommodation, we all walked up the quiet main street to look for somewhere for dinner. Timed perfectly with the sunset, we saw gorgeous musky pink colours reflecting off the palm trees and buildings, hazing over the surrounding mountains. The vibe of the town was relaxed with a vintage feel, thanks to the architectural design and resort style of houses & buildings, combined with interior artwork and retro décor. I felt like I had stepped back in time and almost expected to bump into Elvis or some other old movie star. We all instantly fell in love with this town.

PS Florist (May 2017)

Despite what you might hear, Palm Springs is not just a place for retirees. There’s a great selection of things to do, as well as bars and restaurants, appealing to all generations. It’s also very stylish. Walking back from a restaurant later at night and browsing in the windows of the art and furniture stores, you will always see something interesting and unusual that catches your eye.

Continue reading “Why you should visit Palm Springs”

How to survive a day at Death Valley

Death Valley, California, USA (May 2017)
Death Valley (May 2017)

Having driven past the signs for Death Valley several times on our way to Las Vegas, this is a destination we have always wanted to visit but were discouraged due to the extreme heat. According to the nps website it can reach 120F (49C) on a summer’s day and others claim this to be the ‘hottest place on earth’.

When we were planning 3 nights in Las Vegas for May 2017 and considering new places to experience during the day, I wondered if being Spring, this might be an ok time of year to visit Death Valley? We only had one free day due to other attractions we wanted to see around Vegas, so I started researching to see if a day trip would be possible. I was pleased to learn it was a manageable 2 hours drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley Junction and that you can visit quite a few of the ‘must see’ popular spots in one day. Although I also discovered that even though we would be going in early May, it could still be quite hot… low 100’s!

We decided to go for it, and once again, thanks to research and careful planning, this turned out to be a successful trip. However, I will say straight up, while it is possible to visit as a day trip from Las Vegas, there is a lot to see in Death Valley and if you truly want to appreciate this national park and intend to do some hiking, you should consider an overnight stay or two.

Fortunately, it all worked out and turned out to be a very enjoyable, although long, day. We made it to all but one of our planned stops.

This was our route plan: Continue reading “How to survive a day at Death Valley”

Our weekend in the Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves, NSW Australia (July 2016)
Jenolan Caves (July 2016)

This was a short trip, much closer to home on the outskirts of Sydney.

During the winter school holidays in July 2016 I took a Friday off work so our family could take a long weekend break away from Sydney. Together with hubby, Steve, and the two children (then aged 12 and 8) we drove up to the Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves. The weekend was balanced perfectly with activities, site-seeing and quiet down-time.

The Blue Mountains is about a 90 minute drive west of Sydney (2 hours if you are coming from the northern beaches like us). Its breathtaking landscape and scenery spans approximately 11,400 km² and offers an array of attractions, including bushwalking trails, waterfalls and ancient limestone caves.  Aside from its world heritage listing, its many towns and villages also offer a delightful experience with their guesthouses, galleries and gardens and there are plenty of dining options from fine dining restaurants, to cafes, coffee shops and tea houses.

As a family we have been to the Blue Mountains a couple of times, but usually just for a day trip.  However Steve and the children hadn’t been to Jenolan Caves before and I hadn’t been since I was a small child, so we were looking forward to discovering this part of the mountains.

This was how our weekend went: Continue reading “Our weekend in the Blue Mountains”

Family road trip to Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon’s South Rim, Arizona, USA (July 2015)
The Grand Canyon (July 2015)

Ok, so when someone says they visited the “The Grand Canyon” you need to ask them to clarify which part – it is absolutely enormous! Unfortunately, we could only squeeze 2 nights into our itinerary for our visit, so after doing my research I decided we would visit the South Rim. On most accounts that I read during my research, this was the most spectacular – the real Grand Canyon. Not to detract from the other parts, but we couldn’t see it all…. So South Rim it was.   As it turned out, 2 nights (one full day) really wasn’t enough time to spend there either; there was so much more we could have done and seen, although from the children’s perspective, that was probably the extent their attention span could manage.

This was another trip that turned out to be a success, with all the planning working out well.  Here are my tips and our experience of our road trip and visit to The Grand Canyon: Continue reading “Family road trip to Grand Canyon”