Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Las Vegas!

The Lake District is somewhere I fell in love with many years ago and I love climbing the fells.  However, I have been lucky enough to go to many places in the world that I have really enjoyed.  I have seen Niagara Falls (Canadian side), been to the Grand Canyon, ridden a camel in the Sahara Desert, been backpacking in Australia (including staying on sheep stations and cattle ranches as well as seeing the wonderful Opera House and Harbour Bridge in Sydney).  I have stayed in a great Japanese hotel in Sweden in the snow and been to many parts of the USA including Boston, New York, Washington, New England, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  I have had some wonderful experiences.  Las Vegas however stands out very strongly in my mind and is definitely somewhere for high heels!
The Bellagio

Las Vegas is about total excess.  I did not know before I went whether I would like it or not.  I had seen it in films (I love Ocean’s Eleven) and read about it but just did not know what to expect.  As it turned out, I absolutely loved it!  Now I know some of you at this point will be thinking I have lost it – how can someone that loves fell-walking in the Lake District love what is probably the absolute antithesis of it?  I do not think I have the answer about why so instead I will turn to my leadership guru, Winnie-the-Pooh:

“The things that make me different are the things that make me” (wise old bear).

There are parts of Vegas that are tacky but I stuck to the main areas and on the whole it was mainly just over the top and marvellous as a result - it has to be seen to be believed!  I stayed at the Bellagio and the ceiling as I walked in was made up of giant glass colourful flowers!  They were so bright and colourful and a really striking entrance.  There was also a whole train made out of flowers.  The whole place was in Technicolour.   
Glass flowers on the Bellagio reception ceiling
There were casinos as far as the eye could see covering about two thirds of the ground floor with the remaining third covered in shops, restaurants and bars.  The fountains outside rise and fall in time to a host of different tunes and songs (including of course Viva Las Vegas!) and it was an amazing sight. It was standing on the balcony of one of the bars that overlook the fountains one evening that I fell in love with the song “Time to Say Goodbye” as performed by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman”.  I also loved the beautiful music in the piano bar and remember vividly sitting in the bar sipping a glass of white wine listening to the “Clair de Lune” music from the Ocean’s Eleven fountain scene being played.  It was mesmerising.
Bellagio fountains
 The weather was superb – glorious sunshine all day every day.  I am however rather a wilting flower in temperatures that are that high (up to 40 degrees centigrade during my time there) so when walking between locations, I had to pop into shops and hotels on the way just to cool down in the air-conditioning!  How did the early settlers survive in Nevada before air-conditioning was invented?

Each hotel has a key theme – the Bellagio had the fountains and other hotels were based on international cities such as Paris, Venice and New York.  One hotel, Excalibur, looked like a Disney palace and then of course there were the famous ones such as MGM Grand and Caesar’s Palace.  Each one was amazing and I explored most of them at various points – each was like a town in its own right and had authentic cuisine relevant to the theme.  My favourite remained the Bellagio however.  The bars and restaurants were excellent and I had a lobster arrive at my table the size of a whale at one point!  There are also amazing shows and events around the city.  My favourite was at the Treasure Island Hotel where they have two enormous old-fashioned galleons fighting each other as part of the American Revolution.  Obviously it was the British Frigate that sank (literally going under the water) and the captain of the ship was saluting until he went right under – stiff upper lip and all that!
Excalibur Hotel

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, given some of its history, how family orientated Vegas had become – it was like an adult version of Disneyland.  The Americans were so friendly and the customer service was outstanding (not so surprising). They loved my accent as well – it got me free drinks on many occasions! It is interesting how many hotels come and go in Vegas - they are knocked down and rebuilt at quite reglar intervals - all about reinvention I suppose.

Now I am no gambler and could not have afforded the high stakes games even if I was but the slot machines were enormous fun and at one point I was even in profit of about £10 and thought I was going to be the only one who conquered the system (ah...how many people must think that each day?)  This was short-lived however and I ended up about £15 down at the end of the week.  I had a good time without even using the gambling tables.  Other than enjoying the excess of the city, I also went to a Titanic exhibition in the Excalibur hotel.  It was various relics that have been retrieved from the ship and stories of the passengers who had been on the fateful voyage.  I am not a Titanic expert but I have always found the history of it fascinating and to see some of the genuine articles was quite special.

The Grand Canyon
However, I think the most amazing thing I did whilst I was in Las Vegas was visit the Grand Canyon.  I went on a helicopter flight one afternoon with various other visitors and it was amazing.  The colours of the rocks, the sunlight on them, the scale of the Canyon was superb.  We flew past the part of the Canyon where they filmed ‘Thelma and Louise’ drive over the top in the film.  
 This was not the deepest part of the Canyon but it was spectacular to me (although strange flying around mountains rather than walking up them!)  The trip back was as the sun was setting and we flew back over the Hoover Dam which was enormous – it stands at 726.4 feet.  It was built between 1931 and 1936 on the Colorado River and cost the lives of 96 people whilst it was being constructed (official figure, others say more).  It is iconic and a major tourist attraction.  Then the end of the journey saw us flying back into Las Vegas over the main strip (which is what the main road with all the hotels, bars and restaurants is called) at night with all the lights in their full glory.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.

So I perhaps unexpectedly loved Las Vegas.  Would I want to spend more than a few days there?  Probably not.  Would I go back again?  Definitely yes!  But I would want to come back via the Lake District to get some perspective and reality back!  The Lake District remains my favourite place.
'The Strip' - Las Vegas
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Monday, 21 November 2011

Ashdown Forest (or Winnie-the-Pooh land!)

I love the Lake District but there are also some fabulous places to walk in the Kent and Sussex area where I live.  One of my favourite places here is Ashdown Forest in Sussex.  It is an area of ancient heathland and forest that reaches a height of 732 feet above sea level and covers 6,500 acres.  It is also the home of Winnie-the-Pooh as created by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H.Shepherd.  The Winnie-the-Pooh stories are set in this forest and you can visit Hundred Acre Wood, the Enchanted Place, the Heffalump Trap and play pooh-sticks.
My Eeyore
Ashdown Forest also has a rich heritage and history (other than Winnie-the-Pooh).  To highlight just a few areas, it as an important part of the iron-making history of England, a hunting forest since the Norman times and it had a key role in World War II (including being the base for Radio Aspidistra)!  There is a visitor centre there that captures the history and supports local crafts.  Last time I was there, a whole part of the centre had been put aside to sell local wooden crafts (and yes I made several purchases including a wine stopper!)

The Enchanted Place

My latest walk at Ashdown began at Gills Lap, the main car-park to start the Winnie-the-Pooh trail.  I have an excellent GPS and Ordnance Survey map for this part of the world but today I walked with the leaflet from the Visitor Centre to make sure I found all the right sites! It was a beautiful day, with hardly a cloud in the sky and warm even though it was November.  I set off from the car-park and headed towards the Enchanted Place. 

It is only a few minutes’ walk but as soon as you arrive, you can see why Milne was captivated by the area and the views.  According to the stories, this is where Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh and friends set off to discover the North Pole.  They saw this place as ‘Enchanted’ because no-one had managed to count whether there were 63 or 64 trees in it and because they could sit down without prickly vegetation!  I found this beautiful toadstool though which sealed the magic for me.

The Heffalump Trap
A few hundred yards further on, I headed towards the Lone Pine and Heffalump Trap.  This is in actual fact a small hollow where there remains a lone pine.  There is some debate about whether this is the actual place where the Heffalump Trap was but to me it seems like it must have been.  It is a really pretty area and next to it is a beautiful tree with red buds.   

I wish my knowledge of vegetation stretched to knowing what it is called but whilst I have a fair knowledge of wild flowers sadly shrubs and trees are less of a speciality - please leave a comment below if you can help me.  
The Tree with Red Buds

 A really lovely feature of the Heffalump Trap is the path that leads away from it – it is a short gully with branches growing over the top.  I have not found anywhere else like this in Ashdown Forest.

A bit further on from The Heffalump Trap is an area established as a commemoration to Milne and Shepherd with a plaque, which says they “collaborated in the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh and so captured the magic of Ashdown Forest and gave it to the world”.  I find there are interesting similarities between the impact they had on Ashdown Forest and the magic created by Beatrix Potter in the Lake District.  An interesting future thesis perhaps?

I have always been a Winnie-the-Pooh fan (Eeyore being my particular favourite) and have found some of the quotes in the stories more helpful than some of the most famous leaders and inspirational speakers!
“A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference”
“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”
See?  Who needs therapy!
100 Acre Wood
Anyway....I digress.  The walk continued to Roo’s Sandy Pit (a quarry that actually was more muddy and overgrown than sandy but still fascinating to see).  All these parts of the walk were in close succession but it all opened out at this point.  I headed towards Five Hundred Acre Wood, which for Winnie-the-Pooh was One Hundred Acre Wood (or 100 Aker Wood to quote him specifically!)  To get there, I had to pass the ‘North Pole’ site, which is just past a little bridge across a stream.  You may be interested to know that Pooh actually discovered the North Pole first!  The views were superb around this area and it is a real place for families to enjoy.  

Yellow Gorse
One of the most beautiful parts of Ashdown at this time of the year is the yellow gorse.  To me yellow is a spring colour so it was nice to see it so abundantly.  The walk back to Gill’s Lap is a beautiful stroll through open heathland with small clumps of pine trees dotted around and even the occasional Christmas tree.  Somewhere in the area below the path is ‘Eeyore’s Gloomy Place’ but I saw nothing gloomy about it at all.  A great walk in a great area made all the more special by fond childhood memories.  This was only a two mile walk but for those feeling more adventurous, there are miles and miles to explore.

No visit would be complete without an ice-cream from the local vans or a visit to the Pooh shop in Hartfield by the way!
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