Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Breathtaking Scenery on the West Coast

One of the things which struck me deeply about the United States is the sheer size of the country. Roads can stretch for miles and miles uninterrupted, and the surrounding environment can change dramatically from coastal landscapes, green farmlands, coniferous forests to barren semi-arid deserts. The historic Route 66 - a long winding highway linking the Eastern and Western states of the US - offers such an experience amongst other highways.

Naturally, we were captivated by the beauty of what we experienced which unfortunately cannot be reproduced here in its entirety. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour!

Hitting the road is a common activity for us when travelling from San Francisco in the North all the way to San Diego in the South.

Along the 17-mile drive on the Pacific coast, we saw many beautiful houses. This one here probably costs a couple of million dollars - financial crisis notwithstanding!

One of the photo stops along the 17-mile drive was Seal Rock, which had a raucous group of sealions and seagulls populating it.

Naturally, Ethan couldn't resist a Kodak moment then. Notice the bright and cheery smile at the start of the road trip.

Another photo stop was near the Lone Cypress along the 17-Mile Drive. Here are some cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean.

A family portrait with the Lone Cypress in the background.

I like this shot very much. Its one of those rare moments when I manage to capture something slightly more decent. Here's Tina and Ethan at the manicured lawn at the famous Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

This hotel facing the sea is at Monterey Bay area. Now isn't that a splendid view to wake up to in the morning?

From the balmy breezes of the Pacific, we next move into the barren and semi-arid desert areas in Nevada and the central part of California.

Along the way, we spotted these quaint little "cowboy towns" looking as deserted as they come.

At the border of the states of California and Nevada is the awe inspiring Hoover Dam - an architectural marvel which helps supply much needed hydro electric power to Las Vegas.

Near the dam was Lake Mead, which is an important source of water for the arid regions drawing its source from the Colorado River. Notice how Ethan's smile seemed to be evaporating along with the water levels there....

From the ocean to the desert, we moved on to the national park areas in Arizona.

Here, the roads are lined with lush evergreen forests of coniferous tree species.

The pride and joy of Arizona must surely be the Grand Canyon. Here's a shot of that great pit in the afternoon...

...twillight hours (with full moon in the background)...

... and the morning.

On our free days, we hired a car and drove to the famous Santa Monica Beach area. Here's a view from the Santa Monica Pier.

Some of the hotels and restaurants facing the Pacific Ocean on Santa Monica Beach.

Another photo stop, somewhere along the Santa Monica route near the State Park.

Another beach stop which we took was at Laguna Beach, which was nearer the southern part of the city of LA. The area was an enclave for art communities and had little galleries dotting the town.

We also drove to Newport Beach, and had some fun striking poses like this.

Finally, a bird's eye view of the city of LA near the Beverly Hills area from the Getty Center.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Great American Sale

Unlike other more typical Singaporeans, shopping isn't really in the blood of my family. We much prefer to spend our time exploring the great outdoors, visiting museums and attractions, or indulging in a good meal. However, as a significnt part of our US tour package includes various shopping stops - an ever popular request amongst Singaporean groups - we had the chance to dive into some festive Christmas shopping in the West.

How was the experience of shopping like in the US? Well, here are some snapshots to give you a glimpse of what we did.

The US is full of warehouse discount shops like Target here, which are big factory-sized affairs offering free parking, everyday low prices, and money-back guarantees (no questions asked).

With huge aisles, clearly tagged prices (especially sale items), and convenient amenities within like restrooms, cafes and so on, these shops were a mainstay for the average Joe. The back-end operations of these retail outlets are often tightly integrated into their supply chains, so category management becomes a breeze.

Of course, the big trolleys can be fun to ride in too!

Factory outlets are a big thing here for us Asians. Here's a signboard at Gilroy Premium Outlets telling us where the good brands are located.

Arranged in a row, the factory outlets offer out of season merchandise at rock-bottom prices. The good thing as any savvy Singaporean shopper would tell you is that these items are still in fashion in Singapore. All the leading brands are here: Levi's, Nike, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Banana Republic.

To fuel our retail expedition, fast food outlets like the famous "In-N-Out" Burger is available for a quick bite (PS - they are definitely better than McDonald's).

Another factory outlet which we visited was in the middle of the desert in California near Nevada.

This one offered a food court with a Chinese-style buffet. Obviously, many of the shoppers who travel here are Asians, who have been known to be much more brand conscious than the typical American shopper.

The highlight of the factory outlets here? Coach bags galore! The ladies in particular were in a frenzy here and excitement was in the air. Some of the bags which retail for about S$800 in Singapore could be bought for about S$300 or so here. And they are still very much in fashion. Wow!

What's interesting was that some of the fueling stops, which offered gas for vehicles, shower facilities, and cafes...

...had unique merchandise for sale at their retail outlets. I spotted soft plush toys, guitars, souvenir items, candy bars and the ubiquitous beef jerky snacks. They also had "high-octane" caffeinated drinks and pills to keep one going on long drives.

With a five-year old in tow, one of our stops naturally had to be this icon of American childhood consumerism - Toys R Us.

In terms of store layout, they are pretty similar to those in Singapore. Unfortunately though, the sale items were not really attractive and prices were comparable to those here.

What's unique though - and a common feature in the American buying scene - is that they offer credit cards for toys. In fact, credit is so easily available here that many Americans are borrowing or buying on credit most of the time. I heard from a radio advertisement that you don't need to show your payslip, credit history, financial accounts or anything of that sort. Even bankrupts could get access to ready credit without any fuss.

Naturally, there are upmarket retail experiences in the US. Earlier, I mentioned Macy's at San Francisco's chic Union Square neighbourhood. Here's Rodeo Drive near the Beverly Hills area of Los Angeles - probably the most glamourous shopping spot in America.

Notice how the street lights are actually chandelier lamps. Talk about extravagance!

High-class boutiques offering all the top designer brands could be found here.

Unfortunately, all we could do is to strike a pose. We didn't even dare to venture inside the shops because we didn't have enough US dollars to go around.

Well, we certainly don't want to end up like these guys who were caught by the world famous LAPD!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I Left My Heart in San Francisco....

So goes that age-old favourite by Tony Bennett. Who wouldn't, after encountering this beautiful coastal city in Northern California. The spirit of the season makes it all the more magical for us during our recent holiday in this city of 4.2 million (about the same as Singapore), which boasts some of the most instantly recognisable landmarks of American culture. I believe that our ubiquitous Swensen's Restaurant in Singapore was inspired very much by the spirit of San Francisco.

A view of the streets of San Francisco - in this case the famous Union Square area - by day.

One of the many restaurants at Pier 39, a festival marketplace beside the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco.

Fans of the hit movie Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks would be familiar with this restaurant chain offering fine seafood.

Naturally, Christmas is in the air with a giant Christmas Tree and presents to boot.

On our cruise around the San Francisco harbour area, we spotted these California Sea Lions lazing on the dock.

Our ferry was also followed by these amazing seagulls who soared and flew along with us.

Next up is the most famous icon of San Francisco - the Golden Gate Bridge. My son Ethan said that it isn't gold in colour but red!

The notorious Alcatraz island, location of many Hollywood movie shoots as well as David Copperfield's famous magical illusions. Once housing the most hardcore criminals in the city, it is now populated largely by curious tourists.

A view of the city of San Franciso perched high on a hill. You can see some of the landmarks like the famous Coit Tower from here.

At night, Union Square took on a different magical glow altogether when it was lit by Christmas lights. This of course is the famous Macy's store.

Street artistes like this gentleman lend a festive air to the season...

...as do these carollers sweetening the air with their Christmas choruses.

Of course, nothing is more Chrismassy than ice skating in the middle of Union Square. Boy is this cool or what. Unfortunately, I can't skate for nuts and thus can't join in the icy fun here.

To enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the city, we took a cable car ride and enjoyed an authentic experience.

Next up was a visit to bustling Fisherman's Wharf where we had nothing but...

...seafood, glorious seafood! Freshly caught off the ocean and cooked before our very eyes.

The sensational aquatic feast came in many different shapes and sizes - lobsters, prawns, crabs, fishes, mussels and clams galore!

To cap off the evening, we took a ride in these stretch limousines...

...and enjoyed feeling like a president for a night (despite the pain in the wallet)! Yes, San Francisco is charming and sweet, but it can be a pretty expensive city for anybody to live in.

In the spirit of the season, here's wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas and great tidings for the New Year!