‘Merica

Today marks the end of my West Coast journey as I venture ‘Back to the Future’ and make my way home.

Rather than reflect on my time here I thought I would post a random assortment of captioned pics from the last 3 weeks. I apologise for the varying quality, many were hurriedly taken on my iPhone as I passed – enjoy.

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A find on my first visit to Wally World, 700mL of side-effects and drug-interactions available over the counter.

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Another Wal-Mart find – fireworks! Why, because ‘Merica.

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As I have already told you Ben and Jerry’s is everywhere. Though the highlight was a build-your-own Core Sundae at a Scoop Shop. Turtle Cheesecake – a Scoop Shop exclusive flavour of Cheesecake Ice Cream with pecans and chocolate turtle pieces – and Triple Caramel Chunk with a Chocolate Fudge Core topped with whipped cream (like everything over here, hot-chocolates, sundaes, pancakes etc) and crushed peanuts.

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Another American obsession I already described is the ice-cream sandwich, but the guys at Coolhaus, founded as a food-truck in LA have elevated it to an art form with inventive flavours and cool marketing. Plus these things are HUGE!

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It seems the Americans have a sense of humor too.

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Elise, I immediately thought of you when I saw these. I would have bought one but at the time we were in the middle of the desert and chocolate would not have survived without becoming a giant blob in the corner of my suitcase 😦

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I do however have some of these coming back with me.

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But not this.

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Or these.

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Americans loooove their popcorn, with a huge range of flavours available everywhere.

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As is the old-school soda fountain.

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And Lego, which seems to be making a huge comeback (and millions of dollars based on the number of sets I saw coming out the doors). Apparently it is dirt-cheap over here compared to Australia with parents filing whole suitcases of just Lego to lug home. However, I am a bit out of the Lego-loop so wasn’t really sure what was going on.

This afternoon (Friday US time) I depart San Francisco for LAX at 5:30pm PST, arriving around 6:55pm, then leave for Sydney at 10:15pm.
After arriving in Sydney at 6:20am AEST on Sunday I fly from Sydney to Melbourne and finally arrive back at around 10:35am aboard flight VA824 – see you then.

San Francisco Oddities

For my last full day in San Francisco, and indeed the US, I had an easy day wandered the Union Square shopping area to pick up a few things before heading home.

Union Square is home to a huge-normous Macy’s as well as other well-known US Department stores such as Barneys, Bloomingdales, Sak’s, Nordstrom etc alongside flagship stores for Apple, Uniqlo, Nike etc. Unfortunately it is the beginning of summer over here so stores were packing to the rafters with summer stock just as the cold-snap hits Melbourne and the snow starts falling, however, I did manage to score a few bargains and find a few things you can’t get back home. San Francisco is also home to some smaller flagship stores, and I was able to visit shops stocking brands such as Alden, Allen Edmonds, Wolverine, J Crew, Suit Supply, Naked and Famous and others to try on some of their styles and take note of my size so that I can order with confidence online when the time is right and sales are on. I also had some fun visiting the pharmacies/supermarkets to stock up on some American food. I think about half of my luggage weight allowance will be dedicated to foodstuffs of varying quality and nutritional value so I will need some volunteers to help devour it 😉

It was quite a warm day, so what better way to cool off than an ice-cream at Ghirardelli.

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While I was wandering the streets I came across a few sights that took my fancy, some of which I stopped and took photos of. Here are some of the oddities I found complete with captions.

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Matte Black Ferrari, lotus and vintage Ferrari randomly parked on the street. San Francisco is home to many tech companies, and as such has a high proportion of millionaires/billionaires amongst it’s residents (it also has the most real-estate market in North America), so I’m guessing this is not an unusual sight on the city’s streets.

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Similar signs can be found in the windows of most pharmacies. Australia is seriously lagging behind in this area.

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Despite the high number of homeless, the streets of Sam Francisco are vey clean and here’s why.

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Speaking of streets, these indentations can be found on each street corner, allowing for easy navigation even in the absence if street signs.

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Coca-Cola is everywhere here (and the US in general). This picture of a vintage machine was taken on Alcatraz Island.

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Locals also take their food seriously, and there are some cool shops to be found.

Seeing all of those yummy shops made me hungry so I found something right up my alley for dinner. Super-Duper made tasty little burgers and had the added bonus of bottomless mason-jars of homemade pickles available with their condiments, a food I have come to appreciate during my time here.

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Painted Ladies and Frozen Treats

Today I visited Alamo Square, the park made famous by the opening credits of the show Full House – for those of you unfamiliar, click here.

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The park was dog-friendly and full of people having a picnic on the grass while kids played in the playground, and offered a great view of the city behind the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ – a term used to describe some of the 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian houses built in San Francisco between 1848 and 1915 painted in bright colours to enhance their architectural details. Unfortunately due to earthquakes, the salty sea-air and the ravages of time their numbers are dwindling and many are past their best but there are still a number if examples around the famous square.

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I then wandered to the San Francisco Ice-cream Mecca – Bi-Rite Creamery.

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In the attached market you can buy their famous ice-cream by the pint.

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But here’s where the action was.

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Staff were very generous with the tastings and I think I must have tried nearly all of the flavours (including Balsamic Strawberry, Honey Lavender and Coffee Toffee) before deciding on the compulsory Salted Caramel which they are renowned for, as well as Malted Vanilla with Peanut Butter and Chocolate – yum!

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On the way back to the Hostel I visited another famous Ice-Creamery – Smitten.

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One of the innovators of Liquid Nitrogen ice-cream, the business started out as a mobile ice-cream cart but now occupies a little shed on the corner of a parking lot next door to a rockin’ Biergarten (Beer Garden) on Octavia St.

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They use their patented Smitten Brrr machines to make the ice-cream to order and change their flavours daily (today’s novelty was Olive Oil flavour). Here you can see the machines in action.

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Tomorrow I plan on doing a little bit of shopping to top-up my case and hopefully try some more of the food on offer in San Francisco before heading home on Friday.

Alcatraz to Chinatown

[Warning: Today’s is a big post as i had a big day covering plenty of k’s around sunny San Francisco]

It was another beautiful, clear day in San Francisco as I got up early to catch the first ferry of the day to Alcatraz Island.

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After watching a brief documentary on the history of the Island I took the self-guided audio tour through the cell-blocks.

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There were some amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the exercise yard.

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And San Francisco skyline from outside the Administration Building.

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Now these are the Island’s main inhabitants.

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After returning to the mainland I wandering along the waterfront to Pier 39 (home of clam-chowder in a sourdough bowl).

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Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Boudin Sourdough Bakery (where they have been using the same starter culture since the beginning of the gold-rush in 1849).

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To Ghirardelli Square and their delicious sundaes and shakes. Ghirardelli chocolates were founded right here in San Francisco but can now be found all over the world (as it is now owned by Lindt & Sprungli of Lindt fame).

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I then hiked up the hills to Lombard St, between Hyde and Leavenworth St, and it’s famous 8-hairpin block. There are signs everywhere warning off large vehicles, yet only a few years ago some high-school students on their prom-night managed to convince their Limousine driver to attempt to drive down the (in)famous block for $400. Needless to say it didn’t end well, with a crane having to be called in to lift it to safety.

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On the way back to the hostel I wandered through Little Italy (where they were very excited about the World Cup).

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To Chinatown.

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San Francisco is an amazingly diverse and multicultural town, where you can go from Little Russia, to Little Italy, then Chinatown in only a couple of blocks.

Tomorrow I plan to head to the painted ladies of Full House fame and tick off some foodie destinations including Bi-Rite Creamery and Smitten Ice Cream (and their custom liquid-nitrogen ice-cream machines) – yum. I may also join a walking tour of the Mission (Mexican) and Castro (GLBT) areas in the afternoon. If there is any time left I may head down Market St and check out some of the big-name shops including Levi’s, something you have to do seeing that they were founded here in town.

San Francisco

After awakening to another picture-perfect morning in Yosemite NP we boarded the bus for my final travel leg to San Francisco, my final destination for this West Coast tour.
We rolled into town around lunch time and stopped at a Whole Foods Market in Haight Ashbury for a look around. The epicentre of the 1970’s hippie counter-culture, the area was still home to many of the drugs and residents that made it famous 40 years ago along with the addition of plenty of funky stores. You girls would have a field-day here too, with this area being the perfect spot to pop some tags at one of the many ‘Thrift Shops’.
After lunch we stopped at the top of the Twin Peaks for a birds-eye view of San Francisco.

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We then proceeded to Golden Gate park, which we learnt was actually built as a challenger to New York’s Central Park on the East Coast (and is actually larger in area), and is still home to a herd of buffalo/bison, a genuine Dutch windmill and the Japanese tea-garden that is actually the birthplace of the fortune-cookie (fun fact: fortune cookies were not actually invented in China at all).

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We finally stumbled upon the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

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After learning a bit about it’s history including the fact that it is actually orange (not red as everybody thinks) as this was the colour the steel was delivered in and the lead engineer liked it so much he decided to keep it that colour, and that a team of 39 full-time painters are continually reprinting the steel that if stretched end-to-end would encircle the globe 3.5 times over – we got to walk across the massive structure.

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We were very lucky to get a clear day on the bay, allowing for a good view across the length of the bridge and back to the city of San Francisco and Alcatraz Island, my destination for tomorrow, however, John Steinbeck’s famous quote about the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco echoed in our ears as the icy winds buffeted us, sending us scurrying back the the tour bus after getting our happy snaps.

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As dinner approached we headed for the Hotel, where the rest of the tour group checked-in while I wished them goodbye and good luck before walking to the nearby USA Hostel San Francisco. Along the way I came across a Trader Joe’s where I picked up some Speculoos Cookie Butter before spotting a famous San Francisco tram and some iconic architecture.

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I was quite impressed with the Top Deck experience, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of accommodations and number of included meals offered. Unfortunately the quality of included meals sometimes left a little to be desired, but this comes with the territory when you travel with a larger group. As always on a tour the travel could be have been done more efficiently, with shorter stops and different stopping points, however, I would happily recommend them to other single travellers and would consider travelling again with them in the future myself.

Las Vegas

Wednesday morning saw us depart Hurricane UT for the short drive to Las Vegas NV.
After another ‘Wally World’ stop for some supplies we saw the famous Las Vegas strip emerge from the desert haze. Arriving too early to check-in we drove down the strip headed straight for the Welcome sign for a photo-op. As we drove down the strip we passed all of the big casinos: Caesar’s Palace, The Bellagio, New York New York, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay etc.

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This was followed by a quick trip to the famous Premium Outlets South of Vegas – girls you would be in heaven here in Vegas, not only are there Premium Outlets at both ends of town, but most casinos have a shopping centre within their grounds, with The Forum, Miracle Mile and Grand Canal Shoppes amongst the most popular.
After some retail therapy we checked in to Bally’s Hotel and Casino, our base for the next few days, before wandering down the strip. A family-friendly town, Vegas was full of people wandering the strip and surprisingly it was not ALL about drinking and gambling (though there was plenty of both occurring) with food also big business in town. I checked out a few novelty food shops such as M&M and Hershey’s World.

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For dinner, I lined up to visit Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR for a delicious gourmet burger showing that the US is not just all about fast-food style burgers. It was also nice to have a burger cooked as ordered (medium-rare, not diamond encrusted).

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Wednesday night saw our final group activity before disbanding – a Las Vegas Party Bus. For 2 hours we visited The Fremont Experience, Welcome sign (again, though at night this time) and Bellagio Fountain show before we bid farewell to almost half of the group (9 people left the tour Wednesday night, with only 1 extra person joining on Thursday).

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On Thursday morning as others nursed their sore-heads I took a private stretch-limousine to Exotics Racing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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Exotics Racing has been operating for about 4.5 years. Starting with a fleet of 5 cars, they now have 50 cars in their garage, over half of which are less than 6 months old. Exotics Racing allows you to drive as fast as you can with only an instructor in the passenger seat, and they also take requests for new vehicles for customers to drive, leading to the purchase of 3 Nissan GTR’s amongst others. Apparently the most-requested car is a Bugatti Veyron, but at US$2.4 million a pop our instructor said we had no chance, with the business owners drawing the line at a lazy US$1 million per car.
While waiting for a driver-briefing, we were able to wander around a tent lined with super cars: 4 Ferraris, 3 Corvettes, 2 Lamborghinis, 2 Corvettes, 2 Audi R8, 2 Porsches, an Aston Martin and more. They were less than precious about their cars, allowing customers to sit in and play with the cars, pop the hood and poke around as well as take photos.

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Following the briefing we took 2 sighting laps aboard a Porsche Cayenne (which were probably as quick if not quicker than my own laps) before I climbed into a Ferrari F430 F1 to drive ‘crazy fast’ as the instructors would say. After adjusting the seat and buckling up (safety first) the instructor ran through the controls of the F430 before I stepped on the brake and stabbed the ‘Engine Start’ button and the Ferrari growled to life. I had 7 laps around the track (they twisted my arm to purchase extra laps on top of my original booking, after all who could resist buy one get one free laps) in which to soak up the experience and enjoy driving a dream supercar.
At first it was a bit weird to be driving on the wrong side of the car, and more than a bit intimidating to be driving such an expensive car at speed, but before I knew it my foot was flat to the floor as I slammed up through the gears at the urging of the instructor. The sound was awesome and I was surprised at how much the instructors urged you to go faster. Our driving was aided by some cones marking braking zones and apexes, and I was soon able to pass 2 cars (a Lamborghini and something else) which was very cool. Thankfully I didn’t break the car but unfortunately my laps were soon over, it was an amazing experience just to be able to drive a Ferrari, let alone being able to drive a Ferrari flat-out around a private race-track. My favourite parts were the sound of the cars, and how brutal driving these powerful cars can be when driven hard. I expected the automatic flappy-paddle gearbox of the Ferrari to be an instantaneous, smooth F1 style change, however, the gear changes occurred with a reassuringly mechanical violent thump – particularly when up shifting at full-throttle. If I come back to Vegas, visiting Exotics Racing again will be at the top of my list – the tough decision will be which car/cars to drive.

Yosemite NP

Friday was another free day in Vegas, some of the group went shopping or go-karting, while others lounged by the pool or wandered the strip before taking in a show or two at night. Cirque de Soleil and David Copperfield seemed to be the pick of the current crop.

Saturday was another massive bus-day (the biggest of the trip). We departed Vegas at 8:00am, stopping in Barstow, Bakersfield and Fresno CA before arriving in Yosemite NP at around 6:30pm. After a quick Pizza dinner we retired to our tents for some ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping).

After a chilly night (5 blankets required), we awoke Sunday morning (Father’s Day in the US) to some amazing views from the front of our tent.

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We set off early for the Vernal and Nevada Falls before it got too hot and the trails too busy. Our guides told us we were lucky coming to Yosemite when we have, as the rivers are expected to stop flowing over the falls in the coming weeks due to the ongoing drought.

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It was worth the steep and slippery walk up the rock steps to take in the views of the Yosemite Valley from the top of the falls.

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After returning to the valley floor we walked around Mirror Lake. Unfortunately due to the drought the ‘Lake’ was almost dry. At high-water the lake reflects the surrounding peaks, including the areas highest peak – El Capitan, but currently it is but a series of small pools surrounded by mud and reeds.

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Tonight will be my last night on the Top Deck Tour, spent in the tent once again, before departing for my final destination city – San Francisco.
I have pleasantly surprised by the beauty and range of landscapes at the National Parks I have visited along the West Coast (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion and Yosemite) and am looking forward to San Francisco as many people I have spoken to have listed it as their most-favourite West Coast city, as so far I haven’t been overly impressed with any of the major cities I have visited.

Monument Valley and Zion NP

It has been a busy couple of days. Apologies for the lack of updates but Wi-Fi in outback Arizona’s Navajo country was patchy at best.

We set out Monday morning from Flagstaff AZ to Monument Valley. On the way we stopped at a Trading Post selling Navajo gifts, Stetson Hats and various Americana and a town with an WWII Indian Windtalker museum inside a Burger King (Hungry Jacks’s) – classy.
Our guides included a surprise stop on the road to Monument Valley at a spot made famous by the film Forrest Gump, a perfect opportunity for a photo op.

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We then entered Monument Valley where we got amazing views of the Buttes (pronounced Beaut) and Mesas made famous by Film and Television for over a century. We were taken on an extensive tour of the valley in an open-topped Ute by a Navajo guide – Willie – who told us about the Navajo people: their history, culture and connection to this sacred area, before stopping for some delicious Navajo tacos. The only thing better than the food was the views as we sat out on the Valley floor between the East and West ‘Mittens’ (Buttes).

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As the sun set we headed for our accommodation in Tuba City UT.

The following morning we drove into Zion National Park in Utah, Mormon country. The views out the bus window were amazing as we neared the park, particularly after we emerged from the 1.1 mile tunnel on the way into the park.

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The group split up, some doing a river walk along ‘The Narrows’, while others heading off on the ‘Angel’s Landing’ hike. The Angel’s hike (8km, 420m vertical) was not as long/high as the South Kaibab trail we hiked in The Grand Canyon (9.6km, 620m vertical), however, the last mile included a technical traverse where hikers climbed up/along a narrow ridge with 2000+ foot drop-offs on either side. In some sections hikers were aided by chains, while others left hikers with just their wits to reach the top off the bluff. It was definitely worth the effort, with the views at the top amazing as we were joined by some of the locals.

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It has been interesting to watch the changing scenery and variety of landscape over the last few days, visiting The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Zion. While The Grand Canyon was amazing, it was almost too big to get an accurate sense of size and scale. My favourite was probably Zion, as you were up close with the sheer rock faces dotted with trees growing out of the cracks in the rock.

Our next stop will have a different kind of scenery as we head for the desert of Nevada, bound for Sin City – Las Vegas.

Arizona

Sorry for the lack of updates, but it has been a quiet couple of days – days spent largely on the bus.

Friday morning saw us hop on the bus for our first big driving day, 7+ hours from San Diego to Prescott (pronounced Press-Kit by the locals) AZ.
Our route took us East along the US – Mexican border and at one point we were only about 100 ‘yards’ from the black fence that separates the two.
It was interesting to see the terrain and vegetation change as we left the sand and palms trees of the Pacific Coast and headed over the rocky hills studded with cactus as we were heading inland.
The highlight of the day was a scheduled stop at Walmart (or Wally-World as our tour leader Adam referred to it) in the historic town of Yuma AZ. We played a game with the locals, with the tour member finding the picture of the weirdest looking customer getting the honour of choosing the DVD we would all watch that afternoon (if you are not aware if the clientele that frequent Walmart I suggest you google ‘people of Walmart’). I had fun checking out all of the American foods and snapped a couple of iPhone pics of some of my favourites – Ben & Jerry’s and Snack-Packs (and apologise in advance for the poor picture quality).

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That night we arrived in Prescott and had time to unpack and take a dip before meeting for dinner at The Palace, a Hotel frequented by famous cowboys such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

On Saturday morning we had a scheduled sleep-in before boarding the bus to Flagstaff AZ. I got an early start and checked out Prescott, which was a nice little tourist town with a farmers market in the town square and one of the other local streets blocked off and populated by American Hot-Rods and classic muscle cars (unfortunately I left my phone and camera on the charger so no pics of either). We stopped off along the way to Flagstaff in Sedona AZ and were greeted by this view along Main St.

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After grabbing some lunch we boarded a Pink Jeep for a 4×4 Tour where we climbed to over 7000 feet to get some pictures of the red sandstone formations of the Verde Valley.

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On arrival in Flagstaff we headed to the local supermarket to stock up on supplies for tomorrow’s big day in the Grand Canyon, before heading to Cracker Barrel for some ‘Southern down-home style cooking’.
The Grand Canyon is probably the #1 attraction for most of the group, so hopefully it doesn’t disappoint, with a helicopter ride and hiking planned. Our Hotel for the next 2 nights has good Wi-Fi coverage so I will post some pics of the Canyon tomorrow.