A Travellerspoint blog

December 2011

On down under ... Melbourne & Victoria

25th November - 13th December

all seasons in one day

My last few hours in the USA involved battling the infamous LA public transport system to LA airport; made worse by the fact that it was the last day before Thanksgiving, and half the bus was weighed down with turkeys and other travelers escaping the madness. I was most excited however by the prospect of flying on the new(ish) Airbus A380; the double-decker mammoth of the skies. It was awesome, but even though the flight involved perhaps one of the smoothest take-offs and landings I've ever experienced, the leg room was one of the worst.


The flight was also funned up by the fact that electro pop kids LMFAO and their entourage were traveling to Australia to play some shows; and as they were in the check-in queue in front of me, I was able to hear frontman Redfoo shout down the phone at his lawyer for a good 30 mins whilst they lost 'hundreds of thousands of dollars' in royalties. The 'party rock' lifestyle was obviously however taking its toll, as their band and entourage passed out cold in their seats in front of me as soon as we took off.

Flying westward from LA to Melbourne also meant that I lost a day, so strangely the 13 hour flight left at 11PM on Wednesday and arrived at 10AM on Friday.
I was greeted upon my arrival by a cloudy, drizzly Melbourne and a family friend who I stayed with for a few days; allowing me to update my online life and avoid the wet and somewhat British weather which continued throughout the weekend.

Following a few luxuries including a day touring the Yarra Valley vineyards (a bit of flashpacking is healthy...), I checked back into hostel life, 'Hotel(?) Discovery; a huge place in the centre of Melbourne, close to the huge and diverse Queen Victoria Market (where I once or twice treated myself to some foodie 'flashpacker' luxuries) and was a place worth visiting just for the amazing array of smells.
The first thing I realized from talking to people was a huge difference in the hostel population; with a vast number of people looking and in work, rather than backpacking. This didn't become a problem however, as other guests pursuing a new working life in Aus were just as keen to explore the city as I was, and I found myself some good friends as well as in the role of 'business psychologist'; eyeing over CV's and job applications.


Overall, I spent about 10 days in the city, which was one I had been told numerous times was a great one for chilling out and catching loads of cultural highlights. One thing I loved about Melbourne was how multi-cultural it felt (and it truly is, with incredibly vibrant Chinese, Greek and Italian communities and districts [among many others]). I felt it here more than other cities I'd been to (even NY), because of the such intimate feel of the city.

What's more, the occasional spell of bad weather allowed several museum days, which were some of the best i'd ever been to. In particular, was the old Melbourne Gaol; home to 180 odd hangings including the notorious Ned Kelly and where we also participated in an interactive tour in which we were cast into the roles of convicts and an Aussie 'guard' had a fun time grilling us; especially us Pom's.

The other highlight was the Melbourne Museum; a huge place complete with its own indoor rainforest and a highlight for me, an awesome exhibition on the mind which basically fit the past 5 years of my university education into an hour.



Melbourne was also a great city for music, and a good few hours were spent watching free concerts in Federation Square; a space at the heart of the city, paved with red rock sourced from desert filled Western Australia. Further time was also spent exploring and getting lost in the maze of lanes which ran through the city which were lined with walls of street art. We found a few gems however, namely 'Bennet's Lane Jazz Club'; the 'Worlds best Jazz Club' according to Lonely Planet (although my loyalties lay in NYC...) which was tucked away at the end of one discreet lane. Another gem came in the form of a club called 'Cherry Bar' on 'AC/DC' lane (whose sign regularly got stolen); where we ducked into one Thursday night when they played back-to-back soul and funk into the early hours.

A nice break from city life came from spending a few days down the coast in the sea side town of St. Kilda, which was lively with backpackers and penguins at sunset, as well as 'Brighton Beach' (the best beach in the Melb area); a sandy beach lined with vibrantly coloured beach huts (which I discovered sold for a crazy couple of hundred thousand dollars). St. Kilda was also home to penguins who at sunset each day launch their attack on a beach of tourists following a day of hunting; (the penguins, not tourists). After 45 minutes of waiting, we finally found ourselves surrounded by three tiny and plump penguins who seemed to love the limelight.

Another rest from city life came during a 3 day trip along the 'Great Ocean Road' (stretching for 150 miles along the Australian south coast); which followed some incredibly dramatic, rocky coast including the 'Twelve Apostles' [of which only 8 remain, supposedly), plenty of golden beaches and southern sprawling sea.
We also spent two days driving through and hiking 'The Grampians National Park'; consisting of miles and miles of stunning and unspoilt mountain ranges. Our final day included climbing one particular range, on which our tour guide managed to get us lost on, resulting in a rocky de-tour which I'm sure was not covered on any of our travel insurance policies. Despite a few tears from my fellow group members, we all survived and all problems were remedied by one more flashpacker wine tasting during the 6 hour drive back to Melbourne.


All in all, Melbourne is a great city for getting lost in its maze of lanes and arcades, soul clubs, beautiful parks, people watching, museums (particularly cramming a psychology degree in an hour) and providing a base for some great trips down the coast.
Lots of people I spoke to seemed to mention the great Melbourne-Sydney divide; suggesting an alliance with one or the other after visiting them. As I continued my journey north-easterly to Sydney, I couldn't wait to return to this city as a backpacker and see whether this was true.



1. Queen Victoria Market - Home to every kind of cheese, meat, fruit and Aussie souvenier.
2. Melbourne Museum - Complete with indoor rainforest, a taxidermy army and dream simulator (truly addictive and time consuming)
3. Cherry Bar - Who needs alcohol when you have a soul and funk DJ spinning into the early hours? And it's on AC/DC Lane baby!


Posted by tom_e_free 15:00 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Road trippin' down Highway 1. San Francisco - LA

11 - 23rd November 2011

Our 7 day trip began on a grey and wet San Franciscan morning. Four hungover (but sober...) travelers; two English guys and two Scottish girls loaded with all their possessions made their way up to the top floor of the car rental centre to find their mode of transport for the journey; a Chrysler 300. A standard chice for American drug dealers, this American beast was huge and tank like compared to most cars in the UK, but we soon grew to love it and the novelty of four white kids driving around in it never grew old.


A couple of hours or so down the road, we reached our first stopover; Pigeon Point lighthouse, a hostel right on the coast complete with the tallest lighthouse on the west coast of North America as well as dramatic views of the coast and waves crashing on the rocks. The bleak and somewhat un-Californian weather led to an evening of board games - convenient as our livers needed a night off.


The next morning, we continued the journey 30 miles south down the beautiful and now sunny coast to Santa Cruz, where we stayed at the flat of a guy the others had met a few weeks before. After being shown around this intimate (everyone seemed to know each other...) and friendly sea-side town, we hit the town by night, which included a number of interesting encounters. The night began with a few drinks in a friends vinyl record store, which required self-restraint as I drooled over the extensive record collection and tried to not cover them in drink. From here we moved on to a couple of house parties; the highlight being able to play DJ with another well stocked record collection. Obviously, plenty of Michael Jackson followed and kept the party going.

The following morning, we lined our stomachs with a mountain of homemade banana and choc chip pancakes (a trend which continued throughout the week) before again hitting the road towards our next coastal stop; Monterey.


Sleepy Monterey didn't do too much for us except provide a night sop over and another pancake brekkie. But following another beautiful day of coastal driving, we arrived at San Louis Obispo (or SLO); the homeplace of American nuisance Zac Efron. Even though we again found the town and it's night life to be a little sleepy, a sunny day out the nearby Avila beach; possibly the nicest beach of the trip made up for it.

Our next stop was Santa Barbara, home to the MJ paedophilia court case and his nearby Neverland Ranch (sadly missed out on this road-trip). Considering the area was also well known for its wine, we set ourselves the aim of finding a wine tasting in the town. After stumbling around for some time, we eventually found a wine tasting and all had a good time developing our palates.

The following morning we headed off to the final stop of the road trip, Venice Beach; a beach district of LA. We arrived to a beach covered with a thick fog, however we set about exploring the area, and the girls were keen to find the famous 'muscle beach'. The weather must have been dampening, as the only body builder to be found was a slightly soggy old man, and far more muscles could be seen washed up upon the shore. The rest of the beach provided a more entertaining albeit intimidating experience with locals on the streets in your face selling everything from weed to psychic visions. We passed on these and decided to hit the hostel bar and then sample the Venice Beach nightlife.


The morning after saw a terrifyingly early start in order to make the 11am car drop-off in San Diego. Following a quiet drive and the certain puzzle of finding the car rental depot, we finally made it to our hostel on Pacific Beach, San Diego. We were welcomed by a lively party atmosphere and soon enrolled on an 'all you can eat and drink for $10' beach patio party. Being the final evening of our road trip, we took a tactical power nap and did our $10 justice.

The following day we made our way into San Diego and explored the quaint streets on the Gaslamp district and the extensive Bay area. To our dismay however, it was here we discovered that in fact none of the film Anchorman was filmed in San Diego; leading to a mass sense of betrayal and dampened group morale. Equipped with this knowledge, the next day we boarded our Greyhound bus back up north to LA. This was an interesting experience as we not had an encounter with US border control who had a difficult time understanding why 4 UK tourists who had just spent a weekend by the Mexican border were all heading to LA and leaving the US within a few days of each other. We however eventually pulled up into downtown LA which was prematurely dark with cloud and drenched in rain. Following a goodbye to our Scottish traveling companions over some burgers, Matt and I headed back to the coast and another coastal district of LA; Santa Monica.

Being in LA on the evening of a big match for LA Galaxy; the MLS final, we decided to head straight to a bar to get some of the atmosphere. Even though Galaxy eventually secured a win, it was clear from this bar at least that soccer hadn't quite fully infiltrated itself into American culture yet, as we found ourselves to be the only ones watching it in a room of yelling NFL fans.

Following a recommendation from home (thanks Bernie and Sarah) regarding staying in Santa Monica, it turned out to provide the perfect base from which to explore LA and chill out. With beautifully clean beaches and attractive downtown area, Matt and I both agreed that this was our favorite destination over the past week of travelling, and it created the perfect environment in which we could reflect about our past weeks/months in the USA before we both continued westward. What's more, we noticed an unusual abundance of English themed shops selling all sorts of home comforts, which led to a few cravings having to be suppressed.

Our final touristy duty whilst in LA had to be a tour of Hollywood. We decided to hit the gold-paved roads of the area with 'Rastabus'; a tour company who had converted a mini-bus in to a green, yellow and red beast which blared reggae and Beach Boys. Throughout the day we sped past various homes (and fences) of the rich and famous as well as palm tree lined streets and extortionate shopping districts. Perhaps the highlight included driving up to the LA observatory where a stunning, clear view of sprawling LA could be seen (rare because of the smog), as well as the famous (and firearm guarded) Hollywood sign. Another highlight was stopping over at 'The Original Farmers Market'; home to a maze of covered markets and food joints.



  • If you ever get the chance - eat at 'Singapore's Banana Leaf' - served the 'top 3' noodles I have ever eaten *

After one more day of beach and shopping to update my wardrobe for the Australian summer (as well as one more Chipotle [Mexican grill sure to soon be huge in the UK]), the time finally came to leave the US and embark on the 14 hour flight west to Melbourne.

Overall, the combination of Californian coast, lifestyle and people made for an awesome week; and a sure contrast to that of the East Coast. The whole experience was however made great by driving down the coast with three other travelers who just wanted to take it easy and absorb the easy-going Californian lifestyle.



1. Santa Monica - beautiful beach and great hub for exploring nearby Hollywood. (Good place if you miss home comforts ... loads of 'British' shops)
2. Santa Cruz - It's really not that far...
3. Driving Highway 1 - millions of beaches, windy roads and mexican restaurants.

Posted by tom_e_free 02:45 Archived in USA Comments (0)

San Francisco

7th November - 11th November

Following a 40 minute night bus journey into the heart of San Francisco from the Amtrak station in nearby Emeryville, and almost two and a half days of sitting down on the train, I decided to do the 30 minute city hike to my hostel in the centre of the city. I could feel the muscle in my legs coming back to life, and after a long shower, passed out in my greatly appreciated bunk bed.

The next morning, still keen to get active, I signed up for a San Fran bicycle tour with a few other hostellers. The six hour trip led to some of the best moments of the trip so far; the highlight being cycling over a sun drenched (rare for this time of year) Golden Gate Bridge and then down some mammoth hills into nearby Sausalito. I also learnt some interesting bridge facts: the Golden Gate Bridge is painted orange as it is the most visible colour in fog (very common throughout the year) and secondly, that there is a suicide off the bridge on average every two weeks, making it the number one suicide hotspot of the world. Fascinating, I think you'll agree.

For the rest of my time in San Fran, I was joined by Matt, a guy I'd met in Washington DC a few weeks earlier, and we'd agreed to hook up in SF and then with a couple of Scottish girls he'd met, drive down the Californian coast or The Coastal Pacific Highway following our jaunt in SF.

For three days, the sun shone and we spent it exploring (the huge, but not to be missed) Golden Gate Park and Alcatraz which despite it's eeriness was beautiful in the sun and fulfilled a long time dream to see 'The Rock'. Following our day at Alcatraz, the hostel decided to show the film 'The Rock'. If you ever have the opportunity to watch it, don't.


On our final day in SF I decided to attempt to take Matt on the cycle tour I'd done earlier in the week. It didn't go quite as smoothly. Not only did I manage to get us quite lost in downtown SF, but Matts bike managed to pick up a puncture. However after eventually changing the bike, our reward came as we cycled down the famous steep and curvy Lombard Street, complete with tourists and locals convinced that they were about to witness us cycling to our deaths.


It was also in SF that i ate my first 'In'n'out' burger; a staple meal on the West Coast. Simply put, it was one of the best and most juiciest burgers I'd ever eaten. We also later discovered that they have a secret language for ordering; allowing for mammoth burgers to be built and I'm sure also a number of life threatening outcomes.


It was easy to see why pretty much everyone I had spoken to during my trip loved SF, with it's combination of beautiful but intimidating steep streets, as well as stunning parks and beaches easily accessible from the city. Unfortunatley however, a theme here I did particularly notice (and one which was common in all the cities I visited in the US) was the extreme number of homeless people wondering the streets.

On our final evening we headed out on a pub crawl to say goodbye to the city. The following morning we rose to grey skies to accompany our hangover; perfect as it was time to collect the rental car and start the 9 day road-trip chasing the sun down the Californian coast.



1. Rent a bike and cycle around town and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Cycle down lots of hills, not up them.
2. In n out burger - A west coast institution and one if the best ways to shorten your life.
3. Alcatraz - Head to The Rock, just don't watch the film.

Posted by tom_e_free 01:25 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The California Zephyr. Chicago - San Fran by train. 56 hours

2438 miles, 7 states and 3 time zones...

Having been warned about the Amtrak diet of burgers, nuts and soda, I made sure to stock up on vitamins in the form of fruit and a gallon of orange juice before I boarded the huge silver, double-decker train. Upon boarding, we were ordered by some power crazed staff to 'follow orders' and sit in our designated seats (which was pointless anyway as we all moved during the 56 hour trip). Luckily, the said staff finished their shifts a few hours after departure, and the sigh of relief from the passengers could be felt.


I had also been warned about a high likelihood of meeting 'crazies' on the train, and even though I got away with this, I did hear numerous stories from my fellow travelers regarding this train line being popular with drugs and arms smugglers because of the relatively low security. An interesting wake up call came on my first evening aboard the train when a half-naked drunken man I had earlier seen stumbling up and down the carriage was escorted off the train by several police officers. Amtrak seemingly maintained a zero-tolerance policy towards drunken or drugged passengers, and I later discovered that they will chuck you off at any point when the train stops, so it was a railroad in the middle of Iowa for this particular chap.



Throughout the trip, certain people and faces became familiar, meaning that the train transformed into a little community; sharing travel stories and tales of the journey.
The highlight however was the scenery through which we passed during the 2438 mile trip through 7 states and 3 times zones. Hours and hours of corn fields were followed by a day of climbing the Rocky Mountains to 7000 feet and then the descent into desert and Nevada, and finally the green sun-kissed hills of California. It was also impossible not to be woken up by crimson sunrises and later huge sprawling sunsets.


Even though I have no desire to board an Amtrak anytime soon, this experience certainly beat flying. I learnt just how huge and empty parts of the USA were, how to live off orange juice and bananas, and how to sleep in pretty much any position imaginable.


Posted by tom_e_free 01:24 Archived in USA Comments (0)


31st October - 5th November

all seasons in one day
View 7 months of places and faces on tom_e_free's travel map.

My overnight Amtrak train departed from Manhattan on the 31st of October, a bitter Halloween afternoon. Halloween fever had New York and America in a tight grip, and after feeling as though I'd already had 4 weeks of it, I wasn't too sad to be leaving it behind. My train left Penn Station discretely, through an underground tunnel which took us from the heart of Manhattan to some leafy New Jersey suburb where no trace of the metropolis could be seen. Again, in true American fashion, the double decker Amtrak trains were spacious, with wide reclining chairs and dining cars. The 20 hour westward journey to Chicago passed quickly, as my two reclined chairs made quite a palatial sleeping space. Even though I woke relatively refreshed, I could feel mt New York hangover setting in. At the same time however, I couldn't wait to explore and eat my way through Chicago.

After eating only snacks for the duration of the trip, I set my priorities and headed straight for one of the institutional Chicago pizza houses; Giardino's, who served the famous deep pan 'pie' pizza. It didn't disappoint - a 2'' deep crust packed with sausage, cheese and thick tomato sauce. It was like nothing I had eaten or seen in the Uk - and comparable only to eating a hardback book.
Together with a few mammoth burgers and famous Chicago 'dogs' (eating them with ketchup is a sin), I put on a good few pounds during my time in the city.


Other than the food, I loved Chicago for its architecture and sculpture dotted throughout the city. Downtown Chicago where i stayed also had a great sense of character created by the 'loop' or suspended metro system which snaked itself around the city and past the window of my hostel communal area.

4 days in Chicago felt like enough, and even though I was lucky with some sun during my stay, an incredibly wet day was kept dry when a friend gave me their unused 'city pass' which allowed entry into the Chicago Aquarium (home to some Beluga whales who were awesome) as well as the history museum (home to the world's most complete t-Rex, Sue).

I also wanted to experience some music in Chicago, as it was famous for blues and jazz. On my second evening I ventured to a jazz festival which I stumbled upon. What I didn't know however was that the whole programme consisted of avante garde jazz. Even though I eventually lost my patience with the music, it was worth sticking around to see a number of sour faces in the audience and some overly serious ones from the performers.
On my final evening I decided to check out one of the most famous Chicago blues clubs; 'Buddy Guy's Legends Bljes Club', established by the blues legend Buddy Guy, who actually made a rare appearance on stage alongside a steaming funk-blues band.

On the next and final day in Chicago, with blue skies back, I decided to head up to the 103rd floor observatory at the Willis Tower, or the highest building in the Western Hemisphere. Even though I was accompanied by half a schools worth of kids, the views over the city and Lake Michigan were terrifyingly incredible, but were made even better by the 'sky deck'; a pane of glass which could be stood on allowing you to lean out over this massive drop.


All in all, the 'Windy City' (utterly miserable when combined with rain) provided a lovely little stop-over on my way to the West Coast.


1. Chicago deep pan pizza (definitely check out Giardino's)
2. Millennium Park and 'The Bean'
3. The Willis Tower


Posted by tom_e_free 01:23 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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