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All posts by:Luke Marlin

Los Angeles: Fun things to do in the world’s worst city

Hollywood sign over the hills from Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles is a sprawling mess. Highways criss and overpasses cross, and despite 7 lanes of traffic they still manage to get possibly some of the world’s worst traffic jams. It’s attractions are vastly spread and you can feel like you might waste your entire vacation in transit, especially if you try and rely on public transport.

So with that wonderful introduction done, welcome to a blog post all about Los Angeles!

Alright so the above is what we generally know so far. If Florida is America’s dong (look at a map), LA must be America’s butthole. So when Kynie said she hasn’t seen any of LA before and wanted to do Disney’s California Adventure, I took it as a challenge to find some good in the city that has given me so little.

And I succeeded. I had 4 days in Los Angeles and  this is how I spent it.

Hollywood Sign, the closest you can walk to

Day 0 – arrive in Anaheim from Las Vegas

So the first thing to know about LA if you’ve never been is that it is fricken huge – we’ve established that. My best recommendation is to stay in 2 places and segment your time there. This will save you travel time and you will be able to go at a much more relaxed pace. I didn’t do this in 2011 when I visited with a mate – it took us (an admittedly unusually slow) 2 hours to get to and from Disneyland from Hollywood. And then 2 hours back.

Anyway, for our recent trip in 2016 we arrived in Anaheim after a long day driving from Las Vegas. We arrived around 10pm and were very thankful to be checking in to the Hilton.

Followers of this blog know that I don’t seek luxury; I search for value. I think in this instance I found both. I paid $177 for 2 nights at the Hilton. I still can’t explain why.

Maybe there was a glitch on Booking.com. Maybe it was a weekday. Maybe there’s so many hotels in the area they have to keep the price down. Regardless, I didn’t ask too many questions.

Santa Monica Pier and beach LA

Day 1 – Disney’s California Adventure

Kynie and I opted for California Adventure because we had recently been to Magic Kingdom in Orlando, which is very much the same.

If it was your last day on earth and you could only visit one, you would visit Disneyland every time. However, as the smaller, younger brother, there is definitely a place for California Adventure and if you had 2 days left on earth you’d absolutely spend one at each. It is conspicuously Disney, unapologetically Californian, and (in December) just a little bit Christmassy.

California Adventure with Mickey's fun wheel

We rode in a matchbox in A Bugs Land, watched Mickey do a musical number with some newspaper boys on the street, rode Paradise Pier – the single roller coaster, and did a few laps on Mickey’s Fun (ferris) Wheel.

But the real highlight was the time spent in the recently built Radiator Springs: the town straight out of the movie Cars. From the Radiator Springs Racer ride to eating in the Route 66 themed Flo’s Diner for lunch, you truly felt like you were part of the story. True to their style, Disney went to infinity and beyond creating Cars Land.

Cozy Cone Motel Radiator Springs Disneys California Adventure
Cozy Cone Motel, Radiator Springs in Disney’s California Adventure

Day 2 – Relocate to Hollywood, via Downtown LA, Griffith Park

Dirty, hazy, and full of sirens and bums, but if you overturn a few rocks you might uncover some gems in Downtown LA.

I found a couple when I visited. We only spent a few hours Downtown but since we had skipped breakfast we were on the hunt for food and coffee.

Verve Coffee Roasters

Thankfully Kynie is an absolute fiend at finding sweet coffee spots and she led us to Verve Coffee Roasters for a coffee and a decadent Nutella croissant. The thing I’ve noticed about coffee in the USA is that, like everything, they do it huge. But unlike many other things, they also generally do it poorly.

I ordered a latte and the size that I received would have been classed as a “mug” size back home. I have no doubt that this was a regular size in America. So even though we were at a swanky, hipster coffee place, the coffee was far milkier than any coffee I’ve had back home. Anyway, surely it must be the best cafe Downtown, as despite the size, it was a good coffee, and I could live on that Nutella croissant.

The Last Bookstore

The last bookstore is a huge, double story second-hand bookstore with an enormous range of both new and used books and records. Although a little difficult to find things due to the unique way the timber shelves are arranged, the store is inviting and friendly.

It also has a few creative ways of stacking books: one being a tunnel of books, another being a window made from books, and the actual serving counter top is made entirely from books as well. It was very cool. Best of all, the prices are very reasonable.

The Last Bookstore Downtown LA book tunnel

Grand central market

We next found GCM and it served to be good timing because I was getting pretty hungry. The market is stacked full of food stalls with everything from burgers, German sausage, deli meat burgers, specialty eggs, fresh fruits, and smoothies.

After a couple of hours it definitely seemed like it was time to leave DTLA. The people weren’t exactly why you’d call calming, and the homeless people were bumming me out (pun intended). So we headed for the hills! Literally, actually.

Old zoo – Griffith Park

Not to be confused with the Los Angeles Zoo that is fully functioning with live animals, the Old Zoo is an abandoned zoo in Griffith Park that is now used for picnics and hip hop film clip shoots. It is open to the public and you are free to roam the cages and pits and see what life was like as an animal. It’s very safe and is a great way to see a different side of metropolitan LA.

Old enclosures at the Abandoned Zoo Los Angeles
Old enclosures at the Abandoned Zoo in Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Griffith observatory

Not far from the Old Zoo is the Griffith Observatory, located high in the Hollywood hills – a few hills away from the famous sign.

As well as a fully functioning observatory, it also doubles as a museum and learning centre with regular shows all about the stars and the cosmos.

But best of all, it boasts one of Los Angeles’ best views and it a fantastic spot to watch the sun go down.

The Hollywood Hills from the Griffith Observatory Hollywood LA
The Hollywood Hills from the Griffith Observatory

In’N’Out Burger

No trip to the West Coast would be complete without the artery-clogging goodness of In’N’Out Burger: pride of the West Coast. I had it last time I visited and was not disappointed this time in Hollywood.

What’s great about In’N’Out is its simplicity. You get a bun, onion, sauce, cheese, meat and a bit of the obligatory salad. Alternative menu options include more meat and cheese. (But if that’s not enough, there’s always the ironically titled “secret menu”, which is definitely worth exploring.)

The fries are notoriously bad, but making them “animal style” or “well done” does help to improve them.

Winter solstice sunset at griffith observatory hollywood LA

Day 3 – Universal Studios

Once we decided to spend a bit of time in LA it quickly became apparent that Universal Studios should be on the itinerary. Universal would be fun as a theme park lover, but as someone who loves movies the park is exceptional at giving you a fully immersive experience in some of your favourite films.

Hogsmeade in Universal Studios Hollywood

Set in Hogsmeade, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is as good as it gets. From the frog choir performances to a real talking sorting hat. And Hogwarts in the distance is just remarkable. The accuracy at which some of the stores are presented as well will make you actually think “maybe I should have been watching more closely when running between platforms 3 and 4”.

Meeting Krusty the Klown at Universal Studios Hollywood
Kicking Life Goals

However my favourite land was actually Springfield. As a massive Simpsons fan growing up, and now just a fan of the classics, Universal have created a cartoon land that feels authentic and gimmicky all at the same time. We ate lunch at Moes Tavern, won a Krusty doll playing Sideshow games, got a photo with Bart and almost got killed by Bob at the opening of Krustyland (which is the theme of the single ride).

The only real disappointment was that steamed hams were not on a single menu and I had to settle for fried chicken.

Honourable mention to Whoville, complete with 60 foot Christmas tree, as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is one of our go to Christmas movies.

Whoville Christmas Tree at Universal Studios Hollywood
“Blast this Christmas music… it’s joyful AND triumphant.”

Stout Burgers and beer

I love any place that has a food menu and separate menu for beer, especially when burgers involved. Ergo I loved Stout Burgers and Beer. The menu is more than just standard burgers though, it takes the humble burg’ to the next level. In addition to the thick, juicy, medium rare patty, mine was a menage of brie, fig jam, and caramelised onions. Simple, yet mind blowing.

To complement this I ordered two sour beers out of the 6 that were on offer. This is more than I’ve ever seen on any menu anywhere and was suitably impressed.

10/10, would bang again. And I would visit Los Angeles once more just so I can go here again.

Day 4 – Santa Monica

Santa Monica was never front of mind for me the first time I visited LA and as such I didn’t make it out there. But this time was different. This time I was much more educated.

We started by walking down 3rd Street Promenade, the main shopping street lined with cafes and boutiques. Kynie bought a jumper because it was unbelievably windy. The street is wide and pedestrian only, and it is decorated with some creative dinosaur hedge sculptures.

Once we were clear of the shops we drove a few blocks to Sidecar Doughnuts and Coffee because, well, frankly who needs a reason for doughnuts? The doughnuts were a decadent array of flavours enough to make any doughnut lover blush. The coffee was also well above the American average so make your way here if you need a good fix.

Coincidentally, it is also located right next door to Mendocino Farms, who do some wicked sandwiches and it was the perfect place for lunch.

Sunset over Venice Beach, LA

All this build up eventually led us to the Santa Monica pier… via Malibu. We figured we had a car, let’s go for a coastal drive. It’s a lovely drive, with glimpses of the ocean through driveways on one side, and hillside mansions on the other.

The Santa Monica beach itself is pretty special. From road to water it must be a good few hundred metres, even on hot days I can imagine you’ll always be able to find a spot for your towel.

The Santa Monica pier, however was about in line with all touristy amusement parks. There was a fun arcade, some rides, a few places to eat – both for sit down meals and takeaway – and even a traditional carousel. I learnt that Kynie has the skeeball skills in our family.

Los Angeles gets a bad rap, and there are plenty of reasons why this is justified. But with a little digging you can find some really cool gems and uncover some great places many people would miss.

Have you been to Los Angeles? What are some other great spots to visit that most might not have heard of? Leave a comment below.

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Venice Beach: beautiful colourful sunset lighting up the Atlantic. Los Angeles is a mess, but there are plenty of fun things to do with a bit of searching. I had 5 days there and loved them all...despite the traffic!Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles. The viewing deck has many of these that point to the place the sun will drop. I clearly visited on the winter solstice.


St Maarten: How to spend your cruise day ashore

Not many islands this small offer visitors the opportunity to visit two very distinct cultures on the one island. Settled by the Dutch and the French, each side has its own personality, culture, and language. Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is one such unique island and was the first stop on a 10 day Caribbean cruise with Princess.

The easiest way to maximise your St Maarten cruise day is to hire a car. Hertz and a few others smaller operators have offices there and you can pre book. But if you don’t, just be prepared to have a Plan B incase they are sold out.

Our cruise gave us a total of 8 hours on shore; from docking at 8:30 to all aboard at 4:30, which was almost enough time to see almost all that we wanted to, but it was a little tighter than we’d have liked. Nonetheless, here is how to do a DIY highlights tour of Saint Martin and Sint Maarten.

Maho Beach

You will arrive in the Dutch capital of Philipsburg, but it will likely be too early for anything to be open so save your time there until the after on your way back to the ship.

Assuming you’ve picked up a car, start by driving counter-clockwise towards Maho Beach. Maho Beach is famous as being plotted at the end of the runway of the St Martin Juliana International Airport. From this small strip of sand you are seated in prime position to witness small passenger planes and jumbos come into landing.

Planes flying over Maho Beach St Maarten

The first thing to note is that it is a small beach. If not for the airport this beach would never rate a mention. But, the brilliant turquoise sea is an excellent place to take in the action.

And if the sand blasts from the jet engine power becomes too much (and if you are directly behind it, it will) you can just duck under the water. But I preferred to stand off to the side to get the dramatic over-sand plane photo.

The Sunset Beach Bar right next to the beach posts the landing times of the major aircraft, which are the exciting ones, but you’ll find planes of all sizes coming in to landing every 10 or so minutes.

I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t get to see any jumbos come in (we’d been there an hour and others wanted to move on) so your best bet is to work out prior when they’ll be coming in. They started for us around 11am, which was, sadly, just as we were leaving.

Marigot

If you couldn’t tell by the name, Marigot will be your first stop on the larger French side.

We didn’t give Marigot a lot of time, however, it is worth noting we also happened to visit on New Year’s Day, which was also a Sunday, so most things were closed anyway. The Sarafina Bakery was open though and it was pumping.

Fort Louis Marigot St Martin
View from Fort Louis, Marigot.

What actually made us stop in Marigot was Fort Louis, an old fortress ruin from the 18th Century that the French used to defend their territory against the Dutch and the British. From the main street it is no more than a 10 minute walk up an obvious path of steps and pavement (flip flops are sufficient).

For such a small walk it’s a magnificent view, giving a 360 degree panorama of Marigot to the east and Simpson bay to the west. It’s well worth the stop and you can be up and down in 30 minutes, easily.

Grand Case

Because we’re on the French side still, it is pronounced Gron Kaz. Grand Case was not what I expected it to be. I generally read guides and blogs before going to a place and I expected little shacks dotting the beach with locals selling food and beers to visitors. If you’ve read any other guides you might have this same assumption.

The town was more low key than I expected, and actually felt quite residential, save for a handful of local eateries and accommodations along the beach and main road. These places were all raised above the beach, with stairs down for easy access.

Grand Case Beach St Maarten

The beach at Grand Case is still a nice beach, in fact it was definitely more spacious and less crowded than Maho Beach, but keep your pants dry for now because I think there are better beaches for swimming and relaxing if you aren’t tied here.

I’m getting sidetracked. the reason to go to Grand Case is actually to have lunch. Of the handful of eateries along the shore a few are referred to as lolos. I’m not sure what the translation is, but essentially they are small diners serving local delicacies such as Grilled Lobster, Conch sausage, Ribs, fish, and jimmy cakes.

All this while sipping a few $2 Carib beers with the local steel drum band, nay orchestra, serenaded you with unique melodies, backed by bass guitar and drums. It was quite something. In the video below, the last 20 seconds are of the band and you’ll understand what I mean.

Lunch was served and was incredible. I mean, it was no luxury resort seafood buffet (that was Christmas Day!), but it was barbecued to perfection. Even though the day was only half over this was already the highlight.

Incredible local food at Grand Case St Martin

Pic du Paradis

Pic du Paradis was one thing we missed, but even if we had have planned the day differently, it still would have been a stretch. You see, around St Maarten is a ring road. It’s not a big island, but most of the attractions are on the coast.

…Except for Pic du Paradise, which translates to Paradise Peak. I.e. a big ol’ mountain in the middle. There’s a road that goes up, but to get the view that’s worth seeing it was going to be a 1km walk from the car park and back, which was time we at the time could not spare.

If eating the local food is not important to you, you might choose Pic du Paradis over lunch at Grand Case, because they are quite close. Or if both sound like non-negotiables, think about what else on this list you could forego.

Already you are starting to feel like 1 day on this magnificent island is not enough!

Orient Beach

If you wanted to come to St Maarten for a day and just spend a day at the beach, this is where you’d come. The beach is long, it’s wide, and it’s bursting with water sports.

Orient Beach St Martin

For these reasons the beach is very popular with visitors and there are a great number of resorts that back onto the beach. The resorts all have a plethora of beach chairs and umbrellas that you can hire and park yourself for the day.

Orient Beach is perfect for the family, couple or group who want to get off the ship, and just want to relax on a beach with a book, absorbing the idyllic surroundings.

Philipsburg

About 10 minutes from Orient Beach is Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side and landing point for all cruise ships. It is perfectly setup to receive tourists with no shortage of beach bars, cafes, clothes and souvenir shops, and of course places to buy the famed guavaberry liqueur.

The beach is pretty big, also with plenty of umbrellas and beach chairs, and it is right in front of the ship so it’s very easy to setup camp here for the day. However, I found the beach at Orient Bay to be much nicer. The sand was softer, and there were more opportunities for activities.

Front Street Philipsburg Sint Maarten

Other Notes about St Maarten

Gambling is oddly legal here, we saw casinos everywhere. In fact, the first building we saw when we disembarked was a casino. It made me wonder how many people don’t actually make it any further.

The beer on St Maarten is mostly $1.50. This was the cheapest beer I found in the Caribbean so I made sure to bring some back onto the ship (which was really easy).

St Maarten was one of my favourite islands I visited on the cruise, and one that I would happily return to. If you’ve been to St Maarten, what was your favourite place?

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St Maarten cruise day: How to spend one day ashoreMaho Beach, St Maarten. How to spend one day ashore St Maarten.


3 Day Brisbane Itinerary: The Ultimate Weekend Guide

Brisbane, known to locals as the River City. Known to everyone else as BrisVegas. Not because it’s a hotspot for gambling, more because it’s fun and the name lends itself to such a nickname. If you’re heading to the capital of Queensland for a few days, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite laneways in which to eat, neighbourhoods to drink, and I’ve even thrown in a bonus at the end.

Read on, comrade. Continue Reading

Las Vegas: The Epic Guide to Drinking, Gambling and Entertainment

Endless rows of flashing machines; free drinks galore; and arguably more ways to be entertained than almost any other city on earth: Welcome to Las Vegas.

I consider Las Vegas to be like Disneyland for adults: pretty lights dazzle every guest, visitors are inundated with seemingly endless entertainment options, (and the workers are all probably on low wages from giant corporations).

I have been to Las Vegas 4 times now, which I consider quite impressive for someone that lives in Australia. There’s a few reasons for this: I love the energy of the place, it’s always buzzing, and there’s always a sense of excitement. I love the grandeur of the casinos, rising out of the desert, completely out of place.

But most of all it’s just fun. Continue Reading

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