Los Angeles

Mar 27, 2007

When I visit foreign countries and stay in hotels, I never get the real feeling of the city and its people. What I get is all touristy stuff. Now I don't want to say that's bad because it isn't, especially today, with numerous Internet forums where toursits nad natives alike tell you what you should or shouldn't do when visiting a new country. However, in my opinion the best way to get to know a new culture is by staying with natives.



This is what we did in L.A. I'm lucky because I have friends in L.A. who wanted us to stay with them for a week. Ann, a history teacher, who I met thanks to an international project between our schools, was so kind to show us what L.A. is really like. Yes, we did see all those touristy things that are a must for all the tourists, but also, we saw more than that.
Ann showed us what to have a family means in the US, how to celebrate New Year's Eve, she took us to see the plants and animals in a tide pool, invited us to a delicious meal in the Paradise Cove, taught us the rules of American football, explained why to support the Trojans in the match against the Longhorns, made us fall in love with American chocolate chip cookies, went grocery shopping with us, and much, much more. Things we wouldn't be able to learn from a hotel, things that give you a different view of a country and its people than a tour guide.


When you have one friend who is willing to host you is a bliss, but to have two friends who offer their home to you is more than pure joy and happiness. To have Ann and Myra is more than I have ever wanted. Myra, who teaches English at the same school, invited us to her home in Monrovia where we spent two wonderful days. Myra took us to the stunning Rose Parade in Pasadena and to the movies. King Kong was on and we all had fun.

Madame Tussauds Las Vegas Photos

Mar 25, 2007

Madame Tussauds Las Vegas Photos

Las Vegas

Las Vegas was founded in 1905. The first casinos were located in what is now called the Downtown area. Gambling was legalized in 1931 and this paved the way for the city's growth, together with the construction of the Hoover Dam. Built in 1935, this engineering wonder still provides the city with electricity and water.

In the 1980s, glittering megaresorts started to be built on the Strip and Downtown lost its appeal. It bacame a run-down part of the city avoided by tourists. Things have changed lately. A lot of money has ben invested in its revitalization. Fremont Street Experience, an evening light show on a vast metal canopy over the pedestrianized street, is an example of it. Vegas Vic, one of its oldest neon signs can be seen on Fremont Street. Hotels and casinos are closer together, in contrast to the megaresorts on the Strip, where a car will come in handy.

The Strip, or Las Vegas Boulevard, is a six-kilometer long road that runs through the city. All the major resorts are located there. We stayed at the Mandalay Bay. The large windows in our room on the 21st floor gave a spectacular view of the Strip.

Every resort offers tons of things to do, from the Autocollections at the Imperial Palace to the excellent wax museum at the Venetian. Although we had already visited Madam Tussaud's in London, it was more than fun to get married to George Clooney.

The resorts are all tremendously impressive, although a bit on the tacky side. But that's what Vegas is about. You either love it or hate it. It's so totally unlike any other city I've ever seen.

Las Vegas Photos

Mar 24, 2007

Las Vegas

Old Nevada Photos

Old Nevada

Bonnie Springs Old Nevada


Before leaving home I searched the Internet for free and inexpensive things to do in Las Vegas. That's how the Bonnie Springs Old Nevada web site popped up. And I'm glad it did. It's a replica of an 1880 mining town where shows are staged on weekends and holidays. We visited it on Christmas and for only $10 we saw a melodrama, a gunfight and a hanging, visited a wax museum, saw what school was like in those days, walked through a mine, were imprisoned for a while, were scared by a baby rattle(snake), rode on an old train, my younger son participated in a posse, the older one was held hostage by Mad Dog, the bad guy, and had to sing at gunpoint. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. This was the Wild West we wanted to see.

California - Nevada 2006


It's not easy to get to California on stand by, because there are not so many flights per day and the planes are mostly overbooked, so we decided to travel on Christmas Day, hoping that most of the passengers would stay at home. However, because Croatia Airlines doesn't fly on Christmas, we had to leave for Frankfurt on Christmas Eve. It was Saturday, and Lufthansa had only one flight to L.A, whereas on Sunday there were flights not only to L.A. but also to San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas. We were ready to board any of these, as long as we get to the States. With no big hopes we approached the transfer desk at the airport and were told that there might be seats for us on this flight. Although there were fifteen stand by passengers, we all got aboard and landed in LA after 11 hours.

The plan was to go to Las Vegas and spend the first week there. So upon arrival in L.A. we rented a Ford Focus in a Fox office at the airport and immediately got lost. When Century Boulevard suddenly disappeared somewhere between Compton and Watts, we realized that we should have been driving on Century Freeway. After desperately trying to find our way on the map and when nothing seemed right, I still don't know how the entrance to Century Freeway appeared just in front of us. Even the direction was right. The rest of the four-hour drive to the state line was a piece of cake.

We spent the night in Whiskey Pete, one of the three resorts in Prim. The room was clean and cheap. We were jetlagged and we all woke up in the middle of the night, had a snack and a chat and crashed in again. Jetlag bothered us for three more nights, then we got used to the time zone.

On the way back from Las Vegas in a few days' time, I would discover fantastic shops in the Prim Outlet, with bargains I couldn't have dreamed of. It was just after Christmas and the prices were falling down like rain. Nowhere have I been given 30% discount coupons on the already discounted items of clothing by the shop assistant who had just printed them out. A paradise for shopaholics. Why is it so far away from where I live?

Segovia and El Escorial, Spain

Mar 23, 2007

Croatian high school students go on one-week school trips before the begin of their last year of school. Most of them choose destinations abroad, and Spain, Greece and the Czech Republic are the most popular.

With my class of 2000 I visited Spain. We flew to Madrid and stayed for four days before we hit the road. On the long way home we saw the unbelievably beautiful fountains of Barcelona, Nice and Monte Carlo. But that's another story.

We had a guide and it was only on my second trip to Madrid with my family that I really got the feeling of the city. With a guide, I always feel like a package, just sit back and listen to what the guide says. However, it was on this trip with my class that I visited Segovia and El Escorial.

Segovia is a beautiful city with plenty of things to see. The Roman Aqueduct is one of the best preserved in the world. Unlike Toledo, the city is pedestrianized, which makes it perfect for leisurely strolls through its medieval streets.

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a huge palace, monastery, library and a mausoleum of Spanish kings, built in the 16th century. The Pantheon de los Reyes is the most spectacular, all in white marble, with tombs of most of the Spanish kings and their relatives from the last five centuries.

Toledo, Spain

Atocha Railway Station would be an ordinary station, were it not for a beautiful tropical garden inside. It's not big, but it's amazing and rather unusual.
We were told that Renfe trains are the fastest way to get to Toledo. It took us 35 minutes and 13 euros to get there.

Rain couldn't have spoiled the view of this fortified city, with the Alcazar standing proudly for centuries on its highest point. The cathedral with its amazing stained glass windows is worth seeing. The streets of Toledo make you think you've stepped back into the Middle Ages. El Greco Museum, situated in the Jewish Quarter houses many works of art of this outstanding painter, sculptor and architect of Greek origin. One of his masterpieces, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, can be seen in the Church of Santo Tome.

More about Madrid

Mar 14, 2007

Many visitors come to Madrid not only because of its sights, but also because of its outstanding art collections in the world's finest museums: the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia Museums. They're huge and a lot of time is needed to enjoy the works of art properly. A little preparation can come in handy as well.

On Plaza de Cibeles there is a fountain with the statue of the goddess Cybele in a chariot pulled by lions, a symbol of the city. There is also the impressive building of the Post Office on this square. On the other side of Paseo del Prado there's another fascinating fountain, Fuente de Neptuno, featuring Neptune on his chariot holding a trident. They used to look at each other, but now they don't. Both of them face the city center.

Estadio Santiago Bernabeu is a must see, but I saw it on my previous visit to Madrid, on a class trip in 1999 and this was enough for me. So the boys took the metro to delight in exploring this impressive stadium, leaving my friend, her daughter and me the whole afternoon for our favorite pastime: shopping.

Yes, shopping in Madrid is an enjoyable experience. El Corte Ingles, Zara, Mango and so many shops that sell shoes. Fantastic!

Madrid, Spain

Mar 13, 2007

We visited Madrid in early November, together with another stand-by family of three. Our Zagreb plane arrived in Frankfurt late so we missed the morning flight to Madrid. Luckily, Lufthansa flies almost every two hours, and although the plane was fully booked, thanks to some no show passengers, we managed to board the plane. After two hours and a bit more, we landed in sunny Madrid.

At the airport we bought a ten-journey ticket for 6 euros. Metro Line 8 is the only line that connects Barajas Airport and Madrid. In order to get to the center you need to change at Mar de Cristal.

Hotel Ingles in Calle Echegaray boasts having Virginia Woolf stay there on her Madrid trips. It’s centrally located and English is spoken there. The latter should be something we take for granted when traveling, but here in Madrid it was rather an exception. I used my poor knowledge of Italian to communicate with people, but it was incredibly difficult. In Museo del Jamon, for example, the waitress gave up on us so we left without trying paella. I just don’t believe that in a city as crowded with tourists every day of the year they don’t speak any foreign languages. And what’s more, they don’t seem to bother.

Puerta del Sol, the most well-known place in Madrid and the zero kilometer of Spanish roads is one of the busiest squares in Madrid. There are the mounted statue of King Charles III, the bear and the strawberry tree (madrone), the Tio Pepe sign and the famous tower clock whose bells mark the grape eating tradition on December 31, among other landmarks.

Calle Mayor leads to Plaza Mayor, an arcaded square with the statue of King Phillip III in the middle. Since the 17th century it has been used for public celebrations and festivities, bull fights, coronations and executions as well.

Cathedral de la Almudena, a Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena, was built in the neoclassical style to match the nearby Royal Palace. The interior, however, is surprisingly modern. After more than a century of construction, the cathedral was consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II.

Palacio Real is one of the most magnificent royal palaces I’ve ever seen. It’s huge, and only one part of it is open to the public. From Campo de Moro, a beautiful park, the view of the palace is breathtaking. Plaza Oriente with statues of kings and queens is in front of it.

Madrid Photos

Mar 10, 2007

Madrid

Miami and the Everglades

Mar 9, 2007

Downtown Miami is best seen from the elevated track of the Metromover. It's free and easy to use. Small driverless cars run at intervals of 90 seconds during peak hours. The ride on the inner loop, which as the name says, is shorter than the outer one, was a good photo opportunity.
One of the most popular spots in this area is Bayside Market Place with numerous shops, restaurants and bars. The most remarkable of them is Hard Rock Cafe with a huge rotating neon guitar on its roof.
Not far from there is the world's busiest cruise port. Although boat tours are said to be an excellent way to see the city from a different perspective, we didn't go for a ride. Instead, we took a few pics in front of the American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat, and headed for the Everglades.

On the way we made a short stop in Little Havana. Because it was 'early' morning, (10-11am) almost everything was closed and there were no people in the streets so we weren't able to feel the ambience of this lively and vibrant community.

The Everglades, or the River of Grass as it is sometimes called, is the most spectacular part of Florida. The airboat ride in the Miccosuke Indian village was truly breathtaking, because in many places all you can see is sawgrass. It seems there's no water, and still your driver is going full speed ahead, which makes you think of CSI. You can't talk, shout, laugh, you can't hear yourself, let alone other people on the boat.

The Everglades National Park is located south of Tamiami Trail. It represents only 27% of the area called the Everglades, which covers almost half of Florida. It was amazing to see crazy tourists (me being one of them) to come unbelievably close to lazy alligators just for the sake of a photo. Aren't gators supposed to run fast? Well, those were obviously well-fed since they showed no interest in eating tourists. We rented bikes, this was an unforgettable experience.

The Keys

Mar 8, 2007

We'd seen the Overseas Highway and the Keys in so many movies that it was a must to go there. From South Beach we took the A1 road, in the hope of seeing most of Miami. However, the traffic was so slow that we decided to take the Florida Turnpike instead. A good decision. We reached the Keys quickly and from then on there was only one road, US1. All along the road you can see small green signs, called mile markers, which tell you the distance from Key West. The Keys begin at MM 113, and MM O is in Key West.

What we wanted to see was the Seven Mile Bridge in the Lower Keys, less than 40 miles from Key West. It wasn't a very busy Monday morning, but still, it took us a long time to reach it. There are two bridges in this location. The older bridge was built in 1912 as part of the Overseas Railroad (once called the Eighth Wonder of the World), but it was badly damaged by a hurricane in 1935. The spectacular Seven Mile Bridge was built in 1982. It can be seen in lots of movies, such as True Lies, Licence to Kill, Up Close & Personal, etc.

Beach lovers as we are, we wanted to find a beach to spend the afternoon on. And before long, there it was, Bahia Honda State Park - voted the best beach in Florida, and the second best in the US. Crystal clear water, white sand, palms, pelicans, herons, you name it. And best of all, not crowded.

We didn't make it to Key West. We'll do it next time. A reason good enough to come back.

South Beach

Mar 6, 2007



This morning we had a huge and much better all you can eat breakfast at Sizzler. We then hit the road and arrived in South Beach at about 4 pm. On the way there we stopped in Palm Beach and went for a swim. We made a tour of the town in our car and saw many nice old and new buildings, hotels, churches and upscale shops.

We took an instant liking to South Beach. It reminded us of little coastal towns at the Adriatic. After checking in at the Whitelaw we parked the car in a municipal garage on Collins and 13th. You don't need a car in SoBe. The Whitelaw, as the name goes, is white both from the inside and the outside. The lobby is all white with vinyl sofas and so is the furniture in the rooms. Surprisingly, the walls in our room were painted pink.

It was another hot day so we hurried to the beach. The beach is huge with colorful lifeguard huts. And guess who we saw - a Miami Dade police car and two police officers in shorts. They were not on the CSI team, though. What they were doing was keeping nosy tourists off a TV shooting - nothing spectacular, though, they were making a commercial for a new Chevy.

The most beautiful Art Deco buildings are on Ocean Drive. It's full of restaurants and bars, with people sitting and eating at tables on the sidewalk (so much like Zagreb). The most crowded bar was the one with waitresses in skimpy leotards. No wonder why. Lincoln Road seemed to be the busiest part of SoBe by night.

Kennedy Space Center

Mar 5, 2007

After a huge all you care to eat breakfast at Ponderosa we headed to Cape Canaveral.
It turned out that the Kennedy Space Center was in fact another theme park. Yet, it was fun to be there where people have been launched into space. It was an unbearably hot day and the air conditioning in the facilities was set to an unbelievably low temperature, which meant that when out, you were boiling and when in, you were freezing, literally.

The bus tour of the center is a good way to see what it is all about. The historic launch of Apollo 8 in the Firing Room Theater is also worth seeing. Actually, you have to run from one show to another because you just want to see everything since you paid a lot for it. Yes, everything is 'astronomically' expensive. All we bought in the souvenir shop were some magnets. But they had some nice things there, really. One of them was a T-shirt with 'I need my space' on.

After validating our tickets we visited The Astronauts Hall of Fame in the neighbourhood. It was even more fun for the kids who went on rides in flight simulators.

Orlando

The drive to Orlando wasn't exhausting, but we were dead tired because of the 24-hour long day. The Imperial Swan Hotel on S. Kirkman Rd was nothing fancy, but it was clean and quiet. We had a good sleep and didn't suffer from jet lag this time.

Since we'd already spent days and days in theme parks in Paris, L.A. and San Diego, we decided to visit none of the many in the Orlando area. Instead, we went to Downtown Orlando, which was still sleepy on Saturday morning. We took a stroll in Lake Eola Park, where there were only a couple of joggers and a squirrel.

Celebration was our next stop. It's a city with a population of 20,000, created by Disney in an attempt to re-create a small-town atmosphere. It's spotlessly clean, with a little lake in the center. It was amazing to see a sign post that said that alligators were neither to be fed nor harassed. We understood it as a chance to see a gator, so we grabbed a chair and waited for one to appear just in front of us. We weren't the only ones. There were other toursits waiting for a sighting, but gators were obviously completely disinterested and we didn't see any.

Kissimmee means 'Heaven's Place' in the language of the Calusa Indians. On the main street there are plenty of quirky little shops, and that's about it.

On the way back to the hotel we drove along US 192, a road full of cheap hotel chains, souvenir shops, restaurants and billboards. International Drive has all of that too, but the hotels looked like they were on the more expensive side. We had a pizza in a place where you eat all you can. And were we hungry!

We ended up outlet shopping. The Lake Buena Vista and The Prime Outlets were terrific. Although it wasn't exactly the beginning of the sale, I found real bargains. Back at the hotel, the boys went for a swim in the pool.

Florida Photos

Mar 4, 2007

Florida

Florida, 2007

Travel broadens the mind, and travelling on stand by even more so. We've been travelling like this for more than a decade, and are now pretty much used to all the stress it can cause. But we don't mind, since seeing new countries and meeting new people can't be spoiled by ordinary things, such as not being able to board the wanted plane and having to run all over the airport to try another airline.
It wasn't any different this time, on January 5th.

During the flight from Zagreb to Frankfurt we still had no idea if we were heading for Miami, Orlando, or a last minute destination on the Balearis or the Canaries. Once bitten by a travel bug, you just don't pay any attention to such 'unimportant' things. What matters is that you are on the road, or, in this case, airborne.

We had booked a room in Orlando, since you can't enter the US without a place to stay. Orlando is way cheaper than Miami, so we reckoned, if we don't make it, we'll lose less money this way.

Luckily, it turned out that the Miami flight still had a few seats available, so we got aboard!
After a ten-hour flight we landed in cloudy, but hot Miami. It was about 3pm and since our hotel was in Orlando, more than four hours away, we immediately got on a shuttle to a Thrifty office where we rented a Dodge Caliber and off we went to Orlando.
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