Saturday, 30 April 2011

22. Meeting a pampered pooping pooch in mid-air and a return to Michigan

US Airways First Class

Charlotte Airport

Fletcher at home in East Lansing

The Union Flag fluttering proudly in East Lansing

Ellie's Country Kitchen Menu

Tom Fredericks and Ken Beachler

Lansing State Capitol

Silver Birch on Lansing Riverwalk

'The World's best blueberry pancakes' at Sawyers
The guy next to me on my US Airways’ flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, is clearly tense. He is pushing frantically at the buttons on his smart phone, then peering at the screen looking for an instant reply.
He continues to do this after the door is closed until the flight attendant tells him that it has to be powered off. At this, he flings the phone into the seat pocket and begins to aggressively turn the pages of the in-flight magazine.
After a while, I ask him why he is so stressed up. ‘I have issues,’ he says. ‘I’ll be fine after I have my vodka.’
Geoffrey, our flight attendant, appears shortly after take off, promising his First Class passengers that ‘you’ll have such a good experience, you won’t want to get off’.
He’s a bit constrained in what he can actually do to achieve that, but my companion participates fully in his hospitality and swiftly sinks three miniatures of vodka before engaging in a noisy conversation about American football with a very loud Bostonian woman across the aisle.
At Charlotte we are held up as a result of tornadoes sweeping the southern states and, in a first for me, the aircraft is pushed away from the gate before parking for an hour in a spare bit of tarmac. Eventually, we are cleared for take off and take a somewhat circuitous route to Chicago to avoid the storms.
My new companion is a woman, dressed expensively, who announces to the cabin crew and the world at large that ‘she has recently come out of rehab’. She’s brought aboard a little dog, a Pekinese I think, which she wedges underneath the seat in front, forcing me to squish my legs into the little space that is left.
The dog is fine, but she insists on constantly lifting the cover and peeking inside, eventually removing the animal and sitting it on the armrest between us. After I indicate I am not hugely enamoured with the situation, she takes it, in her arms, for a walk around the First Class cabin and galley.
A short while afterward, she reappears, having been told by the flight attendant that the animal has to go back in its box.
She does what she is told but, shortly afterwards, the nauseous smell of dog poo wafts up from the basket. I excuse myself to go to the toilet and have a short discussion with the flight attendant about the rules of dogs on aircraft.
As I return to my seat, madam heaves the dog basket from underneath the seat, knocking her cola over in the process and, without apparently noticing, heads to the lavatory to clean up the dog mess.
As the stewardess clears up the spilled drink, she tells me that the woman arrived at the gate with the dog in a stroller.
Why are we not surprised?
Poor bitch.
The dog, I mean.

Despite being over an hour late at Chicago, everything else is delayed, so I have over an hour to wait for my 30-minute flight to Lansing, which should already have left.
I have packed carefully for my flight. United managed to lose my bag on the same route last year, so I have packed enough in each of my two checked in bags to deal with any eventualities.
At Lansing, my old US Navy Captain friend, Ken Beachler, meets me and we head off to baggage claim where the luggage is already arriving. Not many people have bags to claim, but neither of my ‘Priority Luggage’ tagged bags is anywhere to be seen. After about a minute, the carousel stops and there’s an announcement ‘That concludes the baggage service. If your bags have not arrived, report to the check-in desk, where we will be momentarily.
Forty minutes later, Bill appears, in response to a helpful maintenance man going into the ‘authorized persons only’ area to find someone. This after we have asked the information desk, security staff, a police officer and a cleaner to see if anyone from United can be found.
There’s no point me documenting what happened over the next 24 hours, beyond saying United don’t cover themselves in glory, especially as we later discover, the  bags are delivered to Lansing the same evening and nobody from the airline can be bothered to tell us.

Because of my Navy connection, I have been to Michigan many times over the past 15 years. It’s a lovely state. Lansing houses the state capitol and, in East Lansing, Michigan State University. My chum was, for many years, the director of its enormous and impressive performing arts centre
I am somewhat restricted on my first day by only having the t-shirt and shorts in which I left hot and humid Florida, I busy myself indoors in almost constant dialogue with the unimpressive United Airlines, waiting in for calls that are never returned and trying numbers that appear never to be answered.
But the Union flag is flying outside the Beachler Residence in honour of my visit and, with true British ‘stiff upper-lip’ spirit, we head out to the excellent and popular Coral Gables in downtown East Lansing for a really tasty and great value soup and sandwich lunch before heading out grocery shopping.
And to buy me a long-handled scrubbing brush!
In the evening, we meet with local attorney and cornet player, Tom Fredericks, at the highly-rated Bravo Italian restaurant. It’s a fun evening, although there’s no real excuse for the restaurant running out of one of their recommended red wines and the veal dish which the server has suggested we try.
It’s become a tradition when I visit the US that I take in a least one film in the cinema. Ken and I decide to visit NCG’s Eastwood Cinema complex, where we find we are the only patrons for the lunchtime showing of the very funny, thought-provoking and beautifully-crafted ‘Win Win’.
For lunch, we would have gone to PF Chang’s China Bistro, had Matthew on reception not kept us waiting for an eternity while he dealt with several telephone calls, with not even an acknowledgement to the prospective guests. So the nearby Max and Erma’s, who ‘serve coke products’, hits the spot, although they insist in squishing us into a crowded part of an almost empty restaurant.
In the morning, we head to Williamston, where Tom Fredericks kindly hosts us to an extremely tasty and well-prepared breakfast at ‘Ellie’s Country Kitchen’.
It’s Friday, so I make a return visit to the well-attended Lansing Rotary Club where a rendition by an excellent 17-year old saxophonist, Jordan Lulloff, wows the audience. Jordan is visiting Scotland in the summer with his parents and some family friends, so his dad, who’s a music professor at Michigan State, is already in contact with me for my independent advice!
On a picture-perfect day, we make the one-hour drive to Grand Rapids, where we are entertained to a very tasty home-cooked meal at the home of my host’s brother, Fred and his wife, Ruth.
It’s sadly my last day in East Lansing on what has been an all-too-short visit.
We head out downtown to sample ‘The world’s best blueberry pancakes’ at Sawyer’s.
I am hoping the fare will give me the strength I need to wrestle again with United Airlines who, if they get something right for a change, will be getting me back to Chicago and onwards overnight to London before the final leg of my journey, to Lyon in France.
They might even manage to get my luggage there too, but that’s a tale for another day.

My latest pictures are at

A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at

Friday, 29 April 2011

21. United Airlines and their biggest enemy. The customer.

United Airlines Departure Board

United Airlines desk at Lansing

I have been less than impressed, to put it mildly, with the quality of service I have experienced during ‘Around the World in 60 Days’ at the hands of the staff of United Airlines. Having travelled in Business/First on six Star Alliance carriers since the first day of March, United is unique in their ability to screw up almost everything they touch.
Forgive me if I don’t go back into the details. To be frank, just thinking about their attitude to customers makes my blood boil.
In my forty years of globetrotting, I have never before experienced such a collective group of people who seem to thrive on being rude, uncaring and unhelpful. They seem to have such a hostile attitude; it astounds me that many of them are actually in a job at all.
But should we blame the unions, bad management or poor training?
No, the finger must point at the individuals who seem, universally, to have the attitude that the world owes them a living. We, the customer who pays their wages, are seen largely as an inconvenience to their cosy way of life.
The trouble is that the world is changing and they – and their airline – have been very slow to embrace the new way of life.
I find it difficult to believe that a company which relies almost totally upon the delivery of a quality travel experience can be so completely unable to provide it. The attitude I have experienced seems to be endemic, part of the culture. Indeed, it seems the ‘United scowl’, is almost a badge of honour to be worn with pride by the vast majority of their staff. A natural smile is rarely, if ever, seen in the world that is United Airlines.
What seems to me to be a huge issue is not just their total lack of concern when they get something wrong, it’s their absolute inability to communicate in any meaningful fashion. The printed word appears alien to them - they appear unable –or probably can’t be bothered – even to read notes in bookings.
Certainly any sense of contrition is totally absent. Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word.
It’s sad to report that, when you recount your experiences with United to business and professional contacts in the USA, they just give you a knowing look and act totally unsurprised. Which perhaps indicates that their customers have either not complained enough or that United Customer Service are so good at stonewalling complaints that most folk just give up in frustration.
The quality and consistency of information given out by their staff is truly dreadful. Ask three people to confirm your baggage allowances and you get four different answers. That’s just in the US. When you are connected to their call centre in the Philippines, they often seem unable correctly to answer even one.
At Lansing Airport, Michigan, I waited for over forty minutes in a long queue of just me, for a member of their staff to appear from the back office to report my lost bags. This being in response to their PA announcement when the carousel stopped turning that ‘they would be there momentarily’.
I was there to report that neither of my bags had arrived on my 30-minute flight across Lake Michigan from Chicago. One of the bags on the route got lost last year but, as always, I pack to cope with such eventualities. When two go missing, the plans go awry.
I accept that bags do, occasionally, go astray. But I find it unforgiveable that nobody can be bothered to tell you that they have been found and the onus is on you to do the chasing.
Shockingly, United only contacted me after I had gone to their PR people in frustration. In the end, I collected my bags from the airport myself, having been told that they might not be delivered until 5.30pm, some 18 hours after they had actually arrived at their original destination.
As for compensation, don’t ask Kevin at United in Lansing, who says the airline won’t pay you anything ‘until 24 hours has elapsed’.
That is of course totally incorrect. United, like other US airlines, has had to toe the Department of Transportation line that ‘all reasonable expenses’ should be reimbursed.
At Lansing, the bell that used to summons United staff has been disconnected, their phone rings without being forwarded to anyone who can render any form of aid. They seem to be strong supporters of a United philosophy of making themselves almost impossible to contact.
On United Airlines flights, their President and CEO, Jeff Smizec, smilingly greets you, promising ‘great customer service’. What I have experienced is quite the reverse. Far from smiling, the top man should be grim-faced as he clears out an awful lot of folk who should have no future in his airline.
Mr. Smizec, who has economics and law degrees from Princeton and Harvard, is clearly bright and has been credited with achieving great results during his 15 years at Continental.
But will his mountainous task trying to change the frosty-faced culture at United be his ultimate undoing?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

20. The other Hollywood

Denver International Airport

First Class meal on US Airways

Desoto Awards

Hollywood Beach

Desoto Oceanview Inn Gardens

Le Tub burger

Young Circle, Hollywood

Relaxing by the Intracoastal

Sunset over the Intracoastal

Denver’s light and airy International Airport is an hour’s ride away from the city. The RTD bus takes a fairly circuitous route, but the driver kindly helps me on and off with my baggage.
Check in with US Airways is quick and easy. I ask the lady if the airline has a lounge at the airport. She laughs. ‘With just three check in desks and two gates, we are lucky if we have a chair to sit on!’
The security staff is friendly and efficient and it’s nice to be able to get through without ending up in a tangled heap as tends so often to be the case.
There’s a chatty lady sitting next to me in First Class, who is on the way to see her son and his family in Charlotte. As someone who has been involved in business in the city, she’s very interested in my views on Denver. She seems pleased when I praise ‘whoever was responsible for the city’s progress in recent years’. This person seems to be a friend of hers, the former mayor, who is now the State Governor.
We are served a splendid meal and the journey to Charlotte passes quickly and very pleasantly.
I am delighted that the connection to Fort Lauderdale works seamlessly. The man next to me on this leg is highly stressed. He is very reluctant to switch off his Smartphone, and flings it into the seat pocket in a rage when he is told by the flight attendant to switch it off. He then turns the pages of the in-flight magazine with an unbelievable ferocity. By the time we arrive in Fort Lauderdale, he has downed four double measures of vodka, which at least seems to have calmed him down.
Collecting a car at Hertz is the normal nonsense of too few staff on duty and them trying to sell you additional insurance and a larger car. The technique works, I am sure, with jet-lagged tourists, but not with me!
I have chosen Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport as it is only a short drive from the Desoto Oceanview Inn, where I first stayed when writing ‘Hidden Florida’ in 2009. It’s my third visit.
The Desoto is charming. It is small, friendly, is right next to the beach, full of character amid splendid gardens and delightfully quiet. Manager Steve Welsch
is a firm believer in being green and guests are encouraged to recycle as much as possible.
Steve is pleased that I notice a new bookcase, on the back of which are some of the Inn’s many awards. A neighbour was throwing it out and, with a bit of work, the piece of furniture provides both a place for books and a functional display space.
I visit Winn Dixie, a Florida supermarket chain, where I stock up with necessities for the short stay in my comfortable self-catering apartment.
It’s a holiday weekend, the roads are busy, it is stiflingly hot, and so I decide not to be a tourist but to fit in with the Desoto’s relaxing ethos.
For the first time in almost two months, I sit down with a book and actually relax.
The beach is 30 seconds from the shady spot where I have been reading and just before the sun goes down, I enjoy a dip in the warm Atlantic Ocean while watching huge cruise liners set off from Port Everglades.
The Desoto is at the north end of Hollywood’s two-mile long Broadwalk, a promenade popular with walkers and cyclists, which allows easy access to the six miles of top quality beach.
The water taxi, which, for years, has taken visitors around Fort Lauderdale’s many waterways, has now been extended to Hollywood. The two-hour return journey along the Intracoastal Waterway allows a close up view of the cruise ships as well as linking in to the popular circuit around ‘The Venice of America’.
In the Wilton Manors district, I marvel at the expensive homes in their waterfront location and gleaming white boats tied up at the bottom of the garden.
No visit to the United States can be complete without a visit to a shopping mall, where the prices, by European standards, are amazingly cheap.
Thus I buy three new pairs of shoes at Oakwood Plaza, allowing me to dispose of two, which Steve at the Desoto retrieves ‘to pass on to needy folk’.
I drive down the A1A, Ocean Drive, to explore Hollywood Beach, but the great weather and the holiday weekend has brought out the crowds and there is not a parking space to be found. So I resort to plan B, cross the bridge over the Intracoastal, and enjoy the relative calm of downtown Hollywood, with its ArtsPark at Young Circle and the tree-lined Boulevard with pleasant street cafes.
I am hoping to visit Stranahan House, built in 1901 and on the National Register of Historic Places, where there is a ghost tour. But, because of the holiday, it is closed.
So I resort to the beach where I enjoy the Atlantic breakers crashing against the shore while I devour more of my book.
The following day, I take one of the Desoto’s complimentary bicycles and potter around the nearby Anne Kolb Nature Center, which has more than 1500 acres of coastal mangrove wetlands alongside the Intracoastal Waterway.
Steve has been laid up as a result of a knee injury, so it’s just his Venezuelan partner Josias and I who head into Hollywood Beach for dinner.
We visit Le Tub, built in 1975 totally from flotsam and jetsam on the site of a former petrol station, and overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s weird, wacky and full of character. Its sirloin burger is reportedly Oprah Winfrey’s favourite and was once named by Esquire magazine as ‘The Best burger in America’.
But when it arrives, after a wait of 40 minutes (warned about in advance) it is disappointing. The meat is clearly great quality, but the ‘13 ounces of pure ground sirloin’ burger is let down presentationally by being served on a disposable plate with plastic cutlery and some very tired lettuce and tomato.
In the morning, Steve says he’s pleased that I have been able to relax into the Desoto’s lifestyle.
As am I. It’s been just what I had needed.
As I am unloading my bags at Hertz, having driven just 71 miles in 3 days, one of their employees, Fred, kindly offers to drive me and my luggage in the car to Terminal 3 to catch my flight to Lansing, Michigan, via Charlotte and Chicago.
It’s a much appreciated gesture at the end of a relaxing few days in Florida.

My Florida pictures are at


A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

19. Denver – The Mile High City

Departures Board at Union Station

Rockies v the Cubs at Coors Stadium

A moonlit Denver Capitol

Capitol Hill Mansion

Breakfast at Capitol Hill Mansion

Great Divide Brewing Company

16th Street Mall

Gus the ballon guy at the Old Spaghetti Factory

With what is claimed to be a lot of money at the Federal Reserve Bank

Sensational sandwiches!

Root Down's Devils on Horseback

Squirrel having breakfast

Tableware in the Burlington Rail Road President's Car

The repair shed at the Colorado Rail Road Museum

Denver Capitol

Representative's Number Plate

Denver Light Rail

Denver Light Rail approaching County Line Station

Tattered Cover Book Store  LODO

Park Meadows Shopping Mall

Arrival at Denver’s impressive airport is painless and there’s only a short walk to get the bus downtown. It takes an hour and I get a transfer for the local service, although I just miss one and rather than wait half an hour, I take a taxi.
As I stand trying to hail one, I am approached by a beggar, one of many people on the streets as a result of the economic downturn in the States. It’s something that happens half a dozen times a day throughout my visit.
Visit Denver has booked me into the 120 year old Capital Hill Mansion B and B, which is very much to my taste. There’s nobody at home, but I find a note on the front door telling me where I am staying. Shortly after I have lugged my fifty kilos of luggage up one flight of stairs to the spacious Gold Banner suite, owner Carl Schmidt appears. He is a larger than life Texan tax accountant who has lovingly restored the listed building and learned to craft sensational breakfasts as well as running a hugely impressive Inn.
My room has a sitting area with recliners, a huge brass bed and an enormous spa bath, although I only ever have time to take a shower.
Carl and his daughter Bailey run the place which has the atmosphere of being in a country house rather than anything else. With apologies to all the lovely accommodations I have had on this trip, Capitol Hill Mansion really is the most splendid place I have stayed in since I left England nearly two months ago.
My programme says I have a free evening, but attached to it is a ticket to go to Coors Field to see a baseball game tonight. Panic!
I rush about getting ready and discover that the thin air a mile high is not conducive to rushing, certainly not in the first few days. I have been here before, but I have forgotten just how much your body struggles to cope at this altitude.
So I make my way to the 16th Street Mall, where a free shuttle bus gets me to within a few blocks of the stadium.
The game is between the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago Cubs. I enjoy the spectacle, but, as someone who is used to the pace of Premiership football, find the game itself as dull as ditchwater. But the spectacle of the fans constantly grazing on popcorn, burgers, hot dogs, pretzels plus the razzmatazz and hype generated by the public address announcer is well worth the rush.
Nearby,  I join a tour of a few of Denver’s microbreweries, which involves signing a bizarre and complex legal document agreeing that I will not sue them for and that everything that happens is all my fault. Even if it isn’t. Bloody lawyers! However, after only two small glasses of the products of the Great Divide Brewing Company, the lack of oxygen and the alcohol makes me really light-headed, so I decide to opt out.
I go into Union Station, a wonderful temple to the great days of Rail Travel, but where only one Amtrak train a day, the California Zephyr, now calls. But there are plans for a new fast link to the airport and an extension of the impressive and fast-expanding light rail network to outlying towns such as Golden and to the airport. So there’s a nearby temporary station while the great building lies open but mainly empty.
The last time I was in Denver was to attend the wedding of the younger daughter of my old BBC boss. Emma, her husband Britt and their two daughters join me for dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory. We dine in a booth beside a splendid old tramcar, are entertained by a very forgetful server and by ‘Gus the balloon guy’, who skilfully creates a very impressive turtle and a mermaid for the girls.
It’s been a long couple of days, so I take the shuttle along the Mall and after a short walk back, clamber into the giant bed and fall quickly asleep.
In the morning, Carl produces another gourmet breakfast involving a bacon nest with egg and mushrooms. At the adjacent table, a mother from Seattle and her two teenage sons, in the area to select a college for the older boy, join me in Spanish banter. We are joined by James and Deirdre Nalven, who live locally, but are combining some family celebrations with a short break in the city. James, who is a geologist specialising in mining, has spent time in south America, so all of us are now talking Spanish at breakfast time!
As Bailey efficiently juggles orange juice coffee, marmalade et al, she tells me that Latin Americans are Denver’s biggest growing population. Later, I discover a whole range of Spanish language newspapers and that many of the official signs in the city are bilingual.
United Airlines has sent me a very bland response to my complaint of yesterday, totally ignoring all the points I made. I reinforce my views and copy it to their smiley President and CEO, Jeff Smizac.
I take the tour of the Denver Mint, which involves frustratingly tight security. It surely would be much better to make the tour route itself a secure area. In the event, it’s a rush through, with no real time to read and see the many interesting things on display. You see, at a distance, machines pressing coins and collectors sets, hear a little about the process and are back on the street within 25 minutes. It’s all very disappointing, especially to someone like me, who’s been a numismatologist since I was 8 years old. I am sure they will cite security as the reason, but you are not allowed to take photographs, even of the splendid marble hall at the exit. They make sure you don’t sneak one by having armed policemen watching your every move. My guide couldn’t answer the questions I asked and now, three days after my visit, my email requesting information and photographs hasn’t even been acknowledged.
But I cheer myself up by visiting the Federal Reserve Bank museum, just a few blocks away. It only opened this year and, again, the security to get in is among the tightest I have ever experienced. No surprise there, the Fed is the banker’s bank and below my feet are billions of dollars and gold bars, with a super-efficient computerised system to move it about.
While I am being screened in minute detail, some staff members sweep past with bulging suitcases. I suggest to the security guard that this is crazy. What if their families have been kidnapped and they are being held to ransom and their cases are full of arms and explosives? She agrees with me but doesn’t seem about to be reporting it to her boss. So I find out the email address of their Public Affairs people, will send them this blog, and hope they both read my thoughts on the matter and get their security people to do something about the issue.
A single gold bar as a token of your appreciation would be acceptable, thanks.
The museum has an interesting video on the work of the Fed, but it’s trying to appeal to too many diverse audiences, commercial visitors, potential recruits, school groups and business partners, so it doesn’t really work for any one of them.
The little museum is worth a look, with displays on the history of American bank notes and the chance to supposedly stand beside 30 million dollars. But it’s a bit of a con because you can clearly see that the notes are only printed on one side. (I started looking more closely, because the case simply didn’t look secure enough for that sum of money). So I shall sue them for thirty million dollars (a drop in the ocean for the Fed), and when the cheque arrives, I promise to share it among the three thousand readers of this blog!
There’s also a fascinating section on counterfeit notes. But the best bit is that, just as you leave, they actually give you a bag containing about $165 just for visiting. Unfortunately, it has been shredded into tiny bits, but it’s a really nice touch.
But, just as in the Denver Mint, it would be a lot better if the museum could be accessed via a separate entrance, thus avoiding the need for the tight security.
In 1908, local miners donated 200 ounces of gold to gild the copper-clad cast iron roof of Denver’s Capitol building. But 100 years of water, heat and cold have taken their toll and there’s currently a $12M fundraising effort to get the dome back to pristine condition. The richly marbled interior of the building is still splendid but the observation deck, where, on my last visit, I took wonderful photographs of the views towards the Rockies, has been closed for the past four years due to the danger of falling cast iron.
In the car park, personalised number plates identify members of the legislature and I am delighted to see that one sensible representative drives a Jaguar.
Debbie from Visit Denver takes me to the Root Down restaurant, housed in a former petrol station, a short drive from the city. It’s Monday night and the place is packed. I remark to Debbie that they are clearly doing something right. Our server produces the menu, but, before we can order, Justin Cucci, the chef and owner stops by on his day off to say hello. His concept is simple. The menu features what is fresh and local and thus changes frequently. He listens to what Debbie and I like, then announces that he will organise a special sampler menu for us. It turns out to be sensational. From devils on horseback and organic risotto, to buffalo burgers, sustainable scallops and the most tender beef. I thoroughly enjoy local beers and listening to Debbie’s happy memories of her time as a student in Seville. Reflecting Denver’s diversity, I have fun discovering that almost nobody is local and that Ian, the CEO, studied Political Science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, where I will be in a week.
New Yorker Justin, who is already spinning several catering plates, is about to open another in Denver – in an old funeral home. I warn him of the dangers of spreading himself too thinly, a problem of which he is well aware.
Outside the gent’s loo, there’s a feature about the restaurant from the New York Times. It talks about the problems that chefs have to face when cooking at altitude, something I haven’t even considered.
Root Down has an open plan kitchen, but there are no obvious chef tantrums and a total lack of profanities, which says a lot about the ethos of this sensational restaurant.
In the morning, after another of Carl’s amazing breakfasts, I set off on a trek to find the Colorado Railroad Museum at Golden. As I wait at the stop, right beside the Capitol Hill Mansion, a family of red squirrels busy themselves in a tree close by
The trip involves three separate bus routes, 10, 16 and 17 and takes me over an hour. But my $2.25 RTD bus transfer ticket gets me the whole way, which I think is amazing value.
Originally founded in 1948, the museum moved to its current 15-acre location in 1959. There are now 100 exhibits on display, including locomotive 191 which, was built in 1881 and, incredibly, is still regularly put in steam. Another jewel in the collection is the beautifully fitted out former personal carriage of the President of the Burlington Rail Road, dating back to 1894.
Volunteer Rex tells me that one of the founders, Cornelius Hauck, who made his money from brewing in Cincinnati, is still very much involved today.
You can see locomotives being repaired in the roundhouse with its’ adjacent working manual turntable and, on two days a week, enthusiasts with their model railway layouts.
Eighty thousand people visit each year, with an amazing five thousand alone for the special Thomas the Tank engine day, clearly as popular in the US as it is in the UK.
Back in Denver, Bailey recommends I visit Snarfs, which, she says, does the best sandwiches in town. She’s not wrong.  On the recommendation of their friendly server, I order a 7” pastrami and Swiss cheese, which comes with all the trimmings. Really, really tasty and just $5.25. I hope Snarf’s gets as big as Subway, their product is so much better.
Oh joy! There’s another, even blander, response from United Airlines guest relations, again ignoring the issues I originally raised with them. I send another Soutergram in words of very few syllables to help their inability to communicate. I am really surprised Jeff can smile. His staff has largely forgotten how.
I devote my final day to using a $14 day pass on the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD). The local transport has impressed me hugely. All buses and trains are designed to allow easy access to people with disabilities and, of special interest to me with 38 years in the Naval Reserve, all military personnel travel without charge. Why is it that America recognises its service personnel so much better than we do in the UK?
But there’s an altercation on the Number 10 bus. A woman complains that another woman has touched her and is loudly discussing the matter on her mobile phone. The bus is packed and I have probably been ‘touched’ by 15 people on my way through to my seat. Sometimes you really do despair.
I take the free bus to the light rail. Bailey has recommended a visit to Park Meadows, a giant mall on the outside of town. She tells me the ride is about 20 minutes, but it takes the better part of an hour. But I am delighted to experience the modern, efficient tram cum train service. (I love that they have klaxons just like American mainline trains and bells like street cars).
I generally don’t do shopping malls, but Park Meadows, which claims to be ‘Colorado’s only retail resort’, is stunningly designed and a real pleasure to explore.
Mind you, with four department stores and 24 shoe shops, I still don’t manage to find a pair that I like, to replace ones that really need to go in the bin after two months on the road!
My final port of call is in LODO, Denver’s Lower Downtown. I discovered the Tattered Cover Book Store on my very first trip to the city 15 or so years ago. As a book lover, it is my dream palace. Tattered Cover has many nooks, crannies, comfortable chairs and tables at which you can enjoy a read with no obligation to buy. There’s a really good café which serves me an excellent pot of tea and a toasted muffin. They even know to give you cold milk separately; not very common is this country that threw the tea into Boston Harbour!
It’s a splendid and relaxing end to a wonderful visit.
There’s so much more to see and do in fast–developing Denver which, as has been stated in my Trip Advisor profile for some years, firmly remains one of my top five cities to visit anywhere in the world.
Tomorrow I need to change my wardrobe yet again as I head from slightly chilly Colorado to very warm Florida.

My Denver pictures are at

A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at

Sunday, 17 April 2011

18. Auckland to Denver via San Francisco in the blink of an eye

Pancakes in Tiburon

Civil War re-enactment

Angel Island shoreline

Lavender and Pride of Madeira

Casey's Arm!

Clara and her menu board

Mike at Golden Gate bridge

Barb and Doug Crawford

A BART train at Orinda Station

San Francisco Cable Cars

The Golden Gate from a heliccopter

The new Bay Bridge under construction

Sealions beside Pier 39


Tom Medin and Mengleng discuss coffee

Italian French Bakery

San Francisco coffee culture

Who's that with Mike Soute
Returning the Camper Van to United is as easy as pie, but at Air New Zealand’s premium check in, I again have the devil of a job trying to persuade the woman that my International ticket takes precedence in deciding baggage allowance and that I should not be paying extra for my second checked bag.
She also refuses to check my bag through to San Francisco, which I know to be nonsense.
In the airline’s, as always excellent, Koru lounge, I discover Pat, who’s rather more switched on. Not only does he sort out various inconsistencies he has spotted on some of my onward connections, he personally goes and retrieves my baggage and has it properly tagged all the way through to San Francisco, negating the need to check it in again at Los Angeles. I have to clear customs there, but that is all.
Another touch I love in Air New Zealand’s lounges is that the concierge on their long haul flights comes into the lounge to sort out any queries any premium cabin passengers may have. Beauregard (yes, really) is having to deal with a party of Canadians and Americans who are booked on the flight, but who are getting rowdy and obnoxious after playing a series of drinking games.
But both Beau and Leigh, the flight services manager, read the riot act to those booked on our flight prior to boarding and, barred from having anything more to drink, I am told later that they drop into an alcohol-induced sleep almost immediately after take off.
In the lounge I am invited to take the opportunity of ‘Putting my feet up and experiencing Bliss’. This turns out to be a complimentary reflexology cum massage treatment. I tell the Taiwanese man doing it that I just find it tickly!
While enjoying the excellent Herb crusted lamb and Kiwi red wines onboard, I take in two pretty good films, ‘The hopes and fears of Gazza Snell’ and ‘Tamara Drew’.
The totally lie-flat beds in the B777-200 are really comfortable and I sleep like a baby until 7am.
Los Angeles arrivals is an absolute shambles. There are queues moving slowly for both immigration and customs. I race through various car parks in a route directed to by Beau, to catch my flight to San Francisco with only a few minutes to spare, despite having over two hours to make the connection.
The Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) has given me a pass letter, which I have to show with my Press ID to travel for free. But it’s a pain. The staff at the gates don’t have time to read the letter, which is several paragraphs long, and, almost every time I use it they look at me as if I am an alien from another planet. I suppose I should just say that I am Scottish!
At Orinda station, I am met by my host, Barb Crawford, whom I have never met, but who rented one of my apartments in Spain. She turns out to be, as described, a woman in black with a black car!
There’s time for only a quick shower at the Crawford’s home, during which I am exfoliated and anti-aged, before my next appointment. Having travelled through three airports in the past 24 hours, Barb thinks it would be a nice treat for me to see Oakland International.
Actually, the trip is to pick up husband Doug, who has been dealing with affairs on the west coast after losing his mother and is almost as weary as me.
We repair to the rather oddly named Ruth’s Chris steak house in Walnut Creek, where I enjoy the best T-bone steak ever. The cheery server tells us that Chris had a chain of steakhouses originating in New Orleans and Ruth bought him out. Or maybe it was the other way rround. In any case the old name was incorporated into the new one. Barb’s fillet is excellent too, but I have no idea why Doug opts for something with noodles. Perhaps it’s explained by the fact he’s a doctor.
Barb and Doug are among a very few Americans I know who are mad keen on English Premiership football and have brought up their daughters in the same vein. Doug is even daft enough to be a referee.
I am sleeping with Fernando Torres and the whole of the American Women’s football team in younger daughter Leah’s room.  I should stress that Fernando is unaware of this arrangement, which is just as well, because one of the women is scarily tattooed. For legal reasons, I also need to make plain that Leah now has an apartment in San Francisco.
Their own kitchen being closed for a makeover, Doug, Barb and I drive to Tiburon, where we enjoy an excellent breakfast at the New World Café. I have the pancakes with some sausages that are called bangers on the menu but are chipolatas to me. There is so much I have to leave one pancake and donate my toast to the other two.
We are there for a reason. None of us has been to Angel Island State Park and you can catch a ferry to it from Tiburon. As we wait to get onboard, a whole class of little Civil War-uniformed children get off, having just completed a re-enactment.
I have the secret password ‘Cove Café’ to get on board, but we only secure a safe passage after I offer unlimited Vietnamese Dong.
I love US State Parks and Angel Island is no exception. We hire bikes and do a complete 5 mile circuit. The views of the Golden Gate, the Bay and Alcatraz are so wonderful, that we take three hours to get round! The wildlife and scenery is great, the history of it being the west coast’s Ellis Island is enthralling and there is much to do and see.
What especially impresses is the Cove Café. The menu is innovative, well presented and extremely tasty. I take a photo of Clara, who has made a splendid job of designing the menu board.
We start chatting to Amy and Casey, two of the uniformed staff. Casey’s arm in fact appears in this blog. I promise to mail it back. I also promise not to mention that Amy is wearing the wrong hat band, so I won’t. Well not again.
A staff member is cutting down some invasive ‘Pride of Madeira’ plants, one of which he gives to Doug to take away.
Moments later a volunteer challenges him for ‘removing a native plant species’. Despite Doug going into deep disguise under a woolly hat worn back to front, a Park Ranger says the same thing as we board the ferry. It’s just as well that I have Amy and Casey’s business cards or west coast America might be waking up today without a respected physician and eminent football referee. (PROPER football, not that silly game with all the padding).
We drive up to Hawk Hill, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, which offers a splendid view of the Bay that very few visitors get to see. (Almost all are taken to the Vista Point, just beside the structure, which is not nearly so impressive). There are also some fascinating old defences from World War 2.
Back home, Doug and I have a couple of beers while watching Chelsea and Manchester United in the Champions League and eating an excellent Italian takeaway from one of their local restaurants.
In the morning, I catch the BART downtown (the lady at the gate says ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’, when I proffer my ID and letter) to catch a bus to catch a helicopter. As you do. Unlike in the UK, there is hardly anyone reading a newspaper. They all seem to be texting. Maybe each other. As a result, the carriage is amazingly quiet.
On the way to Sausalito, A.D., the 26 year old driver, tells me that he has never been on a cable car. It’s probably because he comes from Oakland, just across the bay. When I ask him if I can catch a ferry to Oakland and get the BART back, he doesn’t know. He’s been studying to be a dental technician, so probably doesn’t get out much.
But, joking apart, the cable cars are very expensive and are all crammed full of tourists posing as sardines. So I decide against.
Fred the pilot of our San Francisco Helicopters Bell Jet Ranger is a bit of a joker. He tells me he got his licence after sending off a few coupons from cereal boxes. His musical choice as we sweep under the Golden Gate Bridge is ‘Superman’. Very funny, Fred.
We spend thirty minutes exploring the Bay Area. As we have three humourless Germans in the back, Fred diplomatically avoids mentioning that the defences on Hawk Hill were built to protect San Francisco against the German and Japanese fleets.
Visibility is perfect, Fred is brilliant and the aerial views of the Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, the City, Alcatraz and the Bay are spectacular.
I have time to potter about the harbour front area. A.D. advises against the tourist trap that is Pier 39 and I, only one pier away, have a great view of the sea lions, Alcatraz and the bustling bay,  without any of the hordes.
In the afternoon, Tom Medin has invited me on his ‘Local Tastes of the City Tour’. We are joined by a Singaporean bank compliance officer, Mengleng. Tom talks very fast and even I need to ask him to repeat stuff that I don’t quite catch. Mengleng and I develop an understanding that when she doesn’t quite catch the drift and looks at me blankly, I ask Tom another question. The system works well.
Tom’s enthusiasm for the area and his knowledge of the subject and the local suppliers is brilliant. We learn about different ways of making bread and pastries, how to choose the freshest coffee (Beans, not ground and use your sense of smell), see one of San Francisco’s most tattooed and pierced men make fudge at Z. Cioccolato in Columbus Avenue and enjoy the best pizza I have ever tasted at Romina and Arnold’s in Union Street.
It’s three enjoyable hours really well spent. Tom also does a similar tour of Chinatown.
At Montgomery Street BART, the gate lady says ‘thank you, you are a gentleman’ to me for holding the gate open for a passing woman, who says nothing as she sweeps through. GRRRR.
I am missing airports, so Barb and Doug kindly take me to San Francisco International, the first BART on a Saturday, surprisingly, not leaving Orinda until after 6am.
Jeff Smizac, the President and CEO of the recently-merged United and Continental Airlines, smiles broadly in a pre-flight video, as he talks about providing ‘Great Customer Service’. He clearly doesn’t have to check in as normal folk do. The last time I flew United, they lost one of my bags and, despite knowing where it was, took 2 days to deliver it 10 miles to where I was staying.
Today is a nightmare. Kerbside check-in sends me to First Class, who send me to economy, who want to charge me $60 dollars for my second bag. All because none of the staff can be bothered to look at very clear remarks that link my Round the World Ticket to the one that gets me to and from San Francisco. I have planned on having breakfast in the Red Carpet Lounge, but despite having a Business Class United Ticket back to London, as part of a Business Class Star Alliance Round the World ticket, AND a full-fare First Class seat for this flight, the most unfriendly and unhelpful woman in the world if not the galaxy, won’t let me in.
Despite having arrived at the airport 90 minutes before boarding, I arrive on board the flight to Los Angeles with moments to spare, a frazzled heap. One of the flight attendants serves coffee. ‘Don’t say no sugar. I don’t hear no. All I hear is sugar’. This goes down especially well with the lady next to me who only speaks Chinese.
In LA, I have over two hours lay over, but again, am refused entry to the lounge. My ire is not helped by seeing economy class travellers take their wife and kids in just because they have paid the annual club fee. I send an email to Denise, my ‘best friend contact’ in United Guest response. But she’s on holiday and I get a bland, almost computerised, response in return.
Mr. Smizac, your airline is a shambles and you have nothing at all to smile about in your video. Go under cover. Try it. You will be shocked.
But, Mr. Smizac, do promote Carolyn Rogers, one of your supervisors at LAX. She CARES for your customers, she has compassion and sense. Something no other staff member so far today has shown to be in their vocabulary.

I am sitting in Seat 1A of a United First Class 767 to Denver. The crew is clearly excited about the presence of my next door neighbour who has on board last with more hand luggage than almost anybody else in the history of air travel. When I go to the toilet, they tell me that he is Val Kilmer. The name means nothing to me, but they say it with such respect, I almost bow as I excuse myself to return to my seat.
Val is busy under headphones, while correcting a script, but emerges during a lunch break to strike up a conversation.
He is interested in my travels and I recommend Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands as a place to which he could escape the baggage of celebrity. He’s hoping to take his one man Mark Twain show to the Edinburgh Fringe and I promise that, if he does, I’ll show him that Scotland can be as special and as private as anyone else in the world. He shows me a picture in character and Val looks more like Mark Twain than the man himself. Clearly the rumours of Twain’s death WERE greatly exaggerated!
When I reach Denver and Google him, I discover that I am about the only person on the planet who doesn’t know his name.
But I do have the presence of mind to have a photograph taken in case the almost 3000 folk now reading this blog do want to know who the person sitting next to Mike Souter is.
Which you probably do.

My San Francisco pictures are at

A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at