Friday, August 31

Damp around the edges

A burst water main on our street earlier this year

Summer’s predominantly wet weather has thrown up an endless array of records across the UK. Today the Met office confirmed that this Summer has been the wettest since records began in 1766. From June 1 to August 28 the UK endured a record 358.5mm of rain (14in). June was the wettest on record with a whopping 134.5mm of rainfall. July finished as the nation’s fourth-wettest, missing the record books by 5mm. August reported a single day with temperatures above 30°C (August 5). Last year we enjoyed 20 days above 30°C .

Not surprisingly, Bradford council reports that attendance at its outdoor public pool is down 50% on last year's figure of 61,000. At the height of summer the pool attracts over 2,000 people daily. So far this summer the average attendance hasn’t hit 2000 people a week.

However, not every venue is suffering. As the rain and flooding drives people indoors cinemas are enjoying record crowds. In July more than 21 million admissions were reported. This beat the previous monthly record of 19 million set in February 2002. Likewise, online retail sales have jumped 80% year-on-year to a record £4.2bn in July. Domino's Pizza reports record levels of home delivery sales.

The opposite was true for high street retailers. Mark & Spencer reported its weakest quarterly sales for nearly two years. JJB, a large sports chain reports sales are down, as does B&Q, a major, outdoor furnishing and hardware retailer. We’re definitely seeing the impact at the supermarket. Harvest damage has slashed the potato and onion crop, likewise strawberries, peas and other summer crops are in short supply.

I’ll be doing my best to grab my last dose of summer in Spain next week. I’ll be in Madrid for a week of business meetings. The forecast is for sunny weather most days with highs of 32°C.

Wednesday, August 29

Canada Water

Last weekend was the last three-day weekend of Summer. It also seemed to mark the start of the only Summer we’ve had all year. Until now the season has been note-worthy only for the simple fact that its the wettest on record. On Saturday we woke to beautiful weather. For the first time in months London was bathed in sunshine and shirt-sleeve temperatures.

Garry and I decided to take advantage of the our good fortune. We set out to explore the southern stretch of the Thames Path between Canada Waters and London Bridge. We caught the Jubilee line to Canada Water and soon found ourselves on the banks of the Thames looking across to the warehouses of Wapping. Being London, the area naturally has its own selection of historical landmarks.

The first such landmark we encountered was St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe. This church is the final resting place of Christopher Jones, the captain of the Mayflower. In 1690, this ship set sail from a nearby dock, transporting the Pilgrim Fathers to North America. So often you hear the story of the Mayflower as an American adventure. It’s easy to forget that its passengers were actually Europeans. As a result, it becomes almost counter-intuitive to believe that the mythology of such a powerful American icon’s has its beginning in a quiet English neighbourhood.

The Mayflower left England on September 6, 1620 after several aborted attempts to depart mid-Summer. It eventually dropped anchor at Cape Cod on November 11. The ship become temporary accommodation for passengers during their first winter in New England. Tragically, the confined quarters were an ideal breeding ground for disease resulting in the loss of half the original company by Spring. The 53 that survived later gave rise to modern America’s Thanksgiving tradition. The Mayflower eventually arrived back in England on May 6, 1621.

St Mary’s current building is almost 300 years old. It was erected on the site of an earlier church in 1714-15 by an associate of Sir Christopher Wern, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral. I was fascinated to learn that a church has existed on this site since 1282, possibly earlier. Roman ruins have also been uncovered on the grounds.

From here we made our way toward Tower Bridge – our next landmark. Over the course of the afternoon we watched the bridge open and close twice. I was thrilled by this sight as I don’t recall seeing it open before. We stopped for lunch at Butler’s Wharf a waterfront redevelopment offering a range of cafes, each with its own uninterrupted view of Tower Bridge from the east.

After lunch we crossed the Thames via Tower Bridge and made our way along the sunny river walk towards Embankment, before heading inland to Soho. The remainder of our day was spent catching up for drinks and dinner with friends we’d not seen for many months. Needless to say the evening that followed continued well into early hours of the morning.

Monday, August 27

So much to share...

I've finally completed a series of posts from our recent vacation. Fresh links are listed below. This post should make it easy to follow our adventures through the USA, New Zealand and Australia. My subsequent journey back to London via China is recounted in a series of regular posts for the month of August.
As you can see - there's lots to share! Needless to say, I've clocked up enough miles this month to renew my Qantas Platinium Flyer Status for another year.

You'll recall that I lost my camera in Norway and thus my photos from this weekend excursion in July. My parents have come to the rescue. Thanks to them I've been able to upload a few images of our visit. Follow this link.

Saturday, August 25

Home of the Final Frontier

The space shuttle, Endeavour, was in the news this month following reports of damage to its thermal protection tiles. Ice falling from the external tank during a launch on August 8 gouged a small chunk from several tiles on its underbelly. After extensive investigation while in orbit, NASA decided not to attempt repairs before re-entry. On Wednesday this week, the orbiter landed safely without incident at Kennedy Space Centre. Its return came a day earlier than scheduled, due not to tile damage, but concerns that Hurricane Dean might disrupt Mission Control activities in Houston.

Eight days before launch Gary and I had been lucky enough to see Endeavour sitting on Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre. For both of us it was our second trip to the Centre. My first visit was in 1996. At the time Endeavour had also been on the pad making final preparations. It lifted off three days later in a spectacular night launch. Sadly, I was already committed to a vacation schedule in Southern Florida and missed seeing the launch for myself.

Ten years on the sight of a shuttle on the launch pad was still a stirring moment. Despite its bulk, the Pad 39A complex feels rather insignificant surrounded by the vast open expanse of wildlife sanctuary that makes up the bulk of the Kennedy Space Centre. I couldn’t help but marvel at the thought that this was the very spot from which people regularly departed Earth to live and work in space. For a moment the bravery of the astronauts felt very real.

Garry and I spent a full day exploring the Centre and its numerous sights. A personal highlight was the Apollo-Saturn V Center. This museum building houses a restored Saturn V rocket, once used to transport men to the moon. Portions of this rocket had once been scheduled to fly on Apollo 18 and 19, two missions subsequently cancelled by the Nixon Adminstration in September 1970.

The 110.6 metre long rocket is as spectacular as you’d expect it to be. I was thrilled to finally see it up close after missing the Saturn V on display at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston (this rocket museum was closed for refurbishment when we visited almost three years ago). Five enormous exhaust nozzles from the first stage greet you upon entering the main hall. A truly breath-taking sight. This was one powerful machine.

We also caught the shuttle bus across to the International Space Station where visitor can observe final preparations underway for various station modules. From an enclosed viewing gallery we could see the European Columbus module and the Japanese Kibo module. Columbus is scheduled to go into space in December, with Kibo following early next year. It was surreal to imagine that the equipment in front of us would soon be orbiting over our heads.

A new attraction at the centre is the Shuttle Launch Simulator. This ride convincingly reproduces the sensations of a shuttle launch including its sounds, shuddering vibrations and eventual weightlessness. The final moment when the orbiter’s payload doors are opened and weightlessness is felt was surprisingly realistic. In a clever feat of engineering the entire simulator imperceptively shifted our position from near vertical, where we’d lain on our backs, to a position past horizontal that had us dangling forward in our harness.

As we exited the simulator we discovered that the heavens had opened up. An impressive tropical downpour ensued for almost an hour, flooding the Centre's carpark. This proved to be a daily event the entire time we were in Florida. However, each afternoon’s downpour soon gave way to clear, almost cloud-free skies for the remainder of the day.

Thursday, August 23

Dean and Katrina

Hurricane Dean has dominated the news this week. As the first major hurricane this season it swept through the Caribbean, leaving a trail of destruction in Jamaica and Mexico. I couldn’t help but notice Dean passed over the same area on the Yucatan Peninsula that Garry and I are visiting this time next year. At least 50,000 tourists were evacuated from resorts along the Mexican coast as Dean's Category Five fury drew closer.

Dean is now the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall since record keeping began in the 1850s. Insured losses from the storm are likely to range between $750 million and $1.5 billion. Most of these loses occurred in Jamaica which subsequently announced that it was postponing next week’s general election.

This week’s scenes of death and destruction were a timely reminder of the tragedy that stuck New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Garry and I saw how much the city had suffered when we briefly visited earlier this month. Before Katrina, New Orleans had more than 450,000 residents. Fewer than 265,000 have returned in the two years since.

Today, much of the city still lies in ruins and what has been restored often appears a little battered and worn. Its clear that the city was in decline before disaster struck. One came away with an impression that it had been living off its former glory; an income that wasn't quite enough to cover the bills.

On our second day New Orleans, Garry and I booked ourselves on a mini-van tour that took us through some of the worst hit areas of the city. The Lower Ninth Ward was particularly poignant. Here we were shown homes whose roofs had been completely submerged when Katrina’s storm surge broke through levees long the Industrial Canal.

As we drove deeper in the Ward we saw spray-painted crosses still displayed on homes indicating the location of bodies and hazardous waste. I found it surreal to see these markings in place almost two years later. No doubt many homes had been abandoned while others remained empty because their owners had not survived Katrina. It soon became all to easy to understand why more than 700 died in the days following August 29.

Our guide later explained how to tell if tiles had been blown off a roof by rescue helicopters, or simply swept away by hurricane winds. Look for an evenly scattered pattern of tiles across the rooftop and you'll know a helicopter once hovered above. In places, holes could still be seen in roofs of abandoned properties where people had punched through in a desperate attempt to escape the rising flood water. At times the drama of these moments seemed all too real.

Two years later entire city blocks remain abandoned to weeds and shrubs with nothing more than desolate concrete pads to indicate where homes had once stood. Our guide explained that entire houses had been swept away by raging floodwater and these pads were all that remained. Elsewhere we saw the odd FEMA trailer on site, a sign that residents had returned. Behind them a gleaming new flood wall sat in place of that which had failed. I must admit it looked rather frail as it stretched out into the distance.

Saturday, August 18

The world's 7th largest city

More than 18.6 million people live in Shanghai - officially its population is 13.42 million but another five million undocumented people are estimated to reside at any time. This evening I think met most of them soaking up the neon sights of Nanjing Road.

Nanjing Road sits in the heart of the city. It's Shanghai's main shopping precinct. In recent times several blocks have been converted into a bustling pedestrian mall attracting up to one million people daily. At night the street transforms itself as an endless array of neon signs and flashing lights smother the facade of every building. The scene is reminiscent of Kabukicho, Tokyo's equally dazzling neon district.

A truly mind-boggling clutter of buildings also line its length including the rather odd Radisson Hotel. This high-rise building features its own UFO-shaped structure on the roof. It's hard not to imagine George Jetson flying in for a cocktail at any moment. Other equally futuristic buildings frame the horizon in all directions.

Walking down Nanjing Road you can believe that Shanghai is China's wealthiest city (setting aside Hong Kong). For 14 consecutive years it has recorded double-digit growth. In other words, since 1992 the average GDP of its residents has increased three-fold. The most recent data, published in 2005, reported growth of 11.5% in a single year. This is a city on the rise.

This evening I didn't linger on Nanjing Road. It became apparent that single, white males are a magnet for Rolex watch hawkers and sex venue touts. I swear I was approached at least a dozen times in the first five minutes. It leave you wondering what sort of reputation Caucasian businessmen have established over the years. I've since read that solo travellers like myself are regularly targeted for scams and extortion rituals.

I quickly made my way through the thronging crowd to the Bund. This stretch of the Huangpu river bank is home to block after block of early 20th century architecture, ranging in style from neo-classical to art deco. These buildings stand in stark contrast to the modern metropolis on the opposite side of the river, known as Pudong.

I'm fascinated by the story of Pudong. At late as 1990, the far bank of the Huangpu River was little more than farmland and countryside. Overnight the Chinese government decided to set up a Special Economic Zone and transform this rural area into China's new financial hub. Today it's home to broad boulevards, parks and a maze of modern skyscrapers. Pudong's most prominent landmark is the Oriental Pearl Tower. You have to see it to believe it. Imagine a series of Christmas baubles skewered on a concrete stick and you have yourself a rather close approximation of the real thing.

Behind the Oriental Pearl Tower sits the Jin Mao building. At 88-stories it's China's tallest office building. However, this title will soon pass to its neighbour, the new World Financial Centre. When completed the top of this massive building will become the third highest roof in the world. I took a closer look at it this evening and was fascinated to watch clouds occasionally enveloping its upper floors. Incredibly, the same clouds sat comfortably above the brightly lite Jin Mao building. Mark my words, it's tall!

Earlier this week a small fire broke out on the incomplete 26th floor. Smoke rose dramatically up a lift well to the 80th floor before dissipating. No serious damage was done but the photos in every local newspaper were unnerving to say the least. This is simply the latest in a series of dramas faced by the US$910 million project. Its been plagued by a financial crisis, controversy over a design that evoked memories of the nation's brutal Japanese occupation during World War II and enforced changes to its previously approved height which robbed it of a place in the record books.

You'd think that a city featuring a UFO-clad hotel, a Christmas bauble tower and an eerie cloud covered monolith couldn't be any more surreal. You'd be wrong. The most unusual highlight of my evening was the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. This tunnel consists of automated silver carriages that snake their way under the river between the Bund and Pudong. As you glide along your sense are assaulted by strobing lights, impressionist video images and a synchronised sound show - which includes an ensemble boldly titled "Heaven and Hell." This is kitsch at its best.

Afterwards I sensibly caught the Metro home. At least I thought I was being sensible. As my train pulled into the platform I suddenly realised than the entire population of Nanjing Road was joining me for the homeward journey. For the next five stops I endured my own version of heaven and hell crammed into a carriage with thousands of sweaty, jostling locals. I'm sure a psychedelic sound show would have worked just as well here.

Wednesday, August 15

The times they are a'changing

I’ve arrived in Shanghai on the final leg of a business trip that takes me home to London after three weeks on the road. This is my first visit in more than two years. As has been the pattern for almost a decade of travel into China, the nation continues to transform itself. While in transit to my hotel I noted three significant changes.

First, Pudong airport has almost completed a second terminal wing. I’ve seen scale models of the airport with up to three identical terminals built around a central core of transport links. Two years ago, the first of these buildings was open for business and the ground had barely been broken on the second.

Second, the high-speed maglev train service into the city is up and running. This amazing train operates at a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph), covering a 30.5 km track between the airport and town in less than eight minutes. I simply had to give it a go this morning.

The ride was reasonably smooth even as the train progressively accelerated to its top speed. Each carriage has a digital display showing the train’s speed at any given moment. Watching those glowing green numbers peak at 431km/h was the highlight of my day. My own personal land speed record.

Finally, I was surprised to see that the Shanghai World Financial Centre building is almost complete. This soaring skyscraper project has been delayed so many times I’d come to believe it would never be built. However, it now stands watch over the Huangpu River, dwarfing the once dominant profile of nearby Jin Mao Building.

The Jin Mao is more than 420.5 metres (1,380 feet) tall. It generated national headlines across Australia in 2003 when BASE jumper, Roland Simpson died following a sanctioned jump from the top of the building. Garry and I had cocktails in the Cloud 9 bar on Level 87 in late 2003. The view was spectacular, however the floor to ceiling windows were a tad unnerving. There's no way you'll catch me leaping from it.

Upon completion the new Financial Centre will be 492 metres (1,614 feet) high. The top of the building will be capped by a enormous square hole through its upper-most floors. You can see the hole currently taking shape.

While some things have changed, other things remain as I remember them. My cab driver was hell-bent on breaking my new personal land speed record without the aid of maglev technology and an ever-present dull haze still blankets the city.

Home at last

Returning to Sydney evoked emotions I was unprepared for. Earlier this year I wrote about the surprising experience of losing my identity following our relocation to London. For almost a year now I’ve felt a little lost in the universe. At times I’ve felt as though I have no home; a rather lonely and disconcerting sensation. However, all of this uncertainty vanished within days of returning to Sydney. My heart is very much wedded to Australia. I've come away feeling grounded again.

Our short trip Down Under was a wonderful end to a whirlwind trip across the globe. Garry was in town for five days and I for just over six days. My time was split evenly between time staying with Garry’s parents and time spent in the inner city with my best friend, Brendan.

While in Sydney Garry’s parents took us past our apartment in town. The area looks largely unchanged. We were also thrilled to see that recently constructed apartments across the road hadn’t detracted from the area’s look and feel. We also had a casual evening together with friends out West. Chris and Kerry have built the most wonderful home with plenty of space for a growing family of energetic kids.

I particularly appreciated my time with Brendan and his partner, Grant. It was wonderful to feel our friendship rekindled despite the tyranny of distance. I was thrilled to hear that Brendan and Grant are making plans to visit Europe next Spring. There’s already talk of a joint cruise through the Greek Islands. While in town we enjoyed breakfast on two occasions at our favourite local cafes, as well as an afternoon of leisurely drinks on the harbour front at Watson’s Bay. This casual alfresco lifestyle definitely gives Sydney an edge over the cultural variety of London.

Monday, August 13

A drive across the sea

In July 2003, the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority (NSW RTA) permanently closed Lawrence Hargrave Drive following dangerous rock falls. This narrow, winding road hugs the rugged coast between Wollongong and Sydney offering scenic views of the Tasman Sea. Last December the RTA opened a replacement roadway known as the Sea Cliff Bridge.

This 655-metre balanced cantilever bridge curves along the coastline making for a memorable driving experience. Ironically, while rock falls no longer threaten lives, the bridge has become a popular tourist destination putting cars and pedestrians at risk from distracted drivers.

On Saturday afternoon I got to see this bridge for myself. Garry’s family took us for a drive down to Wollongong for a leisurely buffet lunch at the Novotel North Beach. This glass fronted hotel sits across the road from Stuart Park and the local beach front. We couldn’t have picked a better day to visit the beach. We woke to a blue sky with temperatures predicted to hit a high of 23C.

We reached Wollongong in record time from Garry’s parent’s house thanks to the recently opened Westlink M7 tollway. This ring road was still under construction in 2003 when Garry and I departed Australia. It now provides quick access from Western Sydney to the Hume Highway, the main road to Canberra and Melbourne.

The buffet was delicious. We all pigged out on the fresh prawns. I also found room for the incredibly tender octopus salad. Afterwards we wandered across the road to the beach. Surfers were out in force, along with a few brave bathers. A group nearby was enjoying a lively game of beach volleyball.

All this was happening in the midst of winter. In fact temperatures in Sydney are currently hotter than London in the midst of Summer. For a moment I felt terribly homesick and drawn back to Australia.

Cheer, Cheer the Red and the White

It’s been more than two years since I last attended a live sporting event. Somehow we’ve been tied up in a myriad of other activities since moving to London, yet none have involved sport. I’d love to see a game at Wembley before we leave the UK. As a result, when my mate Brendan invited me to a Sydney Swans game on Saturday I leapt at the opportunity.

The Swans are Sydney’s local Australian Rules Football team. I’ve been attending local matches at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) since 1991. However, last night’s game was something special. It was staged at the impressive Telstra Stadium, the former Sydney Olympic Games venue. In front of 63,369 people, the Swan secured a 17-point victory against St Kilda. The final score: 12.10 (82) to 9.11 (65).

The atmosphere in the stadium was electrifying. The Swans trailed through the first three quarters before finally making a late charge to bring home the game. It just the sort of nail-biting experience that makes the game so much fun. Almost as much fun as the beer and hot dogs we purchased throughout the night?

The Swans are now guaranteed a position in the final eight for the season. I still vividly recall their Premiership win in September 2005, literally days before we departed Australia for life at Swiss Cottage. Go Swans!

Friday, August 10

Memories of home

On Wednesday afternoon I made my way to Melbourne via Wellington. While not the fastest, more direct route, it did get me into town early evening – early enough to catch up with two close friends, Steve and Pete. Steve and I have known each other for almost a decade. We even shared a flat in Sydney for a brief period.

Cloud covered most of New Zealand as I made my way south. However, Wellington proved to be a delightful exception. The windy capital was enjoying sunny conditions. It was wonderful to fly over Cook Strait watching inter-island ferries making their way along the spectacular Marlborough Sounds. Barrett Reef caught my eye as we came into land. It will be 40 years next April since the Wahine ferry struck these rocks and sank during a raging storm. 52 lives were lost that day.

Steve and Pete were in fine form. They were looking forward to a vacation in California, Las Vega and Alaska, scheduled to start 24 hours after I departed. Dinner was at a wonderful restaurant in Prahran called Souk. The menu was varied, the food delicious and the service; friendly. If only London had more reasonably priced venues of this quality.

Thursday, August 9

Goldilocks and the three bears

Enroute to Sydney I stopped for 36 hours in Auckland to catch up with my brother Matt, his wife, Shelley and my niece, Brooke. Matt collected me from the airport around 6:30am, then took the rest of the day off to maximise our time together.

Brooke was happy to see me and full of stories. After breakfast we dropped her off at kindergarten and headed into town. We had planned to visit Auckland Museum but arrived on the doorstep only to discover that opening time was still an hour away. We abandoned the city and headed off for a hearty coffee. Outside the sky turned black and unleashed an abrupt, spectacular hail storm.

After lunch, Matt, Brooke and I headed off to play a round of indoor mini-golf. However, the opening hours curse struck again. The venue was closed. All was not lost. We drove down the road and enjoyed a fun game of ten-pin bowling. A mobile launching ramp and pop-up guide rails along the lane meant Brooke always knocked over at least one pin. For the older men competition was tense. Matt won the first game. I won the second.

The day finished with a bedtime story for Brooke. It was soon clear she knew the story better than me as she reiterated the trauma of Goldilock's in great detail. The following morning Shelley dropped me off at the airport for a connecting flight to Melbourne. Matt later wrote to say that Brooke broke into a flood of tears when she realised her "best friend" was gone.

Wednesday, August 8

San Diego

They say it's easy to fall in love with San Diego. I believe it. The three days that Garry and I spent here were magic. The harbour was stunning, the weather warm and the food was easily the best we've encountered in America. There are now two cities in the USA I'm willing to live in; San Francisco and San Diego.

We flew in late on Thursday evening. It wasn't until the following morning that we gained a true sense of San Diego's majestic location. We started our day wandering through Horton Plaza. We'd expected to discover an open, tree-clad European plaza. Instead we found ourselves lost in Westfield Mall. The bewildering maze of mezzanine levels, ramps and stairwells wouldn't have been out of place in an Esher sketch.

We swiftly abandoned the mall and headed for the harbour. We stopped for lunch at Seaport Village, a faux seaside township by the water's edge. Our alfresco table over looking the harbour was an ideal spot to soak up the sun and few crisp Californian wines. In the distance we could see the nation's newest aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Regan, in port. Numerous other naval vessels of all shapes and sizes came and went over the course of an hour.

From lunch a short stroll along the waterfront lunch found us at the steps of the USS Midway. For more than 47 years this aircraft carrier led the US Pacific Fleet into war. I still recall watching CNN footage of cruise missles being launched from its deck during Operation Desert Storm. Since retirement the ship has been converted into a floating museum.

We spent more than four hours exploring Midway's interior, touring the control tower and striding the length of its expansive deck. Access is granted to all areas including the brig and a fascinating array of naval aircraft. Everything about this ship is big. It's 1001 feet long. It's flight deck covers more than four acres. It was home to 4,500 people at any one time.

Later that evening we headed out from our hotel to explore the Gaslight Quarter. This 16-block area of the central city is designated a National Historic District. Twenty-five years ago it was a derelict and ramshackle zone. Today the area is alive with bars, restaurants and lively crowds. We stopped for dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant. Our table on the sidewalk afforded a view of the weekend party scene. I enjoyed a veal dish with flavours unlike any meal we'd had since arriving in the USA. Why is it so hard to get a good meal in America?

We spent our second day in town at SeaWorld, home to Shamu the killer whale. In recent times, Shamu has become the city's unofficial mascot. Out day was filled wandering from stage show to show watching performing sea lions, dolphins, pilot whales and of course, killer whales. Without a doubt, watching Shamu leap into the air, somersault and splash back into the pool was the day's highlight. I also fell in love with the polar bears and magical white Beluga whales.

Our final day in town was spent with animals of a different kind. We made our way through Balboa Park to San Diego's famous zoo. It's easy to see why this facility has the reputation it does. More than 3000 animals are exhibited in a tranquail series of landscaped canyons. The variety of wildlife on display is among the most varied of any zoo worldwide.

We fell in love with the pandas, two of whom were enjoying a lunch of fresh cut bamboo as we passed by. The koalas looked at home in their trees and once again I was mesmerised by the polar bears. The zoo even has its own kiwi house. However, we couldn't find them despite an extensive search from every vantage point. Soon after encountering the local Indian rhino it was time for us to go. Our communter flight to Los Angeles couldn't wait.

It was at this point that our travel adventures really began. First, we discovered that flights to LA leave from a terminal other than that listed on our printed itinerary. Our shuttle bus driver made it clear he wasn't happy taking a detour to drop us off.

Second, Garry was told that his luggage could not be checked through to Sydney, despite the fact that Qantas had contacted the previous day to reassure him he's have no problem making his connection in Auckland. After some debate we finally convinced the Qantas agent to check his luggage through to Australia. Ironically, Garry's luggage didn't make back with him and he spent his first day Down Under hounding Qantas.

We then discovered the business lounge was closed in LA; then finally, much to Garry's disgust, our aircraft was substituted at the last minute for one without Skybeds. Hats off to Qantas though. The Customer Service Manager onboard took pity on us and offered $A200 in duty-free vouchers. We later received complimentary vouchers for meals at two of London's top boutique hotels and another A$600 in Qantas travel vouchers. Wel done Qantas. You've secured our loyalty for another year.

Friday, August 3

New Orleans

New Orleans is unlike any other American city I’ve visited. It doesn’t look like your typical American metropolis. Much of the city’s architecture and culture reminded me of Europe. It was easy to see how strongly the French and the Spainish influenced this city long before the Yankees came to town. New Orleans is definitely a world apart. So much so that I came away from New Orleans with a far deeper sense of how the American Civil War could have ever come to pass.

Unlike so much of America, New Orleans feels old and full of history. In this sense, its presence is much closer to that of towns and cities in Europe. The city was founded in 1718 by a French Canadian explorer, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. Initially it was located on high ground along the Bayou St John, a natural canal linking the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain which in turn offered direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. High ground is a relative terms in these parts. A year after the city was founded, it was flooded, a scene that went on to repeat an average of once every 11 years.

In the last century, the surrounding swamps were drained, the gators dispersed and the city expanded to fill the new land. Many of these new suburbs were below sea level. In fact, less than 25,000 people live at or above sea level in the entire city. At least 32,000 people live more than ten feet below sea level. As a result, the Mississippi River dominates the city. This is a truly enormous expanse of water. As it passes through the city, its average depth is more than 200 feet deep and is far bank is more than 600 metres away. Incredibly, while we were in town a cruise ship docked for the day.

We spent our first day exploring the city’s oldest and most colourful district, the French Quarter, before venturing down the Mississippi on the city’s only steam-powered riverboat. The French Quarter is wonderful. Its picturesque, intimate and filled with fascinating sights and sounds. While some of the 19th Century buildings have been carefully restored, most look tired and past their prime.

Our first stop was Jackson Square. This pristine, vivid green park, with carefully manicured trees and shrubs is the traditional heart of the city. The square is dominated by a statue of Jackson, flanked by three classical buildings constructed in perfect symetery. The most unusual of the three is St Louis Cathedral. It’s white, Disney-castle-like roof is unlike any other church I’ve ever seen.

We stopped for lunch at a charming restaurant on Bourbon Street, the main thoroughfare bisecting the French Quarter. As we entered the room, we felt ourselves step back in time to a simpler era. The room was dominated by a dark-stained wooden bar running the length of the room, while classic white-sill lattice windows ran along the opposing side. Large, lazy fans churned the air above us.

We ventured back on to Bourbon Street later that evening. The scene couldn’t have been more different. Neon signs were on. Bars were alive with sounds of live jazz, blues and brass. Crowds wandered the street with drinks in hand. The atmosphere was festive and fun. It was easy to see why the city’s annual Mardi Gras season is one of endless decadence and partying. We only saw it in the off-season and it already had more happening than London’s Soho on an average Friday night.

Our second day in New Orleans was spent on a mini-van tour of the city, witnessing the staggering impact of Hurricane Katrina. This experience has earned a post of it own. We then caught the local ferry across the Mississippi to visit Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. This expanse of warehouses is home to an enormous workshop tasked with building and storing many of the city’s Mardi Gras parade floats. The craftsmanship we saw was extraordinary. Bright, colourful and creative objects, many larger than life, filled every corner of the building.

However, the real highlight for me was a chance to catch up an old friend, Michele, and her husband, David. Michele was in town to catch a flight to Dallas for work. She and David collected us from the airport, and then took us for a late-night coffee, complete with beignet (a French doughnut liberally coated in powered sugar) at CafĂ© du Monde, one of the city’s institutions.

Michele even arranged an update to the Executive Floor of our hotel. This enabled us to enjoy stunning views across the city and the mighty Mississippi from the Private Lounge. The perfect place for a lazy afternoon cocktail. It was wonderful to see Michele again and learn of her adventures in America. She and David are off to live in Cairo for a year. Excellent! I’d love an excuse to go cruising on the Nile again.