A Kiwi couple's cruising adventures on America's Great Loop and around the coast of New Zealand

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Finishing the Loop #1

After the Blount cruise last June, we decided that it was worthwhile enough to warrant booking on their Savannah to Baltimore cruise in April 2019 and thus complete our Great Loop, since Savannah was where we had to stop and ship LK home back in 2013. We also received a 20% discount for booking within 3 weeks of our last cruise, so we went ahead and booked in August. We worked out an itinerary that will include the cruise, followed by a road trip up through New Jersey to New England, returning through Pennsylvania and the Virginias, then back to Washington DC where we will spend 5 days at the Smithsonian - something we have been promising ourselves to do since we first went there in 1989 and found 2 days wasn't enough to see it all. We then fly back to Los Angeles and home. At the end of this trip, there will only be 6 States in the USA that I will not have visited (Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Nth Dakota and Oregon).

Not quite "crossing our wake", but almost. We will be "cruising" the New Jersey coast by car, rather than by boat, but that is the only non-boating part of the Loop, and we made up for that by doing West Lake Michigan twice! I also get to see where Loopy Kiwi was built,  although Silverton aren't there (or anywhere else) any more, for that matter. We will also get to see Mark Twains's house, Mt Washington and its Cog railway, the Martin Guitar factory in Nazareth and visit the Amish in Lancaster, PA (something Carolyn wants to do). There are also plenty of military establishments, historical and Civil War sites to visit during the cruise.

We made the airline bookings through Air New Zealand and, despite the hassles with United as explained in the last posting on this blog, we decided to use them for the internal sectors in the USA. We figured that, because the baggage problem we had was a "one-off" it was worth the risk as it surely would not happen again??? WRONG!!! All the documentation from Air NZ showed us with a baggage allowance of 2 bags per sector each, but when we looked at the United confirmation, it showed an allowance of only 1 bag on the flight from Washington DC to LA. Long story short... I have contacted United and Air NZ numerous times by email and phone, and everyone agrees that the Air NZ baggage allowance should apply (ie 2 bags/person). However at the time of writing this, the United confirmation still states only 1, and that is what the system will see we we come to check in at Dulles airport. Suffice to say, I will be ready for a scrap this time, and they won't get away with ripping us off again (and the charge is an extra $250 per bag this time!). Watch this space.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The aftermath – Hertz, United and other wild animals.

You may recall in an earlier posting that, when we had the rental car in Denver, I had avoided toll roads to the extent that Carmen (our GPS) wanted to avoid driving through Yellowstone as there was a State Park charge which she considered a Toll. So, when we got home, I was a little surprised to find out we had been charged for a toll in Denver – a mere NZD10.96 (USD6.90), so it wasn’t a big deal. However when I started to plan for our next trip, I thought I had better figure out how the rental car/toll road system works, because there are a few toll roads next time and we need to know the rules.

What Hertz (and most rental companies) do is they fit their cars with transponders that automatically trigger the toll payment. They then charge the toll on to you BUT with an additional “convenience” fee (USD4.95 in Hertz’ case). This fee is billed every day that you incur a toll, no matter how small, so it can add up over a long rental period. Some companies have a ceiling, but Hertz do not – so it’s a good little money earner for them, especially since the whole thing is processed by an independent company called “Platepass”. The thing to do is avoid toll roads – which we thought we had.

However you can also go on to Platepass’ website and check the details of the toll charge, so I did. It turns out that the $1.95 toll was incurred at 1:18pm on 1st July on the E470 freeway at Quincy Rd, south of Denver. “Strange”, I thought, “we never used the E470 and never went South of Denver”??? Furthermore, at 3.37pm on the same day, I was buying a Tee shirt from the gift shop at the Crazy Horse memorial in Sth Dakota, some 400 miles away! Since even Hertz cars can’t do 200mph, we figured there was something wrong, so I emailed Platepass with all the above and asked for an explanation. All we got back was a credit for the USD6.90!. Ain’t technology grand….and easily manipulated!

Then there was United and their luggage rort, as explained on the last post (4th July). A couple of days after we got back, I rang Air New Zealand’s customer service and explained what had happened. She looked through our  booking and said that there was nothing wrong with the way it had been done, that we were entitled to 2 pieces per passenger, and that United should have honoured the “legal and binding contract” that was our E-ticket. They opened a complaint file, but said I would need to approach United for the refund first as; “they were the ones who had taken your money”.

The following day, I contacted United through their website “comments” form – the only way you can make any complaint of this nature. I gave details of the issue and attached copies of the relevant documents.

I also rang my bank and told them the story, and got pretty much the same answer as from Air NZ,  as I had “authorized the transaction’ by allowing then to bill my credit card. However they were quite interested when I pointed out that the demand was illegal and payment was only made under the duress of being denied boarding unless it was paid. Both the bank and Air NZ sent me follow-up emails requesting copies of documents and the outcome of my discussions with United. A couple of days later I got one from United saying they would investigate, but had not received the documents, so could I send them again.

Two weeks afterwards, I got an email from United that basically says; “even though Air NZ’s ticket showed the correct baggage allowance, our system didn’t. The agent was doing her job in collecting the money, as she is ordered to do – and we are sorry you were inconvenienced.
We don’t know how the mistake happened, but we’re not in the habit of giving money back….you should have argued more at the counter. However, we can see that you wouldn’t be allowed to board unless you paid so, as a favour, this one time only, we’ll refund what we extorted from you. Next time, though, argue a bit harder and ask to see a supervisor, even if you’re told you are already as high as you can go.
Thank you for choosing United.  I hope we have an opportunity to welcome you on board again in the future. ” That last line is a direct quote.

I found out later that Air NZ had contacted them and demanded they give me an apology, which is probably why it seemed to be given somewhat begrudgingly. A few days later the money appeared on my credit card statement. With exchange rate difference and bank fees, I am still down $1.04, but I don’t think I will chase them for it.

On a lighter note…I mentioned in a previous post (26th June) that shortly after we left Denver for Casper, we turned off the freeway because of traffic at a place called Firestone and bought lunch. On the way back to the freeway, we saw in the distance what appeared to be the parachute canopies of a bunch of skydivers. However, as we got closer, we could see it was a flock of very large birds. They were pure white, but with jet black tips on their wings, and looked like herons – but much bigger. I figured they were some local wildlife and expected we would see more during our travels and would find out what they were later. We never saw them again, and they completely slipped my mind until something on TV last night reminded me to look them up. After a brief internet search, I discovered they were Whooping Cranes that live in Alberta Canada, and migrate down a narrow corridor to Texas each year. The interesting thing is that their major route is down through the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Arkansas, and they are rarely seen as far west as Colorado. What’s more, there are only around 600 of them in existence, so it is rare to see them at all. They are very endangered – 1n 1941 there were only 23 in the world, and there is a conservation website where you report sightings of them (so I did). They are America’s tallest bird, with a wingspan of 2.3 metres (7.5ft) and we got to see 7 or 8 of them, in the wild and in flight!

You may also recall that on 29th July , as we were leaving Yellowstone, we came across a couple of animals that didn’t show on the list, but looked like “deer or antelope”. It turned out I was right -  they are Pronghorn Antelope and, strangely, aren’t antelope at all. They just look like them and, in fact, there closest relatives are giraffes and Okapi. Pronghorns main claim to fame is that they can run!!! They can reach up to 55mph and run at 30mph for 20 miles. The cheetah (world’s fastest animal) can run faster at 60mph, but can only keep it up for 700 metres, so the Pronghorn can pretty well outrun anything that wants to eat it (other than us, of course – cain’t outrun a bullet).

So there y’go

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Going home

Tuesday 3rd July

Another fine and hot day in Colorado. There is a large wildfire burning not too far from the city – the largest in Colorado records - and today is forecast hot (36C) and dry. And they are selling fireworks at every freeway interchange to let off tomorrow for Independence Day. We drove to the other side of the city to a large shopping complex that included a Skechers outlet shoe store – Carolyn’s favourite. We did another couple of stores, but it was so hot and the week of driving and altitude got at me a bit so we retires back to the hotel and relaxed for the afternoon, until I took the car back. Speaking of which, we were really sad to see it go – Carolyn wanted to keep it. It turns out we lucked in as these vans are usually around double the price as the model car we had ordered. But a few days before we rented, a huge hailstorm had hit the rental car lots at Denver airport and around 500 cars were written off. Hertz were so low on the model that we had ordered that they had started using other model groups to supplement them, so we lucked in  at the right time.

By now we had enough stuff to bring home that it was time to bring out the kit bag I had brought with us for that very purpose. We had plenty of luggage allowance (2 checked bags each) showing on our Air NZ  E-tickets and as we were getting a rental in LA it wasn’t going to be a hassle with just one extra bag................right????

Wednsday 4th July.

Wrong...what we hadn’t taken into account was the “United Airlines Effect”. We arrived good and early at the airport and began check-in using their self-service kiosks. First we noticed our seat numbers had changed. Moving on, we got to the “number of bags” section and put in 3, which we now had. This brought up that we had an entitlement of only 1 bag each and the “additional” bag would cost us $135 (US). We stopped the process, called for assistance and showed them our documentation showing we had an allowance of 4 checked bags, and were taken to an agent to sort it out. After about 15 minutes on her computer, she announced that Air NZ had bungled the ticket booking (sounds familiar – always someone else’s fault) and that the details of our International travel were not included in the United reservation therefore the additional charge applied. We continued to protest, and she was "very understanding of our concerns", but was unable to do anything about it as, until the $135 was paid, she couldn’t proceed with our boarding. Which left us with the invidious  choice of coughing up the 135 bucks or staying in Denver forever (not much of a choice really) so with time to argue running out, we reluctantly paid United’s extorted and exorbitant fee. Of course we will be taking it up with Air NZ when we get home – I want my money back!!!

Once again, the plane was completely full – but we had seats in an exit row (United normally charge an extra $35 for those), and we were in group 2 for boarding – which meant we kept our carry-on luggage with us instead of having it confiscated and put in the hold (but that’s another story). However, it was a quick flight to LA, where we next had to deal with “Hertz and the declining credit card” (sounds like a Harry Potter movie title, eh?).

On arrival at Hertz, I allowed the agent to start the rental process but, shortly after he did, I asked him to check my credit card in their system as I had had problems with Hertz in other locations. He immediately asked if it had been declined, and when I said, “yes”, he told me that Hertz knew it was an issue, thanked me for the “heads up “ on it, and told me that he had a remedy if it declined there……which it did. However, within 10 minutes of knowing it declined, he had put his “fix” into effect, and we had a rental car, without having to fall back on Carolyn’s credit card. He also told me that it was a well-known glitch in Hertz’s system, but they didn’t like to admit to it and found it easier to lay the blame on the customer.

The roads around LA were relatively quiet, but the some of the drivers that were out were behaving like lunatics. Either they were running late getting where they were going, or had partaken of too many independence day lunchtime bevies. But we got to our motel in one piece then set out to do the remainder of our shopping while it was cool and quiet. We were staying in Torrance, which is about 12 miles south of LAX airport. It has a huge mall (Del Amo Centre) and all the usual shops. One of the main streets, Crenshaw Blvd, also runs through Hawthorne where Elon Musk’s Spacex rocketship factory is – so we had to take a drive up there for a nosey.

By early evening, we had pretty much done the shopping and decided to go to a restaurant in Del Amo that we had been to before, called BJ’s Brewhouse. However right next door was Vegas Seafood Buffet, an Asian buffet restaurant that I had noticed on Google Maps, so we decided to take a look. One look was enough to spy the crab’s legs and HUGE raw oysters, so in we went! It would have to be the most amazing seafood buffet I have seen since I went to one in Houston in 1984 (when Alaskan crab was readily available and dirt cheap). The oysters were massive and very, very tasty – on a par with the best Pacific I have ever had. They had dozens of Chinese dishes as well as sushi and sashimi and teppanyaki. Plus Brazilian style skewers, roasted lamb and beef and other western accompaniments. All for $28 per head. Sorry, no camera or even phone – so no pix.

By the time we got back to the motel, it was getting towards dark – around 8.30pm – and the fireworks were starting. Within 15 minutes, it sounded and looked like you were watching CNN during the assault on Baghdad during Gulf War 2. I got some good video footage, including fire engines screaming past, but all too big to post here. This was still going on when we retired at 10.30pm.

Friday 5th July

Time to go home……
One last trip to Walmart, then down to Venice Beach for a relax before heading to the airport. We had been there before, many years ago, but it wasn’t as “well developed”  (ie squillions of T shirt shops expensive food stalls and tattoo parlours (as well as wacky backy shops). But it was nice to be near the sea again. 

We had to get the rental back to Hertz by 2.00pm (or pay for another day) which left us at the airport around 2.30pm for our 10.30pm flight. Fortunately here, you can check-in and get to the lounge even that far out. We checked in our bags and got our boarding passes and, whoopee, got our upgrade – so lie down beds on the way home, which will do my swollen ankles some good, I hope.

So here we are - I am writing this up in the Star Alliance lounge in LA, waiting to board our plane so we can head home to winter. Yippee.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Cowboys and Indians

Saturday 30th

Another fine day as we took the 1 hour journey to the site of the Battle the Little Big Horn/Custer’s last stand. It was an interesting place, and more interesting was the different perspective put on the battle by the Indian people compared to what was in popular culture. Growing up, when we played “cowboys and Indians”, the cowboys/cavalry were always the goodies, while the redskins were the Baddies. It turns out it wasn’t quite like that – Custer was a bit of a mean guy and self-proclaimed “indian fighter”, who didn’t mind knocking off a few women and children to intimidate the enemy. So, when they attacked here, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Co. weren’t prepared to let that happen – hence the defeat of the 7th Cavalry and the demise of General George Armstrong Custer. Another interesting thing I learned is that there is no such Indian tribe as the Sioux. That name isn’t even a word in any language but was made up as a result of miscommunication between the French trappers and the Chippewa people. Later the US Government found it convenient to use it for the Indians in the Great Plains area, who were actually, the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota tribes - It was the Lakota (and their Cheyenne allies) that wupped Custer. Another thing I learned is that the 7th Cavalry weren’t all American born – about 40% were foreigners, mainly Irish and Germans. Also they weren’t all wiped out – about 350 survived and it was they who buried the dead over the next few days. There are marble markers all over the fields that show where the soldiers (and a few indian warriors) fell, but all the bodies were later exhumed (1881) and buried under the monument on top of the hill – except for the officers whose bodies were exhumed earlier (1877) and buried throughout the country. Custer is buried at West Point (been past there in a boat!). A lot of horses were shot by their riders at the bitter end and used as cover, and there is a separate burial ground for them at the top of the hill – which I thought was kind of nice.

Unfortunately, the LBH site was interesting enough to put us 1 ½ hours behind schedule, so we didn’t reach Devils Tower until 3.30pm. Fortunately, though, Devils Tower is Devils Tower – a big hunk of rock visible from miles around and you don’t need to get up close and personal (besides, everyone has seen “Close encounters of the third kind”, haven’t they?). So we just stopped by the roadside, and at the Trading Post (and had a beer) and took the pics

Then on to Deadwood, where we arrived around 5pm. By now we had figured the 6 hour drive back to Denver on Monday was going to be a long day, without taking into account a stop at the Crazy Horse memorial. So we decided that we would try and fit in both Mt Rushmore and the Crazy Horse memorial in the one day, tomorrow, since they were only about an hour away from Deadwood. We had allowed tomorrow morning to sightsee around the “rustic old frontier town” of Deadwood, but it turned out to be everything but. In fact Deadwood is a microcosmic Las Vegas and was jammed full of young adults partying. We went to a famous old hotel/casino for dinner and ended up waiting over 2 hours to get a table. The only real bonus was that there is a $1 per ride trolley bus that does a circuit of the hotels into town every 15 minutes of so, which is great because you can’t get parking in town anyway. The Alaskan crab legs at the buffet were plentiful and yummy, but their prime rib was less than ordinary – I think I will give up on it in the USA. It used to be one of the things I lusted after over here, but cannot remember when I last had a “memorable” prime rib (other than when I cook it myself).

The streets don’t look that full, but that’s because everyone’s in the casinos. BTW I won $3 on the pokies – Carolyn lost 20.

Sunday 1st July
Since it was only an hour to our next destination, Keystone, we decided to have a lay in until 9am (we had seen enough of Deadwood, anyway). Once over there, we decided to go to the monuments straight away as we couldn’t check in to our motel until 3pm. First we went to Mt Rushmore and found ourselves in a mile long queue to the entrance. Now Mt Rushmore is a bit like Devils Tower, in that it’s just a bit of rock carved to look like US Presidents, so we pulled over to the side of the road, took some pix, and headed off for the Crazy Horse memorial.

Originally we had planned to spend 2 hours here on our way back to Denver tomorrow. However, we arrived at 11.30 am and left just before 4pm. It really is a fantastic place and we were so pleased to have changed our itinerary. Apart from the monument and the museum, we were also entertained by traditional Indian singing and dancing, and a performance by Brule, a band that plays a fusion of native American and modern music. The memorial is a mountain carving (like Mt Rushmore) of Crazy Horse on his horse, and was started in 1948. Rather than try and describe it all here, I suggest you take a look at: https://crazyhorsememorial.org/the-mountain.html

Keystone was a bit like we expected Deadwood to be, but still very touristy. Tomorrow is a big drive day – 6 hours to Denver – but we have decided also to take a slightly different route and come back via Nebraska.

Monday 2nd July

We left Keystone at 8am in 15C (60F) temperature, and arrived at our hotel in Denver at 4.30pm in 35C (96F). We had stopped at a few spots in Nebraska to check out the shops (Walmart, Kmart and Shopko) and definitely not have been able to spend the time at Crazy Horse we would have liked so, again, were very pleased we changed our schedule. 

We have traveled 1800 miles in the past week and visited 5 new states; Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Sth Dakota and Nebraska (we had been to Colorado before – though just passing through). Tomorrow is a rest day (and maybe some shopping) and rearranging the luggage for the flight to LA on July 4th. Then some more last minute shopping and home

And we have already decided that we will take the Blount cruise next year from Savannah to Baltimore and effectively finish the Great Loop.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Yellowstone and Old Fizzer

Thursday 28th

We got away from Cody good and early to enter the Eastern entrance, cut through the middle of the Park and spend the night at West Yellowstone,  just the other side of the Western Entrance. However, we immediately found ourselves arguing with Carmen (our GPS) over the direction we were heading, as she was insisting we drive in the opposite direction to the entrance to Yellowstone.  After some deliberation we found she was set to avoid toll roads and, as she considered the State Park fee to be a toll, she was going to take us on a 5 hour, 300 mile trip around the top of the park to get to West Yellowstone, where we would see nothing but freeways. A quick change to the settings and off we went for the 133 mile journey as planned.

Once you leave Cody (elevation 5000 feet) you travel the Buffalo Bill Highway through the Buffalo Bill State Park, past the Buffalo Bill reservoir formed by the Buffalo Bill Dam – there seems to be a fixation about this fellow around here.

Once in the Park, you climb to around 8000ft to cross the Sylvan Pass before descending to Yellowstone Lake. There is still snow on the surrounding mountains and at the summit of the pass, and a few kids were skidding around on it.

Coming down towards the lake we found a bunch of cars just stopped on the side of the road and teams of people out of their cars an milling about. We thought there had been an accident, but it turns out that someone had spotted a Grizzly Bear in the trees and they just stop dead to see it, regardless of the traffic. We later deduced that that was the best way to know there was wildlife about – watch for the stopped cars and pointy tourists. .Anyway, we got to see him too and was our first encounter with the Yellowstone fauna.

After the lake we continued around towards the “West Thumb” on the way to the “Old Faithful” geyser and happened upon our second encounter – this time with Bison (but not to be the last)

We stopped to buy some lunch at the General store by the lake and found this guy just wandering around among the tourists and businesses. In the store, we also got a taste of just how many people we were going to encounter in the park.

A couple of miles further on, we passed a small herd of female Elk grazing in a paddock and then just a couple of miles further, we came to another “tourist jam” looking at a large male in the forest by the roadside.

From there it was up and over the Continental divide (8391 feet) and on to “Old Faithful”, arriving just as it finished playing. However, it took us another 15 minutes of driving around looking for a car park and avoiding the squillions of tourists who were leaving after the event. We finally found a park, had some lunch and figured by the time we got to the benches by the geyser, it would be about 45 minutes from the last eruption and ready to go again. We got a good spot and sat and waited….and waited….and waited…in the hot sun. Finally, after 50 minutes, “Old Faithful” sputtered into life and promptly stopped. Another 15 minutes and a couple more sputterings, and it finally burst into life. I have seen Pohutu erupt in Rotorua several times and was expecting something far more spectacular – in fact it was considerable disappointment. Unlike Pohutu, with its thumping and whooshing, O.F just makes a noise like a squirting fire hose (and looks a bit like one too). It didn’t even go as high as I have seen Pohutu go.

We both walked away feeling like we had been robbed – but the eighty or so bajillion tourists around seemed satisfied. However as we were leaving the carpark, we stopped at a pedestrian crossing for some of the horde, and a huge Bison stepped out from behind a bus and casually strolled by in front of us. We were so shocked we didn’t have time to get a pic of him, but seconds later, another one did the same and Carolyn got video of him walking right in front of us as bold as brass (it's 28MB, so too big to load onto the post)

By now we were about Yellowstoned out, so we hit the road for our overnight stay at West Yellowstone, which is in Montana, and just outside the Western entrance to the park. Since it was only 3.30pm and the motel’s check-in time was 4pm, we decided to drive to Idaho, since we had never been there and it was only 9 miles away. So we did and stopped at Howard Springs Wayside Area in the Targhee National Forest, Idaho, turned round and went back to check in to our motel. So in less than an hour, we had been in  3 different states, and one of them twice!

West Yellowstone is a small resort town and we went downtown to get some groceries. It took us 10 minutes to get a park at the supermarket and every bar and restaurant had queues waiting to get in.

Up until now, we have had incredibly good weather – if anything it has been too hot. However, the forecast was that this was about to change and tomorrow the temperature in Yellowstone was expected to plummet into the single digits (in degrees C) with thunderstorms - and this for the day that we planned to drive the scenic Beartooth Highway, where the temperature was forecast to be -1 at midday.

Friday 29th

At 7am the sky was overcast and black. And, as forecast, it 7.30 it started to hail, and then heavy rain which eased enough for us to pack up and leave. It rained all the way to Mammoth Springs and the temperature was 5C, about 20 below what it was yesterday. We also encountered about 10 miles of roadworks, with a half hour delay to even cross them, b ut there were still plenty of tourists when we reached the thermal area – all about with their brollies and raincoats. We weren’t much in the mood for picture taking, sorry

At this point we had to decide whether to go straight out of the park and go to Billings, or take the risk of going to the Northeast entrance and over the Beartooth pass and see little, if the rain persisted. In the end we opted for the riskier option, since the pass was something we had really looked forward to. About 10 miles from the entrance to the park, the rain stopped and  we came across these 2 grazing by the side of the road, with the usual attendance of tourists.

We don’t know yet what they are as they don’t show on any of the lists of animals in Yellowstone, but they appear to be some kind of deer or antelope. There were also herds and herds of Bison across the river flats, but we had plenty of pix of them up close so we didn’t bother taking more.

As we exited the park and began to climb towards Beartooth, the rain stopped completely and the clouds cleared and we began to get to see the surrounding scenery. Carolyn had bought a jacket at Mammoth Springs and had decided to wear it afterwards.

When we had a pit stop at Beartooth Lake, we were at 9000 feet and there was plenty of snow on the ground

And by the time we reached the top of the pass at 10950 feet, there were even people skiing up there. However, the weather from Yellowstone was quickly heading our way and just after we took the pix below, it began to snow – so we thought we had better skedaddle. (BTW take a close look at the guy in the middle of the  group in the last pic. He was actually firing a pistol at something in the valley below while the others looked on with binoculars – another good reason to skedaddle!)

The road winds down the side of the mountains for 22 miles and drops from 10000 ft to around 5500 at the bottomof the valley, but only goes a couple of miles horizontally. It was raining and the road was winding and quite busy – so, sorry, no pics.
We continued our descent into Billings , Montana and, for the first time in  over a week were below “mile high” status at a mere 3160 ft.

On the subject of elevations, we have been amazed how many cyclists we have seen on this part of the trip. From Casper to Cody, all through Yellowstone, and even over the Beartooth pass. Apart from the steep grades, you get breathless enough just walking around, let alone riding a bike. You don't have to be crazy to do it, but it probably helps!

Tomorrow is a long haul, so this is enough for now