Denver & Orlando: A Birth, U2 and THE Rolling Stones

Saturday 6 June to Tuesday 16 June 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

The flight to Paramaribo on Surinam Air has become a little bumpy. The big black woman next to me who prayed when we took off from Miami has now started singing softly. To calm herself I suppose. I’ve just watched ‘The Accused’ with Jodie Foster on my phone. A 1988 movie that I’ve long overdue watched. And one of the few movies that survived the great external hard drive loss of 2015. This is where it ends. Where did it begin I hear you yell, let me tell you…

I met up with Melissa in Miami and we rented a car to explore the shops and see ‘Entourage’ movie at the cinema. One of my fav tv shows of the last 5 years made into a movie that doesn’t leap from small to big screen but entertaining nonetheless. Melissa returned the vehicle to the airport and had a few more days in town before returning to site. I on the other hand was off to Denver. First time I’ve ever booked flights the night before. Spontaneous is not really in Travellingross vocabulary.  Leaving things to the last minute is. So I had known for months that this weekend 7 June was the date my close friend Matt’s (re Rockies January ski trip) 1st baby was due along with the U2 tour hitting his home town of Denver. Good enough reasons for me to visit. And it turned out fateful given as I stepped off the cruise boat into Wi-Fi freedom, baby labour was on and during my flights to Denver the baby boy was born 2 days early. Layover in Charlotte which is also the first time I’ve ever googled “where am I” and intriguingly told North Carolina. Ok.

Staying in the Courtyard Marriott downtown off the 16th street mall was a nice choice. But for the 5 nights I needed, it was only available for 3 so I had to shift to a dodgy motel near Matt where my neighbours were permanent residents with cats. On the Saturday, I was able to see baby Tucker within 24 hrs of birth and introduce Matt to the concept of ‘wetting the baby’s head’ at the local bar. Sunday was a wander around town and then meeting my former Boddington boss at a bar near the Pepsi Center ahead of U2. I saw him for a brief moment in my January Denver visit but this was first real time hanging out for 6 years. When I first met Tom in 2006 it was a pivotal moment in my life when I was meant to transfer to the Adelaide head quarters and so I bought U2 concert tickets for their Vertigo tour at the Adelaide oval. It was a hit album and everyone, including long-time fan Tom, wanted to go so he got tickets as well. But I was abruptly transferred to join Tom in the small town of Boddington for a new gold mine expansion project I’d never heard of and we both sold our U2 tickets. So attending a U2 show 9 years later in Denver with the man who made my career is a bit special for both of us. And the show did not disappoint. Although an arena rather than stadium show (like the one I saw in Perth in 2010), it was epically grand with amazing effects, lighting, vocals, and twists that make me admire this band even more. I’d read that most songs were from their latest less-than-successful album, but this show is sold as every night being different and every song I wanted to hear was there and the encore 3 were my 3 favourites in an order I predicted to the randoms we befriended: City of Blinding Lights, Where the streets have no name, and One.

I caught up with Matt’s new family a couple more times before flying out Wednesday morning 10 June to Orlando. It was time to save some money so I booked a Days Inn, which are budget hotels that have been adequate for me in the past. This one was next to the county jail. But 50 bucks a night! I was more worried about the reviews of bed bugs than the prisoner visitors over-nighting creating fights. I heard plenty of arguments and a few late night parties with the obligatory car park burnouts, but above all no bed bugs. Phew. The only reason for Orlando on my itinerary was The Rolling Stones concert Friday night. Many encouraged me to visit the theme parks and Disneyworld. But my Disney dream was to put up the do not disturb sign for 6 successive nights and do what everyone else does on their weekends.

The Stones were beyond brilliant.  Enormous stadium, high energy show for anyone let alone 70+ year olds, hit after hit, and exceptional seats right next to the ‘cat walk’ as the woman next to me called it. It seemed the whole city was excited about this show as it dominated news, radio and bars around the venue. Even my hotel price tripled for the night. Similar to U2, attending this concert had history. Seeing the Stones in concert has been on my list for years and they were scheduled to play Perth in March 2014 and better yet I was home for it. Cancelled. Due to Mick Jagger’s girlfriend committing suicide. So when I saw a 12 date North American tour scheduled a couple months ago, I got VIP tickets and planned the entire break around the 12th June in Orlando. Crazy for some, exorbitant for others, life for me. Long-term mega successful artists and entities like the Rolling Stones inspire me, and yes I have a list of artists I’d like to see. Irrelevant whether u like their music, it’s undeniable they perfected their craft and sell a product that still packs 60,000+ seat stadiums. Lyrics written 50 years ago that connect to an audience today. And I like their music. It reminds me of family car trips, cleaning my Bodd house and that I can’t always get what I want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

The concert finished just before midnight and I didn’t get to sleep til 4am. Mostly because there seems to be no taxi stand or hotel in downtown Orlando. I had to share with two women heading to sea world and I had to give directions to the driver. Orlando is not somewhere I’d return. Unless you come with friends to do the theme parks and stay at one of them. But it was a good opportunity to visit a suburban mall and catch up on things.

Feeling fulfilled after a productive relaxing entertaining break, the bumpy Surinam Air flight landed in Paramaribo in the early hours of 17 June and I arrived at the hotel at 2:30 am, couldn’t sleep until 4am, awake at 7:15am, in a vehicle to site at 8:30am, straight into the Managers Meeting at 1:30pm. Hitting the ground running. Time to pay for an expensive break.

Miami and a Bahamas Cruise

Friday 29 May to Friday 5 June 2015

travellingross rating = 8/10

The last work rotation was a hectic 16 days. A short one due to time owed from a longer rotation earlier this year. So there was not much time to ease back into it following my return from Amsterdam, which sucked cause it took me 5 days to get back into the time zone and hit fifth gear (it’s hard for me to admit that, as I used to claim there is no such thing as jet lag). Although that direct flight back was excellent with an economy comfort paid upgrade and landing at a decent afternoon hour versus the usual late night flight. There’s not much to report from a work front so I’ll include a couple photos and say it was training, budget planning, rain (350mm wettest month of the year), co hosting 5 Colorado school of mines visitors, stray dog ‘management’, and Suriname re elected their president. Interesting how developing countries care much more about elections than developed countries seem to.

I departed site a day after my sister’s birthday 28 May and had orchestrated a large group of us who all happened to be in Parbo at same time to have a night on the town. Something I would never do in Ghana so another sign I prefer this place. Great night and a rude awakening to get the 4 am shuttle to the airport for a 7:15am flight to Miami via Curacao. In the morning rush, I somehow lost my external hard drive that has my laptop and phone back-ups on it along with movies, music, and photos. Yeah so, my entire life ready for someone to hijack my identity. Weirdest thing is when I got to Miami the cable was in my suitcase, but not the actual device. I was sure it must be in the Suriname hotel but no. It’s a lesson to protect this like gold in future. Everything on there (except movies) is backed up on another external hard drive thanks to my OCD, so I don’t think I’ve lost much. Just hate losing stuff and this year is not trending well in that regard.

3 nights in Miami staying in a 5 star hotel was bliss. Time to sleep in, order room service each night, tick off some long due to-do list items. I usually file all my property and finance e-documents promptly but haven’t since November 2014. That’s just one example of how my organised life has got away from me since starting in Suriname.

On 1 June I set off on a 4 night Bahamas cruise. I’ve spent years thinking about whether I would like a cruise. Too old, too confining, crowded, hitting an iceberg. The usual hesitations. But with my placement in the Caribbean area I knew it was cruise moment of truth. After researching many farther afield options with different companies, I settled on a shorter Norwegian cruise in case I hated it. The reality was so different to expectations. Hard to spot a 65+ person with a diversity of ages, club techno music on the pool deck with a party atmosphere, big drinking culture, and lots of space. The balcony room was spacious enough with a bigger bathroom than expected but overall dated and tired. There were 3 stops but I didn’t get off at Nassau as it was rainy terrible weather. This suited me to have a chill catch up day.  They push the paid shore excursions but no obligation and I did my own thing. Easy enough except Grand Bahamas was a long taxi trip from port and not well organised. The evening entertainment is well structured and sort of corny, repeated. There is a casino on board and that surprised me although it shouldn’t.

Docking back in Miami at 7am, you had to be off the boat by 930am. I’m very glad to have done a cruise finally and rid some of the doubts. I would do another one, on a different company to compare and ideally around a few more islands. I do feel an obligation to get off at each stop so maybe a cruise with a couple full days at sea would suit me more.

My desire for a ‘do nothing’ break was not getting any more realistic as the night before docking back in Miami I booked flights and tickets to see the U2 concert in Denver as well as my good friend who was about to have baby number 1!

Random Observations

  1. I love that USA has everything I can get at home – groceries, snacks, restaurants. But that can be overwhelming to me who is less used to that choice and range nowadays. I walk into a store and almost step back at the number of aisles and check outs.
  2. I went to an Italian cafe and ordered a Greek salad. Delicious.
  3. Losing my external hard drive was eye opening to realise how much personal data I carried on that with such a care free attitude. Now it’s in the hands of someone who could choose to delete all the data by formatting it or go through all my files…and maybe steal my identity.
  4. Miami is easy for me
  5. I go through moments of wanting to party and be around a herd of people, to wanting to be alone in a hotel room without seeing another human being. Miami typically is associated with the former, but I craved the latter.  Especially after getting the party out of me in Parbo.
  6. Grand Bahamas – “this is where John Travolta’s son died” stated the taxi driver as the first opening line of her tourism remarks
  7. Cruise ship air con seemingly set to 16C so it is freezing inside
  8. The movement felt on the ship is more than I expected, like you’re drunk and swaying. This was only night one. Other days were never felt. Not sure why.
  9. Food is good
  10. Internet is $25 per day
  11. Champagne selection sucks – Presecco.
  12. Announcements get annoying and too frequent
  13. Many restaurant options, half complimentary. The others with a cover charge of $15-30
  14. Great Stirrup Cay was beautiful and exactly how I pictured the Bahamas. Walk further along the beach to find more secluded bays with some of the clearest water I’ve seen – where kayaks look like they are floating on air rather than gliding across the water surface.

Road Trip to Space

Monday 10 to Thursday 13 November 2014

I’ve always been fascinated by space travel and exploration. So a key motivation of visiting Florida was to tour the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. The place of moon landing missions, space shuttle lift-offs and now the new Orion outer orbit exploration program. So, it might have been tough leaving my Miami Beach apartment, but I was excited to go on a road trip north.

I bussed to the airport to collect my Kia Forte rental car – not fussy on the car make/model. I’d read that this can take a long time waiting in line and it was true. About an hour to get to the front of the line and then collect the car. January was the last time I drove on the right, and that was in Ghana where driving is more about dodging pot-holes than staying inside your lane. So I was a little anxious, but for no reason, a few miles in and I was in the zone. I’m glad I got an electronic toll pass thing so I didn’t have to worry about what route or lane to be in. One less stress. I selected ‘scenic route ‘ on my GPS as I wanted to follow the coast. Turns out scenery = traffic gridlock on a suburban road that saw about two glimpses of beach. Frustrating, but lesson learned and lots of time to listen to American radio.

Palm Beach: My first pit stop for lunch. Only because it’s a place I’d heard of. Very upper class swank ville with all the buildings lacking the usual advertising vomit that is everywhere else. Immaculate gardens and clean streets. At times it felt like walking a movie set.

Melbourne: Picked this place to stay simply because of the Australian city connection. And that it is only a 45 min drive to Cape Canaveral. Nice town with a bit of history and had a brilliant steak for dinner at a classy beach steakhouse. I ended up staying 2 nights here because the day I’d planned to go to NASA was Veterans Day (Remembrance Day) public holiday and also because I saw a news story that they were moving Orion to the launch pad and if I delayed by a day then I might see it. That’s the beauty of making it up as you go – amend your plans on the hop. Although it did mean I would not make it to Orlando. I was relieved by that as I didn’t want to tackle another big city and the theme parks – I like Disney and Universal, but going to Disneyland alone is possibly the most depressing thing I could think of at that point in time. Another time.

NASA Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral: 10/10. Exceeded expectations with a full day (8 hrs!) on 12 November 2014. Lots to see, read, watch, touch, tour. $50 entry and a 2.5 hr up close optional bus tour for $25 extra. I didn’t see everything, but saw the hit-list I selected from the tour map and particularly enjoyed the Space Shuttle Launch Experience, Space Shuttle Atlantis hanging from the ceiling, and the moon landing Apollo/Saturn V exhibit with one of the unused Saturn V rockets on display. Excellent audio/visuals and very educational on the space race with the Russians, the new commercial space programs and ‘simple’ stuff u don’t think of like how they transport the rockets/shuttles to the launch pads from the vehicle assembly building. With the sun set and a head full of new info, I drove to the nearest town (Titusville), pigged out at dinner after skipping lunch, then had a big fat Glenfiddich scotch whisky to close a memorable day.

NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame: 8/10. Just out of Titusville, I went here the day after Cape Canaveral, but it doesn’t open til midday so a good excuse to sleep in and chill. Brief compared to yesterday and it does a good job displaying in chronological order the achievements of the NASA space program starting with the very first astronauts to today. Free with yesterday’s ticket.

Fort Lauderdale: I headed here with McDonald’s in hand following the astronaut thing. This time much wiser not to select ‘scenic’ route, however I still met peak hour gridlock eventually but was smart enough to get off the 95 and take a different road – I only got honked twice the entire 300 kilometres! I found a good beach bar with live music and then found a cheap hotel just up the road. Good way to spend my final night in the US of A.

Next stop….Curacao

Websites Used to Make this Trip

Booked the ‘Dollar’ rental car through rentalcars.com

Found booking.com had the best for cheap hotels. Their mobile phone app (Android) has become very intuitive and one of the best apps out there. I stayed at Days Inn, except for Fort Lauderdale which I can’t remember and wouldn’t recommend.

Research on NASA at www.kennedyspacecenter.com. I debated booking online tickets, but didn’t and didn’t need to either. If paying by credit card, use the self-service kiosks at the entrance to bypass the line up entirely.

I’m in Miami…Beach

Of course I had the LMFAO song ‘I’m in Miami Bitch’ in my head on repeat for most of the 2 flights (via Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago) to Miami. And then I got to Miami Beach and I had this moment of internal contemplation that maybe it is not ‘Bitch’ but ‘Beach’ and I have been singing it wrong all this time. ‘I’m in Miami Beach’ would be so geographically correct and appropriate, but too academic for the singers and not really a title befitting a #1 hit. Then I saw the t-shirts that confirmed that of course it’s not ‘beach’. Crisis over.

9 nights in Miami Beach had a bit of everything: sun, swimming, tourism, party, sleep, vegetating, ridiculously expensive meals out, rain, TV, celebrities, basketball, hot people, omg people, shopping, and old men randomly singing on buses. Arriving Saturday 1 November, I had been up since 2:30am Suriname time to get a 6:10am flight and landing in Miami at 12:30pm. Getting the Miami Beach Airport Flyer Bus was easy and cheap at $2.65 and dropped me off a 2 block walk from my Ocean Drive prime position apartment between 9th and 10th Streets (love how the street names are so basic). The walk was short but a sensory overload. On a beautiful day, it was crowded and still busy with Halloween revellers. I wasn’t expecting or wanting a party atmosphere (this time), but that’s what I got, and I should’ve realised this but wasn’t exactly here for that. It’s got a Cancun vibe where everyone drinks from way too big glasses and is dressed to impress. Give me a couple of days (hours?) and I’ll adjust.

With such a chunk of time to spend in one place, I am glad I stayed in a vacation rental apartment rather than a hotel or cheap hostel. Here I felt like a Miami Beach local and could do my own cooking etc. I did this in New York City for a week a few years ago and it is still one of my most memorable trips. Plus an easy way to save money. This was $94/night and for the location is incredible value. The idea was to stay put for a large portion of my 19 day break to catch my breath and explore a little. Miami has not really been high on my travel list, but there were still a few things I wanted to see. And I am glad not to be somewhere (like a NYC or Rome or London) that I would be out of the house every day exploring or sightseeing. Here are the highlights:

Miami Heat NBA Game: I rate it an 8 out of 10 experience with great seats at the American Airlines Arena versus Houston Rockets. Game started off competitive and entertaining, T shirts parachuted from the ceiling rails at half time, but people started leaving with 5 mins to go when obvious that Miami were getting embarrassingly beaten. Houston player bounced ball for last 15 seconds. Then they all just walked off court. Jumbo hot dog not so Jumbo. Beers $8. Burger tasted like artificial display burger. Lots of food outlets though and a very well run event.

Lincoln Street Mall and Holocaust Memorial: 7/10. The outdoor mall is like many in the world. I bought some new Oakley sunglasses and a jumper/sweater cause it is colder here than I hoped (mid-twenties). I was going to avoid the holocaust memorial cause I’ve seen so many but I glimpsed it on a bus and it looked unique. I’m glad I took a closer look. All outdoor and very well put together with an emotional experience walking through an enclosed hallway to the centre of the memorial where a sculpted girl is crouched down reaching for your help as hymn music plays. This opens out to circular area with some of the most emotive sculptures I have seen.

Everglades National Park: 6/10. I did a little research into tours and you know I hate choice, so I just went with the tour recommended by the tourist centre – Everglades Safari Park. The 4 hour tour satisfied my Everglades curiosity. Airboat ride, swamp, alligators, interactive wildlife show, gator burger. Reminded me a little of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but with fewer wildlife encounters. I guess going in the heat of the day means not seeing many animals. If I went back, I would explore with a car and head down towards the Keys area.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: 9/10. Fascinating mansion south of Miami and easy to get to by bus and train. Built in 1914, it looks like a much older Italian villa and has some elements of my dream home. I did the audio guided tour and was really interested in the history and place showcasing some of the excess of the gilded age in the USA when new millionaires wanted to show off their wealth by largely copying European aristocracy.

Beach and Clubbing: 7/10. Usually it needs to be 32C+ to get me into the water, but I couldn’t leave Miami Beach without a beach day. And then a club crawl tour where you pay $25 to meet up with others (rent-a-friends! Perfect for the solo traveller), get cheap drinks, and free express entry to 5 pubs/clubs. I hesitated about doing this as I am a bit shy (!) but sucked up the courage and glad I went.

Websites Used to Make this Trip

Booked the vacation rental through www.flipkey.com

Found basketball, concerts and other events at miami.eventful.com/events

Bus and train routes www.miamidade.gov/transit/routes.asp

Club Crawl pubcrawl-miami.com/

Art Deco Welcome Center for museum and really helpful people to make the most of your trip www.mdpl.org/