Old London Town

After the whirlwind dart up to Manchester, we came back for six full days exploring London. I’d been to London once before when I was 15, a quick visit which pretty much amounted to me getting my picture taken in front of Buckingham Palace and also in a red phone booth.

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We woke on the first morning to sunshine beaming through from the terrace area. We thought we better make good use of this while it lasted and quickly got ourselves outside and walking. Little did we know, but the next six days would be predominantly sunshine and no rain (although we would encounter a bizarre 5 minute burst of hail in East London over the weekend). All this talk about London being rainy and miserable all the time, and we had nothing but glorious sunshine although still with a crispness in the air. I think we even got sunburnt on the first day.

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The next couple of days we spent ticking off the quintessential London attractions. From our base in Victoria we meander along the River Thames and see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, with the London Eye off in the distance.  St James Park is packed with people basking their pasty skin. We get the impression it has been a long time since the sun has been out like this. From there, we continue down The Mall to the gates of Buckingham Palace.

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We encountered a very unusual protest unfolding in front of the Houses of Parliament. From what we could gather the government had recently changed laws on the farming of bees and the importation of honey. This drew several hundred bee-keepers and their workers into the city centre to have their message heard. Together, dressed in an array of bizarre bee costumes, they stood and sang “All we are saying, is give bees a chance” to the tune of a very famous John Lennon song. It was quite a sight.

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We check out Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square and do a spot of shopping in Oxford Street. For the latter, we could only endure an hour as it was crazy and jam-packed with people.

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We cross the London Bridge to admire the Tower Bridge. The afternoon sun provides a stunning post-card perfect scene.

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A day and night ride on the Eye provides a stunning aerial view of London. Usually the night would be better with all the lights ablaze, but with the beautiful blue sky it is hard to beat.

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On the second afternoon we got out of the city centre for a visit to the Abbey Road Studio. The pedestrian crossing was a complete disaster zone. There is 24 hour camera that snaps a photo every second and uploads it for you to collect at the Abbey Road website. It even has directions painted on the crossing so that you can be properly positioned. We opted not to after a few tourists who did try and strike a pose were almost mowed down, copping abuse from the passing cars.  Aaron also ticked off some other important sights such as the Lords Cricket Ground and the inspiration for Gerry Rafferty’s song ‘Baker Street’.

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As a park lover, I made sure we visited many of the Royal Parks; we lunched in Green Park, strolled through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and admired the gorgeous flowers in Regent Park.

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Although, a little hidden gem which we probably wouldn’t have found ourselves, turned out to be my favourite. On recommendation from my good friend Gab, who had lived in London for a couple of years, we decide to escape north of the city for the day and catch the tube to Hampstead.  You can notice straight away the feel of this place is very different to central London. Old windy streets, lots of nice shops and cute cafes.  It has a suburban country feel and you can tell there is a lot of wealth in the area. We take note of the huge old mansions although the neighbours don’t seem all that friendly.

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After a delicious ham, cheese and runny egg crepe from a French-owned crepe stand on the main street (also another recommendation by Gabby!), we start to wander through Hampstead Heath.

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Hampstead Heath is a 320 hectare open space of woodlands, grassy hills and swimming ponds with lots of wild life. A nice change from the formal well-kept Royal Gardens. At times, we feel like we are the only people wandering through the woodlands, as we don’t pass anyone for up to 20 minutes. When we do it is people jogging, taking their dogs for a walk and children running amuck taking in the fresh air. The Heath has been the setting and inspiration for many literature works, such as, Ode to a Nightingale by Keats, and the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. A truly amazing place.

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Of course time in London would not be complete without seeing a West End show. With ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘The Book Of Mormon’ completely sold-out (with some utterly ridiculous tout prices), we pick up some cheap tickets to ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ – a surprisingly hilarious period play with many jokes about Australia. The weekend arrives, and after seeing lots of the must see sights, it’s time to relax and get into the real culture of London.

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Friday night, we head out in South London to the Ministry of Sound superclub where Ferry Corsten is playing. This double story multi dance floor clubbing institution has been going for over 20 years now and spawned the monster record label of the same name. The sound-system and lighting is like nothing we have ever experienced.

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Saturday, we head East and hang out in the neighbourhoods of Angel and Shoreditch, which both have a great feel to them. Angel is lovely, with loads of restaurants, bars and shops – while Shoreditch has a nice gritty feel, a very trendy vibe that lacks any kind of pretentiousness.

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That evening, after a few drinks at the Ten Bells Pub on Commercial Street in Shoreditch (apparently where Jack the Ripper would select his victims as they were all seen drinking here the night of their deaths) we head deep into East London to a secret warehouse party in Hackney Wick. A great find by Aaron on one of his music sites. You could buy a ticket online and then the address of the venue would be emailed to you on the Saturday morning. Even with the address our friendly veteran taxi driver struggles to find it. When we arrive there are about 500 people crammed into a dark, gritty, converted warehouse. Todd Terje, a Norwegian DJ we had seen previously in Sydney, is playing. Behind him is a set of large windows looking out into the darkness. In the early hours of the morning as the party is winding down, the sun appears through the windows and we realise we are looking out across London’s Olympic Park.

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Sunday afternoon, we are back in the East this time to hang out in Brick Lane. Brick Lane is famous for being lined with Indian restaurants, where vendors come out onto the street to try and haggle for your business. If you pay more than ten pound for a starter, main, rice, naan, wine/beer then you are being ripped off! On Sundays, Brick Lane’s many restaurants, bars and food markets are buzzing with people. We spend our last afternoon here, reflecting on what has been an amazing week.

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London felt like a more historical and cultural version of Sydney (obviously without the beach). We knew we were going to love it, and weren’t disappointed at all. The stunning weather might have helped that though – not sure we would like to try it in December or January! One thing it does have Sydney covered with is the public transport. The tube is fast, clean and oh so easy to use. By the end we were criss-crossing the city – no journey was too difficult.

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On the Monday morning we said goodbye to our cute little studio and headed for Kings Cross St Pancras Station, complete with another sunny day to farewell us. In a couple of hours we would be across the English Channel on French soil heading for Paris.

Karina x

Manchester

I have to admit that visiting Manchester was a selfish choice. After all, there wouldn’t be too many females who would want to re-route their world tour for a weekend in dreary old Manchester. But despite it generally playing second fiddle to big brother London – its amazing contribution to music and sport over the last 30 years meant I wasn’t going home without crossing it off the list.

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Getting to the United Kingdom from Miami required another almighty transit day. An early start for a 45 minute bus ride from South Beach to the Airport, another lengthy security process, two hour flight to New York, a three hour lay-over in JFK Airport, an eight hour trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland, change of planes to Manchester, train into the city centre, then a taxi to our accommodation. 22 hours in total. We were absolutely exhausted.

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Despite the jet-lag, as a music and sporting tragic I couldn’t have been any more excited to finally be wandering the streets of a city that has fascinated me for so long. Manchester was the birth-place of the Industrial Revolution and an economic power-house well into the 20th century. When London took over, times became a bit tougher and the prosperity turned somewhat to wasteland. But the blue-collar beliefs and no-nonsense attitude would almost become a badge of honour for the inhabitants.

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This hard-working mentality mixed with a strong cultural element would eventually make Manchester the centre of the musical world through the late 80’s and early 90’s. Bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and later Oasis would all leave a global imprint. And with the emergence of the Hacienda – the best nightclub and live music venue in the world during that period – all of a sudden everyone wanted to say they were from Manchester.

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Around this time up and coming Scottish football coach Alex Ferguson would take over Manchester United, a reasonably successful club but like everyone else lived in the shadows of Liverpool FC. He would eventually become the most successful club coach in the history of world football, but he is equally famous for developing and giving a start to a young bloke called David Beckham. For a working-class city of less than one million people, it was becoming quite the focal point across the world.

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I had carefully curated a weekend at the end of April to tick off all the things that needed to be done – sample the nightlife, eat the amazing Indian food and get to a football match at Old Trafford. Unfortunately I didn’t count on Sky Sports making a late change to the scheduling moving the match from Saturday afternoon to Monday night. Four months of planning and some expensive ticket purchases had essentially been in vain. We already had our accommodation and transfers locked in for London, so there was no way to extend.

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With the laptop, credit card and one very late night in Miami I was able to piece together arrival and check-in in London as per our itinerary, train back to Manchester and post-match midnight coach transfer back to London arriving at 5am. It wasn’t pretty – and as you can imagine Karina was very happy with all of this – but just had to be done.

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The nightlife element was just how I had envisaged it – dirty, dark and lacking the pretentious feeling of London and other global cities. When we awoke on the Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised to see the sun coming in the window. Dreary old Manchester had turned on a stunning April day for us. The streets were packed with teens and every hotel we walked past seemed to have a large group congregating out the front. Turns out One Direction had been in town the night before. It also happened to be the celebration of Saint George, so there was plenty happening all over the city.

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On the Sunday afternoon we shipped out for London, knowing we would be back in 24 hours. We thought a Sunday roast complete with Yorkshire Pudding would be the best possible introduction to London, and it was. Our little studio apartment in Victoria we had rented for the week also turned out to be stunning. A great find on AirBnB.com. Lunch-time Monday we headed straight back to Euston Station for the two hour fast-train journey north.

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Lisa Simpson once said that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do opportunity. I’m not sure if that is true, but it was extremely fitting for what was happening with our trip to Old Trafford. Our planning had been turned upside with the re-scheduling of the match, but as the weekends Premier League results unfolded something amazing had happened. Manchester United had held a four game lead at the top of the table going into the weekend. Second placed Manchester City had stumbled and lost away from home. With five games to go, victory against struggling Aston Villa would hand United the title (as they don’t play a finals series). With that, our tickets had become the hottest of property and there was every chance we would be part of a historical night at the so-called ‘Theatre of Dreams’.

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We arrived late in the afternoon and had a tremendous Chinese feast down-town, and then it was on to the stadium. Cramming onto the tram with the sea of red was an amazing feeling. The skies were gloomy but the rain was holding off. A few of the fans were already a few lagers in and in full voice confident that they would get their trophy back after lending it to Manchester City last year. I wouldn’t proclaim to be a Manchester United fan, but as the most famous sporting team in the world, attendance at one of their games would appear on thousands if not millions of buckets lists. It was certainly on mine.

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We wandered with the thousands up to the stadium, grabbing a scarf from one of the street-sellers as a souvenir. We made our way up the steps and out onto an amazing sight of the immaculate Old Trafford turf. Our seats were behind the goal with a view up to the ‘Stretford End’ where all the hard-core supporters sit. Above them is a memorial for the 11 players and staff killed in the Munich Air Disaster of 1958. When the teams walked out the atmosphere went up several notches. The anticipation from the 70,000 fans pulsed around the ground. I suggested to Karina that an early goal would relieve the tension and from there it would be party time.

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We didn’t have to wait long. Inside three minutes star signing Robin Van Persie had pounced on some sloppy defending at our end. Old Trafford erupted like nothing I have ever experienced. Ten minutes later and it was on again thanks to some great lead-up work from Wayne Rooney. A sublime goal from Van Persie which rocketed into the net in front of us – one of the best of the season it would later be deemed. I could have thrown our scarf onto the celebrating team we were that close. Before half-time he had a third and the party was in full swing. Aston Villa were not coming back from that. As Van Persie jogged back to half-way the crowd bellowed his name to the tune of The White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army’. It was absolutely spine-tingling stuff and was imprinted on my brain for days after.

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When outlaying for the tickets I’d told Karina that the atmosphere would be amazing even though she didn’t care for the football, but she didn’t quite realise that the chanting and singing goes non-stop for 90 minutes. And after a goal it is deafening. We count about ten different songs during the game that start at the Stretford End and swirl around the stands. By the second half Karina has picked it up and is joining in with the group of lads behind us. Even the 1500 Aston Villa fans who have made the trek (carefully penned inside a ring of 100 security guards) are doing their best to make up for a lacklustre team performance. The locals constantly reminding them of their position on the ladder and singing “you only came to see United play…”

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The second half fizzles out as Manchester United sit comfortably on their three goal lead. The minutes are counted down until full-time is blown. The red half of Manchester has won back the title – their 13th of the last 20 years all with Sir Alex Ferguson calling the shots. With that they have also overtaken Liverpool FC as the all-time leader for English Championships. A truly momentous night. The team does a lap of honour with Sir Alex waiting patiently near the tunnel – a snap-shot of a man who likes to step back out of the limelight when the hard work is done.

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The party goes on for half an hour before spilling out into the streets. Grown men are cuddling and crying in celebration. It’s the equivalent of Grand Final day back home. As we head back to the train I explain to Karina the magnitude of what we have just witnessed. A story for every casual sports fan we meet for the rest of our lives. For all the effort and costly changes, it turns out to be the best sporting experience of my life – one that I’m confident will never be topped. That is unless Australia make a World Cup final, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

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Aaron

Welcome To Miami – Bienvenido A Miami

So just a quick 90 minute flight north of Cancun you find sunny Miami – seemingly the setting of every second movie and television show from the last 30 years. Similar to New York and Las Vegas it feels like you already know the place without actually setting foot there. Miami has had a re-birth of sorts over the last decade. Its party and music scene has exploded and with the help of NBA superstar Lebron James, a little bit of the focus has come off Los Angeles. A long way from my introduction to the place via Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach.

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Leaving Mexico we were looking forward to a relaxing flight – and it was – but we were blissfully unaware that as we were crossing the Gulf of Mexico, bombs were exploding in the streets of Boston. As one of the key entry points from South America, passing Customs at Miami International Airport can be exhaustive at the best of times. When something of national significance is unfolding, it is even worse. It took more than three hours to reach the luggage carousels, and with no news channels and no Wi-Fi we still didn’t know what was going on. Probably for the best actually.

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Our taxi hurtled east towards Miami Beach with some amazing storm clouds as the back-drop to the CBD high-rises. My immediate thought is this is like the Gold Coast only bigger, brighter and more expensive – and that doesn’t change three days later. Our accommodation is right in the thick of the famous South Beach stretch, one street back from Collins Avenue – a mix of Rodeo Drive and Cavill Avenue. The fashion hierarchy is in full swing here. All the high-end brands are strategically positioned, while you could blink and miss the Kardashian store down the end of the street. Interestingly you can’t see the beach from any of the main streets, so the parade of beautiful people and lapping cars happens several hundred metres from the water’s edge. Despite the city’s name, it feels like the beach is really just part of the background.

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We spend a balmy day walking the length of South Beach down to the most southern point. Despite having a feel like the Gold Coast, the high-rises are kept to a minimum (concentrated across the water in the CBD area). Instead most of the hundreds of hotels are between three and ten storeys and have a more boutique feel to them. There is a lot of character to the buildings and art deco styling is prominent. For me, this is much better than having one shimmering glass monstrosity after another. When the sun goes down they all light up in a range of colours, looking more like giant jukeboxes from a 50’s diner.

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In Cabo we had met a Canadian couple and typically they recommended we attend an ice hockey game in Miami, as it will be much cheaper than the NBA or MLB. Apparently the team is not very well supported, so $10 entry is a realistic proposition. As we had ticked off the basketball and baseball during our previous New York trip, we thought why not? After doing some research, we find out there is a reason for the lack of support – and it is not because they are currently second last. The local team is not based in Miami, but over an hour north-west out the back of Fort Lauderdale – with zero public transport connections. There are only two options for tourists – $150 each way in a taxi or rent a car and take on the Miami CBD traffic. Even as a sporting tragic, neither of those options appealed so instead we wander past the jaw-dropping Florida Marlins ballpark and take in a Miami Heat game.

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One thing for the Americans – they certainly know how to put on a sporting event. It is non-stop entertainment. As soon as there is a stop in play, there is something happening straight away. Cheerleaders, crowd dancing competitions, shooting hoops for cash prizes and the highly anticipated parachute drops – the latter being when official team merchandise is taped to small parachutes and dropped from the roof into the crowd. It is a hell of a sight witnessing hundreds of these mini parachutes raining on the crowd. In the end it was a comfortable victory to the home team confirming first place in their division for the defending NBA champions. Or defending ‘World Champions’ as the Yanks always like to say.

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For all the glitz and glamour associated with Miami, we do get a brief snapshot of the other side of life in the United States. Middle America has struggled in a big way since the global financial crisis.  Just a few steps out of the CBD and there are laneways with as many as 30 homeless people set up against the fences. To my surprise these aren’t your lifetime ‘bums’ begging for change, but normal middle class people who’ve lost jobs and homes and now have no choice but to huddle together the remnants of their life in a couple of shopping trolleys. So much for the American dream.

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After three weeks in the United States and Mexico, we had one last day in the beautiful sunshine before another almighty transit day getting to the United Kingdom. Since leaving Australia we’d had 30 days straight of 28C or more, so we were almost looking forward to cooling off. Despite feeling like we had been away for an eternity, we still had more than 100 days in 15 countries to go, so it was hard not to be excited. Little did I know the next stop would dish up one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Aaron

The Yucatan Peninsula

After sampling the far west coast of Mexico for a week, it was time to switch sides to the far east. Our transit day just happened to fall on my birthday, which unfortunately could not be avoided without sacrificing time in one of the locations – something I didn’t want to do. So at least birthday 29 will be memorable for the 16 hours spent in three airports, two flights, two buses, two taxis and one skytrain. But I was surprised with a piece of birthday cake at the half-way point which made for an interesting update on Karina’s Facebook.

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Our final destination was the Yucatan Peninsula – a large piece of land with the Gulf of Mexico and the United States to the north, Cuba and the Caribbean Sea to the east and Belize and Guatemala to the south. Most famous for the resort and party destination Cancun and the amazing remnants of the Mayan civilisation dotted across the peninsula.

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We chose Cancun for a few days more out of curiosity than anything else. The hotel and resort zone is set on a spectacular D-shaped stretch of land that juts out into the Caribbean Sea. Inside is a large lagoon used for every water-sport imaginable. It was established in 1974 as a tourism project by the Mexican Government, who promoted it strongly in the United States – which worked dramatically. 40 years on and the place is still littered with two distinct groups of Americans – 18 to 25 year olds looking to party and 55 to 75 year olds who’ve bought into time-shares.

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To get around the 14km stretch of the resort zone there is a surprisingly cheap and effective bus system. For 70 cents (AUD) you can hop on and do the full length back into the city centre. The drivers are employed by the state and get a percentage of every person they pick up. This results in something resembling Bathurst for buses as they hoon up and down frantically changing lanes looking for anyone ready to jump on. And you need to hang on because they quite comfortably get up to 90kms, and slam on the breaks as soon as someone sticks their hand out. There is more than one occasion we find ourselves checking to see if Sandra Bullock is behind the wheel.

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To make up for the transit birthday, we head out to an amazing Italian restaurant called La Dolce Vita (another Trip Advisor winner) then roll on to sample the local nightlife. Despite being two weeks after the Spring Break crush it is still packed with party-goers. The bars and clubs offer interesting ‘All You Can Drink’ deals – but of course there is a catch. You pay between $10 AUD and $30 AUD per person depending on the place, which covers your entry and all your drinks. But if you want to be served at the bar or have your drinks brought to the table then you need to tip your server a couple of dollars per drink. Still works out a whole lot cheaper than a night out in Australia, but hardly the unlimited free drinks plastered all over the signs outside.

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While the locale is stunning and some of the hotels jaw-dropping, Cancun proves to be everything we expected – fairly tacky and Americanised. But as the gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula, definitely worth a curious visit. Our most authentic experience proves to be translating our requirements for the next 5 days worth of bus tickets and (somehow) successfully procuring them from the Spanish-speaking lady behind the window.

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Bus travel in Mexico is a surprisingly positive experience. I’d read numerous websites and travel blogs promoting it as a clean, safe and reliable way to get around the country, but still didn’t expect new air-conditioned coaches with TV’s showing Hollywood blockbusters. And cheap too. Our first journey of 3 ½ hours worked out to be about $12 AUD per person, with periodic stops in towns for local merchants to bring on everything from chips and ice blocks to beef burritos. My research had turned up quite a few stories that the bus companies have tried very hard to create a positive reputation – even working with drug cartels in the northern regions to ensure that their tourist buses are never targets. After all there’s nothing that kills the tourist trade better than danger and uncertainty.

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Our first stop is the astounding Chichen Itza (Chee-chen Ee-tza). This was the centre of the Mayan universe for a couple of hundred years from 900 AD. More recently, famed as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, and the place where the world’s media converged on the 21st of December 2012 awaiting the end of the world. Of course it didn’t happen, so apparently everyone just partied for a couple of days.

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We had booked a stay in a resort right alongside the archaeological park – this proved a master-stroke for two reasons: 1. The resort had its own gate away from the main entry point, and 2. Resort guests were allowed priority entry to the park for one hour before the main gate opened. We had a private tour guide take us in at 9am sharp, and the pictures above and below are not photo-shopped – we were able to get countless snaps without people in the foreground or background.

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The main pyramid structure is amazing. Not on the same grandiose scale as the Egyptian pyramids, but made all the more impressive by what it stands for. ‘El Castillo’ as it is known is not a religious monument or a burial place for Mayan kings – but the world’s largest calendar. The Mayans are well known for their amazing work in this field, and this is the jaw-dropping tribute to their accomplishments. There are 91 steps on each of the four faces meeting at one large final step at the top – 4 x 91 + 1 = 365. The north-east and south-west corners are aligned in such a way that during the spring equinox the sun travels a direct path between the two points. The shadow projections and heat from the sun also creates a phenomenon whereby it appears that a serpent is slithering down the steps, complete with two large serpent head sculptures strategically positioned at the base.

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* An example of the slithering serpent taken during the 2009 Spring Equinox (image from Wikimedia.org)

To prove that they were human and not some superior alien life-form, about 300 metres away from the main structure there is an unfinished scale model about a quarter of the size. Our guide explains that the northern elevation faces directly north, as opposed to the real one which faces more to north-east. It is believed this is where the Mayans first established that the earth rotated at an angle, and made the necessary corrections for the main structure. It’s amazing to think that 1,000 years ago they were aligning a 10-storey structure to the path of the sun, where today your average builder can struggle to keep a 3m wall straight.

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By midday the sun is high in the sky getting the temperature up to 40 degrees and the Cancun tour buses have just arrived. There must be 10,000 people swarming the park now, so we make our exit for another Yucatan wonder. Dotted across the peninsula are numerous underground freshwater swimming holes called ‘cenotes’ (se-no-tays). We find one of the better ones Ik-Kil just a short ride from our hotel. The first glimpse down into the cavern is simply stunning. Sunlight breaks through the canopy of trees and vines illuminating a beautiful deep blue-green water that goes to a depth of 30 metres. We swim out to the middle and look up at the sun glistening through – it is truly a breath-taking scene. As the numbers start to swell we head back to the hotel completely overwhelmed by the natural and man-made wonders of Mexico.

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Our next journey on the bus is to the emerging travel destination Tulum (To-loom). It is about two hours from Chichen Itza through some tiny towns and villages – a great snapshot of the real Mexico. Tulum is becoming a must-visit locale as it combines the stunning Caribbean waters with some impressively positioned Mayan ruins. There is no high-rise and a strong alternative (read hippie) vibe to the place. And still relatively cheap, so littered with back-packers. Despite some high-end resorts popping up on the outskirts, the highest rated accommodation on Booking.com is an air-conditioned Hostel offering rooms for $40 AUD a night with breakfast included. Each room is themed to a famous Mexican person or figure. Ours is Frida Kahlo, an artist best known for her self-portraits and strong views on feminism. Unfortunately we didn’t get the Speedy Gonzalez room – maybe next time. The breakfast turns out to be all you can eat ham and cheese croissants (the best, even better than Paris) with coffee and juice.

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We spend a full day getting out to explore the ruins and some of the most spectacular ocean scenery on the planet. Somehow the pictures don’t seem to do it justice.

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That night is our last in Mexico, and again Trip Advisor serves up a stunning result for dinner. We find La Malquerida in one of the back-streets – a basic bar / cantina serving cheap Mojitos and Margaritas and the best Mexican food yet. We take on the shared (2 person) taco feast with strips of arrachera steak cooked with bacon, capsicum and cheese melted over the top all served on a sizzling plate. Less than $20 AUD including drinks – unbelievable.

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After dinner we continue drinks at the bar in rope swings chatting to the owner. As a gesture of thanks for visiting his restaurant he draws a picture of Karina and I enjoying Tulum. When our card is declined by the ATM outside, he then proceeds to drive us around for 15 minutes searching for a bank that will take an Australian travel card, avoiding the ones known to have skimming machines. He certainly earned the tip that night.

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On the walk home we reflect on the fact that we have negotiated 13 days in Mexico eating out for lunch and dinner with absolutely no problems. Yet if you get Mexican at home – even at a restaurant – you are a good chance for an upset stomach. It is also surprising that most of the bastardized Old El Paso creations are common eating, just cooked in a more traditional fashion. No doubt something we will be learning how to do when we get home.

So for all the time spent checking US travel warnings and worrying about visiting Mexico, it proved to be a very enjoyable and safe adventure. No doubt they have a lot of problems in the central and northern regions, but the tourist zones and sleepy coastal towns down south seem completely disconnected. Which is just what we had hoped for.

Aaron

Baja California, Mexico (San Jose Cabo / La Paz / Cabo San Lucas)

Baja California is the large peninsula on the west coast of Mexico that extends south from Tijuana.01

We made it to San Jose Cabo, Mexico. Just. It was a Mexican miracle. Four very hung-over human beings, running through LAX after realising our tired eyes had read the departure screens incorrectly. Somebody had thought it was a good idea to schedule a 10:18am flight and then a 10:20am flight – both going to Cabo but in different parts of the airport. Of course we were in the wrong place. But with our bags already loaded, they had to wait for us. So we made it and that’s all that matters.

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Our three hour transfer from the airport to our first destination in Mexico – La Paz – was like something out of a Mexican movie. Brown desert, dusty highways, huge cactus (or cacti) across a backdrop of mountains.  The four of us kept drifting in and out of sleep looking out the window. Vegas had taken its toll on us and we were looking forward to relaxing.  After dragging our bags through the unlevelled backstreets of La Paz (where street signs seemed non-existent) and a couple of attempts at asking for directions – I started to realise how little Spanish I knew. And by very little I mean only what Dora the Explorer (“Hola!”) or Pitbull (“Un, dos, tres…”) had taught me. Thankfully Aaron had learnt some basics.

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La Paz is a small coastal city, about 3 hours north of Cabo San Lucas with a population of around 300’000 people. It’s mainly known for its nice beaches, sports fishing and its many nearby islands for snorkelling and sea lion encounters. We had picked it looking for something a bit more authentic, as most of the central and northern regions are no-go zones because of the drug cartels.

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For our first evening in Mexico we of course had to have a Mexican feast. Despite quality food, the most memorable part of the night was when a middle aged gentleman serenaded us with traditional Mexican music. It was goose-bump material and one of those moments where I felt extremely blessed for what lay ahead of us (the next 5 months that is, not the bountiful amounts of burritos and tostadas we were about to devour).

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The next day, we split ways with Lenka and Craig who took a day trip out to the Isle Espiritu Santo for fun in the sun, whilst Aaron and I explored the Malecon area of La Paz. The Malecon is a 5km boardwalk the length of the main beach that has a very wide tiled path with impressive statues created by local artists every few hundred metres or so.  It was a beautiful walk in the day, but the Malecon comes alive in the evenings. You need to dodge and weave through the people and families walking, riding their bikes, riding skateboards and walking their dogs. And we were surprised to find out that 90% of these people are locals, not tourists, out enjoying a gift from their government.

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A few quiet beers on the beach to watch the sun set and then another Mexican feast shared with Lenka and Craig. And didn’t we find a little gem in the backstreets called La Fonda. Oh my goodness…. the best guacamole EVER! A banquet of tasty traditional Mexican delights and plenty of icy cold Coronas for a price we just could not believe. This ensured we left a substantial tip for our very kind Spanish-speaking waitress.

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The next morning, Aaron and I were up before the sun was, to go on something I had been looking forward to for a long time – a fishing expedition in the Sea of Cortez.  I love going fishing back home. It’s the whole experience I enjoy; packing the picnic food and drink to take out with us, feeling like you are removed momentarily from life on land and having conversations with family. And of course the excitement of pulling a fish in (and nearly all the time throwing it back in because it is too small).

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The Sea of Cortez is known for its incredible sports fishing and we found an extremely reputable contact through TripAdvisor – Jonathan Roland at Tailhunter International. A Hawaiian-born Los Angeles native who became disillusioned with his life as a lawyer and decided one day to pack it all in and disappear into Mexico. Down to his last $20 and using his limited Spanish he helped a couple of tourists coordinate a fishing tour with one of the locals – and thought he could make something of this. 15 years later and he has become a bit of a local legend. He was there in the office when we booked the day before and he was there at 5am with our packed breakfast making sure we made it. We shared the hour bus ride with two middle-aged brothers from Alaska who have been coming to La Paz twice a year for 10 years (all through Jonathan at Tailhunters). We pulled into a fishing cove just as the sun was coming up, the outline of the cactus reminding us where we are.

The Alaskan brothers tell us it looks like Aaron and I have Victor as our captain for the day. They enthusiastically tell us he is one of the best captains in the region. We later find out he was the local fisherman Jonathan started with all those years ago. Victor doesn’t give us much of a greeting except motioning for Aaron to hurry up and help him carry on gear onto our little boat.

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No time is wasted and Victor quickly gets us out to an area where he must know there is something around.  He sets us both up with a rod, but interestingly not with any bait at all just a big bright lure.  For about 45 minutes Victor winds the boat around in a figure eight at about ten knots, whilst Aaron and I are sitting with our rods out the back in the big white wash our boat is making. The pull on our lines from the speed of the boat is the usual feeling we get when fish are nibbling back home, so we are a bit unsure with what we should be feeling. Aaron thinks he feels something, so starts reeling it in – but Victor yells out and tells Aaron there is nothing there. About 20 minutes later we realise we were going to know when there was a fish because the pull of it would rip your arm off.  Aaron was putting on sunscreen when his rod got yanked like I have never seen before, and it was game on. There was about 20 solid seconds of pulling and tension like the rod was going to snap. Eventually the line does break and we would later find out that this would be a great ‘one that got away’ stories.

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Victor took us over to another beautiful fishing spot, where for a couple of hours we soaked in the sun and excitedly reeled in 6 Seabass, 1 Pargo and 2 birds between us.  The fish were huge and you had to work for it to reel them in. The birds part however, was just plain distressing. I was reeling one in thinking this is a huge fish, only for Victor to point out to me, I had bagged a big pelican-like bird about 50 meters away. They circle the area where the fish are, waiting to dive in and grab them. Unfortunately they sometimes take the line and hook as well. Too much for me, so I handed the rod to Victor who slowly reeled in the bird, pulled it out of the water and de-hooked it. Not 5 minutes later, Aaron had caught a bird as well – but this one was trying to fly away. It was like a comedy movie or cartoon. Eventually Victor dragged him in and I can happily report that both our bird friends survived the encounter.

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Back at shore, we watch Victor gut our fish and we pick out two for us to have for dinner back at the Tailhunter Restaurant that night. We give the rest to Victor to enjoy with his family. As I was walking up the shore, I hear a loud voice project out to us “you’re a couple of weeks late” in a strong American twang ascent. I thought I was in a movie, but then an American guy called Hawk who has retired in La Paz introduced himself. He was referring to the Wahu fish season coming to an end a few weeks back. The Wahu fish is the most prized catch in La Paz, and Hawk informs us (via translation from Victor), that this is the fish that got away from Aaron (and took Victors $20 lure!). We were sure to tip Victor for this. We were happy to walk along the shore and see the Alaskan brothers had managed to catch one of the mighty Wahu. And another fishing boat further round had pulled in a dozen sharks. Lucky we didn’t go for a dip off the boat!

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That evening we wandered down the Malecon to the Tailhunters Restaurant to eat our catch. You could pick from a number of ways to have it cooked and served. It was hands down the best fish we have ever eaten (apparently Seabass is really good tasting fish), but I think the fact we pulled it in ourselves, made it all the more special.

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The next day we caught a bus down to Cabo San Lucas about 3 ½ hours south west of La Paz. The travel guides will tell you it is a play-ground for the rich and famous (apparently Jennifer Anniston’s annual holiday destination). What we found was the 51st state of America full of Spring-Break run-off and middle class American families who’ve already been to Florida and San Diego on holiday. The menus were in English and payment in USD was quite often preferred. It seemed a long way from La Paz.

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The nightlife was crazy and we did manage to have one big last hurrah with Lenka and Craig before they headed back to the USA and home to Australia. We found a little place on the Marina with an interesting happy hour offer “9pm to 12am – Ladies drink free!!!” Thinking this was a tourist trap, we checked with the waiter – who confirmed that everything on the drinks menu (including cocktails, but not high-end tequila) was available. We had no choice but to take them up. Things got very messy very quickly, and all of a sudden it was time to say our goodbyes to Lenka and Craig. It had been a blast.

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We’ll call the next day a rest and recovery day, before we got out and explored the real Cabo San Lucas. While the touristy elements might have been disappointing, the natural beauty was nothing short of spectacular. Cabo is known for one specific natural wonder – El Arco (The Arc or Land’s End). It is where the 1200km Baja California peninsula finally drops into the Pacific Ocean. The most south-western point of Mexico. Over thousands of years the movement of the water has shaped a perfect arch – an imaginary point dividing the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.

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* The two photos above were taken 5 seconds apart, showing the enormous volume of water moving around the Land’s End.

We take a boat ride out for a close up view. It is phenomenal. Even on a beautiful sunny day the Pacific Ocean is rumbling and crashing into the ‘Land’s End’ with amazing force. We get dropped off on the bay side for a swim and are warned that if we go exploring on the Pacific side don’t go anywhere near the water. Aaron assumes this is for Spring Break kids from Kansas who have never seen the ocean before, but there are signs everywhere in a multitude of languages warning of the danger.

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Turns out there is a reason for it. What greets us is a steep shoreline and some almighty waves up to 3 metres crashing onto the sand then sucking back out with equal force.29 30

It is amazing to stand on the edge and look south-west with the thought that between us and the Great Barrier Reef there is a scattering of islands and 10’000 kilometres of Pacific Ocean. Amazingly, this is as close to home as we will be for 5 months.

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Karina xx

Viva Las Vegas

So what else is there left to say about Las Vegas? Whatever you’ve seen in movies, whatever you’ve heard, whatever you’ve read – it’s all of that and then some.  An ever-evolving stereotype of excess. A snapshot of the American attitude to life – bigger, brighter, faster, and more than you could ever need or want.

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And how do you know you have arrived in Las Vegas? Because when you get off the plane, the first thing you encounter isn’t an arrival counter or any sort of security – it’s about 50 slot machines with a nicely dressed attendant waiting to give you change or a drink.

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We arrived just on dusk after 18 hours in transit, 10 of those crammed into the middle seats of a packed 747 between Fiji and LAX. My dreams of dumping our bags and dashing out into the bright lights of The Strip to have my soul set on fire quickly dissolved when we spied the king size bed in our studio apartment. Somehow it was more comfortable then it looked, and the executive decision was made to give our bodies the rest it craved. We had 5 days after all.

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Sometime later we were woken by the phone – it was our travel companions Lenka and Craig. They had got in just after midnight and were staying a few floors up from us. Disoriented and with the block-out blinds doing their job, we were completely unaware that it was 11am and we had been out cold for over 12 hours. We were rested now, so there was to be no wasted time from here on in. And what better way to start then with a frozen margarita on the pool deck.

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Our hotel, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, was nothing short of amazing. The newest 5 star hotel / casino in Las Vegas, with a clear target demographic of 18 to 35 year olds. It was classy and chic right down to the finest detail. We picked it as it is one of the few hotels / resorts on The Strip that offer a balcony or terrace. Planning laws in the county had changed in the last decade, now allowing them with certain conditions. The bonus was the spectacular views over the Bellagio Fountains (refer photo 3 and 4 above).

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Around 3pm on our first official day we were picked up by a limousine and shuttled out to the airfields adjacent to the airport. The four of us had booked the Sunset Grand Canyon Helicopter tour. It was a glorious afternoon with light winds and very little cloud. We went over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before continuing out to the Canyon. We set down inside the Canyon, interestingly in the section still owned and controlled by the native Americans. Apparently no helicopters are allowed into the National Park owned by the US government.

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We spent half an hour snapping photos and taking in the surrounds, before we found our pilot Chris setting out a picnic table on the hill. We were served sandwiches, fruit and champagne while he answered our questions about how he landed the best job in the world. The four of us shared the helicopter ride out with a couple from New Zealand. I apologized to them for coming halfway round the world to get stuck with four Australians. They quickly fired back that this was so spectacular that they wouldn’t care who they had to sit next to. Maybe not John Denver though.

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The two highlights were still to come. As we ascended up over the rim we were blasted by the setting sun off in the distance. The rocks of the rim must have only been 200 metres below the helicopter, then all of a sudden the ground was gone. The shear face of the rim dropped off about 500 metres. It was like being on a rollercoaster and shooting off the rails. Our return journey was perfectly soundtracked by every song in the history of rock to have the word ‘fly’ in it. And most importantly ‘Highway to the Danger Zone’ from the Top Gun soundtrack.

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As the sun disappeared behind the mountains Las Vegas had become visible again. Chris began his descent and we swept over the old town section, and with a sharp left turn went from top to bottom of the entire Las Vegas strip. We were lower than the Stratosphere and felt like we could have jumped out onto the roof of the Trump Tower. It was jaw-dropping stuff. We swung around the MGM Grand and back to airfield. I don’t think anyone wanted it to end.

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We celebrated the day with a feast at The Cosmopolitan’s new-age steakhouse / nightclub STK. In Las Vegas your body-clock gives up – you eat when you are hungry, you sleep when you can. Plus the casino’s don’t want you to know what time it is, so it’s easier to just go with it. This results in more dinners after midnight, than before.

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On the Saturday it was time to tick off a few more Las Vegas staples. We went to Zumanity, the new adults-only Cirque De Soleil show then hit the tables in the New York New York. With so much going on, I’d managed to last 48 hours in Nevada without gambling. Craps and Blackjack are the only two games that you have any chance against the house, so the former was all I had eyes for. The Strip is no place for a mug punter, as the bulk of Blackjack tables have a minimum $25 bet per hand. With a hand roughly every 90 seconds our holiday could have been over before it even started.

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As the numbers dwindle a couple of tables start to drop back to $10 hands. I sidle one with a guy from Ireland and fisherman from Minnesota. Rather than exchange names everyone reverts to calling by where you are from. We are soon joined by a young guy who doesn’t look old enough to count to 21. He throws down his passport and sure enough it has a kangaroo and an emu on it. He becomes Melbourne, seeing I’ve already taken Australia. The drinks flow and there are plenty of laughs. I double my outlay, but then give most of it back. Weary I look down at my watch, which is still on Fiji time. I step out into blazing Sunday morning sunshine. It’s 8am and I’m not sure where the last 7 hours have gone. But thankfully I still have my shirt and money for breakfast.

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As I wander up the relatively empty Las Vegas Boulevard, it strikes me how under-policed the Strip is. In the last 12 hours I can’t remember the last security guard or police officer I saw. Granted this is the CCTV capital of the world, but in Australia you need a couple of security guards to keep an eye on Wednesday schnitzel night at the local bowlo. Yet somehow a couple of hundred thousand people have poured in on the Easter weekend, got ridiculously drunk and we haven’t once felt unsafe or seen a fight. Sydney Police would be happy with no deaths on the equivalent night. It is a stark reminder that there is something seriously wrong back home.

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On Sunday night we take a ride to the original Las Vegas – Fremont Street. It’s like time has stood still over there. The casinos are old and tacky but have an unmistakably nostalgic charm. The area still pulls a crowd thanks to the Fremont Street Experience – a 400m long enclosed plaza that all the bars and casinos spill out onto. They run an amazing light and sound spectacular projected onto the roof every 20 minutes or so. It’s all bright and bustling like The Strip, but lacking the pretentiousness and traffic. The next two hours is non-stop cheesy fun, and we get to tick off another Vegas must-do by tipping our hat to Vegas Vic the Cowboy.

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After our trip back in time we return to the Strip to sample The Venetian Hotel & Casino complete with replicated canals and cobblestone streets. After some more casino and club hopping, we wind up back at the Chandelier Bar in The Cosmopolitan.  We get talking to a couple of young American guys, who seem excited to be talking to anyone but other Americans. The older of the two – we’ll call Mr. X – has an interesting occupation. He’s a resort / hotel host. If you are a VIP, celebrity or just someone with too much of Daddy’s money, you can pay him a fee, tell him what you would like to do and he fills in the rest. That ranges from private cars and security to side access for shows or private areas in ritzy restaurants and clubs.  He resists providing any more detail, so we figure a few free drinks might loosen his tongue.

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After another hour or two Mr. X starts to open up. But still refuses to name names. He can sense our scepticism, so decides to throw us a bone to prove he is legit.  He proceeds to reel off a very high profile AFL player as one of his favourite clients and now good friends. He flashes the +61 mobile number to prove it and a happy snap of the pair in a club during the last AFL off-season. He says this client is easy because he can walk anonymously through Las Vegas and not draw any attention. His NFL and NBA clients on the other hand are not so easy. Full-time bodyguards, undercover security and a directive to smash any persons phone who takes a photo. Mr. X continues to regale us with tales of European and Middle Eastern royalty well into the morning (stuff that can’t be repeated here), until we realise it is 6am and it is time to part ways.

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We rise a few hours later and deem the only way to fix a Vegas hangover is with a proper American hamburger… Curated by a bad-tempered pom. We shuffle across the road to Planet Hollywood to sample Gordon Ramsay’s casual diner BurGR. Nothing too exotic or fancy, just good quality basic ingredients with a Chef’s touch. The sentence “best burger I’ve ever eaten” seems to echo around the table, and at $12USD – is cheaper than Grill’d or some takeaway joints back home. He might be a pompous twat with a bad attitude, but the bloke knows what he is doing with this one.

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Our last night is spent ticking off all the other free must-do’s in the giant circus that is Las Vegas Boulevard – the highlight being a front-row farewell viewing of the Bellagio fountain show. We’ve watched this 30 times already from our balcony, but it is even better up close – especially as you can hear the music that the dancing fountains are choreographed to.

At this time we also reflect on how good it has been to do Vegas as a group. Lenka and Craig have been wonderful partners in crime in what was a fabulous 5 days of eating, drinking and being merry – times we will never forget.

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So did the bright light city set my soul on fire like Elvis said it would? Of course. And a little bit of that will stay burning until we go back.

Aaron

The Wedding

The reason we started our trip in Fiji was to witness our friends Louise and Nathan tie the knot. After their wedding on Tuesday 26 March 2013, I now completely understand the whole destination wedding thing.

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There were about 30 family and friends at Louise and Nathan’s wedding, most of which were staying at The Outrigger on the Lagoon resort (where we stayed) or a close by resort. Days leading up to the wedding were spent relaxing by the pool or beach, drinking cocktails and dining with the other wedding guests and family.

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There was an excitement and buzz leading up to the big day, but both the bride and groom were stress-free, with most the planning being taken care of by the resort wedding planner. Nathan played golf with the boys the morning of the wedding and Louise spent the day with her family in their Bure getting ready.

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The ceremony took place at a chapel at the top of hill of the resort. The sweeping views of the Coral Coast created such a romantic island backdrop for the chapel. The ceremony was just beautiful; Louise and Nathan looked both so relaxed and happy, and to watch them say their personally written vows in this setting was really something special.

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After the ceremony, we enjoyed drinks and nibbles taking in the beautiful views below us, and later the reception, held at the Ivi Restaurant in the resort.  The wedding didn’t have that rushed feeling that most other weddings do, or that feeling for the bride and groom that it was going to be over in a flash.

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A definite positive of a destination wedding – the whole feel of the evening was relaxed as all the guests are in holiday mode. After a night of dancing in the humid heat, the night was finished off in a way, that no other non-destination wedding is, with a swim and cocktails in the pool with all wedding guests, including a brief appearance by the wedded couple themselves.

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The next day, our final night in Fiji, Grace, Ali, Aaron and I went for tapas and drinks at the Kalokalo bar, at the hill right at the top of the resort (above the chapel). This place had big open windows, which made the area filled like it was an open space, and the views of the sun setting over a gray-ish pink skyline was spectacular and very different from what we see at home. Nice way to end our time in Fiji.

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Our time to say farewell to the relaxed Fijian lifestyle we had adopted so quickly had come, and we knew our next destination – Las Vegas – was going to pick the pace up a lot. On check out of the resort, the Fijian lady asked for my identification. On review of my licence, she commented “oh The Entrance… such a beautiful place, I went there a month ago for holidays with my family and stayed at Forresters Beach…”. I guess one person’s home is another person’s paradise, right?

Karina x