Family holiday made in the USA

Rachel Watts wasn’t Born in the USA, but after an stimulating three-week holiday States-side, you could almost call her an American Girl. She told HELEN PERRY (in part one of a two part series) that Living in the USA, even for a short time, fulfilled her American Dream.

Rachel Watts didn’t leave her heart in San Francisco town as she expected. In fact she and her family – partner Stephen and their children Bailey (17) and Shanae (9) – were happy to leave the Golden Gate behind. The same couldn’t be said of Las Vegas.

“Waking up in Vegas over four days was fantastic. We loved every minute in the casino city and that had little to do with playing the tables,” Rachel says. “But I get ahead of myself. Our trip really began eight months earlier when we decided to make reality of a long-held dream.

And it took nearly every minute of that eight months to pre-book as much as I could.”“Our decision to travel last year instead of this year was promoted by a very attractive airfare special that heralded the arrival of American Airlines on to the New Zealand market.

“I also made sure we pre-booked all our accommodation in every location, sightseeing tours, transfers and other incidentals. Before doing so I did a lot of research into special prices and deals for entry into places such as Disneyland. I looked into numerous resorts, accommodation and events.

“It was a lot of work and I’d have to say that Trip Advisor was absolutely fabulous – I used the site for accommodation and dining and their recommendations proved spot on.”
By doing her homework, Rachel says the whole trip flowed pretty effortlessly although, despite the planning, she says there were things she would have done differently.

From left, Stephen, Bailey, Rachel and Shanae – Grand Canyon thrilled.

Finally, with as much pre-booked as possible, the family flew out of Auckland on October 16 last year and although the initial flight to the States was only 12 hours, because they were transferring to a domestic flight and carrying on to San Francisco, that first leg took 15 hours.

“To cap it off, we arrived early morning to a cool, grey, and drizzly day,” Rachel says. “Though tired we planned to shower, change and look around the local district but poor weather wasn’t really conducive to wandering and our luggage had missed the transfer.

“It didn’t catch up with us until late that night. Fortunately, from there on in the weather picked up and we never looked back.”

Despite being impressed by classic tourist attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Fisherman’s Wharf area and Alcatraz – “the audio tour was absolutely fascinating” – two days in San Fran was enough for this adventuring couple.

“We found the city old, mostly grubby and with a lot of homeless on the streets. It was also very expensive to stay there. We opted for just a two star hotel in the Nob Hill area and it still cost us $500 per night; everything else was expensive too – a simple meal for three adults and one child at a diner averaged $US120 plus tips – we were happy to move on.”

Picking up a pre-booked car, the family headed down the coast taking three days/two nights to reach Los Angeles with overnight stays in Monterey and Santa Barbara en route.

“The aquarium at Monterey was especially worth visiting,” Rachel says. “The floor to ceiling shark tank was visually impressive and an interactive kids’ area, where there were penguins, otters, squid and octopus among others, was amazing. You might see aquariums elsewhere but here, it was the layout and presentation that made this a stand out attraction.”

With much to marvel at, Rachel (a self-confessed petrolhead) says the family were particularly tickled to cruise for a time behind a group of American hotrod classics – “it felt a bit like being in a movie!”

“With our tight schedule we had time for a picnic in Malibu but sadly we didn’t spot Charlie Sheen [TV series Two and a Half Men] anywhere.”

Arriving in LA, the group made straight for the airport and flew to Las Vegas where they spent four nights at the well known Luxor Hotel on Las Vegas Strip. “We all loved Vegas, it was the second favourite place on our trip [after Cabo in Mexico]; you didn’t have to be interested in gambling to love this place, it rocked.”

As many a woman would, Rachel revelled in the outlet mall with its big brands all on sale – “very hard to slip away from there!

“We also did the heli-flight into the Grand Canyon, landing at the bottom where we were treated to a fabulous champagne lunch. I had flown over the canyon previously and wasn’t really fussed by the experience but this was something else, a real highlight. We all had a great time – those cliffs, towering above us, were just awesome.

“In Vegas we also visited the old strip and the famous Golden Nugget Hotel which has featured in so many films and television shows. They have a swimming pool there where you go down the water slide right through the shark tank; in a tube, of course, but it was frightening all the same.

“It took us quite a while to persuade Shanae to have a go. She was very nervous but once she went through and learnt not to go too fast it was fantastic experience.”

More thrilling experiences followed – the stratosphere free-fall amusement ride – ‘pure terror; we have nothing like it here or in Australia’ – and a rollercoaster which tilted out wide off the side of the track into open air, to name a couple.

Keen to see a show but mindful of the variation in age between their children, Stephen and Rachel chose to see the illusionist, Kris Angel – Mind Freak. “Sometimes we’re a bit blasé about magic shows but this act kept the audience totally guessing; there was no way we could fathom even one trick element, don’t you just hate that!”

Although Rachel thought accommodation in San Francisco was expensive, she says Las Vegas, on the other hand, proved value for money– “at $850 per week at the Luxor it was in the mid range and suited us perfectly. We wouldn’t have swapped this experience for anything; we all had a wonderful time, even our nine year old!”

When the time came to head for Anaheim, Los Angeles, Rachel says by far the best option was a luxury bus tour; a four and a half hour journey which was easy and relaxing, even quicker overall than flying.

“The bus driver played movies, refreshments were available and there was a rest room on board plus we took in a few sights.”

Arriving back in Los Angeles, the family were ready for the next part of their holiday – five Californian nights and all the thrills of Disneyland – see next month’s EastLife!