Oct 122015

Las Vegas exists as a fleecing machine for tourists and for the impoverished freelancer stuck in the town over a weekend, the best idea is to get out of it.

So the Grand Canyon sounded like a good idea, despite being a long day – departing at 6.30am and returning after 9pm – the price of $79, plus gratuities to the driver, sounded like a good way to spend the Sunday.

The day didn’t start out well with the connection bus not showing up, the Mandalay Bay separate Tour Lobby on a different floor to the main lobby where I was standing. It was apparently beyond the ken of the connecting driver to call my number to check if I were around.

Adding to the irritation was calling the Grand Canyon Tour company directly, as instructed, five minutes after the scheduled time only to be told ‘he’s running late, just wait”. Twenty minutes later on calling the company again I was told I wasn’t there for the pickup, something they could have told me earlier.

Panicking, angry and anxious about missing the bus I jumped in a cab to get to their depot. Fortunately my hotel wasn’t too far from the company’s depot and the fare was only $15, for other passengers it could have been substantially more.

Long check in queues

It turns out there was little need to be stressed about missing the, the tour company’s shuttle buses drop passengers off at a central check in place where the queue was literally out of the door. After check in you can pick up a complimentary breakfast Danish and a coffee of tea and buy bottles of water before boarding the bus.

Bottled water isn’t available in the Grand Canyon park area so bring your own container, or buy some for a dollar each at the Las Vegas check in terminal, you can refill them in the park or at Williams railroad station at the lunch break.

The right hand side of the bus is best for views, particularly in the desert during the first two hours before a refreshment break just outside of Kingman, Arizona. Castle Peak Bar and Grill is the quirky desert truck stop that acts as a refreshment stop and the food isn’t recommended.

Running commentaries

As the tour continues, the driver gives a running commentary of the sights on the way accompanied with videos on the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. If you’re doing the Hoover Dam journey another time, it’s worthwhile to do it after this tour as one of the videos is a documentary on the building that will help you appreciate the project even more.

The videos help while away the ten hours of travel and the bus also has Wi-Fi although you’ll probably find a better signal with your own mobile device. The seats also have power sockets available although I didn’t get to test them.

One thing to remember when booking the tour is gratuities are not included and the driver expects a tip. Budget for five or ten dollars each.

After Kingman, the next step is Williams, Nevada, a tourist town that features the oldest diner on Route 66 and the terminus for the privately operated Grand Canyon Railroad where the company puts on a complimentary lunch.

Enjoying a lunch

Lunch is a surprisingly good buffet featuring soups, salads and hot dishes with a soft drink thrown in, the swirl icecream cones are nice touch. If you have a water bottle to fill, there’s a filling station outside the restrooms at the other end of the station from the restaurant.

Williams is an hour from the Grand Canyon and the tour stops twice. It’s worth getting off the bus at Mather Point, the first stop, and then taking the Rim Walk around to the main Village which is the collection point. If you do this, let the driver know and find out the time he expects to leave.

In our case the bus was late due to several people being lost. This is a problem when the return to Las Vegas is well into the evening. There is a dinner break at the Kingman Carls Jr on the return leg.

Good for a quick tour

Overall, the Grand Canyon tour is a good trip if you’re in Las Vegas and on a short schedule. However it’s certainly better to give the canyon more time and stay overnight.

If you can find accommodation in the main village – when I attempted it was fully booked – then taking the tour company’s one way option each day or hiring a car would be far better given the National Parks runs evening tours and both sunset and sunrise are spectacular times with the opportunities to see more wildlife.

Should you have several days, having a car to explore Boulder, the Hoover Dam and Williams along with spending one or two nights in the park would be highly recommended.

For those time poor and based in Vegas, the Grand Canyon tour is a good option, however the big gripe with Grand Canyon Tour Company is its organisation. To avoid future customers having the incredibly irritating experience of missing the shuttle due to being in the wrong place, the company could do with more streamlined procedures and even a better use of technology – such as SMS notifications.

Sep 142015

One of the longest running, and expensive, programs of the Cold War was the Nike missile program. Designed to protect US from Soviet bombers, the missiles were based at 280 sites and guarded cities and military installations.

Today the program is long since abandoned, a victim of changing technology and the 1972 SALT agreements between the then Soviet Union and US with the only base remaining in a working condition is SF-88 in what’s now the Golden Gate Park just North of San Francisco.


SF-88 itself was abandoned and over the last 15 years, volunteers have been rebuilding the site to roughly how it looked in the early 1960s at the peak of the Cold War.

The missiles themselves were only shortrange devices. The first version, the Ajax, only had a range of 25 miles and carried a conventional high explosive payload while the later model, the Hercules, could travel forty miles and could carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.


Each Nike base had three main components based at least a thousand yards apart; the actual launch site, the Integrated Fire Control room (IFC) that controlled the systems and administrative quarters. The reason for the thousand yard spacing was to minimise the damage from the launch of the rockets and to give the radar systems adequate range to track the weapons.


The missiles themselves were controlled by computer. Once fired they were controlled by the computers in the IFC, should the crew decide to abort the attack the only choices they had were to explode it prematurely or disarm it so it flew off into the ocean.


With the advent of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and submarine launched weapons the Nike systems became redundant, an experimental anti-missile system – the Nike-X – was tested but as the scale of the Soviet arsenal became apparent it became clear the system would be hopelessly inadequate to combat the hailstorm of death a true nuclear war would unleash.

By 1974 most the system, including SF-88 was decommissioned although a small number of bases remained in operation for coastal defences for a few years afterwards. Today most are  disappearing at the land is taken over for property development and other uses.


The volunteers who’ve restored SF-88 have done a wonderful job bringing a facility back to life – the missile hangers had six feet of water in them before the work started and on weekends between 12.30 and 3.30pm they’ll show you around the facility and bring one of the missiles to the surface firing position.

Fort Baker’s SF-88 Nike Base is an easy drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, on weekend the Muni runs the hourly 76-X service from the Transbay Terminal. Admission to the SF-88 base is free but donations are gratefully accepted.

If for nothing else, a visit to the Nike Missile Base is worthwhile just to remember how close the world was to destruction in the paranoid days of the Cold War.

Sep 112015

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is one of the must sees for a visitor. However the iconic attraction isn’t close to the centre or to the main public transport routes which, while time consuming is an opportunity to see more of the city.

Probably the simplest way for a visitor to get there is to take a tour bus, of which San Francisco has plenty. There’s also the options of a scenic hour’s walk from Fisherman’s Wharf or cycling on a hire bike, but it’s always been this site’s contention is the best way to get to know a place is to catch the local public transport.

In San Francisco, the public Muni network operates the bus, light rail and cablecar system with the Muni Passport offering unlimited rides at $17 for day or $35 for a week, which is a deal given the cable car services alone are $7 a trip.


The Muni Passport can be bought at most drugstores and at the various Muni ticket stalls dotted around San Francisco, most notably at the Ferry Building and at the Powell Street cable car terminus. While some outlets will sell you a Clipper Card with the passport pre-loaded, most outlets give you a paper copy that requires you to scratch the dates on it.

Getting the bus

San Francisco’s Muni bus network is comprehensive although there isn’t a direct bus to the Golden Gate Bridge except the weekend the hourly 76x bus to the tollgates that continues onto the Marin Headlands and Fort Cronkhite, a worthwhile trip in itself.

Another direct service is Golden Gate Transit’s number 10 and 70 services which don’t accept the Muni Passport but are faster and more direct than the Muni buses as they service the commuter town to the north of the city.


28 Muni bus at Golden Gate Bridge

For most times though the 28 – 19th Avenue service is the most frequent and cheapest service to the Golden Gate however it goes nowhere near the tourist precincts giving a visitor an opportunity to explore the city and get a taste of the ordinary person’s San Francisco.

Connecting to the 28


The quickest connection from downtown San Francisco is the 38 or 38R Geary services from Union Square, these frequent services head directly West from the city and drop you off at the corner of Geary and 19th Avenue which the 28 runs along.

If you’re feeling more active during peak commute times the 38R continues to Lands End, the walk from there to the Golden Gate Bridge takes around two hours along the route of one of the original steam car routes and gives great vistas of the Marin Headlands and the Bridge. The Cliff House and Sutro pool ruins at Lands End itself are worth exploring as well.

38R Muni Bus at Union Square

38R Muni Bus at Union Square

There are other buses that can connect with the 28 at 19th Avenue including the 1 California however they are a lot slower and less frequent than the 38 Geary.



Another way, which may be faster than the buses during peak times in to catch the N – Judah/Ocean Beach service which drops you at 19th Street a little further south of the 38’s stop. On the outward route the stops are a block apart while coming back from the Golden Gate, the stops are adjacent.

From Fisherman’s wharf and the cable cars

The cable cars aren’t particularly convenient to the 28 terminus in the Marina district and the best way to make the connection is the 30 bus that goes along North Point with a change at the corner of Chestnut and Laguna Streets.

A much nicer alternative to the 30 bus is to walk from Fisherman’s wharf via the Maritime Museum in the wonderfully art deco Aquatic Park Bathhouse (free admission) and Fort Mason to the 28 Terminus in the Marina District.

Returning to San Francisco

All the above options are available in the reverse direction and again the Golden Gate Transit service is the fastest option back to the city although it doesn’t accept Muni passes. You can catch GGT buses from the toll plaza level of the bridge.

If you’ve walked the bridge and aren’t inclined to do the return trip, some GGT services stop on the Northern approaches and the 76X stops on the xx road just above the bridge’s approaches, otherwise you can walk another 45 minutes to Sausalito and catch a ferry – again Muni Passes aren’t accepted – to either the Ferry Building or Pier 43 near Fisherman’s Wharf.

Whichever way you go, the trip out to the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the must do things of a San Francisco visit and using the public buses is a great way to get a feel for the city.

Golden Gate Bridge image by By Octagon (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Sep 052015

One unique option offered by Air New Zealand is the SkyCouch, an option where economy passengers can buy adjacent seats for extra space on long haul flights aimed at giving families and couples to stretch out.

By luck, I got the opportunity of doing an impromptu review of the Skycouch on the 12 hour NZ7 route between San Francisco and Auckland where I had an entire economy row to myself.

The service is the standard Air New Zealand economy service and, while it’s friendly, the cabin crew can be a bit slow with drinks, I suspect this because of the number of attendants in Premium Economy and it’s a problem when you like to keep hydrated on a long flight.

Given Air New Zealand don’t use the middle galley on there 777-300 services, it may be easier for crew and passengers if some soft drinks, water and snacks were left out during the flight.


The notable difference with the Skycouch services is the set of three extension belts, one cutely named the ‘cuddle belt’ given out before takeoff. The cuddle belt itself connects to a loop under the seat in front, this lets passengers lie flat across the three or four seats.

Once set up, families or couples can buckle up across a row and don’t need to return to the seated position if there’s turbulence. If you’re using a blanket a it’s best to have the straps over the top as the crew will wake you if they can’t see you’re stapped in.

While it’s great to be able to lie down and stretch out in economy, there are some downsides to be aware of before paying the extra for a Skycouch.

Unlike business class, the seats aren’t designed for lying on. As consequence the contours mean the lie flat is a bumpy experience while climbing in and out of the row is awkward. I managed to tangle myself up twice in my headset cord.

Another complication are the seat buckles, again these aren’t designed for people lying over them so they can get uncomfortable, organising them so they don’t dig int requires looping them over the armrest so they are out of the way.


Probably the biggest drawback is for someone of six foot, the three seats mean sleeping with legs folded. Having them hanging out into the aisle is a safety risk and will almost certainly result in a painful accident with a fellow passenger, cabin attendant or catering trolley. I found over time by back started to hurt.


Lying flat though did work, I got six hours solid sleep however I suspect that given the legroom on Air New Zealand economy is adequate I may have slept almost as well sitting.

For families, couples and even pairs of budget conscious business travellers the Skycouch is a good buy offering extra space to spread out and use. For those with the dubious blessing of travelling with small children the added utility could be a sanity saver.

For those wanting a lie flat bed at a price considerably less than a business class ticket, this probably won’t work. If that’s your intention it’s probably better to save the money and use the savings to travel a day early and book a nice hotel on arrival.

Jul 252015

San Francisco is an expensive city to stay, so a place at $80 a night that includes breakfast and dinner is bargain that can’t be ignored.

The Kenmore Residence Club  is a slightly run down Victorian building in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood, just over a mile from San Francisco’s Union Square.

Given the price and location, it would be unfair to judge the place on its looks. Its 65 rooms vary from doubles with ensuites for $140 a night to singles with shared bathrooms for $80.

The singles with shared baths are surprisingly large rooms with a double sized bed and a walk in wardrobe. Also included in the room are a fridge, wash basin and flat screen TV. Sheets are changed twice a week along with the included hand and bath towels.

WiFi included

As almost always with cheaper hotels and hostels, Wi-Fi is included in the room rate and is surprisingly good throughout the building. In the room I stayed in, 308, the internet access was sufficient to work with and stream radio although Skype required sitting in one of the hallway sofas.

In other rooms patchy Wi-Fi may also be a problem as many of the other guests – which seemed to be mainly Japanese and German backpackers – were working on laptops in the hallway sofas.

Working in the room was fine with a basic desk, a not uncomfortable chair and plenty of power points. The view of the opposite peeling paint on the opposite wall meant there was little to distract an attention deficient worker.

Shared Facilities

Those German and Japanese tourists mean the two shared bathrooms on each floor are quite clean – apart from one unfortunate morning where someone had been sick. This wasn’t such a problem as it was always possible to find a vacant room. Soap dispensers are in the bathrooms but for showers it’s probably best to buy your own.

On the ground floor the dining room seats around forty people for breakfast between 7am and 9am and dinner, Monday to Saturday, between 5.30 and 7. If you’re in San Francisco for sightseeing or business, it’s hard to get back in time for dinner so don’t budget on eating too many evening meals there.

The meals themselves are adequate with a self service salad or breakfast bar and a cooked option. The dinners were fairly stodgy while the eggs or pancakes are fine at breakfast but the bacon and sausages are forgettable. I found myself eating just fried and scrambled eggs with toast and loading up with salad and fruit.

If you don’t eat in the hotel, it’s only two blocks away from Japantown where there’s no shortage of good and cheap ramen, sushi and other Japanese restaurants. There’s also a Whole Foods and Walgreens within three blocks if you want to make your own meal.

Getting there

Should you want to get down to the touristy parts of San Francisco, the 38 Muni bus down Geary Street is the quickest and most reliable way to Union Square and the Ferry Building. Two blocks away on Van Ness, the 18 will take you to Fisherman’s Wharf and on weekends the 76X goes to the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.

Coming back from Union Square, the number 2 and 3 buses stop almost outside the hotel but are far less frequent or reliable than the Geary services. If you need a Clipper Card or Muni Passport the Walgreens a block away on the corner of Post and Gough street is the place to visit.

The neighbourhood itself is quite safe although south of the Cathedral and into the Hayes Valley things get somewhat less salubrious and walking around that part of SF at night is not recommended by the locals. A stroll back from Union Square or the Embarcadero though isn’t unpleasant.

Doing your laundry

Another benefit with the Kempton is the coin operated laundry in the basement. If you’ve been travelling for a while – I’d spent the previous week in San Jose – being able to wash your clothes is a godsend, laundry powder and change is available at reception and you’ll need lots of quarters for the driers.

Staff at the hotel seem to be mainly made up of long term residents who are working to defray their rent, this means they are a quirky mixed bag of characters. Some are a bit gruff while others are delightfully helpful, again it’s not the Marriott Marquis and the rates reflect that.

There are some downsides to the Kempton, the rooms aren’t particularly quiet – this is something to be expected at cheaper hotels and there are no strong boxes or other security beyond the door locks in the room. While the place seemed safe, nervous travellers may want to consider their storage of passports and valuables.

On balance, The Kenmore is a bargain in one of America’s most expensive cities. If you’re prepared to deal with the quirks and stay a little bit out of the San Francisco tourist spots then the price is unbeatable.

Mar 222015

Last week this site looked at the idea from Colonial First State Funds Management economists James White and Stephen Halmarick that brands are doomed in a world of perfect information.

Forecasting the end of brands is a big call despite the massive changes the internet is bringing to industries. One of the things I suggested is that the concept of the brand – which was largely born out of Twentieth Century mass communications – is evolving with the social media and online world.

This view is born out by Tom Vanderbilt in an article in Outsideonline where he describes how TripAdvisor is changing the way people travel.

In Ireland Vanderbilt claims the hotel industry found TripAdvisor to be a harsh wakeup call that saw local hospitality businesses lift their game as they realised customers were now far better informed.

Across the Atlantic on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula Vanderbilt describes how hotel owners in the town of Tulum had to realign their listings and marketing when TripAdvisor changed how they were grouped in the region. It shows how users are searching and finding accommodation.

Importantly for guests, hotel managers are using online reviews to measure how their premises are measuring up to expectations through social tools and using the results to justify capital expenses on upgrades.

This could justify White and Halmarick’s view that the major global brands such as the Marriots, Hiltons and Sheratons are in decline however it more likely shows those chains are having to raise their game to maintain their worldwide position.

What Vanderbilt, White and Halmarick indicate though is social channels are changing the way the hospitality industry works. This is an opportunity for smaller operators to build strong brands in their own niche or region.

Jan 122015

Chinese tourism and Mao’s influence on the US Marines are today’s links along with Tesla’s slow start in Australia.

Tesla rolls out in Australia

As part of Tesla’s Australian launch of its electric vehicles, the company has announced a chain of charging stations along the country’s East Coast, unfortunately not everyone is pleased to see them.

Chinese tourists look to Japan and the US

Japan and the US are the most sought after destinations for Chinese tourists reports the Wall Street Journal. Both countries have relaxed travel restrictions for China nationals in the last year and now they are reaping the benefits, particularly Japan which is only a few hours flight from Shanghai and Beijing.

Interestingly, New Zealand and Australia are also big improvers on the list with them coming in third and fourth on the list.

The US Marines’ Maoist connection

A curious article on Medium describes the origin of the term ‘gung-ho’ and how it was introduced to the US Marines through a Mao sympathising American General. “He may be red, but he’s not yellow” is how his contemporaries described Brigadier General Evans Carlson.