A Travellerspoint blog

Q-Tips

Never say never again

No I will not be discussing the former English band that was fronted by Paul Young, more on tips to follow later in the blog.
Best laid plans and all that - a bus of similar standard to yesterday’s heap rocked up, but early on this occasion, the driver was a cheerful happy soul though. We got to the Animal Kingdom at around eleven, my younger brother Stuart had recommended the Avatar ride, the queue was quite long but we had all day so plenty of time to do everything we want to do ……
Having never seen any of the Avatar movies I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the ride was spectacular, you really did feel at times that you were flying. After that things sort of took a turn for the worse. We had experienced some long queues yesterday, in Epcot particularly, Disney have introduced this scheme available via an app on your smartphone whereby you can join a “virtual queue” for the top rides, except you can’t, the virtual queues closed as soon as they opened. You aren’t able to join a conventional queue and even if you had purchased a lightening pass (skip the line) that still wouldn’t have got you access to some rides over the “virtual queue”, though sometimes they do offer you the chance to “buy” a quick pass for a ride, for $20 a person!
Now as I stated in my previous entry this is the number one vacation resort in the world, so it stands to reason that it will get incredibly busy and as such you have to expect to queue, a lot, but we even had to queue for over an hour to see the “Lion King Show”. Just as frustrating was the number of times that rides developed “faults” whilst we were actually in the queues, and the coup de grace / icing on the cake was when we were about to mount one ride when the heavens opened and thunder and lightning was all around us, so all outside rides were closed for a couple of hours. So when we eventually got back to our hotel sometime after nine o’clock that evening I think we were both a bit frustrated at how the day had panned out, our 2 day passes weren’t cheap then if you start factoring in the cost of buying the skip the line passes it does start getting very expensive ….. bah humbug!! However, I do think that the attention to detail throughout the Disney Parks is outstanding, even whilst waiting for the rides you can’t help but marvel at the lengths they have gone to immerse you in the rides that you are going to experience, and the shows are sensational, particularly the “Lion King”.
Monday as planned for was spent at Universal Studios, on entering the park you witness quite the most frightening ride that I have ever seen, called the “Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit” - a fair bit of motivational talk was needed to convince Diane that it was a good idea, fortunately as we joined the rather short queue a ten year old little girl and her papa from Columbia were in front of us, their English wasn’t great, Dad told me he was from Medellin, birthplace of a certain P Escobar, though went I mentioned this Dad started talking about football, a bit of a break down in communications I think, Diane faired slightly better with his daughter, I think the gist of what she was saying was basically “don’t be such a pair of wimps, look at the size of me!”
Unconvinced with trepidation we boarded the ride which takes you up in a horizontal position before literally throwing you up into the air as you begin a white knuckle ride at break neck speeds, on the occasions that I opened my eyes the Colombian and his daughter had their arms out cheering away with glee, it was all Diane and I could do to let out the occasional yell of anguish as we were thrown around for what seemed like an age! Eventually we stopped, our Columbian friends fist pumped us and I am guessing said something along the lines off “we told you there was nothing to worry about you pair of wusses!”

We decided that it was time for something more sedate whilst they no doubt went off to source another terrifying ride! The next attraction we found was a short concert by the Blues Brothers.

We enjoyed a few more rides, there isn’t the quantity in this particular park but the slightly more relaxed pace suited us for our last day, the final show we saw was a live action Jason Bourne stunt show, really clever mixture of live actors integrated with a background film, then it was back to the hotel to get ready to go and see The Eagles. They were performing at a venue called the Kia Centre situated in the actual city of Orlando, it is an indoor arena which normally stages basketball, ice hockey & indoor football, it was only a 20 minute drive away from our hotel. The Eagles were supported by Steely Dan, another American rock group founded in the early 1970’s. The concert was just amazing and a fitting end to our holiday.
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Rourtours Tips:
Whilst I don’t consider myself to be anything like a seasoned traveller, having completed a couple of road trips in the States there are a few points/tips that I have picked up along the way, which I thought may be of assistance if you are considering doing such a trip in the future.

Some of you may be aware of the tipping culture that exists in the States, by coincidence there was an article in The Times that I read whilst out in the USA on our trip. It is pretty much expected that whenever you order a meal, have a drink in a bar, take a ride in a taxi or a bus or countless other services that you tip the person who has served you. To this end when you are presented with your bill it will either have a space for you to enter how much you are tipping (this will be added to your bill) or a lot of the card readers have a set of buttons for you to press depending on how much you wish to tip, usually 18%, 20% or 22%. When you then factor in that the price you saw advertised for your meal for example does not include tips or taxes the actual price you saw on the menu will be much higher when it comes to pay, some places even automatically add the tip. I had some difficulty in getting my head round why tipping is so necessary or expected until I read the aforementioned article in The Times, it seems that a number of employers pay far less than the minimum wage, and they rely on their staff being tipped accordingly to bring their salary up to the required minimum. As a consequence in some parts of the US now employers are now paying a salary above the minimum wage to reduce the reliance on tipping, the public are happier too as the price they see represents much closer to the price they will pay, employees as well prefer this as well apparently. Personally I prefer to tip in cash, to that end I always take an amount of cash in small denominations to pay for tips, this also seems quite popular with the staff themselves.

A good reliable Sat Nav System is essential (particularly if your co-pilot isn’t too good at map reading), I have found Apple Car Play as an invaluable tool that a lot of modern cars have fitted, basically it allows your mobile phone to work through the car’s built in display. The thought of trying to find locations, particularly in the big bustling cities without Car Play or an equivalent system wouldn’t be my idea of fun.

Americans are inpatient! If you fail to move off the moment a light changes or don’t filter right when clear (even on a red) expect a loud blast from the horns of those behind you! Whilst stuck in a long line of stationery traffic one day I allowed another driver to pull into my lane in what I thought was a bit of considerate driving, however the blasts and gestures from the irate woman behind me clearly suggested that you shouldn’t display such kindness, anyhow I then let another car pull into my lane just to enjoy the spectacle of the woman behind me go into fits of total rage and convulsions!! Another time we were waiting to be allocated a table in a restaurant, some couples behind us couldn’t be bothered to wait so just walked past us and found themselves tables, Diane had to restrain me a bit on that occasion!

Don’t expect your room to be cleaned everyday, housekeeping in all the hotels/motels we stayed in did just the basics on a daily basis, which consists of emptying the “trash” and giving you fresh towels, if you want anymore doing you generally have to let the hotel staff know in advance, not really a problem for us as aside from Orlando the longest we stayed in a location was 3 nights.

Air conditioning units in all the places we stayed were incredibly large & loud, but are essential for a good nights sleep. I liken the noise as to when you hear the bin lorry pull-up outside your house at about 0630 in the mourning and then realise that you didn’t put the wheelie bin out the night before! Take some ear plugs with you!

Petrol is the only thing that is cheaper than at home - prices do vary but you can in some places pay almost half the price of the UK - The Americans still think it is far too high and harp back to days when it was under $2 a gallon, aside from that expect to pay more for most items compared to the UK.

Nothing is free! If it is provided, there will be a charge for it, we had 6 items of luggage of varying size that were a bit of an effort to move around the airport so we got a trolley, that will be $9 please! Check whether you hotel comes with free parking, in New Orleans it cost over $30 a night.

Waffle House provide the best breakfasts/brunches and lunches! They are a restaurant chain found all over the place, we used them several times after an early start when we stopped mid to late mornings, not just waffles, although their waffles are great, and as much fresh coffee as you want!

We tend to use the hop on hop off tourist buses to see as much as we can of a city, which are very good, they also provide for a few dollars more walking tours which we found a very interesting and enjoyable way of getting to learn more about the cities that we are visiting.

So that brings to an end the latest edition of rortours, our flight home was fairly uneventful, we got off to thick cold fog at Heathrow, I regretted keeping my shorts on for the flight- someone threw her toys out of the pram whilst waiting for our luggage which was delayed, actually it would more accurate to say she threw her phone out of her pram, thankfully the kind gentleman that was nearly hit by said phone returned it to her undamaged- I told her that she should have slept on the plane!

A bit of a cliche I know but our trip has certainly shown that there is much more to Florida than just the theme parks, we really enjoyed the drive down The Keys and our time at Key West, we both liked Miami as well, and on reflection we should have allowed more time to explore the Everglades. I know it isn’t Florida but the days we spent in New Orleans were great fun, I think is a great city to visit. Would we go back to Orlando, probably not, unless we are performing the type of role my mum performed 25 years ago - so as they say “Never say never again!”

Rortours will be back next June/July/August next year all being well when we intend to follow the British and Irish Lions Rugby Team around Australia for some 6 weeks or so.

Posted by Rortours 19:04 Comments (0)

Orlando

Hitting the parks

After the strains of the corporate sell yesterday morning we had a quiet afternoon relaxing by the hotel pool, and had an early night ready to hit the parks in the morning. Our hotel is located very close to the two Universal Resorts, The Islands of Adventures & The Universal Studios, so close that we actually walked the mile to them. Our hotel does have a courtesy bus service that runs to all of the main attractions, it is just that it isn’t very frequent, both going to and returning from the parks, so we made the decision to walk - Uber prices as you can imagine go sky high around the times that the parks open and close. We had seen no end of smart looking buses in the vicinity of our hotel emblazoned with the sights of the Universal Resorts on their livery, so I assumed that the bus service would be fairly comfortable and straight forward to use when the need arose!

So after a short walk we arrived in the Islands of Adventures all ready to hit the rides, now the only time we have been to Orlando before was in 1999, when Tom was eight & Georgie was six, my mum was also in tow & Diane and I were in our early/mid thirties. My recollection from then is that we able to go on most rides together but there were one or two of the big roller coasters that the kids couldn’t go on and my mum didn’t want to go on, so she looked after T & G whilst Diane and I went on the odd ride together. I would also add that neither Diane or I have ridden any serious roller coasters for a number of years, so after we mounted the first massive ride appropriately named “The Hulk” I think we both had that slight feeling of dread and fear for what we had let ourselves in for - and we went to be disappointed as we were hurtled around through various loops at break neck speed, when we dismounted I felt positively sick, and Diane appeared a bit wobbly and shaken! Perhaps we will have to accede to our age and only partake the gentler rides - absolutely no way!! So the challenge had been set and we bravely took on all that The Islands of Adventures had to throw at us, highlight without doubt was Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, a roller coaster where the carts are a motorbike and side car, for sheer fright the Velocicoaster from Jurrasic Park World. The section of the park that is dedicated to Harry Potter is really something, even for two non Harry Potter fans, complete with Hogwarts as the backdrop to the area.
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The following day we arranged to catch the bus to Disney’s Magic Kindgom, our passes allow us to enter all four of Disney’s parks over two days so we started at Epcot and then finished the day at the Hollywood Studios. Unfortunately, rather in keeping with our hotel, which I think it would be fair to say is in need of a bit of modernisation/refurbishment/ our transport to the park and back was not to be one of the shiny new blue buses we had frequently seen at the neighbouring hotel but a rather old jalopy that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mumbai, Newcastle or Sheffield, spluttered up to the front of the hotel, it did the job, even though the air con was a bit hit and miss. I should say that although the hotel may have seen better days all the staff that we have interacted with, particularly those on the front desk have been incredibly helpful, friendly and accommodating.
After two long days on our feet, we decided to take it easy on Saturday and have a day around the hotel pool enjoying the warm weather and peace and quiet, although the pool area wasn’t too busy, through force of habit Diane thought it best to reserve our sun loungers when we went for lunch lest we should lose our spots.IMG_2215.jpegIMG_2216.jpeg
We had a quick bite to eat, got some provisions and returned to the pool. Thank goodness Diane had had the foresight to save our spots.
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Our intention tomorrow is to spend the day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom then spend our final day at Universal Studios before we see The Eagles on Monday evening, then it is an early start as we have a four hour drive down to Miami and the car has to be back by 1pm, can’t believe holiday is nearly over!
I hadn’t been aware that Disney’s first theme park was called Disneyland and is located in California, where their head offices were located, it was opened in 1955. It wasn’t until 10 years later that Disney announced plans to build was is now known as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, having discreetly bought up large tracks of land. Sadly Disney died the following year before construction was started on the project, which didn’t open until 1971. Today it is the most visited vacation resort in the world, with an average yearly attendance of 58 million people, the whole of Walt Disney World is some 44 square miles, which is the size of the city of San Francisco and twice the size of Manhattan Island in the city of New York.

Posted by Rortours 21:37 Comments (0)

A date with Jennifer Aniston

Not timeshare it is vacation ownership

I had already purchased 2 days theme park tickets on line prior to arriving in Orlando, but was conscious that we would need to buy some more, we are only here for 5/6 days and have no intention of spending every waking minute in the parks, as good as I am sure they are, so I was relieved when I read that we could purchase tickets in the hotel and hopefully get some advice on the best ways to spend our time here. So having checked in fairly painlessly and found our room we went down to the concierge for some advice on what tickets to purchase. Whether it was fatigue on my part, or the flattering patter of Mike the salesman or the promise of a $100 reduction I don’t know, but before I knew it we had signed up for a timeshare presentation in the morning, sorry I must use the correct terminology, it isn’t timeshare it is “vacation ownership” now. An Uber ride was arranged to collect us at 0730 in the morning, I was angry at myself for being duped in, particularly as the presentation in the morning would be two hours long and we would have to sit through it all in order to recoup the $40 we had already paid and the $100 reduction from the purchase of theme park tickets, still I like a challenge.

So an Uber ride later in the morning we arrived at the very plush Wyndham resort close to the Disney Parks, believe this is not like the slum area of Wymondham in Norfolk! All very corporate with salesman and women immaculately presented ready for a day of hard selling! I hadn’t slept brilliantly, so it would be fair to say I wasn’t in the mood for somebody to try and sell me a timeshare/vacation ownership - Diane asked how I was going to approach things, my reply was my opening gambit will “there is more chance of me having a date tonight with Jennifer Aniston that you selling me a timeshare today!” Thankfully a couple of corporate coffees later I had relaxed a bit so when our “guide/salesman/agent” called Tiago introduced himself to us I was in a slightly more amenable manner. I did try and level with Tiago and told him (without reference to Jennifer Aniston) that there was no way that we would ever be purchasing a timeshare today, so why don’t we stop wasting each other’s time and you just refund me my $40, and give us our discount! Tiago replied “Mr Rory, Miss Diane, this isn’t timeshare” FFS here we go …… “Jennifer, what are you doing later?”
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So we suffered 120 minutes of carefully prepared sales talk along with videos, visits and the inevitable hard sell, I did get my book out at one stage and started read it before Diane told me to put it away, suffice to say we parted, Tiago, despite him showing us shots of the slums of Rio de Janeiro that he had been allegedly been brought up in along with pictures of his daughter, wife, etc didn’t make a sale with us today. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with anyone trying to make a living for themselves and their family, but when Tiago’s opening line was that any discounts are only available today he had lost me from the start. For all the carefully crafted marketing speech that has an answer to every concern that you might raise there are two sayings in our country that spring to mind, one is which my father (yes him who has the theory as to why women can’t map read) told me in that “ a fool and his money are easily parted” and the second in relation to my calling the product on offer as timeshare only to be quickly rebuked I think of an old Norfolk proverb which says “if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then generally it is a duck!” Just for the record the packages they were trying to sell today are for thousands of dollars. What particularly annoyed us was the prominent position the “concierge” desk had within the hotel, when in effect it was just there to sell timeshares, and the very aggressive sales approach adopted at the resort or order to try and make a sale, this even stirred Diane into making a complaint with the hotel - that shows had bad things were!!

Posted by Rortours 03:09 Comments (0)

See you later Alligator

In a while crocodile

We had booked our air boat ride the day before, most people are transported to the venue by the tour operators but being as we were leaving New Orleans that morning it made sense to pack up and drive ourselves, also saved $60! The location was about 45 minutes drive away in the swamps, and we had to be there shortly after 9 o’clock so it meant a relatively early start from our hotel and onto Canal Street and out of the city.
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Those of you who have visited Canal Street in Amsterdam will have noticed a couple of stark differences to Canal Street in NO, the main one being that there is no canal! The Spanish when they owned NO back in the 18th Century bought the land with the intention of building a canal, they went as far as calling it Canal Street but never actually built a canal, probably through lack of EU funding I suspect!

We arrived at the site for our ride in good time, and saw our first alligator, who is an albino, understandably very rare, we were then squeezed, and I do mean squeezed onto our air boat. When booking the tour we had been told if you get put on the front row you will get wet, so no surprises for guessing which row we were hemmed into by our lady captain, fortunately air boats do go in reverse so I felt we were in fairly safe hands!
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Sure enough it wasn’t long until we saw our first alligator, then another and another! Suffice to say that the swamps of Louisiana are full of them! There are are also 7 species of snakes in the swamps of which over 50% are venomous, for that reason we were advised not to touch any overhanging branches. Alligators are about a foot long when born, and grow a foot a year for the first five years, they max out at about 14 feet in length, anything bigger is a croc! The gator that came close to the boat was about 5 foot in length so relatively young, though there were some larger versions sunning themselves on the river banks. Alligators are the apex predators of the swamps and they will eat practically anything they can get they teeth onto, including turtles, fish, deer and each other if food sources get low. We were also able to see some turtles, lots of birds, including an eagle by its nest, all things considered it was a fascinating trip despite the somewhat cramped conditions.
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Our start had been so early that we hadn’t had any breakfast before leaving for the swamp, so we were quite hungry when we finished the ride, but the journey to our next destination took us back through NO, and driving there is quite tricky so we decided to get through the city before stopping for a well deserved brunch at our new favourite, Waffle House! As for our trip the other way we again passed through 4 states, all together now ……
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I had purposely left a few days free without booking anywhere so we could go with the flow, I must admit that we were quite tempted to stay in NO for another night, but eventually we plumped on going to a resort called Miramar Beach who looks onto the Gulf of Mexico, we had booked a very nice looking Hyatt resort hotel which was a very reasonable in price and looked really nice as well. Miramar is Spanish for “Looks at the Sea”.

We weren’t disappointed when we arrived at the hotel, our room was sumptuous with complete with lounge area and two large queen beds, and even better happy hour or to be precise happy two hours had just begun, with beer at $4 a pint and cocktails at $5 between 5 & 7pm. Miramar Beach is made up of numerous luxury condos set around lakes and golf courses, as well as hotels and private villas, all a stones throw from the pristine white sandy beaches of the Gulf, a truly stunning place, we were very happy with the choice that we had made. Near to our hotel was a complex called the “Village of Baytowne Wharf” which had a number of bars and restaurants located beside a marina, we ate there both nights that we stayed in Miramar Beach. We had spent the morning at the beach, the sea was a bit cold, but the sand, pure white, I won’t say who asked where they had imported the 50 miles of white sand from!
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It was that good at Miramar Beach that again we were very tempted to spend another night there, before driving the 400 odd miles to Orlando, but in the end with the weather forecast not looking so good for the following day we decided to head on down to Orlando and arrive a day earlier than we had planned. Fortunately we were able to book into our hotel a night early, the drive took best part of 8 hours, quite tiring but we were glad that we had made the decision to do it all in one day rather than stop for the night half way or remain at Miramar as it gave a full day to relax in Orlando before we hit the Parks, more to follow in next entry.

Posted by Rortours 21:56 Comments (0)

The Big Easy

New Orleans at last

Having stopped at the Battleship Museum Park for several hours we still had a fair distance to go until we reached New Orleans. Our stop at Mobile had been so enjoyable, like most American attractions we have visited they are so well organised, and I suspect that most of the people who worked at the museum were just volunteers, it was very easy to glean their passion for all the exhibits, particularly the mighty battleship.
So sometime after six we rolled into the Big Easy and found our hotel situated right in the centre of the historic French Quarter. Our hotel La Galerie French Quarter Hotel was delightful, an old building but well maintained and sympathetically modernised to keep the character of the property whilst providing excellent facilities. Having unpacked we ventured into the French Quarter and the notorious Bourbon Street. To get the vibe of Bourbon Street from a Norfolk perspective you need to imagine Prince of Wales Road in Norwich, Regents Road in Gt Yarmouth and Norfolk Street in Kings Lynn on a balmy hot evening with everyone on steroids - then treble it!! In some ways I equate it to Canal Street in Amsterdam as one of those places that you have to say you have visited, certainly all of the Americans we spoke to told us to avoid the place. Apparently Bourbon Street wasn’t always so bad, its notoriety developed during and after the Second World War when thousands of US servicemen were brought back to the US having served in various theatres of war and were deposited in New Orleans where understandably they needed to let off some steam!!
Bourbon Street aside New Orleans is an amazing city, I don’t think I have ever seen a city that is just so alive, seemingly all of the time, when you add to that the fascinating history of the city it is a wonderful place to visit and well worth the nearly two days driving that it took us to reach here.
After a few drinks we ate in a local restaurant, our waitress was a lady called Amanda, and it was her first night, so what she didn’t need was a fussy eater who didn’t want mayo or cheese on his burger, but she managed brilliantly and told us it was good practice to get an awkward customer!! We were amongst the last to leave, it was clear that Amanda was relieved to get her first shift out of the way, she told us that she had recently moved down to live with her mother in New Orleans, and that waitressing was a side job as she worked in logistics during the day, we both felt quite humble but she seemed very happy with her choices, particularly having coped with the customer from hell!!
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You have to admire the people of New Orleans, the city was built on a swamp, twice been destroyed by fire and three times by hurricanes, but still the occupants refuse to bow, as most of you will know the most recent hurricane was in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina reeked havoc, particularly on New Orleans, an estimated $125 billion damage was done to the city as well as the loss of life of hundreds of people. It is quite astonishing that when New Orleans burnt down first in 1788 and then again six years later in 1794 there was no reported loss of life.
This is a monument to the memory of Hurricane Katrina.
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We enjoyed both bus and walking tours of the city, it really is difficult not to get inspired by the raw energy of the place as seemingly around every street corner or in nearly every bar or restaurant there are musicians, street artists, magicians and the like all performing, we were also lucky to see a wedding procession which I have to say did bring back memories of a scene from the James Bond film “Live and let die”.

Local delicacies in New Orleans are Jumbalaya and Gumbo, I enjoyed Jumbalaya which consists of meat/sea food, rice, spices, veg and stock, not so much Gumbo which comes served in a cup, and looks like something you would normally feed Meg, although Diane enjoyed her cup of jumbo prior to a meal of grilled catfish at a lovely restaurant we ate in located in an area that is called the Garden District, I had a four piece fried chicken meal, judging by the size of it I can only imagine the size of their bargain buckets!!
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Originally the Garden District is where the plantation owners had their homes, but after the American Civil War most had to sell off and divide their land to accommodate more houses on smaller plots, despite this the Garden District remains the exclusive and expensive part of New Orleans to this day, with some magnificent period houses and tree lined avenues, the last picture is Sandra Bullocks’s home.
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New Orleans houses the American World War II museum which came highly recommended, regretfully there was so much else to see that we just didn’t have the time to visit the museum, another place I would like to have visited was the Caesars Superdome, home of the American Football Team the New Orleans Saints, it has also played host to numerous other sporting events and concerts, and provided refuge for the citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. It is the venue for the Superbowl next year, New Orleans will then jointly hold the record with Miami as the city that has hosted most Superbowls tying at eleven each. The biggest crowd for a sporting event was over 78,000 for Wrestlemania, the group that have played to the biggest audience in the dome were the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately since 9/11 the Superdome is no longer available for tours by the public for security fears.
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On Saturday evening Diane was feeling a bit tired after dinner so I took her back to the Hotel and decided that I had best check that Bourbon Street really was as depraved as my first impressions and it was, I was also in a somewhat good mood as Arsenal had produced a dominant performance to defeat Newcastle 4-1 earlier in the day, so I called in at a Irish Bar called Ryan’s near to the hotel that we had used a couple of times, which also displayed various sports to hopefully catch some highlights. Not long after I had sat down at the bar two elderly chaps walked in and I caught the unmistakable Geordie twang as they sat beside me and berated their side on their miserable showing earlier in the day, I really felt this was too good an opportunity to miss so I introduced myself as a gloating gooner! After the initial shock of being confronted by an Arsenal fan died down we spent a very pleasant half an hour in each others company, it turned out the two old boys had both lost their wives last year so now holidayed together, they were boarding a cruise the following day down to Belize. We leave New Orleans early tomorrow morning as we have an air boat trip around the swamps booked to hopefully see some alligators!

Posted by Rortours 01:11 Comments (0)

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