by Bob Sparrow

stregisbentley‘Road Trip’ was the simple headline in a local magazine; those words however are always a clarion call me and thus seduced me to read on.  This road trip was described as ‘one of the world’s most iconic drives’ – cruising the coast on Highway 1 between Orange County and San Francisco, taking in Big Sur and the beautiful coast line along the way.  I read on to discover that this ‘Pacific Grand Tour Aficionado Package’ was being offered by St. Regis Resorts.  As a rule Istregisoc try to stay away from packages with the word ‘Grand’ in them, as it usually refers to the price. Add words like ‘aficionado’ and St. Regis and I can almost feel my bank account wither as I’m reading.  But it gets better . . . or worse.  What makes the tour so grand is not only that it includes two nights at both ends of the trip in St. Regis Resorts in OC and SF, but it also includes a Bentley Mulsanne.  For those who think Bentley Mulsanne is a footman on Downton Abby, it is not; it is an expensive automobile – a very expensive automobile, like $300,000 expensive – if you don’t want any extras.  Undaunted . . . OK, I was somewhat daunted, but I continued reading and finally found what I was looking for . . . the price.  “Prices start at $6,900”, it said.  “Whew”, I breathed a sigh of relief, for a moment there I thought it was going to be up in the $7,000 range.   It doesn’t really say how far that ‘starting price’ will get you, but probably not out of the shadow of the St. Regis from which you are leaving, but I read on imagining myself tooling up Pacific Coast Highway in a Bentley.  I looked good.

When I finished reading the article I paused and wistfully thought to myself, I haven’t made that drive in many, many years and it is beautiful and what a thrill it would be to do it in a Bentley; I have the time and I’m not getting any younger, so . . .

zzyzxYou guessed it, I threw the magazine away and wondered what I was thinking.   But I’d been put in the mood for a road trip, so I decided to create my own package – I called it ‘The Grand Fun Bus to Barstow, Baker and Beyond’ – mostly Beyond.  It wasn’t in a bus, but it wasn’t in a Bentley either that Linda and I headed for Vegas tocdsLOVE celebrate her birthday.  Now I’m not saying that the Zzyzx Road turnoff reminded me of Big Sur or that Baker’s giant thermometer, as majestic as it is, compared favorably to the giant redwoods along the coast, but I’ll tell you this, we had $6,900 worth of fun, maybe $7,000.

The fun included a great room at the Mirage Hotel, an evening at the greatest Irish Pub (and I know my Irish Pubs) this side of Killarney, Ri Ra at Mandalay Bay, a liquid lunch (their specialty) at Margaritaville, where the bartenders put on a show that you’d pay to see, and the Cirque du Soleil LOVE show – an amazing performance that we did pay to see, AND we left town with about a thousand dollars more than we came with.

1000                                                                                                         NOW THAT’S A GRAND PACKAGE !

  I’m thinking that if I can do that 300 more time I can buy that Bentley!



By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

“Where the wind comes whistling down the plain” … Oscar Hammerstein. 


I swear this is what the wind felt like

Never let it be said that Mr. Hammerstein wasn’t the very essence of understatement.  Hays, Kansas was the next stop on our journey to Kansas City.  It is the largest city in western Kansas, boasting a population of over 20,000 hearty people and no Starbucks.  As we drove up to the hotel we made the “rookie” error of facing the car into the wind.  As it turns out, there was a tornado watch in effect.  I had to use both arms to push the car door open, and then attempt a quick exit before the door could swing back and crush me.  Welcome to Kansas.  Once in the lobby, my husband casually asked the clerk if the hotel had a storm shelter.  “Well, no,” she chirped, “everyone just crowds into the laundry room.”  My husband paled.  “So..”, he asked, “you must not have many guests staying here tonight.”  After a quick consult with her computer she looked up and said brightly, “Well, actually we’re almost full so if we do have a tornado some people will just have to take shelter under the stairwell.”  We slept with one eye open and one foot on the floor.  In the event of disaster we were going to be the first people wedged between the washer and dryer.

As we left Hays the next morning, bleary-eyed from our own “tornado watch” and no Starbucks, we were dismayed to see that the scenery had not improved overnight.  I could write about how very boring the drive was but then that would make for a pretty boring post.  Let me just leave it at this:  If ever you get the wild idea to drive through western Kansas – DON”T.

Luckily, 90 minutes down the road is the city of Salina, which not only HAS a Starbucks but is the demarkation point for where the terrain changes.  I don’t think those two things are related but you never know.  Within the space of a mile, suddenly the flat, dry plain became luscious, rolling  green hills.  As we made our way toward Kansas City the vistas became more beautiful, until we finally arrived at our destination – Leawood, Kansas – home to our newly-relocated family.

Wendy's Fountain

A typical neighborhood fountain

We set out immediately to get to know the area.  First of all, Kansas City is known as “the city of fountains”.  This picture (right) is on our daughter’s home street and is pretty typical of the neighborhood fountains.  Both my husband and I come from California and have seen some pretty fancy neighborhoods but we both agreed that we have never seen so many contiguous miles of beautiful homes.  These places were so big they would make Donald Trump happy.  There are parks everywhere and wide boulevards with medians filled with huge trees, colorful flowers and, yes, more fountains. No less a journalist than Edward R. Murrow once described Kansas City as “the Paris of the Plains”.  Alas, that was not due to its beauty or the meandering river that runs through the center of town.  He was referring to the fact that during the heyday of Prohibition, Kansas City had a  reputation for debauchery.  Thanks to its corrupt police commissioner, not a single citizen was convicted of manufacturing, transporting, selling or even possessing booze during the 13-year period when alcohol was banned nationwide.The wide-open party town attracted both the criminal and the creative, including jazz musicians who made the city one of the most exciting of the time. At the height of Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s, there were more than 100 jazz clubs hosting performances and jam sessions that would launch the careers of musicians such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker.


The Plaza – bring your credit card


Today things are a bit more sedate.  The crown jewel of the city is Country Club Plaza, or just “The Plaza”.  It was the first shopping center in the world designed to accommodate shoppers arriving by automobile.  It was patterned architecturally after Seville, Spain, with wide streets, tiled roofs and, you guessed it, more fountains.  Even the chain stores and restaurants somehow look better here, which shows you what a good city planner can wrestle from a monolithic corporation.  For example, the outside eating area of the Cheesecake Factory is in a cobble-stoned courtyard, planted with fabulous flowers and of course, the requisite fountain.  I think the beautiful surroundings might make you forget that you’re ingesting a 2,000 calorie salad.  There is every store imaginable on The Plaza but one that is truly unique to Kansas City is Hall’s.  As in Hallmark Cards, which happens to be headquartered in Kansas City.  Hall’s is so upscale that their motto ought to be “where you care to spend the very most”.  The influence of the Hallmark corporation is everywhere and suffice it to say that every gas station and grocery store have displays of Hallmark Cards that would make one of our local Gold Crown stores weep.


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Here we are with Jack Stack’s bull

 But the real reason to visit Kansas City is to eat some of its famous barbecue.  Our kids suggested that we go to Jack Stack BBQ, which has been in business for over 50years.  “Diet” and “BBQ” do not intersect at Jack Stack.  We started with their baked onion rings.  “Baked”  means low-cal, right?  I further deluded myself into ordering the baby back ribs, on the theory there wouldn’t be as much meat on them as a half-pound burger.  Delicious doesn’t begin to cover it. Instead of the greasy, drippy ribs I’m used to, these were succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender with a smokey flavor.  I would have licked the plate if there weren’t so many people around.  Hell, I would have licked the plate with so many people around but I thought setting a good example for our grandsons was paramount.  I discovered that Jack Stack has a mail order division that ships anywhere.  I think I’m in big trouble.


We left for home the following day, still longing to see more of KC, and with what can only be described as a “rib hangover”.  We’ll have to save further exploration for our next trip.  Which – make no mistake – we will do by plane.  We were thoroughly impressed by the city and its surroundings.  Although we have both traveled to most large U.S. cities for either business or pleasure, neither of us had ever heard of Kansas City as a place to visit.  As our son-on-law so accurately said, “Kansas City isn’t just below the radar, it isn’t even on the radar.”  Whatever the reason, we were happy to discover this charming, beautiful city. As Dorothy once said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” and we’re sorry we’re not.

TO THE LAND OF OZ: Part One – The Santa Fe Trail

imageHopefully  by now you have read my brother’s fabulous account of his trip to the dark continent.  While you were reading about his encounters with wild animals, smiling people and beautiful sites, my husband and I, along with our faithful dog Dash, were about to embark on a trip to the dark continent of …..Kansas.

Earlier this year our daughter and family moved to Leawood, Kansas, which we thought was somewhere close to Antarctica.  We envisioned flat terrain and not a Starbucks in sight.  But, longing to see our grandsons, we decided to pack the dog in the car and drive the 1200 miles to their new home.  We are always up for a driving adventure and since we had not seen this part of the country we decided to make the most of all the sights along the way.

The first day we got as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We have only been there once before and found it to be a charming city.  On that trip we walked the Square, bought art on Canyon Drive and ate at Geronimo’s and The Compound.  At night we returned to a lovely resort.  We found out the hard way that none of those things are possible when you travel with a dog.  This time we stayed at a LaQuinta Inn near the freeway.  Not even a new LQI.  This one closely resembled the Bates Motel.  And we soon discovered that finding a place to eat dinner with a dog in tow is tantamount to finding the Holy Grail. We consulted our “Traveling with Fido” resources but they offered imagesuch gourmet delights as McDonalds and Sonic Burger.  My husband batted his baby blue eyes at the hostess at the Olive Garden and she let us take the dog out to the patio to eat with us.  In 30 MPH winds.  And, sadly, we were thrilled.

The next morning we set out for the wide open spaces, with a goal to reach Hays, Kansas by nightfall.  We were excited to get off the interstate at Trinidad, CO. and begin to see the “real” countryside via “blue highways”. We talked about seeing the original Santa Fe Trail – Dodge City! – and reliving some of the scenes we saw on all those Westerns on TV in the 50’s.  We lasted 10 miles.

After numerous potholes, uneven pavement and several near-miss side-swipes, we decided that maybe our kidneys (and nerves) were too old for this trip.  I’m not certain, but I would almost swear that the dog whispered into my husband’s ear “Please get us back to an interstate”.  So after 75 miles heading east on the Santa Fe Trail, we made a sharp left turn and high-tailed it up towards Interstate 70.

We followed State Route 71 in Colorado through farmlands and small towns.  When one thinks of Colorado one normally thinks of mountain peaks and snow.  John Denver made a lot of money singing about that image“Rocky Mountain High”.  However, eastern Colorado looks a lot like the midwest.  Wheat and grain fields dot the country side.  You can see from the picture (right) that there is not a hill in sight.  I think Sara Palin can see her house from here.  We drove through lots of small towns along the way and we both felt as if we had been transported back to our childhoods, where Main Street was filled with small shops, a gas station and one market.  Most of the towns had one store where its citizens buy everything from a bow tie to shoes, from cradle to grave.  I’m quite sure the locals haven’t ever seen a J. Crew or Banana Republic and they appear to be getting along just fine.

Finally, blessedly, we reached Interstate 70 at Limon, CO.  Another McDonald’s and a gas station were the highlights but it looked like an oasis to us.   We continued east at 80 MPH and entered Kansas.

Our first clue that Kansas might be a bit boring was when we saw signs offering free coffee at the border station.  I suspect, now that I’ve driven through the state, that the wise officials in Kansas knew that without caffeine the countryside would lull drivers to sleep at the most inconvenient times – like when driving in the fast lane.  The only exciting “attraction” along the Interstate were the billboards every 10 miles touting the museum in Colby that housed rattlesnakes, coyotes and a five-legged cow.  Rattlesnakes and coyotes are a dime a dozen where we come from, but a five-legged cow?  Now THAT’S an attraction.  Unfortunately, we were at the end of our day, not to mention our wits, so a detour to Colby was out of the question,   But it did capture my interest so I looked it up when we got to our hotel and, sure enough, someone had posted a picture of it online.  So in the interest of satisfying everyone’s curiosity I’m re-posting it here.  imageWho would have guessed that the extra leg would be protruding from its neck?

I think I’m glad I didn’t see it in person.


Next time:  Kansas City, the Paris of the Plains.  Honest.




African Diary: Epilogue Townships & Tea Bags

by Bob Sparrow

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Jill Heyes

If you’ve read my ‘African Diary’ series you’ll know that I wrote briefly about the ‘townships’ or shanties that line the freeway for miles outside of Cape Town and throughout South Africa.  These shanties were created principally in the Apartheid Era, which ran from the end of the 1800s until the early 1990s (yes, 1990s!), when blacks were evicted from their property and relocated to the shanties .

An accurate count of how many people are living in shanties today in South Africa is difficult, but it’s somewhere in the 8-10 million range.  They live in shacks made of tin, wood and brick, have little water, which is of poor quality, sewage is an on-going problem, electricity, if they have it, is achieved illegally through exposed power wires, presenting a constant danger to inhabitants, especially children.  Schools are ill-equipped and inadequate and many children end up dropping out and joining  gangs, which are prevalent among the teens living there.  Believe me, it makes one feel pretty grateful for what we have and very sympathetic to the plight of the shanty inhabitants.

One person who saw all this and decided to do something about it was Jill Heyes, who came to South Africa from England and lives in Hout Bay near DSC00168Cape Town.  Jill taught crafts at a local church and regularly passed by the shanties on her way to and from home and was horrified at the poverty she saw.  One day while having tea with a friend, they were discussing the living conditions in the shanties and trying to figure out what one person could possibly do to help.  Her friend looked at the tea bag in her cup and got an idea.

Original T Bag Designs was born.  Jill started a business making crafts out of discarded tea bags and in the process hired people out of the shanties to create and make these crafts.  That was over 10 years ago, today her business is thriving.  Several who have come to work for her have now earned enough money to buy a home and move out of the shanties.  You can see a short video on Jill’s inspirational story on You Tube at the following link:


You can also visit their website at:  http://www.tbagdesigns.co.za   and buy something!  Then you’ll know that you helped create one of those great smiles that you see in the pictures on their website.

2013-05-19 23.49.15   DSC00169   2013-05-19 23.46.02

African Diary – Part 4 Victoria Falls and Out of Africa

by Bob Sparrow (back from Africa)

Africa 442

Victoria Falls

I have that feeling that our time in Africa is going way too quickly as we head to the last leg of our journey, Victoria Falls – one of the ‘7 Natural Wonders of the World’.  Our trip from Notten’s Game Reserve necessitated an evening layover in Johannesburg since there is only one flight a day into Victoria Falls from ‘Jo’burg’, as it’s known to the locals.  Arriving in the late afternoon and leaving the next morning only gave us enough time to wipe the elephant dung off our shoes, visit Nelson Mandela Square and gradually acclimate to having electricity in our hotel room.

 Zimbabwe, formerly know as Southern Rhodesia, was colonized by the British in 1890; our hotel, the Victoria Falls Hotel, took us back in time to the turn of the century, when it was built by the Brits during the construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1906 as part of a grand plan to run a railroad line through the heart of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo.  If I described the hotel as being grand and colonial, in an elegant, Edwardian sort of way, neither of us would know what I was talking about, so just look at the pictures.

DSC00577   vfhotel  DSC00452  viclodge

After walking the meticulously groomed grounds of the hotel, we were whisked off to a sunset cocktail cruise on the Zambezi River, where we witnessed a playful ‘bloat’ of hippopotamus, a sun-worshiping crocodile and a spectacular sunset.  One of our fellow cruisers was a rather arrogant young American, who didn’t fit in too well with the rest of the animal lovers on board, as he was bragging about the hunting trip he had just completed where he shot an elephant, a buffalo and something else, maybe it was his wife, I stopped listening.  He was either very quiet toward the end of the cruise or he was that thing we saw bobbing in the water at sunset heading for the falls.  I’ve included a spectacular picture of the sunset that evening, but honestly it doesn’t do the sunset justice.  We head back to the hotel for dinner.DSC00532

 The hotel is steeped in the history of explorer, missionary and liberator, Dr. David Livingstone and the famous meeting with Henry Stanley in the middle of Africa.  The balmy evening allowed us to enjoy our dinner at one of the hotel’s outside restaurants.  Before dinner a local tribe provided entertainment with their singing and dancing to traditional music.  Sensing that Apple didn’t have these songs in their ‘iCloud’, I purchased their CD, my fourth of the trip.

Africa 384 copyThe next day we loaded up for our ‘Barrel Ride Over the Falls’ tour – just kidding, it was already fully booked.  We did take a tour of Victoria Falls, whose original name translates to ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ and even though there was not a cloud in the sky, we wore rain gear and got soaking wet.  A ‘congress’ of baboons apparently signed up for the same tour we did as they followed us to the various viewing points along the falls.  They were amazing – the falls, well the baboons too.  Even if I told you that an average of about 38,000 cubic feet of water goes over the falls PER SECOND, you probably still couldn’t imagine that much water – I didn’t even know that water came in cubic feet, all I know is that it’s a lot of water.  The falls width of 5600 feet and height of 350 feet make it the largest sheet of falling water in the world.


‘Today’s Special’

After the tour we walked into town to get a bite to eat, but my picture of ‘Today Special’ tells you why we decided to wait until we got back to the hotel to eat.  We were told to never eat warthog in a month with any letter in it.  We continued walking to the middle of the Victoria Falls Bridge, which was the scene of a bungee jumping accident last year when the bungee cord detached and dropped an Australian woman into the water 360 feet below.  The bungee operator responsible for the accident, Cecil “Oops” Newman, no longer works there, but someone did do a jump while we were there watching – crazy!

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a ‘craft market’ to bargain with the locals for their handmade wares.  I rationalized my poor negotiating skills as wanting to help boost their economy by paying, according to my wife, somewhere between 6 and 7 times what the craft was worth.  But who can put a price on a hand-carved African mask from Zimbabwe?  Apparently I couldn’t.


View of Victoria Falls from hotel

Even though I’m writing this while in Africa, you won’t read it until I’m at the chiropractor’s office getting my back adjusted after the 40 hour trip home.  Yes, it’s a long way getting there and coming home, but was it worth it?  Oh yeah!  The people, the places, the animals, the things we experienced, (Did I mention the people?) made it the trip of a lifetime!

A big thank you to Jack and JJ Budd, our travel companions, who did a similar trip two years ago and kept us from making ‘rookie travel mistakes’, to our travel agent, Lenni Curl of First Travel of California in Laguna Niguel, who secured us great accommodations and got us on all the right tours, and to David and Mia Notten for their gracious hospitality at their ‘family’ game reserve in Kruger National Park.

And thank you readers, especially you blog subscribers, for vicariously taking this incredible journey with us and thank you for your wonderful comments.