A Travellerspoint blog

Eeek! There’s a Mouse!

What to do in Orlando if you wanna avoid Mickey

I have to confess, Florida didn’t work out the way we had intended. Having finished our mini road trip through New England, we had decided we were ready to slow down and slob out for a while. We booked ourselves into a self-catering villa at superb resort - a steal at a little over $50 dollars a night - hoping for a week of sitting by the pool, book in one hand and cocktail in the other, and watching the world go by. Long story short, seven days go by and we had done nothing of interest. This sucked, naturally, so we decided to extend our booking at the resort, and hired a car so we could actually go out and see something of the state.

Note to any females reading this:

Beware of letting your fella choose a hire car by himself; you never know what you’re gonna end up with! We booked online, and a rental company agent collected Pete at the resort and drove him to collect the car. He came home half an hour later, obviously very pleased with himself.

“I got a convertible!” he told me, excitedly. “And for only $6 dollars a day extra.”

Me, being completely clueless about cars, asked the only two questions that sprang to mind:

1) “What colour is it?”

and

2) “Is there room in the trunk for our backpacks?”

Pete had the good grace to look slightly guilty at this point, and confessed that he has no idea what size the boot was. Typical bloke! Gets all excited about the fast, swish-looking box-on-wheels without a second’s thought as to whether the thing is going to be practical or not. It wasn’t, as it happened (one of the packs had to be stored on the back seat), but it did look good. Here:

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Pete absolutely loved this car; me, I wasn't so keen at first. Actually, I think that convertibles are over-rated. If I must have streaming eyes, hair whipping in my face non-stop and zero temperature control, I'd rather be on the back of a motorcycle!

So, now we had transport and could get out and about. The question was, where were we going to go? To be absolutely honest, I have no idea why we ended up in Kissimmee. I did have reasons for wanting to go there at one stage - I distinctly remember once seeing a website that listed a couple of dozen cool-sounding things to do in the Orlando area - but I had long since lost the link to that webpage, and could no longer remember what it was that had appealed to me in the first place.

Kissimmee, as it turned out, was a disappointment. After the charm of Boston and the vibrancy of New York, this place was a real let-down: it was just roads of hotels, gift shops and fast food joints, as far as the eye could see. ‘Soulless’ is the best word I can think to describe it. The place is intended to leech cash from tourists as quickly and as often as possible; you can almost feel your wallet getting lighter as you walk down the street!

The theme parks are a rip-off as well, charging $75 - $100 per person for a single day’s pass. This caused something of a dilemma for us, ‘cos we really couldn’t make up our minds whether or not it’d be worth it. Unusually the Internet was no help, as the reviews for these attractions were mixed: some people loved ‘em, others hated ‘em, so we were really only left with our gut feelings to help us decide.

In the end we decided against visiting any of the major theme parks in the area, partly because of the cost, but also because we really weren’t convinced we’d have a good time. I know I sound like an old Grinch (*) who’s hatin’ on Mickey Mouse, but I’m really not. Let me explain: I think that Disney, Busch Gardens and the like are excellent for people with kids, or adults who are amusement park addicts themselves. Pete and I don’t mind queuing for rides (we had a great night at Tivoli Gardens in Denmark), but our patience for such things is limited. I could easily see us getting irritated by the heat and the queues in no time at all, and heading home without feeling like we’d had value for money.

(*) I assure you I am a not-quite-middle-aged Grinch, thank you all the same. (And, yes, I do know Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt!)

Instead we decided to focus on the other attractions in the area. Here are the highlights:

Gatorland

The one thing we have been continually on the lookout for on this trip is anything that is weird or unusual. Gatorland hit this criterion because of this fella (and three others just like him):

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He’s not an albino; albinos’ have pink eyes, and these are a vivid blue.

White ‘gators with blue eyes! Who’da thunk it? White alligators are extremely rare; their colouring makes it difficult for them to hide, for one thing. Apparently they are also exceedingly antisocial, so the four specimens at Gatorland have to be kept in separate enclosures.

There were plenty of other things to keep us busy in the park, too; ‘gator wrestling, for example:

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Yes, this bloke is a complete and utter loony!

They also taped the poor critter’s mouth closed and charged people $10 to have their picture taken whilst sitting on its back.

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Part-way through the show the commentator asked the wrestler whether he was handling a boy ‘gator or a girl. “It must be a boy,” the wrestler replied. “If it was a girl I’d never have got its mouth shut!”

Another somewhat bizarre event was the Jumparoo in which the alligators were encouraged to jump out of the water in order to grab raw chickens.

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Have you ever shouted, “Jump!” at an alligator before? No, me either. (Come to think of it, I reckon it was strange for the alligators, too. I bet that the word they most usually have screamed at them is, “Arrrrrgh!”)

This was made into a competition in which two Gatorland employees, Bub and Cooter, compete to become a ‘gator wrestler. The first person to feed all their chickens to the alligators wins. It was a beautifully put together little show, with some very silly moments. For example, after losing the first round, Cooter starts to cry.

Compere: What’s the matter, Cooter? Why are you cryin’?
Cooter: I can’t lose, Boss.
Compere: Why not?
Cooter: ‘Cos if I lose, Bub’s momma will dump me.
Compere: I’ve seen Bub’s momma. If she dumps you, that’s a good thing.
Cooter: But, Boss, she got this hairy back that keeps me warm at night...

Cue fighting between Cooter and Bub, with some rather unusual boxing gloves...

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Bub, the compere, and the poor chicken who came to an undignified end!

Wonderworks

This upside-down theme park was great fun!

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An unusual exterior for an unusual attraction.

Every exhibit is interactive, and many of ‘em are loud and messy, too, so we were right at home. During the three hours or so we spent there, we:

- Made giant bubbles
- Played a bloomin’ difficult shoot-‘em-up virtual reality game
- Played virtual air hockey
- Controlled a ball using brainwaves
- Found out how cold the water was when the Titanic sank
- Experienced a hurricane-strength wind, and an earthquake registering 5.3 on the Richter scale
- Landed the Space Shuttle on a simulator (If I’m being honest, Pete landed the space shuttle; I crashed it four times!)

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Pete, using a series of pulleys, lifted ¼ of his own body weight.

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Me, lying on bed of nails. It didn’t hurt at all, but it felt kinda weird and tingly when they retracted.

This place got some really appalling reviews, but we think that if you’re inquisitive, don’t mind getting your hands dirty and have a sense of humour, you can have a lot of fun even if you are an adult!

Boggy Creek Airboat Rides

Although I wasn’t terribly impressed by Florida’s cities, I absolutely loved being out in the Everglades. There are many companies offering airboat rides; we choose Boggy Creek Airboats, who offer tours lasting between 30 minutes and 1 hour.

The airboats themselves are insanely noisy. We were given ear protectors, for which we were grateful.

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One very loud airboat. Of course, it’s not really surprising, given that they are powered by aircraft/automotive engines.

Our guide stopped every now and again to point out items of interest. We didn’t get to see any wild ‘gators, unfortunately, but we did see an unexpected bald eagle.

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Bald eagles were declared an endangered species in America in 1967; they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 as their numbers had risen sufficiently, but they are still protected under US law.

It’s very pretty and very peaceful in the ‘Glades (when the airboats aren’t running). This tour was definitely one of the highlights of our stay in Florida. Go see the wildlife, if you get the chance!

Kennedy Space Center

I saved the best ‘til last, here. This was one of Pete’s must-see places while we were in the area, him being a science and technology nut, and I was happy to tag along and keep him company. I’m really glad that I did. The KSC was amazing, and we didn’t even get to see it all! There is so much to do here that one day isn’t enough, and your entrance ticket is actually valid for two visits (within seven days).

The thing that Pete really wanted to do was see the rockets on their launch pads, so we made the guided bus tour our priority. This took several hours, and stopped at 3 different locations:

The LC 39 Observation Gantry

This gave great views of the two giant Shuttle Launch Pads, 39A and 39B. They were both occupied that day: one with a Space Shuttle, and the other with the new Ares rocket.

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The nose of the Space Shuttle (left), and the Ares-1 rocket (right). We were going to stay in Florida and watch the Ares launch, but changed our plans at the last minute. As it happened, the launch was cancelled anyway, so we didn’t miss anything. Still would have been cool, though...

The Apollo / Saturn V Center

After an introductory film telling the story of the moon landing, we were taken to another room containing the actual furniture and computer consoles which were used to monitor the first Saturn V launch. They recreated the lift-off with a pretty impressive light and sound show (and even made the windows rattle during take-off, which we thought was a nice touch).

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These things look so old-fashioned now that it’s hard to believe they were ever used for an actual rocket launch.

The International Space Station Center

We actually thought that this part of the tour was going to be pretty lame at first, and then we walked through a door and found ourselves looking into the workshop where the actual Space Station modules are constructed. That was unexpected and impressive!

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Pete inside one of the modules

Back at main site there was plenty to see and do, including: robot displays, talks by an astronaut, IMAX movies, a Hubble telegraph exhibit and an outdoor Rocket Garden. The best bit as far as I was concerned was being allowed a peek inside an actual Space Shuttle. (I had to draw one for a technical drawing project at school back in the Good Old Days, and I’ve been interested in them ever since.)

In conclusion, the Kissimmee/Orlando area has a lot of interesting stuff to do that won’t cost a fortune, and does not involve being accosted by grown men and women wearing cartoon character costumes!

This entry is way too long already, so I’ll continue our Floridian escapades another day.

‘Bye for now

J&P

Posted by Julie1972 16:14 Archived in USA Comments (1)

“What d’you mean we’re going to look at leaves?”

In which Pete is dragged on a fall foliage tour around New England

Most people take home souvenirs from their travels, some little trinket or other to remember their vacation by. We’re doing that, too, but not in the way we expected. Forget postcards or t-shirts: on this trip, we’re collecting weird heckles. In Vietnam most people would shout “Hello” at us as we walked by, except on one memorable occasion when a kid on a bike shouted, “Eff you!” On our first day in Boston we got heckled, too... for walking. “Get a car, losers!” yelled the teenage twit who could stand to lose a pound or twenty himself. (No wonder the Western world’s experiencing an obesity epidemic if this is the attitude people have!) And, as it happens, we did hire a car (more on that later), but while we were in the city we didn’t really see the point in having one. See, we have these things called legs, and, unlike certain Teenage Twits, we’re not afraid to use ‘em!

Anyhoo...

This part of our trip involved rather more moving around than usual. Boston was our base, but we also had a look at New Hampshire and Vermont. But before I get into all that, I have a complaint:

Massachusetts is blooming cold in autumn, and after two days of shivering we were forced to buy coats. That is so not right! I haven’t worn a jacket in eight months and I only have one sweater with me. We were supposed to be chasing the sun around the world... I guess we’re doing it wrong.

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Me and my new coat. Also note my ironic sweatshirt, from Oxford University (*). It is ironic because a) I did not go to Oxford, and b) I once applied to Cambridge in a misguided attempt to get a place on one of their postgraduate courses, but the interview went so badly I expected them to hand me my rejection letter on the way out. This also had another consequence in that I went to Edinburgh University instead, and met Pete on my first day there. See, if only I’d been smarter, Pete wouldn’t have had to put up with me for the last fifteen years (or, as he says, “Fifteen long, hard years!”)

(*) BTW, the only reason I own this jumper at all is because I lost my old one at Heathrow, and this was the only replacement I could find in the half hour or so we had left before we had to board our plane.

Lousy weather aside, we did have a fantastic time in New England. The first and last parts of our stay were spent in Boston, the capital of Massachusetts, and one of the oldest cities in America. We liked it immediately, and I think that is in large part because it is a university town; they always seem to have a pleasant atmosphere. We spent many happy hours just wandering around, soaking up the sights on Boston Common, Beacon Hill, and the Charles River Bridge.

If you’re looking for some unusual attractions in the area, we found three that stood out:

Mapparium

This is an enormous hollow ball made of glass, with all the countries of the Earth displayed on the inside of the globe. Through the centre runs a bridge, where observers stand. The map itself is a little out of date, showing the world as it was in 1935, so if you look for Thailand or Vietnam, you won’t find ‘em.

This description from curiousexpeditions.org sums it up perfectly:

It is a singular experience. Nowhere else on earth can you see, well, earth. Not like this at least; earth the way it really looks, without distortion. As you walk down along the walkway, bathed in a soft blue light from the back-lit stained-glass surrounding you everything sounds strange; you can hear your own breathing as if it was someone else right up against your ear.

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, sadly, but you can see what I’m talking about by clicking here.

The ‘Cheers’ bar

Anybody who watched Cheers during the 80’s is likely to recognise this sign:

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Formerly the Bull and Finch, this bar on Beacon Street was used for all the exterior shots in the show.

We used to watch it, too, and in a fit of nostalgia we decided to drop by the pub and try to relive our misspent youths. These things rarely work out as planned, however. At the start of this trip, Pete and I declared our intention to drink our way around the world. Sadly it hasn’t worked out that way for me - health issues mean that I’m hardly drinking at all lately, much to my disappointment – but I made an exception on this occasion. I mean, I couldn’t visit Cheers and not have a beer, could I? It wouldn’t be right.

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Pete’s misspent youth is turning into a misspent adulthood, too!

Tomb

Tomb was something of a surprise, as we’d never experienced anything like this before. It was advertised as an interactive multimedia adventure with an Egyptian theme, which really didn’t tell us much, but we thought we’d head on over there anyway and see what all the fuss was about.

Without giving too much away, you are taken into an Egyptian tomb which has recently been discovered in Boston. (I bet not too many archeologists thought to look there, eh?) The last person to enter the chamber was never seen again, so it is up to you to find out what happened to him. Once inside you are set a series of challenges by a very grumpy pharaoh; the tasks get harder as you move through the rooms. You are accompanied at all times by a guide, who is there to give tips and encouragement, and to stop fights breaking out between family members who can’t agree on the best way to solve a puzzle. (Apparently we were one of the more cooperative teams our guide had seen!) Anyway, we managed to make the old pharaoh happy, and he let us out eventually. We thought it was an amusing way to spend an hour.

So, Boston was great, but that wasn’t the reason I nagged to visit New England.

I have wanted to go on a fall foliage tour ever since I saw it on some cheesy flick umpteen years ago. I’ve long since forgotten the title of that movie, but I remember how gorgeous the scenery looked, and I wanted to go see it for myself. You might have gathered, if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, that I like trees and nature and stuff. Pete wasn’t so keen - hence the title of this entry - but he said the same thing about seeing cherry blossoms in Japan and ended up enjoying himself, so I told him to quit whinging, hire a car and drive! (He did as he was told, too. I’ve got him well-trained...)

But before we went in search of colourful leaves, there was one other stop I wanted to make, in Salem. Salem, for those of you who don’t know, was the centre of witchcraft hysteria back in 1692-‘93. I loved Arthur Miller’s version of the story, as told in The Crucible, and I wanted to visit the museum.

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The Salem Witch Museum: one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions.

It wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Instead of walking around looking at exhibits, you sit in a large room, which is decorated with a series of wax mannequins, and listen to a presentation. The tale of the witchcraft trials is narrated, while the relevant section of the diorama is highlighted at the appropriate time. To be honest, this arrangement has received a lot of criticism. Some people see it as low-tech and cheesy, while others complain that you can’t see everything without constantly switching seats. While both of these objections are valid, I still enjoyed hearing the history again. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned during the height of the hysteria, and 19 of those prisoners were hanged... and all because of bunch of young girls with overactive imaginations!

Our timing was perfect for visiting Salem. Halloween starts early in America; even though it was still only the first week in October, many people had already put up their Halloween decorations. I must admit, I loved it! All those quaint clapboard houses with pumpkins and scarecrows on the front porch looked so good!

We decided to get into the spirit of things by going to a haunted house. There were plenty to choose from, and I reckon we stumbled upon one of the better shows, ‘cos ours was in 3-D! The effects were brilliant, and the actors were scary. (There was one lady dressed as some kind of white witch who kept jumping out at us who managed to make me jump every single time. What a way to make a living: running around, shouting “Boo!” at people and cackling. I think I’ve finally found my dream job! Where do I apply?)

But enough of the silliness. Salem, much as I loved it, was not the point of the trip; this was:

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Click on a pic for bigger versions, as per usual.

I think we were very, very lucky with our timing. We spent one day driving along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, one of the more popular spots for us ‘leaf-peepers’, and the scenery was perfect: lots of leaves on the trees and a wide variety of vivid colours. During the night there was a storm. We drove along "the Kanc." again the following morning on the way to Vermont, and it looked totally different. Many of the trees had lost their leaves, so there were large patches of grey where the branches were visible, and the colours themselves seemed muted. We noticed the same thing in Vermont, where the foliage was obviously past its peak.

It was a lovely way to spend a few days, driving through these quaint little towns with clapboard houses, going for walks, admiring the scenery and taking photos. I just wish the pictures could do it justice – I recommend seeing it for yourselves, if you get the chance!

Posted by Julie1972 11:44 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Ways in which TV has lied to me

What didn’t happen to us in New York

Actually, before I start ranting on about what didn’t happen to me in New York, I’ll tell you something that did.

During our first night in our Staten Island hotel, at about 3.30 in the morning, the fire alarm went off. We tried unsuccessfully to ignore it (heads under pillows and that sort of thing), but eventually realised that it was going on way too long to be a drill. We dragged on our jeans and headed out into the hall, which was filled with smoke. As we couldn't use the elevators during a fire we walked down five flights of stairs to reception. (Actually I didn’t so much walk as shuffle. At three in the morning, I look like this.) Anyhoo, we got downstairs and asked the receptionist guy what was going on. He was totally and completely indifferent to the whole affair.

“It’s probably just somebody smoking a cigarette that set off the alarm,” he said.

“Um, no,” we reply, appalled by his apathy. “Our floor is filled with smoke.”

Mr. Blasé finally gets the message and calls the fire brigade.

This makes me wonder: First we get stuck in a lift in Seville, and now this. Is Karma finally catching up with me? I don’t remember my previous lives, but I bet I did something really, really bad in at least one of them... possibly in all of them. I’m sure I’ve got some serious retribution coming my way!

As I was hanging around the lobby wondering when, exactly, the Universe was gonna kick me in the butt, the fire brigade arrived. A quick investigation turned up a faulty electrical socket in a closet near our room. Mr. Blasé behind the desk soon loses his nonchalance, ‘cos the Fire Chief proceeds to read him the riot act for violation of some law or another. Each hotel is supposed to have a fire officer on duty 24/7; our hotel had to drag their fire officer out of bed!

And that brings me back to my subject heading: ways in which TV has lied. Anybody who has watched London’s Burning or that awful American series with Denis Leary would probably get the impression that fire fighting is a tremendously exciting job. It isn’t. At least, it wasn’t for the poor blokes who were called to our hotel. They walked in carrying axes and hoses and impressive stuff like that, then mainly stood around looking bored. Eventually the Chief said, “Show’s over,” and they all went back to the station. Seriously, the most exciting part of the night was listening to the desk clerk getting an ear bashing.

Colour me disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I wanted a rerun of The Towering Inferno or anything like that, but it would have been nice if the fellas had got to soak something, or give someone a fireman’s lift.

I know, I know, I watch way too much TV. But this did get me thinking...

Many movies are set in NYC, and a lot of them have thrilling and dangerous plotlines. If TV shows or films were in any way realistic, here’s a list of things I might reasonably expect to experience in New York:

- We could be attacked by supernatural entities (Ghostbusters), or monsters will rampage through the city (Cloverfield)
- We could find ourselves in the middle of a mob shootout (The Sopranos)
- There could be an alien invasion (Independence Day)
- A good cop might chase a bad guy through the subway system (Nighthawks)
- Global warming might finally catch up with us and a new ice age will arrive (The Day After Tomorrow)
- Or, scariest of all, we might be subjected to yuppies who sit around in coffee shops all day and whine (Friends).

But it doesn’t stop there. Granted most of the above scenarios are pretty far-fetched, but Hollywood tells little white lies, too. Here’s a list of more reasonable stuff that also failed to occur:

Myth: Buses will stop when you wave at them, whether you are at a bus stop or not.
Reality: If you try flagging down a bus anywhere except at a bus stop, you will get an extremely filthy look from the driver. If you are really lucky, they won’t try and run you over as they fly past.

Myth: You can take as long as you like saying goodbye to someone at the Greyhound station. The bus will happily wait.
Reality: Greyhound bus drivers are, in our experience, people with dominant personalities and a schedule to keep. Those buses will leave on time, whether or not you happen to be on ‘em.

Myth: NYC taxi drivers honk their horns all the time and rant at you for the duration of your journey.
Reality: Our drivers were very reserved and hardly spoke at all. Also there was very little horn-honking. In our entire time there we only saw one altercation, and that was between a taxi driver and a bloke in a sports car. (They stopped in the middle of the road for a good old slanging match!)

Myth: New Yorkers are neurotic and unfriendly (and this from a Cambridge University study!)
Reality: The people in New York were as polite and friendly as people we have encountered in other parts of America. Before I arrived, I actually believed that walking down the street in NYC was going to be a major chore. I anticipated being crushed in crowds of rushed people and yelled at by irate drivers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the streets do get crowded, but nobody was rude or jostled us, and drivers were considerate and patient. Sorry, Cambridge braniacs, but our experiences just don’t correlate to your findings!

Alright, enough silliness. I suppose I really ought to tell you what we did instead of just banging on about the telly. We:

Rode the Staten Island ferry

Due to the extortionate price of hotel rooms on the mainland, we chose to stay on Staten Island. We got to take the ferry a lot, which meant that we got to see the Statue of Liberty a lot, too. Actually, the ferry is a fabulous service. It runs 24 hours a day and is free! Our hotel also provided a complimentary shuttle service to and from the ferry terminal, so although it required one car, one boat and a subway ride to get into central Manhattan, it only took about an hour.

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Lady Liberty - A gift to the United States from France to represent the friendship between the two countries. I guess nothing lasts forever, though, eh? Anti-French sentiment here has meant that in some places 'French Fries' have been renamed 'Freedom Fries'! I say they're both wrong; everybody knows they're called 'chips' :-)

Walked through famous streets

A large part of our time in NYC was spent just walking and enjoying the fact that we were finally there. Must-sees included Times Square (including an obligatory beer at the Hard Rock Café), Rockefeller Plaza and 42nd Street.

Strolled through Central Park

To be honest we didn’t see the entire park ‘cos it was much bigger than we expected it to be. Well, that and the fact that the main reason I wanted to go there in the first place was for a horse and carriage ride.

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The horse's name was Ernie.

Saw Grand Central Station

And had prohibitively expensive drinks at one of the bars there.

Visited the Guggenheim

They had a Kandinsky exhibition on, which was interesting if a little bizarre, but actually we thought the museum building itself was worth seeing. It’s got a spiral viewing gallery, and a central skylight – one of the more unusual galleries we’ve visited, for sure!

Went to the observation deck of the Empire State Building

Our timing was perfect that day. We had anticipated huge lines of people and ridiculous waiting times, but we went straight in and were on the observation deck in no time at all. The place was obviously set up for hundreds of visitors ‘cos they had those huge thick velvet ropes everywhere to direct the queues, but apparently going during the off-season has its advantages!

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The view from the 87th floor of the Empire State Building.

I really wish that we had spent more time in New York as there was so much more to see, but it is very expensive and we didn’t want to give the budget more of a battering than necessary. We both agree that if we get the chance to go there again we will definitely take it – although next time we might just say “Hang the expense” and pay for a room in the city so we can take advantage of the night life without worrying about getting home again.

In conclusion:

Fabulous city, fabulous people (and fab delicatessens, too, though I promised not to talk about food in this entry, didn’t I? Ah well, you’ll just have to take my word for it!)

More soon

From

Julie and Pete

Posted by Julie1972 15:19 Archived in USA Comments (1)

More than just cream cheese

Discovering what’s what in Philadelphia

Shortly before leaving Washington D.C., Pete and I went to a Chinese restaurant where I received this message in my fortune cookie:

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I wish it had told me exactly how many steps it was going to take in order to reach our hotel in Philadelphia! The day started off well enough: we had a pleasant 3.5 hour Greyhound bus ride into Philly city centre, and, based on previous experiences, reckoned that the rest of the journey would be equally easy. We’d booked a hotel on the outskirts of the city, so had to catch a train. Ordering the tickets was fun, ‘cos whoever named the place took a bit of a liberty with the spelling. We wanted to go Olney station, so that’s what we asked for, pronouncing it as it’s spelt: oll-knee. “Only what?” said the guy behind the counter. Turns out the place is pronounced oll-a-knee, though where they get that extra middle vowel sound from I have no idea.

So, we get to Oll-a-knee expecting to find a cab to take us (and our bloomin’ heavy backpacks, hereafter known as the BHB’s) directly to our hotel. Next problem: Olney is a tiny station seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There’s not a taxi in sight, so we sigh, shoulder the BHB’s, and head for the nearest main road. “You never know,” we told ourselves, “it might be within walking distance.” Hah. We want 4200 Roosevelt Boulevard; the first building we see on that street is numbered 100. That idea is quickly consigned to the scrapheap, and after a prolonged period of whinging, moaning, and cursing inaccurate maps, we improvise a plan B.

Plan B turns out to be walking to the nearest Dunkin Donuts and falling on the mercy of the bored looking dude behind the counter. Happily he is the helpful type, and he points us in the direction of the nearest bus stop, thus preventing me initiating Plan C: buying up as many donuts as I can afford and eating myself into a self-pitying coma.

The bus arrives shortly afterwards, and we struggle to get ourselves and the BHBs on board. The bus driver informs us that he doesn’t stop near our hotel; we’ll need to walk two blocks at the other end. Two blocks is better than the 40-odd blocks we were previously facing, so we buy the tickets anyway.

The bus is crowded; we are blocking the aisle and the front doorway, Pete, the BHB’s and I. We are also obviously hot, sticky, tired, annoyed and foreign. Then the bus driver does something totally unexpected and entirely welcome. “I’m the bus driver, right?” he asks us with a grin. “I can stop anywhere I want!” And so he did. He pulled up at the side of the road, immediately opposite our hotel, saving us a hot and uncomfortable hike with the BHB's. We will both be eternally grateful for this man's consideration, and reckon some heavy-duty karma is flying his way. Thank you, whoever you are!

Note:

For those of you who are intending to visit Philly yourselves and are looking for accommodation, I do not recommend the Days Inn on Roosevelt Boulevard. Yes, it’s cheaper than other hotels, but the transportation is lousy (requiring one bus and one train to get to the city centre), and it is in a very seedy area. The staff were not as helpful or professional as I had come to expect from American hotels, either. In conclusion: Do yourselves a favour and find somewhere else!

That being said, there was one thing our hotel was convenient for: restaurants. There must have been half a dozen within easy walking distance, which was both good and bad news: good, ‘cos it meant we didn’t have to worry about planning meals way in advance; and bad, ‘cos there were half a dozen restaurants within a couple of minutes walking distance, and I wanted to try ‘em all! To be honest, I’d compiled a list of chains I wanted to try before we’d even started this trip. Sure we get McD’s, BK, KFC, Denny’s and Wendy’s in New Zealand, but there are a whole bunch more I’d never seen: Taco Bell, Olive Garden, Chilli’s, Red Lobster, Applebee’s... the list goes on! Bizarrely, much of my knowledge of American Junk Food Emporiums comes from reading diet blogs. Many moons ago, back in the UK, Pete and I both had some excess weight to shed, and I started reading other people’s stories for inspiration (and consolation). It’s funny how weight loss blogs seem to talk as much about bad food as good.

As you might have gathered, Pete and I love to eat, so the USA is proving a bit of challenge restraint-wise, as it would be so, so easy to go overboard. Food is cheap, plentiful and comes in huge servings, so weight gain was one of the things I was worried about before we arrived (*). I know there are lots of yummy things here that I simply have to try: New York cheesecake, Key Lime pie and chilli dogs, to name but a few. (I also have a hankering for grits, even though I have no idea what they are!) Worst of all, though: biscuits. Not cookie-type biscuits, but the lovely, buttery, savoury version. My obsession with these things is all Pete’s sister’s fault. She had access to a military BX in the UK, so she fed us all sorts of good American things when we went to visit. Unfortunately she neglected to tell me that biscuits are more addictive than crack! And what do I see when we first land? A sign outside Dunkin Donuts advertising sausage & biscuits for 99 cents. I might as well throw my old jeans away now, eh?

(*) I should actually be worrying about my cholesterol levels, I suppose, but cholesterol doesn’t make my bum look big – not directly, at any rate – so I am actually more concerned about whether my clothes still fit than what my LDL’s are doing. Priorities, eh?

So, along the way, we’ve developed a few survival tactics to ensure the damage is kept to a minimum:

1 – We sort out our own breakfast instead of relying on the pastry-laden buffets that hotels usually provide. Fruit, juice, yogurt and cereal bars are our staples, and mean that we get at least a couple of our 5-a-day fruit and veggie servings first thing!

2 – If restaurants are inevitable, we look for the healthy options on menus whenever possible. Most Palaces of Cholesterol-Laden Delights have a few non-fried items, we’ve found.

3 – If the hotel has a microwave, we raid the supermarket freezer section and ‘cook’ for ourselves. True, frozen meals aren’t great, but at least they have nutritional information on the packaging, so you can try to make better choices. If we don’t have a microwave we hit the deli counter and salad bar. (We eat at restaurants so often now that supermarket meals actually feel like a treat!)

It seems to be working for us so far, though it might be a while before I’ll have the nerve to get my cholesterol levels tested once we get back to New Zealand!

Have I really just blethered on about junk food for the last ten paragraphs? And you’re still reading? Wow, I’m impressed!

And, just so we’re clear, Pete and I didn’t actually spend our entire time in Philadelphia eating; we did find stuff to do as well. Actually, we received an email from Pete’s sister (the one who started my biscuit addiction) not long after we arrived. She asked:

“Is there any reason in particular that you went to Philly??? Just wondering, Mum and I were discussing it the other day and were trying to figure out what was there.”

It’s a fair enough question, as Philly isn‘t exactly a major tourist destination. To be honest, I chose it for two reasons:

1) It was a reasonable stopping point halfway between Washington D.C. and New York.
2) The Mütter Museum is there.

For those of you who have never heard of it, the Mütter Museum houses a weird and wonderful collection of medical curiosities, anatomical specimens (both real and wax models), and antique medical equipment - some of which looks like it belongs in a torture chamber! I saw it advertised on a website of strange places to visit when I was doing research for this trip, and I was thrilled that we actually got to go there.

I must say though, this place ain’t for the squeamish (this from the girl who watches the surgical scenes on Grey’s Anatomy from behind a cushion!) as some of the exhibits can be a bit hard to stomach. For example:

- The Eye Wall of Shame is a collection of wax models showing horrible maladies and injuries, including a toothpick sticking out of a retina!

- Many severed body parts sitting in jars of formaldehyde, including a collection of spectacularly nasty tumours.

- A skull of a woman with a horn growing out of her head.

- The brain of a serial killer.

- And, most disturbing of all, the corpse of a woman known as the Soap Lady, whose body tissue turned into a soap-like substance due to the properties of the soil she was buried in. (We were particularly concerned by the fact that her mouth is open. Did she die screaming?)

Most of you will be pleased to hear that I couldn’t take photos, but the gore-lovers amongst you may be interested in viewing these pictures from someone who managed to get a peek behind the scenes. WARNING: SOME OF THE IMAGES ON THIS WEBSITE ARE VERY DISTURBING! If you want something that’s easier on the eye, go here instead.

Yes, the museum was gruesome and creepy, but it was also different. If you’re interested in medical history or want to scare yourself silly with the thought of the hundreds of ways in which the human body can go wrong, this is the place to be.

Another unusual item we found in Philly was the Liberty Bell, a famous symbol of the American Revolutionary War. It was made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s original Constitution, and later became an icon of the anti-slave movement.

liberty-bell.jpg
Ding dong! Notice the huge crack? Read on to find out the story behind it.

The bell was made in Britain, at the Whitechapel Foundry in 1752, on the orders of Isaac Norris, Assembly Speaker and the Chairman of the State House Superintendents. His instructions read:

"Let the Bell be cast by the best Workmen and examined carefully before it is shipped with the following words well shaped in large letters round the vizt, 'By order of the Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania for the State House in the city of Philada. 1752' - and underneath - 'Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the inhabitants thereof, Levit. XXV/10.'"

The bell arrived, and on September 1st 1752, Norris sent a letter confirming that:

"The Bell is come ashore & in good order."

So far, so good. However, his next letter to his agent read:

“I gave Information that our Bell was generally like & appvd of but in a few days after my writing I had the Mortification to hear that it was cracked by a stroke of the clapper without any other violence as it was hung up to try the sound.”

The blooming thing cracked on the very first stroke! So much for best Workmen, eh? What an embarrassment:

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...........((.....*~_.......”=-._......“;,,./`..../”............../
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*face palm* When only ASCII art will do.

So, that’s quite enough from me for today. Hopefully my next post will be a little more... I was going to say ‘normal’, but I dunno if I can manage that. Okay, I solemnly swear that my next post will be less gore- and food-filled. That’s one promise I can stick to!

Bye.

Posted by Julie1972 07:39 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Hey! Hey! USA!

Having a whale of a time in Washington D.C.

Having spent a month lazing around in Seville, we decided that it was time to start doing some serious travelling again. After much discussion and perusing of our (increasingly battered) world map, we decided on America, partly because it’s a country that is high on both our lists, and partly because we wanted to see it before winter sets in!

The flight from London was fabulous, the first long-haul flight I have actually enjoyed. We flew with United Airways and were extremely impressed. The crew were professional, courteous and helpful, our section of the plane was mercifully quiet, and the food was good. We will definitely fly with them again.

So, eight and a half hours later we landed in Washington D.C. This is my first visit to the U.S., and although Pete has been a couple of times before to visit family, he hasn’t really done much in the way of touristy stuff here. We wanted a relatively gentle introduction to the east coast, and figured that D.C. would be an easy city in which to get our bearings. It was a good choice! We loved it immediately, and soon decided to extend our one week stay to two.

The first thing that really struck me here was how strange it was to see places in real life that I’d seen forever on TV:

Pete_in_DC.jpg abe_lincoln.jpg
a) Pete, with the Washington Monument way in the background. Most people recognise it as the monument which was built in honour of George Washington, the country's first president; me, I remember it from the movie Mars Attacks, where the aliens play spaceship ping-pong with it before finally knocking it over!
b) The Lincoln Memorial. Abraham Lincoln was America's 16th president, and the first to be assassinated. He reportedly had a premonition of his own death, and some people claim to have seen his ghost in the White House.

capitol.jpg julie_white_hse.jpg
c) The Capitol. The dome is cast iron and weighs 8,909,200 pounds. (I have it on good authority that the only thing holding it up is all the hot air from Congress!)
d) Me, as close to the White House as I was gonna get (and desperately in need of a hair cut!) We wanted to do a tour, but apparently you need to book well in advance. Oh well... shoulda done my homework, eh?

There are, of course, cultural differences, and even though we all speak English, it soon became clear that we are not necessarily talking the same language all of the time! Accents have been a problem for me, especially in situations where I am unable to see the speaker’s face. I never did overcome this problem, so station announcements on the Metro remained an incomprehensible babble. Happily this was not a problem because a) Pete understood what was being said 99% of the time, and b) each of the Metro trains had maps, and the stations themselves were clearly signed.

Further lingo lessons learned include:
- Do not ask for a ‘jam donut’ in bakeries ‘cos you will confuse the server. They’re jelly donuts here!
- Asking to have your ‘fringe’ cut may lead your hairdresser to have convulsions through laughing so hard. “They’re bangs”, she told me, between bouts of hysteria. (Has anybody written a UK English - American English dictionary? That would be most useful!)

On the whole, though, our British dialect received a positive response. We got chatting to a guy on the Metro, who said, “I love your accent. It’s cool.” After a short pause he continued: “You guys say ‘telly’, right?” He found this very amusing. Shame I didn’t get the chance to tell him about goggle boxes, boob tubes and idiot boxes. (Who knew that synonyms for the word ‘television’ could be so entertaining?)

People are also a lot more obvious about their political affiliations here. There are souvenir stalls where you can buy pro-Obama t-shirts, like these... or, the other side of the coin: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McCain and Palin”. There are political souvenir shops all over the place, and you can pose to have your picture taken with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the Prez. I didn't think this sort of thing would ever catch on in the UK, but apparently I was wrong!

As to be expected in a big city like D.C., there is a lot to see and do. Highlights we particularly enjoyed included:

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums, 9 research centres and a national zoo - and they are all free to visit! We saw the Air and Space Museum, The American Indian Museum, and briefly popped into the Natural History Museum because I wanted to see the Hope diamond. (It's supposed to be cursed!)

hope_diamond.jpg
The Hope Diamond weighs 45 carats, and is said to bring death or madness to its owners. The Smithsonian refute this claim, however, 'cos nothing weird has happened since they've been in possession of it. Yet.

Ducks

DUCWs (or ‘ducks’) are old military vehicles which are capable of travelling on land or through water.

DUCW.jpg
Although they are called 'ducks', they are really 'DUKWs'. The name comes from the model naming terminology used by General Motors: D indicates a vehicle designed in 1942; U means 'utility'; K is for all-wheel drive; and W indicates two powered rear axles. I think 'duck' is nicer!

I was most disappointed to find out that they couldn’t fly, but I wanted to go on one anyway. I think this was the perfect city tour for us. It lasted an hour and a half, took in all the major sights, and included a paddle along the Potomac River. Our captain was a friendly and enthusiastic guide, and interspersed his facts and figures with some really appalling duck jokes, like this one:

A duck walks into a drugstore and says, "Give me some Chapstick."
"How are you going to pay for that?" asks the clerk.
"Oh," the duck replied. "Just put it on my bill."

julie_on_duck.jpg pete_on_duck.jpg
Listening to all those duck jokes drove us quackers! (BTW, you might notice I finally got that hair cut.)

Mount Vernon

This is George Washington’s estate in Virginia, which has been kept in its original condition and opened to tourists. It was a lovely way to spend a few hours, wandering through the house and gardens.

mount_vernon_house.jpg
The estate used to be known as Hunting Creek Plantation. During George Washington's occupancy, it grew from 2,000 acres to over 8,000.

Johnny Rockets

Silly, I know, but I got to eat a hotdog at one of those 50’s themed restaurants where they play Buddy Holly records and the servers all wear old-fashioned uniforms. I loved it, even though it was tacky in a ‘Happy Days’ kind of way.

So, America is off to a great start for us. I can really see this being the highlight of our trip!

More very soon,

J&P

Posted by Julie1972 21:01 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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