A Travellerspoint blog

USA

America Redux

Long overdue ramblings from the west coast

After a fun three weeks in Costa Rica, we had a decision to make: Did we want to go and explore South America, or go back to the USA and tour the west coast? It was a tough decision. We’d discussed the possibility of visiting Peru and Chile, and we’d heard very good things about Ecuador, but in the end the decision was made for us: Chile had just had a huge earthquake, and the British and New Zealand government international advisory services kept sendings us alerts saying, “Don’t go to South America – it’s dangerous!” We then discussed briefly popping to Ecuador (one of the few ‘safe’ places in that region), just so we could say we’d seen that part of the world, but the ridiculously expensive airfares put us off. Instead we opted for plan b) and did all the typical touristy stuff in California. You know: we walked the Golden Gate Bridge; “oohed” and “ahhed” at giant redwood trees; stared at downtown L.A. from the back of a traffic jam...

Getting there was fun – not. We had two days of 3am starts, with two flights per day, and it wasn’t long before the boredom set in. You can tell when Pete is getting antsy ‘cos he starts acting like a hyperactive five year old. If you happen to be on an American Airlines flight, flicking through the free magazine that they provide, and come across an advert for a plastic surgeon that has been ‘enhanced’ by the addition of spectacles, devil horns, fangs, a goatee beard and bunny ears... Pete woz there before ya!

Although it had only been a few months since we were last in America, there were a whole lot of things I’d forgotten. These included:

- Borders book shops, much to my delight. We’d got so used to looking for second-hand paperbacks in Mexico and Costa Rica that the existence of brand-spanking-new books was a pleasant surprise!
- How many different burger joints there are, and the amazing fact that they all stay in business.
- Over-the-top food serving sizes.
- Fabulous customer service and all-round politeness.
- The fact that pedestrians have rights and drivers will actually stop at pedestrian crossings. (Look and learn, Mexico!)
- And biscuits. How could I forget about biscuits? (When I have my inevitable heart attack, tell my cardiologist it was worth it.)

I don’t wanna blether on about food (again), but I’ve got a new version of the mystery menu game going. Across the road from our hotel was a restaurant called Mel’s Drive-in, as seen in the film American Graffitti. The film wasn't up to much (in my not-so-humble opinion), but the food was awesome. The only problem was, none of the waitstaff could understand a single word I said. “Tuna salad sandwich, please,” I’d say; “One turkey Cobb salad coming right up!” they’d reply. In the end I had to resort to the point-and-click approach I use when I don’t know the local lingo: speak slowly and loudly whilst jabbing a finger at the appropriate item on the menu. It was most embarrassing.

Still, it’s not the first time I’ve had problems with my accent. A woman on a tour bus in Costa Rica discovered we were British but living in New Zealand. “Oh,” she said. “I thought you sounded Australian!” (Note: my accent is still 100% no-quibble English. The nearest I’ve got to sounding even vaguely Antipodean is referring to a barbeque as a ‘barbie’.)

Anyhoo, because America is so horribly expensive, we decided to limit our time there to just three weeks. We know we could have spent another three months there quite happily, but our bank balance refused to cooperate. (It will insist on going in a downwards direction. Most unsporting of it, I say!) The trick, then, was to choose a few highlights. We agreed that the must-sees included San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon; anything else was a bonus.

We started off in San Francisco, partly so Pete could attend a Flash Games Developers’ Conference that was being held there, partly so that he could catch up with an old friend who he hadn’t seen in umpteen years, and partly because I was itching to walk the Golden Gate Bridge.

We did a lot of walking in S.F., by the way, and we had the calf cramps to prove it. See, San Francisco is rather hilly. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this before I got there; I’d lived in hilly areas before and quite enjoyed the exercise I got marching up and down ‘em. Edinburgh had hills; so did Auckland. What nobody told me, however, is that San Francisco has HILLS. We stupidly decided it would be fun to walk down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America:

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Lombard Street: gotta love those hairpin turns!

Unfortunately in order to reach the top of Lombard, we had to approach it from the other side:

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If we’d known it was gonna be this steep, we’d have taken a cab.

It took three days for my leg muscles to recover. I wouldn’t mind, but I was feeling quite fit at the time, having had three energetic weeks in Costa Rica. Now I understand why the locals use the cable cars – it’s much easier!

Anyway, the Golden Gate Bridge was advertised as being one of the attractions near our hotel, so we asked the receptionist if it was within walking distance. “Sure,” he said. “It’ll take twenty to twenty-five minutes.” This sounded good, so off we went.

Twenty-five minutes later, we could see the bridge... but it was still a long way off. We’d forgotten about estimates in America: people rarely walk anywhere, so their times are usually out by a factor of two. It took us a total of 3½ hours to do the whole trip (something else for our muscles to moan about!)

It was worth it, though. Apparently we got lucky with the weather; the usual S.F. fog had taken a hiatus, and we had gorgeous sunshine for the duration of our stay.

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The GGB was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it first opened in 1937, with a total length of 1.71 miles / 2,737 metres. It no longer holds that particular world record, but it is still the second longest suspension bridge in the United States.

The other pretty cool thing we got to do in S.F. was take a trip in a 1950s fire engine. I first saw this advertised on the Internet, immediately regressed to a mental age of four and started clamouring for a ride. It’s not like I wanted to be a fire(wo)man or anything when I was a kid – I hate heights, so would only be able to rescue people from caravans and bungalows – but I’ve always fancied the idea of riding in one of the engines (and, if I’m honest, getting to make an unholy racket with the bell).

Our hosts during this time was a husband-and-wife team called Bob and Marilyn (or, if you wanna get technical about it, Captain Bob and Co-captain Marilyn). Bob was the driver; Marilyn provided the commentary, songs, jokes and tap-dances – she really was quite a character!

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Us and the big, red, shiny Mack fire engine. I never did get to ring the bell, by the way; they only let little kids do that. Darn!

After a week in S.F. we decided another roadtrip was in order. Our first port of call was Fresno, ‘cos I was in tree-hugging mode again and wanted to see some sequoias. (“So they grow tall,” said Pete, true to form. “They’re sequoias; that’s what they do.”)

And this is the point where I wish I’d done my homework more thoroughly. I did look at the Sequoia National Park website prior to our trip, but I somehow managed to miss the bit about the place being 7000 ft up a mountain... complete with three feet of snow! (24 hours later I was also wishing I’d held onto that coat I bought in Boston last year. Sadly that got ditched in Florida, when I swore up and down that I was never going anywhere cold ever again.)

Digressionary note: I am currently typing this on a plane. The flight has been perfectly smooth so far, so why is it the second I get my laptop out we hit freaking turbulence? Sort it out, Mr. Pilot. I only have an hour left on my battery.

The national park was amazing, though. I knew sequoias were big, but the scale of the things is impossible to comprehend until you’re standing next to one:

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Little me by a great big tree.

Once I’d satisfied my tree-hugging fetish it was time to move on again. More decisions: L.A. or not L.A.? Would we be interested in the City of Angels? A quick Google soon made up our minds. Los Angeles seems to be primarily about Disney attractions and celebrities. We’d already spent time assiduously avoiding all things Mickey in Florida, and neither one of us gives two hoots what the rich and famous get up to, so we chose to bypass the whole thing and headed to San Diego instead.

It was a good choice. We spent a fabulous day at San Diego Zoo – reputedly one of the best in the world – and I was especially delighted to see this furry fella:

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Adorable sleepy panda. I want one!

Our trip to the west coast wouldn’t have been complete without dropping by Las Vegas, so off we headed to Nevada. Vegas is a strange place: tacky, touristy and not at all real. It felt like Toytown, except that everything is stupidly expensive and they won’t let you pay using Monopoly money.

That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy it, though. We had a great time, and I got to do all the things I’d always wanted to do out there. We walked the strip during the day, and cruised down it at night to see all the lights.

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When I say we 'walked the strip', what I really mean is we did a pub crawl through the casinos. This is Pete with a ridiculously expensive beer in the Bellagio, which he had to have ‘cos he was tired and beer is a good source of energy. That's what he told me, anyway...

We booked a suite in a 5* theme hotel, the Venetian, which has a canal and gondolas running through the middle of it:

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Not quite Venice, but we really enjoyed staying in our suite. One word of warning though: every item in the minibar is placed on a pressure pad. The second you remove something, that item is charged to your credit card. (Note they charge $9 for a box of Gummi Bears, so unless you've won a fortune in the casinos I'd recommend avoiding the minibar and buying your snacks elsewhere.)

And we saw two shows, stand-up comedian David Spade (very funny and cynical), and the Blue Man Group. We weren’t too sure about the BMG at first, and were concerned that we’d just spent a silly amount of money on tickets for a show that we wouldn’t enjoy much. It’s nice when you’re proved wrong, though, isn’t it? It was a fantastic mix of comedy, great music and jaw-dropping visual effects. (For those of you who don’t mind spoilers, you can see excerpts of their show here.)

The one thing we didn’t do much was gamble. My idea of what makes a good slot machine seems to have frozen in the 1970s. (Does anybody else remember calling them ‘one-armed bandits?’) I didn’t realise how much they’d changed. Gone are the nudge and hold buttons, and the moving mechanical arm; now all you can do is decide how many lines you want and how much money you wanna waste. It was really, really boring ‘cos there's no skill involved anymore. I mean, it’s not like we expected to win anything, but we at least hoped to have fun. Las Vegas casinos made a grand total of $9 from us, so I guess we’re not getting ‘comped’ any time soon!

Anyhoo...

For the final leg of this trip we went to the Grand Canyon to see what all the fuss was about:

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Me, next to one of the most jaw-dropping views I have ever seen.

Our snapshots can never do this place justice, though. For a selection of professional photos, click here.

One word of advice: most people head for the major viewpoints, take a couple of photos and get back in their cars to drive to the next one. We decided to walk the trail, which was much nicer. The scenic viewpoints are packed and noisy: people talking loudly, kids squabbling, everybody getting in the way of everybody else’s photos... it really was quite unpleasant. The Canyon is so huge and pretty, it just felt wrong that there was so much chaos and clamouring. The trail, however, was practically deserted. There were still many places to take pictures, and you could stand and take it all in in blissful silence.

And that was the end of a pretty exhausting three weeks.

Sadly it is now time for us to leave the Americas. We've enjoyed it here, though, and have spent approximately seven months touring the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica. We'll be heading back to Europe for a while now, and we still have Africa and India to explore.

My next entry will be from the Nile, so watch this space!

Posted by Julie1972 03:18 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Taking it easy in the Big Easy

New Orleans is open for business!

What a breath of fresh air New Orleans was after the sterility of Florida!

Actually, before I get into that I really ought to finish talking about our Floridian visit. We spent a week or so doing a mini road trip: Kissimee to Tampa, the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to Miami Beach (*), then a few days driving through the Florida Keys. This was the best part of the Florida by far! We had no idea how pretty it was down there, and we both loved Key West, which is pretty much an adults’ playground. We wish we had known this in advance so we could have spent some serious time there. As it was, we only went for a day trip ‘cos we had already made plans to drive to Louisiana.

(*) Pete wanted to do this in the convertible we hired, and even I had to admit it was a lot of fun. The road was pretty much empty, so we had the roof down and the rock music turned way up!

New Orleans got off to an interesting start. The day we arrived, Hurricane Ida was predicted to hit, and the following morning I nearly trod on a garter snake! Not dangerous, but I wasn’t to know that (**). This old couple stood by watching, and only told us the darn thing was there after the fact!

(**) It’s awful down in the southern states. The service stations on the highway are plastered with big posters saying: ‘Danger - Snakes of the South,’ which contain horribly realistic drawings of rattlers and other monstrosities.

Side note:

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time may remember that I have a thing about snakes (see my Kuala Lumpur entry). As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of snake in the world: type 1) comes under the category of ‘Arrrrrgh!’ and type 2)... no, scratch that; there is only one type of snake in the world, and ‘Arrrrrgh!’ covers it perfectly. I think the snakes have found out I don’t like ‘em, ‘cos guess what happened to me in Texas? I nearly trod on another one, this time at the Dallas Arboretum! It was the exact same type of slithery serpent, too, so now I am all paranoid. Are snakes capable of stalking people? Did the one from New Orleans jump on a plane and follow me around? I tell ya something, if I almost tread on another one, I’m going home to New Zealand! No snakes there, none at all... that’s just part of the country’s appeal.)

Happily we managed to survive both hurricanes and snakes, and were able to get on with our intended business in New Orleans, e.g. drinking Bourbon Street dry. Well, actually, that’s not quite true: we did find other stuff to entertain us, too.

Mardi Gras World

Amongst other things, New Orleans is famous for its Mardis Gras parade. Not being February, we missed out on that, but did the next best thing: we took a tour of a workshop where many of the Mardis Gras parade floats are made. The place is really unusual in that tourists are allowed to watch the artists at work, and you get to see the float-making process pretty much beginning to end.

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This guy is making a Charlie Brown sculpture for next year’s parade. They also make sculptures for theme parks like Disney World.

The floats are paid for by organisations called ‘krewes’. Some krewes are pretty exclusive and require sponsorship to join, along with thousands of dollars in membership fees; others are less picky, and will let anyone ride on their floats for a one-off fee.

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Some of the costumes worn by the krewes are pretty elaborate. We had a chance to play dress-up at the start of the tour. This is Pete wearing a mask that we think looks like American chat show host Jay Leno.

The finished parade floats are real works of art. The dragon was my favourite:

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Some of the floats are one-offs, and the components will be broken down and reused the following year; others appear in every parade and simply go back to the workshop for touch-ups and repairs.

It is traditional for people on the floats to throw beads and other knick-knacks to spectators in the crowd. One side-effect of this practice is this:

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Walking down the street in New Orleans can be surprising. Beads appear in trees, bushes, on telephone lines and on people’s balconies.

The tour was way better than expected - the guide even offered to let us wander around the workshop on our own at the end, in case there was something else we wanted to see. It was a great way to get a feel for Mardi Gras (without having to pay extortionate February hotel rates!)

Paddle steamer

I think I must have spent too much time reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was a kid, ‘cos for as long as I can remember I have always wanted to ride a paddle steamer down the Mississippi. Happily for me there are two fully functional steamers in N.O., and one evening we went aboard for a jazz dinner cruise.

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The boat is named the 'Natchez,' after the indiginous people of Mississippi.

The Natchez is famous for its 32-note calliope, and there are concerts a couple of times a day.

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The calliope player is popular with everyone except the poor souls who sell the tickets. The guy who served us rolled his eyes and grimaced throughout the performance, which we thought was funny at the time. I bet we’d change our minds if we had to listen to it every day, though. It really is loud!

The cruise is worth doing, we think: we enjoyed the jazz band, and really enjoyed the buffet (don’t we always?) One word of advice, though: if you are going for an evening cruise, make sure you dress warmly. It can get pretty chilly up on the deck, and once you’ve finished your meal and left the dining room, there aren’t many indoor places to hide.

And while I’m on the subject of food...

If I had to choose a place to live solely based on the cuisine they serve there, these would be my top three choices:

1) Greece – I am addicted to moussaka, stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, and their wonderful salads.
2) Turkey, or anywhere they serve falafel, kebabs and stuff like that.
3) New Orleans (and the only reason N.O. doesn’t get a higher rating is because I’m afraid that the cholesterol I’d ingest there would kill me!)

New Orleans has some of the best food in the USA! I love their Cajun cuisine, and we had some really amazing fish dishes. The one thing I’d really been hankering after, though, was grits. I had no idea what grits were, and even after I ordered ‘em I had no idea what I was eating. They look like this:

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The texture reminded me of couscous, and the taste was bland, like plain porridge. When I got home I Wiki’ed it and discovered it is made from ground corn. The locals often add salt, butter and cheese for extra flavour.

I also discovered New Orleans' local doughnut - the beignet (pronounced ben-yay) - much to the detriment of my waistline. These things are soooo good: deep-fried dough, sprinkled with a mountain of icing sugar. (The sugar gets everywhere, by the way. I wash brushing the stuff off my shirt for days!)

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Pete made me share these with him. No fair!

There is so much to see and do in New Orleans that we would need several weeks to explore it all. Other things we enjoyed were:

- Listening to jazz on Bourbon Street

- Riding the St. Charles streetcar

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Don't make the mistake of calling this a trolley or a tram. It's a streetcar - the locals are very definite about that!

- Simply walking around the French Quarter and taking in all the wonderful architecture... and a few unusual shops.

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Marie Laveau was a famous Voodoo practioner. You can learn about her and Voodoo on various walking tours.

- Exploring the Cities of the Dead - New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries.

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Space is at a premium, and some residents may end up being interred in one of these economical wall vaults.

Despite the devastation of Hurrican Katrina, New Orleans has recovered well and is welcoming tourists. It is definitely one of the places on my 'I Will Return' list.

Merry Christmas to you all! I hope to get my Mexico entry published before New Year.

From

Julie & Pete

Posted by Julie1972 08:44 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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)

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