juliamhammond

North America

Thoughts on Hudson Yards, New York

The juxtaposition of the traditional brick apartment buildings of W 28th Street with the futuristic glass and steel structures of Hudson Yards behind is a quintessentially New York kind of view. In the soft light of a clear winter morning, Edge and its neighbours looked almost ethereal. Close up, approached from the last stretch of the High Line, they were an imposing sight. Last time I’d been in the area, this was a building site. Today, this privately funded complex is making its bid to become the latest go-to neighbourhood in the city.

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Edge won’t open until mid-March 2020; when it does, it will become the highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere. I had been offered a preview visit by the representing PR but it fell through half an hour before I was due to go up, thanks to unexpected construction work. I had to content myself with a view of the outside from below and the video projected inside the mall. Will it find its place in the already saturated market for high rise observation decks in Manhattan? Time will tell.

In the meantime, in front of it stands Vessel, which opened in 2019. The structure was dreamed up by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who had a hand in the new Routemaster and the failed Garden Bridge amongst other things. Entry is free, so long as you are happy to be pinned down to a specific date and time. You can get turn up and go up tickets on the day if they’re available, or reserve them up to two weeks in advance. That’s just as well, for a staircase (well, 154 staircases to be precise) is pretty much all it is.

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Clad in a coppery metal (it’s actually Italian steel) which is intended to be weather-resistant, the structure cost an eye-watering $150 million to construct – an extra $50 million more if you factor in the land in was standing on. In the right spot, it might have been worth paying for, but surrounded by high rises, the only real view you get is of the shopping centre and the train yard beside the Hudson River.

If you’re unable to climb steps, it’s even more of a disappointment: the elevator runs only every 15 minutes (“to make sure it doesn’t break down”) and accesses just one of the 80 landings. If stairs are a problem, the sole view you’ll have is that facing The Shed, an event space that looks like it’s been clad in a curious kind of giant bubble wrap. As the surrounding platforms require visitors to tackle multiple steps, they’re out of reach. According to the media, this is being addressed, though there was no sign of any remedial work during my visit.

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Critics have not been kind, dubbing it the “Staircase to Nowhere”. While the architects refer to it as honeycomb, others have taken their foodie inspiration instead from the humble kebab. Still more liken it to a waste paper basket. The name Vessel is temporary. The architects have solicited suggestions from the general public and been inundated with the likes of Staircase McStaircaseface, Meat Tornado, The Rat’s Nest and the Chalice of the Privileged, so it’s likely to call itself Vessel for the foreseeable future.

Even the aim of making this a place where people congregate seems a little fanciful given its less-than-central location.There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere much that’s under cover, especially at ground level. For a plaza that’s supposedly designed to function as a meeting point, that seems a curious oversight on the part of the developers.

Hudson Yards’ position right up against the Hudson River also makes it an unlikely spot for acting as a meeting point. Though the 7 train is only a short hop from Times Square, if you plan to walk it’s a not especially scenic cross-town stroll. If you planned to meet undercover in the shopping centre instead, that won’t help much: there’s almost no seating there either, save for a few chairs and tables assigned to the cafes inside.

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I couldn’t help thinking how starkly that contrasted with the High Line, where hardwood benches and recliners were factored into the design. But then the High Line began as a community project and from its inception, those planning its regeneration worked hard at making it a place that had a soul. Even on the most miserable of winter days, when the plants are a dessicated brown and the wind bites at your cheeks, you’re surrounded by the stories of the past. 

So, like many who have reviewed the space, I’m afraid I too was underwhelmed with Hudson Yards. It didn’t help that my pre-booked slot for Vessel was for a day when grey skies bled first drizzle and then steady rain. The weather matched my glum mood. I expect I’ll return, to visit Edge, when I’m next in the city, but I can’t see a reason why I’d hang around at Hudson Yards beyond that. Instead, excuse me while I potter off along the High Line and find myself a bench.


Domino Park – New York’s next High Line?

It was once a neglected and semi-derelict disused railway blighting the landscape of block after block that stretched from the Meatpackers District to Chelsea. Rudy Guiliani had signed an order for its demolition, but a determined local community fought to turn that elevated railway into the High Line Park, now one of New York City’s most popular public spaces. Since opening in 2009, visitors and locals alike have flocked to this verdant park. In summer, it’s a victim of its own success, with crowds of people walking through an architecturally rich landscape. In winter, you can still find space to yourself, for now at least.

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But if like me, you find yourself in the city when the temperature’s hot, you’ll be pleased to learn that the team behind the High Line opened a new space this June which looks set to rival its elder brother. That space is called Domino Park, and you’ll find it across the East River in Brooklyn.

Domino Park extends along five blocks of the Williamsburg waterfront. The hulking silhouette of the Williamsburg Bridge looms over its southern edge. Across the East River, Manhattan’s skyscrapers flank the residential towerblocks of the Lower East Side.

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Watching from the back is what’s left of the Domino Sugar Refinery. The brick factory that stands today was constructed in 1882 to replace an earlier building destroyed by fire.

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In the latter years of the 19th century, sugar cane was shipped in from across the globe. The American Sugar Refinery Company was so successful, it was one of the original companies to comprise the Dow Jones index. Other factories followed suit and Brooklyn at that time handled over half of America’s sugar as a result. Prior to using sugar, food had been sweetened with honey or molasses. Refining sugar from cane or beet was difficult and time consuming, but companies like American Sugar Refinery brought it to the masses, A century later, though, demand for cane sugar had fallen dramatically in the face of competition from high-fructose corn syrup and sweeteners.

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It was almost inevitable that the Domino factory would close, just as so many of Brooklyn’s other industrial buildings have. But many of the industrial artefacts, such as the four syrup towers and crane tracks from the original factory, have been repurposed as props in this cleverly designed park.

An elevated walkway maximises the views across to the Empire State Building and down over the park itself. There are fountains, hardwood loungers and bench seating. The wood has been upcycled, taken from the factory which itself will be redeveloped. Planting is yet to become established, but as with the High Line a decade ago, a vibrant show of yellow and green grasses and other structural planting forms the bones of what will become.

This is a park which has its eye firmly on the local population. The playground was popular while I was visiting, as were the fountains. It would seem this is the place to bring your toddlers – or send your nanny. Even the playground’s a nod to the past, designed to resemble the process of sugar refining.

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A lot of thought has gone into this park, and as the rest of the project launches, this is set to become one of Willamsburg’s most popular spaces for visitors as well as locals. It’s just a fifteen minute stroll from trendy Bedford Avenue, itself only a short subway ride from Manhattan’s Union Square. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the High Line’s crowds without skimping on its achingly-cool design, this could well be it.

https://www.dominopark.com/


East vs west: routes to New Zealand compared

I’m just back from my latest trip to New Zealand and this time took a different route, flying west from London to Los Angeles and then on to Auckland instead of the easterly route I followed before which took me via Singapore. Both flights were on a Boeing 777 but how do the routes compare and which do I recommend?

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West: via Los Angeles

I was tempted by an excellent Black Friday deal offered by Air New Zealand. By signing up to email alerts with Secret Flying (you might remember their tip off saw me travel business class from London to New York for under £350), I learned of a special offer. Fifty flights were on offer for just £399, which is exceptional value for a trip that takes 26 hours in the air westbound and 24 coming back. I went online and uploaded my details to the Air New Zealand site in preparation for the offer to go live, saving valuable minutes and ensuring I was one of the lucky recipients.

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In practice, one of the downsides to travelling in this direction is of course having to go through the US immigration process. An ESTA is required for UK passport holders even if they are only in transit; this costs about £10 but is valid for up to 2 years. I’ve just renewed mine and incidentally, it’s a more detailed form than before. On the outbound leg, passengers transiting on NZ1 were fast-tracked to some empty kiosks and desks which saved a fair bit of time on the regular queues. This wasn’t the case on the inbound leg, NZ2, when we were all directed to the main queue, adding about fifteen minutes to the process.

Though it isn’t necessary to fill out a customs form or clear customs, there’s still the requirement to queue through security. This took about fifteen minutes on both legs. NZ1 and NZ2 use the same plane for both legs, with suitcases remaining in the hold. Passengers must alight and take all hand luggage with them while the plane is cleaned and restocked. Some passengers only fly one of the legs. I found that the London to LA (and vice versa) part of the flight was considerably less full than the LA to Auckland segment.

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I had hoped to be seated in a Skycouch row. Air New Zealand’s trio seats on either side of the plane are fitted with pull out, sturdy padded footrests which can be converted into a couch. You have to pay extra for this and not all reports are good, with some travellers saying it’s hard for a couple to get comfortable enough to sleep. For a comprehensive review of Skycouch, why not take a look at this excellent review from etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/air-nz-skycouch-flying-cuddle-class-to-san-francisco/

As a solo traveller, to be able to guarantee the use of one of these would have signifcantly increased my fare. On the inbound LA to London leg, the Skycouch adjacent to my centre section aisle seat was vacant. Cabin crew did not permit me to use it, however. Instead they moved a mother and baby there which is fair enough as they were more in need of the space than me. However, this kindness resulted in the family being split on opposite sides of the aircraft. Throughout the flight they came and went, knocking my seat and making sleep difficult for me. The baby slept soundly like, well, a baby.

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The outbound leg was quicker than scheduled, taking 10 hours 30 minutes from London to LA, followed by a layover of 2 hours 5 minutes and then an onward flight of around 12 hours 30 minutes. Auckland Airport was very busy when we touched down around 5.15am and I wasn’t on the bus out of the airport until well after 7am. However, I was fortunate that my hotel room was available and after showering, enjoyed a pleasant day’s sightseeing without the need for a nap. Julia 1 Jetlag 0. Now I’m home, I can report to have been very tired for a few days but not very jetlagged as I was going to bed and waking at normal times.

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Verdict

Though transiting the USA wasn’t an issue and there was no danger of missing the second leg of the journey as it used the same aircraft, the short layover wasn’t enough to stretch my legs properly, take a shower or have a sleep in a proper bed. The food and entertainment were both above average, yet over such a long time in the air I found the time dragged, particularly on the second half of the journey. Also, so many seats required additional payment (for extra legroom, priority boarding or of course the Skycouch option) it meant that the availablity of my preferred aisle seat was very limited. I checked in online immediately the systems opened but even so, only three aisle seats were showing as available and no window seats.

East: via Singapore

I’d call this the classic route for Brits travelling to Australia or New Zealand. Asian stopovers are a popular choice, and especially Singapore as Changi Airport has such a stellar reputation. I used Singapore Airlines in 2013 and wasn’t disappointed.

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Outbound, I opted for an 8.30pm departure with Singapore Airlines, an overnight flight which reached Singapore at 4.30pm the following day. As my second leg flight didn’t depart until after 9pm, there was plenty of time to enjoy an unhurried dinner, a shower in the airport hotel and a stroll around the airport’s orchid garden. I could have visited Changi’s cinema to catch a movie, but figured there’d be plenty of opportunity for that on the flight itself.

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The inbound flight departed Auckland at 12 noon, arriving in the Asian hub at about 7pm. I chose to extend the layover to facilitate a night in a nearby hotel. My second leg thrrefore left Singapore at 9am the following day, reaching London by about 3.30pm that afternoon. This didn’t come at any extra cost, and the chance to stretch out in a full length bed with decent bed linen was very much appreciated. I came back to the airport the following morning considerably more refreshed than I did arriving from LAX.

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On both legs, I was easily able to secure my preferred aisle seat and would have been able to get a window seat if I’d have wished. Meals were good and the inflight entertainment system as good as you’d expect from an airline which regularly secures high approval ratings from travellers.

Where this option falls short, however, is the increased risk of jet lag affecting the first few days of your holiday. Some people swear by a stopover to give them time to adjust. Personally I think that just means you need to put your body clock through two changes in just a few days which isn’t ideal. However, it’s a good way of seeing a bit of Asia if you haven’t visited before. As well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are conveniently located. Hubbing through Dubai is possible but the two legs are pretty uneven and it is hard to psyche yourself up for that second leg from Dubai to the Antipodes as you’ve barely covered a third of your total journey time at that point.

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Verdict

I found the overnight layover with a hotel stay made the Singapore option considerably less arduous. The lengthy outbound layover was also helpful. I’d done something similar with Malaysian Airlines to Sydney, hubbing through KL. That time, however, the jetlag was fierce and I remember stumbling around Sydney as if drunk on the first day before crashing and sleeping it off. I’ve read that for every hour’s difference in the time zones travelled, your body needs a day to recover. In practice, if you keep hydrated and try to sleep on the plane it can be considerably less than that. Arriving in Auckland from Singapore, I expected the jetlag to kick in, but in fact enjoyed a pleasant day pottering about Ponsonby before heading off to bed about 8pm.

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So would I choose east or west next time?

Price would be a deciding factor but unless I got an especially good deal I’d pay a little extra to fly eastbound and a bit more on top to be able to have a night’s sleep en route. As I get older, I really need the rest, though as a twenty something, getting to NZ as fast as possible would rank higher in the list of priorities. I was lucky not to have to suffer a middle seat with Air New Zealand so I’d look for an airline which permitted seat allocations at the time of booking, something which is increasingly being phased out as airlines seek to raise income. What I would say is that the US immigration and security procedures and staff which tend to put a lot of travellers off transiting via an American airport really shouldn’t. I’ve noticed in the last few years that staff attitudes have improved immensely and the norm is now a polite and friendly welcome.

Have you flown from London to Australia or New Zealand? Did you do it in one go? Which route gets your vote?


How to see the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs

The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  Most of these islands are uninhabited.  Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands.  The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay.  Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby.  He’s not alone.  The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.

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But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents.  No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw.  Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them.  The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.

It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap.  Many operators offer excursions.  A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks.  We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs.  To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range.  Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.

Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip.  We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people).  Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person.  We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530.  We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.

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Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed.  We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock.  We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.

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Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived.  This in itself made the day.  Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.

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Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule.  Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set.  Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience.  Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth.  And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.

Would I recommend the trip? Definitely.  It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.


Heading to Nassau? Don’t miss this excellent food tour!

Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.

I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.

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Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.

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My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.

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Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.

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Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails.  The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.

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Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith.  An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

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Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.

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Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/tru-bahamian-must-eats/bush-teas/.

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Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.

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Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.

However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.

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But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.

The lowdown

You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.

The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog.  The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.

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https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/
Facebook/trubahamianfoodtours
Twitter: @trubahamianfood
Instagram: @trubahamianfoodtours


In Key West: a museum with a heart

When it comes to literary museums, there’s somewhere you need to visit while you’re in Key West. If you know something about the place, you’re probably thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s house. It’s a popular stop: the queue to get in and see this historic home and its present day six-toed feline residents snaked around the block when I popped in for a visit.

CFFCF60D-EB77-4171-ABD7-19288DC63E1CNevertheless, you’d be wrong.  Though I wanted to like it, I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the Hemingway place.  The museum to which I refer has no cats – at least none I saw while I was there.  Instead, the newly reopened and expanded Tennessee Williams exhibit had heart and soul in spades compared to its more famous neighbour.

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The museum is the result of years of collecting and a true labour of love. I was fortunate that Dennis Beaver was available to give me a curator’s tour. The passion he had for his subject and the stories he had to tell added an extra dimension to the already fascinating collection of exhibits.  Somehow he brought to life so vividly a playwright who’d hitherto been a stranger to me that I felt I’d known him personally.

Describing Tennessee Williams, Dennis painted a picture of a man who loved to entertain the rich and famous. Yet home was a relatively modest place on Duncan Street, a short walk from the museum and now a private home.  A tall white fence protects its current occupants from peeping eyes, but there’s a beautifully crafted model in the museum should you wish to see what would have been inside.

Photos of Williams with the Hollywood glitterati of the time revealed that he moved in glamorous circles. But behind the public facade was a complicated and insecure individual. A childhood bout of diphtheria had left him a lasting legacy of hypochondria. If a visitor complained of a cold, Dennis said, Williams would believe he’d caught it.

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It would take a special someone to manage that anxiety and that person was Frank Merlo. He dealt with the minutiae of Williams’ life, acting as the buffer between the playwright and an outside world that made constant demands on him. At first, Williams would refer to Frank as his assistant, or something equally businesslike. In fact he was his partner and the rock of his personal life. Frank though would die young, succumbing to lung cancer aged just 41. Williams fell apart, mourning the loss of his right hand man.  He was famously quoted as saying that after Frank’s death he entered his “stoned age” dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol to fill the void.

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The Williams we know was a prolific playwright. Seventeen of his plays were turned into successful movies, among them Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar named Desire. The Rose Tattoo was another, set in Tennessee’s adopted Key West locale.  But he didn’t enjoy the process of creating a screenplay, often opting to turn his work over to someone else.  In many ways he saw the Technicolor world of the movies as a distraction. When he did get involved, he preferred to make a film in black and white so as not to detract from the story.

When the end came, it was dramatic and tragic as much of his life had been.  Newspapers reported Williams had choked on the top of a medicine bottle, while his brother claimed he’d been murdered.  Years later his death would officially be recorded as an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.  His brother ignored Williams’ wish to be buried at sea, instead interring him at Calvary Cemetery in St Louis, the city in which he’d grown up and the city he professed to hate.

Whether you know much or little about Tennessee Williams and his work, this little museum is a must if you’re visiting the place he called home. No matter that this isn’t his house – you’ll get a greater insight into his world from fragments of a life lived than you might from a collection of period furniture. Find it at 513 Truman Street, a stone’s throw from the buzz of Duval.

http://twkw.org/

While the opinions recorded here are my own, I’m grateful to the museum for waiving the $7 entrance fee – though I’d have happily paid it.


How to reduce your risk of being caught up in a Caribbean hurricane

As Irma finally begins to blow herself out, the US and many Caribbean islands have been left reeling from her effects.  Sustained 185mph winds have been recorded during this Category 5 storm, beaten only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which registered winds of 190mph.  On top of that, of course, are the floods which result from torrential rain and the even more dangerous storm surges caused when winds slam ocean water back onshore with terrifying force.  Even a Category 1 hurricane is not to be taken lightly, as those who live in hurricane-prone regions will testify.  For casual holidaymakers unused to such events, it’s even more frightening.  So has seeing Irma’s devastation marked the end of your Caribbean holiday plans?  Here’s why it shouldn’t and how you can avoid getting caught up in such a disaster.

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Choose your island carefully

Statistically, some Caribbean islands are hit by hurricanes far more often than others.  According to data compiled by stormcaribe.com for storms between 1944 and 2010, you’re most likely to be affected if you’re in Abaco in the Bahamas, with Grand Bahama, Bimini and New Providence islands hot on its heels.  A couple of islands in the Netherlands Antilles also occur in the top ten, notably Saba and St Eustatius.  Making up the numbers are Nevis, Key West, Tortola in the BVI and the Cuban capital Havana.

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Conversely, the bottom of the list features some well known names.  Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent are much less likely to experience a hurricane.  Such severe storms rarely if ever take a southerly track, making the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire the safest bet in the region.  For the full list check out this link:

http://stormcarib.com/climatology/freq.htm

A broader picture (and more up to date, factoring in storms up to 2016) is offered by Hurricane City.  Their list factors in storms as well as hurricanes, giving a more rounded and perhaps more accurate appraisal of the risk posed for the Caribbean, Bermuda and the USA.  Joining the Bahamas to represent the Caribbean in the top ten are the Cayman Islands.  Because this list encompasses storms as well, there are a few northerly locations there too:

http://www.hurricanecity.com/rank.htm

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Avoid peak hurricane season

If you really want to go to the islands that lie in the path of potential hurricanes then you’ve got to be picky about when you go.  Technically, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in June, but rarely do we see really damaging hurricanes before late August.  2005 was a bumper year for big storms – Katrina among them – and was the year when we saw the earliest Category 4 storm (Dennis on July 8th) and Category 5 storm (Emily on July 17th).  The storm season officially comes to a close at the end of November though on rare occasions they can continue until December or even January.  Yes, you guessed it, that happened in 2005 too.  They’d already run through the named hurricanes by October when Wilma hit and eventually needed to borrow six letters of the Greek alphabet.  Tropical Storm Zeta finally brought the season to a close when it dissipated on January 6th 2006.

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Check the NOAA forecasts

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers a forecast for the upcoming season.  They take in a number of factors such as ocean temperatures and, though it’s not an exact science, have a good track record in identifying busy years.  So far, 2017 is falling in line with predictions.  It kicked off with Tropical Storm Arlene in April – two months ahead of schedule – and with the likes of Harvey and Irma, is set to be another of those unforgettable seasons.  If you want to avoid being caught up in a severe hurricane, then if it’s been quiet, you’re much less likely to find yourself in trouble if you want to make a late booking.  And if the worst happens, this leaflet is packed with useful advice:

Click to access TropicalCyclones11.pdf

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My thoughts are with those who found themselves in the path of recent Atlantic hurricanes.  I hope that those affected get back on their feet and that the impacted economies recover as quickly as possible.  Once they do, they’re going to need your tourist dollars, so don’t write off this beautiful region just yet.


Ten of the best American cities

The USA’s diversity makes it one of my favourite countries and there are many cities I’ve revisited – or hope to do so – over and over again.  Here’s my top ten: what are yours?

New Orleans, Louisiana 

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Sultry New Orleans ticks all the boxes: history, colour, a sense of fun and plenty of quiet, atmospheric corners to retreat to when the buzz gets too buzzy.  The mansions of the Garden District stand in haughty contrast to the tackiness of Bourbon Street, but you don’t have to stray far from the notoriously crass party hub to find wrought iron balconies and heart-lifting melodies within the iconic French Quarter.

New York, New York 

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I’ve been back to New York countless times yet never tire of the place.  But now I’ve ticked off the sights, on recent trips my focus has been on some of its most fascinating neighbourhoods and ethnic food joints.  It delivers.  But then I’d expect nothing less from the self-styled “Capital of the World”.  Where else can you enjoy a southern-style Gospel brunch, El Salvadorean pupusas for lunch and the most succulent steaks outside Argentina for dinner?

Savannah, Georgia

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Savannah’s centre has a split personality.  On the one hand, its genteel tree-filled squares host historic mansions, each with its own intriguing tale to tell.  Yet barely a stone’s throw away lies River Street, which comes alive each evening with bars and restaurants thronging with customers.  This Georgia gem has it all – and some of the best beaches in the State just a short drive away.

Charleston, South Carolina 

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Elegant Charleston oozes sophistication from every cobble and porch, yet somehow manages to make you feel you’re worthy of a stay here.  Beautifully tended gardens force you to stop and stare, even though you know you shouldn’t intrude.  Yet in the bay lies Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired – there’s passion and fervour behind that steely façade.

Bar Harbor, Maine 

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A visit to Maine is a lesson in Geography, as Down East is actually north and residents travelling south to Boston say they’re going up.  The map might be a bit squiffy but there’s no mistaking you’re in New England with fresh lobster, seal boat trips and the dark greens of Acadia’s firs and pines set off to perfection against a muted palette of pink granite and yellow sand.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

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The Liberty Bell draws a crowd who queue patiently to inspect the crack in the iron that signalled the very first reading of the Declaration of Independence.  Beyond that historic district is a city that is proud of its heritage and isn’t afraid to work hard to make a living.  Best time to visit?  New Year’s Day, when Philly lets its hair down for the annual Mummers Parade.

San Antonio, Texas

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The city famed for the Alamo delivers, but the surprise is that the Alamo is overshadowed by the city’s other attractions.  The River Walk, a flight of steps down from street level, is lined with restaurants and bars where minutes turn into hours without you even noticing that the time’s passed.  With plenty of museums, galleries, and a Stetson hat store to rival anything anywhere, this place begs to be revisited.

Seattle, Washington

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The iconic skyline with the instantly recognisable Space Needle might be what draws visitors to Seattle (or at least fans of Grey’s Anatomy) but this is another city where the memorable attractions are those which you didn’t know about before you landed.  The fascinating story of a city built on lumber and a whole other world of underground storefronts and sidewalks awaits visitors who’ve watched the fish fly at Pike Place Market and sipped their coffee in the Starbucks where it all began.

San Francisco, California 

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The seaplane pilot wore a grin with a span to rival that of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Visibility, he said, was the best he’d seen in thirty years.  Luck like that burns memories into your brain so deep they never fade.  And under blue skies, sights like Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the artists of Sausalito don’t get any better.  Just check those brakes before you drive down the world’s most crooked street…

Memphis, Tennessee

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Green shag pile carpet on a stairwell ceiling?  Check.  Acid yellow walls framing a bank of chunky televisions?  Check.  A private jet in the car park bearing the name Lisa Marie?  Check.  Graceland might not impress in terms of size but its Seventies style will leave you gawping, mouth open wider than the zip on that white jumpsuit.  Oh yeah, and there’s music on Beale Street when you’re ready to return to the present.

There you have it; I’m sure Miami, Chicago and Boston will have their fans, as will Vegas, DC and the City of the Angels.  What makes your list?


Why San Antonio’s my favourite place in Texas

Visitors to San Antonio might be surprised to learn that it’s the seventh largest city in the USA, larger than San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Boston.  This fast-growing city has a population of around 1.5 million.  In Texas, only Houston beats it.  But the best thing about San Antonio is that with such a compact and walkable downtown, it doesn’t feel big – and that’s why I like it.  I’m not alone.  An estimated 32 million visitors flock to San Antonio every year.

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The Spanish first set foot in San Antonio in 1691, founding a settlement in the early 18th century.  Some of the earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands.  San Antonio became the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas; today it’s still possible to visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace.  Years ago, during my first visit to Argentina, I met a woman from San Antonio and was a little irritated by her insistence on pronouncing Texas as Tay-hass.  Now, I realise that perhaps it was just a pride in her city’s heritage.  You can read the story here:

https://theitin.com/places/south-america/argentina/san-antonio-de-areco/mrs-tay-hass/

The single storey adobe building that forms the Spanish Governor’s Palace was the original comandancia, the place where the military garrison’s officers lived and worked.  Its whitewashed walls and simple furnishings allow the building to speak for itself; the tranquil courtyard garden is a serene oasis from the modern city which surrounds it.

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Of course, the most famous historic building in San Antonio is the Alamo and no visit to the city can be complete without a visit to this historic mission.  From 1821 to 1836, the city was the capital of Mexican Tejas, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1821.  But when Antonio López de Santa Anna, later to become the country’s 8th president, abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued.  The Texian Army, a group of volunteers and regulars, managed to force the Mexicans back, capturing San Antonio in 1835 during the Battle of Bexar.  But in 1836, Santa Anna hit back, marching on San Antonio to defeat the Texian forces who were trying to defend the Alamo.  A memorial stands outside the building, inscribed thus:

Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.

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“Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry of the Texian Army.  Later that year, Santa Anna was defeated and Texas won its independence.  It remained that way until 1845 when it was annexed by the USA with popular approval from the Texians.  Texas was formally incorporated as a state of the USA on February 19, 1846.

A stroll along the city’s River Walk is the most scenic way to reach the cathedral.  This urban waterway, lined with trees and restaurants, is the social heart of San Antonio.  Catastrophic flooding occurred on the San Antonio River in 1921, leading to calls to manage the river as it wound its way through the heart of the city.  Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open in 1946, but I’d recommend you pay a visit to Cafe Ole where you should ask if their server Richard is rostered on – he’s excellent.

The cathedral is well worth a visit.  Also known as the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, it was originally built from 1738 to 1750 and some of those original walls still stand.  The current structure largely dates from the 19th century.  Each evening, a sound and light show tells the history of the city, the captivating graphics projected onto the cathedral’s façade and twin towers.

Though it can feel like it at times, the city’s not just the sum of its Mexican heritage.  There’s actually a historic German district known as King William, located within an easy walk of downtown.  In the 1790s, Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of the city’s five missions, sold off land to settlers.  It wasn’t until the 1860s, however, that the district was sectioned off into plots and took on its present day layout.  At that time, it attracted a sizeable population of German immigrants.  The main street was named King Wilhelm 1, after the King of Prussia, though it garnered the derogatory nickname Sauerkraut Bend for a while too.  Its wealthy residents competed to construct the most impressive mansions and a stroll along the street today is as much an exercise in real estate envy as it is regular sightseeing.  A visit to the Edward Steves Homestead Museum affords the opportunity to see how such families might have lived.

There’s plenty more: a rich cultural heritage manifested in a number of excellent art museums and a plethora of shopping plazas including El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the USA and La Villita, a concentration of arts and crafts stores showcasing some of the area’s finest artisan talent.  And if you wish to get kitted out with your own stetson before continuing your Texan journey, then I’d recommend a visit to this place:

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Paris Hatters celebrates a century of trading this year.  It’s not much to look at, but the tiny store is packed with boxes stacked almost to the ceiling ensuring that whatever your style choice or your size, there’s something to fit.  Its clientele boast a number of the rich and famous, among them former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, B.B. King and Bob Dylan.  You never know, as you look in the mirror, someone you recognise might be right behind you!


Dude ranch vs. working ranch – how do you know what’s best for you?

Yee-ha!  There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there?  I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy.  Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side.  Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…

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Yep, a ranch holiday is for me.  But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both.  How did they compare?

The activities

Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life.  Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.

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During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks.  It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.

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In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience.  It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub.  There’s evening entertainment too.  On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.

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The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party.  Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire.  I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided.  They’re fine with BYOB.

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The staff

In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works.  The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does.  Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.

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A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest.  On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after.  The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.

The accommodation

Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic.  Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share.  The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean.  Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi.  To be honest, I enjoyed that.  It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result.  I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.

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Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch).  I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones.  The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace.  Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly.  My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep!  As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America.  Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.

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The food

Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis.  At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful.  When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue.  Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family.  Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests.  In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master.  The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings.  Service there was attentive and sincere.

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The verdict

Which ranch stay would I recommend?  I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember.  I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there.  As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could.  He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone!  Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.

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But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious.  Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday.  But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!


Is Austin weird?

The Texan city of Austin would like to think so. Proud of its alternative culture and buzzing music scene, the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin weird”. The dictionary definition of weird has the word’s meaning as “suggesting something supernatural; unearthly” or more informally “very strange; bizarre”.Compared to America’s many identikit cities, some parts of Austin have an indy feel, but is this enough to warrant the label?

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Google “weird Austin” and there’s no end of blogs and e-zine articles trying to justify the term. From watching bats leave their roost under South Congress bridge to playing Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there are no end of suggestions.

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But read a little more carefully and you’ll perhaps find such writers are a little economical with the facts. There are suggestions that drinking a particular cocktail or watching a band play live in a bar is weird. Given that you can do that in any major city, I don’t see how that qualifies as weird.

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There’s a whole load of street murals which are a common sight in many a city these days and a cathedral of junk – but isn’t that just someone’s interpretation of art? Someone even went so far as to suggest the local propensity for eating tacos qualified the place as weird. Seriously?

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I didn’t take to Austin. In its defence, I was there for the weekend – and Memorial Day weekend at that. Entertainment venues were heaving, the restaurants were packed and added to the mix was a bunch of thunderstorms that brought unusually high humidity for the time of year.

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The music was pumping, the bass was thumping. If you’re 21, you’d have loved it, but for this middle-aged traveller, it wasn’t ideal. Ginny’s had a classic car show on its forecourt and was even more rammed than the regulars said it should be. The bats left it so late to come out from their hiding place it was too dark to see them when they did. Disappointing it was, weird it was not.

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And I’m not alone. Google “Austin is overrated” and you’ll also find plenty of results. For those of us that like to sightsee as well as socialise, there’s a relatively limited number of sights to see. OK it has the State Capitol, which as you’d expect from Texas is bigger than everyone else’s and impressive inside. There’s a couple of good museums, including the LBJ Library and Museum dedicated to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The riverfront is pleasant, but nothing to write home about. There’s a certain charm to SoCo, with its quirky shops and the excellent Jo’s for coffee, but it’s bisected by the busy road which gives the district its name.

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Amidst the noise, the many panhandlers that were just a stone’s throw from 6th Street and the Saturday night vomit on the pavement, one place stood out. The Broken Spoke had an excellent band, Two Tons of Steel, and a comfortable family vibe.

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Sure, people were drinking, but there were also granddads dancing with their granddaughters and young couples deep in conversation in between masterful circuits of the dance floor. (Yes, the music wasn’t so loud as to drown out their voices.) My brief Texas Two Step lesson wasn’t sufficient to give me the confidence to join them but it was fun to watch. From the moment we stepped through the door to be greeted by an elderly cowboy in a rhinestone studded shirt, we were welcomed. By the time the charming Ben Rogers doffed his Stetson and took a break from propping up the bar to call us a cab home, we were made to feel like we came every weekend.

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You see, what made Austin special was its residents. It’s that Southern hospitality thing kicking in again. In every venue and on every street corner, locals were keen to share their city. You don’t need a guidebook in Austin, you just need to hang around and chat. There’ll be no end of people to talk to.

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We were given recommendations for places to eat, drink and shop without soliciting for information. What’s more, they turned out to be good. I’d have not known about the Iced Turbo coffee at Jo’s in SoCo if the friendly gent at the lights hadn’t passed the time of day, nor would I have found Easy Tiger, its yummy bratwurst a welcome change from the ubiquitous (but tasty) Mexican fare.

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So, no, Austin’s not weird, no matter how much it would like to be, and as a tourist destination it’s a little dull, but its welcome is possibly the best you’ll get in the Lone Star state.


The Great Storm, Galveston

“I should as soon think of founding a city on an iceberg as on Galveston Island, if I looked to its safety and perpetuity.”

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Before the deadliest storm in US history left low-lying Galveston flattened and in shock, it was a prosperous town. Forty thousand people called it home and a steady stream of cotton steamers created a reliable source of income. The town was littered with mansions, symbolic of the immense wealth being accumulated here; before the storm there were 26 millionaires living within a five block radius. Trolleys carried those too lazy, rich or old to walk about town. At the end of the 19th century, it was the most important seaport in the USA and it seemed nothing could hold it back.

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Except the weather had other ideas. After a calm, sunny week, as evening turned into the night of Friday 7th September 1900 the winds began to pick up. Rain lashed the two-storey homes that lined the Strand and weather observers looked on anxiously. Forecasting was in its infancy in those days, but even then the rudimentary instruments told a frightening story. Wind speeds were increasing, reaching 100mph that night, before the equipment blew away. Some meteorologists think the wind speeds could have reached as much as 145mph at their peak. The barometric pressure was the lowest ever recorded up to that point in US history.

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By 4am, the sea had surged inland, flooding the town’s streets. A four and a half metre storm surge was more than the island could cope with, the highest ground being being little more than half that. The heavy swell continued to be a concern as day broke. By noon, much of the island was underwater, but there was worse to come. Strengthening winds battered the feeble housing. Debris flew around in the wind acting as missiles against any building still standing.

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One observer was sheltering in a house that had withstood such an attack for several hours. He noted that a man trying to reach that same home had his faced sliced clean off by a flying roof slate. It must have been a terrifying time for those who were to become the survivors, that thud of wave-driven timbers on the walls like a mediaeval battering ram on a wooden castle door.

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At least 6000 would never know such lasting fear. Whole families were wiped out, making a confirmed death toll impossible to ascertain, but it’s generally agreed that the figure is a conservative estimate of the final death toll. As Sunday morning dawned, the skies had cleared and the storm had passed. What was left was unrecognisable. Much of the island was completely flattened, the powerful waves scouring the landscape and leaving it in places as pristine as when the first settlers had laid out their street plan. A few blocks further along, huge mounds of debris concealed the bodies of the dead. Here and there, properties listed at angles more commonly associated with earthquake damage; a few had been turned completely upside down. From 9th Street east towards the beach, block after block no longer existed.

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The human cost was appalling. 5000 families were left destitute; it would be days before word reached the Red Cross in Washington and the much-needed aid would arrive. Marshal law was instigated in an attempt to stave off looting. Pilferers were shot. Those in authority also had to deal with the tricky question of burying the dead. With no time in the heat and humidity to dig sufficient graves, rocks were attached to bodies and they were buried at sea. The water that had killed them would be their final resting place.

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Yet the sea had other ideas, washing bloated and putrid corpses up on the shore day after day. A decision was taken to burn the bodies. Those enduring such a horrendous task were paid in whiskey until they threw up from the disgusting stench. It was a job no one wanted but someone had to do. The risk of disease for the survivors was just too high a price to pay to leave the bodies to rot. As the impact of the disaster sank in, page after page of the newspaper was filled with the names of those who had perished.

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But the survivors stayed to resurrect their city. In 1902 a solid sea wall was proposed and within two years the designs had become a reality. Together with the wall, a regrading of the roads was undertaken, raising the level of the streets. 3000 houses would be lifted and sand dredged from the a Gulf of Mexico pumped underneath them so the buildings would sit three metres higher, above the danger level. In future, any incoming wave would be weakened by the increased gradient. The cost of this ambitious engineering project was a staggeringly high $6 million. By 1905, Galveston was ready to take on the elements once more. It didn’t have to wait long. In 1915, a hurricane hit, similar in magnitude to the Great Storm of 1900. The city’s residents held their breath. Would their defences hold?

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They would: just eight people died. Galveston had a future, though it would never regain its pre-storm commercial status.


What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


The value of trip planning

I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different.  The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas.  I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/off-to-texas-with-traveleyes/

It’s outside my comfort zone.  Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel.  I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary.  Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.

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The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus.  I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week.  This is firmly within my comfort zone.  This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.

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The former is a departure from my usual travelling style.  Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport.  There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy.  I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip.  The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research.  I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas.  Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.

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In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging.  I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read.  I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka.  I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms.  I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal.  I really must look that up.  A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too.  I’m happy.  Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.

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It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas.  Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place.  It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen.  And that’s a shame.


Off to Texas with Traveleyes

In May I’m off to Texas, and I’m already excited. But this isn’t my usual kind of trip. This time I’m travelling with a company called Traveleyes, who pair sighted travellers with the visually impaired for a trip which promises to enrich the experience for both types of tourist.

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The brainchild of Amar Latif, an entrepreneur who went blind in his late teens, the company specialises in offering trips which make independent travel a reality for the blind and partially sighted. Sighted travellers are offered a hefty discount on the price of the tours. In return, they accompany a different traveller each day, guiding the person to their own individual requirements.

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Included sightseeing programmes promise to make this a trip to remember.  I’m looking forward to visiting Austin, San Antonio and the Alamo, where we’ll be taking guided walking tours to unlock the history of these places.  I’m especially keen to visit Galveston, devastated by the USA’s deadliest hurricane in 1900 which killed over 6000 people.  It’s long since been rebuilt, of course, but it will be interesting to compare notes with the experience of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/features/sep13/galveston.html

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There are also some activities on the programme which you might not expect.  A ranch stay forms part of the programme and we’ll be riding out on horseback to enjoy the local scenery.  As a novice rider, I’m a little daunted about how I’m going to be able to guide another horse if I’m not fully in control of my own, but I’m trusting that both Traveleyes and the ranch have already thought of that.

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Traveleyes have sent through their document on the do’s and don’ts of how to act as a sighted guide and I’m going to be studying it carefully.  One thing I do know, however, is that I’m going to learn as much as the people I’m paired with.  I can’t wait to see Texas from a different perspective to my own.  Check back at the start of the summer and find out how I got on.

If you’d like to find out more about Traveleyes, please visit their website:

http://traveleyes-international.com/


A beginner’s guide to New Orleans

The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city.  Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world.  It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends.  Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.

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Apartment listings include whether haunted or not

Getting there

From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier.  Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March.  They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only).  Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers.  The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.

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Amtrak: a great way to arrive in New Orleans

If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans.  The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis.  Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag.  Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat.  The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.

Getting around

Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily).  But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly.  Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.

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Riverfront tram

There’s plenty of information online including maps:

http://www.norta.com/Getting-Around/Overview

Trams are fun to ride and simple to find.  The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk.  The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery.  The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park.  The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park.  Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys.  Crossing the river is also worth doing.  You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2.  Check out the schedule here:

http://nolaferries.com/

Where to stay

Being central to the action is key in New Orleans.  It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab.  I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending.  Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar.  If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento.  It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.

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My room at the Villa Convento

Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song.  Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine.  It’s website is here:

http://www.villaconvento.com/

At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center.  Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style.  I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station.  Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.

Money-saving tips

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Free walking map leads you round the Garden District

If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy.  For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/how-to-save-money-on-your-nawlins-vacation/

What to see

There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.

The French Quarter

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The French Quarter is packed with historic homes

You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter.  Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square.  Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.

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Beignets and cafe au lait

Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter.  You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.

Music on Frenchmen Street

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Live music is an essential part of the New Orleans experience

Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself.  In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street.  You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood.  There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music.  Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere.  Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink.  Others require just a tip for the musicians.  My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay.  If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:

http://www.frenchmenstreetlive.com/

St Louis Cemetery No. 1

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St Louis Cemetery No. 1

One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries.  Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1.  This is the oldest, opened in 1789.  It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location.  The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore.   She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects.  Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid.  Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb.  You’ll need to take a tour.  Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.

The mansions of the Garden District

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Seen on a fence in the Garden District

The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter.  Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.  The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.

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Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Mardi Gras World

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Last year’s float being recycled at Mardi Gras World

If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre.  The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia.  Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival.  Many are revamped and recycled.  One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!

Old Algiers

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Home near Algiers Point

Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers.  It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here.  It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves.  The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds.  It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.

Steamboat Natchez

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Below decks on the Natchez

The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez.  It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975.  It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia.  Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres.  So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really.  Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries.  Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.

Hurricane Katrina tour

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A reminder of how vulnerable low-lying New Orleans is

Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars.  I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows.  Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city.  Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again.  New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.

For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/return-to-new-orleans/


The streets of Old San Juan

The Puerto Rican capital has a history which goes back over 500 years.  Founded by the Spanish at the end of the first decade of the 16th century, it was originally known simply as Puerto Rico but by 1521 went by its proper name of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (which these days has become just San Juan).  Though you could be forgiven for thinking the city’s American, it’s not quite: the Spanish eventually ceded the island to the USA at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and it’s been a self-governing territory ever since.  That Spanish flair is still much in evidence in Old San Juan, however.

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Within the metropolitan area of San Juan which sprawls for miles, the area of settlement that occupies a narrow peninsula on the island’s north coast, bounded by Fuerte San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is known as Old San Juan.  The geography of San Juan naturally lent itself to providing a safe harbour.  It’s still a busy port today receiving a steady stream of cargo and cruise ships.

In its early days, San Juan’s location at the eastern edge of the Caribbean led to its development as a defensive stronghold, hence the heavy fortifications that you can still see today.  They comprise not only those two forts but the thick, almost impenetrable, walls that encircle the city and the imposing Puerta de San Juan located on the south western flank of the city.  As the 16th century progressed, Old San Juan came under attack from numerous forces, among them Francis Drake, whose men were adversely affected by a dysentery outbreak and fled, tails between their legs.  They wouldn’t be the last.

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The narrow European-style streets of Old San Juan are a far cry from the wide boulevards lined with high rises and flanked by shopping malls that characterise other parts of the city.  Here, cobbled surfaces bear the distinctive blue setts known as adoquines.  They’re not granite, as you might think, but instead made from the slag of iron furnaces and used as ballast on ships arriving from Spain.

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One of those Spanish ships brought Juan Ponce de León, whose remains can be found in front of an egg yolk yellow wall of the city’s bijou cathedral.  Like many conquistadors seeking a new life in the New World, he was escaping a life of poverty and a region devoid of opportunities for the ambitious.  His travels took him first to Florida and then to Puerto Rico, and it is he that is credited with the foundation of the island’s first settlement, Caparra, which predates Old San Juan by a few years though wasn’t to last.

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Ponce de León was the island’s first governor but he didn’t remain long in Puerto Rico.  Off exploring, he was fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and died in Cuba.  The family home, Casa Blanca, is significant as the oldest continuously occupied house in the city.

One of the great delights of a visit to 21st century Old San Juan is simply to wander.  Many of the buildings are painted in bright colours, making this a photographer’s dream.  Several tourist trolleys loop the old town, but to truly appreciate the architecture and atmosphere, strolling through its streets and lingering in its many parks and squares is a must.

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Each has its own identity, from the tourists that feed the pigeons which flock to Parque Las Palomas, to the many characterful statues and sculptures that you’ll find camouflaged with verdant planting.  The shade provides welcome respite from the Caribbean sun, enabling visitors to recharge their batteries before continuing their exploration of this delightful place.

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When you do finally run out of steam, there are many cafes and restaurants where you can try the uniquely Puerto Rican dishes.  Mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains topped with shrimp or chicken, is a staple and a must-taste.  For a snack, the ubiquitous Mallorcas, pastries filled with cheese, guava jam, ham or eggs and dusted with icing sugar, is a tasty way of staving off the hunger pangs.  And don’t leave without trying the coffee: rich and smooth, the addition of sugar would be a sin.

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New York for second-timers

OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge.  You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial.  So that’s it, right?  Wrong.  Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.

Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo

These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge.  I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.

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High Line or Lowline?

Both, of course.  The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint.  I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out.  But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.

Update: the Lowline has now closed.

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Gospel brunch in Harlem

The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem.  You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries.  Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.

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City of New York Museum

You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context.  Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.

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Skyscraper Museum

This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour.  It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline.  If you’re in the city between now and January, check out the Skyline installation.

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Governors Island

Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution.  Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground.  Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.

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Watch a game

Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium.  In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well.  For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else.  Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.

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Bryant Park Christmas market

Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas.  My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early.  Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.

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Roosevelt Island tramway

It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone.  After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card.  If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.

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New York Transit Museum

The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street.  Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old.  The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.

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Joshua Tree National Park

U2 fans take note: if you rock up to Joshua Tree National Park looking for that tree, you’ll be disappointed. The iconic image that featured on the band’s 1987 album cover was actually taken by the side of the SR190, a couple of hundred miles away up near Darwin, CA. There’s no point in going in search of it as the tree is long gone. In fact, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t even a designated national park at the time, though it was a national monument. Its status was upgraded in 1994.

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A visit to the park is a rewarding experience. It’s basically divided into two distinct zones: the Colorado desert to the south and the higher and slightly wetter Mojave Desert to the north.  As with many US national parks, a road cuts through the park. If you’re driving, enter from the south as the scenery will improve as your day goes along rather than the other way round.

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The cholla cactus garden (pronounced choy-a in the Latino way as with most place names in these parts) is one of the highlights of the south side of the park. Much of the road leading to the area is lined with fairly featureless scrub, the barren landscape dotted with creosote bushes and the cactus-like ocotillo trees which despite their appearance aren’t cacti at all. Aside from almost running over a snake, we saw almost no wildlife at all which wasn’t a surprise given the landscape and the high temperatures.

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Cholla cacti almost have the appearance of cuddly bears – if your imagination is wired that way – but are extremely hazardous. Their prickles are incredibly sharp, and they get their nickname of jumping cactus from their propensity to detach.

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Straying from the path could be a disastrous decision. That path is sufficiently wide not to cause a problem, but as with walking the beam in gym class, there’s something about knowing you can’t wobble that makes you wobble. As someone with short sight and thus poor peripheral vision, it was a slightly stressful walk. Back at the hotel later, I found this video on YouTube showing what happens if you’re not so careful – and it’s excruciating viewing:

 

Back in the car without incident, the road climbed steadily, taking us into the Mojave and ramping up the scenic quality to something worthy of National Park status.  Pulling over, we were treated to the sight of Skull Rock, which as its name suggested had been sculpted into something resembling a human skull.

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The geological story of much of rocky Joshua Tree is one of volcanic intrusion – molten monzogranite pushing its way up into the overlying Pinto gneiss. As the magma cooled, the granite cracked. Over time, chemical weathering widened those cracks and rounded off the rock into the huge monzogranite boulders that litter the landscape today.

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After Skull Rock came Jumbo Rocks, which were pretty much what they said they were. If at first we had been in any doubt as to whether this desert deserved to be a national park then those doubts had now evaporated. Some people run America down, but in terms of sheer scale, its majestic scenery cannot be beaten. I know the word is overused, but it is awesome.

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Turning off the main highway, we climbed for a short while to Keys View. Fearing snakes, scorpions and tarantulas, it turned out to be something much more common that caused us the biggest headache in terms of creature discomfort – honeybees. Attracted by moisture, and not caring whether that came from human perspiration, a/c condensate or half-drunk Coke in the car’s cup holder, those pesky insects created quite the nuisance of themselves. Fortunately we were able to get them back out of the car fairly easily and – with much relief – without being stung, leaving us free to appreciate the views across the valley to Palm Springs and even as far as the Salton Sea in the hazy distance.

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Descending to the valley, the road took us to the start of the Barker Dam loop trail. It wasn’t far, along a well marked and graded gravel path, though in the intense heat (by British standards anyway) it was far enough. The dam was constructed around 1900 to store water for the cattle which were grazed here as well as for the local mines. It’s rain-fed, but visiting in the autumn meant that the reservoir was bone dry, leaving visitors to ponder the wisdom of trying to rear livestock in such an inhospitable location in the first place.

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Not far from Barker Dam lies Hidden Valley, one of the park’s landmark attractions and the only place we saw a tour bus. Once the hideout of cattle rustlers, now it’s aesthetic qualities that draw humans. Steps wind up through the rocks to a clearing crammed with vegetation: cacti, yucca and several species of trees have colonised the area naturally protected from the wildest weather. Overhearing a guide, I learnt that even a seemingly spine-free cactus was actually a hazard. Touch what seemed like a smooth surface and microscopic spines would embed themselves into the skin – almost impossible to remove without the aid of duct tape. Ouch!

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My verdict? Visit Joshua Tree for sure, but remember it comes with a health warning!


On a mission in San Juan Cap, California

With so many names and signs in Spanish, let alone the number of voices you’ll hear speaking the language, it’s hard to ignore that this part of the USA was once Spanish. In the heart of Orange County, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, I visited the little town of San Juan Capistrano, drawn by the mission of the same name. (And a really good Mexican restaurant, but that’s another story…)

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Originally founded in 1775, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the seventh of twenty one such missions in what was them known as Alta California. Spain wished to expand its territory and at the same time, convert the native Americans to Catholicism. The missions were designed to be a place of learning and training, though of course, once converted to upright Spanish citizens, the native population would also be paying tax. The Spanish brought their own animals, food and technology, all of which piqued the curiosity of the locals. Once sucked in, however, there was no going back: converts could not leave the mission grounds without permission. By 1806, Mission San Juan Capistrano had a population of more than 1000 people.

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At its heart was the delightful Great Stone Church. Today, this church stands as a ruin, destroyed in an earthquake in 1812. The two bells that sit in front of the structure are actually originals, named San Vicente and San Juan, the latter damaged in the quake, though the four that swing from the bell tower are newer.

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The mission collapsed too, let down by the Spanish government so failed to send essential supplies, its residents plagued by outbreaks of disease. The final nail in the mission’s coffin came in 1821. Mexico became independent of Spain and with that, Alta California was no longer a Spanish possession. The Mexican government officially ended the mission system in 1834 and the MSJC’s land was parcelled up and sold to twenty prominent local families. In 1845, the mission itself was sold by the then governor to John Forster, who used it as the family ranch. He paid just $710 for it though its value was over $54000. Did I mention he also just so happened to be the governor’s brother in law?

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Things changed again in 1848. Mexico lost the Mexican-American War and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, California was ceded to the Americans and became a state in 1850. President Abraham Lincoln was petitioned to return the missions to the Catholic church and like many, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the recipient of much needed attention and funds from well-heeled philanthropists. Today, such work continues, and visitors and benefactors continue to ensure the mission survives, adding their own flourishes to the existing structures. The fountain in the main courtyard, full of water lilies, is one such embellishment. It’s a tranquil place despite the sightseers, its courtyards full of cacti and hibiscus, framed by brick arches and adobe walls.

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The Serra Chapel that stands alongside the ruined Great Stone Church is a still a working church. Its adobe walls are left partially uncovered enabling you to see how it was constructed. Inside, its simple figurines and carvings stand alongside intricate wooden carvings overlaid in gold leaf, allowing to be both rustic and ornate at the same time. The altar, imported from Barcelona, is about 400 years old.

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Many visitors come to witness what the mission calls the “miracle of the swallows”. On March 19, the town celebrates the return of swallows from the south. I’m guessing there are some people out there who are gullible enough to believe this is the actual date, but anyway, March is the general time to expect them. The migrating swallows build nests in the nooks and crannies of the church walls where they stay until October. It would be another month before they would return to Argentina. I didn’t see any, but was assured they were there. It said so in the leaflet.


How to fly business class for the price of economy

At the end of May I flew business class on BA to New York. As an ex-teacher and now a travel writer who specialises in budget independent travel, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth that budget managed to stretch beyond economy. Well, the answer is, it didn’t. My ticket from Europe to New York’s JFK airport cost me the princely sum of £342. This is the story of how I did it.

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Error fares explained

I travelled on what’s known as an error fare – and it’s just that, a mistake fare.  Sometimes, perhaps as a result of exchange rate glitches or human error (who cares so long as it’s a mistake in your favour) the computer offers up a fare at way below market rate.  They don’t last long, sometimes staying available hours or even minutes.  So how do you find one among all the many destination combos and available dates?

Subscribe to alerts

I subscribe to many email newsletters but those that are the most useful in this respect come from Secret Flying http://www.secretflying.com, from CheapFlightsLab http://www.cheapflightslab.com and from FlyNous http://www.flynous.com.  Each have the facility to subscribe on social media – in fact I first became aware of Secret Flying via a post that popped up as a retweet on Twitter.  Follow them on whatever platform you’re most likely to spot them.   Make sure you have notifications switched on. In this instance I saw the deal first on a Secret Flying Facebook post.

Sift out unwanted deals

I tend to stick to the well respected airlines and travel booking sites that I’ve used before.  So if a deal has to be booked through a consolidator’s website and I’ve not heard of them, I don’t use them.  Equally, I don’t want to be bombarded with offers that originate outside Europe, so I select European deals only.

Be flexible

The business class fare I found actually originated in Oslo, Norway.  The return flight was in four legs: OSL-LHR-JFK-LHR-OSL.  The way air tickets work, if I’d been a no-show for the first leg from Oslo to London, the rest of the ticket would have been cancelled.  I couldn’t have just travelled straight from Heathrow.  However, so long as I didn’t have checked baggage (and remember business class offers a more generous cabin baggage allowance) then I would be permitted to exit in London on the return leg and just “miss” the onward flight to Oslo.

A few words of warning

As I’m UK-based, the cost of getting to Oslo had to be factored into the equation.  I’d never been to Oslo and decided to travel on the morning flight from LGW to OSL the day before my New York flight and make a mini-break of it.  My one-way flight cost £45 and I added a budget hotel room on for about £30.  If you’re keeping a tally, that’s £417 to fly to New York business class – pretty much the same as a reasonable economy fare.  Norway’s not cheap, but I could have chosen a hostel should I have wished.  I could also have chosen an error fare via somewhere that offers cheaper accommodation, Spain for instance, or waited for one originating in London.

In the event, that Oslo flight was delayed by a staggering eight hours, scuppering my plans to explore the Norwegian capital but fortunately not impacting on my New York flight.  But – and I cannot stress this enough – be generous with your connection time: had my inbound flight arrived too late, I’d have forfeited my NYC error fare as the two segments weren’t purchased as part of a single through ticket.

Sometimes, these error fares are honoured and sometimes they are not

The airline is under no obligation to honour an error fare.  Basically, once you find and book an error fare, sit tight for a week or so.  Use a credit card to pay for the error fare and don’t invest any money just yet in hotels, connecting flights or airport transportation.  That way, should the error fare be cancelled, you won’t be out of pocket.

Once you have a confirmed ticket (check on the airline’s own website against your booking reference) then things should be OK.  Make sure you have decent insurance cover just in case and it’s also wise to book your accommodation on a free cancellation basis.  Sites like booking.com do this as a matter of routine; you can usually cancel right up to the day before without incurring a financial penalty but check carefully before you commit.

They work for economy too

At the time of writing Malaysian Airlines has an economy class error fare deal to Manila in the Philippines for £265 with availability showing from October 2016 to April 2017.  These flights originate and end in London, so no need to mess about with connecting flights like I did for New York.  Business class error fares come up less frequently but they do come up.  The trick is to keep an open mind.  Rather than look for a particular route, see which error fares come up and then book the one that excites you.  I’ve never been to the Philippines…

Sit tight until the right deal comes up – and then grab it before it’s gone!  Happy travels.


Weather to travel: New York City

For a first time visitor wanting to maximise sightseeing time, good weather is a must, but when’s the best time to visit New York City? I’ve visited in all seasons, so here are some observations and tips based on my experience.

Avoid summer if you can

Summer in the city, with its long sunny days and picnics in the park, sounds like the perfect recipe for a great trip, right? Wrong! New York in summer is humid and hot. Typical temperatures push 30°C which in my opinion is too hot for sightseeing. Add to that average humidity which peaks in August at around 70% and conditions are often unpleasant. It’s sweltering if there’s a storm brewing and when the rain does fall, it’ll be heavy and you can expect localised flooding.

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Beating the summer heat on a bicycle round Governor’s Island

It’s beach weather, sure, and there are some fun places to go close to the city like Coney Island, but if you’re planning to visit the Big Apple’s iconic sights like the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty, then you’ll be standing in line until you’re good and sweaty. If you have booked to travel between June and August, then take a ferry to Governor’s Island to catch a breeze, rent a boat from Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse or head out of Manhattan to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

Don’t write off winter

Travelling to New York in winter is not without its risks. If your holiday coincides with a big winter storm, then you can find yourself stranded if the subway system shuts down and the buses can’t get through. That said, there’s a lot of fun to be had snowballing in Central Park and seeing the rooftops dusted with powder. Overnight temperatures can plunge to -10°C or below, but in the daytime, it usually hovers around zero. Wind may well be your biggest problem, but an advantage of a grid pattern street network is that if you turn a corner, you’ll come out of the icy blast and warm up. Make sure you pack accordingly, and don’t skimp on the hats, scarves and windproof down jacket.

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Coney Island closed for the winter

The main advantage of travelling in winter is the lack of crowds – those who venture to the Big Apple in winter are rewarded handsomely. First-timers can pack more into an itinerary and reduce the need for pre-booking popular attractions such as the Freedom Tower. It’ll also be easier to pick up tickets for popular Broadway shows. Restaurant week takes place in late January or early February, with lots of establishments offering special menus and good deals.

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9/11 Memorial in winter

Spring and autumn might just be the best compromise

Temperatures by April are on the rise, and it can be warm and sunny through into October, so travelling in the shoulder seasons is a good option. You’re looking at an average of around 17°C in May which in my book is perfect for sightseeing. Statistically, October is the driest month, though that was also the month in 2012 that Storm Sandy wreaked havoc, so it’s not a dead cert. April is the wettest, but rainfall averages are fairly constant through the year so that’s not a deal breaker. Markets reemerge from their winter hibernation, blossom enhances the High Line and stepping out is a pleasure.

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Some of New York’s attractions are great whatever the weather

Book your hotel well ahead, however, because late spring and early autumn are when you’ll see accommodation prices spike – it makes sense, of course, as you would expect demand to drive up rates. May sees temperatures climb and after Memorial Day weekend, summer has officially started; try earlier in the month if you prefer it less busy. You’re more likely to find a deal in November, and maybe even plan a trip to coincide with Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the leaves will be on the turn in the city’s parks to boot.

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The Bronx River in autumn

What I have learned over the years and through numerous visits, is that there’s really never a bad time to go. My personal preference is for a winter trip, but I’ve never had a bad holiday in New York yet.

Tempted to book? Don’t miss these earlier posts from Julia’s Travels:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-1-lower-manhattan/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-2-manhattan-west/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/julias-guide-to-new-york-part-3-manhattan-east/

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/tips-for-getting-the-best-out-of-a-trip-to-new-york-city/


New York’s latest project? The Lowline Lab

Hot on the heels of the High Line, the elevated railway turned park which is now one of New York City’s best loved attractions, there comes a bold newcomer. Following the same tradition of cutting edge conceptual development, imaginative design and community involvement, a new way of injecting green space into the Big Apple’s concrete jungle is underway. It’s officially called Delancey Underground but unsurprisingly, everyone’s nicknamed it the Lowline.

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A small group of talented individuals led by James Ramsey and Dan Barasch have been working on trialling a technology which would enable natural sunlight to be harvested and transferred underground in order to grow plants for a subterranean garden. The Lowline Lab, as the testing site is called, houses around three thousand plants in the former market building on Essex Street. It occupies a site about 5% of the proposed end result, large enough to give the visitor a sense of what the Lowline might one day be like.

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This Lower East Side location has not been selected by chance. In fact, this is one of the most built up areas of a city blessed with squares and neighbourhood parks. A growing population and substantial redevelopment in the LES puts paid to any hopes of removing concrete and tarmac from any above-ground real estate so burrowing underground was the logical choice. With a suitable location identified – the long abandoned Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal – all that had to happen was for technology to catch up.

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Working in collaboration with a number of specialist firms, the committed Lowline staff and volunteers have developed an impressive system of mirrors and tubes which feed light off the street and into the dark depths of the derelict market. Last October, the project set about testing whether plants could survive the New York winter when shorter daylight hours in theory wouldn’t provide the right environment for them to thrive. In fact, the opposite has been true and it has even proved possible to grow viable plants from seed. Spanish moss hangs from the ceiling, trailing down towards a plywood platform carpeted in shade tolerant ferns, exotic succulents and verdant shrubs. Seedlings labelled with lolly sticks emphasise the newness and experimental nature of the project.

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With the market earmarked by developers, the Lowline Lab was set to close in March 2016 but a stay of execution was granted as the developers postponed their plans. Now, the Lowline Lab will be open to visitors until at least March 2017. This extension has brought with it new challenges, not least a plethora of pesky insects that have been as thrilled to move into their new neighbourhood digs as the human residents have been to repurpose them. Undeterred, the Lowline team have implemented a series of measures that will ensure that the experience of visiting this innovative underground garden isn’t marred by a thick cloud of midges. Nematodes have been placed in the soil to good effect, though the introduction of carnivorous plants has been less successful, partly because visitors have been tempted to touch their snapping jaws themselves.

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With feasibility studies complete, politicians and community groups on side, support (though not funds) from owners MTA and a steady stream of interested visitors to the Lab itself, there are just a few fundraising and logistical hurdles to overcome. It seems the project could well come to fruition. At present, the team are confident they’ll have the Lowline up and running by 2020 or thereabouts. In the meantime, I’d strongly recommend that if you’re in New York one weekend before next March you take a trip down to 140 Essex Street and check out the Lab for yourself.


Head Stateside this summer

It’s fast approaching Memorial Day in the USA, the day for Americans to remember those who died fighting for their country. It falls on the last Monday in May, which this year is May 30th. For visitors, that weekend more or less marks the beginning of the tourist season for those attractions that open only during the summer months. In New York, for instance, that’s when the new Gansevoort Market is expected to open and the weekend Governor’s Island kicks off its summer season. For many Brits, a holiday in the USA means taking the kids to Florida’s theme parks, or perhaps a shopping trip to the Big Apple. The reality is, of course, that there is so much more.

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Lower Manhattan as viewed from the Staten Island Ferry

I’m often surprised to read on travel forums that people write the country off because of its draconian immigration procedures, when in fact in my experience it’s rarely worse than anywhere else. Some even claim that the $14 ESTA is a deal breaker – seriously, a £9 charge on a long haul holiday? That’s hardly going to leave you without spending money. I’ve travelled a lot in the States and I can honestly say, Florida aside, (I’m no fan of the Mouse) I’ve never begrudged paying it to see such incredible and varied scenery. So, to mark Memorial Day, here’s my pick of America’s very best tourist spots. It’s been hard to whittle them down and I could easily add more.

This Memorial Day weekend I’m going to be in my favourite US city – New York. Where are you going to be?

A float trip in the Grand Tetons

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Bad skies in the Badlands

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New Orleans

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Pike Place Market, Seattle

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Savannah’s squares

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Bar Harbor – lobster and beer

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The Rodeo at Cody

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Canyons, rock arches and more, Utah

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The Mummer’s Parade, Philadelphia

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Las Vegas’ Neon Museum

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Big skies and glaciers, Montana

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The Bronx, New York

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Monterey’s Cannery Row

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Elegant Charleston

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Running with the llamas, Hammond Wisconsin

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So are you tempted?  What’s your favourite US destination and why?