Archive for ‘February, 2013’

What we Learned from our first 50 Email Campaigns

By Jacob Aldridge

We just reached the 50 campaign / destination milestone! So, with some specific focus on our second month which has also recently ended, we thought we would expose our data … and share what we learned from those 50 campaigns.

Today’s Experience

If you’ve just found this article:

  • Why we are sharing all of this information with you? Because we love articles that open the kimono to other web businesses, and wanted to share our data and experience with those keen to learn from it.
  • This is Month 2, Part Two. Month 2, Part One (website traffic and revenue data) is here; Month 1 can be read from Part One or just Part Two.
  • EveryDaydream Holiday is a travel entertainment startup – We craft a travel story so real that it feels like your own endless vacation, and deliver it to your inbox five days a week.

Come here from Hacker News? This is a longform post – if you want to ensure there’s a useful HN discussion (like I do), consider upvoting this post now before it drops off the new page.

WANT TO SEE OUR EMAILS IN SITU?

If it helps you to visualise our emails – which differ in design and content length from our daily posts – here are some examples:

SUBSCRIBER GROWTH

My intention here is to first share the raw data, because I know some people find value in this (especially as a comparative exercise). The ‘So What?’ (and WIIFM) comes from our more in depth look at the data further down – click here to go directly there.

Four days into this month, my co-founder and I were having a text message discussion. At the time we noted after Month 1 we had added only 22 new subscribers – not even one a day. He was making a point about consistency – “We need to ask where do we get tomorrow’s subscriber from?”

I made the point that at 200 subscribers, you can statistically expect 1 unsubscribe every single time you send out an email*. Since we send a daily email (weekdays), finding 1 new subscriber each day would keep us steady, at best. My response was “We need to ask where are we getting 50 subscribers tomorrow?”

The next day, we had 55 people sign up.

Email Campaign List Growth Over Time

Cumulative Number of subscribers.

This graph shows our cumulative number of daily subscribers since we launched on 12/12/2012. You’ll see that the first month was one of steady, though uncertain, growth – we were generally moving upwards, with a particular spike around Christmas**. And then BANG on the 17th of January we meet my hypothetical 50 subscriber challenge.

The reason for this is detailed in Part 1 – it was our “200 Hours Effort” post going ‘viral’***. The impact of that on our site traffic and subscriber numbers lingered for about a fortnight – during which period we took our eyes off the ball a little. The last fortnight of the month, however, things trail off. That hurt – and we’re addressing that, so next month’s data will be rosier!

  • * This is based on some Vision 6 and MailChimp email marketing research, backed up by my own experience over 11 years of email marketing. An unsubscribe rate of 0.5% is about normal.
  • ** We’d like to say the Christmas spike was everyone spreading the word. In reality, it was mostly us seeing family.
  • *** I’m mindful that we’re sharing this data, not because we’re super massive and successful, but to help those who are also starting out. For us, 50 subscribers and 10,000 visitors in a day is ‘going viral’ – Buzzfeed probably sacks writers who hit numbers that low.

ENGAGEMENT RATES

A reminder of the two Engagement Rates we use: “Open” and “Opened Click Through Rate”.

  • Open Rate is pretty straight-forward – what percentage of people who were sent the email, actually opened it.
  • Open CTR is the number of people who clicked through as a percentage of how many people OPENED the email.
  • This is slightly different to normal CTR, which measures click as a percentage of number sent, and therefore (in my opinion) lessens its utility.

Here’s how we trended this month against both measurements.

Email marketing Engagement Rates over time

Engagement Rates, Month 2 since Launch

And then here are two graphs comparing us to Travel and Transportation Industry Averages, provided by our email service provider MailChimp.

Email Campaign Open Rate Over Time

Open Rate, Month 2

Email Marketing Opened Click Through Rate Over Time

Opened Click Through Rate, Month 2

These comparisons are not perfect, of course – they lump our daily travel entertainment email in with weekly travel deal sites, hotel newsletters etc. It’s not apples v apples, but it’s what we have.

Our Open Rate, while declining, remains strong. In fact, the closest it went to approaching the average was our Kyoto email, which Gmail (and likely others) marked as spam – those days suck when you have a daily product – of course, you always have tomorrow.

Our Opened Click Through Rate, also declining, is not as successful. Our struggle here – and we experienced this last month – is finding the balance between providing a self-contained amazing daily email, and driving people to our site to read more. I’ve always believed that a content email ought to have value in and of itself – people don’t want to read emails they know will simply force them to visit a website. Our current email template design, amended to add more text, is part of the reason for declining numbers at the end of this month.

This made it less likely readers would click through to the website, but we believe (and must now test) that they will enjoy the email better as a result. If that’s the case, then Open Rates could be expected to improve as a result.

If you’re reading this as an email marketing expert, here’s a key takeaway.
  • Our normal CTR, when graphed, looks as more like our Open Rate graph than the other one.
  • If we just used that metric, we would be patting ourselves on the back. It’s misleading because it fails to filter out Open rate as a factor – more opens will equal more clicks-through. So while it’s a useful measurement for gross traffic numbers, it’s misleading and risky to use it as a measure of engagement.

SO FLIPPING WHAT?

Right, Raw Numbers are only useful if you want to put in the effort to compare. So here’s our ‘So What’ – we hope it also gives you some guidance for your email marketing efforts, with the caveat that you can never assume what is the case for one business will apply to another.

IF YOU LEAVE ME, CAN I COME TO?

We wanted to know 3 things from our Unsubscribe data:

  1. What is our list churn?
  2. How long, on average, do readers stay before they unsubscribe?
  3. Is there a tipping point from the data that can help us avoid unsubscriptions?

1) What is our list churn?

This is a simple metric that asks ‘How long does it take for our list to replace itself?’ Some people will unsubcribe quickly (‘this isn’t what I expected’) and some people will never unsubscribe (thanks mum!), but on average how long would it take for our entire list to leave.

This is a simple calculation – we’ll do it just for month 2.

How many people left this month as a percentage of the remaining list.
(49 / 166 = 29.51%)

And then how many months would it take for that percentage to reach 100%?
(100% / 29.51% = 3.38)

Based on this data, our list will turn itself over every 3.38 months. That, incidentally, is awful for a business like ours! Our initial goal, not based on experience, was to make that figure 12 months* – we have a long way to go.

It’s also important to track that over time. In fact, if we do the analysis for our first 50 campaigns, the churn rate is 8.9 months. I won’t draw any conclusions until we have the data from more months.

Do you know your churn rate?

  • * Mailchimp notes that the average list loses 1/2 – 1/3 of their list each year – a churn rate of 12-18 months. HOWEVER, I note Newsletter Directory says the average account sends 42 campaigns per annum. 
  • If I combine those figures, we could deduce an average churn rate of 42-63 campaigns. We’re on track for ~180 campaigns, which shows either our content is really engaging or that the flaws in this comparison are gaping!

2) How long, on average, do readers stay before they unsubscribe?

This is also a simple calculation. I’m going to use a median for this, because over time I don’t want long term subscribers or confused subscribers who leave immediately to unduly impact the figure.

For EveryDaydream Holiday, the length of time in 13.5 days. (If we used the mean average, by the way, the figure would be 16.8 days. Again, let’s see how both those numbers move over time before drawing any conclusions.)

The wider data set here is kind of spiky, based largely on our small size at this point in time. (If our list size were 10x as large, 1-2 unsubscribers moving around wouldn’t affect things; here they create spikes and valleys.)

3) Is there a tipping point from the data that can help us avoid unsubscriptions?

I was hoping this data would show us something really interesting – like a lot of subscribers in the first X days, then a lull; or a significant spike after Y days that we might be able to prevent in some engaging way. But there’s nothing so dramatic in the data, based on where we’re at today.

Email Marketing Days on which people Unsubscribe

Days on which people Unsubscribe

Not being Nate Silver, I’m not going to draw many statistical inferences from this chart or the trendline in it. I will make two points:

  • There’s a clear trend downwards – this means that the longer people stay subscribed, the less likely they are to unsubscribe.
  • We’ve only had one subscriber stay with us for more than 6 weeks and then later leave.
  • Part of the reason for this is that we are a very young website.

You could draw the statistical inference here that if people are subscribed for more than 58 days they will NEVER leave. In reality, only 87 people (about half our current subscribers) have been with us for that long, and that data set is friends and family heavy.

I wanted to overlay on this the length of time current subscribers have been around. But that comparison proved to be unhelpful, because a majority of our readers came in two spikes – at launch (thanks to our pre-launch survey) and when our “200 Hours Effort” post went viral. Again, with time (and list growth) this will be useful.

LIST FATIGUE

List fatigue happens when subscribers “become bored with your email content“.

Engagement Rate over time since signing up

Engagement Rate over time since signing up

Here’s a graph of reader engagement BY DAY. That is, we normalise all of our subscribers back to Day 1 (the first email they receive) and then compare the daily averages. While it’s useful to know that ‘Toasting Marshmallows over Lava‘ is more engaging than ‘Going to Graceland‘ (which we can measure by the Engagement Rates, above), it’s also really valuable to test what happens to your subscribers over time. When, if ever, does List Fatigue kick in?

You can see an element of that in the trend line, and certainly the drop in open rates after the first week. Honestly, I was expecting to see a much more obvious trend, possibly with a plateau towards the end as we reached a consistent level of people happy to be receiving our daily email ‘forever’.

Instead, after the first week, there’s a fairly steady Open Rate band between 30% and 40%.

There are two major dips – at the very end (campaign #50) and at campaign #26. These are actually the same event, the campaigns just before I produced this data. Because we’ve had two dramatic spikes in subscribers, the current position of those cohorts (at 26 campaigns and 50 campaigns respectively) has an oversized impact on the numbers. As more subscribers move through, these will level out in a real number sense (ie, campaigns 26 and 50 won’t always look that bad); and we’ll always have to keep an eye on those cohorts, because where they are exactly on any day we produce this report will likely create a spike upwards or downwards.

One thing we’ve noticed – although anecdotally, unless we pull apart MailChimp to create that report as well – is how many people use the weekends to catch up on their readings. So our gross Open numbers normally go up over the following weekend – that’s part of the story here, with those dips caused by Wed / Thu / Fri emails awaiting a weekend. [Edit: All of those posts did see improvement over the weekend.]

LIST LOVE

Here’s a graph that shows what percentage of our subscribers open what percentage of their emails. (The X axis runs from 0%, never open, to 100%, always open our campaign; the Y axis shows the percentage of our subscriber base, including those who have unsubscribed, that match that open rate.)

Email Marketing Subscribers by Open Rate brackets

Subscribers by Open Rate brackets. X-axis is the Open Rate %; Y-axis is the % of subscribers in each bracket

I always expect 0% to be over-represented in these figures, because of the way email marketing software measures Opens. It’s possible for someone to open and read every email, and still never show on our reports.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s another spike. Fully 6% of our subscribers open every single daily email; 14% open in excess of 90%.

That’s the email marketing game. Our overall Open Rates this month, for example, were sitting in the 30%-40% range. One-half to one-third of these are the same people every day – the remaining group varies by day, from people who open a few a week to the 25% of subscribers who open, on average, less than one per week.

WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW?

I could play the email marketing data game all week, but there’s an amazing travel newsletter to publish. If you’d like to be part of this data in the future, you can subscribe to our free emails here.

And I would love to know – what other data would you like me to reveal, next time we open the kimono to EveryDaydream Holiday

Email me – jacob@everydaydreamholiday.com – or leave a comment here or on Hacker News.

Going underneath the awesome power of Niagara Falls

We leave the hustle and pace and crowds of the Big Apple behind after three days in New York (Day One, Day Two, Day Three) for the comparative serenity of Toronto, on the east coast of that fair northern land – Canada.

But we’re not long in the city before Christine, our Toronto local guide, hustles us into her car and we’re out on the road.

Seems that New York isn’t the only town with hustle.

Today’s Itinerary

  • a lovely drive along Lake Ontario towards…
  • one of the world’s most well-known natural wonders – Niagara Falls
  • warm up afterwards with a Canadian national beverage
  • fit in a spot of bargain outlet shopping, then
  • sample some of the strangest wine in the world

The meandering drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls follows the curves of Lake Ontario as we leave the city. It’s mainly highways for the first part of the trip, but we are treated to views of the massive lake extended long out into the horizon in the morning sunlight.

Gradually the development begins to become less apparent and our expectations perk up. Niagara Falls, such a renowned natural wonder, is sure to be set in a location of spectacular natural beauty itself, showcasing the landscape and wildlife of southern Canada. Surely?

Not quite.

Natural Wonder + Casino

Niagara Falls is actually very heavily developed – to the point of absurdity, really.

We approach the falls from the Canadian side, which has the best view (no, really – it does – sorry USA) and instead of being gradually led through forests and mountainside to see the towering falls up gradually appearing in the distance behind sun-dappled trees, we just suddenly arrive smack bang in the middle of a miniature Las Vegas.

It feels a bit “oh yeah, there are some big waterfalls around here somewhere – but wouldn’t you rather play another hand of blackjack”.

No.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. According to the Niagara Parks agency, there was an admission fee to see the falls back in 1832. They say;

The first enclosed stairs were built in 1818, and a spiral staircase was constructed in 1832 for visitors to enter what was then called the “Sheet of Falling Water” attraction. The admission fee was $1, and for an additional dollar, certificates were presented to those who had completed the trip behind the Falls.

Being a tourist attraction is old hat for Niagara Falls.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The pristine view that we were expecting at Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

We don’t have any photographs to share of the long line of casinos and massive hotels that line the upper banks along the Falls, because who wants to see that? Just prepare yourselves, is all we’re saying – if you’re expecting Niagara Falls to be remote and untouched, you’re going to be disappointed.

Now that is out of the way – we can talk about the Niagara Falls waterfalls.

One word – woah.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The sun is out and the wind is up a little, and everywhere around the falls there are miniature rainbows following you around.

If the world was just we’d be spotting pots of gold everywhere we looked, and little leprechauns would be carrying our things for us and calling us ‘Sir’, but the world isn’t just and this is Canada, not Ireland. No gold today.

Rainbows need water, by the way, and they’re caused by the sheer volume of water pouring over the edge of the falls and being picked up by the wind. It means that it is seriously wet around here – yes, even two hundred metres away from the falls. We would have been smart to bring an umbrella, or a waterproof jacket with us. This is definitely a sun shower – no clouds needed.

Photo by paul (dex) bica, Licensed under CC.

Photo by paul (dex) bica, Licensed under CC.

The archetypal Niagara Falls image, like the amazing photograph above, is found on the Canadian side of the border between Canada and the USA, close to the Horseshoe Falls. As we get close to the guard railings it is almost too hard to process the sheer power and volume of the water that must be rushing through the falls every second. The long curve of the Horseshoe gives an incredible perspective to the vivid green water contrasting against the pure white of the voluminous spray.

Christine turns to us and asks; want to get closer?

Not really, we think.

Behind the Niagara Falls

Somewhere in the vicinity of four milion cubic feet of water go over the falls every minute (we used Imperial because it sounds bigger; in Metric it’s around 100,000 cubic metres).

Christine grabs our tickets for the Journey Behind the Falls experience. We’re handed a (biodegradable) waterproof poncho and squash into an elevator that feels like it was part of the very first tourist attraction in Niagara Falls that we mentioned earlier.

We descend in the depths of the rock before the door creak open and we step out into tunnels built as far back as 1889. “They’re safe” we’re assured.

The noise, the roar from the falls is more than sound. You can feel the pressure and deep, low thrum generated by these elemental forces, and it is especially overawing as you get closer to the tunnel exit and begin to glimpse the tonnes of water rushing past at sixty-five kilometres an hour.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

As you can see in the photograph, there are no real barriers to stop you from getting as close as you wish to the waterfall. Of course, most people, us including, are keeping a very, very respectful distance away from the edge of that ledge. We’re around one-third of the way down the waterfall but that is still a drop of 34 metres.

At the mouth of another tunnel exit, we head outside underneath a platform to get a better view of the waterfall, and are numbed by the relentless spray and the perspective that this view affords.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

It is an awe-inspiring view. Cold; but awe-inspiring.

Warming back up

We’d be remise if we didn’t mention, at this point, one of Canada’s national drinks.

Tim Horton’s, the Canadian version of Starbucks crossed with Dunkin’ Donuts, is exactly what we need to warm up. The Vanilla Cappuccino goes down a treat…as does the second.

Finally some warmth returns to our extremities, and it’s time to move on to our next activity.

In the mood for a bargain?

The Canada One outlet stores near Niagara Falls are a must-visit if you’re looking to grab some bargains while you’re in Canada. We managed to pick up discounted Coach, Ralph Lauren Polo, Colorado, and Nike gear – so much that our poor little car complained the whole way back to Toronto.

It’s Cold in Canada, hey. Ice Wine, hey.

Christine drives us away from the commercialised, yet naturally compelling, Niagara Falls and promises a unique taste experience next.

We’re on the way to the Jackson-Triggs winery, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Canada is one of few nations in the world who can produce a type of wine known a ice-wine. The tradition originally comes from Germany, with whom Canada competes with for ice-wine supremacy. Of Canada’s annual production, most comes from Ontario, and the micro-climates of Niagara-on-the-Lake make this an ideal location to sample this unusual type of wine.

Photo by Graham, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Graham, Licensed under CC.

Invented by accident by those crazy Germans, the point is to leave the grapes on the vine through several frost-thaw cycles, and when pressing them, to aim for an optimal mix of thawed and semi-frozen grapes. Too cold, and you could break your winepress, as this NYTimes article describes.

Pressing the grapes while they are semi-frozen means that the water is crystallised and remains behind, leaving a concentrated cocktail of sugars to be put into the barrel.

Producing ice-wine is a risky business – there’s frost, disease, and calamity to contend with, but as the first golden drops is poured into our glass it becomes clear why this is a risk worth taking. The aroma is of caramel, vanilla, and apricots, and we debate whether there’s a hint of musk.

Better have another to check.

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3 Days in New York, Day Three

By Jacob Aldridge

The city that never sleeps also means an early morning rise and shine, but only for a good reason: we’re going to be on TV!

Maybe.

Today’s Experience

If you really, really want to feature on the Today Show - win a hotdog eating contest or similar. Otherwise, arrive early.

If you really, really want to feature on the Today Show – win a hotdog eating contest or similar. Otherwise, arrive early.

There’s every excuse for more American coffee this morning, as we find ourselves outside Rockefeller Plaza in the early morning. The Today Show is a New York institution – while the telecast starts at 7am, we’re here just after 6am and we are far from the first people here. Quirky signs (and comfortable shoes) abound. We’re all hoping to find ourselves in the background of this program, broadcast coast to coast in the States and also across Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the Philippines…honestly, we’re also a little star-struck just being this close to Al Roker!

We make it to the first weather segment – and then it’s time for bagels. As we wander down Fifth Avenue, admiring the commuters because it’s still too early for most tourists, the choice of an easy breakfast location is easy. We turn left onto the famed 42nd Street … and find ourselves in the food court of Grand Central Station! Bagel in one hand, fresh coffee in the other, we stand as a group inside the main concourse.

Just trying to take it in.

An amazing photograph inside Grand Central Station's Main Concourse. Grand Central Station is strictly called Grand Central Terminal.

Immense. Photo by Diliff, CC License

Can you believe in the late 1960s multiple plans were drawn up to demolish this cavernous space and replace it with a tower block? Jackie O was among the more famous New York personalities to rail against it, referring to New York’s “proud monuments … and beauty to inspire our children”.

Empire State of Mind

Few places in the world are more beautiful and inspiring than this, atop the Empire State Building. Two days ago we climbed 30 Rock during the evening; now is an opportunity to see the New York vistas in full daylight (although the cold weather up here doesn’t make it feel like full daylight!).

Walking around the observation deck is made all the more impressive by having had two day’s experience walking around the New York streets below – we can see where we crossed Central Park; up Fifth Avenue all the way to Tiffany’s; across to the Brooklyn Bridge; and down past 1 World Trade Centre to (just, in the distance) The Statue of Liberty.

Balloons flying over Central Park. View from the Empire State Building.

Balloons flying over Central Park.

View of Downtown New York from the Empire State Building

You can always go – Down town! (Wait, we went yesterday.)

From here we can also look down at Midtown – Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, and Greenwich Village, where our feet will take us next.

Empire State Building shadow, as seen from the observation deck.

A Shadow of Itself.

Just as we prepare to depart, there’s a final moment to take in this majestic spot. From An Affair To Remember to Chuck standing gilted in Season 3 of Gossip Girl, the top of the Empire State Building holds a place in our cultural heart. And here we are!

Living the High Line

New York’s most famous mode of transport has to be its subway system (though we’ll admit the yellow cab – WATCH OUT! there’s another one about to take you out as you cross the street! – is more iconic).  Imagine our surprise to learn that among the most popular tourist (and, on weekends, local) destinations is an abandoned stretch of above ground rail!

Walking the High Line.

The narrow gauge can make this crowded on weekends.

The High Line was built for rail, mostly freight, just before the Great Depression. At the time, it eliminated 105 street-level rail crossings in the growing city, but as rail was replaced by road and Manhattan industry was replaced by proto-Hipsters (we called them Baby Boomers back then), the line grew seldom used. There were moves to tear it down in the 1980s, but over the past 15 years it has increasingly been re-crafted as a meandering path of greenery above the hustle and bustle of the naked city.

Where else would you get this view along one of New York’s numbered Avenues?

There are seats here as well, on the High Line so you can watch many New York minutes pass by.

There are seats here as well, so you can watch many New York minutes pass by.

We can see why the High Line is popular with city lunchers – and as we descend, we stumble into the equally-popular Chelsea Market. I’m going to struggle to choose between a ‘Hale and Hearty Soup’ combination lunch, or the offerings at Amy’s Bread – are you just eyeing off Elini’s New York Cookies??

Shopping, Eating, Sex and the City

There’s an Anthropologie store at the far end of Chelsea Market, and it sets the scene as we wander into New York’s Meatpacking district. We have an afternoon of wandering ahead of us, and with the funky bars only just opening it’s the boutique shops that can’t help but grab our attention. Who would have thought some of the world’s best brands – Ted Baker! Kate Spade! – would be clamouring for space in one of the 250 former slaughterhouses?

To give a focus to our wandering, we decide to head for another New York institution: Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street. Having now walked more than two dozen blocks, all of a sudden our senses are confused: New York’s famous grid system, created by the Commissioners 1811 Plan, is thrown out of whack in Greenwich Village – by 1811 this area was already a popular holiday spot for New Yorkers living downtown, and the existing streets clashed with the Grid Plan here. We double back on ourselves. Eventually.

We know we’re back on track when we see a small square with park benches full of people eating cupcakes … and across the road, a queue out the door of this – the original Magnolia Bakery location. We’ll let you in on a little secret – the cupcakes are famous, but the banana pudding is the real star. If you (or your fear of a sugar coma) limit you to just one thing, definitely choose the banana pudding. (I’ll let you have a taste of my Red Velvet cupcake.)

Banana Pudding or Banana Custard? When it's from Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker St, who cares!

This is my banana pudding face.

A favourite of Sex and the City fans after it featured in Season 2, many of the same fans fail to realise that just around the corner … onto Perry Street … we can actually photograph ourselves in front of Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment!

If SATC is not your style, let’s head a few blocks further south to the corner of Bedford and Grove, where we can look up to the Friends apartment building. Don’t get caught up on which apartment is Monica’s – in the early series they were living in the top floor of a six storey walk-up, but later on they definitely had an upstairs neighbour! Strange things happen in the big city.

The Friends Apartment, Bedford and Grove New York City

Don’t even ask about the balcony. Photo by Rob Young, CC License

Soho, Noho and Bye-Bye NYC!

Powered by a cupcake and custard high, our feet are immune to pain as we walk into the final afternoon of our 3 days in New York. The districts of Soho, Noho, and Nolita provide a contrast of styles and moods – before venturing through these neighbourhoods (and Steve was right on day one, this is a city best seen on foot) we had imagined Manhattan to be a homogeneous city dominated by commercial property. In truth, and our first glimpse at the top of Central Park made this clear, this is a bigger city than we ever could have imagined, and the neighbourhoods really are distinct – and each worth exploring.

Greenwich Village Streets, New York

Doesn’t look like a cliche of New York, does it?

Indeed, with 3 days in New York, we’ve not had a chance to venture far afield – uptown above 100th, across to The Bronx, or Queens, or out to Brooklyn. And changing ferries on Staten Island doesn’t count. So we’ve barely scratched the surface of only one Borough!

Our final New York dinner is back on Greenwich Avenue, at the newly opened and already cool Rosemary’s. A ‘no reservation’ policy means we are rewarded for arriving early (we blame our evening flight for not being fashionably late), and the reward is an eclectic combination of flavours that are best shared as a group … and with whichever wine the server suggests – they’re all the same price at $40 / bottle or $10 / glass.

It’s going to take something impressive to better our 3 days in New York. And as we head to the airport for our very short flight, we have a suspicion that upstate there might just be something sizeable enough.

The Empire State Building, at night, with an American Flag

Now Spreading the Sad News – We’re Leaving Today…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • There are no tickets to the Today Show – finding yourself on TV is a combination of good planning (arriving well before 7am, and preparing a sign so you are ‘ushered’ into a prime position for the outside crosses) and good luck.
  • Tickets for the Empire State Building start at just $25, which gains you entry to the 86th Floor main deck. Buy online in advance to skip the ticket queues, and review options for the 102nd Floor top deck and express ticket add-ons that allow you to skip additional queues for the lifts. (Or just go early in the morning, the best time of day to climb the Empire State Building.)
  • Magnolia Bakery is a definite draw for tourists – we wanted to see where it all began, but to do so we have ignored the locations near our apartment on the Upper West Side, and this morning at Grand Central Terminal (when it was definitely bagel o’clock).
  • Residents have chained off access to the stoop of Carrie’s apartment, and many Sex and the City Tours New York have stopped visiting here on their request. This is understandable – and please, no repeating the drunk nighttime rantings of recovering alcoholic Patrick Casey in Season 2.
  • New York Taxis have a fixed fare of $52 to JFK Airport from anywhere on Manhattan. During peak hours (roughly 7am to 7pm), it’s probably more reliable to take the train out from Penn Station to Jamaica Station, and change there for the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) to JFK. For our evening flight, the taxi made perfect sense.

OK New Yorkers and New York fans – what were the most amazing things we missed in our 3 Days in New York. We’ll definitely be back! Let us know in the comments below, or come start a discussion on our Facebook page.

Disappointment with 1,110% Growth

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Experience

If you read our first month’s review posts (Part 1 and Part 2) you’ll know that EveryDaydream Holiday is a travel entertainment startup – we craft a travel story so real it feels like your own endless vacation, and deliver it to your inbox five days a week.

We’ve also made a commitment to document the process of building this travel startup into a viable and thriving business, and to do so in the open.

Why we are sharing all of this information with you? Because we love articles that peer under the hood (open the kimono?) of other web businesses – and based on the outstanding feedback you sent us after our Month 1 posts, it seems like you do too.

Based on great feedback from swombat last month, we aim to make this month’s communication more directly useful to other startups: it’s still not “3 things we did that changed our business so you can too”, but we’re sharing our experience so you can learn from it rather than going alone yourself.

Our biggest lesson so far?

Write these posts for your business. We have learnt so much reviewing the data, so our advice is to do it for yourself (even if you don’t publish it).

Disappointment with Unique Visitors up 1,110.12%

We were “reasonably” happy with Month 1’s 919 unique visitors.

In Month 2 we had 11,121 unique visitors. Our disappointment comes from the fact that almost all of that traffic was focused on one article and one day.

EveryDaydream Holiday - Month 2 Traffic Data for our travel startup

EveryDaydream Holiday – Month 2 Traffic Data

The post that caused the spike was part two of last month’s analysis – which we affectionately call our “200 Hours Effort” post. It hit the front page of Hacker News just before midnight Sydney time (breakfast time in Silicon Valley) – and created an unbelievable day of excitement for us both. The highlight was being mentioned in the Wall Street Journal ‘Startup Must Reads’, mostly because our families have no idea what Hacker News is.

Even now, one month later, we’re still working through the great ideas and feedback we received from “200 Hours Effort” – on HN, Twitter, and by direct emails from fellow travel startups. Thank you all so much, and please feel free to keep coming with constructive criticism (or love notes!).

The problem, though, is that when you remove that one post, our site traffic was fairly steady. And since that one post is not our core product – it was about our business, not one of the amazing travel experiences we’ve published – it’s not something that will create a sustainable reputation in our target market.

This problem was exacerbated by the immediate consequences that a well-shared article has on a new site’s traffic – namely, that it gave us a temporary traffic boost. And we didn’t appreciate how temporary it was.

When we ignore the enormousness of the spike, you can see the minimal long term benefit we received.

When we ignore the enormousness of the spike, you can see the minimal long term benefit we received.

Here’s the same data, with the big spike removed. On close inspection you can see that, for the week afterwards, average traffic was at a level well above our previous averages. The primary change was a benefit in our Google rankings, with the resulting traffic increase. This was reflected in subscriber numbers – the immediate result of the big traffic day was a 50% increase in subscriber numbers, and we were now getting 2-3 subscribers a day – not earth-shattering, but a jump for us. However we treated both of those results as a new normal. They weren’t.

And so as a result, our focus shifted away from traffic generation to almost exclusively creating our daily content. And when both traffic and subscriber momentum dipped in the second half of the month, we weren’t prepared.

It’s fair to say that following this we had two down energy weeks – we’re living proof of what Marc Andreesen calls “incredible highs and unbelievable lows at whiplash speed”; and we’re definitely experiencing pg’s startup curve (which I’ve written about before).

We were unprepared for the dip, and our expectations were busted. We ended the month with some great raw numbers – traffic and subscribers way up; but not with the most important and intangible metric – momentum.

LESSONS WE’VE LEARNT (SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO)

  • When you’re a new site, one post well shared will have an immediate impact on your search engine experience
  • There will also be lingering benefits to your site-wide traffic, but these won’t last
  • Identify the fundamentals – for us, content, traffic, subscriber numbers and engagement – and never fall for the temptation to ignore one of these, even for a little while

WHAT NEXT FOR TRAFFIC?

Dow Jones Chart 1985 to 2009

Here’s a graph of the Dow Jones from 1985 to 2009. That small blip on the left hand side is the 1987 stock market crash. At the time, it was devastating – like, throw yourself out a window devastating. In hindsight, it’s so ‘small’ I usually have to draw people’s attention to it [I run events, some of which incorporate these charts, as part of my business coaching company].

Why the Stock Market analogy? Well our intent is to make that traffic spike, which currently dominates our landscape, as negligible in our graph as the 1987 crash is in this graph. Early in Month 3, we’re on our way – there are now other days that appear on the graph as something other than a blue line along the bottom. We want Month 3 to be larger, more consistent, and more engergising to us as founders.

CONTENT EXPERIENCE

I had to do some data dumping for analysis – you can skip these lists and go straight to the points below, but I thought it worthwhile sharing so other sites can have some comparable data about traffic.

Here is a top 5 list of our most engaging daily newsletters from this month – the metric we use to measure engagement is Opened Click Through Rate;

  1. Eat. Shop. Cruise? A surprising day in Hong Kong. (29.17%)
  2. Find the best view in Hong Kong. Twice. (23.81%)
  3. Minus 35° Celsius. Time for a swim (20.55%)
  4. Toasting Marshmallows over Lava (19.72%)
  5. Zen and the Art of Painting a Pavilion in Gold Leaf (18.60%)

Here’s a list of our top daily destination travel posts, by pageviews of all time;

  1. Toasting Marshmallows over Lava (1979)
  2. Houston, We Have No Problem (301)
  3. Find the best view in Hong Kong. Twice. (150)
  4. Parading the New Orleans Mardi Gras (147)
  5. Eat. Shop. Cruise? A surprising day in Hong Kong. (136)

And here are the top 5 posts as landing pages from search engine traffic

  1. Guatemala to Belize City Bus Ride (16)
  2. Teotihuacan Pyramid Tour, Mexico City (10)
  3. Toasting Marshmallows over Lava (8)
  4. Parading the New Orleans Mardi Gras (8)
  5. From Glico Neon to Geisha Style (6)

We were interested to see the similarities and the differences in these lists.

Volcanoes are Fun?

Volcanoes are Fun? Photo by Oisin Prendiville, CC License

We published 21 posts this month, and 10 are included in at least one of these lists. What do they have in common, and what sets them apart from the others (including our 5-state southern USA roadtrip)?

Well the data is small, so rather than drawing a conclusion let me put forward my hypothesis around this:

  • ‘Off the beaten track’ style content is rewarded.

We heard this in our pre-launch survey: when we asked “Which type of destinations do you want to see most”, 59% said ‘off the beaten track’ and 56% said ‘every country in the world’ (respondents could choose 3 options).

I believe this is being supported in our data – unusual destinations are being opened, shared externally, and we also rank higher for those less-popular (read: less-competitive) destination phrases.

The challenge is applying this to our ‘Calendar of Awesome’, which is now planned neatly in advance (see Revenue, below). This currently includes a proper trip through Europe via New York City – is Copenhagen going to be considered unusual enough to garner traffic? Is the global popularity of New York going to compensate for the lack of uniqueness that another ‘3 days in New York‘ article will conjure? Time – and the data created in that time – will tell.

And, of course, the old chestnut – what is off the beaten path is subjective. Osaka and Kyoto are exotic destinations … unless you live in Tokyo.

I want to touch briefly on community stuff and social media, as a driver for traffic and as a reward for producing engaging content. When you remove the “200 Hours Effort” post and just look at our core content, there really wasn’t much social data to speak of this month. This was a revelation to us exposed by this analysis, as we had thought social media was contributing more than it turns out it was! So far in Month 3, our traffic efforts have been focused on social media with a big impact.

(This is the perfect time to mention the weekly ‘Where in the World?’ quiz on our Facebook page, for example.)

LESSONS WE’VE LEARNT (SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO)

  • If you produce lots of content, it pays to examine the lots of data created.
  • Create hypotheses, not conclusions, and then test them. This data may look completely different next month.
  • Recognise the value of meta-posts (those about the business) for traffic – and recognise the difference in the traffic.

WHAT NEXT FOR CONTENT?

  • Next, we get to test the hypothesis about off the beaten track. We’re not yet ready to commit fully to only delivering on this – we may find that London and New York are engaging for completely different reasons.
  • Looking forward, there are a higher proportion of near-future locations that I’ve been to previously – we shall see if that helps me create better itineraries or more engaging prose / photos.
  • Creating some more meta-content, but with a greater focus on our target market. About 0.5% of the Hacker News readers last month ended up subscribing to our daily travel emails – we suspect that rate will be much higher if the traffic spikes come from a travel-related site, not Startup News.

REVENUE EXPERIENCE

Last month’s title hook was “How we Turned 200 Hours Effort Into Zero Revenue“. We can’t steal that again, because we’ve actually earned this month a whopping … $6.62.

Our first Amazon affiliate sale - the 21st Century equivalent to framing your first paycheque.

Our first Amazon affiliate sale – the 21st Century equivalent to framing your first paycheque.

  • All from Amazon affiliate fees
    (If you click this link and buy something we get a commission)
  • All (well, both) sales were initiated by the “200 Hours Effort” traffic spike; no purchases were travel related.

Our intent was for the Amazon affiliate program to be temporary (or, more specifically, for the Amazon ads on our homepage and emails to be temporary; specific product links might remain with affiliate codes). And here we are this month still featuring them, and having added World Nomads Travel Insurance to the mix (worth noting – that’s a genuine recommendation based on our personal experience using them).

We applied to a travel specific affiliate network, and were not accepted (based, we understand, on the age of our site). We have been accepted into Lonely Planet’s program, and will be rolling that out (final research going to plan) this month. (Again, we actually use and recommend Lonely Planet guides, and would do so regardless of the affiliate agreement.)

But affiliate advertising was never our business model, and work is underway behind the scenes to build our direct advertising program.

We believe there’s an opportunity connecting small businesses (like a local restaurant or boutique hotel) with travellers early in the travel inspiration process. It’s great for a restaurant owner to be on someone’s short list based on TripAdvisor ratings; but how much more powerful is it for them to be part of the reason someone is inspired to visit a destination?

Part of the delay in launching this program is ethical discussions between us as co-founders. This is becoming more difficult to resolve when you look at the business models for content-led businesses like The Atlantic and BuzzFeed. There, content as simply entertainment has seen examples of them opting not to distinguish between advertising from editorial.

As a content entertainment site, where do we sit in that spectrum? To what extent will we allow advertising to impact content?

More on that when decisions have been finalised, but it’s looking like a filter around improving the quality of our content and adding utility to the reader. EveryDaydream Holiday is not a site for your traditional ‘reach and frequency’ marketing dollars – nor are we going to feature Scientology Beach Resorts simply because we’ve been paid to do so.

I mentioned previously our ‘Calendar of Awesome’. This maps out our itinerary for the future – currently just over 3 months in advance (a goal identified in last month’s post, now met). A key benefit of this is being able to approach or respond to advertisers well in advance – creating time for conversation and personalisation.

(For returning readers who want to know, our content creation is not yet far ahead of our publishing schedule – a key risk for our daily email business model.)

LESSONS WE’VE LEARNT (SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO)

  • We knew, but in case you aren’t aware, that part of why affiliate programs make poor revenue models is the minimum thresholds that must be reached before they pay out. So while we’ve “made” $6.62, in reality we won’t see that money until we reach the $150 threshold with Amazon.
  • Put more time aside than you are currently planning to, to implement your revenue plans. Unless you’re well-funded and part of a land grab for customers, progress in this area is a key part of maintaining your energy and momentum.

WHAT NEXT FOR REVENUE?

  • We could do ‘more of the same’ – there’s definitely more we can do to integrate useful affiliate links into our content.
  • But we believe our opportunity remains with the larger-value direct advertising. Expect next month to see a specific page for Advertising with EveryDaydream Holiday and maybe (depending on speed of conversion) some data in the revenue section around sales in this sphere.
  • Content creation revenue (eg, producing an ebook from our detailed series of posts about New Zealand) remains part of our future plans – we create travel entertainment, why not find a way to package it such that people will see more value and purchase that?

Want to be involved?

  • We want your thoughts, and I’m sure other readers here and on Hacker News would benefit as well.
  • If you do “Love to Travel More Than You Love to Work”, consider subscribing to our free daily newsletter or Liking our Facebook page.
  • And if you have any specific questions about your business, and you think our experience might help, please let us know – my email is jacob@everydaydreamholiday.com.
  • Lastly, keep an eye out for part two, which will be a more thorough analysis of our email marketing efforts based not just on Month 2 but our first 50 email campaigns! (This link will go live when the article does.)
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3 Days in New York, Day Two

By Jacob Aldridge

Tuesday starts with our NYC local Steve at the door with great news – there’s bottomless coffee at the nearby Hi Life Bar and grill for breakfast. Plus, the french toast is amazing, and every meal comes with a free side of cinnamon toast and blueberry muffins. The American diner style feels right at home here and (one more cup of joe first) it’s the perfect start to kick off our second New York day.

Hi Life Bar, on Amsterdam Street, New York City. Bottomless Coffee, great cinnamon toast and muffins, and New York's excellent brunch.

Hi Life Bar, on Amsterdam Street. All photos today are Copyright, All Rights Reserved, used here with permission.

Our first stop is the Frick Museum, which we highlighted yesterday. From there, it’s time to go … DOWN TOWN!

Today’s Experience

We’re on the Subway again, this time heading downtown on the Green lines (we let the number 6 pass; it’s the local, and we wanted an express to go this distance) to Wall Street. Back when New York was still called New Amsterdam, a wall here marked the northern edge of the settlement – 150 years later, it became the trading hub of the growing colony. What would the earliest traders, operating underneath a tree, have thought about sub-prime mortgages and a global financial crisis?

Across the road from the New York Stock Exchange (which is actually on Broad Street) is a building most tourists traipsing through here pass right by, the Federal Hall National Memorial. It was on this site in 1789 that George Washington was inaugurated as the United States of America’s first President – and there’s a grand bronze statue of him to mark the spot.

George Washington stares down the New York Stock Exchange. We know which institution America is more proud of!

George Washington stares down the New York Stock Exchange.

The original Federal Hall, which was also home to the Congress that passed the US Bill of Rights, was demolished in 1812. Its 1842 successor is now a free museum dedicated to the earliest national history of this country, including the Bible Washington used for his swearing in.

Lunch time today is another US culinary institution, Chipotle. We get there wandering down Broadway, and past Bowling Green, another historic site although more famous today for the giant bull statue at its apex. The bulls are back on Wall Street, and this anatomically-correct statue is always popular for photographs!

The Statue of Liberty

Our mexican fix satiated, it’s time to see that icon of immigration and New York’s melting pot culture, The Statue of Liberty. It is possible to catch a ferry out to Ellis Island, even organise to climb inside Lady Liberty, but when time is tight on your 3 days in New York the best option also happens to be the free one!

New York downtown skyline, as seen from the Staten Island Free Ferry.

New York skyline, from the Ferry.

The Staten Island Ferry runs from the very bottom of Manhattan along the 30 minute trip to New York’s fifth borough, Staten Island. A vital commuter line, at this time of day it’s also very popular with the tourists who know that this is the free (yes – completely free) way to take a cruise right past the Statue of Liberty.

We grab a seat at the back of the boat, the better to appreciate the receding Downtown skyline as well, and prepare ourselves for the obligatory photograph!

The Statue of Liberty, as seen from the free Staten Island Ferry.

The Statue of Liberty, as seen from the free Staten Island Ferry.

At the other end, there’s a bit of a scramble – we all have to disembark the boat and go around to re-enter for the trip back to Manhattan  There are things to see and do on Staten Island … they’re just not as interesting as the afternoon we have planned.

Ground Zero

The Sphere in Battery Park, with the eternal flame also in shot. This is a memorial to the 9/11 Terrorist attacks, part of our 3 days in New York experience

The Sphere in Battery Park, with the eternal flame also in shot.

We come off the Staten Island ferry, and head left to Battery Park. The defensive front of the earliest settlements, the most striking feature of today’s park is The Sphere, a sculpture by Fritz Koenig that once stood in the plaza of the World Trade Centre, and was moved here – unrepaired – and placed beside an eternal flame, in memory of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

No trip to New York city is complete without acknowledging that day, and also now witnessing the birth of the new World Trade Centre site. Our next stop, then, is St Paul’s Chapel on Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets. This 250 year old building survived the Great New York Fire of 1776 … and as the oldest public building in the city, it has hosted four Presidents (Washington’s pew is still on display), a future King of England, and played a central role in New York’s darkest days.

St Paul's Chapel New York, from outside on Broadway. Washington's chair inside, among the September 11 memorials.

St Paul’s Chapel from the outside, and Washington’s chair inside

Located just 400 metres from where the Twin Towers fell, St Paul’s was undamaged. It immediately became a focal point for the rescue efforts. Firemen changing their boots would leave one pair atop the fence spikes of the small cemetery behind the chapel. In the days after, those boots marked many of the 343 who entered the burning buildings and did not return.

As we enter this active church, we can see the impact of September 11. For eight months after that day, this was a place of rest and refuge for the Ground Zero recovery efforts. Now it is a memorial – part solemn, as could be expected; part uplifting, as we are reminded of the best humanity can offer through the stories told here; and throughout, you are only one story, one exhibit away from tears.

A note on the boots of September 11 firemen, outside St Paul's Chapel New York

A note on the boots, outside St Paul’s.

At Ground Zero itself, a phoenix has risen. 1 World Trade Center is once again New York’s tallest building, and is just the largest in a complex that will be under construction until 2020. A dedicated memorial is now open.

Insightful Steve suggests an option to liven the mood a little. Two blocks away, from the balcony of the Living Room cocktail bar of the W Hotel, we can see down into the Memorial, and over the World Trade Centre construction site. It’s an opportunity to experience the activity, without having to queue, and over cocktails there’s ample time to discuss the rest of our afternoon.

Shopping or Scenery

Some people come to Manhattan to walk the streets and feel the atmosphere while wearing out their shoe leather. Some people come to Manhattan … mostly just to buy new shoe leather.

If you’re part of the former, Steve has a plan – we’re going to cut across Downtown, and take in the New York City Hall, see the Supreme Court Building, and cross to the centre of the Brooklyn Bridge for another almost-uninterrupted view of the Manhattan skyline.

View uptown from the Brooklyn Bridge.

View uptown from the Brooklyn Bridge.

The alternative, should you wish, is to make the most of some of New York’s most famous bargains. We’re just a few blocks away from Century 21 … and from there you’ll have ample opportunity to wander through Chinatown and the shops of Canal Street. Keep some cash in reserve for tomorrow, however, when we hit up the fancier Midtown … and be prepared to ask yourself this question: Do you risk passing this shop buy??

The sign says "We are probably the lowest priced in the city". What an interesting shop sign!

Down near the WTC – what an opportunity! Probably.

New York’s Best Wine List? (And More Cocktail Secrets)

We’ll all use the Subway to head back uptown, but our destination is only to go as far as Union Square. While famous for its demonstrations, both radical and otherwise, this square was actually named because it was formed as the Union between two streets during the Commissioner’s street Plan of 1811 (that was also the one that created some sharp angles, made famous by the Flatiron building and Times Square).

We have dinner reservations at Union Square Cafe, known by the locals not only for its excellent food but also the wisdom of the wait staff when it comes to matching any of their extensive range of wines to the specific palate and food choices of each diner. Listen to their advice and, as long as your budget stretches beyond $60 bottles of excellent red, enjoy the experience.

After an exquisite meal, it’s tempting to avoid the crowds. But Times Square awaits – what to do? Listen to the advice of our New York local, of course, as Steve guides around the crowds and up to the Renaissance Lounge. Here there are cocktails and bar snacks and all the lights of Times Square, without being bumped around by out-of-towners (or New Yorkers in a rush!).

Looking for a cocktail bar overlooking Times Square New York? The R Lounge is perfect - here's the view and how to get in.

Cocktail Views of Times Square

Hover just right and … yes … we’ve secured the lounge space right by the window, where we can watch the New York evening turn into New York night.

That calls for another round of cocktails I think. And it wouldn’t be proper for me to come all the way to this island, and not order the Red Stag Manhattan. What can I order for you – the Cucumber Gin Martini or the Strawberry Caipiroska? How about the conclusion to our 3 days in New York – you can read about our final day here.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • If you do wish to experience the 9/11 Memorial, entry is currently free but you must reserve a space in advance.
  • Union Square Cafe is now open for weekend brunch – we’ve had experience of walking in off the street (admittedly, early in the evening) and been seated. Haven’t book ahead? If you’re happy to sit at the bar, walk on in and ask – you might get lucky.
  • The ‘R Lounge’ in the Renaissance is another of those little locals-only secrets that amazing travel newsletters like ours keep ruining. Still, even if it gets a little crowded up here it’s still more relaxed than down on street level.
  • There are loads of reasons to cross the Brooklyn Bridge completely and dine in a different borough. I suspect we’ll be back come Baseball season, to watch the Yankees and explore the boroughs that aren’t Manhattan – maybe even some of the State that’s not New York City!

We’re almost through our 3 Days in New York. Is there anything we haven’t visited so far that you want to make sure we add to tomorrow’s plans? Let us know in the comments below, or come start a discussion on our Facebook page.

September 11 Memorial Plaque - May We Never Forget.

September 11 – May We Never Forget.

3 Days in New York, Day One

By Jacob Aldridge

It’s an early flight, but as we descend over Manhattan with the sun still just rising there’s no doubt Alicia Keys and Jay-Z are correct: “These streets will make you feel brand new.”

Our flight from Florida to New York actually takes us into Newark, New Jersey – but from there it’s an easy train journey into Penn Station, right in the heart of New York, New York!

Start Spreading the News!

Overlooking Downtown Manhattan, New York, from top of the Empire State Building

Author Jacob Aldridge overlooking New York City. All photos in this article are Copyright, All Rights Reserved, permission granted by the artist.

Today’s Experience

If the idea of a New York subway ride terrifies you, then we’ve got great news – you’re living in the past, and we’re going to help you face those fears right now! Penn Station is on 34th Street, part of the famous New York grid system that makes exploring this enormous island so easy. We’re staying in an apartment on the Upper West Side, and 96th Street is a long walk from 34th!

View of the East River from the Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York, New York USA.

View of the Hudson River from the Upper West Side.

Like the great underground railways of other world cities, the key to New York’s subway success is frequency. No checking timetables, we walk down to the Red line Uptown and two minutes later we’re on an express car north. At the other end is Steve – a southern-boy-cum-New-York-local, and the man behind our magic for the next 3 days.

“Leave your bags,” he says. “The city is meant to be seen above ground, and on foot.”

Central Park

Central Park is a ridiculous oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle where dreams are made, yet this $528 billion real estate opportunity is the beating heart of the city. Our walk through the park, with spring greenery just starting to show in places, takes us past the top end of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. This is an overwhelming moment, the first opportunity to fully appreciate the size of New York (well, really, just the size of Manhattan – we have to remind ourselves this is just one of five boroughs).

Around most of the city, the tall buildings allow you to feel insulated, part of this block, this neighbourhood, this community. Even entering the park, the trees have a similar, insulating effect.

New York city views over the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir, Central Park.

New York city views over the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir, Central Park.

Suddenly, at the top of the reservoir with nothing to block our view … we are confronted by size. By space. By magnitude. Way, way off in the distance, across this expanse of water, are the first of the skyscrapers. Trump Tower. Rockefeller Centre. The pinnacle of the Empire State Building. We know these buildings, we know their size, we know that beyond them, way beyond them in face, is downtown, where more skyscrapers stand, where the World Trade Centre stood, but we can’t even see that far from here.

This city is enormous. And yet, also, so very quiet.

Museum Mile

Steve is just taking us across Central Park right now, and before long we find ourselves on Fifth Avenue. It’s the fancy Upper East Side, and as we turn south toward the city we enter the Museum Mile – a stretch home to many of the city’s (nay, the world’s) best museums.

Our destination is the one museum most travellers miss; it’s the one that offers the most to people like us who like good art … but really have no idea what we’re talking about!

The Guggenheim Museum stands out along the Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side, New York

The Guggenheim Museum stands out along the Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side, New York

So we pass, and appreciate the bold architecture, of the Guggenheim. We see the masses of art students sketching on the stairs of the grand Metropolitan Museum of Art (yes, even on a Monday when it’s closed!). And we stop to note a building that’s more house than museum – because that’s exactly how it was originally built.

The Frick Collection, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street, is housed in the home of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick. A collector of art, particularly European masterpieces in paint, porcelain, and sculpture, after his death in 1919 Frick’s wife and their daughter Helen worked to open the works and the home up to the public.

The Frick Collection is an impressive experience. It is not as overwhelming as a large museum, and unlike collections created by a succession of curators this very much represents the varied interests of one man. The audio guide, which is free with entry, allows you to pick and choose to learn more about the works that impress you most, from Rembrandt to Rodin. While it’s closed Monday, we’ll be back here to take it in later in our trip.

The Frick Collection, formerly the Frick family mansion, upper east side New York City.

The Frick Collection, formerly the Frick family mansion.

If you don’t want to wait, you can take the virtual tour right now. Look for the paintings by American artists – only two of the 137 masterpieces Frick acquired were painted in the New World.

Strawberry Fields and Chocolate Concretes

We could follow Fifth Avenue further down, but Steve is pulling us back into Central Park. We’re crossing over it again, and 27 blocks further south it’s a lot busier here. The buzz of the crowd seems to increase as we approach the west side of the park once more – suddenly there are more people, more bikes, and more touts selling sketches they’ve made and city photographs they haven’t.

Steve reveals why – this is the area of Central Park now known as Strawberry Fields, dedicated to John Lennon who was shot dead in front of his nearby apartment. The focal point is the ‘Imagine circle’, a mosaic almost continually filled with flowers left by fans of Lennon, and those who continue to spread his message of peace.

The Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields, Central Park New York City. No 3 days in New York are complete without it.

The Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields.

For lunch, we’re heading to the nearby Shake Shack – for an experience that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been to a burger joint that was created by a fine dining chef (in this case, Union Square Cafe’s Danny Meyer). Let’s just say, this ain’t McDonalds, the vegetarian option is actually as sensational as the bacon-laden SmokeShack, and you’re a fool if you don’t also order one of the Concretes (frozen custards) as part of your meal.

Muppets and Diamonds

Manhattan has featured in countless films – we’re running a question on our Facebook page about which New York films you think are best. One of our favourites is The Muppets Take Manhattan, so we figured if they’re here … then we must find them!

The WhatNot Workshop, FAO Schwarz New York.  The best New York Souvenir.

Found them! The WhatNot Workshop, FAO Schwarz New York.

So after a longer wander to the bottom of Central Park we find ourselves standing in front of the life-size toy soldiers at FAO Schwarz. Tom Hanks fans will be rushing inside and upstairs – yes, the big piano that featured in the film Big is here … and yes, you can have a turn on it if you want!

Big, the Tom Hanks film, featured this very piano.

You may have to wait for the kids to get off first!

Just some of the WhatNot options at the Make your own Muppet Workshop.

Just some of the WhatNot options at the Make your own Muppet Workshop.
Keep reading to see what I will make – yes, given all of these choices and an infinite Muppet world, I’m chosing to make a WhatNot that looks like me!

When you’re done, we’ll be downstairs at the What Not workshop. What Nots are the Muppets you see in the background – they were the audience for the Muppet Show, and they joined the famous Muppets (like Ernie and Bert) for the wedding scene of Manhattan. This workshop is the only place in the world where you can make your own Muppet.

Yes, we said it … You. Can. Make. Your. Own. Muppet.

The recommended ages of 5-12 are ridiculous – this is totally an adult experience, and before we know it we’re consumed in the debate about whether to go with an oval or pointed nose, and whether to dress our What Not in the Princess Outfit or the Statue of Liberty costume!

Undoubtedly the most awesome souvenir you can acquire on your New York Trip, but not the priciest. For that you have to head two blocks south, and back onto Fifth Avenue. What were we saying about great New York movies? That’s a list that isn’t complete until you add the most fabulous movie of them all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Outside Tiffany & Co, on Fifth Avenue. Grab your croissant and coffee, and make your own Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Outside Tiffany & Co, on Fifth Avenue.

We’re sure the great folk at Tiffany’s won’t appreciate us saying this, but after you get your requisite photo outside, it’s worth walking inside just to take in this experience. Nowadays, when there’s a Tiffany store on every corner (Tiffany’s Bondi Junction, seriously?) it’s nice to breathe in the rarefied air of the 176-year-old flagship store that started it all.

There’s plenty more shopping down here on street level, but night is falling … and we have an appointment much higher up!

Top of the Rock

Most tourists head to the top of the Empire State Building, the only vista of New York where you can’t see its most famous building (because you’re standing on it!). So we’ll let you in on a little secret – Rockefeller Centre, made famous most recently as the home of TV show 30 Rock, offers a ‘Top of the Rock’ experience where you can head to the summit of this 259m high building…and see it all.

Preparing to enter 30 Rock before our climb to the Top of the Rock, Rockefeller Centre New York

Preparing to enter 30 Rock.

Wow – be prepared for the bracing breeze as you step outside at the top! February in New York is colder at night, and 70 stories up! And then take in the panorama – first, looking out across Central Park where we walked today. Again, the size of Manhattan becomes apparent when even from this view we can barely see the other end of the park.

And then walking around, the geography of the city becomes clearer. Heading to the right, we can see past the Chrysler Building to the East River that separates Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn. The East River Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge now come into sight, exposing us for the first time to Downtown Manhattan.

Then there’s the Empire State Building itself, lit tonight in Red, White, and Blue. MidTown New York becomes obvious here, the expanse of smaller, more residential buildings that fill the space between the Empire State Building and the towers down toward Wall Street at the the bottom of Manhattan.

View Downtown in New York, from the top of Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building is lit up.

View Downtown in New York, from the top of Rockefeller Plaza

The brightness of Times Square stands out as we keep moving around, and beyond it over the Hudson River we can see the lights of Jersey – including Newark Airport where we arrived what feels like a lifetime ago. Returning to where we first began, and the night is setting in. Central Park is now most noticeable as an empty blackness in the heart of street and building lights. We feel you New York.

Broadway

And there’s only one more experience to make this day complete, and that’s taking in a show along the world’s most famous theatre stretch – Broadway.

We have tickets to the current Broadway sensation, Newsies. Centring a Broadway musical on a mostly male cast and based on a Disney film whose success is best described as ‘cult following’ was a gamble … and this production is a jackpot!

Times Square Advertisement for Newsies, the Musical. Currently a Tony Award Winning Broadway Sensation, and we loved it!

Times Square Advertisement for Newsies, the Musical

The story of the 19th Century strike by newspaper boys against the capital excesses of the time has struck a chord in the middle of this global financial crisis. But this is not just right story, right time – this is a production that will have you humming the tune to The World Will Know and King of New York before you even realise it.

Our takeaway is also the power of male dance – put a group of guys on stage and dress them in khaki and grey and the audience has no choice but to marvel at the strength and technique these guys have.

Jaws drop. Feet tap. And as the audience empties onto the street at the end of the performance we get a feeling for why this is a city that never sleeps.

We could do anything. Mostly, we just want to play with our FAO Schwarz Muppets!

We could do anything. Mostly, we just want to play with our Muppets! (And yes, that is the Wedding Scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan playing in the background.)

There’s so much more we could be doing, right now. And you can do it, right now – click here to read Day Two in New York…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • New York is serviced by two major airports – JFK (out past Brooklyn) and Newark, New Jersey. You don’t want to spend time in either. Worse still, you do want to allow yourself plenty of time to get to either – public transport is more reliable than a taxi (in case of traffic issues).
  • Get a Metro Card (valid on both Subways and buses) and download a copy of the Subway map. If you’re staying for more than 5 days, just get a weekly card – sure, you want to walk around the city as much as possibly, but having unlimited weekly travel means never having to think about whether you can take that subway ride to squeeze in dinner at that great restaurant people keep telling you about.
  • If you have more time, or museums are a more important part of your travelling, take in the Met. Entry is free BUT they will try to force you into the standard donation of $25. If you can afford that, make the contribution to the future of this institution – but if you can’t, you are able to let them know that and walk right in.
  • Accommodation in New York is not cheap. If you ever meet a New Yorker in your travels, befriend them immediately! (Firstly, because they’re likely friendly and fabulous; prime real estate is a secondary benefit.) Airbnb was actually created in response to finding New York accommodation.

Have you decided which New York movie you love most yet? Tell us over on our Facebook page.

Daytona 500: Race Weekend in Florida

This weekend finds us heading down to Daytona Beach, Florida, once called ‘The World’s Most Famous Beach’. These days there are plenty of other contenders for that title, but Daytona Beach has something they lack.

Specifically, a whopping great big race track, and 200,000 screaming motorsport fans in town for a good time.

We’re here for the Daytona 500, which lives up to it’s name as a 500 mile long (805 km) race held on the speedway racetrack of Daytona Beach.

So Ladies…start your engines.

This Weekend’s Itinerary:

  • Simple – don’t miss the action at the Daytona 500 NASCAR race!

Wait – ladies?

That doesn’t sound right coming off the tongue. Traditionally, the drivers of these speed machines (they reach speeds of around 200 miles per hour – that’s three hundred and twenty one kilometres per hour!) are men, and certainly the winner of the Daytona 500 for the last half century has been a man.

Will we see that change this weekend?

Go Danica! Photo by scott mecum, Licensed under CC.

Go Danica! Photo by scott mecum, Licensed under CC.

Danica Patrick is the most successful woman, ever, in open-wheel racing in America. And on February 17th, 2013, while we were swanning around Santiago Chile, Danica Patrick won pole position in the Daytona 500.

Said Patrick;

I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.

Starting from pole position, Danica will be leading a field of around 43 other drivers, featuring teams from across America. Even the Army is involved.

No matter the outcome, Danica has already earned her place in history – but we’re rooting for her to take the famous Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Come meet the fans.

Photo by Sam Howzit, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Sam Howzit, Licensed under CC.

It’s an enormous event, backed up with extensive caravan and camping accommodation just next to the racetrack. That’s where we’re staying, hoping to get involved in the tailgate party spirit that forms amongst the massive RVs and trucks that fill these lots. It’s not cheap to park here (up to $2,500 for a spot for an RV!) so everyone here is making the most of the occasion.

Your name here. Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

Your name here. Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

We spend the morning getting to know everyone around us and working our way into a few barbecues or two – as long as we bring beer, all is forgiven. As we approach lunchtime, the buzz begins to build. The Daytona 500 is the largest and most prestigious race on the Sprint Car circuit, unusual given that it happens so early on in the race season.

We could easily stay in the carpark and watch the match on a TV embedded in the back of someone’s truck, enjoying some amazing barbecued foods, but we came all this way to see the race. We join the growing crowds and enter the enormous complex to take our seats.

The famous racetrack. Photo by Jeff, Licensed under CC.

The famous racetrack. Photo by Jeff, Licensed under CC.

Photo by tequilamike, Licensed under CC.

Photo by tequilamike, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Nancy Nally, Licensed under CC.

The race kicks off at 1 PM, but all morning there have been presentations, musical acts, and celebrity spotting. Tom Cruise, Keith Urban, Tim Tebow, Brooks and Dunn, even Chubby Checker, have all been spotted attending the Daytona 500 in the past. We’re excited to see who’s going to show up this year.

Engines Started. Time To Race.

Unlike Formula 1 racing, the Daytona 500 Sprint Cup has a rolling start. Rolling starts have some interesting consequences, as do the style of racing that suits looping around a giant circle at 200 miles an hour, drafting the car in front of you.

Consequences like crashes.

Lots of crashes.

Do yourself a favour and watch this video of the 2011 Daytona 500, and see just how many crashes, with the screech of tyres on asphalt and acrid smoke polluting the air, engulf what seems to be almost half the field. In fact there are two major wipeouts in the first couple of minutes.

This is what we’re in for today.

Time to grab a hotdog and a beer, and kick back and enjoy the action.

And go Danica!

Last year's winning NASCAR. Photo by Scott Calleja, Licensed under CC.

Last year’s winning NASCAR. Photo by Scott Calleja, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Freewheeling Daredevil, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Freewheeling Daredevil, Licensed under CC.

Is racing your kind of thing? What other amazing races should we experience the thrill of?

Tell us in the comments!

Why Puerto Rico is America’s 51st State

By Jacob Aldridge

When we arrived here in Puerto Rico, we enjoyed a rapid refresh of the island’s Spanish and American history. This island territory is on the cusp of becoming the USA’s 51st State.

There’s a lot to make Puerto Rico different to the other 50 States, not least its location: Puerto Rico’s capital city San Juan will actually be closer to 33 other countries than it will to Washington DC! But today, we want to put differences aside, and explore the ways in which Puerto Rico will find common ground with the rest of America.

Where is Puerto Rico? Right next to the Dominican Republic, and a long way from Alaska.

Where is Puerto Rico? Right next to the Dominican Republic, and a long way from Alaska. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, CC License.

Why is Puerto Rico like Maui, Hawaii?

Let’s start our morning the refreshing way, by heading down to Condado Beach for a swim. It’s not Puerto Rico’s most gorgeous beach (that’s probably Flamenco Beach, which is on nearby Culebra Island – Puerto Rico is actually a collection of islands; even Old San Juan is technically a separate island, albeit connected by bridges). But Condado is an ideal start to a day in San Juan.

Comparisons with Hawaii – currently America’s only island State – are obvious. And yet many Americans don’t think of Puerto Rico when they consider dream beach holidays. And while Hawaii benefits from being surrounded by 4.5 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean (1.7 million square miles), Puerto Rico will continue to compete with other Caribbean resort destinations. They do have one advantage, however: US Citizens do not need a passport to swim at Condado, Flamenco Beach, or Vieques Bay.

This is an aerial view of Flamenco Beach, Puerto Rico's best beach. If you know of a more stunning beach location … please tell us immediately so we can go!

This is an aerial view of Flamenco Beach. If you know of a more stunning beach location … please tell us immediately so we can go! Photo by Blucolt, CC License.

Why is Puerto Rico like Las Vegas, Nevada?

Gambling, particularly Casino gaming, is still a minority activity in the USA – in fact just one current State, Nevada, allows Casinos to operate state-wide.

Puerto Rico would double that number, and thankfully by bringing a gambling culture that’s more reminiscent of the Rat-Pack-era Las Vegas than The Hangover era Las Vegas. The grand El San Juan hotel and casino has a reputation for being the most opulent; we’re ducking into the Ritz-Carlton instead because we hear they have a better range of table games than most of the others.

First rule to casinos while travelling – No Slots (pokies? fruit machines? call them what you will, they’re not gambling they’re a donation to a company that doesn’t need your money). Roulette, on the other hand, is definitely gambling … and enjoyable as it was putting ten consecutive $2 bets on lucky number 15 only to see both 14 and 16 (twice!) come up, we know when to draw a line.

The second rule to casinos while travelling is placing them into one of 3 categories – sightseeing, reason, or problem.

  • Sightseeing is when you briefly duck into a casino, lost $20, take in the experience and leave (like we’ve done today).
  • Reason is also cool – that’s when you head on a holiday specifically intending to gamble and take in a show, and we won’t pass judgement because what happens in Vegas (or Atlantic City) stays in Vegas.
  • Problem is when you go to a beautiful island like Puerto Rico … and spend the entire time plowing quarters into slot machines. Choose your category beforehand, and bet with your head not over it.
If the Casino isn't your style, the Ritz-Carlton bar certainly is. Did Dean Martin drink Pina Coladas? They were invented in Puerto Rico in 1963, so this year is the 50th birthday of the Pina Colada. And that's a trick question - Dean Martin drank everything!

If the Casino isn’t your style, the Ritz-Carlton bar certainly is. Did Dean Martin drink Pina Coladas? Photo by Cellular Immunity, CC License. (That’s a trick question – Dean Martin drank everything!)

Why is Puerto Rico like Connecticut?

At 13,792 square kms (5,325 sq mi), Puerto Rico would be the United States’ 3rd smallest State by area – north-eastern Connecticut just beats it for size.

Remarkably, Puerto Rico and Connecticut would also be beside each other in a list of US States by population. Coming in at number 29 and 30 on that list, 3.6 million people call each state home, although in this case Puerto Rico just comes out ahead.

(This also means Puerto Rico would have the same representation at Connecticut – five seats in the US House, two Senators, and 7 votes in the Electoral College to elect a President. That’s more than Iowa … and Puerto Rico could be a swing state in future elections.)

Have you ever challenged yourself (or your group of friends) to drink a bar completely out of your favourite drink? Don't come here and try that with Bacardi. It doesn't matter how big your group tour of the Bacardi Rum Factory is, you won't win.

Have you ever challenged yourself (or your group of friends) to drink a bar completely out of your favourite drink? Don’t come here and try that with Bacardi. Photo by Pat7047, CC License.

Why is Puerto Rico like Lynchburg, Tennessee?

After 4 (6?) Pina Coladas last night, we were a little dismissive of Puerto Rico’s best known rum export, Bacardi. We always like to apologise over a drink, and there’s one other fact that’s compelling us to the Bacardi Rum Factory Tour – it’s free!

Beware of local tour operators offering you this tour for anything up to $40. For the cost of a short ferry ride from San Juan and then a taxi (total: about $1.50 each) you can get here and do exactly the same tour for free. And there are samples!

That’s the same amazing price as a tour of the Jack Daniel’s facilities in Tennessee. We won’t get into a bourbon v whiskey v rum debate here, mostly because whiskey is obviously the superior drink.

Would you like a Nightmare with your Bacardi Breezer? An exhibit inside the Bacardi Rum Factory Tour, and a more realistic version of the Bacardi Bat Symbol (Bacardi Logo) than we expected.

Would you like a Nightmare with your Bacardi Breezer? Photo by Tyler S Miller, CC License.

Why is Puerto Rico like Atlanta, Georgia?

Well we didn’t win big at the Ritz-Carlton, so instead of the private jet tonight we’re still going to be flying Delta Airlines. San Juan’s International airport has a reasonable reputation – Skytrax customers rate it a 6.4 out of 10 which means it’s roughly the same experience as Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport (6.3 out of 10 – and yes, we were also only slightly surprised that there’s a database of airport reviews on the internet!)

We probably wouldn’t care about that comparison … if it weren’t for the fact that our flight from this Caribbean island back to the US mainland is actually direct to Atlanta! Both airports also receive mixed reviews for their spaciousness – in Puerto Rico that’s what comes from building a modern airport that’s not yet heavily serviced; in Atlanta, that’s what comes from being the world’s busiest airport for fifteen consecutive years.

Why is Puerto Rico NOT like Los Angeles? I doubt this graffiti art from San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin airport would ever be installed inside LAX.

Why is Puerto Rico NOT like Los Angeles? I doubt this graffiti art from San Juan airport would ever be installed inside LAX. Photo by jplpagan, CC License.

If you needed something to snap you out of the island paradise routine, a busy airport will probably do it. And there’s only so much laying around on a beach you can do, even on a dream holiday. So ladies and gentlemen … start your engines …

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Our two days in Puerto Rico centred on San Juan; for the beach island experience head east to Fajardo, and plan to visit the islands of Palominitos, Culebra, and Vieques.
  • While the 2,500km (1550 mi) distance between San Juan and Washington DC is large, it’s actually only half the distance from DC to Anchorage, Alaska, and one-third the distance from Honolulu, Hawaii. In fact, it’s even closer than Salt Lake City, Utah!
  • It’s been estimated that the entire population of the world could fit into America’s smallest State, Rhode Island. That means you could fit about 22 billion people into Puerto Rico, but good luck enjoying the beach after that.
  • We read several reviews that said Atlanta’s airport is great “when you get used to it”. That bodes well for we everydaydreamers – this is our second visit in a month, and we’ll be back again (carrying golf clubs, hint hint) in the not too distant future.
  • And if you liked this article, seize your wanderlust travel bug and subscribe to our free daily travel newsletter.

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Fresh Pina Colada in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

By Jacob Aldridge

Wednesday morning we wake, rested, after a sleep in – but there’s still time for one final walk along the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana beach before we head to the airport. We’ve only got an hour in the air today, before touching down in Puerto Rico,  America’s unofficial 51st State, and the birthplace of the Pina Colada!

The House Where in 1963 The Pina Colada was created by Don Ramon Portas Mingot. Happy 50th Birthday La Pina Colada! You've been embracing 21st Birthdays all that time.

Happy 50th Birthday La Pina Colada! You’ve been embracing 21st Birthdays all that time. Photo by Mogdan Bigulski, CC License.

Today’s Experience

World politics is an irrelevant side-note for many travellers; for us, history is the context that imbues every aspect of a modern holiday destination’s culture.

For instance, the island was originally named San Juan Bautista and the main city was Puerto Rico – at some point in the centuries after Christopher Columbus arrived here (on his second voyage of discovery, in 1493) and the names were given, they became swapped, and so the city of San Juan is now the capital city of this island named Puerto Rico.

Looking out over San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Looking out over San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jeff Gunn, CC License.

An early 19th Century independence movement was put down by the Spanish crown without much resistance, unlike nearby Haiti which became independent from France – an outcome that still haunts them. Spanish rule would finally be overthrown at the end of the 19th Century, when the United States invaded during the Spanish-American war and was ultimately granted control (along with control of the Philippines and Guam, in case you’ve ever wondered why those far-flung archipelagos fall under American control). The relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States has continued to develop, to the point where just last year a majority of the citizens here voted for US Statehood.

The final steps to make Puerto Rico America’s official 51st State are now in the hands of the US Congress … not a government body known for moving with speed, although delicious debate about whether the Puerto Rican State would vote for Democrat or Republican Senators may encourage both sides to demonstrate some interest.

The walls have been here for centuries - the furry friend is a more recent introduction. There are no native Pandas in the USA.

The walls have been here for centuries – the furry friend is a more recent introduction. Photo by Ken and Nyetta, CC License.

Enough Politics – Let’s Dance!

Old San Juan is the focus of our ‘cultural’ evening. As a crucial trading port during the great age of sea warfare, San Juan was heavily fortified – the result today is Old San Juan, where walls and fortresses form part of the landscape, but never fully enclose you. To help us navigate these streets – and also choose from the stunning array of food available – we’re taking Flavours of San Juan’s ‘Signature Dinner Tour‘. Over 2.5 hours, we have a chance to learn more about the history of this city, starting with the Plaza des Armes where our tour begins along cobble-stone streets.

Plaza des Armes, part of Old San Juan Puerto Rico. This is the meeting point for our Flavours of San Juan's 'Signature Dinner Tour'.

Plaza des Armes, part of Old San Juan and the meeting point for our food walking tour. Photo by Roger 4336, CC License.

The food choices are spectacular. All in all, we plan to stop at 4 separate restaurants for a small course, an opportunity to sample the local cuisine … and also the local rum. Do not ask me to choose between the piña coloda and the mojito! (Although, on the food front, my vote goes to the bread pudding and local coffee at the last stop. Maybe you preferred the chicharones de pollo?)

An enticing matrix of Puerto Rican cuisine.

An enticing matrix of Puerto Rican cuisine – get into it. Photo by Gylo, CC License.

Dinner having satiated our hunger, and whet our appetite for more drinks, there’s only one more place to head – and that’s the nearby Nuyorican Cafe, where the live salsa music doesn’t even kick off until 11pm! Now the first step to dancing salsa … is to forget all of the steps you learned watching the Tango in Buenos Aires last week. Wonderfully, the salsa is a much faster-paced, social dance – different to the soulful, paired-up longing of the Tango.

Feel the energy of the Old San Juan night. Salsa dancing has a tradition here. There's a key difference between Salsa and Tango dancing - Salsa is faster and easier for beginners.

Feel the energy of the Salsa Dance. Photo by Ron Sombilon, CC License.

So as the night gets later, the band gets louder, the rum gets easier to drink, and the dance just gets faster and faster. And faster and faster and rum and band and louder and rum. And stamp those feet and laugh out loud – the first 50 states are going to have a lot of fun learning from their new partner!

Well, given the Pina Colada was created here in the home of rum, it would be rude not to have another.

Well, given the Pina Colada was created here in the home of rum, it would be rude not to have another. Photo by Valters Krontals, CC License.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • If you want to find your own restaurant – and eat a whole meal in one place like a normal traveller! – a good starting point is Forteleza St in Old San Juan. As always, look for the restaurant full of locals – if the chatter sounds Spanish, that sounds good; if it’s thick American accents ordering shots of Puerto Rican rum, avoid.
  • The Signature Dinner Tour runs daily, and costs $79 per person (that includes the two cocktails)
  • Puerto Rico considers itself the rum capital of the world. You’ve probably heard of some of their local drinks – Bacardi and Captain Morgan ring any bells? – but the true connoisseur looks well beyond those and orders a Trigo Reserva Añeja Rum, straight up.
  • Seize your wanderlust travel bug and never let go with our free daily travel newsletter.

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Kite surfing Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic

By Jacob Aldridge

OK, so loads of people come to Punta Cana, on the edge of the Dominican Republic in the middle of the Caribbean, to stay in an all-inclusive resort. This means they don’t have to pay for drinks, or dinner, or think about activities or (really) think about anything at all.

We know that sometimes, that’s exactly the blissful holiday you want. And after the recent news, you have every reason to go for a resort as opposed to a cruise ship!

BUT… we want to make choices, we want to be in control, and today, in Punta Cana … we want to go kite surfing!

This is how Kite-surfing Punta Cana Dominican Republic feels in those moments when it all comes together.

This is how Kitesurfing feels in those moments when it all comes together. Photo by Swell Surf School, CC License.

Today’s Experience

Kite Club Punta Cana offers beginner kitesurfing lessons, ranging from the group session we’ll be taking (two hours after breakfast, and two more hours after lunch) to private courses that can spread across multiple days and all levels of kitesurfing experience. Punta Cana isn’t Tarifa, Spain, or any of the Brazilian beaches where kite surfing is the main event – we’re hoping that makes it easy for us grommits (does that newbie term apply to kiteboards like it does to surfboards?).

We’re starting on the beach (as we did when we learnt to surf in Byron Bay, Australia) with a training kite … and HOLY WOW, there’s some strength in that wind. Ever wondered what whips the kite surfers across the water at such a rapid rate? It’s the power in that wind, and we can see why it’s crucial that we get the feel for it on dry land.

Laugh now as I fall over and eat a faceful of sand! I promise I’ll be more co-ordinated when we get wet.

(OK – maybe that’s me being optimistic. Thankfully, the one thing I can handle easily is the international hand signals every kite surfer needs to know before hitting the water).

Before we get wet, there’s time for lunch. Given the speed that wind can generate, we’re treating this like our last meal.

Somehow, we don't think this sign for Walmart is legitimate.

Somehow, we don’t think this is legitimate. Photo by Ted Murphy, CC License.

So we’ve ordered the Bandera – a traditional Dominican Republic meal, and it’s almost as surprising as that first gust of wind. After a couple of weeks tripping across central and south america, we weren’t surprised to see the rice, beans, and meat combination … the fried bananas, however, we didn’t see coming, and the sweetness cuts through the other flavours just right – you’ll be putting the second spoonful in your mouth before you’ve even fully registered the flavour.

We’ve put another Dominican delicacy, the Habichuelas con dulce (a sweet dessert), on hold – think of it as a reward for when we return from the afternoon’s kite surfing.

How can we describe the experience of using the kite to surf across the waves of the Caribbean? Wet. Wet really sums it up!

There are the exhilarating moments when the wind and the waves combine in the right direction and at the right time. The pure joy when we feel ourselves being held aloft by the equipment, when we have foresight and control over this combination of board, leash, kites, and mother nature herself.

These moments are short-lived as a beginner! More often than not, mother nature responds to our feelings of control by kinking the kite, or compelling us to shift our weight on the kiteboard just too much in one direction. And then SPLASH! We’re in the drink.

THIS is how Kitesurfing feels for most beginners. Still awesome!

THIS is how Kitesurfing feels for most beginners. Photo by Swell Surf School, CC License.

Still – absolutely sensational. Kitesurfing is undoubtedly an uplifting experience!

Thinking of visiting Haiti?

When it came to planning this trip through the Caribbean, the opportunity to visit both the Dominican Republic and its neighbour Haiti was top of the list. Having researched it thoroughly, however, we cannot in good conscience recommend Haiti as a tourist destination again just yet.

You may remember the earthquake devastation in Christchurch, which remains a pop-up city two years later. New Zealand is a wealthy western nation – Haiti (for fascinating and tragic reasons dating back 200 years – this Guardian article is amazing) is an impoverished nation, and was hit by an earthquake that released ten times as much energy as Christchurch’s. As a sad result, 3 years later, the country still carries risks of violence and disease (in particular cholera).

More importantly – even though it is possible to be patient and make the drive across the border, remember that your involvement in the country will likely take away scarce resources. Even today, humanitarian volunteers are still being told that their money, not their food-and-water-consuming presence, is required.

There’s still time after kite-surfing for us to hit some sand. And here in Punta Cana, we have a choice.

There’s the obvious – miles of perfect beaches, begging us for an afternoon walk along the sand or an hour spent lying on the beach and listening to the waves.

Can you picture yourself in the Dominican Republic?

Can you picture yourself in the Dominican Republic? Photo by Ted Murphy, CC License.

There’s also the alternative, resort way to spend time in the sand, and that’s at any of the nearby golf courses. Here, the idea is to avoid the sand and the water … we’re going to blame the workout kitesurfing does on our upper body for the … multiple … wayward shots. Good thing we chose to only play 9 holes!

The Golf Course - the only place on a Punta Cana beach holiday you want to avoid the sand and water.

The Golf Course – the only place on a beach holiday you want to avoid the sand and water. Photo by Corey Ann, CC License.

Over the past few weeks we’ve pointed out how some great travel destinations (especially those off the beaten track) share names, from Antigua (volcanoes v beaches) to Trinidad (reggae v Jesuit priests). Possibly the most confusing is Dominica v the Domincan Republic (tiny Caribbean island v small Caribbean island). So if you’re looking for tips on visiting the Dominican Republic, here’s tip #1 – check everything to make sure you haven’t accidentally booked transport, accommodation or an amazing tour … on another island 500 miles away!

(And if you think it’s a mistake nobody would make, check out this genuinely (normally) great travel blogger – his list of top 5 things to do in the Dominican Republic includes the Boiling Lake in Dominica. If it can happen to him, it can definitely happen to you!).

All that really tells us … is just how amazing and wonderful this world is when you head out there and travel through it. So thank you for being part of the Every Daydream Holiday experience, and with particular thanks to those readers who have signed up for our daily email stories and who have shared our website on their blog or on Facebook and Twitter. See you tomorrow when we we depart Punta Cana for … well, you’ll just have to find out!

Punta Cana Rainbow - our everydaydream holiday gift to you.

Punta Cana Rainbow – our everydaydream gift to you. Photo by Jim Crocker, CC License.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Because of its appeal to “all-inclusive” resort vacations, Punta Cana also has a reputation for … um … not quite honest resort marketing. In fact, several Punta Cana resorts are mentioned in this article about not trusting hotel photographs.
  • If you’re looking for some Kite Surfing Dominican Republic spots away from the resorts, you can head out to Cabarete or Las Terrenas and hit the waves at all levels.
  • The Punta Cana resort and club has 45 holes over two courses. It’s a peaceful way to spend an afternoon … or at least, it can be.
  • Seize your wanderlust travel bug and never let go with our free daily travel newsletter.

Would you rather be kitesurfing, golfing … or lying on a beach somewhere peaceful? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.