Posts from the ‘USA’ category

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.

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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Houston, We Have No Problem

By Jacob Aldridge

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you spent the entire time travelling? And I’m not talking about a flight to Australia (where you actually spend so much time in a plane seat you start to think of the bathroom as ‘spacious’). These are the days when the car to the train to the airport to the other airport to then… well, you get the picture.

Our solution? Find ways to break up your journey and take in more of the experience! Today, for example, we’re rewarding our New Orleans Mardi Gras hangover with a two-flight trip south (Read on to discover how far south!). Why punish ourselves with all that, when we can cut it in half and also take in the space capital of the USA.

A day in Houston? We have no problem!

Charles Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon, as the lead astronaut in Apollo 12. That's guaranteed to win you some trivia night points.

Charles Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon, as the lead astronaut in Apollo 12. That’s guaranteed to win you some trivia night points. Photo by Paul Hudson, Licensed under CC License.

Today’s Experience

Our flight out is not so early. In fact, in New Orleans 9.20am in the morning is considered late the night before! And it means we arrive in Houston, Texas’s largest city, mid-morning – with plenty of time to take in the key things to do in Houston.

Anytime you drive down a road named “NASA Parkway”, you know there’s going to be something cool at the end of the street. And the Johnson Space Centre does not disappoint.

This is the training rover used for the Apollo astronauts to practice in. Now on display in the Johnson Space Centre, Houston Texas, where you can see astronauts train today.

This is the training rover used for the Apollo astronauts to practice in. Photo by Stuart Seegar, Licensed under CC License.

Could you see yourself visiting the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas? Where the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon trained.

Could you see yourself visiting the Space Centre in Houston? Photo by Amanderson2, Licensed under CC License.

While Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida take a lot of the glory, Houston was actually the hub for managing the Apollo missions in the first days of space flight. This was where astronauts with ‘The Right Stuff’ were (and still are) trained; when Apollo 13 discovered something was wrong, their immediate response was “Houston, we have a problem”.

The NASA Tram Tour shows us the highlights of how today’s astronauts train for time on the International Space Station. There’s time to learn about the cutting edge robotics that mark current deep space research, and an opportunity to walk through the Apollo Mission Control Centre that guided one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind. Neil Armstrong may have famously flubbed that line – we find this tour to be flawless and utterly fascinating.


Caption: Although the video promo is a little 1980s!

But before there were astronauts in Texas, there were Cowboys – pioneers in a different way, in a lifestyle just as dangerous. The American Cowboy Museum is a ranch in sight of the city skyline, a seventh-generation home to this western tradition. But ditch those misconceptions about white dude ranches – here’s a real taste of just how multicultural the authentic wild west always was. The founder, Mollie Stevenson, and her mother were first living African Americans inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas. And after taking in the American Cowboy Museum, we're all tempted to acquire ourselves some classic Houston, Texas cowboy boots.

EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas. Photo by Chris Doelle, Licensed under CC License.

If the Cowboy fashion style has grabbed your attention more than the lifestyle, check out Tejas Custom Boots over on Westheimer Road – if you’re going to get cowboy boots, may as well have them made by the people who make them for Governors and Presidents, right?

(Don’t sweat it – if you really want to run away from the Cowboy style, head to Hamilton Shirts on Richmond Ave for hand-cut, tailor-made shirts from a family that’s been doing this for 130 years.)

Our next stop is the Houston Zoo (conveniently located just out of the Houston CBD). Now after seeing Jaguars in the wild of Belize, and Kiwi birds up close in New Zealand, we’re not actually here for the animals. Oh no – we’re here for the artists.

Wait, what?! The animals ARE the artists?

OK – fake theatrics aside, because we organised this event several weeks ago. To raise funds for the Zoo’s conservation program, and to add variety to the animals’ lives, Houston Zoo works with a surprising number of different inhabitants to create unique masterpieces … and then sell them to the public. $250 may sound like a lot of money for an artist who has never been to art school, but how many of your friends have a work of art created by a White Faced Saki? (Actually, we chose animals your friends have actually heard of. A Jaguar for me, an elephant for Chris … how about you choose between the Orang-utan portrait and the Lioness landscape.)

We never promised elephant paintings would represent the Realism school. It's possible to purchase Animal artwork from the Houston Zoo in Texas, USA.

We never promised elephant paintings would represent the school of Realism. Photo by rwcox123, Licensed under CC License.

Feeling cultural, we head to Houston’s Montrose district. There are plenty of reasons on the ground to explore this neighbourhood, perhaps the most architecturally diverse in the city (it’s easier to tell between a bungalow and a condo when they’re side by side), and also for the variety of cuisine the groovy neighbourhood as to offer.

But mostly, we’re here for the sky not the ground. As dusk begins to settle on this famous aviation town, it becomes clear that Houston flight was not a man made invention. With a flutter then a whoosh and then the unbelievable darkness as day turns to night beneath their wings, a quarter of a million Mexican free-tail bats take to the sky. An epic spectacle, and a reminder of why man felt compelled to take the sky him (and her) self.

Turning day into night: The Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the Allen Street Parkway and Waugh Drive Bridge in Houston's Montrose District.

Turning day into night on the Allen Street Parkway. Photo by Sirtrentalot, Licensed under CC License.

Come out, come out, wherever you are. The Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the Allen Street Parkway and Waugh Drive Bridge in Houston's Montrose District.

Come out, come out, wherever you are. Photo by Adam Baker, Licensed under CC License.

And take to the sky we now must. By breaking up our flight, we’ve created a day of natural wonder. And we now have an excuse to sleep on the plane.

See you tomorrow morning when we land in Rio de Janeiro…that’s right baby, New Orleans Mardi Gras was just a warm up for a weekend of Rio Carnival!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Spending some time in Houston? Then definitely make time for the Space Centre’s “Level 9” tour. This is limited to just 12 people per day, and is a 4-5 hours behind the scenes experience of the Centre including lunch inside the Astronauts cafeteria.
  • The Johnson Space Centre Houston is a working site – photo ID is required, and there are safety requirement (like closed-in shoes) that need to be followed.
  • If it’s Pigs in Space, not astronauts, that take your fancy – you need to head to Atlanta’s Centre for Puppetry Arts.
  • Due to demand, Houston Zoo’s animal art advises that paintings will take 4-6 weeks to create. And that’s fair enough – these are not commercial artists, they are artists of the purist sense.
  • The nightly bat display emerges from Montrose’s Waugh Drive Bridge (between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive). Your best position for capturing the experience is securing a position on the platform just south of the bridge as the sunset takes hold.
  • Adam Baker, who took the second of those amazing bat photos, gives this warning: “I got a nice “present” on a brand new shirt while taking these photos. You might want to wear an old sweatshirt if you plan to check ’em out.” All we can say is, thank goodness cows don’t fly!

How do you make the most of layovers between flights? Have you ever had a great experience making the stopover longer? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Parading with Kings and Indians for Mardi Gras in New Orleans

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

  • Stuff ourselves with King Cake, in the hope of being King for a Day
  • Try and find a costume that can compete with other parade-goers
  • Watch the Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans
  • Stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily travel email

So after the hype and excitement of the Super Bowl, we’re left with this question – where do you start with trying to describe the Mardi Gras in New Orleans?

Do you begin with the weeks long celebrations, the months of hard graft and labour that goes into the preparations, the preposterous costumes on display, the outrageous behaviour of tourists on Bourbon Street?

We will cover all of that, of course – but we’re going to start with breakfast.

King Cakes for Visiting Royalty

Mardi Gras celebrations commence on the Twelfth Night (the twelfth night after Christmas) – that works out to be January 6th.

A celebration of the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas and the revelation of the coming of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night has a fascinating history that involves involves the wassailing of apple trees, the reign of the Lord of Misrule, the riding of the Wild Hunt, and the upturning of order and certainty.

Photo by Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

A photo of the parade from the 1930s – and the history goes back even further. Photo from Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

One of the customs that has carried through to today is a special cake that chooses the King and Queen for the night. The King Cake, or gateau des Rois, contains a little bean hidden inside it, a custom taken from the Saturnalia feast of ancient Rome (we told you that it has a long history).

The one who stumbled upon the bean was called “king of the feast”, and we want to be the ones who find that bean (or, as it is these days, a little plastic baby).

There are lots of bakeries in New Orleans that make King Cakes and it isn’t too hard a task to find one that makes them – the challenge is choosing your flavours! In this video from Gambino’s Bakery ( 4821 Veterans Memorial Blvd, Metairie ) you can have a quick look at some of the crazy flavour combinations. The purple, green, and yellow colours are symbolic of the Mardi Gras festival.

As another example – the “Zulu King Cake” has chocolate icing with a coconut filling. This reflects the high and mighty status of the humble coconut, in connection with “throws” (what’s a throw? We’re getting there!).

Even more adventurous, the bakery featured in this video from National Geographic shows a King Cake with apple and goat’s cheese filling.

What do you wear to a costume parade?

It’s rewarding to see the women in these costumes…but it’s more rewarding to see the men, because a man doesn’t get to dress up in beautiful clothes, it’s usually in a tuxed-ah.

Sally Hedrick (dressmaker)

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

This guy made the effort. Have you? Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Sally’s not wrong – we don’t want to be the ones standing out for not having put enough effort in.

We’re heading the parades next, but we don’t want to be underdressed (and that’s something that’s really easy to accomplish – just look at this guy).

You’ll want to put some effort into your Mardi Gras costume. Think; feathers, boas, diamante, leopard print, leather, gold, jewelry. Don’t forget your mask.

Photo by LollyKnit, Licensed under CC.

Photo by LollyKnit, Licensed under CC.

Think, outrageous. After all, you’re competing with these guys.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Derek Bridges, Licensed under CC.

Go NOLA‘s top five costume shops can be found here, with Miss Claudia’s being their top tip.

Photo by Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Infrogmation, Licensed under CC.

Sadly, despite these top local tips, we’re unlikely to be able to compete, or even come close, to the costumes that will be only display during the Mardi Gras. With some people spending months preparing, and up to $10,000 on their costumes, the best we can manage is a funny wig and some feathers.

At least we did better than this guy.

Photo by Bart Everson, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Bart Everson, Licensed under CC.

If you don’t have time, though, concentrate on collecting throws during the parades to add to your costume collection.

What’s a Throw?

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mark Gstolh, Licensed under CC.

  • During the Mardi Gras parades, the Krewes on the floats with toss and ‘throw’ trinkets and toys to the crowds. These cheap items originated from the throwing of glass beads as early as the late 19th Century.
  • Recently the throws have been made from plastic and imported from lower cost manufacturing countries like China.
  • In a surprising twist, glass beads are again finding use, becoming more valuable and coveted throws.
  • The most valuable throw is a coconut, known as the Golden Nugget.
  • There are many ways to obtain a throw, some of them being rather, as the kids say these days, Not Safe For Work.

There is so much history to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans

It is no exaggeration that it takes a lot of time to wrap your head around all of the concepts of the Mardi Gras parade season in New Orleans.

There are Krewes, Floats and Float Dens, Kings, Chiefs, Flag Boys, Zulus – the Knights of Sparta! There’s not just the meaning behind these words to learn; there is the long traditions of the Mardi Gras that are carried into today from hundreds of years ago, along with more recent history that resonates with the growth and changes in New Orleans and America. By studying the Mardi Gras in New Orleans we can learn about the tensions and creativity that have carried the city to it’s highs and lows.

The Louisiana State Museum has an exhibition cataloguing that history, with costumes and even an invitation from almost the very beginning of it all. It’s a lot to take in but we’re beginning to wrap our heads around some of the concepts.

What’s a Krewe?

Think of it a bit like a secret society – these clubs join forces and resources every year to create elaborate floats and costumes for the Mardi parades. With varying membership rules and history, the Krewes take their lineage from the Mistick Krewe of Comus who first appeared in 1857. Since then, Krewes have grown, evolved, disappeared, fought, and competed to put on elaborate balls, and create theatrical and even satirical parade contributions.

Time for the Parades

The main thing to understand about the Mardi Gras festival is that it isn’t just one day. This is a multi-week event that, although interrupted by this year’s Super Bowl, takes place in the streets or New Orleans over many days but more than this, that takes place in the homes and amongst the local residents of the city.

It has an infectious excitement and as we make our way to the parade route for tonight’s festival, it is easy to get lost in the cacaphony of colour and noise.

Photo by Paul Mannix, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Paul Mannix, Licensed under CC.

There are two Krewes parading tonight; first up is the Krewe of Ancient Druids, an order that adheres to strict principles of secrecy, and following them is the Mystic Krewe of Nyx – an all-female Krewe. Both are relatively new Krewes (especially compared to some – even the Knights of Sparta started in 1950 and they’re considered middle-aged).

Both these Krewes are following the same route, which is fortunate for us – we can find a good spot along the parade route and watch the fun as it noisily passes by.

For an at-home experience of the sounds of the Mardi Gras parade, check out this album.

 Travel Tip for Mardi Gras in New Orleans:

  • Stick to routes that you know, with plenty of people around. It is mostly safe but don’t wander off into places you’re not familiar with.
  • A common con is being sold a ticket to Mardi Gras. No tickets are needed for the street parades
  • Unless you’re up for that sort of thing, avoid Bourbon Street. There are no parades through that area of town, and it is largely filled with drunk and silly tourists.

So, what’s the deal with people flashing?

“People throw beads down to women and men who are flashing”

As New Orleans local Laura Martone explains in this interview on Gadling, Throws, which we mentioned earlier, attain a kind of cult status during the Mardi Gras season. Even though they’re only cheap plastic (except for the coveted Coconut) they become an object of desire, and, in a frequently inebriated state, you’ll find many tourists flashing Krewes and people on balconies to win more throw trophies. Technically, it’s illegal, and keep in mind that if you’re going to flash, chances are high your photo will end up online.

Photo by Larry Johnson, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Larry Johnson, Licensed under CC.

What are your tips for enjoying the Mardi Gras festival season in New Orleans? Tell us in the comments.

Roadtrip: Nashville, Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Experience

Did you have that dream last night where Keith Urban and Elvis Presley announce their wedding? No? Just me?

Must have been something to do with yesterday’s musical road trip, and knowing that today would start with a Platinum tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame here in Nashville, Tennessee.

Wall of Gold Records at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Tennessee

Gold, Gold, Gold for Tennessee! Photo by Cliff 1066, CC License

Our driver Dan is beside himself with excitement. As a real country music fan, the celebrity audio guide… His tastes are more modern, but the rest of us with varying degrees of Country music appreciation still find plenty to enjoy – from the Patsy Cline exhibit to the RCA Studio guided tour where we are walked through the studio that birthed more than 1,000 top ten music hits (and around 150 recordings of the King himself).

Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Tennessee

Classic exhibits inside the Hall of Fame. Photo by NOLA Agent, CC License

We’re on a road trip to Atlanta, which involves a whistle-stop lunch in Chattanooga, Tennessee – the halfway point of today’s drive. We follow the Tennessee River to 212 Market Restaurant, at the north end of a town made famous by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the 1940s.

After 21 years in business, these guys know how to make a sandwich – are you going to choose the Pecan chicken club or the Chattanooga cheesesteak wrap? Something to chew chew on while we head back to Interstate 24 overlooking the choo choo train tracks!

Atlanta is a city steeped in US history, from it’s importance during the US Civil War, to the Civil Rights movement a century later, and today’s corporate success as home to CNN, Coca-Cola and MailChimp (you may have heard of them?). It’s also the fourth Summer Olympic host city we’ve visited on our everydaydream holiday so far (Link to Destinations).

Centre for Puppetry Arts

Fun – and not just for children! Photo by Ayleen Gasper, CC License

Our first stop ignores all that – we’re here to have fun at the Centre for Puppetry Arts! Where was this place when I was planning my birthday party as a kid? We’re doing the Jim Henson: Life and Legacy tour, with all its background information on the man behind the Muppets and Fraggle Rock.

Jim Henson was there when Kermit the Frog cut the ribbon to open the centre in 1978. Since then they’ve been impressing adults and children alike – yes, in addition to children’s birthday parties they also host adults-only Puppetry Theatre! (No, not the adults only puppetry you’re thinking of!)

Which segment was The Muppet Show's best?

Pigs in Space – one of The Muppet Show’s funniest segments. Photo by Moria, CC License

From there it’s to the World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta’s most famous export (and, some say, the reason they were awarded the 1996 Olympic Games). Unless you’re a real Coke head, there’s a lot to learn here, and the immersive experience of the ‘Vault of the Secret Formula’ is part of the fun. The taste-testing, we concede, is not quite as impressive as the similar experience at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

Inside the World of Coca-Cola

Inside the World of Coca-Cola. Photo by Bob B. Brown, CC License

We part ways with Dan just outside the Martin Luther King Jr historic site, on Auburn Avenue. Roadtrips can’t help but bring people together, and we’ll miss him … His taste in music, on the other hand? We’re kinda glad to see that go.

Besides, we’ve got movie tickets tonight. While we’d never heard of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (“Atlanta’s largest film festival”), when we heard they were showing Lore (Australia’s official entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) with a Q&A afterwards we jumped at the chance to grab tickets.

Music, Movies, and Coca-Cola – there’s a lot to love in the American South.

Wish you were where?

Of course, you are here with everydaydream holiday. Photo by Quinn Anya, CC License

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Want us to feature your town, or want to feature yourself as a local expert at your favourite tourist destination? Head over to our ‘Local guides’ page and tell us where you take your visitors when they’re in town.
  • The Platinum package to the Country Music Hall of Fame is only $33, and includes the guided tour. But book in advance as places are limited.
  • Atlanta is the fourth Summer Olympic Host City we’ve visited. Can you name the other three?
  • The United States of America are currently memorialising the sesquicentennial of the US Civil War (that’s the 150 year anniversary). We’ll be returning later in the year when the Battle of Gettysburg anniversary events connect with the Fourth of July celebrations.

So what are your favourite roadtrip songs? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.