USA Adventure 2012

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I’m just recovering from an amazing (but exhausting!) 2 weeks travelling around America!

I decided earlier this year that with a major (and unwelcome) birthday coming up, I’d arrange to be out of the country for it, and so the planning for a trip to the States was begun!  I spent ages working out the trip – flights, trains, coaches, hotels – and surprisingly, it all went really smoothly!

DAY ONE: Chicago

The journey started on the 6th October, when I flew out from Manchester to Chicago.  We left the UK on the Saturday morning, and after an 8½ hour flight, got into Chicago O’Hare Airport early afternoon (the magic of time travel! 😉 )

Actually, the descent into Chicago was quite memorable because when you first come through the clouds, you see a cluster of skyscrapers by what looks like the sea, but of course is Lake Michigan, and then from that the city sprawls for miles upon miles.  Also, I won’t forget it in a hurry because as we were dropping towards the runway, the plane suddenly started pulling up again, and we went into a massive circle pattern over the city – the pilot told us that air traffic control had accidentally put us on the shorter of the two runways, which wouldn’t have been long enough for our landing, so they aborted right at the last minute!  For someone who’s not the greatest flier, that’s not really what you want to hear!

Anyway, we eventually landed and I then headed straight to US Customs, and it was a very long wait! The queue for American citizens moved quite quickly, but the queue for everyone else was incredibly long.  And when I got to the desk, I was quizzed about why I was visiting the country, and the guy seemed suspicious of the fact that I was spending 16 days on a holiday, and asked me what I did for a job and how I could afford the time off – but I think I read somewhere that Americans only get something like 3 weeks paid holiday, so that might be why it seemed strange to him!

After making my way through the airport, I took a train to Oak Park – a western suburb of Chicago and less than 10 miles south of O’Hare airport. But I had to get a train to the city centre before heading back out towards where I was staying on another, so it ended up taking about an hour and a half to get to the hotel.

I booked into ‘The Write Inn‘ a small ’boutique hotel’ in a pretty nice ‘village’, about 7 miles out of central Chicago.  Then after sorting myself out, headed back onto the L-Train to venture into the city.

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The L-Train is the main way to get around the Chicago area – once it gets into the centre, it’s all on raised tracks that run over the top of the streets between the buildings. It’s so cool – and the sort of thing I’ve only ever really seen in films before!

Since it was the evening, there wasn’t lots that I could check out, so explored the Millennium Park area where they have various public art pieces such as a pool with glass block tower fountains containing large video screens showing the massive faces of different residents of Chicago!

DAY TWO: Chicago

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First sign of jet-lag showed when I woke up at 4am – my body thinking it was still UK time!  So I ended up watching local TV for a bit before heading into Chicago.  As the train came into the city centre, it passed over a couple of streets full of runners since this was the weekend of the Chicago marathon.

I got off near to the park I’d been exploring the night before, and then walked down towards the harbour, and then a bit of a stroll along the waterfront.  It was actually Lake Michigan, but really felt like it was the sea, but without waves!

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I then headed over to the finish line of the Chicago Marathon and got onto some bleachers along the final stretch to watch the runners complete their race.  There was a real mix of runners – from those in fancy free to some obviously serious participants, and I noticed quite a few Brits come by with Union flags on their running kit!  It was a really great atmosphere down there, and I hung around for quite a while taking it all in in the bright sunshine (although it was quite chilly!)

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In the evening I grabbed some food in a bar near my hotel – and had what was to become a bit of a regular meal for my trip – steak and chips… sorry, fries!  It was actually served with garlic butter, which was basically a blob of solid butter with garlic in it on top of the steak, so I managed to spread it like buttering bread, and I’ve got to say it was probably the most garlicky meal I’ve even eaten!  I was sat next to a TV that was showing some American Football game, but I really don’t understand any of it, so when the bar owner came over to ask if I minded him changing channels, I explained that I didn’t even know who was winning!  When he realised that I’m English, he stayed to chat, and we ended up talking about Premier League football (soccer!) which I had to blag a bit because my ‘real’-football knowledge is only marginally better than the American version!

After my steak and beer, I decided to go and watch a film at a small cinema in Oak Park – it had 3 screens but the only film I fancied seeing was ‘Frankenweenie’, a black-and-white stop-frame animation.  It was pretty good, and quirky – although there weren’t many people in the screening, and during it my eyes may have got a bit heavy at times as a result of the jet lag… so I might need to watch some of the middle section again sometime in the future!

DAY THREE: Chicago

My last day in Chicago started with leaving my suitcase in the secure luggage area at Union Station, then meeting up with Tim Beavis from my uni-days who now lives about an hour north of the city, so came down for the morning to meet up with me.

We took a walk over the river and headed over to Navy Pier, which sticks out from the shoreline of Lake Michigan, with a few shops, restaurants and fairground amusements, plus a variety of boats and ships docked to the side of it.  We went to a cafe for lunch – the Billy Goat Grill – where I got a steak and fried egg in a burger bun with crisps (they didn’t do fries!)  It was a bit greasy but tasted good!

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After lunch we strolled towards the more retail-end of Chicago, and after the obligatory ‘ask a stranger to take out photo’ moment, Tim had to leave to get back for a meeting.  It was nice catching up again because it’d been a few years since we’d last spoken in person, and was interesting to hear what he and Lisa have been up to.

Back on my own, I ended up at The Cheesecake Factory (a place I previously only knew of as being where Penny in The Big Bang Theory works!) and bought myself a nice slab of cheesecake which was pretty delicious!

Still with a bit of time to kill before the next part of my journey, I walked back to the shorefront and carried on until I got to the impressive Soldier Field Stadium which I circled round before eventually making my way back to Union Station.

Having rescued my suitcase from its secure locker, I then sat in a decidedly grim cafe in the station for 2 hours doing a bit of people watching until my overnight train was ready to depart.

DAY FOUR: Cleveland

To be fair, the Amtrak train to Cleveland was pretty decent – loads of space, a soft reclining seat, and free wi-fi!  I didn’t sleep – partly because I was worried about missing my stop – but also because I didn’t want to be caught snoring on a train! Across the aisle from me was an Amish family, which I found pretty fascinating – they were dressed exactly how I’d seen in films and TV, and I’ve since discovered that Ohio has the largest Amish population in America. Anyway, I finally got into Cleveland station around 5.30am, where waiting to pick me up was Tim Karas, who’d I’d met a few times before when he’d been over in the UK visiting Vinelife and Reach. Tim lives in Cleveland, so offered to let me sleep on his sofa, and show me around the city – but first of all, I grabbed a few hours sleep before doing anything!

The first thing we did was head down to get breakfast at the West Side Market cafe – a little cafe based in the historic West Side Market building – and the bacon and eggs were pretty welcome after a long overnight journey! It would have been cool to visit the market too because it looked really interesting, but it was closed that day so I only got to see it through the glass door from the cafe!

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After breakfast, Tim drove us through the centre of Cleveland, and then down to the lake-front, and we made a quick visit into the ‘Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame‘, which is a really cool museum celebrating the supposed birthplace of rock and roll.  Inside the main lobby once you go in, they had a really cool display of exhibits from U2’s Zoo TV tour – the hanging Trabants, and neon signs from the stage set.  To go and see much more would have meant paying an entrance fee, so I made do with the displays in the entrance and a look around the gift shop!

Then, Tim had to go and visit a friend of his who wasn’t well, so left me at the Museum of Art for a couple of hours to take in some of the exhibitions there. Some of the art was pretty interesting, and they’d also recently completed building a new glass enclosed atrium for public events which was a really cool looking space.

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So next, Tim picked me up and we made our way to eat lunch at the Parkview Nite-Club! I really wasn’t sure what to expect when we parked up and approached the building. It was fine though, and what I found really fascinating was that you often see restaurants try to re-create a really old-fashioned Americana-style look, but here it was all totally genuine, and without any sense of irony! Plastic tablecloths, neon signs, wood panelling, old photos on the walls – the whole lot! But they served good food and beer, and we had a nice chat about lots of things over our lunch!

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Then, after lunch, we took a trip to the beach!

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I say ‘beach’… I guess really it was a bit of the waterfront to Lake Erie, although it was actually called Edgewater Beach, and if you didn’t know it was a lake, you could think you were on the coast with the water slightly lapping up on the sand. Even though it was brisk October day, the sun was pretty bright and it really did look really nice, although I wasn’t tempted to go for a paddle!  We went for a bit of a walk around the park, ending up on a little boardwalk, taking in the view of downtown Cleveland.

Then, Tim took us for a drive just south of Cleveland to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a bit of a green wilderness right on the edge of the city.  With it being the autumn, all the leaves were those beautiful autumnal colours, and looked really pretty. We stopped up by the river just to take in some of the atmosphere of the place, and it was nice to be away from city-life for a short time!

For the evening, we met up with Tim’s girlfriend Ariel, his brother, and his friends Rick and David to eat out at an Italian in the city called Luxe Kitchen & Lounge. Now, I’m not renowned for being particularly adventurous with my food choices, but I did manage to find food on the menu that I liked! It was a nice evening, meeting some of Tim’s friends and having some really interesting conversations with them all.

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After we’d done with our meal, we moved on to dessert by visiting Sweet Moses Soda Fountain & Treat Shop, a really cool bar-like place, serving handmade ice creams and sodas.  I went for an amazing sundae with chocolate and nuts, topped off with cream and a cherry… it was delicious!

And then to round the evening off, we went to the ‘Stone Mad‘ pub, a bar with a bit of an Irish influence, and Tim’s local!  I stuck to drinking lager, whilst he went straight for the Guinness!  One thing that really stood out in there was a crazy painting they had on wall, that just looked more and more wrong the longer you stared at it!

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DAY FIVE: Niagara Falls

So my fifth day started off in Cleveland and ended up at Niagara Falls!  First thing, Tim drove me down to the bus station to catch a Greyhound bus, which first went to Buffalo, then I had a bit of a wait before getting another bus to complete the journey to Niagara Falls.  Travelling on the Greyhound was pretty interesting – there was a real mix of people on there, some like myself probably doing a bit of travelling, but there was one family who got on with loads of boxes who looked like they were moving house!  There was also a couple on there who were arguing and shouting quite a bit, but luckily they weren’t on the bus for the whole journey!

All in all, it took about seven hours to get there, and then I had to walk for a bit try and find my hotel using Google Maps, and I got a bit lost at first, but eventually checked into the Days Inn hotel before walking down to the falls to take a quick look.

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It’s fair to say that what greets you is a pretty amazing sight! The sheer power of the water going over the edge of the American Falls is absolutely breathtaking, and the noise – so incredibly loud!  I took a few pictures to stick on Instagram before heading back to the hotel for an early night before properly exploring the following day.

DAY SIX: Niagara Falls

I started the day with breakfast in Denny’s diner which was attached to the hotel, and I’m not totally sure what arrived at my table!

It was a cooked breakfast with french toast, but there seemed to be a blob of cream or similar on the toast, and it was also covered in icing sugar! Of course, there was also the maple syrup for the bacon which didn’t get used for that purpose, but once I’d separated the sweet and savoury, all was good!

So, I headed back to the falls, which was only about a 5 minute walk from the hotel, and took a load more photos before making my way onto the observation tower, which has a platform that juts out from the American side, 86 metres above the bottom of the gorge. It allowed me to look back at the American Falls, and also to see a much clearer view of the Horseshoe Falls.

I’d also bought at ticket for the ‘Maid of the Mist‘ boat tour of the falls, so I made my way down the tower to the queue for the next available boat. Whilst waiting, we were all given a rather fetching blue poncho to help keep us dry from all the spray from the falls.

The view of the falls from the boat was amazing, and you really got a sense of the power of all that water.  I was glad to be wearing the poncho because there was a lot of spray.  Foolishly, when we got off the boat, I got rid of the poncho, without realising that there was still a high chance of getting very wet! When you get off the boat, there’s a path that leads to some steps that take you right up the side of the American Falls, so obviously I just had to go up there to take more photos, even without full spray protection!

I was glad I did, because even though I got totally drenched through, it was spectacular to see it close up, and the sound was deafening! Unfortunately, my camera got a bit wet too, and some of the buttons started playing up, and as I was taking a look at it back at the bottom of the steps, I managed to drop it which cause the zoom lens to jam open into an odd position, but the camera wouldn’t then operate like this, and I couldn’t get the lens to retract back into the camera.  I was pretty gutted because I still had quite a lot of my trip to go, and I’d bought the camera a few weeks ago especially for this holiday!

So I went back to the hotel to let the camera dry out a bit, and did a load of Googling on my phone to try and work out how to fix it.  Eventually, by applying a bit of force to the lens, it eventually went back in, and then seemed to be okay – the after effects of the water remained slightly with the mode dial being one item out from the relevant menu icon, but I soon got used to that!

Later that afternoon, I went to the Cave of the Winds, which despite its name, is nothing to do with a cave!  You take an elevator down to the Niagara river and the foot of the falls, and then follow a series of wooden walkways across the rocks between the Canadian and American Falls to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls.  It was pretty slippy, and I got very wet, but definitely worth doing!

*** Film at visitor centre

*** Aquarium

*** Edit video on phone

DAY SEVEN: Atlanta

*** Early taxi, train, walk to airport, flight via Charlotte

*** Arrive at Atlanta airport, picked up by Emma

*** Get to hotel, go out for food at Ruby Tuesday

DAY EIGHT: Atlanta

*** Aquarium – Dolphin Tales

 

*** Coca Cola museum

*** Olympic Park

*** Meal with Emma’s friends in Conyers, about 30 miles from Atlanta – Outback Steakhouse

DAY NINE: Atlanta

*** CNN tour

*** Passion City Church

*** Atlanta Zoo

*** Washed clothes

*** ID’ed at evening meal!

DAY TEN: Washington DC

*** Flew to Washington via Charlotte… hour delay in Charlotte because of fault with the plane… better chance of luggage arriving ‘cos was tight connection time originally

*** Took metro to hotel – really cool underground  – hotel was a bit crap, slightly scary area of the city!

*** After unpacked, walked to the National Mall and saw the Washington Monument

*** Chicken and bread from Safeway!  Stayed in for the evening watching TV – Big Bang Theory and election programmes

DAY ELEVEN: Washington DC

*** Federal Triangle Heritage Trail – The Old Post Office, FBI Building, other old buildings!

*** Washington Monument – photo op!

*** WW2 Memorial – loads of veterans there

*** Reflecting pool, Lincoln Memorial

*** Constitution Avenue, back of White House… the lawn.  Visitor’s Centre in a portacabin

*** Then round to front – surprised how close you can get, and it looks quite small – tourists / protestors

*** Arlington National Cemetery – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – Guard walking back and forth, changing of the guard, ceremony laying of wreath

*** FBI, 9/11 memorial

*** Capitol

*** watched election debate on TV

DAY TWELVE: Washington DC

*** International Spy Museum

*** National Air & Space Museum

*** Jefferson Memorial – can see the White House across the lake and through the trees

DAY THIRTEEN: New York

*** Train from Washington, via Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark

*** Arrived at Penn Station, took subway to 53rd, then to Pod Hotel

*** Check out Times Square and ice skating outside Rockefeller Building

*** Back to hotel – not feeling 100%, early night

DAY FOURTEEN: New York

*** Morning – heavy rain… take subway down to downtown Manhattan

*** World Trade Center – got a ticket to go inside the 9/11 memorial

*** Queued for theatre tickets, then walked down towards Chelsea and found the ‘Friends apartment block’

*** Met up with Emma at the hotel – went to Mary Poppins

DAY FIFTEEN: New York

*** 40th Birthday!

*** High Line on the West side

*** Circle Line boat trip – around (most of) Manhattan island… rubbish hot dog!

*** Empire State Building – sunset

*** M&Ms store

*** TGI Friday’s – steak and chips for a change!

*** Cupcake with a candle from Emma back at the hotel!

DAY SIXTEEN: New York

*** Breakfast outside – chatted to a woman who was there with her daughter – bit cold

*** Subway to Grand Central station – wanted to go to the Apple store but wasn’t open yet

*** On the way back to hotel, bought some presents for Brandon & Chloe

*** Checked out of hotel, and took subway up to 103rd street… didn’t realise we were in Harlem!

*** Had lunch in one of the gardens an the northmost end of Central Park, then took subway to airport – Emma got off before my stop for her airport… not much time!

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