It was my sister’s wedding last month, and she’d decided to have a beach wedding in Aruba, so I decided that since I’d be travelling across the Atlantic, I’d also add a short USA holiday to it as well!
So I flew out to Orlando on the 6th October, leaving Manchester at lunchtime, arriving at 4.30pm local time. The queue through passport control was crazy – it took 2¼ hours to get through it, and then once my passport had been checked, I was then picked to have my suitcase examined! I eventually checked into my hotel – the ‘Holiday Inn & Suites Across From Universal Orlando’ – and it really was ‘across’, being just a 15 minute walk to the main entrance to the Universal theme parks!
After a long day of travelling, I went to bed pretty much straight away, and then woke up ridiculously early because of jet-lag! So annoying!
Anyway, I got myself breakfast from a nearby McDonalds, and then arrived at the theme park around 10.30am.
I entered the Islands of Adventure park and hit the rides straight away! I stayed there until about 2 o’clock, and after a bit of lunch, took the Hogwart’s Express from Hogsmeade to King’s Cross over in the the Universal Studios park. Generally, it was busier than when I visited in 2014, and the queues were longer, but I imagine no-where near as busy as it is in peak season!
I stayed there until the park closed, and then walked back to the hotel, having worked up a bit of an appetite! The hotel has a TGI Fridays attached to it, so decided to eat there. I ended up sitting at the bar to have my meal, so spent the evening drinking beer, eating steak and watching American Football on ESPN!
Sunday morning, and I took an I-Ride trolly bus down to SeaWorld, and after joining a very long queue to get in, eventually made it through the main entrance. First up I checked out the Turtle Trek, where you walk past some large tanks with sea turtles swimming around, before going into a domed room to watch 360 degree 3D animation of the life cycle of turtles in the wild, which was actually quite interesting.
I then went to ‘One Ocean’, which is a show with the park’s killer whales. There were 5 of them in all, and they swam and splashed the audience whilst the most cheesy music and lyrics filled the arena. Another performance I saw later in the afternoon was ‘Dolphin Days’, which unsurprisingly was a show featuring dolphins! This one was a bit more educational in its presentation, but did get a bit more circusy as it went on.
I get that a lot of people have issues with places like SeaWorld, but they did seem to have a reasonable amount of space to swim (separate to the performance areas, and it didn’t look like they’re mistreated or anything, and I believe that they’re all rescue animals, and they do try to eventually return many to the wild – although to be honest, I’ve not really done enough research to know for sure.
Anyway, after looking at most of the animals (including the beautiful and fascinating penguins), and also going on the rides, I took the trolly bus back towards the hotel, but got out just before and went to a nearby outlet centre which I’d spotted earlier. I bought myself some new Vans trainers, and then as a pretty intense thunder storm hit, went into the main food area and bought myself a Five Guys meal, and it was so filling! In fact I couldn’t even eat all my fries, and felt a bit bad throwing food away! I tried waiting to see if the storm would pass, but ended up walking the ¾ mile walk back to the hotel in torrential rain!
Next day, and I took the bus to Busch Gardens in Tampa, which is a 75 mile journey to the west coast of Florida, and got to the park at around 10.30am. I first walked through the ‘Nairobi’ area, where I saw gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and penguins. I then came across ‘Pantopia’, where the centrepoint is Falcon’s Fury, a 100 metre-tall drop tower. You sit in a seat looking outwards, and slowly move up the tower until you get to the top, where the seats tip up 90 degrees so that you’re facing downwards, before all the seats dropping to the bottom at 60mph! It’s totally exhilarating, and the experience of you hanging at the top before being dropped is quite scary, but of course, I had multiple goes on it!
I also took multiple rides on the River Rapids, Kumba and Montu rollercoasters, and then took the Serengeti Train through the rest of the park to see all the other animals, which is set out a bit like a safari park, and that was pretty cool.
I’d stupidly made a decision to wear one of my new pairs of trainers, and by the end of the day, I was in agony because the backs were rubbing my skin away!
I then spent the next two days back at Universal. I noticed on the Tuesday that the park felt busier – whereas the queue for the Harry Potter train was quite short at the weekend, it took nearly an hour to get from the Universal Studios side to the Islands of Adventure. By the time it came to Wednesday afternoon, and probably miles of walking, I’d got pretty bad blisters on my feet, so had to nip to a Walgreens not too far from the hotel and bought plasters and blister relief cream! That evening I did some clothes washing and then had to wait ages to get everything dry to pack away – stupidly I left it a bit late in the evening, so got to bed really late – not ideal when I had to be up early for 3.30am shuttle bus to the airport!
I got to LaGuardia airport around 10am, and had a bit of a stress working trying to find which bus I needed, but then found the right one and travelled to Roosevelt Av-Jackson Heights subway station to get a train to the Pod51 hotel on 51st Street on the east side of Manhattan. I’d stayed there both times I’d previously been to New York, and I think it’s good value for money, and also a pretty decent location. I arrived quite early, so waited in the hotel cafe until I could check in, then grabbed a couple of hours sleep in my room.
Slightly refreshed, I went for a bit of a walk, and ended up at Times Square, which although full of tourists, does feel pretty iconic. I then took a bit of a scenic route back towards the hotel via Bryant Park, before looking for somewhere to grab a bit to eat. I only wanted something pretty simple, so found a small pub nearby – Murphy’s Pub & Restaurant – and opted for a pint alongside bangers and mash with beans, assuming they’d be green beans. But it turned out to be baked beans in an overly runny tomato sauce, totally swamping the mashed potato!
That night I got a message from an old school friend, Steve Mantell, who’d seen I was in New York, and who now lives in Long Island, so we arranged to meet up the following evening!
Friday morning, and I took the subway to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Back in November, I’d bought a small part of a camera rig from Wooden Camera, and it turned out that I needed an earlier version of it to be compatible, so had arranged to exchange it at one of their other companies that was based in Brooklyn. It was interesting to note that a lot of the industrial units appeared to be studios, plus supporting business such as set designers and prop stores, and eventually found the kit hire company where I was able to get the right bit of rig for our FS5!
I then walked over the Pulaski Bridge and then down to Hunter’s Point South Park, which seems like quite a new development on the Brooklyn side of the East River. I noticed that there was filming going on for a kids show in the playground area, so I watched what they were doing for a short time before grabbing a latte at and outdoor cafe on the waterfront.
After my coffee, I walked up along the river, past the Long Island cranes and giant Pepsi Cola sign, to then take a short ferry ride to Roosevelt Island. I got a quick glimpse of Silvercup Studios from the river – they make quite a lot of TV New York based shows there, such as Elementary, Mr Robot, and Person Of Interest.
I found a bar on the island where I grabbed a bit of lunch, and then took a cable car back into Manhattan!
Technically, they call it the Roosevelt Island Tram, and it travels over the half of East River from Roosevelt Island to 59th Street & 2nd Avenue on Manhattan. It gives you an amazing view looking down over New York’s streets, and even better is that it’s part of New York’s subway system, so the fare was covered by my MetroCard!
I went back to hotel for a bit before going to meet Steve at Irish bar with a restaurant on 39th and 8th called Tir na Nog. I arrived first, so got us a table and waited for Steve to arrive. I recognised him right away – he hadn’t really changed in appearance since school, but one thing I hadn’t really considered that his accent is now pretty American-sounding because he’s been there for such a long time! It was really cool to meet up – we shared old memories from school, and also caught up on what each had been up to over the last 25 years!
After a great meal, we then went on to Madison Square Gardens to watch a basketball game! I’d always wanted to experience an American sports event, so when Steve had suggested that we could get tickets to a New York Knicks pre-season game against Washington Wizards, I jumped at the chance! Madison Square Gardens kind of feels like it’s a similar size to Manchester Arena, although the seating seems less steep, which is better. It wasn’t full, with it being a pre-season game, but it certainly didn’t lack atmosphere! There’s much more of a showbiz feel to American sports, and between play, there was music and dancers, and they were firing T-shirts from cannons and catapults into the crowd! And even had a front row of celebrities, which we were able to see on the giant screen above the basketball court, most of whom I didn’t know, but I did recognise Domhnall Gleeson from Ex Machina, Harry Potter and the new Star Wars!
It wasn’t a great result for the home team, with them losing by 7 points, but it was a really enjoyable game to watch (even if I don’t really know the rules!), and it was great to catch up with Steve after so many years!
The next morning, I took the subway to Lower Manhattan and did a bit of exploring, seeing some really interesting street art and architecture, coming across street market on Astor Place, and then ending up at Washington Square Park, where there was a pretty cool sculpture of a cage with a mirrored tunnel under the iconic arch.
The park was really busy, even though it was a really overcast day, and there was a band playing a variety of songs on a tuba, trombone and banjo, plus a guy at a table selling anti-Trump badges and masks! He seemed to be selling quite a few of them!
I then took the subway to South Ferry, just below Battery Park, where I caught the Staten Island ferry over to Staten Island. The last two times I’d been to New York, I paid to go on boat trips, but this time I decided to take in the views of the Statue of Liberty, and the Freedom Tower from the ferry, which is free! The actual view was a bit restrictive, because there were a lot of people on board, and everyone was trying to see out of the windows, but it was cheaper way of doing it! I had lunch at the River Dock cafe at the Staten Island ferry terminal, before heading back to Manhattan mid afternoon.
I walked across to Seaport and went to TKTS to see if there were any cheap Broadway shows I could go to, but from the selection available, everything was a bit too expensive. I then walked over to Brooklyn Bridge, and began to cross it, but there was some kind of construction work going on, so there were hoardings either side of the pedestrian walkway, meaning you couldn’t see anything, so I gave up and made my way back to the hotel to watch TV!
Sunday, and I had a bit of a lie-in, and when I eventually made it out late morning, I took the a subway train to West Village for the south end of High Line, and walked the whole length of it until reaching the new development being constructed at the Hudson train depot. Last time I was in New York, the path stopped just short of this last section, but now the last section of the High Line went around the tracks, and they’re now lots of construction taking place around there.
I then took the subway back to 42nd street, and popped in to Grand Central station to take some photos – it’s such an impressive building! I then walked up to Central Park, passing Bloomingdales, and then bought a hot dog from a street vendor on the southwest corner of Central Park, and sat watching eating my lunch, tourists being harassed to take horse and carriage rides around the park!
After lunch, I walked down Fifth Avenue, passing the garish-looking Trump Tower (with blatant security barriers around the entrance), and arrived at the Rockefeller Center to do Top Of The Rock. Last time I came to New York, I went to the top of the Empire State Building with Emma, but having done Rockefeller back in 2012, concluded that this was the better experience.
After taking in the stunning views, I went down and into the NBC shop, where I bought myself a ‘Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon; t-shirt and mug, and then went back to hotel to start packing.
I went out early evening back to Tir na Nog for food again, and afterwards took a stroll taking in the Ed Sullivan Theatre which it where Stephen Colbert TV show is recorded, and made one last visit to the Rockefeller Centre to see it all lit up and watch people ice skating below it.
Another really early start the next morning so I could take a 4am bus to JFK Airport for my flight to Aruba. The actual departure time wasn’t until twenty to nine, so I had to wait quite a while before the check-in desk opened, and as there were no seats in Terminal 4’s main departures entrance, had to sit on the floor. Annoyingly I soon discovered that I’d sat on some chewing gum which got stuck to my jeans and the bottom of my rucksack. Gross.
I arrived in Aruba a few hours before all the others, so took my shuttle bus to the hotel and checked in. We were all staying at the Riu Palace Aruba, a 5 star all-inclusive hotel! It was so hot compared to New York, so I chilled in the air-conditioned reception until the others arrived. After everyone had been to their rooms, we hit the all-inclusive buffet, and the choice was immense! I made up for not eating too much the rest of the day, and also had too many deserts – but they all looked so great!
The next couple of days was mostly spent around the pool, although I’m not really into a sun-bathing type holiday, so I got bored if I wasn’t doing anything! I even went and use the hotel gym a couple of times during the week! We also went by taxi to a shopping area in Oranjestad on the Thursday. It was a bit too touristy, and walking in the heat was a bit of a killer. The kids bought some tat from a gift shop, and after a look around the market got the bus back to the hotel. That evening, the others decided to eat in a fancy fusion restaurant at the hotel, so I took the kids for tea in the buffet restaurant, where they ate mostly desserts!
Friday – and it was my birthday. Oh, and also Vikky and Andy’s wedding day!
We all turned up at the hotel to wait for a taxi to take us all for the official wedding ceremony with a registrar in at the City Hall in Oranjestad. It was supposed to start at 10am, but it passed nine thirty, and our booked taxi still hadn’t arrived! We ended up taking a couple of taxis that were just outside the hotel (although not 100% sure where we were actually heading! When we got there, and worked out which building it was, we found it was all locked up, and there was no sign of anyone there! The doors then opened up about 9.50, and we were able to go in and take some photos beforehand.
The ceremony started dead on ten o’clock and lasted about 10 minutes. They’d not arranged for the official photographer to be at this, so I ended up taking photos during the marriage ceremony, and then afterwards both inside and outside. We even asked the taxi driver to take the group photo of us before we headed back to the hotel!
Then in the afternoon, it was time for the wedding on beach. It was really hot, but very windy, and before it started, the seats kept getting blown over! We all sat in a row facing the sea as Brandon walked Vikky from the hotel down to where we all were. I was just about able to still get wifi on my phone on the beach, so I streamed most of the ceremony on Facebook Live – well until I was asked to get up and do something with the rings which I wasn’t expecting! But anyway, it was a really great wedding ceremony, and after the were pronounced husband and wife, people in the sea started clapping which was bizarre but nice!
We all went back to the pool area whilst Vikky and Andy had photos taken around the grounds, and Andy’s dad joined in with a dance class taking place next to the pool – everyone else was in shorts and t-shirts and he was there in his suit!
When I went back to my room to get changed for the evening, I found I’d been left a little birthday treat by the hotel, so that made up for it not really feeling like it was my birthday!
Then that evening we had an area set aside for us in the terrace steak restaurant for the wedding meal. It was nice – we were overlooking the beach, and the colour of the sky was stunning. Andy’s dad did a speech, and there were some cute bits read out that were written by Brandon and Chloe.
For my final full day in Aruba, me and my mum went on coach tour of the island. We were supposed to start at 10am, but it was 50 minutes late due to a road race taking place which meant loads of roads had been closed. Because of that, it meant that they had to change the schedule a bit, but I don’t think it affected it too much.
We first went to a nearby butterfly farm, which was quite interesting, and after that the coach went across the island, taking in a pretty scenic route, until we came to the Aruba Natural Bridge. Well, we saw a picture of it on the side of a building, because apparently the actual full-sized natural rock formation collapsed in 2005, and all that’s left is a much smaller one, plus a gift shop!
We also visited the Alto Vista chapel, which is Aruba’s first church built on the island back in 1750 (although the current building is from the 1950s), plus a quick visit to the California lighthouse on the north-west tip of Aruba.
I left the following morning, with the others staying for a second week, and it was a heck of long journey back to JFK in New York, leaving Aruba in the early afternoon, and arriving back in Manchester on Tuesday morning.
Coming up-to-date, and this weekend, I’ve been down in the midlands for Vikky and Andy’s wedding celebration in Tamworth, which was on Friday night. They decided to have a bit of a party so that they could celebrate with all their friends, so that was fun. And then yesterday, I was down in Astwood Bank for a get-together with my old CU mates from UCE! It was nice to see everyone again, and today, since Steve and Tatiana were also heading back north from it, we stopped off at Tatton Park for a bit of a walk and Sunday lunch!