What I did on my holidays (part 5)

Thursday 6th November
We woke early to catch a 7am bus to Philadelphia. This was especially difficult for Neil, Mini Matt and Andy who had been in a bar basement until 4am listening to a jazz band who claimed to have a member of the Fugees (although this was debatable).

The Bolt Bus left from a stop a few blocks north of our hostel to make the hardly-scenic journey through industrial New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Interestingly, the bus somehow managed to conjure up a wifi connection for the whole two hour journey, even when we were underneath the Hudson River in a tunnel.

We stepped off the bus on the outskirts of the city centre. Actually, it was the outskirts of ‘centre city’, which is how Philadelphians describe the bit that other Americans call ‘downtown’. Looking along the Delaware River we could see the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the distance, better known as the Rocky Steps. I’ve never seen Rocky or any of the sequels, but apparently Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character used the front steps of the museum in lieu of gym equipment in montage scenes in five of the six movies.

After vaguely reassuring Andy that we may have time to visit the steps later in the day (we didn’t), we walked from 30th Street into the heart of the city. Philadelphia felt a world away from Manhattan. The streets reminded me of the small towns of America that we had spent the majority of our 2007 trip visiting: quiet, low-rise brick buildings lining two-way avenues and streets on which real people went about their daily business.

Philadelphia plays a pivotal role in any history of the USA. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both signed in the city and it was temporarily the nation’s capital in the late 18th century. The old part of Centre City contains several museums on these themes, particularly paying homage to local heroes Benjamin Franklin and the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell museum begins with a series of display boards and videos, emphasising the importance of the bell to all Americans. It allegedly rang out to announce the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (although historians politely advise that this is probably bollocks as the bell tower wouldn’t have supported the weight). Since then, it has travelled the country, representing the principles of American freedom.

In 1846, while chiming for the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, a small crack in the bell turned into a much larger one. The bell hasn’t rung since, although it makes the occasional ‘dunk’ on special occasions.

We paid homage to the bell itself, cordoned off as it was and protected by a Ranger from the National Park Service, then wandered down to the riverside for a visit to the Independence Seaport Museum. This consisted of two dry-docked boats of the US Navy: the USS Becuna and the USS Olympia.

The Becuna is a submarine from World War II which was built in Philadelphia and launched in 1944. More than 70 submariners would somehow live in the tiny, cramped conditions as it patrolled the Pacific looking for Japanese ships. In the final room of the self-guided tour we met an ancient old man who had been one of those submariners.

The veteran told us that he was responsible for the problems currently facing America. He went onto explain that this was because his boat had rescued George HW Bush during WW2; if they hadn’t, then Dubya would never have been born. The old man even produced a signed photograph of the former President that was sent to the rescuers upon Bush taking office in 1989.

After touring the Olympia, a 19th century cruiser, we played on the interactive exhibits in the nearby museum before getting a cab to the railway station. From there we boarded a train to Atlantic City, New Jersey for an evening of James Bond-style glamour among cocktail-sipping high rollers. Except, of course, real life casinos are nothing like 007 would have you believe.

Atlantic City used to be a thriving seaside resort (still immortalised as the setting of the US version of Monopoly), but by the 1960s it had sunk into the kind of decline familiar to Blackpool and other English resorts. In 1976, voters agreed to legalise casinos in an effort to revitalise their city by creating an east coast Las Vegas.

Economically this worked, but at the cost of removing the soul of the city and replacing it with a sink hole of seedy despair. We visited Caesar’s Palace, an enormous casino beside the beach which stank of stale cigar smoke (despite a smoking ban). It consisted of several levels of almost identical floors, filled with slot machines and card tables as far as the eye could see.

The cheapest blackjack and poker tables had a minimum stake of $10 per hand, so instead we took to the more budget option of 25¢ fruit machines and video poker screens. Several hours later we left the casino; I was the only one of our group to leave without a small hole in my pocket, having found a knack for video poker which turned my $20 bet into $42.

We took the Greyhound back to NYC from a bus station full of the kind of shouty weirdos that normally frequent Camden Town in London. The bus was much less comfortable than the Bolt Bus we had taken to Philadelphia and it was almost impossible to find a sleeping position that didn’t lead to a very sore neck. Occasionally, we awoke to find the bus attempting a three-point turn across the highway; it turned out to be the driver’s first day and he was somehow struggling to find New York City. At around 2am, we finally arrived back at the Port Authority Bus Station.