New York and New England

The major metropolises of the world distinguish themselves from lesser cities by being immediately and inarguably recognisable as themselves. You could be dropped blindfolded into Tokyo, Paris or London and know immediately not just what country you’re in, but that you are specifically in that city. I think this is especially true of New York.

New York feels different from Boston, Chicago or LA. The brick apartment buildings with their external fire escapes and the steam spewing from the street vents – familiar from a thousand scene-setting shots in Friends or Seinfeld – could only be New York. Add to this scene the yellow cabs, the distinctive accent, the smell of hotdogs and the gusts of warm air rushing between the skyscrapers.

I got off the Bolt Bus from Washington at 34th St and the sensory excitement of Manhattan tricked me into thinking walking in the hot sun with my backpack all the way to my 57th St hotel would be a good idea. It wasn’t.

This was my third visit to New York, with the previous two trips being week-long and with friends. I had already done all the big tourist things, so I was rather at a loss about what I should do for the 24 hours until my bus out to Boston.

The combination of being hot and bothered from my earlier exertions, and being in one of the world’s great cities but with nothing to do, led me headlong into a ‘travel wall’. I’d been on the road/rail for over two weeks and was probably two weeks away from returning to San Francisco. The trip was costing more than I’d hoped, and the trains for the subsequent legs from Boston to Chicago and to the West were all either expensive, fully booked or both.

I took a long walk (mainly because I always misjudge the size of Manhattan) down to and across the Brooklyn Bridge, and weighed up a series of options for the final week of my trip. Should I cut out Chicago and head straight for Denver? Was it feasible to make it to Montreal? Would visiting Mount Rushmore be worth the two day round trip from Denver?

I returned to my room and did the sensible thing: I made a spreadsheet. There were some trade-offs to make: to get from Boston to Chicago I would reluctantly abandon the train in favour of a quick flight. I would ditch Mount Rushmore, but still break my westerly train journey at Grand Junction, Colorado to spend a couple of days in the Utah national parks.

Tickets for the first half of this journey, from Chicago to Grand Junction, were eye-wateringly expensive (especially considering this is the less scenic stretch of what is widely regarded as a great railway journey). As penance for this extravagance, I decided to stay in a backpacker hostel in Chicago and to feel perpetually guilty about spending my own money so frivolously.

With these plans laid out, I headed to Central Park to meet an old university friend, Rik, and his wife Holly. It was nice, after more than two weeks of only talking to taxi drivers, train passengers and strangers in bars, to see some familiar faces and have proper conversations.

***

I can’t be sure if it was from lying in the grass the previous evening or from bed bugs in my budget hotel, but I woke up to find I’d been the first dozen courses of an insect chef’s tasting menu.

I got up and did what anybody with only a few hours left in the excitement of New York City would do: I found a laundromat. After I’d fed a total of 28 quarters into various soap dispensers, washers and dryers, I gathered up my now clean clothes and paid another $5 to leave them in a left luggage shop.

I walked west to the start of the Manhattan High Line. This former overhead railway line opened in 2009 as a pedestrian walkway with gardens on either side of the path. It’s only a mile or so long, but it’s a very pleasant way to wander through New York, especially on such a hot day.

***

That evening, I arrived by bus into Boston and immediately regretted a packing decision that had seemed sensible in California a couple of weeks earlier. It was pouring with rain and I had no jacket.

I took a Lyft Line to my AirBnb (could I *be* any more millennial?) This was the third AirBnb I’d stayed in on this trip, as they are much cheaper than hotels and motels in the big cities (especially true in Boston, which for some reason is horribly expensive, hotel-wise).

As a solo traveller, I had booked private rooms in other people’s apartments. There’s something quite awkward about this; it’s like you’re a guest in somebody’s house, so you do that thing of not wanting to be any trouble. But then you remember you are paying them $70 to be there, so really you ought to be some trouble.

This particular apartment, for reasons that are never explained, has only one key shared between the two permanent flatmates and the occasional paying guest. This means that every time you enter the apartment building you have to open a key safe, extract the key, unlock the building door, go upstairs, unlock the apartment, go back downstairs, leave the building door ajar so as to not get locked out, lock the key back in its little safe and then finally go back upstairs to actually enter the apartment.

Inside, I was greeted by a lovely elderly dog, though I hardly had contact with the owner. Just in case the unease about being a paying guest in a stranger’s home wasn’t enough, it was hammered home by little acts of passive-aggression like moving my shoes overnight from just inside the front door to just outside.

Anyway, Boston itself is a mostly lovely city. It was a relative oasis of calm after New York and the first of the cities I’d reached on this trip that felt liveable to me. I like compact cities that don’t require an hour on public transport to get from one side to the other (yes, London, I’m looking at you… and LA, you barely count as a city you’re so spread out). Boston falls into this category; from the AirBnb in East Boston to the heart of the historic downtown was literally 15 minutes, and that’s including faffing about with the stupid key.

I joined a walking tour from Fenueil Hall and along much of the Freedom Trail. The local guide was well-informed and lined the route with interesting stories, both revolutionary and modern. Towards the end of the tour we passed a hotel which was where JFK proposed to Jackie, had once employed Ho Chi Minh and had invented the Boston Cream Pie.

With my stomach empty and my mind filled with Boston Cream Pie, I set about reversing the situation. After much confused wandering that always seemed to return me to the same place, I found a market stall selling cream pies. The first thing to stress is that it is not, in either the British or American sense, a pie. It is two sponge cakes with cream sandwiched between and a chocolate icing. It was OK, but to be honest I preferred the Boston creme donut I’d bought from a Dunkin’ Donuts in NYC the previous day.

After an afternoon spent pretending to throw tea chests into the harbour from a real boat (the Boston Tea Party Museum), I walked to the north of the city to Fenway Park. A later conversation with a baseball fan in a Chicago bar would see Fenway described as one of the last great old ballparks.

I’ve been to AT&T Park in San Francisco a few times and, regardless of whether or not you have any interest in baseball, it’s a great place to visit. The stadium is built to provide views across the Bay Bridge and has excellent facilities, but it is almost brand new.

Fenway Park, on the other hand, has been home to the Boston Red Sox since 1912. There are features, such as the viewing window between the field and a non-ticketed bar, which are unlikely to be included in a modern ballpark, and the whole place has an atmosphere befitting baseball’s obsession with its own history.

I arrived ticketless, but soon found someone willing to sell their spare ticket. I haggled them down to half price and took my place in the standing section upon what I learned was the famous Green Monster, an 11m high wall on the left field.

Games at Fenway Park do not get underway promptly. They start with the national anthem, performed by a military band; since this game was against the Toronto Blue Jays, they also played the Canadian anthem. Fans are asked to remove their hats and stand during the national anthems; I did this, but did not join the crowd in putting a hand over my heart. A few rows in front of me an elderly man, presumably a Vietnam veteran, stood to attention and saluted the stars and stripes.

The CEO of one of the Red Sox’s sponsors then came out and threw a ceremonial first pitch, then somebody else came out and threw a second first pitch in honour of a deceased season ticket holder. Finally, a specially selected child screamed “Play ball!” into the public address system and the game got underway.

I stayed for about half of the game, then left having realised that attending a baseball game between Boston and Toronto on your own is not that exciting.

***

The following morning, I crossed the river into Cambridge (home of Harvard and MIT) to pick up a rental car. I had a motel booked in Portland, Maine to the north east of Boston, but decided first to head south to Providence, Rhode Island.

I stopped for lunch near the elegant state capitol building and, from what I saw of it, can confirm that Providence is a pleasant little capital for the union’s smallest state.

From Providence I headed north east to Cape Cod, dipped my feet in the Atlantic to ceremonially complete my coast to coast, then passed back through Boston to reach the scenic coastal route through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, stopping briefly in Salem on the way.

A drive along the New England coast is like receiving an English geography lesson from a drunk. Almost every town is named after somewhere in England: Manchester-by-the-Sea, Essex, Gloucester, Ipswich Bay, Newbury, Salisbury, Portsmouth, Dover, Nottingham, Epping and so on.

***

After a night on the outskirts of Portland, I pointed my car west towards the White Mountains. Being July, the mountains were very much green, but it was still a pleasant drive across New Hampshire and into Vermont. I must say, having now driven through the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and the White Mountains, I’m yet to discover scenery in the eastern US to match the redwood forests and dramatic coastlines of northern California.

In Vermont, I stopped at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory and took a guided tour. Ben & Jerry’s are big on political activism and had a lot of displays about the causes they support; currently they’re pushing voter registration. While it was disappointing to learn that they’d been acquired by Unilever a few years ago, I suppose it’s positive that they’ve been allowed to continue their activism from within this massive conglomerate.

The tour itself was delivered by a woman in a tutu (it was the company’s ‘dress as your childhood hobby’ day), who reeled off a stream of scripted jokes with all the enthusiasm of somebody whose childhood dream of working in an ice cream factory was turning out to be less exciting than she’d hoped.

As I moved inland, it felt like the town names were becoming less English and more continental European: Berlin and Montpelier. Whenever the Bluetooth cut out, the car radio would switch to the station tuned by the previous driver: near Boston this was talk radio about the New England Patriots NFL team, but as I moved deeper into Vermont, the same frequency was occupied by a French language station. I don’t think it was a Quebecois radio station leaking across the Canadian border, as they were discussing US politics and the resignation of Sean Spicer.

I checked into a motel among the strip malls to the south of Burlington. The parade of car dealerships, motels and fast food outlets did not raise particularly high expectations of what I would find in Burlington itself.

I was so wrong. I’m going to go so far as to say that Burlington is the best city (town, really – it’s only got 40,000 inhabitants) in America; certainly the nicest place I’ve visited on this continent. I was there on a Friday evening and ate a bowl of pasta at a pavement cafe while good quality buskers strummed and sang nearby.

The whole place was… nice. But not in a picket-fence-and-apple-pie-1950s-America way. Burlington is a college town and Bernie Sanders was mayor for much of the 1980s. This is an unashamedly liberal enclave, geographically and culturally closer to Montreal than to Boston. The pedestrianised high street had independent, ethically-minded shops. The beggars outside the old-fashioned independent cinema greeted a passing family with compliments, and in return a patrolling policeman was friendly and respectful to the beggars.

If ever you happen to be in western Vermont, go to Burlington. Steal a car if you must. 

***

There seems to be a philosophical divide between Vermont and New Hampshire. While Vermont is socially liberal and progressive, New Hampshire takes a far more libertarian stance. Their licence plate motto is ‘Live free or die’, and this freedom from government interference manifests itself in some odd ways.

Seatbelts are optional for adults in cars, as are motorcycle helmets (a few other states have no motorcycle helmet laws, and you do see people riding around with no more head protection than a bandanna). A better motto might be ‘Live free and die’.

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.

What I did on my holidays (part 3 – election night special)

Tuesday 4th November

Since our arrival in New York there had been a low frequency buzz on the streets about the election. It seemed like every conversation we tuned into on the crowded sidewalks contained snippets of “Obama”, “McCain” or “Palin” (poor Biden). It’s difficult to imagine an election in the UK creating such a level of interest, although I suspect this is no ordinary US election.

Despite this level of public interest, there was actually very little in the way of election publicity in the city. New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states on the electoral map, so neither candidate saw the need to waste money on posters or adverts. A good number of people , though, were walking about with Obama-Biden badges on their lapels (almost nobody had McCain-Palin badges).

One source of these badges revealed itself on our way to Macy’s (the world’s largest department store). A middle-aged black woman had set up a table on a 7th Avenue corner with an enormous selection of pro-Obama merchandise. She was so excited about the prospect of an Obama victory that she told us how she had voted at 6.30am; the Democratic campaign’s message of hope and change had genuinely become ingrained in the desires of people like her.

We bought some badges and headed to Macy’s. It’s basically just a big John Lewis, but it’s worth a visit just to ride the ancient wooden escalators on the upper floors. OK, it’s maybe not worth a visit just for that, but if you happen to be there you should at least take a look.

Realising that we didn’t really have any shopping to do, the Matts and I parted company with Neil, Andy, John and LJ. We headed towards the Rockefeller Center to check out the planned NBC election night party taking place around the ice rink. We’d been tipped off about the party by a news bulletin on one of the LCD screens that have been fitted into the back of apparently every taxi cab in the city.

A map of the country had been drawn onto the ice, which they would somehow illuminate state-by-state in either red or blue as the election results rolled in. NBC had set up a temporary studio next to where we were standing that appeared to be broadcasting live on the big screens above us. On our way out of the plaza, a man with a Blackberry stopped us and said he was looking for good looking young people to sit on the front rows of the following morning’s Fox Morning Show. Clearly, there was a shortage of good looking young people, so he handed the tickets to us; we’d have to be there at 7.30am, but breakfast would be free.

Another option for election night festivities was in Times Square where CNN had set up a big screen in front of the tiered seating that forms the roof of the half-price ticket booth. It was still mid-afternoon, but we took some seats and watched some CNN. They were showing off an artist’s impression that they had commissioned of what the candidates would look like if McCain were black and Obama white. McCain looked a bit like Bill Crosby, whereas Obama looked like a used car salesman.

While sitting in Times Square, a young man approached us with a clipboard and asked if we wanted to watch the Late Show with David Letterman being filmed the following afternoon. We said yes, and he said they were ours if we could answer two “simple” trivia questions. I cracked my Itbox-playing fingers, only to realise seconds later that the trivia was Letterman-related. Despite none of us having ever really watched it, the Matts were able to answer a question each to win us the tickets (for future reference, the bald band leader plays the keyboards and Letterman likes to throw his pen).

Later that afternoon we returned to our vantage point in Times Square and settled down for election night. As the clock ticked towards the first polling stations closing, the steps and the square below filled and the atmosphere began to crackle with anticipation. At 7pm, America reached the beginning of the end of this epic two-year long election when Vermont and Kentucky were called for Obama and McCain respectively. Not a single vote had been counted in either state (the polls had been closed for just a few seconds), but CNN used exit polls and common sense to put the first electoral college votes on the boards: McCain leads by eight votes to three.

Despite McCain’s early advantage, things were looking good for Obama who was neck-and-neck with McCain in Indiana (where votes had started being counted at 6pm), which had not voted for a Democrat in decades. At 8pm, ten more states were called without bothering to count any votes, eight of them for Obama, but it was the Pennsylvania result about half an hour later that reassured the crowd that they’d be going home happy.

McCain’s chance of victory was dealt a huge blow by Pennsylvania staying Democratic, but the celebrations couldn’t formally begin for some time yet. Times Square went wild when New York was called, and indeed every time the CNN coverage switched to our crowd. Ohio also fell to the Obama surge, meaning that it was now just a matter of the world politely waiting for the solidly-Democratic west coast states to close their polling stations so that the networks could push Obama over the magic 270.

That moment came at 11pm EST. The giant CNN screen moved from one of its many commercial breaks to one of their now-hourly countdowns to the closure of the next polls. The crowd in Times Square counted the last ten seconds out loud and, instead of calling any individual states, CNN immediately projected that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

To say that the crowd went a bit wild would be like saying that Sarah Palin is a bit thick. All around us was cheering, crying and hugging; if there were any Republicans in the crowd at the start of the evening, they’d either slipped off or converted to Obamania by eleven o’clock. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a football match or a rock concert, this was absolute elation among people who genuinely believed that things would now be different.

Cars around Times Square began honking their horns even more than usual, with Obama-Biden signs held out through their sunroofs. Eventually, the big screen cut to Arizona and John McCain’s concession speech. McCain’s audience looked uniformly unpleasant, a bunch of handlebar moustachioed rednecks and not a single non-white face to be seen.  The speech itself was gracious and humble, reminding the world of the McCain that used to command cross-party respect before he lowered himself to the level of the very worst elements of the GOP. These elements, however, were alive and well in his bigoted crowd who booed every mention of President-elect Obama.

Other than a few initial boos, McCain’s speech was well received in Times Square, receiving the applause it deserved. We did not show the same respect to his running mate: when Sarah Palin’s face filled the big screen, the boos echoed off the skyscrapers. We can only hope that she fades back into the obscurity that she emerged from in August, but I fear we haven’t seen the last of Palin and her brand of anti-intellectualism.

 After what felt like forever, the CNN coverage switched to the massive gathering in Grant Park, Chicago where Barack Obama and Joe Biden walked onto the stage accompanied by the new first and second families of the United States. 800 miles away in New York, our crowd was again going wild, anticipating a fine speech by a great orator. Sadly someone had alternative plans for our evening and as Obama opened his mouth to speak the CNN screen went dead. Thousands of people strained their eyes towards the Fox screen at the far end of the Square, but the subtitles were too small to read.

After several minutes, police began clearing our tiered seating, telling us to go home as the party was over. We followed the deflated crowds down the steps, but as we reached the bottom the screen flashed back into life and we were treated to the final five minutes of a great speech. When the 44th President left his Chicago stage the applause continued in Times Square for several minutes, as much of the crowd blinked tears from their eyes.

Our walk back towards our hostel was slow as we moved through the dense crowds. People were literally dancing in the streets; we saw spontaneous hip hop dancing on a street corner and a man moonwalk across a pedestrian crossing. It remains to be seen whether the world changed on 4th November 2008, but it was certainly a night we’ll never forget.

What I did on my holidays (part 2)

Monday 3rd November

After an overdue lie-in, we headed out into Manhattan in search of a hearty bagel and John’s friend LJ. LJ had survived the marathon on Sunday and would be transferring to our hostel for her last few days in New York.

Filled up with eggy, cheesy, Canadian hammy, bagely goodness, we once again made the long walk to the southern tip of Manhattan, this time to Castle Clinton in Battery Park. The fort was built in the early 19thcentury to defend New York from the British during the war of 1812, although now it is a ticket booth for the Ellis Island Ferry.

The ferry takes a bizarre route into the Hudson river between Battery Park, Liberty Island and Ellis Island, spiralling about in the process to allow the passengers a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skylines.

We had arrived too late in the day to be able to take the ferry to both Liberty and Ellis Islands, but through experience in 2007 I was aware that there is little to do on Liberty Island except pose for photographs in the stance of Lady Liberty. Had we been really early birds and got to Battery Park by 8am we could’ve booked tickets to actually climb the statue, a novelty that until recent months had been forbidden as an anti-terror precaution.

While the majority of the tourists disembarked on Liberty, we stayed aboard for a few minutes more as the boat spiralled into the dock at Ellis Island. Last year, we visited the immigration museum here, but I somehow entirely failed to find the upper levels of the museum, thus limiting my experience to essentially just the entrance lobby. This time I was determined to actually see some exhibits.

First things first, though; five hungry boys needed a snack. We headed into the cafeteria and the smarter kids bought punnets of fries. The fools among us, myself included, ordered cheesey fries. Americans don’t do cheese. We were reminded of this fact as we saw the caterer use a ladle to scoop his liquefied yellow gloop from a vat and onto the unfortunate flesh of our innocent fries.

They were inedible and the foul taste lingered in our mouths right through the hurried visit to the immigration museum. On this occasion I successfully visited the second floor exhibits too, which is certainly an improvement on the last time, but it seems I’ll have to return once more if I ever want to visit the third and final level.

As we queued for the last ferry back to Manhattan the sun dropped below the horizon, allowing the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey to cycle through our field of vision as the boat drunkenly looped back to Battery Park.

Legs still swaying, we walked up the east coast of lower Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. When it was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1.825km long. It may not hold that record any more, but a night-time walk across it remains a must-do for visitors to New York. Looking at that glittery cityscape never gets boring and, alongside the Empire State Building and the Ellis Island ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge is just about the best place to see it from.

We took the subway back from Brooklyn to what we hoped was Little Italy. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by the New York underground’s system of Express and Local trains, ending up about ten blocks north of where we planned. Never mind, a good walk would drum up some hunger, we thought.

Little Italy is a Little Disappointing. If there was one thing you’d expect it would be some Italian restaurants, but they appeared few and far between. Eventually we found one in the blurry area between Little Italy and Chinatown, where Chinese banners hang across pizza restaurants. The food was OK, perhaps a little too rich, but certainly not what we’d hoped for in the most Italian city outside of Italy (don’t quote me on that fact, I just made it up).

What I did on my holidays (part 1)

Saturday 1st November 2008

At an eyeball-achingly early time, Andy, John, Matt, Matt and I dragged ourselves to Heathrow Airport via seemingly half the tube network. We’d checked in for our flight online the previous evening and only had hand luggage, so were afforded the luxury of minimal queues to board Virgin Atlantic flight V003, bound for New York JFK.

The flight was actually the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced; the food was more than edible (starter, main, bread roll, dessert, wine and even a cheese course), there was actually leg-room and the back of the seat in front contained a wonderful media player. On demand, we could watch movies, TV shows, play battleships with our neighbours and even send abusive messages to John.

We took the impatiently long subway train from JFK right into the heart of Manhattan at Times Square. I had arranged for us to meet Neil outside the neon-signed NYPD station at 4pm. After a journey of 3500 miles, we arrived just 10 minutes late. Neil, however, had given up waiting and gone back to the suite in the Hilton that he’d rented for the previous night. Two phone calls and 15 minutes later we were all reunited under the dazzling lights of Times Square.

We walked a dozen blocks south to find our hostel on 8th Avenue and 30th Street. It appeared to be a little seedy outside, situated as it was above a Subway (the sandwich chain store, not the NYC underground system) and an apparently 24-hour florists. Regardless, the hostel was clean, secure, delightfully cheap and, importantly, very central.

After dropping our bags, we headed directly along 33rd Street towards the Rockefeller Center. Or rather that’s what I thought it was, instead of the Empire State Building which it actually was.  The fact that I (a buildings engineer) had failed to correctly identify perhaps the most famous skyscraper in the world proved to be an endless well of ridicule for my travel companions over the next week. In my defence, it does look a lot different from the photographs when you’re standing at the bottom of it looking east (although I have been up it before, so really should have known better).

We ate in a restaurant at the bottom that Andy, Neil and I had remembered to be very tasty from our previous visit to New York. Unfortunately it appeared that more than two weeks of American food in 2007 had done something to our taste buds that couldn’t be replicated after 8 hours of Virgin Atlantic in 2008; on this occasion the food wasn’t all that great. Never mind.

Up we went in the great elevators of the Empire State Building. I recommend that any visitors to New York save this particular rite until the sun has set; the Big Apple is as beautiful by night as it is loud and grubby by day. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but in my view there are many more attractive cities in the world than New York, but at night it turns into a magnificent array of lights that simply refuse to be ignored. There’s only one downside to looking at this metropolis from the top of the Empire State Building, and that is that you can’t see the Empire State Building.

 

Sunday 2nd November 2008

After a night of jet-lag recovery, we decided to walk from our hostel down to the financial district. Although we were staying on 30th Street, it turns out the numbering doesn’t begin from the sourthernmost tip of Manhattan, so we were barely halfway there after covering the 30 blocks to 1st Street.

We walked passed a terrifying Orwellian skyscraper with no windows; in fact, the only break in the smooth concrete surface was for a row of enormous ventilation grills about halfway up. Later research established that this was the AT&T Switching Center, filled with equipment that would prefer not to receive daylight and workers who presumably wished that they did.

We visited Ground Zero, the former site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It is now a bustling building site for the Freedom Tower which is due to rise from the ashes by 2013. We called into the nearby St Paul’s Church which became a refuge for recovery workers in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. It is now treated as a memorial site to those who died.

From here we headed down Wall Street and to the stock exchange. The turmoil that this area had both caused and suffered over the last few months was absent on this quiet Sunday morning. The area was silent but for the chattering of tourists and the clicking of their cameras. After making appropriately abusive gestures towards these cathedrals of greed, we stepped down into the subway and headed north to Times Square to watch some F1.

We settled down in the enormous ESPN bar and took a table close to screen number two of the twelve on the video wall. Our table had a small LCD screen on it too, so we turned off the American football and tuned it into the Brazilian Grand Prix. Perfect.

Unfortunately, the waiting staff weren’t quite so happy with our seating arrangements. It turned out we were meant to have been seated by one of them, so we had therefore jumped a queue by just sitting down. This was rubbish, as there was no queue and several empty tables. Nevertheless, they actively ignored us until we almost literally waved in their faces. Eventually we were served, on the condition that we spend at least $10 per person per hour; this wasn’t a problem considering the price of the beer.

We watched Lewis Hamilton win the Formula 1 World Championship on the very last corner of the final lap of the final race of the season, cheering happily in a cavern full of oblivious NFL fans. On a high and with a couple of tall beers inside us we marched up 6th Avenue towards Central Park in order to see the New York Marathon. On the way, we successfully adapted the lyrics of almost every Broadway musical to be about the 2008 Presidential election. Some examples included “Obama Mia” and “Hakuna Obama”. The album will be out in time for Christmas.

We stood at the half-mile to go marker of the marathon and were appalled by the lack of excitement being exhibited by the crowd compared to the London marathon earlier in the year. We attempted to make up for this by cheering the names emblazoned on every running vest that crawled, limped and jogged past us. It roused a few smiles just in time for the bank of press cameras a few metres further along the course.

For the evening we found a southern-style BBQ house a couple of blocks from our hostel. For $22 they offered all-you-can-eat ribs and all-you-can-drink Bud Lite, with a time limit of two hours. It turns out this is made profitable due to an apparent allergy of the waiting staff to serving customers their ribs and their beer. Their incompetency, however, was ultimately to our advantage, as they failed to notice that only three of our party had ordered the all-you-can-drink, yet none of us ever seemed to have an empty glass…

New York, New York: Part 2

On Wednesday morning, we awoke to the sound of a violent thunderstorm in the streets outside the hostel. When we eventually ventured outside, the storm had eased to a drizzle, so we took the subway down to lower Manhattan. (An aside about the subway system: not only is it far shabbier than the London equivalent, but its name causes no end of confusion. I went into a bank to ask for directions to the nearest subway, only to later find that she’d actually directed me to the nearest branch of Subway, the popular sandwich chain.)

We headed down towards the ferry terminal at the southernmost tip of the island, passing Ground Zero on the way. To be honest, the former location of the World Trade Center towers was rather unmoving. Nearly six years on, it no longer resembles anything other than a huge building site in the middle of the financial district.

At the ferry terminal was Castle Clinton, a fort built to defend NYC against the British in the 1812 war. It actually saw no action in the war, though these days it is frequently invaded by Brits such as us because it is used as the ticket office for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

The Statue of Liberty sits in the mouth of the Hudson river and provides a wonderful foreground to the view back at the famous skyline of lower Manhattan. At a viewing platform on the island was an annotated drawing from 1997 of the skyline as it was then. It was this, and not Ground Zero, that was for me the most poignant reminder of 9/11 in the city. The drawing was not a memorial to the terrorist attacks, it was simply an outdated diagram of a skyline that had once been dominated by two enormous buildings that just aren’t there any more. Apart from a small gap where the twin towers once were, the current cityscape looks entirely natural; it is the drawing that looks like somebody has sketched on two outsized towers, perhaps concept drawings of a future development, rather than an accurate drawing of what once was. For two such huge structures to be literally erased from one of the world’s most famous skylines is really very haunting.

Another ferry ride later and we were on Ellis Island, the site of America’s main immigration centre in the early 20th century. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million people entered the US at Ellis Island, their first sight of the land of the free being the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline. The museum was very interesting, although I totally failed to realise that there was more to it than just the main hall downstairs, thus missing out on most of it. I did find a relative called Mary Entwistle on the Ellis Island database, or rather I found five possible name matches for her.

Back on the sort-of mainland that is Manhattan, we walked through the financial district along Wall St. It was pretty much the same as walking through the equivalent in London, although the New York Stock Exchange was clearly identifiable as the front wall was adorned with an enormous stars and stripes. While grabbing a bite to eat at McDonald’s on Broadway (which had a grand piano on the staircase), we decided that since the previous night’s entertainment had been so good we might as well have a look to see what other shows were available for cheap.

While walking past Ground Zero on the way to Times Square with Neil and Leo, I heard someone call my name from over my shoulder. It was 5pm on a weekday evening, so the street was full of suited businessmen, among whom was the source of the voice: my Engineering pal Rob Collier. He is in New York for his training before he returns to London to move money around for a silly salary. Although I knew he was in the city (and, in fact, we had planned to meet up one evening but had been unable to), it was still rather strange to run into him in a street more than 3000 miles away from Durham. We couldn’t chat for long as he was off for some executive ten-pin bowling, though he was able to point out the swish looking hotel on the skyline where his bank are putting him up in a suite. It looked a bit nicer than our hostel, but I bet his air conditioning system doesn’t do an uncanny impression of the Niagara Falls.

An hour or so later, after buying tickets for Chicago (which we later to found to be entertaining, though nowhere near as good as the Phantom), Andy calls me on my mobile to find out where we were as he was watching news of an explosion at 41st and Lexington Ave. We were two streets to the north, though several avenues to the west, so we decided to head in that direction to find out what was going on.

Strangely, until we were only a few blocks away from the police cordon, nobody seemed to be aware of anything out of the ordinary happening. When we did reach the cordon, there were several dozen people taking photos of what we later learnt to be a burst steam pipe (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6905738.stm, but no panic.

Since we arrived in the States, it has seemed that every news story on TV is connected to terrorism in some way; it’s something of an obsession for the media. Yet here, right where almost every New Yorker you pass in the street would be able to tell you their own personal story of how 9/11 affected them, there is more of a relaxed, accepting attitude to whatever threat the city faces. To them, terrorism isn’t a catch-all word used by politicians in Washington to justify their actions, it is something that has irreversibly altered their lives and which they’ve been forced to accept the reality of. I guess it’s a similar view to that held by Londoners after enduring decades of IRA terrorism, although the scale of what happened to this city on one day in 2001 comes into focus when you see the lists of dead colleagues written on the side of each fire truck that passes.

Anyway, we hung around behind the police cordon, took a few photos and watched what I can only assume to be the FBI arrive (they were driving black cars with blacked-out windows, wore black suits, black ties and black sunglasses – the other possibility was Men in Black), before heading to the Theater District to watch Chicago which was nowhere near as exciting as the actual city of Chicago.

The following morning, our final full day in NYC, Andy, Alex, Ed and I headed for the UN headquarters on the eastern side of Manhattan. En route we visited Grand Central station, which is both grand and pretty central. It was still partially closed as a result of the explosion in the neighbouring street. Outside, it was a strange sight to see Red Cross tents and vans, as well as police and FBI in gas masks (there were concerns that asbestos dust may have been released, though this was later found not to be the case) patrolling the streets of New York. I bought a copy of the New York Post, which is the city’s equivalent of The Sun and was adorned with the headline ‘MIDTOWN VOLCANO!’ and lots of dramatic photos. The New York Times, which I had bought the previous day, looked to be taking a more sober and far less entertaining view on this tragedy so I left it unpurchased in one of the little dispensers that can be found on practically every US street corner.

The UN building is a must-see for any visitor to New York. It is a little island of liberal internationalism within a generally inward-looking, conservative country and the highly informative Swedish tour guide showed us both the General Assembly and Security Council chambers. It is technically international territory, so we stepped out of the US for a few hours to see the displays about how much money the west (read America) spends on the military and how a tiny proportion of that money would be enough to wipe out most of this planet’s ailments. I found it a little strange that the HQ of an organisation so often slated by US politicians could be sited right here in downtown Manhattan.

Stepping back onto US soil, we headed for the Empire State Building. It was the tallest building in the world from its construction in 1931 until 1970, and since 2001 has once again been the peak of New York City. Nevertheless, its position well to the north the financial district (where the twin towers had stood) means that it is unable to show off its height in the New York skyline because it is simply too far behind all the others to look at all special. Even its distinctive shape has been imitated by the Chrysler Building, leaving the Empire State looking forlorn and a little lost. Regardless of this, it is still the tallest thing for hundreds of miles, so we took the elevator right up to the viewing platform on floor 86.

At roughly this point, the clouds (which now enveloped us) decided they’d had enough of holding onto all that moisture and decided to let rip. I got almost as soaked as I did sitting on a boat just metres away from Niagara Falls. When the clouds did eventually lift, though, the view was fantastic and the position in the middle of Manhattan provided a view of the city that a harbourside skyscraper never could.

Macy’s prominently claims to be the world’s largest department store, and I think it may be correct. It goes up ten floors and down at least one, with entertainingly ancient wooden escalators carrying you between the uppermost floors. Also, and I’m not entirely sure how, it extends between 5th and 7th Avenues without being obstructed by 6th. After being deodorised courtesy of the free samples of aftershave that were being sprayed by eager salesmen all over the ground floor, we left Macy’s and headed to the district of Chelsea in search of some culture.

We found it within the many small art galleries in the district. The art was mostly modern, with some really good use of different media, including sculptures, paintings, mechanical chair things (it was very strange) and video.

Finally, on Friday morning we left New York bright and early, putting Ed on a Grayhound to Atlantic City and reclaiming our monster truck from Newark Airport’s long stay parking lot.

New York, New York: Part 1

It’s been a full working week since I last updated the blog and it’s been quite an eventful one at that. When we left off last Sunday evening Neil had a broken bike so was travelling by car until a cycle shop specialising in Trek models could be found. As luck would have it, the small town of Hamburg, NJ had exactly that, so Neil, Ed and I headed there as Alex, Andy and Leo hit the road for the 50 mile journey to New York.

The owner of the cycle shop (who may or may not have been a Bush Republican, as this time we decided to avoid finding out) was optimistic that he could sort it quickly and cheaply, so we headed across the road to a diner where I had a cheeseburger for breakfast. I now understand why Americans love their country so much: in the UK not even McDonald’s will sell you a cheeseburger for breakfast.

As it happened, the bike job was more complex than initially anticipated, so we sought out any activities in the immediate area that we hadn’t already tried. Failing, we decided to go back to the Franklin Mineral Museum which was now open and positively bustling, with two or three cars parked outside. Unfortunately, due to the $6 entrance fee I can only imagine the pleasures being enjoyed by the crowds inside, including the reconstruction of a mine shaft.

After another Dairy Queen ice cream we headed for the interesting sounding Tomahawk Lake, about a 30 minute drive away. It turned out to be a sort of water park with, get this, the longest water slides in the whole of New Jersey. Entrance was $9 each, which initially seemed reasonable, though it turns out this only allowed you to visit the shores of the lake and, if it took your fancy, go for a dip. A further $10 would have to be coughed up for a pass that would allow you to slide further than anyone else in the state.

We decided to pay nothing, as there really wasn’t much time before the bike should’ve been ready, so we went for a drive around Mohawk Lake, hoping to find a quiet beach where we could sit in the sun and do some reading. To our disappointment, though sadly not to our surprise, every beach we passed was privately owned by the wealthy residents of the area and strictly off-limits to the likes of us.

Finally, the bike was ready and we set off towards New York City. I dropped Neil and Ed at Newark Airport’s long-stay car park and set off to find the cyclists who had made it to Jersey City but had been unable to get their bikes on the public transport to the airport. People do not know how to drive in Jersey City. For that matter, people do not know how to lay out roads in Jersey City. The streets were a confusing maze of one-way systems and squid-like intersections, and the drivers were impatient and aggressive. A car park attendant reacted angrily to the prospect of the cyclists loading their bikes onto the back of the monster truck on his turf, and insisted on us moving 5 metres further up the road.

With the bikes loaded inside the car and everything we would need for a few days in the Big Apple to hand, we took the bus under the Hudson and onto Manhattan. Our hostel, the Gershwin Hotel, was an art-filled 20-storey building close to the Empire State Building. The hostel was clearly a popular one as the six of us were slotted into four different dorms, and they had space for us for only one night.

We dined at a restaurant at the base of the Empire State Building, then wandered along Broadway towards Times Square. It is magnificent; imagine London’s Piccadilly Circus on acid and you come close to the experience of Times Square. For a start, it isn’t really a square, it is more of a convergence of several streets, with every building in the vicinity covered from floor to about 10 storeys up with enormous television screens and scrolling text. The area is so bright that the ground appears to be bathed in sunlight.

The following day, we relocated to another hostel in Upper Manhattan, right next to Central Park. This hostel was more basic than the Gershwin, but also significantly less expensive. After returning to downtown by way of a long stroll through and alongside Central Park, we visited the Rockefeller Center. The Center consists of 14 art deco buildings that were entirely funded by John D Rockefeller Jr. The construction work took place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, providing plenty of work for New Yorkers who otherwise would’ve been without it.

We visited New York’s central library (”Now open six days a week!”) and had a tour of a photography exhibition. On stepping out of the peaceful cool air of the grand stone building back into the brightness of the city, we noticed something missing: noise and traffic. While we were busy being cultured, the blocks around the library had been evacuated by the police due to a bomb threat and we found ourselves having to step over NYPD’s ‘Police Line: Do Not Cross’ tape in order to rejoin the rest of the populace.

Nestled among the skyscrapers of New York are a number of churches, each of which provides an incredible area of silence in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet. Without exception they were ornately decorated and not much less appealing than Durham Cathedral. After visiting a few of these we headed back to Times Square with the intention of picking up cheap tickets to a Broadway show. We bought half-price tickets to Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater.

The show was absolutely, mind-blowingly incredible. As well as the fantastic voices of pretty much the whole cast, the innovative use of the sets really made it come alive, including pyrotechnics, actors on wires and falling chandeliers. American theater audiences love to involve themselves in the shows, clapping every solo and even applauding the pre-show announcement to turn off mobile phones. In the row in front of us was a man who still managed to clap at all the wrong moments and, at one point, demonstrated his enjoyment by delivering a loud “yee-haw!”

After the show we found a bar (Irish-themed, like most bars in New York it seems) and enjoyed a few pints. In the bar we found the first American who does not identify our accents as being “London”, and in fact was able to do a northern English impression. His Geordie impression was as dodgy as ours, however. He did have a bit of an advantage, though, having lived in Britain for a number of years.

There’s plenty more New York blog to come, so look out for it over the next few days. Thanks to everyone that’s sent in messages of support for the trip, the cyclists in particular are very appreciative. Also, please remember that they’re putting themselves through this pain for a number of good causes, so if you haven’t already done so please consider giving a donation to one of them by clicking here. I’m writing this from Atlantic City, though the cyclists are already on their way to Washington DC, having decided to skip a stopover in Delaware and push right through.