Saturday, 31 May 2014

That's all, folks

Goodnight America. We may have left behind the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the memories we made under the star-spangled banner will last far longer than our flight back to Heathrow.

Tim and Elizabeth Hagen (above) dropped us at Washington Dulles Airport, having helped us end our Stateside stay in style.

Perhaps a slightly left-field entry into our book of dreams was a tour around the Air and Space Museum, which houses just about every flying craft worth seeing, right back to the days of the Wright brothers.

Our tour group was around 15 in number when we initially assembled at the base of the clock tower. But in scenes reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, enthusiasts began to drop by the wayside as our guides walked and talked on and on. I broke away from the group at around the two-hour mark. After all, there's only so much Vietnam War chat you can cope with before lunchtime.

After lunch had finally been taken - at the remarkably large Wegmans supermarket (featuring a superb help-yourself buffet) - we drove on to Virginia's Great Falls. The steely skies lent the raging waters an even more violent nature.

Reunited with the Hagens that evening, we were treated to a supper of frozen yoghurt at Sweet Frog. Pull the left handle for coffee flavour, pull the right handle for dulce de leche, and pull the middle handle for a blend of the two. Like the Pizza Hut ice cream factory, but a hundred times better. Ryan's girlfriend, Emily, joined us.

Steve, Rachel, Tim, Ryan, Emily and Elizabeth at Sweet Frog

And then to something completely different for our final day in the States - a speedboat trip along the Potomac River in Washington.

The boat ramp was just a few hundred yards from the end of the runway at Ronald Reagan Airport, so we had the best seat in the house as jumbo jets screamed over our heads.

Tight speed restrictions apply in the city centre but it was full steam ahead once the sights of DC were behind us. Rachel and I both took a turn behind the wheel - it was exhilarating to skim along the surface of the Potomac like a flat stone across a pond.

Seeing the city from the water - in this instance, the Capitol and Nationals Park stadium (baseball) - brought DC to life in a way that traipsing up and down The Mall two days earlier hadn't. Military helicopters and jet fighters flying overhead further added to the grand experience of gliding around the Pentagon, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, landmarks that sit at the very heart of the United States.

And the people we have to thank for our American experience are the Hagen family, who treated us like royalty throughout our stay. Forget the skyscrapers, billboards and monuments - this immense country is built on citizens like these. Truly great ambassadors for the USA, and we're proud to call them our friends.

It's been fun bringing the blog out of retirement. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Washington, DC

From the Big Apple to the biggest car I've ever driven. This was our ride for the latest leg of our American adventure - a trip into Washington, DC. The truck belongs to the Hagen family, who are hosting us for the next couple of days.

But more about them - and DC - later. Let me rewind.

We left New York behind after an unforgettable three days, catching a train out of Penn Station bound for Washington. It took us the best part of four hours to reach the capital, although the departures board at Penn showed how much further some other folks were travelling. Chicago, in particular, is a long old poke.

Raindrops streamed across the carriage windows and an increasingly thunderous sky enveloped us as we closed in on Washington's Union Station. On such occasions, a friendly face at the destination makes all the difference and waiting for us outside the main concourse was Tim Hagen, a family friend of Rachel's from years back.

For me, this was a first meeting with Tim, his wife Elizabeth and their children Ryan and Rachel, but after about five minutes, I couldn't remember what it had been like to not know them. That's how warm their welcome was. Big smiles and even bigger hearts, you know the sort of people I mean.

And so to the truck, which the Hagens let us drive from their house to the nearest Metro station. This was quite a leap of faith, given that I'd not driven on the right-hand side of the road before, rarely worked with an automatic gearbox, and certainly never clambered into the driving seat of a vehicle so imposing.

But, as the picture above will attest, we made it safely through the traffic and into DC. First stop, the White House (no sign of Obama).

From there, we hit the National Mall, a 1.9-mile long strip of grass flanked by huge museums and dotted with important American monuments. At its east end stands the Capitol building (above), where the lower House of Representatives and upper Senate meet.

At the centre of the Mall is the gigantic Washington Monument, a slender obelisk which soars into the sky surrounded by American flags at its base. It's the tallest building in the district - 555ft.

And beyond that, the Lincoln Memorial book-ends the Mall. Here it is, in the distance, beyond the reflecting pool and tributes to American soldiers killed in conflicts around the world.

All around the Mall swarmed a myriad schoolchildren, bussed in from all over the region to take in the sights of the capital. Each school had kitted its students out in tour t-shirts, so as one gang in yellow descended on the hot dog van, another green army poured down the front steps of the National Museum of Natural History.

These chattering masses turned The Mall into a giant schoolyard, so we side-stepped the museums, which were creaking at the seams with exuberant kids and bedraggled teachers.

Just as New York acts as a magnet for international visitors, a visit to Washington seems to be a rite of passage for young Americans. We found this to be the case in Australia, too. School parties descended on Canberra, the capital, and the rest of the world made a beeline for Sydney.

Perhaps that's why London is so inimitable: it's the first place tourists flock to, yet it's equally iconic and important to us English.

But no-one does trucks like the Americans.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Tervets in Manhattan

When the Lonely Planet authors described New York as exhausting, they weren't kidding. Admittedly, we've hurled ourselves onto one sightseeing tour after another, but this entrancing city grabs your attention every time you pause for breath - or, at least, there's a dubious-looking salesperson in your face determined to convince you that their bus tour, comedy show, bike ride or street art is a) legitimate and b) worth opening your wallet for.

Speaking of bus tours, we've been racking them up. If there's anyone in New York who's put a 48-hour all-loops sightseeing pass to better use than us, I'd like to meet them.

Who knew, for example, there was a megastore dedicated to M&Ms, or, indeed, there are so many M&Ms in the entire world? This was the scene that greeted us when we stepped into this kingdom of chocolate and tat.

The uptown loop of the bus tour took us through Harlem and along the east side of Central Park before dropping us back in the city centre.

We swapped land for water and cruised round the southernmost tip of Manhattan...

...out to the Statue of Liberty...

...and all the way around the island before returning to our jetty a couple of hours later. It was a good way to size up Manhattan, the population of which - our tour guide said - rises from three million to five million on a work day.

Our insatiable appetite for tours had us on a night bus later that day, as the lights on the skyscrapers began to come on. I've rarely seen crowds like those in Times Square (above) - only Oxford Street in London compares, to be honest. Watching the masses from our seat on the bus was certainly preferable to tackling the scrum at first-hand, as we had on the evening of our arrival.

Lower sank the sun and on drove the bus, affording us this view of the famous Brooklyn Bridge, about which our guide waxed lyrical. The world's first suspension bridge is one of several connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, and it's certainly the prettiest.

We alighted at Times Square - by now fully illuminated by gaudy overhead signs and filled by traffic, tourists and tradesmen. The place known as the Crossroads of the World leaves you not knowing which way to turn, or - in my case - feel. The congestion, the heat, the unrelenting pace and the inability to gather your thoughts - and bearings - even for a moment, should repel me, but I'm fixated by the place and I want more of it. Times Square; intoxicating.

New York never sleeps, and we almost haven't. A few hours later we were up again, polishing off the hotel's continental breakfast and striding out of the lobby hoping to beat the queue for the Empire State Building. We succeeded, in part, having been told the night before that we faced a three-hour wait to get to the top. In daylight, and with many of those revellers still in bed, it took only 30 minutes before we we were navigating the final barrier rope and rocketing up 86 floors in a crowded elevator to the observatory deck.

The view downtown to the financial district was stunning...

...uptown, Central Park and the Hudson River didn't look too shabby either...

...our early start had been vindicated.

Next stop was Ground Zero, where one of these huge water features stands on the site of each of the twin towers. Was it really 13 years ago that I sat on the bus home from college and overheard rumours of planes crashing into buildings on the other side of the Atlantic? The names of every person who died that day are engraved on the memorial and, of course, there were hundreds of people on site paying their respects.

The new World Trade Center is nearing completion and it dominates the New York skyline, as its predecessors did. At 1,776 feet tall, it is the tallest building in the United States and it yells defiance in the face of terrorism. What happened here on 9/11 will never be forgotten and it's only served to fortify the American spirit.

Standing between the two memorial sites and the foot of the new, glistening tower evoked a feeling that defies description, really.

I'm glad we went.

I doubt there's a building around these parts which oozes more class than the aptly-named Grand Central Station (above). It's more of a tourist attraction than a transport hub these days, although trains do still run out of there to the suburbs.

But the jewel in this particular crown is the superb array of food emporiums in the station's basement. Dishes from all over the world at cracking prices - well, the Chinese seafood and noodles certainly represented excellent value for money.

The only shame was we couldn't try the Thai as well. Good job we don't leave until tomorrow.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

New York

I roll out of bed and pull the curtains. Thirteen floors below, the Star-Spangled Banner is fluttering outside Madison Square Garden and there are only two yellow taxis at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street. This is no normal Sunday morning.

This is New York.

Yesterday was a bit of blur, really. Another early start - this time in Berkshire, our flight out of Heathrow delayed by almost three hours, and scenes of general chaos and frustration around the terminal.

Several children were wheeling around miniature suitcases called Trunkis. These come with a strap attached so kids can sit on the Trunki and be pulled along by their parents. We side-stepped one or two and then had to stop in our tracks as a father strode angrily towards his departure gate. The Trunki he was dragging behind him was fairly flying through the crowd and the little lad on board looked terrified.

Our flight eventually landed in Newark, New Jersey. At the welcome desk, one assistant told us the trains to New York weren't running, before the lady on the adjacent desk insisted they absolutely were. After further conjecture, we located a bus transfer and subsequently the train station. The trains were running.

Out of Penn Station we walked and New York City hit us like a truck. The crowds, the smells, the gigantic billboards, the taxis, the lights, the men wheeling hot dog stalls through traffic, and the branches of Dunkin' Donuts which seemed to appear on every corner.

By the time we reached Times Square, the mass of bodies was so dense you could barely move. This was like Piccadilly Circus on acid, with lines of Broadway-bound theatre-goers bisecting the queues for McDonald's, and a myriad of tourists posing for pictures with Mickey Mouse and Woody from Toy Story. We'd now been awake for the best part of 24 hours and I was starting to feel delirious. Was that really a man doing chin-ups on the traffic lights? Anything goes here, I suppose.

Burger and chips - it had to be - at Schnipper's - great name - brought down the curtain on a truly frantic day. We were anticipating a double room back at the Hotel Pennsylvania, but instead we were greeted by a suite bigger than our house in Kent. Clearly it's not just food portions which are bigger here.

There are four yellow taxis at the intersection now.

New York is waking up. Let's get out there.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Christmas in Australia

It's fair to say Christmas has been a little different for us in 2012. Almost everything familiar about this time of year was whipped away and a completely new canvas set up in its place. To compare Australian and British festivities would be easy, but lazy, and what purpose do such analyses serve? Put simply, Christmas in Australia was unique and unforgettable. Here's why...

We spent Christmas Day at the home of Rob and Jan Bell, who laid on a magnificent spread. Prawns, trout and smoked salmon paved the way for kangaroo, lamb and sausages in the midst of vegetables and sauces of the mouth-watering variety.

Despite unwrapping presents 10,000 miles from London, we could scarcely have felt more at home. Rob and Jan are our Aussie parents and it seemed fitting to end the year with them - as we had started it. Ed and Helen Poulton also shared the day with us, as did Bean Bell (above, top right). You can choose your friends, not your family, although on this occasion if felt as though we had hand-picked both.

Ed and Helen are living in Port Melbourne for six months, so we followed the north-east side of Port Phillip Bay to cast an eye over the area they will call home. Joggers and cyclists were in abundance along the seafront which - to quote Lonely Planet - more closely resembles Brighton than Bondi.

At the start of a year which felt like a voyage into the unknown, one thing I did know was that I wanted to watch the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. This dream was realised on December 27 when we took our seats for Day 2 of the second Test between Australia and Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan bowling attack was devoid of dynamism and further wind was removed from their sails when paceman Chanaka Welegedara walked off injured. Spinner Rangana Herath (above) has taken more Test wickets than anyone else in 2012 but he toiled all day without reward. He did, however, provide the day's champagne moment when his brilliant one-handed catch in the deep dismissed Mike Hussey.

Michael Clarke was an injury doubt over Christmas but he made 106 to break Ricky Ponting's record of Test runs scored by an Australian in a calendar year. The Aussie captain now has 1,595 to his name in 2012.

As the day wore on, eyes turned from the field to the stands, where the vast consumption of alcohol was illustrated by the size of the beer snakes (above) proudly held aloft until stewards brusquely intervened.

Noise levels rose in Bay 13 (above) after the tea interval. There was a sizeable police presence in this part of the ground, almost as if they were actively looking for trouble-makers. This was in stark contrast to our experience of the AFL, although it tallied with tales of the police being viewed in a fairly dim light by many Australians.

Our packed train pulled out of Richmond station and Christmas, for another year, was over. We'd eaten prawns, walked on the beach and spent a day at the cricket. In our eyes, these things had made it a truly Australian affair.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

New Zealand picture special

As if to provide a microcosm of a year packed with travel, we travelled to New Zealand for four days to celebrate a family birthday. Rather than eulogise about what we saw, I'll show you.

Close to Kaikoura, around 100 seals basked on the rocks.

Fabulous roads along which to drive a camper van.

Company, on two wheels.

Familiar faces at the birthday party (Rachel's mum, centre).

On the way to Arthur's Pass, NZ's highest-altitude settlement.

Traversing the South Island from west to east. Great scenes.

State Highway 73 wriggles towards Christchurch.

A sombre bus tour around Christchurch city centre showed us many of the 900 buildings to be ripped down as a result of damaged sustained during the recent earthquakes.

This display of 185 empty chairs commemorates those who died.

Here stood the Canterbury Television Building, which collapsed and caught fire, killing 115 people.

Pubs remain hauntingly deserted and untouched, with demolition notices plastered to the front doors.

Shipping containers support fragile walls. The CBD is a building site and our tour was the only one operating inside the 'red zone'.

The beautiful ChristChurch Cathedral has been decimated almost beyond the point of restoration. Its future hangs in the balance.