Friday, 31 August 2012

Philadelphia - Fabulous Philly!

I was very excited to arrive in Philadelphia. Another iconic city with lots of attractions and so much history.

Another reason I was looking forward to visiting is because we had arranged to meet up with an old friend who I went to school with. He'd moved to Philadelphia after graduating high school on a soccer scholarship and was now coaching soccer.

He recommended that we stay in the Old City and it was a perfect location! Philadelphia is the largest city in the state of Pennsylvania and it was founded in 1682 by William Penn.

With all of this amazing history on our doorstep, we headed out to explore. We first went to Independence Hall which is situated in the Independence National Historical Park which is where the Declaration of Independence was signed.

An attractive red brick building, it was fascinating to wander around and soak in the atmosphere and amazing history associated with this building.

Next, we went to see the Liberty Bell at the Liberty Bell Center. There is a distinctive crack in the bell from when it cracked when first being rung after arrival in Philadelphia.

Whilst viewing the bell, we bumped into a fellow tourist, a lovely Australian guy called Luke. He asked where we were headed and we told him we wanted to try a famous Philly cheese steak so he asked if he could join us as he was travelling alone. Of course we were more than happy for him to join us as thats one of the best things about travelling, meeting interesting people and sharing stories!

We all set off to South Philadelphia as this is where we'd heard the famous rival cheesesteak vendors were located. Geno's and Pat's King of Steaks are sitiated directly across the street from each other at the intersection of South 9th Street. As we were walking towards them, several people in cars shouted at us to go to Pat's rather than Geno's. We decided to take the advice and it was delicious! A Philly cheesesteak is a sandwich made with thinly sliced steak and cheese in a roll and definitely moreish!

After our busy day of history and cheese steak eating, we met up with my friend for dinner and drinks. We had a great evening catching up and arranged to meet the following evening as he had to work the next day.

The next day we headed to Philadelphia zoo in the morning. Located on the west bank of the river, the zoo is the oldest in the USA. The zoo is large and at 42 acres we spent hours wandering around and admiring all the beautiful animals. I was so impressed by this zoo and it is the best one I have ever been to. There is a Rare Animal Conservation Centre, a Reptile House, Big Cat Falls and African Plains. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit.

Later in the afternoon, we headed over to the Museum of Art which is one of the largest art museums in the US. The paintings and collections were equisite and being far from an art aficionado (in fact this was the first art museum I had ever visited), it was very impressive.

The museum is also known for featuring in the 'Rocky' movies, and I just had to run up those steps like Rocky does!

A bronze statue of Rocky was originally placed at the top of the steps for filming purposes and later moved. The views of the city skyline from the top of the steps is breathtaking.

After a hectic but very enjoyable day, we met up with my friend again and he suggested an evening out in a suburb called Manayunk. It was a great evening and so nice to explore somewhere away from the tourist areas and somewhere we would not have even known existed if it weren't for my friend.

Another fabulous city that I would love to return to one day!

We stayed at Comfort Inn Downtown/Historic Area (100 N. Chris. Columbus Boulevard) which was great and I would recommend it.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Atlantic City - the Las Vegas of New Jersey

Now we are both big Friends fans and we remember in one episode the gang all go to Atlantic City and seeing as we weren't too far away, we decided to take the trip ourselves!

Atlantic City is a big gambling city and has lots of casino's including the Trump Taj Mahal. We could see that this place would be packed in the summer months and it was pleasant to stroll along the boardwalk without any crowds.

The boardwalk was the first boardwalk in the United States and opened in 1870. Lots of shops lined the boardwalk, with the beach on one side and stores selling T-shirts and salt water taffy on the other.

We strolled around also inside the casinos including the Trump Taj Mahal and Caesar's. We had heard that, as in Las Vegas, all you can eat buffets were the order of the day in the casino's so we headed to Caesar's to really pig out!

We really enjoyed our one night stay in Atlantic City and it was nice to see a gambling city before we headed to the mecca of gambling, Las Vegas later on in our trip. My only advice would be to make sure you are staying in a safe area. We really didn't feel safe where we were staying and could hear lots of yelling and fighting right outside our room during the night.

(We stayed at the Travelodge, 7095 Black Horse Pike which I would not recommend).

New York New York - I want to be a part of it, New York New York!

Now this was a very exciting prospect, arriving in New York, the iconic city we had seen on so many movies and American sitcoms. We had a really hard time getting accommodation as it was the day after Thanksgiving when all the stores have big sales so everywhere, including hostels were all booked up.

Because of this, we stayed over the river in Newark, New Jersey and took the train into Manhattan which was really easy to do. Our first sights of the city were incredible and the first sight of the Empire State Building was amazing.

We visited Times Square which was very frantic and busy. Neon billboards were lit up all around us and yellow cabs whizzed by. I really felt like I was in a movie! Situated in Midtown Manhattan, Times Square is one of the world's busiest pedestrian areas and is also the world's most visited attraction.We saw the Broadway theatres, the M&Ms store, Bubba Gump Shrimp and the naked cowboy!

We had hoped to take in a Broadway show but because the writers strike was taking place, only a handful of shows were playing. We managed to get tickets to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas which was very good.

Next was Madison Square Garden. We didn't do the tour but it was great to see it. Madison Square Garden is an indoor arena and hosts many events.

Next was Grand Central Terminal, which is the largest railiway station in the world (by number of platforms). Commuters and tourists bustle past as they all go about their daily activities and it was fascinating to see the dining concourse and the famous Oyster Bar.

The next day we headed down to Battery Park to take the ferry to Liberty Island and then on to Ellis Island. The ferry ride was great and upon embarking onto Liberty Island, the Manhattan skyline lay before us and we gazed at it in awe. Gazing up at the Staute of Liberty we had to pinch ourselves to believe that we were actually here!

The Staute of Liberty was a gift from the French and arrived in New York in 1885. The island was officially named Liberty Island in 1956.

After some time taking in the views and walking around the island, we caught the onwards ferry to Ellis Island. I absolutely loved Ellis Island and there was definitely an atmosphere in the building. To walk in the footsteps of hundreds of immigrants embarking on a new life in America was very humbling. Ellis Island was the gateway for immigrants into the US and was an inspection station until 1954.

Upon returning from our morning at Liberty and Ellis Islands, we went to visit Ground Zero. It was very poignant and there were many people praying at the site. It was a very haunting and reflective experience and we each said a prayer for those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks.

We also took a stroll down 5th Avenue and had a peek inside Trump Towers and Tiffany's. Lots of lovely things in Tiffany's but as two poor travellers, we could only window shop unfortunately!

We spent the afternoon in beautiful Central Park which was bathed in sunlight despite the chilly weather.The park is the most visited urban park in the US and was the model for other urban parks including Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We enjoyed strolling around the different areas of the park including the boating lake and taking in the magnificence of the skyscrapers towering above the trees in this urban oasis.

We had a glorious time in New York City and unbeknown to me I was to return in a couple of months (all will be explained in a later blog post.....)

(We stayed at the Howard Johnson Hotel Newark Airport, 20 Frontage Road

Portland, Maine - a peaky time!

Next, we got the Greyhound bus to Portland, Maine. By this point winter was really setting in and one day even walking outside was difficult as the snow was falling in sheets against your face so you really couldn't see where you were going!

Portland is the largest city in Maine and one of the attractions is the Old Port.Cobblestone streets, 19th century buildings and lots of bars, boutiques and restaurants line the Old Port district.

We decided to take one of the ferries over to an island called Peaks Island. It is one of the most popular islands and is actually part of the city of Portland. As this was winter and the island is mostly a summer destination, the island seemed quite deserted but this proved to be advantageous for us as we felt we had the whole island to ourselves! The view back to mainland Portland was very grey and drizzly but still felt great to be on an island looking over :-).

Whilst walking around the island we happened upon an idyllic New England white church. I love the idea of getting married in a church like this one day!

We saw a lot of advertisements asking for people to house sit houses on Peaks Island. This was offered free of charge throughout the off season as long as the tenant agreed to look after the family's cat etc. How wonderful to hole yourself up on Peaks Island for the winter all cosy and isolated!

We stopped for lunch at the Cockeyed Gull which was delicious and would be great in summer when the view would be magnificient.

We also spent time strolling the streets of Portland and already planning that we would visit again in the summer time when we could take advantage of the harbour.

(We stayed at Inn at St John, 939 Congress Street which was in an ideal location for the Greyhound station).

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Boston - Cheers to a fabulous city

Our next stop was Boston. I was very excited to arrive in Boston and I loved the significant difference in accent. The city had a great energy about it and I fell in love with it almost immediately. Accommodation was quite pricey here so you definitely had to splurge to stay in and around the city centre.

Our first port of call was Boston Common. Absolutely beautiful! Although still chilly at this point, the sun was streaming through the trees and creating vivid reflections on the ground. A calm, tranquil oasis in the heart of a bustling city.

Boston Common consists of 50 acres and is the oldest city park in the United States. While we were there the Frogpond had become an ice-skating rink. a real winter wonderland! It was great to watch all of the skaters glide seamlessly around the ice.

Next, we met up with our group and costumed guide and embarked on the Freedom Trail. The Freedom Trail is a red brick path that leads through the city stopping at significant points of historical interest. It is 2.5 miles long and points of interest include the Old State House, Paul Revere House and the Old South Meeting House. I thoroughly recommend doing the Freedom Trail, with or without a guide to gain a real sense of the history of the city.

After the trail we headed into the Italian neighbourhood of the city, known as North End. This area was great to stroll around and we happened upon a fantastic little bakery where we indulged in cupcakes injected with ice cream - scrummy!

That evening we headed to the replica Cheers bar. I know, I know, very touristy thing to do and it is only a replica but we wanted the obligatory photograph underneath the Cheers sign and here it is!

Whilst in the city we also visited the New England Aquarium and I have to say this was the best aquarium I have ever visited. Truly superb. We literally spent hours there taking it all in. The main feature of the aquarium is the Giant Ocean Tank and is home to sharks, sea turtles and many more species. My favourite however was the penguin exhibit. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the aquarium while you are in Boston.

Now while in Boston I really wanted to try some New England Clam Chowder, so we headed over to Quincy Market, near Fanueil Hall in downtown Boston. I loved this place! It was full of food stalls and was very busy with tourists and locals popping in for lunch. We sat down to a steaming bread bowl of clam chowder which was delicious.

Now we love getting a birds eye view of a city and find that a panoramic view gives you an real insight into how a city is laid out. With this in mind, we decided to visit the SkyWalk Observatory at the top of the Prudential Tower. The Skywalk Observatory is the highest observatory open to the public in New England. It was a really clear day and the views were phenomenal.

In the evening we had a lovely meal in Chinatown as we said a fond farewell to this great city.

(We stayed at 40 Berkeley, 40 Berkeley Street

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Vermont - Burlington, a small city that really felt like home

Our first point of entry into the United States was Vermont and our destination was Burlington. Vermont is also known as the Green Mountain State and is situated in New England. It is the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States and the state capital is Montpelier.

Now Burlington was a place I could definitely have seen myself living. I don't know why, but I immediately felt comfortable and at home there. I loved the city and it just had an atmosphere of 'homeliness' about it. Burlington is the largest city in Vermont and Ben & Jerry's was founded here in 1978 - unfortunately we never got chance to visit the factory :-(.

Situated on the shores of Lake Champlain, the setting is truly idyllic. it was coming up to Christmas when we visited and the decorations in the mall were gorgeous. A huge Christmas tree dominated the main area.

As we were on the shores of Lake Champlain, we decided to visit the Lake Champlain Chocolate Factory. Yum! The chocolates are all made from high quality Belgian chocolate and ingredients including Vermont cream, honey and nuts etc are added. The attached store sold lovely decorated bags of chocolates and truffles and there was also ice cream available which we definitely indulged in! We then saw the chocolates being made and had lots of yummy samples!

Our next stop was the Vermont Teddy Bear Company. In 1983, John Sortino noticed that all of his son's teddy bears were made in a foreign country. He had the idea of manufacturing teddy bears in America and started selling them from a peddler's cart in 1983. Every bear is cut, sewn, stuffed and stitched at the factory in Vermont. the factory was fascinating and even featured a cute teddy bear hospital!

After such a hectic time in Canada, we spent the rest of the time relaxing, reflecting on our travels so far and taking in the beautiful surroundings of Lake Champlain.

(We stayed at Comfort Inn & Suites, 5 Dorset Street

USA - the place of dreams :-)

After leaving Canada which was the start of a 3 month adventure, myself and a friend continued our journey into the USA.

 Now, I have always held a dream of doing a classic American road trip and I had visions of cowboys, rodeos, desert plains, beautiful coastline, drive-ins and canyons. What I got was this and so much more! The trip really was a dream come true and one I could relive over and over again!

The United States of America comprises of 50 states and 1 federal district. It is a very multicultural and ethnically diverse nation, due to large numbers of immigrants from other countries. I found each state to be so diverse and to offer something different and unique and I can honestly say there was not one single place I disliked.

I have to add that the American people also absolutely made our trip for us, with their warm hearted, generous and outgoing personalities. We travelled around using Greyhound buses, Amtrak trains and also rented a car.

Montreal - J'ai adore cette ville!

The city of Montreal is in the province of Quebec and is also the largest city in Quebec. The official language of the city is French and it was fascinating to immerse ourselves in the French-Canadian culture. Old and new mingle side by side in this cosmopolitan city with cobbled streets and modern skyscrapers forming the backdrop of the city.

We decided to visit the Basilica de Notre Dame, a beautiful ornate church situated in the historic district of Old Montreal. The interior was very ornate and the grandeur exuded from every pore of the building. This, coupled with the magnificent stained glass windows depicting scenes from Montreal’s religious history created a lavish display.  Celine Dion married husband Rene Angelil here in December 1994.

Also situated in Old Montreal, is Place Jacques Cartier, a beautiful, atmospheric square. Named after Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, the streets are lined with restaurants and street performers. We watched a very brave fire eater, brave not only for breathing in fire but for standing performing for hours in the bitterly cold weather!

Vieux-Port is the Old Port area of Montreal and located here is the ‘Sailor’s Memorial Clock’ or ‘Tour de l’Horloge.’ The tower was built between 1918 and 1922 to commemorate Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. The mechanism inside the clock is an exact replica of the one inside Big Ben in London. Situated on the banks of the St Lawrence River, there are 192 steps to the top to admire the wonderful views. Unfortunately, when we visited we were unable to climb to the top so settled on the views from ground level which were still superb.

We spent a really fun evening exploring the Latin Quarter of the city, or ‘Quartier Latin.’ Lots of cafes and boutiques line the sidewalks and we had a great meal in a lovely pizzeria. Situated around the Universitie du Quebec a Montreal, there is a real lively atmosphere around this cultural area filled with theatres, boutiques and cinemas.

(We stayed at Hostel Montreal Backpackers, 901 Rue Sherbrooke Est

Ottawa - a clean, crisp capital city

Ottawa is the capital city of Canada and home to Canadian Parliament. It is situated on the banks of the Ottawa River and is the 4th largest city in Canada.

Unfortunately, we were only here for a short one night stay but I would have loved to have stayed longer. I found the city to be clean and fresh and the views were stunning on an icy but beautifully sunny day.

Our stop was the Canadian Houses of Parliament. Situated on Parliament Hill, the Houses of Parliament consist of 3 separate buildings arranged around a central lawn. The Centre Block contains the Senate and Commons chambers and the East and West Blocks contain ministers and senators offices.

The Centre Block is fronted by the Peace Tower. I thought the Houses of Parliament were very impressive and I loved the architecture, in all honesty, I preferred them to the Houses of Parliament in London.

We climbed the peace tower and were rewarded with amazing views on what was a perfectly crystal clear day. That evening we ate at The Keg and discovered that the waitress was originally from a town near mine back home and she had emigrated when she was 17. Small world!

I would love to come back to Ottawa when the canal is frozen and becomes an ice skating paradise! Apparently, you can skate all along the canal and stop for a snack known as a 'beavertail' which is a deep fried dough topped with sugar, cinnamon or chocolate!

We didn't even scratch the surface of Ottawa and I know I must come back as there is so much to see. That yummy sounding beavertail is reason alone to come back!

(We stayed at Ottawa Backpackers Inn, 203 York Street

Niagara Falls - breathtaking, beautiful and blustery!

Seeing Niagara Falls had always been an ambition of mine and they certainly did not disappoint. After doing some research we decided that the best view of the falls was from the Canadian side rather than viewing them from the American side.

 My first glimpse of the falls was awe inspiring as gallons of water ricocheted down into the Niagara River below creating an almighty spray which you could actually feel on your face the closer that you got. Niagara Falls consists of 3 waterfalls, Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side and Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls on the American side.

Horseshoe Falls fall around 173 feet and are around 2,600 feet wide. Many people have attempted to jump over the falls. In 1901 schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor went over the falls in a barrel and unbelievably managed to survive. Later, in 1960 a 7 year old boy, Roger Woodward was swept over the falls but thankfully was rescued and survived.

At night, on the Canadian side the falls are illuminated by floodlights and offer an ethereal, magical view of this spectacular sight. Almost at odds with this magical sight, the surrounding area of Clifton Hill I found very tacky and ‘Disneyesque.’ There were many motels, restaurants and shops on Clifton Hill but also attractions such as Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum which I found to be out of place around such natural beauty as the falls.

As it was out of season for the Maid of the Mist boat ride we opted to do ‘Journey Behind the Falls’ for an up close view of that thunderous water!  This attraction allowed us to witness one fifth of the world’s fresh water thunder down to the river below – the sound was deafening and the spray really soaked us! Hence why we were given very fetching yellow ponchos to wear!

 2,800 cubic meters of water falls every second travelling at 65 kilometres per hour! The Journey Behind the Falls tour lasts around 30 to 45 minutes and is well worth it in my opinion.

We also took a ride on the Skywheel (again I was attempting to conquer my fear of heights!) which looked beautiful all lit up at night and offered stupendous views across the falls. We rode on it at night and it was great seeing the falls all lit up by the floodlights from 175 feet up.

(We stayed at Lyons House Hostel, 5741 McGrail Ave, which I would not recommend. Bear in mind this was 5 years ago and I understand this place is now under new ownership. Great location but badly in need of a refurb when we stayed