#5: Vegas

21 May

When I was in my early to mid-teens I remember thinking that I’d never like Vegas. I never liked to use lights at home as I preferred natural light and would choose candles over lamps when it got too dark to not surrender to artificial light. This wasn’t the only example of my dislike for the simplest and functional fake but as I got older and realised that to be pretentious is to be a dick, I started to embrace the idea of Vegas (in addition to lamps). I grew to love that which I once hated, the idea of a neon wonderland that really only came alive at night when the full extent of it’s falsities were apparent, had me positively bubbling with excitement. As it turns out, my actual experience of Vegas falls somewhere between my two previous stances.

I’m not going to talk about Vegas in the same chronological order that I have previously as it doesn’t really work in the same way as before. Instead I’ll talk about each ingredient separately, starting with our hotel. We were staying at the MGM Grand and what a hotel it is. The lobby is massive and stunning in it’s excess and the rooms were excellent. Unfortunately, despite being on the 17th floor, our room didn’t look over the strip but the view was still great and at £37 a night we were in no position to grumble one bit. Looking back at all of the hotels we visited, without the ability to compare the rooms and how they might be better potentially, I feel that only the Bellagio, Venetian or Paris might be nicer.

The main thing to do in Vegas is to gamble obviously but, being on the tight budget that we were, we weren’t really in a position to lose $50+ each and smile about it. This meant that we didn’t end up playing the tables but instead watched some people playing it and that was quite exciting enough. We thought that we would get our gambling fix from the slots but no such luck. For starters they are nothing like British slots and without the nudges or holds they just aren’t much fun. More importantly however is how they work money-wise. Say you approach the penny slots first (we did), you would expect to put a penny in and have one go right? Wrong! Each penny acts as a credit and most machines require at least thirty credits per spin, making it more expensive than we expected the quarter machines to be. Seeing that we were not totally sure what we were doing we were willing to spend fifty cents in pennies working that out but where fifty cents should have allowed us fifty turns, fifty turns would actually cost $15.

Needless to say we spent less than $10 between us gambling over the three days. But if you’re not gambling you are limited as to what to do instead. Almost every hotel has a mall attached to it but those malls are mainly occupied by designer boutiques and so we were also priced out of shopping. Spending time beside the hotel’s luxurious pools during the day is a common thing to do during the day but the weather was never consistently good throughout our stay and so we never even visited our pool. Drinking on the streets is another option but, whilst we did this the first day by drinking cocktails out of large plastic Eiffel Towers, it was strange boozing with no end product like a club or party or something, and we haven’t tended to drink too much on this holiday as it’s a little strange drinking when it’s just the two of us. We did however drink on the last night when we had a coach to catch at 1:20am as we got chatting to Sal, a lawyer from LA who had a humble Mexican upbringing. He bought us drinks as he wanted company before his colleague arrived into Vegas from LA and so we deemed it rude not to drink them. An hour into our six hour coach ride and I was starting to wish that my sense had outweighed my manners. But he was excellent company and it was good chatting with him.

All of this meant that we were left with few options. On the third night at the end of our second full day (Tuesday) we went to see Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Mystere’ show at Treasure Island. We got the tickets at Tix4Tonight (or something like that) who have booths dotted the entire length of the strip and offer, as the name suggests, tickets for that night or sometimes the next day at a reduced rate. This meant we got $90 tickets for $56, which was a result and the show itself was very good if not great. There were the usual jaw-dropping feats that you come to expect from Cirque but there were also moments that went nowhere and just seemed to drag on for the sake of filling time.

Other than that we were left with walking through the different hotels and malls or eating and we tended to do more walking than eating for once. The hotels are insane. Walking around them, with people drinking everywhere and with different music playing in the hotel and the grounds around it, you feel as though you’re at a music festival in a theme park. They are generally more impressive than they are tasteless, but it is still difficult to be awestruck at what you can’t help acknowledging is fake. The Bellagio was probably my favourite as it seemed to have some class, which is quite an achievement in Vegas. The Venetian is also quite pretty even if it couldn’t ever capture the essence of Venice. In all we walked around eight casinos over three days but it felt like so many more. When these casinos are also shopping malls, hotels and a whole bunch more you can understand how half an hour can pass whilst just trying to find the exit.

The food was expensive generally for what it was. We did get a free buffet each included in the offer we got for the hotel through Expedia. We decided to have that for breakfast and the abundance of bacon was well received by both Claire and I. Outside of the endurance field of dining, we had an excellent meal at Kahunaville at Treasure Island. We paid $3 for 50% off vouchers when getting our Cirque tickets and it was well worth it. I had chicken in a piña colada sauce served with jasmine rice and hibachi vegetables and it was insanely good. Claire had a chicken stir-fry done invthe hibachi fashion and it was served as with an upturned take away box on the plate and the food looking like it had spilled from it. Quite a nice touch, as was their cocktail to share which smoked and bubbled throughout the meal. The other food of note was Stripburger at the top end of the strip in the Fashion Show mall and opposite the Wynn/Encore hotels. The food was excellent but a special mention to the garlic and herb fries and the peanut butter and chocolate shakes. I’ve had such a simple shake many many times but never was it as good as they made it. Unfortunately it was a special so I can’t promise that it’ll be there if you visit some time.

Overall Vegas was good but not great and would come in last with regard to my favourite places that we’ve visited on this trip. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any charm. I think it would be better if not on such a tight budget and both Claire and I agreed that we would have preferred to visit it with friends, but it is still an experience that I am happy to have had. I’m writing this in a rush as I’m already two days into my time in LA and am late to go meet Kat for a trip to Hollywood and the legendary In-N-Out burger so no time to spellcheck or proof read. Hopefully it makes some sense.

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#4: Detroit/ Sandusky

15 May

So after boarding our bus initially at 19:40 yesterday we arrived in Detroit at 11:50 the following morning. As we entered the city limits it already became apparent of the economic issues within the city. There were a large number of houses that were boarded up and even those with roofs crumbled in. We caught a cab to our hotel and the driver took us in the back and a separate girl in the front. Didn’t ask if that was ok by us or anything like that, just did it. Our hotel was poor but reviews had said as much online and we didn’t mind for the cost. At this point we had been in the city for twenty minutes and my initial feeling was a disturbing mixture of fear and sorrow. It definitely unsettled me.

We dropped our stuff, got refreshed and then went to a burger restaurant across the road called Fuddruckers. Good cheap food and insured that we didn’t need to eat again all day. After this we went back to the hotel and had the hotel’s handyman come to fix our room’s safe. He was a good guy and we got discussing our trip. He suggested a few things and then, as he left the room, he warned us that, while his employers would discipline him for telling us, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be caught anywhere outside of Downtown after dark. While this was unlikely to be a problem for us as our plans were concrete in their timing, this did not help ease the worry within me. But with our plans so tightly worked out we had our first activity that afternoon, unfortunately it was also our potentially most dangerous one.

Heidelberg Street in Detroit is in an awful neighbourhood. Houses are boarded up, roofs are collapsing, windows are smashed in, some lack doors and a few are now just bricks and glass lying where a house once stood. I would say that, at best, one house in every ten would pass a safety inspection and even those could do with a good lick of paint. But then you turn onto the single block of Heidelberg St between Ellery and Mt Elliot which has helped make this otherwise insignificant street known worldwide. The houses in the block were transformed by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986 when he returned from serving in the army to find that his neighbourhood had deteriorated so much that he said it looked like ‘a bomb went off’ (something that the surrounding streets back up). He decided, in protest, to start painting the houses within this block in extreme fashions. Houses with bright spots and random numbers were amongst the first and later he moved on to including old objects and provocative imagery amongst the houses. Now there are random items put together in the street as independent art pieces, trees decorated with shopping carts, and faces painted on the path and spots on the road. It felt very peculiar which, when added to the unease felt walking through the surrounding neighbourhoods, made me feel like I’d walked onto the set of a horror movie directed by Tim Burton.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos for you. Claire and I had decided before heading out that afternoon to not take any money, our phones or the digital camera so that we had nothing for someone to steal if they wanted to try. I took a disposable camera and filled that but we found that our fear was unsurprisingly unfounded. In fact, the people of Detroit managed to shock us in being the friendliest of any people we have come in contact with. Every single person we passed in the street, even those jogging or cycling, said hello. This was the case on this particular evening and would be the case throughout our entire time there. One woman even stopped us to chat in the street, asking us where we were from and whether we were going to the hoe-down over the weekend. It was bizarre but wonderful. It helped ease the fear but made me feel worse for the city and the people within it.

Our plan for Thursday was merely to go to Detroit Zoo. Located a little way outside of the city, it required taking two buses. Prior to leaving the UK I had googlemapped the directions to everything in Detroit (as well as New York) and so we left early with these directions on my phone and figured it shouldn’t be too difficult. The first bus stop had the number of our bus on it but didn’t specify which direction it was heading in and didn’t have a timetable. The second didn’t even specify which buses stopped there. It was merely a bus shelter with a sign saying ‘bus stop’. We had no idea if this our stop or whether it was in use at all so we continued to walk up the street until we realised that all stops were like this. So we waited, our bus arrived and we got to the zoo without any trouble. What I ended up understanding was that there are two bus companies in Detroit. One puts the number that you can catch at the stops and the other just puts there name on the stops so you have to hope you’re in the right place. Hardly a way to encourage people to visit your city though!

The zoo was excellent. I was mainly excited as giraffes are my favourite animal and the zoo offers the chance to feed them, but when we arrived we found that it wasn’t available that day. I was gutted but it was still my favourite zoo visit ever, mainly due to Claire being infectiously excited as she had never been to any zoo before that day. She barely stopped taking photos all day; every animal was photographed even squirrels and birds who just happened to have made their way into the zoo. Highlights included a sunbathing hippo, a newborn chimpanzee, a polar bear and some performing otters. It was a great day.
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That evening we decided to go for dinner in Greektown in Detroit. Greektown is a strip of restaurants of which most are Greek and was originally a residential street where immigrants from Greece initially settled in Detroit. We went to Laikon Cafe and it was adequate food but no more than that. After that we went to a bar recommended to us by a friend of a friend called The Well. It was okay but didn’t have much of an atmosphere so we headed back to the hotel to watch game six in the playoffs between Heat v Celtics.

On Friday we woke early, left our cases with the hotel staff and made our way to the Motown Museum. Again this meant taking buses from random stops that we hoped our buses stopped at/went via and then, once we left our second bus the heavens opened and, despite only taking being caught in it for five minutes, we got so wet that my socks were still wring-able eleven hours later. The museum itself is definitely worth a visit if you have any form of love for the label’s music, but you definitely want a guided tour. We arrived just in time for one, but without it there is no audio tour and the items on exhibit would mean very little to you. I can’t speak for all of the guides but ours was excellent and it was quite something standing in Studio A with the original equipment where all of their early hits were recorded. I really enjoyed myself and it is definitely my favourite museum of the trip so far.

The rest of the day was spent travelling from Detroit to Sandusky. This was largely boring as travelling tends to be but there were three highlights. The first was meeting Michael, a Zelda-loving fella who was travelling from Canada to Florida to meet a girl that he was obviously in love with who he met online, has never met in the flesh before and who is married. We went for dinner with him and he was awesome. The second was on the bus when I got involved in a conversation about U.S politics, the death penalty and Bin Laden with Michael, a girl from Texas who’s parents were missionaries, a truck-driver from somewhere in the South and another fella who joined towards the end who had floppy hair, bad skin and a genuine interest in how governments work in Canada and the UK. It was fun to have a discussion with people from different walks of life who all had interesting, somewhat differing viewpoints on the matter. The third and final highlight was the cab driver from Sandusky coach-stop to our hotel. He was a very friendly man who told us all about his love for hunting, how he has hunted elk, bears, boar, coyotes, deer, bison and all manner of smaller animals. It was interesting even if it sickened me and reminded me a lot of playing Red Dead Redemption on the Xbox.

Yesterday was the day I was most looking forward to on the East Coast; Cedar Point and all the roller-coasters I could possibly ask for. But throughout the trip bad weather had been predicted and, while this has been the case for most of the holiday and it had always turned out to be better than predicted, there was cause for concern for Cedar Point. The weather had turned bad the last few days and we woke up to strong fog and overcast skies. This meant that there were fewer people in the park than there might have been, but it also meant that the Dragster, the second tallest coaster in the world with a 400 ft drop and with speeds of 120mph, was closed the whole day. We were gutted but, unlike other parks, there were plenty of alternatives. Millennium Force has a 300ft drop and a top speed of 93mph and was unbelievable, Wicked Twister which is the tallest inverted roller-coaster in the world takes you up and drops you 206ft backwards first and then face first, and Maverick which was nowhere near as obvious in it’s incredibleness as the two previously mentioned, and yet was unanimously voted our favourite of the day. Add in the Corkscrew which is surely self-explanatory, Raptor which is a leg-dangler and excellent, Magnum XL-200 which allows you to experience zero gravity and is similar to Millennium Force and Mantis which is similar to the others except that you’re standing up on the ride, and you have an incredible day if you’re a fan of thrill rides. We were in the park for twelve hours and the only moments of boredom occurred when rides were closed due to weather issues. Some of these issues seemed so extreme that, were the park in the UK, it would only ever be open for four days a year at a push but they did allow for the crowds to disperse and so we ended up on the ride in as much time as we would have had we had to queue with everyone anyway.

The day was almost overshadowed by the disastrous end to it all. We left the park at 9:30 and had the Customer Relations office call us a taxi. They said it would be half an hour but, ninety minutes and another call from the Customer Relations office later, the cab was still not with us. So we decided to walk. It was to be a five and a bit mile adventure but it ended before it could start. The park is on an island with two causeways serving it. Little did we know but you are not allowed to walk down these causeways at all. This meant we got to the toll-booth where John, the lovely elderly security guard working the booth at night, let us in to his office and kept trying to call the company. Two and a half hours after we left the park we got back to the hotel and went swiftly to sleep.

It’s 16:45 here currently and we’ve achieved nothing but distance so far today. I wrote part of this entry in Detroit a few days back, part on the coach from Sandusky to Cleveland earlier and am writing this and the last few paragraphs in a bar in Cleveland airport whilst watching the Grizzlies struggle against the Thunder in game seven of the western semi-final playoffs. I’m rooting for the Grizzlies so not good for me. In five or so hours I’ll be in Vegas and my next entry will be about that. Until then, GRIZZLIES!

#3: New York/ Philadelphia

11 May

Im writing this entry from a bus in Cleveland. More on that later.

For our final day in New York we headed to Brooklyn/Williamsburg. When we arrived we headed to Bedford Ave and we spent our entire day either on that street or within two blocks of it. It has a very hipster feel to it; street markets selling Vonnegut and cool, kitsch ornaments and furniture. The stores are predominantly selling clothes and these are either thrift, vintage or original designers. Every bar seems to have a happy hour(s), some of which last the entire afternoon and every restaurant seems to be both affordable and worthy of eating at.

We spent the majority of our day shopping and our best find was a clothes exchange shop on one of the numbered streets just off Bedford Ave where Claire bought four items but tried on eleven and I bought three including a brand new American Apparel hoodie for $33. We also went to a crafts/flea market, a Salvation Army thrift store and an abundance of others.

In between and after shopping we drank at the Charlestown bar where we were getting $4 pints of Brooklyn and we spent enough time in there for the barmaid to buy me a pint (which is a first for me). Claire also had a ‘cocktail’ called a Mexican Carcrash which involved a margarita with a Corona bottle turned upside down within it. It was quite something and well worth the $7. This was also the first pub where we sat at the bar and I did not regret that decision. Friendly banter with the barmaid and a fair few of the other patrons proved to me that this ‘bar chat’ thing I see in films is not fabricated and made me wish the same happened in England, until I started thinking about the kind of people who frequent bars in England.

The highlight for me however was Vinnie’s Pizza. My friend Zara had recommended it to me and sold me it on their macaroni cheese with bacon pizza. Needless to say that: a) I got a slice of that, and b) it was insanely good. I also got a slice of their chicken and bacon ranch pizza, while Claire got the mac and cheese pizza as well as a slice of pepperoni. For me the ranch was superior but they both now sit in 1st and 2nd place for the best pizza of my life and I’m forever grateful to Zara for her recommendation. My favourite food in New York.

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In the evening we decided to go bowling so went along to Brooklyn Bowl. We had to pay a $5 cover charge each and then found out, when inside, that there was no guarantee of a lane for over an hour. We left straight away and cursed our waste of $10. But it was really the slightest of blemishes on an otherwise incredible day.

The next day was almost entirely consumed by travelling (something that is sure to become an issue with these blog entires for the remainder of our trip). We left our apartment in New York at 10:45 and arrived at our apartment in Philadelphia at 16:15. Due to it being Sunday we assumed that most places were closed and so decided to go out to find a convenience store to get milk and juice and perhaps find a place for dinner. Despite our assumption being largely incorrect (chain stores seem to close at 19:00 in Philadelphia at least) we still kept to our plan and went to Chipotle (Claire wanted to try the American version of Tortilla or Chilango) and then to a convenience store for the above items as well as beer and snacks. We then went back to the apartment to watch 30 Rock on our roof garden.

Yes, the apartment has a roof garden. Or at least a roof patio of sorts with a table and chairs. The whole apartment was really quite nice, the owner, Rak, seems to be an artist and a bit of a hipster so the apartment is decorated brilliantly but she has towers of books instead of a tv. The neighbourhood was lovely though and I’d wholeheartedly recommend Airbnb, the website we booked both our New York and Philadelphia apartments through as it often works out cheaper and you can rent a whole apartment.

Monday was our only full day in Philadelphia so we wanted to get as much done as possible. Unfortunately I forgot the time that I had booked our tour of Independence Hall for and so we missed it. Fortunately though, we didn’t have many attractions that we wanted to visit in Philadelphia so we altered our plans and I think it worked out for the best that we did.

We headed to Philadelphia Magic Gardens on South St. which is the work of artist, Isaiah Zagar . He has turned an entire house and garden into a modern mosaic installation using old abandoned tiles, glass, bites, bicycle wheels and other trash that he found in the neighbourhood. Every wall, from the entrance to the museum right through to the toilets has been covered. It’s hard to describe and unfortunately all of my photos are on my camera rather than phone so I can only suggest googling once more, but please do. It was an attraction that we found on Trip Advisor and, due to the lack of ideas for what to visit in Philly, we included it as an option. It cost $5 and is my favourite part of our trip so far; inspiring, impressive and strangely romantic I would recommend it to every one visiting Philadelphia.

After this we went to get a Philadelphia cheesesteak, which was what I was most looking forward to in visiting the City of Brotherly Love. Most restaurants sell cheesesteaks in Philly and most claim to either be the best, the first to sell them or both, but is widely regarded to be between two as to who came first, Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s Steak House. We had intentions to have one from both during the day but decided against it when the time come later in the day, so, due to me having bought a $5 t-shirt for Geno’s earlier in the day, it was his cheesesteak that I tested. Honestly, it was a 6/10. My love of cheesesteaks come from the Meatwagon/easy and their steaks are far superior but these are different. Geno’s and Pat’s are both open 24-7 and they are the fast food option to Meatwagon/easy’s restaurant alternative. I had my Geno’s with cheese whiz and onions and it ended up tasting like a slightly nicer McDonalds cheeseburger. I missed the green peppers which do not feature in the majority of cheesesteaks in Philly seemingly and the meat was sparse. Still, I’m glad I had it and I’m sad I couldn’t compare to Pat’s.
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After that we went to a sports pub called O’Neals which is just off South St. to watch the Liverpool v Fulham game. We sat at the bar and the bartender really enjoyed talking ‘soccer’ to us. He was really enthusiastic and this helped make the entirely unenthusiastic Claire (who had brought her Nintendo DS with her so that she didn’t have to watch the match) remain interested. The 5-2 victory for Liverpool sure helped too. Happy hour was excellent here too, we were able to get pints of Sam Adams for $3 and Claire ended up on Woodchuck cider at $2.25 a pint. These prices, combined with the excellent bartender and game meant that we left the bar rather tipsy. We had intended to go to another bar where happy hour meant $6 pitchers of PBR but we misread the times of their happy hour and this meant we had too long to kill. Instead we went back to the apartment, drank a few cans of PBR, got pizza, mozzarella dippers and pizza fries and watched the truly woeful Dinner For Schmucks before hitting the sack.

Yesterday (Tuesday) we arose early as we had to get to Independence Hall to get tickets for the tour within the grounds. We arrived at 9:45 and got tickets for 10:45. In the meantime we went and saw the Liberty Bell which is really just a cracked bell that is smaller than you expect. We then did the Independence Hall tour. You cannot tour the building independently so you have to get tickets and be shown around in a group by a park ranger. Ours was great fun and very engaging which is fortuitous as you only see three rooms and one of those is a classroom where you go first for him to explain everything and give a rousing speech. The other two rooms are the courthouse and the room where the declaration of independence was drawn up. Now I didn’t find this particularly interesting. I should preface by saying that I’m not overly bothered with history in general and that I appreciate that, when the declaration was signed the room wasn’t instantly sealed off in anticipation of it becoming a museum. It obviously would have continued to serve a function for years afterwards but, within the two rooms you see only two artefacts that were actually from the rooms on that day and those are the plaque behind the judges desk in the courtroom and the chair that George Washington sat on on that day. THAT IS ALL. The declaration isn’t there, the other desks and chairs and whatnot were not there, it is almost entirely a reconstruction. For my money that could happen anywhere in the world and all I can say is that I stood within the walls where this happened, the walls of which 20% of the bricks have been replaced since that day.

After this we walked to City Hall but decided that, due to time constraints and poor signposting, we would opt against going up in the tour in favour of walking to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, walking up to the entrance and then walking away once more. Strange plan? Not when the Rocky Steps lead to the entrance of said museum. It was a long walk on what looked like Philadelphia’s attempt at the Champs Élysées and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it but it did allow you a good view from the top of the steps and it was also fun to see so many people walk the steps and yet no one visit the museum. Kind of sad, kind of funny. We didn’t care, we walked the steps, Claire did the Rocky dance and then we headed back towards the apartment for lunch and then to head to the Greyhound station.

We had been looking for almost a week for a good place to eat where we could get yummy and yet healthier food. On our last afternoon in Philadelphia we found just the place. The Continental (not to be confused with the cheap bar in NYC that we also visited) was perfect for this. I had a Rad Na Thai Chicken which was basically chicken, egg and noodles served on top of lettuce and Claire had an Asian salad. Both were exceptional but also the largest portions of any food we have had since the start of our trip. We have photos of this so I’ll post them below rather than lobbing a bunch of adjectives your way, but needless to say it was delicious and neither of us finished although Claire managed more of hers than I did of mine.
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After lunch we went back to the apartment, packed everything and headed to the station to catch the bus that I am now on. We currently have thirty minutes left of a fifteen hour and ten minute journey. We have stopped off at Pittsburgh and Cleveland, I took a leak in Toledo and I have gotten up to date with all of my Adam & Joe podcasts in-between sleeping. Our next stop is also our destination, Detroit which will be where I post this from as our bus from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh had wifi, leather seats and excessive legroom while this one feels like the coaches we got to swimming lessons in first school. Either way, I’m out now and will update in two days I promise. I might even include photos of something other than food!

#2: New York

9 May

I have wifi now so will be getting up to date with all of the blog posts in the next few days. Here’s the entry for Wednesday through to Friday: 

Wednesday was our first day of continuous rain since we had arrived on Wednesday. It rained relentlessly the entire day until around 8pm and so, despite it not being particularly strong, it managed to soak through my hoodie pretty early on. We had booked tickets to see the Statue of Liberty and visit Ellis Island for that day so we couldn’t afford to not go despite the weather, so we head off sometime  10am, arrived at Battery Park for 11am, and managed to catch the ferry across at 11:30am despite it bring booked for noon. 

The Statue of Liberty was the one tourist location that never really interested me and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s arguably in the top five most iconic attractions in the world and yet she’s always left me cold. Today did little to change that. We didn’t buy tickets for the museum within the statue as we weren’t overly bothered about it but did book an audio guide in advance. This was, undoubtedly, the worst audio guide EVER! The woman’s voice was annoying, it did very little to actually guide you, and seemed desperate to evoke emotion from you rather than provide you with historical information. In addition it would consistently tell you to walk in a certain direction then, a minute or so later, tell you that you should be arriving at a point that you passed 50 seconds ago. Needless to say we abandoned it early on and just walked round the statue independently. Had it not been raining throughout we might have had more patience. 

Ellis Island, on the other hand, was one that I was looking forward to. For those who have never heard of it before, Ellis Island was the first port of call for the majority of immigrants into New York and, in fact, the USA in the early 20th century. They would arrive in their thousands from all over the world and have to undergo medical checks and be vetted for their intentions for living here. I am always interested in the history of people and their struggles against adversity, but, surprisingly for me, I found little of that here. Perhaps if I were American and my family had arrived in such a manner it would have been interesting but it seemed like quite a fair and successful system that the American government had put in place. In fact, 98% of people got through and, although it could take a long time to wait to be seen, otherwise it seemed quite simple as long as you weren’t severely ill or unlikely to offer a trade. I was disappointed once more and would not recommend either of these. There are even better options for getting photos of the statue for those wanting them and I will mention that later. 

After this we decided we’d walk to Greenwich Village, which meant getting to pass the World Trade site. It’s peculiar visiting ‘ground zero’ now as it isn’t really ground zero anymore. ‘Freedom Tower’ is already darn tall and another is into double stories too. Instead it is more like a building site and the only real sign within the site of what it means to the people is the large American flag strapped to one of the buildings. Outside there is a shrine of sorts honouring those who passed and there were flowers and candles. Amongst them were a pair of men’s boots and flowers within them. I didn’t take any photos of any those items left out of respect, but those boots will stay with me whenever I think of this trip. 

After this we made our way, incredibly slowly due to roadworks, through TriBeCa and into Greenwich Village in search of a bar that sold food. Eventually we happened upon a couple of Irish-owned bars and had lunch and a few drinks. Beer does seem to be significantly more expensive in New York than London and this led, after our missing of the cruise that we had planned for the evening, to us heading to a bar called Continental where they serve $2 jars of PBR and we could watch the Bulls v Hawks game. Between the end of that game and the start of the Lakers v Mavericks match we headed out, grabbed a slice of pizza and headed back to the apartment.

Thursday was a long day. We started our day with a trip to MoMa. This also involved a stop at Grand Central which not only allowed me the opportunity to imagine the opening scenes of the first ever Gossip Girl, but also the chance to stand within the only station other than Gare D’Nord which I have ever actively wanted to visit. I have now completed the set. MoMa is a very nice art gallery but I am not much of an art buff. I generally like stuff for it’s aesthetics unless I can see a very obvious meaning behind it. The gallery does feature Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ and other great works from him, Picasso, Kahlo, Dali, Warhol and others. We stayed for around an hour and a half and then called time in pursuit of food. 

The same Mike who recommended Shake Shack for burgers also recommended a blog called Burger Conquest. The guy running it lives in New York and has reviewed almost every burger joint the city has to offer. Shake Shack was on his most highly recommended list and so we decided to check out another on there. We eventually settled on Rub BBQ in the Chelsea neighbourhood, the ‘Rub’ standing for ‘Righteous Urban Barbecue (which means it’s says Righteous Urban Barbecue Barbecue but that’s beside the point). Now Rub is less a burger joint and more a meat-shack, offering up all kinds of meaty delights. Claire ordered the pulled pork sandwich and I ordered the sausage link sandwich with chilli and cheese sauce. Claire said hers was perfectly moist and lacking in the fat that sometimes takes away from pulled pork, while mine was a brilliant gooey mess, the sauce slipping everywhere and the sausages tasting spicy in an Italian fashion. However, both of these were overshadowed by the fries. They were the very best fries I have ever tasted. They were good enough that both Claire and I wolfed our sandwiches down just so that we could focus all of our attention on the fries and allow them to be the lingering taste when we left. Dusted with a dozen spices that made them both spicy and sweet, they have reminded me that fries are so much more than a side when done well. 

After this we headed back towards Rockefeller Plaza and Claire bought a slice of pistachio cake from Magnolia Bakery who were apparently prominent in bringing the cupcake to a mass audience. After this we headed to the NBC store where we were given passes to see Jimmy Fallon practice his potential jokes for the opening monologue on his show. That was fun and it was a small group of no more than thirty who were in attendance but we did spend far too much time queuing for a fifteen minute thing. 

At 7pm we took a Circle Line Harbour Lights cruise which predominantly involved going down the Hudson in a boat looking at all buildings on both sides as the sun set and the lights came on. Circle Line run cruises throughout the day but I strongly recommend taking this 7pm one as all major cities must be seen by night but New York more than any (I’d say with the possible exception of Vegas but I’ll confirm or deny that in a couple of weeks). We had a few Coronas in honour of Cinco De Mayo and cursed that we didn’t think of bringing a blanket as, while it was a beautiful night, it was pretty blooming cold. 

After this we decided to walk back to the Rockefeller Centre to do Top of the Rock but tailored our walk to go via Times Square. We went on Wednesday too but it was slightly earlier in the evening and we were rushing for the cruise that we ended up missing, but it felt better last night. It reminded me of the first time I went to Piccadilly Circus when I was six or so and it all seemed so lit up and wonderful. Now Piccadilly Circus is a blink and you’ll miss it kind of thing but only the blind or dead could miss Times Square. I’d even hazard a guess that it’d wake the sleeping. So much electricity buzzing around you that it seems to infect the people too and I don’t think I’ve seen as many people laughing and smiling in one place since being in New York. For those who do not regularly visit a major city then I’d imagine Times Square would be the one location in New York that would blow your mind. 

I recommend doing both Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building when visiting New York (especially seeing that both are within the Citypass that I mentioned in my last entry). I also recommend doing the Empire State during the day and the Rock at night as New York seems entirely different at both times. We didn’t spend very long at the top as there was no audio guide and we were very tired from the day. On our way back to the apartment I had an overwhelming feeling that this was my last night in New York. Safe in the knowledge that we still had two more days, I felt better but I was already aware of how much I will miss New York throughout the rest of the holiday and, especially, when back home. 

Friday we kept relatively simple. We had our one last tourist attraction planned for the morning and so headed there. The Met is located within Central Park so we decided to walk there. As mentioned earlier, I’m not much of an art buff and I actually prefer modern art to more traditional art so the Met wasn’t really to my interests and, luckily for me, it wasn’t really to Claire’s liking either so we didn’t stick around. We had lunch on the Met steps, a la Gossip Girl, both having a potato knish, which was delicious. 

From here we walked back into the park and decided to walk right through the park to the bottom. When people talk about the ‘magic of Central Park’ I used to roll my eyes. I’ve been to Hyde, Regents, St. James and more in London and each have their charming elements and features but they’re not earth shattering or majestic. Central Park is different. It’s got far more hills and this allows for things to sneak up on you. The reservoir, the boating lake, the pond with the toy boats, the mall; they’re all suddenly upon you and, with the sun beating down on them, they are just as you’ve seen in photos and films. Claire said Central Park was her favourite attraction in New York and I can definitely understand why now. 

Once out of Central Park we caught the Subway to SoHo. SoHo is located near Little Italy and Chinatown and is a very hipster area. We first tried to visit Katz (the restaurant in When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes the orgasm) but it was packed and expensive so decided to held elsewhere for sandwiches. We then looked around at a few shops but it was getting towards closing time for some and, without knowing exactly where to look, we decided to give up on shopping and start drinking. We went to a bar called Welcome to the Johnsons where we were able to get $2 cans of PBR and sit amongst the hipsters. It was nice but Claire and I don’t tend to go out to pubs alone when in the UK and so it did seem peculiar doing the same here. It was also the first time that I truly recognised the difficulties with travelling alone together as all conversation has already been had at the time. We played a few film-based trivia games together and then headed back to the apartment to kick on with our own PBR stash. 

The next instalment will be tomorrow and will feature our trip to Brooklyn/Williamsburg, the best pizza I have ever had (including photos), and our first day in Philadelphia. Also I forgot to mention in the last entry that, within two hours of being in New York, we had already had a KFC Double Down. If you haven’t heard of it then google it and have your mind blown. If you have heard but not experienced it, it is mind-blowing. Such a hilarious and brilliant food option. 

#1: New Jersey/Bamboozle/New York

4 May

*We haven’t any wifi in our apartment in New York so am writing it all up then hitting a cafe to post. This means that I’m unable to link things as I’d like. If you are interested in anything then google it. It’ll probably be worth your while*

We arrived in New Jersey to rain. I’d complain about this were it not for the tornado elsewhere in the country destroying homes. Rain isn’t too bad when in context. We had planned out our trip from the airport to the hotel but, as it involved two buses, a train and a monorail, we decided against this and caught a cab (it was yellow but a different, larger model to the traditional New York cabs unfortunately). The driver had no idea where we wanted to go and could barely even understand what we said so I programmed our destination into his sat-nav for him. His driving wasn’t much better than his communication skills and worry started to fill within me until I looked out the right side window and saw the New York skyline across the water. I felt myself well up ever so slightly at the sight of the Empire State Building and felt like a dream was being fulfilled just by gazing upon it from a distance. For anyone who has spoken in depth to me about this trip they will know how much I have been affected by worry over it for the past few weeks but, just looking over the river, it all slipped away. 

We arrived at our hotel, the Econolodge in Carlstadt. Our room was nice for the cost and we had two queen beds so were able to  each have our own for our duration to allow us to get over the initial jet-lag. Our first act was to dump our bags and go in search of a convenience store. It was then, as we stood on the curb of the freeway directly outside the hotel, that we realised there was no convenience store. Instead we had a gas station, a bar called Redds, a Popeyes, a Mr Hamburger and a Subway. We went to the gas station and bought the following: two bottles of Mountain Dew, a pack of Cherry Twizzlers, a pack of Gummy Lifesavers, a two pack of Twinkies, a peanut butter Twix, a pack of peanut butter M&Ms, a box of Lucky Charms, a large bag of barbecue Lays and a large bag of hot cheese popcorn. We then sat in the hotel room scoffing as much as we could of that (we managed about half) while watching Like Mike on tv. 

When the hunger came back to us we decided to go to Redds for dinner. It wasn’t a tricky decision as, unsurprisingly, it had better reviews than Popeyes or Mr Hamburger and would serve beer. It was definitely worth it. I had the bacon cheeseburger with fries and Claire had a meat pizza and we both had a Blue Moon to drink. The food was great and the atmosphere was relaxed and good. It’s apparently a great sports bar but we weren’t around for any unfortunately. 

After our second drinks we headed back to the hotel, watched the last Michael Scott episode of The Office and grabbed an early night. 

The Friday, Saturday and Sunday were Bamboozle festival and they followed a relatively similar pattern:

– Wake up before 9am and go get breakfast 
It was a complimentary breakfast so, due to the tight budget we are working with, this meant filling up. I’d normally have a waffle, a couple of bagels and a few mini doughnuts. There was no fruit or healthy option. 
– Chilling out until we had to head to the festival site
– Festival until we were too tired/bored to stay any longer. 

For those not interested in the festival skip the next two sections:

BANDS – 
Sam Adams – great fun start to the festival. Fun college-boy pop-rap. The kids loved him. 
Mayday Parade – worst band of the weekend. Didn’t even manage a whole song. 
Boyz II Men – best band of the weekend. An act that everyone, regardless of age, was jealous of me getting to see and, despite only having a five song set, they were incredible. 
Travie McCoy – saw three songs and he was far better than I’d have thought. A solid 7/10. 
LMFAO – incredibly fun band and I’d have lost my shit to it if I’d been battered with mates or ten years younger. 
We Are The In Crowd – didn’t expect much but were one of the stronger live bands of the weekend. Fruitier than Carmen Miranda’s hat but impressive vocals. 
Forever The Sickest Kids – fun but vapid. Sounded solid though.
A Loss For Words- solid band but bored me due to not knowing the songs. 
Frank Turner – far bigger crowd than I expected and we didn’t disappoint. He managed to make a fair few new fans amongst those standing near me too. 
The Movielife – the main event and it was the longest non-headlining set of the weekend. Played all the hits and made no mention of any future plans. Worth the entrance fee alone almost. 
New Found Glory – good but not great. Seen them far better but still better than almost all other bands. 
Dashboard Confessional – always good but I prefer solo shows over band shows. Their cover of El Scorcho was excellent and the hits are superb. 
Taking Back Sunday – not many bands could play Tell All Your Friends and still disappoint me. Getting to hear one of my top 5 albums in full with the incredible John Nolan back in the fold should be amazing but TBS will always be awful live as long as Lazarra is in the band. 
Man Overboard – sloppy in the way Set Your Goals used to be sloppy. They’ve got hits and the promise is there, I just hope they tighten up over time. 
Wicker Hollow – these guys were old and not very good. I like the singers old-school sounding voice but they’re a poor band. 
Chiddy Bang – best I’ve seen Chiddy but his live vocal too closely resembles shouting to be enjoyable. 
Valencia – poor sound, poor performance playing the poor last album. Ended on The Space Between and didn’t sound much better. 
We The Kings – quite good. 
Jack’s Mannequin – these were special guests. After rumours of Nikki Minaj or Snoop Dogg I was incredibly disappointed. They were as meh as they are on record, so very meh. 
Bruno Mars – phenomenal vocal and incredible showman. 4th best of the weekend. 
The Limousines – sounding like a mix of Passion Pit and Head Automatica, they were not only a welcome break from everything else, but also superb in their field. 3rd best of the weekend. 
Lil Wayne – far far far better than I imagined. A tighter rapper than on record and a great showman, I never tired of him or his songs. 5th best of the weekend. 

BAMBOOZLE AS A FESTIVAL: 
It was alright but not great. 

The Negatives:
– The average age is as low as you’d expect at a pop-punk/pop/hip-hop festival. 
– It’s in a car park so hot during the day but no protection from the wind at night. 
– It’s $9.75 a pint of lite beer or Budweiser, it’s $4 for a water and $4.75 a bottle of soda. 
– It is not as well organised as UK festivals that I have been to. Everything from the queues to get in and for rides when inside to the set-up for toilets and the lack of site maps onsite, it seems haphazard. 

The Positives: 
– The sound was far better than any festival I have ever been to before. Granted it’s small in comparison to Reading etc but it was excellent nonetheless. 
– There isn’t anything like this in the UK and it suits my two favourite musical genres. I have been wanting to go for years because of this and it didn’t disappoint. 

So I liked it but I would have loved it if I’d come eight years ago when I first dreamt of doing so. 

We woke up Monday morning to the news that Bin Laden had been killed. While America was celebrating we were more concerned about potential for retaliation from Al Qaeda and I was aware of the potential for additional, almost certainly unnecessary,  worry this might bring to our families back home. I can’t deny that I was a little excited by the additional interest this would bring to our New York trip however. As it turns out, I’ve seen nothing more than the newspapers and one car with ‘Got Him, Rot In Hell’ written in paint on their windows regarding the subject. 

We took a bus and two Subway trains to East Harlem where we are staying. There we met Jorge who we are renting the apartment from and he gave us the keys and showed us up. The apartment is simple and nice. The walls are thin and the windows barely block any sound out but it strangely feels more like New York for there faults. 

We dumped our bags and then walked the three blocks to Central Park. We took a stroll through the park and it was then that it finally dawned on me that I’m in America. Festivals have a weird way of making you think that you’re in a parrallel universe and so I had felt the holiday began and ended with Bamboozle in the same way it had with all other festivals that I’ve been to. Strolling past the baseball diamonds and joggers I suddenly felt relaxed and aware of how lucky I am. 

We made our way to the Natural History Museum where we bought a Citypass (I can’t recommend enough for New York). The museum is good but, in my ignorant way, I don’t feel it differs greatly from London’s. The planetarium however, is awesome. Voiced by Whoopi Goldburg, it reminded me how much I love planetariums and how I should go to more. Definitely visit it if ever in New York. 

We then went looking for Gray’s Papaya just off Broadway to get a hotdog. I’ve wanted a Gray’s Papaya hotdog for over ten years, since I first saw Fools Rush In and it was one of my first ‘must do’s’ when planning our New York trip. The hotdogs are good and excellent value but did not fill me up so we went to Shake Shack which my friend Mike had recommended. He was not wrong. I had a double cheeseburger and Claire had a single cheese. They were amazing. The patties are perfect, the cheese turns gooey but stops short of becoming sauce-like and I have never known a better bun. I didn’t get a milkshake but might go back before we leave to try one of those. 

After this we headed back to the apartment armed with four cans of Four-Loco to watch Fast And Furious on my iPad and get an early night. 

Yesterday (Tuesday) we woke up early and headed down to the Empire State Building. Having been so enthralled by it from a distance I was disappointed with it up close. It seemed dull and unremarkable. But once inside the disappointment disappeared. The lobby is just like out of Elf, the floors actually shimmer and the views from the top are incredible. I was happy that we visited here first as the combination of the 360 degree views and the audio guide allowed me a better understanding of where everything is in relation to each other in the city. 

We had planned to visit the Ground Zero Museum afterwards but the website stated that we had to book in advance and print tickets off. In the absence of a printer with which to do this, we decided to go shopping. This mainly meant Claire reeling off the shops she wanted to visit and us going there. We visited, amongst others, Bloomingdales, Tiffany’s and Chanel, but the only one of interest to me was FAO Schwarz. I was surprised by how few people were there in comparison to Hamleys but it felt a lot smaller too. The piano from Big was a big draw but I didn’t fancy prancing around on it at the same time as a bunch of kids. Claire had less issue with doing so. 

In amongst the shopping we managed to pop into the New York Public Library. I have never seen a more beautiful library in my life. I mainly wanted to go in there to see where they filmed The Day After Tomorrow and, possibly, Se7en, but it was far more amazing than I had assumed. It felt calming and I would definitely visit it more often if I lived here. 

After shopping we had lunch at Brgr (burger without vowels). We had no lunch plans and just happened across it. It further proved that burgers are just better across the board over here as it was superb. Mine had a patty, American cheese, an egg, thousand island dressing, grilled onions and lettuce. Better than almost all UK burgers and yet still not a patch on Shake Shack. 

In the afternoon we popped to Clearview Cinema on 1st Ave to see Fast Five. Great film that everyone should go see regardless of where you are but it was so much better watching it here. There were all of the stereotypical, uninhibited claps, whoops, belly laughs and ‘hell yeahs!’ that people associate with American cinema going and it was definitely the film for that. Fun film, funner experience. 

Another evening and another evening in. Last night involved a couple of cans of PBR, budgeting our spending money and making a start on this here blog. Today we went to see the Statue of Liberty, visit Ellis Island and then missed going on a two hour harbour cruise this evening for the second night in a row.  Hopefully you’ll get to read about this and what adventures we end up having tonight either tomorrow or Friday.