Trip Highlights

Throughout our drive across America, when we told people what we were doing, the immediate and repeated question has been “what’s been your favourite place ?”

It is a difficult question to answer, as there have been many and varied highlights.  With a country as large and diverse as the USA, comparing one experience to another is both a difficult but also an unfair comparison.

Hence, following (in no particular order) is a list of some of my highlights (I won’t be so presumptive to try and pen a list on Jane’s behalf):

  • the moment the helicopter flew over the rim of the Grand Canyon, revealing the canyon floor one and a half miles below the glass bubble we were flying in.
  • hiring a speedboat on Lake Powell, exploring the glass-like lake without encountering a single other boat on the water
  • looking across the border from El Paso into Mexico at the lights stretching for miles in every direction
  • long drives listening to CNN radio reports of the Republican Primary race, giving us a small insight into the circus that is the US Presidential election process
  • being “educated” in Outlaw Country music by the “Slim Chance & the Can’t Hardly Playboys” band at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn in Nashville
  • sharing it all with Jane
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Day 36 – New York, NY

The division of labour on this blog has been me taking care of the words and Jane taking care of the photos.  She has been really enjoying experimenting with the camera (and getting me to pose for thousands of photos) throughout the trip.

Googling “things to do in New York”, a website for “New York Photo Safaris” popped up.  Normally they take groups of up to 6 people for two hour photo lessons at some landmark around New York City.  Jane got lucky and managed to score a one-on-one lesson at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) with the owner of the business, an Asian American lady called Zim.  Jane has posted a number of photos from that session, and I think you should “Like” them in Facebook.

Whilst Jane was getting schooled in the art of indoor photography, I sought out Carnegie’s Deli.  I must plead guilty – I had seen this deli on the New York episode of last season’s Masterchef, and wanted to try the sandwiches Garry and George raved about.

To call them sandwiches is a complete misnomer.  More like an obscene amount of sliced meat with a couple of small slices of bread as a garnish.  I ordered the “Woody Allen”, which consisted of over half a pound of sliced corn beef, teamed with over half a pound of pastrami and a couple of slices of rye bread tacked on either side of the meat.

The menus describe the serving size as gargantuan.  I think they are better described as grotesque.

I ate more than felt comfortable and still only managed to get through less than half of the sandwich.  Most customers left with a doggy bag, which is not really an option when you’re on the road.  To be honest, after what I had just eaten, the thought of taking home even a single slice of corn beef or pastrami made me feel a bit queasy, so the leftovers that could have fed a small African village for a week were presumably scraped into the great food waste bucket that every America restaurant must have out the back.

I walked the streets of New York for a couple of hours, window shopping and people watching, but the bloated feeling only got worse, so I went back to the hotel to catch up on emails and wait for Jane.

In the evening, we went back to the Lower East Side to the Public Theatre to see Mike Daisey perform his monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”.  Daisey is a self-styled story teller, who Jane had seen in last year in Sydney at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

For the past 12 months, Daisey has been travelling the word performing his monologue, based mostly on the Steve Jobs / Apple story, but focussing on a trip Daisey took to the Foxconn factory in China.  Foxconn produce over 50% of all of the world’s electronics for many of the world’s major brands, especially Apple and their iPhone / iPod / iPad products.

By posing as an American businessman interested in having his product manufactured by Foxconn, he managed to get inside the factories and witness the human equivalent of battery hens, labouring away to produce the world’s consumer electronics.

Daisey’s talk was both entertaining and thought provoking, although as he is quite a “generously proportioned” chap who perspires profusely.  As he got more and more passionate about his subject matter, the rivers of sweat running down his face and his randomly projected spittle were more than a little distracting and, from where we were sitting in the front row, somewhat unnerving.

His content has proved to be quite topical, as over the past few weeks, we have been hearing snippets on the radio newswires that Apple is planning to investigate the work practices of the Foxconn factories.  If half of what he says is true, you can only hope that Apple take their review seriously.

Ironically, as we left the theatre, it seemed half of the audience couldn’t wait to turn their iPhones back on … we wondered if they were the same people who lined up at the Apple Store for each release of a new generation of Apple products, and will probably be lining up for the release of the next generation, which feeds the ever increasing demand for product out of the Foxconn factories.

As this was our last night of our trans-American adventure, an appropriately special final dining experience was called for.  Grabbing a cab back to the Upper East Side, tonight’s recommendation from the hotel concierge was Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant “Daniel“.

After the slight disappointment of the previous evening, the contrast could not of being more stark.  Everything about “Daniel” reeked with elegance and quality. Every course we ordered was stunning, and whilst thankfully steering clear of the “over innovation” of the previous evening, the food clearly represented some very clever cooking.

The restaurant prides itself on being only one of five in Manhattan that received the New York Times four star rating, and to our incredibly sophisticated palates, it deserves every one of them.

A great way to sign off on our many and varied American dining experiences.

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Day 35 – New York, NY

Today was our last day of any sort of driving, which only consisted of dropping the Dodge Challenger back to JFK airport.

The doorman at our hotel was almost as sad to see the car go as I was, as he heaped praise on what an “awesome beast” the car was … “it’s got a Hemi, baby” (referring to the type of V8 engine), he told me as he handed me back the keys.

First problem of getting back to JFK was that with all of the skyscrapers in Manhattan, our TomTom wouldn’t pick up a signal.  Knowing that JFK is east of Manhattan, I just headed in that direction and crossed my fingers and hoped I wasn’t heading into one of those New York suburbs that you are meant to avoid.

Fortunately, I made it unscathed to the East River and picked up a signal, so was able to find my way to JFK without the need to lock the doors and pray.

So ended the driving part of our holiday, a mere 6,440 miles (10,300 km)

By the time I had made it back to the hotel, New York had turned on a rainy day for us.  Jane and I were both content to have a day of not being tourists, so caught a train to the meatpacking district for lunch at a burger joint and a walk around the Chelsea markets, which managed to fill most of the afternoon.

For dinner, our hotel concierge had recommended a restaurant on the Lower East Side called WD~50, owned by chef Wylie Dufresne.  WD~50 has apparently received rave reviews and has reputation for very innovative cooking, which has earned it a Michelin star.

We arrived at the restaurant to find out we would be sitting at a table virtually in the foyer area, next to the restaurant’s bar.  We’re not sure if that had much bearing on our experience, but for both of us, the restaurant fell slightly flat.

Forewarned that the restaurant pushed the boundaries, we opted for the degustation menu to give ourselves the best chance of experiencing the talents of chef Dufresne.  Whilst elements of most dishes were definitely clever (ie what looked like a mini bagel that was made out of ice cream), too many of the dishes felt like they had one or two many ingredients, or that one of the ingredients completely overpowered what should have been the star of the dish (ie the chick peas overwhelming the foie gras).

Maybe we were not in the mood to have our palates so challenged, but we have definitely eaten in restaurants staking their reputation on innovative cooking that are much more successful with the end result.  WD~50 was by no means bad, it just didn’t deliver what we had been primed to expect.

Across the road from our hotel was the “Birdland” jazz club, established in 1949 and named after Charlie “Bird” Parker.  Before heading back to the room, we thought we should poke our head in and see if anyone was playing.

What followed was the most magical hour and a half of jazz, delivered by an enchanting French singer Cyrille Aimee and her 6 piece band.  With her playful, velvety voice, she kept the audience entranced with every song.  At least we assumed they were entranced, as the club operates a very strict and rigorously enforced “keep quiet during the performance” policy, so a hush fell over the room every time she sang.

When we arrived at the jazz club, it seemed like their cover charge was a bit steep.   When we walked out at 1am, it seemed like a bargain.

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Day 34 – Troy, NY to New York, NY

Our last day of driving was to be run back south to New York.

Given the car we had at our disposal, just driving back down an Interstate seemed a waste, so we added an hour to our trip finding some back roads through the Catskill Mountains.

Unfortunately, upstate New York had presented us with an overcast, rainy day, which gave way to some snow flurries along the way.  Nonetheless, we still managed to enjoy a drive through some B-roads and test the mettle of the Challenger.  To be honest, as is the criticism of most American muscle cars, it was a big wallowy brute of a machine with floaty steering, but jeez it made a great noise accelerating hard in a straight line.

The only stop on the way back to New York was to visit the Woodbury Premium Outlet stores.  We had been seeing Outlet Stores advertised right across America, but knowing we would be visiting Troy, Jane had been insisting that we wait until the Woodbury stores.  She was proved correct, as it was a vast and quality selection of stores that had more than enough potential to damage the credit card.  We picked up a few good things but managed to escape without the need to remortgage the house.

The drive from Woodbury to our New York hotel was meant to take 90 minutes according to the SatNav, and right up until the last 5 miles, we were right on time.  Unfortunately, the last 5 miles included the Lincoln Tunnel onto Manhattan, and those 5 miles took a good hour to complete.

This traffic delay meant a rushed dumping of bags in order to get to Madison Square Garden to see the New York Knicks take on the Sacramento Kings.  For the last few weeks, we had been hearing of the new star player on the Knicks roster, Jeremy Lin.  His is a real rags to riches story of the player who didn’t get picked up by a number of clubs and was within weeks of being cut by the Knicks when he got a start due to an injury to another player.

To say he has grabbed the opportunity with both hands is an understatement, as he has scored more points in his first 5 games than any player in the last 40 years, which includes the giants of the game like Michael Jordan.  His good form has coincided with a reversal of the Knicks fortunes, and they are undefeated since Lin joined the playing ranks.

He has become an instant darling of the Knicks fans, who went crazy every time he touched the ball.  Knicks gear with his name and number has been flying off the shelf, and everyone in New York is going overboard making up new words to describe the frenzy, like “Lin-tastic” and “Lin-sanity”.  When pressed, Lin offered up “Super Lin-tendo”, but only because he played a lot of Nintendo as a kid.

The crowd at the Garden were buzzing through the night and it was great to see a game there.  Unfortunately, the Sacramento Kings left their shooting game at home, so from early in the game it was never really a contest, with the Knicks getting up by 15 points.

After a long day and with no risk of Lin-somnia, we went back to the hotel and fell into bed.

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Day 33 – Whitehouse Station NJ to Troy NY

When we woke up this morning, I let Jane know that we were going to have to take a bit of a detour to allow me a little indulgence.

When we were organising our trip, I wanted to get a big SUV for the first half of the trip, then an American Muscle Car for the second half.   Whilst we managed the first with the big Suburban, unfortunately Hertz wouldn’t rent the car I wanted for the second half for one-way rentals.

This evening’s destination was Troy in Upstate NY, where Jane studied for a semester of her MBA.  With a little detour, I worked out we could go past JFK airport and hence pick up the car I wanted to rent, and be able to return it to JFK 48 hours later.

Through the joys of SatNav, we were directed right through the middle of New York to get to JFK.  Hence, we arrived there a bit later than planned.  I was beginning to think that the detour wasn’t really worth it, until we picked up the new car.

Each of the big US car makers are producing an updated version of their classic muscle cars – Ford with the Mustang, Chevy with the Camaro and Dodge with the Challenger.  We collected a Dodge Challenger, in “burnt orange”, complete with black racing stripes, chrome wheels, a big spoiler and a 5.7 litre V8 Hemi engine.  It looked pretty ridiculous but as I guess, as the designers intended, it just made me chuckle.

Swapping the cars meant handing back the Cadillac CTS after 2,535 miles (4,050km).  If the truth be known, the Cadillac will probably prove to be the most accomplished of the cars we would drive in our trip across America, and if I had to chose one of the three cars to live with on a full time basis, the Cadillac would probably be it.  But the Challenger was the most fun of the three by far.

As we left the Hertz car park, the Hertz guy said “what a great car to have to drive on Valentines Day”.  I think it was more of a Valentines Day gift for me, but deep down, I think Jane also liked it, although there have been and will be many more romantic things for me to do on Valentines Day !!!

Heading north from JFK airport, we arrived in Troy mid afternoon.   Jane spent a semester at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) as an exchange student during her MBA, so coming back ten years later was a bit of a sentimental journey.  It was good for me to be able to see where Jane had studied and lived, spending a couple of hours walking around the university.

In the late afternoon, we spent 30 minutes wandering the streets of Troy in the vain search for a bar that Jane used to go to ten years ago.  Try as we might, Jane couldn’t find it, and I refrained from asking whether that had anything to do with the volume consumed way back then.

Conceding defeat, we settled on the Holmes & Watson, a pub originally constructed in 1600’s.  We found ourselves at the bar with the parents of the pub owner, who despite the pub serving food, shared with us their dining recommendations.  Given it was Valentines Day, the Italian restaurant they recommended seemed to be the best bet.

The restaurant kindly found us a table, and without being white linen table cloth, silver service, delivered delicious, if ridiculously large, meals.  Apparently, Martin Scorcesse become a regular diner at the restaurant when in Troy filming “The Age of Innocence”, and had a veal dish named after him.  That was enough to tempt me and I’m sure Scorcesse would be very pleased with the result.

Not only was the amount of food on the plate excessive, we were each given a “side” of pasta, which was in fact an bowl filled to the brim with pasta and tomato sauce. In the end, we each only managed two-thirds of our meal, with the pasta remaining virtually untouched.  It was no wonder than almost all of the other diners left the restaurant with a doggy bag.

On the way to dinner, Jane thought she had spotted her long lost bar, and pleasingly, we were able to find “The Ruck” bar for a nightcap to round off our Valentines Day.

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Day 32 – Washington DC to Whitehouse Station, NJ

Our last stop in Washington was to visit the Arlington cemetery.  Pleasingly, yesterday’s winds had disappeared.  It is amazing how 2 degrees doesn’t seem quite so bad without a howling wind.

Arlington to me is one of the iconic images of the US, with its row upon row of small white tombstones, spread across acres of rolling hills.  The scenes are so familiar from countless Hollywood films and TV shows.  Apart from a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and JFK’s burial site, there aren’t a lot of specific things to see in Arlington, but our two hour visit strolling through the grounds was an interesting and somewhat moving experience.

Heading out of Washington, we took a slight detour and headed west to the Chesapeake Bay area, which is surrounded by Maryland and Virginia.  It is the largest estuary in the US and covers an area about 200 miles long by 50 miles wide, draining into the Atlantic Ocean. Dotted along the bay are huge houses and lots of marinas, and it is easy to see why it is one of the main tourist destinations for visitors to the region.

We stopped at the small town of Chestertown for a lunch in a cafe by the water, then continued north to New Jersey to stay at a friend’s place in Whitehouse Station.  Anthony Wiltshire (universally known as Wilbur) is a friend from Sydney days who has been living in the US for the past 10 years, working for Johnson & Johnson.

Despite his wife and kids being away in Florida, Wilbur proved to be a very capable and generous host, providing a very welcome home cooked meal and sharing a bottle or three out of his cellar.   Jane left the two of us to solve the problems of the world after the first bottle.  I just wish I had written down the solutions we came up with.

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Day 31 – Washington DC

Yesterday was cold, today was freezing.  The howling winds of last night continued this morning, and with snow cover on the ground, we chose to defer the visit to Arlington cemetery and opt to visit indoor attractions.

Every visit to Washington requires a visit to one or more of the Smithsonian museums, a collection of 19 museums and galleries, mainly gathered around the National Mall.  Unless you were staying in Washington for a week or more, you couldn’t hope to cover all of the museums.  Given we were only going to have one day to explore the museums, we chose three.

First was the National Museum of American History.  Pride of place in this museum is the original 30 by 34 foot American flag, that hung over a fort in Baltimore during a battle in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “Star Spangled Banner”, but didn’t become the national anthem until 1931.  Hearing the context in which the song was written now gives me a whole new understanding of the words of the anthem.

There are many other sections of the museum, covering many aspects of America’s history and culture, but we both felt like we were seeing a lot of what we had seen in other museums on the trip, so kept our visit relatively short.

Next was the Natural History Museum.  Tracing the evolution of the world, we spent a lot of time just in the amazing prehistoric and dinosaur halls.  The range of dinosaur skeletons on display is staggering.  Feeling a bit leg weary, we had a quick look through the marine section then took in the 3D IMAX movie on dinosaurs, which had families with little kiddies leaving throughout the show as various dinosaurs gnashed their teeth at the audience.  Last stop was the butterfly display, with hundreds of live butterflies in a hothouse like enclosure.

Before we left the museum, Jane had me posing for photographs with the life size elephant in the main atrium.  Amusing herself no end, she had me strategically positioning my hand so that it looks like I was catching droppings out of its enormous bottom (I thought she was making it look like I was holding its tail … )   In return, I made her hold a box of popcorn so it looked like the elephant was eating out of it.  I think she got the better end of the deal.

Time gets away from you in these museums, so we were running short of time to see the Air and Space Museum.  Fortunately we arriving in the museum just as a tour guide was starting his presentation around the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.  Once again I was amazed at the encyclopedic knowledge of the guide, and his insight into the lunar mission was fascinating.

Hearing the stories of what was required to achieve a successful mission, and the near misses they had that could have made it a very unsuccessful mission, was fascinating, especially given the relatively primitive computers available at the time.  Apparently a eulogy for the three astronauts was prepared, just in case.  I wonder if they told the astronauts that before they took off ?

Our guide concluded his tour with the story of the original benefactor of the Smithsonian.  James Smithson, a British scientist in the 1700 and 1800’s, left his fortune to his nephew, with the stipulation that if his nephew died without any surviving children, then his estate was to the United States of America to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”.  This funding created the Smithsonian Institute, a very generous gift from a man who never set foot in the US.

Feeling the tiredness of a long tourist day on the hoof, we caught a cab to Georgetown and found an Italian restaurant for a heart warming bowl of pasta for dinner, before returning to the hotel to watch an in-house movie from the comfort of bed.  (I don’t know why Jane doesn’t want to put a TV in our bedroom at home)

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