A Travellerspoint blog

Philadelphia

Theme song - "On the road again" by Willie Nelson

Your text to link here...We picked up our new hire car from Kennedy airport as we thought it the public transport might have been better than that from La Guardia. It wasn't. It took hours to get there. This time our car was a Ford Focus. I apologise in advance to all the Ford fans out there but, to be frank, the Ford Focus is possibly the most crap car I've ever driven. It's a dog. In fact, looking at the cars on the road, the days when American cars set a style standard are well and truly over. The current models are all boxy, block-like and downright ugly. Pick ups and four wheel drives are very popular and invariably enormous. They must guzzle gas like it's going out of fashion. Of all the cars on the road right now only the retro Chevrolet Camarro, Ford Mustang and Chrysler Cruiser are the only ones likely to be a future classic.
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We set off for Philadelphia, theoretically only 2 hours south of New York, but the traffic was at a standstill almost all the way. We drove across the massive Staten Island bridge, across New Jersey and finally entered Philadelphia in the late afternoon. After much running around we found ourselves a room in the Forest Hills Hotel in downtown.
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Philadelphia was the site of the Continental Congress in 1776 where the colonies agreed to seceed from the United Kingdom. It also became the United States' first capital city between 1790 and 1800. Within the charming old downtown many historic buildings from those times are preserved, including the Congress Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Benjamin Franklin lived and was buried here, although he was born in Boston. Franklin is remembered as one of the great statesmen of the Revolutionary War. His greatest achievement was getting the French to enter the war on the American side, something which ultimately turned the tide of the war. He was something of an eccentric though, especially in his later years. He wrote a number of pamphlets on the importance of farting, the pleasures of beer, and, typical for his class, whoring. Needless to say these writings don't get publicised these days.
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But it wasn't all buildings and history. Philadelphia is home to the epyonymous philly cheese stake. We'd avoiding having one in Boston and New York just so we could have the real thing in Philly. The cheese steak was invented in the 1930s by Pat's King of Steaks on the corner of 9th and Passyunk. Directly across the street, the flashy and neon-lit Genos Steaks claims to make the best cheese steaks. The rivalry between the vendors is intense. We were drawn like moths to the Genos first. The building and tables were covered in photos of Geno and his family with local and national celebrities, riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and posing with silicon pumped bikini babes. Geno must think of himself as a true American patriot as the store is also covered in xenophobic /anti foreigner slogans. Political opinions aside, Genos cheese steak was pretty damned good. It's basically a roast beef roll but instead of gravy, it's smothered in melted cheese and onions. Then we moved on to Pats. Pats was pretty damned good too. Both rolls had their good points and the result was too close to call.
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There is a maritime museum near Penns Landing on the Delaware River, just a block or two from downtown. http://www.phillyseaport.org/ships_index.shtml Three historic ships are moored here. The USS Olympia, a predreadnought protected cruiser from the 1890s, the Second World War submarine Becuna and the sailing ship, Moshulu, which is a floating restaurant.
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I had specifically wanted to see the Olympia as it is a very rare survivor from the late 19th century. These predreadnought warships were made obsolete at a stroke with the launch of the HMS Dreadnought in 1905 and almost all of them were scrapped. In 1898 the ship was the flagship of Admiral Dewey at the Battle of the Phillipines. The year before, the USS Maine had exploded in Havanna harbour. The cause was probably a fire in a coal store that spread to the ship's magazine, but the US accused Spain of deliberately blowing up the ship with a mine. The Spanish were in no position to start a war and tried everything they could to placate the US, but politicians, big business and the media tasted blood in the water and began clamouring for war. The US invaded Cuba, then a Spanish colony and then sent a fleet to the Phillipines, which annihalated the puny Spanish fleet and seized the archipelago. This was the beginning of America's overseas empire. The ship receives few visitors, which is a shame as it's a great ship and well presented. Several million dollars are required to undertake desperately needed repairs but neither state or federal authorities seem particularly interested in doing anything about it.
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Across the Delaware in New Jersey the World War Two battleship USS New Jersey is also moored as a museum ship.
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Unfortunately I didn't get to go up to the deck or bridge as the heavens opened up. It absolutely thundered down all the way to Gettysburg.

Posted by paulymx 19:41 Archived in USA Comments (0)

New York

Theme song - "New York, New York" by Frank Sinatra

Although we left Ithaca relatively early the drive to New York was long and torturous. Coming from west to east we had to drive through Harlem and then Queens. It was quite stressful. No courteous drivers here.
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We dropped the car at La Guardia airport about 3pm. La Guardia is not well served by public transport. We caught the bus through Queens, a busy and ethnically diverse neighbourhood (you want foreign food? Go to Queens!) to the train station then caught the subway to Times Square. Based on past experience we expected the hotel's claim of being 'right next to Times Square' a bit of an exaggeration, but no! Elements Times Square was on 39th St, one block from the Port Authority train station and two blocks from Times Square. You could see the neon from our room!
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We decided to lash out on the hotel in New York and Elements did not let us down. It was a really nice hotel and provided free welcome drinks - alcoholic drinks - Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 7pm. It was now 4.30. We showered, changed and headed on down. They certainly didn't skimp. We helped ourselves to bottles of red and white wine and tapas and chilled out. By the time we'd finished the drinks it was almost 9 and we were rolling. The concierge gave us a pass to some rooftop bar around the corner. As it was in another hotel complex we weren't expecting it to be much of a place but it was very nice. We stayed on drinking their expensive cocktails until a staff member, while closing the sliding roof, knocked a light fixture onto Shelly's head. They apologised by giving us a round of drinks - possibly not the best idea. We left and went to see Times Square, which was a seething mass of people, neon and chaos. The blow to the head must have concussed Shelly as she said she did NOT feel like going dancing and wanted a kebab from a street vendor for dinner.
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We woke up the next morning slightly worse for wear and didn't really achieve anything other than heading up to Harlem for a late lunch at Sylvia's Soul Food restaurant.
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I must admit Sylvia's didn't quite live up to the expectations set by 'Masterchef' but Harlem itself was an experience. Every single African-American stereotype was on display, from wizened Jazzmen, to gangsta rappers to hefty-assed mamas. Feeling a bit up after a good hearty meal, we set out on our own bar crawl that evening.

The next day we went on an excellent food and culture tour in Greenwich Village, visited the World Trade Centre site, did some general sight seeing and took a helicopter flight over the city.
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That evening we were looking forward to a New York Bar Crawl tour, but it proved to be a bit of a fizzer. The indifferent tour leader was more interested in chatting with his mates, only showing up periodically to tell us we were about to go. We only visited two bars, both right next to each other. Hmm, we could have done that ourselves. Definitely not recommended.
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That all said, we were both in a pretty shocking state the next morning which wasn't helped by relentless pouring rain. We headed to the Lower East Side for lunch at Katz Deli.
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Katz was pumping but we weren't really inspired by the food or the indifferent service and moved on. By this time, with the rain pouring down, we'd lost all enthusiasm (especially when my $5 umbrella broke the moment the rain touched it). We managed an unenthusiastic shuffle down 5th Avenue before settling in at an Irish bar near our hotel for dinner. The sunset sailing cruise we'd booked for the evening was fortunately cancelled.
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After four days in New York it was time to get back on the road again.

Posted by paulymx 14:25 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Vermont and Niagara

Theme song -"Dueling Banjos" by John Williamson

The townships of the Berkshires are a lovely, green and leafy. It's a rural retreat for wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers and it shows in the massive houses and neatly kept yards. Just north of Williamstown is Bennington, Vermont. Vermont is the most rural and underpopulated state in the Union. It's capital city is no more than a large town.

Bennington's claim to fame was a battle fought here during the War of Independence. The Vermont militia defeated a larger force of German mercenaries fighting for the British and on a hill overlooking the town there is a gigantic obelisk-like monument. You can take an elevator to a viewing platform about two thirds the way up, although the tiny windows make it difficult to appreciate the view. Almost as far as the eye can see is a landscape of rolling hills and trees.
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In town I was delighted to stumble across Hemmings Garage and magazine, a classic car publication that I read. http://blog.hemmings.com/.... They have a free motor museum so we just had to stop and have a look.
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Just outside Bennington are three covered wooden bridges. It took a little effort to find them as the signs pointing the way weren't very clear and the Lonely Planet was vague (in fact I think they'd reversed the order of the bridges and the route to reach them). We almost drove right past one! Having found the first it was fairly easy to find the second but the third eluded us completely.
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Rural Vermont was strikingly different from the affluent Berkshires. The houses often looked run down and there were often collections of older cars littering the yards. We stopped for lunch at a crazy roadhouse called The Big Moose. I ordered the half-sub BBQ pork roll. It was so enormous I couldn't finish it all. We took it with us for the road. And that was only the half-sub!
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From Bennington was had an epic six hour drive to Niagara. It poured with rain intermittently - so hard and strong we had to slow right down to avoid crashing. Thankfully drivers in the US are very courteous.
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We arrived in Niagara Falls about 5.30pm and crossed the border into Canada. The falls mark the border between Canada and the US here and while the falls are mainly situated on the US side, the Canadian side has the best view. Because there isn't really anything to see at Niagara Falls, the town has turned itself into a veritable theme park. Everywhere you look is a 'haunted house' themepark, mini-golf, or Ripley's believe it not. Theme restaurants abound selling their usual overpriced shit. We opted for a simple meal that night, a pizza slice from Pizza Pizza. Simply the worst pizza we've eaten, ever.
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At 9pm each night there is a lightshow at the falls. It's a pretty simple affair, just a play of coloured lights across the face of the falls.
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The next morning we were up early - 9am - and took the Maid of the Mist tour. The Maid of the Mist has been running since the mid 19th century taking millions of visitors up close and personal with the falls. We were lucky we were up early as we missed the crowds. The boats running after 11am were packed to the gunnels.
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We quickly visited the US side of the falls on our way to New York.
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The Finger
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The Finger Lakes district take their name from eleven glacial lakes that cut across New York state half way between Niagara and New York city. The district is spotted with wineries and holiday homes of rich New Yorkers. In the 1880s a particularly rich New York family built a mansion on their estate at Canandaigua. Built by Frederick Thompson, one of the founders of both the Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank, and his wife Mary, the impressive Sonnenberg mansion & gardens is now a charitable trust and museum. The mansion is very impressive as it contains many of the Thompson's personal effects, including clothing and furniture. It was well worth a visit. http://www.sonnenberg.org
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That night we stayed in a roadhouse in Ithaca at the southern end of Cayuga Lake.
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Posted by paulymx 18:22 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Massachusetts

Theme song "(I'm going back to) Massachusetts" by the Bee Gees

We picked up a hire car, a Hyundai Elantra, on Sunday. Learning from our numerous navigational challenges in Europe, we made sure we had a GPS. It was well worth it as is much better to argue with a GPS than with each other when we got ourselves lost! We had a little trouble understanding the American terminology the GPS used so set it for 'Australian English - Male voice - Lee.' Lee was to become our very good friend.
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First stop was Salem, about two hours north of Boston. In fact it would be fair to say that the suburbs have expanded so much over the years that Salem is now almost an outer suburb. All the way there it poured with rain so heavy that we were forced to slow to 40mph on the highway.
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Salem is infamous for the witch trials that occurred there in 1692. Unlike in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people were accused, tried and executed for witchcraft, this was the only incident of its kind in North America. It was also very well documented by the people involved so we can get a real insight into what happened.
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The incident started when two young girls, aged 9 & 11, began suffering fits and convulsions. The cause was probably ergot (a type of fungus) poisoning from infected barley but this was beyond the understanding of the Puritan doctors who examined them. When other the girls in the town began fitting and acting hysterically they suspected witchcraft was at work. It's clear now that the girls were feeding on the power and notoriety their bizarre behaviour gave them and they soon began accusing their neighbours of witchcraft. Some 150 people were accused. 25 were found guilty in farcical trials, 18 were hanged, 6 imprisoned and one man was tortured to death by pressing, were a table loaded with heavy stones was placed on his chest. His last words were "More weight!" The Salem witch trials are all about injustice and prejudice but tourism in the town is mainly centred on occult, like Twighlight and its ilk.
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From Salem we drove through the pouring rain to Cape Cod. We stayed in Hyannis, where the Kennedy family has its holiday homes. You can't actually see the Kennedy estate except from a boat but we did visit the little museum in town. We stayed that night at a nice harbourfront motel, Hyannis Harbourside.
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A Time of Thanksgiving.
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An hour north of Cape Cod is Plymouth, the site of the Mayflower landing and Pilgrims first settlement in America. Plymouth advertises itself as "Americas home town" and the origin of Thanksgiving.
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A little out of town is Plimouth Plantation, a recreation of the original Pilgrim settlement. It was a reasonably good recreation too, the little diamond shaped township surrounded by wooden parapets with a tower and cannons. The staff all speak in 17th dialect (which is hard to understand). Nearby is a recreation Indian village. The story of the Pilgrims and the foundation of America is deeply woven into myth. Plymouth was not the first European settlement in America. The Spanish had settled in Florida in the late 16th century and the British had founded Jamestown north of Plymouth some years before. The Pilgrims themselves were a strange bunch of religious extremists and possibly the least suited individuals to the rigours of life in the wilderness. Almost none of them had any practical experience in farming or manual trades. But then, they weren't expecting to rough it in their new Jerusalem. European traders, slavers and fishermen had long been visiting the east coast of America and had seen the extensive and rich Indian towns and villages along the coast, surrounded by golden fields of corn. The America they described to their brethren back in grim 17th century England must have made it sound like a veritable land of milk and honey.
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When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 however they found a deserted landscape. Sure, there were fields of corn, squash and tomatoes, but the most of Indians who tended them were dead, killed by smallpox caught from Europeans. The mortality rate in these years of first contact were up to 90%. Having no idea what to do next, the Pilgrims build a fortified settlement and planted wheat and barely, which immediately died. They refused to eat the corn and other 'pagan' foods so promptly began dying themselves. In the first winter 50% of the Pilgrims died. They were saved by the arrival of an Indian named Squanto, who taught them how to farm corn, fish, and hunt. Squanto's story is strange and depressing. He was captured as a young man by slavers some years before and pressed into service on an English ship. He lived for a time in England where he learnt English until he saved enough money to buy a passage back to America. He arrived in Jamestown and promptly set off back to his village, which was a little way from Plymouth. When he arrived however he was shocked to find that everyone had died of smallpox or fled. Depressed by this turn of events he travelled back along the coast looking for anyone who could tell him what had happened to his people, when he stumbled on the starving Pilgrims. The Pilgrims gave thanks to God for their deliverance, but did not show any particular gratitude to Squanto or the Indians. They were soon raiding, attacking and pillaging the few surviving Indian settlements around them. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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From Plymouth we set off on a long drive west towards Niagara Falls. We stopped in the pleasant university town of Williamstown, in the Berkshires, for the night.
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Posted by paulymx 09:07 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Boston

Theme song - "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

We arrived in Boston absolutely shattered after 31 hours travel from Perth. Fortunately the immigration procedures, which I'd expected to be tortureous in this post 9/11 world, were smooth and prompt. After a quick photo, finger printing and an anal probe, we were on our way. Our flight from San Francisco was late so we didn't arrive at the hostel (40 Berkeley St) until well after midnight. We checked in and crashed out.
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Surprisingly we both woke up early, well rested and ready to explore. It was a relatively short walk from the hostel to Boston Common and then into downtown. Boston preserves quite a few historic buildings dating from the American Revolution and these can easily be visited by following the well marked 'Freedom Trail.' Boston has changed substantially since the days of those days though and I'm not just talking about highrise development. In 1770 Boston town was basically a circular island joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Modern Boston has been built on extensivelandfill. Our suburb of Back Bay was once on the waterfront which is now miles away.
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Boston town was known as the frying pan and was quite literally boiling with tension. Political agitators like the brewer Samuel Adams was intent on forcing a showdown with the British colonial government. In March 1770 a dispute between an apprentice wigmaker and a British soldier escalated into violence. 12 soldiers guarding the Kings Hall (town hall building) were confronted by a mob several hundred strong and things got out of control. The soldiers opened fire killing 2 men outright, another 3 would later die of the their wounds. The soldiers were arrested and charged with murder. Most were acquitted; 2 convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned. Samuel Adams talked up the incident as a deliberate act of tyranny against the freedom loving Bostonians as "the Boston Massacre." It didn't spark the revolution Adams hoped for but from there on in the colonists and the colonial government were on a collision course.
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Most of the old buildings are now museums. The North Church, where Paul Revere signalled to rebels in Charleston across the harbour, is particularly interesting as it has retained the private family pew boxes that were popular in the 18th century. Paul Revere's house is a rare survivor from the pre-revolutionary times. It's amazing it has survived at all. It was completely remodelled in the late 19th century as an inn and later as a warehouse. It was scheduled to be demolished as a derelict in the 1930s but was saved and restored as it was when first built.
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Paul Revere is an interesting character. A silversmith by trade, he also worked as metalurgist, engraver, artist and dentist. His role in the Revolution has always been a bit hazy. His ride to warn the rebels that the "Redcoats are coming!" was fairly shortlived. He was arrested after only a couple of miles. One of the other riders rode over 250 miles but he's been totally forgotten by history. Revere however, as a good businessman talked up his involvement to ensure his foundery got the contract for forging cannons and the rest is, as they say, history (or should we say mythology?).
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Fanueil Hall is the centrepiece of the Quincy Market, an area of tourist shops, food stalls, bars and street performers. We loitered around here quite a bit and had beef ribs that looked as though they'd come from a Brontosaurus! Lovely.
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In the afternoon we did the Duck Tour in World War II surplus amphibious trucks through the backwaters and canals of Boston. It was all good fun and I got to steer the boat/truck too!
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We'd tried to get tickets to the Red Sox - Yankees game that night but it was a sellout. Instead the hostel was putting on free drinks and hot dogs in the lounge so we thought we'd pop in and have a drink. Well, we ended up staying till the end of the game at 11pm before heading out to the bars. We visited a couple of Irish bars before settling in at The Pour House. It was good to be in an English speaking country - we could talk to people! We stumbled back home after 2pm when the bars shut.
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Things were a little slower the next day. Very very slow. We took a wander through the leafy grounds of Harvard University before taking a ferry to Charleston to see the USS Constitution.
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Built in 1797, the frigate USS Constitution fought in the British during the War of 1812 and later the pirates of Algeria. It was a very lucky ship which earned it the nickname 'Old Ironsides.' After a long career on active service the Constitution was laid up as a depot and training ship. The ship was restored to original condition in the 1930s but remains on the 'active' naval list.
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Next door is the USS Cassin Young, a destroyer built in the 1942. It served through World War II and Korea.
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Shelly was very very patient with me that day.
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We finished up our Boston trip with a ghost tour. It was reasonably interesting but nothing compared to the Nightwatchman of Rotheburg.
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Boston was an extremely friendly city and it was with no little regret we packed up our hire car and set out on the road.
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Posted by paulymx 21:32 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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