The Old North State and BBQ

US State No 3

I have visited North Carolina and in particular its capital Raleigh 3 times, on account of having friends there. But to be honest, I haven’t seen that much of this US State that stretches from the Appalachian Mountains in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east.

The only place in the UK that you can fly direct to the capital Raleigh-Durham is not surprisingly London Heathrow. But with a bit of playing around, you can pretty much get there via a stop off from any other airport, for example if you flew from Edinburgh and changed at Newark, you can be there in just under 12 hours and Birmingham via Paris to Raleigh-Durham takes just under 13 hours, you can also fly direct from London To Charlotte.

I have flown once to Raleigh from Manchester via Philadelphia, but the other two times, I was visiting other places on the east coast and arrived via the Atlantic Coastal Route Amtrak Train, once picking it up in Trenton, New Jersey (8hrs 20) and another time from Washington DC (6hrs). So if you like trains (like I do) and time is your friend, then I would suggest kicking back, bring a good book and some snacks and take the train, otherwise air travel is the best way to go. 

North Carolina is bordered by South Carolina (not surprisingly), Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and of course the Atlantic Ocean, so although its not necessarily known as a leading tourist destination for us Europeans, when touring this part of the US there is certainly a rich enough culture and history to merit a stop off point on a road trip. 

My friends live in the capital, so it is here where I have stayed each time, and we tend to hang out at their favourite local spots, with a few day trips thrown in for good measure. I would say a car is an essential, and I was lucky enough to have the use of my friends car each visit. Other cities which are within driving distance for a South East road trip which would encompass North Carolina could be Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond. I did a southern states trip by Greyhound one year, but that’s for another blog, all my North Carolina visits have mainly been to the coast and around the capital.

Taking the Amtrak down the East Coast

So why visit North Carolina unless you have business or friends and family here? Well, its the place where the Wright Brothers had their first successful flight, Pepsi and Krispy Kreme donuts where invented here, its the home of NASCAR Hall of Fame and of course Barbecue! When I first visited the South, my friends kept saying they wanted to take me ‘for Barbecue’, I had visions of us standing outside in their back garden, huddled round a smoky steel bbq burning sausages and potatoes (with less rain and umbrellas), but Barbeque in the US has a whole different meaning. It is still slow cooked meat over an open fire, but especially in the southern states, it refers to pulled pork and how it is marinated, its the marinade that is the important distinction here, with even different parts of N Carolina never mind the neighbouring states having their own Regional Barbecue Sauces

So, one of the things you must try if passing through N Carolina is a Barbecue restaurant, of which there are many.  I remember visiting Smithfields on pretty much every visit (I was eating meat probably daily back then) its a BBQ chain exclusive to N.C. be sure to try some hush puppies too which is deep fried cornmeal, perfect for soaking up the BBQ Sauce. Don’t eat meat? There are more and more veggie and vegan options popping up nowadays, with the Ficton Kitchen in Raleigh and Luella’s in Asheville offering pork free BBQ. 

Another thing  I remember doing in the Raleigh-Durham area was an Art Walk, as my friend I was staying with is a painter.  As well as chatting to the artists and seeing their work, there was music, food and drink, with free samples everywhere, we had a great evening chatting with local painters, trying out crafts and sampling the free wine and snacks. 

You will always have a great time in a local bar in the states, especially if you ‘aren’t from around these parts’ and having a British accent will probably at least score you a free pint! Although my accent didn’t stop us from coming close to last in the weekly quiz night!

Quiz Night!
 

Next time I visit I must do some more tourist spots in the capital, but mainly we ate, shopped and hung out in my friends gorgeous house, and at the pool club,  one year I even helped with a garage sale. 

My friend is a beach lover, so we had a day trip over to the Atlantic Coast, and to Wilmington, a port side town on the South East Coast. There are lots of lovely shops, restaurants and cafes just a short walk from the beach, and we spent some time exploring Cape Fear Riverwalk. I had my first and probably last ever salt water taffy, despite the name of the sweet, it doesn’t actually contain any salt, but I found it an acquired taste none the less. 

Dipping my feet in the Atlantic Ocean, warmer than the European side!

One thing that I thought was strange was the number of gifts featuring the cast of Dawson’s Creek, until I realised it was filmed here, I am not aware of any official tours, but its an easy search on the internet for all the TV shows memorable locations if you fancied a self guided tour.

I plan to return at some point to NC, so I will aim to do more research and visit some more sites during trip number 4.

Other North Carolina spots.

NASCAR Hall of Fame – Charlotte  $25 adult
Wright Brothers National Monument Kill Devil Hills  $7 adult 
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway FREE  and hike in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park FREE

New Jersey – The Garden State

US state No 2

fullsizeoutput_394

It would have made sense to stop off in NJ, when I was travelling from NYC to Philadelphia, back in 2007, but for some reason I didn’t. Whilst volunteering in Montana though I became friends with a women who was from New Jersey and so she invited me back to her home town of Trenton, NJ the following year.

New Jersey and its capitol Trenton aren’t really popular places to visit for extended US city breaks, at least for us Europeans, anyway. Sandwiched by its more famous neighbours New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey is probably more well known for Newark airport, which offers low cost flights to the East coast from the U.K. Most people I know, land in NJ and hop on a train or plane onward to somewhere else. Although I personally wouldn’t be able to justify the cost of a flight to New Jersey solely to visit the 4th smallest US state on its own, there is definitely enough here to justify adding it to your itinerary if you’re in New York or Pennsylvania.

Arrivals. You can fly direct to Newark airport from many U.K. cities, it takes just under 8hrs, add a few more if you have to change along the way. If you’re travelling in from New York, you can get the Long Island Rail Road from JFK Airport to Penn Station and then the New Jersey Transit across the border, this is pretty extensive network and gives you plenty of options of places to visit. If you fancied a visit as an add on from Philadelphia perhaps, then that’s easy too, as the Amtrak train goes from 30th Street Station in Philly and gets you to Trenton in just under 30 minutes, or catch the SEPTA from Philadelphia 30th St or Jefferson Station which takes you to Trenton, from the Transit Centre there, you can hop on the NJ Transit and get pretty much where you want.

So as it’s not too complicated to get there, what should you do once you have made the effort? Well I originally visited because I had an invitation, and so my gracious hosts took me around thier home state and to some of their favourite places and I’m really glad I made the trip, and oh yeah, and the accents were amazing!

Sights. The capital is Trenton, and it is here where I was based for my stay.  I was lucky enough to be staying with friends in their apartment and they had a car, so I was chauffeured around, which was a novelty for me. But as I mentioned earlier, the New Jersey Transit is really extensive, so I don’t think a car is essential here if you just fancy doing a few tourist spots. There is a lot of history in this small state, and if Revolutionary War history or US history in general is your thing, then a visit to The Old Barracks is a must, as it’s the last remaining British army barracks in North America. I always like to get a good history lesson if I’m new to a place and so a stop at the N J State Museum is the perfect way to learn about both the cultural and natural history of the region. There are loads more museums in Trenton, so depending on time and your interests, you could easily fill a day here, along with a visit to one of the many parks, shops and restaurants.

One of the stand outs from my trip to New Jersey was the food, maybe it was because I was staying with locals, so they knew exactly where to eat and drink, but I do remember it all being ginormous in portion size and delicious. The first night we got pizza, I was jet lagged and hungry, and I remember standing in line to pick up our pizza feeling like an extra in the Sopranos, as I was overwhelmed by the amazing accents and the smells of the freshly cooked pizza dough. Italians migrated to the US, mainly between 1880 & 1920 due to poverty back in Italy. Although many did return home, it is said that there are about 1.5 million Italian Americans living in New Jersey and they make up about 18% of the population, so sampling some Italian food has to be on your itinerary when visiting.

New Jersey is also home to a large but dwindling population of Irish Americans and as I visited over St Patrick’s day weekend, it was imperative that we attended a Parade in the capital. Wearing all the green I could find in my suitcase, we headed to downtown Trenton and stood along the ‘sidewalk’ watching the marching bands and the decorated floats, whilst catching sweets and beads thrown from the proud Irish Americans celebrating their heritage, before we found a pub for a pint of Guinness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I am very happy in my new home in this friendly country and the liberal atmosphere of Princeton.” – Albert Einstein 1935

One of the most popular places to visit and very close to Trenton is the town of Princeton, home of the well known private Ivy League University. Only a short 12 mile drive from the capital, or if your relying on public transport, you can get the N J Transit which, depending on the day and schedule, takes between 20 & 55 minutes from Trenton.

As well as being famous for the University, Princeton has other historic bragging rights. Originally settled by the Native Americans of course, the Quakers then moved in around 1690 and set up along the Millstone River. With its location being so close to Philadelphia, it’s no surprise that two of the inhabitants of Princeton signed the Declaration of Independance, and the National Historic Monument Maybury Hill in Princeton is the home to Joseph Hewes a 3rd resident who moved to N Carolina before signing the document too.

It is the university and the wealth of talent that it’s prestige brings, which makes for the most interesting and eclectic mix of history and provides a fascinating day out. Four US presidents have lived here including JFK, but also noted theologians, architects &  writers have lived and studied here too, not forgetting probably the most famous resident –  Albert Einstein, who moved here after fleeing Germany.

There are many ways to explore Princeton University, you can just head off and wander, being mindful that some parts are restricted to students and staff, or you can book on a guided tour, the Official Website has all the details you need including a downloadable self guided walking tour map, and come October there are weekly ghosts tours too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other things on your Princeton hit list should include Albert Einsteins house which is a national historic monument and all the many independent shops, bars and restaurants along Nassau Street and Palmers Square. These include a Princeton official Merch Shop, one dedicated to Mr Einstein, as well as high end clothing stores and some great small independent coffee shops and cafes.

We finished our day out in Princeton sharing some delicious small plates and some beer tasting at Triumph Brewery right on Nassau Street, after I had purchased my official Princeton t-shirt of course.

  • Old Barracks – $8
  • New Jersey State Museum $5
  • Historical Society of Princeton guided walking tour, every Sunday $7
  • Triumph Brewery Happy Hour is Sun-Thur 10pm-Midnight

Other Garden State Spots – Liberty State Park, Cape May, Six Flags, Atlantic City, Sandy Hook.

 

New York City, Buffalo and a teeny bit of Canada

US State No1

7

I have been to New York 3 times, once in spring, once in winter and once in summer, I don’t have a trip to the Big Apple in Autumn planned yet, but maybe I should pop it back on my ever growing bucket list.
My last trip to New York was in the summer of 2007, so this blog post will not be an up to date, must do list of New York sites by any means. Ask anyone though and if they haven’t been to New York City themselves, they will probably know someone who has or is going and really, you could just turn up in Times Square and figure it out as you went along. There isn’t anything that hasn’t already been said about this amazing city and it should be on everyone’s travel list.

Although I had been twice before, I used New York as the starting point when I travelled overland solo from NY to LA & onward to Hawaii. As well as being probably the cheapest place to fly from Manchester, UK to the East coast, the flight is relatively short and jet lag isn’t too demanding. As I was familiar with the city, I thought I could use a couple of days in Manhatten to chill, visit a few things I hadn’t seen previously and just get myself mentally in the headspace to take off across the country alone.

Central Park & Times Square

My first time alone in New York, I enjoyed sitting in Central Park with an ice cream and a book, just people watching and soaking up the atmosphere, without needing to race through the city getting all the tourist spots done, especially in the oppressive summer heat. I was staying in a cheap motel with a shared bathroom close to the Natural History Museum and I was able to pencil in an entire morning to roam the corridors and exhibits of the museum and it was wonderful.

A 20 minute walk across Central Park is the Guggenheim,  another space I hadn’t visited on previous trips, I really should have been before. The building is outstanding, an iconic structure with the most amazing spiral ramp inside that you slowly climb up as you view the works of art. The only other thing I really made an effort to do on this trip was to visit an outdoor market, there are loads in and around Manhatten, I was there over a weekend, so on the Sunday, I had a wander around the Green Flea Market and picked up a few items of clothing for the journey ahead and had some delicious inexpensive street food.

But my trip to the state of New York wasn’t over, next stop was to Penn Street Station to board the Amtrak train, and I headed about 8 hours north west to Buffalo, NY. Located on the shore of Lake Erie, this city is actually New York’s second most populous city after NYC and is a great base to use if you want to visit Niagara Falls, the amazing meeting point of 3 waterfalls, that connect the USA & Canada. I stayed at the Hostel Buffalo and as I check back now, it looks like it unfortunately may be closing down *signs petition* It was from here that I got the Greyhound bus to Niagara as it’s another 20 miles to the Falls. It’s a lot cheaper to stay in Buffalo than by the Falls themselves and buses run cheaply and regularly throughout the day Bus Bud.

Photo 12-06-2016, 19 00 55

Absolutely breathtaking, the sites and sounds of this majestic natural wonder, it can be viewed from both sides of the border. The American side is actually a State Park, so as well as visiting the Falls, there are lots of hiking trails and gardens to explore along with shops, cafes & restaurants too. It was very easy to cross the border into Canada as the two countries are joined by the Rainbow Bridge,  as trivial as it looks, it is an actual bonefide border crossing, so have your documentation ready & be prepared to pay a small fee of $.50 each way if you are walking or biking.

Canadian Passport Stamp!

 

I stayed about an hour or so on the Canadian side, grabbed some lunch and visited the Skylon Tower for amazing views from up high, before paying my $.50 to re-enter the US. (I don’t feel I can cross Canada off my list or count it as a country Ive visited as it’s such a big country and I barely ventured quarter of a mile across the border, so I plan to return!)

To get a real sense of the enormity of the Falls, I wanted to get closer, so despite it being a sunny day, a poncho was still required, as I bought tickets for Cave of the Winds and Maid of the Mist. Cave of the Winds consists of a series of wooden walkways that take you down the rocky waterside and only a few feet away from the gushing torrents, prepare to get wet, windy and metaphorically but not literally blown away. No time to dry off, I then boarded the famous Maid of the Mist for the boat tour, that takes you right up to the white raging water and full of the spray of the overflowing rivers, it was fun, wet and truly memorable. A full day is definitely needed, and I’m so glad I made the effort to get there. After drying off and a good nights sleep, I boarded the train to back to NYC & then onward to Pennsylvania.

Aboard the Maid of the Mist

 

Museum of Natural History – Open daily  (closed just Thanksgiving & Christmas Day)

Guggenheim – closed on Thursdays (pay what you wish on Saturdays 5.45-7.45)

Maid of the Mist– Appears to be closed for tours between Nov & April, and the Cave of the Winds  is closed for restoration every November, so I would always suggest checking the websites before a visit.

Dont Miss –  Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Empire State Building, Times Square, High Line, Ellis Island.