Clearing US immigration in Ireland.

Ive just done my first ever US Pre Clearance and it was a revelation! I have been aware of it for a while but only just got round to trying it out and I’m not sure I can ever go back now. Any none US travellers who have visited the United States must have experienced that fun 30-90 minute wait, filling in the white arrival cards and being sternly instructed to GET IN A LINE. Then undergoing 20 questions about where you’re going, who you’re staying with and for how long, whilst being jet-lagged, confused and forgetting the name of your accommodation, then missing your connection to Nashville? No, maybe it’s just me then.

There are actually 6 none US countries from which you can now go through all the immigration and customs checks, before you board your flight when you are still fresh faced and excited for the journey ahead. The particular airports are located in Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Canada and where I boarded, Ireland. Sweden and the Dominican Republic are next to join the list I believe.img_2388

The main reason I believe these pre-clearance centres have been set up is to reduce the risk of terrorism and identify potential criminals before they even board the plane to the US. The other advantages for everyone else, is these airports potentially gets more traffic, it reduces the numbers and waiting times for everyone else at border controls in the US and makes it easier for travellers to leave their destination airport quickly and easily without delays on arrival. Basically a win win!

I travelled to Newark, New Jersey from Manchester, UK via Dublin this month (Nov 2017) with Aer Lingus and it was smooth sailing or should I saw flying, the whole way. I was then heading onward to Philadelphia, so it was refreshing to get straight off the plane and to the train station, potentially catch an earlier train than I would have if i’d had to queue in customs.

On arrival in Dublin there are loads of staff on hand to direct and advise all passengers who are travelling onward to the US, the Pre-Clearance area is easily signposted with a small US flag, making it hard to get lost. Before going through customs though, you end up in the main departure lounge, so unless you immediately need to head to your next flight, stick around here for a while. There are coffee shops, restaurants, bars, shops and a currency counter, although there are a few places to eat once you pass the pre-clearance area, they are limited. If you are vegetarian there are quite a few options, but the only place I found accommodating vegans was coffee express which had a falafel wrap, all coffee shops did seem to offer soy milk though.

I chatted to a member of staff who said at times the Pre-Clearance area can get busy, so don’t leave it too long to go through, but there were also announcements advising when passengers should clear the customs area for each US flight. When I heard an announcement for a different American flight, I left it 20 minutes and decided to take my chances and go through.

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First there is small x-ray security area to pass through with your bags, there was no queue! So I quickly moved on to stage 2, which was the customs machine. Here you answer the questions that are on the white arrival form, it is push button answers so it’s much easier, then you scan your own passport and fingers, again no queue. A clearance form was printed off and it was on to final stage 3, speaking to an official. Third time lucky, there was no queue again, and after a friendly chat, my passport was stamped and I was welcomed to ‘America’, the whole process maybe took a little over 5 minutes.

There is a separate departure lounge for all those who have passed clearance and are travelling on to the US, which like I mentioned has some facilities, a small bar, small restaurant, coffee kiosk, charging points, toilets and free but temperamental wifi, but its not as extensive as the main departure lounge, so just be aware. Once I landed in New Jersey, we exited as though we were on a domestic flight, straight out into arrivals, I had carry on luggage only, so headed straight to the Air-train onward to the main railway station.

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I would definitely consider travelling via Ireland (Dublin or Shannon) again, especially if I had a considerable amount of travelling to do once I had landed. It just means you can get a stress free head start on your onward journey and don’t need to factor in for an unknown wait at customs. In fact, I’m already looking at flights to Boston for next Autumn maybe . . . .

Philadelphia- City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection

State No 6

I’m just back from a trip to Philadelphia, but as it was over 10 years since my last visit to this historic, vibrant East coast city, I was excited to return and explore more parts of the city I never managed too last time. I was there attending a workshop, but made sure I put aside time to visit some sights aswell.

Arrivals. You can fly direct from London, Manchester or Dublin, which takes around 8hrs. If you go via Dublin you get to experience Pre Clearance before you board the plane, which as I mentioned in my previous post is a revelation! I didn’t fly direct to Philadelphia this time, I went from Manchester (via Dublin) to Newark in New Jersey. There are lots of options to get yourself straight to downtown Philadelphia from other East Coast destinations, so don’t be put off if flights are super expensive direct to Philly as they were for me. If you fly straight into Philadelphia and are not hiring a car (if you plan to stay solely in and around the city you wont need one) then get the inexpensive, handy SEPTA, straight from the airport to downtown, the most central stations  to get off at will be 30th, Suburban or Jefferson.

If flying in from Newark your best two options are; get the Air Train to Newark Airport Train Station, then either board the Amtrak straight to 30th Street Philadelphia which is direct but can be expensive, or get the NJ Transit train to Trenton, then change to the SEPTA straight to downtown Philadelphia. If you fly into New York, you can get the train or Bus from Penn Station, while Washington DC also has direct buses (taking around 4 hours) and trains from its gorgeous Union Station direct to downtown Philadelphia.

Getting Around. A lot of sights are easy to walk too, especially if you group a few of them in the same neighbourhood together during your visit, the SEPTA (buses, trolleys and subway) runs all over the city and is super easy to use, while taxi’s, Uber and Lyft are also available everywhere.

History Bit. The city was founded by an English entrepreneur and Quaker called William Penn in the late 1800’s after he was gifted some land from King Charles II. Prior to this, the area of land that eventually became the capital of Pennsylvania was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Lenape. There is so much history here in this city, whether you want to learn more about slavery, the declaration of independence or even its religious past, it is all richly reflected here in a lot of the popular sights visited today.

What to see. Independence National Park and of course the star of the park, probably the most famous broken bell in the world, is the Liberty Bell. There is a lot to see in this area, all the sights are located close to 5th and Independence Mall which is a SEPTA stop handily enough. There is the huge Independence Visitor’s Centre which is the perfect place to start your historic day trip, open from 8.30 daily and free, there is a shop, cafe, theatre as well as exhibitions which illustrate and inform all visitors on the importance this city has had on the rest of the country. Across the street is the Liberty Bell centre, which is also free and open from 9am, its first come first served, so time your visit well to avoid the queues. If its busy and you can’t face waiting for a B’elfie (Bell Selfie?) then walk towards the Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell centre and take a look back and to your right, you can see the Bell through the glass wall. Visiting the Independence Hall is also free, but you need to book onto one of the tours in advance, there are also free gardens and outdoor exhibits all around this area making it a must do whether you have a passing or keen interest in the history of the USA.

One block north of the Independence visitor centre is the National Constitution Centre this is open daily, costing just under $15 per adult for a ticket. This includes access to the Signers Hall, lots of museum exhibits, an interactive We The People show and a theatre production which runs every 30 minutes depicting the history of the signing of the constitution, fascinating stuff!

This area is part of the oldest neighbourhood of Philadelphia, so just wander around and you will constantly find places of interest and historical significance, the oldest street is here Elfreth’s Alley in fact it is known as the oldest residential street in the US. Christ Church Burial Grounds is located close by, where you can take a fascinating leafy green walk through the churchyard where Benjamin Franklin was buried amongst other figures important to US history. This church ground is situated on Arch St and Independence Mall, and if you continue East down Arch, close by is the Betsy Ross House which is where the first US flag was made by Betsy herself, see there is history around every corner.

A short walk west along Arch St you pass the African American Museum, I couldn’t get to visit this time due to the workshop I was attending, but I definitely want to schedule in time to go next visit. Keep walking along this street and next up is the Chinatown Friendship Gate signally the start of Chinatown, like any Chinatown across the world there is a great colourful vibe, tonnes of shops, restaurants, cafes and a monthly Night Market. I headed away from Chinatown though this visit to Arch and 12th St and what may become my most favourite farmers market that I have ever visited, the loud, vibrant, assault on all the senses that is the Reading Terminal Market.
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Over 100 years old and open from 8am-6pm daily, you must plan a visit to explore the 80+ stalls of food, drink and crafts. Definitely give the place a once over before deciding where you sit and eat and what to buy, there are Amish stalls serving home made cheeses, butchers and fishmongers selling their fresh produce as well as places to buy kitchen supplies and flowers as well as the many restaurants. Stay for something to eat for sure, whether its a vegan corn dog at Fox and Son, a Philly Cheesesteak at Carmens or comfort food at the Dutch Eating Place you can easily spend an hour here, I even spotted peanut butter chocolate bacon for sale, but gave that a miss!

The architecture in Philadelphia is amazing, with a range of styles both old and new, from the art deco railway stations of Suburban and 30th St to the 60 storey Comcast Tower (due for completion in 2018) and its even higher neighbour One Liberty Place, it can make for a dizzying but fascinating wander. If you head West from Reading Terminal Market towards the skyscrapers of downtown, dominating the skyline is the Masonic Temple. Taking 5 years to construct and then another 15 years to finish the interior, you cannot fail to miss this beautiful elaborate granite building, taking up a whole block of its own. Tours are available but limited and cost $15.

Right opposite the Masonic Temple is the largest municiple building in the US City Hall, its another huge impressive building, that proudly stands in the heart of the city and makes a good point of reference when exploring this part of town. Although it never became the tallest building in the world as it had been hoped, it did hold the record for tallest building in Philadelphia up until the 80’s. If you have a head for heights ascend up the tower for what I can imagine are insane panoramic views of the city, tower tours finish at around 4pm though, so dont leave it late, I couldnt fit it in this time with it being a work trip, so have pencilled it in for next time.

IMG_2673 The great city hall peaking out at the end of Broad Street

The next big attraction on most peoples itineraries when visiting Philadelphia will probably be the Museum of Art and even if you arent an art lover and dont want to pay the $20 entrance fee, still head over so you can run up the famous Rocky Steps and get a photo by the statue. You can get there by bus or on the metro to 30th St station and from there its a 20 min walk along the Schuylkill River, but if you fancy walking from downtown, head down the gorgeous tree and flag lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Even if you dont visit inside the art museum, head round to the back of the building and visit the sculpture and landscaped gardens with gorgeous views along the Schuylkill River, I only found them after a tip from my Lyft driver, who I gave 5 stars too of course!

There are so many more museums that are worthy of visiting, but as I was over for a work trip, I just couldnt squeeze as much in as I would have liked.  On my hit list for next time is the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum, Please Touch Museum, The National Museum of American Jewish History and The Eastern State Penitentiary as well as the African American Museum that I mentioned earlier.

There is so much outdoor green space in Philadelphia, lots of parks, squares and river walks, which makes for a nice contrast when you have got your fill on museums and other indoor sights. Fairmont Park is the big one, with over 9,000 acres to explore, but there is also Franklin Sq, Love Park, Washington Square and the Schuylkill River Trail to name only a few.

Food and Drink – Philadelpahia does great coffee, with some unique independent coffee shops that also side hustle as clothing shops, creative spaces and music venues. Some gems I visited during my latest stay included Rival Bros and United by Blue and next time I really want to visit Grindcore Coffee which is a vegan coffeeshop.

Speaking of vegan food, I visited Hip City Veg twice during my stay, its a 100% plant based diner that serves the most delicious meat-free food including chick’n fajitas and tempeh burgers that even the most hardened carnivore would love and the green drink below is the insanely amazing kale lemonade.

 

Hot Tips –

  • A single fair on the Septa costs $2.50 or a 1 day convenience pass (max 8 rides) is $9
  • On the first Friday evening of each month there is a Art Walk in the Old City District.
  • Known as one of the best beer cities in America, there are more than 60 brewing companies in the Philadelphia region alone with many local companies organising brew pub tours.

Other sights

  • Six Flags Theme Park is only around 90 mins away on the train (change at Trenton)
  • Jump on the Septa to Wissahicken and hike the Valley Park Trail and then eat and drink along Main Street afterwards in the Manayunk district. Manayunk is Native American for ‘Where we go to drink’ by the way!
  • Shop, eat and drink along South Street in the heart of the city.

Always be polite – If you buy a $10 cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market then a tip would be around $1.50.

Coffee, Kombucha and Dairy Free Ice Cream – LA Style

A slight change for this post, writing up my last visit to LA I was conscious it could have turned into a War and Peace type epic if I had included all the places I have enjoyed eating and drinking over the years here as well. So this post is just that, a collection of some of the spots that I have enjoyed visiting in Los Angeles for breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee and late night drinks. Cheers!

Mornings – I will start with breakfast and coffee as any good day should start and at the famous and original Los Angeles Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax. Originally a large ranch in the late 1800’s, it wasn’t until the 1930’s when the idea of starting a small village for farmers to sell their wares came to fruition and the Farmers Market was born. Open from 9am-9pm (different on weekends) you could easily visit for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but I think its a nice way start to the day before the tour buses arrive. As well as food stalls there are also vendors selling clothes, candles, flowers and even a dog bakery. With over 30 different places to buy fresh food, coffee and alcohol, its worth doing a full tour of the place before deciding where to eat, last time I had French toast and my friend had an Armenian breakfast.

 

Marmalade Cafe is a small chain with about 7 locations in the LA area, open from 9am till late they serve breakfast lunch and dinner, with a decent range of coffee, teas and champagne cocktails. There is one squeezed in between the Farmers Market and the gorgeously designed Grove Shopping Mall should you fancy a sit down between shopping. The Grove is definitely worth a visit if you are close by, as well a great mix of shops and a cinema, there is a real diverse spread of restaurants and bars, although the shops don’t open till around 10am, some of the cafes and restaurants open up at 9am for breakfast and are open till 11pm for late night food and drinks. I haven’t tried Umami Burger yet, but it’s on my list for next time.

Another place with 2 locations in LA that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner is Swingers. I find a lot of breakfast places in the US are really heavy on eggs, but as I don’t eat them this place was perfect, as they had a great selection of egg free vegetarian and vegan options and the coffee was pretty good too.

 Swingers on Beverly Blvd.

The International House of Pancakes or IHOP is maybe not a place you would associate with health conscious LA, although it is a chain that originated in California. Even though I have been visiting the USA for over 20 years, I hadn’t visited any IHOP’s until 2015 when I visited the one on Sunset Blvd. As well as burgers, sandwiches and soups, they serve an extensive mouthwatering list of pancakes, waffles and French toast, if you’re jetlagged, hungover and hungry (I was all three) it definitely ticks all the boxes as a cheeky one off treat.


Heading towards the coast, if you are in and around Santa Monica, you can’t go wrong exploring the length of Third Street Promenade which is full of cafes, coffee shops and restaurants and if you still can’t find something you like, head to the food court at Santa Monica Place grab a protein bowl or breakfast wrap with a smoothie from the Fresh Healthy Cafe and sit outside in the sun.

You are spoilt for choice for great breakfast and coffee places in Venice Beach, and there are many websites out there giving you detailed instructions for finding that perfect latte or cold brew. On my recent visit I enjoyed an almond cappuccino at Espresso Yo Self just by venice boardwalk and an interesting green tea latte and delicious pastry from Cafe Cielo. One final breakfast recommendation is the cafe/restaurant Rose, housed in a gorgeous space with both indoor and outdoor seating, its own bakery, a fresh Californian menu, a coffee bar and cocktail area, I’m definitely returning for dinner next time.

    

Afternoons. Many of the places I have mentioned for breakfast are suitable for lunches too, but one particular gem I found last month was Lemonade. Focussing on fresh Californian seasonal ingredients, you create your own mixtures of salads, and there is a great choice of meat, vegetarian and vegan options and not surprisingly, delicious thirst quenching lemonades.  We visited the one in West Hollywood, but more and more are popping up around LA, including one in Venice and one in Santa Monica, I remember the kale and tangerine salad being majorly tasty.


If you’re heading up towards Warner Studios for a tour, it will be hard to miss Bobs Big Burger the quintessential 1950’s coffee shop/diner. We stopped here for lunch before heading to the taping of a show one year, I ate meat a lot more back then, so had the big boy burger, but nowadays the menu is more vegetarian friendly I’m pleased to report.

This last visit to LA, we made a wonderful discovery of the organic natural supermarket Erewhon, I could have easily spent a good hour wandering the aisles of the stores of which there are 3, one on Beverly Blvd, one in Venice and one up in Calabases. Full of freshly made salads, sushi and sandwiches to go, a juice and coffee bar, fridges filled with the latest in kombucha and activated charcoal lemonade (yes I tried one!) protein bars and even shots of clay (had one of those too). We visited a few times last month to stock up on cold drinks and made picnics to take to the beach and the hills.

  

My last lunch recommendation is basically anywhere with outdoor seating that doesn’t completely break the bank in Bel Air or Beverly Hills, the people watching will be amazing. My friend and I still talk about our lunch that we had a Momed two years later where we sat right by the pavement, with paparazzi and celebs walk past and overhearing film deals taking place. The food was pretty good too, but it was all about our location and the stories we came away with.

 

Dairy free – Ice Cream. As I don’t tolerate dairy very well, enjoying ice cream is few and far between nowadays when travelling, but dairy free ice cream is pretty easy to come by in LA, so here are two epic recommendations.

Little Damage Located in downtown, we took a trip here specifically to try the ice cream which is made daily with local ingredients. They always have one vegan flavour and are served in the most delicious chewy black charcoal cone. Well worth a visit!
  Little Damage
Kippys Ice Cream Is a 100% none dairy ice cream parlour in Venice Beach, all ice creams are made with 5 organic ingredients or less, and come with a range of toppings such as bee pollen, cacao nibs or goji berries. Open till 11pm, it made a great post taco tre  Kippys None Dairy Ice Cream Parlour

Evenings. I always enjoy a night out on Sunset Blvd, so many bars, cafes, hotels and restaurants, I think the best approach is see where the winds takes you, thats always how we end up finding somewhere. If there is such a thing as an iconic burger bar, then In-n-out must qualify, its good to remember that they stay open till 1am on Sunset, which was around the time when we visited whilst waiting for our uber at then end of a boozy night out. During another visit to the strip, we found ourselves in the Pink Taco, great music and friendly vibe with a menu chocked full of tacos, enchiladas, and a daily happy hour featuring frozen margaritas! Last month, my friend and I just fancied some beers and a few small plates and ended up in The Den on Sunset the food was to die for, especially the cauliflower wings and with a happy hour and fire pit in the outdoor courtyard, it ticked all the boxes.

 Spicy Cauliflower wings on Sunset.

If you fancy a meal out along Hollywood Blvd, then you can’t go wrong creating your own burger at 25 degrees, situated inside the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, I visited it about 10 years ago and I’m pleased to see its still going strong, looking at the updated menu, I may need to return when I’m next over for sure.

Over in Santa Monica I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find somewhere nice to eat along Third Street Promenade or along Ocean Ave. There are many places covering all budgets, from small Italian cafes, English pubs, Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean and fresh local American restaurants. If you fancy viewing it from above, take the lift up to the Cheesecake Factory in Santa Monica place and get a seat on the terrace, as well as ginormous cheesecakes, they serve cocktails and small plates, I’d recommend the Korean fried cauliflower with a glass of prosecco!

Down the shoreline in Venice you have a whole range of options along the boardwalk, some touristy and loud, but not all and despite the beach front location, they aren’t all overpriced either, so it’s worth a wander. Last time we chose Venice Beach Bar and sat upstairs overlooking the beach, watching the glorious sunset, listening to the drum circle, while drinking cold beers and sharing a platter of kale and sweet potato tacos.

Late Night. If you fancy visiting the newest and hippest bars in town, then don’t use this blog as a reference lol, use Time Out LA instead, I’m just all about casual, friendly inexpensive places that serve local beers and play decent music. The Rainbow Bar and Grill has become a bit of a tradition when on a night out on the Sunset Strip even though I’m not particularly into rock music, I’m more of an indie girl (Women? Now I’m 42).  There’s no denying its historic past, a who’s who of rock and movie stars have drunk here since the early 70’s some pretty much living here, and you can’t help but feel the past tales of debauchary seeping from the walls. You can sit outside by the iconic strip, or head inside and pick a booth and since Lemmy past away, there is now a dedicated Lemmy Lounge with a statue of the great man himself, which is fast before a tourist spot in its own right, I can’t wait to return again, a brilliant night out is always guaranteed.

  
Saddle Ranch Chop House describes itself as a ‘destination restaurant’ which I think means as well as serving food and drink, due to its loud music, outdoor fire pits, big screen tv’s, huge bar and oh yeah a mechanical bull which you can ride, diners end up having a great night out in and of itself here. I haven’t eaten here or ridden the bull (honest!) but have grabbed a booth with the idea of staying for one drink and ended up staying a lot longer. One last place we found last time on the Strip was a restaurant/bar called The Everleigh, we saw a gorgeous outdoor courtyard all lit up, looking a little fancier than the places we usually visit, but it still gave off a welcoming vibe, so we ventured in and spent a good hour putting the world to rights with the friendly bartender, whilst sampling the Rose wine at the bar.

Although I have stayed in downtown LA on previous trips, I haven’t really many recommendations for bars in this area, as I think we tended to gravitate towards Hollywood and the coast. One place we did visit though, was the Standard Rooftop, which had entered my radar after I had stayed at the Standard on Sunset. Its Downtown relative is famous for its bar not surprisingly on the roof of the hotel, with insane views across the downtown skyline, a pool, waterbed pods, a dance floor and fireplace. Definitely a place to dress up for, and be prepared to spend some time and money queuing with the beautiful people at the bar, but it was fun for a one off.

  Waterpods and Milkshakes.

A great way to finish the night is to head to the iconic Mels Drive-in, there are 7 locations around the city, but the one on Sunset is open 24/7. Of course you can go for breakfast or lunch, and it’s great during the day, but I love the atmosphere in the early hours, when everyone is slightly drunk, ordering sliders and milkshakes whilst deciding whether to call an uber home or to carry on to another bar.

Finally, if British pubs are more your thing, there are a few gems in LA. I wouldn’t normally visit anything remotely modelling themselves as a British pub when abroad, but these three – The Cat and the FiddleThe Pig & Whistle and Ye Olde Kings Head have real character with unique back stories and have firmly planted themselves in the history books of this city.

Before you go – Tipping is an essential but potentially confusing component for anyone visiting the US. I believe it’s acceptable to pay $1-2 in a bar for wine or beer, increasing if you’ve ordered a fancy cocktail that’s taken time to prepare. In a cafe or restaurant it’s between 15-20% of the bill, so if you spent $20 you would tip an extra $3-4.

My love affair with LA

State No 5

My favourite place on the globe is Los Angeles, my first ever visit was around 15 years ago, and I have just landed back from my 5th trip last month, so its now officially my most visited city outside of the UK. I know a lot of people who pass through, maybe having a day or two as part of a layover on the way to Hawaii or New Zealand and hate it, the noise, the traffic, the fact that actual downtown Hollywood isn’t glamourous at all, but I absolutely adore it and its much more complex and fascinating than just a few busy tourist streets with stars on the pavement and a sign up in the hills. 

There must be a million blogs out there featuring this the City of Angels, and with the actual county of Los Angeles covering 88 cities, there is no way that I could ever begin to cover in a single blog post a comprehensive list of what to see and do when visiting this part of Southern California. So I am just going to write up my favourite places to visit, with my must do list already growing, and my 6th visit already mapped out in my head. But with beaches, hills, museums and art galleries, flea and farmers markets, high end boutiques and dive bars and juice bars and nature trails and biking trails the list goes on and on, I cant believe anyone could not find something to love. 

History Bit.  Originally this part of California was inhabited by 4 coastal groups of Native Americans, the Tongva, the Tataviam, the Chumash and the Ajachemem, then in the late 1700’s the history books report that Mexican and Spanish missionaries arrived and started to set up the first community that is now close to Olvera Street in Downtown LA. Of course Los Angeles is much more than its most famous area, Hollywood, but it is a huge reason for its fame and the draw for people of all walks of life. The movie industry started to move here in the early 1900’s due to its great climate and close access to all kinds of perfect movie settings such as the desert, the hills, rivers, beaches as well as the urban areas and for me that is the big reason I keep returning, the diversity in both the people and the landscape. 

   
Arrivals. I have flown direct to the main airport LAX a couple of times and if you’re flying in from the UK, you have a number of airlines from both London and Manchester taking around 10 hours. If you don’t mind changing along the way, you will be able to fly from any other airport in the U.K. for example you could go Cardiff via Amsterdam or Liverpool via Dublin. I have also driven in from San Francisco along the famous coastal route 1, this can take around 8 hrs none stop, but the route is so beautiful, so we took a couple of days to enjoy it. Amtrak trains also travel in from across the country, finishing up at Union Station as do the greyhound buses, and I once travelled in from Yosemite, via train and bus. 

The public transport is still being developed in many parts of LA and due to heavy traffic, taking the bus can be a real adventure, but it is doable, the metro covers an extensive area of LA, but not to a lot of the tourist areas as yet. If you are on a budget, as I always am, an inexpensive way of getting to your accommodation on arrival from LAX is by Fly Away bus which costs $8 to Hollywood or you could order one of the shared shuttle buses such as Prime Time or Super Shuttle for around $15-20 depending on where you want to go. Driving is often said to be an essential when being in LA, but with taxis, Lyft’s and Uber’s it’s becoming easier to get around without having to hire a car if you’re only here for a short holiday, and not planning to go out of the city.

Sights. Hollywood is no doubt on most tourists hit lists when visiting for the first time, and it’s definitely a fun experience. The main sights are based around the famous Hollywood Boulevard and it’s here where you can find your favourite star on the walk of fame, visit the famous TCL Chinese Theatre where many film premiers take place, there is the Disney owned El Capitan Theatre across the street and the Dolby theatre where the Oscars are held. There are a whole bunch of museums situated here as well, including the Wax Museum, Madame Tussauds, the Hollywood Museum, Guinness Book of Records Museum and a Ripleys Believe it or Not. The Hollywood and Highland shopping mall is located, not surprisingly on the corner of Hollywood Blvd and N Highland Avenue, where you can shop, catch a movie and grab a bite to eat, and look out for a view of the Hollywood sign from up top. It’s also here on Hollywood Blvd where you can join one of the many stars homes tours and grab a photo with one of the  many characters dressed up as famous faces patrolling the pavements! 

  

Make sure you get yourself up to the Hollywood Hills too, which is actually part of the Santa Monica mountains, the views are iconic, and you can either grab a map and drive up yourself, one of the many tour buses will always include it as part of their itinerary, or you can take the Dash Observatory Bus (from Sunset and Vermont) up to Griffith Park. I’ve done all three over the years, how you decide to do it depends on your time and budget. You cannot drive straight up to the actual Hollywood Sign, but there are many vantage points for that perfect photo op, depending on how you are travelling up there, a tour bus will take you to a popular photo spot, but a quick internet search will throw up lots of self drive suggestions. 

 

Griffith Park is a great day out and perfect for when you want to get out into nature, pack a picnic and leave the traffic and city behind. The views are amazing looking down across the skyline and you are spoiled for choice for things to do, there are lots of hiking trails, a museum, a zoo,  mini railroad, caves, and of course the world famous Griffith Observatory. The observatory was closed for renovation during my first 3 trips to LA, but I finally visitied last month (Oct 2017) and it was worth the wait. The views up here for one are mesmerising, hazy downtown skyscrapers and dusty mountains, rare butterflies, birds and maybe even the odd coyote, but a visit to the observatory itself is full of a different discovery. Entry is free and you get 3 levels of space, and astronomy to explore, including the jaw droppingly exciting Tesla Coil which had multiple live demonstrations daily. The only time you need to pay is if you fancy watching one of the shows in the dome shaped planetarium, between $3-7 a ticket it’s well worth it, we experienced the Water is Life show and there are repeated showings throughout the day. As the observatory is open till late for night time viewings and monthly star parties, it doesn’t open until 12.00 daily, so we took a picnic and hiked one of the trails first before it got too hot, and then headed inside, it was a perfect day out.

 

Downtown LA This is the central business area of LA and the place responsible for that famous cluster of skyscrapers seen so often on TV and in films. It’s definitely rough around the edges, and there are certain areas I wouldn’t recommend walking around, but stick to the main streets and use taxis in the evening and you should be fine. There are some great reasons as to why it would be worth a visit to this part of town in the daytime though and some superb bars and restaurants too that would make for an unforgettable night out. My first ever visit to LA was to catch up with a Mexican friend, and he took me to Olvera Street  and the El Pueblo Historical Monument which is where the first Mexican settlers set up encampment, so it’s basically the birthplace of Los Angeles. Olvera street is an amazing tree lined Mexican Marketplace that hits all the senses, here you can buy all kinds of crafts, clothes and food, as well as the host of many festivals, you can take a free walking tour and visit some of the oldest buildings in the city. History, tacos and music, something for everyone! 

Union Station deserves a look in if you’re in the area, built in 1939 it’s the largest passenger terminal in Western US, a combination of Spanish Colonial and Art Deco the interior is outstanding. Even if you aren’t travelling on to somewhere else, it’s across from Olvera Street and has a couple of bars and a restaurant inside, so it could easily fit into someone’s downtown itinerary. 

  

Downtown is also where you can find Little Tokyo and Chinatown both fun neighbourhoods for great food, temples, museums and shops, I once stayed in Little Tokyo for a few days, before relocating to the beach. For the few days we were there, we would would grab breakfast or lunch at some cute little Japanese place and shop or visit temples before heading off to see more of the well known sites. My final recommendation for downtown is a great bookshop if losing yourself in books and comfy chairs is your idea of heaven, located on South Spring St is The Last Book Store a huge 2 floor loft space full of books of every description and is laid out like a living breathing art gallery of books, magical!

    

Beverly Hills. A city to the west of Hollywood with one of the most famous postcodes in the world 90210, it’s an experience to drive through, people watch and window shop for sure. You will see lots of familiar sights from tv, music and film, ultra expensive blacked out cars, paparazzi and shops that you need an appointment or A list status to enter. All the LA tour buses will drive you down Rodeo Drive and the surrounding area, past restaurants like The Ivy or the Beverly Hills Hotel, all places that are far too expensive for us mortals to shop, sleep or dine in, but exciting to see nonetheless. Close by are places such as The Grove, the Beverly Centre and my favourite The Farmers Market which are all far more accessible the average visitor, so I’d recommend people watching, walking a couple of blocks past all the fancy stores, but then head to shop and eat in one of the neighbouring malls instead, for a more thrifty way of experiencing Beverly Hills.

  

Every visit I have made to LA, I have never stayed in the same place for the entire trip, I spend time staying in the heart of Hollywood and then head across to the coast. This is partly because I usually never hire a car, so it saves on travelling (it can take 30-40+ minutes to get across town on a good day and you are looking at an hour+ on public transport) but I also like to have a few days exploring the shops, bars, museums in and around Hollywood, and then head to the coast as its a completely different vibe, and mindset.

Santa Monica is a city in itself, situated on the Pacific coastline, its a very walkable and bike friendly place, full of juice bars, shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, spas, yoga studios, theatres and coffee shops. With palm trees spanning the famous Ocean Drive that you will have seen thousands of times before in the movies and of course the celebrated Santa Monica Pier, it feels a world away from the neon filled, billboard lined busy streets of West Hollywood. As well as exploring the famous Pier which has a ferris wheel, aquarium, restaurants, arcades and shops, spend time along Third Street Promenade where you will find more affordable shopping and restaurants than in Beverly Hills for sure and even a British Pub. Bike lanes and rental shops are everywhere, and you can easily travel up and down the coast line on designated bike lanes, south to Venice Beach or north towards Malibu, maybe try some surfing or paddleboard lessons, or if you are me just chill on the beach with a smoothie.

   

Venice Beach. It’s only a 30 minute walk from Santa Monica or a 10 minute car journey, but definately strap in for a completely different scene down here.  It’s the quirkier, eclectic, bohemian neighbour and always worth a visit, the world famous boardwalk is full of unique people, stalls and events. Keep an eye out for The Boardwalk Busker, along with the man who has a huge albino snake wrapped around his neck, mixed in with local musicians and artists showcasing their talents. The beach front is full of restaurants and bars, and its an experience to just sit down and witness all the craziness from behind the safety of a cold beer and some tacos. Make sure to walk as far down as Muscle Beach, to witness the bare chested weighlifters pumping iron in the sun, then head back a few blocks past the famous Jim Morrison mural to the quietly scenic canal area. Take time to wander the entire length of Abbot Kinney and explore Rose Avenue and Main St, which are full of coffee shops, boutique stores, and lots of original and unconventional restaurants and bars.

 


Others sights
– So much more to recommend, head up to Malibu for surfers, more beaches and great restaurants, take in the art and amazing views from the Getty, take a bar crawl at night along Sunset Strip and visit the incredible Universal Studios theme park afterwards watching a film and enjoying a meal at the Universal City Walk and maybe even book a studio tour at Warner Brothers the list goes on. . . . 

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

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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

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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.