Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and Heather (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Never a dull moment in Tennessee…

We left North Carolina last Friday and drove into Tennessee. We resisted the Great Smoky Mountains and Dollywood (because we just can’t do everything) and instead ploughed on down the main highway (for a change). The weather turned really warm and sunny and we had an overnight stop in a little place called Cookeville (where we had our first dip of the trip in an outdoor pool – fantastic) and then the next day we drove on to Nashville via a smaller road (the 70). The 70 went through places with names like Carthage and Lebanon and at some points it seemed to show us so many churches that I wondered if this was the actual Bible Belt you hear so much about…

Anyway, we got to Nashville on the Saturday and went straight to the downtown area. We realised straight away that it was one of those weird American downtowns that have very little in them in some ways – a few big office buildings, a clearly defined tourist area, the odd big entertainment and/or sports venue but besides that quite a lot of emptiness (so different to most British cities). It was scorching hot (luckily we’d got h a cowboy hat for shade the day before) but we did our best to see the tourist sites (largely in this case the shops and sights in the Broadway area – a lot of fun, a lot of record shops, a whole lotta cowboy boots…). We looked at the Country Music Hall of Fame but didn’t go in because really it would have been wasted on us – we like the odd song but we’re not mega country fans or anything. Instead we hit one of the only bars on Broadway that would let under 21s in and had a beer/water and heard some music. It wasn’t bad at all - very friendly, very easy-going.

We stayed out in the area near the (new) Grand Ole Opry (it’s a few miles from downtown) and so the next morning, Easter Day, we went to the Opry and did the backstage tour first thing on (it was nice and quiet – we assume everyone else was in church). The tour was really interesting (h loves theatres and everything to do with them) and maybe especially so because the building had been badly flooded last year (along with much else in the city) and there were lots of stories related to that. The whole Opry area is… large…in fact a bit like Disneyland for Country Music (shops, hotels, carparks… the hotel is even called Opryland) and I’m sure it’s fun if that kind of thing floats your cowboy boat. For us, a few hours one quiet Easter morning was plenty though so we got back in the car and headed west for Memphis. As we left there was a tornado warning (for just east of Nashville) up on the highway sign. Never seen one of those before… Here are the first set of Tennessee photos (including Nashville):


We drove pretty much straight to Memphis after Nashville – we had booked three nights in the western Tennessee city because there was so much we wanted to see there and we wanted to get on with it all. The cheapest way to do this was to stay in one of the Graceland hotels so we stayed in the Days Inn Graceland (which has a guitar-shaped pool and endless Elvis memorabilia all over the place) and photos of all that are in with our Graceland shots in the final slideshow further down. The first selection of Memphis shots however includes mainly what we saw downtown in the city (again Graceland is almost on the edge of the city – 8 miles or so from the centre). The first set includes pictures of:

The National Civil Rights Museum (the outside of it at least – you can’t take photos inside). It is based in and around the Lorraine motel where Martin Luther King was shot and it is all very powerful and informative (some stuff we’d heard of already but also there was much that was new to us – we’d never heard of James Meredith and the whole University of Mississippi business before, for example). There was another tornado warning while we were there too so all visitors had to go and sit in the theatre for the best part of an hour… Luckily they gave us a really good film to watch (‘Witness’ about the Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles who was there with King when he died).

The downtown area – which is obviously in the middle of a serious ‘get people to come into Memphis’ regeneration effort. It’s working too – we saw bustling, buzzing crowds going into a basketball game, a shiny new baseball stadium open for business, the whole Beale Street music/bars area (similar to Nashville’s Broadway – touristy but still good music and lively), a trolley car system, lots of music festival information and parks and developments. The city still has work to do of course (which city doesn’t?) but it is doing everything it can to make Memphis a healthy, vibrant place. We liked it very much.

Some other tourists mentioned that one of the downtown hotels had a parade of ducks every afternoon so we took h along to see the Peabody ducks waddle down their red carpet at 5pm one day. She loved it of course – apparently it’s a long-running tradition…

The Mississippi river – we got our first glance of this big ol’river in Memphis. With all the rain that was coming down at night (there were huge storms every night we were there) a trip on the river didn’t seem too attractive so we gave that a miss this time. As it were.

Music museums – as well as Elvis, Memphis has heaps of music-related stuff to see and hear. We went to the Stax museum (just outside downtown and well worth the trip if you like soul music or even just local history). It’s a great development with a music academy building next door (all pretty new and all part of the great regeneration work that’s going on). We also called in at Sun Studio and Mark did the tour (very interesting he reports – the birth of rock ‘n’roll, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) whilst h and I sat in the very friendly café and chatted with the staff. We had one more meal in Beale Street (at BB King’s place – Blind Mississippi Morris performing as we ate) and then left downtown. As we left there was another tornado alarm going off… if you want video evidence (with sound) you can go here:
Memphis photos are here:


Graceland photos and Days Inn Graceland photos are here (it’s Elvis Presley central of course… but it’s all still really enjoyable even if you’re only a mild Elvis fan… he had some amazing stuff!):


And then yesterday we left Tennessee (on Highway 61 no less…) and made our way into Mississippi and the whole world of Delta Blues. And the storms continued too… more of that next time.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia... and North Carolina...

Last time we checked in we had just left Washington D.C. and were worn out by capital city activities. Since then we have been in very different country - real country - with the mountains all around and the wind in our hair (an awful lot of wind in some cases - see North Carolina, further down...).

It started on Monday morning when we woke up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It is Civil War country (you can't move round the place without falling over a battlefield... or at the very least a battlefield restaurant or gift shop...) and we went into the town (or city... I suppose it's a city) and walked around. It's a pretty little place with a big old river and bonny high street and it was warm (really warm) so we even joined the locals and other visitors and ate our lunch outside.

Then we drove across country (via places like Wilderness and Orange – Civil War battlefields aplenty) to Charlottesville, VA. This little city (anything bigger than a teacup seems to be a city here) is even prettier than Fredericksburg (sorry F-burg) but we had to get further south by nightfall so all we had time for there was a drink-break in one of the outdoor cafés, a wander round the centre, a few photos. Speaking of photos – here are the ones of that section of our Virginia days:

Virginia Towns

After Charlottesville we moved slightly west and joined the Blue Ridge Parkway – a lovely road that takes you right up high into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was evening by the time we got there which meant great views and a sunset… but it also meant we got to the hotel too late for anything other than a sandwich (never mind – could do with missing a few more meals…). Photos in this slideshow are of that drive south, the views from the place we stayed the next morning (Peaks of Otter) plus some of the views from the Parkway south of Roanoke (a day later) as we made our way towards North Carolina, stopping at a place called Meadows of Dan for a sandwich and a nosey about. There’s an alpaca farm up in the Blue Ridge Mountains too you know – pictures included. Who doesn't love an alpaca?

Virginia Blue Ridge Parkway

And so into North Carolina. There was a detour on the Parkway for roadworks so we went through the country alongside for a little while. It seems to be the Xmas tree farm capital of the world down there! Plus the giant crucifixes on the hill started appearing about then (is that connected?). We headed for a place called Blowing Rock, a friendly little hotel, a ‘British pub’ for dinner (well, you have to sometimes…) and then the next morning went to see the Blowing Rock itself (read about it here – well worth a visit just don’t spend time giving yourself a fancy hairdo first) and then drove south (stopping at Old Fort for lunch). Pictures of this section of our North Carolina days here:

North Carolina, Blue Ridge Parkway

Lastly this time, we read in the guide books that Asheville, NC was a great place to visit so we decided to call in there on our way out of the state and stay the night. And how right the books were! Asheville is a gorgeous little city… all beautiful art deco buildings and groovy shops and bars and interesting characters on every corner (many of them walking dogs, some of them playing music). We met a famous dog and her owner (see said dog on TV here), ate ice-cream in an old Woolworths-turned-arts centre, took a 'comedy' bus tour (hence some of the unusual photos), looked at the city from the rooftop bar of one its most distinctive buildings (the Flatiron – like in New York… only without all the crowds and traffic). Photos of this part of the trip are below:

Asheville, North Carolina

And now we're in Tennessee... but more on that later...

Monday, 18 April 2011

Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C.

This will be a post of few words and many pictures... no time to write much and the place we're staying tonight has no phone, no TV and possibly no wi-fi...

So - the first set of photos is all from last Friday (15th April). First you can see the place we stayed in Delaware when we got off the Cape May-Lewes ferry - a little resort called Dewey Beach (just south of Lewes and Reheboth Beach). Everywhere was a little sleepy and very much getting ready for the start of the season (which gets going at Easter for some, on Memorial Day/last Monday in May for others). We had dinner by the sea on the Thursday night, then a quiet breakfast and a little nosey about before setting off towards Maryland, entering that state, crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (long bridge!) and calling into Annapolis for an afternoon's wandering round (it's a place that's small, pretty, and full of money and sailors - well, a naval academy...). Then we set off for Washington D.C. (and luckily the traffic shown in the last photo was going in the opposite direction to us!).

Delaware and Maryland

We then spent the weekend in Washington. Day one was wet (very wet!) but luckily there's lots to do in that city in the rain so we took a trolley tour of the centre and then called into (a) the National Museum of the American Indian (the building with all the curves) and (b) the crazily busy Air & Space Museum next door. After dinner Mark went out to get some night-time photos of the city too. It rained again. Here are day one's photos:

Washington D.C. - day 1

Day two was the complete opposite weatherwise - bright and sunny - so we walked around the White House, popped into its gift shop (silly photo opps.), went to the Madame Tussauds (special US presidents edition - more silly photo opps.) and took another trolley tour around Georgetown, Embassy Row, Cathedral Heights etc. We decided to finish our D.C. visit with one last look at the Lincoln Memorial (without rain) so we walked down there, saw the crowds, the many memorials and monuments and the dry Reflecting Pool (it's being fixed). After that we only had a short time to collect the car (if we didn't want to pay another day of valet parking!) so we hopped in a pedicab and were taken back to our hotel in style. The pedicab was a lot of fun (fast, daring driver, best views of the city) and it was good to try another mode of transport too. Then we packed up the car and set off south for Virginia... but that'll be next time...

Washington D.C. - day 2

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Jersey Shore

We arrived in New Jersey almost 3 weeks ago and today we headed back off on the road (south... west...). It's funny because in some ways (in terms of the trip) this has been such a long chunk of time (we feel like we almost live here!) but then in other ways it's a brief snapshot of life too (a short time to get to know a whole section of Mark's side of the family... a side that Heather and I have mainly known through photos and the internet up till now). The cousins here live down on the beautiful Jersey shore and it's been lovely to be based back near the ocean again too (OK the North Sea isn't technically an ocean... can we call that poetic licence..?).

Apart from our few days in NYC and the Philadelphia day-trip that Mark and I made a while back we've spent the whole time in Jersey doing less sightseeing and more just living a normal life really. There is a (gorgeous!) three old year boy in the family here so h has had a real chance to just be a kid for a few weeks too (oh, let's be honest - we all have...). It does mean, however, that our photos for the last few weeks are mainly family shots and not really travel blog material. I'm sure you all have your own 'people sitting around a table saying "cheers" ' photos and don't need to see ours! Still, we've done our best to put together some pics of our time here in the Garden State... and the ones below include shots of:

The cornerstone of our visit - Anne-Marie's Keurig coffee machine (coffee so good we nearly broke the machine...).

The boardwalk at nearby Point Pleasant (much fun, many amusements, aquarium, beautiful blue skies on the days we were there, even lunch al fresco with cousin Isobel).

Local playgrounds - we visited a few. It's so nice to be out playing in the open air again now Spring is here.

Diners - Jersey is famous for diners and though all the ones our guide book recommended were up in the northern part of the state our hosts found a few local ones for us too. We learnt a few new meals (Reuben sandwich anyone?).

Chuck-E-Cheese - it sounds scarey (giant mouse, so-so pizza) but on a fairly quiet Tuesday lunchtime this kids arcade/restaurant was really kind of fun. Bring on the virtual skipping machine! And tokens - we need more tokens!

The marketing wonder that was the bacon festival at the local Denny's restaurant (and no, we did not try the bacon sundae...).

A trip to a place they call Highlands - including a visit to the Twin Lights lighthouses and a tasty Mexican meal.

h's birthday - she had a trip to a girlie beauty parlour (hair/'mani and pedi'... and no, I didn't know you could call them that...), a cinema trip and the North American favourite for birthdays - an ice-cream cake (complete with dog face). All this didn't completely make up for the lack of our real dog and some of her most beloveds from home but it was a pretty good day and the New Jersey contingent made it very special for her. One to remember.

Pets - h does miss our lovely pup Zoe so it was nice to back in a house with a dog (and a shy cat) again.

Atlantic City - we called in on our way south and out of the state. Blues skies, beach, casinos galore (weird - walked through one from carpark to boardwalk... lots of seniors staring at one-armed bandits...).

A giant elephant that you can climb up into and walk around. The elephant is called Lucy and is in Margate, just south of Atlantic City. We looked through her eyes, stood in her 'howdah', climbed up inside her back legs...

The ferry from Cape May across the Delaware bay to... Delaware. We were so lucky and got a beautiful sunny day, smooth waters and, as we arrived in the new state, a cracking sunset.

Oh, and here are a few of the things we won't be showing you:

Whack-a-mole and Breaking the Ice and all the other games we played with little cousin Nicholas.

All the pizza we ate! Would need a whole new blog...

Mark losing at golf (thanks Mario, thanks Jim...).

The penguins copulating at the Point Pleasant aquarium... right before our very eyes...

Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Soprano et al. Because although New Jersey has many famous folk we saw none of them. We went past JBJ's house though.

The local Blue Claws baseball team at work. We had tickets but rain stopped play... 3 times!

The fantastic thunderstorms near the end of our visit. Talk about going out with a bang.

Tonight we're by a beach in Delaware but tomorrow - the nation's capital...

New Jersey

Friday, 8 April 2011

NY baby!

So we knew we had to go to New York City (you can’t do a tour of the USA and not go to NYC after all now can you?). Mark had visited the city a couple of times before (but only very briefly) and h and I had never been so yes, we were definitely going to see (for real!) this place that we have seen over and over in movies and on TV shows and in music videos of all kinds. What would it really be like? Would it live up to all the hype?

It was suggested that we take the ferry from New Jersey to get to the city and the idea of arriving by water really appealed so we took the tip and this Tuesday morning a very kind relative took us to the ferry port at Atlantic Highlands in New Jersey to catch the 10 am boat. Below you can see photos from our first day which include:

Views from the ferry, Manhattan getting closer and closer, bridges (Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge… in that order), Statue of Liberty, Wall Street port (though we got off at the last stop up by East 35th Street). It really was a great way to enter the city (and it meant we didn’t need to get any of the other ferries – out to the Statue etc.).

Sights up on 42nd Street (Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station) as we worked our way across town to our hotel.

An American toy phenomenon called ‘American Girl’ (they have a huge store on 5th Avenue… you can get your doll’s hair done in a special salon there if you feel so inclined… we did not... nor did we buy a $100 doll... just a little, cheaper one... from the 'historical' line).

Some central sights (still en route to the hotel, partly in rain…) – a whole lotta Times Square, Broadway etc.

Some views from our cheap (ish) but really pretty good hotel in Hell’s Kitchen (ten minute walk from Broadway, if that, and half the price of central places). It’s a place that used to have quite a reputation but these days it just felt like a pretty regular city centre neighbourhood – not flashy, not rough, just a bit of all sorts.

Our pre-theatre dinner venue – the Ellen Stardust Diner where wannabe Broadway stars sing and serve (more or less at the same time). This was another tip from a relative (hello Auntie Morag!) and we thought h would love it but in fact she was a bit overwhelmed (very loud!). Never mind - we loved it and sang along (embarrassing parents award please…).

A shot of the theatre (Lunt-Fontanne) where we saw the "Addams Family" musical on our first night in town (h is mad for musicals and it was cheaper than "The Lion King", more bearable than "Mamma Mia" for some of us, not as British as “Billy Elliot”). The show starred Bebe 'Lilith' Neuwirth and Roger Rees and was really very good… set in New York too... fab sets.

More hotel views (by night). And then we even slept.

New York day 1

When we got up on Wednesday morning it was sunny so we decided to head straight for Central Park (again just a short hop from the hotel). Photos from Wednesday are below and include:

Views from a horse and carriage ride from Hell’s Kitchen to Central Park (the horses are stabled near where we stayed so we hitched a ride up to the park and then paid for the short trip round it too).

Lots and lots of shots of in and around Central Park. It really was lovely… and so quiet considering it’s in the middle of all that city madness and honking traffic. Also photos of the Dakota alongside the park (where John Lennon lived and died) and the memorial to him in the Strawberry Fields area.

No pics of the Whitney Art Museum (though we did go there… and looked at work by Edward Hopper, Glenn Ligon and others). It was fabulous – full of New Yorkers in kooky and/or expensive outfits (I saw at least 8 Annie Halls).

Some street shots as we walked down from the Upper East Side back through Midtown. On the way we saw lots of police and apparently Obama was in town for a meeting at the Sheraton on 7th Avenue. We stood with the crowd and waited to see him (for about ten minutes) but by then it was raining again and we were hungry so we wandered off elsewhere. We did, however, see Obama (and Michelle O) dolls in the NBC shop at the Rockefeller Centre on Tuesday (see them here).

A pic or two of Little Italy where we went for our dinner. The book said it was touristy and it wasn’t wrong. Still, h wanted to see it… so we saw it (kooky/scary doormen trying to lure in to try their wares and all). Mad cab ride back to the hotel too…

New York day 2

Thursday morning came and we were weary but not defeated. We packed up, stored our big bag in the luggage room and set off for our last NYC day. From the photos below you can see that we:

Went to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)...well, I did… Mark had been before and h had other priorities. I saw lots of European tourists (visiting their ‘own’ artists – Picasso, Van Gogh, a special exhibition of German Expressionism… heaps of European stuff on top two floors). Some tourists were taking photos of each other next to the works of art ("here’s me and ‘Starry Night’…") and I found that a bit odd (don’t you?). Then I moved down to the American works (Pollock, Rothko, lots of colours, lots of lines…) and then to the contemporary work on the first floor (much more women artists down there… a great Gilbert and George Lord’s Prayer to art too). There was an excellent photography exhibition somewhere in there too – a really huge museum.

Meanwhile h and Mark were visiting FAO Schwarz (giant toyshop, home of the 'Big' movie piano scene…) and then onto the fancy candy store (that’s sweet shop, people) - Dylan’s Candy Bar.

After this we collected our bag and headed downtown… mainly because for some reason I felt quite strongly that I wanted to visit Ground Zero. I think maybe it was to do with being in the city with all those huge buildings and all those people crammed in and thinking how amazingly terrifying it must have been to have two of those huge buildings fall down right in front of you (or worse). So we went, saw the models of what they’re putting there to replace the towers (due to be finished for the 10 year anniversary this September), took pictures. We also saw the chapel (St.Paul’s) next door to the site that has survived more than one catastrophe. Lots of memorials (bells, sculptures...).

Once we left the Ground Zero site we were surprised by how lovely the rest of the city is down there in its oldest part (plus the sun came out again too). Maybe it’s the lack of grid-streets (they’re great for traffic and orientation but they’re kind of predictable too, aren’t they?), maybe it’s the narrower streets (and so less traffic)… but it really is engaging. We went to Battery Park, took more pictures of the Statue of Liberty from there, went for dinner to a lovely ‘tavern’ near Wall Street (full of very young city types from all over the world, great atmosphere, good food, Scottish band playing… it had been Tartan Day on Wednesday apparently… and if you don’t know what that is see here). Then we went to the Wall Street pier and waited with some chilled-out and very friendly commuters for the 7.30pm ferry back to New Jersey. We even got a gorgeous sunset for our trip back (that really was lovely). H and I danced a bit of a jig on the deck as commuters snoozed (upstairs) or enjoyed the bar (downstairs). All commutes should be as lovely.

New York day 3

Now a few more family days, a birthday… then on with roadtrip.