Monthly Archives: September 2013

Let me in!

Not much excitement today, just a long day of international travel.  We started by crossing the border from Canada back into the USA.  Whereas Friday’s entry into Canada was a thirty second jaunt with a cheery wave from the border official, re-entry into the US was not quite so swift.  We managed to get into the only queue that wasn’t moving and sat motionless for the best part of an hour, watching a long line of cars zipping across the border in the queue next to us.  Eventually we reached the front of our line and finally crossed into the US, but only after answering some bizarre and complicated questions about how we originally entered the country over a year ago and why we were driving a rental car.  No stamp in the passport this way either.  Boo.

That was pretty much the only highlight today.  We drove all the way across Pennsylvania and partway into Maryland where we are staying overnight.  It does amaze me that after all this driving we have still only just about travelled a quarter of the width of the country.  It really is mind-bogglingly huge.

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Water Spectacle

Back again for another day at Niagara Falls and the sun shone brightly all day.  So we have another three gazillion photos of water but this time with some fantastic rainbows in them!

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We took a trip on the Maid of the Mist, which is the boat that sails right up to the foot of the Falls and affords some spectacular views from an alternative vantage point.  The powers that be very kindly provide disposable rain macs to protect you from the elements, however once you are close to the Falls it starts to feel like you’re in a washing machine with a small carrier bag for protection.  The husband had a great Marilyn Monroe moment with his mac before harrumphing and tearing it off.

We thought the boat ride was amazing, however we definitely saved the best till last, with the Journey Behind the Falls.  Once again, you are provided with a miniscule piece of plastic with which to defend yourself from the elements.  This time, standing on a rocky outcrop at the base and slightly to the side of the Falls, it’s so windswept and soaking that you’re dreaming wistfully of that time you were on the Maid of the Mist boat trip when it was so much drier …. I have no idea how the camera survived this particular outing as both I and it got a face full of water several times.  It was well worth it though!

In non-water-related news, it turned out that today was day of the Gran Fondo bicycle race, which is a 125km road race with the finish line right by the Falls.  We were there to cheer on the finishers, with the fastest one making it over the line in around three hours fifteen minutes.  Wowee.  And ouch.  We showed our support by lying around in the sunshine and listening to the free concert.  We also got to see some Canadian police and their motorbikes up close (I was a little bit braver as they don’t fill me with feelings of fear and impending doom like the US police do).  With their sparkling gold helmets and shiny black knee high boots they all look like members of the Village People too.  Not that I told them that.  I’m still not quite that brave.

I was highly excited to find real actual proper British Cadbury’s chocolate in one of the souvenir shops (made in Cheshire, not an American or Canadian imposter) but not so excited to see it cost $8 for a pack of biscuits!  However that seemed quite good value when compared to the Flake for $4.  Are people really willing to pay that much??

Anyway, that outrage was swiftly put to one side as we ended our stay with a lovely drink and meal in a restaurant overlooking the Falls as the sun went down and the lights came on.  It’s been a memorable couple of days for my first trip to Canada, a country of lovely people and overpriced chocolate.

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Bordering on Brilliance

I wasn’t sure whether it was a bad omen to be attempting to cross the border into Canada on Friday 13th, but we decided to give it a go anyway.  First we had to finish our trip across the US.  Just a couple of hours travel today, along the New York Thruway, which sounds and looks on paper as if it’s a major road (and certainly the toll rates would also make you think so) however in reality it’s another one of those piddly small interstates that actually makes you feel like you’re on the A30 through Cornwall.  We passed a great number of those proper service stations again today but I’ve already become blasé about them.  Sigh.

On reaching the Canadian border we were expecting to be waylaid for a short while by the customs officials but after a cursory look at our passports (and finally a lovely shiny Canadian stamp to go alongside my St Lucia one) we were waved through with no questions, no searches of our belongings and no further paperwork required.  We’re so used to all the rigmarole that surrounds a flight to a foreign country that we hadn’t thought how easy it could actually be when air travel is not involved.  Can’t wait to see how easy (or not) it is to get back in the US again.

Very pleased that we could check straight into our hotel despite being three hours early, and even more ecstatic when we opened the door to our hotel room and remembered that we’d booked a room with a whirlpool bath.  Oh happy days.  Add in the free wifi, free parking and 24 hour limitless coffee, and that was practically all my needs met.

We managed to tear ourselves away from the room and out to see Niagara Falls.  We started with the White Water Walk, which is a boardwalk running alongside a really fast section of the falls, accompanied by lots of stories of those crazy people from times gone by who either walked a tightrope across the falls or went over the side in a barrel.  Not surprisingly, most of them died in their attempts.  We opted to just take a few photos from behind the safety barriers.

We then made our way up to the Falls proper, where it’s really easy to just stand and stare for hours on end at this amazing force of nature.  As the waters cascade over the edge they create a huge spray which then seems to manufacture its own cloud permanently hanging above the Falls.  I’m sure that’s probably nothing like the real scientific explanation, but that’s exactly what it looks like.  Then, just a few feet further on, the waters are as smooth and quiet as a millpond.  A little further along the water, you could close your eyes and not realise there’s any water flowing past at all, it’s so quiet.

We also made it into Niagara’s Fury which is a 4D experience of the Falls.  What this means is that you get to stand and watch a film and then get soaked in the process.  We’d opted to see Niagara’s Fury because it was somewhat cold and rainy outside, so as an attempt to keep warm and dry it was not entirely successful.

At this point we were totally chuffed to get back to the hotel and jump into the hot tub with some freshly purchased Canadian fudge.  Did I mention that the tub was heart-shaped?  Not only romantic but also highly practical as it is ergonomically designed for two people to stretch out and relax in it.  Heaven.

We managed to drag ourselves back out for a spot of dinner and a quick look at the Falls after dark but we’re saving that for tomorrow night really.  After dark it has a very Blackpool/Las Vegas feel about it, with all the neon high rise buildings and casinos, but you still can’t drag yourself away from the sight of the Falls themselves.

So, first day in a foreign country went well then.  Canadians are brilliant. They understand our accents and our sense of humour (and even crack a few jokes themselves) and they don’t think we’re Australian. Oh and I got some Canadian coins and they even have our Queen on them.   I haven’t been this excited about a currency-related issue since, erm, Wednesday.

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The Full Vermonty

Today started with an al fresco breakfast in our lovely little Vermont village before visiting the Ben & Jerry’s factory.  After a brief but illuminating tour of the factory, we had a lovely taster of Triple Caramel Chunk then a potter about the Flavor Graveyard, paying our respects to long departed ice creams of years gone by.  Sniff.  And, in a scene reminiscent of yesterday, we met an American woman who had spent time in Gosport, the last place we lived in England.

We then hit Highway 100 for a wonderfully scenic meander across Vermont, through rolling hills somewhat reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia.  It was so much more picturesque than taking the Interstate and even though this route increased our overall journey time, it actually seemed to go much quicker because we had lovely views to look at.  We stopped at a service area, which is obviously another one of my “really interesting” facts but bear with me.  In my experience on American interstates you only get “Rest Areas”, which consist of a couple of toilets and a vending machine.  To my excitement, in New York State they actually have full-on service areas with the addition of a couple of food/drink places, much more like (a scaled down version of) our UK service stations.  Best of all, in the one we stopped at we saw this T shirt, which sums up my feelings perfectly:

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After about five hours on the road we finally reached Liverpool in New York State, and we’re now relaxing and recharging before getting across into Canada tomorrow.  It’s only 8pm but after a day of ice cream, doughnuts, cookies and beer, it’s no wonder I’m a little sleepy!

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Uncle Sam

Well, this is a first.  As I write this, we are hurtling along the interstate.  I should point out that, a) I am not the one driving and, b) I’m only writing it offline, being an out and proud Luddite who does not believe in smartphones and all that malarkey.  By the time I publish this, I should be in the comfort of tonight’s hotel room in Vermont.

So, for our last morning in Boston we had an appointment with Mr Samuel Adams for a tour of his brewery.  For a 15 minute subway ride out of town and a donation of $2 to local charities we got a souvenir glass and three beer tastings (a total of about one English pint).  And of course you get educated in the beermaking process and that is why we all really want to visit the brewery, isn’t it?  We also found ourselves sitting next to two people from the town in Cornwall that we used to live in and one of whom worked at the same place as the husband.  Walt Disney was right.  It’s a small world after all.

I had to buy subway tickets from the vending machine (bear with me, it gets more interesting) and for my change I received one dollar coins.  COINS!!  I’d heard rumours of their existence but I have never seen dollar coins before.  I was beyond excited.  Okay, it didn’t get more interesting for you to read, but it was quite a moment for me.

Blinking in the sunshine as we left the brewery into nearly 100F heat (wasn’t summer supposed to have finished last week?), we made our way by very circuitous route back to the airport via the Clover Food Truck, which is positively the best food I have had since moving to this country over a year ago.  And, unlike the Cheers Bar, they actually do know your name and call it out when your food’s ready.  Satisfying on every level.

At the airport we called into the USO to a warm and friendly welcome as always.  After a nice recharge we grabbed the hire car and set off to Vermont.  We’ve just made it over the state line and have about 30 miles to go.  The weather has just changed from 90F down to 70F and I just got the sunroof closed in time before the rain started.  We now have an immense storm going on around us.  So maybe summer is over after all!

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This part is being written (and uploaded, as predicted) from the comfort of one of the two double beds in our Vermont hotel room.  After today’s brilliant lunch, I had the other best meal of the last twelve months for dinner tonight.  We arrived in this tiny little village and it is just like Cicely, Alaska in Northern Exposure (one of my all time favourite TV shows).  It has one little main street (called, er, Main Street) with just the one general store, one church, one doctor etc.  It seemed to be totally dead but I’d heard rumours of a half-decent restaurant so we sought it out and found it down a little staircase at the side of a building.  As we opened the door we found that the entire population of the village must be in there, hidden away from the quiet street.  For once, I had a choice of about three excellent dishes, none of which were veggie lasagne.  I plumped for a stir fry with the most amazing orange and ginger sauce.  We also had a homemade mini loaf of honey wheat bread with maple butter.  Wowee.  Why can I not find a restaurant like this within twenty miles of my home?

Taking a moment to review my life from the comfort of this hotel room, I would surmise that realistic career options now appear to be Park Ranger, Undergraduate Admissions Officer at Harvard, or Beer Tour Guide at Sam Adams Brewery.  I have extensive experience in at least two of these fields.  Tomorrow may bring another potential career, I’m fairly sure.

We have ended the evening in our hotel room cracking open one of the three special beers that we purchased earlier today.  They are all about 10% strength and we started with the cherry one which was most agreeable.  Tomorrow I may embark on the chocolate and coffee one.  In the meantime, I’m off to starfish in my own gigantic bed.  Thank you Sam.

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Boston – More Than a Feeling

Day 2 in this fabulous city started with a visit to the Tortoise & Hare statues in Copley Square, where the Boston Marathon ends each year.  I crossed the finish line (thankfully without having to run the preceding 26.2 miles) before wandering around behind the Fox News people doing a live story about military weddings (I’ve since reviewed the footage online and I haven’t managed to spot myself, sadly).

We then dropped by Boston Public Library, which is the kind of library I would love to have at home if I had the money or the space, and an even more understanding husband than I already have.  It starts with spectacular marble lion statues and sweeping staircases leading up to several vast spaces filled with books, right up to the hidden, dark sections of rare manuscripts.  Then you peek out of a high window in the centre of the building and discover a hidden courtyard far below with a delicate fountain as its crowning glory.  Then you tumble back out into the hustle and bustle of the city centre streets and marvel at how quiet and removed it felt to be back in that courtyard.  Sigh.

From there, we took another perspective on the city as we ventured up to the Skywalk Observatory, fifty floors in the air.  Even better, we were granted free admission, thank you very much.  We spent an hour wandering around the observation deck, which has a 360 degree view of the city accompanied by an audio tour.  Halfway round, the husband swapped to the children’s tour and declared it to be far superior.  As with the views from Bunker Hill yesterday, we saw some breathtaking vistas and some great alternative angles of buildings.  Well worth the price of admission!

Leaving the Skywalk, we pottered past the Four Seasons Hotel where, a couple of hours earlier, we had seen the ESPN News people making a live report (another shot for which we were loitering in the background).  This time, there was a police barrier set up with a range of seemingly random sports fans eagerly awaiting someone’s exit from the building.  I still have no idea who it was and I haven’t found any pointers on t’interweb either.  It didn’t help that all the onlookers were wearing different sports shirts so I couldn’t even identify the sport.  I certainly wasn’t going to do anything logical like ask anybody what was going on.

We spent the afternoon in Harvard, trying to look edjumacated.  It doesn’t have quite the grandeur of the UK Cambridge (Harvard is situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts) but is pretty impressive all the same, being, of course, one of the oldest institutions in the country.  Feeling suitably educationally improved, we returned to the North End and had a lovely meal in one of the many yummy Italian restaurants that crowd the adorable winding streets there.  The geography of the city is already becoming very familiar, which always seems to be the case when you’re about to leave somewhere.  Also, today I learned that Benjamin Franklin was a high school dropout, and all the ducklings statues that we saw yesterday have names.  So I did get myself an edjumacation after all.

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Where everybody knows your name

So today we have made it to Boston which, I have to say, is the first place in America that I could actually see myself living in permanently.  It has a very British feel to it (not surprisingly, I suppose, given its history) and a lot of the time you can easily imagine yourself being in the centre of London.  When you reach the harbour it feels a little more like Cardiff.  Then you find yourself in Chinatown and see the manhole covers with steam rising out of them and feel like maybe you might actually be in New York.  It’s an incredibly compact city; usually when you look on a map and the distance you want to cover is about an inch wide, it actually turns out to be about seven miles.  In Boston it really is an inch.

There’s an excellent shuttle service from the airport to the city; it must be the cheapest (it’s free) and fastest (it has its own dedicated lane all the way in) method of transport.  We were greeted on arrival at our hotel with warm chocolate chip cookies – always the way to make me happy.  Our first stop from there was Boston Public Gardens and the Make Way for Ducklings statue – apparently it’s a really famous children’s book.   Either it didn’t make it out of America or I led a very sheltered upbringing, but I’ve never heard of it.  However the bronze statues of a duck and her line of ducklings is absolutely adorable.

From there, we had to pay a visit to the Cheers Bar.  There are actually two of them; one is a full-on replica of the TV set.  We chose to visit the one which inspired the TV series and which is in fact an original English pub that was shipped over to the US many years ago.  After more than a year, at last I managed to get a proper beer in a proper glass in a proper pub.  It even had hooks under the bar for hanging up your coat – always a true sign of a decent drinking establishment, in my humble opinion.

We finally had to tear ourselves away and embark on the Freedom Trail, which is a kind of potted history and self-guided walk of Boston following a red line around the city.  Easier said than done when you have already been hanging out with Sam, Norm, Cliff, Woody, Frasier and the rest.  There’s an amazing amount of history in Boston and a heck of a lot of lovely old architectural gems sandwiched in between some spectacular modern skyscrapers. Somehow it all works.  The highlight was the Bunker Hill Monument, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Washington Monument but is less than half as tall (although, by the time I’d made my way to the top, it certainly didn’t feel that short).  The views were definitely worth it, especially being able to look down on some spectacular roof terraces (which aren’t really so spectacular if you are overlooked daily by nosey tourists at the top of the monument).  If anybody feels like buying me a house on the edge of Bunker Hill, don’t let me stop you.  I’ll also settle for a place in the North End if you prefer, although the fact that it is full of Italian restaurants and shops would probably be the death of me.

The trail ended at the Navy Yard (which rather made me feel I’d just arrived back in Portsmouth) and at the USS Constitution.  By this point our little tootsies had become hooves of fire so we jumped  (well, limped) on the ferry across the harbour for an alternative view of the city on our way back to the hotel.  We’d had high hopes of returning to the North End in the evening for a lovely meal, but by this point we were getting so tired that the hotel carpets were starting to look like magic eye puzzles (something to do with a late night and only about four hours sleep, I suspect) so we opted for a quick bite at the lovely and reliable Panera across the street.  Time now to rest, ready for tomorrow’s expedition.

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Does this look normal to you?

So I haven’t posted much on here recently. I’ve come to the alarming conclusion that this is due to the fact that not a lot surprises me any more. No longer do I see something completely weird and feel the overwhelming urge to get on here and tell everyone. Worryingly, this is because it’s all becoming far too normal to me. The weirdness is still happening on a daily basis but I don’t even notice it any more. I even realised the other day that I occasionally (well, far too frequently for my liking) find myself thinking in an American accent. Thankfully I’ve not started speaking in one, and I still find it wrong to have to use words like “vacation” in conversation. I even found a local beer that I really genuinely liked the other day, rather than the usual “well, for American beer, it’s not too bad I suppose”. Still ….. I think I may have been assimilated. Oh ‘eck.

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