(50 days in)
So, you last left us after we’d had a smashing time with Ms. Wilks up in the Great White North. Whilst writing, we were perched in a small town between there and New York City called Schenectady. As ever it was just a stopping point for our more interesting parts. But BOY DO I HAVE SOME STUFF TO CATCH YOU UP ON. We’ve had New York (the new contender for favourite destination so far), Philadelphia (which was great despite the rain and closed attractions) and Washington DC (which was a wholly different experience to anything we’ve done so far). So stick with me as I regale you with our ‘Tales of the East Coast’.
So good they named it twice
Technically this part of our journey saw us start in Jersey City, New Jersey before travelling into NYC itself. The fridge in the van had started to pack up again and we wanted another excuse to park it near the city without paying for city parking fees – we found that the ‘New York’ depot of Escape Campervans actually operates on the wrong side of the Hudson, out of Jersey City (cheeky). I have to say that I was incredibly excited for this section of our trip, being somewhat of a city boy – maybe not by birth but definitely at heart – I’m in love with any hugely built up area, and New York definitely fits that description. Even from the freeway across the river the picturesque skyline painted an all too familiar scene upon the horizon.
After leaving Manone with the good folks at the New Jersey York depot we hopped onto the subway, travelled under the Hudson and emerged into the Big Apple. As you can expect, the price to stay in Manhattan is quite high – but as regular readers will know Megan is a fiscal responsibility guru, made ever the more clear by her second successful attempt of free lodging for our four-wheeled companion. We rocked up to our hostel a bit too early so dropped off our bags and headed out with a plan of a lovely walk through Central Park and into Midtown for lunch. This was a nice enough idea and once we had picked the right direction (we took an accidental detour to ‘Riverside Park’ and saw a great little dog park, as well as a cargo ship that indicated that we weren’t looking at a lake) we meandered off toward 5th Avenue and Times Square. If I was feeling homesick before this little excursion, I wouldn’t have been afterwards. It took us about 2 hours and the rain, although not too heavy, would not let up after about 5 minutes of us being outside. And to top it off we came out of the park and right into an Irish pub for a late lunch.
“Hi, table for 2?” A velvet Irish accent welcomed us almost all the way back home as we took shelter from the clouds.
“Yes, thank you,” Megan replied as I hastily cleaned the droplets from my glasses.
“You guys just got caught in the rain did ya?” At this stage I was sure that the bones in my shoulder sockets were wet let alone every other inch of me so I stifled a sarcastic comment and smiled.
“Yeah, a two hour walk through the park,” Megan responded. “Do you have any tea?”
The waitress looked confused for only second before realising what we meant. “Hot tea?”
“Uh yes, normal tea. You know, milk, sugar, boiling water?” came the response – she was desperate by this stage.
“Absolutely we do”
“Ah I’m not sure, but it comes in a pot. I’ll get one started for you and check where it comes from.”
“Oh, thank you so much!” You could feel the stress rolling off her sodden shoulders.
That was all for our first evening in the city. After getting back to the hotel and finding our room (the second room, as the first one hadn’t been made up and still smelled of many different feet) we chilled out and planned for the next day…
…Which saw us yet again become the typical tourists and invest in a ‘Hop-on, Hop-off Bus and Boat Tour’ pass. This included routes through Uptown, Downtown, Brooklyn and the ferry that goes past the Statue of Liberty, to be used over 48 hours (luckily, as that’s a bit much to do in one day. BUT WE TRIED ANYWAY.). Up at the crack of dawn (or maybe it was about 10), we headed into the centre of the Big Apple to pick up our tickets for the previously mentioned tours. The queue was a bit longer than we would have liked but eventually we were back out on the streets and, clutching about 4 feet of receipts and barcodes, waiting for the bus.
Based on our location and eagerness to see the hot underbelly of this place we opted for the Downtown tour first (the routes overlapped at certain places allowing you to use it as a public transport system as well as a guided tour, if you’re clever). We didn’t have to wait long and after being handed some free headphones we took our place at the back of the open top bus. The weather had changed massively from the day before and we were now gifted with a cloudless sky and cool breeze. The guide for this first tour was excellent. He was probably as old as some of the buildings and events he was describing, but nonetheless never missed any of the points of interest and gave us a peek into the deep (M: deepish, it is only America after all) history and rich culture associated with every street (for example SoHo, New York got its name by being South of Houston Street, a very different etymology than the London equivalent). Megan decided pretty quickly that she wanted to adopt this gentleman as a grandfather, which makes for the second time so far.
We drifted past Macy’s, the Rockefeller Centre, the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, One World Trade, Brooklyn Bridge and the 9/11 Memorial (not in that order) as well as going through Times Square and down Broadway. As expected driving in New York is a nightmare, and even though this slowed the pace of the bus incredibly, all too soon we found ourselves at the south end of Manhattan and at our stop to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge. Or so we thought. (Note: if the tour guide says “This stop for Brooklyn Bridge”, don’t think you know better and stay on for 3 more stops). Eventually we found our way on to the iconic bridge and started out across it. This took us about an hour through the bustling tourists and selfie stops, over the classic wooden boardwalk that held us above the actual traffic using the bridge, and by the end I can safely say my scalp was more than a little tender.
Then it was time to catch the sister tour around Brooklyn. After a quick coffee stop we went on to where the bus was supposed to be. 15 minutes passed and if it wasn’t for the other people waiting for the same bus we would have thought we were in the wrong place. Finally a lady approached us from down the street and said that the bus was actually waiting about 400 yards away. So, we were a little miffed (M: it was also the last bus of the day, which didn’t help), and our moods weren’t improved by the fact that when we arrived at the bus there was no space upstairs. Without air conditioning the tour was not a pleasant experience, and with most of the downstairs windows being semi-covered with advertising it was hard to see anything. To top this off the tour guide herself was far from helpful (the thick accent I could deal with but she spent more time pointing to the nearest metro station and just naming parts of the borough instead of giving us any interesting information) (M: she also sounded exactly like one of my more demanding clients, and I started getting flashbacks to the office). So, although I can say Brooklyn looks very pretty culture-full I couldn’t really confirm that to you.
With foul moods in place and more sweat than I will describe here, we finally arrived at our stop, the ferry terminal. To alleviate headaches and dehydration we had a quick drink stop again and stood in the shade by where we thought the ferry would arrive. It wasn’t long until we were proven right and were ushered onto a large boat with just enough space for us to take our usual spot at the back.
Seeing the city from the water gave it an exaggerated feeling – of course, it’s one of the most city-like cities you can think of but when there are 60 storey office blocks less than 10 feet from the water’s edge it hammers home how much work has gone into this place and how many people it’s home too (metaphorically obviously, hardly anyone actually lives in Manhattan… comparatively). Not only that, but we got to see a close up of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and then cruise up the Hudson River that carves a line between New York and New Jersey. So, aside from the Brooklyn part of the tour, I felt like we’d got our money’s worth already and we still had a whole other route to do the next day. But for now we needed rest, so we hopped on to the nearest air-conditioned subway and, picking up some Chinese for dinner, turned in for the night.
Day 2 in the city, and seeing how close we were to the Uptown tour, we headed off in search of one of the stops. This one more than made up for the Brooklyn debacle – we had seats and plenty of space up the top of the bus, a wonderful breeze, glorious sunshine and a tour guide from Jersey City who knew the history of almost every building we passed, including but not limited to: General Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb (a.k.a. President Grant, but he wanted this tomb to be in memory of his military rather than political accomplishments), Central Park, Central Park Zoo, Harlem (with an excellent rundown of its history all the way up to the modern day), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum and many grand office buildings that were once owned by the rich and powerful.
I was quite enjoying myself on this tour as the guide was having back and forth banter with not only the driver but people standing on the street, all of which we could only hear his part of… but the bus had fulfilled its purpose and dropped us off near the Rockefeller Centre. By now you should all be aware of my love for going up tall buildings, and although the Empire State building is arguably the more iconic within the boundaries of Manhattan, you can’t see it’s epic profile whilst standing on it. So we used our tour tickets (which got us free entry into one of the top attractions of the city) and took an elevator 70 storeys up to ‘Top of the Rock’. this gave us incredible 360 degree views of the whole city. We spent quite some time here taking the obligatory selfies, soaking up the view and exploring the ‘Music Room’ – which had no explanation but tracks your movements, assigns you a sound and traces lights above and beside you, whilst playing other sounds as other people enter or leave the room.
With New York well and truly seen from a bird’s eye view, we hopped onto the Downtown tour again. This time we were just using it as a mode of transport and not at all listening to the guide as we headed to the 9/11 Memorial. This does have a museum attached but we decided just to spend some time at the memorial itself.
Now after a packed couple of days, our plan was to top it all off by going out in the ‘City That Never Sleeps’ at night to get the full experience. Buuuut after we dropped into our new favourite bagel shop for an early dinner, the only thing we were capable of was untucking the sheets, climbing in and watching some Netflix.
In West Philadelphia
Next up on the list was Philadelphia. We only had two nights there and this was our first use of Airbnb on this adventure. Staying with a lovely lady called Connie, we were placed in the basement apartment – great for me as I despise all light when I try to sleep (M: not so much for me, as I don’t appreciate not being able to tell whether I’ve gone blind when I wake up). That evening, we stocked up at the local Walmart, took in a movie (I recommend ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ to all) and generally chilled out. We didn’t actually know what we wanted to see in Philly so we were more than happy to spend the evening planning the next day.
The weather yet again decided to remind us of our roots and the next day was painted with a damp grey coating. With a few ideas of what we wanted to see we took the train into town. Now for another one of our elusive travelling tips: if you research ‘things to do in *City*’, also research ‘things happening in *City* this weekend’. We found a lovely park, the steps of Rocky fame, an art museum, a natural history museum and the Benjamin Franklin Institute. All of which were either closed or taken over by a huge ‘Made in America’ festival that had been erected right in the middle of town (we did look into one day ticket prices for this festival after all the fun we heard from behind the barrier but at $125 each, we were content to walk past). So we continued onto Little Pete’s, a diner that we (M: Pete) chose for one reason and one reason only, my name is Pete. Yes, that’s it.
After this, we continued on our search for anything that was actually open to tourists but remembering that it was also Labor Day weekend, we found nothing. Which means one thing for us, a visit to Starbucks.
So all in all, we didn’t experience much of what Philly had to offer except its wet, gray (M: grey) exterior, but I can say I still enjoyed it from the list of things you can do on Google.
This brings us right around to the capital of this ginormous country, Washington DC. I think we can all say that we’ve seen so many TV shows based in this location that actually stepping into it felt incredibly surreal. Our accommodation was once again an AirBnb and, once again, we were relegated to the basement, but at least this time we had our own entryway and didn’t have to share the space with anyone. The house in question was a stone’s throw from a military base which, in turn, was a stone’s throw from the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery. As per our usual routine, we arrived after a bit of a long drive so we settled in to the new digs, cooked up some grub and planned out the next two days.
Now, as you can imagine, after the outstanding New York our budget had taken a bit of a beating. We had expected this and were still in the middle of what we had expected was to be the most expensive week of the entire journey. BUT, to our giddy disbelief, all of the museums that make up the world-renowned Smithsonian Institute along the National Mall were free! Excellent news for the overburdened Excel spreadsheet.
So, our first morning, after a brief workout session to offset the hours and hours I spend behind a wheel (and also after nearly passing out from said workout as I am far more enthusiastic than my frame should allow), we packed supplies into our bags and headed straight for the Pentagon – which I was surprised to find has its own Metro stop.
Walking around Washington DC is an odd experience, not just because of the ‘as seen on TV’ surroundings but also because it feels so different from the rest of the country. I thought that this was a bit strange bearing in mind it’s the capital, but there’s hardly any advertising on billboards, no brownstone apartment blocks, no diners and cafes planted awkwardly wherever you can fit one and, compared to the usual amount of people we have to contend with for our space, virtually bereft. I will attest this to the area’s historical significance and the huge political altercations that would occur should one of the fine marble buildings suddenly display directions to the nearest McDonalds. But either way, we had a lot to see and not a lot of time to see it in so we did what any sane person would do and stopped for a picnic in the sun. The National Mall, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the 146 acre strip of grassland planted in the middle of Washington DC. It’s flanked by the 13 museums and 1 zoo that make up the Smithsonian Institute, the Capital building at the eastern end and the White House just to the north and houses the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and a plethora of other historic landmarks, each paying homage to those who fought and served throughout the bloodstained past of the nation.
We did almost none of this on our first day and opted instead to head one of the Smithsonian museums, the Air and Space Museum. Not only does this building house the Wright Brothers’ plane, the Spirit of St. Louis (the first plane to cross the Atlantic in 1927), an original model of the Star Ship Enterprise and an actual piece of the Moon brought back all those years ago, but a full IMAX theatre and dome planetarium. Within this planetarium we were taken on a journey into the stars by Whoopi Goldberg (which only slightly gave me travel sickness), and then spent the rest of the afternoon taking in all we could about our various celestial neighbours and the origins of space travel. To top off the experience we spent the evening catching up on some West Wing, trying to replace reality with art and the Trump administration with that of Jed Bartlett and co.
The second day in the Capital called for my sturdier boots as we had quite the itinerary planned. First stop: White House. Given recent events I wasn’t sure what to expect – I knew that they had stopped doing tours since the 45th President took office but that was it. Unbeknownst to us, that morning Trump had overturned DACA (an Obama-era protection granted to children of unlawful immigrants) so we turned up in the middle of a protest at the gates to the property, which somehow wasn’t all that surprising.
From there it was time to head back through the rest of the National Mall. Stopping off at (in no particular order): the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial, the World War I Memorial, World War 2 Memorial, a coffee shop, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and finally, the National Museum of American History. I find it hard to write about memorials, torn between admiration and pride for any armed forces but also the needlessness of wanton violence and loss of life. By the end of the day I had a slight headache and wasn’t sure if I was now a fully fledged American citizen.
This brings us pretty much up to date. We’re sat in one of two camping stops between Washington DC and Nashville, Tennessee, where we meet up with Megan’s parents. With them we travel through the ‘deep South’ (or as close as Harvey and Irma will let us) for 2 weeks before being left to fend for ourselves again for the trip back to Los Angeles, California. So if you have any knowledge or advice for Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans don’t hesitate to get in touch and let us know what to avoid or what not to miss.