3 Months On The Road In The USA (Pt4)

San Francisco 
We were looking forward to visiting California for the first time and it was only a short flight from Portland from where we’d just had a fabulous time to get to our first stop, San Francisco.
San Fran sunset
We spent time experiencing a few interesting things here including the Italian American cinema exhibition, the annual Italian Heritage parade in Little Italy, Ashbury Haights, Gott’s restaurant in the Ferry Building, Fleet Week with a flying display from the Blue Angels (the US equivalent of the English Red Arrows), the pretty Painted Ladies line of houses and the famous gay rights centre of the USA that is the Castro district (where I also found a plaque dedicated to Francisco Federico Lorca, the world-renowned gay Spanish playwright from Granada who was killed in the Spanish Civil War). We also got one of those lovely old trolley buses a couple of times, but regardless of how pretty your mode of transport, rush hour is the same not so pleasant experience in every country.
San Fran Tram
SF Castro Neon
In addition to walking a lot around town, we did the double-decker sightseeing bus tour which included a glorious sunset from the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the highlights of our visit here. Another for me was the fascinating walking tour of the Tenderloin district,  398 Eddy St. / Leavenworth (Tue-Sun 10am-5pm) where I had a personal tour of the area which is now quite rundown in places and yet, has an incredible musical and social history giving an interesting insight into the city.
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The AirBnB where we were staying was just around the corner from Mission Street where we had amazing (and cheap) tacos and burritos (no rice, so not as heavy) at the unassuming and always incredibly busy La Taquería.
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And after that, a couple of blocks away, we came across a Mexican bar (whose name escapes me) where we had a few margaritas while watching a World Cup qualifying football match between Mexico and the USA. Fab night out! Although I love doing research for trips, some of the best nights happen when you don’t plan anything or can’t even find what you were looking for!
On a more serious note, although we had seen homeless people on the streets of other American cities we had been to, the problem seemed far greater in San Francisco, but like all cities, San Francisco is doing its best to help them off the streets by working together with the local communities.
Although San Francisco is very much a city, one of the benefits of its location is Californian wine and a trip to the Napa Valley had to be done, especially as I’m a huge fan of the film ‘Sideways’, however we chose to simply drive through the countryside to appreciate the stunning views en route.
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We’d heard good things about Muir Beach just outside the city, so we drove there and it really was something else. Just a beach, sea and not many people. Although, perhaps again, it was a nice antidote to the city experience of the previous few days.
Walking around this city was an odd experience as even after a few days, although it had lots of interesting places to visit, unlike some other places we had visited on the trip such as Portland, Chicago, Seattle and Provincetown, neither I nor Mrs Cortado found we had really connected with the city. After only a month on the road, it couldn’t yet be travel fatigue, so what was it?
Like many places we had planned to visit on this trip, San Francisco was yet another place we had always wanted to see, however it was the first to disappoint, although we couldn’t quite put our finger on why. So, we may just have to go back another time to see what we missed…
Las Vegas 
Mrs Cortado and I had included Las Vegas on our trip out of curiosity and also as it was perfectly located to visit the Grand Canyon, which ended up being one of the highlights of the entire trip. To add to the kitsch Vegas element too, we also decided to stay at the Trump Tower hotel for a night. Note that this trip was made Sept-Dec 2015 before the joy we all currently share that is the Trump presidency. In fact, when we were in Vegas, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were still fighting it out in a TV debate for the Democratic nomination.
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So, what’s Vegas like? It’s everything you could imagine. Busy, loud, kitsch, commercial and not somewhere I’d visit again, but for a couple of nights, it was a wonderful experience. Highlights in Las Vegas for us included cocktails with an ‘in-the-know’ food blogger friend, the ultra kitsch environment and the cheesy and spectacular sound/light show of the Hotel Bellagio and the madness of Fremont Street.
Although expensive, it’s also absolutely worth taking the 1-hour helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon as the sheer scale was like nothing we’d previously seen. In addition to this, other favourites here were the incredible Neon Museum and the staggering feat of engineering that is the Hoover Dam. Las Vegas is inevitably a bit mad and it’s heaven, hell or maybe both depending on your persuasion, but it’s definitely worth a visit to make your own mind up and especially for the astonishing astonishing natural beauty that is not that far away.
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Neon Museum
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Grand Canyon
Natural Wonders 
Our next stage of the trip was the perfect antidote to the superficial and artificial excess of Las Vegas. We would be driving through a variety of types of nature en route to our next stop in Mammoth Lakes on the west side of Yosemite National Park.
And soon, we were driving down Badwater Road in Death Valley towards the Badwater Basin where we saw a family of 4 coyotes hanging around (as you do in Death Valley). I’d never heard of the Valley Of Fire before but as you travel through, the colours of the surrounding rocks are so beautifully unusual that it almost feels like the set of a film set on another planet.
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Badwater Road in Death Valley
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Road to Valley Of Fire
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One of the Valley Of Fire locals
We then had to take a detour through Yosemite as the main road was closed and happily came across Mono Lake, a beautiful saltwater marsh/lake with stalagmites which again were reminiscent of some alternative planetary dimension. It was all such a welcome relief to the chaos of Vegas. And then after much looking around, we arrived in Mammoth Lakes.
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Mono Lake
The morning after we had breakfast of waffles and coffee (one of many but we never got bored of it) in The Stove local diner in Mammoth Lakes village followed by a lovely drive through the north of Yosemite towards Mariposa, which is a delightful one-street village with a very small town America feel. Our next plan was to visit Sequoia National Park to go to Grant Grove to see the biggest tree in the world – General Sherman, which as you’d imagine, was enormous.
Although I’m a townie, I enjoyed the nature elements of this trip and was surprised at how beautifully stark and impressive some of these places could be. But now it was time to move on to the delights of the west coast including Big Sur, which was another one of those places I’d always wanted to see.

3 Months On The Road In The USA Pt3

After only a couple of weeks on the road, we had already covered a fair bit of the East Coast – read 3 months On The Road Pt2.

The long train ride 

The next stage of our trip was a much anticipated 3-day train from Chicago to Seattle incorporating the wide open spaces of states such as Montana, North Dakota and Idaho among other places. We had been looking forward to this part of the trip as we’d never taken a long train journey before.

Our train to Seattle was old, but more in a ‘hasn’t-been-modernised-in-years’ as opposed to any kind of romantic historical ‘Orient Express’ way, but having said that, the views from the train were incredible. Vast open spaces for miles and miles, with only the occasional one-horse-town and collection of oil fields punctuating the flatness of the barren landscapes. Of course, we knew that North America was big, but the endless open spaces made us realise the sheer scale.

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Oil rig somewhere in North Dakota

Seattle

As a music fan and obsessive fan of the American TV sitcom ‘Frasier’, Seattle had been one of my top five list of places to visit on this trip. Of course, I knew that the show had been filmed in a studio in LA, but it was fictitiously based in Seattle and so, I perhaps oddly felt I had got to know the city including iconic locations places such as the Space Needle. We also had friends who had moved there in recent years, so we had even more reason.

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Frasier

We were in town for a few days and were determined to make the most of it, so we visited Pike Street Market, went on the Underground Tour around Pioneer Square, took a lovely boat ride around Elliot Bay, travelled on the magnificent Monorail to see the equally impressive Space Needle surrounded by the beautifully bizarre Chihuly glass flower exhibits and also went to see one of our favourite bands, Thievery Corporation in concert. One morning, I even walked all the way to the Elliott Bay Cafe, which was apparently the inspiration for the cafe used in Frasier. Of course, it was nothing like I had expected as it had recently been modernised, but I felt a fan-like sense of achievement having visited nevertheless.

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Seattle Space Needle and Chihuly Flowers

While Mrs Cortado went shopping one afternoon, I also visited the fascinating Wing Luke museum in Chinatown which focused on the the Asian Pacific Islander American experience in Seattle and the West Coast. Sadly, I missed the Bruce Lee exhibit which was starting the week after, but it was so interesting having a look around the former accommodation and even the grocery store that the newly arrived immigrants would have used. I then had some Hell Ramen from Samurai Noodles and at that moment, I was somehow struck by a moment of gratefulness. So much so that I even posted something on Facebook about how grateful I was with life at that moment in time and genuinely felt that if I’d been a dog, I’d have been wagging my tail like a very waggy taily thing.  I was walking around feeling happy and grateful for every moment of every day. Not just being in Seattle, but also being with Mrs Cortado and life in general. It’s been nice being reminded of that while writing this post.

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Seattle from the sky

You might have figured out by now that I absolutely loved Seattle finding it among many other things, laid-back, bohemian, cultural, open-minded with an interesting food and cafe culture. It was even sunny when we were there, though I’m led to believe that is quite unusual. One of the places I’d wanted to visit my entire life had surpassed all expectations. Where next?

Vancouver

Our trip next took us to Vancouver. Another one of those places that I’d always wanted to visit and fortunately, again we had a friend there with whom I’d be reunited after 15 years since she’d moved to Canada. One of the highlights of our time here was the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden which was a such a beautiful example of tranquility. It was delightful wandering around it absorbing its culture, history and sense of peace.

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Archway in the Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver

Other highlights in Vancouver included a lovely day driving to Whistler on Highway 99 with stupendous views of the Pacific and the stunning Porteau Cove on the way back. It was fun watching the BMXers riding down what would normally be the ski slope and it was so pretty seeing the gorgeous autumn colours of the trees as we went past. Another highlight was starting the day with a fabulous spicy chicken breakfast burrito at JJ Bean followed by a glorious drive through Stanley Park and ending with a romantic walk along the seawall catching the sunset.

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View from Whistler

One of the things I loved about 3-month trip in general was being able to meet up with people we knew en route. It gave that part of the trip a much more personal feel getting us to see places where we may not have otherwise visited from the perspective of our friends, who were now ‘locals’. Although I hadn’t seen Megan in the 15 years since she’d moved to Canada, visiting her and her family was just like old times, as if we’d just seen each other yesterday.

Portland

Okay, this is starting to sound repetitive, but it’s true, Portland was another place I had always wanted to visit. As a music fan and foodie, I’d always heard so many good things that I managed to persuade Mrs Cortado to include Portland on our itinerary.

We found a lovely AirBnB in one of the lovely tree-lined suburban streets and as this city isn’t that big, we were only a short bus or cab ride to the centre. Although we stayed in a variety of hotels and AirBnBs on our trip, staying in an AirBnB often added to the experience as you felt more like you were actually living there for a while as opposed to simply visiting. I even found a favourite coffee bar, the Westside branch of Heart which I visited each morning.

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Although we’d been lucky with the weather in Seattle, our luck ran out in Portland on one particular day, however we then ended up going to a triple bill and having lunch at the fabulous Living Room cinema. It felt like a particularly Portland-type of day.

Portland is such a walkable city that when the sun did decide to make an appearance, we wandered around enjoying the quirky architecture and chilled ambience of this tranquil city. I even saw the singer from the Dandy Warhols in a cafe from the bus on my way home one night and as a music fan, that made my day.

Food is a big thing in Portland and food trucks are really popular. I’d planned to visit a highly recommended Korean truck, but on the day we went, they weren’t quite ready and so we ended up having some really good noodles from another truck just around the corner.

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Not far from where we stayed we found a fantastic bar/restaurant called Levant on E Burnside which offered really good hummus and made whatever cocktails you asked for. Donuts seem to be a very big thing here too, so we thought we’d go to one of the most well-known ‘gourmet donut’ shops Blue Star Donuts where we tried a handful of their product. Well, somebody has to…Highly recommended, although I wasn’t too sure about the marionberry and pepper one.

We loved visiting Seattle, Vancouver and Portland on this leg of the trip and again, although we enjoyed all the wonderful things they had to offer, I made a list of all the places that we wanted /should visit based on online recommendations (and sometimes we even used it), but in the end, our favourite thing was still to wander around and see what we bump into on the way.

So, from the north-west, we were now due to head south to California. San Francisco, LA, Big Sur. And guess what? I’d always wanted to go there too…

3 Months On The Road In The USA (Pt 2)

After only a week on the road in the USA, we’d already had a fantastic time visiting lots of places including Vermont, Massachusetts and Cape Cod. Read 3 Months On The Road Part One. After a wonderful few days on Martha’s Vineyard, we then headed for the mainland to drive along the East Coast, see friends in New York and then end this stage of the trip with some time in Chicago.

PROVIDENCE
Our first stop was the town of Providence, Rhode Island. Mrs Cortado had been looking forward to coming here as the city still has its original 17th century town plan and for such an architectural geek, she loved walking through architectural history, especially around Brown University and being able to see the evolution of houses from clapboard to classical grandeur. And although we had torrential rain for most of our time here, it gave the city an eerily Gothic ambience which made it even more interesting.

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After we’d explored for a while, I was soon looking forward to trying Korean food for the first time. I’d heard about Sura located on Westminster Street in the Old Town centre, which fortunately was just around the corner from where we were staying and was fantastic. Admittedly having never had Korean food before, I have no reference points, but the pork bulgogi that I had was delicious with a lovely spicy kick. We also had our first experience of valet parking when we stayed on bunk beds (which neither of us had done since we were children) at the delightfully funky Dean Hotel on Fountain Street.

NEWPORT
Our next hotel was in New Haven and so on the way, we stopped off at a couple of places. Like Providence, Newport was very much on Mrs Cortado’s list due to its plethora of 19th century mansions. Our afternoon went from the humble Arts & Crafts Isaac Bell house to the Kardashian-esque opulence of the Van der Bilt mansion ‘The Breakers’ and although I only saw two of the four that Mrs C saw, I can highly recommend a visit here if you are interested in architecture.

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MYSTIC
We then took the 95 south to hang out in the pretty village of Mystic which fortuitously was hosting a farmer’s market/food festival along the riverside. And this time, although there was no pizza (if you’ve seen the film), we did have a seriously good burger.

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NEW HAVEN
After a long day driving and visiting Newport and Mystic, we really enjoyed walking around the almost village-like tranquility of New Haven. Most famous for Yale University, this lovely town has a strangely familiar feel, no doubt brought about by the old English college style architecture of the colleges at Yale. We also found a lovely little coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street which I’d highly recommend.

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And then we headed for New York City.

NEW YORK
Although Mrs Cortado and I have been to New York a few times already, it is still somewhere that we absolutely love visiting. Seeing old friends again is always nice and adds a more personal twist to our trips, however New York always has something new to offer no matter how much time you spend there. We’d seen the ‘usual’ sights on the tourist trail in the past, so this time just wanted to wander around a few new areas mixed in with some old favourites.

Ellis Island
There are many places that Mrs Cortado and I have always wanted to visit and one of the lovely things about this trip is that we got the chance to see many of them. One of the places for me was Ellis Island and so, one beautiful crisp September morning, I went down to Battery Park to get the 8.30am Statue Cruises ferry which took me past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island itself, which truly blew me away and was one of the highlights of the entire three-month trip.

Statue Of Liberty

Immigration
For me, simply spending some time sitting down and contemplating in the Immigration Museum and the Great Hall where all immigrants would have been admitted or even refused entry gave me some insight into how things would have been at that time. And what’s more, as immigration is often seen as a negative factor in modern society, it was a strong reminder of how positive a contribution it can make. Especially when, according to the Ellis Island website, over 40% of the U.S. population descend from the 17 million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. A truly humbling experience…

Shakshuka
One of my favourite discoveries on this trip to NYC was the Shuka Truck. I’d first heard of shakshukas on Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Mediterranean Feast’ TV programme. They are a mix of poached eggs with tomatoes, chillis, peppers and spices – a kind of Middle Eastern huevos rancheros. I’d found out about the Shuka Truck on Twitter through which they posted their daily whereabouts in the city. For only a few dollars, sitting in the park with the sun shining and a shakshuka for lunch. Nice! I was really starting to enjoy food trucks and the new food opportunities in general on this trip.

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Other things we loved seeing and doing included:

  • wandering through Central Park (always a favourite thing to do)
  • pastrami sandwich at famous Jewish deli Barney Greengrass
  • cocktails with friends at the Four Seasons (where Mrs Cortado and I had got engaged in 2005)
  • chicken and waffles at Sweet Chick in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
  • New York Historical Society with its excellent civil rights exhibition

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No matter how many times we go, New York is still an amazing city to visit. However, after a week there it was time to move on and we had a flight to catch.

ZIONSVILLE & INDIANAPOLIS
We were going to stay with an old university friend who lived in a small town called Zionsville, just outside Indianapolis. After lots of reminiscing about university days, we went to the track in Indianapolis where they hold the legendary Indy 500 Indy Car races. We then had a fantastic evening in Zionsville where we saw chipmunks for the first time, had our first evening eating hot wings in a ‘proper’ American sports bar with wall-to-wall TV screens showing different sports and we even got carded which has not happened to me in two decades!

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What more could you ask for? 
It sadly transpired that I had not turned into a teenager overnight, but that this bar carded everybody, even the 60-something-looking guy who went in before us. Or maybe he was just a very old looking 21 year old. We had a fantastic evening in this small town where although technically there was little to ‘do’ as a visitor, if you are in a bar with a few drinks and some good friends, what more could you ask for?  Another highlight.

CHICAGO
The following morning, we got the Greyhound bus to Chicago where we would be staying for five days. If you’ve read Part One of this series of posts, you’ll know that until this trip, I’d only visted New York on previous trips to the US and so, Chicago was going to be my next ‘big city’ and I was really looking forward to it.

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Beachy
On my first day, I was surprised by Chicago and found it to be much more more laidback than New York and it was another wonderful place to walk around. With the huge Lake Michigan alongside and the Chicago river running through the city, I had no idea it would be as relaxed as it was and on Lakeshore Drive you have a a beach, rollerbladers, cyclists, promenade and sunshine – so far, Chicago was not remotely as urban as I’d expected.

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Seniorfest
While Mrs Cortado went to the Art Institte of Chicago, I wandered through Millenium Park to see where the music was coming from – I’m a musician and a big music fan – and I bumped into Seniorfest. Hundreds of pensioners were listening and watching a concert including versions of classics such as ‘Sweet Caroline’ and amusingly, ‘Mrs Robinson’.  A festival to celebrate being older. It was lovely! One sprightly young man was on stage at one point introducing the next performer and said “I’m 77 and I dance like heaven” and proceeded to do just that along with a whole group of ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. Transport to and from the event was on local school buses which was a nice touch too.

Food
What about the food? Well, this may be heresy, but I must admit I wasn’t that impressed with one of the most famous dishes on offer in the Windy City – the world-famous Chicago pizza pie. I’ll try pretty much anything once. And I did here. But pizzas should be thin crust. End of story. No filled crust. No deep pan. And although I had wanted to try it out as we were in town, I’m afraid, definitely no pie. But that’s another reason to travel, to try new things. Sometimes, you’ll love it and others, maybe not. But we loved Al’s Italian Beef  and Portillo’s hot dogs!

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Architecture
Mrs Cortado and I are both architecture fans (though she is more of an academic architecture/design geek) and on this trip we had already seen quite a few grand houses, however one of the great things Chicago offers is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat ride where you not only get an excellent audio, but you also get to see some incredible buildings from the water as you travel through on the river. And if you need a bit more architecture in your life, away from the centre on the University of Chicago campus, it’s also definitely worth visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Robie House.

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Other favourite things included:

Next stop
Already three weeks into our three-month trip, we had taken planes, automobiles and a Greyhound bus around the north-eastern side of the States and now, from the monumental grandeur of Union Station (which is also definitely worth a visit), we were going to take a 3-day train ride going west to Seattle…

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Around The States (And Cuba) In 90 Days

After our 6-week trip around Spain in July/August 2015 (read A Slow Spanish Summer), we had such a good time that we then went on a 3-month trip around the USA and Cuba from September to December 2015. Mrs Cortado and I had been planning a ‘big trip’ for a long time and as we had already been to Japan (the only place we had both totally agreed on) in the last few years, our top 3 choices had been:

 

A) Thailand/Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos
B) Argentina/Uruguay/Chile
C) the USA/Cuba

 

Although they were all incredibly appealing, we chose the USA and Cuba for no other reason than Mrs Cortado won the roll of the dice and we also knew that at some point we would go to the other countries.

 

We started in Boston and then essentially did a loop of the whole country coast to coast via Cuba. With somewhere the size of the USA, it’s difficult to include everything you want in your itinerary, however many compromises and much planning later, we put together the whole trip, even including accommodation for every night. For example, I’d absolutely recommend going up the Empire State Building in New York, but as we had already done that on a previous trip, this time we loved going to the Ellis Island Museum and Barney Greengrass, the best Jewish deli in the city which had been recommended by some local friends.

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Pastrami bagel from Barney Greengrass
Over the next few posts I will write about the trip, including some fantastic pictures from Mrs Cortado, however roughly speaking in addition to many other points of interest, the route went like this:

 

Boston-Vermont-Cape Cod-New York-Chicago-Seattle-Vancouver-Portland-San Francisco-Big Sur-Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Santa Fe-New Orleans-Memphis-Nashville-Charleston-Savannah-Miami-Bahamas-Cuba and then we flew back to London.

 

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
One of my favourite artworks. ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper at the Art Institute of Chicago. But I couldn’t believe it was so small…
One of the fun things about writing posts such as A Slow Spanish Summer and these upcoming USA ones is that as it has already been quite a few months since the trip, Mrs Cortado and I can relive the fantastic experiences all over again, remembering all the little and not-so-little things that we have maybe already forgotten.

 

I will be publishing a post on the first part of the trip very soon.
Later dudes…

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