I really love America. I’ve been on four proper holidays there (plus two stopovers), taking in thirteen different states – Florida, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., Delaware, California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas – and they’ve been some of the best holidays I’ve ever had. I loved the people; I loved the food; I loved the views on those long drives; and I loved the sheer variety of ways to enjoy yourself. I’ll be going back again soon, so today I thought I’d talk about some of the things I enjoyed the most from my past visits there.
Kennedy Space Center
I’ve been to Florida twice, once on a family holiday in 2007 and again on an organised tour in 2013. The two holidays covered the usual attractions, like SeaWorld, the Disney parks, and airboat rides in the wetlands. Then there were smaller moments, like my first meal at an American restaurant (Shoney’s) where I was pleasantly surprised by the waitress refilling my Coke without me asking, and getting the nerve to sing karaoke for the first time ever in a bar in the Florida Keys.
But the best part, of course, was the Kennedy Space Center.
On the 2007 holiday, the KSP was the first place that my family and I went to after arrival; to determine the order, we all wrote down the place we most wanted to go and put them in a hat, and it was my choice that came out first. I was extremely excited on the drive to Cape Canaveral: just seeing the street names like Shepard Drive and Grissom Parkway got me excited, and that only increased when the massive Vehicle Assembly Building became visible in the distance. At the KSP itself, we took a bus tour which happened to pass by the Crawler, the vehicle used for transporting rockets to and from the launchpad; that was enormous, but there was bigger to come. When the bus arrived at the Apollo / Saturn V Center, we were shown inside the actual launch control firing room from the Apollo era; a simulation of the Apollo 8 launch was played, during which the windows behind us actually shook as if a Saturn V was really taking off at that moment. When that was over, we entered the adjacent hangar, containing mission patches hanging from the ceiling, Apollo spacecraft…and the Saturn V itself. I was truly awestruck by my first sight of that 111-metre rocket.
On my second visit in 2013, I saw a lot of the same things again, but there was more besides. Our tour group took part in Lunch With An Astronaut, where a real astronaut talks about their experiences and answers questions while you have your meal. Our astronaut was James F. Reilly, who flew on three Shuttle missions. I asked him how much room there is to move on the Shuttle itself, and he replied “Not much,” commenting that he liked to eat meals on the ceiling where he could find relative privacy. (And yes, somebody else asked how you go to the bathroom in space.)
Since my last visit, a new attraction had also been installed: the Shuttle Launch Experience. Having never been a fan of theme park rides, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this. Inside the simulator, we got into our seats, and were rotated so we were lying on our backs. Then liftoff commenced, and we spent a few minutes being thoroughly shaken while G-forces pressed down on our faces; finally, we “arrived” in orbit, and our seats tilted forwards slightly to simulate weightlessness. My kind of ride.
I definitely intend to go back to Kennedy Space Center, not least because Space Shuttle Atlantis has since been put on display there. And I would certainly love to see a real launch, though given that I don’t live in the United States, timing is difficult as these things are so often delayed.
New York City
In 2009, I returned to America as part of an organised tour of the northeastern states. The tour started and ended in New York City, and I had a free day there at the start. After a hearty breakfast of pancakes which kept me going for practically the whole day, I took the bus from New Jersey to Manhattan.
I started off by wandering about in Central Park, which was full of dogs and runners, leading me to think that our dog would have enjoyed it there; I also recognised the fountain that appears in Home Alone 2 when Kevin runs away from Harry and Marv. Once I left the park, my original plan fell apart and I was unsure where to go. Part of this was because while Central Park is relatively peaceful, the rest of New York is overwhelming – so many people, so much traffic. Walking around was a slow process as there were so many street crossings I needed to stop at. Eventually, I got down to the subway system, where I travelled to the Museum of Natural History to admire the dinosaur skeletons. After that, I took in the landmarks: the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Times Square and the Empire State Building. I saw the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, and bought a baseball cap from a street vendor, which continues to be my go-to running headwear to this day.
My big impression of New York City was that while it was nice to visit, I wouldn’t want to live there.
The day after my wander around New York, me and about a dozen others set off on the tour, heading first to Boston, then Niagara Falls. Some aspects of the tour were a bit difficult. We generally camped rather than staying in hotels, and it took me a few days to get used to that. While I got on well enough with everybody, I was the only person who wasn’t travelling as part of a pair, and I tended to be on a separate wavelength in terms of what I wanted to do. In Boston, I would have liked to have followed the Freedom Trail, but everybody else wanted to go and see the Cheers bar. However, there was a pleasant moment when we stopped for lunch at a green in a village called Herkimer. After eating, a few of the others started playing catch with a football, and I found myself getting up and joining the game. Throwing that football around, I felt much more involved than I had up to that point, and got more praise for my catching skills than I ever had playing sports at school.
In the late stages of the tour, we made it to Washington D.C. We first experienced the National Mall at night rather than during the day, and I was happy that we did because it made a big impression that way. It was awe-inspiring to see the memorials of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln when they were lit up in the dark and not too crowded; reading the quotes engraved on the walls, I could understand the pride and patriotism that these places inspire. Meanwhile, the Korean War Memorial, where statues of nineteen soldiers wearing ponchos stand in a rice paddy, looked positively eerie at night.
Returning in the daylight the following day, we had a better view of the familiar buildings surrounding the Mall, like the White House and the Capitol Building. We spent most of the day visiting the Smithsonian Museums, of which my favourite was the National Air and Space Museum. The entrance hall was exciting all on its own. On the floor were three separate spacecraft: Friendship 7, Gemini 4, and the Apollo 11 command module. Hanging from the ceiling were an X-15, the Bell X-1, SpaceShipOne, and the Spirit of St Louis.
Funnily enough, when we got back to New York, I killed some time by going to a nearby cinema and watching Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, which remains the only film I’ve seen in an American movie theatre.
In 2012, I went all the way to the opposite side of America, to see what the West Coast had to offer. This was another tour, but this time everybody was travelling singly and I found it much easier to integrate with the group. Our arrival point was San Francisco: Kim, the tour guide, urged us to try and adjust to the local time right away no matter how tired we might feel, so several of us went for a walk around the pier. Feeling peckish, I headed for a pizza place and selected what looked to be one of the smaller options – but which turned out to be a huge Coke, and a “slice” equivalent to half of a standard pizza.
Despite following Kim’s advice, there was no escaping the jet-lag, and I was awake well before sunrise. At 6:30am, with some time to go before breakfast, I decided that I might as well go for a walk, the hotel being around Fisherman’s Wharf. What surprised me when I got outside was just how quiet it was; just the occasional car and jogger going past, and the barking of the sealions at Pier 39. Granted, it was early in the morning, but the atmosphere was still unexpected in a major American city. I warmed very quickly to San Francisco, even though the weather wasn’t actually warm until later in the day.
A coach tour took us around the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, before we took a harbour cruise under the same bridge and around Alcatraz, making for some great photos. The afternoon wasn’t quite as productive, as we ended up taking a cable car and a trolley that both broke down.
Las Vegas (and the Grand Canyon)
The tour then headed down through Monterey, Los Angeles and Long Beach, where we took in Cannery Row, the Chinese Theatre, Universal Studios and the RMS Queen Mary – at which point, we headed east to Las Vegas. It had been a packed holiday, and by the time we crossed the border into Nevada (where some casinos are set up in the middle of the desert for lazy or hurried gamblers), I was low on energy. Vegas, however, quickly perked me up. It was just a really fun place to be. I was cautious with gambling, however: I won $18 on virtual roulette, but probably lost about the same amount.
At night, we saw the beautiful dancing fountains outside the Bellagio, then headed to what Kim called “the freak show”: Fremont Street. There were indeed plenty of freaks: a contortionist in a green body suit, doing mind-boggling things with a hoop and a box; a magician doing similarly mind-boggling things with coins, cards and ribbons; and lots of people walking around in cheap superhero and cartoon character costumes, charging for photos. There was also a free rock concert going on: three long-haired guys on vocals and guitars, a drummer, and two dancing girls, blaring out their tunes on a stage to one side. Even the canopy screen overhead had something to offer besides flashing adverts; at 10pm, we were treated to a short tribute to Queen, with colourful graphics above our heads to go with the music.
The following afternoon, I visited the Titanic exhibition at the Luxor, which didn’t disappoint, apart from the fact that I couldn’t take pictures. As well as the various artefacts, there were recreations of cabins and the First Class Grand Staircase, plus a rather eerie promenade deck with a black star-speckled sky – and at the end, an actual piece of the Titanic raised from the wreck. That night, I headed up the observation tower of our hotel, the Stratosphere, to admire the view: a carpet of lights, with the Strip and its collection of towering casinos the crowning glory of it all. I said to one of the security guards, “You don’t have a bad job, do you?” He concurred.
Early in the morning, we flew in a small plane to Arizona (with a view of Hoover Dam along the way), to see the Grand Canyon. We got some spectacular views from the plane itself, and upon landing, we visited two excellent observation points. Eating a packed breakfast while sitting on a bench overlooking the Canyon vista was a lovely experience. Flying back to Las Vegas in severe turbulence, not so much. If I ever return to the Grand Canyon, I think I’ll drive.