JOURNAL : May 2005
3 May 2005 :
I had spent last night at the Staybridge Suites Hotel. A very comfortable stay, made even better as it didn't cost me a penny (or a cent). The booking was made using loyalty points I had amassed over the previous couple of months.
Stayed at the hotel until midday, at which time I then took the transfer bus back to the airport, so I could then get the citylink shuttle into Washington itself.
Checked-in to the Braxton Hotel in Rhode Island Avenue. The price was cheap - and I got what I paid for. Second only to the YMCA in Perth, Australia, the Braxton was one of the worst accommodations of the trip. And as I had been warned that Washington DC is a virtual ghost town once the sun had set, due to violence and drug crime, my mood wasn't particularly positive!
Anyhow, this is the sort of thing that makes a trip like this an experience!
I had already worked out what I wanted to do in the afternoon - basically, go on a very long walk round the city to look at all the famous buildings etc.
So, I strolled down 15th Street, and across to Pennsylvania Avenue, until I reached No.1600. Ok, it's more commonly known as the White House, home and office of the President. Lots of squirrels scampering about on the lawn, so maybe it's a natural home for nutters.
Continued past the Federal Reserve building, and looking left I had great view of the Washington Monument. You can't miss it, bearing in mind it's over 150 metres tall. It's a memorial to the 1st US president George Washington, and would have been situated due south of the White House, but couldn't be as that particular area was too marshy to build on.
Construction of the monument started in 1848 and was eventually finished in 1884. It's back to being a building site, as there is work going on to improve accessibility and security.
The Lincoln Memorial was my next stop, and is situated at the west end of the Mall, directly opposite the US Capitol building which can be seen away in the distance.
The neo-Greek temple consists of 36 columns, representing the 36 states of the Union at the time of Abraham Lincoln's death. Inside is situated a beautiful statue of the big man himself.
You can see the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on the south wall of the chamber - the speech commemorated over 7,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the battle that helped save the Union.
My next stop commemorated a more recent battle - in fact a War in a foreign land that still deeply affects Americans to this day.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists 58,000 US military personnel who never returned from the conflict. The design of the memorial is very simple, and has been landscaped into the green lawn near to the Lincoln Memorial. Some people protested that the design was too modern, so a more traditional sculpture was placed nearby.
The names of the dead and missing are listed chronologically according to the dates they became casualties. Some names are marked with diamonds, confirmed dead, whilst those marked with crosses are missing.
I continued on my walk until I reached the World War II Memorial. Stopped here for a bit of a rest and to reflect on the futility of war. The large water feature at the centre of the memorial provided the ideal metaphor for reflection.
My tourist walk came to a finish at the east end of the Mall, beneath the steps of the US Capitol building. It's the place where the people's representatives meet to do the people's business.
By the time I got back to the hotel, my feet were aching badly. But fair to say that the walk was worth it and it had been a monumental day.
4 May 2005 :
Yesterday was spent outside. Today, I would spend the bulk of my time inside. I had heard of the Smithsonian Institution, but didn't quite know what it was. It didn't take long to find out that it's in fact the world's largest collection of museums, with 14 different museums and galleries in Washington alone. I wouldn't get time to do all 14, so settled for the Museum of American History and the Museum of Natural History.
The Institution is literally an all-American institution, but was set up thanks to an Englishman (James Smithson) who never actually set foot in America. He bequeathed his fortune to the USA government, on the proviso that 'an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men' was set up. The grandest building - nicknamed 'the Castle' - is a spectacular red-bricked building, and was the original home of the Institution.
There are many amusing exhibits to see...
... as well as those that were far more thought-provoking.
The exhibits at the National Museum of American History are spread over three floors, and (not surprisingly) cover all aspects of the American nation - from displays about the Presidents, the War of Independence, the American Civil War, firearms, the development of science and agriculture, through to more entertaining subjects such as music, television, films and photography.
Over at the National Museum of Natural History, I was able to brush up on my knowledge of the Earth, dinosaurs, ice age mammals, insects, reptiles, meteorites, gems (including the world famous 'Hope Diamond'), minerals and fossils.
In both of the museums I visited, I was impressed with the way everything was laid out - plenty of room to move around (despite the crowds), and everything on show was well signposted and explained. There are some 143 million objects in the Smithsonian's collections - but of course, only a tiny fraction will ever be on display at any one time!
Whether I was finding out about revolution or evolution, it had definitely been an interesting and informative day.
5 May 2005 :
Arrived at Washington airport in plenty of time to check-in, and boarded on schedule at 12.10pm. We were due to take off at 12.30, but there were problems shutting the doors. Eventually taxied out to the runway, but after waiting in the queue to take-off, it was decided to turn round and go back to the gate. The pilot decided (fortunately I think for the passengers) that he wanted the lock/seal on the aircraft door checked by the maintenance crew.
We finally took off at 2.30 - but we were advised over the tannoy that the cabin couldn't be pressurised, so we had to fly at just 10,000 feet for the journey up to New York.
Perhaps as a result of our lower altitude, or maybe just because of the routing of the descent into La Guardia airport, we got some fantastic views of the Big Apple below. I was definitely sitting on the best side of the plane - not sure I should've been using my camera, but I couldn't miss the opportunity.
Flew in straight over the harbour...
... got a great view of the Empire State Building (no sign of King Kong!)...
... passed over 'Ground Zero', the site of the World Trade Center...
... and got an Eagle's eye view of Central Park.
What a flight! Finished off with a very smooth landing. I had arrived in New York - the last big city on my trip.
Didn't take long to get off the plane and into the arrivals hall. Once I picked up my bag from the carousel, it was a quick walk to the information area, where I booked a ticket for the 'SuperShuttle' - for an easy transfer into the heart of NYC, and to the International Hostel in Amsterdam Avenue, where I would be staying for the next three nights.
CLICK HERE if you want to book a stay at the New York International Hostel
6 May 2005 :
Woke up at 5am - hey, it's not just the city that doesn't sleep. My early rise was thanks to someone snoring heavily in the dorm. I didn't mind though, as I had already decided that today would be packed with all the main tourist visits, so the sooner I was out and about the better.
Fortunately, the nearest subway station (at 103rd Street) was just a short walk away from the hostel. Bought my "Metrocard", and only had to wait a couple of minutes before the train arrived. A short journey later and I was in Times Square. Neon lights and big advertising boards everywhere, and a news ticker confirming in big writing that Tony Blair had secured a third term as PM. Although it was still relatively early, there were still thousands of people mingling around (to be fair, probably the majority were heading off to work), and there were already hundreds of cars battling their way through. Great to see all the yellow cabs - just like in all the movies.
After a bacon bagel and a coffee, I headed down to 34th Street for my first main visit to the day - the Empire State Building.
I knew that the building opened for tourists at 9am, so I patiently waited inside the entrance hall. As 9am arrived, I suddenly found out that the queue for the observatories was actually outside! Oops. But after a few short pleas to the waiting attendants, I was allowed through at the front of the queue. Smart move. After purchasing the $14 ticket, I took the elevator to the 86th floor. The views of the city below were breathtaking - especially as it was a relatively clear day. Another amazing high point of my trip.
The building was constructed in just 410 days, and opened in 1931, and immediately became the most exclusive business address in town. Since September 11th 2001, it has regained its position as the tallest building in NYC. It's a big building, and home to over 16,000 workers.
Big tip - if you want to avoid a long wait, do what I did and turn up nice and early. Apparently, over 35,000 people make the trip up to the observation floors every day.
CLICK HERE for the Empire State Building website
My next planned stop was a visit to the Statue of Liberty - so it was back on the subway down to Battery Point. After a few minutes, I became aware of a few odd goings on around me on the train, and suddenly realised I was surrounded by members of the secret service. Lots of earpieces, and lots of talking into microphones at the end of sleeves. It was nice of them to provide me with such protection on my journey(!) but it turned out that they were actually bodyguards for one of New York's politicians, who was taking the tube train down to an event at the US Coastguard Building.
Bought my ticket, and then I encountered probably the worst-managed queue I have ever stood in - taking over 2 hours to board the Liberty Island ferry. I have no problems waiting in queues, but there was often chaos as the staff at the ferry building kept altering the direction of the queue, so people at the back were suddenly near the front, and vice versa. Some people were really taking liberties. Getting through the tight security at the end was the easiest part.
Anyhow, once aboard the boat, it was a 15-minute trip out to Liberty Island, with views behind of the spectacular New York skyline.
The Statue of Liberty (or "Liberty Enlightening the World", to give it its proper title) is an impressive statue, especially up close. Although I was too late to get one of the tickets to climb up inside (there are 354 steps), the walk around the statue gave me many different perspectives.
Found out that it took 10 years to build (in Paris) and was opened in 1886. It was declared a national monument in 1924.
CLICK HERE for the official Statue of Liberty website
The island hopping trip started again after about an hour on Liberty, with a stop-off at Ellis Island. This was New York's main immigration centre from 1892 to 1954, with over 12 million people passing through to become American citizens.
The main exhibition is spread over three floors, and includes hundreds of photographs and objects. Outside is a "Wall of honor", with over 600,000 immigrants names inscribed. Impressive, even though the inscriptions are added only on payment of a fee.
The whole visit was a real eye-opener, giving me an interesting insight into what happened when people arrived after enduring long voyages from their home countries. Even though I haven't yet been able to trace any of my own ancestors arriving in America via Ellis Island, the visit was definitely worthwhile.
CLICK HERE for more information about Ellis Island
The final ferry ride back to Manhattan provided me with more fantastic views of the New York skyline. After a bite to eat, and another stop-off at Times Square, I headed back to the hostel for a relaxing evening - and a chance to swap stories, hints and tips with fellow travellers.
7 May 2005 :
Started the day at a fairly slow pace. Had breakfast and wrote a large pile of postcards. Wish you were here!
It was a beautiful day, so decided to head for Central Park. 843 acres - according to my guide book - set aside in 1856, where the rich wanted somewhere for pony and carriage rides, and where the socially minded wanted the working class to have somewhere to unwind besides pubs. A rectangular oasis bang in the middle of Manhattan.
Sat down to watch a baseball match, before going on a long stroll. Needed to keep an eye out for the joggers, cyclists and rollerskaters to make sure I wasn't sent flying.
Eventually ended up at Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon - the former Beatle who was shot dead in 1980 when leaving his apartment.
Found my way back to the subway, and hopped on a train to the junction of Times Square and 42nd Street.
Lots of theatres (sorry, 'theaters' for those of you who are American or who can't spell properly) and cinemas - so where better than 42nd Street to see the new film version of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". After all, 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything. I enjoyed the film immensely, especially when I spotted the original Marvin robot from the TV adaptation making a cameo appearance!
Don't panic. If you missed the film, it'll be out soon on DVD.
Later that afternoon, I settled into a Starbucks coffee shop. Nothing like Central Perk, but the place seemed friendly enough. Over two hours later, I had finished writing up the Washington leg of the trip. Unfortunately for me, just as I was about to load the info onto the website, my laptop crashed, and I lost (1) everything I had just written, (2) patience, (3) the will to re-write everything. Hey, it could be years before I get round to writing it all up again...
(NOTE: This journal entry has been added to the website in April 2007!!! It's a good job I kept a written log of my trip).
8 May 2005 :
Last day in NYC. Last day in USA.
Woke up at 4am, ready to catch the airport shuttle at 5am. Got a bit edgy when it didn't turn up on time. It eventually arrived at the hostel just before 5.30 - but fortunately at that time of day, the roads in New York are (relatively) quiet, so it was a swift drive across to JFK.
Start spreading the news... I'm leaving today.
CLICK HERE for the JFK Airport website
Followed the usual check-in drill, and then settled into the Admiral's Lounge ready for departure. Decided just to enjoy the complimentary orange juice - it was a tad too early for a gin and tonic.
Hopeful that the plane would leave on time, for the two-hour trip across to Bermuda. Fingers crossed that we'll avoid the Bermuda Triangle, and that I wouldn't hear Barry Manilow's song of the same name!
It's now really sinking in that my trip is coming towards its end - with just 7 days to go of this amazing voyage. But also just 7 days left before being reunited with friends and family. Therefore, huge mixed feelings.
FOR THE LAST PART OF MY JOURNEY, JUST CLICK ON JOURNAL MAY 2005 - Bermuda
© Jeremy Cousins, 2004-2014