Room 327, Best Western, Valdez, Alaska Saturday, 21st May
I promised to put in the maps and forgot. So the current trip we're on is here, our route from Anchorage to here in Valdez, via Copper River Lodge.
And to show how little of Alaska we're covering, here is the route showing the whole of this state (that's Russia over on the left).
Why does Valdez sound familiar? Probably because of the Exxon Valdez disaster when, in 1989, tons of oil was spilled into the Prince William Sound, here, ironically by the tanker named after this place which is the terminus for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. And also, in 1967, there was a devastating earthquake and tsunami after which the town was rebuilt at a different location, see this for more info.
Those of you worrying about Mr M, left behind in Salt Lake can stop worrying. He turned up here in Princess Lodge looking pretty healthy and slightly larger down to all those sweets and desserts!
Indeed, back at Copper River Lodge, we had dinner there. As we were in the wilderness it was either in their restaurant or go hungry. We thought at first that they were having staffing problems in the restaurant as the food was very slow in its appearance and, poor Bob's rock fish was cold and uncooked! The place had only be open for the season one or two days before (the cute waiter at breakfast was unsure, poor lad). But we have found since, with our experience here in Valdez, that slow, but very friendly, service is indeed the Alaskan norm. But that does not excuse raw fish, unless, of course, the chef was Yup'ik?
Forgot to take pictures of the main course but here's the menu.
We splashed out and John had the salmon and Bob the, finally, delicious rock fish. Once he'd complained to the manageress a new plate of fish was brought out, red hot and cooked, in stunning speed. Perhaps someone else went without? But also, we were given complimentary desserts. Now, we have been resisting our just desserts but as they were free..... what the heck! Huckleberry ice cream for Bob and Chocolate Mousse (Moose?) Tart for John, of course!
As promised, here's that dog team and sled and large people to be towed.
As we knew there would be nowhere to stop before we got to Valdez (and so it proved to be) we also had breakfast in the hotel. Our young waiter who had probably never waited before (he was a college student from Detroit, Mi, from whom we learned that city was back on the up) and was already thinking about giving up and going home! Aaah! Poor lad.
Cruise ship passengers who, presumably, make up the bulk of clients for the lodge are, we think, bussed up from Whittier. Quite a long way!
We then set out in rain and low cloud, as forecast. This was to be one of the most stunning drives in Alaska. But not for us. Intermittent rain, a bit of sleet, low cloud and fog meant much of the amazing landscape was hidden from our view. But sudden glimpses as clouds parted or lifted were enough to make us feel suitably humble.
A turn off to Washington Glacier was still blocked by snow and was yet to be plowed (American for ploughed).
We passed glaciers, which are receding at a frightening pace (don't believe in Global Warming? Come to Alaska and see the glaciers disappear at a rate never imagined!), stunning waterfalls, and snow fields as well as towering peaks (we assumed).
Video taken on our Canon still camera. Still can't do waterfalls justice unless you are a great photographer!
Apart from fishing and oil, the main occupation in Valdez seems to be roadworks (confirmed by the locals). When there is not snow on the road, they are digging it up.
When we arrived the rain had stopped and we had a really enjoyable wander round the harbour (English for harbor). And chatted to a fisherman who was originally from Moscow. We learned today that there is a programme in Alaska which encourages immigration from Russia, and family heads get financial help to set up in this state. In the one and only store in town, (and overflowing with delightful goodies Safeway), we spotted a couple of Russian fishermen stocking up on vodka. (Not really, you can't buy it in Safeways here. But they were really Russian).
This town is literally a dead end. There is no way out by road except the way we came in, on the Richardson Highway, which, by the way, was the first highway built in Alaska. It runs 363 miles to Fairbanks. Some cul-de-sac. There is fishing, two excellent museums, a Safeway, some bars, two gift shops, some more bars, a couple of restaurants, some motels, and fishing, museums....... oh, and roadworks. A wet Saturday in Valdez is probably enough. A lifetime here in unimaginable!
I thought I was seeing things. So did the dog in the pickup when he shot through the window. Rabbits, domestic rabbits, everywhere. Black, brown, white. Rabbits! We asked why and have yet to hear a believable story!
And, presumably quite a threat to the rabbits, Bald Eagles. Here a couple of juvenile but almost full size eagles are helping themselves to some fresh halibut. We drove the headwaters of the Mississippi looking for Bald Eagles and here they are nearly as common as....... rabbits! Yes, Bald Eagles!
Now, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System currently pumps 1 million barrels of oil per day, and the facility here in Valdez can store store 9.18 million barrels. Guess what, the gasoline price here is the highest in the USA at an eye watering $3.08 (we drove out of town and got that price). In town it is $3.14 for the cheapest gas. In Nebraska, the one and only time we bought the "green" fuel we paid around $1.72 for it!
We cheered ourselves up with a corn dog from Safeways. First one ever. And maybe the last?!
Yes, the road to the oil terminal is a no go area, presumably because most speedos don't show 29 mph. No, security since 9/11 is very strict and cruise ship are no longer allowed up here.
Bear are very common here, apparently. They cross the road and go fishing but we are a little early as the salmon have yet to start running (or swimming?).
No prizes for guessing what Bob had for dinner last night. But you could have a guess!
Tomorrow we get the 5 hour ferry trip to Whittier. Otherwise it would be wits end in Valdez. Haha!
Stop Press: Patch of blue sky just spotted! Stop stop Press: It's gone again!!
Room 104, Best Western Edgewater Hotel 19.45 Monday 23rd May
Firstly, thank you all for your great comments. Judges are studying suggestions for the moose competition. And as for guessing what Bob's meal was, I suspect that most readers felt too nauseous to have a go(!), I can now reveal that it was "Homestyle Beef Pot Pie" so that stuff on top was actually pie crust (pastry?). Bob said it was actually delicious.
Back to the current Blog........ Well, we have a problem! Alaska has been so stunning, we wonder whether we will ever be satisfied with, for example, those plain ole' Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Wyoming etc! It's a blessing that we held off coming here until this our 14th visit to the USA. Otherwise it would have spoiled all the other trips! I am sure this is not right but that's how it feels at the moment. We will have to come back here as there is so much more to explore.
The last two days we have spent nearly 11 hours on boats. The ferry from Valdez to oh-so-much-more attractive Seward (via the tiny port of Whittier).
Not much narrative today as the pictures will do the talking. The ferry had started at 5am in the port of Cordova, then departed from Valdez at 11 as the clouds cleared and the skies, miraculously, turned blue again. We have been so lucky.
Even before we boarded the ferry, Bob spotted this little fella near the dock, a Sea Otter
We had comfortable seats in the front lounge with picture windows but we could also wander out onto the open decks, where we did need to wrap up warm.
Thaaar she blows! SO exciting!
We saw whales and sealions. The whales were difficult to catch on camera. First you look for the "blow" or spouts, where they come to the surface ready to take another gulp of oxygen when you may see a fin or tail (of which we saw several) before popping down to the bottom for a bit more to eat.
Icebergs from one of the several glaciers we saw
The 5¾ hours trip to Whittier passed amazingly quickly.
Although a tying up point for cruise ships, Whittier is even more cut off than Valdez as the only road out is through an old rail tunnel. Until recently, cars had to be loaded onto railroad cars to get through the tunnel. They now have relaid the track so that it's possible do drive over the track, a bit like a city tram track. But it is only a single tunnel and the space is shared between rail traffic and road traffic in both directions. For vehicles out of Whittier, you park up until the tunnel is opened in your direction which, for us, was on the hour, each hour, for 15 minutes. We were in time to make the 5 o'clock "run" so we were all marshalled into the long, dark, narrow and damp tunnel for its 2.5miles.
Whittier was built by the army when the Japanese landed on the Aleutian Isles in WWII. It has since been sold by the government and, until recently, everyone in Whittier lived in this block of apartments!
On the other side, we found yet more amazing scenery as we crossed the Thompson Pass, down to Seward. We could not work out why there was so much traffic going in the other direction. Then we managed to work out that it was Sunday and people we going back to Anchorage after a weekend on the Kenai Peninsula.
A nice Best Western hotel right near the waterfront and away from the bustle of the boat docks. We have a great view of Resurrection Bay.
This couple from Maine we got chatting to on the ferry, then they turned up for breakfast at this hotel, then we saw them checking out, then they were out walking this morning when we were having a wander around.
For today we had booked a wildlife boat tour. The Captain hunted down (just for the camera, of course) whale (Orca, or 'Killer Whales' and Hump Back Whales), porpoises, glaciers, puffins, more whales, a Bald Eagle on its nest on the cliffs, and a mountain goat having a rest. John managed to capture most of these, but, given how much the boat was bobbing up and down (we both managed to avoid sea sickness) there were many duff shots. Onboard was included a buffet lunch of wild Alaska salmon and/or prime rib. Which was very good.
Sea Otter relaxing on his back
An amazing couple of days.
Tomorrow we drive back to Anchorage, back over the Thompson Pass, for one night before our flights to Washington DC.
Started: Room 326 (again!), Kimpton Hotel Monaco, Washington DC 15.43 EDT, Friday 27th May, finished Room 504, Hilton Garden Inn, Frederick, Maryland, 18.12 EDT, Sunday 29th May
On Wednesday afternoon, I think it was, (we have had a problem with days, as well as time, this week) we bid farewell, reluctantly, to Anchorage and to the 49th state of the Union, vowing to return in the not too distant to discover more of its fabulous secrets.
We had time in the morning for a potter and even a IHOP (International House of Pancakes) breakfast, at Arthur's behest. We checked out at 12 and drove round the corner to Ted Stevens, the Anchorage airport, returned the car and got checked in with Alaska Airlines, all pretty painlessly.
Then we learned there was a delay to our flight. We had a reasonable connection at Seattle so it shouldn't be a problem though this meant we had rather a long spell in the Alaska Airlines "boardroom" as they call their lounges but it had a great view of the goings on at the airport so time quickly passed. Freight traffic with Asia is the biggest part of this airport's business as we watched one 747 freighter after another land and take off in rapid succession. Any boredom was relieved when one jumbo (we think a China Air) did a go around. There was no emergency as no fire engines appeared so we assumed the captain had not got his landing quite right on the first attempt. This did seem to hold up proceedings for a while, though.
Time was made up on our incoming plane's turnaround and we were only about 30 minutes late getting off. We were greeted by a charming FA (flight attendant) who had come in from Juneau, via Ketchika and Cordova who even had time to show us her holiday snaps from Juneau which, she said, was well worth a visit. Right then! And we were also served a reasonable "lunch" of a turkey and beef roll. We were soon approaching Seattle where we had about 90 minutes in the very cramped "Boardroom" lounge.
Boarding our American Airlines flight to Charlotte we were greeted by a very camp black female FA in very high heels who kept us entertained as she prepared for take off, taking the time to serve our "Pre Departure Beverages" along with doing all the other chores. For the safety briefing she was joined by an equally camp and well-proportioned FA from the back and they proceeded to do their "Oxygen Masks" double act!
No meal on this flight but a very acceptable fruit and cheese plate, except that was accompanied by a dry roll, with a pack of dry crackers as well as a packet of dry Carrs Water Biscuits! This was a flight through the night so we tried listening to a "Paul Temple" episode as these usually send us to sleep. It sort-of worked and we cat napped our way to Charlotte and, before we knew it, we had 15 minutes before landing to get organised.
Charlotte was an old US Airways hub so had now been Incorporated into the AA system. A very busy hub as we found out as we battled with the crowds going in the opposite direction. It was quite a tight connection but we were in early and luckily had time to admire the absolutely splendid old US Airways "Envoy" lounge as they used to call it.
Is Vannesa Feltz still on Radio 2? Well she also has a job on American Airlines as it was she who looked after us on the short hop from Charlotte into Ronald Reagan airport which is right across the Potomac river from Washington DC. As we have since discovered, the aircraft coming in to DCA are ever present on the Washington landscape. Most pictures of the Lincoln memorial, for example, will almost certainly include a 737 bobbing down onto the very short runway there.
The heat, humidity, traffic and hoards of tourists (mainly school kids on organised trips) did come as a shock to us after the cool and relative calm of Alaska. Gosh was it hot and humid, and still is! But with patience, and one detour to avoid hold ups, organised by Lorie our TomTom lady, we arrived safely at our very nice hotel, the Monaco in our silver Nissan Pathfinder.
First off at the hotel, we were given a room that was still occupied (we'd managed to reserve a room from 10am so that we could rest after our long journey) another and better room was soon organised and we went out for a rather bewildering first walk before having a siesta in time for our evening treat.
Free happy hour at Kimpton hotels with wine, soft drinks and snacks
Yes, at first Washington seems totally overwhelming. All those so familiar sights plus countless and very grand government & state buildings as well as a seemingly never-ending collection of museums and institutions along with stores, offices and expensive, very expensive restaurants (nothing is cheap here)!
On our first evening we'd organised a personal tour of the main sights given that we'd never get to grips with the place in the 2½ days we had here. This was excellent and we were driven to the Capitol, then on to the various monuments, dodging, where we could, the hoards and hoards and.... of school kids on admirable organised school trips to learn all about their heritage. Though they got in the way of good photos, they were generally well behaved and respectful. We had our own driver, Khalid and guide, Tom, who was knowledgeable & helpful. and gave us a marvellously insightful introduction to this somewhat overwhelming city.
This town is full of tourist of all ages but the average has to be under 20!
Not-so-Secret Service agent
Tom, our brilliant guide... and photographer.... for the evening
Next day we got up early to try and achieve John's ambition of having the Lincoln Memorial to ourselves. We got there before 7 and, though we were far from being alone, the others mainly being joggers as well as Japanese trying to achieve that perfect but for-ever-elusive selfie or group photo. (We've concluded that so many tourists only take in what they have come to see through a viewfinder or phone screen. And, the further East you're from, the more anxious you get about the whole process!)
Even at that time, the heat and humidity was exhausting though we persisted and wandered through the National Mall, past the very impressive WWII Memorial, to the Washington Memorial (the needle) then over toward the Jefferson Memorial and then back to the White House.
The National Mall has many memorials and there are more planned. This one, remembering the Korean War, was particularly evocative. War.... we must remember what devastation war brings
A fairly recent addition is the WWII Memorial. Very thought provoking
From there we hailed a cab and went for breakfast at the Library of Congress canteen where we had a great breakfast at cheap prices with ne'er a tourist in sight and just a few civil servants, the rest, we presumed, having taken a long Memorial weekend.
We struggled through the heat past the Congress building to magnificent Union Station. This was particularly busy with people arriving and departing for Memorial Weekend. We sat, illegally, in the waiting area (we should have had a ticket) to recover some of our strength and have a welcome bottle of soda.
On the way back we spent a couple of happy hours in the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art, which is dead opposite our hotel. Brilliant!
We had a little rest and another wander, looking somewhere affordable for a meal, ending up at a Fudruckers (Arthur, quiet!).
Trump already buying up Washington? He has bought the old Post Office building and is converting into a hotel
At the back of the hotel was a "Spanish" restaurant. Not quite Mazarron prices! We gave up waiting to place an order and ended up at aforementioned Fudruckers.
You will all know the famous sights from the capital city so we've tried to select some that give a slightly different perspective.
Yesterday, Saturday, we again got up fairly early and got the car out of valet parking to see what we could see at Arlington Cemetary (sic). You may have realised that this is Memorial Weekend so it was expected that the cemetery would be particularly busy. But despite scores of tour buses and many cars and motorbikes arriving we were surprised how easy it was to get tickets for the trolley tour which saved our poor old feet when exploring this massive cemetery. We saw what we went to see, the Kennedy grave and the eternal flame. We also watched the changing of the guard at the Unknown Soldiers' tomb. We came through the visitors centre to pay the parking fee and, by then, it was jammed with people as were some of the roads thereabout. But we made it safely back to the hotel, by a somewhat circuitous route.
I have to relate that dear old Laurie really did let us down on the way to the cemetery. Perhaps I misunderstood one of her directions but, to get us back on the right road, she wanted us to drive right into the Pentagon (which is on that side of the river and is not in DC). I decided we did not have the correct passes to get past the massive security there. But then, she took us right into Fort Myers. A heavily guarded fort on the edge of the cemetery. There was no way back. We had to enter the camp but, luckily, I don't think we could ever have been the only ones to have gone wrong and the heavily armed guards cheerfully waved their butts at us (rifle butts that is) towards the Uturn loop specially designed for idiots like us!
Though even more exhausted, we battled down F Street to find somewhere for a late breakfast. We ended up in a Pot Belly sandwich bar where breakfast had finished and they did not make coffee at the weekends. Never mind we had a nice sandwich. Then we staggered into the cool of the magnificent Willard hotel (hotel to presidents). By this time they were serving afternoon tea for a cool $49 (plus tax) per head. We resisted the temptation!
We got back to the hotel to find at least 2 weddings being prepared for. With wedding photos going on outside our room, the adjoining room being apparently used as a nursery with at least 2 kids screaming in there and music pouring down the stairs, we decided to try and get moved. And they did, move us, but to one of their "basement" rooms. At least it's quiet down here and will be negotiating a reduction to our bill tomorrow!
It's difficult for us to assess Washington. It' s very busy. very hot and overrun with visitors (like us!). It's expensive and almost has just too many attractions to cope with. Probably the best thing said is we probably will not be rushing back. We've come to see and do what we wanted to do. Unlike a New York, it is doubtful it will be beckoning us back anytime soon! But we did enjoy our stay here and found it most rewarding, if a bit tiring.
Stop Press: Knock on our door and a tray of red wine + cheese & biscuits with a note of apology from the Manager has arrived. We'll see what happens with the bill in the morning. Watch this space.!
Stop Stop Press: On checkout, the delightful clerk said "anything we can do to make things right". I suggested waiving the valet parking fees which she duly did!
And finally, our thoughts following the moving experience of Arlington where the results of war were all too obvious. We just hope and pray that any changes that may or may not happen in the next few months on both sides of the Atlantic will not make war more likely!
This mega trip is almost coming to its natural conclusion in Philadelphia, where we drive to tomorrow.
On Sunday, we get out of Washington DC, fairly early, thankfully, but the roads are already beginning to get clogged with bikers, gathering on our way out, in the Pentagon car park (where we had done a very quick 3 point turn the day before) for the annual "Rolling Thunder" rally which was to be addressed but Mr Trump. By all accounts they were a very receptive audience. Well, there we go.
The route we are following is made up of two separate routes from an old AA book of USA off-the-beaten-track routes. One taking in the historic towns and battlefields of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the other, the "Dutch" (or Deutch) countryside of Pennsylvania with its Amish and Mennonite areas of Lancaster County.
Leaving the bikers well behind, we first popped into Great Falls National Park, where we could view the magnificent falls on the Potomac River. Only a few miles (through countryside taken up by hundreds and hundreds of multi-million dollar houses, with more being built in scores of exclusive "closes") from the heat and bustle of Washington though it felt like a thousand miles. We were in line to get into the park for about 5 minutes (using our National Parks card yet again for free access. It has now paid for itself!). We were oh so lucky to be early as when we came out, the line waiting to go in went on for miles.
We then became aware of how incredibly busy the main roads of this part of the US are. Everywhere there's traffic though at no point did we get held up except at the ubiquitous and very unintelligent traffic lights.
The Nissan Pathfinder we were given is difficult to drive when making turns at traffic lights. It is always tricky turning as there can be up to 6 lanes for various turns going in the other direction. In their wisdom, Nissan put big wing mirrors just where you need to look when turning. Bob, on many occasions, has had to verbally pilot me round and, when it's getting dark, it's a nightmare. What's more, someone scratched/dented the silly thing, probably in the Valet Parking at the Washington hotel.
We carried on through many towns in Virginia and West Virginia. In one of those two, people were across the border - from Maryland, or the other Virginia - buying cigarettes, Another twist on the Belgian tobacco run.
We went to the Civil War battle ground at Antietam (the name of a local creek) near Sharpsburg in Maryland where the battle cost 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing; the bloodiest one day battle in the Civil War.
We had to drive through a town called Boonsboro but were stopped by this policeman, telling us the road would be closed for up to an hour for a Memorial Weekend parade. We decided to stay for a while, bought an ice cream and watched part of the parade.
Next day, we started with the battleground of Gettysburg. This is a huge area and part of a National Park. This being Memorial Day, it was particularly busy and we decided to visit the brilliant museum where we learned about the wanton death and destruction that took place when between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the most costly in US history. The Confederates had moved into Pennsylvania and the Union armies were effectively defending Harrisburg, the state capital and Philadelphia itself. There were very moving and effective AV presentations of each day of the battle along with a summary of the after-effects of the Civil Way on both North and South. We have learned so much on this trip from the Mormon Trail to the horrors of the Civil War. Brilliant in all respects and thought provoking. War is futile and not glorious. War can be avoided and so it should be. Let's hope we all remember that.
Through the town of Gettysburg..
After rather down-at-heel York,
...we got caught up into a horrendous swirl of traffic on the Interstate to the state capital of Harrisburg. We thought at first, that the place was rather heavy industrial and run down but, having made it to Downtown district and the Saskahanna River, we realised how nice it was. The city has had financial problem due to the corruption of its former long-serving mayor, now in jail.
We then did go through very heavily industrialised areas till we suddenly go to the green and pleasant city of Hershey, home of chocolate (in the USA, at least).
This had been on Arthur's bucket list (sick bucket list if he'd eaten all that chocolate). We learned all about Mr Hershey, his fortunes, his benefaction and his amazing methods for making Milk Chocolate (one of the processes involving rolling it for three days with a granite roller). We also learned he made KitKat, Aero and Rolo under licence from Rowntree Mackintosh! The man is still very much present in that city!
We always find a new and understated chandelier for our friend Paul!
We finally made it to our stop for the night, Lancaster. whose population for one reason we have not been able to discover is made up of 40% Puerton Rican. Hispanic driving methods are evident round here!
The county of Lancaster is also home to 45,000 Amish as well Mennonite. Around here, the Amish fuel a small industry of motels, restaurants, buggy and coach tours etc etc. We feared the roads would be full of buggy-chasers but, away from the never-ceasing traffic of the two main highways, the quiet lanes were idyllic and relaxing. We got excited at our first Amish (or was it Mennonite?) buggy. And then a horse-drawn plough. But after a while, they became almost the "norm" which was nice.
We had booked a tour with a lady who, though not Amish, has Amish friends. She drives her own car and we, and another couple from Florida, followed her in our own cars, around the lanes, communicating (mostly her telling us all about the Amish life style) by two-way radio. It was a great idea, did not cost much and was so very enjoyable and informative. We were welcomed into two Amish farmhouses (very unusual) and saw their cows, chickens, and fruit and veg as well as their children who had already broken up for school (much to do in the fields). We bought some delicious strawberries and our companions from Florida 2 dozen fresh eggs.
Not enough room to explain it all here but, we were impressed with their devotion and their hard work and can understand how they want to keep their lifestyle frozen in time.
In the afternoon we had booked a ride on the steam train from Strasburg, still in Amish country so we were able to observe Amish farms and farmers from the comfort of our swivel chairs in the club car. Alongside the railroad was the awe inspiring collection of locomotives in the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum.
Apart from horse and buggy, the only other form of transport that seems to be allowed is by one of these rather odd scooters. We saw men and women of all ages scooting on busy main roads as well as country lanes. The horses used for the buggies are horse racing stock and as such, seem to be rather nervous of the traffic on the main roads. We think we'd have used mules!
We have so far failed to answer the puzzle of the connecting tubes on top of these silos. Anyone?? Not seen on Amish farms, by the way, if that helps!
After a quick foray into Walmart (sorry!!!) for stuff we wanted to take home, we went back to have an Amish dinner in a restaurant which had been recommended earlier. Whether it was Amish owned and whether the servers were Amish or Mennonite we are not sure but we do know that the food seemed genuine and was delicious. The special tonight was an Amish wedding meal, which Bob enjoyed, consisting of chicken with "filling", mashed potatoes, creamed celery and very delicious peppered or "pickled" cabbage. John had ham loaf again with the potatoes and celery. Really good food. And fairly cheap too. There's Amish peanut butter to go with the bread roll.
We are preparing for our final run into Philadelphia via Delaware, mainly to collect another state. Now, we do have a major problem. The fridge magnets bearing the map of each state that we have visited in the past are proudly displayed on the side of the fridge at Bag End. But, and triple but, we have been unable to buy any such magnets for the new states we have visited. This is a disaaster, darlings!
American Airlines Lounge, Philadelphia Airport, 15.45 EDT, Friday 3rd June Completed: Bag End 09.44 CEST, Wednesday 8th June 2016
Firstly, many apologies if you were suddenly inundated with Emails from the Blog web site. I don´t know what happened. "It wasn't me guv". But sincere apologies anyway.
John started this Blog in the lounge at Phildalelphia airport. We had hours to wait for the flight and it was all but finished. The plan was to polish it off on the flight back to Madrid. But the promised WiFi was not available so we were unable to use the free code we were given. Anyway, we had meals to eat and sleep to get so it was probably for the best.
I have to say we can believe it. Our trek to and fro across the USA is coming to a conclusion and it will be good to get home. After quite a few different beds (all of them good with one possible exception when we were not sure about the bedding!) generally, we have both slept well. Bob just counted up. There were 22 different hotels, 23 different beds (we moved rooms in Washington) plus a couple of "beds" on two of our flights.
The last part of our tour was a little disappointing, generally, because of the traffic we found on most of the roads when we had imagined from the book description, perhaps foolishly, that we would be sailing down empty country lanes and roads. For some of the time, we were, but were soon back on the conveyor belt that describes most of the roads "back East". Washington, whilst a must see, was difficult to get to grips with. However, after a walk to the commercial centre, yesterday, away from all the tourists around the Constitutional Centre, we awarded Philadelphia a "thumbs up from us". The only other city, apart from Washington, to somewhat disappoint, was Omaha, Nebraska but that may have been the fault of the rain. Our drives, from Nebraska to Utah and Nevada, and around a sliver of Alaska were just great. We will be back but we will be looking for the wide open spaces again!
Our drive out of Amish country on Wednesday (we had to rack our brains to work out which day), took us through Mennonite country. It was clear, as we had been told, that the rules for this religious group are a little slacker than those for our Amish friends. Mennonites were riding bikes (not those dreaded scooters) and using tractors, all be it with metal, untyred wheels - the tractors, not the bikes (don't ask!). Also some of the outfits were different. We saw men wearing the same check shirts, braces and what appeared to be trilby hats. Maybe they just thought they were being trendy! Their farms went on for quite a few miles; we were able to determine if we were near a Mennonite farm as they use the same method of strip culture in the fields (crops not bare chests, please note) as the Amish do.
(I have Trump shouting in my ear from a nearby TV. OMG. What is this world coming to?). We went north to view another chocolate factory, this time a historic one, but there was a diversion and we just saw Wilbur's Chocolate factory fleetingly, then we visited 19th Century Hopewell furnace which was the hub of the Pennsylvania iron industry, another National Park, then skirted Valley Forge Historical Park, through Chadds Ford, which was busy, and into the Brandywine Valley, scene of an American defeat during the War of Independence. No National Park there!! The valley was nice with a very windy and bumpy road, cars coming at us in the other direction cutting corners, sound familiar?
We then crossed into Delaware which we had been expecting to be one big industrial wasteland, but which was beautifully green, rustic and hilly. We stopped at the brilliant Hagley Museum where there are a number of restored mills situated on Moosejaw Falls on the Brandywine River. This was where Monsieur Dupont made a fortune making blackpowder (gunpowder). He then went on to make dynamite but diversified into many other products, including rayon and nylon and, it would seem, Metropolitan cars (or parts thereof). Who remembers those in UK? For some reason I wanted one!
Then on to Wilmington, Delaware. The book, being 20 odd years old, suggested wandering the streets of this city to see its historic sights. The northern approaches were very pleasant and leafy. The city centre, where Dupont and some other concerns have their headquarters, also seemed bustling and safe but, on the way to see the Swedish Church (this started as a Swedish colony, 1638-1655) we realised we were in an area not to be walked at night. Or maybe even the day. Wilmington is listed as 5th most dangerous in the USA. Without saying anything, I think we were both relieved to get onto the Interstate (I-95) to Philadelphia. For the first time, we encountered a traffic jam but that seemed to be down to pressure of traffic
"Turn Left" barked Laurie, as we got into the city. "Turn right". We are in the left lane of a one-way system with 6 lanes and the right turn is right over t-h-e-r-e, on the other side of all that traffic. So we carry on knowing that Laurie will come up with an alternative. Too late, we're on the bottom deck of the "Ben Franklin Bridge" across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, which, according to some lists, is the most dangerous city in the US. We had to turn off the bridge and even the area right by the Freeway seemed down at heel with no new shiney office blocks or condos. We were relieved to find a CASH line to pay the $5 toll to get back to Pennsylvania from dodgy old New Jersey! Camden was the home of Campbell soups (gone) and RCA (yes Caruso recorded here). To be fair, the RCA building has been converted to "luxury" apartments but we think Camden needs more than that to survive. So many of these old industrial cities are in steep decline with no apparent way out, and those residents (usually black) who cannot get out, seem, simply, to be left to rot
We then made it safely to our hotel, another Kimpton Monaco and were told on check-in that we had been upgraded to a corner room with view of the all the Constitutional Buildings left over from when Philadelphia was temporary capital for 10 years (from 1790 to 1800) whilst they had Washington built. Of course, the reason the place is overrun with schoolkids (again!) is that the American Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution were formulated and signed here. Yes, we saw the very table. Or did the National Parks warden (who gave an excellent presentation to we kids) say it was an "of the period" object? A couple of walking sticks and the main ("sun") chair are the only original items to have survived. What we had forgotten was that these were 13 separate colonies who came together to challenge George III.
So, that evening, we got a walking tour with Melissa which was a really useful introduction to this historic quarter.
Melissa promised to get us tickets for a "Constitutional Tour" the next morning. A girl of her word, she arrived next morning, clutching two tickets for the 9.15 tour. We saw a huge group of students heading for the security line. We tried to get ahead of them then realised we were all going in the wrong direction. So they outflanked us, and, instead of being first through security we had to wait for about 120 youth to go through before us.
The management of visitors to these historic buildings is an enormous operation, run by the National Park Service, of course. Up to 90 people every 15 minutes. But it was well run and we had an excellent "lecture" from a ranger telling us all about Constitutional Hall and the signing of the various documents. We then moved on to sit in the hall that became the first Congress where we had an amusing talk from a rather camp ranger about the goings on in that building. The mob was not allowed upstairs (due to weight restrictions?) but a select few of us were allowed upstairs to see where the first Senate sat.... in more comfy chairs, of course!
We then had a wander round. We had discovered a loophole in their system. No one actually checked our tickets to get into the grounds. It may have only happened that morning but it's worth a try, just bluffing your way through security! You can always plead ignorance as they cart you off to a Federal jail (eg Supermax, Florence Colorado?)!
As we wandered out, we took a spur of the moment decision to take a Duck (DUQW?) tour in one of those old amphibious vehicles. It was fun. At the Delaware River we had to swap our driver for a "captain" who had a licence to take the vessel out on water. We paddled around on the river a bit, staring at various piers than had been converted to luxury apartments for the rich and undeserving (Will Smith, and some unknown-celeb-to us's mother had another).
The commentator was a rather loud young woman who thought she could sing and tell awful jokes. She could, but did she have to do it so loudly and enthusiastically?
We pottered towards the centre, via Macy's store (previously Wanamaker's). Mr Wanamaker had had this magnificent organ installed and they were getting ready for a big concert on Saturday night. We managed to capture a snippet of its wonderful sound. Perhaps Corte Ingles could install one
We managed to find a stall by the ornate City Hall (sort of modern Baroque) selling home-made lemonade (delicious) and hot dogs (a very late breakfast).
We eventually made it to the old Reading-line railway shed now the most magnificent food market. (cf Barcelona, but bigger and better, perhaps) Many stalls offering all sorts of hot and cold food (from Philly Cheesesteaks to salads and juices) along with vegetable, cheese, meat and fish stalls. Wonderful! We had an ice cream served by a Mennonite lady. We had learned that both Amish and Mennonites set off from home at about 4.30am to set up stall in this market. Perhaps one of the several highlights of this bustling city.
Our final visit was to the extremely well presented National Museum of American Jewish History which, on four floors, told the ups and down of Jewish people who emigrated to the USA. Very good!
For both evenings here we went to Jones, a sort-of upmarket diner with reasonable size prices and portions. We went back the second time as we simply could not find anywhere nearby offering meals at a reasonable price. (The food stalls and hall closed at 5pm). We enjoyed our dinners there.
First night, Bob had a chose-it-yourself salad, selecting options on a form, (absolutely huge) and John had a very nice quiche with salad. The 2nd night, Bob had chose-it-yourself salad, selecting options on a form, (even more enormous) and John, their version of a curry shepherds pie, though made with beef (I told them they were wrong about this! Management are dealing with this knotty problem as I type).
Spot the crack! Think it must be on the other side!
On our final morning, when it was raining (gosh we've been so lucky with the weather on this trip) we had spotted an old-fashioned diner just up the street where everyone sits at the counter where we had our last US breakfast. Egg over-easy (over-medium for Bob) bacon strips or sausage links and home potatoes.
The printing of boarding passes at hotels is a frustrating business and this morning's experience was no different. After 40 minutes of cursing the printer in the "business" centre, it did, eventually, spew them forth. Then Bob had a problem locking one of the cases. On two occasions, one of our bags had been opened by the TSA. (They use a special key). We suspect they either damaged or did not "relock" the combination lock as we could not get it to lock. It has a tendency to fly open if not locked. We have taped it up and fingers crossed our underwear will not be spilling onto the carousel at Madrid airport.
We had a bit of an adventure driving to the airport through South "Philly" and into the busiest gas station we have ever seen, on the edge of the airport. Amazingly it was cheaper than any of the others we had seen. The car was returned to Hertz and the dented door reported (it happened in valet parking in Washington). And then a nice Hertz man put our bags in the back of another, 'luxury', car and drove us to the terminal (so much nicer than the dreaded shuttle bus), ready to check in very early. At least it gave us time to type up this nonsense.
We will be boarding in abut 40 minutes. This flight is on a repainted US Airways plane, so we will get the new seats which convert into a lie flat bed.
Continued The flight was great. We had a wonderful female FA (flight attendant, keep up!) who had an very infectious laugh and great sense of humour. I have never known half a cabin laugh so much. The seat was great. We had nice food and even a reasonable sleep. Before we knew it we were being woken with breakfast just before our final descent into Madrid.
Dinner: "Starter: Flaky Tomato Tart with Grilled Artichoke Heart. Salad: Mixed Greens with Sundried Tomatoes and Shaved Parmesan" (very nice)
"Entrée: Coffee Crusted Beef Filet with Caramelized Pan Sauce, Roasted potatoes, and Sautéed Spinach". Which was excellent too, except Arthur gave his spinach to Stan, having tried to swap it for a 2nd ice cream sundae. John had raspberry tart to follow.
Our breakfast, "Fresh Fruit Bowl with Granola and Greek Yoghurt". Arthur had "Traditional American Breakfast with scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, roasted potatoes and herbed tomato". We could not face that!
Through immigration in 2 seconds flat. Bags came off, eventually, no spillage, and we got a taxi through the fairly quiet streets of Madrid to our hotel in the Chueca district. Luckily the hotel had a room ready and we caught up on some sleep. We then wandered the new-to-us area and liked it. Lots of gays, cafes and bustle. We did a bit of a cafe crawl and returned to Pl Chueca for 2 plateaux combinados for around 8€ each. We were also getting 2 coffees for around 3.50€ so, if you shop around, Madrid must be one of the cheapest capitals in Europe.
The library at the hotel? No, the lift (aka elevator)
Our room had a balcony over the narrow streets so we got addicted to watching the world go by. Great fun.
Sunday morning saw a gentle taxi ride to Chamartin Station (much recommended rather than the nightmarish Atocha) where we were able to relax in the "Sala" or lounge before our train to Murcia. Since they stopped doing meals we were forced to buy two cokes and two dry sandwiches from the buffet for around 16€. Pretty awful really considering a 3 course meal used to be included. And we paid over 20€ for our Preferente tickets for the 4½ hour journey!!
Our loyal driver JeanH, with Anthea riding shotgun for us this time, were waiting on the platform and, after a very chaotic exit from the car park, we were home looking for Sofi before we knew it.
What a trip!
There is no doubt our lives have been enhanced by the journey this time. We have learned so much about the native Americans of the Plains and how they were treated, the pioneers and the impossible odds they faced, the Mormons, the cross dressers of Las Vegas, the geology and animal life in Alaska, but particularly there, all about the native tribes who are still there and very much in evidence. We had a magical experience with the Amish and learned about the Mennonites, we had USA history lessons in the nation's current and previous capitals. And we have had fun and eaten well. And neither of us has put on any weight! WOW! We are so grateful that we have been lucky enough to travel like this.
I kept forgetting to put on the route maps I had so carefully prepared. So, in case they're of any interest to anyone, these are the routes courtesy of AA (the automobile one) "On The Road, USA" which has often been our bible when preparing parts of our trips.
We have no idea how long before we go again. Whether it will be another two years, or more, who knows? But John has already been taking a crafty look at airfares! The worst thing is that there is no planning to do in the evenings now when Eastenders is on.
I kept meaning to write about toilet paper, as you do. Remember all those rolls in Nevada? Well, from the top hotels to the most humble motel, the paper was pretty awful. The more expensive the hotel, often, the worse the paper. It was a relief (haha) to get back to Mercadona´s bog standard (haha) paper at Bag End. At least we do something right here!
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous