She Road Trips

Full of the Joys: The World’s Wildflowers of Spring

It’s here, it’s here! Regardless of the fact that the car still needs de-icing, winter wear remains a necessity and the patter of hailstones continues to sporadically accompany a portion of the day when March arrives it begins to feel like Spring and the first of those brave buds cracks through the soil on the threshold of heralding the new season. Below are some of Earth’s greatest displays of Spring.

 

 

Goegap Nature Reserve, South Africa

Goegap SA

source

Spring in Darling on the Western Cape of South Africa is July to October. Oranges, yellows, purples and pinks; the desert landscape bursts into life with hues of sunset. The best wildflowers are to be found in Namaqualand.

 

 

Mt Diablo, California

2409168830_f6d9c63d6f_z

Photo by Joe Christianson

Spring in California is March to May but it’s usually March and April that the Gold Poppies burst joyously forth. Mt Diablo and also Bear Valley or the Picacho Peak State Park in Arizona are some of the best places to find and walk among them.

 

.

Swiss Alps

Swiss Alps

Photo by Roberto Sysa Moiola

Visiting the Swiss Alps in early spring may afford you a lucky glimpse of fields filled with crocus’. They appear shortly after the snow melts and last just briefly; the brief hand of nature at its most glorious.

 

 

Northern Cyprus

wildflowers

source

In March and April the Cyprian coastline is bordered by a variety of wild orchids – including Giant and Fan-lipped orchids while the Kyrenia Mountains are host to a whole range of wild flowers.

 

 

Himalayas, Bhutan

Flower-Valley-Credit-JPM

source

In April to September the orchids and rhododendrons of Bhutan emerge. The Mountain passes of Dochula Pass and Pelela Pass offer the best wildflowers. Nature Treks provide panoramic views of the higher Himalayas where the paths are lined with the national flower, the blue poppy.

 

 

Borrego Springs, California

Anza-Borrego-Desert-Wildflower-Season-520x346

source

Spring in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California has become renowned worldwide for the few months (March to May) in which the desert transforms and erupts into colour.

 

 

Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

Wicklow Mountains-Heather

source

Spring in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland is March to May and while it is really more of a summer spectacle the heather has been known to bud as early as May (with unpredictable weather the peak viewings vary year to year); the gorgeously rugged landscape is blanketed in dusky purple tones.

 

 

Margaret River, Australia

008_STOCK_Wilyabrup_20121210-618x338

source

Spring in Margaret River, Australia is September to November; though the native orchids have been known to bloom as early as June. The town boasts 2,500 wildflower species and tours are available in season.

 

 

Lily Valley, Big Sur, California

wild-calla-lilies-at-garrapata-state-park-big-sur-california-1

Photo by Roberto Sysa Moiola

Spring time in the Garrapata State Park is March – May and despite the steep drops and excess of poison ivy the walk through the lily grove where the exquisitely elegant wild calla lily frames the awesome views of the Pacific ocean is deemed worth the perils.

 

 

Ashridge Estate, England

ashridge bluebells uk

Photo by James Appleton

Spring in England is March to May and the common bluebell is synonymous with the English springtime. The delicate little flowers bob in the breeze and at the Ashridge Estate in Hertfordshire the woodland floor ripples with them.

Happiest Places in the World – Where have you felt happiest?

It’s a fact of life (in the UK at least) that Jan & Feb are the worst months of the year; all cause for mass celebration has gone, summer and the chance to see daylight on a regular basis are still months away and scraping together the energy to be happy seems so much harder than usual.

On the basis that happiness is infectious I’ve put together a list of places on the planet where there is good cheer to spare and hope it inspires travels or at least provides a little relief from the long and gloomy months ahead. While happiness can spark from a whole range of things whether it be good weather and great food or golden beaches and perfect company – it’s all pretty subjective, I have never left a beach where my happiness has outweighed my frustration at finding sand everywhere for the next 4-6 days. So this is mainly a list of places where the evidence of happiness is clear, where people smile, laugh and find joy in all around them.

 

Denmark

European Commission

Photo from the European Commission

They may be making some of the grimmest (yet brilliant) T.V. series at the moment (if you haven’t seen The Bridge then stop reading this and watch it right now) but Denmark came top in a study of the world’s happiest countries by the World Values Survey Organisation, a result that seems to derive from content and healthy living. While the cause of happiness can be subjective it’s safe to say that pride, where justified, almost always means happiness and the Danish are proud of their home; with fresh food, easy access to stunning scenery and a productive but laid-back capital they have every right to feel proud too.

 

 

Malawi

Robin Pope Safaris

Photo: Robin Pope

Famous for their friendly welcome to all travellers, Malawi is known as the ‘warm-heart’ of Africa and as one of the poorest nations the locals are really proving that money cannot buy happiness. It is assured that wherever you go in Malawi you’ll be greeted with smiles and the Malawian people pride themselves on creating a warm, friendly and welcoming atmosphere for all.

 

 

Bhutan

_72595618_bhutan_monks

Photo: Getty

Any country that measure happiness on an official scale is taking the mental well-being of its inhabitants seriously but in a Buddhist country that has made great efforts to preserve a spiritual way of life this is no great surprise. The air is fresh and clean, the surroundings awesomely majestic and the Bhutanese are full of smiles and good cheer.

 

 

Charleston, South Carolina, USA

zerogeorge.com

Photo: Zerogeorge

I spent a few days in Charleston and have never been to another city where so many of the locals greet one another on the street. At first it’s a little disconcerting to have a stranger approach with a beaming smile and a cheery salutation; in the UK we’re barely that affable with friends but here it’s a way of life and it’s amazing how quickly the smallest gesture lifts spirits and brightens the day. Sitting on an uneven and creaking porch on a warm summer evening while sipping a cold beverage is my idea of quintessential Southern living but add a cheery greeting from countless passers-by and a great moment has become a perfect one.

 

 

Vanuatu

blackmagic_coffe

Photo: BlackCoffeeMagic

Even on Tanna Island where residents live next to an ever-snarling and spitting volcano the exuberantly happy people of Vanuatu cannot be kept down. Day-to-day life is a marriage of honing ancient skills and respecting the earth that rumbles beneath but there’s almost always a celebration on the way at which point the whole community, young and old, gather to leap, sing and chant in traditional dress; those lucky enough to experience these displays of mirth say that it is impossible not to surrender to the joy. Life is about contrasts and appreciating the moment and it seems that living next to a volcano makes people enjoy every second of existence.

 

 

Florianopolis, Brazil

Ilovebrazil.net

Photo: ILoveBrazil.net

Florianopolis is said to have the best of both worlds; a thriving and buzzing city but with a superb quality of life. There’s great beaches, food, culture and architecture and when a city offers up so much the residents have little to be unhappy about so it’s no wonder Florianopolis was voted ‘Friendliest City’ by Conde Nast readers.

 

 

Costa Rica

jjenki

Photo: Jjenki

Costa Rica has been deemed the most satisfying place to live according to the 2012 Happy Planet Index, which aims to measure human well-being. And with many stunning national parks and beaches, plus a high life expectancy meaning there’s plenty of time in which to enjoy it all, there’s much to be happy about.

 

 

Hidakagawa, Wakayama, Japan

www.town.hidakagawa

Photo: town.hidakagawa.net

A town that has a festival of laughing in which ‘laughing men’ parade the streets in traditional costume and throw sweets to the crowds is going above and beyond to spread the good cheer. The legend goes that the Goddess Nifutsuhimenomikoto was upset to have overslept and missed the God’s gathering in Izumo but the local people cheered her up by telling her to “Laugh! Laugh!”. To this day the parade is specifically about sharing happiness with others.

 

 

Harrogate, UK

Shaun Flannery

 Photo: Shaun Flannery

And to prove that happiness isn’t necessarily too far away; Harrogate in England was named the UK’s happiest place to live. While the measure included house prices and room sizes both community spirit and neighbourliness were also big factors. Let’s not forget that the Tour de France started t’up North last year and with crowds of beaming faces cheering the riders on the happiness factor went through the roof, sometimes the UK gets it right.

 

 

Local Tales – What Lurks Within the Honey Island Swamp?

_MG_4491tw

Travelling offers up the chance to hear about local myths and legends; stories that are utterly rooted in their place of origin and often are unheard of except by locals and the curious who pass through. In an area that boasts a huge population of alligator, wild hog and even a number of black bear and panther there are few reasons to create a fictional carnivorous beast to add to the list of very real and fearsome creatures already in residence; so could there be any truth behind the story of the Honey Island Swamp Monster?

The Honey Island Swamp in Louisiana sits just North of New Orleans and is 70,000 acres of dense emerald pine forest and the Pearl River’s lush flood plains. With terrain not easily accessible to humans and swamp water thick and murky it doesn’t feel entirely fair to declare the existence of this particular local to be completely impossible. But then again . . . described as a 7ft, 400lb, hairy, aqua-mammal with long claws and fierce yellow eyes it has been sighted both swimming the bayous and strolling through the forest on two legs leaving a horrifying odour in its wake.

I visited the Honey Island Swamp with no clue about the monstrous local tale and took a short tour of this beautiful, soupy, green wonder where alligators really are just an arm’s length away – not that you’d want to test that measurement – but there was no mention of the aqua-ape. I can think of only the following reasons for this silence

  1. THE FAKE – It’s not true and not worth talking about
  2. THE UNKNOWN – It’s inconclusive and not to be talked about until more evidence is available
  3. THE COVER-UP – It’s definitely true; Mulder & Scully are literally behind that tree

Even though we all know its option 2 erring on the side of option 1, let’s work with option 3 for a moment (because it’s more fun). The first documented sighting was in 1963 by Harland Ford who came across the beast hunched over a Wild Boar with its throat torn open. He caught the creature on super 8 film and the original footage can be seen below.

It’s erm . . . inconclusive at best. But he spent the next six years hunting for the creature and aside from a second sighting of those yellow eyes peering out from the dense forest he was only ever able to find the monster’s footprints of which he made plaster casts. That’s a lot of time and effort to dedicate to a lie so he either really did see something unsettling that day or he was excruciatingly bored for six years.

The best part is the origin story. While Native Americans tell legends of an orphaned child being raised by alligators in the area and others believe the creature is actually a descendant of Bigfoot there is a story that puts the creature arriving on the scene far more recently. In the local community the rumour goes that a travelling circus was involved in a train crash at the turn of the twentieth century and a group of chimpanzees escaped into the swamp-land where they interbred with the alligator population.

There are a handful of sightings each year but most people consider the likely explanation to be a case of mistaken identity because Harland Ford’s original footage has been easily recreated by a man in a Ghillie hunting suit.

JACKAL_GHILLIE_SUIT

I’m not sure what explanation can be offered for the yellow eyes – severe alcoholism? – but my experience of New Orleans includes large groups of people sat outdoors with a line of cold beers and quietly but persistently perspiring; anyone donning a Ghillie suit and trekking through a swamp in this humidity is going to smell particularly rancid. No matter, the tale in its many wonderful variations still perfectly captures both our imagination and the vibrant, buzzing, complex beauty of the Honey Island Swamp; if you’re ever in the area I highly recommend heading out to the swamp and enjoying all it has to offer, swamp monster or no swamp monster.

 

 

Festive London Treats: 2014 Advent Calendar

If you’re looking for ways to enjoy this festive season in London then you’re sure to find something that interests you here. Each day until Christmas Eve a new London gem will be revealed, it might be an attraction, an event, an activity or a pub but whatever it is it will be a jolly seasonal treat; all info, dates, prices and location will be provided.

Nearest tube and train stations will be given but if you need help planning your route then visit the TFL journey planner. Driving and parking can be tricky in and around London but Parkopedia will help you plan ahead and find the best deal for you.

 All images sourced from respective websites.

Name Address Description
Winterville Victoria Park
London E3 5TB, UK

Winterville

What is it? A Christmas theme park that with its independent, intimate and creative attractions promises to be the antithesis of corporate parks. Events and attractions include comedy and cabaret nights, roller discos, horse-drawn carriages and a motordrome; plus plenty of high quality street food.

When?  2nd Dec 2014 – 1st Jan 2015 10am – Late

            Closed 25th/26th Dec

Price/Fee? Free entry but some events require tickets.

Where? Victoria Park, E3 5TB

Nearest train station: Cambridge Heath or Hackney Wick

Nearest tube station: Mile End (District, Hammersmith & City and Central lines), Bethnal Green (Central Line), Bow Road (District Line), Bow Church (DLR)

Visit the Winterville website for more info. 

Get Directions

X
    or
    Hot Tub Cinema London E1 5ER, UK

    What is it? There are few occasions in the middle of an English winter when you’ll want to put on a swimsuit and venture into the open air but this might just be one of them. Hot Tub Cinema will be showing a host of festive films throughout the holiday season and they encourage you to sing, dance and enjoy your favourites from the comfort of a steamy tub, which will include its own waiter.

    When? Festive films begin with Elf on 2nd Dec 6:30-10:30pm

    Prices & Fees? Individual tickets (for a shared tub) are £35 (20% off for early bird bookings)

                            Private tub (6 person max) £190 (20% off for early bird bookings)

    Where? As a pop-up event this moves around but December showings are mainly on the platform of the Former Shoreditch Underground Station.

    Nearest station: Liverpool Street Station or Bethnall Green

    Nearest Overground station: Shoreditch High Street or Whitechapel

    Nearest tube station: Liverpool Street (Central, Circle, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan underground lines) or Whitechapel (Circle, District, Hammersmith & City)

    For more info visit the Hot Tub Cinema website        

    Get Directions

    X
      or
      A Merry Christmas Cabaret London W1D 6AS, UK

      Show_AMerryChristmasCabaret

      What is it? A charity cabaret in aid of Stand up to Cancer; Musical Theatre performers from across the West End will join together for a night of festive favourites. It’s a great way to get into the spirit of the season and see some of the best musical talent currently on London’s stages all in one place, not to mention while raising money for a good cause.

      When? 4th Dec 10:45pm

      Price/Fee? £27.25 seated/tables

                              £17.25 general admission

                              £77.25 champagne package

      Where? Delfont Room, Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, W1D 6AS

      Nearest train station: is Charing Cross

      Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo underground lines) or Charing Cross (Northern and Bakerloo underground lines)

      For more info visit the website  

      Get Directions

      X
        or
        The Portrait Choir Trafalgar Square
        London, UK

        What is it? A special after-hours performance of Handel’s Messiah to take place in the stunning Victorian Galleries of the National Portrait Gallery. “With its well-known choruses, thrilling drama and stunning solos” this performance will certainly be a very special event.

        When? 6 & 7th Dec 2014 7pm-9:15pm

        Price/Fee? Premium Seating £30,concessions available

                                General seating £24

        Where? The National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square.

        Nearest train station: Charing Cross

        Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Bakerloo and Northern underground lines) and Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo underground lines)

        For more info visit the National Portrait Gallery website 

        Get Directions

        X
          or
          The Empress 130 Lauriston Road
          London E9 7LH, UK

          wedding 2

          What is it? A pub/restaurant that offers delicious winter fare but not necessarily a typical Christmas dinner. The Christmas menu includes Cauliflower soup, beetroot cured salmon and breast of guinea fowl perhaps followed by cinnamon crème brulee.

          When? Lunch | Tuesday to Saturday 12pm to 3.30pm
                          Dinner | Monday to Saturday 6pm to 10.15pm

          Price/Fee? Lunch £19.50 for two courses or £24.5 for three
          Dinner & Sat lunch £22 for two courses or £27 for three
          For pre-ordered parties of 5 or more 1st to 23rd December

          To book a table call 0208 533 5123

          Where? 130 Lauriston Rd, Victoria Park

          Nearest train Station: Cambridge Heath or Hackney Wick overground

          Nearest tube station: Bethnall Green (Central) or Mile End (Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City)

          For more info visit The Empress website

          Get Directions

          X
            or
            Crafty Fox Market 389 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton
            London SW9 8LQ, UK

            download

            What is it? A craft market that boasts unique, design-led, hand-made products sold by the makers themselves this will be the perfect place to pick up something one of kind this Christmas.

            When? 6th & 7th Dec 11am-5pm at Brixton

                           13th & 14th Dec 12-6pm at Peckham

            Price/Fee? Free

            Where? Two locations over two weekends...

                              6th & 7th Dec The Dogstar 389 Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8LQ

            Nearest train station: Brixton

            Nearest tube station: Brixton (Victoria line)

                        13th & 14th Dec The CLF Art Café, Bussey Building, 133 Rye Lane, Peckham, SE15 4ST

            Nearest train station: Peckham Rye (Overground)

            For more info visit the Crafty Fox Market website

            Get Directions

            X
              or
              Crafty Fox Market 133 Rye Lane, City of London, London
              Greater London SE15 4ST, UK

              download

              What is it? A craft market that boasts unique, design-led, hand-made products sold by the makers themselves this will be the perfect place to pick up something one of kind this Christmas.

              When? 6th & 7th Dec 11am-5pm at Brixton

                             13th & 14th Dec 12-6pm at Peckham

              Price/Fee? Free

              Where? Two locations over two weekends...

                                6th & 7th Dec The Dogstar 389 Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8LQ

              Nearest train station: Brixton

              Nearest tube station: Brixton (Victoria line)

                          13th & 14th Dec The CLF Art Café, Bussey Building, 133 Rye Lane, Peckham, SE15 4ST

              Nearest train station: Peckham Rye (Overground)

              For more info visit the Crafty Fox Market website

              Get Directions

              X
                or
                Somerset House Ice Rink Somerset House
                London WC2R, UK

                Somerset House

                What is it? There are a few rinks around London but none in a grander setting than the beautiful 18th Century courtyard of Somerset House. This stunning location in the heart of London means that tickets are in high demand but with controlled time-slots it will never feel too over-crowed. Beverages are available from the covered and heated bar so you can warm up with a mulled wine and watch the skaters while you wait.

                When is it? 11th Nov – 11th Jan 8:45am – 10:30pm (11:30pm on selected days)

                24th Dec 10am – 6:30pm (last session starts at 5:30pm)
                Thursday 25th Dec, CLOSED
                Friday 26th Dec, 12pm – 10:15pm (last session starts at 9:15pm)
                Wednesday 31st December, 10am – 6:30pm (last session starts at 5:30pm)
                Thursday 1st January, 12.30pm - 10.15pm (last session starts at 9.15pm)

                Prices & Fees? Tickets are from £7.50 (not including booking/transaction fees) but prices vary depending on peak times. Limited tickets go on sale from the box office daily (4 max pp) but must be purchased in person so to be sure of a slot call 0844 847 1520 or go to Ticketmaster

                Where? Somerset House, The Strand

                Nearest train stations: Charing Cross, Blackfriars and Waterloo.

                Nearest tube stations: Temple, Embankment (District and Circle underground lines), Covent Garden (Piccadilly underground line) and Charing Cross (Northern and Bakerloo underground line)

                Buses to the Strand include 6, 9, 11, 13, 15, 23, 77a, 91 and 176

                More info? Visit the Somerset House website 

                Get Directions

                X
                  or
                  Carol Singing in Trafalgar Square Trafalgar Square
                  London WC2N 5DN, UK

                  What is it? Beneath Trafalgar Square’s famous Christmas tree gifted to London from Norway each year there will be more than 50 choirs singing a host of carols over the course of 16 days. Wrap up and enjoy an evening in the glow of the impressive National Gallery and there are plenty of cafes around to purchase warm beverages that’ll keep you going.

                  When? 8th Dec to 23rd Dec 2014

                                  4pm-8pm weekdays

                                  2pm-6pm weekends

                  Price/Fee? Free (Donations welcome)

                  Where? Trafalgar Square

                  Nearest train station: Charing Cross

                  Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Bakerloo and Northern underground lines) and Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo underground lines)

                  For more info visit the website

                  Get Directions

                  X
                    or
                    Matthew Bourne's Edward Scissor Hands London EC1R 4TN, UK

                    1670

                    What is it? It may be traditional to head to the ballet at this time of year but if you fancy something a little different then this revival of Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands is the perfect festive treat. As an internationally acclaimed and multi-award winning choreographer Bourne’s adaptation of the Tim Burton classic is unlikely to disappoint.

                    When? 2nd Dec 2014 – 11th Jan 2015

                    Tue - Sat at 7.30pm
                    Sun at 7pm
                    Tue Mats at 2.30pm on 23 & 30 Dec
                    Wed Mats at 2.30pm on 24 & 31 Dec
                    Fri Mats at 2.30pm on 26 Dec & 2 Jan
                    Sat Mats at 2.30pm
                    Sun Mats at 2pm
                    No performance: 24 (7.30pm), 25, 31 (7.30pm) Dec, 1 Jan

                    Price/Fee? Seats range £12, £24, £32, £45, £55

                    Where? Sadler’s Wells Theatre EC1R 4TN

                    Nearest Train station: King’s Cross St Pancras or Euston

                    Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern line) or King’s Cross St Pancras (Hammersmith & City, Northern, Metropolitan, Circle, Victoria and Piccadilly underground lines)

                    For more info visit the Sadler's Wells website

                    Get Directions

                    X
                      or
                      Christmas Wreath Making Course Isleworth, Isleworth
                      Greater London TW7 6NJ, UK

                      What is it? A fun and crafty way to spend your time with a beautiful wreath to take home at the end; at the School of Floristry you can spend two hours learning to choose, prepare and condition flowers and foliage for making the perfect Christmas wreath. You’ll also discover how to make the perfect bow and to wire accessories; you’ll learn all the design techniques for a well balanced wreath. There also courses in Christmas table decorations.

                      When? Saturday 14th & Sunday 15th Dec 2014 starting 11am

                                  Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st Dec 2014 starting at 11am

                                  More classes to be scheduled (check the website below)

                      Price/Fee? £35 pp

                      Where? 10 the Metro Centre, St Johns Rd, Rennells Way, TW7 6NJ

                      Nearest train station: Isleworth

                      Nearest tube station: Hounslow East (Piccadilly underground line)

                      For more info visit the School of Floristry website

                      Get Directions

                      X
                        or
                        Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton Royal Albert Hall, Kensington
                        London SW7 2AP, UK

                        danny-elfman-2014-l

                        What is it? A concert in the world famous Royal Albert Hall that celebrates one of the most successful film collaborations to date; the scores are brought to life by the London Concert Orchestra and the Maida Vale Singers, with a guest appearance from Elfman himself. Sure to be an unforgettable night of glorious music this is the perfect way to enjoy the season when you’re tired of the more traditional offerings.

                        When?  Friday 12th Dec 5pm & 9:30pm

                        Price/Fee? Tickets from £17.80 (standing) £22.90 (sitting)

                        Where? The Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore SW7 2AP

                        Nearest train station: London Victoria

                        Nearest tube station: South Kensington (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines) or High Street Kensington (District & Circle lines)

                        For more info visit the Royal Albert Hall Website

                        Get Directions

                        X
                          or
                          Chocolate Festival London N1 0QH, UK

                          What is it? A joyous, indulgent celebration of all things chocolate. There’s a hot chocolate trail, a cocoa spa and a tasting lounge. Plus a special Christmas market for chocolate gifts and a Christmas tree decorated entirely in chocolate. What would Christmas be without chocolate? At this festival you’ll never have to find out.

                          When? 12th Dec 1-8pm

                                      13th Dec 10am-7pm

                                      14th Dec 10am-3pm

                          Price/Fee?  Adult £8 on the door £7 pre-book

                                                  Child (5-16 years) £5 on the door £4 pre-book

                                                  Under 5’s free

                          Where? Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, N1 0QH

                          Nearest train station: King’s Cross St Pancras or Essex Rd

                          Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern line) or King’s Cross St Pancras (Northern, Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, Piccadilly, Victoria lines)

                          For more info visit the Chocolate Festival website

                          Get Directions

                          X
                            or
                            Wigwambam: 'Woodlandia' London EC2A 3JX, UK

                            QOH-WIGWAM-SMALL-683

                            What is it? A rooftop bar and BBQ to be enjoyed beneath the stars or in the comfort of the candle-lit Wigwam; this cosy spot in the East End is inspired by wintry British woodlands. There are events on throughout the season including ‘drink & do’ nights where you might learn origami or cocktail making. Arrive early to guarantee seating.

                            When? Now until Jan 2015 open from 4pm Mon-Sat

                            Price/Fee? Hot Cocktails from £6

                                                    Food from £5.50-£7.50 (including sides)

                            Where? Queen of Hoxton, 1-5 Curtain Rd, EC2A 3JX

                            Nearest Train Station: Shoreditch High Street (Overground)

                            Nearest Tube Station: Liverpool Street (Central, Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan underground lines)

                            For more info visit the Queen of Hoxton website

                            Get Directions

                            X
                              or
                              Light Up the Palace Hampton Court Palace, Molesey, East Molesey, East Molesey
                              Surrey KT8 9AU, UK

                              ChristmasLightTrailLarge

                              What is it? This stunning project of Henry VIII’s is worth a visit at any time of year but Hampton Court Palace is opening the palace garden gates at night this December and your own footsteps bring the garden to life with colourful illuminations. Wrap up warm as the experience lasts around an hour  - so long as you don’t get lost in the maze. Food and drink will be available to purchase.

                              When? Now -  23rd Dec 2014 5pm -8pm (timed ticket slots)

                              Prices & Fees £10 adult

                                                      £5 child

                                                      £5 HRP member

                                                      Entry at 4:30pm is free with a valid palace ticket for that day

                              Where? Trains run every ½ hour from Waterloo Station (Hampton Court is Zone 6) No tube station nearby but the London Overground stops in Richmond

                              Bus routes from Kingston: 111, 216, 411, 461, 513. From Richmond R68

                              For more info visit the Hampton Court Palace website

                              Get Directions

                              X
                                or
                                Le Garrick Garrick Street
                                London, UK

                                fe_1982

                                What is it? A tiny French gem in the heart of London. This lovely little restaurant is so warm and cosy that it feels like Christmas all year round. Most of the seating is downstairs so don’t bother trying to get signal on your phone just escape from the world and enjoy the great food and atmosphere. The menu is packed with heart-warming French dishes like Confit de Carnard, Cassoulet de Toulouse and Moules frites, but don’t panic if that all is too overwhelming because their burgers are some of the best in London. It gets busy so I recommend booking.

                                When? Mon – Sat 12pm – 10:30pm

                                Price/Fee? Main course from £11.95 - £24.95 (steak)

                                Where? 10-12 Garrick Street

                                Nearest train station: Blackfriars

                                Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Northern & Piccadilly underground lines)

                                For more info visit the Le Garrick website

                                Get Directions

                                X
                                  or
                                  I Saw This & Thought of You The British Museum, Great Russell Street
                                  London WC1B 3DG, UK

                                  What is it? The British Museum have a whole host of events, including some hands on craft workshops; I Saw This & Thought of You is a short talk by Education Manager Katharine Hoare on the history of gift giving in ancient Britain. Sure to be a great way to discover some fascinating facts about this season of giving. No booking required, just drop in.

                                  When? Wed 17th Dec 1:15-2pm

                                  Price/Fee? Free

                                  Where? The British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG

                                  Nearest train station: Euston, King’s Cross St Pancras

                                  Nearest tube station: Holborn (Central and Piccadilly), Tottenham Court Road (Central and Northern lines) and Goodge Street (Northen line)

                                  For more info visit the British Museum website

                                  Get Directions

                                  X
                                    or
                                    Southbank's Winter Festival Lambeth
                                    London SE1 8XX, UK

                                    winter_festival-_slide_52014

                                    What is it? A celebration of Christmas stuffed full with festive shows (including La Soiree and Slava’s Snow Show), a large Christmas market, a Christmas tree maze plus a programme of seasonal pop-up treats. Perfectly situated on the Thames to give fantastic views of some iconic London landmarks simply wrap up and spend the evening supping mulled wine, munching mince pies and soaking up the festive joy.

                                    When? 5th November 2014 – 11th January 2015

                                                10am-10pm daily (market closes 9pm on Thurs & Sun

                                                10am – 6pm Christmas Eve

                                                Noon -10pm Boxing Day (Dec 26th)

                                                1pm-9pm New Year’s Day

                                                Outdoor activities closed on New Year’s Eve

                                                Closed on Christmas Day

                                    Prices & Fees Free entry to the markets & themed cafes

                                                            Southbank Centre Express & Christmas Tree Maze cost £4 pp

                                                            Tickets prices for shows can be found here 

                                    Where? Nearest tube and train station is Waterloo (Jubille, Northern, Waterloo & City, Bakerloo underground lines). I would recommend arriving or departing via Waterloo bridge, which offers one of the best views of London in either direction.

                                    For more info visit the Southbank website

                                    Get Directions

                                    X
                                      or
                                      Christmas Dickens Walks Bank Underground Station (Entrance 3)
                                      London EC4N, UK

                                      What is it? Author and broadcaster Richard Jones offers many Dickens themed walking tours of London but his Christmas Carol tour celebrates Christmas Victorian style and looks at those traditions that were the innovation of Dickens himself. Wrap up warm and follow Richard through the lanes and alleys that Dickens and his characters walked; plus Richard promises to do it all in Victorian costume.

                                      When? Christmas tours still available at time of publication:

                                                                              Sunday 28th Dec 2:30pm

                                                                              Wednesday 31st Dec 11am

                                      Price/Fee? £10 pp

                                      Where? Meeting at Exit 3 of Bank underground station

                                      Nearest train station: London Cannon Street or Liverpool Street

                                      Nearest tube station: Bank (Northern and Central underground lines plus DLR) and Monument (Circle and District Underground lines)

                                      For more info visit the website

                                      Get Directions

                                      X
                                        or
                                        The Hide Bar London SE1 3XF, UK

                                        HideLogoScroll2

                                        What is it? A cocktail bar with award winning bartenders and consistently positive reviews. There will be a selection of hot cocktails to warm you up throughout the festive season. Plus with an off-sales licence until 10pm there’s even a take away menu. Bar snacks available.

                                        When? Tuesday to Saturday 5pm – “late”

                                        Price/Fee? Signature cocktails £9

                                        Where? 35-49 Bermondsey Street

                                        Nearest train station: London Bridge

                                        Nearest tube station: London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee underground lines) or Borough (Northern underground line)

                                        For more info visit The Hide Bar website

                                        Get Directions

                                        X
                                          or
                                          Panto - Cinderella London SW19 1QG, UK

                                          22614_full

                                          What is it? A British tradition during the festive period is to see a pantomime and Wimbledon Theatre usually put on one of the best in town; this year it’s Cinderella starring Linda Gray, Tim Vine & Wayne Sleep. It’s always a spectacle with grand sets, elaborate costumes and this year they promise real Shetland ponies; warm up those vocal chords because there’ll be heaps of audience participation.

                                          When? Now until Jan 11th 2015 Matinee and evening shows daily but times vary see here for details. 

                                          Price/Fee? General tickets are £10-£39.50 (plus a booking fee)

                                          Where? 93 the Broadway, SW19 1QG

                                          Nearest Train station: Wimbledon

                                          Nearest tube station: Wimbledon (District underground line)

                                          For more info visit the ATG website

                                          Get Directions

                                          X
                                            or
                                            Hogwarts in the Snow Warner Bros. Studio Tour, Studio Tour London, Studio Tour Drive, Watford
                                            Hertfordshire WD25 7LR, UK

                                            HITS_image_930_563_c1_smart_scale

                                            What is it? The Harry Potter Studio tour of the sets from the block-busting film series gets a magical and festive makeover. The Great Hall will be decorated for Christmas with the dining tables dressed for the great feast. The tour is also packed with original props and costumes from the film series.

                                            When? Now until the 1st Feb 2015

                                            Opening times vary – see here 

                                            Price/Fee?  2014 Adult £31 Child £23.50 (4 and under free)

                                                                    2015 Adult £33 Child £25.50

                                            Where? Leavesden, WD25 7LR. Nearest train station is Watford Junction Overground (from Euston station) the studio provides a shuttle bus from here to the studio every 20mins at £2 pp return.

                                            For more info visit the Warner Bros Studio Tour website

                                            Get Directions

                                            X
                                              or
                                              The Pie Room Fitzrovia
                                              London W1T 1NG, UK

                                              NewmanWebsite07039_web

                                              What is it? There’s nothing more heart warming in the bitter winter weather than sitting by a fire with a delicious, steaming pie. This tiny room above the Newman Arms has charm, warmth and some of the most traditional British pies and puddings you’ll see on any London menu. The Christmas menu includes game pie, mutton pie and Christmas pudding with brandy custard. This place is seriously teeny tiny so book in advance by calling 02076361127

                                              When? Mon-Fri only

                                                          Pie room open 13pm-3pm

                                                                                     6pm-10pm

                                                          Bar open           12pm-11:20pm

                                              Price/Fee? Christmas menu £30 pp

                                              Where? 23 Rathbone Street

                                              Nearest train station: Euston

                                              Nearest tube station: Goodge Street (Northern underground line) or Tottenham Court rd (Northern or Central underground line)

                                              For more info visit the Pie Room website

                                              Get Directions

                                              X
                                                or
                                                Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales London SE1 9PH, UK

                                                frog

                                                What is it? An immersive theatre experience that brings to life the delightfully twisted world of the Brothers Grimm; this is the way to delve into the darker side of winter. Although aimed at both children and adults it seems that Philip Wilson’s adaptation of Pullman’s book will not be holding back as he promises to plunge the audience into a parallel universe. You’ll be walking around for a few hours so wear warm clothing and comfortable footwear (a cloakroom is provided for bags).

                                                When? Now to 15th February Tues-Sun 7pm & 7:15pm start times

                                                                       Some matinees 2pm & 2:15pm start times

                                                                       No shows on 24th, 25th, 26th Dec or 31st Jan

                                                Price/Fee? Adult £45

                                                                        Child (under 16) £20

                                                Where? Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, SE1 9PH

                                                Nearest train station: London Waterloo or Blackfriars (over the river)

                                                Nearest tube station; Southwark (Jubilee line) or Blackfriars (Circle and District lines)

                                                For more info visit the Grimm Tales website

                                                Get Directions

                                                X
                                                  or
                                                  Carnaby Christmas Lights Carnaby
                                                  London, UK

                                                  toplogo

                                                  What is it? Carnaby Street is a hub of British talent in fashion and lifestyle design; always fresh, quirky and innovative this iconic spot puts the same effort into its Christmas lights. There’ll be plenty of lights all over London but Carnaby Street is sure to provide something a little different.

                                                  When? Now – Jan 2014

                                                  Price/Fee? Free

                                                  Where? Carnaby Street, W1F 7FD

                                                  Nearest train station: Charing Cross

                                                  Nearest tube station: Oxford Circus (Bakerloo, Central, Victoria)

                                                  For more info visit the Carnaby website

                                                  Get Directions

                                                  X
                                                    or
                                                    +
                                                    -
                                                    Search area
                                                    3Km 50Km

                                                    USA Route

                                                    Re-living the route from New York to San Francisco. Click on the purple icons to see pictures and read excerpts from the upcoming book ‘She Road Trips: New York to San Francisco in a Bird Van’.

                                                     

                                                    Name Address Description
                                                    Brooklyn Brooklyn
                                                    NY, USA

                                                     I pick up the camper; my first time behind the wheel in the USA and within ten minutes I'm on the I278 heading for New Jersey with my heart beating somewhere inside my throat.  

                                                    IMG_0010tw

                                                    The sixteen foot metal oblong that will be my transport, bed and companion for the next two and a bit months. The company that I’m hiring through are comparatively cheap, this is always important when on a tight budget. One of the reasons that they are cheap is that each of their vans are painted by a local artist in a way that embodies the spirit of adventure, attracts weird looks from strangers and unsettling looks from the strangest of strangers. My van is called The Pelican, guess what’s on the side of it. .  . yep, a giant seagull. Okay, on the other side there is a giant pelican; both are on a backdrop of sea, sunset, ships and yet more birds. So, from now on it will be The Bird Van to me. You may think this is mad, you may think this is cool, I think it is neither. I’d rather not draw attention to myself but equally I feel that nobody is going to want to break into this thing because somewhere nearby, somebody is going to be staring at it. Also, it could be worse; there was one with huge and angry piranhas all over it. 

                                                    Get Directions

                                                    X
                                                      or
                                                      Picastaway Piscataway Township
                                                      NJ, USA

                                                      A night in Picastaway to get supplies and prepare for the road trip turns into two nights when the Bird Van has some issues. While it's in the garage I wander into town, which is actually not as simple a task as it sounds.

                                                      Suddenly I’m reminded that I am in a foreign country; for a start walking the half a mile to the store was not easy. Even though the streets here are packed with restaurants, diners, supermarkets and shops there are no pavements and no pedestrian crossings. To dine at the diner across the road from the motel it would be fully expected that you get in your vehicle, drive a little way down the road to the traffic lights in order to make a u-turn onto the other side of the road and drive the same distance again to the diner. A task that definitely takes longer than simply using your own legs to cross the road; if only there were a safe means of crossing.

                                                      Get Directions

                                                      X
                                                        or
                                                        Martin Guitar Factory 510 Sycamore Street, Nazareth
                                                        PA 18064, USA

                                                        The Martin Guitar Factory is a must for any guitar fan!

                                                        _MG_2657tw

                                                        As well as the museum, which is filled with early models and some special editions covered in intricate and elaborate mother of pearl inlay, they also have a small room with a variety of models for guests to play around on; once I’d played the only three tunes that I can make sound semi-decent on open fret, I paused, picked up a different guitar and started the repertoire all over again, much to the delight of anyone in earshot I’m sure. This successfully killed time before I headed across for the tour.

                                                        • Are you feeling anxious?

                                                        This was the elderly and rather rotund tour guide with a white beard and cheeky face; I was floored by the question.

                                                        • No, not at all.

                                                        What did Santa mean? Did he mean was I anxious about the tour? Or my life? It has been very stressful actually, constantly driving unfamiliar roads with foreign rules; in a van that may not last the next few days let alone make it across the country. It’s a full time job, seriously. Trying to figure out where to go and where to stay makes it difficult to stop and appreciate where you are. I’m hoping once I get south of Washington DC that things will get easier (and cheaper) as I’ll be navigating fewer cities and should have more of a handle on the driving too.  I didn’t realise how anxious and stressed I’d been in these first few days of travelling but it must be written all over my face. This is hard work! But I must try harder not to let it show for fear of scaring people off with an intense look of apprehension, I find it difficult to talk to strangers at the best of times but I’ll completely freeze up if they start asking questions about my feelings.

                                                        Get Directions

                                                        X
                                                          or
                                                          Roadside America 109 Roadside Drive, Hamburg
                                                          PA 19526, USA

                                                           

                                                           

                                                           

                                                          The allure of strange Americana roadside attractions is all too great and I can't resist stepping inside this model village built by Laurence Gieringer.

                                                           _MG_2681tw

                                                          It then gets even more exciting when the monotone voice of Gieringer’s elderly Granddaughter ushers you to one end of the room over the tannoy in order to start the night time simulation. Music builds as the lights dim and all over the town, bit by bit, mini windows flicker into light. It’s suddenly so easy to believe that there really are lots of matchbox sized people getting home from work and living their lives behind those tiny doors. This is exactly what Gieringer wanted when the idea for the project came to him as he sat on top of a hill and looked down on his boyhood home, I hope he was proud of himself. Of course any illusion is quickly shattered when a giant moon appears on the wall with a huge American flag emblazoned on it and the Star Spangled Banner blares around the hall. The fragile little world crumbles and I’m left feeling out of place; America’s, sometimes admirable, national pride does have a way of stomping in at the most unexpected of moments and alienating or confusing everyone else.

                                                          Get Directions

                                                          X
                                                            or
                                                            Cabela's 100 Cabela Drive, Hamburg
                                                            PA 19526, USA

                                                            An outdoor pursuits mecca. It's simply tents, fishing rods, guns and a temple of taxidermy...yep.

                                                            Get Directions

                                                            X
                                                              or
                                                              Daniel Boone Homestead 400 Daniel Boone Road, Birdsboro
                                                              PA 19508, USA

                                                               I saw a sign for this and pulled over; it was a pretty place . . . I still don't really know who Daniel Boone is.

                                                              _MG_2715tw

                                                              Get Directions

                                                              X
                                                                or
                                                                Warwick Woods 401 Trythall Road, Elverson
                                                                PA 19520, USA

                                                                 _MG_2726tw

                                                                 

                                                                I was now even deeper in the woods and the rain was pounding down on the roof, the lightning was rendering the woods aglow every ten to twenty seconds followed by a deep, persistent shudder of thunder that was as loud as a freight train and seemed to make the earth shake. I’ve always liked thunder storms; I was excited when the ladies at the check in office told me to expect one. They were concerned that I might feel lonely or trapped in my little van and insisted that I was more than welcome to go down to them by the car park and wait it out in the laundry room; they were earnestly sweet and so I didn’t question why they’d only offered me a spot in the laundry room rather than in the café or the restaurant with the other humans; thank you, but the idea of spending the evening sat between an industrial washing machine and dryer just to avoid a storm is a step closer to insanity than I’m comfortable with.

                                                                Get Directions

                                                                X
                                                                  or
                                                                  Baltimore Baltimore
                                                                  MD, USA

                                                                   

                                                                  _MG_2867tw

                                                                   

                                                                  My route into Baltimore was a hairy one, people are not keen to let me move over when it comes to changing lanes; I merged when I should have yielded, much to one man’s evident fury, and whilst looking for the hostel car park I managed to turn down a one way street. If the sight of oncoming cars didn't immediately alert me to the mistake then the chorus of horns soon did. I'd also managed to pick one of the few narrow streets in America for the blunder. The wide open road is not just a metaphor for freedom and adventure out here; the roads really are exceptionally wide. I don't know what came first, the big roads or the big cars but the Bird Van, which is the biggest thing I've ever driven, is about the same size as most family cars in the States and I could certainly get used to all these huge boulevards and roomy parking spaces after a driving lifetime of dodging tractors on country lanes and squeezing by endless parked cars in London suburbs. But all those (literal) tight spots had prepared me well for manoeuvring the Bird Van into a hasty three point turn on this unusually cramped Baltimore street; thank goodness it was a Sunday and not too busy.  After much apologetic waving and grimacing I was back on the confusing one-way system to further search for the small alleyway to the hostel car park that the receptionist had described to me on the phone. All that and the fact that I’d passed a very nasty accident on the interstate that morning left me feeling glad that I wasn’t going to be driving for a couple of days.

                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                  X
                                                                    or
                                                                    Philadelphia Philadelphia
                                                                    PA, USA

                                                                    _MG_2853-160x120tw

                                                                     

                                                                    The route into Philadelphia had the Bird Van and me in gridlock traffic and in an uncharacteristic moment of spontaneity I turned off the interstate and into the outskirts of the city putting my faith in the Sat Nav. I know some people might consider it cheating or somehow less of an achievement to use a Sat Nav for this trip. I would like to point out that I have also been using a map but it seems completely idiotic not to use the Sat Nav when it came included in the hire, so some people need to calm down. On this occasion it performed beautifully and had the Bird Van & I in central Philadelphia within ten minutes, though not before leading us through the depths of West Philadelphia; I can now see why Will Smith’s fictional mother wanted him to ‘move in with [his] aunty and uncle in Bel Air’. Ambling through a scary looking neighbourhood in which the Bird Van was attracting a hefty amount of suspicious staring I decided that I did not want to break down right here. I was relieved to pull onto North Broad Street, the 7 mile stretch of road that runs straight as an arrow to the heart of the city, at the far end are a series of striking buildings and dead centre is the impressive Philadelphia City Hall, gleaming white in the sun. This was a serious road and an imposing welcome to what was once the temporary capital of the USA.

                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                    X
                                                                      or
                                                                      Washington DC Washington
                                                                      DC, USA

                                                                       

                                                                      _MG_3150tw

                                                                       

                                                                      Despite the freaky tidiness and asymmetry I do like Washington DC, there seems to be a hum of excitement beneath the surface. I know that wherever there are politicians there is scandal, lies and dirty tricks, that’s all part of the game, but that’s not what I feel here. It’s dizzying to stand before the Washington monument on a day where there are just a few families and tourists wandering about and think that this entire area has at previous points in time been covered with crowds of people, people making their voices heard and hearing the historical words of others on the brink of altering the future for all of them. I wonder what this area looked like in 1913 as Alice Paul led the Suffrage Association on a protest march the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration and what person stood right here, where my feet are now, in 1963 listening to Martin Luther King as he delivered his “I have a dream” speech; how awesome it must have been to witness that moment and then see the Civil Rights Act pass a year later. It is undeniably inspiring; if only I knew where to channel that inspiration. But that’s the great thing about travelling you don’t have to think too long about the important stuff if you don’t want to because you can pick up your things and move on to the next place, for me that’s Shenandoah.

                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                      X
                                                                        or
                                                                        Luray Caverns Luray
                                                                        VA 22835, USA

                                                                        _MG_3216tw

                                                                         

                                                                        The caverns truly are spectacular; 400 million years ago an ancient sea flooded the Appalachian mountains seeping into existing pockets beneath the surface and eating away at the limestone; what’s left now is a cathedral like space riddled with stalactites and stalagmites of minute to statuesque size. It takes around one hundred and twenty years for them to grow by just one inch but despite this lengthy process a few have managed to meet in the middle to form huge columns. Depending on the minerals in the rock, some are a brilliant white; others are jet black but most are a golden yellow or orange. They take on messy drooping shapes like a giant has spilled his dinner of spaghetti in carbonara sauce and left it to fester and drip.

                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                        X
                                                                          or
                                                                          Shenandoah National Park Shenandoah National Park
                                                                          Virginia, USA

                                                                          _MG_3306tw

                                                                          I decided that I couldn’t continue driving without going for a hike first, or really more of a stroll, in the Appalachia’s. I’d heard the walk down to Dark Hollows Fall was steep but short; so the following morning, on went the walking boots, socks and a pair of shorts, me in shorts! Shit just got serious. I was very excited to see white marks upon the trees en route and later confirmed that these were indeed the blazes for the famous Appalachian Trail that stretches 2,180 miles from Maine down to Georgia. Each year thousands of hikers set out to thru-hike the route but only around a quarter of them manage it because it’s pretty tough stuff. Now I could tell people that I had walked some (three and a half) miles of the Appalachian Trail. And I certainly will be telling everyone that! For those first descending minutes I thought “One day, one day I might come back and actually give the whole thing a go”. This thought was quickly expelled by my increasing sweatiness and irritability on the short and mildly steep trek back up to the van; and this section through Shenandoah is considered to be the easiest part of the route. I’m really not cut out for anything more than minor exertion.

                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                          X
                                                                            or
                                                                            Jefferson's Monticello Monticello, 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville
                                                                            VA 22902, USA

                                                                            _MG_3517tw

                                                                            For a start, I can see why Jefferson picked this spot because Monticello offers up yet more fantastic views of Virginia in all its vibrant green splendour, but those views take nothing away from the house itself, which is an ingenious structure that personifies the fascinating man. If he were alive today he would certainly have a huge investment in Google or Apple because he loved his gadgets. There are early automatic doors, essentially just double doors connected so that should you open one then the other judders open with it; a clock attached to weights that stop at day markers written on the reception hall wall, unfortunately he only had room for five and half days so he cut a hole in the floor through to the basement, the rest of the week is down there. And a polygraph machine, two pens carefully connected, a foot apart, so that when Jefferson wrote with one pen the other would make a duplicate of his composition, a pretty nifty piece of kit in 1806. The grounds are beautiful and a marquee was being set up for a University of Virginia grad party. The university was the brainchild of Jefferson himself, I don’t know if he’d have liked a pile of drunken twenty-somethings staggering about his back garden but what a great perk for the graduates.

                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                            X
                                                                              or
                                                                              Roanoke Roanoke
                                                                              VA, USA

                                                                              _MG_3590tw

                                                                              All in all, it was an idyllic afternoon, and I topped it off with a stop at Roanoke’s chief glory, The Roanoke Star, erected in 1949 as a giant Christmas decoration that ended up becoming a permanent fixture; it’s the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star; well, such a thing has to exist somewhere. Indeed it is a big star; and that’s really rather the end of it. It is equipped with a camera whose images can be viewed online so if you wish to wave to your family and friends or feel disturbed by the Big Brother State then just head online to StarCam. But I will head instead for North Carolina, we’re getting into the deep south now and I intend to find somewhere to park up and sleep for free tonight; so this could all be the calm before the truck-stop storm.

                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                              X
                                                                                or
                                                                                Morehead Planetarium Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 250 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill
                                                                                NC 27514, USA

                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                X
                                                                                  or
                                                                                  White Lake White Lake
                                                                                  NC 28337, USA

                                                                                  _MG_3624tw

                                                                                   

                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                  X
                                                                                    or
                                                                                    Wilmington Wilmington
                                                                                    NC, USA

                                                                                    _MG_3641tw

                                                                                    Wilmington has a small town feel despite being one of the higher populous cities in North Carolina. One of its main attractions is a beautiful walk along the Cape Fear River, where there is a sizeable choice of seafood restaurants and quirky shops. The river would have once been teeming with sailboats and steam ships importing and exporting valuable items all over the world. The Cotton Exchange was a thriving business run by Alexander Sprunt and Sons in the early twentieth century. Today that beautiful redbrick building houses a variety of boutique shops and restaurants as well as photographs and display boards that relate the building’s history; making it an enjoyably baffling blend of museum and mall; it even has a Walk of Fame to honour locals who have become successful in their field, from professional football stars like Sonny Jurgensen to conservationist Hugh Morton. It is an odd mix but it means that a striking slice of Sprunt’s era still stands to be enjoyed and it does provide an interesting shopping experience; just when you think you’ve come to the end, a small sign points to an unassuming door and leads you across creaky wooden boards to yet more shops that sell useless yet irresistible items. I had to fight the urge to buy an embarrassing amount of kitschy Christmas decorations.

                                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                                    X
                                                                                      or
                                                                                      Charleston Charleston
                                                                                      SC, USA

                                                                                      _MG_3719tw

                                                                                      By dinnertime things thankfully improved with brighter weather and a visit to Dell’z Deli with Jocelyn, the Australian that I’d first met in Philadelphia. As a seasoned traveller Jocelyn had managed to discover the local food places that served the best quality fare for a reasonable price and the nearest source of organic fruit and veg within minutes of her arrival; she had accomplished this by using a combination of the internet and actual conversation with actual people. Dell’z was a tiny Deli with just enough room for three stools at the counter where you can sit and watch Dell, or in our case her cheerful and charismatic son, make the most delicious taco wraps bigger than mine or even Alan Rickman’s head (I saw him in person once and you can take my word for it, he really does have a head by which tacos can be measured). We shared the ‘Kitchen Sink’, it was stuffed to bursting with vegetables, beans, rice and other delicious food stuffs and is easily the best thing that I’ve eaten in America so far. This isn’t too difficult as my diet on the road consists mainly of Reese’s Pieces, mini Oreo cookies and cheese rice crackers.

                                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                                      X
                                                                                        or
                                                                                        Boone Hall Boone Hall Drive, Charleston
                                                                                        SC 29407, USA

                                                                                        _MG_3843tw

                                                                                        The tour of the grounds and the still working plantation is the most fascinating part of the visit; especially as we had an excellent guide. His family had worked the plantation for many years, he knew the area inside and out and was full of “yeeeas m’ams “and laughter; he even paused the tour to have a serious conversation with some turtles in an attempt to discourage them from laying their eggs in the middle of the road. If he’d told me they understood him I’d have been happy to believe it because he is clearly so utterly connected to this land and everything living on it or growing in it. In years past Boone Hall was an indigo, cotton and also a pecan plantation but it now grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries and pumpkins and as we passed the strawberry fields there were small children with brimming baskets running about the rows of plants with rosy cheeks and sticky mouths. And if things weren’t flawlessly quintessential enough then a trip to the butterfly pavilion certainly sealed the deal; it was erected to allow students to study the life cycle of the butterfly but there was nobody else in there today. It’s small and only has a handful of butterflies in it but there is a childlike and magical joy to be had from standing alone surrounded only by flowers and butterflies.

                                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                                        X
                                                                                          or
                                                                                          Saluda River Resort Saluda River
                                                                                          South Carolina, USA

                                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                                          X
                                                                                            or
                                                                                            Smoky Mountain National Park Smoky Mountain Riding Stables Office, Tennessee 73, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg
                                                                                            TN 37738, USA

                                                                                            _MG_3886tw

                                                                                            My days in the Smoky Mountains have been some of my favourite so far. I predicted a bit of hiking followed by long dull evenings with nothing in particular to do. When I got to the campsite on Friday this was exactly how things started out; what I hadn’t expected was the cold. All around me proper camper types were lighting fires, putting up tents, getting out their coolers, stringing hammocks and setting out camping chairs around elaborate and decorative picnic spreads. I’d merely parked the van, sat at a bench and scooped peanut butter from the jar with a rice cracker. My tent spot and fire ring remained embarrassingly empty but I don’t see the point in making such a fuss when it’s just me; oh yeah, and I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. As the afternoon drew on and the cold got too much I hid away in my van and painted my toenails, they’d gone a bit gross after the Charleston downpour, and it was something to do while I listened to an audiobook. Already experiencing severe boredom I decided on an early night but on my way back from the toilets I heard a friendly

                                                                                            "Hey, neighbour".

                                                                                            Americans can completely get away with that sounding genuine,

                                                                                            "I saw that you didn’t have much of a set up over there and felt bad when you went to take a nap in your van, so if you want to come over and warm yourself by the fire you’d be very welcome".

                                                                                            Hmm, napping is probably better than toenail painting so I won’t correct him.

                                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                                            X
                                                                                              or
                                                                                              Dollywood Dollywood, 2700 Dollywood Parks Boulevard, Pigeon Forge
                                                                                              TN 37863, USA

                                                                                              If rides, bluegrass and craft shops aren’t you’re thing then you might like the eagle conservation show, Wings of America. And why not? I was going to get my money’s worth out of Dolly. The show opens with a music video made especially for us. It’s a biopic of Challenger, an American Bald Eagle, which is the USA’s famous National Emblem; we see Challenger as a chick, presumably it’s some other chick, an actor chick, portraying Challenger’s early years. But it draws the desired coo of affection from the audience. The birds are brought out one by one and we listen to a few facts while they swoop low over our heads. But the climatic finale is by far the best part. Rapturous applause welcomes America to the stage, an American Bald Eagle in the flesh/feathers.  We are given some details about America, the service men and women in the audience are asked to stand as a final music video is played in dedication to them. But this is different to the first one because it’s a backing track and Simon, our (incidentally bald) handler is going to sing the song to us, all the while with America, who is massive and must weigh a fair amount, sat on his arm.

                                                                                              Only in the US of A.

                                                                                              American Bald Simon hits his final note, holds it, and holds America aloft. America spreads his wings like the pro that he is; he knows how to put on a show. The audience stand, weep and applaud. And once again I’m an alien…Time to go.

                                                                                              Although, I have to confess the video did make me a little teary; it featured an eagle that had lost a wing and his carer took him up in a glider so that he could feel he was flying once again. It was wonderful, leave me alone! On the way out of the parking lot there’s a farewell message to us all. “Thank you for visiting Dollywood. I will always love you! Dolly.” I’m not shitting you! Tacky perfection.

                                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                                              X
                                                                                                or
                                                                                                Knoxville Knoxville
                                                                                                TN, USA

                                                                                                _MG_4064tw

                                                                                                 

                                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                                X
                                                                                                  or
                                                                                                  Nashville Nashville
                                                                                                  TN, USA

                                                                                                  _MG_4168tw

                                                                                                  The Opryland hotel in Nashville is insane. Not only is its official title the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Centre but it’s so huge that it is split into zones that are colour coded on a map and given titles such as ‘Delta’, ‘Cascades’ & ‘Magnolia’ like a slightly more obscure and up-market Crystal Maze. In fact the entire resort, an endless series of corridors and streets under one huge glass roof, is literally a crystal maze. Here I am in my little Bird Van, which is just a bed on wheels, whilst others are paying ridiculous amounts of money to stay in an over-sized conservatory that has rivers with boats, gardens with waterfalls, faux-European streets and dancing fountains.

                                                                                                  It turns out that dancing fountains can command your attention for a surprising length of time. As always happens when I come upon something slightly odd like this I find myself thinking; ‘This is someone’s job. Some person got paid to do this. They got paid to work out how to ensure water squirts at the desired time, speed and pressure in relation to a section of music. How did their life lead to that? I wonder if they’re happy’? I hope so, because it’s mesmerising. As fun as dancing fountains are, I’m more than happy in my tiny van but that’s mainly because spending that much money would send me into a panic attack.

                                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                                  X
                                                                                                    or
                                                                                                    Natchez Trace Parkway Natchez Trace Parkway, 2680 Natchez Trace Parkway, Tupelo
                                                                                                    MS 38804, USA

                                                                                                    _MG_4334tw

                                                                                                    Back on the Natchez Trace at dusk and it was heart-soaringly beautiful, I’ve never seen fireflies before but I assume that’s what I was seeing now all along the route. Tiny green specks catch the headlight’s glare for a miniscule moment like the flash of a tiny camera. Hundreds of them flank the route, hovering a little way above the grass and are an unendingly bewitching sight. Occasionally one gets high above the road and looks briefly like a distant spaceship; or perhaps it is a distant spaceship, with the inky black darkness drawing in and little sign of humanity anywhere around it feels like anything could be possible. On the more unnerving side of nature I also saw nineteen deer on twelve separate occasions. I really like deer, they’re graceful, enchanting and apparently stupid because most of the time they were just stood in the middle of the road; what’s their bloody obsession with the road? The last twenty miles were done at a snail’s pace in the pitch black, leaning forward and peering through the mist, with my left hand clutching my knee. I got to the camp with no deer or Bird Van fatalities, much to my relief.

                                                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                                                    X
                                                                                                      or
                                                                                                      John C Stennis Space Center John C. Stennis Space Center
                                                                                                      MS 39556, USA

                                                                                                      _MG_4399tw

                                                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                                                      X
                                                                                                        or
                                                                                                        New Orleans New Orleans
                                                                                                        LA, USA

                                                                                                        _MG_4482tw

                                                                                                        New Orleans, you tremendous fiend! I thank everyone who convinced me to head down to The Big Easy; it is a hive of genuinely gifted jazz, swing, blues, country musicians who play in steamy bars while locals sip Old Fashioned cocktails and knock out marvellous swing dance moves in cramped circles of laid back, but appreciative, observers.

                                                                                                        If you’re going to New Orleans and don’t want a night out in a place that is an awful cross between Blackpool and the seediest parts of Amsterdam then steer clear of Bourbon Street! I stomached about thirty minutes of women parading the streets in thongs, enticing men to come into “bars” by any means possible (use your imagination…no, the most disgusting part of your imagination). And bartenders insisting that they could make an Old Fashioned before handing me something brown in a pint glass with a mountain of ice. What the…? I know people can be snobby about the correct way to make cocktails, I am not; you see this was like telling someone that you were taking them to see Shakespeare and then instead showing them a ham sandwich, it made absolutely no sense.

                                                                                                        Thankfully locals working at the hostel had recommended heading for Frenchman Street, this is where the people who like to wear clothes go for their kicks and this is where we found the really wonderful side of New Orleans. As I entered The Spotted Cat, which didn’t have to employ acts of an explicit sexual nature outside its doors in order to acquire patronage, I didn’t immediately notice the band crammed into the window on the left and just assumed I was listening to some sort of Billie Holiday CD. It was a captivating mix of drums, double bass, trumpet and trombone playing that fizzed through the body and rippled in the humid air, all accompanying an authentically quirky waif of a singer. They are sensational and play with immense passion so it’s no wonder they have to take a break every twenty minutes or so.

                                                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                                                        X
                                                                                                          or
                                                                                                          Breaux Bridge Breaux Bridge
                                                                                                          LA 70517, USA

                                                                                                          _MG_4609tw

                                                                                                          Breaux Bridge, a pretty little town in Cajun Country that labels itself as the ‘Crawfish Capital of the World’ seemed like the best place to stop and grab some food. Cajun country is an area of South West Louisiana where the Arcadians, a French Catholic group, relocated in the mid-18th Century after being deported from Nova Scotia by the British when they, understandably, refused to show their allegiance to George II and the Church of England. The Arcadians became the dominant culture in the area but they were influenced by other cultures too, Spanish, German and Native American; those people now a part of this new cultural blend became known as Cajuns. I’d heard that Café Des Amis is renowned for its good food and music; despite it being a Friday night there was no live music but I did have a delicious crawfish pie with fried shrimp. Great stuff. It was another half and half deal offered up by the waiter when I couldn’t decide between two dishes, they really do love to feed people here in the south and when the food is this good I’m happy to oblige.

                                                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                                                          X
                                                                                                            or
                                                                                                            Austin Austin
                                                                                                            TX, USA

                                                                                                            _MG_4615tw

                                                                                                             

                                                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                                                            X
                                                                                                              or
                                                                                                              Bandera Bandera
                                                                                                              TX 78003, USA

                                                                                                              _MG_4653tw

                                                                                                              I did a short pony trek at a ranch in Bandera, Texas; I rode Peanut, so called because of his beautiful pale tawny coat but he also had a dark chocolate coloured mane, tail, ears, nose and ankles (if horses have ankles), he really was very handsome and I loved him immediately. We went right down to the river and waded the horses in until our feet just skimmed the water. It felt wonderful and I could almost believe I’m in one of those Sunday afternoon western films if only I had a rifle and a poncho and was even remotely good on a horse. I’m not as it turns out. Apparently I needed to be firmer on the reigns because Peanut just wanted to eat everything he saw, something I felt was justified, he was being made to carry me around after all; it wasn’t until he went after some particularly juicy looking grass and walked me into some low branches that I decided to take the advice. As romantic as the life of a ranch worker sounds it looks like I’d be too much of a soft touch for the job. I would enjoy all the singing though; the ranchers delight in mumbling along to Johnny Cash in a half spoken drawl. There was a ten year old boy with us called Carter, he was working the ranch over his summer vacation and from the back he sang his own version of Walk the Line

                                                                                                              • I keep my eyes wide open all the time,

                                                                                                              Cuz there’s flies in the eyes o’ this horse o’ mine

                                                                                                              I wish I could remember more.

                                                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                                                              X
                                                                                                                or
                                                                                                                Carlsbad Caverns National Park Carlsbad Caverns National Park
                                                                                                                New Mexico 88220, USA

                                                                                                                _MG_4720tw

                                                                                                                Carlsbad Caverns National Park is just across the border to New Mexico and I arrived in time to watch the bats fly out of the caves at dusk. The park advertise their bat flight program as a brilliant opportunity to witness the ‘swarm’ or ‘exodus’ of the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats as they head out for an evening of insect hunting. It all sounds a lot better than it actually was; thankfully the rangers are a little more realistic when it comes to managing our expectations.

                                                                                                                • There might be some bats.

                                                                                                                 Their numbers are low due to prolonged drought in the area so it wasn’t exactly a swarm; but you can see them flit and swoop out in dribs and drabs, little raggedy black wisps against a cobalt blue sky until it gets too dark to pick them out any longer. Even so, it was an immense pleasure to be up in the mountains of New Mexico at dusk; the dusty landscape turns a breathtaking gold in the dwindling light. And the rangers were very entertaining. Poor them, they have to essentially keep the crowds occupied and entertained until the bats come out, and there’s no guarantee that they even will.

                                                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                                                X
                                                                                                                  or
                                                                                                                  Roswell Roswell
                                                                                                                  NM, USA

                                                                                                                  _MG_4739tw

                                                                                                                  I paid a visit to the UFO museum, which intrigued me. How do you put together a museum on a subject that has no definitive answer? Well, you just set up a load of military-esque grey boards and pin up fuzzy pictures of bleary streaks in the sky, newspaper cuttings of mysterious events with inconclusive endings and ‘top-secret documents’ that are clearly not so secret anymore if indeed they ever were. I felt that I’d walked into the basement of an obsessive uber-geek who was well and truly trapped in the 1990s. It was brilliant. While nobody running the place is about testify that any of the evidence conclusively proves the existence of aliens visiting Earth, they clearly do take UFO sightings and phenomena seriously and they’ve certainly found the perfect home in Roswell because despite being hundreds of miles from any of the larger cities the museum is busy even on a Thursday morning, filled with a wide spectrum of people, the tourists come for a laugh, the curious come perhaps to be swayed and the experts come to feel at home, I guess. There is a lot of information to take in but if your mind needs a break then you can always take it to stare at the life-size diorama of four aliens landing on Earth, sometimes the spaceship behind them flashes, spins and churns out dry-ice; it’s delightfully cheesy and lame. The problem with enjoying geeky things is that people then make the assumption that you like all things geek; the woman at the desk found out that I was English and wanted to talk about Dr Who.

                                                                                                                  - Do you know the Doctor? Hahaha!

                                                                                                                  - Ha…

                                                                                                                  - I won’t bore you with my Dalek impression.

                                                                                                                  Which I took to mean, ‘please ask me to do my Dalek impression’. I didn’t. I told you, antisocial.

                                                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                                                  X
                                                                                                                    or
                                                                                                                    Madrid Madrid
                                                                                                                    NM 87010, USA

                                                                                                                    _MG_4751tw

                                                                                                                    When the mine closed in the 50s Madrid became a ghost town almost overnight. Families left most of their belongings and just took what they could fit into a car. In the 70s the place was taken over by hippies and artists and now the creaky old wooden houses have been converted into galleries or colourful cafes and shops that sell clothes, jewellery and gifts all handmade by local artists. The houses are painted in pretty colours or adorned with wind-chimes and dried chillies. It’s wonderful and despite the fact that it is becoming a popular tourist spot, particularly as it has been a location for a number of feature films, it hasn’t yet lost any of that quiet small-town charm. One of the old mining buildings has been converted into a theatre/museum; the back wall where the stage is has been opened and has a large steam engine parked there, so presumably every show they do has to have a steam-train in it. Everyone is friendly and ready to chat for hours about their love for the town and this beautiful New Mexican land, I can completely understand why. Give me one of these run down houses and I’ll set up a café in the living room and never leave; I can wear the best silver in America and eat the world’s most delicious brownies (from what would be the far superior café next-door, I love to eat the cake but the baking part rarely interests me), all while swooshing about in a beautiful 1930s dress bought from one of the random clothes stores. I think this is a realistic depiction of the future that I can reasonably aim for

                                                                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                                                                    X
                                                                                                                      or
                                                                                                                      Santa Fe Santa Fe
                                                                                                                      NM, USA

                                                                                                                      _MG_4804tw

                                                                                                                      On leaving Santa Fe, I could see a huge dark patch of rain up ahead. The altitude and the vast landscape mean that you see weather out here on a whole different scale and from many miles away; the entire horizon can be shrouded in a dense, dark cloud that looks threatening enough to spew forth some sinister creature and its vastness is always humbling. In the folds of England it’s easy to forget how awesome the sky truly is but here once the expanse overhead fills with black you quickly remember what an insignificant little speck you are. And those clouds needn’t conjur up some chilling demon because what they’re capable of producing is scary enough. It wasn’t until I was just on the verge of driving into this dark and angry mass outside of Sante Fe that I realised it wasn’t just a rainstorm, it was a sandstorm, they go by the unexpectedly comical name ‘Haboob’ in the USA, but the brief experience wasn’t especially funny. Sand whipped against the windscreen and things got very dark; visibility was down to five metres or so. Nobody else on the road seemed that bothered about it so I kept going, clinging to the wheel to stop the van from being buffeted and blown clean off the road. Thankfully the whole thing was only brief, plus it momentarily rained orange, a mix of water and sand, which was as fascinating as it was freaky. It was an awesome and yet butt-clenching experience that I don’t particularly desire to repeat on the trip.

                                                                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                                                                      X
                                                                                                                        or
                                                                                                                        Durango Durango
                                                                                                                        CO, USA

                                                                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                                                                        X
                                                                                                                          or
                                                                                                                          Mesa Verde National Park Mesa Verde National Park, Mesa Verde
                                                                                                                          CO, USA

                                                                                                                          _MG_4917tw

                                                                                                                          Also on the Colorado Plateau is Mesa Verde National Park, located in Montezuma County, South West Colorado. I stopped there en route to Arches and it is equally impressive but for an entirely different reason. The region is scattered with hundreds of ancient dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. There are pithouses, pueblos and cliff dwellings that date from 550AD to 1300AD. The cliff dwellings are built into the crevices in the sides of canyons and are truly spectacular feats of craftsmanship. Villages of perhaps one hundred people would reside in these precariously situated rooms, accessible then only by scaling the sheer cliffs and canyon walls; climbing must have been as normal as walking and running to the Puebloans. Mesa Verde - Green Table - gained its name because the Ancestral Puebloans grew crops on the tilted, sun exposed verges. The entire area is once again beautiful; the park road winds upwards and through a distant heady haze stand the San Juan Mountains framed by the pretty purple and blue wildflowers shooting up along the roadside.

                                                                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                                                                          X
                                                                                                                            or
                                                                                                                            Arches National Park Arches National Park
                                                                                                                            Utah, USA

                                                                                                                            _MG_5080tw

                                                                                                                            I was advised to do the walk up to Utah’s famous ‘Delicate Arch’ first; the arch that appears on Utah’s license plates - this way I would avoid the heat and the crowds. It was still both hot and fairly crowded but then it was mid-June and a Saturday.

                                                                                                                            The walk was 1.5 miles up to the arch and the same back. A doddle now that I’m an experienced hiker who has even successfully used a compass on one occasion. Do I even need my walking boots? Better had, just in case. There are lots of signs about taking a litre of water per person. Hmm, I have 300ml, I could walk the 250m back to the van and get a full bottle. Nah, I’m sure I’ll be fine.

                                                                                                                            . . . It was bloody hard work! The entire trail is fully exposed to the sun; people were crawling under bushes, whenever one made a rare appearance, for the briefest respite. And there is not a trace of wind. All the way up exhausted and sweaty beings ask the smug bastards on their way down ‘Is it much further?’ ‘How far along are we?’ ‘Is it even worth it?’

                                                                                                                            • Loin, loin! (Far, far!)

                                                                                                                            There were lots of French tourists descending and they seemed to particularly revel in shouting ‘Loin’ at the staggering, sweaty heaps of flesh ascending the huge red rock-face. There were also some people doing proper running, with trainers, shiny shorts and ventilated vests; these people are clearly part of an evolutionary advanced super-race and should be looked on with fear and awe. I ought to also point out that I walked the first part with a lady in her seventies so perhaps the trail isn’t as gruelling as it seemed to me but it is best to remember that I don’t exactly delight in exercise, particularly when it is undergone in excessive heat. She was just reaching the top, shiny and wild eyed, as I was heading back down again.

                                                                                                                            • Well, is it worth it?

                                                                                                                            I could honestly say that it was. It is a stunning sight that pictures don’t do justice. Actually, the whole park is phenomenal – a seemingly limitless expanse of pervading red rock that miraculously shifts through a range of warm and luscious shades as the day’s light grows more intense. This can’t be earth, surely! The rocks tower in a variety of baffling shapes, gigantic and stately columns some with enormous boulders teetering precariously atop them and of course these fantastic natural arches of which the Delicate Arch is assuredly the most dramatic and beautiful.

                                                                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                                                                            X
                                                                                                                              or
                                                                                                                              Bryce Canyon Bryce Canyon
                                                                                                                              UT 84764, USA

                                                                                                                              IMG_5211tw

                                                                                                                              The rocks here are a vivid orange and form shapes even stranger than the ones in Arches, which is why Bryce Canyon is the best place in the world to see Hoodoos. No, that is not a word I’ve made up or stolen from David Bowie, that is a genuine geological term for the tall, thin, chimneys of rock that protrude from the earth in this region as a lumpy orange spire like a totem pole. At Inspiration Point you can peer down upon a sea of hoodoos looking much like a crowd of expectant soldiers in resplendent orange uniform. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, I’m beginning to suspect that if I climbed down there I’d find the rocks are in fact painted polystyrene; it all looks like movie scenery for a film set on Mars. On the Navajo Loop trail one is even shaped like Queen Victoria, actually it’s a pretty good likeness but the American lady who joined me at the bottom was less impressed.

                                                                                                                              • Urgh! Is that it?

                                                                                                                              I don’t quite know what she was expecting, Rodin? That the combination of rain and frost erosion has left us with a column of rock that resembles anything, let alone a great historical figure is a pretty impressive coincidence that we must meet half way with dollop of our own imagination.

                                                                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                                                                              X
                                                                                                                                or
                                                                                                                                Zion National Park Zion National Park, Springdale
                                                                                                                                UT 84767, USA

                                                                                                                                IMG_5321tw

                                                                                                                                A short visit to Zion is made entirely impossible by the compulsory shuttle bus. I understand that a bus system is better for the environment and that the location makes it difficult to have anything other than one road through the valley so perhaps I might have begrudgingly put up with it all but no air-conditioning? Seriously?! Cramming people onto a bus with no air-conditioning must be against some sort of law, especially when taking that bus is compulsory. Many of these people had been hiking and smelt extremely bad and I include myself in this number, so what sadist designed a bus for hikers with plastic seats and no access to air – I assume the same lout who decided showers wouldn’t be of any use in the park either. How ridiculous.

                                                                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                                                                X
                                                                                                                                  or
                                                                                                                                  Las Vegas Las Vegas
                                                                                                                                  NV, USA

                                                                                                                                  Las Vegas is an outrageously fun place even if you only venture a short way past your hotel room door, and I do mean your room door – the trek from the car park, to the check in desk, to the room took me through a labyrinth of shops, arcades, casinos, restaurants and bars, all in the one hotel. The hotel I’d booked was just off the strip and it was particularly exhilarating to drive into this crazy city - even though I did get lost – having gone from the towering canyon of Zion it was now wacky man-made structures that teetered above me, perhaps a-topped with turrets or a sphinx or a roller-coaster because Las Vegas is the land of ‘why not’? and should be entered with a similar willingness to indulge and wallow in equal measure of the luxurious and the absurd.

                                                                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                                                                  X
                                                                                                                                    or
                                                                                                                                    Mojave Desert Mojave Desert, United States

                                                                                                                                    header

                                                                                                                                    The Mojave National Preserve sits below Death Valley in Southern California. An area that was once dominated by the Native American Mojaves who farmed in the flood plains of the Colorado River. After a series of confrontations between the Mojaves and Euro-American immigrants the army was sent in and the Mojaves opted for peace in the face of superior weaponry. Today Mojave descendents protect the ecological integrity of the land as well as their cultural history. It is easy to look upon the dry, dusty and eerily still landscape and assume that it is void of life but in fact it’s packed with weird and wonderful creatures. There are owls, hawks, deer, mountain lions, butterflies, scorpions, tarantulas, lizards, snakes, toads, eagles, bats, rabbits, sheep and of course roadrunners and coyotes. But to my untrained eye it really does look to be desolate, I didn’t see a single one of those animals, or any animal, much to my disappointment but apparently they’re there and if you need convincing, there are ‘Watch for Tortoise’ road signs every few miles.

                                                                                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                                                                                    X
                                                                                                                                      or
                                                                                                                                      Joshua Tree National Park Joshua Tree National Park
                                                                                                                                      California, USA

                                                                                                                                      IMG_5373-1024x682tw

                                                                                                                                      Yeah, Joshua Tree National Park is a bit of a disappointment if you come at it from the North. I can’t particularly see the difference between the park and the landscape I’d been driving through for the previous 150 miles. Except now there were no glimmering gold sand dunes, which always make things a little less interesting. But there are yet more oddly shaped rocks, this time in more of a light beige, one of which looks like a gigantic human skull burrowing out of the ground. I promptly got very lost in the park as I thought that I’d come in by the East entrance not the North and unintentionally began driving on one of the off-road dirt tracks hoping that it wasn’t the geology trail that the map warns is for four wheel drive only; the Bird Van has four wheels and I am driving it but I strongly suspect that this is not the definition of a four wheel drive vehicle. I ended up going around in circles that took me deeper into the park and, once I got my bearings, found that I was right in the centre, with worryingly little fuel left. Heading south meant hitting the interstate straight away where there’d probably be fuel stations nearby. And so I set off on what felt like the longest 28 miles of my life. The sun was setting on desert now glowing a vivid amber, and hazy maroon mountains were on the horizon in every direction, aside from the road, which was empty, I couldn’t see any other evidence of human existence. The Southern part of Joshua Tree National Park through the Pinto Basin is a solitary and enigmatic place at dusk and despite the panic about fuel it momentarily seduced me to stop, get out of the van and stand amongst the stillness to wonder in awe at the eerie quiet in these roaring red surroundings. Then I reverted to shitting myself about the fuel situation.

                                                                                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                                                                                      X
                                                                                                                                        or
                                                                                                                                        San Diego San Diego
                                                                                                                                        CA, USA

                                                                                                                                        IMG_5457-1024x682tw

                                                                                                                                        The sea breeze means that it is much cooler here and refreshingly pleasant to walk about. Whilst waiting for the check-in time to roll around I roamed about Balboa park where there are a variety of impressive museums, at least they’re impressive from the outside, I didn’t go in any of them because they’re mostly flipping expensive, even though I would have liked to visit the Museum of Man and the Photography Museum. The city do offer discount tickets that allow entry to a few of the museums and it was tempting but there is plenty to see in the park that doesn’t require any ticket at all. This doesn’t include the famous zoo but I should mention it to give an idea of how big this place actually is. So aside from the zoo and the museums, oh and the theatres – also not free of course – there is an outdoor concert area charmingly named the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in which resides one of the world’s largest outdoor organs and where there are many free concerts throughout the summer, a pretty little rose garden and the cactus garden were my favourite of various themed gardens dotted about the park, a number of playgrounds are available for families, and quite genuinely the buildings and the fountains, paths and roads around them are all quite wonderful to walk around. Botanist and horticulturist Kate Sessions started the whole thing off when she struck up a deal in 1892 whereby she would receive 32 acres of land for her own purposes in exchange for donating and planting 100 trees a year in the park. Whether she had any idea what the park would become today is anyone’s guess but it is certainly a marvellous place and undoubtedly brings much joy to residents and tourists alike. On the afternoon I spent there it was packed with people and yet never felt claustrophobically overcrowded, which is a good thing for me because I think it has been well established by now that I generally dislike people.

                                                                                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                                                                                        X
                                                                                                                                          or
                                                                                                                                          Ocean Beach Ocean Beach, San Diego
                                                                                                                                          CA, USA

                                                                                                                                          1148777_894704943970_1966836081_ntw

                                                                                                                                          So the next day I met Niels and Sophie at Ocean Beach where we all got varying degrees of sunburn. I, in my usual weird patchy way, where the tiniest parts of flesh that don’t receive adequate sun cream coverage turn a livid pink – which has previously earned me the delightful nickname ‘Campino’ after the red and white striped sweet. With two patches on my arm, two streaks on my back and a huge patch on my left thigh I can’t deny the names accuracy. Marvellous. I also have sand all over me, two days later and there’s still sand! This is why I don’t get on with beaches. The day before I had walked the cliff path in an attempt to shake some of the lunch weight, the path quickly disappeared, which resulted in my scrambling over rocks, dodging waves and dancing around crabs. Relieved to have survived, I reached the beach and tentatively paddled for around a minute before being hit by a huge wave, which soaked me to the midriff and covered my nice white dress in sand and muck. That will teach me for attempting to wear white. This all meant I had to put my bikini on while the dress dried. This is never a good thing! The sun reflecting off of my pale skin can cause blindness. Plus I couldn’t see any changing rooms so I had to literally change in the middle of the beach, which whilst pleased with how successfully I pulled this off I was briefly anxious that I was about to get arrested for indecent exposure.

                                                                                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                                                                                          X
                                                                                                                                            or
                                                                                                                                            La Jolla Beach La Jolla, San Diego
                                                                                                                                            CA, USA

                                                                                                                                            46405_894704973910_1428175168_n

                                                                                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                                                                                            X
                                                                                                                                              or
                                                                                                                                              Carlsbad Carlsbad
                                                                                                                                              CA, USA

                                                                                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                                                                                              X
                                                                                                                                                or
                                                                                                                                                Hollywood Hollywood, Los Angeles
                                                                                                                                                CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                X
                                                                                                                                                  or
                                                                                                                                                  Venice Beach Venice, Los Angeles
                                                                                                                                                  CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                  IMG_5645-1024x677tw

                                                                                                                                                  It was time to relax a little; I strolled along Venice Beach, past Muscle beach and onto Santa Monica Pier, all of which was disappointingly less tacky than I’d been led to believe it would be. No girls with walkmans rollerblading in shiny gold bikinis or gargantuan, oiled, mahogany men flexing on the sand, it’s possible that my mental image of this area comes from the 90s; in 2013 things appear to be fairly quiet. That may have something to do with the cloudy weather; it’s apparently ‘grey May’ and ‘gloomy June’, where the California coast gets hit regularly by fog. That’s fine by me; I’m best off out of the sun to avoid the Campino look. In fact it was superb, not too hot, a mild breeze and even the sand wasn’t annoying me like it normally would, I’d never imagine myself enjoying a walk on the beach in LA but it’s undeniably wonderful and soothing.

                                                                                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                  X
                                                                                                                                                    or
                                                                                                                                                    Malibu Malibu
                                                                                                                                                    CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                    IMG_5661.JPG

                                                                                                                                                     

                                                                                                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                    X
                                                                                                                                                      or
                                                                                                                                                      Santa Barbara Santa Barbara
                                                                                                                                                      CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                      IMG_5677tw

                                                                                                                                                      Santa Barbara sits at the foot of the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains and tumbles out onto the dazzling Pacific coast; it’s full of pretty Spanish style houses, gorgeous beaches and a large, pleasant pier from which I could enjoy said beaches without having to set foot on them. Also, when I arrived, a huge farmers market was set up along the main road, State Street, and some impressive buskers dotting the pavements were serenading the passersby with a bit of Spanish style guitar. Live music and fresh food in a pretty town, there aren’t many better ways to spend an afternoon. Santa Barbara is certainly my favourite place in California so far, once again the weather is beautiful without being too hot and I lay down on a grassy spot by the beach for hours watching all the shadows stretch further and further out towards the sea.  I think it’s fair to say that California has remained a State of ups and downs for me, for which I must take a bulk of the responsibility, but now, having been rejuvenated by Santa Barbara, things feel like they’re getting back on track.

                                                                                                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                      X
                                                                                                                                                        or
                                                                                                                                                        Morro Bay Morro Bay
                                                                                                                                                        CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                        IMG_5758tw

                                                                                                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                        X
                                                                                                                                                          or
                                                                                                                                                          Hearst Castle Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon
                                                                                                                                                          CA 93452, USA

                                                                                                                                                          IMG_5823tw

                                                                                                                                                          Hearst Castle is as alluring as it is extravagant and a fascinating glimpse into Hearst’s ornate world; I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit. One of the best parts was sitting in his private cinema, oak-panelled walls decorated in a plush red material, – those basket ball players and pop stars on MTV Cribs have nothing on this place - and watching home movies; old, black and white, juddery, silent images that look like they’ve been made as a spoof just yesterday. They depict beautiful women lounging in fur stoles, Charlie Chaplin, looking youthful and fresh out of his usual garb and in cream trousers and jumper, performing some bit for the camera and Clark Gable playing a spot of tennis. What a mad and fantastic place it must have been. If you’re looking for all the glamour of Hollywood then you’re more likely to find it here than in modern day Hollywood itself. I left desperate to return one starlit evening in a floor length silk dress and dance with Gene Kelly amongst the marble statues.

                                                                                                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                          X
                                                                                                                                                            or
                                                                                                                                                            Big Sur Big Sur
                                                                                                                                                            CA 93920, USA

                                                                                                                                                            IMG_6020tw

                                                                                                                                                            The last few days have consisted of parking on the edge of a cliff, opening up the side of the Bird Van to let in some sort of breeze and then lying in my own filth. It has been heaven. I’ve had no internet or electricity, nothing to do but, read, write and play the guitar; it’s been like a mini-holiday from the hard work of travelling. Please don’t scoff, it really is hard work at times; not nurse or fire fighter or nuclear physicist hard but hard for someone who is capable of spending an entire day dozing at her desk. It requires a good deal of time to find places to visit and stay where I won’t be spending too much money but neither will I be putting myself into unnecessary danger. I’m constantly counting every penny I spend and so a few free days where spending money and doing research was simply not possible have been absolute bliss.

                                                                                                                                                            As for the filth part, this is only the mildest of an exaggeration. It is sweltering up in the mountains away from the coastal breeze, which happens to be where the free camp sites are. I absolutely stink and so does the van! If I could get down to the sea I would swim but it’s a sheer drop and full of seaweed and seals; normally just how I like my sea as it means no swimming and no bikini. But right now I’d dive in completely starkers just to cool down a bit. I’m not sure when I’ll next get to a campsite with a shower and laundry facilities but I hope it’s soon! I could pay $90 for one of the sites here but the views up in the mountains are breathtaking, and I’m not a moron.

                                                                                                                                                            This section of the West coast is known as Big Sur and I’d been told by numerous people how beautiful it is. They aren’t wrong. It’s miles of crashing waves, rugged cliffs and apparently endless sapphire blue ocean that often has a strange rolling mist upon it creating an otherworldly scene; the perfect place to relax and forget that the regular world and all its pressures exists somewhere beyond this wonder. On the second evening an expanse of mist came rapidly in from the ocean as I was heading back up to the campsite, making a precarious drive down-right lethal. It looked like the set of a Dracula film from the 1940s, the sheer drop to my left was just a thick void of white, but the steep climb soon put me above the mist and from my camp site perch I watched as it meandered about the folds of the hills below, blanketing everything in sight from the cliffs to the once ocean blue horizon in a soft yet brilliant white. There was no longer a need to pretend that the real world was elsewhere, it really had vanished from sight. It is without any doubt one of the most achingly beautiful things I’ve been lucky enough to witness in my life.

                                                                                                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                            X
                                                                                                                                                              or
                                                                                                                                                              Sur Point Point Sur
                                                                                                                                                              California 93940, USA

                                                                                                                                                              IMG_6030tw

                                                                                                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                              X
                                                                                                                                                                or
                                                                                                                                                                Monteray Monterey
                                                                                                                                                                CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                X
                                                                                                                                                                  or
                                                                                                                                                                  Oakhurst Oakhurst
                                                                                                                                                                  CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                  X
                                                                                                                                                                    or
                                                                                                                                                                    Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Village
                                                                                                                                                                    CA 95389, USA

                                                                                                                                                                    IMG_6393tw

                                                                                                                                                                    Drum roll please; I did hike to Upper Yosemite Falls. Flalala! That’s me doing a smug happy dance, until I remember how much my body hurts and need to lie down. Setting out at 7:45am, I reached the top at 11:45am, sat and ate before descending; getting to the bottom at 2pm. I’m fairly certain that it’s physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Despite the early hour it was still warm and the sweat was streaming off me, I wasn’t the only one, many of the people I passed looked like they’d just stepped out of the shower. I quickly realised that two bottles of water and a carton of juice wouldn’t be enough this time to counter this rapid loss but I rationed it fairly well and only completely ran out in the last 30mins of descent. But until now I’ve never felt like I could genuinely throw up from exertion before. The last mile to the top is so very steep I had to stop every minute, as did a German couple; I would pass them and get about twenty metres before needing to pause and they would pass me and do the same, there was no exchange of words, just empathetic glances because that’s all the body can muster. But at the top there was enough celebratory adrenalin for a congratulatory hug and a high five.

                                                                                                                                                                    The view at the top was all the more spectacular for having really earned it. The rapid incline means that the valley and visitor’s centre is almost directly below; it’s like looking at an aerial map. The best view of the upper waterfall is actually about half way along the trail but at the top there is a relatively flat expanse where the water gushes and pools in stages before bursting spectacularly over the edge and out of sight. To the side of this there is a ledge that you can climb down to in order to get a better view of the water as it thunders over and down to the valley; it involves a slightly precarious yet brief descent but the ledge itself is well contained by a metal rail.

                                                                                                                                                                    Going back down was actually far worse than the going up, I got pretty dizzy and strayed off the clearly marked path twice, they really aren’t joking when it comes to ensuring you carry a sufficient water supply. Once I reached the bottom I stumbled immediately into a campsite that had drinkable water. And it was deliciously cold! I drank so much, too much actually and had to lie down outside the toilets for about thirty minutes until I felt vaguely better. I still had to walk half a mile to the van because there had been no parking available at the base of the trail. I have learned that in any sort of extreme situation, like a post-apocalyptic world where you have to fight for survival, I would last longer than expected but not even half as long as Will Smith or Tom Cruise.

                                                                                                                                                                    Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                    X
                                                                                                                                                                      or
                                                                                                                                                                      Mariposa Mariposa
                                                                                                                                                                      CA 95338, USA

                                                                                                                                                                      Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                      X
                                                                                                                                                                        or
                                                                                                                                                                        Napa Valley Napa
                                                                                                                                                                        CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                                        _MG_6543tw

                                                                                                                                                                        Fooooooo! And breathe. So I’m not a regular wine drinker because, as much as I like it, I get swiftly tipsy; therefore my tour around Jarvis vineyard has left me feeling quite loopy. Proof being that I nearly spent $210 on wine. At the last minute I realised that this was ludicrous and skedaddled, which my mum and dad will be disappointed about. Even though what I’ve consumed probably only amounts to just over a glass I am now waiting in the van until I feel sober enough to drive. On the upside I suddenly don’t have any worries about money or the fact that I have nowhere definite to sleep for the next three nights.

                                                                                                                                                                        This is Napa Valley, one of the world’s best wine regions. The road to the Jarvis Estate winds up out of Napa and through perfectly kept, rolling fields of brilliant green vines. Entrance is granted by giving your name at the intercom, once you’re confirmed to be on the list the swanky electronic gates glide open allowing passage to the grounds; something immediately tells me that they probably don’t get many Bird Vans rocking up the drive. The estate is impressive. The wine distillery itself is entirely built inside a mountain. They had diggers brought over from England that had been used to build the channel tunnel and burrowed through the rock creating some spectacular halls and rooms connected by eerie tunnels. These are perfectly lit with sconces that throw up a narrow glow giving the impression that we’re walking through a torch-lit medieval castle. The walls are lined with barrels of wine and as they produce about a third of what most vineyards will make it is a comparatively small collection but even so, I’ve never seen so much wine in my life. The tunnels also have streams of water running through crevices in the floor, that come from the interior waterfall, an unintentional feature that occurred when they hit natural spring routes whilst building, lucky for them it looks really cool. There are some incredible cathedral like spaces used for balls and events, all of which are private, they don’t hire out. So these awesome and grand rooms remain quiet for most of the year. Who has money to throw away like that? Essentially it’s just a series of caves and tunnels filled with wine. But it is undeniably exciting and has a touch of Willy Wonka’s Grown-Up Factory about it; not least because the only worker I saw other than our tour guide was a tiny, very tanned woman wheeling a trolley of something that looked like a complicated science experiment. Could it possibly be…? This was post wine tasting though so goodness knows what my mind was doing.

                                                                                                                                                                        Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                        X
                                                                                                                                                                          or
                                                                                                                                                                          Muir Woods Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley
                                                                                                                                                                          CA 94941, USA

                                                                                                                                                                          _MG_6568tw

                                                                                                                                                                          Muir Woods; it’s very pretty in there; the density of the forest creates lush shadowy alcoves while other areas are bathed in long streams of sunlight rushing through the canapé overhead and the California Redwoods are almost overwhelmingly spectacular. My glasses kept falling off my head I was looking up so much. Their thick trunks burst from the ground in a beautiful, rich red bark and can shoot up more than 350ft, although in Muir Woods the tallest tree stands at around 258ft, but even that’s only about 50ft shy of the Statue of Liberty. They are the tallest living thing on the planet and before the logging industry took off it is estimated that there was once more than two million acres of old-growth Redwood forest and the small portion left for us to see today at Muir Woods only exists because Elizabeth and William Thatcher Kent, a husband and wife duo, bought the land and in 1907 when a nearby water company threatened to take them to court in order to obtain the valley for flooding they gifted a huge chunk of it to the federal government so that it be preserved. Thank goodness for the Kents.

                                                                                                                                                                          Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                          X
                                                                                                                                                                            or
                                                                                                                                                                            San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco
                                                                                                                                                                            CA, USA

                                                                                                                                                                            IMG_6615tw

                                                                                                                                                                            Finally driving across the Golden Gate Bridge caused some ‘I’ve done it!’ leakage but the momentary surge of elation was swiftly checked because the minute I lose focus and start celebrating will be the moment I drive over the edge and into the ocean. Something that is a genuine possibility as the bridge is aptly shrouded in the famous San Francisco mist. Even so, in the back of my mind this has always been the point I had to get to for the end of the road trip and it feels peculiar to be here at last. Before I have chance to fully process it though I’m already on the other side and once again lost.

                                                                                                                                                                            Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                            X
                                                                                                                                                                              or
                                                                                                                                                                              Alcatraz Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco
                                                                                                                                                                              CA 94133, USA

                                                                                                                                                                              IMG_6853tw

                                                                                                                                                                              What’s most surprising is that, despite it being a 15min ferry ride to the city, a breeze of a commute by today’s standards, most of the guards lived on the tiny island with their families. The children would go carol singing at Christmas and always stopped outside the prison to sing a few and shout ‘Merry Christmas’ over the walls, which would be returned. How desperately sad that must have been. There are plenty of fascinating stories to hear, from elaborate escape attempts to bloody riots as well as notorious characters to learn about from the infamous gangster Al Capone to the lesser known John Paul Scott who greased himself in lard, squeezed out of a window and swam to shore only to be found the next morning at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge unconscious and in hypothermic shock. This story and many more definitely make it worth a visit but as early in the day as possible because it gets extremely busy.

                                                                                                                                                                              Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                              X
                                                                                                                                                                                or
                                                                                                                                                                                AT & T Baseball Park 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco
                                                                                                                                                                                CA 94107, USA

                                                                                                                                                                                IMG_6668tw

                                                                                                                                                                                That’s it, I’ve had my career epiphany. I’m going to be a professional baseball player. It looks pretty easy; there seems to be minimal exertion, which is important to me in any prospective sporting venture. I think even I could run flat out for fifteen metres or so. And hardly any of them hit the ball so I’d be fine with that. I know I don’t have an arm for throwing so I’d be useless as a distance fielder (is that what they’re called in baseball?) but otherwise I think it’s a decent plan. So, I’m going to look into the women’s leagues, do Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell still play on a team together…?

                                                                                                                                                                                It was a lot of fun. A lot of fun! San Francisco Giants vs the New York Mets. I think I witnessed every American baseball stereotype there is; vendors throwing peanuts, large men spitting peanut shells onto an ever increasing pile between their feet; an entire stadium singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game; a near fight between a fan and the Giants mascot Lue Seal (a big seal with a big attitude); people diving for foul balls; old ladies yelling ‘you suck!’ at disgruntled pitchers and plenty of corndogs. It was brilliant! I settled in with a cold beer in what I’m assured is a rare afternoon of resplendent San Francisco sunshine and enjoyed a baffling afternoon of sport. I was under the assumption that I’d understand it all because it's essentially a game of rounders, which is what the girls at school had to play while the boys played cricket; frankly it's far superior to cricket and probably most other sports. But what I was forgetting is that it’s been thirteen years since I played rounders and we frequently twisted the rules to suit the situation and our mood anyway; like the rule about dropping your bat before running, which was always an inconvenience for those girls who preferred to have something with which to hit any nearby fielders in the stomach, it’s very hard to catch a ball when you’re winded, I know. And I’ve never been great at understanding what makes a good pitch, which seems to be what baseball mostly consists of; at least this particular game had very little hitting and running going on. So I was generally quite lost. It didn’t really matter, it was still fun because every other minute there's music and chanting, interspersed with live video of people enjoying the weather on boats in the bay.

                                                                                                                                                                                Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                                X
                                                                                                                                                                                  or
                                                                                                                                                                                  Chicago Chicago
                                                                                                                                                                                  IL, USA

                                                                                                                                                                                  _MG_6909tw

                                                                                                                                                                                  It felt about time to get sociable so that evening I ventured out with a group from the hostel to the Kingston Mines Blues bar, one of the best blues bars in Chicago apparently. Credited with bringing blues to North Chicago it has been running for more than forty years and still has what it takes to pack the place out with people of all ages despite being a little worn around the edges in appearance. Indeed, the music was fantastic; gargantuan men with greying hair and the raspiest of voices climbed on stage with their band and knocked out everything from smooth ballads to raucous blues rock. It was a fun night of music, whiskey and dancing. Well, dancing of sorts. It was a rare and wonderful thing that not a single person in the bar that evening seemed to have any kind of dance skills - or shame – but boy were we feeling it; there’s nothing more entertaining than people collectively delighting in something they are terrible at. I got into a pretty hefty debate with a well-suited gent about whiskey and scotch versus bourbon, even though I know very little about the stuff other than that I like to drink it and it resulted in our sampling quite a few different bottles from the bar and ended with a reeling walk back to the hostel.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Get Directions

                                                                                                                                                                                  X
                                                                                                                                                                                    or