Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Concrete Jungle

Leaving Las Vegas (teehee) saw us leaving behind some fantastic members of our group of awesomeness (sad face) but we did get to keep the irreplaceable Bridget and on top of that we were joined in New York by the beautiful Olivia... And so our adventure continues.

New York, New York... The city that never sleeps... The Big Apple... Concrete jungle where dreams are made... What other clich├ęs can I mention? Well it is all justified! New Yorkers definitely walk to a different beat... A much faster, grumpier beat. A week in New York was not even close to enough time to see much at all, Obviously we managed to see the big hitters, but there is so much more to see in NYC than the chick with the book and torch!

Our time in New York consisted of (but was not limited to) visiting the following... Deep breath now... Grand Central, Times Square, M&M World, Olive Garden, 9/11 Memorial, Brooklyn, Broadway, The Met, The Guggenheim, Tiffany's, Trump Tower, Fifth avenue, Rockefeller Centre, Flatiron building, Staten Island ferry, Statue of Liberty, Wall street, Greenwich village, Washington Square park, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller centre, Empire State Building observation deck, Central park, Brooklyn Flea Market, Brooklyn Bridge, Supreme court , Madison Square Garden and Macy's... So as you can see we were quite busy little tourists and all this action left us absolutely wrecked by 3pm every day! A valuable lesson was learnt here...

Handy Shanwah Hint: Pace yourself! What is the point in visiting these amazing sights if you don't have the energy to enjoy them? I would suggest that you set yourself a limit of maybe two or three major tourist destinations every day and mix them up so that you have some high excitement activities next to the more reserved ones (a lesson Jade and I learnt in Berlin when we decided that it would be a good idea to visit every Museum on Museum lsland in one day... By the end we were on the verge of being kicked out because we were delirious and pretending to be elks and lions...)

On our second big day of sightseeing we braved the elements and took a trip to see the former site of the World Trade Centers, current home to the 9/11 memorial. The weather was miserable but we were very keen to pay our respects and learn a bit about the events that occurred there almost eleven years ago. The best advice I can give you here is that you need to prepare yourself. To gain entry to the memorial you are required to pick up tickets at a nearby museum (for a voluntary donation) and you are offered entry into the small museum along with this. The museum is small but there is so much emotion packed into such a tiny space that you need to be prepared to take it all in. You will be standing in front of statue of liberty miniature that has been absolutely covered in photographs, prayers and dedications whilst people around you cry and a documentary is playing behind you recounting the stories of the victims' families. I don't pretend that I am an overly strong person emotionally but I actually had to leave to stop myself from sobbing. The next thing you need to prepare yourself for is the walk. The area is still very much a huge construction site, the Freedom Tower is half built and the rest of the buildings are also in varying degrees of completion. From the ticket collection point you are required to walk around this construction site to get to the entrance of the memorial... Quite a trek if it is raining/blisteringly hot. Next comes the long line and security check but if you have done any other sight seeing in America you should be used to this by now. After all this you are granted entry into the memorial... And you will be amazed... Firstly by the size of the memorials, two great fountains sitting exactly where the towers once stood that have been inscribed with the names of all those who lost their lives during the September eleven attacks. Secondly by the sheer size of the empty space in the middle of the New York financial district. The memorial itself is still under construction but the two fountains are complete and the survivor tree (a tree that was in the gardens of the original World trade centers and survived the devastation) has also been replanted. This place has definitely got an aura of quiet reflection and mourning about it without being too showey or touristy, I definitely recommend this place over most of the other big hitters.

Memorial ribbons tied to the survivor tree inscribed with prayers and messages of remembrance, A temporary expression of love from a stranger written in the raindrops, flowers over the name of lost loved one, a view of the fountain basin.

A visit to the big apple is definitely not complete without a visit to the famous Central Park! This oasis in the heart of a bustling metropolis is definitely sizable, so I would suggest allowing a good amount of time to take in the sights and sounds of famous Central Park. During your time amongst the trees you might want to wile away your day sailing miniature ships on one of the smaller lakes, hire a boat and row around the big lake, feed the ducks, get a hand drawn portrait made up, ride a bike, watch some Shakespeare, listen to some buskers play some classical music, have a picnic, walk, jog or run... The list is actually ridiculously long! We spent hours just strolling, hired a boat and had Ross gallantly row us around for some amazing views of the park (it is a whole different experience from on the water) and finished up with a picnic on the grass. You wont actually achieve much while you are here and your photographs (if you take any) will look much the same as any other major parkland, but the key here is relaxation... After a few days trying to keep up with the New Yorkers! You will need it!

A sign in the right direction (I definitely recommend renting a boat), the view over one of the lakes, some of the many ducks that are an integral part of the Central Park experience, an example of the grade separation that makes Central Park so comfortable to navigate.

I'd heard whispers that Washington Park was a place worth visiting if you happened by the neighbourhood and, as it turns out, those whispers were true! Although it is only a small park with very little to do, I certainly recommend a quick bout of people watching on your way through Manhattan. While you are at it, visit Greenwich village and amble around the streets! The restaurants and boutique designer stores dotted around the place are substantially quieter than their shopping mall siblings and the staff are nicer! Quick Tip: if you are a Marc Jacobs fan I suggest a trip to Bookmarc... It is a super trendy Marc Jacobs boutique and bookstore!

We had the good fortune to know a NY local (thanks Eileen) who recommended we visit the Brooklyn flea market for a handmade bargain and secondhand treasure or two. The market (located in the beautiful Fort Greene area of the hip Brooklyn borough) is run every Saturday from 10am to 5pm (for more details visit www.brooklynflea.com) and consists of countless stalls selling secondhand bric-a-brac, local art, tasty food, unique fashion and even some hand made Australian beauty products! The beautiful thing about this market is that it is not so big that you get lost or end up seeing the same thing over and over again, but it still has a fantastic variety of products to oooohh and aaaah over. In my opinion, this is the perfect place to pic up a unique souvenir of your time in New York (I know I did), do some people watching and support some local creative types. You can top this off by taking a casual stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. The bridge affords you fantastic views of both Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as some much needed exercise and open sky (rare in New York). This brings me to my second handy hint for this post... Here it comes...

Handy Shanwah hint: Try living like a local! There is an absolute gold mine of local attractions, restaurants and boutiques in every neighborhood that are waiting to impress you. If you have the good fortune to know a local then grill them for information! These things are always more exciting than the tourist traps.

Some views of the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge that you might not normally see.

One of the last points on our long list of things to do in New York was to take in the view from the "Top of the Rock" (the observation deck of the Rockefeller Centre). The Rock is said to have amazing views of both the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, but after failing to get last minute tickets (sold out on account of the Bieber fever fans filling in time while they waited overnight for the Biebs to perform the next morning) we trekked to the Empire State to see if we would have more luck there. As it turns out, the Empire State Building is cheaper by a few bucks and we could get tickets. I am sure there is a quicker way to get to the top but if you are going last minute then you have to do your time and wait line for a while, so if you want to do this I suggest you look into advanced bookings or the like. Once you are up it is a fantastic view over New York (we did it at night) and the lights are just fantastic! It was amazing to see Times Square lighting up like it was its own miniature city and the roads cutting through Manhattan like little rivers.

The gang looking like the Brady bunch on the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and on the lake in Central Park.

Shanwah's tasty tip: New York is a restaurant city! And you can pretty much luck onto some amazing places to eat no matter where you go... BUT... We are not all able to enjoy a gourmet dinner every night so I will tell you about my new favorite restaurant chain in America... Olive Garden! You have probably already heard of Olive Garden but for the conscientious traveller who still wants to eat good food, this place is a must! The salad is fresh and endless (but be warned, they will not bring out mains until you are finished with your salad) and if you order soup... That is endless too! There is complimentary garlic bread, a good selection of mains to choose from, and not only is the figure on your bill a surprise, it comes with chocolates too! There are at least two in Manhattan and many more around America.

My first trip to New York was jam packed and exhausting, But I feel it is almost a right of passage to overdo yourself in NYC... Just don't try and struggle against the city, it will win every time.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Make it rain!!!

Wow... What can I say about Vegas?...

Coming into Vegas I had conjured up many different (sometimes contradicting) images of what it would be like and what to expect when we arrived. I can tell you now that this is a direct result of too many nights spent whiling away the hours in front of CSI re-runs and bad romantic comedies (plus that Friends episode). For the main part I thought of Vegas as a typical big city with the small exception of an intense strip of casinos clogging up the centre, dotted here and there with petite wedding chapels and drenched in bright light... Other (more nostalgic) times I envisaged a small American town with a sparkling neon strip of colour running down its heart, full of excitement and chance. What we got when we arrived was a pleasant mixture of both, an extra dash of tackiness and a blustery 40 degree heat.

Our very first call to action was to stomp the strip (Las Vegas Blvd) and explore this unique urban melting pot! Our hotel (The Hilton Grand) stands behind Planet Hollywood and this meant that the safest and most direct route to the strip was via The Miracle Mile shopping mall. A healthy 2hrs later (after ducking into a few stores, watching two fountain shows grabbing a quick bite at La Salsa Cantina and an irresistible photo opportunity with the giant stripper statue) we were on the famous Las Vegas Blvd!

The atmosphere on the strip is utterly indescribable! You are surrounded by loud and obnoxious drunks with a vocally unashamed desire to gamble, drink and drool over strippers... And yet somehow you feel incredibly safe... We were handed nudie cards on every corner and promised endless nights of fun, frivolity and free drinks by nightclub reps... Countless bars and street vendors selling a wide array of alcoholic combinations in weird and wonderful vessels (I chose the giant, sparkly champagne bottle filled with Red Bull and vodka) and advertisements absolutely EVERYWHERE!

The street art of Las Vegas! A very small sampling of the fantastic neon that lights up the strip at night and makes you feel both glamorous and tacky at the same time.

After a day of settling in, we hit the outlet malls. Shopping in Vegas outlet malls is AMAZING! I parted with a measly $500 and walked away with a healthy amount of designer clothing, shoes and accessories from Burberry, Hillfiger, Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Calvin Klein and Vans. I highly recommend you spend the money on a cab ride to these outlets (they are not on or near the strip) as it is well worth the dollars you will save if you are planning on shopping... If you don't plan on any shopping I suggest you scrap your original plan and go shopping.

Shopping aside, my favorite thing about Vegas is easily the showbiz. Every single major casino on the strip has at least one in-house show or gimmick of some description... In fact most have three or four! Examples are... Treasure Island with their Siren show that includes fireworks and dancing wenches, the famous Bellagio fountains choreographed to music, The gondola rides in the Venetian and the roller coasters of New York, New York. On top of this there is a very wide selection of musicians, magicians, comedians and theater shows, as well as several of the famous Cirque Du Soleil shows. Because of our limited time in Vegas we could only see a few shows (much to my dismay) so we chose Cirque du Soleil's "O" (performed in and on an incredible stage that turned into a massive indoor lake) and Holly Madison's "Peep Show". Both shows were outstanding! We were front row centre for "O" (the splash zone) and sat wide eyed throughout every jaw dropping act, clapping feverently as often as we could. Ross was pulled onto the stage for a dance with a clown and the crowd went wild! I left the theatre knowing I had seen something that I will never forget. We were also fortunate enough to have VIP seats for "Peep Show" which included exclusive tables by the stage. A fantastic group of performers dazzled us with their... unique talents... Holly Madison ruffled Ross' hair and I got a wink... All in all, a great night!

During our time in the great state of Nevada we decided that we should take some time to visit something more... culturally substantial... (if that isn't subjective then I don't know what is...). This cultural redemption took form in another luxury bus ride (this one was... less luxurious than the last) to the inspirational Hoover Dam. After watching an episode of some engineering documentary back in Australia (I am making it sound as though I get all my travel ideas from tv) I decided that I should probably take some time away from booze and strippers to appreciate the achievements of Man. Having paid for the deluxe tour we were rewarded with a $10 gift card and a classy book full of facts and figures about the dam. The book (written quite a few years ago) has become a treasure of mine because of the snaps of happy tourists in high waisted... acid wash... double denim... scrunchies and white runners. Upon arrival we where herded into a small cinema to watch a new age propaganda movie about the amazingness of America and the amazingness of what Americans could achieve and how amazing and forward thinking Americans were... You can see where this is going... Finally the good stuff came and we were taken underground and stood on top of one of the water bypass tunnels. This is where the water flies around the side of the dam and squeezes through huge pipes fitted with turbines that generate A LOT of power. This really was an amazing experience, you can literally hear and feel thousands and thousands of gallons of water surging under the floor beneath you (thankfully you can't see the thousands of gallons of water). This was followed up by the equally as impressive power generators themselves. Once again you could literally hear and see the electricity being generated by the tremendous force of the mighty Colorado River (geez now I sound like the propaganda documentary). Finally we toured the top half of the dam and I must say we were suitably impressed by that too. A great trifecta of awe inspiring engineering, man power and the force of nature made the Hoover Dam one of my favourite things about America... Oh also I got to stand in Nevada and Arizona at the same time... I cannot recommend this place highly enough!

The mighty Hoover Dam! Intake towers that look like something from a SciFi movie, One of four huge pipes that allows water to bypass the dam and generate a proverbial ton of power in the process, and the tunnels we used to see all this... Yep it felt like we were in a mine too...

Handy Shanwah hint: Stay longer! We booked a three night stay in a fantastic hotel suite and did not stop the entire time we were there. There is so much more to do in Vegas than drinking and gambling and three full days wasn't even close to enough time there. I would suggest at least a week, especially if you plan on visiting Hoover dam and the Grand Canyon

My final thoughts on Vegas... Both underrated and overrated. For a city with such a massive focus on alcohol and gambling it sure packs a cultural punch.