Category: US

US icons maintaining their wow factor

They’re another year older, but their appeal to travellers is undiminished.

It’s 134 years since the opening of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, while across the US in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is 80.

Both remain among the world’s most popular tourist attractions; never more so than in this age of the ‘selfie’.

Spanning New York City’s East River, the neo-Gothic Brooklyn Bridge is beloved by tourists as the scene of a romantic and inspiring stroll, with spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, the river and the Statue of Liberty.

Photo courtesy Pexels

In fact, an estimated 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 cyclists cross the bridge each day on a decking sitting above the six-lane roadway (which is used by about 120,000 vehicles daily)

A combination of a cable-stayed bridge and a suspension crossing, the bridge connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn and was seen as a giant leap in innovation at the time of its construction.

Photo courtesy Pexels

Back then, Brooklyn Bridge was one of the tallest structures in the world and towered over all of New York. It also helped turn Brooklyn from a rural farming area with scattered neighbourhoods into a bustling city suburb.

Hold onto your hat up there

If you’re visiting New York City and are fit enough, we thoroughly recommend the bridge walk, but be prepared for the bracing winds that often whip over the water and through your hair.

Although nowhere near as old, California’s Golden Gate Bridge is often described as “incomparable in the magnificence of its setting”.

Undoubtedly the most photographed bridge in the world, this striking structure spans the Golden Gate Strait which connect San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean.

With its 746-foot tall towers, sweeping main cables, signature orange colour, and Art Deco styling, the Golden Gate Bridge attracts more than 10 million visitors a year.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Photo courtesy Pexels

The bridge is instantly recognised internationally and has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

However, that wasn’t always the common view.

Many experts in the field doubted that the bridge could ever be built over a strait known for ferocious wind and blinding fog. And, after it opened, some sections of the media dubbed it an ‘ugly duckling’.

How wrong they were!

The bridge is especially beautiful on a sunny day with no wind. But when the area’s famous fog rolls in, the main span and towers can effectively disappear.

The bridge is visible from many parts of San Francisco. We found city buses were an ideal and affordable way to get to the viewing area on the southern side. San Francisco Muni’s 28 and 29 buses take you directly to the vista.

If you are able, we recommend a walk out onto the bridge’s pedestrian path.

It’s hard to really appreciate the size and height of the Golden Gate structure unless you’ve walked on it – at least a little way.

Both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge have featured in many movies, television shows and books.

Manning the rails in Pearl Harbour

You may not have heard of the  US naval tradition of ‘manning the rails’  – but it’s especially poignant at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

‘Manning the rails’  – which involves a ship’s crew  lining up and saluting along the deck  – is a centuries old practice of  showing respect aboard naval ships.

The practice has long been a tradition when US military vessels entered or left Pearl Harbour past the USS Arizona Memorial.

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We’ve watched it happen  – and the practice can be quite moving.

The bombing of Pearl Harbour took place at 7.55am Honolulu time on December 7th, 1941 – killing 2,400 people.

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The United States declared war on Japan the next day. Three days after that, Germany’s Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States.

World War II had entered a new and decisive phase.

Fewer than 200 survivors of the attacks at Pearl Harbour and on other military bases in Hawaii are said to be still alive.

Main image courtesy  of US Navy’s Melissa D Redinger/Released and The Sextant 

 

Selfies replace angst at Strawberry Fields

It’s 36 years since one of the most defining moments of my generation.

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was gunned down outside the magnificent Dakota building in New York City’s Upper West Side.

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In the time it took to pull the trigger four times, the world suffered a bitter and cruel blow.

Even now, the memory of that day brings a sense of sadness.  The sixties were an important part of my youth – and John Lennon and the Beatles embodied much of the spirit of those times.

But I’ve let go of my anger.

I realised how pointless it was the last time Sue and I visited Strawberry Fields, the memorial to Lennon and his music in New York City’s Central Park.

What I always regarded as a location of silent reflection,  instead has become one of the most popular places in the Big Apple for tourist ‘selfies’ – right up there with Trump Tower.

Time and tide wait for no man!

The Dakota Building

If you haven’t seen Strawberry Fields, the memorial is located just inside the park on readily accessible, level ground directly opposite the Dakota.

And take a ‘selfie’ if you must – it is special ground.

 

Crocodile Dundee and our rail adventure

He leaned forward on the table, speaking intently:

“That bird that laughed in Crocodile Dundee was a fake wasn’t it?”

With a smile, we informed our new American friend that the Kookaburra really does exist in Australia and sounds exactly as he’d heard it on the screen.

‘Ok, have you met Crocodile Dundee: what’s he like?”

“Er, Australia’s a pretty big place, but if we do meet him, then we’ll say g’day for you.”

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That was one of the many fascinating cultural exchanges that highlighted one of our most memorable adventures – crossing America from the west to the east coast entirely by train.

Four trains across 11 states

The incredible journey involved four trains; crossed 11 US States; covered more than three-thousand miles; and passed through four time zones.

It was something we’d wanted to do since we heard about the California Zephyr – regarded as one of the great scenic trains of the world – that links America’s Pacific Coast with the Great Lakes.

From there, we decided to catch the Lake Shore Limited to Buffalo in New York State; the Maple Leaf service to Niagara Falls; and the Empire Service to New York City and the US east coast.

And on the way, we met a real life cowboy; members of an Amish community; businessmen and women; a radio announcer; a man who swore that vinyl records would make a comeback; and a blues music freak from New Orleans – to name but a few of our fellow travellers.

Day one: San Francisco to Salt Lake City

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The engaging encounters that punctuated our journey through the American West actually started as we waited to board the California Zephyr at Emeryville Station in San Francisco.

A New Zealand couple – we’ll call them Bill and June – had been in California to watch their country challenge for the holy grail of yachting, the America’s Cup. Bill wasn’t backward in coming forward – and claimed loudly that the US yacht had been cheating.

Oops! Nodding sympathetically, we glanced at the many disapproving stares and ventured that it was probably not the wisest subject in the current circumstances.

Rather fortuitously, the California Zephyr chose exactly that moment to roar into life: a gleaming silver and blue double-decker, with large windows designed to allow the best possible view.

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Emeryville; photo courtesy Michael Patrick

Train crew from AMTRAK, America’s long distance train provider, were quickly on hand to lift luggage, explain the location of various facilities on the train and the arrangements for meals.

The porter in charge of our carriage was a man called Jesus, but the pronunciation puzzled Sue completely.

“Hey Souz” she repeated politely.

“Nice to meet you, but how do you spell your name?

To which he promptly replied: “Gee Sus to you …. Hey Souz to us”.

After allowing us to settle in our sleeper cabin, the train quietly slipped away just after 9am following the twisting shoreline of San Francisco Bay – at times only metres from the water.

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Views of the sweeping waterway and its many bays were exceptional.

Soon after, we headed for lunch in the dining car, where many fascinating conversations would occur over the next few days.

Politics! Now there’s a subject certain to put you off any meal. But, as luck would have it, our first dining companions, a nice couple from Wisconsin, wanted to talk about Australia’s Medicare health insurance system. So we did.

Outside at least, the journey was becoming exciting as the California Zephyr followed some of the paths taken by wagon trains that brought early settlers to America’s Wild West.

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After lunch, we passed through Sacramento and some of west’s famous forests, before climbing into the alpine scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where the California gold rush occurred from 1848 to 1855.

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Settling into the scenic lounge, with its wrap-around glass windows, we were enthralled by the ever-changing landscape as the mountains soon gave way to desert with dry lake beds and rugged cliffs.

It was clear we were in Nevada and late in the afternoon, we slipped through the sunset into Reno, just as the lights flicked on in the city’s eye-catching casino.

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Once again, it was a game of social roulette in the dining car – and our companions for dinner were a lovely family from California who, we quickly discovered, shared our passion for football. Their son had played in the MSL league, so we quickly began discussing the upcoming World Cup and the prospects of both Australia and the US.

After raising a glass of wine with our guests, we retired to our sleeper and moved our clocks ahead an hour for a new time zone as the Zephyr headed across Nevada and into Utah.

Our sleeper bed was extremely comfortable, although we both awoke briefly in the middle of the night when the train came to a halt at Salt Lake City, Utah – its first major stop.

The run from San Francisco had taken about 17 hours.

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Day two: Onward to Denver

Our fine and sunny weather continued as the Zephyr ran through the typical western scenery of Utah and into Colorado.

At the breakfast table, the waiter told us the 15-hour journey to Denver, Colorado passed through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.

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“Howdy”

Our breakfast companions had arrived and Sue and I quickly exchanged glances that said: “Seriously?”

But, Jack from Oklahoma turned out to be the real deal: a true-life cowboy who was riding the iron horse on a holiday with his wife Mary-Sue.

We sat mesmerised as they told us about their horse-riding and wedding carriage business back home.

In Oklahoma, Jack said he always carried a gun because “everyone does”. His pick-up truck had a rifle rack behind the driver’s seat, he said.

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It was an interesting meal, not the least because Jack convinced us to try a plate of grits, a type of corn ground into a meal. Later, we agreed that grits is obviously an acquired taste.

We then headed for the scenic lounge, anxious not to miss the canyons and swirling streams of the Colorado Rockies.

First, the train ran through scenery that was right out of every western movie we’d ever seen.

This was truly the scenery of the American wild west.

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The Zephyr skirted some astonishing rock formation such as the Book Cliffs before entering the towering cliffs of Colorado’s famous mountains.

We snaked alongside the Colorado River and climbed through the country of the bald eagle and deer to reach a peak of 9,000 feet.

Just past Glenwood Springs, with its various ski resorts, the California Zephyr edged into rugged Glen Canyon, a 12.5 mile gorge that had proved a real test for the wagons of early west-bound pioneers.

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As we ran alongside the mighty Colorado River, we passed close to hordes of white water rafters who promptly turned their backs and saluted us in the traditional ‘Moon River’ fashion.

This ‘mooning’ caused a great deal of merit in our scenic lounge, although a elderly Amish woman promptly rose to leave the carriage – taking with her a rather reluctant teenage Amish girl.

Volunteer rangers from the National Park service joined us in the scenic car between Grand Junction and Denver and spoke about the history of the Rocky Mountains rail crossings and other historical, modern, geographical and environmental highlights.

Known as the ’Trails and Rails Program’, this innovative feature added immensly to our understanding of the area’s rail heritage cultural development and general transport history.

The speakers were informative, fascinating and a highlight of the trip. Full marks to AMTRAK and the National Park Service for providing such a great value-added service.

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We crossed the Rockies through the Moffat Tunnel as the day ended, giving us a panoramic glimpse of the sun setting across the Great Plains.

And then we began a long descent toward the city of Denver.

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Denver, Colorado

As we approached Denver, we again sat down in the dining carriage – and this time our companions were businessman, Richard and his wife June, who had also travelled from California.

They were a fascinating couple who had carved out a successful business selling vinyl records in the former hippie Mecca of San Francisco. Richard was a walking encyclopaedia on vinyl recording artists – and impressed us with his knowledge of 60’s and 70’s Australian music.

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Day three: Denver to Chicago

By morning, the scenery had changed yet again, as we awoke to find the California Zephyr cruising through Nebraska, with cornfields stretching almost as far as the eye could see.

Breakfast brought our meeting with radio announcer, Tony and his father who questioned us about kookaburras and Crocodile Dundee.

Outside, Lincoln and Omaha passed and, all too soon,  Illinois was upon us as the California Zephyr reached its terminus in the grand mid-western city of Chicago.

The Windy City was an impressive sight, with its famous skyscrapers and once again, Amtrak’s staff were particularly helpful in reaching the platform with bags in tow

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After three days exploring Chicago, we continued our train journey – this time on the Lake Shore Limited, which skirted the shoreline of the Great Lakes to take us into New York State, where we alighted at Buffalo Depew.

Train two: The Lake Shore Limited

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While awaiting departure on this leg of the trip, we were able to take advantage of AMTRAK’s excellent Chicago guest lounge for passengers who had booked a sleeper compartment.

The lounge was particularly appreciated, as our train did not leave until evening and a comfortable seat, free coffee and wifi was an unexpected boon to weary sightseers.

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Once aboard the Lake Shore Limited, we were invited to a late supper of wine, cheese and biscuits, where we met Bill, a blues music freak from New Orleans on his way to Canada for a music festival.

From Buffalo-Depew, we caught the Canada-bound Maple Leaf train for a short run to Niagara Falls.

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And three days later, we completed our epic journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean by catching the Empire Service through New York state to the Big Apple – and arriving with crowds of commuters at Penn Station.

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Having crossed America by both plane and train, we can thoroughly recommend the rail option – provided you have the time.

The entire crossing cost us about $AUD1,000, however we opted for a sleeper and a sleepette – complete with their own shower and toilet.  If you are prepared to stay in a coach seat (and the scenic lounges) and buy your meals as you go, the crossing can probably be done for not much more than $AUD300.

Except for breaks at Chicago and Niagara Falls, we also opted to remain on the train, rather than spending time at any of the passing centres.  However, the California Zephyr runs daily, so this can be done if desired.

Main photo courtesy AMTRAK

 

 

 

 

Review: Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

We knew of the African Apes, but we hadn’t heard about the ‘mind games’.

For this reason alone, our visit to Lincoln Park Zoo, in Chicago, Illinois, was certainly an eye-opener.

Researchers at the zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Centre have been using touch-screens, among other techniques, to understand how our closest cousins think.

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Encouraging gorillas and Japanese macaque monkeys to place objects on the screen in sequence may allow scientists to determine how they think and feel.

The centre, which brings together global experts and organisations, is working on these ‘mind games’ as part of its mission to advance knowledge of ape biology; improve care of apes in zoos and sanctuaries; and conserve and protect wild populations.

An excellent location

And the not-for-profit Lincoln Park Zoo is a great facility for this work.

The zoo boasts the Regenstein Centre for African Apes, a $26million state-of-the-art facility that stretches over 29,000 square feet and includes complex forest and riverbed habitat.

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There are dozens of trees, 5,000 feet of artificial vines, skylights, bamboo strands, termite mounds, a waterfall, moat and heated logs.

Huge glass windows separate the indoors from the outdoors and zoo visitors can be actively involved in science and conservation initiatives.

Of course, the fascinating African apes are not the only attraction at Lincoln Park Zoo, which is a 35-acre historic Chicago landmark founded in 1868 against the stunning backdrop of Lake Michigan and the city’s famous skyscrapers.

Big cats and polar bears too

Other attractions at the free-admission zoo include big cats, polar bears, penguins and reptiles. In all, there are about 1,100 animals.

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Lincoln Park Zoo continues to be a big hit with the people of Chicago and surrounds.

We visited on a sunny Saturday and the zoo was busy without huge crowds.

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It is located at 2001 North Clark Street, Chicago, on the fringe of Lincoln Park.

The zoo boasts stunning views of the city’s impressive skyline from the bridge that spans its artificial wetlands.

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We thoroughly recommend this one.

Outstanding accessibility

Lincoln Park Zoo deserves a pat on the back for the steps it takes to ensure accessibility to older visitors and people with a disability.

The  Zoo’s main entrance and paid parking lot are located on its eastern side – and there  are 19 accessible parking spaces along Cannon Drive. There are also three areas reserved on northbound Stockton Drive for vehicles displaying accessibility placards. Parking in these areas is free:

Wheelchairs

These are available at Gateway Pavilion for temporary use by guests within the zoo. Loans are first come, first served. A refundable deposit of $US20 is required.

All public buildings at the zoo have at least one wheelchair-accessible entrance, as does the animal encounter program.

Lincoln Park Zoo permits the use of wheelchairs and other power-driven mobility devices.

Service Animals

Service animals are also allowed at the zoo and there are sighted guides and sign-language assistance services.

See Vienna Zoo

Zoos are a favourite attraction of ours. See our review of Tiergarten Schoenbrunn, Vienna’s wonderful zoo

 

Streets of San Francisco

Riding the cable cars of San Francisco is a great experience.

These iconic cars are the last of their type in the world and who knows how much longer they’ll operate.

Of the 23 lines originally established in San Francisco, only three are left – mainly catering for tourists.

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If you’ve ever wondered how they move, San Francisco’s cable cars don’t have any motor.

Cables run along a trench beneath the street and each cable car has at least one mechanical ‘grip’ which reaches down into the trench and grabs the cable like a huge pair of pliers.

This hauls the car along at a constant speed of about 9.5 miles an hour – and a little faster when going downhill.

Bells clanging

The cable cars are colourful and wonderful to watch in action – rattling up San Francisco’s legendary steep streets with bells ringing and the driver, or gripman, working the controls and calling out the names of impending stops.

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We rode the Powell Street cable car to the end of the line, especially to see another highlight of the system – the turntables that swing the cable car around and allow it to return in the opposite direction.

As children, we remembered watching old steam trains turned on a similar system in rural Australia. So it was particularly nostalgic to watch the cable car rotated in the same way.

The cars are also a fantastic way of seeing the sights of downtown SanFrancisco.

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Each cable car has outward facing seats flanking the gripman and a small platform at the rear. These provide an awesome view of the road ahead and behind, as well as the passing parade through the city.

The rest of each car is enclosed and, overall, 29 people are able to sit while about the same number can stand.

Established between 1873 and 1890, the San Francisco cable car system is the last manually-operated network of its type.

The three remaining cable car routes run from downtown San Francisco near Union Square to the Fisherman’s Wharf area and along California Street.

Each car is 27 feet 6 inches (8.4 m) long and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide and weighs 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg)

They are listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Riding a rickshaw

We took our first pedicab ride in Chicago, Illinois.

Obviously, we’d seen rickshaws in Asia, but being keen walkers, we had never been tempted to use what we considered to be mainly a novelty.

However, in Chicago, it was a matter of exhaustion.

We’d walked several miles from the Hilton Chicago on South Michigan Avenue through the city centre and on to Lincoln Park Zoo.

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A typical pedicab

Getting there was fine, but the return journey late in the afternoon proved a hard slog and by the time we reached The Loop – as Chicago calls its CBD – our feet were aching.

Near Chicago’s Millennium Park, several pedicabs passed by – and, on impulse, we hailed a rider and asked about prices.

After some quick haggling, we settled on about $US8 and climbed aboard the pedicab for the six or seven city blocks to the hotel.

Although the ride wasn’t fast, it was exhilarating and lots of fun.

Our pedicab was designed for two people and even included seatbelts. However, we didn’t feel in any danger as the rider stuck close to the edge of the busy road and cars gave us plenty of room.

The only time our pedicab had to sound its bell, was to alert cyclists and other rickshaws of our approach.

Rickshaws are used in many US cities, mainly for their novelty value as an entertaining form of transportation for tourists and locals.

According to our Chicago rider, the first known commercial use of pedicabs in North America occurred in 1962 at the Seattle World’s Fair.

Why not. They are heaps of fun.