Some months ago, Fran who is one of my oldest friends (we first met in 1969) invited us both to New York for Thanksgiving – what is the point of being retired if you cannot say “yes” to invites like that? We have been to New York a number of times but I (Paul) have never been to Washington so we decided to visit the two cities over the period of a week. This will be my seventh trip abroad this year (five for Pat) and take our air-mileage count towards 60,000 for the year – not very green but that’s the way it is.
In the old days (pre Internet), travelling abroad involved the minimum of planning. When we went to the Middle East for three months in 1970, we knew from a large scale map of the area that there was a railway line between Baghdad and places east, so we (correctly) assumed we would find out about the trains when we got there. Now with the internet, you can find out train times, book, pay for and print tickets, reserve seats etc. We also used the internet to book our plane tickets, select seats and check in; book parking near the airport; get our visas; order dollars; buy trolley tour tickets; get timetables for the trains from NYC out to New Jersey; research what was on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then work out the bus route, how much it would cost, where to buy a bus ticket – the list is endless. So this is very much an internet planned holiday. Whilst some of the mystery and leaving things to chance has gone, it has been replaced by the “pleasure” of research and planning and using credit cards – in most cases you also get a discount for doing the work yourself.
Getting to Heathrow is never a pleasure but the M25 behaved itself and the traffic was much lighter that the previous week when I drove the same route to a gravel pit near to the airport to gain a cold water Dry Suit diving
qualification (the underwater visibility can be judged from the photo), and also the week before that when we went to Iceland. T5 operated efficiently although I do not think I will ever like it. Our plane took off over an hour late due to problems with the buses and a cargo door that would not close and two films later (Julia and Julie; plus something totally forgettable) delivered by a somewhat antiquated BA video system, we arrived in Washington and 17 hours after closing our front door in England, we opened the door to our hotel room
The Omni Hotel in Washington is one of a chain of large hotels scattered
across the USA. We chose it partly because of its location but mainly because of the price and many good reviews in Trip Advisor. Reviews have to be taken with a lorry load of salt because too often they are used to let off steam, get “your own back” or are written by hotel staff. The general message about this hotel was good, it offered instant rewards if you joined their “club” (free wifi, pressing; morning tea etc) and most interesting, the services of a “Rooms Leader”) who emailed us to tell us that her task was “to ensure we had a great time”). We tested her out before we came by asking for advice on what to do the day after arrival – she delivered the goods with detailed suggestions which turned out to be spot on.
The hotel was built in the 1930s and claims to be “Art Deco” but this is not obvious. Its main claim to fame is that the Beatles stayed there when they appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show”, President Clinton played his saxophone in the Ballroom at one of his inauguration balls, Frank Sinatra sang there (as did Lisa Minnelli) etc etc. Our room was about 10 CVUs (10 times the size of our Australian camper van, 1 camper van = 1CVU) and the bed was about 2CVUs. Luckily there was a phone on each side of the bed so we could phone each other if we got lost in the bed or did not want to shout across the bed.
TripAdvisor contributors recommended eating at a cafe opposite the hotel called “Open City” because it was cheap and reasonable quality – they were correct and the draught beer was particularly good.
Day one – Eastern Market housed in a wonderful old building,
with high quality interesting food inside and numerous craft stalls outside
then walk through Capitol Hill
past the Supreme Court
past some superb street lamps
through the arboretum still showing autumn colours
across the National Mall (with the Washington Monument in the distance)
and onto the National Gallery of Art which is full of the most wonderful paintings, sculpture and much more. The gallery has a “top items” sheet (which you pick up from a desk near the entrance) designed for the time poor. This shows you the exact locations of the most popular works and thus you can see the best of the museum in about an hour.
The Reading Girl Pietro Magni 1861
as you walk from one major exhibit to another, you pass through rooms laden with great art – these are two rather nice pictures
This is an exhibit (with Pat in it). An underground corridor has become an optical exhibit with lights moving up and down the corridor which you ride down on a travelator.
The museum also has a number of atria filled with plants and trees within which one can just sit and recover. Quiet a fantastic museum and well worth a future return visit.
On to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to touch a piece of Moon Rock and see numerous plane and space exhibits
and then back to our hotel, somewhat exhausted.
The day starts with a “hop on hop off Trolley Tour” around Washington which, although time consuming, does enable us to see many of the sites of the town. The trolley drivers double up as guides and over the course of the next two days, we meet many of them and each one knows things which the others do not.
We gaze at the White House from afar and then go to the White House Visitor Centre to see the plans and history of the building;
then back on the trolley to see Union Station and then the Library of Congress. Putting to one side the fact that it is the largest library in the world and has the most amazing website where you can browse from afar much of the collection, it is housed in the most beautiful building. We were fortunate to be able to join a tour and learn about the history of the building, and its design and construction.
All of the illustrative elements in the ceilings and walls tell individual stories and have meanings and these are covered in some detail in the Library of Congress website and therefore need not be repeated here. After this, we continued the trolley ride around Washington noting a few places to visit the next day and then went back to the hotel for a much needed sleep.
We continue the Trolley Tour and start with a visit to Arlington Cemetery,
which contains over 300,000 graves of ordinary people as well as the
rich and famous such as the Kennedys.
The nearby Lincoln Memorial is also the place where
Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a Dream” speech.
As we were standing on the spot, one of the National Park staff started to play the speech (lick on the link above to hear it).
The nearby Museum of American History contains and extraordinary variety of American ephemera such as Dorothy's red shoes from the Wizard
of Oz” which seemed more purple than red but apparently that was due to the effect of the filming lights
a replica of Julie Child’s Kitchen – this was particularly interesting because we saw the film Julie and Julia on the flight over to Washington. There were some videos of Julia Child’s cookery programmes playing and it was quite astonishing how accurate Meryl Streep had got the voice and mannerisms.
Every President’s wife donates a dress to the museum (one wonders what will happen when they get a female president) and the above is the dress belonging to Mary Lincoln. One could spend hours at the museum looking at the astonishing variety of exhibits.
Day Four - Train from Union Station to New York Penn Central then train out to Fran.
A challenging day travel wise, the train to New York broke down twice en-route and we had to transfer to another train and then when we got to New York and called Fran, we found out that we did not have her current phone number and therefore could not arrange for her to meet us at her local station (that was plan A) – a necessary since we did not know where her road was.
Plan B was to go to her nearest `station and then ask anyone where her road was, since we knew that it was close to the station. The problem when we arrived there was that everybody we asked denied any knowledge of the road, there were no taxis at the station and no street maps. As is often the case, the kindness of strangers came to the rescue and someone found out the phone number of the local taxi firm and phoned them ordering us a taxi. It turned out that she lived only about 500m from the station and so we arrived by taxi, somewhat relieved. The
house was clearly identifiable from the greyhound insignia above the
house door and the dedication to greyhounds continues inside. Luckily we did not have to resort to “Plan C” which was to find a hotel and then work out what to do next.
Much of the immediate area around the house is straight out of “Its a Wonderful Life” and one expected Jimmy Stewart to be around every corner. Most of the houses were very picturesque in a traditional American sort of way and clearly showed a lot of money.
The most touching element for me was that all of the street lamps were genuine working gas lamps – something I had not seen for 50 years
(since they were replaced along the road I lived in London).
Occasionally one meets a pair of dog walkers on the street.
Day 5 – Thanksgiving
A day of continuous eating with more food than anyone could reasonably manage.
Fran did most of the cooking although an excellent gravy was made by someone from the old country. The overall food plan seems to be to make as many dishes as possible and then eat as much as possible (when we were in DC, we discussed Thanksgiving with one couple and they said they routinely made 14 different dishes for the main meal).
It was decided that we would dress suitably for the occasion with pilgrims' collars and ties since Thanksgiving celebrates the first autumn harvest of the earliest pioneers.
The turkey would have fed a medium sized town
Did we overeat by the end of this gargantuan feast?
Day Six – West Side Story
Where else should one see West Side Story than New York?
So it was into NYC by train to a theatre on Broadway to see the show – sung partly in Puerto Rican Spanish
then back to Fran’s for leftovers.
Day Seven – Home again,Home again, jigety jig.
Shopping, then pancakes, followed by a slightly tense drive to Newark airport due to very heavy traffic and then an easy flight back and into bed.
Washington was wonderful and deserves a second visit and New York was as frenetic as always and will get another visit.
Thanks Fran – are you coming to us next year?