juliamhammond

North America

The Great Storm, Galveston

“I should as soon think of founding a city on an iceberg as on Galveston Island, if I looked to its safety and perpetuity.”

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Before the deadliest storm in US history left low-lying Galveston flattened and in shock, it was a prosperous town. Forty thousand people called it home and a steady stream of cotton steamers created a reliable source of income. The town was littered with mansions, symbolic of the immense wealth being accumulated here; before the storm there were 26 millionaires living within a five block radius. Trolleys carried those too lazy, rich or old to walk about town. At the end of the 19th century, it was the most important seaport in the USA and it seemed nothing could hold it back.

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Except the weather had other ideas. After a calm, sunny week, as evening turned into the night of Friday 7th September 1900 the winds began to pick up. Rain lashed the two-storey homes that lined the Strand and weather observers looked on anxiously. Forecasting was in its infancy in those days, but even then the rudimentary instruments told a frightening story. Wind speeds were increasing, reaching 100mph that night, before the equipment blew away. Some meteorologists think the wind speeds could have reached as much as 145mph at their peak. The barometric pressure was the lowest ever recorded up to that point in US history.

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By 4am, the sea had surged inland, flooding the town’s streets. A four and a half metre storm surge was more than the island could cope with, the highest ground being being little more than half that. The heavy swell continued to be a concern as day broke. By noon, much of the island was underwater, but there was worse to come. Strengthening winds battered the feeble housing. Debris flew around in the wind acting as missiles against any building still standing.

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One observer was sheltering in a house that had withstood such an attack for several hours. He noted that a man trying to reach that same home had his faced sliced clean off by a flying roof slate. It must have been a terrifying time for those who were to become the survivors, that thud of wave-driven timbers on the walls like a mediaeval battering ram on a wooden castle door.

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At least 6000 would never know such lasting fear. Whole families were wiped out, making a confirmed death toll impossible to ascertain, but it’s generally agreed that the figure is a conservative estimate of the final death toll. As Sunday morning dawned, the skies had cleared and the storm had passed. What was left was unrecognisable. Much of the island was completely flattened, the powerful waves scouring the landscape and leaving it in places as pristine as when the first settlers had laid out their street plan. A few blocks further along, huge mounds of debris concealed the bodies of the dead. Here and there, properties listed at angles more commonly associated with earthquake damage; a few had been turned completely upside down. From 9th Street east towards the beach, block after block no longer existed.

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The human cost was appalling. 5000 families were left destitute; it would be days before word reached the Red Cross in Washington and the much-needed aid would arrive. Marshal law was instigated in an attempt to stave off looting. Pilferers were shot. Those in authority also had to deal with the tricky question of burying the dead. With no time in the heat and humidity to dig sufficient graves, rocks were attached to bodies and they were buried at sea. The water that had killed them would be their final resting place.

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Yet the sea had other ideas, washing bloated and putrid corpses up on the shore day after day. A decision was taken to burn the bodies. Those enduring such a horrendous task were paid in whiskey until they threw up from the disgusting stench. It was a job no one wanted but someone had to do. The risk of disease for the survivors was just too high a price to pay to leave the bodies to rot. As the impact of the disaster sank in, page after page of the newspaper was filled with the names of those who had perished.

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But the survivors stayed to resurrect their city. In 1902 a solid sea wall was proposed and within two years the designs had become a reality. Together with the wall, a regrading of the roads was undertaken, raising the level of the streets. 3000 houses would be lifted and sand dredged from the a Gulf of Mexico pumped underneath them so the buildings would sit three metres higher, above the danger level. In future, any incoming wave would be weakened by the increased gradient. The cost of this ambitious engineering project was a staggeringly high $6 million. By 1905, Galveston was ready to take on the elements once more. It didn’t have to wait long. In 1915, a hurricane hit, similar in magnitude to the Great Storm of 1900. The city’s residents held their breath. Would their defences hold?

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They would: just eight people died. Galveston had a future, though it would never regain its pre-storm commercial status.


What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


The value of trip planning

I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different.  The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas.  I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/off-to-texas-with-traveleyes/

It’s outside my comfort zone.  Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel.  I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary.  Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.

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The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus.  I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week.  This is firmly within my comfort zone.  This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.

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The former is a departure from my usual travelling style.  Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport.  There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy.  I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip.  The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research.  I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas.  Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.

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In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging.  I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read.  I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka.  I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms.  I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal.  I really must look that up.  A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too.  I’m happy.  Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.

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It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas.  Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place.  It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen.  And that’s a shame.


Off to Texas with Traveleyes

In May I’m off to Texas, and I’m already excited. But this isn’t my usual kind of trip. This time I’m travelling with a company called Traveleyes, who pair sighted travellers with the visually impaired for a trip which promises to enrich the experience for both types of tourist.

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The brainchild of Amar Latif, an entrepreneur who went blind in his late teens, the company specialises in offering trips which make independent travel a reality for the blind and partially sighted. Sighted travellers are offered a hefty discount on the price of the tours. In return, they accompany a different traveller each day, guiding the person to their own individual requirements.

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Included sightseeing programmes promise to make this a trip to remember.  I’m looking forward to visiting Austin, San Antonio and the Alamo, where we’ll be taking guided walking tours to unlock the history of these places.  I’m especially keen to visit Galveston, devastated by the USA’s deadliest hurricane in 1900 which killed over 6000 people.  It’s long since been rebuilt, of course, but it will be interesting to compare notes with the experience of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/features/sep13/galveston.html

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There are also some activities on the programme which you might not expect.  A ranch stay forms part of the programme and we’ll be riding out on horseback to enjoy the local scenery.  As a novice rider, I’m a little daunted about how I’m going to be able to guide another horse if I’m not fully in control of my own, but I’m trusting that both Traveleyes and the ranch have already thought of that.

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Traveleyes have sent through their document on the do’s and don’ts of how to act as a sighted guide and I’m going to be studying it carefully.  One thing I do know, however, is that I’m going to learn as much as the people I’m paired with.  I can’t wait to see Texas from a different perspective to my own.  Check back at the start of the summer and find out how I got on.

If you’d like to find out more about Traveleyes, please visit their website:

http://traveleyes-international.com/


A beginner’s guide to New Orleans

The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city.  Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world.  It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends.  Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.

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Apartment listings include whether haunted or not

Getting there

From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier.  Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March.  They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only).  Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers.  The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.

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Amtrak: a great way to arrive in New Orleans

If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans.  The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis.  Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag.  Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat.  The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.

Getting around

Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily).  But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly.  Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.

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Riverfront tram

There’s plenty of information online including maps:

http://www.norta.com/Getting-Around/Overview

Trams are fun to ride and simple to find.  The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk.  The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery.  The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park.  The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park.  Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys.  Crossing the river is also worth doing.  You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2.  Check out the schedule here:

http://nolaferries.com/

Where to stay

Being central to the action is key in New Orleans.  It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab.  I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending.  Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar.  If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento.  It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.

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My room at the Villa Convento

Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song.  Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine.  It’s website is here:

http://www.villaconvento.com/

At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center.  Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style.  I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station.  Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.

Money-saving tips

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Free walking map leads you round the Garden District

If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy.  For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/how-to-save-money-on-your-nawlins-vacation/

What to see

There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.

The French Quarter

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The French Quarter is packed with historic homes

You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter.  Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square.  Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.

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Beignets and cafe au lait

Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter.  You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.

Music on Frenchmen Street

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Live music is an essential part of the New Orleans experience

Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself.  In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street.  You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood.  There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music.  Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere.  Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink.  Others require just a tip for the musicians.  My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay.  If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:

http://www.frenchmenstreetlive.com/

St Louis Cemetery No. 1

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St Louis Cemetery No. 1

One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries.  Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1.  This is the oldest, opened in 1789.  It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location.  The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore.   She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects.  Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid.  Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb.  You’ll need to take a tour.  Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.

The mansions of the Garden District

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Seen on a fence in the Garden District

The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter.  Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.  The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.

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Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Mardi Gras World

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Last year’s float being recycled at Mardi Gras World

If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre.  The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia.  Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival.  Many are revamped and recycled.  One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!

Old Algiers

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Home near Algiers Point

Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers.  It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here.  It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves.  The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds.  It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.

Steamboat Natchez

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Below decks on the Natchez

The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez.  It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975.  It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia.  Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres.  So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really.  Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries.  Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.

Hurricane Katrina tour

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A reminder of how vulnerable low-lying New Orleans is

Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars.  I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows.  Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city.  Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again.  New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.

For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/return-to-new-orleans/


The streets of Old San Juan

The Puerto Rican capital has a history which goes back over 500 years.  Founded by the Spanish at the end of the first decade of the 16th century, it was originally known simply as Puerto Rico but by 1521 went by its proper name of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (which these days has become just San Juan).  Though you could be forgiven for thinking the city’s American, it’s not quite: the Spanish eventually ceded the island to the USA at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and it’s been a self-governing territory ever since.  That Spanish flair is still much in evidence in Old San Juan, however.

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Within the metropolitan area of San Juan which sprawls for miles, the area of settlement that occupies a narrow peninsula on the island’s north coast, bounded by Fuerte San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is known as Old San Juan.  The geography of San Juan naturally lent itself to providing a safe harbour.  It’s still a busy port today receiving a steady stream of cargo and cruise ships.

In its early days, San Juan’s location at the eastern edge of the Caribbean led to its development as a defensive stronghold, hence the heavy fortifications that you can still see today.  They comprise not only those two forts but the thick, almost impenetrable, walls that encircle the city and the imposing Puerta de San Juan located on the south western flank of the city.  As the 16th century progressed, Old San Juan came under attack from numerous forces, among them Francis Drake, whose men were adversely affected by a dysentery outbreak and fled, tails between their legs.  They wouldn’t be the last.

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The narrow European-style streets of Old San Juan are a far cry from the wide boulevards lined with high rises and flanked by shopping malls that characterise other parts of the city.  Here, cobbled surfaces bear the distinctive blue setts known as adoquines.  They’re not granite, as you might think, but instead made from the slag of iron furnaces and used as ballast on ships arriving from Spain.

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One of those Spanish ships brought Juan Ponce de León, whose remains can be found in front of an egg yolk yellow wall of the city’s bijou cathedral.  Like many conquistadors seeking a new life in the New World, he was escaping a life of poverty and a region devoid of opportunities for the ambitious.  His travels took him first to Florida and then to Puerto Rico, and it is he that is credited with the foundation of the island’s first settlement, Caparra, which predates Old San Juan by a few years though wasn’t to last.

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Ponce de León was the island’s first governor but he didn’t remain long in Puerto Rico.  Off exploring, he was fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and died in Cuba.  The family home, Casa Blanca, is significant as the oldest continuously occupied house in the city.

One of the great delights of a visit to 21st century Old San Juan is simply to wander.  Many of the buildings are painted in bright colours, making this a photographer’s dream.  Several tourist trolleys loop the old town, but to truly appreciate the architecture and atmosphere, strolling through its streets and lingering in its many parks and squares is a must.

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Each has its own identity, from the tourists that feed the pigeons which flock to Parque Las Palomas, to the many characterful statues and sculptures that you’ll find camouflaged with verdant planting.  The shade provides welcome respite from the Caribbean sun, enabling visitors to recharge their batteries before continuing their exploration of this delightful place.

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When you do finally run out of steam, there are many cafes and restaurants where you can try the uniquely Puerto Rican dishes.  Mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains topped with shrimp or chicken, is a staple and a must-taste.  For a snack, the ubiquitous Mallorcas, pastries filled with cheese, guava jam, ham or eggs and dusted with icing sugar, is a tasty way of staving off the hunger pangs.  And don’t leave without trying the coffee: rich and smooth, the addition of sugar would be a sin.

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New York for second-timers

OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge.  You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial.  So that’s it, right?  Wrong.  Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.

Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo

These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge.  I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.

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High Line or Lowline?

Both, of course.  The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint.  I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out.  But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.  Right now, it’s in its test phase, so entry’s free on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Gospel brunch in Harlem

The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem.  You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries.  Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.

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City of New York Museum

You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context.  Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.

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Skyscraper Museum

This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour.  It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline.  If you’re in the city between now and next April, check out the Ten & Taller installation, fleshing out the stories of New York’s 250 buildings that stand ten storeys tall or more.

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Governors Island

Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution.  Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground.  Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.

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Watch a game

Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium.  In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well.  For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else.  Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.

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Bryant Park Christmas market

Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas.  My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early.  Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.

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Roosevelt Island tramway

It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone.  After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card.  If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.

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New York Transit Museum

The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street.  Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old.  The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.

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