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Posts tagged “USA

Ten of the best American cities

The USA’s diversity makes it one of my favourite countries and there are many cities I’ve revisited – or hope to do so – over and over again.  Here’s my top ten: what are yours?

New Orleans, Louisiana 

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Sultry New Orleans ticks all the boxes: history, colour, a sense of fun and plenty of quiet, atmospheric corners to retreat to when the buzz gets too buzzy.  The mansions of the Garden District stand in haughty contrast to the tackiness of Bourbon Street, but you don’t have to stray far from the notoriously crass party hub to find wrought iron balconies and heart-lifting melodies within the iconic French Quarter.

New York, New York 

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I’ve been back to New York countless times yet never tire of the place.  But now I’ve ticked off the sights, on recent trips my focus has been on some of its most fascinating neighbourhoods and ethnic food joints.  It delivers.  But then I’d expect nothing less from the self-styled “Capital of the World”.  Where else can you enjoy a southern-style Gospel brunch, El Salvadorean pupusas for lunch and the most succulent steaks outside Argentina for dinner?

Savannah, Georgia

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Savannah’s centre has a split personality.  On the one hand, its genteel tree-filled squares host historic mansions, each with its own intriguing tale to tell.  Yet barely a stone’s throw away lies River Street, which comes alive each evening with bars and restaurants thronging with customers.  This Georgia gem has it all – and some of the best beaches in the State just a short drive away.

Charleston, South Carolina 

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Elegant Charleston oozes sophistication from every cobble and porch, yet somehow manages to make you feel you’re worthy of a stay here.  Beautifully tended gardens force you to stop and stare, even though you know you shouldn’t intrude.  Yet in the bay lies Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired – there’s passion and fervour behind that steely façade.

Bar Harbor, Maine 

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A visit to Maine is a lesson in Geography, as Down East is actually north and residents travelling south to Boston say they’re going up.  The map might be a bit squiffy but there’s no mistaking you’re in New England with fresh lobster, seal boat trips and the dark greens of Acadia’s firs and pines set off to perfection against a muted palette of pink granite and yellow sand.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

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The Liberty Bell draws a crowd who queue patiently to inspect the crack in the iron that signalled the very first reading of the Declaration of Independence.  Beyond that historic district is a city that is proud of its heritage and isn’t afraid to work hard to make a living.  Best time to visit?  New Year’s Day, when Philly lets its hair down for the annual Mummers Parade.

San Antonio, Texas

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The city famed for the Alamo delivers, but the surprise is that the Alamo is overshadowed by the city’s other attractions.  The River Walk, a flight of steps down from street level, is lined with restaurants and bars where minutes turn into hours without you even noticing that the time’s passed.  With plenty of museums, galleries, and a Stetson hat store to rival anything anywhere, this place begs to be revisited.

Seattle, Washington

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The iconic skyline with the instantly recognisable Space Needle might be what draws visitors to Seattle (or at least fans of Grey’s Anatomy) but this is another city where the memorable attractions are those which you didn’t know about before you landed.  The fascinating story of a city built on lumber and a whole other world of underground storefronts and sidewalks awaits visitors who’ve watched the fish fly at Pike Place Market and sipped their coffee in the Starbucks where it all began.

San Francisco, California 

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The seaplane pilot wore a grin with a span to rival that of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Visibility, he said, was the best he’d seen in thirty years.  Luck like that burns memories into your brain so deep they never fade.  And under blue skies, sights like Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the artists of Sausalito don’t get any better.  Just check those brakes before you drive down the world’s most crooked street…

Memphis, Tennessee

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Green shag pile carpet on a stairwell ceiling?  Check.  Acid yellow walls framing a bank of chunky televisions?  Check.  A private jet in the car park bearing the name Lisa Marie?  Check.  Graceland might not impress in terms of size but its Seventies style will leave you gawping, mouth open wider than the zip on that white jumpsuit.  Oh yeah, and there’s music on Beale Street when you’re ready to return to the present.

There you have it; I’m sure Miami, Chicago and Boston will have their fans, as will Vegas, DC and the City of the Angels.  What makes your list?

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Dude ranch vs. working ranch – how do you know what’s best for you?

Yee-ha!  There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there?  I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy.  Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side.  Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…

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Yep, a ranch holiday is for me.  But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both.  How did they compare?

The activities

Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life.  Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.

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During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks.  It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.

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In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience.  It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub.  There’s evening entertainment too.  On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.

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The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party.  Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire.  I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided.  They’re fine with BYOB.

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The staff

In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works.  The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does.  Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.

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A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest.  On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after.  The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.

The accommodation

Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic.  Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share.  The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean.  Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi.  To be honest, I enjoyed that.  It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result.  I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.

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Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch).  I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones.  The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace.  Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly.  My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep!  As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America.  Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.

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The food

Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis.  At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful.  When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue.  Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family.  Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests.  In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master.  The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings.  Service there was attentive and sincere.

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The verdict

Which ranch stay would I recommend?  I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember.  I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there.  As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could.  He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone!  Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.

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But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious.  Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday.  But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!


Joshua Tree National Park

U2 fans take note: if you rock up to Joshua Tree National Park looking for that tree, you’ll be disappointed. The iconic image that featured on the band’s 1987 album cover was actually taken by the side of the SR190, a couple of hundred miles away up near Darwin, CA. There’s no point in going in search of it as the tree is long gone. In fact, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t even a designated national park at the time, though it was a national monument. Its status was upgraded in 1994.

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A visit to the park is a rewarding experience. It’s basically divided into two distinct zones: the Colorado desert to the south and the higher and slightly wetter Mojave Desert to the north.  As with many US national parks, a road cuts through the park. If you’re driving, enter from the south as the scenery will improve as your day goes along rather than the other way round.

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The cholla cactus garden (pronounced choy-a in the Latino way as with most place names in these parts) is one of the highlights of the south side of the park. Much of the road leading to the area is lined with fairly featureless scrub, the barren landscape dotted with creosote bushes and the cactus-like ocotillo trees which despite their appearance aren’t cacti at all. Aside from almost running over a snake, we saw almost no wildlife at all which wasn’t a surprise given the landscape and the high temperatures.

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Cholla cacti almost have the appearance of cuddly bears – if your imagination is wired that way – but are extremely hazardous. Their prickles are incredibly sharp, and they get their nickname of jumping cactus from their propensity to detach.

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Straying from the path could be a disastrous decision. That path is sufficiently wide not to cause a problem, but as with walking the beam in gym class, there’s something about knowing you can’t wobble that makes you wobble. As someone with short sight and thus poor peripheral vision, it was a slightly stressful walk. Back at the hotel later, I found this video on YouTube showing what happens if you’re not so careful – and it’s excruciating viewing:

 

Back in the car without incident, the road climbed steadily, taking us into the Mojave and ramping up the scenic quality to something worthy of National Park status.  Pulling over, we were treated to the sight of Skull Rock, which as its name suggested had been sculpted into something resembling a human skull.

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The geological story of much of rocky Joshua Tree is one of volcanic intrusion – molten monzogranite pushing its way up into the overlying Pinto gneiss. As the magma cooled, the granite cracked. Over time, chemical weathering widened those cracks and rounded off the rock into the huge monzogranite boulders that litter the landscape today.

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After Skull Rock came Jumbo Rocks, which were pretty much what they said they were. If at first we had been in any doubt as to whether this desert deserved to be a national park then those doubts had now evaporated. Some people run America down, but in terms of sheer scale, its majestic scenery cannot be beaten. I know the word is overused, but it is awesome.

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Turning off the main highway, we climbed for a short while to Keys View. Fearing snakes, scorpions and tarantulas, it turned out to be something much more common that caused us the biggest headache in terms of creature discomfort – honeybees. Attracted by moisture, and not caring whether that came from human perspiration, a/c condensate or half-drunk Coke in the car’s cup holder, those pesky insects created quite the nuisance of themselves. Fortunately we were able to get them back out of the car fairly easily and – with much relief – without being stung, leaving us free to appreciate the views across the valley to Palm Springs and even as far as the Salton Sea in the hazy distance.

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Descending to the valley, the road took us to the start of the Barker Dam loop trail. It wasn’t far, along a well marked and graded gravel path, though in the intense heat (by British standards anyway) it was far enough. The dam was constructed around 1900 to store water for the cattle which were grazed here as well as for the local mines. It’s rain-fed, but visiting in the autumn meant that the reservoir was bone dry, leaving visitors to ponder the wisdom of trying to rear livestock in such an inhospitable location in the first place.

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Not far from Barker Dam lies Hidden Valley, one of the park’s landmark attractions and the only place we saw a tour bus. Once the hideout of cattle rustlers, now it’s aesthetic qualities that draw humans. Steps wind up through the rocks to a clearing crammed with vegetation: cacti, yucca and several species of trees have colonised the area naturally protected from the wildest weather. Overhearing a guide, I learnt that even a seemingly spine-free cactus was actually a hazard. Touch what seemed like a smooth surface and microscopic spines would embed themselves into the skin – almost impossible to remove without the aid of duct tape. Ouch!

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My verdict? Visit Joshua Tree for sure, but remember it comes with a health warning!


Head Stateside this summer

It’s fast approaching Memorial Day in the USA, the day for Americans to remember those who died fighting for their country. It falls on the last Monday in May, which this year is May 30th. For visitors, that weekend more or less marks the beginning of the tourist season for those attractions that open only during the summer months. In New York, for instance, that’s when the new Gansevoort Market is expected to open and the weekend Governor’s Island kicks off its summer season. For many Brits, a holiday in the USA means taking the kids to Florida’s theme parks, or perhaps a shopping trip to the Big Apple. The reality is, of course, that there is so much more.

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Lower Manhattan as viewed from the Staten Island Ferry

I’m often surprised to read on travel forums that people write the country off because of its draconian immigration procedures, when in fact in my experience it’s rarely worse than anywhere else. Some even claim that the $14 ESTA is a deal breaker – seriously, a £9 charge on a long haul holiday? That’s hardly going to leave you without spending money. I’ve travelled a lot in the States and I can honestly say, Florida aside, (I’m no fan of the Mouse) I’ve never begrudged paying it to see such incredible and varied scenery. So, to mark Memorial Day, here’s my pick of America’s very best tourist spots. It’s been hard to whittle them down and I could easily add more.

This Memorial Day weekend I’m going to be in my favourite US city – New York. Where are you going to be?

A float trip in the Grand Tetons

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Bad skies in the Badlands

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New Orleans

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Pike Place Market, Seattle

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Savannah’s squares

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Bar Harbor – lobster and beer

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The Rodeo at Cody

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Canyons, rock arches and more, Utah

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The Mummer’s Parade, Philadelphia

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Las Vegas’ Neon Museum

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Big skies and glaciers, Montana

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The Bronx, New York

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Monterey’s Cannery Row

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Elegant Charleston

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Running with the llamas, Hammond Wisconsin

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So are you tempted?  What’s your favourite US destination and why?


If it’s geysers you’re after…

If it’s geysers you’re after, then here’s where you need to be heading.

Iceland

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Strokkur on the verge of blowing

The original, in name at least, can be found a short distance from the country’s capital Reykjavik. The original geyser, Geysir, has decided it’s had enough, but Strokkur puts on a show every few minutes delighting those who visit.  It’s easily accessible as part of the Golden Circle tour, or if you prefer to go it alone, then download my Unanchor Kindle guide from the UK Amazon site here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Iceland-Unanchor-Travel-Guide-self-drive-ebook/dp/B017SDBNE8/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1452095658&sr=1-8.

It’s also available on the US site here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B017SDBNE8/ref=s9_simh_gw_p351_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=152KPS2974X3G9P0D5RQ&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

New Zealand

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Pohutu, Rotorua

For a small country, New Zealand packs in a lot of geothermal sights, from other-worldly Craters of the Moon to photogenic Orakei Korako.  But for sheer wow factor, then join the crowds watching Pohutu, located in the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley on the outskirts of Rotorua to see the jet of boiling water shoot high into the sky.

Chile

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Atmospheric El Tatio

El Tatio geyser field might not have the dramatic gushers of Iceland or New Zealand, but it has atmosphere in spades.  It’s essential to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night (don’t overdo it on the pisco the night before like I did) but watching the sunrise illuminate the steaming geysers is well worth the effort.

USA

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Old Faithful

I couldn’t blog about geysers and leave out Old Faithful.  It’s been drawing the crowds at Yellowstone National Park for as long as the park’s been in existence and has had its name since 1870.  It erupts on average 50 metres into the air about every 90 minutes or so; check the ranger’s board on arrival to see when the next show is expected.

And finally, one on the wish list…

Russia

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Kamchatka by Einar Fredriksen via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Kamchatka’s Valley of Geysers has the second largest concentration of geysers in the world after Yellowstone, packing over ninety of them into a 6km long valley.  It’s difficult to reach, and therefore expensive, but it’s a trip that’s on my ever-growing bucket list.  You too?


Changes to the US visa waiver program

A headline on the news section of the BBC’s website caught my eye this morning. It read: “Iranian dual citizens fight new US visa rules”. I’ve never been to Iran but reading on, this article could have directly affected me, but for a few months. The article explained that any British citizen that had been to Syria in the last five years would no longer qualify for the visa waiver program; in other words, they couldn’t travel on an ESTA and would now have to apply for a visa.

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Spices for sale, Damascus 2010

 

I’ve checked my travel diary, in which I keep a list of the places I’ve been and the dates I visited. One of those is Syria. Now, the country is a no-go zone, but just a few short years ago, it was a different place, largely undiscovered by tourists. I wandered the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, travelling between them across the beautiful countryside on a modern train. I enjoyed a wonderful walk through Hama to a soundtrack of creaking norias. You can find out more about them here:
http://www.juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/Hama_time.html

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Noria by the river in Hama 2010

 

I went to Syria and neighbouring Jordan in Spring 2010 and the new regulations stipulate a cut off date of March 2011. That means I’m still good to go to one of my most favourite cities, New York, next May. I was worried, though I don’t regret visiting Syria back then for a moment.  Nor do I condemn the US government for passing such legislation; countries have a right to determine their own security and their own rules.

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Citadel of Aleppo 2010

 

It’s not just Brits and it’s not just Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Coming up with a comprehensive plan has been challenging. Instead, a piece-by-piece approach appears to be emerging. The initial step was legislation to put some restrictions on the visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from the 38 mostly European and Asian nations to enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure would ban people from those nations who had traveled to places including Iraq or Syria since March 2011 without first getting a visa. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.”

You can read the exact wording of the bill here:
https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/158/text

A list of visa waiver countries can be found here:
http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/visit/visa-waiver-program.html

Currently, the restrictions affect those who have travelled since 1 March 2011 to Iraq, Syria and “any other country or area of concern designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security” (to be determined within 60 days). If, like me, you’re a fan of visiting unusual destinations, it looks like it’s going to be important to double check you still qualify to travel on an ESTA if you wish to visit the USA.


How to save money on your N’Awlins vacation

New Orleans, pronounced N’Awlins by the locals, was tagged the Big Easy by gossip columnist Betty Guillaud in the 1970s. As that nickname suggests, it’s a laid back city, easy going and, in my opinion, the best place in the States to let your hair down and enjoy yourself. But to do that, you’ll need money, so rather than waste it on the boring aspects of your holiday spending, here’s how to make some cuts that won’t spoil your fun – and will allow you to divert your cash into things that will make your vacation memorable.

One of the French Quarter's ornate balconies

One of the French Quarter’s ornate balconies

Ditch the car

Forget what you’ve heard about needing a car in the USA, in the Big Easy it’ll just make things more difficult. Parking is hard to find, can be expensive and being towed if you get it wrong will really put a downer on your vacation. If you’re arriving by plane, then from the airport to the heart of the city, you have three options. First, a taxi – it’s a fixed rate of $33 for one or two people, with an additional charge for more than two. It’s convenient, and if you time your visit for hot and sultry summer, then it’s the coolest option too. Second, a shuttle – for $20, you can take a shared shuttle; they go round the houses, but it’s a saving if there’s one of you. Third, and cheapest of all, take the E2 bus for $2 (yes, you read that right, a saving of $31 on the cost of a taxi) to get right to the heart of downtown. From the centrally located Amtrak rail station, tram 49 gets you right into Canal Street for a budget-busting $1.25, with transfer to other trams or city buses for an additional $0.25.

Riverfront tram

Riverfront tram

Getting around

Much of the tourist area of New Orleans – think French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Downtown – is easily walkable. To get further afield, buy a $3 day pass for the city’s buses and trams and hop on and off to your heart’s content. Ride the green line to City Park, for the Botanical Gardens and Bayou Saint John, the historic St Charles Avenue tram for the beautiful mansions of the Garden District or the Riverfront tram for the eclectic shopping and ice cream daiquiris of the French Market. Check http://www.norta.com/ for current schedules.

Free self-guided walks around the Garden District are easy to find online

Free self-guided walks around the Garden District are easy to find online

Choose your tours carefully

While much of New Orleans can be visited independently, for some things a tour is compulsory. Since Marie Laveau’s tomb at St Louis Cemetery #1 was spray-painted pink and smashed up with a baseball bat last year, visiting on your own has been impossible. To make sure your tour money does some good, and for a reasonably priced tour, try Save our Cemeteries http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/. The organisation works tirelessly to restore, repair and educate. Other cemeteries can be visited for nothing, including the atmospheric Lafayette cemetery in the Garden District. An excellent self-guided walk can be found at http://www.scsh.com/pdfs/Garden-Dist-tour-2.pdf

Lafayette cemetery

Lafayette cemetery

Taking a carriage ride around the French Quarter is a great way to get your bearings, but can be expensive. Rather than taking a private trip, opt for a place on a larger shared carriage, which costs $18 for a half hour tour compared to the $90 for up to four people if you don’t want to share.

Shared carriage around the French Quarter

Shared carriage around the French Quarter

If you want to get out on the river, the steamboat Natchez makes regular trips on the Mississippi several times a day. Eschew the expensive dinner cruise which costs a whopping $46 even without food ($77 with dinner) and board in the afternoon when cruises are better value at $29.50. You’ll still get all that jazz!

Look for coupons

Most hotel foyers have a stack of leaflets about nearby attractions and many of them include money-off vouchers. The free map given out across the city also has a few – I saved a couple of bucks off the $19.95 entrance fee at the excellent Mardi Gras World by ripping off a corner. The savings will soon add up.

Last year's float being recycled at Mardi Gras World

Last year’s float being recycled at Mardi Gras World

See a band for free

Forget Bourbon Street, the action’s moved to Frenchmen Street where you’ll find a whole lot of great music for the price of a drink. While some clubs apply a nominal cover charge, many offer free entertainment. Try The Maison, where you can listen to a band while chowing down on tasty shrimp and grits. If you’re not too bothered about alcohol, ordering a soda gets you free refills.

Free music is easy to find throughout the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny

Free music is easy to find throughout the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny

Save money on drinks

A trip to N’Awlins wouldn’t really be complete without at least one cocktail but the cost of drinks in bars and restaurants will soon mount up. Take advantage of the city’s laid back attitude to drinking and get one to go from the Gazebo Café at French Market. Takeaway ice cream daiquiris, a speciality, cost $7.75, a saving of between two and four dollars off a typical indoor price. Carrying out a “to-go” cup is completely legal, though make sure it has a lid, and don’t get too intoxicated or you’ll fall foul of the authorities.

Got any tips of your own? I’d love it if you posted in my comments section!