The big 3-0: Day seven – Goodbye New Orleans, Hello Washington

and just like that it was day seven! For those wondering about the first six days, where have you been? You need to catch up – asap!

I’ll leave links at the bottom of the post for you to do just that but to get you up to speed with everyone else, in the summer of 2018 I turned 30 and celebrated by spending 30 days in the USA. So far I’d been to Chicago, Minneapolis and was now in New Orleans!

After a late night dancing in the streets of the French quarter on day six, I didn’t rush myself out of bed the next morning and enjoyed a little bit of a lay in. Once I’d freshened up I arranged to meet Crystal down at the lobby for our last few hours together before we went our seperate ways. Crystal would be returning to Florida and I’d be heading to near enough the opposite end of the country – up in the Pacific North West.

Before thinking about that we were once again off on foot in the streets of New Orleans. The day before we’d tried to visit one of the Lafayette Cemeteries in the city and found it was actually closed by the time we reached it, so with that in mind it seemed a good place to return to and start our Friday morning.

Lafayette Cemetery
Lafayette Cemetery No.1

After a bit of a walk we’d arrived and fortunately found the gates were open this time. The graves and headstones make this cemetery somewhat of a popular ‘tourist attraction’. I’d snapped a couple of photos from outside the locked gates on Thursday, such as the one above, and figured when I returned that I would end up taking a countless number of photos as we walked around.

However that didn’t actually materialise. It is quite unique as far as cemeteries go and I can certainly understand why people enjoy visiting it but in the moment I just didn’t feel right to be taking photos and just settled for admiring the beauty in what is a rather morbid ‘attraction’.

That said it’s not the first cemetery I’ve explored on my travels, which is weird because it’s certainly not something I’d ever think to do at home.

I always find them to be peaceful places and I’m always left feeling a little humbled. With so many people and so much history in this place I could only wander through it feeling reflective of life and appreciating how valuable life is – hopefully a lesson people are currently appreciating too!

Lafayette No.1
Lafayette Cemetery No.1 – closed at the time!

Myself and Crystal did a full lap of the cemetery and it is a remarkable place. There’s more than one in the city, I’m not suggesting you spend time seeing them all but I’d recommend going to at least one and seeing it for yourself. I thought it was worthwhile visiting anyway.

Having appeased our curiosity we took a slow walk back in to downtown, again admiring all of the stunning buildings and houses in this part of town. We found a place to grab some lunch at and then had one final stroll through the French quarter.

It was a last chance for us to look around, pop in to a few shops and look for some souvenirs. I think Crystal picked up a couple of bits but I didn’t end up buying anything. From there we ventured over to the famous Bourbon Street as we’d somehow avoided it so far.

BourbonStreetStatues
Musical Legends Park, New Orleans

It was a cool street with a number of bars and despite being quite early in the day, there was still a bit of atmosphere in the air that suggested this was the “place to be” as far as New Orleans was concerned. We also stumbled upon ‘Musical Legends Park’ here that had a number of cool statues dedicated to New Orleans famous music scene and nightlife.

Overall Bourbon Street felt a bit more touristy than Frenchmen Street had, which is where I’d spent Thursday night, but I can’t imagine either disappoint after dark. New Orleans is definitely a city that, if for nothing else, I would return to for its nightlife.

Sadly I wasn’t going to be getting another taste of it. My time in New Orleans was rapidly coming to its end. Crystal was leaving mid-afternoon and I wasn’t sticking around much beyond that.

We took a slow walk back in the general direction of our hotel and just wandered the streets of the city. It’s by no means my favourite city in the USA but I’d got past my first impression and was now able to actually enjoy the charm of the city.

There is a lot to like about New Orleans, which perhaps wasn’t apparent if you read day five, and we just spent the next hour or so wandering and admiring some of the squares, architecture and artwork throughout New Orleans. Overall it’s quite a nice city to get lost in.

NatchezMural
Mural showing off the famous Natchez boat on the Mississippi
New Orleans Art
I adored this mural of New Orleans!

There wasn’t much either of us particularly wanted to do before we left, nor did we have a huge excess of time, so in this spiritual city we looked to the heavens for inspiration.

Alright, perhaps not but the sudden downpour on the way back to our hotel made it easier to persuade Crystal in to a bar on route for one final beer in Louisiana. It was a cool-looking bar and it was a chance for us to have a chilled farewell before going in our own direction.

Fortunately by the time we left the rain had pretty much disappeared and I waved Crystal off on her journey back to Florida. I didn’t have much time left myself so figured I’d go and find somewhere to eat before I left. I stumbled upon a nice restaurant not too far from my hotel which was enough to tempt me in.

From there it was time to say goodbye to New Orleans. I’d liked New Orleans but I’d be lying if I said I loved it. Ultimately I think it was a victim of its own reputation, I went with such high expectations for New Orleans that I don’t know how it was supposed to ever really live up to them. I still think it’s somewhere I’d go back to and I think I’d actually enjoy it more next time with more measured expectations.

I swung by my hotel and picked up my case, fortunately there was a taxi already sitting just outside the hotel which saved me a job of having to find one. We hit a bit of traffic on the way back to New Orleans airport but I’d left early enough it wasn’t really an issue. Soon enough I’d been dropped off at the airport and was making my way through security.

I have to say I remember very little of the airport. I can therefore only assume it was an uneventful wait for my flight. Soon enough Alaska Airlines were inviting passengers to start boarding. They’d split the boarding process up in to various groups (A, B, C.. etc) and first up were group A.

“All passengers in group A.. A for Alligator”

Wait, what? Oh, hang on.. we’re in Louisiana.. Alligator, very clever!

Next up was group B, B for Bourbon Street of course! As the ‘Crawfish’ group C passengers started boarding I was eagerly anticipating my own category. I was next! Group D, D for..

“Don’t have a bloody clue..”

I didn’t catch what she said, her cursed accent was indecipherable! She repeated it again over the PA and I still couldn’t understand what she’d said. I don’t have many regrets from this trip but not asking at the gate as I handed over my boarding ticket might be one of them! Why didn’t I ask!?

I Disappointedly Departed for my Damn flight pondering all of the Damn D words in the Dictionary that could also have some relation to Louisiana or New Orleans but it left me Defeated! I’ll never know.

So if you happen to frequently fly through this airport, happen to be a Louisiana Native or happen to work for Alaska Airlines please give me your input. The rest of you can play along too of course!

TheBig30-Journey
Bye New Orleans, hello Seattle!

Anyway, it was time to go. The first chunk of the flight had my brain eating away at me to answer this riddle! The rest of the flight was uneventful and I’d eventually landed in Seattle, Washington! I quickly picked up my baggage and was hoping to make a quick escape to my hotel where I’d find Haleigh waiting for me!

Sadly escaping Seatac airport wasn’t as smooth as I’d hoped it would be. On my first visit to Washington I had the girls pick me up from the airport, on my second visit to Washington I got the Link in to Seattle and spent a night in the city before catching a bus to Moses Lake.

This time around I was staying in a hotel near the airport and theoretically I ‘simply’ had to get a shuttle over to the hotel two minutes away. Perhaps it didn’t help that it was a late night arrival so all I wanted to do was get to my hotel but everything about it felt like an ordeal.

It wasn’t simple finding exactly where to get the buses from. It then isn’t particularly clear if these are public buses, private shuttles, hotel shuttles or any other combination of bus / coach service. Nor was it clear which stop I needed to go to.

The reality is there’s no organised system in place. Unlike many airports that have specific stops for specific hotels (Heathrow for example) and then have buses running at regular interals, it’s a free-for-all here. The buses come and go as they please, stop at whichever ‘checkpoint’ they want and it just felt chaotic.

I eventually discovered you have to phone the hotel to ask them to bring a bus to you. Maybe the hotel picks up the phone, maybe they don’t. Maybe the bus is on its way already, maybe the driver is on a cigarette break. Maybe it’ll come to your stop, maybe it’ll pick up at another point because it’s a Friday between the minutes of 22:01 and 22:04. I’d love to say any of it makes sense but it doesn’t. So my recommendation would be to never use a hotel shuttle at Seatac! It’s a nightmare!

Eventually a bus arrived to pick me up at, let’s say checkpoint one. I was seemingly the only passenger for our hotel so once I boarded the bus we were whizzing off.

Well, for ten yards anyway because the next passengers at checkpoint two were ready to pick up. Ten yards later we stopped for the next batch of passengers and the little patience had at that time of night was draining from me. How many times do we have to do this before we even get out of the bloody airport car park?

It must have taken close to an hour in total for me to reach a hotel two minutes away. Even with Seatac not being particularly pedestrian friendly to walk out of, I still would have been better walking to my hotel.

I reckon it was around 11pm by the time I’d finally reached the hotel. Fortunately Haleigh had already checked us in so I didn’t have to join the queue of tired-looking guests at reception and we wandered off to our room.

It was nice to be reunited with Haleigh. The length of this trip meant I had little annual leave throughout the rest of the year. Consequently we hadn’t seen eachother since February (now being August) so a long six months!

Additionally it was nice to be back on the West coast. I was going to be spending the next three weeks, accompanied by Haleigh, exploring the West Coast and I was really excited to kick-start this portion of the trip. Starting tomorrow of course! The first plan of action was to sleep, Washington would have to wait until the morning.

Stay tuned for that! Next up on the blog: day eight.

Jason

P.S – If you want to catch up on the rest of the trip so far you can do so below!
Day one – Chicago bound
Day two – exploring Chicago
Day three – Minneapolis
Day four – Why I visited Minneapolis!
Day five – New Orleans!
Day six – The real New Orleans!

The big 3-0: Day six – The real New Orleans!

Hello my dear readers, we’re back with day six of the adventure! Well, I say that we’re back but I guess that is dependent on whether you’ve chosen to forgive me following on from my last post! Perhaps you’ve not come back to read day six! Haha.

For those of you just joining the adventure, in the summer of 2018 I chose to celebrate my 30th birthday by spending 30 days in the USA. I’ll post links to each day at the bottom of this post so you can catch up if you choose to, but to quickly recap day five had seen me arrive and get my first glimpse of New Orleans.

Sadly I was rather underwhelmed by that first taste of the city. New Orleans is one of those places that everyone seems to love and it did feel that last time out on the blog I’d committed a case of “travel treason” in being so critical of it; hence the need for forgiveness!

However I make no real apologies for it. Ultimately that was how I felt come the end of day five, it was perhaps harsh but honest too. I did promise a more positive day six and in order for that to happen I had to be willing to give New Orleans a second chance to win me over. It might not have been the best of starts but day six (Thursday) was to be my first full day in the city and I was optimistic things could only get better.

So I woke up with a fresh outlook on New Orleans, I was ready to explore and experience “the real New Orleans”. This city has to be held in such high regard for a reason, so let’s try and find out why! I freshened up and once again met my friend, Crystal, down at the hotel lobby. We quickly set off on foot and wandered towards the heart and soul of the city.

After about 20 minutes of walking from our hotel we’d arrived at the ‘famous’ Jackson Square where you’ll also find the pretty St Louis Cathedral. The area was surprisingly not too busy but there was still a bit of a buzz about the place, there was life to it.

JacksonSquare
Jackson Square, New Orleans

Me and Crystal climbed some steps on the outskirts of the square which was a great photo spot overlooking the square with the cathedral opposite us. We snapped a few photos individually and then thought we’d try and get one together. There was oddly a lack of people around in that very moment which gave us limited options.

Given there was so few people around I figured I’d ask this guy who’d just been loitering and it was one of those occasions where as soon as the words left my mouth I then second-guessed myself and wondered if I would have been better waiting and asking someone else. There was an oddness about his demeanour I guess.

He seemed really hesitant at first but agreed so I handed over my phone. He struggled a little with the concept of taking a photo but after a little help figured it out. He handed my phone back to me and before I’d even really had a chance to look the photos over..

“Two dollars..”

Hang on, what? You want two dollars for agreeing to take my photo on my phone? Nice try mate but no! That’s not happening!

Jason Crystal
Me and Crystal, courtesy of our ‘professional’ photographer.

For what it’s worth, the above photo turned out as the best of the three taken.

Perhaps other tourists are a little more kind-hearted (naive) but I walked away and couldn’t help but feel he’d missed a trick. Firstly, he could have negotiated a fee up front in exchange for a photo. I would have told him to get stuffed but if you’re going to try and charge for the convenience of taking someone’s photo, you might have better luck before the photo rather than after.

However secondly, and perhaps more importantly, why rush to hand my phone back to me? “Two dollars and you can have your phone/camera back..” would have given him a better chance at receiving two dollars. Admittedly there’s a confrontational risk in taking this route but I doubt I was intimidating in any way for that to have been a concern for him. I chuckled and walked away with photos, phone and dollars in tact.

Jackson Square Jason
Me in New Orleans, August 2018

Anyway, we swiftly moved on and did a quick lap of the square which felt a little more like what I’d been anticipating from New Orleans. It was picturesque, it had character and dotted around the square were various things to attract your eyes or ears for that matter.

On one corner there was someone selling various bits of art, just outside the cathedral was this band playing some live music and the place suddenly had more of a “New Orleans” atmosphere about it. Or rather less of the “this could be anywhere in America..” vibe that I’d experienced the day before.

We popped in to the cathedral for a quick look around. It was a little busier inside than it had been outside but was nice to take a look around still. It was only a brief visit though. Soon enough we’d headed back outside and ventured in to the numerous streets of the French quarter.

FrenchQuarter
Exploring the pretty French quarter

We’d vaguely passed through on day five but didn’t really explore it properly. Today however we were both keen to explore it properly and in that mindset it’s easy to see why this part of New Orleans is so highly rated. It is just oozing in character with its colourful and old buildings.

I think you could easily spend a full day in the French quarter alone. The buildings are breathtaking and I couldn’t tell you how many photos myself and Crystal ended up taking. I felt like I was endlessly snapping away for the next couple of hours. Along the way we popped in to a few of the shops, art galleries and small independent businesses that are dotted around everywhere.

FrenchQuarter4
Lots of cool little independent shops in the French quarter

I vividly remember at one point snapping away and suddenly this old man was to my right singing whilst playing on a piano in the street. It’s moments such as that where you really see the French quarter in all its glory. It’s full of charm and I struggle to think any visitor would not fall in love with this part of the city, New Orleans was beginning to win me over.

The French quarter in its entirety probably isn’t actually that big in size but I do feel like we spent ages wandering its streets and even then could have seen more of it. We eventually managed to escape its hold on us, only to coincidentally find ourselves just outside of the French Market.

French Market NOLA
You can just see the entrance to the market on the right

Given it was right there it made sense to go in so we had a look around. We ended up finding a stall selling snow-cones. It was a great refreshment on a rather warm day in New Orleans and a good chance for us to give our legs a rest after a morning full of walking.

After a quick stop we ventured back along the Mississippi river in the general direction of our hotel. The riverside walk again gave us a few good opportunities to get some photos but also took us by some points of interest. The first was the Holocaust memorial which I thought was rather well done. It looks different at every angle you see it from so is a little unique in that respect.

NOLA Holocaust
New Orleans Holocaust Memorial

NOLA Holocaust 2

NOLA Holocaust 3
Another view of the Holocaust memorial

Further down the river you’ll find the aquarium. We didn’t pop in but there were some more pieces celebrating New Orleans big birthday of its own. The big 3-0-0! We grabbed a few more photos and then popped back to the hotel quickly, for two reasons.

Nola 300
There were a few of these NOLA 300 things around the city

Firstly I’d forgotten to pick up my sunglasses this morning and with blinding sunshine I thought they’d be useful for the rest of the day. The second reason was the main reason though and was in relation to our lunch plans.

Two of my friends from England, Andy and Rox, were also in New Orleans with similar intentions. Rox was celebrating her 30th the day before me and they’d decided to have a US tour / celebration of their own. It just so happened we’d be in the same city at the same time so we agreed we’d have to meet up. Our plans had fallen through the night before so we agreed to grab lunch together today.

New Orleans!
Back to the French quarter!

It ended up being quite a late lunch actually but we agreed to meet, back in the French quarter, at a place called Coops Place. It was somewhere I’d already heard of so when they suggested it I was more than happy to check it out. It’s actually a pretty small place, so much so that me and Crystal were told we weren’t able to take a table until our full party was here and ended up waiting up at the bar until they arrived.

Once Andy and Rox had turned up we took our seats and ordered ourselves some food. Feeling adventurous I ended up getting myself a bowl of the rabbit and sausage jambalaya, which proved to be a good decision. I think myself, Andy and Rox all went for the same actually.

Ignoring the food, the highlight was obviously the company. Bizarrely I hadn’t seen Andy and Rox since we were in Berlin together back in 2014 – the friends I seemingly only meet in foreign countries (we did actually meet again, in England, a few months after this trip). It was great to catch up with eachother, plus hear about how their own adventure was going. I think Crystal appreciated the extra company too and it ended up being a really enjoyable lunch.

We said our goodbyes but only temporarily. Myself, Andy and Rox were all keen to meet up later in the evening and have a decent night out so we said we’d see eachother later. In the meantime we had the rest of the afternoon to do our own thing.

Me and Crystal were strolling back in to the downtown area when Crystal spotted a Christmas store and suggested we had a look around. You might think it odd that we’d visit a Christmas store in August, yet ridiculously this was only the first of THREE Christmas stores I ended up visiting on this trip! Three! Haleigh also convinced me to visit a couple later on! Bizarre!

Anyway after a quick look around we left and found a stop for the tram, streetcar, trolley or whatever it is they’re called in New Orleans. I think of them as trams and this was New Orleans equivalent. We decided to visit one of the Lafayette cemeteries in the city which are one of the more popular ‘attractions’ if you can call them that.

Lafayette Cemetery
One of the Lafayette cemeteries in New Orleans

Unbeknownst to us it wasn’t actually open. We had a short stroll once we got off the tram and found the gates locked and no way to enter. It wasn’t a wasted trip though, rather than get back on the tram we decided to walk back in to town.

The area is full of a number of grand and beautiful houses that we could only dream of owning. They were stunning and it’s a really nice part of the city to wander through. The number of photos we stopped to take slowed our walk right down but it was worth it. By the time we’d wandered back in to town the afternoon had pretty much gone.

New Orleans House
Just one of many stunning buildings in this part of New Orleans

Despite my best efforts I wasn’t able to convince Crystal to come out for the evening so we headed back to the hotel and went our seperate ways. I found somewhere to grab a quick dinner from and then relaxed at the hotel for a bit whilst waiting to agree on plans for the evening.

It had been a lovely day so far. Decent food, great company and I’d finally seen New Orleans at its best. I have to say it was winning me over and had eradicated some of the disappointment from the day before.

One area I had no concerns about was in New Orleans nightlife. I’d not had a chance to enjoy it yet but I was confident this side to the city couldn’t possibility disappoint and so it proved.

I was bored sitting around in my hotel room so decided I’d wander back to the French quarter before I’d agreed to meet Andy and Rox. I figured I’d easily find somewhere to have a couple of beers and soak up the atmosphere and there really is no shortage of options.

Even for what I’d perceive to be quite early in the night, the place is just buzzing. There’s a seemingly endless number of bars with people wandering the streets looking for a good night. Many of the bars have live music on offer and I expect you could walk in to 90% of them and likely enjoy yourself. It had me reminiscing of my trip to Nashville the year before – perfect!

The first bar I visited was along the lively Frenchmen Street and had a reggae act performing. I took one of the stools at the bar and ordered a beer and enjoyed the atmosphere of the place. It had a bit of an older crowd but was a great place to start the evening.

A friend of mine had recommended one bar in particular that I decided to check out next. To my disappointment I was stopped by a bouncer who advised there was a $15 entry fee. I don’t know if this is because it was a ‘special’ live act or whether this is actually common, surely not the latter though?

This street in particular is packed with bar after bar, all offering live music with free entry. I was sad to not discover this recommendation but it was senseless paying to enter anywhere for an unknown act when this street had so much more to offer. I moved on and found somewhere else to enjoy my next couple of beers.

TheSpottedCat
The Spotted Cat, New Orleans

I was conscious not to stay too long so that I wouldn’t be late meeting Andy and Rox so moved over to the bar we’d agreed to meet at – the Spotted Cat. This bar was somewhere I’d already heard good things about so was excited to visit. It’s a nice bar with music acts set up in the corner by the entrance.

Unfortunately I hadn’t timed it too well as by the time I’d ordered a beer the act had finished their set and there was a lull in any music being played whilst waiting for the next band to come on.

After waiting a little while a solo Rox arrived, with no sign of Andy at all. They’d both been distracted by a band playing in the street and suggested we abandoned this bar and returned to join Andy.

New Orleans Nightlife
We spent most of the night dancing in the street to this band on the corner

I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. There were countless number of bars along this street and here we were dancing in the street to this band playing on the corner. It wasn’t just us either, this band had drawn a growing crowd with many others also in the street to the frustration of the traffic trying to pass (I was quite surprised the roads were so busy here).

They were really good and played for a decent length of time so a good chunk of our night ended up being spent outdoors in the street. If nothing else it was a sign that New Orleans nightlife didn’t disappoint. Even without a beer or a roof over our head we were still able to have a brilliant time.

We did eventually move on to a couple of bars, including a return to the Spotted Cat where we’d initially intended to visit. After the second bar we visited started closing up we decided to call it a night. I guess it must have been 1:30-2am by this point. We weren’t drunk and had enjoyed a brilliant evening so sensibly made our way back to our respective hotels.

We got an Uber back to Andy and Rox’s hotel, mine wasn’t too much further so I figured I’d just walk it from there. It was a pretty straight walk and along pretty well lit streets too so I felt pretty safe walking through the city.

I did spot a couple of guys on route who were just loitering. I was hopeful I’d pass by without drawing unwanted attention to myself.

I don’t know if I was just a little more paranoid because I’d had a few beers but it felt like no sooner than they’d spotted me had they seperated with one of them scarpering down a side street – a little dodgy.

That paranoia was probably a good thing on this occasion though because it kept me alert to my surroundings. I think I’m pretty sensible when wandering a city after dark anyway, as I said it was a well lit area so it wasn’t like I’d stumbled upon two figures lurking in the dark. I was fully aware of my surroundings and sober enough that I had my wits about me.

So keeping that paranoia in mind my first thought was on the guy who’d suddenly disappeared. Where are you wandering off to? Am I getting ambushed further down the road?

That sudden disappearance left, what I considered to be, the least threatening of the two. Not that I particularly fancied my odds if he wanted to attack me but I wasn’t anticipating that situation arising. I figured I’d just keep walking, avoid eye contact and hopefully pass with minimal fuss.

“Hi there..?”

Of course.. Why couldn’t you just let me keep walking without trying to engage me in conversation? I don’t want any human interaction at this time of the morning..

Safety is, rightly, one of the much talked about topics of travel. I’m not going to pretend there’s any particular rulebook that you should follow, there’s many mitigating circumstances that means this isn’t the same in every destination nor for every individual. I’m fully aware that I’m privileged to be able to choose to walk alone after dark in most cities and still feel safe. That said, my only real advice would be to trust your own instincts.

Applying that here, I entertained his greeting with my own curiosity. What do you want? Money was my best guess so I was a little unprepared with what came next. Keeping in mind it was probably 2:30 am by this point, my new friend wanted to talk about..

Jesus!

Seriously, now? No, we’re not doing this at this time of the morning. I mean, ideally we’re not doing this at any time of the day but I particularly don’t want to be having this discussion at this very moment. Preaching hours are closed! I just want to get to bed.

“Can I pray for you?”

Honestly, knock yourself out but I’m not going to be here for it. I was already politely bidding him farewell when he asked “Can I touch your shoulder..?”

What, no, Why? The paranoia kicked back in. I don’t know if the earlier guy had been another target of this guy’s preachings or if there would be an impeding ambush somewhere. “Go after the guy with a red X on his shoulder, I’ve marked him as an easy target..”

I was done. I’d entertained him, and my own curiosity, long enough. I swiftly moved on and didn’t pass anyone else on the way back to my hotel. Two minutes later I was tucked up in bed and completely zonked out.

FrenchQuarter3
A much better day in New Orleans

Weird ending aside it had been a much better day in New Orleans. I’d finally got to see all of New Orleans charm during our day exploring but if that’s not enough it’s truly in the evening where the city comes to life. I think there are very few places, certainly that I’ve been to, that can offer that sort of atmosphere after dark. This night dancing in the streets of New Orleans was not just a highlight of this trip but one in general and something I will remember for a very long time.

I still had a little time left in New Orleans before flying over to the West coast. More on that to come in day 7.

Stay tuned!

Jason

P.S – If you want to catch up on the other posts of this trip, see the links below.
Day one – Chicago bound
Day two – exploring Chicago
Day three – Minneapolis
Day four – Why I visited Minneapolis!
Day five – New Orleans!

The big 3-0: Day five – New Orleans!

One of the great things about my blogging method is that I’m always telling stories of historic trips, opposed to more recent adventures.

Of course that has some drawbacks, for instance I can quickly forget some of the little interesting things that happened on the trip two years ago. However it does have its perks too and means I’m well equipped to tackle a period, such as now, where travel is so restricted. I feel sympathy for those more “up-to-date” travel bloggers who are now scrambling to try and find things to write about.

Those following along on this particular story will know that back in the summer of 2018 I traveled out to the USA to spend thirty days celebrating my 30th birthday. I’ll leave links to each of the previous days at the bottom of this post, for anyone interested in catching up, but as a quick recap day four was a football (and beer) filled day in Minneapolis.

I woke up on day five (Wednesday) ready to say goodbye to Minnesota and head on to my 3rd state of this trip: Louisiana!

Incidentally, Louisiana was going to be the 10th state I’d visited so a nice little landmark on the quest to eventually visit all 50 states.

The city I was most excited to visit on this particular trip was San Francisco, which had long been a bucketlist or dream destination of mine.

After San Francisco it was probably New Orleans that I was most excited to visit. I’d heard so many good things about New Orleans, its culture, its nightlife and all of the photos you see online make it look like this almost un-American like bubble within the country. I was excited to see a very different side of the USA, America’s little slice of Europe.

New Orleans history
The history of New Orleans

First things first though, I had to say goodbye to Minneapolis and I was sad to be saying goodbye so soon. I’d clicked with Minneapolis in a way I just hadn’t anticipated doing so. I was wondering if I’d come to regret visiting Minneapolis for football and instead it ended up being a real highlight of this trip.

I checked out of my hotel, hopped in to a taxi to the airport and the driver did little to help the “Minneapolis blues” that I was suffering. The driver was super chatty and friendly and there was definitely a part of me contemplating ripping up the itinerary and staying in town longer. I could scrap New Orleans and find a different way to Washington later in the week, right?

Had I not had friends awaiting me down in New Orleans I might have been a little more tempted to do just that. However, like Chicago, I knew I could always return to Minneapolis some day and it was time to move on to my next destination. At least I was going somewhere new and exciting, I’d have been much unhappier had it been a flight heading home.

I didn’t find security at Minnesota’s airport to be the most efficient but as ever I’d made sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare so it wasn’t a major issue. Soon enough I’d passed through and found myself a little restaurant in the airport to grab some breakfast and some tea before boarding my flight.

The flight was about three hours in total, leaving Minneapolis at 10am and getting to New Orleans just before 1pm which still gave me a good amount of time to get a first glimpse at the city before the day was out. After picking up my luggage I hopped in a taxi at the taxi rank within the airport.

I have to say I was happy to find a fixed rate with the taxis. I suspect the fare may have risen in the last couple of years but a taxi from the airport to anywhere in New Orleans (or vice versa) is a fixed $25.

I don’t always get a taxi from (or to) the airport but it’s nice to know exactly what you owe before getting in. I’ve found some cities (such as New York City) are reluctant to even give you an estimated fare which I find frustrating and is also probably why companies such as Uber have proven so popular. So credit to Louisiana for implementing such an easy system for everyone.

The taxi ride was smooth and uneventful. I spent much of it peering out of the window for any sign of the New Orleans I’d pictured in my head. I figured the “real New Orleans” would eventually jump out at me the closer we got to my hotel. Alas, that wasn’t the case.

The drive took us along a highway with its huge roads and huge lanes. We continued passing fast food chains and high-rise buildings and even then on the outskirts of city-life there seemed to be no change. I remember passing this huge Mercedez “Superdome”, which turned out to be the home of NFL team the New Orleans Saints, and I half-wondered if I was in the right place and my driver hadn’t misled us.

I have to say, my first real impression of Louisiana and indeed New Orleans, is that it felt so.. American. I single out that Mercedez Superdome building because it felt representative of my first glimpse of life in New Orleans – where’s this famed European-style city?

We parked up at my hotel, itself situated in a square of more high rise buildings, and I half expected the receptionist to welcome me to a Hampton Inn somewhere in Texas – “Oh sorry, your driver must have gone West rather than East from the airport..”

One sign that I was at least in the right city was that my friend, Crystal, had quickly found me on arrival and welcomed me to New Orleans. Crystal is one member of the “penpal trio” and the “penpal curse” as I like to call it had struck once again. Myself, Crystal (from Florida) and Samantha (from Alabama) are all mutual penpals and have on a number of occasions, unsuccessfully, tried to meet up.

Back in 2016 I visited the neighbouring state of Georgia and both Crystal and Sam made the journey over to Atlanta, however I ended up having to bail on our plans and so our first attempt proved unsuccessful. A year later I visited Nashville and proposed meeting up once again. Long time readers might recall that myself and Sam successfully met up but Crystal wasn’t able to make the trip.

For a third successive year we tried to meet up as I squeezed a Southern destination in to my itinerary, New Orleans instantly appealed when suggested by one of the girls, and it looked like all three of us would finally meet at the same time. Alas, this time Sam was unable to join me and Crystal so we’ve all met at various times but yet to do so at the same time haha.

So in spite of an underwhelming first impression of New Orleans, I did at least appreciate seeing a familiar face. I quickly checked in, freshened up a little and then met Crystal back at the lobby to go and explore the city for the first time.

We had no particular plan so just decided to wing it and get our bearings with where things were in relation to where we were staying. The first thing we encountered was actually something I was really fond of!

Hurricane Katrina Memorial
Memorial for Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina Memorial

This wasn’t something that I knew was in New Orleans and isn’t something you’d really have any chance of discovering as it’s a little off the beaten path I suppose. However it just so happened to be located in the square outside of our hotel. The memorial is in honour to those who lost their lives to hurricane Katrina in 2005. Due to its location we passed it daily and I liked it because it stood out and was eye-catching. I find that the US are usually pretty good when it comes to memorials.

Hurricane Katrina
Honoring the people and remembering the events that occurred August 29, 2005 – Hurricane Katrina

After a couple of photos we continued onwards and soon stumbled upon what felt like the “heart of downtown New Orleans” – Poydras Street and then Canal Street – and were greeted by further high rise buildings, casinos, hotels, souvenir shops and the kind of tat that you generally try to avoid on holiday.

I hate to use it as a criticism, it’s not intended as such, but again it just felt so “American”. I use it as an adjective here because I think for overseas readers it does paint an image of a certain type of place; big and loud and potentially even overwhelming for some people.

You look up and find eight lanes on the roads, big cars, loads of traffic and then you’re surrounded by towering buildings that make you feel tiny. American feels an apt description for me because, with its casinos, I had visions of what I imagined Las Vegas to be like.

Poydras Street in particular is essentially this long strip that goes on for miles, incidentally taking you right past the Mercedez Benz Superdome if you walk far enough, and it just felt such a contrast to everything I’d read and heard about New Orleans.

Downtown New Orleans
New Orleans like you’ve never seen it!

We made our first stop New Orleans police department, which is tucked away along Royal Street within the French quarter. Crystal had prepared a little gift-package for the department that she wanted to drop off so I got my first, and hopefully last, glimpse of the police department in the city. They were appreciative of the sweet gesture, thanked us and happily sent us on our way as free citizens.

We had a little wander through the French quarter. I can’t recall being blown away. I said in day four that I couldn’t offer a logical explanation as to why I’d loved Minneapolis so much but it seems I’d yet to discard those Minneapolis-tinted-glasses because I just wasn’t feeling New Orleans at all.

Truly in the heart and soul of the city now, we wandered over to the famous Bourbon Street and by chance the first thing we saw was the Hard Rock Cafe situated on the corner. Long-time readers will know I’m actually a big fan of HRC’s in general but I think it just added further disappointment.

This was THE street that you HAVE to visit in New Orleans, a street so famous, a street so unique to New Orleans and the very first thing we see is a Hard Rock Cafe? Bloody hell..

I was desperate for New Orleans just to offer me a little bit of hope that it warranted its high reputation, so it was one of those occasions where I didn’t want to see something you get in pretty much any big city.

Looking back I think that first day was probably a lost cause. I’m sure I probably passed a million places of genuine interest or places that were unique to New Orleans. I no doubt passed HUGE flashing signs reading “Hey Jason, we have authentic Cajun food here” and my eyes instead found themselves drawn to the McDonald’s across the road.

The French quarter is actually delightful, full of quirky little stores and art galleries but my eyes were instead captured by the Wallgreen’s and the Bank of America’s and whatever else just to add to my disappointing first impression of the city.

We abandoned the busier and touristy parts of downtown and eventually managed to find a few quieter streets with cool buildings and a few nice-looking murals and things but the overwhelming feeling, for me at least, was that I’d yet to see the best of the city.

We took a detour towards the Mississippi river on our way back to the hotel which took us via New Orleans mall, relatively small by American standards and particularly so having just been to the Mall of America in Minnesota, but it was nice to have a quick wander through. The real appeal however was the riverside location with views overlooking the Mississippi river.

Mississippi River
Mississippi river, New Orleans

Having had a chance to at least get our bearings we returned to the hotel before figuring out evening plans. In addition to Crystal’s presence in New Orleans, two of my friends from England (Andy and Rox) were also on their own USA summer / 30th celebration tour and just so happened to be in New Orleans at the same time so we’d talked about trying to meet up.

Enjoying the nightlife had little appeal for Crystal so we ended up doing our own thing in the evening. I sent Andy and Rox a message to see if they fancied meeting up somewhere later. After waiting a little while Rox came back to me and said they had plans already and perhaps tomorrow lunchtime would work out better, so I decided to go find myself some dinner.

I found a restaurant called Mulate’s not too far from my hotel and took a seat up at the bar. The place was possibly a little touristy, I’m not sure given it wasn’t overly busy, but it had a nice atmosphere and there was some live music up on stage at the back of the restaurant which added to it.

Mulates New Orleans
Nice atmosphere at Mulate’s, New Orleans

On the menu was a scattering of local and Southern cuisine but the prospect of Alligator was the dish that tempted me most and what I ordered alongside a beer. Both the beer and the alligator were delicious, the latter tasting very similar to chicken and something I’d happily eat again.

Alligator New Orleans
Eating Alligator in New Orleans

It wasn’t particularly late after dinner but I figured I’d head back to my hotel, relax for a bit and then head out solo a little later for my first taste of New Orlean’s famous nightlife. Perhaps that would go some way to restoring a little faith in this city.

As it was I got back to the hotel and I think the miles on this trip so far had caught up with me a little. This might have also contributed to my apathy towards New Orleans so far because I was suddenly exhausted and was actually quite content to just relax for the evening.

Typically, now that I’d accepted I was staying in for the night, Rox and Andy sent over a message saying they were finished with their plans earlier than anticipated and consequently extended me an invitation to join them for some drinks tonight.

I felt a little bad postponing but I was so relaxed by this point. I was readying myself for a nice bath and happened to find Lion King on television in the hotel which had its own appeal haha. I politely declined and suggested catching up tomorrow was still good with me. Perhaps for the best as I’m not sure I’d have been the greatest company that evening anyway.

You’ll be pleased to hear my experience and feelings towards New Orleans did improve over the course of the next couple of days. Whilst it hadn’t been the best of starts, I’m always an optimist and I was still hopeful that New Orleans could yet live up to the heights of Minneapolis (said no blogger ever!!) and rid me of those Minneapolis blues!

Coming in day six: a much more positive write-up of New Orleans! Stay tuned

Jason

P.S – you can catch up on the previous days of this trip below!
Day one – Chicago bound
Day two – exploring Chicago
Day three – Minneapolis
Day four – Why I visited Minneapolis!

The big 3-0: Day four – Why I visited Minneapolis!

I said in my last post that it would soon become clear why I came to Minneapolis because, let’s be honest, it was the city on this trip that raised most eyebrows.

“You’re going where?”
“What is there to do in Minneapolis?”
“You should go to X instead..”

For those just joining this story, this was day four of a 30 day trip in the USA in the summer of 2018. My friends were getting married in Washington State, had invited me and it just so happened to coincide within days of my 30th birthday.

I was going to this wedding no matter what, which meant in all likelihood I was spending my 30th in the USA and it was my 30th. If I was doing a big birthday abroad, I was going to do it properly, I was going to make it a big one!

The planning for such a big trip is a huge amount of fun. I’m very fortunate to have friends dotted all over the States so pretty much nowhere was off limits when this idea first came to fruition. The only MUST-VISIT states were Washington (obviously) and given it was intended to be my first trip to the West Coast I was also adamant I would be visiting San Francisco. I’ve always loved the idea of visiting Portland too but logistically it just made sense that I’d visit Portland if I was going from Seattle to San Francisco.

So those three cities were on any and every itinerary that popped up. The rest of the trip was completely flexible and I reckon pretty much every state was considered at some point, plus parts of Canada and maybe even Mexico.

Ironically days three and four were the last piece of the jigsaw for this trip. I’d planned everything else but had these last two days spare that left me with a number of options. I’d decided to kick off my trip in Chicago and knew that my next intended destination was New Orleans, how I got from A to B was completely up to me. Flying, taking a Greyhound bus or the Amtrak train system all seemed viable options.

A few days after I’d finally committed to going to Chicago my beloved Tottenham released an announcement. In truth it was one I’d been anticipating but I eventually reached a point where I was of the mindset that Spurs couldn’t dictate this trip. I’d given up waiting on the likelihood that Tottenham would be touring the USA this summer and just decided to go ahead and get things booked and cement my plans properly.

Chicago was booked, likewise New Orleans and the West coast but I left these final two days empty for now. If it was workable maybe I could squeeze Tottenham in to the itinerary and then the announcement came.

SpursUSA
Tottenham playing in the USA, July 2018

I was flying to Chicago on day one on July 28th. Tottenham were playing in San Diego on the 25th of July – no good, Tottenham were playing in Los Angeles on the 28th – no good, however Tottenham were also playing in Minneapolis on the 31st.

Minneapolis? I’d already considered it but not seriously. It was originally just a “near Chicago..” option but now it was a serious option. Do I do it? That’s almost too perfect isn’t it?

The location was convenient, the days were spare and one of my big big frustrations of 2018 was that because of this trip I’d sacrificed a Tottenham away day in Europe.

I say sacrifice loosely of course, I can’t pretend to be hard done by in ‘only’ getting a 30 day trip in America but I’d done a European away trip every year since 2015 and got an itch for them. It definitely hurt seeing my fellow fans flying out to Barcelona this year and it took every bit of professionalism I had to not pull a sickie and fly out to Spain to join them haha.

Whilst not Barcelona, perhaps Tottenham in Minneapolis would substitute that feeling of missing out on a European away day. After contemplating all of the pros and cons I decided I was doing it. That was the itinerary complete, I was off to Minneapolis of all places to appease my need for football 24/7.

So on we go to day four! Those of you following along will know I’d warmed to Minneapolis pretty quickly. There was just something about it that clicked for me, however today was why I was really here.

The evening was obviously about the football itself but the rest of the day I had free to do whatever. Initially my friend Kayla, who I’d encouraged to come to the football with me, was supposed to be in town too but she’d had to leave early the day before. Had Kayla still been in town the day would likely have taken a very different direction but as she wasn’t, I was left to dictate my own plans.

One place we’d both been in agreement to visit was Minneapolis’ sculpture garden and there was good reason to visit today. However first I needed breakfast. I’d enjoyed breakfast at my hotel the morning before so decided to repeat the experience and have pancakes and tea once again.

I passed a couple of fellow Spurs fans on the way to the table with one proceeding to say ‘COYS’ in my direction. It didn’t register at all, I must have heard it to some degree but I didn’t realise it was intended for me, nor really acknowledge what he meant. It was only once I’d sat down that it hit me – COYS..

It was a friendly greeting from “one of my own”, a fellow Spurs fan acknowledging my colours and gearing up for gameday.
Come On You Spurs, COYS! This is one of those acronyms or hashtags that is commonly seen online, I use it myself in fact but I guess this was the first noticeable cultural difference between football fans across borders.

I do understand that many Americans, and indeed overseas supporters, rarely get to see or experience watching their team live and online interaction is perhaps even their only interaction with fellow fans but I’ve NEVER actually heard COYS spoken or chanted out loud.

Let me just add, English football fans are generally pretty snobbish about how you support your team but I have to be honest, I cringed a little bit. I felt a bit bad that I’d completely snubbed the greeting but only because it was so foreign to me in that instance. By the time I’d sat down it felt a little too late to go back and make amends.

I’d love to say ‘COYS’ was a one off moment but it wasn’t, I continued to hear it throughout the day and I just had to try and bite my tongue. It’s harmless really but it just sounds so weird and un-natural and also had me wondering if American Liverpool fans walk around saying YNWA (You’ll Never Walk Alone) to each-other? Can someone please confirm they don’t? Sorry to my friends across the pond but they’re acronyms, please stop!

I was a little tickled by it too of course, it is ultimately a small cultural difference and didn’t detract from the excitement that was building in the city. I finished off my breakfast and swiftly moved on.

Minneapolis
Wandering the streets of Minneapolis

I had a little wander through downtown and was admiring more of the architecture in the city along Minneapolis’ quiet streets. It’s a “big city” unlike many of the other big cities in the USA that I’ve been to and perhaps that was also one of the things that attracted me to it, there’s definitely a charm about Minneapolis.

I continued snapping away photos before eventually arriving at Minneapolis’ sculpture garden. The sculpture garden is something you should make time to visit if you’re in Minneapolis. It’s a nice attraction, it’s free to walk around plus it has some good views of the city in the background.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Minneapolis’ famous spoon and cherry at the sculpture garden

It was somewhere I would have visited regardless but it just so happened that today, in build up to the main event, that there was a planned photoshoot in the gardens with the King of North London making an appearance.

The photoshoot wasn’t until midday so I’d timed my visit a little badly and perhaps should have done something else before going to the sculpture garden. Whilst it is worth a visit, it’s also quick to look around so I found myself with a bit of time to kill. There’s a nearby museum but for some reason it didn’t seem to be open yet.

I looked for somewhere to sit down with a cup of tea but there didn’t seem to be much in the immediate vicinity, in the end I settled for getting a pot of tea in the museum cafe across the road from the sculpture garden.

Spurs in Minneapolis
A sign of things to come. Spurs fans congregating with the cockerel

The crowds were slowly beginning to build with Spurs shirts and colours everywhere you looked. In all honesty I always find it a little surreal to see the global appeal in English football, particularly for the likes of Spurs.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked but one of the things I found weirdest when I first moved from London to Peterborough was the lack of pride in supporting a team you had a genuine connection to. My roots were that of a North London boy who supported a team in North London, playing a mile down the road from the hospital I was born in.

I moved to Peterborough and nobody supported, or not visibly at least, the local team. Nobody even supported the less successful bigger football clubs in England. Everybody was an Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United fan. I was the outsider supporting a frankly rubbish Tottenham team and continually teased for it during my school years.

Ironically I think Tottenham’s worst football period probably coincides with those school years. I spent 1992-2004 in school and I don’t think you could pick a worse twelve years to have had to endure watching Spurs.

Whilst Spurs fortunes haven’t greatly changed, I don’t half envy the kids who get to go to school and are teased about Spurs losing Champions League finals or finishing 2nd in the Premier League.

Okay, so I did get sidetracked but you need a little context because here I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota on a Tuesday morning surrounded by proud American Tottenham fans – it blows my mind. I was the outcast growing up but my love for Spurs never wavered. Years later Spurs are a fashionable global brand? (ugh, speaking of cringing).. it’s bonkers!

SpursMinneapolis
Spurs fans beginning to take over Minneapolis

Yet this was the reality. I might be a million miles away from home, a million miles away from Tottenham but there were fans EVERYWHERE. The atmosphere was building, the excitement was building and by the time we reached midday there must have been a couple of hundred Spurs fans mingling in Minneapolis’ sculpture garden ready for the big photo.

MinneapolisSpurs
The best view of Minneapolis!

The result was pretty cool. I stole the above photo from the Minneapolis supporters club but look! I’m sure my friend over at The Travel Architect (and her husband) will agree that Minneapolis has never looked so beautiful! What better sight than a city full of Tottenham fans with that skyline as the backdrop?

In addition to the photo, one of the big draws was of course the company of the King. Our former player and captain, Ledley King, was also in Minneapolis which gave me a rare opportunity to meet him and I couldn’t resist the chance to grab a photo – just two North London boys on tour in Minneapolis.

Ledley King Minneapolis
Stood with the king of North London, Ledley King!

Following on from the fun at the sculpture garden the crowds quickly dispersed in various directions which left me pondering what to do for the rest of the day. On the one hand, there was still more of Minneapolis for me to try and enjoy. On the other hand, I knew that the Austin (Texas) supporters club had organised an afternoon-long bar crawl and that had its own temptation.

I knew this was happening before the trip but with Kayla’s company it wasn’t something that was on the agenda. Without it, well, that was another matter. I was torn (lies!) but I opted for the more sociable option – don’t judge me!

The first bar on the itinerary was aptly named the Brits Pub in downtown Minneapolis. By the time I walked in it was already pretty busy with limited seating options. I was a little surprised that it wasn’t just Spurs fans, it was a good mix between ‘us’ and the rest of the locals just enjoying a spot of lunch.

I found myself sat at the bar next to some guy who’d flown in from Ohio. That was the interesting thing about this whole day. It’s perhaps not the easiest, nor cheapest, to fly out to London for a game so many had flown in from all over the US for a rare opportunity to see Tottenham in the flesh. I had a good chat with my new friend before we were accompanied by a woman, closer to my age, who’d flown up from California!

We talked all things football before me and my new friend from Ohio wandered over to bar number two, our Californian seemed content where she was for the timebeing so we said our goodbyes.

I couldn’t tell you what bar number two was, it wasn’t particularly easy getting served quickly, nor was it a bar that was particularly memorable so wasn’t somewhere I’d intended returning to. By the time we’d successfully ordered a beer, some were already moving on to bar number three so we were lagging behind a little.

My new friend however introduced me to some of his friends who’d also flown in from Ohio, seemingly a decent scattering of them having made the effort and all friendly to mingle with.

FinnegansBeer
A return to Finnegan’s in Minneapolis!

We soon moved on to our third bar of the afternoon – Finnegan’s! I’d visited, and loved, Finnegan’s the previous evening so I was quite happy to see this as one of the stops on the pub crawl. It’s a decent size for a gathering of Spurs fans and had some decent beer on tap. There was probably a better atmosphere here too as it was pretty much only Spurs fans.

After a couple of beers the Ohio’s (? I don’t know what they call themselves!) moved on to the next and final bar. I’d actually heard it was pretty small and given it was closer to the stadium I also anticipated it would be busier so I neglected to join them and decided to stay put.

We said our goodbyes and I pondered whether I should have joined them. It was risky to abandon friends whilst I had them but it was perhaps testament to the feeling and atmosphere of the day that it wasn’t a decision I would come to regret.

I sat down at the end of this wooden bench with my beer and was instantly welcomed by the rest of the group sat on the table – a bunch of youngsters mostly made up from Minnesota. They were drinking beer and playing Uno and were happy to invite me to join them.

We mingled and got to know eachother better and it was clear they were all heading to the game too, all but one anyway. One of the guys piped up and asked if Trevor had managed to obtain a ticket yet – “No..”

Well, what are the odds of that? As I explained earlier, my intention was for Kayla to join me but her early depature left me with a spare ticket. I hadn’t even bothered trying to sell it on because the game had yet to sell out so I figured finding takers was going to be a struggle, I’d accepted it would go to waste.. until now!

I quickly piped up that I had a spare and he was welcome to it if he wanted it. He enquired how much and from my perspective it was already money I’d accepted I wasn’t getting back so I suggested a price that everyone would be happy with – “buy me a beer and it’s yours!”

The reaction was a little overwhelming and unexpected. What had seemed a nothing gesture on my part, was the greatest kindness imaginable in these parts. I’d already accepted that I was out of pocket so from my own point of view I was now a beer better off than anticipated.

However from their point of view I’d helped them achieve their intention of a day out watching Spurs and I was instantly awarded somewhat of a “legendary” status and the praise came flooding in my direction.

Additionally our agreed “price” was seemingly lost in translation. “One beer” in English seemingly translates to “ALL OF THE BEER” in Minnesotan English. I don’t think my glass ever reached empty levels before Trevor was running up to the bar to buy me another despite my attempts and insistence that I buy a round.

“No Jason, you gave me the ticket 25 beers ago.. I’m still in your debt!”
“But..”
“Shh, here’s another. Let me know when you want the next one..”

Eventually we moved our fun outside where we swapped Uno for a couple of rounds of a game called ‘Cornhole’. I don’t know that it’s all that common in the UK but I’ve seen it a few times out in the US. Essentially you throw something similar to a small bean bag through a wooden plank and compete with your opponent.

I don’t know what score we were playing to, nor who was keeping track, but we seemingly ended with my winning throw and congratulations all around. I’m not sure how legitimate the victory actually was but my presence was again worshiped and after a few too many beers I was more than happy to go along with it!

It was soon time to head over to the stadium. The game was being hosted at the home of the Minnesota Vikings, the U.S Bank stadium, which is pretty close to downtown Minneapolis. It’s a quick and easy walk and it wasn’t long between us leaving Finnegans and arriving at the stadium.

Sadly it was here that the group had to split, Trevor was of course sat with me but the rest of the group had tickets elsewhere so we temporarily said our goodbyes and made our way to our seats.

US Bank Stadium
The US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis. Home of the Minnesota Vikings

Before the game, as with any American event, we stood for the national anthem. It’s always something that catches me off guard but perhaps moreso here given we were about to watch English club, Tottenham Hotspur, play the Italians AC Milan. Bizarre.

I remember little after the national anthem to be honest. Not because I was drunk (stop jumping to conclusions!) but just because we were both content in the company. From my perspective I watch Spurs all of the time anyway and a non-competitive fixture in the US had minimal appeal for me but Trevor was also only half-watching and we spent most of the game doing nothing more than chatting about football, travel and politics with yet another beer.

I do vaguely remember looking up at just the right time to catch the only goal of the game which ironically made this the second country I’ve seen Tottenham beat AC Milan in (the other bizarrely being Germany!) but the game was little more than a setting or circumstance for making new friends. I’d had a great day.

On the way out of the stadium we bumped in to the rest of the group and decided to take the evening to one final bar. I couldn’t tell you where we went as I was just following everyone else but it was this nice little, partially underground, bar somewhere downtown which had ping pong tables and a couple of other games to keep you entertained.

I was flying out of Minneapolis the next morning so didn’t have the intention of staying out too late. Fortunately that seemed to be the overall attitude amongst the rest of the group anyway with work, travel and whatever else the next day so it didn’t prove to be a particularly late night. After a few of the guys moved on I did the same, kindly thanked everyone for a wonderful night and strolled back through downtown Minneapolis.

Minneapolis City Hall
City Hall in Minneapolis

Incidentally it’s just as nice to wander through in the evening. I passed the beautiful City Hall building and grabbed a quick photo but I passed by little else. There’s a peacefulness and comfort to downtown Minneapolis that really makes it a charming city, in my eyes at least.

It might have just been the beer-goggles after a few too many beers, or may have been the continous warmth I felt from the people but I walked along smitten with the place, Minnesota had oddly captured a small piece of my heart.

I woke up the following morning and I have to say I was sad to be leaving so soon, perhaps moreso than I’d been to leave Chicago. My taxi driver didn’t help matters. On the way to the airport he was overly friendly and chatty and just added to my desire to completely overhaul my plans and stay in Minneapolis a little longer.

On reflection I really want to tell you why you have to visit Minneapolis and honestly I’m struggling. I look back to the trip or the destination as a whole, I look at what usually draws me to a city and which boxes Minneapolis ticks and the overwhelming feeling is that it comes up short and yet..

I loved it. I don’t know why. I can’t give you a logical explanation but there’s just something about Minneapolis, maybe it’s something in the water (or the beer haha!) but I just clicked with Minneapolis and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. That might not be enough for me to encourage you to visit but for all of the talk about Southern hospitality, Minnesota felt as friendly as anywhere I’ve been in the US.

Sadly, it was time to go. Up next? New Orleans!

Stay tuned!

Jason

P.S – if you want to catch up on previous posts of the trip, see below!

Day one – Chicago bound
Day two – exploring Chicago
Day three – Minneapolis

The big 3-0: Day three – Minneapolis

For those just joining “The big 3-0” story, fear not because I’ll catch you up! In the summer of 2018 I decided to celebrate turning 30 years old by spending 30 days in the USA!

I’ll put links to each respective day at the bottom of the post but for those that haven’t been following along, day two ended with me boarding a Greyhound bus and waving goodbye to Chicago.

I was sad to be leaving Chicago so soon. To have only had one night in the city is a bit of a travesty but I just couldn’t justify accommodation prices in the city; a city that has priced itself on par with the likes of London, Paris and New York City – madness!

That said, I still enjoyed my time in Chicago. It might have been a minimal amount of time but it’s a lovely city and one I’m sure I’ll return to, perhaps outside of a peak summer season to make it a little cheaper.

The wonderful thing about a trip such as this is that although you’re saying goodbye to one destination, it’s only because you’re heading on to your next. There was no need for me to be sad about leaving Chicago, the trip had barely even begun at this point and there was still plenty to look forward to!

So , time to look back to the end of day two! I boarded the bus in Chicago on Sunday evening and knew that come Monday morning I’d be in a new city and a new state. I’d chosen to do an overnight bus journey because I consider it to be dead travel time. It’s better to be on the move whilst you’re sleeping, opposed to losing time to explore in the day because you’ve wasted it traveling.

Fortunately I was able to doze off pretty quickly and get some sleep before we arrived at a stop somewhere in Wisconsin. There was very little wherever we were, presumably somewhere out of town, but one thing that did catch my eye was that big, yellow M shining in the night sky. I was tempted to go and get myself a “midnight snack” (it was probably closer to 2-3am).

However I figured it’d probably take me too long so I decided against it. Imagine my horror when the person that I’d been sat next to returned with food of his own! Maybe it’s just me but McDonald’s has its own distinctive smell too which made it all the more upsetting haha.

Minnesota sunrise
First glimpse of Minnesota from the Greyhound bus

My disappointment subsided pretty quickly and I dozed off again. A few hours later I woke up with the sun rising over Minnesota, a beautiful first sight on my first visit to the state.

I’d arrived to a sunset in Chicago on day one and arrived to a sunrise in Minnesota and decided these are the only ways you should ever first see a new destination – both perfect!

We arrived in downtown Minneapolis at about 6:15am which meant that I could enjoy the city before it had properly woken up. I spotted a couple of cool-looking murals in a car park across the street. There were a couple of guys just loitering, which given the time of the morning seemed odd, so I steered clear of them and got a quick couple of photos before moving on.

Minneapolis Art
Early morning mural spotting in Minneapolis

I wandered for a little while as I tried to get my bearings with where things were. Although the downtown area of Minneapolis felt pretty compact so the reality is that it didn’t take very long, I didn’t need to be concerned about getting lost in the city haha.

Whilst perhaps smaller than some US cities, it is still a nice downtown area to wander through, particularly at that time of the morning with very few people or cars around. For the timebeing I had the city to myself and it left me with the opportunity of enjoying its street art and impressive pieces of architecture.

Minneapolis Church
First Baptist Church, Minneapolis

Having had a small glimpse of the city I switched my attention towards finding breakfast. This is perhaps one of the downfalls to my ‘wing it’ approach to traveling but I wasn’t really sure where to get breakfast from. Given how early it was there didn’t seem to be much open either. In the end I swung by my hotel which had a restaurant attached to it and ordered myself some pancakes accompanied with some tea.

Following on from breakfast I thought I’d try my luck at checking in early. I’d spent the night on a bus and more than anything I was craving a shower. Check in wasn’t supposed to be until 3pm, so credit to Best Western for getting me checked in so early in the day.

I’d planned to meet up with my friend Kayla, who hadn’t yet advised what time she’d be in Minneapolis, so I’ll admit I took the opportunity to have a quick nap whilst I waited to hear what our plans were for the day.

After freshening up Kayla met me at my hotel and we headed off to what is perhaps the most famous attraction in the area. On the outskirts of Minneapolis you’ll find the ‘Mall of America’ – a must visit if you find yourself in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & St Paul).

Shopping malls are on a much bigger scale in the US, compared to most here in the UK, but the Mall of America goes that one step further and there is a wide range of things to do there. So much so infact that my friend Jaems at Time Zone Travelers recommends taking THREE DAYS to see everything that the Mall of America has to offer – read a more in-depth post about it here.

Sadly we had just the one day at the Mall of America but we made sure to pack in as much as we could. The first thing we saw was the theme park within the mall.

No, you didn’t misread that! The Mall of America is that big that it has its own theme park with numerous different rides to enjoy!

Mall of America
Just your normal shopping mall..
MallOfAmerica
Mall of America, Minnesota

I don’t think either of us had any intention on riding anything but it was still pretty cool to look around. This is of course just one section of the mall, we moved on and explored further and there seems to be an infinite number of shops and restaurants on offer spread over numerous floors.

I don’t think it’d take much to get lost in here and if you genuinely enjoy shopping it must be a dream location with pretty much anything you could wish for to be here. Having had a thorough look around I picked up some souvenirs and we made our way over to the Mall of America aquarium.

I’m not sure how it compares to Dubai’s own aquarium mall but nonetheless it was still a bit of a novelty visit – how many aquariums in the world call a shopping mall home? Not many I suspect.

So we paid the aquarium a visit. I’m sure ordinarily it’d be a fun place to explore but I think I’m just a bit tired out when it comes to aquariums so this felt a little under-whelming. I don’t know if I’d just prefer to see the fish in the wild/ocean or whether I’ve just been to too many now that my enthusiasm has disappeared – a “seen one fish, seen them all” type attitude. As far as the US goes I’d place this ahead of Dallas’ aquarium but still behind Atlanta’s.

Quite a few hours had passed by the time we came out of the aquarium. We’d covered pretty much every inch of the mall by the time we called it a day. The Mall of America really is a full-day outing at the very least.

The plan was for Kayla to stay in town for the duration of my time in Minneapolis but sadly she got called in to work which cut our time short and meant she had to drive back to Wisconsin that evening.

It was unfortunate we weren’t able to hang out longer but sometimes life gets in the way, it just feels a little more inconvenient when it disrupts plans with long-distance friends that you don’t get to see very often. Kayla dropped me back at my hotel, we said our goodbyes and then I was left to ponder what to do given the sudden change of plans.

I chilled out at my hotel for a little while and then headed out for dinner. A few places tempted me but for some reason I opted for this greasy little diner which appealed for some reason. I think I was just in the mood for a burger and this ticked the right boxes.

I figured I’d then go and find a bar to enjoy myself for the evening. Directly opposite my hotel was a brewery called Finnegans which looked like a good place to spend the night and sample some of the local beer. Neighbouring state Wisconsin is (supposedly) known for its beer, and proud of it, so I was intrigued to see how Minnesota would compare – I have to say it didn’t disappoint.

FinnegansBeer
Beer selection at Finnegans, Minneapolis

I found myself a place at the bar and ordered myself an IPA of some sort. It wasn’t very busy when I first walked in but within a couple of minutes it had suddenly filled up and it seemed that “the band” were first in line for a drink.

In my day one post I had joked that Chicago had welcomed my arrival with a firework display and it appeared I was due further American hospitality in Minneapolis. I turn up at this quiet bar and a band pops out of nowhere ready to put on a show for me, strange but I wasn’t going to complain!

Finnegans Minneapolis
Live music at Finnegans, Minneapolis

They were a jazz band and were quickly performing on the stage in the corner which set a really nice mood in the place. The brewery itself had a good selection of beers on tap and the barman was friendly so I don’t think I could have picked a better spot for my first night in Minneapolis.

The biggest compliment I could pay the place is that I don’t feel like I was there for very long. In my head I wasn’t out very late but looking back with hindsight, I turned up before the band started and left after they’d finished playing.

I was one of the last customers out of the door so I was obviously content and comfortable and didn’t really acknowledge how long I must have been sat in this bar.

Fortunately my hotel was literally only across the road so it was a very short walk back to my hotel, where I proceeded to immediately crash in to bed and fall asleep.

My reason for visiting Minneapolis will become clear in day four but there was something about Minnesota that I’d instantly warmed to. I couldn’t tell you what it was and I won’t pretend Minneapolis is the most glamorous city to visit. However it’s somewhere I was at ease and it just felt like my kind of place. It was a promising start and there was more to come in day four!

Stay tuned for that!

Jason

P.S – You can catch up on the previous days below!
Day one – Chicago bound
Day two – exploring Chicago

The big 3-0: Day two – exploring Chicago

Last time out on the blog I kicked off my HUGE 30 day trip to the USA in the summer of 2018. I wanted to do a detailed day-by-day round up of my trip. Those of you that read day one will know it wasn’t too packed with excitement.

My first day was really about traveling to the US, a good chunk of it was spent in the air. I tried to make the best of the evening, a firework display certainly helped, so it wasn’t an entirely non-eventful day. However let’s be honest, this is where the trip really got going. On to day two!

I woke up on Sunday morning having had little more than 12 hours in Chicago and a good chunk of that was sleeping. So I was up early and raring to get out and explore! My time in Chicago was sadly very limited, before day two was over with I’d be departing.

“Why so soon?” I hear you ask. Honestly, I was a little disappointed to only have one night in Chicago but the city is one of the most expensive I’ve ever been to. When I began to look at accommodation options I was in disbelief at how much it was going to cost me.

It didn’t help that I was there during Chicago’s summer and over a weekend of course but accommodation prices were ludicrous. I couldn’t justify paying for two nights so decided I’d be better off spending one of those nights sleeping on a Greyhound bus to my next location, Minneapolis.

Anyway, getting back to day 2..

I was eager to see as much as I could before leaving so I made an early start to my day. I left my hostel dorm as quietly as possible, leaving my suitcase with reception, and made for the streets of Chicago! The circumstances were far from ideal. I would LOVE to have spent longer in Chicago but I wasn’t about to sit and sulk about it. I knew it was a short amount of time to explore but left myself with three objectives for the day!

See the famous ‘Bean’, go to the Skydeck (Willis Tower) and lastly eat some Chicago pizza. All three seemed easily achievable, anything on top of that I considered a bonus.

I decided to kick off my day where I’d finished things off the previous evening. I’d had a little chance to familiarise myself with where things where on day one and decided I’d head back in the direction of Navy Pier to begin my day. I’d seen it all lit up after dark and I was interested to see how it compared during the day.

OhioStreetBeach
Ohio Street Beach, Chicago

Additionally, because it had been so dark, I hadn’t bothered venturing to the nearby beach area. I wanted to take a look around Ohio Street beach and see how this beach area co-existed in a downtown area full of massive skyscrapers.

Chicago is nicknamed “the Windy City” so it was perhaps unsurprising to find there were already some early-risers making the most of a wind-free day, enjoying the early sunshine and making the most of the opportunity to use the beach.

ChicagoBeach
Beach time in Chicago

It was a beautiful day for it but rather than don my swimwear I swiftly moved on and wandered back towards Navy Pier. It’s much more spectacular by night if I’m being honest. It felt a little lifeless during the day, although it was still a little early on a Sunday morning for much to be open.

I hadn’t planned to stick around for long anyway, I only wanted a quick glimpse because I had places to be! I was hoping to see the Bean before it got too crowded so that was my first real stop of the day.

For those of you not familiar with Chicago or the Bean, it’s probably the most famous landmark in the city. Officially its name is “Cloud Gate” but its nickname required little imagination. See for yourselves!

Chicago Bean
The Bean! Also known as Cloud Gate

After a number of photos I left behind the growing crowds and decided I needed to find myself some breakfast. Given it was to be my first breakfast of this trip, it seemed only fitting that I find somewhere with pancakes on the menu.

I was winging it though, I wasn’t sure where I was going and figured eventually I’d pass a diner or cafe or somewhere that would appease my breakfast choice. My breakfast hunt took me past several cool pieces of architecture and bits of street art.

Chicago Garden
Alice in Wonderland looking?

This little “Alice in Wonderland” looking garden was probably one of the highlights. I’m not sure what its actual purpose is but it made me think of Alice in Wonderland anyway. I also kept passing these colourful little lighthouses which I thought were really cool!

Chicago Lighthouse 2
Lighthouses on the mag mile
Chicago Lighthouse 5
Lighthouses on the mag mile

After a little while I stumbled upon somewhere that seemed suitable for what was now a late breakfast / early lunch. I guess that’s the downside to spontaneously winging your food options, opposed to doing prior research. Breakfast was good though and I felt content heading on to my next stop: the Skydeck!

Before coming to that we’ll take a little trip down memory lane and reminisce of my trip to Sydney in 2013.

“Wait, what?”

Stick with me, I promise there’s a point! You see, Sydney was one of my very early trips as an adult and my first traveling solo. To combat some of the nerves I planned everything. I knew Sydney meticulously. I was giving the locals directions..

Alright, I might be exaggerating that last point but seriously, I’d done so much prior planning that I knew central Sydney inside out before I’d even stepped foot in the city. I had everything down on paper to offer me further assurance I knew where I was going and what I was doing. I had confirmation emails double printed, those confirmations packed seperately and blah, blah, blah..

In the years since I’ve become much more of a “go-with-the-flow” traveler because I’m more sure of myself. I’m more spontaneous but more flexible too. “I’ll find breakfast somewhere in Chicago.. it’ll be fine..”

I’d say there was a great deal of winging it for the bulk of my 30 day trip but one thing I’d made sure to book in advance of this trip was a ticket to the Skydeck. It was a popular attraction and I thought by planning ahead, perhaps naively on my part, that this would save me time when it came to actually visiting the Skydeck.

That wasn’t the case! Imagine my horror at discovering there was a TWO HOUR wait to get to the top, even with a ticket purchased in advance! I’ve no doubt that this is a fantastic attraction, I’ve heard good things about it but my advice to you would be to not book in advance.

What’s the point really? You still find yourself queuing with passengers who’ve arrived on the day. Sadly I wasn’t in Chicago for long and I decided I wasn’t going to spend a chunk of that queuing for this so I cut my losses. I was out of pocket but figured I might aswell give my ticket away rather than let it go to waste, or try to anyway.

You wouldn’t think it should be that difficult to give a free ticket away but it took me having to ask a good half a dozen people
“Do you want a free ticket?..”
“Oh.. no.. thank you.. there’s clearly a catch you’ve neglected to mention”

There’s no catch, just take the bloody ticket off my hands! Eventually one of the sceptics agreed and allowed me to get away and get on with the rest of my day. Sadly it meant that I’d failed in one of my objectives for the day and I was a bit irritated about it. I now needed a plan B and the best way to decide that was over a “cuppa”. There was a nearby coffee shop and they say tea cures everything, right?

Chicago river walk
A nice viewing point over the river in Chicago

I wasn’t going to let the “Skydeck experience” ruin the rest of my time in Chicago. Feeling a bit more refreshed I headed back out on foot and made my way down to the river which has a nice promenade-like area alongside it. There are a handful of restaurants and bars and things close by but more than anything, it’s just a really nice part of the city with a great view. It was a beautiful day for a little people and boat-watching. I could easily have spent hours in the area to be honest.

After a little time wandering I seeked out somewhere for lunch, one of my guilty pleasures when traveling infact. Long time readers will know I’m fond of the Hard Rock Cafe’s and I was keen to tick off my 18th different HRC location. There’s a charm to them that leads me to visiting them when possible and Chicago’s was no different – a good atmosphere, good service and good food.

Chicago Hard Rock Cafe
Inside Chicago’s Hard Rock Cafe

I still had a good few hours left to explore Chicago before catching my bus but didn’t really have much planned. I’d seen the Bean, failed with the Skydeck and the last thing on my list was Chicago pizza which I figured would be easy enough for dinner.

So I just wandered aimlessly for a while after lunch, keeping my eyes peeled for anything interesting. I continued passing many more of those lighthouses I’d seen earlier (there was 51 in total – look!), found some other cool murals and then stumbled upon a little art gallery tucked away. It was small but helped kill a little time.

Chicago’s a nice city, it’s one I found easy to walk around and continually find little things that catch your eye. After exploring for a while I turned my attention towards my departure. I had to collect my case, find somewhere for dinner and then find somewhere that I could hang out prior to catching my bus.

It didn’t make sense to collect my case first and then have to take it to dinner. However I figured it made sense to find a restaurant near to my hostel, I knew on the corner was this pizza place and it had a real buzz about it when I passed it the evening before.

The place was called ‘Pizzeria Uno’, it was equally busy tonight and inside was beautifully decorated. Along the wall were signs paying homage to some of Chicago’s other landmarks, Pizzeria Uno being one itself! I didn’t realise this at the time but a Google search suggests this restaurant is where deep dish pizza originated.

Perhaps that’s why it proved to be so popular but it seems I picked a good place to have my first taste of Chicago’s famous delicacy. I’m not a massive foodie but I was still excited to see what all the fuss was about. I have to say it was pretty good!

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
Chicago’s famous pizza!

I don’t know if this is the best place in Chicago to try deep dish pizza but it was good enough for me to recommend a visit, particularly so given its history.

That said, whilst enjoyable I’m less convinced about deep dish being the best pizza around! It still has a long way to compete with pizza in Italy or even New York! I’m glad I tried it but it’s not pizza I’d be fussed at eating anywhere beyond Chicago.

Following on from dinner I went and picked up my suitcase and then made a slow walk towards the Greyhound bus station. I still had a bit of time to kill so I figured I’d find myself a bar somewhere on route and have a couple of beers. I made sure it was only a couple though. I was still a little bit of a walk from the station so didn’t stay too long. I’m someone that hates being late for anything so I’d rather sit in a station for a little longer rather than test my luck against the clock.

It was probably just as well too. I got right in to the vicinity of the station with a bridge being the only thing standing in my way from reaching my destination. Halfway along the bridge I discovered the pedestrianised bit had been cordoned off. My only options were to either play chicken in the road or turn back and find another way over the river.

To my right I could see another bridge which I thought would be my quickest route to go around and get back on track. To my more immediate right was a tunnel which I was pinning my hopes on leading me towards this bridge.

Sadly this tunnel seemingly leads nowhere. After a few minutes of walking I was pondering where the exit to this tunnel was. I hadn’t anticipated it being too big and I figured any second now I’d see the outside world again. Cars kept whizzing past me which, presumably, were coming from somewhere.

After what was probably ten or fifteen minutes I then fell in to that awkward trap of not knowing what to do. On the one hand I was asking myself if I admitted defeat and just turned back. It might be another 10-15 minutes in the direction I’d originally come from but at the very least I’d make it out of this horrible place alive!

On the other hand, if I’ve walked this far am I committed to this now? There HAS to be an end to this place, surely? With each passing minute ticking by I risked missing my bus. I was meters away from this bloody place and this supposed small detour had completely screwed me over.

I persisted forward BUT to this day I still have no idea where this tunnel ends. Eventually I stumbled upon a small pedestrianised area to the side and escaped asap! Why there’s a pedestrianised exit here? I have no idea!

This isn’t a place anyone should ever visit on foot but I was grateful nonetheless! Now with a sufficient phone signal again I discovered I was miles away from where I needed to be and there was no way I’d reach the bus station in time on foot.

I flagged down a taxi in a race against the clock and hoped we wouldn’t get bogged down by traffic. Fortunately there seemed to be little on the roads and I arrived with a little time to spare but it was a needless and exhausting ordeal.

Given I blog about trips so far in the past, every so often I ponder the ridiculousness of certain experiences and doubt my memory. I find myself questioning if it could possibly have happened just as I remembered it. This is one of those occasions where I looked to the internet for some sort of validation that Chicago’s underground maze is a reality.

It appears that Chicago’s underground city and network of tunnels is a lesser known ‘attraction’ of the city. ‘Choose Chicago’ make it sound absolutely wonderful here with underground bars, quirky streets, places to shop and lovely street art to look at.

I don’t know where that underground paradise was but it at least adds some substance to my experience of spending an eternity under the streets of Chicago. Fortunately I was now free! Getting on to my bus I felt a little more relaxed, found myself a seat and crossed my fingers that I’d get some sufficient sleep for the over-night trip to Minneapolis.

Stay tuned for day 3!

Jason

The big 3-0: Day one – Chicago bound

Well, things are “back to normal” on the blog. Whatever normal means in the current Coronavirus era. Last time out on the blog I rounded up my time in Washington State, reluctantly announcing I’d be returning to England four weeks early. I’m sad to be home but I’m pleased to at least say I made it back safely. So I’m “back to normal” and blogging in England after a number of weeks blogging Stateside.

Before I get on to today’s topic, I suppose I’ll answer the question that’s on your lips. What is it like flying during the Coronavirus pandemic?

I might actually do a blog post in much more detail about this but it’s obviously pretty weird. With so many travel restrictions and flight cancellations right now, everything about it was much quieter but also smoother. Ironically aspects of it were perhaps even more preferable than usual.

Heathrow Airport
Heathrow Airport, as busy as ever!

I’m not suggesting to book a flight somewhere and go travel right now but there were definitely perks to traveling at this moment in time. It’s probably a better social-distancing exercise than something like grocery shopping with countless people in close confinement haha.

Anyway I’ll leave that story for another time. My Washington trip may have come to its conclusion early but that’s not to mean that there is going to be a decline in USA-related blog content, the opposite infact!

I promised my upcoming posts would be dedicated to my BIG summer trip of 2018. Long time readers will remember various posts in anticipation of my “Big 3-0” trip, which finally saw me settle on a rough itinerary in this post here.

For those yet to read it, let me summarise the plan for you. I would be spending 30 days in the USA. A trip that would see me visit six states, celebrate two friends getting married and also celebrating my own 30th birthday, hence the title of “The Big 3-0”.

I was leaving England on July 28th as a 29 year old and landing in England on August 27th as a 30 year old. The wait for July 28th was excruciating! For a month long trip it was worth it but I’d not stepped foot in an airport since February!

One hundred and fifty days ago to be exact, not that anyone was counting. Five painstakingly long months for this spoilt little brat who wasn’t used to going so long without a “proper holiday”. Short trips to ManchesterLincoln and Lille had fed my fix of wanderlust but finally my “struggle” was over. It was time to return to Heathrow for my flight to Chicago!

My journey to Heathrow felt reminiscent of my journey to Heathrow five years earlier. On that occasion I was flying to Sydney and embarking on my first real adventure, a solo adventure at that. I was a rookie traveler going in to 2013 and it’s amazing to see the contrast in such a short space of time.

I’m credited with being an experienced traveler now but just five years earlier I was incredibly nervous and unsure of myself going to Sydney. I didn’t believe I could do such a trip, certainly not by myself and it took me so long to find the courage to even book that trip.

Pre-Sydney
A nervous Jason departing for Sydney, February 2013

That journey began with me waving off family and my dad then driving me down to Heathrow. My dad got a photo of me outside Heathrow before waving me off and, looking back, it’s noticeable how nervous I look in that photo (see above!). I was going to bloody Australia by myself – a million miles away or close to it at least. Google suggests it’s “only” 10,000ish.

Here I was five years later and reminiscing. I waved off the family and me and my dad got in to the car for this, now, all too familiar journey. Unlike Washington’s mountain views or California’s gorgeous Highway 101 drive, this was a bog-standard trip down the A1 I’ve done countless times. There’s nothing to look at, nothing remotably interesting about the drive down to Heathrow. We made a pre-airport stop off at McDonalds which kicked off my American trip in proper fashion.

Shortly after I was saying my goodbyes to my dad at Heathrow, this time with no nerves. As I said, the contrast in five years was mind-blowing in many ways but at the same time this was now what I did. I was the traveler of the group – be it family, friends or colleagues. I’d done this countless times now, Heathrow itself was becoming all too familiar and a little busier than normal. The fact it was the first weekend of the summer school holidays probably played a part.

Nevertheless I was soon “on the other side” and through security before submitting to typical “British etiquette” of any holiday – off to the nearest Wetherspoons!

Forget tea and crumpets with the Queen, if you want a real insight in to English or British culture then the affectionately named “Spoons” is the place for you. The bar is inevitably always the busiest place in a British airport and I wasn’t about to break tradition and have my passport revoked. I ordered myself a second lunch, accompanied alongside a pint of Brewdog’s finest.

The next however many hours passed by with little to tell. It was a standard flight, the only real memorable point was watching the film ‘Black Panther’ on board. Eventually we’d landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport and I prepared myself for another round of “fun and games” with the US border control.

This was, at the time, my 10th visit to the US and you never really know how the experience is going to go. Sometimes it’s a breeze, other times you’re being whisked off for interrogation because you’ve failed the first round of testing with border control.

This experience went smoother than some of my other visits. Although the officer looked just about ready to stamp and return my passport to me before he caught me off-guard and asked how long I was visiting for. I obviously advised him I was here for 30 days.

“30 days..?”

and there it was. Hesitation! I knew 30 days was a long time for a holiday so I was now bracing myself for another round of the border control hospitality. However it seemed to be my lucky day and despite a raised eyebrow he sent me happily on my way. I’d escaped unscathed!

It was about 7pm by the time I’d got through and collected my luggage. I didn’t want to waste any time in exploring, given my limited amount of time in Chicago, so I made a quick exit and hopped in a taxi to take me to my hostel.

Chicago Sunset
I’d arrived in Chicago!

My first sight of Chicago was a beautiful sunrise peering through the window of the taxi. However my first real impression of Chicago was the noise on the road and the endless honking that followed us.

Admittedly that might have been a one off and purely because traffic laws seemed to be somewhat of an inconvenience to my taxi driver as we repeatedly weaved from one lane to the next effortlessly and with little notice. I tried to focus less on the honking following us and more on the sunset before he pulled up outside of my hostel – to his credit, still in one piece!

I quickly checked in and then pondered where I could grab dinner. One place I was keen to visit was Navy Pier and I was hopeful that in being by the water it might have good food options. I thought I’d see on Google Maps how far it was from where I was staying. Fortunately it didn’t look too far to walk. Better yet, flashing up on the map was notice of a firework display at Navy Pier tonight!

NavyPier
A view of Navy Pier in Chicago, July 2018

Anticipation of my visit to Chicago was so high that they’d arranged a firework display in honour of my arrival! Or, you know, it may have been completely coincidental (psh!) but either way it had cemented my plans for the evening.

I walked down to the pier area and there was definitely a bit of buzz in the air. My search for food however was a little less promising. I either couldn’t find anything that took my fancy or the queues were so long that I was too impatient to wait. I figured I’d enjoy the fireworks first and worry about eating after.

The welcoming committee turnout for the firework display was quite large. People were finding a comfortable viewing point to admire the imminent fireworks to light up the sky. All jokes aside, it appears that during the summer months there is a firework display on every Wednesday and Saturday at Navy Pier. It was just good fortune on my part that I knew nothing of this prior to visit so it was a nice last minute surprise for me.

Chicago Fireworks
Fireworks over Navy Pier, Chicago – July 2018

The firework display itself was actually pretty short. I think I timed it at around 10 or 15 minutes but it was still enjoyable to watch and also a good way to kick off this trip. I couldn’t have wished for a better start or welcome to America.

Everyone dispersed from Navy Pier pretty quickly following on from the fireworks, all heading off in their own direction. I personally decided to just head back to my hostel and call it a night. I was a little resigned to not eating before bed and just getting a good start to the next day. However across the street from my hostel I discovered a “Shake Shack”.

Shake Shack hasn’t really taken off in the UK (yet, but surely will?), with only a handful of UK stores so for anyone not familiar with the fast food chain they specialise in American classics such as burgers or hot-dogs. I’d only previously been to Shake Shack once, back in New York City in 2016, but reminiscing of the good food on that trip was enough to tempt me in and get a late night burger and a milkshake.

After eating I was tempted to swing by the hostel bar and attempt to make some new friends. However it was probably around 11pm by this point, effectively 5am UK time as far as my body was concerned so I was flagging a bit.

Had I been in Chicago longer I might have made a different decision but I wanted to ensure I got an early start the following morning and a hangover wasn’t going to help me do that. I sensibly headed up to bed, feeling excited to get a proper look around Chicago tomorrow.

More on that to come in day two! Stay tuned!

Jason